Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Chapter 2b

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by Neil Godfrey

Bauckham argues that Papias, towards the end of the first century, seized opportunities to question disciples of “elders” who knew personally two eyewitness disciples of Jesus — Aristion and John the Elder — who were at that time still alive in Asia. Other eyewitness disciples of Jesus, specifically Andrew, Peter, Philip, Thomas, James, John and Matthew, were by that time dead. The best Papias could do to learn what particular Jesus stories each of these names was a custodian to was to question itinerant disciples of other elders who traced some word-of-mouth trail back to those disciples.

This of course immediately prompts questions about other evidence (from Irenaeus and Polycrates) of the belief that it was another John, an apostle and author of the gospel, who lived till near the end of the first century in Asia. Bauckham footnotes the reader to wait till chapter 17 for his discussion of this evidence.

Back to the time B says Papias was collecting his evidence from the disciples of the elders. “This must be at or close to the decade 80-90 ce.” (p.19) B says this is the same period in which Matthew and Luke were written, and that Papias’s statement about eyewitness testimony should be understood beside a similar statement in Luke’s prologue. To Bauckham, Luke’s and Papias’s Prologues:

  1. both demonstrate that “gospel traditions” at the time of the composition of the gospels were understood to have derived from eyewitnesses;
  2. and both (“Not only from Luke 1.2, but even more clearly from Papias”) enable us to see that the original eyewitnesses had not been lost to anonymity by the time the gospels were being written, and that indeed respective “gospel traditions” remained linked to their respectively named eyewitnesses.

For the first point to be valid the modern historian is asked to value a naive reading of ancient documents above modern understandings of historical processes. I will return to this point.

Only two problems with Bauckham’s latter point. Luke 1.2 gives no reason to link any of his “gospel traditions” to named eyewitnesses; and the traditions that Papias learned from named eyewitnesses are not canonical gospel traditions at all.

Luke’s Prologue does not even allow us to “less clearly” see Bauckham’s latter point. Its formalized vague generalities is most unlike Papias’s highly personalized Prologue. Luke’s Prologue gives no reason for any reader to think that its author knew any names of the “eyewitnesses” to which he refers, or that he wanted alert his readers to their names if he did.

Papias’s support for this would be more persuasive if Papias were known for writing of any “gospel traditions” himself, but he isn’t. Eusebius says quite the opposite:

The same writer [Papias] gives also other accounts which he says came to him through unwritten tradition, certain strange parables and teachings of the Saviour, and some other more mythical things. (Eccl.Hist.3.39.11)

The closest we get is a story from Papias that is problematic in the textual history of the gospels — some early texts placing “it” in the gospel of Luke and others inserting “it” in a later version of John. Eusebius places Papias’s story in the Gospel of Hebrews. Although some scholars equate Papias’s story of a woman accused of “many sins” with the canonical story of a woman accused of adultery it is difficult to understand why. Why not rather equate the story with the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet though accused by the host of being “a sinner”? Or with Mary Magdalene from whom seven demons had been exorcised? Or why not accept the evidence of Eusebius that it was unknown to our canonicals and belonged uniquely in the Gospel of Hebrews?

Back to the first point. Rather than let the surviving conflicting ancient evidence about names in early church traditions warn him that much of the past is simply irrecoverably lost, Bauckham argues his way through the various threads and loose ends to establish his interpretation of Papias’s original meaning. In itself that is an entirely valid exercise, of course, but as long as significant room remains for other ways of tying the various leads together it is a far from unshakeable foundation upon which to build his hypothesis. Bauckham does little more than footnote some alternative views of the evidence, let alone demolish them — at least not in this chapter.

The modern model for gospel transmission is that the stories and sayings were passed on via communities and in this process they took on anonymity as the persons with whom the stories originated were lost to view. Bauckham rejects this model, bracketing exclusively as a requirement of form-criticism. In its place he puts what he “clearly sees” in the Prologue of Papias. (And he does this despite the fact that there is little if any evidence that the traditions Papias received had anything in common with those traditions we read in the canonical gospels.) But this naive reading and the implications B draws from it really complicates our understanding of the history of Christian and gospel origins — as was established by much of scholarship long ago.

If there really were surviving eyewitnesses of Jesus (and who, for Bauckham as per chapter 1, all found similar theological meaning in the life of Jesus) then how are we to explain the “riot of diversity” in views about the nature and teachings of Jesus from the first century on. Paul’s epistles witness to conflicts over alternative Jesus’s and rival apostolic schools whether from Palestine or elsewhere — even to the extent of denigrating those later deemed to be the direct eyewitnesses. Scholars have widely discussed the rival witnesses and theologies found behind the gospels. How do we explain the noncanonical evidence that there was so much ignorance or disagreement about Jesus well into the second century? How did noncanonical traditions take such strong holds and so early (e.g. Justin) if there remained until the last decade of the first century surviving witnesses of Jesus to whom people turned for tradition-authority? It is much easier to accept that the names attached to so-called eyewitness sources were done so at a later stage of church history when church authorities attempted to establish their own orthodoxies by creating eponymous genealogies to establish their credentials. We see the first evidences of this with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus who composed their own genealogies of heretics (and in Irenaeus’s case a genealogy of Roman bishops), some names no doubt fictional, to clearly set them apart from rival Christianities. Ancients did not share the complexities of modern understandings of organizational and social evolutions so their origin tales are replete with eponymous heroes (Romulus, Orpheus, Moses) to account for how things got to be as they knew them.

Bauckham even unintentionally uses Papias to present us with an illustration of one way such eponymous figures could be attached to a tradition as the originator of that tradition. First Bauckham insists on the central importance of specific traditions being stuck to specific eyewitness names,

We may therefore trust the most significant implication of what Papias says: that oral traditions of the words and deeds of Jesus were attached to specific named eyewitnesses. (p.20)

But he then warns readers not to take seriously Papias’s list of the names of the eyewitness disciples of Jesus — Andrew, Peter, Philip, Thomas, James, John and Matthew — because their number of “seven” makes them suspect, given that 7 was a symbolic number frequently used by early Jewish and Christian authors to indicate “completeness”. Additionally, the sequence of the names, and other words in the Prologue, suggest Papias was drawing on the Gospel of John (1:40-44 and 21:2) for these names (Matthew being a readily explained substitute for Nathaniel). So when Papias lists these eyewitness names as being the original sources of the traditions he heard from later disciples of elders (going back through indeterminate intermediate stages — p.32) he only means the original sources were the original eyewitnesses — not necessarily all or any of those specific names. He keeps Aristion and John the Elder as truly named eyewitness sources, however. But what evidence is now left for Bauckham that anyone really traced their gospel traditions to Andrew, Peter, Philip, Thomas, James, John or Matthew?

No doubt Bauckham will address these criticisms in the remaining chapters. But my review of those will have to wait till I read them.

Next post will have to finish another vital quality B attributes to Papias.

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Neil Godfrey

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