Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Chapter 1

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

This is the first part of a detailed review of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony by Richard Bauckham (2006). It is in response to the discussion begun by Chris Tilling on his Chrisendom blog, and remarks I have seen from a variety of quarters indicating that this work is having quite an impact in some quarters.

The theological interest of Bauckham

The opening chapter’s title, From the Historical Jesus to the Jesus of Testimony, epitomizes Bauckham’s distinction between the two concepts of Jesus. Bauckham laments that the quest for the historical Jesus has posed a serious problem for theology and those who are seeking the Christ of faith:

From the beginning of the quest the whole enterprise of attempting to reconstruct the historical figure of Jesus in a way that is allegedly purely historical, free of the concerns of faith and dogma, has been highly problematic for Christian faith and theology. (p.2)

From the perspective of Christian faith and theology we must ask whether the enterprise of reconstructing a historical Jesus behind the Gospels, as it has been pursued through all phases of the quest, can ever substitute for the Gospels themselves as a way of access to the reality of Jesus the man . . . .” (p.4)

What is in question is whether the reconstruction of a Jesus other than the Jesus of the Gospels . . . can ever provide the kind of access to the reality of Jesus that Christian faith and theology have always trusted we have in the Gospels. (p.4)

Here, then, is the dilemma that has always faced Christian theology in the light of the quest of the historical Jesus. (p.4)

Theologically speaking, the category of testimony [i.e. the eyewitness reports recorded by the gospels] enables us to read the Gospels as precisely the kind of text we need in order to recognize the disclosure of God in the history of Jesus. (p.5)

The repetition of this concern as reflected in the five citations above testifies to Bauckham’s intention in this book that he leads the reader to a way to find a Jesus in history (not at all necessarily the same thing as the “the historical Jesus”) who is also their Jesus of faith. This is important and central to how we read Bauckham. His concerns are theological to the extent that he sees historical interests, at least in the traditional sense of the word, as a problem for Christian faith.

Backhaum explains that the term “historical Jesus” is not at all self-evident and cites at least three possible meanings:

  1. a term that points to the Jesus at the time he lived on earth and before, according to believers, he transferred to his present heavenly existence;
  2. a term for the Jesus that believers see and accept in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life on earth despite their differences;
  3. a term used by historians to apply to the Jesus they attempt to discern hidden behind the theological statements of the Gospels.

This third meaning, Bauckham continues, covers many and widely varying Jesus’s as different historians (Crossan, Borg, Wright, Allison, Theissen, et al.) find new and different ways to construct their model of Jesus out of their interpretations of the Gospels. The method of these historians, writes Bauckham, is to “leave aside all the meaning that adheres in each Gospel’s story of Jesus” (p.4), and then “reconstruct” another Jesus from the remaining bare bone facts and probabilities. These historians must then continue to use their “skeptical methods” to explain how and why their particular Jesus was turned into the Jesus of the Gospels, and this means they need to construct a new significance for his life that was later adapted by the Gospel authors who injected into his life their own theological meanings.

So one might wonder why one with theological interests should bother with the historical method at all. Why should not the two be kept distinct? But Bauckham’s faith actually relies on the veracity of the historical record in the sense that it is inseparable from it. Unless his faith can be confirmed by historical method then he has no basis for his faith. If the historical method only produces a Jesus who is not the Jesus of the gospels, or if it cannot give us any insights at all into the Jesus of our faith, then that “would be tantamount to denying that Jesus really lived in [a] history” that must in some way be “accessible to historical study.” That is unthinkable because the very next sentence of B. says: “We need not question that historical study can be relevant to our understanding of Jesus in significant ways.” (p.4).

(Paradoxically I would agree fully with that last sentence, only not in the way Bauckham intends. His faith limits him to only one avenue of enquiry and prevents him from asking questions that would open up others. He can question such pillars as form criticism but not, it seems, the foundations of traditional dating of the gospels. Nor does it seem that he can open up the doors to the possibility that the gospels are literary fictions and not historical biographies after all. But I will demonstrate in the coming sections of this review that some of these alternatives offer more cogent explanations than those provided by B’s eyewitness model.)

“Solving” the “historical Jesus versus Jesus of faith” dilemma

Bauckham states the dilemma for Christian faith: Is the method of the critical historian by its very nature forever destined to bypass the needs of Christian theology and faith who believe in the Jesus in their Gospels? (p.5) He solves this dilemma by turning to the methods of ancient historians (Thucydides, Xenophon, Polybius, Josephus, Tacitus) and asserting that their most prized sources for their histories were eyewitness testimonies by actively involved participants in those historical events, and that the only really “true” history could be written in the lifetimes of those actors. (The more actively involved or “biased” the better since theirs is the memory most likely to last the longest!)

The gospel authors followed this method of writing of events within the reach of one’s own lifetime and relying heavily on engaged actors in those events, says Bauckham. (I am reminded of statements by Clement of Alexandria and Eusebius’s account of Papias that, among others, also testified of the preference for oral testimony over written documents, especially in matters of faith.) Bauckham explains that this was appropriate history by ancient standards, and is also legitimate for us today given that all knowledge necessarily comes to us via the “testimonies” of others.

This sort of history is both true history and true theology, says Bauckham:

  1. it is true theology because it is a record of the witness who could not separate the (theological?) meaning of the events s/he saw from the events themselves;
  2. it is true history because it is an oral report of eyewitnesses to the events.

Here I think Bauckham is confusing two senses of “history” as well as confusing anachronistic and modern meanings of “oral history”. Yes, there is “oral history” that is a history of those participants in the events — a type of history that is being revived in modern times. We see this type of history is most useful for capturing the social life of other generations — our great-grandparents of the Depression years, indigenous survivors of the later white settlements, others who had experienced less common more contemporary events. But this is not what modern historians would confuse with the techniques of ancient historians who used oral reports as sources for their histories of something else, such as the history of a war between states. Modern historical method treats the latter oral accounts in the same way they do written accounts — subject to analysis of tendencies for bias, sceptical scrutiny to compensate for this and ulterior motives, perspective of view, etc. To take oral testimony uncritically as “a source” without independent verification is simply “unhistorical” by modern standards.

When some ancient historians such as Herodotus encountered different oral testimonies they would sometimes record both conflicting versions and leave it to the reader to decide the one they would accept, even with some hints from the historian. If we accept Bauckham’s thesis it is difficult to understand why none of the 4 gospel authors ever overtly addressed, as their ancient counterparts did, such varying accounts. When applied to the gospels we will encounter an avalanche of even vaster difficulties: why, for example, there is very little if any “testimony” that cannot be attributed to some other literary source; and why there is virtually no “testimony” that cannot be explained as a theological statement — why there is virtually no trace of any detail that is not theological. Even witnesses expressing themselves with the most theological meanings must surely have dropped other human-interest details and these must also have been siezed upon by any other party interested in the real “historical” person. But we will test these questions in later chapters.

Critique of Form Critical Studies

Bauckham argues that the form critical method pioneered by Bultmann and related studies of the transmission of oral traditions has led many historians misguidedly to build models of gospel tradition-transmission across vast spans of time or generations that simply did not really exist between the time of Jesus and the writing of the gospels. The most widely accepted dates of the gospels (not the radically early ones) allow for their authors to be writing in the lifetimes of known eyewitnesses of Jesus. Once this is grasped then the raft of form critical studies positing traditions being passed through many anonymous others, each with their varying interpretations and local interests, before they were finally filtered to the Gospel authors, simply collapses. There has been all along the presence of respected eyewitnesses available for consultation and their own accounts. So argues B. And he has a good point here. What he misses, however, is what his faith position does not allow him to consider: the possibility that the gospels were theological constructions built on Old Testament and other stories as a result of a need for some ‘biographical’ narrative to illustrate an emerging Christian sect rooted in mysticism and other theological and philosophical roots in both the Diaspora Jews and Hellenistic philosophy.

Debt to Samual Byrskog

Bauckham cites his debt to Samuel Byrskog’s “Story as History — History as Story: The Gospel Tradition in the Context of Ancient Oral History” (2000). It is from Byrskog that Bauckham takes his argument that among ancient historians it was oral testimony that was preferable to written sources. Bauckham mentions two criticisms that have been levelled at Byrskog’s work:

  1. Byrskog assumes (failing to demonstrate) that the Gospels are comparable to the practice of oral history in ancient historiography;
  2. Byrskog does not offer criteria by which to identify eyewitnesses or their testimony.

It is in response to these two criticisms of Byrskog’s work that Bauckham has written the remaining chapters of “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses”.

We will continue this review chapter by chapter.

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

17 thoughts on “Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Chapter 1”

  1. I’m really excited someone else is going to work through the book as I am, so I look forward to reading through these when I return to Germany – bit short on time at the mo. I’ll be sure to link to them on my blog, too.

  2. Thanks, Chris. I think our notes on Bauckham will be a bit like Yin and Yan, though. But as a guru might have said, What is left without the right, what is up without the down, what is light without the heavy? 🙂

  3. Hi Neil,

    I’ve gotta admit, this is the first time I’ve made time to go through your posts. I don’t know if I have time to get through them all tonight, but here are just a few thoughts on this post.

    N: ‘His concerns are theological to the extent that he sees historical interests, at least in the traditional sense of the word, as a problem for Christian faith’

    I think this totally misunderstands Bauckham. They are only a problem in so far as they are mistreated or misunderstood.

    N: ‘He can question such pillars as form criticism but not, it seems, the foundations of traditional dating of the gospels’

    That is because he sees problems with the former, not the latter. It was only in the last few years Bauckham starte dseeing problems in form criticism. He is right on the money, I think.

    N: ‘To take oral testimony uncritically as “a source” without independent verification is simply “unhistorical” by modern standards.’

    He looks at the fallicy involved here in the last chapter.



  4. Hi Chris,

    Re your first point, that B sees historical interests as a problem only in so far as they are mistreated or misunderstood, . . . .

    B speaks of a quest that is “allegedly purely historical, free of the concerns of faith and dogma”. This sounds he disputes that a “purely historical” approach is necessarily free of the concerns of faith and dogma. I don’t know what room there is for faith and dogma in history as practiced as a discipline in most academic institutions.

    As for your next point, I am not opposed so much to B’s questioning form criticism as I am to his seeming to lump way too much into the blame-bag of form criticism. There is also literary criticism but this does not appear to be on his radar. And some of the arguments he appeared to blame on form-criticism seemed to be arguable on grounds unrelated to form-criticism. Sorry I can’t single out an example off-hand right now, though.

    I have not yet got to the last chapter — there are some points I have held off raising till I read more — and I have been caught out once or twice this way, but have, I hoped, made that clear as I’ve progressed. Will comment on the fallacy question you raise here when I complete the last chapter.


  5. I’ve only just discovered your blog today (through librarything)…though I’ve been reading Tilling for a while. I purchased Bauckham’s book this afternoon and have read the first chapter.
    I think that perhaps his words about an allegedly purely historical quest is criticism to those who might have claimed to be writing a purely historical account. –Which is the main criticism Schweitzer had against his contemporaries 100 years ago.
    I think your right in your comment:
    “As for your next point, I am not opposed so much to B’s questioning form criticism as I am to his seeming to lump way too much into the blame-bag of form criticism. There is also literary criticism but this does not appear to be on his radar. And some of the arguments he appeared to blame on form-criticism seemed to be arguable on grounds unrelated to form-criticism.”
    I agree with you, but on the other hand, it might be best to give him the benefit of the doubt simply because one can only write so much and his book is already over 500 pages, which might have resulted in the apparent “lumping” of things together. I’d be curious what how he would respond to this particular criticism of yours. I wonder whether dealing with strengths and/or weaknesses in literary criticism necessary for his purposes?
    Just some thoughts…I confess that I’m more inclined to believe him right out the gate because of my initial theological stance…

  6. No one can cover all bases in equal depth, but it is standard to expect a scholar presenting a new hypothesis to at least address earlier alternative hypotheses, explain why he finds them inadequate and how his new thoughts answer more questions about the evidence than the others.
    The scientific approach is to attempt to explain the evidence with a hypothesis and then attempt to disprove that hypothesis. If there is no way a hypothesis could be disproven it is worthless. One cannot disprove the existence of gremlins and their responsibility for mishaps in one’s life, or the influence of the planets on one’s destiny. Bauckham’s eyewitness hypothesis is unfortunately at least as vacuous — indeed I often found myself comparing his standard of argument vis a vis the evidence with what I used to read in serious explanations about how astrology “works”.
    Many studies do already give very well fitting explanations for the origin of the gospel stories that have no relationship to real historical events. Bauckham’s hypothesis by comparison is a melange of ah hoc and speculative wishful thinking. I know that’s harsh, but I suspect Bauckham has been able to get away with a work like this because so much of the “scholarship” in the area of biblical studies has been too much of a thinly disguised apologetic sham too long.

  7. Hi Neil. Just started reading Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. I had no idea that Bauckham wrote it as an Apologist and not as a Bible Scholar. The book is anti-Science as there is no Introduction of the Issue, Methodology, Objective gathering of Data, Testing of Data with Methodology, Analysis and Summary of Testing and resulting Conclusions. What there is is Failure to explain why the Consensus is against Bauckham, cherry picking evidence, Ignoring/Denying evidence against and Conclusions which are not supported by the evidence. In reviewing this book one can not evaluate whether Bauckham’s Methodology supports his conclusion because there is no Methodology. All one can do is Inventory Bauckham’s Bias and Errors.

    Typical problems are:

    1) Bauckham demonstrates that none of Papias’ extant quotes are Canonical and than concludes that most of what Papias wrote was Canonical.

    2) Bauckham notes all of the bad press that Peter receives in “Mark” and takes it as evidence that the purpose was to give credit to Peter’s witness rather than discredit Peter’s witness.

    Most comical is that Form Criticism is a critical Christian Bible scholarship Reaction to the realization that the Gospels as is are not Historical. The only thing that Bauckham gets right in his book is that there are good reasons to doubt that Form Criticism can get back to a Minimum Jesus. Amazingly Bauckham takes this as evidence that there is more than the Minimum Jesus when of course the opposite is true. In looking for more Historicity in the Gospels Bauckham removes the only support for whatever Minimum there is!

    There’s no surprise here that someone like Bauckham is masquerading as a Bible scholar on the subject but what’s been surprising so far is the lack of criticism this book has received from Critical Bible scholarship.


  8. I deconverted from conservative Christianity (specifically, the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod) in 2014. I have been in contact with my former pastor and my former denomination since, frequently debating them regarding what I see as the discrepancies and contradictions in the Bible and Church doctrine. My former pastor and denomination believe that I left Christianity because I did not read enough (conservative) Christian scholarship. They have recently challenged me to read Richard Bauckham’s “Jesus and the Eyewitness”. I agree to read it. However, I am shocked at the non-stop conjecture and grasping at straws as I read through this book. I expected to be more challenged. I am almost at the end of the final chapter at it seems that Bauckham’s evidence for the reliability of the Gospels as eyewitness sources of historical information can be summed up thus: Papias should be trusted as a reliable source of information regarding the authorship of the Gospels, and, hidden literary clues in the Gospels tell us the eyewitness sources of each story within the Gospels, if we are willing to put in the effort to discover them.


    Is that the best the all-knowing, all-powerful Creator of the Universe could do to give mankind the ultimate truth about himself?

    What a joke.

    1. By the way, I am going to be meeting with my former LCMS pastor to discuss Bauckham’s book chapter by chapter over the next several weeks. I intend to take your review with me.

    2. B’s work would be understandable if it were relegated to a fundamentalist fringe where serious scholarship could happily ignore it. I was dismayed at the level of non-scholarship running throughout its pages and in retrospect fear I was sometimes too harsh on B personally. The bigger joke is that B is considered a “mainstream” scholar and sits alongside so-called more “critical scholars” in seminars, etc. B is apparently close to Hurtado and Hurtado also demonstrated to me that he has no awareness of the difference between data, evidence and interpretation when it comes to reconstructing Christian origins. So many biblical scholars are nothing more than apologist hacks. And the fact that they can only seem to respond with insult to efforts of mine to engage them with serious discussion confirms for me their inadequacy as serious historians.

      I’d be interested to know how you get on with your pastor.

      1. I’m curious. What is the official distinction between a scholar and an apologist? I am an amateur, but to me a scholar should stick to the evidence in his research and never discuss issues of “faith” whereas an apologist is free to mix evidence and faith as he/she wishes.

        The first book on my pastor’s “reading list” was one which he co-authored: “Making the Case for Christianity”. In it the following claims are made:

        1. The Book of Acts was written before Paul’s death (pre-65 AD).
        2. Therefore, Luke and Mark were written early than that.
        3. Papias was diligently collecting eyewitness testimony in 80 AD.
        4. We can be confident of the traditional authorship of the Gospels.
        5. The evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus is as solid as the evidence for any other historical event in Antiquity.
        6. A good attorney can prove the case for the bodily resurrection of Jesus in a court of law beyond a reasonable doubt (a chapter written by an LCMS attorney).

        When I challenged my former pastor and his LCMS co-authors that their data was based on either out-dated or fringe scholarship, they told me that I need to read Bauckham’s book, which they believe, is “groundbreaking” scholarship and will be the “scholarship standard” in a generation.

        1. “The evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus is as solid as the evidence for any other historical event in Antiquity.”

          That should tell you everything you need to know right there. Self delusion is a powerful thing.

        2. Words mean what we want them to mean. An apologist who spends years in formal study at a seminary and collects degrees in biblical studies can well enough be described as a scholar. I was slightly embarrassed when an author, Valerie Tarico, once described me as a scholar. But I also appreciated Valerie’s explanation for how she chose to use the word:

          Perhaps I should start by defining the word scholar as I understand it and use it. This from Miriam Webster: “a person who has studied a subject for a long time and knows a lot about it : an intelligent and well-educated person who knows a particular subject very well; a person who attends a school or studies under a teacher: pupil; a person who has done advanced study in a special field; a learned person.”

          Credentials can indicate knowledge, but the two are not the same, and I don’t think that someone has to hold a Ph.D. or professorship to be called a scholar.

          That said, I agree that much specialized knowledge can be acquired only through in-depth study and that a superficial treatment of a complex subject can lead to conclusions that are patently false. To the extent that there exist valid methods for deciphering complex realities–methods that have predictive validity, external validity, falsifiability, etc.–credentialing and status in the academy provide useful indicators of expertise. Or perhaps better said, credentialing and status in the academy provide useful indicators of whether “expertise” has real world relevance.The hallmark of this is the hard sciences.

          To the extent that measures of validity are not available, academics sometimes create a culture of convention that may have very little to do with external realities. The most extreme example of this is theology, which I perceive as an exercise akin to mapping the landscape of Middle Earth. But I would say the same thing about much literary criticism, for example. Academic conventions can create convergence and the illusion of knowledge even when evidence exists to show this knowledge false. The fields of economics and psychology both contain wide tracts of thought in which academics have generated “just so” stories without recognizing that they were doing so. By “just so” stories, I mean intricate, systematic and seemingly scientific methods for analyzing information and reaching hypotheses that turn out to have no basis in reality.

          Antiquities scholarship broadly and the quest for the historical Jesus specifically lie somewhere on a continuum between hard science and theology. As an outsider, they appear to be junctures at which there is limited evidence and a lot of convention and conjecture. In the case of Jesus studies, both the existing evidence and scholarly conventions have been shaped by a long legacy of religious belief, authority, and power.

          I agree with you that McGrath and I’m sure many others are better credentialed than Godfrey and Lataster and Fitzgerald. The question to my mind, is whether the academy, for the reasons I listed, has blind spots that might keep academics from seeing that the emperor has no clothes. That is why I chose to focus this article on how scholars (I’m open to a better word here) approach this and related questions.

          Sometimes the term “critical scholars” is used to refer to those who follow methods and research that would never be found among apologists.

          When apologists use the term to describe themselves or their own favourite authors I see them using it to add cachet to their views.

      2. To answer gary’s question, about the difference between a scholar and an apologist: it probably depends where the person is a scholar and what they’re a ‘scholar’ in. A few Venn diagrams come to mind.

  9. Dear Neil:
    I would love to be able to print your articles on Bauckhaum’s book “Jesus And The Eyewitnesses”. I’ve tried printing it but I can’t find a print button. Is there a way to print the articles?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading