They Really Saw Him
The author of CT's 2007 Book Award winner in biblical studies, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Richard Bauckham proposes a new (or, rather, an ancient) paradigm through which to view the Gospels: as the eyewitness testimony of trustworthy insiders. Wheaton professor Gary Burge asked the St. Andrews scholar how his approach diverges from mainstream New Testament scholarshipand what it means for our understanding of Jesus.
What it the importance of "testimony" for interpreting the New Testament?
I think it helps us to understand what sort of history we have in the Gospels. Most history rests mostly on testimony. In other words, it entails believing what witnesses say. We can assess whether we think witnesses are trustworthy, and we may be able to check parts of what they say by other evidence. But in the end we have to trust them. We can't independently verify everything they say. If we could, we wouldn't need witnesses.
It's the same with witnesses in court. Testimony asks to be trusted, and it's not irrational to do so. We do so all the time. Now in the case of the Gospels, I think we have exactly the kind of testimony that historians in the ancient world valued: the eyewitness testimony of involved participants who could speak of the meaning of events they had experienced from the inside. This kind of testimony is naturally not that of the disinterested passerby who happened to notice something. That wouldn't tell us much worth knowing about Jesus. That the witnesses were insiders, that they were deeply affected by the events, is part of the value of their witness for us.
In the book, I discuss testimonies of the Holocaust as a modern example of an event we would have no real conception of without the testimony of survivors. In a very different way, the Gospels are about exceptionally significant events, history-making events. In the testimony of those who lived through them, history and interpretation are inextricable. But this, in fact, brings us much closer to the reality of the events than any attempt to strip away the interpretation and recover some supposedly mere facts about Jesus.
Your reliance on personal names and charactersparticularly those who were impacted personally by Jesusis extensive. Has New Testament scholarship not made use of this data in the past?
Actually, not much attention has been paid to names in the Gospels. Even with a subject as intensively studied as the Gospels, it is possible to notice things people haven't thought much about, because we all employ ways of reading the Gospels that incline us to notice certain kinds of things. Also, we now have a huge amount of extra-biblical evidence (3,000 individually named Palestinian Jews in the New Testament period) that has only recently become easily accessible in a single database. This resource enables us to verify the authenticity of personal names and how they are used in the Gospels.
You stress the importance of memory. But don't some scholars question the reliability of communities to transmit accurate information from generation to generation?
First, studies show that predominantly oral societies have ways of preserving accurately those traditions they wish to preserve, even across many generations. In this respect, they treat different sorts of traditions differently, and the question is: Did the early Christians want to preserve testimonies about Jesus faithfully?
Second, in the case of the Gospels, we are not really talking about traditions passed from generation to generation like folklore. The Gospels were written within living memory of the events. They are what historians in the ancient world regarded as the only sort of history that should really be written, that done while eyewitnesses were still accessible. They are what modern historians call oral history. The central thread through my book is my attempt to put the eyewitnesses of Gospel events back into our picture of how Gospel traditions reached the evangelists. The eyewitnesses (many of them, certainly not just the Twelve), I suggest, remained the authoritative sources and guarantors of the traditions they themselves had formulated. This is one way the transmission of the traditions was controlled, and it's a key factor in the origins of the Gospels themselves.