Jesus and the Eyewitnesses – Part 4

Moving on to Chapter 6 it feels as though Bauckham has given us the broad strokes overview of the field – and his particular contribution to it – and is now diving into some gritty details. In this chapter he covers off some concepts around “eyewitnesses from the beginning.” He covers two general topics in this chapter.

  1. The importance of not only eyewitness testimony, but specifically eyewitnesses who were present throughout an era (as opposed to just snippets here and there).
  2. That three of the four Gospels utilize a specific literary device that implicitly affirms that the eye-witness testimony upon which the individual Gospels are founded fulfills the criteria mentioned in point 1.

With respect to the first point, suppose you wanted to document a person’s life. You interview their childhood friend to gather data about what they were like in school. You interview their college sweetheart to glean insights into their young adult years. Past coworkers tell you about their working years and some friends from the old-folks-home they retired to told you about their golden years. That’s not bad, but what if you were able to interview somebody who was in the same playschool as them, same school as them, worked with them, raised their family alongside theirs and stayed in touch with them right up to the end. This hypothetical person was a pallbearer at their funeral. That testimony would carry significantly more weight than a mixed bag of friends, coworkers and others.

The Gospel writers placed similar priority on eyewitnesses who were present for the entirety of Jesus’ ministry (obviously not his entire life). The prevalence and use of the Greek word for “beginning” – as in the “beginning” of Jesus’ ministry – is explored by Bauckham, in particular in Luke’s prologue to his Gospel where it is specifically called out and paraded around (Luke 1:2). Drawing on parallels from Josephus and other ancient historians, Bauckham outlines the ancient practice of demarcating the relevant events according to some “beginning” and then narrating the events from that point on. That a person was an eyewitness from the selected “beginning” was of great significance to historians, and Bauckham concludes, “[i]t seems that the principle of eyewitness testimony ‘from the beginning’ was remarkably important for the way that the traditions about Jesus were transmitted and understood in early Christianity.” (pg 124)

The importance is highlighted by the use of an ancient literary device he calls inclusio. Three of the four Gospel writers use it; Matthew being the exception (the plot thickens from his treatment of Matthew as I reported earlier). An inclusio is the naming of a very specific person at the very beginning and the very end of a piece of historical literature. This person who has such attention specifically drawn to them is the one providing the lion’s share of the eyewitness testimony that forms the basis for the writing that names them. In Mark, for instance, Peter is the first Apostle to ever be named (Mark 1:16) and the last Apostle to ever be mentioned (Mark 16:7). The names in Mark are to be found in Table 11 at the end of the chapter; yes, more tables and more eye candy for your’s truly.

Bauckham shares the similar use of the literary device in Luke and John – though they both contain twists that I’ll leave for the interested reader to discover – and then compares these examples with other examples from roughly the same time period of history. Given this use of such a literary device, it lead me to cantilever out to some other relevant observations beyond Bauckham’s conclusions.

  1. The fact that the Gospel writers are using literary devices associated with works of history (previous examples have been discussed beyond the ones mentioned here) seems to provide positive evidence that they were writing works of history and intended their works to be understood as such. There are still some skeptics who think the Gospels were meant to be historical fiction; Bauckham’s treatment of the subject undermines that theory.
  2. Bauckham covers this, but I’ll push his point a little further; the use of such literary devices strongly suggests these were not simpleton fishermen authors, but serious historians. Granted they may not have represented the absolute highest levels of literary expertise of their time, but their standards were obviously high enough to be taken seriously.

Bauckham raises an interesting point at the very end of the chapter that I think deserves special consideration.

Thus, contrary to first impressions, with which most Gospel scholars have been content, the Gospels do have their own literary ways of indicating their eyewitness sources. If it be asked why these are not more obvious and explicit in our eyes, we should note that most ancient readers or hearers of these works, unlike scholars of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, would have expected them to have eyewitness sources, and that those readers or hearers to whom the identity of the eyewitnesses was important would have been alert to the indications the Gospels actually provide.

Per my comments in a previous post, ancient people were not stupid. Rather, we should be more aware of the fact that they were merely different. They had a different way of doing things, but we should be cautious before declaring that their way was wrong just because it is not our way.

Having established the fact that Peter is the principle eyewitness in two of the three Synoptic Gospels, and Peter’s status is acknowledged in John as well, Bauckham goes on in Chapter 7 to investigate the Petrine perspective in the Gospel of Mark. Two of his lines of reasoning are summarized below.

  1. The Inclusio literary device is supplemented by the “plural to singular” literary device. Drawing on research from almost a century ago, Bauckham describes several passages within which “a plural verb … without an explicit subject, is used to describe the movements of Jesus and his disciples, followed immediately be a singular verb or pronoun referring to Jesus alone.” (page 156) This way of writing is apparently rather strange, so much so that the other Gospels rarely use it and the early church scribes who copied Mark had a tendency to “correct” the awkward wording. Why use this wording? Two reasons are given, but I’ll only mention that it would make sense to word it like this if one were copying the testimony of a person who was there. To speak in a manner such as, “we went to Galilea and when we got there Jesus did such-and-such” is perfectly natural. Transcribe this very natural first-person wording into the third-person and you end up with the awkward plural-to-singular. This gives us further confidence that Mark is based on eye-witness testimony (specifically Peter’s).
  2. Peter is presented as the “typical” disciple. Though Peter sometimes represents only himself, he is often put forward as being the one whose thoughts are typical of the thoughts of all the disciples. His status as the semi-official spokesman for the disciples further highlights the importance of Peter to the composition of Mark.

Bauckham spends some time responding to criticisms that have been leveled against his conclusions, and ends the chapter with two more tables. With all the summarizing tables he’s produced I wonder if he doesn’t have a streak of engineer in his DNA. His reasoning is solid, his mastery of the relevant subject matter appears to be encyclopedic, he references many other authorities to address various points (meaning these are not merely his idle speculations) and he supports his conclusions by providing tables to document his data. This truly is a marvelous book to study, nor merely read.

Anonymous persons in Mark

Bauckham goes on to explore an interesting phenomenon that sheds light on the historical context within which the Gospels were written. In some cases there are characters within the stories that are unnamed. In itself this is not surprising, except that in certain stories we should expect the person to be named. Bauckham considers several examples and provides a coherent explanation for this curious fact; at the time when the Gospels were written Christianity was still in its infancy and the authorities truly wanted to do away with it. To this end they were still likely to seek legal action against any who were involved, so some of the key characters may have needed their anonymity protected. As Bauckham describes, with respect to the woman who anointed Jesus (as but one example),

The messianic significance of all three events [including the anointing] would have been clear to Mark’s first readers or hearers, but Mark’s apparent strategy of leaving it for them to perceive, rather than highlighting it himself, coheres rather strikingly with the strategy of “protective anonymity” in relation to certain characters in this narrative. What put these persons in danger in Jerusalem in the period of the earliest Christian community would be their complicity in Jesus’ allegedly seditious behavior in the days before his arrest. … Just as the members of the Jerusalem church who first heard the narrative would know who the anonymous persons were, so they would understand the messianic significance of these events without needing it spelled out for them. (pg 193)

If the theory of their anonymity is correct – namely that their identity needed to remain hidden at the time Mark was written – this would explain why some of those anonymous people are named in John. To the best of our knowledge, John was the last Gospel written so the people whose identities needed to be protected may have passed away or the authorities simply realized that persecuting them would no longer serve any useful purpose; Christianity had already grown too far too fast. With respect to Peter who is named in John, and unnamed in Mark as the disciple who cut off the ear of the high priest, Bauckham writes, “Of course, John wrote at a time (after Peter’s death) when Peter no longer needed the protection of anonymity in his narrative.” (pg 195) Although Bauckham does not address the specific dating of the Gospels, if this theory is correct (and he provides good reasons to believe it is) that would mean we have excellent reason to believe at least Mark was written prior to Peter’s death in the mid 60’s AD.

It would seem the next chapter brings us back to Papias and his perspectives on Mark and Matthew. Perhaps Bauckham will bring some closure to what is becoming an ever-thickening plot with respect to the authorship of ‘Matthews’ Gospel. We shall see.

[I should comment on the lengthy delay between my last blog entry on this book and this blog entry. In part it’s because life’s been busy, but in part it has something to do with the book. By this point in the book Bauckham has done such a fabulous job of establishing the reliability of the Gospels as eyewitness testimony that as I continue reading it feels like he’s establishing his case so strongly that it’s no longer a fair fight. Imagine Bauckham in one corner and the “Gospels are unreliable” crowd in the other corner. The fight goes for a round or two and the “Gospels are unreliable” crowd slips into an unconscious state. Bauckham keeps fighting. He pile drives them. He leaps on them from the top rope. Not only is it no longer a close contest, Bauckham has sealed the deal, but as I continue reading it feels like an unscathed warrior continue to demolish a foe which has long since ceased any post-mortem twitching and is beginning to decompose. It is worth reading, of course, but it loses some of the motivation when the conclusion seems so obviously foregone. By this point in the book (not even half way!) it is no longer a page-turner for me simply because Bauckham makes such a formidable case. I digress…]

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About Paul Buller

Just some guy with a variety of eccentric interests.
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