Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Chapter 5a

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by Neil Godfrey

5. The Twelve

The role of named individuals in the formulation and transmission of traditions of Jesus’ words and deeds largely disappeared from the normal awareness of New Testament scholars as a result of the form-critical movement in Gospels scholarship in the early twentieth century. (p.93)

Bauckham continues with Birger Gerhardsson’s dismissive tone of critics who “did not think much of the information which the ancient church provides concerning persons behind the Gospels”. This is quite astonishing given what is known about the methods and agendas and selective survival of writings of ancient church authors. But I will refrain from further detailed comment till I read the rest of the book, particularly B’s chapter 10 which appears to be given over to a rebuttal of form criticism.

I myself have strong reservations about all the claims and conclusions — and methodological assumptions — of form criticism. I do not think that form-criticism permits enough credit to the texts as iconic artifacts, but this is something to be addressed in depth elsewhere. But a critique of form-criticism does not require a default to a naive reading of church documents that have with few exceptions survived through the “orthodox” filter. Reasons for doubting the historicity of the Twelve do not hang or fall on the fate of form-criticism.

Questions about the Twelve

Method (I)
What follows is not hyper-scepticism. It is sound historical and analytical method of interpreting evidence. The only “discipline” where this approach appears to be out of place is in the rooms of the more conservative views of Christian documents and history. Students applying such logical analysis to the evidence in other history or literature or science classes are rewarded with A’s and High Distinctions. It is not hard. It is simply the ability to sift out the actual EVIDENCE for what we think we know and to look at it logically and even independently from ASSUMPTIONS that have hitherto been brought to that evidence. So we look at the evidence available (not the conclusions that others have based on that evidence) and examine both it and our own values and assumptions, as well as the assumptions and values others have brought into their interpretation of that evidence.

Our method does not guarantee “Truth”, and it may even support previously held conclusions. It merely helps us critically (in a positive sense) evaluate the evidence and existing conclusions and views, and helps us confirm or advance our understanding further. It may even help us discover new questions to ask, and new hypotheses to test.

Method (II)
An alternative method is to propose a hypothesis that may little more than faith or belief at its root, and then look for evidence to support that hypothesis, and have enough imagination and learning to be able to arrive at various ways to explain and make exceptions of the evidence that contradicts the hypothesis — or simply to ignore counter arguments as unworthy of serious attention. This is the method used by astrologers, pre-scientific cultures and children and learning to use their minds. An astrologer begins with a hypothesis and a belief that people’s natures are determined by direct calculable relations to their time and place of birth. They can find much evidence to support this hypothesis. And the myriads of “little” exceptions and contradictions that inevitably arise in each case are answered by an artistic or adaptable reading of not just the position of the sun but also the position of the moon, and then of Mars, and Venus, and on and on till all exceptions are accounted for and the hypothesis is watertight.

I realize and regret that it will sound offensive to some people, but this is also the method one all too often (not always) finds masquerading as scholarship in the field of biblical studies. This emperor really does have no clothes but the accolades of peers and insults directed at “the unworthy” who really do see this fact blinds too many to this reality.

The Twelve (I)
I am beginning with an outline for the reasons the historicity of the Twelve as per the gospel narrative has been doubted by scholars as a balance against Bauckham’s apparent assertion that such doubts are exclusively tied up with prejudices tied to form-criticism.

The earliest surviving evidence for The Twelve is in Paul’s letters — specifically in 1 Corinthians 15:5 (generally dated ca.55 ce), not the Gospels. (For those who follow Robinson’s “Redating the New Testament” and would place the earliest form of Mark’s gospel in the mid-40’s I would hope to write up comments on a chapter or two of his book reasonably soon, too. But for now I am working with what I understand is the overwhelming majority view among biblical scholars and placing the first written gospel at around 70 ce at earliest.)

(Winsome Munro, J. C. O’Neill, R. Joseph Hoffmann, Robert M. Price (see also The Pre-Nicene New Testament) are among contemporary scholars who have argued that passage is part of a post-Pauline interpolation. Among other features, this passage includes a mention of 500 witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus, a “tradition” that could scarcely have been avoided by our gospel authors had they known of it, but which does gain some traction and elaboration in the much later Gospel of Nicodemus and Acts of Pilate. But I add this note only as a reminder that the evidence we are left to work with is by no means 100% reliably “certain”.)

  • This first mention of the Twelve says the resurrected Jesus appeared to them. (That, of course, points to Judas being with them at that time — something that is similarly indicated in the Gospel of Peter and in Justin Martyr’s knowledge of “the gospel narrative” from around earlier to mid-second century.)
  • The same passage also equates the status of Paul with these Twelve on the basis that the resurrected Jesus appeared to them all likewise. (And that, of course, points to the Twelve seeing the resurrected Jesus in a vision as Paul did.)
  • And finally the same passage distinguishes the Twelve as a separate entity from “the apostles”, and quite possibly from Peter too.

Nowhere else in Paul’s letters is there any sign of awareness of the Twelve. This begs for thought and explanation given that throughout Paul’s letters he is often in serious conflict with “pillars” in Jerusalem and other “apostles” apparently originating in Judea.

So quite apart from questions about the authenticity of this passage the information it yields about the Twelve confronts us with questions that do not rest easily with the later account found in the gospels.

The Twelve (II)
It is years later that the first gospel (Mark) was written, some 40 to 50 years after Jesus, some 15-20 years after Paul’s letter. This is the first time we find a list of names attached to the apostles. Vincent Taylor’s classic work on Mark places the mentions of the Twelve in what he terms “Marcan constructions”: i.e., those passages where Mark appears to have with some awkwardness inserted references to “the Twelve” into an original smooth-flowing text. One example of awkward expression in an effort to accommodate the Twelve is found in Mark 4:10 (“those who were about him with the twelve”); another is found in Mark 11:11 which ties together two other passages listing “the disciples” but not “the twelve”. Such constructions do not convince everyone that Mark was artificially imposing his Twelve on to material where they were not mentioned, but the evidence cited does nonetheless make this a reasonable tentative conclusion.

The Twelve (III)
The number Twelve smacks of a later legend looking back. They are associated in the gospels with preaching to “the twelve tribes” and being promised twelve “thrones to rule the tribes” — despite the fact that tribal divisions of Israel by the first century were effectively nonexistent. (Not to mention several of the Twelve being brothers anyway.) Add to this the first scene where the twelve were appointed. After calling a handful of disciples (far fewer than 12), “Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the sea”, a great multitude following; he then crossed the sea under threat of being trampled or drowned; once on the other side he climbed a mountain where he appointed his Twelve. All this sounds just a bit too too much like a re-write of the story of Moses and the formation of the 12 tribal nation of Israel, complete with exodus and ascent to Mt Sinai, to be taken literally.

The Twelve (IV)
The Twelve appear in the early part of Acts as church “founders” but one is soon left wondering what other role, if any, they performed. It seems the author has given them a catechismal role only to abandoned them with nothing else left for them to do.

Had the Twelve been a real entity as understood by the gospels and Acts then one must attempt to understand how so many doctrinal disputes arose so early in Christianity (including in Acts) without any appeal being made to their authority or collective witness. One cannot help but ask if the Twelve were a later creation intended, rather, to give authority to a faction embroiled in these disputes and which later emerged as our orthodoxy. Certainly one of the earliest disputes in Christianity was that between the followers of Paul (whom Tertullian branded “the apostle of the heretics”) and those claiming authority to the Jerusalem Twelve.

All the above is presented to demonstrate the nature of our earliest evidence for the Twelve and questions surrounding it. The point is to show that questions about the historicity of the Twelve do not and will not be decided on the validity of form-criticism alone, which appears to be strongly implied by Bauckham in this chapter.

John Meier’s defence of the historicity of the Twelve

Bauckham appears to lean most heavily on Meier’s “very extensive and thorough defense of the historicity of the Twelve as a group formed by Jesus himself” (p.95), moving on with the satisfied comment that “and we do not need to repeat his argument here.” The assertion that “a large majority of recent scholar has accepted it [the historicity of the Twelve]” and reference to Meier is apparently enough of a foundation on which Bauckham can build the rest of this chapter. I hate being rushed and like to check out the details so forgive me if I digress here to examine that foundation. (But why would an examination of a foundation of an argument ever be treated as a “digression”? Why does Bauckham not see fit to at least summarize this critical point, not to mention offer a synopsis of those “recent scholars” vis a vis their “opponents”? Isn’t that what academic research is meant to be about? What peers is Bauckham addressing? Is he only writing for his “choir”? Why not attempt to introduce sound methodological and scholarly principles into the world of the lay readers in an informative way? Why be content to feed them with mere titillating speculations without seeing any need to first establish the basics or a good understanding of the foundation of any hypothesis. Maybe then he can, like some biblical scholars do, at least attempt to inform the reader of ways to test his hypothesis and take them on an intellectual journey, not a theological one in which historical method is hijacked.)

Meier [JBL 116/4 (1997) 635-672] promises to apply “with rigor” “the criteria of historicity” (636). The first criterion he discusses is:

The Criterion of Multiple Attestation of Sources and Forms

  1. Meier takes Mark’s list of the Twelve in 3:13-19 and points there to “various repetitions, parenthetical explanations, and disruptions of syntax . . . to create the overall impression that Mark is reworking and explaining an earlier tradition” (645). I am not an expert on Mark’s Greek and do not know if the same features are found throughout enough of Mark’s gospel to suggest that this was “just Mark” of if Meier’s conclusion is more likely to be correct. But Meier couples this with Luke’s different list of the Twelve names to assert that this supports the assumption that lists of the Twelve names circulated independently prior to Mark penning his gospel. Both Mark and John, Meier comments, use the designation “the Twelve” and since Mark and John represent different traditions we can infer that this “Twelve” designation also was known independently prior to either of these gospels being composed. Thus Meier’s argument here rests on the assumptions that (a) Luke’s variation from Mark indicates a different source — denying the possibility that Luke could have re-written Mark to suit his own style or purposes; and that (b) John did not know Mark so we have to accept that this common detail existed independently of both. However, Bauckham may not wish to side with literary and textual critics of the gospels who see evidence that Luke and indeed even John knew and re-wrote Mark’s gospel in details such as these. That, of course would demolish this point as a support for the criteria of multiple attestation.
  2. There are 4 different lists of the Twelve (Mark 3:16-19; Matthew 10:2-4; Luke 6:14-16; Acts 1:13), and while Meier concludes after detailed analysis that the variations between them are really slight and most economically explained as redactional variations by Matthew and Luke copying from Mark, there is one variation in Luke’s list that in Meier’s mind confirms that Luke is after all aware of an independent list of the Twelve. That variation is the replacement of Thaddeus by Jude of James. How secure is the paradigm that compels Meier to frame his questions and answers through the independence of the gospel of John from that of Luke? Shellard and Matson have given good reasons for reconsidering this assumption, and to consider seriously if our final redaction of Luke was written with John in view. If the final redactor of Luke was writing a gospel that was attempting to incorporate the Gospel of John into what was to become the emerging “canon” of gospels, then Luke’s replacement of an otherwise unknown name among the Twelve with one who makes a cameo appearance in the Gospel of John (14:22) is most economically explained without the need to postulate the existence of otherwise unknown and unattested “traditions”. But even without this recent view of gospel trajectory, we need to focus on the nature and strength of the evidence being used to dogmatically proclaim the gospel-historical existence of the Twelve.
  3. The next independent attestation for the Twelve presented by Meier is “the Johannine tradition”. To Meier, the fact that John’s references to the Twelve are not incorporated well into the narrative (they appear to be just stuck in without any role or purpose); that John gives prominence to disciples not otherwise listed in the Twelve; that John’s references to the Twelve are clustered (“and, indeed, isolated” — with the sole exception of 11:16) at the end of John 6, “the only chapter of John’s Gospel that parallels the account of the Galilean ministry in the Synoptics”; — all this for Meier is evidence that John is written over a fossilized layer that knew of the historical Twelve. That is a remarkable conclusion given that Johannine scholarship knows well and discusses regularly how the Johannine literature has been overlayed with redactions and insertions repeatedly. Surely the features Meier draws attention to cry out for a later attempt by a redactor to bring the Gospel of John into closer affinity with the narrative of the Synoptics!
  4. Meier also sees the possibility of an indirect reference to the Twelve “in Q tradition”, but I do not see Q listed in Bauckham’s index and suspect he would not embrace Q. (Nor, I suspect, Meier’s anonymous “traditions”, but for that I will have to wait for a later chapter to be sure.)
  5. The fifth independent attestation of the Twelve in Meier’s discussion is 1 Corinthians 15:5. We have already mentioned the contradiction between this reference and the gospel narrative that allows only eleven to have seen the resurrected Jesus, not the Twelve. Meier, with other scholars, sees this passage in Corinthians as part of a credal formula. If so, then Paul’s thoughts are triggered to recite this lengthy formula (15:3-11) in the middle of a thought that is picked up again in verse 12. Some would see this as evidence of an interpolation, but this has also been discussed in outline above. Nevertheless, Meier relies on the “credal form” of this passage to suggest (or insist) that its reference to Twelve is purely “symbolic”, not historical! Somehow the existence of the Twelve is assumed to be “so historical” that it has morphed into a “symbolic number” and it is the “symbolic”, not the “historical”, value of the number that is all-important. The Twelve became so famously known that it was their number, 12, that identified them at all times, even when they were 11. One is left gasping breathless at such logic. If the Twelve were THAT well renowned then why, why in just a few years do we lose all trace of them in the early “records” to the extent that we are obliged to fall back on slight variations in comparative yet bland lists that perform no historical function (except to be counted as “12”) to “assert” their historicity!? And all the while Paul — not to mention other non-canonical disputes attested in the early literature — is embroiled in doctrinal conflicts that surely could have been resolved hey presto if the Twelve really did exist as an authoritative body.

This completes Meier’s list of 5 “multiple attestations” underpinning the argument for the historical reality of the Twelve:

  1. a few irregularities in the style of Mark,
  2. a single variation in Luke’s list,
  3. the presumption that John as we know it has no relationship in any way with the Synoptics,
  4. something in Q (I will have to return to this point if on reading Bauckham further I discover he accepts Q),
  5. and a “credal form” in a single Pauline passage that contradicts the gospel narrative.

Some will find more certitude in this foundation than others.

The Criterion of Embarrassment

Meier argues that the Twelve surely existed since it is irrational to imagine Christian authors later retrojecting their “heroes” back into a narrative where they — and Judas in particular — fail dismally.

It is interesting to compare this argument with another almost always related to this same criterion of embarrassment, the baptism of Jesus by John. It would have been too embarrassing for later Christians to have admitted that Jesus was baptized by “a lesser” so the fact that this is recorded proves they simply found this fact unavoidable because it was, embarrassingly enough, all too true. In support of this embarrassment one sees Matthew taking Mark’s account and having Jesus reassure John that the ritual had to be performed “to fulfil all righteousness”; then Luke more cleverly and craftily glossing over any need to actually directly say that Jesus was baptized by John; and John finally discovering the boldness to simply avoid any reference to a baptism of Jesus at all! Only one thing to fault with this argument: the gospel that all the other three were re-writing (okay, some, many, won’t include John in here), the Gospel of Mark, the first gospel to “record” this, narrates the whole episode without the slightest sliver of embarrassment. On this evidence there is no reason to imagine the earliest Christians were the least embarrassed by the baptism of Jesus. (I discuss this in a little more detail in an earlier post.) The only embarrassment was occasioned by this detail contradicting certain assumptions in a developing theology. The original telling of the story is embarrassment-free and as such need not be any more “historical” than a “literary” or “early hagiographical” creation.

So if we have evidence to support the presumption of embarrassment in the later canonical tellings of the baptism of Jesus, what support do we have for the presumption of the narrating of the failure of (some of) the Twelve? None, of course. Meier also presumes in connection with, and even in support of, this embarrassment point in relation to the Twelve, that the central message of the crucifixion of Jesus was also a “historical fact” and that we can be confident of this solely on the grounds that it would have been just one of those undeniable facts that Christians found impossible to avoid and so they happened to mention it despite their embarrassment about it! In response I challenge anyone to locate a single passage in all of the Pauline literature — or any of the gospels or Acts — or any other text in the NT canon, or any writing in any of the noncanonical literature, that presents the mildest whiff of a slightest hint of “embarrassment” over the crucifixion of Jesus. We all know that Meier’s embarrassment in this instance is integral to the central pride and joy of what Christianity is all about.

And if the crucifixion of the Son of God is integral the central message of joy and hope in the Christian faith then what role — what room for embarrassment — might one expect for those clearly set up by God to execute this act? We know there is not one hint of embarrassment in any of the gospels in their telling of the (momentary) failure of the Twelve. We all know that their momentary failure is their coup de grace in selling the message to fellow frail humans who are subsequently redeemed by the resurrected Jesus.

No Criterion, just “the whole way in which the tradition about the Twelve crests and ebbs in the NT period . . . .”

If this title immediately above does not say it all I invite a reading of the full text cited by Meier above, or of his volume 1 of his trilogy on Jesus. But that’s not totally fair so I will point to a few comments here by Meier.

Meier uses the fact that the Twelve briefly and sketchily appear but then do not feature in any of Paul’s struggles over his apostolic title or teachings and conflicts with other “apostles”, and the fact that they do not feature in any significant narrative development within Acts, nor in any of the other epistolary literature of the NT, as “evidence” of the “fact” that they “actually played a significant role” in the life of Jesus (671). So why did they drop from the view of Paul and Acts and elsewhere? “The reasons for the swift disappearance or total absence of the Twelve from most of the NT are unclear.” (671)

Meier suggests that perhaps some died prematurely, or perhaps Peter and James became so pre-eminent that they totally eclipsed all other reference to the Twelve. I will leave it to others to devise ways to test such hypotheses!

Meier also speaks of the “common sense” view of not bothering to even question the historicity of the Twelve and “the tedium” of having to plough through such detailed evidence to finally settle back at “the obvious”. He then critiques those who deny the existence of the historical Twelve as approaching the question with the presupposition about their existence! (669) I will leave any irony here for the reader to divine.

But enough of this background discussion about Bauckham’s background discussion. Let’s look at what Bauckham builds on the above foundation. . . . .

(contd next — or the one after that? — post)

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Neil Godfrey

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16 thoughts on “Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Chapter 5a”

  1. “I challenge anyone to locate a single passage in all of the Pauline literature — or any of the gospels or Acts — or any other text in the NT canon, or any writing in any of the noncanonical literature, that presents the mildest whiff of a slightest hint of “embarrassment” over the crucifixion of Jesus.”

    I would have to nominate 1 Cor. 1:23 where Jesus’ crucifixion is described as a stumbling block and a foolishness. While throughout his extant works, Paul protests (too much?) that the crucifixion is a wonderful thing, in this passage he reveals that it is actually a real problem when trying to convince people that Jesus should be followed. It certainly qualifies as a “whiff” at least.

  2. It is an interesting point: Why did Jesus spend three years training twelve disciples to reign with him on twelve thrones and give them the Great Commission to evangelize the entire world…but then shortly after his death he decides to appear to one Pharisee and makes him the “greatest of all apostles” by private revelation.

    I think Paul was delusional.

  3. But it is also possible, that Paul (nor any other Christian pre-70 CE) had ever heard of the “Great Commission” or of a group of disciples called “the Twelve”. It is amazing the number of assumptions that exist in the traditional Christian belief system.

        1. By that I mean, wouldn’t writing experts be able to detect a difference between the writing of someone who truly lived in the mid-first century and the writing of someone writing in the mid-second century PRETENDING to be writing in the mid-first century?

        2. I know of one study that pointed to a word/concept in a Pauline letter that matched its usage in the time of the Antonines (second century). Details do not come to mind right now. Will try to follow up.

          The conventional wisdom is that Paul’s letters addressed interests that were irrelevant in the second century but a few “higher critics” have argued the exact opposite — that issues like circumcision, Judaism, were very hot topics in the second century.

  4. Re “The reasons for the swift disappearance or total absence of the Twelve from most of the NT are unclear.” This is a strange construction. All of Paul’s authentic letters stem from a time before the gospels were written. Only the materials written after the gospels were written could be examined and queried with “What happened to the disciples?”

    So, the question is actually two: (1) why no references to the disciples (supposedly walking around from 33CE to 73CE, living and dying, etc.) before the gospels were written and then (2) why no references to the disciples after the gospels were written.

    The simplest answer is that they were a literary construction of the author of the Gospel of Mark and hence they wasn’t anything further to report.

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