Jesus and the Eyewitnesses – Part 9

It took me a while but I am finally wrapping up my review of Bauckham’s book. You can search the archives for the other 8 installments. In the final chapter Bauckham describes the importance of eyewitness testimony and he makes his case from a most unusual historical event; the holocaust.

Bauckham provides a definition of testimony from Kevin Vanhoozer, “Testimony is a speech act in which the witness’s very act of stating p is offered as evidence ‘that p,’ it being assumed that the witness has the relevant competence or credentials to state truly ‘that p.'” (page 473) On the face of it this would seem to fly in the face of our modern, scientific, skeptical mindset that accepts only that which can be proven by science. Before getting into Bauckham’s justification of testimony I want to consider that science is, itself, testimony based.

When the scientists working at the Hadron Collider discovered the Higgs Boson particle it made news around the world. What a scientific discovery! Millions (perhaps Billions) of people accepted it as a scientific fact based on nothing but the testimony of those who conducted the experiment. The only way we currently have access to such discoveries is through the use of the Collider but I don’t have access to that piece of scientific equipment. It’s not like I’ve got a Collider in my backyard. I’ve never met anybody who does, yet they all accept the truth of the claim about the Higgs Boson particle without having verified it themselves. They accept it based on absolutely nothing but the testimony of the scientists involved.

In fact, many scientists go about their business without confirming the scientific discoveries of those who have gone before them. How many scientific experiments are in some way dependent on the value of the speed of light, yet do the scientists who do such experiments go back and verify the speed of light for themselves before beginning the experiment? I sincerely doubt it. As an engineer I use all kind of tools and scientific data on a daily basis yet I never once question the testimony of those who proved the data, nor do I (usually, there are rare exceptions) question the tools that have been professionally developed and tested.

Indeed, every time you read the newspaper about some event that transpired on the other side of the planet do you hop in an airplane, fly around the globe and confirm the events? Unlikely. Every day in hundreds of ways we rely on testimony. To truly ignore the testimony of others would be completely impractical. As Bauckham points out, “Thus testimony …  exposes the social character of knowledge.” (page 476) Bauckham spends time exploring the reality that not all people offering testimony can be relied upon – we are right to question our sources – but to eliminate testimony entirely is not only impractical, it is frankly a self-refuting venture. “Further attempts to avoid the conclusion that testimony is a basic form of knowledge probably turn out to rely covertly on trusting others.” (page 477)

Bauckham takes a different approach to illustrating the necessity of testimony. He turns our attention back to the holocaust. He begins by examining a piece of testimony about the holocaust from one person, merely as a typical example. It is too long to quote in its entirety, but it is found on page 494 for the interested. It involves a young lady on a train packed full of human “animals” who is able to peer out the window and see the real world, just for a few moments. She witnesses beauty, love, humanity. Given her recent experiences these vivid memories stick with her despite the rather commonplace nature of what she observed.

The sun was bright and vivid. There was cleanliness all over… There were three or four people there. One woman had a child, nicely dressed up; the child was crying. People were people, not animals.

page 494

He goes on to consider one other example that includes holocaust details more familiar to most of us, gas chambers and burning people alive. In both examples Bauckham explores the various features of testimony, the interplay of fact and interpretation, the possible use of literary devices rather than a strictly literal recollection of events, and so on. Through it he reminds us that much of what we know about the holocaust comes from the mouths of those who witnessed it. Unlike a scientific experiment, these events of history are not the kind of thing that a disinterested third-party can duplicate in a test tube. Yet we have a significant amount of knowledge about these events, much of it dependent on human testimony.

He ends off by reminding us that the Holocaust and the Gospels share at least a few common features. Among other things, they are “uniquely unique events” (page 499) in the words of one philosopher. The world of the holocaust was so utterly other than the world we experience every day that we need eyewitnesses in order to have any hope at all of making sense of it. Similarly, the events in the life of Jesus are quite distinct from our normal experiences and eyewitness testimony is necessary there to, for a similar reason.

I will end off with a quote that summarized much of what Bauckham is getting at through his entire book.

The testimony of involved participants is especially valuable in the case of exceptional events. It is the only way in which we can expect to approach the inner reality of such events. There is risk involved in trusting testimony that, by the standards of the average person’s experience in the culture to which we belong, may seem scarcely credible. But the risk is required by the quest for truth – both historical and theological. The degree of commitment to their testimony such witnesses usually have should not in itself arouse our suspicions: in more ordinary cases we usually take such commitment as a reason for taking especially seriously what a witness has to say. It is by no means irrational to take the risk of crediting the testimony of involved and committed participants to the extraordinary and the exceptional in history.

page 507

All in all, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses was a very tough read, but an excellent reward for those willing to make the effort. I recommend it for the patient, diligent student.


About Paul Buller

Just some guy with a variety of eccentric interests.
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