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…..