Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Chapter 6

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by Neil Godfrey

6. Eyewitnesses “from the Beginning”

On page 114 Bauckham writes:

If the Gospels embody eyewitness testimony, then some at least of the eyewitnesses must have been able to testify not just to particular episodes of particular sayings of Jesus but to the whole course of Jesus’ story. Broadly the four Gospels agree on this scope of this story: it begins with John the Baptist and it ends with the resurrection appearances.

  1. First of all Bauckham has not yet established (merely hypothesised) that the gospels were the result of any “eyewitness” reports — after 5 chapters he has yet to point to a single item of evidence to justify this assertion;
  2. Secondly, Bauckham is guilty of limiting his study to the canonical gospels exclusively when we know that there were other gospels and these 4 were preserved because of their “orthodox” status and frequently heavily redacted over the years — compare the additional ending of Mark after 16:8 to make it conform to the “broad scope” of other gospels;
  3. Thirdly, it is perhaps debatable to assert that the four gospels broadly agree: John has the temple cleansing — a singular event — at the beginning, not the end, of the story; some gospels have the resurrection appearances in Galilee and others in Jerusalem; Mark has a secretive Jesus who hides his identity while John has one proclaiming his divinity at every opportunity; Mark denies any resurrection appearances at the end (16:8) and it is only the bias that comes from familiarity with the other gospels that causes us to assume it is hinted at and to read selected passages in Mark tendentiously, and often less than precisely translated, to justify this — Bauckham argues that the resurrection appearances are anticipated nonetheless and so it is no different, broadly, from the other gospels in this respect; the synoptics clearly indicate a one year ministry while the fourth gospel a three or four year ministry and with a Jesus in his late forties; and Matthew and Luke begin with birth stories unlike the other gospels — but Bauckham excuses this by arguing that the infancy narratives are “prologues”. Others have argued that the John the Baptist scene is a “prologue” to the gospel, but Bauckham does not discuss any of this.
  4. Fourthly, to say that a person’s life follows a commonly perceived story pattern is to confuse a narrative creation with real life. People’s lives do not fall into singular linear narrative patterns that are seen as such by multiple associates; people have many lives and personas — their private life, their public life, their inner life, their job or professional or ‘missionary’ life to mention just the broadest categories. To expect multiple associates all independently coming up with the same singular narrative story is simply not “real life”. It is the world of a narrative creator and other creators who build on the original model. The fact that Bauckham uses the resurrection appearances to be an integral bookend of Jesus’ life is the loudest testimony to this fact. This is by no historical standard a historical event unless historical enquiry allows for supernatural events as reality. Paul, writing before the gospels, give a much more realistic understanding of “the resurrection” event when he speaks of Jesus being revealed “in” him or in vision, and by implication equating this experience with that of the other apostles. (See my previous post on The Twelve: Paul vs Richard Bauckham)

From the beginning
Bauckham supports his claim that the Twelve were to act as eyewitnesses of the “whole” of the story of Jesus with Acts 1:21-22. Here Peter says that a replacement for Judas had to be one who was with them and Jesus from the time of the baptism of John until the ascension. Bauckham recognizes the problem here so he footnotes the reference to the “baptism of John” to say that “this may mean not specifically Jesus’ baptism by John but more generally John’s ministry of baptizing.” This is necessarily left vague to carry any weight at all. Not one of the canonical gospels allows for any of the Twelve apostles to have been present with Jesus at the time of his baptism. But by extending the meaning to what it “may mean” — the general ministry of John’s baptism — Bauckham must deny the synoptic accounts that all agree that Jesus ministry began after John was imprisoned and then merely assume that the other apostles were called during the time of John’s ministry in the Gospel of John. The gospel of John conveniently never mentions the imprisonment of John, and nor does it ever name or describe the calling of twelve disciples. Only “otherwise illegitimate” harmonization (Bauckham’s phrase in the last chapter) can justify the assumption that he needs to “support” his claim that the Twelve were with Jesus from his time of the baptism of John.

And that time of the baptism of John naturally and obviously is a reference to the baptism of Jesus. And this time of the baptism of John is a time that B must vaguely define in a footnote against its obvious meaning — the time Jesus was baptized. Why would Peter describe a witness to the life of Jesus having to be with Jesus from the time someone else was conducting another ministry separate from that of Jesus? Why not from the time “Jesus began his ministry” (Luke 3:23, 20) which was after John was imprisoned. B’s attempt to (“otherwise illegitimately”) harmonize the details of the narrative discourses in the different NT books only raises more problems and questions than it attempts to answer.

But more significantly, Why, if the Twelve along with a couple of additional stand-bys were all with Jesus from the time of the ministry of John’s baptism, do the synoptic gospels only describe the calls of the first disciples after John was imprisoned? Bauckham’s hypothesis that the Twelve were effective authoritative guarantors of the Jesus story has simply collapsed against this contradiction. — unless we wish to further hypothesize multiple other scenarios to find a way to “otherwise illegitimately” harmonize the contradictory gospel accounts.

It might also be worth keeping in mind that there are indications that John’s ministry continued even after John was imprisoned, and possibly even continues right up to the present day among the Mandeans in Iraq.

Discordant accordance between Luke and John
Baukham attempts to push this idea of the Twelve being with Jesus “from the beginning” by a seemingly disconnected discussion about the use of the Greek word for “beginning” used in Luke and John. But despite Bauckham’s efforts to lead the reader to think otherwise there is little real comparison between the way the two authors use the word. The few selective examples he cited of Luke’s use of this Greek word hide the fact that Luke uses the same word not just of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry but of any common expression of beginning anything — beginning to build, began to say, began to be merry, etc. Relying on B’s discussion alone one would think that Luke used it in a specialist technical sense for the time from which Jesus began his ministry and the time the Twelve were with him. This is especially true in B’s discussion of the word in John’s gospel. There B links the word with courtroom technology, presumably to subliminally associate it in the readers mind with “eyewitness testimony”. However, as any lover of the johannine literature knows, “from the beginning” is a technical term that has a mystical meaning (GJohn 1.1, 1.2, 6.64, 8.25, 8.44, 15.27, 16.4; 1 John 1.1, 2.7, 2.13, 2.14, 2.24, 3.8, 3.11; 2 John 1.5, 1.6) — and is used in contexts utterly unlike the common everyday ones found in Luke’s usage.

But more tragically for Bauckham, Luke’s use of the word in the context of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry flatly contradicts the time of that beginning in John. Luke has the beginning set after John was imprisoned, John during the time of John’s ministry.

The use of the phrase in John 16.4 in fact completely demolishes the narrow meaning B tries to squeeze out of its use in John 15.27. B takes 15:27 to mean that the Twelve were with Jesus from the beginning of Jesus ministry at the time of John’s ministry of baptism:

And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.

Yet 4 verses later Jesus says:

These things I did not say to you at the beginning because I was with you.

Here the word clearly means the entire time the disciples were with Jesus before his passion and resurrection. One is reminded of Mark’s opening, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ”, which is another use implying something far broader than the narrow time frame B wants to limit it to.

Those unfamiliar with Bauckham’s book may well wonder what the point of this discussion is. Bauckham is attempting to argue that the authors of the NT gospels and Acts placed “remarkable importance” on the fact that the Twelve were their eyewitness authorities “from the beginning” for what they wrote.

B’s whole case falls apart for good, however, when one sees that the Johannine literature addresses a church full of members who have known Jesus “from the beginning”:

I write to you, fathers, because you have known him from the beginning (1 John 2.13,14)

Therefore let that abide in you which you have heard from the beginning. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you . . . . (1 John 2.24)

The devil has sinned from the beginning (1 John 3.8) (Did the devil only commit his first sin at the time of John’s baptism?)

For this is the message that you heard from the beginning (1 John 3.11)

that which we have had from the beginning, that we should love one another (2 John 5)

as you have heard from the beginning (2 John 6)

Bauckham’s argument could be rescued if it could be established that the addressees of John were the Twelve, or at least those who were with Jesus in Galilee from the time of John’s baptism. (Of course one can rationalize that the use of “beginning” in the letters of John had a different meaning from that found in GJohn, but then we no longer have a sound foundation, but merely a hypothetical principle that requires a series of ad hoc rationalizations of all the exceptions.)

Luke’s Preface
Bauckham discusses at some length the academic views of the literary and historical standards of Luke’s preface in comparison with prefaces in other types and provenances of Hellenistic literature. How this discussion supported his hypothesis was not clear to me, but B concludes with another comment on the similar use of the term “beginning” in both John and Luke, and implies (but offers no evidence) that the eyewitnesses in the preface were the single group of Twelve. This would be strange if they were the Twelve, since then we have only Luke’s word that his writing of the gospel is more accurate than any previous attempts. For he says many others have written an account but their efforts were deficient in some way. One might ask why. What was the role of the authoritative body of Twelve if they could not have guided those previous efforts to get it right? B then comments on Luke’s claim to have had the better understanding of what the eyewitnesses were trying to say. So this is starting to look a bit odd. Did the Twelve not communicate clearly to anyone but Luke?

Conclusion of the above

Now that we have discovered how important was the notion of an eyewitness who was qualified to tell the whole gospel story by virtue of participation in it from the beginning to end, we are in a position to recognize that the Gospels employ a literary device, hardly noticed by modern scholars . . . . (p.124)

Unfortunately my only discovery was the “here a little there a little” jigsaw interpretation of how a Greek word was used in selective New Testament texts. The spurious method and dogmatic conclusions reached would make a Hal Lindsey or doctrinal guru of a cultic group with esoteric interpretations proud.

The Inclusio of Eyewitness Testimony
To continue from the citation above, B explains that the literary device “hardly noticed by modern scholars” is what is sometimes labelled “inclusio”, or “bookends”, meaning the bracketing of a text with allusions or images or names that echo each other from their respective positions at the beginning and the end of the narrative. B declares that it is this literary technique that will “indicate precisely this qualification [being participatory witnesses from the beginning to end] on the part of their eyewitness sources.”

It is lamentable that biblical studies have not had a strong history of interdisciplinary research. The technique of inclusio is well known to scholars of ancient classical literature, and I have discussed the relevance of just one such work elsewhere.

But to take this literary device and assume from it that when applied to the gospels it somehow lends support to the hypothesis that those gospels were drawn from the eyewitness accounts is breathtakingly courageous. The only glue that can tie the fact of inclusio with the hypothesis that an eyewitness was the direct source of the content of the gospel is the gratuitous assumption that the motive of the author was to use it for that purpose. We know that it was a common technique for the sake of good Hellenistic style, as a simple matter of aesthetic literary balance. (And how can one possibly divine the motive of an author whose identity remains unknown?) It is nonsense to make an exception in the case of the gospels for any reason, let alone for the sake of an otherwise unsupported hypothesis.

Mark’s inclusio
Inclusio in classical are not exact line for line parallel correspondences. Groups of images or names that cluster in the opening paragraphs may cluster in the closing pages although in different sequences. That is what we find in Mark. Mark opens with John the Baptist pointedly clothed in camel hair as he announces Jesus, Jesus emerging from the water of baptism, the calling of the first disciples, beginning with Simon, and then serving women. (There are many more details that Mark uses in his quite complex brackets that I have again addressed elsewhere and will post here some day again, but this is enough of relevance for our immediate purposes.) Mark concludes with a young man pointedly clothed in a long white robe and announcing Jesus, Jesus having emerged from the grave, the mention of the disciples with Peter singled out, and the fleeing women. (16:8 is they the original surviving ending of Mark by perhaps near universal scholarly opinion.)

Bauckham regrettably tries to be too specific. He sees only the name of Simon Peter as forming the inclusio. So this means John the Baptist and Jesus don’t count at the beginning even though they precede Peter. But no worries. Bauckham says that what counts is the way Simon’s name is used twice when it does first appear, first to indicate himself and next his brother. That gives the name added emphasis and allows for it to be counted as the “first” in the inclusio. Surely the strength of all this as an argument needs no elaboration.

Next support, Peter is mentioned with the second highest frequency of any of the gospels (once for each 432 words) after John’s gospel. Bauckham takes this as further support for his hypothesis that the gospel of Mark was particularly “Petrine” indicating its primary source was Peter himself. Finally, Bauckham says Luke’s inclusio supports all of this by also allowing Peter’s name to be the last personal name mentioned, apart from Jesus and Moses, in a different context.

Bauckham even adds that Peter appears in all the story of Mark with “the only exceptions” being 6.14-29; 10.35-40; 14.1-2, 10-11, 55-65. That is, like other statements addressed previously, simply untrue. Peter does not appear in the John the Baptist scenes or the wilderness temptation scenes, making his entry only “after” (not during) John the Baptist’s ministry. Nor does he appear at the crucifixion, burial and empty tomb scenes. And the last verse of Mark points to him not even hearing the message from the women who ran off too scared to say a word to anyone. It is only orthodox bias and familiarity with Matthew, Luke and John that prompts readers to see in this gospel anything pro-petrine at all. It is, if read in its own right, an attack on Peter and the Twelve, along with the family of Jesus too. The only heroes are the unnamed beneficiaries of Jesus’ healings — and the anonymous audience who is meant to be warned by horrific lessons of the original disciples of Jesus. Mark’s gospel is in the broad genre of the Old Testament literature that spoke of an old Israel that had failed as a lesson for it’s intended audience, the “new” Israel.

One final comment on Mark being a “Petrine” gospel. If the doctrines associated with Peter are closely tied to the Law as indicated in Acts up until the animal vision of Peter in Acts, and in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, Mark is possibly the most anti-Petrine of the gospels. Its portrayal of Jesus is the most anti-law and pro-“faith alone” portrayal of any of the gospels.

John’s inclusio
Most scholars believe that the final chapter of John was added later to the original ending, which was chapter 20. Bauckham overlooks any mention of this situation. If he discussed it he would have had to address the possibility that the last named person in this gospel as it originally stood was, apart from Jesus (always the little exceptions that need to be overlooked), Thomas, the doubter!

The Gospel of John has (if we exclude Jesus and John the Baptist and this time Andrew too) an “unnamed disciple” as the bookends. Peter has to fit in behind this person in his inclusio. That, to Bauckham, indicates a “friendly rivalry” (p.128) between the “beloved disciple” and Peter. (I have yet to read a single text from any ancient Christian faction that was “friendly” in the way it addressed its rivals.)

Luke’s inclusio
In Luke’s inclusio Peter is again listed first and last, with the women snuggled inside in second place (if one counts chapter 8 as a second beginning and beginning of a second inclusio for the women in the gospel) . But the inclusio cannot relate to names in themselves, because then the inclusio wouldn’t work. It is about the inclusio of Jesus’ disciples, so we can discount all the characters appearing in the opening birth scenes of this gospel. But then that means we need to overlook the inclusio in John that places Andrew before Peter in the opening, but that can be explained as just a bit of friendly rivalry at work with the Johannine author having a bit of fun placing Peter behind his brother.

The relevance of Lucian’s Alexander and Porphyry’s Life of Plotinus
Bauckham sees similar inclusio of names in these late second century and late third century works, and in these works he sees that there, too, such inclusio are “evidence” of the actual eyewitness source of those works. But the discussion here is more of the same. He hypothesizes that when the gospels were being written there must have been hundreds of known historio-biographical stories that used inclusio to inform readers of the identity of their eyewitness sources, but of course all of those are now lost.

Bauckham is satisfied that he has presented his case and concludes that “contrary to first impressions” the Gospels really do tell their readers both that there were eyewitness sources for their content and who those eyewitnesses were. They do this through the literary technique of inclusio. Why haven’t modern readers noticed this before? Because, says Bauckham, it was an ancient technique now lost and it was the ancient readers who would have noticed these clues for what they were. If any reader can tell me I really missed the evidence for inclusios indicating what B says they indicated to the ancient reader, I will of course make the correction.

This was probably not Bauckham’s strongest chapter. Look forward to reading better things to come in the next.

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Neil Godfrey

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