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:
- 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;
- a term for the Jesus that believers see and accept in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life on earth despite their differences;
- 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:
- 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;
- 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:
- Byrskog assumes (failing to demonstrate) that the Gospels are comparable to the practice of oral history in ancient historiography;
- 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.
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