Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Chapter 2c

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by Neil Godfrey

To those who might wonder if Papias’s reference to “living and abiding voice” is one of the multiple Johannine resonances in his Prologue (c.f. the final chapter of John’s discussion of whether and how long the beloved disciple would “remain” with them; and further note other Johannine touches such as both the names and the order of the disciples, the preference for the word “disciples” over “apostles” and the apparent reference to Jesus as “the truth”) Bauckham argues No. Papias’s preference for “a living and abiding voice” over information from books is further evidence that Papias was embracing the best conventional historical practice.

Firstly he plausibly argues from Loveday Alexander that Papias was citing a proverbial saying:

  1. The medical author Galen cites in a prologue a saying that “gathering information out of a book is not the same thing, nor even comparable to learning from the living voice.”
  2. Quintilian (Inst.2.2.8) and Pliny (Ep.2.3) also assert that “the living voice” of an orator is has more communicative power over the written words of texts.
  3. Seneca (EP.6.6) wrote that the living voice of a teacher is more profitable than a treatise.

Bauckham takes this a step further by applying the saying to the historian’s craft:

  1. Galen said it is better to be an “eyewitness” to a master than to “navigate out of books”
  2. Though the word for “eyewitness”, “autopes”, was not common among historians, Polybius was fond of it
  3. Polybius also savaged another historian for relying entirely on written sources
  4. Polybius wrote of 3 modes of historical enquiry: 1 by sight (personal experience in the events — the best); 1 by hearing the written word (bad); 1 by hearing living witnesses (good)
  5. It would have been easy for the proverbial saying above to be applied by historians to their preference for eyewitness testimony over written sources
  6. If Papias is read against a historiographic background, then when he says he prefers “the living voice” over books, he is portraying his inquiries as following “historiographic ‘best practice’
  7. This holds despite the fact that many historians really used written sources more often than they professed

Unfortunately, as Bauckham himself recognizes, there is no record that Papias interviewed a single eyewitness! All his interrogations were with disciples who, at the very best, were passing on second hand accounts of what Aristion and John the Elder had said; or with disciples of elders who were passing on what others had told them others had said — or maybe witnessed! The closest Bauckham can get to Papias actually interviewing an eyewitness is:

It is conceivable that Papias . . . at a later date . . . was able to travel and to hear Aristion and John the Elder for himself. (If Papias heard them himself, he could hardly have failed to say so in his Prologue . . . . ) [p.19]

(It might be worth bearing this last parenthetical sentence in mind when next discussing the significance of Luke’s Prologue.)

Bauckham by now has few reservations about Papias’s professionalism:

That Papias claims to have conducted inquiries in the manner of a good historian may also be suggested by the use of the verb anakrinein for his inquiries about the words of the elders. . . . (p.25)

Anakrinein (v); anekrinon (n) = inquire/inquiry:

  • most often used in judicial contexts
  • Polybius uses it for the historian’s interrogation of eyewitnesses
  • Lucian of Samosata used the word to explain that an historian should either experience the events himself or follow the most impartial account of events (Hist. Conscr.47)

That Papias also uses words that can variously be translated as “remembering” or “making notes” (emnemoneusa); and “interpreting” or “ordering” (synkatataxai) is further evidence that Bauckham provides to classify Papias along with the practice of the best historians of first making rough notes and then later re-writing them in presentable prose. (p.26)

So we may see Papias’s Prologue as proclaiming that he followed the best practice of historians (p.27)

So by finding enough flexibility in possible translations of selected words we can safely set aside the facts that Papias is not known to have interviewed a single eyewitness nor passed on a single tradition that was accepted by the gospel authors.

Bauckham recalls his warning that Papias’s list of 7 disciples is too pat, too johannine, to be taken literally. But he reminds us that in addition to these 7 were 2 other names, Aristion and John the Elder:

. . . it may well be that . . . Papias evokes the symbolism of the number two, the number required for adequate witness. (p.28)

Despite all the evidence that Bauckham has marshalled from ancient historians stresses the importance of the historian directly interviewing eyewitnesses, he must concede that Papias has only been able to interview what others report about those eyewitnesses. Hence for Bauckham, “Papias assumes that the value of oral traditions depends on their derivation from still living witnesses who are still themselves repeating their testimony.” (p.29) Here he footnotes Byrskog’s observation that ancient authors who felt distanced by time from the events of which they wrote felt a more urgent need to account of the sources. One wonders, then, why Matthew and John (who Bauckham says wrote at the same late time as Papias was interviewing the last remaining eyewitnesses) do not evidence any clear hint of accounting for their sources — and not even Luke names a single one for authentication as Papias does. No doubt the rest of the book is addressing this question — but whatever the solution B finds it will have to surely be obscure by all other historical standards, ancient and modern. Will have to read further to grasp what Bauckham means exactly when he writes:

Papias, who clearly aspired to best historical practice . . . . (p.31)

but we can certainly suppose that Papias, with his aspirations to the best historical practice . . . . (p.32)

Though B’s evidence has not yielded quite enough to support his model of gospel transmission he nevertheless discusses “perfectly real possibilities of personal contact” that would have availed themselves to the likes of Papias, and how such “possibilities” and what is written of the travels of Polycrates and Meno is sufficient to displace the alternative model of anonymous “collective memory of the churches”. (p.33) Bauckham promises to return in chapter 10 to a discussion of the form-critical approach that rejected the model of eyewitnesses being the source of the gospels.

Bauckham preempts the obvious question about the applicability of Papias to the Gospels: Why do we not find the named authorities behind the gospel accounts testified in those accounts? Bauckham believes we do find them there (presumably not in the way we would find them in other ancient historical works?) — so I must read on to comment further.

Before he does so, he demonstrates that the New Testament usage of the word “tradition” (paradosis) “can refer to the writing of recollections” and does not necessarily imply “cross-generational distance nor even orality to the exclusion of written records.” (p.38)

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Neil Godfrey

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