Bauckham’s use of Paul Ricoeur
Bauckham pursues the fundamental role of testimony for history through reference to internationally renowned French philosopher Paul Ricoeur‘s “Memory, History, Forgetting” (2004). Before discussing this section of B’s final chapter I want to address a sentence of Ricoeur’s on which Bauckham places particularly heavy and repeated emphasis:
First, trust the word of others, then doubt if there are good reasons for doing so. (p.165, Memory)
I have already commented that such a rule, if applied to everyday life, would be a rogue’s or charlatan’s dream. Yet Bauckham, in quoting this sentence of Ricoeur’s, follows it with his own spin:
This general rule for everyday life applies also to the historian in relation to her sources. (p.487, Eyewitnesses)
Together these sentences carry the scent that Ricoeur’s p.165 sentence is a “general rule for everyday life”, and that Ricoeur himself has persuaded Bauckham to call on historians to believe the sort of sources regarded by biblical scholars as “eyewitness historical evidence” as readily as they believe a neighbour’s report that he has a leaking tap. On a page where there are a total of 7 footnotes, all but 6 attributed to Ricoeur’s “Memory, History, Forgetting”, it is easy for a quick reader to assume that this spin is also derived from Ricoeur. It is not. It is cited, rather, to another bible scholar, I. A. Provan, who is arguing the same point about testimony as is Bauckham.
Does Paul Ricoeur really intend his statement to be extrapolated to mean that the literal testimony of a gospel should be trusted so quickly and easily?
Ricoeur is discussing the testimony of survivors of horrific state-sponsored barbarism. His book is a philosophical exploration of why some of those episodes such as the “Holocaust” are in the forefront of collective consciousness while others such as the Armenian genocide and the terrorist role of France in Algeria are distant shadows at best. Further, as much as Bauckham would like elsewhere to place the Holocaust in the same category of “incredible” as a miracle said to be performed by Jesus, the analogy is simply outrageous. The Holocaust speaks to what people know humans are capable of — the incredulity arises from the fortunate rarity of the event in our time, and the trauma involved with attempting to grasp that people are doing this “again”, “now”, “to us”, or with such “new technology” that empowers such an “unprecedented” pace of death.
Ricoeur explains exactly the sort of testimony he means, especially on pages 161-166 of his book “Memory, History, Forgetting”. It is the testimony of one who is available to repeat his testimony, and who demonstrates his steadfastness with his testimony over time. It is the testimony of one who is prepared to answer doubts and scepticism and can point to others who experienced or witnessed the same things. The testifier can and will offer the challenge: “If you don’t believe me, ask someone else.” It is the testimony that contributes to the social bond in that others can have confidence in what is said. The rule for everyday life is that people generally do not believe one testifying to having been abducted by a UFO or having witnessed an unnatural miracle — apart perhaps from the opportunistic author and a credulous fringe of the community.
That kind of testimony is exactly what we don’t see evidenced in the gospels according to Bauckham’s own discussion. According to Bauckham’s own argument, the gospels do not bring multiple witnesses to bear on any particular miracle. His argument in fact advances the opposite: that a key character witness or recipient of a miracle is “the testifier”, and he/she alone, of that miracle to the gospel author. There is absolutely nothing in the gospels to suggest that the authors had access to whole “socially bonded” communities who could support the miraculous events they narrated. Bauckham is at pains to explain the written testimony is attributable to but one particular named or unnamed character alone. The different gospel variations on the telling of any particular miracle, Bauckham concedes, are the fruit of the varying theological perspectives of the author — NOT the outcome of interviewing the same witness or other community supporters over time. Indeed, had the authors access to the same witnesses or even portions of the community of those who supported and believed those witnesses, their testimonies would surely be expected to have been more similar, not more at variance from one another.
When Ricoeur says:
First, trust the word of others, then doubt if there are good reasons for doing so
one may respond in relation to the gospels and “the general rules for everyday life” that one, or even two dozen, who report that a man walked on water or rose from the dead, that “everyday life” — that “the general rules for everyday life” teaches us that such individuals are not to be trusted by the bulk of the community. Bauckham would have us think that witnesses were not available to their archivists (gospel authors) over time, but that a witness passed on his story to one author and subsequent authors had no option but to write as if that original “eyewitness” were no longer accessible or they simply opted to copy the words of the earlier “gospellor”. That is not the sort of testimony which Ricoeur discusses. No gospel author anywhere offers a hint of passing on from any “eyewitness” of a miracle the suggestion that that “eyewitness” was pleading for another to “ask others too, don’t just take my word for it.” Bauckham’s hypothesis pushes the contrary, even to the point that inclusio (bookend) rhetorical devices are meant to alert the ancient readers to the identity of the individual responsible for confirming the contents of the gospel.
The gospel accounts demonstrate all the signs that their authors varied their accounts on the basis of their theological differences. Bauckham nowhere addresses the sort of evidence or testimony that Ricoeur discusses in “Memory, History, Forgetting”.
There is no question that the archives historians of the Holocaust must rely on are the product of individuals claiming to be eyewitnesses. It is not conceivable that historians generations from now will question this. (Holocaust deniers are quickly proving to have a very short shelf-life.) There is every reason to interpret the variations in the gospel accounts as the product of the different theological perspectives of the authors — not the “eyewitnesses”. There is no evidence that any of the gospel authors cared to relay any presumed interest of their sources to appeal to other witnesses to support their claims. The closest we come to that phenomenon is in the fourth gospel, that of John, which says that if everything known about Jesus were recorded the entire world would not have room to shelve the books. This claim would carry more weight if it were f0und in a book that at least came close to the the longer histories produced by ancient authors (e.g. Polybius, Livy, Tacitus) and not, rather, in one of the shortest and most overtly theologically orientated gospels that listed a mere 7 (or 8, depending on what one chooses to count) miracles!
To be continued . . . . as soon as real-life permits!