Jesus and the Eyewitnesses – Part 1

[UPDATE (2012-11-09): I just saw this review of the same book. Ben Witherington III is an actual scholar (I am so obviously not) but his review is relatively short. Hopefully the reader still finds value in my ongoing review despite my lack of credentials.]

I am working my way through Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony) by Richard Bauckham. You can get it at Amazon here. It is proving to be a delightful book that is scholarly on the one hand (plenty of source material from the first few centuries BC and AD, lots of footnotes, etc) and yet readily accessible to somebody like me with no formal training in that field.

In this article I just want to briefly cover the first two chapters. I don’t know how many articles I’ll do as I work through the book, but I would expect several more.

The first two chapters work through a few concepts that help clarify the state of the discussion in scholarly circles up to this point, and narrow down Bauckham’s contribution to the discussion. The very first thing he does is highlight the importance of eyewitness testimony in ancient times. Not just the importance of it to the ancient historians in the sense of “gee, if possible we’d love to hear from somebody who was actually there” but the high degree of sophisticated and robust criteria ancient historians used when documenting history. Eyewitnesses were considered far more than merely icing on the cake; they were a major ingredient without which the cake was considered a flop.

Brief tangent, here. I recall when I was reading through the book of Daniel recently how strange it seemed that the king who made the law that everybody must worship him was not able to renounce the very law he made when his “teacher’s pet” was caught breaking it (Daniel 6:15). That seemed to me utterly absurd; he arbitrarily created the law, why not arbitrarily overturn it? That thought revealed to me that I hold an unspoken assumption about ancient people that a lot of others also hold but is patently false; ancient people were stupid. C. S. Lewis called this “chronological snobbery.” My idea was that “back then” (whenever that is) people were just simple and ignorant and they ran their civilizations, governments, laws and so forth kind of like the proverbial Wild West. These days, of course, we are far more advanced, far more civilized, and our systems are far more sophisticated than anything those ancient people could have even dreamed of.

That this is patently false is revealed by the fact that the king of Babylon – the single most powerful man in the world at that time – was not able to simply strike some law he did not like off the books at his whim. Obviously some level of sophistication existed which far exceeded my false “Wild West” image of ancient people. The fact that the Egyptians built the pyramids and other technological marvels should also point us to the fact that they were about as far from simpletons as you can get. Indeed, we still rely heavily on the works of ancient Greek philosophers; it has been said that all of Western philosophy is just footnotes to Plato. If he’s not ancient, nobody is! I was even reading, recently, about a Bronze Age water dam that’s still in use! My car won’t last as long as me yet a civilization over 3,000 years ago created a dam that’s still in use today. Clearly we should not simply dismiss the ancients.

Along a similar line of thinking, and back to the subject of the book, many people (myself included) seem to approach the Bible from the mindset that the records contained within it were jotted down by some Bronze Age sheep herders and cannot be considered trustworthy for that very reason. Even with respect to the more recent the New Testament the ethos of the day seems to be that these were simple fishermen and religious dupes who shared with others whatever scraps of details they could recall from their unsophisticated memories. The stories were then shared with others in small pockets of religious groupings, and details were simultaneously forgotten and embellished along the way. These “schools” of traditions kept passing the stories along (remember the old telephone game?) and eventually somebody jotted down the collective memory of a large group of people who, more probably than not, were nowhere near the events when they happened, and merely parroted whever details they had heard – from whoever they heard them – and probably fudged some of it as they did so. Where were the eyewitnesses in all this? Who knows.

One could hardly trust records that were received in this fashion, but as Bauckham so masterfully describes, we have very little reason to believe that this is the fashion of record keeping and transmission that would have been utilized in the formation of the New Testament records. When ancient historians set out to document some event, or series of events, they did not merely grab ahold of whatever hearsay they could find and blindly trust it; they had systems and standards in place. Just as I was surprised to notice the legal sophistication of the ancient Babylonians as relayed in the book of Daniel, Bauckham’s description of the historiographic standards around the time of Jesus was an incredible eye-opener for me. How they investigated and recorded events is about as far as you can get from Wild West simpletons. It may not match up precisely to our standards today (more in a minute) but it certainly leaves one with the impression that their records are not to be dismissed out of hand simply because they were produced by ancient people. Chronological snobbery fails us once again.

The great significance that is placed on eyewitness testimony is documented and described through the first two chapters.

I suggest that we need to recover the sense in which the Gospels are testimony. This does not mean that they are testimony rather than history. It means that the kind of historiography they are is testimony. (page 5)

The category of eyewitness is critical to the rest of the book, and the importance of eyewitnesses to the ancient historians cannot be over-emphasized. Bauckham draws on the ancient standards that were described and/or used by ancient historians outside of the New Testament to make his point,

The ancient historians – such as Thucydides, Polybius, Josephus, and Tacitus – were convinced that true history could be written only while events were still within living memory, and they valued as their sources the oral reports of direct experience of the events by involved participants in them. (pg 9)

The theory that the stories of Jesus were passed along anonymously instead of being told and retold by eyewitnesses, as well as being completely contrary to the standards of ancient historians, also assumes a most bizarre turn of events. Bauckham wisely quotes Vincent Taylor who opines that “if the Form-Critics are right, the disciples must have been translated to heaven immediately after the Resurrection.” (page 7) This highlights an important point; the ancient historians valued eyewitnesses just as much as we do, and we have every reason to believe that plenty of eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus would have been around for decades to come – and not just the 12 disciples – telling and retelling their stories. Just like the rest of us (because, it turns out, ancient people are NOT stupid) folks who wanted to investigate the events would have had plenty of well-known eyewitnesses to discuss the events with. Given the dating of the Gospel (whether we accept an earlier or a later date), Bauckham pointedly observes,

Gospel traditions did not, for the most part, circulate anonymously but in the name of the eyewitness to whom they were due. Throughout the lifetime of the eyewitnesses, Christians remained interested in and aware of the ways the eyewitnesses themselves told their stories. So, in imagining how the traditions reached the Gospel writers, not oral tradition but eyewitness testimony should be our principal model. (pg 8)

Unlike our present-day preference for “impartial” eyewitnesses (as though that were truly possible anyway) the ancients were not so enamoured with neutrality. They would go out of their way to find testimony by people who were personally invested in the events because they sought more than mere facts; they wanted meaning (pg 9). This is perhaps a case where our present generation could actually learn something from a much older generation. On the face of it there is a certain absurdity in demanding neutral sources; as one present day scholar points out (I’m sorry, I forget where I heard this) why should we trust that anybody but a fan of football would ever write a book about football? Similarly, the most likely sources we’ll ever find about any events of history will be those people who are in some way invested in the significance of those events; at least invested enough to find it worthwhile to take the time to document those events. Their “bias” hardly disqualifies them as unreliable because we have yet to discover a single, perfectly unbiased human being on the face of the earth.

Bauckham spends an entire chapter dissecting some of the works of Papias that give us several very significant clues with respect to how the early Church went about gathering the records of the life of Jesus and putting them together. These clues are important because they show that the methodology used by the early Christians was just as rigorous as the methods used by the other ancient historians (Papias even uses some of the same phrases as the other ancient historians) and the introduction to Papias’ work bears a striking resemblence to the introduction to Luke. It would be pointless to try and duplicate Bauckham’s many lines of discussion on this matter, so I will summarize his points in his own words,

So we may see Papias’ Prologue as claiming that he followed the best practice of historians: he made careful inquiries, collected the testimonies of eyewitnesses, set them down in a series of notes, and finally arranged his material artistically to form a work of literature. His preference for the testimony of eyewitnesses, obtained at second or third hand, is therefore that of the historian, for whom, if direct autopsy was not available (i.e., the historian himself was not present at the events), indirect autopsy was more or less essential.

There is so much material provided by Bauckham, and such wonderfully lucid reasoning on these many interconnected issues, that I could go on at length simply duplicating his many insights and quoting the many ancient sources he draws on to make his point. I hope this brief review is sufficient to capture the essence of what his first two chapters were all about. I anticipate doing several more reviews along the way; this book just begs to be widely publicized.

Stay tuned!


About Paul Buller

Just some guy with a variety of eccentric interests.
This entry was posted in Bible, Bible reliability, Book review, Christian Church, History. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Jesus and the Eyewitnesses – Part 1

  1. hertzsprung2012 says:

    On the one hand, BWIII hobnobs with Bauckham; on the other, I rub shoulders with the author of arguingwithfriends. When two people I respect tell me to read the same book, I am inclined to take their advice. Which review has more value? In the end I prefer the review from the author with whom I have shared a meal and worked together on a project. Question: What is the scientific evidence on the reliability of eyewitness testimony? And how does that scientific evidence shape how we think about ancient eyewitness testimony?

    • What I lack in credentials I make up for in quantity. Put another way, from Witherington we get small nuggets of gold, from your’s truly we get giant piles of … something else.

      Bauckham covers the reliability of eyewitness testimony in a later chapter (13, I believe) so I cannot answer that from Bauckham’s perspective just yet. Whatever the scientific evidence for the reliability of eyewitness testimony I am not sure how that question would be answered differently with respect to people who lived a long time ago as opposed to people today. To treat them differently would make one guilty of chronological snobbery, I suspect. The proper question, it seems to me, is simply, “can eye-witness testimony be trusted?” regardless of the historical context of the witness.

      Although I cannot provide Bauckham’s answer to the question of the reliability of eyewitness testimony it seems to me that we must assume a minimum level of reliability just to get along in the world. How much of history (even recent history) is rooted on nothing but eye-witness testimony? To doubt eye-witness testimony, it seems to me, would push one toward hyper-skepticism of an unhealthy variety. In fact, if one were to claim that the scientific evidence spoke against the reliability of eye-witness testimony then one presumably is relying on the word of some scientist who reported such results. However, their reports are, in one sense, eye-witness testimony of the scientific data. One would seem to need to trust eye-witness testimony in order to have grounds upon which to distrust eye-witness testimony; a situation I would not want to find myself in.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s