Jesus and the Eyewitnesses – Part 2

My first post reviewing Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses covered the first two chapters of his book. This review will cover chapters 3 and 4, “Names in the Gospel traditions,” and “Palestinian Jewish Names” respectively.

For those who don’t know me, I am an engineer. As an engineer, I love numbers. These chapters felt as though Dr. Bauckham were writing with me in mind, and specifically trying to imagine the perfect birthday gift he could give me. At the end of each chapter are tables of names and numbers. 11 pages of data at the end of chapter 3 and 8 pages of data at the end of chapter 4. I would lie if I told you I went through all the tables in detail, but I certainly did skim it in order to understand the evidence he was dealing with. But tables, data and numbers provide a greater benefit for me than merely the joy of sorting through it all and analyzing it in spreadsheets; they provide an element of comfort that this scholar is not trying to pull a fast one. When all the facts and figures are presented in a way that any person can analyze it reminds the reader – well, engineers like me anyway – that there are no hidden assumptions or shortcuts taken. And especially for engineers numbers and tables bring that kind of warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you come in from shoveling the snow off your driveway and take that first sip of hot chocolate. We are a strange breed indeed.

So, what of the numbers? Two lines of reasoning are put forth that are divided between the two chapters. The first line of reasoning (chapter 3) relates to the use of names in general between the four Gospels. He starts off by doing an experiment that anybody with a Bible, a piece of paper and a pen (or, preferably, a laptop and a spreadsheet) could do; count names in the Gospels. The characters in the Gospels fall into one of three categories. First, some are anonymous; we know what happened to them, even what they said, but we do not know their names (i.e. Matthew 8:2 – the leper). Second, there are people who are known in relation to other people; their names are not given, but their relation to somebody who is named is given (i.e. Matthew 8:14 – Peter’s mother-in-law). Lastly, of course, there are those who have names; Jesus, Matthew, Peter and so many others.

After compiling this list, Bauckham makes a number of observations about these lists. First, it makes sense that the names of certain people would be remembered (Jesus and the apostles, major figures of history, etc), and it makes sense that certain people’s names would be forgotten (somebody who is healed and then never shows up in the story again). What to make of the exceptions, though? In some cases we should expect that details are forgotten with time, so names might be left out, and in other cases we might expect an overzealous story-teller to insert a name as an example of “novelistic interest.” He acknowledges both possibilities and then provides compelling reason to believe the former is evidenced in the Gospels, but not the latter. There are good reasons to believe that a name here or there had been forgotten, but no good reason to believe that names had been added where they were not known. If that did happen, the evidence suggests it was very rare; most of the Gospel writers recorded what they did remember; they did not make up details they did not remember. This fact undercuts the theory that the Gospels contain elaborations; if the Gospels writers were strict enough to not invent names where names had been forgotten then it seems reasonable to me (I’m cantilevering out from Bauckham’s reasoning here) that they probably did not embellish other, more critical, details. Bauckham summarizes,

The practice of giving an invented name to a character unnamed in the canonical Gospels seems to have become increasingly popular from the fourth century on, but it is remarkable how few earlier examples are known.

It was a common Jewish practice, in retelling or commenting on the biblical narratives, to give names to characters not named in Scripture… So it would not have been surprising to find Christians doing the same with the Gospel narratives from an early date. But the evidence suggests that this did not happen. (pg 44-45)

Bauckham moves to another line of reasoning with respect to why some of the names of the more obscure characters were retained, despite there being no reason to bother with their names.

If the names are of persons well known in the Christian communities, then it also becomes likely that many of these people were themselves the eyewitnesses who first told and doubtless continued to tell the stories in which they appear and to which their names are attached… There is no plausible reason for naming him [Cleopas – Luke 24:18] other than to indicate that he was the source of this tradition. (pg 47)

The Cleopas example is additionally instructive because in the story that he is involved with there are only three characters – Jesus, Cleopas and some other guy. If the names of these two were just invented why make up a name for the one and not the other? It is far more likely that Cleopas was the source of the story and that is why his name is attached to it.

Bauckham ends with three other examples that he considers in depth:

  1. The Women at the Cross and the Tomb
  2. Simon of Cyrene and His Sons
  3. Recipients of Healing

I found the first example most instructive. In Bauckham’s words,

The divergences among the lists have often been taken as grounds for not taking them seriously as naming eyewitnesses of the events. In fact, the opposite is the case: these divergences, properly understood, demonstrate the scupulous care with which the Gospels present the women as witnesses. (pg 49)

He outlines his reasons in the pages that follow. I will not duplicate his rationale, but I will leave the reader with this tidbit sample; within any single Gospel the lists of women at the cross and the lists of women who observed the burial and the empty tomb are not always the same. It is more probable that some of the women were at one event and not the other than that the writers just picked female names out of a hat. Other lines of reasoning are also provided.

The second line of reasoning with respect to names (chapter 4) relates to the prevelance of names in the Gospels relative to what is known about naming conventions from that geographic location at that time of history. I first became aware of this line of reasoning when I watched this very informative video by Dr Peter Williams (it’s an hour long, but well worth it). To have that same compelling line of reasoning presented by the original author, with details provided, deepened my appreciation for the argument.

Here’s the high-end view of the argument. Pick some relatively isolated sub-culture of people. A group I could relate to might be Mennonites in Western Canada. From within that sub-culture take a sampling of baby names in any given year. What you’ll find is that some names are fairly popular and others are relatively rare. What you will also find is that if you move away from that geographic location (i.e. Mennonites in South America), or if you move away from that sub-culture (i.e. Sikhs in Western Canada) or you move away from that time in history (i.e. Mennonites in Western Canada 100 years ago) the distribution of names will look very different.

If we apply this basic observation to Palestinian Jewish names around the time of Christ we should expect that there would be a fair degree of consistency within that particular demographic that would not exist outside of that demographic. The Roman imperialists would not use the same names. Jews outside of Palestine may use some of the same names, but the distribution would not be the same. Even Jews in Palestine centuries removed from that time period might be expected to use some of the same names, but again we should expect a different distribution of which names were more popular and which were less popular.

When we look at the Gospels, though, we find the distribution of names within the Gospels very closely matches what we know about Palestinian Jewish names at that time of history. It’s not just that the names in the Gospels are similar to names we would have expect; it gets better than that! The frequency of names also matches! In other words, not only do the Gospel writers refer to characters in the Gospel history by the right names (i.e. Simon, Joseph, etc) they use the names with approximately the same frequency that we know was used by Palestinians in that location and at that time of history when they named their children.

What’s the better explanation for this? Some writers of religious fiction far removed from the events they fictionalize (not only geographically, but temporally and probably culturally as well) happened, by dumb luck, to get not just the names, but their relative frequencies correct? That’s a stretch. Perhaps it was some absolutely monstrous conspiracy that involved impeccable attention to detail and historical research. Again, another stretch. The most plausible explanation is simply that the Gospel writers were recording the history they were given by the eyewitnesses who, just as they claim, actually witnessed the events they describe.

Bauckham then goes on to point out another layer of historical detail that makes the case even stronger. Not only did they get the names right, they modified the names as needed to clarify who they were talking about. For instance, there were apparently a lot of Simons around so how do you distinguish between Simon “1” and Simon “2?” As we find in the Gospels, the writers seamlessly include designations to differentiate between them. Simon the leper. Simon of Cyrene. Simon (who is called Peter). And so forth. Such qualifiers only make sense for names that are popular and, interestingly, they are only used for characters with popular names. This is precisely as we would expect if the Gospels were faithful to history.

All these numbers, all this data, all that anlysis; it is difficult to imagine that Bauckham can make the next chapters as interesting as these for an engineer like myself! Time will tell.


About Paul Buller

Just some guy with a variety of eccentric interests.
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