Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Chapter 2a

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by Neil Godfrey

Chapter 2: Papias on the Eyewitnesses

Bauckham begins with a discussion of Papias apparently to verify the historicity of his eyewitness model: — That eyewitnesses of Jesus provided a living source and confirmation of the oral reports circulating about Jesus; and that the earliest written accounts of Jesus (Papias’s book, and therefore plausibly the gospels, too) were composed by drawing from among the last surviving of these eyewitnesses.

Eusebius clearly thought Papias was a bit of a twit (or more gracefully, “a man of very little intelligence”). Bauckham says there is no reason that we today should share Eusebius’s prejudice against Papias, which he puts down to disagreements over doctrine and gospel origins. Bauckham is surely guilty of a most inexcusable omission here which for me hung like unbreathable smog over the remainder of his discussion in this chapter. Not once does this chapter breathe a word of Papias’s most gullible and outlandish “reports”. Not a word of his report (from Philip Side) about Judas swelling up wider than a chariot, urinating worms, his eyes sinking into his skull, his testicles growing to enormous size, his stench . . . . but enough, I planned to eat soon. Bauckham fails to address Papias’s reputation as a teller of “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” type tall tales (including stories of surviving snake poison, of one resurrected from the dead surviving till the time of Hadrian) and consequently fails to persuade me not to share Eusebius’s judgment.

But what about the words of Jesus? Is there any reason to doubt Papias’s claims to have written down from reliable eyewitnesses reports the teachings of Jesus? In Irenaeus (Against Heresies, V. 33) we read that Papias passed on a lengthy passage spoken by Jesus describing life in the coming millennium. The passage is copied from 2 Baruch 29:4-8.

How can a modern reader be persuaded to accept any surviving writing by Papias at face value? Even if he really did faithfully record reports he believed for good reasons to be from eyewitnesses, how can we take him as anything other than gullibly naive at best?

Nor does Bauckham address another major question hanging over the scant surviving fragments of Papias. What can we possibly know with any certainty about the writings of Papias? How can we ascertain whether the name ‘Papias’ was the name of the real author or the name of a narrative character created by the author? Was his book a novel, a biography, a history? Were the surviving fragments from tropes or rhetoric that would put a completely different spin on them to the modern scholar? How can any significant historical weight be placed on fragments when we simply cannot establish with any certainty (to express it as positively as possible) the real author, provenance, purpose or genre of the book from which they were taken?

But here I am getting ahead of the argument of the chapter.

The date of Papias

Bauckham works within the mostly widely accepted date for the writing of Papias’s book, 130 c.e. But he concedes that his hypothesis would work better if Papias were dated earlier so cites scholars who argue for a date twenty years earlier. So throughout the remainder of the chapter Bauckham will present dates in this earlier to mainstream-view range. So Papias’s book could have been written 110-130 c.e. Papias could have interviewed the disciples of the eyewitnesses 80-90 c.e. He could have been born 50-70 c.e. This of course has the effect of making the related arguments slightly more plausible. And in the case of the 80-90 c.e. date range B does not fail to remind readers that this is the period commonly assigned to the creation of the canonical gospels after Mark.

What Bauckham has failed to take into account here, however, is the dates of those scholars who vary from the majority view by arguing for considerably later dates — into the latter half of the second century. Even the 130 date that B works with as the majority view is misleading. Many texts discussing Papias will not be so precise. They will say approx 130 to 140 c.e. It does appear that Bauckham’s case, as far as Papias is concerned, is resting on a debatable chronology — certainly one that is impossible to know with any certainty. I would have preferred Bauckham to have give more space to alerting his readers of this fact.

(Not having the names of specific scholars with me I will have to add their names to another WIFTA post.)

Will also have to continue this chapter with a second part tomorrow. Too dog tired to continue right now.

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Neil Godfrey

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19 thoughts on “Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Chapter 2a”

  1. ‘ I would have preferred Bauckham to have give more space to alerting his readers of this fact.’

    How likely is it that Bauckham would refer to this or the other matters that you mention when writing his book?

  2. Aw shucks, I was only trying to show some respect. He’s an academic who should know to address all sides of a question full-on. Would anyone suggest that biblical scholars make their way by essentially ignoring the arguments they don’t like?

  3. I found your review after having read Bauckham’s “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.” I enjoy your insights. Just wanted to point here that the fragment about Judas was not from Philip of Side but from Apollinarius of Laodicea.

    Paul Tobin

  4. Thanks, Paul. I’m trying to recall why I might have referenced Philip of Side — probably I was just getting my wires crossed, but I’m also trying to track down if I was of the understanding (or misunderstanding) that our source for Apollinarius is a citation by Philip. I’m sure I can look it up but if you know off the top of your head, do let me know. Thanks.

  5. in response to just about everything you say, You seem just as confused about Bauckham’s argument as I was before I asked him to clarify it. The argument is not predicated upon the reliability of Papias as a historian, but only whether he was in a position to know the history under contention. Bauckham, and the fans of Richard Bauckham, only need Papias to have known that the traditions were passed on by known named (not anonymous, sorry Bultmann!) eyewitnesses. It seems that the only way we can say that Papias DIDN’T know would be if he was, in essense, lying outright.

    That’s just a few among many misunderstandings between you and Richard Bauckham’s work.

  6. And what evidence do you (or Richard Bauckham) have that there really was a second century person (Papias or any other name) who really did “know” (not “believe”) that “traditions” were handed down to his time (having originated in an historical person) by eyewitnesses he could indeed reliably name and identify as reliable? On what evidence does this supposed claim of Papias rest?

    As for your indication that “in response to just about everything [I] say” I claim that “the argument” “is . . . predicated on the reliability of Papias as a historian” – I suggest you are oversimplying drastically what I wrote. I invite you (or Richard Bauckham) to clarify in writing here the supposed “many misunderstandings” I hold of his work.

  7. the main evidence Bauckham presented was Papias’ statement that he inquired about the words of certain disciples (matthew, the elder, peter, philipp, thomas, james, etc.). This naming of eyewitnesses, again, by Papias shows the non-anonymity of oral tradition in the early christian communities.

    Furthermore, you questioned the ability for us to know whether these really were the words of Papias. But Eusebius clearly notes that 5 of Papias’ books were extant, or surviving until his time. Unless Eusebius was lying outright (I’d like to hear your take on Roger Pearse’s essay on this topic), its hard to doubt that these were the words of Papias.

  8. You have unwittingly fallen into the old logical fallacy of the false dilemma or false dichotomy. It is simply not true that the only alternatives are that either Eusebius was “lying outright” or “these were the words of Papias”. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_dilemma.

    You have in addition overlooked a very important comment on a historian’s approach to ancient sources. To repeat it here:

    With regard to the recurrent inclination to pass off Papias’s remarks about the first two Synoptists as “ancient information” and to utilize them in some fashion or other, a somewhat more general observation may not be out of place. The history of classical literature has gradually learned to work with the notions of the literary-historical legend, novella, or fabrication; after untold attempts at establishing the factuality of statements made it has discovered that only in special cases does there exist a tradition about a given literary production independent of the self-witness of the literary production itself; and that the person who utilizes a literary-historical tradition must always first demonstrate its character as a historical document. General grounds of probability cannot take the place of this demonstration. It is no different with Christian authors. In his literary history Eusebius has taken reasonable pains; as he says in the preface he had no other material at his disposal than the self-witness of the books at hand . . . . how much more is this not the situation in the case of the Gospels, whose authors intentionally or unintentionally adhered to the obscurity of the Church, since they neither would nor could be anything other than preachers of the one message, a message that was independent of their humanity? . . . .

    This is from an academic paper delivered in 1904 by E. Schwartz: “Uber den Tod der Sohne Zebedaei. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Johannesevangeliums” (= Gesammelte Schriften V, 1963,48-123). It is cited in a 1991 chapter by Luise Abramowski titled “The ‘Memoirs of the Apostles’ in Justin” pp.331-332 published in “The Gospel and the Gospels” ed. Peter Stuhlmacher.

    We know nothing about the origins of the texts of Papias, who or what the name Papias originally represented, and to take a default position that the tendentious claims of a propagandist apparently nearly 200 years later are fact is simply doing lazy and shoddy history. See also Lazy Historians and their Ancient Sources

    We also need to be aware that the names in question belong to an era where we can even speak of a “culture of interpolations”. See A Literary Culture of Interpolations.

  9. So we have 3 possible explanations it seems
    1: Papias’ prologue was an interpolation and that these words were not authentic to papias
    2: Eusebius was lying (Did you hear Pearse’s take on that?)
    3: Papias really did say these words

    Well 2 is, IMO, disproved by Roger Pearse, and the only corroboration for option #1 is the bare possibility.

    so its erroneous to call my argument a false dichotomy.

  10. You missed the point entirely. No, we are not obliged to weigh up options presented by a di or tri or quatro or pent or hex . . . =onomy. Read broadly, not just the stuff that you like or that supports your beliefs, and you will begin to get the idea.

  11. Why does the century old observation of E. Shwartz, cited above, not prompt questions, or if it does, why are they so easily dismissed?

    Why does it seem that it is only in the realm of biblical studies that methods of normal historical enquiry and the need to make preliminary investigations of the nature of our source documents all too often are set aside? Bauckham is not the only one guilty of this. Do you see any reason to doubt the source tradition for the story of Atlantis given by Plato? Or any of the genealogies of historical persons traced back to famous legendary names in the ancient world? Or any reason to doubt some of the tales of the miraculous in the pagan world? Or any reason to doubt the authenticity of other gospels and Acts not accepted by the Catholic Church councils? Or the other claims of Papias about Barsabbas Justus, Philip the Evangelist and Judas Iscariot?

    How do you justify an assumption of authenticity of documents that originate within a literary culture where interopolations (in non-Christian texts as much as the Christian ones), and writing under assumed names and provenances was so much a norm (again in non-Christian as well as Christian ones)?

    It is not a question of a hermeneutics of suspicion, as Bauckham likes to label it, to question and thoroughly scrutinize the nature and origins and reliability of our source documents. It is just basic tried and true historical method to rigorously test our sources (foundations) before building on them. Without it, one would find oneself forever attempting to harmonize and rationalize all sorts of contradictions and plausibilities. It is because of reservations on the part of historians and methodical testing that we attempt to decide what sources we can trust, from the Donation of Constantine (an ancient forgery that fooled the world for centuries) to the Diaries of Hitler.

    That is not to say that Eusebius may have been “lying”. He may well have genuinely believed what he wrote as the claims of Papias. I have been addressing the shoddiness of so much that passes for historical enquiry in biblical studies across a range of authors and topics on this blog. Bauckham is only one. Have a look at my notes on Rosenmeyer’s Epistolary Fictions, and the posts under the category of Historiography.

    So the question is not, “Is there a reason to suspect the honesty and character of this or that document?” but “How can we test the claims of this document, both in relation to its content and its apparent provenance?” To paraphrase a proverb, A simpleton believes whatever he is told, but a wise man looks into the matter. Some, including even at times Bauckham it seems, seem to me to confuse normal historical methodology with spiritual character traits and judgements. It is said to be somehow ungodly or unloving or unfaithful to doubt one’s sources prima facie. This is an absurdity. Our documents are not people. The same people are certainly quick to doubt and judge harshly the so-called gospels of Peter and Judas etc.

  12. Mr. Godfrey, I think there is one fundamental problem with your methodology in dealing with Eusebius and Papias. A lot of your post seems to assume that Bauckham was arguing from Papias’ credibility as a historian for the connection of his own report to eyewitness testimony.

    He wasn’t

    Bauckham was ONLY arguing that Papias could have known that these reports were passed on by eyewitnesses. Given that he was still alive when many of these eyewitnesses were still telling their story, and given that he was on a city with a road to Jerusalem (an authority on the Jesus tradition (I dont think disagreements between Paul and James on issues upon which Jesus never commented, but may actually strengthen the reliability of the Gospel tradition by giving a piece of evidence against hte early church reading their own problems and needs into the synoptic tradition)), he could have known who was telling these stories!

  13. You are absolutely right that Bauckham was “only arguing” what “could have” been. That is the weakness and unhistorical nature of his entire book. It is a whole lot of “could have” beens. For you to imply I don’t understand this suggests you have not understood my posts at all.

    Jesus “could have” been a myth. Jesus “could have” been a mushroom eater. The gospel authors “could have” been making it all up. Mark “could have” been mistaken in some things he wrote. Papias “could have” been a pseudonym for an author of a text written well after it was claimed to have been written. It “could have” been a document as fraudulent as 2 Peter and written to support a particular power faction in the church that claimed the myth of apostolic ancestry to buttress its claims.

    “Could have known” is not an argument from evidence. It is not an argument at all. It is an imagination game and nothing more. There is no evidence. It is pure speculation. I can speculate that the ancient Christian authors really were not lying when they wrote about the phoenix bird and that one day scientists may well find evidence to prove it existed (and necessarily still exists!) Bauckham or Boyd and Eddy might say that any scepticism about the phoenix is an “uncharitable” interpretation of these Christian authors.

    As for your critique of my post, I would encourage you to specify the passages or specific claims I make that support your criticism. Then I would have a chance to respond to your critique, and maybe even see where in particular I have been at fault.

    All the speculation you present is based solely on taking what Eusebius says about an otherwise unknown authorial name as historical fact. Should we also believe what we are told Papias said about the death of Judas or the trials of Barsabbas? Should we believe everything Eusebius wrote?

    By the way, the whole notion of there being an oral gospel tradition preceding the time of the first gospel being penned is also a scholarly “could have been”. It is a necessary “could have” been, however, because without it, the gospels as we have them do not support the belief that they are recording real history.

  14. I should add that “could have been” claims can only be evaluated on the strength and consistency of the evidence cited in their favour. That is what I have taken issue with, and I believe I have shown that the evidence cited by B for his “could have been” scenarios is less than adequate, and even contrary to his “could have been” conjectures.

    I invite you to find specific instances in my arguments to support your sweeping criticism of it.

  15. I’m starting to understand why Bauckham so easily brushed off your critique of his book.

    You totally misunderstand the phrase “could have known” within my post. Bauckham gave good reasons to suppose that Papias was aware of the identities of the tradents of the tradition.

  16. And I have argued that he has not given good reasons at all, and you have not addressed my specific arguments in my original posts in this respect.

    You keep avoiding the main points I made in my comment responses also, comments about how true history must test the evidence before building hypotheses on it, including testing the evidence for the identities and provenances of authors of works.

    Of course B brushes this off. To do otherwise would mean binning his whole eyewitness argument. It is a travesty of true scholarship that his “methods” can ever be taken seriously. Only among too many biblical scholars would this seem possible. — It would not be tolerated among academic historians in secular fields.

    I have asked you for evidence of specific claims in my argument to support your critique and you have not done so. Just saying it is based on a false assumption or misunderstanding is not a critique. Point to me where, specifically, I demonstrate a misunderstanding of his argument. That should be very easy to do if the whole thing is wrong.

    I am surprised B does not seem to have systematically defended his position in a publicly available online paper given its widespread controversy. But he has taken the time to defend his argument in a publication that is not freely available to the public. I hope to be responding to that some time soon, too.

  17. “And I have argued that he has not given good reasons at all, and you have not addressed my specific arguments in my original posts in this respect.”

    The reason I didn’t feel compelled to address the bulk of your arguments is because they amount to unintended red herrings. Your arguments at best would preclude the possibility of Papias being a good researcher. I dont see how your argument precludes Papias’ knowledge of who passed on some of the traditions he recieved. The only real argument I’ve seen was the alleged fluidity of the copying process of Christian writers. Does that mean you will be throwing out Irenaeus’ passage about Papias’ quoting a lengthy diatribe by Jesus which he ripped from 2 Baruch? it seems that the fluidity of textual transmission dominated up until the time of Constantine.

  18. Unless you address a specific argument of mine I am at a loss to know how to respond.

    Just telling me all my arguments are red herrings or based on a misunderstanding doesn’t give me anything specific to defend or correct. Just saying you don’t see how my argument does not preclude some possibility misses the point of what I have been trying to get across here in these comments. Anything is possible. We need firstly to test the nature and provenance of the evidence we base any hypothesis on, and then test how well the evidence really does support the hypothesis.

    I don’t understand how your queries about what I will be throwing out etc has anything to do with any specific argument I have tried to point to in my original posts.

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