Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Chapter 4b

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by Neil Godfrey

Speculative digressions

Bauckham follows with a speculative set of digressions suggesting possible reasons why some names were more popular than others. Some, he suggests, were popular because they recalled names with anti-Hellenistic associations of liberation or conquest (e.g. Hasmonean names); others were popular for the opposite reason — because they jelled so easily with similar sounding Hellenistic names (e.g. Simon/Simeon)!

One name that ranks 1oth for popularity in our population sample of less than one fiftieth of one percent is Menaham, and to B “it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that it was understood as carrying messianic or eschatalogical significance” (p.77). Why? It’s root meaning is “comfort” — a common topos in eschatological literature of our canonical OT. Further, “it can hardly be accidental that the most famous Menahem of this period was the messianic pretender”. Well, that makes a lovely story and could certainly be quite an exciting “tidbit” at the visceral level for those who like to create history out of shapes and shadows, which admittedly can be fun for a few minutes, but hardly deserves a place in a work aspiring to inform readers of a more substantial historical methodology.

To Bauckham the word for “comfort” can only have “eschatological significance” (and he cites 8 Old Testament verses as illustration of this). For me this speculation is more informative about Bauckham’s hopes than it is about the hopes of ordinary Palestinian families living in an age as far removed from our comforts and privileges as can be imagined.

Fortunately Bauckham does rescue himself in this instance by adding none too soon:

Once names become popular for some reason, they are also popular just because they are popular. Moreover, there were also family traditions . . . . (p.77)

But this slip back into sound reasoning does not last. Suddenly we are hit with the absence of Moses, David and Elijah from the names attached to records of our surviving population samples. While Menahem is popular because of its messianic associations these three are avoided because of their messianic associations. While the popularity of Menahem is cited as “evidence for the messianic hopes of the period” the absence of these three is cited as evidence for the very same hope! Bauckham explains that to use one of these three names would have been expressing too presumptuous a hope from the parents for their child, though why that same guilt feeling never occurred to the parents who liked Menahem so much is not explained. It thought does not arise that these names are also singular within the OT literature, thus quite possibly pointing to a provenance quite left-field from B’s perspective.

The popularity of Joshua (Jesus), predictably enough by now, “would seem most readily explicable as a patriotic usage . . . ” (p.76). Equally predictably, if this explanation were valid and there really was such a passionate messianic hope among the population we would not see, as we do, the Greek Simon being the most popular name or Lazarus (the Egyptian Osiris?) being three rankings more popular (3rd) than Joshua in the statistics available.

So what?
None of this has anything directly to do with the eyewitness argument of Bauckham, but I have discussed it here to demonstrate again the tendencies of Bauckham to replace historical rigour with mere speculation. In following up one of Bauckham’s footnotes given in his next chapter (The Twelve) I read a lengthy article by J.P. Meier and the difference between Meier’s article and B’s discussion thus far was as far as light is from day. The former was a serious grappling with evidence and what could be seriously deduced from it, the latter remains largely speculation with ad hoc dismissals of patterns of evidence that does not conform. It reminds me of my fervent religious days when, for a time, I filled my bible margin with every titillating speculation that came my way. (Not that I find myself agreeing with Meier on some central points, but at least there was enough in Meier for a serious addressing and debating of the assumptions and supporting evidence.)

Naming customs

A more substantial section follows where B discusses the various practices of assigning names. He cites both New Testament and nonbiblical examples for cases of variant forms of the same name; both the additions and the substitutions of patronymics; identification by names of husbands or children; the addition of nicknames; the addition or even substitution of place names; family names; two names in two languages; and occupation labels.

Bauckham notes that Timaeus is a Greek name that occurs nowhere else, neither in Palestine nor in the Diaspora, as a Jewish name. I have already discussed the virtually meaningless size of our sample evidence for gauging popularity of certain names but B makes the reasonable observation that a rarer name would be sufficient for using it as a patronymic for identifying Timaeus’s son. Fair enough so far.

But B also notes that the only place we see this name is in Mark 10.46 where the name itself is explained “for his Greek readers”. Now I confess to confusion here. B has already asserted that the memory and use of some names survived in the gospels because the bearers of those names were known to those particular gospel audiences. Now Bauckham is discussing the only evidence for this name with the clear implication that this evidence points to Bartimaeus being completely unknown to his gospel audience! (This point was raised earlier in Steven Carr in a response to another post of mine.)

The far simpler explanation is that the author of Mark’s gospel opted to add a name here that symbolically represented the story in which it was embedded. A rejected beggar was called to follow the royal “son of David” — what more apt name than “Son of Honour”? Compare Jairus, Enlightened, for a miracle associated with raising one “from sleep”; or even Peter, who in Mark is typical of the rocky soil of his seed-sowing parable (Tolbert).

Simon the Leper
I earlier noted I would return to this name. Bauckham compares this name with others like “Simon the stammerer” or “Matthias the hunchback”, two of Josephus’s ancestors. But this doesn’t work, of course, since B insists that Simon would have been healed of leprosy before he was able to host guests in his home (p.81). But that doesn’t follow either, because Mark tells us that Jesus had no problem with touching lepers, and who is to say (so might the reasoning go) that by this time his disciples had learned to follow his lead and not discriminate against them either. Mark does tell us, after all, that the only hosts Simon the leper entertained were Jesus and his followers. So B falls back on “perhaps . . . while not diseased, he resembled a leper in some way”.

I’m left trying to imagine how someone could resemble a leper “in some way” enough to earn him this epithet, especially given the wide-ranging symptoms then allowed for what was known as leprosy. Was he albino? Why not Snowy Simon? A little more dignified, surely. Leper scarcely sounds an appropriate choice of name to be remembered by Christian authors and known as such among a Christian audience. B leaves us guessing and drawing on our imaginations. I am afraid mine does not come to his rescue here.

No, the simplest explanation is, once again, as per Bartimaeus and Jairus and possibly even Peter himself, along with Levi and Judas, (not to mention Jesus, but that might be going too far for the scope of this review) is that names are sometimes selected for their symbolic meaning. I have already discussed the symbolic meaning of Simon the Leper in Mark and why Luke changed it and the setting to the house of Simon the Pharisee. (Not all gospel names are symbolic, of course. But historical names like Pilate that provide the background setting are features of fiction both ancient and modern and serve the purpose of adding plausibility to the story and are in themselves no more “proof” of historicity than they are today in a Tom Clancy novel.)

The statistical tables (comparing mine with Bauckham’s)

I suggest that the evidence on which B bases his conclusions is too narrow (despite his pushing the “3000 instances” number!), too skewed, too vaguely related to Galilee in pre 70 ce, and therefore potentially anomalous and anachronistic for his purposes, too subjective in name selections and de-selections (especially given that many Jews had both Greek and Semitic names and reference to only one was likely to be made at any one time; and that Palestine had been dominated by Hellenistic culture for 300 years by the time of Jesus), to tell us anything about gospel names with any certainty at all.

Nevertheless, I was interested enough to take the time to extract from Bauckham/Ilan’s lists a breakdown of each gospel’s (and Acts’) distinctive use of names. The result was a little surprising in comparison with Bauckham’s more aggregated figures.

But first, a brief explanation. Ilan’s/Bauckham’s lists (B footnotes where he varies from Ilan’s counting and entries) are, according to my understanding of B’s explanation, based on the times a name appears in Josephus, in Jerusalem ossuaries, Judean desert texts and Masada, and early rabbinic (tannaitic) literature. It is not explained where (or even if) the Beth She’arim inscriptions fit in here. But surely any lexicon of Jewish names from the period stated must include it.

B lists the occurrences of names the NT, Josephus, Jerusalem ossuaries and in the Judean desert texts. He does not cite the early rabbinic literature. My figures indicating the rabbinic literature is a deduction from the total number of instances of a name of the above 4 breakdown of sources.

I invite a look at my figures for NT names broken down book by book, and posted earlier here. Compare in particular the NT names against their occurrences in Josephus — and secondarily against the later rabbinic texts.

Does this book by book breakdown offer some support to the old “fringe” theory that the gospel authors knew and used Josephus? And were perhaps even sometimes reliant on names better known to later rabbinic authors than to contemporaries in Palestine (Galilee?) pre 70 ce.?

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Neil Godfrey

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14 thoughts on “Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Chapter 4b”

  1. Again, perhaps you might like to attempt to answer your own questions.

    Concerning Menahem, the name seems to have become more popular after AD70. The Talmud passage that Bauckham cites perhaps provides a hint at the reason for this. One can imagine that parents might well name their boys “comforter” after the distruction of the temple and the failure of the Bar Kokhba rebellion. I count 12 instances of the name prior to AD70. Of these two are of prophets and one is of a messiah. All this suggests that the name’s meaning did have significance and represented the expectation that its bearer would, like the prophets, comfort his people. This, more detailed analysis, is consistent with Bauckham’s conclusion.

    The names “Moses” ,”Elijah” and “David” are different because they are names of OT characters with messianic associations. It is interesting that the four anonymous messianic claimants were all moses-like. I have speculated that they took the name “Moses”, which the historians denied them, and that this explains why they are anonymous in our sources.

    You try to make a point about Bartimaeus. I responded to this point on the Crisondom blog. I might add further that if you are determined to see significance in the meaning of the name, then you might wish to consider the possibility that this man was renamed by Jesus. Jesus frequently renamed his disciples. The name “Bartimaeus” could be appropriate for this person, as you point out, so Jesus could have given him this name before or after healing him. This would point to the historicity of the incident, not its fictional character. Against this theory is the fact that Mark simply says that he was the son of Timaeus, but the same observation counts against your theory too.

    You understanding of the name “Peter” has no merrit, I’m afraid. It was common in the early days of Christianity for people to be given new names to represent the hope that they would protect the believing community. Consider James-Oblias, Crispus-Sosthenes, and Mary-Magdalene. See my web site for further discussion of this. Peter falls into this catagory. Consider also the way that Paul uses the name “Peter” only when discussing his role in the church (Gal 2). This is further confirmation that the name represented Simon’s prominent role. Again, see my web pages.

    As for Jairus, the meaning is probably coincidental, in my view, but could be a case of renaming. The fact that the name is held by the father, not the daughter, counts against this theory and also against yours. The fact that it is a Hebrew name counts against yours.


  2. My comments about Peter come from Mary Ann Tolbert’s Sowing the Gospel. She sees the different classes of people in Mark’s gospel as representing the different soils on which seed fell in the parable. It is the unnamed ones who emerge as the most faithful and comprehending of Jesus — and their anonymity is as much a rhetorical device to advance the ability of Mark’s audience to identify with them. Peter is the seed in rocky soil who starts well but fails under pressure in the end, and in this he is representative of all the disciples. (If Mark was a pro-Pauline gospel then this makes even more sense, but I’m withholding discussion of that side till I read Bauckham further.) Matthew of course has rehabilitated Peter and given the name a more positive association.

    Where is your website, by the way? Can you post a link to it here?

  3. Unfortunately, as Horsley has pointed out, it is all too common for NT scholars to speculate on a single case of renaming without interpreting it in the light of other parallel cases. Perhaps Tolbert’s work on Peter falls into this catagory.

    Your scepticism about the interpretation of the name Peter in Matthew’s gospel is unwarranted. Again, consider the parallel cases.

    My web site is at http://web.archive.org/web/20081231092616/http://members.shaw.ca:80/rfellows/index.htm


  4. Tolbert’s discussion was a literary analysis of the whole gospel — reading the gospel as a literary artefact in its own right — and she demonstrates in her literary analysis the unifying thematic function of the parable of the sower. The relation of Peter and all the inner disciples to the “rocky soil” was part of a larger analysis and not a “speculation on a single case”. This view is consistent with that side of scholarship (Weeden, Kelber, Fowler. . .) that sees Mark’s portrayal of the Twelve as negative.

    Not sure where you see scepticism on my part re Matthew’s interpretation of Peter’s name — doesn’t Matthew associate Peter with a rock in a positive sense in 16:18?

    Thanks for the web link.

  5. I think you misunderstand me. I was suggesting that Tolbert considers only one case of renaming: that of Simon-Peter. It is better to interpret this case of renaming in the light of other cases of renaming (I mentioned some). In that was we can observe patterns in the practice in terms of who gave the names and in what circumstances and what range of meanings were carried by the names. When this kind of study is done, it is clear that no first century Christian or Jew would have interpreted the name “Cephas/Peter” in the way that Tolbert does.

    You wrote, “Matthew of course has rehabilitated Peter and given the name a more positive association.” It is clear to me that Matthew has give more or less the same interpretation of the name “Peter” as Jesus did when he named him, and as Paul did. Matthew got it right, and we have no evidence that any first century person disagreed with him.


  6. There appears to have been misunderstanding on both sides here. I have not said or meant to suggest that Tolbert was saying that Peter “meant” rocky soil in any literal naming sense — only that the name was conveniently selected as representative of the message of the parable, with the Twelve acting out the rocky soil bit. My original reference to this, and to Jairus and others, was to point out the symbolic use the author made of those names. Very likely the author knew of Peter having some “pillar” or “rock-foundation”-like meaning or role and it was that that he was undermining with his gospel.

    Similarly, if the fact that Jairus (meaning Enlightened) is assigned to the father and not his daughter in a miracle involving waking “from sleep” — if that fact is an impediment to applying the meaning of the name symbolically to the miracle then I would view that as an overly precise requirement that would, if applied stringently across all literature, rob us of most of our artful puns and allusions where they occur in most stories.


    1. When I once tried to point out to a Christian friend that I did not need the holy spirit or faith or whatever to behave decently, she responded that I was a decent human being because I had once been a Christian and still had the residual influence of the holy spirit in me 🙁

  7. Hey Neil,

    So I met with my former LCMS pastor today. It was a very frustrating experience. Although he believes in the bodily resurrection of Jesus and that non-believers will suffer in some fashion in the afterlife, everything else in the Bible is “elastic” in his exact words. So it is impossible to pin him down on a contradiction in his belief system.

    -If I point out discrepancies in the four Resurrection narratives: “That was acceptable when writing biographies in the first century.”
    -When I point out that Paul fails to mention that Peter and James told him any Ascension stories during his two week stay in Jerusalem: “That is a first century literary technique known as ‘Condensing’. His readers would have already known these details. The absence of these details means nothing.”
    -Since Paul speaks of resurrection in very clear, bodily terms, his statement that he had “seen” the resurrected Christ can only be interpreted that he had seen a risen body, not just a bright light in a vision as is implied in the Book of Acts. Again, we must understand the literary genre of that first century. (If I heard him use “literary genre” just one more time I was going to gag.)

    And finally, it is impossible that any first century Jew would confuse a vision or vivid dream for seeing a resurrected body standing in front of them (eating a broiled fish lunch). He was certain that in Semitic cultures of that time period people would not confuse the two.

    1. Such is the power of cultural indoctrination. He cannot tease apart the gospels from the letters of Paul.

      Interesting also how someone simply needs to write that “such and such was acceptable when writing biographies in the first century” and that immediately is embraced as a rationale, when in fact the statement is most certainly false for anyone who has read some of those ancient “biographies”.

      Yup, it is these sorts of defences of the faith that in fact only expose its weaknesses. Thanks for passing on the info.

      1. Neil,

        Do you have any posts on your blog or any references to other sources on the subject of whether first century Jews would or would not have mistaken visions/vivid dreams with reality? I find it hard to believe that first century people of ANY culture would have been that different from people today who seem to see their dead relatives “in the flesh” all the time.

        1. I don’t think I have any blogposts, but a related work is Resurrection Reconsidered: Thomas and John in Controversy by Gregory J. Riley. Riley shows how the common view in the Greco-Roman world was that spirit bodies appeared in the form of their flesh and blood bodies. The idea of a literal bodily resurrection was essentially new to the orthodox defenders of the faith in the second century.

          Paul himself says flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom. We see the evolution of the bodily resurrection in the gospels, too:

          Mark — no bodily appearance at all; Jesus is removed to the heavenly realm in the same way Greek heroes were — and in the same way the empty tomb was all there was to prove this “fact”.

          Matthew — the resurrected Jesus appears on a mountain in Galilee, but not everyone is convinced.

          John — Jesus miraculously appears in the room and shows his hands and side; Thomas is told to touch him, although Mary had been earlier warned not to touch him. These scenarios are more recognition scenes than proofs of his bodily resurrection.

          Luke — Jesus says his appearance proves to his disciples that he is not a spirit but flesh. He shows them his body and then to reinforce the point he consumes food with them.

          The Damascus Road episode can be interpreted as Jesus appearing to Paul as a spirit being.

          Mystics induced themselves into states where they could experience visions and I think we can accept that the early preachers of Jesus did just that. We can call their experiences visions but I think they would have believed they were “real”. What the term “vision” (or its Greek/Aramaic equivalent) meant exactly to them may not have been quite the same as it means to us. It’s something I have not looked at deeply.

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