Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Chapter 5b

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by Neil Godfrey

Symbolic Status & Authoritative Status
Having passed over any need to argue that the Twelve really were an entity selected by Jesus B proceeds to explain the symbolic and prophetic significance of this group, symbolic of the hope of restoration of an idealized Israel, and prophetic of what God was doing through Jesus. I can agree with B here on the symbolic and prophetic significance of the Twelve. But this symbolism was a cameo adornment of the gospel narrative and not integral to the structure or development of those narratives. (Perhaps in the fact that the Twelve are just stuck in the gospels without being integrated into the plot “as the Twelve” we can detect a whiff of a detail subsequent to the original narrative.)

Though I agree with Bauckham on the symbolic status of the Twelve B then loses me:

This status of the Twelve in relation to the renewed people of God explains their authoritative status in the early church.

It is precisely the absence of a clear “authoritative status” of the Twelve in early church history that is the biggest problem with accepting their historicity. Where are the Twelve in the disputes confronting Paul? They appear to be complete unknowns in any of the Churches Paul addressed, although those churches had heard of Peter. (If one accepts 1 Cor.15.5 as authentic then even there they are given no more authoritative status than 500 brethren and all the “other apostles”.) They certainly hid their authoritative status under a bushel in the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15. There (if indeed the author meant the Twelve were included) they held no more authority than the elders. Matthew says the resurrected Jesus only appeared to 11, not to the Twelve, and that even some of those remaining 11 “doubted” (28:16-17). Hardly a good springboard for a group with “authoritative status”.

They simply don’t figure as an authoritative body in early church history. They are no more authoritative than the twelve patriarchs born to Jacob. Once their eponymous function is fulfilled they depart the scene as an entity. It may well be that the Twelve’s symbolic function in the gospels has made its appearance, it has made its point, so can then be dropped. In the remainder of the gospel stories it does not matter if there are 11, 12, half a dozen, 120 or 500 present with Jesus. Their symbolic status has been duly noted and the remainder of the story takes its course quite independently of that fact. Again in Acts they make their symbolic appearance at the beginning of “the new Israel” then after a few faint echoes depart the scene entirely.

Bauckham is correct in his understanding of the symbolic role of the Twelve. This is what the narrative place of the Twelve points to: appointed on a mountain by a Moses like figure after escaping a crowd across a sea; named at the beginnings but soon afterwards lost from sight. There is no evidence that as a result of this status they assumed an authoritative role in the history of the early church. The silence of such an authoritative body is deafening. No, the Twelve were first and last a symbolic body. If we take the only Twelve that we know, the Twelve in the gospels/Acts, the Twelve that appear in the early church literature, and read into them no more than what we read in that literature, then we see a body portrayed by the authors to inject a particular symbolism into the story of Jesus and the church. We have no evidence that they were any more than what we read in the gospels/Acts.

If we are going to treat the stories of the gospels as drawing on eyewitness reports and attempting to relate some sort of real history then we need evidence, not assumptions or multiple interconnecting hypotheses, to justify this. Bauckham rejects the assumptions of the form-critics but he continues to be weighed down with not a few of their assumptions himself.

Confirmation of the Twelve
Bauckham writes:

Confirmation of this hypothesis that the Twelve constituted an official body of eyewitnesses may be found in the lists of the Twelve that occur in all three of the Synoptic Gospels . . . . (p.96)

“Confirmation” is a strong word, and B claims that “confirmation” for his hypothesis resides in three mere “lists” of the Twelve. Near the end of his discussion in this chapter B concludes:

The lists show, not carelessness about the precise membership of the Twelve, but quite the opposite: great care to preserve precisely the way they were known in their own milieu during the ministry of Jesus and in the early Jerusalem church. It is difficult to account for this phenomenon except by the hypothesis that the Twelve were the official eyewitnesses and guarantors of the core of the gospel traditions. It is not true that many of them were forgotten; as essential members of this official group of eyewitnesses all twelve were remembered. (p.108)

It is not “the lists” that “show . . . great care to preserve precisely” but B’s interpretation of them. And his interpretation is sourced by his ironic embracing of form-criticism’s assumption that slight variations in the gospel texts are evidence of variant sources or traditions.

Of course the obvious problem with B’s assertion that the Twelve were the authoritative eyewitnesses is that he cannot point to any particular story that all Twelve would or could have authorized. Other named characters, in B’s hypothesis, are named because they are the originators, guardians and bearers of their particular stories. So what is left for the Twelve to witness to? B answers:

They are named, not as the authorities for this or that specific tradition, but as responsible for the overall shape of the story of Jesus and much of its content. (p.97)

Maybe it’s me, but that does sound a bit vague. Especially when I think of all the contradictions and inconsistencies between the gospel stories. Maybe Twelve is just too big a committee to design a horse that does not look like a camel. But B does promise in chapter 8 to demonstrate the role of the Twelve in shaping the Passion narrative so I shall withhold further comment till I complete that.

B says that the mere fact that the gospels actually name the Twelve is testimony to their importance — not their symbolic importance, but their importance “for the transmission of gospel traditions” (p.97). That has yet to be proved. B has asserted this but so far offered no evidence at all that they, as the group of 12, transmitted gospel traditions. It is simply stated, and presumably the fact that the authors gave the 12 names is meant to be support for this assertion. Yet on just the previous page, 96, B had quoted Davies and Allison offering a most plausible explanation for why the names were important: they were symbolic of a new Israel, they were the eponymous founders through whom Jesus began the church. So why does B insist that the fact of the recording of the names is of itself evidence for those names having any more than symbolic function? (Ancient Jewish authors we know were often enough interested in recording or inventing detailed minutiae of temples and genealogies and orders of angels that appear to serve no other purpose than to satisfy the curiosity of those wanting to explore the symbolic.)

Bauckham takes the often noted grammatically awkward way in which Mark inserts the nicknames of three of the disciples as evidence that he is using an already existing list of Twelve. That has often been remarked upon by critics and I have no problem with that conclusion at all. But the mere fact of a pre-existing list of names brings us no closer whatever to discerning a role, let alone an authoritative one, for those Twelve. There is absolutely no evidence to point to any list of Twelve being anything more than a list with a symbolic status. If Mark used the list for a symbolic purpose then why not suppose that the list he chose already served that purpose?

Hypothesis graduates to Argument
B concedes that those who point to the variation in names as signs of the loss of significance of the Twelve “constitute a challenge to our argument that the names of the Twelve were remembered in the gospel traditions primarily because they were official eyewitnesses and guarantors of the core of the traditions.” (p.99)

On the cover blurb N.T. Wright uses the word “remarkable” to describe B’s book and it is certainly a remarkable conclusion that a hypothesis that B has so far nowhere argued or mustered any evidence in its support is now described as “our argument”.

So his counter “argument” is even more remarkable. One of the cases of name variations (Thaddaeus and Judas of James) could possibly be the same person after all, one set of lists using a form of his Greek name and the other his Semitic name. Could be, yes, so is there any evidence? No, B cites none. Just could be. So if the reader wishes to believe the hypothesis then “could be” will no doubt graduate to “is”.

Historians, like other humans, have their off days. Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought, by David Hackett Fischer, lists one fallacy in particular that one encounters too often among publications of biblical scholarship, B’s book no exception:

The fallacy of the possible proof consists in an attempt to demonstrate that a factual statement is true or false by establishing the possibility of its truth or falsity. (p.53)

Fischer discusses a case of historian Auerbach establishing “a plausible case”, which is not itself evidence of “a probable one”. He could have added that it is the job of fiction writers to establish mere plausibility. Fischer continues:

Auerbach did not conduct his inquiry in such a way as to elicit this factual information. He did not do research in the appropriate sources, in order to establish the balance of probability by a comparative analysis of [X] in relation to other relevant evidence for [Y]. Instead he confined himself largely to a discussion of the possibility of error in the evidence at hand. (p.55)

Back to Richard Bauckham. B encouragingly tells us that not all historians would accept his “could be” as evidence, and cites John Meier as rejecting such a proposal because it “smacks of harmonization”. B clearly agrees that harmonization is scarcely an intellectually rigorous study of the evidence since he finds it useful in exceptional circumstances.

Harmonization is not always illegitimate, and in this case the possibility that the same individual bore both names is well supported by what we know of names in Jewish Palestine at this period. (pp.99-100)

So there we have it. Harmonization is legitimate when it serves to bolster hypothesis. How does it bolster it? Not by evidence, but by the fact that something is possible.

No evidence, just otherwise “illegitimate” harmonization. And a strong dose of the fallacy of the possible proof.

Common names and epithets
Many of the Twelve bore “very common” names, B notes (p.102), and therefore the epithets attached to them helped distinguish them from one another. Since the epithets served to distinguish individual members within the group, those epithets must have originated within the circle of the Twelve. Somehow B sees all this as evidence of the painstaking, reverential care with which the names were preserved, and that they were preserved is proof that they were official eyewitnesses and guarantors of the tradition. So goes B’s argument. Surely by now the fallacies in this are all too apparent. It is certainly become tiresome to repeat them at each instance.

No credit is given to authorial role — only to a “recorder’s” role, as if all this is evidence of the painstaking care with which the sources of the names were preserved (in different traditions of course to account for variations — again like the form-critics B dismisses!) and duly noted.

The contradictions and fallacies here are gaping:

  • B says the mix of very common names and rarer names in the list is what we would expect. It is not what we would expect at all. Probability does not work like that, as anyone who suddenly finds themselves rolling double six on the dice three times in a row and then a score of consecutive rolls totalling no more three knows. Probability is random and does not fall into neat patterns of “many common mixed with a few rare” unless by chance!
  • Richard Bauckham has already asserted that Mark was using a list that existed before he wrote. Mark awkwardly inserted nicknames or epithets into this pre-existing list. Yet the nicknames originated within the circle of the Twelve. So why did not the original list have the nicknames in it to make the distinctions?
  • Or if the original list already had one of the pairs of names with a distinguishing epithet then what need was there to add another to their namesakes?
  • But the most glaring gap in B’s argument here is that he is admitting to authorial licence. Why not take the next logical step and assume that the same author is giving them nicknames for his own purposes, including the purpose of distinguishing the namesakes? That is a lot simpler than postulating traditions and eyewitnesses who were not really known to the author since he had to rely on previously written lists etc etc etc.

One amusing example cited by B is the case of Simon the Canaanite, the Aramaic term for Zealot. Of course the Zealots did not exist till about 66 ce and to observant readers the anachronism here should be obvious. But B again falls back on the”possibilities” without any evidence but there are two this time, so he leaves both of them with the reader to consider: that the name was a mere adjective to describing someone like a neo-Phineas, zealous for the law (very apt for a follower of Jesus); or it meant “silversmith”. Take your pick. Of course if there were any evidence for either one neither the reader nor B would leave us with the choice. And the fact that in this case TWO incompatible possibilities present themselves demonstrates just how shallow the whole approach of B is when he normally only has “one possibility” that he has to cite as “evidence”.

B does not explain why he does not discuss the epithet “Boanerges” for some unmentioned reason.

Matthew and Levi
Bauckham concludes this chapter with his reasons why we should not harmonize Matthew the tax collector in the list of Twelve with the Levi who sat at the tax office. (We have already addressed when harmonization is legitimate for Bauckham.) To B, the author of the gospel of Matthew was not Matthew, even though he believes it bore Matthew’s name. The author of this “GMatthew” for some reason did not know the circumstances of the call of Matthew the disciple whose gospel he was writing, so he stole Mark’s Levi and cuckood him with the Matthew of the Twelve.

Dare one wonder what was distracting the authoritative eyewitnesses when this author was allowed to put pen to parchment?

Would it be disrespectful to ask what suddenly possessed this gospel author whom Bauckham has been insisting was so scrupulously honest and careful to record accurately the traditions from eyewitnesses?

Meanwhile I’ll leave it to the insomniac reader to count the number of hypotheses and possibilities in this little scenario. I would not want to be cruel and send any innocent on a search for evidence.

But to be fair B does find some evidence to add probability to this hypothesis. In Mark’s story of the call of Levi Jesus and his followers gather in “his house” — possibly meaning Levi’s house. Although the author, that is one of the authors who was so painstakingly preserving the eyewitness testimonies and the names of the authoritative Twelve, although his author who was writing the gospel of Matthew stole Levi’s story from him (so much for that particular eyewitness being an originator and guarantor of his story!) and gave his story to Matthew instead, this painstakingly honest and author did take scrupulous care not to say that Jesus dined in Matthew’s house. This author changed Mark’s “his (Levi’s) house” to “the house”. No no, steal Levi’s story and name from the record but don’t take his house.

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Neil Godfrey

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