2007-05-06

Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Chapter 18a

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by Neil Godfrey

Check my book review list for complete set of chapter by chapter comments

What is Testimony and Can We Rely on It?

This concluding chapter does not sum up Bauckham’s reasons for thinking the gospels may be the testimony of eyewitnesses. It argues, rather, that eyewitness testimony should be more highly regarded by modern historians as a valid historical source. Of course the argument misses its point in this instance if one has failed to be convinced that the gospels are indeed records of eyewitness testimonies.

Bauckham’s discussion relies heavily on Coady’s 1992 philosophical work, Testimony. Coady uses the term in its everyday sense of acceptance of the word of others insofar as it is essential for everyday social discourse, and shows how this same process is essential to knowledge in specialist studies as well. Testimony as a form of knowledge is as basic to our functioning as is memory and perception. (Bauckham approvingly cites David Hume as quoted by Coady in this connection so I can’t resist half raising an eyebrow over something else David Hume also said: that it is easier to believe that people who report miracles are mistaken than that miracles indeed occurred.)

Bauckham further weaves between citations from Coady and Ricoeur to stress the need for “trust” in the word of others in most day to day situations — “then doubt IF there are good reasons for doing so.” (p.479). One can see where this is heading in the world of “biblical scholarship”.

Testimony and History

Bauckham paints a picture of ancient historians relying on eyewitness reports as following “best practice” as historians of their day. They were not fools, Bauckham hastens to add, since they would “critically appraise” the testimonial sources too. Bauckham does not explain, however, how such “best practice” critical appraisal actually worked in relation to his axiom from Ricoeur: “First, trust the world of others, then doubt if there are good reasons for doing so.” (p.479) But B does not explain what sorts of reasons might prompt one to doubt a report in the first place. Should one declare everything one hears and reads as true until one runs into a blatant contradiction among the reports? What safeguards are there against gullibility? One can imagine institutional leaders and fraudsters of all stripes, but particularly political ones, finding such an approach to all of their testimonies as a heaven(?) sent dream. B does not clarify.

In fact Bauckham appears to trap the Gospel historian in a neverending cycle of credulity. He writes in reference to Gospel scholarship:

Testimony should be treated as reliable until proved otherwise. (p.486)

Under what circumstances can testimony ever be proven unreliable if it is treated as reliable? To ask the doubting question is to break the first precept of treating the gospels as reliable testimony!

Bauckham then unwittingly tells us how he has fallen into this trap:

This general rule for everyday life applies also to the historian in relation to her sources. (p.487)

In this section of the discussion Coady suddenly becomes the elephant in the room that is absent from all the footnotes. Uncited by Bauckham in this section, Coady does in fact speak of the authenticity of historical documents needing to be independently established — before they are treated as reliable (Testimony, pp.245-6). While trust in testimony is part and parcel of both everyday and professional functioning, the establishment of the authenticity and provenance and nature and purposes of historical documents are nonetheless other questions. Coady rightly challenges the excesses of Collingwood’s philosophy of history (and he is not the first to have done so) but his critique centres on Collingwood’s claim to reject testimony as the guide of the historian’s art. Coady by no means challenges the basic tools of critical history including critical assessments of the nature of the evidence available.

Bauckham is not discussing history generally. He is singling out how the Gospels are studied as history. And his discussion is based solely on the assumption that the Gospels are indeed testimonies of eyewitnesses. And as eyewitness testimony they should be granted the same privileges as we grant any eyewitness testimony in everyday life — that is, treat the Gospels as prima facie reliable. Only doubt them after it is “proven” they are unreliable, but it is left vague as to how that could ever happen. Presumably since Bauckham does not doubt the reliability of the gospels we are left to conclude that there are no reasons to doubt the historical claims of the Gospels.

to be contd…..

  • 2007-05-07 02:34:51 UTC - 02:34 | Permalink

    In regards to the problem you raise in your last paragraph it seems like Bauchkam addresses that a few sentences earlier when he says, “It has to be said, over and over, that historical rigor does not consist in fundamental skepticism toward historical testimony but in fundamental trust along with testing by critical questioning.”

    It seems it could equally be said that if you were to take the opposite stance towards testimony, that of skepticism and doubt instead of trust, then how could it ever be proven true.

    Just some thoughts.

    Blessings,
    Bryan L

  • Steven Carr
    2007-05-07 17:38:53 UTC - 17:38 | Permalink

    Bauckham ‘ They were not fools, Bauckham hastens to add, since they would “critically appraise” the testimonial sources too.’

    CARR
    Where do the Gospels ‘critically appraise’ their sources?

  • 2007-05-08 10:53:43 UTC - 10:53 | Permalink

    Vridar blog note: The normal type is JD Walters reply. I have entered my reply to his points in bold type on the understanding that lengthy to and fro debate is easier to follow this way. Someone complain if it’s not deemed appropriate. — Neil

    What Coady actually says on pp.245-246 is that the historian’s reconstructions must be based on facts independent of the reconstruction itself. What does it mean to independently establish the authenticity of historical documents? By cross-checking each and every detail in those accounts by other sources which may themselves be other historical documents?


    Coady is arguing that even if one found a signed document by Henry VII confessing guilt to ordering the execution of the Princes in the Tower then Collingwood, for all his other faults, is to be commended for not using his hypothesis as part evidence that the document is testimony to a fact. Coady allows for the “authenticity” of the document to be confirmed before it is used as evidence of any kind. Would biblical scholars, if they had anything so strong as a signed letter saying “I, King Henry VII, hereby confess to the murder of the Princes. . . ” in their canon (only related to an orthodox topic of course), tolerate anyone demanding the authenticity be proved before accepting the face value of the testimony?


    But this approach runs afoul of Coady’s argument against reducing the evidence of testimony to non-testimonial evidence,


    I don’t know what you understand by Coady’s argument here. Before I find fault in Coady’s argument, landmark in philosophical studies that it is, I would make a few background checkups on the matter at hand before accusing him contradicting himself here.

    and in any case is probably impossible, as is the case with much of what Josephus tells us, for example.

    Bauckham certainly thinks that testimony needs to be evaluated critically, and the range of tools to do so are those of the trained historian: dating, provenance, external corroboration (to the extent that this is possible),


    And if it is not possible? Is this criterion set set aside as too hard?

    disciplined historical imagination and judgment, etc.


    “disciplined . . . imagination” seems flexible enough to cover any evidence or argument either way…..

    What he is arguing against is the paradigm that “Particularly in Gospels scholarship there is an attitude abroad that approaches the sources with a fundamental skepticism, rather than trust, and therefore requires anything the sources claim be accepted only if historians can independently verify it…Most scholars in this field have little or no experience of working as historians in other areas of history. So it is easy for Gospels scholarship itself to develop its own conventions for gauging the reliability of sources. These do not necessarily correspond well to the way evidence is treated in other historical fields.” (p.486). He is trying to correct this imbalance, not argue that we should accept everything the gospel writers tell us at face value.

    Where is the “balance”? Where is he in between the points “trust” and “scepticism”? Where does he demonstrate this balance in chapters 1-17? Aleternately where does he demonstrate gospel authors demonstrating this balance?

    As a matter of fact, in my own experience in reading ancient history textbooks, the way these historians treat evidence would strike most critical Gospel scholars as being incredibly naive. Over and over I read simply that “Tacitus tells us that…” or “Josephus tells us that…” and only occasionally do I read that “Historians however doubt if his account is to be trusted, because…”. But the fundamental stance of these historians is trust toward their sources, unless there is good reason to doubt them. Your complaint that Bauckham does not specify what he would consider good reason to doubt the Gospels is misplaced because there is no one reason given to doubt the reliability of a source, and many times a source is judged generally reliable even if it contains some errors or exaggerations (as Josephus certainly has). In some cases it might be contradiction with archeological findings or the reports of other historians (taking into account, of course, that those other historians are not infallible). In other cases it might just be a sense of the implausibility of what the source is telling us, given other things we know.

    “Ancient history textbooks” as I understand that term are basic introductory overviews, of varying depths and word counts, of the subject. They do not discuss the sort of topic I alluded to recently, the rise of Athenian democracy, except relatively superficially. There are entire studies on selections of works of individual ancient historians. The field is more complex and thorough than your ‘ancient history textbooks’ might lead you to think.


    “Under what circumstances can testimony ever be proven unreliable if it is treated as reliable?”

    This is a big misunderstanding of Coady and Bauckham’s argument. It ignores the fundamental dialectic between trust and critical appraisal. As Bryan L notes above, one might easily turn the question around and ask under what circumstances can testimony ever be proven reliable if it is treated as unreliable. In reality, there is a complex interplay between trust and critical assessment, so that in some cases from originally starting in a position of trust we come to doubt, and in other cases from originally doubting we come to trust. But in general Bauckham and Coady’s point is well-taken that one should trust unless given reason to doubt. It is standard historiographic practice.


    Testimony also includes the words of scholars who have studied the scholars who have studied the scholars etc etc etc , both oral and written. But have addressed these points elsewhere. (Sure B pays lipservice to “critical appraisal” but show me an example where he applies this to the gospels himself. (He may well do so, and I the instances are simply not on my mind right now. So am happy to be alerted to examples where he does this for further consideration.)

  • 2007-05-08 10:56:24 UTC - 10:56 | Permalink

    “Where do the Gospels ‘critically appraise’ their sources?”

    When they revise or correct them, of course. Some of the changes Matthew and Luke make to Mark’s account are almost certainly due to the fact that they felt a different version of the same story was more likely to be true, or that there was a better chronological framework to be given (cf. Papias’ observation that Mark did not write “in order”, but on the other hand that Luke claims to give an orderly account; this implies critical appraisal of the other sources). Likewise when Matthew and Luke incorporate so much of Mark into their own Gospels it shows they have made a judgment that Mark is reliable.

  • 2007-05-08 15:29:28 UTC - 15:29 | Permalink

    You mean that when Mark places certain women at the crufiixion, and Matthew changes the names of the women at the crcufixion, it is because Matthew jus judged that Mark is reliable?

  • 2007-05-08 15:50:26 UTC - 15:50 | Permalink

    Matthew still has Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James the younger and Yose at the crucifixion, but instead of a ‘Salome’ he has “the mother of the sons of Zebedee”. What’s your point, exactly?

  • 2007-05-08 17:38:27 UTC - 17:38 | Permalink

    Brian L: “It seems it could equally be said that if you were to take the opposite stance towards testimony, that of skepticism and doubt instead of trust, then how could it ever be proven true.”

    Hi Brian,

    Bauckham never explains what he means by “critical questioning” of sources and nor did he demonstrate what he meant anywhere in the previous 17 chapters. No doubt I can be reminded and there are exceptions, but I cannot offhand recall B “critically questioning” the gospels or demonstrating how the gospel authors critically questioned their supposed eyewitness sources.

    But as for the either-or trust-doubt choice, forensic scientists don’t (hopefully) approach their task through either a presumption that the evidence will demonstrate “guilt” or “innocence” of those responsible for the evidence, but by a set of criteria and methods that are designed give some confidence in the relative objectivity of the findings.

    But there is also a scientific method that involves attempting to disprove hypotheses. If a hypothesis cannot be disproven, then it stands. This is not a question of being hyper-sceptical, but of setting up peer-reviewed tests that fail in their attempts to disprove the hypothesis. Many PhD theses advance knowledge by working this way. In this way we can prove that the hypothesis of the law gravity can be accepted as more than an hypothesis.

    If we were to attempt to “prove” a hypothesis, it would be dead easy by comparison and we can find any number of tests that select the evidence and results we need to “prove” something true, and reject anything contrary with ad hoc rationalizations. The approach of “proving” would result in many contradictory hypotheses being “proved”.

    So the “sceptical” approach is not necessarily an “negative” attitude in any ethical sense that properly applies above all to human relations, but can be a positive step towards real advances in knowledge.

    N

  • 2007-05-09 01:57:50 UTC - 01:57 | Permalink

    Vridar blog comment: JD’s comments in normal type, my replies in bold — Neil.

    “Would biblical scholars, if they had anything so strong as a signed letter saying “I, King Henry VII, hereby confess to the murder of the Princes. . . ” in their canon (only related to an orthodox topic of course), tolerate anyone demanding the authenticity be proved before accepting the face value of the testimony?”

    Absolutely. You seem to have a very low opinion of biblical scholars. Take the James ossuary, for example. Even though one scholar, Ben Witherington, has been adamant of its authenticity, most other conservative scholars I know have been extremely cautious and withheld judgment pending further investigation. Good conservative scholars are no less critical or discerning than any other scholars.

    The James ossuary is not in the canon. I was comparing the face value statements of canonical documents.

    “Before I find fault in Coady’s argument, landmark in philosophical studies that it is, I would make a few background checkups on the matter at hand before accusing him contradicting himself here.”

    No, he’s not contradicting himself. He’s very clear about the irreducibility of testimony to other forms of evidence. I thought YOU misunderstood his argument about ‘proving’ authenticity. But actually maybe I misunderstood you. It seems that you think of authenticity in terms of a source actually dating from the time it claims to be written, and written by who it claims to be written by, rather than externally corroborating every detail of their testimony, which I think both you and Coady admit is almost always impossible.

    I simply mean, with both Coady and Collingwood, the normal processes of authentication.

    “And if it is not possible? Is this criterion set set aside as too hard?”

    No, but we try to see if we can say anything historically regardless of that.

    ““disciplined . . . imagination” seems flexible enough to cover any evidence or argument either way…..”

    And indeed it is. That’s why you get DISAGREEMENTS among historians, rather than everyone coming to exactly the same conclusions based on rock-solid external and internal historical evidence from sources.

    Scholarly historical debates are about evidence, models and methods.

    “Sure B pays lipservice to “critical appraisal” but show me an example where he applies this to the gospels himself.”

    You may want to read some of his other studies on these issues, such as “Jude and the relatives of Jesus”, “Gospel Women”, “The Fate of the Dead”, etc. Keep in mind that his “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses” is programmatic, the taking of first steps in a relatively new direction. He has certainly not answered every question which might be raised by such an approach, and most importantly he has not yet studied the Gospels in the depth required to either disconfirm or validate his hypothesis (that’s where many of your questions in your reviews are concentrated, I think). That presumably will have to wait until another volume.

    So what was the point of writing a book that offers no study that even validates his hypothesis? And what further depth would be required to validate his hypothesis that the supposed bookend patterns of certain names is evidence for eyewitness testimony?

  • 2007-05-09 01:58:32 UTC - 01:58 | Permalink

    But just a question: would you automatically suspect someone of not being sufficiently critical just because they happen to think that a good deal in the Gospels is historically reliable?

  • 2007-05-09 09:13:42 UTC - 09:13 | Permalink

    # JD Walters Says: “But just a question: would you automatically suspect someone of not being sufficiently critical just because they happen to think that a good deal in the Gospels is historically reliable?”

    That’s a fairly meaningless question. I can also say I happen to think that “a good deal in the gospels is historically reliable”. Ronald Hock has written “Why New Testament Scholars Should Read Ancient Novels” because much of historical value can be learned from them that applies to the gospels, too. See Ancient fiction and early Christian narrative.

  • 2007-05-09 09:47:49 UTC - 09:47 | Permalink

    You knew very well what I meant. I was not talking about what the sources tell us ‘in spite of themselves’ or indirectly via the backdrop of a novel. I was talking about historical reliability in what the Gospels tell us about the life of Jesus of Nazareth. So you still haven’t answered my question.

  • 2007-05-09 10:03:39 UTC - 10:03 | Permalink

    Hey, be nice! I answered your question honestly. If my answer does not fit your black and white thinking that is not my problem. Besides, I’m simply not interested in “suspecting anyone” of thinking critically or otherwise. It’s the specific arguments and methods that interest me. — Generalized hypotheticals are meaningless as far as I’m concerned.

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