Richard Bauckham on Jesus and the Eyewitnesses
My thanks to Richard Bauckham for having taken the time for the following Q&A ‘interview’ on his eagerly anticipated and soon to be published Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.
(1Question) Chris Tilling: In a nutshell, what is the main argument of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses?
(1Answer) Richard Bauckham: It’s hard to put 500 pages in a nutshell! There is a historical argument and a theological argument, both centred on the notion of eyewitness testimony. The historical argument (most of the book) is that the eyewitnesses of the events of the Gospel history remained, throughout their lives, the authoritative sources and guarantors of the traditions about Jesus, and that the texts of our Gospels are much closer to the way the eyewitnesses told their stories than has been generally thought since the rise of form criticism. I also argue that the Gospels have ways, largely unnoticed before now, of indicating their own eyewitness sources, and I present new evidence for believing Papias’ claim that Mark’s Gospel was based on Peter’s preaching. Although the book’s conclusions support rather traditional views of the Gospels, much of the argument is quite fresh. The book also breaks new ground in Gospel studies by engaging with modern psychological research on eyewitness memory.
The theological argument is that the category of testimony offers a category for the Gospels that is both historiographically and theologically appropriate, and a way beyond the dichotomy of the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. Jesus as presented by eyewitnesses participants in his history, for whom empirical fact and meaning were interrelated from the beginning, are the kind of access to Jesus that Christian faith requires.
(2Q) CT: What first provoked your thinking to study the role of eyewitness testimony in early Christianity? When did you first suspect there was need for a fresh study?
(2A) RB: There are at least three roots of the argument in my previous work. One is an approach to the issue of names in the Gospels, on which I have had some ideas for some time that I have not developed until recently. Here I have taken advantage of our rapidly advancing knowledge of name use among Palestinian Jews, for which Tal Ilan’s Lexicon is an invaluable resource. Secondly, some time ago I became convinced that what Papias had to say about the eyewitnesses and the Gospel traditions had not been properly understood. I brought these two strands of thought together in an article I wrote for the inaugural issue of JSHJ. I then began to think about developing them into a short book – a suggestive sketch rather than a definitive study. But then one thing led to another as I found myself, for example, realising that form criticism was wrong about almost everything, and the book grew to 500 pages. In the course of that I also brought I into play ideas about the authorship and origins of John’s Gospel that I had been pursuing for fifteen years, and these became the third root of the argument of the book.
(3Q) CT: How does the category of eyewitness testimony help to bridge the gap between the so-called historical Jesus and the Christ of faith?
(3A) RB: The Jesus of history/Christ of faith distinction is used in more than one way, but if we take it as an epistemological distinction (what we know by historical research or by faith) then I think ‘the Jesus of testimony’ avoids the dichotomy in a way that enables believers to integrate faith and history. It is a mistake to suppose that we can dig behind the Gospels historically and reconstruct a purely historical Jesus who could be of any significance or interest for faith. Like most historical evidence, what we have is testimony, and it is the kind of testimony ancient historians most valued: the testimony of involved participants who spoke of the meaning of events they experienced from the inside. Dispassionate observers are not the best sources for much of what we want to know about history. Especially with uniquely significant, history-making events, where crude ideas of uniformity in history break down, we need testimony from the inside. The Holocaust is the signal modern example of an event we should have no real conception of without the testimony of survivors. Moreover, trusting testimony is a normal, perfectly rational thing to do. One can try to test the reliability of witnesses, but then they have to be trusted. We cannot independently verify everything they say and that’s the point of testimony. So while I’m not trying to remove faith in the special sense of faith in God and in Jesus or that such faith is response to the disclosure of God in the Gospel history, I do think that historiographical and theological considerations converge in the nature of the Gospels, rather than tearing faith and history apart.
(4Q) CT: You argue that the Gospel of John was written by John the Elder, an eyewitness who had been with Jesus for his entire ministry. How should one then account for the differences between the Fourth Gospel and the Synoptics?
(4A) RB: I think the Beloved Disciple, the author of the Gospel, was the man Papias called John the Elder, who had been a personal disciple of Jesus (the older tradition of attributing the Gospel to John the Elder did not reckon with this) and one of the last of such disciples to survive. I take the view that he was a Jerusalem resident who, although committed to Jesus from early on, probably did not travel with Jesus like the Twelve. But he would of course have been close to disciples who were eyewitnesses of events he did not himself witness. The named disciples who are prominent in John are largely different from the named disciples who are prominent in the Synoptics, and I take this to indicate that the circle(s) of disciples in which the Beloved Disciple moved were different from those from which most of the Synoptic traditions derive. This (along with the fact that I think John expected most of his readers to know Mark and so did not repeat Mark without specific reasons for doing so) accounts for the different narrative material in John. As for the discourses and dialogues of Jesus, I think John adopted a different approach to representing the teaching of Jesus in a narrative. He includes traditional sayings of Jesus but expands on them in extensive, reflective interpretation. The much greater interpretative element in John is actually quite coherent with my claim that this is the only Gospel to have been actually written by an eyewitness. Precisely because he had been close to Jesus he felt qualified to interpret Jesus.
(5Q) CT: The eyewitness inclusio you argue is evident in Mark and consciously appropriated and changed by John and Luke, is not present in the Gospel of Matthew. What is the significance of this for our understanding of Matthew’s Gospel?
(5A) RB: I’m not sure of the answer to this! Matthew’s Gospel remains for me the most puzzling of the four. It does not use the inclusio of eyewitness testimony, but it does have, like Mark and Luke, the carefully preserved list of the Twelve, which I think in the Synoptics points to the Twelve as the source of many of their traditions. It also highlights the apostle Matthew by adding the description ‘taxcollector’ to his name in the list and by transferring to Matthew the story of the call of a taxcollector that Mark tells of Levi. Matthew cannot have written the Gospel but he must have had some connexion with its origins. I do not think the Gospels were originally anonymous in more than the technical sense that the author’s name was not part of the opening text.