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.
Is there any possibility that the "eyewitness accounts" of the Gospels are merely a literary technique of the evangelists?
It's not impossible. If you have conventional techniques for indicating sources, they can be used fictionally as well as authentically. But in this case, we can, as I've mentioned, test the authenticity of names and the way they occur in the Gospels. Random invention wouldn't account for the specific names we have. Also, the naming of witnesses is more occasional and unobtrusive than we would expect if the device were used fictionally. Some of the later apocryphal Gospels (Gospel of Peter, Protevangelium of James) appeal to eyewitness testimony fictionally, and the ways they do so are blatant and obvious.
I was especially concerned to counter the common scholarly view that the Synoptic Gospels don't indicate their eyewitness sources and thus are not concerned about eyewitness testimony. I wanted to show that they do have ways of indicating the eyewitness origins of their traditions.
You devote a significant amount of time to the Fourth Gospel. If it is an ideal example of eyewitness testimony, though, why is the Gospel's principal eyewitness anonymous? Plus, isn't your confidence in this Gospel a major reversal of what scholarship has traditionally said about it?
My view is that the author of the Gospel was a disciple of Jesus who was not, like the Twelve and others, well known in the early Christian movement. He does not, as Mark does, transmit the authoritative tradition of the Twelve. So he has to establish his credentials. He has to convince his readers that, although the way he tells the story is rather different from the traditions they know, he really is in a good position to know what he says about Jesus. So he introduces the Beloved Disciple gradually, building up a picture of a disciple who is ideally situated to write a Gospel, and only, right at the end, does he reveal that this disciple (himself) actually did write the Gospel.
Of course, most scholars in the last several decades have not thought the Gospel could be written by an eyewitness. One reason for this is the considerable differences between it and the other Gospels, including the fact that it is a much more strongly interpretative Gospel. I think some of these problems are solved if we recognize that the author was not John the son of Zebedee, but a disciple who was outside of the Twelve and close to a different circle of disciples from those the Synoptic traditions came from. I also think the author was a creative and idiosyncratic thinker who spent a lifetime trying to deepen his understanding of the events he remembered. He wrote a very different sort of Gospel, but it was precisely because he had been close to Jesus that he thinks himself authorized to interpret Jesus and his story so extensively.
Has your study of eyewitnesses and tradition affected your confidence in the historical accuracy of the New Testament? Are critical scholars too quick to dismiss the "reporting" in Gospel accounts?
Yes, it certainly has! Most Gospel scholars, including some conservative ones, have been locked into a picture of how Gospel traditions reached Gospel writers that we owe to form critics at the beginning of the last century. I think the form critics were wrong in almost every respect, and we need a new model. I propose one in which the Gospels were much closer to the eyewitnesses and the way the eyewitnesses told their stories than has been envisaged by the dominant scholarly tradition. My proposals need to be debated, and some of my arguments may be proven wrong. We shall see. But that we need a new model is certain.
How would the new model you're proposing affect average believers' devotional lives? Would it make any real difference for them?
The most important point is we can be confident that in the Gospels we find the real Jesus. We don't have to try to get behind the Gospels to "the historical Jesus," as the Jesus Seminar tells us we must. Instead, we can find in the Gospels "the Jesus of testimony," Jesus as he was understood by those in the best position to know him.
Copyright © 2007 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony is available from ChristianBook.com and other retailers.
It won Christianity Today's 2007 book award in the Biblical Studies category.
Richard Bauckham's articles on other aspects of the New Testament include "Paul's Christology of Divine Identity," "The Relatives of Jesus," "For Whom Were the Gospels Written," "WeaknessPaul's and Ours," "Only the Suffering God Can help'. Divine Passibility in Modern Theology," and "Universalism: A Historical Survey."
Gary Burge is professor of New Testament at Wheaton College & Graduate School.
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