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Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness ­Testimony

by Richard Bauckham

Eerdmans, 538 pages, $32

Modern interpreters have among their chief objectives the goal of being able to read the Bible just as they would any other book”which means seeing the Bible as having been written by conventional human persons in antiquity who followed the literary styles of their day. When the Bible tells the story of creation, for instance, the modern interpreter is supposed to cite, immediately, other ancient Near Eastern creation accounts, in order to appreciate the conventions that guided the biblical writer.

For some time now, scholars have presumed that much of the Bible was the result of many years of oral transmission before it reached a written stage. A primary goal of recent interpreters has been to establish the discrete “settings in life” that governed this transmission.

In the Old Testament, one can see the theological gains of this sort of research in Benedict XVI’s recent volume on Jesus. The pope notes that the law codes of the Old Testament are divisible into two genres: those of direct, second-person address to the reader, such as the Ten Commandments (“Thou shalt not murder”), and the more discursive third-person forms (“If someone’s ox hurts the ox of another . . . “). Biblical scholars have labeled the former apodictic law , and they believe this type of address originated in liturgical celebrations of covenant renewal. As a result, apodictic laws are seen as providing a set of governing principles for what will emerge as the specific instances of third-person law (called casuistic law ). Pope Benedict uses this modern form-critical judgment to separate the eternally valid portions of the Old Testament law codes from what later generations would judge as time-bound.

In this fashion one can avoid the accusation of picking and choosing what is fashionable, for the Old Testament itself provides its own set of criteria. But the fact that form criticism can assist us in some instances does not mean that it works everywhere. This is the conundrum that drives Richard Bauckham in his new book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses .

Since the beginnings of gospel research, New Testament scholars have presumed that the traditions about Jesus underwent a period of oral transmission before being written down. It is crucial for their interpretation to identify what the original settings in life in the early Church were in order to understand them.

Basic to this method of analysis is the presupposition that the traditions the writers of the gospels had about Jesus were not historical memories: All their stories began in the preaching of the ancient Church. As a result, readers of the Bible should not presume that the gospels contain memories of what Jesus actually said and did. In order to arrive at the so-called historical Jesus, we must peel back the layers of early Christian preaching.

And yet, because the controls for such a procedure are often idiosyncratic, the portraits that result from this method are highly variable. It is precisely at this juncture that Bauckham’s argument begins. He claims that New Testament scholars have long dismissed most of the historical assumptions that stood behind the form-critical readings of the gospels. But, oddly enough, one idea has tenaciously remained in place: the assumption that the traditions were passed along by a set of anonymous homiletical agents. This builds into the task of interpretation an a priori distrust of the traditions: Every story that was incorporated into our ­present collection was culled from the lecture notes of preachers who never had any association with the ­historical figure of Jesus. Bauckham argues”and this is the revolutionary aspect of Jesus and the Eye­witnesses ”that we should reverse course and consider whether the source of the gospel traditions did not originate with specific eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus.

Bauckham begins his argument with a consideration of ancient historians. Like other moderns, Bauckham believes that knowing how other ancient writers worked will shed light on how the gospel writers themselves operated. Here the evidence is quite impressive that eyewitness accounts carried considerable prestige among Greco-Roman historians. Indeed, the New Testament itself provides evidence that canons of verifiability were demanded by its authors, as is obvious from the very beginning of Luke’s gospel. Perhaps even better evidence comes from Paul, who takes great care to distinguish what he says by dint of his own authority (so 1 Cor. 7:12) from that which he has received from authoritative witnesses (1 Cor. 15:3).

Crucial for Bauckham is Papias, the bishop of Hierapolis, who like any good historian of his time put a premium on the memories of those Christians who were eyewitnesses. Given that Papias lived in the third Christian generation (early second century), it was eminently possible that the generation of the apostles had not yet died out. Bauckham argues that if Papias used standards such as these during the era in which some of the gospels were being written, then it is quite possible that the gospel writers themselves would have been governed by the same criteria. (Since most scholars have not trusted Papias as a historical source, Bauckham expends much ink justifying his new reading.)

Bauckham brings considerable evidence to support his thesis that the writers of the gospels were beholden to the evidence of eyewitnesses. (Indeed, the length of the book becomes something of a challenge to the reader, as the argument frequently repeats itself. A good editor could have reduced its size). Key points include the way in which individuals are named in the gospel stories, the selective usage of anonymous individuals (especially in Mark’s passion narrative), and an awkward literary construction that is found quite frequently in Mark, where the author begins in the third-person plural only to switch to the figure of Jesus: “On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry.”

Bauckham argues that underneath this odd sentence lies a first-person account: “On the following day, when we came from Bethany, he was hungry.” Perhaps the most striking part of the book is Bauckham’s argument that behind the implied we in Mark’s gospel stands the figure of St. Peter himself. In other words, a standard trope of the early Church, almost universally rejected by the guild of New Testament scholars, finds a new home in this volume.

I can imagine that at this point many scholars will begin to run for the exits. Should we join them? On the whole, I think the answer is no”or at least not yet. It will take a few years for the dust to settle, since Bauckham’s proposal is both pathbreaking and a tour de force. We can expect that many will pass over the lengthy arguments of the book in favor of a simple guilt-by-association judgment: A faith-filled New Testament scholar uses the guise of an objective historical method to reinscribe his own set of beliefs.

Part of the problem in adjudicating these matters is the brevity of the New Testament; the data set is small and the questions are vast. Bauckham is to be applauded for turning to recent studies of the psychology of memory to support his thesis, but this sort of comparative work is more suggestive than conclusive. Many of the brilliant proposals in this book will resist authentication. Final proof will remain elusive.

What struck me most about the book, however, was its last chapter. Here he compares the eyewitness nature of the gospels to recent attempts to document what the eyewitnesses of the Holocaust claim to have remembered. There are four reasons such a comparison is apt. First, both sets of eyewitnesses believed they participated in a unique event. Second, this uniqueness created a challenge for transmission: Who would believe it? Third, precisely because of the uniqueness of the event and the doubt that follows from it, the witnesses felt a strong responsibility to communicate their story. And, fourth, the exceptional nature of the event means that only the eyewitnesses could do it justice.

In short, it is the uniqueness of the event that drives the testimony about it. Regarding the shock of the Resurrection, Bauckham writes that “we seem to be shown the extraordinary novum , the otherness of the resurrection, through the eyes of those whose ordinary reality it invaded.” Only such a fact could explain why the appearance stories “remain strangely sui generis and lacking theological interpretation.”

For believers, this surely seems right: The vividness of the gospel narratives takes its bearing from the startling and completely unexpected fact that Jesus truly rose from the dead. Hearing the New Testament narratives with the same sense of strong, firsthand experience that one brings to Elie Wiesel’s Night , for example, will change the way we hear the gospel.

A subtext of Jesus and the Eye­witnesses is, I believe, the importance of beginning one’s historical inquiry from the perspective of ­Easter: He has risen. For if Jesus ­really did appear to the women at the tomb and then to the disciples, much of what Richard Bauckham writes has a greater level of ­verisimilitude.

Gary A. Anderson is professor of Old Testament at the University of Notre Dame.