2007-08-25

Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Chapter 18g

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by Neil Godfrey

Completion of this series of section by section review and comment:

Holocaust Testimony and Gospel Testimony (pp. 499-502)

“The Holocaust discloses what we could not otherwise know about the nature of evil and atrocity and the human situation in the modern world, but only to those who attend to the testimony of the witnesses . . . . The history of Jesus discloses God’s definitive action for human salvation, but only to those who attend to the testimony of the witnesses. . . .

“‘Horror is inverted veneration. It is in this sense that the Holocaust has been considered a negative revelation, and Anti-Sinai.'” (citing Ricoeur) . . .

“Just as it is horror (though the term seems too weak) that would be diminished by leveling the Holocaust down to the non-exceptional horrors of history, as, without the testimonies, we might well do, so it is wonder that would be lost were we deprived of the Gospel testimonies that evoke the theophanic character of the history of Jesus. . . . Is it not this wonder that we lose when we turn from the Gospel testimonies themselves to the inevitability reductive reconstructions of some kind of ‘real’ historical Jesus?” (pp.499-500)

Translation: The Holocaust has no more universal or historical applicability than the story of God revealing himself to the Jews . . . . . and this in some way relates to the fact that it is sacrilegious to subject the gospels to the methods of normal historical enquiry.

Communicating the noncommunicable
Having argued the “qualitative uniqueness” of the two events, B must address the problem of being unable to communicate something truly unique. Comprehension after all is what comes through analogy and comparison with what we already know. If we find ourselves disbelieving the testimony of the gospels then that is our problem because what they are conveying is something incomprehensible by virtue of its uniqueness. In other words, we have to approach the gospels with a sense of awe and wonder, worshipfully, to take in their meaning. Normal historical enquiry will just expose them as incredible tales.

Although B concedes Wiesel’s assertion that the uniqueness of the Holocaust “defied literature” he also (necessarily) embraced W’s contradictory claim that it created a new literature. “In both cases, the uniqueness required precisely witness as the only means by which the events could be adequately known.”

Unfortunately for B’s argument, he has already asserted that the gospels are re-writings and editings of eyewitness testimony — and not the unmediated eyewitness accounts themselves such as we have in the case of the Holocaust and of which Elie Wiesel speaks.

“Taken as a privileged claim to unsharable knowledge that no one may question, this assertion arouses the professional objection of a sympathetic historian, Inga Clendinnen, who protests that, to the historian, ‘no part of the human record can be declared off-limits. . . . But in Clendinnen’s own admission that ‘Extraordinary events happened in Auschwitz, as in every camp’ there is recognition that assessment has to respect the exceptionality that inheres in the events to which testimony is given. . . . .

“To insist, with some Gospel critics, that the historicity of each and every Gospel pericope must be established, one by one, with arguments for each, is not to recognize testimony for what it necessarily is. It is to suppose that we can extract individual facts from testimony and build our own reconstruction of events that is no longer dependent on the witness. It is to refuse that privileged access to truth that precisely participant testimony can give us.” (p. 502)

Translation: A professional historian argues that every event in history is by definition unique. But the gospels are beyond the scope of normal historical enquiry.

(Not that B fails to notice this contradiction that the gospels are not unmediated testimony, since he returns to this point later under the heading Testimonial Form.)

Testimonial Form (pp.503-505)

Bauckham argues that the “testimonial form” of literature can be exemplified by a particularly skillfully told oral narrative by the survivor Edith P. B regularly reminds us that its “authentic” character lies in its lack of “literary embellishments”. As if no novelist or journalist or oral storyteller would ever or has ever written a straightforward story, powerful in its starkness, selection and arrangement of material, but without what are thought of as “literary flourishes”. I am by no means disputing the genuineness of Edith P’s account. But B’s “literary” or “non-literary” criteria as proof of its authenticity is simply not credible. It is credible because we know the facts of the historical background to Edith P. — not the moving way in which she tells her story.

But then we have a problem, because in the gospels we do find literary embellishments — allusions in the middle of a Jesus story to some other tale told in the Old Testament. Never mind, Bauckham has an answer for this, too. Because not all “testimonial forms” emerging from the Holocaust were completely without literary embellishment after all! (I know, you’re thankful you’re sitting down as you read this to avoid falling over from the continual circles and contradictions B takes the reader through.)

One particular holocaust story makes a reference to Dostoyevsky. But that’s okay, since it was the one offering the testimony who made it, and not an editor, and it was made to help the listener make the appropriate interpretation of what else was said (p.504). So the meaning of the event really IS comprehensible through analogy and literary allusion? But let’s not dwell on that argument again.

The point is that we know the gospels will throw in references to the Old Testament in their telling. But that’s okay too — it’s not as if the “literary allusion” is detracting from the “incomprehensible experience or meaning” of the event. It is because those literary allusions would have been part of the thinking and culture of the participants of those events! Jewish cosmology knew of the waters of chaos, so when the disciples experienced a storm at sea “concrete experience and mythic resonance . . . converge naturally. So interpretation does not come in between us and the realistic character of the story, as interpretation can.” (p.504).

Translation: Only incompetent authors write fiction. Incompetence on the part of an author is the evidence for the fictional nature of a story.

Similarly, the many literary allusions and embellishments that we find in the story of Jesus’ passion serve to “interpret the passion of Jesus by setting it within the experience and the expectation of Israel.” (p.505)

So absence of literary embellishments is a sign of authentic testimony and literary embellishments are a sign of inauthenticity, but in the passion story of Jesus the presence of literary embellishments is a sign of the authentic testimony that has special meaning. (Give yourself at least five minutes before attempting to stand up from a spinning chair.)

Proof? The literary embellishments cease once the story hits the point of the empty tomb and resurrection (p.505). It is their lack of theological interpretation that is now their sign of authenticity, while in other stories theological interpretation was a sign of the authenticity of the eyewitnesses themselves.

Denial of literary influences
Don’t mention the contradictions that exist in the different post resurrection stories — that might bring us back to Clendinnen’s expectation that a historian needs to apply “tests of coherence and consistency” who appears (reading between the lines of B’s account) to have exposed the historical unreliability of one particular survivor’s testimony (p.502).

Nor bring to mind the gospel associations of the women mourning at the grave of a god found in mythical literature, or Luke’s allusion to Elijah’s ascension to heaven in his story of Jesus’ ascension. Nor to mind how the retelling of the different resurrection appearances contain all the indications of a growing concern to establish the doctrine of a material bodily resurrection (e.g. Mark has no resurrection appearance; Matthew has an appearance of a Jesus whom no-one touches; later gospels add that he could be touched and that he could eat with them) .

Bauckham either disagrees with or overlooks the scholarship of Charles Talbert (What is a Gospel? The Genre of the Canonical Gospels) who demonstrated that the gospel resurrection stories “fall neatly into a particular form of ancient literature . . . an ancient apotheosis narrative, such as were frequently told about figures both ancient and contemporary. The basic outline has the hero suddenly turn up missing. His companions try to find him but cannot. There is no trace of his body or of his clothing. With the help of a heavenly voice or a remembered prophecy, they realize the hero has ascended to heaven to take his place among the gods. We can adduce ample instances from the Old Testament, Greek and Roman myth, and from Hellenistic-era biographies (the genre to which the Gospels belong).” (p.334 of The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man by Robert Price.)

Jewish literature (including nonbiblical) and Greek literature give examples of Enoch, Moses, Heracles, Aeneas, Romulus, Empedocles, Apollonius of Tyana as other instances of this apotheosis narrative. To recap:

  • the basic outline has the hero suddenly turn up missing.
  • His companions try to find him but cannot.
  • There is no trace of his body or of his clothing.
  • With the help of a heavenly voice or a remembered prophecy,
  • they realize the hero has ascended to heaven to take his place among the gods.

Bauckham’s claim that “the [gospel] stories show little sign of following literary precedents” (p.505) is simply false.

Testimony as Historical and Theological Category (pp.505-508)

‘Reading the Gospels as eyewitness testimony differs therefore from attempts at historical reconstruction behind the texts. It takes the Gospels seriously as they are . . . . Gospel scholarship must free itself from the grip of the skeptical paradigm . . . . this approach is seriously faulty as a historical method. . . . Testimony asks to be trusted. This does not mean that historians must trust testimony uncritically, but rather that testimony is to be assessed as testimony. . . . and this is open to tests of internal consistency and coherence.’ (p.506)

Yet each time B in this book has confronted inconsistency and incoherence in the gospel records and his hypothesis he has simply rationalized the inconsistencies ad hoc to the point of leaving the criteria of inconsistency and incoherence pointless and meaningless. I won’t repeat the multitude of examples given throughout these reviews.

If the gospels are to be taken as eyewitness testimony then that should be evident from the normal application of historical method. That is how we know what Holocaust survivor testimonies are authentic and which ones are hoaxes. It is painstaking historical recordings and research that has determined the difference. Not some mystical or magical element of the narratives themselves — which hoaxers have proven, as if it needed any proof, can be imitated and is inevitably a cultural (not “uniquely unique”) product.

Finally, Bauckham returns to where he began, with the joining of history and theology: ‘”the unique uniqueness” of the events is properly theological. . . testimony is to a unique disclosure in the sense of a revelation of God. . . . [they recognize] the disclosure of God in this history of Jesus’ (pp. 507-8).

Translation: The gospels are the word of God.

The End!

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