Jesus and the Eyewitnesses – part 5

My review of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham continues. Slowly, obviously. In this segment I will briefly cover chapter 9.

As much as I previously commented about the fact that the book seemed to drag a little at this point (Bauckham had already convinced me of his general premise) chapter 9 ended with something of an “aha” moment. As much as the previous chapters have seemed like somewhat grueling exercises in minutia, various threads of his reasoning have been slowly woven together and in this chapter I felt as though I hit that “now I get it” moment where I finally understood where he was taking all this.

In previous chapters Bauckham has gone to great lengths to give us good reason to believe that the content of the Synoptic Gospels (primarily Mark and Matthew) is rooted in eyewitness testimony. He has also provided background knowledge with respect to the ancient rules of historiography and shown how these Gospels abided by these rules to greater or lesser degrees.

But he threw some mystery in there. As I noted previously, he suggested that Matthew may not have actually been written by Matthew without resolving the issue (much to my displeasure). However, despite some possible limitations with respect to their formation (i.e. Mark was almost certainly a record of Peter’s testimony, but not formulated and tweaked directly by Peter himself) these Gospels have many trademarks of the highest historical standards, are almost certainly based on eyewitness testimony and were recognized as such by the early church.

Papias (whom Bauckham spends a great deal of time relying on) seems to praise Mark and Matthew as reliable sources, yet with reservations. What are we to make of those reservations? Here’s where Bauckham ties a number of interesting threads together to launch us in a new direction. I’ll let him speak for himself.

In the case of Mark’s Gospel, Peter spoke in Aramaic and Mark translated into Greek and recorded in writing. In the case of Matthew’s Gospel, Matthew himself wrote in Aramaic or Hebrew … and others translated into Greek. Marks’ Gospel is “not in order” because Peter did not relate the material in order, while Mark, not being an eyewitness, rightly did not attempt to put it “in order.” Matthew, on the other hand, was an eyewitness who was able and did put the ‘logia’ in order in his original Gospel, but this order was spoiled by those who translated his work into Greek. Thus Papias is concerned throughout with two aspects of each Gospel; its origin from eyewitness testimony and the question of “order.” In both cases he wants to explain why a Gospel with eyewitness origins lacks proper “order.” – page 223-224

I can already anticipate some people making a big deal of the fact that Bauckham freely admits that Matthew has been “spoiled” by zealous early church translators, but he addresses this concern paragraphs later and reminds us that the entire concept of translation in ancient history allowed for a certain amount of freedom that we would not approve of today. In other words, the early church translators (whoever was responsible for that task) did not act any differently than any other translator might have.

Although, one wonders if such freedom was enjoyed by those who transcribed the New Testament as well. That would help explain the issues around textual variation, but thankfully it provides healthy employment (and long-term job security) for those in the field of textual criticism!

I digress. Bauckham wonders why Papias would seem to go out of his way to praise Mark and Matthew for being based on eyewitness testimony, and then seemingly complain that they were not “ordered.” In fact, a big deal seems to be made of this apparent lack of chronological order. Bauckham’s theory to explain this is both interesting and compelling.

But if, as we have argued, the kind of literary order Papias missed in Mark was primarily chronological, then Matthew could not have seemed much of an improvement on Mark, since it largely follows the same sequence of brief narratives. If we take seriously the implication that the order originally given to his Gospel by Matthew was spoiled by the translators, this it becomes much more plausible to suppose that Papias is comparing the lack of order in both Mark and Matthew with the presence of order in another Gospel: that of John. – Page 225

Now this is an interesting twist for a layman such as myself. My understanding of John has always been that most scholars agree that not only is it the latest Gospel, but that it is the most theologically “mature” Gospel and that John is probably the least chronologically accurate of the four because he is more concerned with highlighting Jesus’ divinity and offering something of a response to the fledgling Gnostic movement. Where did I get this impression from? Probably the same source as those who refer to “they say…” got their information. In other words I just picked it up somewhere and never really thought about it. Fortunately we have folks like Bauckham around to challenge our unsubstantiated impressions and bring us back to the evidence. He backs up his claim that John’s Gospel is plausibly the most chronologically accurate with several lines of evidence, ending with,

The Gospel of John offers a far more precise chronological structure than any of the Synoptic Gospels, never leaving the reader in serious doubt as to the period of Jesus’ carefully dated ministry in which a particular event occurred. In addition, it lacks the disjointed structure characteristic of the Synoptics and produced by the accumulation of short units loosely, if at all, tied together. John’s narratives and discourses are generally longer and they are often more closely connected with each other. – page 227

And, again, this chapter has its share of charts which serves to appease my analytical nature. Not as many as other chapters, but when combined with the surprise twist that John’s Gospel may be the only Gospel directly written by an eyewitness, and written in the language it has been passed down to us in (Greek) and may also be the most chronologically accurate of the Gospels, the combination of surprise and charts made this a very enjoyable chapter to read. It also made the slow going nature of the previous chapters well worth enduring.

Subsequent chapters should prove interesting. A review of the table of contents reveals that Bauckham, after establishing the primacy of John’s Gospel in many respects, is going on another detour before returning to his treatment of John’s Gospel. The next few chapters deal with oral transmission, reliability of memory and what have you. He sure knows how to keep you reading; make an interesting and crucial point, then leave it alone for a while and return to it later.

Bauckham may be a scholar of the highest degree, but he might consider getting into writing suspense novels. The impending peril against the main character has just been revealed and the plot suddenly diverges onto an entirely different track and the fate of the main character will have to wait until later to be resolved.

It’s safe to say, despite the slow chapters that preceded this one, Bauckham has me on the edge of my seat once again. Quite the page turner!

On Papias

So I have to comment on one nagging concern that’s hovering about in the back of my mind and it relates to Papias. A sizeable portion of Bauckham’s reasoning is based on the writings of Papias. So who was Papias? He’s a guy who was situated – geographically and historically – in such a place that he would have a pretty good, and virtually firsthand, knowledge of where the Gospels came from. Not only that, but he actually wrote about where the Gospels came from. That’s a great combination; beyond Papias’ testimony we have to rely on folks who were much further removed from the formation of the Gospels.

But there’s a snag, you see. Papias’ works have not survived the test of time. At least not directly. In no library in the world (that we know of) will you find any extant copies of Papias’ work. What we know about him is found in quotations from others. Bauckham relies on a couple of quotations of Papias that are found in the works of Eusebius. In those quotations Papias’ shares his knowledge of the origins of the Gospels.

In itself this wouldn’t be problematic, technically, except I cannot shake this nagging feeling that Bauckham takes some rather thin slices of evidence and cantilevers them out rather far. I’m no scholar, but here’s my rather pessimistic assessment of the situation. First, you have the actual events and words of Jesus. Then you have those who observed what Jesus said and did. Then you have those who recorded and translated the memoirs of one of the observers, Peter. Then you have some guy Papias who hears from other people about the writing / translation process. Then you have some other guy, Eusebius, who quotes Papias in a couple of places, despite the fact that he disagrees with Papias (as Bauckham points out).

(I mention nothing about John precisely because none of the quotes we have of Papias’ include any mention of John.)

From these disapproving quotes by one person of another person who heard from somebody else about how another independent person recorded and translated the recollections of another person we can learn something about Jesus. Ok, so it’s not quite as pessimistic as that. Papias is not actually being relied upon as a reference for Jesus himself, but rather as a reference for why we can trust our traditional sources of knowledge about Jesus. But still, we’ve got tiny morsels of quotes, from a disapproving source, of second-hand knowledge; that’s the least pessimistic assessment.

Then Bauckham et al examine these disapproving quotations of second knowledge with an incredibly fine-toothed comb and find subtle nuances of meaning in the slightest details of choice of wording and punctuations, etc. The possibility that hovers in the back of my mind is the idea that Eusebius, in writing down his quotation of Papias, may have messed up a word or two here or there. If so, then entire chapters of Bauckham’s book are rendered meaningless. Consider the fact that Bauckham freely admits that …

… [a] “flexible concept of translation” was common in the ancient world. Translators often felt free to improve the work they were translating by rearranging material and adding material from other sources. – page 224

If such flexibility was considered acceptable for translation, who’s to say such flexibility was not similarly considered acceptable when one was quoting somebody else, especially if said quotation was of a source you did not entirely approve of. If it is even possible that Eusebius was working with a “flexible concept” of quotation (similar to the concept of translation that was common) then the subtle nuances of individual words and phrases are rendered meaningless.

And it would certainly seem that this is at least possible, even if I cannot prove that it happened. That certainly gives me pause for concern with respect to reading too much into a quotation of second-hand knowledge.

However, I should remind anybody reading this that these are merely the ramblings of an uneducated layperson. It is entirely possible that scholars in the field unanimously accept the reliability of the Papias quotation, and have good reason for accepting it, and I’m just blowing hot air. Still, this possibility hovers about in my mind.

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About Paul Buller

Just some guy with a variety of eccentric interests.
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4 Responses to Jesus and the Eyewitnesses – part 5

  1. hertzsprung2012 says:

    I haven’t reread your reviews of earlier chapters, but who would you say should read this book? The average Christian sitting in the pews? The pastor or lead apologist in a church? Professors at a seminary? Or is it enough for someone like me to say, “I’ve read some reviews of the book, I think it is a scholarly and substantial treatment of the subject, and if for whatever reason you need the details, then here is the title of the book. Go look it up. Otherwise, I’m content to let it sit on the shelf.” In other words, is it enough for people to read a review of this book by a trusted reviewer like yourself, or is this a must-read for everybody?

    • Paul Buller says:

      “… trusted reviewer like yourself…” – flattery will get you everywhere in life!

      In terms of who should read the book, let me answer that two ways. First, the book seems clearly written at the lay level, though perhaps with an eye on somebody who is comfortable thinking at a post-secondary level. I don’t think post-secondary education is necessary (especially not in Bauckham’s field; I don’t have that and I can grasp most of what he writes) but I think the ability to deal with complex abstract ideas and see them interwoven would help.

      However, having said that, it also seems that Bauckham wrote the book with an eye on his scholarly colleagues. It gets fairly nuanced at times, but not in a way that is beyond average folks like myself.

      Secondly, though, the question of who should read this would be answered by asking who is naturally most invested in these issues. The average Christian would do well to read the first few chapters where he gives a broad overview of good reasons to believe the Gospels are based on eyewitness testimony, but before he really dives into Papias. Those Christians who are required to have a greater grasp on these subject (pastors, scholars, etc) would probably benefit from taking in the whole book.

      One thing I’ve found immensely beneficial about the book is how it helps frame the historical context and circumstances surrounding the Gospels. It gave me more of an appreciation for their “reality” for lack of better word. For most books I read I imagine the author in a comfortable chair with soft music playing in the background. When the Gospels were written the early church was facing some personality “issues,” theological debates, persecution, and so forth, evidence of which remains in the Gospels themselves. It’s like the difference between watching a documentary about WWII and listening to your grandpa tell stories about his experiences. Somehow this book is bringing me closer to the gritty realism of the New Testament.

      Anybody who could benefit from that would do well to consider taking in this entire book.

  2. hertzsprung2012 says:

    You quote Bauckham: “In addition, [John] lacks the disjointed structure characteristic of the Synoptics and produced by the accumulation of short units loosely, if at all, tied together. John’s narratives and discourses are generally longer and they are often more closely connected with each other.” I assume he means disjointed and loosely tied together in the sense of chronology as opposed to theological intent? That is, my experience has been that when Mark is read through a particular perspective, most of his units are only apparently disjointed, but actually he is making some profound theological comments that tie the units closely together.

    • Paul Buller says:

      Yes, in that particular quote Bauckham is specifically addressing the issues surrounding chronology. He is careful to also note a great deal of organization with respect to content in the other Gospels, but is pointing out that John is the most chronologically organized of the lot.

      Elsewhere in the book Bauckham describes various literary devices found in the other Gospels that I never really thought about. The literary devices are used in order to organize the theological content in a very deliberate manner. Yes, he very much confirms that there is a great deal of organization (of one sort) in the other Gospels; organization that the casual reader would likely never pick up.

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