Jesus and the Eyewitnesses - Part 1
‘It is the contention of this book that, in the period up to the writing of the Gospels, Gospel traditions were connected with named and known eyewitnesses, people who had heard the teaching of Jesus from his lips and had committed it to memory, people who had witnessed the events of his ministry, death and resurrection and themselves had formulated the stories about these that they told. These eyewitnesses did not merely set going a process of oral transmission that soon went its own way without reference to them. They remained throughout their lifetimes the sources and, in some sense that may have varied for figures of central or more marginal significance, the authoritative guarantors of the traditions they continued to tell’ (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, chapter 5: The Twelve).
Chapter 1. From the Historical Jesus to the Jesus of Testimony
Where history and theology meet
Bauckham’s opening discussion concerns the question as to what one means by the term ‘historical Jesus’. He notes one option is to understand ‘historical Jesus’ to mean ‘Jesus insofar as his historical reality is accessible to us’. But, and this leads one to the key dilemma involved in ‘historical Jesus’ questing, what counts as accessible evidence? Christian faith has traditionally trusted the texts of the Gospels to give us reliable knowledge of Christ and so ‘it is hard to see how Christian faith and theology can work with a radically distrusting attitude to the Gospels’.
But is this so, and is this dilemma real? Cannot one simply apply critical scrutiny to the Gospels and seek external verification in order to recover the ‘historical Jesus’ from the picture presented in the Gospel narratives? However, the result of all modern ‘historical Jesus’ research ‘is a Jesus reconstructed by the historian, a Jesus attained by the attempt to go back behind the Gospels and, in effect, to provide an alternative to the Gospels’ constructions of Jesus’. Indeed, given that every ‘historical Jesus’ portrait is as much a construction as the Jesus of the Gospels, enquiring from the perspective of Christian faith
‘we must ask whether the enterprise of reconstructing a historical Jesus behind the Gospels, as it has been pursued through all phases of the quest, can ever substitute for the Gospels themselves as a way of access to the reality of Jesus the man who lived in first-century Palestine’.[Footnote 1]Thus, whether we like it or not, the central importance of the credibility of the Gospel witness is thrust onto centre stage. This is not to insist that historical research doesn’t have an important place in informing our understanding of Jesus, but any attempt to ‘do all over again what the evangelists did, though with different methods’ will inevitably lead to a reductionist Jesus. So what is the way forward? Should one resign to the fact that there will always be those who simply trust the Gospels as reliable access to Jesus, and always those who will attempt a historical reconstruction based on their own methods? Bauckham’s answer to this question involves the programmatic statement that shall be, in one way or another, the concern for the rest of the volume:
‘I think there is a better way forward, a way in which theology and history may meet in the historical Jesus instead of parting company there. In this book I am making a first attempt to lay out some of the evidence and methods for it. Its key category is testimony’[Fn 2]
In the following sub-section, Bauckham thus develops what he means with this key category of ‘eyewitness testimony’. In insisting the sense in which the Gospels should be understood as testimony, he argues that testimony asks to be trusted, not uncritically, but neither solely upon independent verification. While ‘trusting testimony’ is often regarded ‘a stumbling-block in the way of the historian’s autonomous access to truth that she or he can verify independently’, Bauckham correctly notes ‘all history, like all knowledge, relies on testimony’. This leads him to his first claim: ‘We need to recognize that, historically speaking, testimony is a unique and uniquely valuable means of access to historical reality’. His second claim is no less insignificant: ‘Testimony is the category that enables us to read the Gospels in a properly historical way and a properly theological way. It is where history and theology meet’.
* [Fn 1] At this stage in the argument I wondered if I was actually reading something penned by Josh McDowell!
* [Fn 2] OK, so I’m not reading Josh.