Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: A Brief

Yes, this blog has been fairly lifeless lately with hardly any new posts. This, of course, is because the Fall semester has started off with quite a rush of work and assignments. Reading about 4-500 pages a week, learning and translating German, researching for papers, working two jobs, and preparing for a Sunday School lesson will cause a blog to become quickly not a top priority. I did just finish Richard Bauckham’s book entitled, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. I would highly recommend reading this book if you are interested in learning about the nature of the Four Gospels. He writes well, explains the situation at hand in New Testament scholarship, and presents his case very clearly. Scholars and pastors both would benefit from reading this book. Though I do not agree with everything he argues for, I commend his overall approach to you. I have provided you with a brief (not a book review) on his significant contribution below.

The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony

Bauckham, Richard. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006. 508 pp.

The post-Enlightenment embrace of the historical critical method triggered decades of NT scholarship that presupposed the Gospels portray the historical Jesus inaccurately, since the Jesus of the Christian faith as represented by the four Gospel traditions, cloaks him in the theological agendas attributed to anonymous communities separated from the eyewitness accounts by an extensive period of time. Consequently, scholars still find the Gospel writers’ theological message about Jesus antithetical to their historical preservation of him. In his Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Richard Bauckham finds these assumptions misguided. He argues that the Gospels represent trustworthy historiography based on the authoritative testimony of real eyewitnesses that remained the primary sources for each Gospel writer’s account. Long periods of time filled with the succession of oral traditions did not delay the Gospels’ composition. Instead, their final form is “much closer to the form in which the eyewitnesses” testified, hence, Bauckham’s subtitle: the Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (6). Accepted and studied on this appropriate and more natural basis, the Gospels not only provide reliable history concerning Jesus, but also grant theological access to the meaning of his life and mission.On the heels of Samuel Byrskog’s influential work, Story as History-History as Story, Bauckham affirms that sound historical practice must recognize the nature of its sources. In the case of the Gospels, this means acknowledging them as testimony given within “living memory” of eyewitnesses (8). To develop further Byrskog’s work, Bauckham shows the validity of such an argument on several fronts.He begins with an ancient passage written by Papias, former bishop of Hierapolis, which demonstrates that there was a peculiar preference for a certain kind of authentic, historical practice in his day, namely, history based on oral traditions “attached to named eyewitnesses” (20). In a word, when doing history, pride of place went to written sources that were compiled while eyewitnesses were present. Naturally, then, Papias trusted the Gospels since they each exhibited this superior historiography-an assertion Bauckham also proves in the remainder of the book.In accord with Papias’ conclusion, Bauckham then reveals that since the authors based their Gospels on eyewitness testimony, they also named the very eyewitnesses in their accounts. They did so fully aware that these individuals “not only originated the traditions…but also continued to tell the stories as authoritative guarantors of their traditions” (39). In other words, the Gospel writers mentioned named persons intentionally to ensure the authenticity of their words. Such named individuals would still have been alive while the Gospels were written and would be able to verify the Evangelists’ words. Examples include the Twelve, the women at the cross and tomb, those healed by Jesus, and those able to testify of Jesus’ story “from the beginning.” Peter plays the unique role of the latter and is therefore a case in point of eyewitness testimony. Certain literary features in Mark not only prove this about Peter, but also indicate that he is the primary source behind Mark’s Gospel. According to Bauckham, Papias agrees.Next, Bauckham considers the eyewitnesses’ role in the nature of the transmission of the Synoptic Gospel traditions. He argues that the eyewitnesses were not merely the sources of the Gospels, but also served as the “accessible authoritative guarantors” of them (241). Form critics were wrong to assume that Christian communities were strictly oral, without written texts, and thus free to create traditions to promote their social agendas. Instead, these guarantors used deliberate means of control in the Gospels’ transmission, evidence to which even the Apostle Paul alludes regarding Jesus’ tradition (e.g. 1 Cor 7:10-16; 11:23). Matthew, Mark, and Luke are the result of “formal controlled tradition,” by means of “recollective” memorization, accompanied by written sources and access to authoritative eyewitnesses (264, 324).


The same can be said of the fourth Gospel. What is more, John’s account is not merely based on eyewitness testimony, but is itself written by an eyewitness. According to Bauckham, John employs the idiomatic “‘we’ of eyewitness testimony” (i.e. the first person plural for ‘I’) in order to demonstrate that he himself is both the primary witness for his Gospel and the author who wrote it. John’s basis is not “the official witness of the twelve,” but himself as the beloved disciple (403). Naturally, this leads Bauckham to consider whether this John was even part of the twelve. In this case, and according to his understanding of Papias, Polycrates, and Irenaeus, he concludes the author of the fourth Gospel is John the Elder as distinguished from John, son of Zebedee.

Finally, Bauckham asserts that since the Gospels are testimony, their very nature demands that scholars not criticize their every pericope in order to discover the real Jesus, but to receive them for what they are, testimony. The Evangelists beckon their audience to trust their testimony, one that unites reliable witness to the historical Jesus and provides theological access to him. Jesus, therefore, is the Jesus of testimony, and the Gospels as testimony are “the theologically appropriate, indeed necessary way of access to the history of Jesus, just as testimony is also the historically appropriate, indeed the historically necessary way of access to this ‘uniquely unique’ historical event” (508).


One Response to “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: A Brief”

  1. willlovesvanessa Says:

    How funny that you read that! Will is reading that right now in his PhD program.


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