II. The Nature & Role of the Gospels

How shall we approach the Gospels?

Addressing the nature of the Gospels has been no light task for Christian scholars considering the post-Enlightenment embrace of the historical-critical method. This affair 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. If correct, such claims reduce the Gospels to a mere collection of facts that have no meaningful proclamation for the world to heed. For the church, then, there is no place for NT theology, only historical reconstructions of what the Gospels may have said.

Richard Bauckham’s very helpful answer.

In his Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, Richard Bauckham finds these assumptions misguided. He argues 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 (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. 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 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, emphasis mine). 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.”

Next, Bauckham considers the eyewitnesses’ role in the nature of the transmission of the Synoptic Gospel traditions. He argues 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).

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 the 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).

What are the implications of Bauckham’s contribution for the Church and her theological goals in interpreting the Gospels?

The implications of Bauckham’s argument that the Gospels should be accepted as testimony are rather significant for ‘doing’ NT theology. Indeed, they establish the NT theologian on the foundation of four historically reliable Gospels, while simultaneously providing theological access to Jesus, his words, life, and mission. With testimony, historical fact and theological meaning come together. In this way, one is able to construct the beginnings of a NT theology; for the Gospels function as four distinct narratives that open the NT canon with eyewitness accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus, and supply theological interpretation of his unique soteriological/eschatological mission granted him by God the Father for the sake of all nations.

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4 Responses to “II. The Nature & Role of the Gospels”

  1. Michael Says:

    Bret,

    This is great stuff (and timely – I’m about to start in on *Eye Witnesses*). I’m looking forward to the rest of your series.

    Michael

  2. Bret Rogers Says:

    Michael,

    Thanks for stopping by the blog. I really appreciated Bauckham’s work, especially in light of some of the recent discussions of history and theology in hermeneutics and interpretation. I hope that you will contribute some of your own thoughts in this discussion as well. I would love to hear what you have to say. We still need to meet up at some point.

    Bret

  3. Jim Says:

    One should not be presenting an idea as if it were Biblical if they cannot cite a single verse that would justify teaching that idea. But here you have done just that.

    Sadly most never take the time to subject the ideas that they are taught to Biblical scrutiny. Instead in direct violation of Ps. 118:8 they elect to put their confidence in something said by this-or-that man and then they proceed to reinterpret the words of scripture to fit the view of that non-Bible source.

    Here we see that you have done this in regards to the John tradition that you promote above. You refer to attribute the fourth gospel to John claiming “John’s account is not merely based on eyewitness testimony” and yet the truth is there is not a single verse in scripture that would justify teaching that John was the anonymous disciple whom “Jesus loved” — but in spite of this you like most will simply assume that this man-made tradition cannot be wrong and then interpret scripture to fit this man-made tradition. But if one will heed Ps. 118:8 then the NON-BIBLE sources on which this man-made tradition is based will give way to the facts in scripture which prove that NO MATTER WHO this anonymous author was he could not have been John.

    Consider just one example — the disconnect between the common assertion from promoters of this tradition that claims that the fourth gospel is “John’s eyewitness testimony” and the FACTS presented to us in the plain text of scripture. Here is the question for those who promote this idea: Since you believe that the author IS presenting himself as an eyewitness do you not think it strange that John’s most important eyewitness experiences in the ministry of Jesus are missing from the fourth gospel?

    The Mount of Transfiguration, the prayers of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and the raising of the daughter of Jairus from the dead – the key moments of John’s involvement in the ministry of Jesus – are ALL missing from the fourth gospel. Why? Could it be the author of the fourth gospel (the unnamed “other disciple whom Jesus loved”) was not an eyewitness to these events?

    EVERY time John is specifically mentioned by name as participating in an event in the first three gospels, that event is not found in the fourth gospel. It is indeed hard to understand why this would be the case if the unnamed “other disciple whom Jesus loved” was John, but it is easy to understand why this is the case if John wasn’t this author.

    While the fourth gospel is for the most part an eyewitness account, the Biblical evidence can prove that this whiteness, the one whom “Jesus loved”, was not John. As always, I challenge those who promote this erroneous, man-made tradition to “prove all things” and cite just one verse that would justify teaching this tradition? Forget all those NON-BIBLE sources (Ps. 118:8) — Got scripture?

  4. Bret & Rachel Says:

    Jim,

    I am glad that you too have a concern for all things to be tested by Scripture. Indeed, the word of God is our final authority. I would like to mention at least three things, before I respond to your comments.

    First, the comment you pulled out of my post was in the middle of my discussion of Richard Bauckham’s book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, not an historical analysis and reconstruction of the Gospel according to John.

    Second, Richard Bauckham himself does not believe that John, the son of Zebedee, the disciple whom Jesus loved, is the author of the fourth Gospel. Instead, according to his understanding of the external evidence (Papias, Polycrates, Eusebius, Irenaeus, et al.) and some internal evidence (e.g. Acts 4; 2-3 John), he believes the author was John the Elder. He addresses this (among other things) more extensively in his newer book entitled, The Beloved Disciple.

    Third, I would not be so quick to press your understanding of the authorship so hard. (1) Since the second century, the church has believed in Johannine authorship for the fourth Gospel. It was not until the skepticism of the Enlightenment that people began to argue against it; and even then, the questions raised were born more so out of a reaction against ecclesiastical dogma, than a more pure Biblicism. (2) This also means that you have about 1500 years of Christian layman and theologians with which to deal, and they were just as inspired and equipped as you may be in the Scriptures. (3) The arguments against Johannine authorship that I am aware of, are no more than mere “possibilities”, and many of which are arguments from silence, very similar to the one you presented above. For instance, that John did not include in his Gospel such events that he was present at as recorded by the Synoptics, does not mean that he was not an eyewitness. It MAY mean that; but that is all you can say.

    Having said that, I would submit to you a few biblical references that lead me to think that John, the son of Zebedee, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was the author of the fourth Gospel. First, the one called “the disciple whom Jesus loved”, who is also considered the author of the fourth Gospel (John 21:20-24), is always paired with Peter (e.g. John 13:23-24; 18:15-16; 20:2-9). Should this not be considered John, the one with whom the other New Testament documents pair Peter (Mark 5:37; 9:2; 14:33; Luke 5:8-10; 22:8; Acts 1:13; 3:1-4:22; 8:14-25; cf. Gal 2:9). Second, only in the fourth Gospel is John “the Baptist” referred to as simply John (John 1:19). This may be because the apostle John purposely remains unnamed, and has no need to distinguish himself from “the Baptist”. Third, “the disciple whom Jesus loved”, who also wrote the fourth Gospel (cf. 21:20-24), is among the unnamed fisherman mentioned in chapter 21 (see esp. 21:2, 7). Among them are named Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, the SONS OF ZEBEDEE, and two others. This at least provides us with the possibility that John, a son of Zebedee, was in fact the beloved disciple, and therefore the author. Fourth, the Synoptics testify that ONLY the twelve disciples joined Jesus in the upper room for the Last Supper (Matt 26:20; Mark 14:17; Luke 22:14). John, therefore, was present at the Supper as was “the disciple whom Jesus loved” in the fourth Gospel (John 13:23). Could it be that these are one and the same person, and therefore the author of the fourth Gospel? I believe that all of these arguments are plausible, and along with the testimony of centuries of Church history, I am still persuaded that John, son of Zebedee, is the author. I hope this is helpful.

    Blessings,

    Bret

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