Jesus and the Eyewitnesses – Part 3

It has been said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Similarly, there is something called the Dunning-Kruger effect whereby people who are relatively incompetent in some area still trick themselves into thinking they’re above average in the area of their incompetence.

Similarly, it has been said that a little philosophy will lead you away from God but a lot of philosophy will bring you back.

I think we can safely add another to this list of examples; a superficial comparison of the Gospels may lead one to conclude that they are hopelessly contradictory, but a Scholarly assessment of the differences will dispel such conclusions.

In Chapter 5 Richard Bauckham examines what the Gospels and Acts have to say about those famous twelve disciples of Jesus’. Once again he provides a nice little chart at the end of the chapter to summarize the lists of the twelve provided in the three Synoptics and Acts (John doesn’t list them and Bauckham refers to a future chapter for explanation). What one notices, low and behold, is that the lists are different from each other. Many of the names are the same, but a few of them are different. Quite different. It does raise the question of how such an allegedly important group of individuals could be so poorly remembered that the Gospel writers could not even get their names straight.

To the amateur this is conclusive evidence that the New Testament is hopelessly unreliable. In fact, even to many scholars in the field this is an unavoidable conclusion. But Bauckham tells us all to take a closer look. Drawing on evidences laid out in the preceding chapters Bauckham lays out his case that most of these differences not only have perfectly legitimate explanations, but in some cases there are details within these lists that give us further reason to trust these seemingly divergent lists. As a minimum, Bauckham observes, the differences are not really all that great so conclusions of wholesale unreliability are a stretch even from the outset. The biggest difference appears to be the fact that they are listed in different orders, but even there many of the main names appear in roughly the same place (i.e. Peter is always at the beginning and Judas Iscariot always at the end).

But what in these lists does Bauckham claim gives us greater reason to trust them? As Bauckham outlines in previous chapters, common names were given qualifiers to distinguish different individuals with the same name. The same thing appears in these lists, but there is a twist. The qualifiers appear for people in the lists who have the same name as somebody else in the list. If an apostle had a common name but nobody else in the group of twelve had the same name, a qualifier was not always added. One should expect that the early church would need to differentiate between the Disciple Simon (1) and the Disciple Simon (2) simply because there were two Simons. However, the Disciple Matthew (though a relatively common Jewish name) is only qualified in one list and the Disciple John (another common name) is qualified in several, but not all. The fact that these individuals would develop nicknames as they bonded over the three-year period of Jesus’ ministry makes perfect historical sense. Those nicknames and qualifiers stuck with them, even decades later when the Gospels were recorded. These subtleties are easily glossed over for somebody unfamiliar with ancient customs around the use of names, and it was immensely helpful to explore Bauckham’s treatment of the subject.

I found myself unsatisfied with his explanation of the Matthew / Levi problem. Briefly, the calling of Levi – described in Mark and Luke – is suspicious because Levi is never listed in any of the lists of the twelve. Yet Matthew, who is listed, has the same story according to the Gospel of Matthew. Bauckham dispels with the traditional explanation that Matthew and Levi were the same person but with two different names, and he even draws upon the previously established naming conventions to prove his point. Then if Levi and Matthew are two separate people, what’s going on here? In his assessment, the Gospel of Matthew takes the Levi story and assigns it to Matthew. An obvious corollary of this view, per Bauckham, is that

… the author of Matthew’s Gospel intended to associate the Gospel with the apostle Matthew but was not himself the apostle Matthew. Matthew himself could have described his own call without having to take over the way Mark describes Levi. (pg 112)

That, of course, raises a Pandora’s box of other questions, none of which are addressed or even hinted at in the chapter. In fact, the quote I just provided is precisely the final two sentences in the chapter. Considering how much effort he devoted in the first two chapters to make it clear that the Gospels were associated with a certain name because that’s the name of the eyewitness they were primarily relying on, to throw this bizarre twist at the end without any explanation or even hint that it would be investigated later, and then end the chapter quite abruptly at that point was disappointing to say the least.

Still, if that’s the first disappointment I’ve run into in over 100 pages that gives a sense of my overall delight in this book. Nobody’s perfect, I suppose.

The comment boxes are open, of course, so perhaps some of our readers have some greater familiarity with the Matthew – Levi issue?

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About Paul Buller

Just some guy with a variety of eccentric interests.
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