Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Chapter 1/WIFTA

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by Neil Godfrey

WIFTA — What I Forgot to Add to my previous post (updated 27th Jan 07)

10.15 am 3rd Feb 07

This is about the craziest “problem” facing a modern scholar that I have ever heard: That the fact that some characters in the gospels are named while others are not is a “phenomenon” that cries out for explanation??? Come on, how many works of literature of any length, whether historical or nonhistorical, fictional or nonfictional, that do NOT feature such a “phenomenon”. It is plainly a simple matter of common literary competence not to name every person in a story featuring many persons — speaking generally — since it obviously would be simply too much clutter to have names for everyone. And in the case of the gospel of Mark, the first written of the gospels, then it is surely as clear as the nose on one’s face that the author has chosen to bring in names as often as not when they have symbolic value by way of mnemonic illustration of the story: e.g. Jairus, enlightened, for a miracle of raising back from ‘sleep’; Bartimaeus, a son of honour, for one raised from the status of beggar to a follower of the “royal son of David”. That such a phenomena should be considered something crying out for explanation is to dismiss the basics of western (and possibly broader than that, too) literary cultures.

9.30 pm 27th Jan 07

The more I think about the B hypothesis the more I find myself trying to understand what question it is trying to explain. It has occurred to me that this is probably a classic case to illustrate how a person’s beliefs, assumptions and values will decide the questions we ask — that questions are not in themselves neutral at all. I am beginning to wonder if it is really the assumption that the gospels were compilations of eyewitness traditions passed on by characters within the gospels that has in fact raised the question and the way it is framed in the first place. Surely so much study has been done already on the names and stories in the gospels and it is well known how many can be traced to OT and other stories, the passion scene for one being crafted out of dozens of OT texts, others being modelled on the Elijah-Elishah cycle — and many of the names have clear symbolic character. The theological tenor of the respective gospels vis a vis their treatment of apostolic and family names of Jesus strongly suggest theological dialogue within the gospels. What need is there to pose the question: There are some named people and some unnamed people of a certain class– and if we can imagine explanations for the exceptions to this rule, then what can account for this? Well — I am not expressing this well. Maybe my thoughts and questions are at too early a gestative stage to express. Maybe they are nonsense. Maybe I need time to work it out clearly.

1st thing 8.45 am 24th Jan 07

What Bauckham is proposing is an abandonment of the quest for “the historical Jesus” and a search instead for an historically grounded Christ of faith.

By taking the reports of eyewitness who were so involved that they could not separate the facts (history) from their meanings (theology) all Buackham is really doing is removing the modern historical problem of interpretation one layer back, from the problem of historically (critically – in the positive professional sense of modern historiography) analyzing the textual collation of these reports to the problem of critically analyzing the reports as they were given prior to their textual collation. It surely goes without saying that this potentially poses more problems for the modern historian than s/he is currently faced with. It will be interesting to see how Bauckham can find a way to give us an eyewitness report that is less problematic in terms of selection, bias, verification than we currently find in the gospel texts.

It would seem to follow that Bauckham’s quest for an historically grounded Christ of faith is going to be grounded in just one set of witnesses — those who saw in that Jesus a common theological meaning. Other witnesses will not — can not — be included.

What Bauckham is going to produce in the end then, it would seem, is simply a Christ as reported by those who imputed to him theological meanings. In what way is this any different from a slightly liberal reading of the Gospel texts themselves? What will be the point of the exercise? — It seems the main point will be to assert that this way of reading the gospels does have historical validity after all.

It will be interesting to see how Bauckham then presents a case for the historicity of characters who have hitherto been seen by analytic analysis as crafted by literary artisans from other texts.

Another significant problem with Bauckham’s method is his apparently naive reading of ancient histories. Buackham does not mention Herodotus in his first chapter but Herodotus was one who was not writing history in any modern sense of the word. He was writing a theological treatise that is not at all unlike the Primary History of the Old Testament, with its theme of how the divinity (Apollo) acts in the affairs of humanity, along with implications of ethical behaviour and attitudes this holds for the current generation. In some senses Josephus is in part writing something similar, though something else too. The point is that historical facts as modern historians understand them are not as significant to these ancients as they are to modern history. Scenes can be crafted out of nothing, or historical reminiscences out of mythical legends if and when it suits the theme. The gospels certainly display the rhetorical techniques of persuading readers of their plausibility and authority, but modern historians need to be aware of these literary and rhetorical practices to avoid falling into these “trap” intended by their original authors. My experience has been that literary and analytic analysis of the gospel texts is not being widely embraced by the majority of mainstream scholars of the historical Jesus. Hopefully this situation will not last, but that will depend at least as much on sociological shifts as anything else.

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Neil Godfrey

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3 thoughts on “Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Chapter 1/WIFTA”

  1. Again, I just skimmed that, but a couple of thoughts.

    ‘That such a phenomena should be considered something crying out for explanation is to dismiss the basics of western (and possibly broader than that, too) literary cultures’

    But it is not simply that names are absent or present but the pattern involved. Were it simply random, then ok, but the material evidences something more of a question to address.

    ‘Another significant problem with Bauckham’s method is his apparently naive reading of ancient histories.’

    He is well aware of the variable usefulnes of these sources. He si respected by pretty much everybody for his handling of primary material.

    In response to the parag starting ‘By taking the reports …’
    He wants to later argue that though there is ‘interpretation, thi sneed not necessarily obscure meaning. Actually, much in the last chapter addresses this issue directly, so perhaps I’ll wait until I’ve read through till the end before I make further comments as you may end up qualifying yourself.

  2. Even if there were the patterns there is no evidence to attribute them to an eyewitness source explanation. There is nothing in any ancient literature that I know of to justify such an explanation — despite B’s later attempts to use Lucian and Porphyry as supporting case studies.

    I think my subsequent discussions explain reasons I fail to see the patterns as clearly as you do. The patterns seem to me to be created by the assumptions and then honed bit by bit with ad hoc after ad hoc rationale.

    The pattern is not there in Matthew and is only seen in John if one accepts what is surely a debatable argument identifying an unnamed disciple with the BD — and if one dismisses a far more obvious literary inclusio that does exist in John (and Mark, too). (I discuss those in the relevant chapters.)

    As for my reference to “naive reading of ancient histories” I admit that is ambiguous and requires explanation. It is one thing to read gullibly and I don’t mean to imply RB is doing that. My use of the word “naive” was intended more in a ‘technical’ sense as applied in literary criticism. I should have made that clearer.

    It is a naive reading to take at face value the reference of the text to its sources and methodology. What we need to examine is the source of such textual references — are they literary (‘fictional’) claims or are they historical? How much do we understand about the genre, the nature of the documents we are presuming to be our historical sources?


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