Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Chapter 11

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by Neil Godfrey

11. Transmitting the Jesus Traditions

In this and the next chapter Bauckham presents his case for the manner in which the Jesus traditions were transmitted by the eyewitnesses of Jesus, in particular by the Twelve as represented by Peter. He claims that:

  • Paul received the Jesus traditions from Peter as leader of the Twelve.
  • Paul formally passed these Jesus traditions on to church communities.
  • The traditions that Paul passed on were:
    • Jesus narrative and sayings traditions;
    • ethical instruction;
    • worship ordinances;
    • and the gospel story and message.
  • The process of transmission of these traditions involved some formal process of teaching and learning a formalized content.
  • This formalized content contains a measure of memorization although it was “not wholly verbatim reproduction”.
  • The process also required “an authorized tradent” as the teacher.
  • Paul’s authority as a tradent and hence his recognition among church communities as an authorized teacher was his place in a chain of transmission originating with other competent authorities — in particular the Jerusalem apostles — for the traditions he taught.
  • When Paul speaks of passing on traditions it would be a mistake to assume he is simply employing terminology familiar to him from his Pharisee days: he is employing language common to the early Christian literature more broadly, thus implying his role as a tradent was part of a larger network of the transmission of the Christian traditions.

Bauckham refers to what appear to be the technical terms for handing on and receiving a tradition, paradidomi and paralambano, as found in Paul’s letters:

These Greek words were used for formal transmission of tradition in the Hellenistic schools and so would have been familiar in this sense to Paul’s Gentile readers. (p.264)

He compares Paul’s use of these (and related) words with their use in Josephus, Mark 7.4, Acts 6.14 and their Hebrew equivalents in later rabbinic literature.

There appears to me a problem here that neither Bauckham nor many conservative biblical scholars seem to recognize or adequately address. With the exception of Acts 6.14 the non-Pauline uses of these words for passing on traditions refer to a cultural context where the communities and their teachers are dealing with traditions that are centuries old, and in which the communities have cultural cues for recognizing the validity of both teachers and the content of their instruction. Bauckham is attempting to apply this model in a context where the target community is not culturally coherent with the community sourcing the tradition, and where Paul is bringing in something completely new for which there can be no cultural cues for validation — of either his message or his own authority. So the words as used in Paul’s letter cannot have had the same import for him or his readers as they did in the broader Jewish community — unless one agrees with those critics who see in this terminology evidence of the letters being composed much later than conventional wisdom allows. (And recall that the whole reason for placing strong emphasis on authoritative tradition was to guard against heterodoxy — a concern not otherwise evidenced among the “proto-orthodox” until the 2nd century.)

In other words, how could the gentile Corinthians (and even their Jewish neighbours) have possibly recognized Paul as an authoritative teacher — how could they have known to have agreed that apostles they had hitherto never heard of were satisfactory guarantors of Paul’s qualifications — and how could they possibly have regarded a message they had never before heard as a valid “tradition”? The models that Bauckham discussed in the previous chapter seem to require a broader cultural context and longer time-frame to work. One can imagine the churches, and their founder Paul, speaking of “the gospel” and “proofs” or “signs” to verify it, but it is difficult to comprehend how they could have found validation in terminology that only works where cultural coherence over time allow it to work.

There is another problem here with Paul’s specific use of the word for “receiving” a tradition (paralambano). Its uses in relation to Paul “receiving” the traditions of the resurrection appearances (1 Cor.15.3) and the eucharist formula (1 Cor.11.23) run into contradiction, tautology and special pleading if read as implying that Paul received those traditions from other human authorities as per B’s model. The details of this argument, for which I have not yet seen a rebuttal, can be found in Earl Doherty’s online article titled The Source of Paul’s Gospel: The Idea of “Reception” (paralambano) in 1 Corinthians 15:3, 11:23 and Galatians 1.12.

Peter teaches Paul
The question that immediately comes to mind is Paul’s vociferous claims, especially in Galatians, to not having received his gospel from any man but from none other than Christ directly. Bauckham, however, reasons that Paul only meant to say that he got “the gospel he preached . . . through the revelation of Jesus Christ” (p.266), and that after preaching in Arabia (Gal.1.17) he recognized his need for more detail about the Jesus story, so to this end he consulted with Peter for a straight 15 days back in Jerusalem. So the “gospel he preached” before meeting Peter, and that came “through the revelation of Jesus Christ”, seemed to trouble Paul in the field for its lack of detail.


  • Yet in Galatians (Bauckham does not draw attention to this detail) we read that Paul saw fit to wait three whole years before returning to Jerusalem presumably to make up for this lack of detail. Just how seriously interested was he really in filling in the detail gaps? (One wonders why B did not apply the bulk of this 3 years preaching to Damascus. Was it because the reader knows there were other Christians there who could have informed him, thus robbing him of any need to see Peter after all?)
  • Galatians also appears to many to more naturally read that Paul went out into the Nabatean desert for a solo session with the divinity as prophets and holy men traditionally did, not to go out and preach to the nomadic tribal groups.
  • One also wonders if Paul was challenged so early for details about Christ’s story why he did not sprinkle his epistles with such reinforcing details to clearly establish his debt to the Twelve and Peter, and thus enhance his authority in the chain of transmission. (Paul’s letters are, of course, notorious for their lack of specificity about the life and teachings of the earthly Jesus. And keep in mind that B strongly implies throughout that the traditions included much memorized material, too. We are definitely not talking of a casual message that may come and go from memory. If the details were committed to memory, at least in substance if not completely verbatim, then surely that would lead one to expect a few more of those tidbits to surface throughout so many letters.)
  • Bauckham cites James Dunn’s explanation for support. Dunn, B points out, says that Paul needed to know more details, for supplementary or corrective purposes, about the Jesus story than he had been able to pick up as a persecutor. One needs hardly draw attention to this explanation being in contradiction to that offered by Bauckham who says that Paul’s knowledge was “through the revelation of Jesus Christ”, not through persecution of Christians. If one sides with Dunn’s interpretation here against Bauckham’s, then one must picture Paul going out to preach Christianity to the Nabateans solely on what he knew of Christianity from the days he persecuted it.
  • Tertullian near the end of the second century wrote a commentary on the book of Galatians for the express purpose of attacking those “heretics” (Marcionites) who upheld the independence of Paul from the Twelve. He makes no reference to this passage. This is surely a silence that screams for explanation if it were in the letter Tertullian knew.
  • Paul was able to recall after 14 years the exact number of days he spent with Peter? This sounds like the sort of detail that a narrator or author of a pseudepigraphical text would add for the sake of verisimilitude.
  • What does B’s interpretation imply about the honesty of Paul if he means to suggest that Paul really did learn a lot of extra details about the gospel from Peter? Recall that Paul also said point blank that Peter and James “added nothing” to what he preached (Gal.2.6).
  • If the substance of the gospel message could be garnered “through the revelation of Jesus Christ alone” (or alternatively from what one could learn as a persecutor) so that only details were lacking, and so much so that one could preach three years before attempting to fill in those details, then what was the purpose, the function, the significance of the Twelve — and Peter — again? Was it just for the little extra details that found no place in the Pauline letters after all or could wait three years before checking out?

Given the above list of difficulties that Bauckham’s interpretation of Galatians brings up, one must surely ask if his interpretation is really little more than special pleading, and that one should rather embrace the more natural and plainly obvious meaning of the following passages:

Paul, an apostle (not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father. . . . For do I now persuade men, or God? Or do I seek to please men? For if I still pleased men, I would not be a servant of Christ. But I make known to you . . . that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ. . . . For those who seemed to be something (Peter, James and John) added nothing to me. (Gal.1:1, 10-12; 2.6)

I Corinthians 15:3
What of that other passage where Paul speaks of “receiving” what he preached? Here I would refer again to Earl Doherty’s article linked above. But if that sounds like a cop out let me raise just a few difficulties that arise if one interprets this receiving as a receiving of a formal teaching from the Twelve:

  • Did the Twelve, or Peter as their representative, tell no one except Paul that Jesus had 500 witnesses of his resurrection? It beggars belief that such a “tradition” could be guarded and transmitted by the Twelve yet not make it to a single other canonical or noncanonical scrap of surviving papyrus or parchment.
  • Why did not Paul place his “this-is-what-they-and-we-preach” type conclusion (15.11) at the end of what both Paul and “they” preached? As it reads, Paul is saying that Peter or the Twelve also formally passed on “the tradition” to Paul that included how Paul himself was converted, and how much harder working Paul was than any of the other apostles.
  • Paul twice says that the source of his knowledge about the death and resurrection of Jesus was the scriptures. Paul appears to say here that the source of the death, burial and rising of Jesus on the third day was the Scriptures, while many others could subsequently testify to having seen the resurrected Jesus (not the previous events). And this seeing by these others was of the same type of seeing as experienced by Paul himself — there was no difference at all otherwise the point of the whole passage is lost. In other words, the words of Paul in 1 Cor.15 are in flat contradiction to any “traditions” the Twelve are supposed to have passed on to the authors of our gospels. There were no physical post-resurrection appearances of Jesus where he ate and could be touched, but only visionary experiences like Paul’s. And he was seen by Cephas and then the Twelve (not “and then the rest of the Twelve”), not to mention 500 and James.
  • If Paul had, as per Bauckham, delivered the “traditions” from the Twelve to a receptive Corinthian church at the beginning, then one must surely wonder why Paul does not remind his Corinthian church of that fact when addressing those among them who argue that there is no such thing as a resurrection of the dead (1 Cor.15:12). Surely this is the place to draw on a few of those little details he must have picked up from Peter over those 15 days he spent with him all those years ago. Details like Jesus telling them at his Last Supper that he would see them again soon, how their sorrow would soon be turned to joy, not to mention subsequently eating with them, telling them to feel his wounds, appearing through solid walls.

Surely life is simpler, and fewer questions rear their heads, if one accepts the meaning of Paul’s “receiving” to mean:


  • he received from some source other than the Twelve themselves


  • this letter, like others of Paul, contains so many anachronisms and contradictions that one must conclude that these, like so many other ancient pagan and Christian writings, became cluttered with interpolations over the years — or Paul chose not to offer clarifying statements whenever he was spirited into some other poem or hymn or saying that only partly related to some other point he was trying to make.

I Corinthians 11:23
Bauckham similarly argues that when Paul claims to have received the ordinance and formula of the eucharist “from the Lord” that he really only means that what he received came ultimately “from the Lord” but that he really received it from, presumably, Peter himself. Again, the Doherty online article above discusses this, but again, lest that be seen as a dodge, I offer the following:

  • This is surely a classic case of special pleading. Just a few chapters earlier Paul wrote of a clear distinction between what, in his writings, originates “from the Lord” as opposed to what comes from his own mind. See 1 Corinthians 7:10-12. Can anyone seriously entertain the possibility that there Paul needed to say that the ruling against divorce came from the Twelve but that that same group gave no ruling on what to do in cases involving unbelieving partners? Bauckham says that was indeed the case (p.268). That also surely beggars belief. The Twelve, who heard Jesus speak of loving him more than one’s family or wife or husband, of leaving all to follow him, of betrayal by spouses, of finding new homes and families in both this life and the next to come, never once thought to compose a teaching “tradition” about a situation involving a believing and an unbelieving partner?
  • No, it is clear there that Paul takes the command against divorce as a commandment “from the Lord” — not “ultimately” from the Lord via an “authoritative chain” that had no rulings on anything more complex. He says directly that he had the command from the Lord, not that it (indirectly) “came from the Lord” — presumably either from spiritual insight or scripture, which unfortunately failed him when it came to the more real-life case. Texts are so good at answering the black and white questions. Similarly with 1 Corinthians 11:23. One can keep rationalizing that Paul meant something he didn’t say and that he perhaps had ego or diplomatic reasons to avoid saying, or one can relax and just take the plain meaning we all saw so clearly when we first read it.
  • But for the more radically minded, as Price observes and as Bill Cosby might ask, “Yeh, right! Who wrote this really?” Did the same pen that went ballistic over schisms in the first three chapters of 1 Corinthians, such severe schisms that most factions even denied the very authority of or allegiance to Paul himself, introduce this passage about the Lord’s Supper with “Oh, I hear that there are some divisions among you, and in part I think I must believe it” (11:18)? Price appropriately reminds us that Winsome Munro assigns this passage, for multiple reasons, to the Pastoral Stratum that was subsequently added to this (and other) letters of Paul.

To whom did Paul transmit?
Without any deeper textual or historical analysis Bauckham takes Paul’s reference to teachers in the epistles as evidence that he passed on traditions to specially authorized individuals in the church communities (p.269). B rejects the Bailey model of community guardianship in preference for the formally controlled transmission model. (See the previous chapter.) B summons Josephus for support: the Pharisees passed on traditions in a formal manner from teacher to teacher so that they could all teach the people.

Why did they do it?
B discusses the differences in treatment of historical tales and historical accounts in oral societies and draws from the research that historical accounts are treated far more seriously. The early church, therefore, can be expected to be seriously preserving historical accounts more carefully than tales. But why? Bauckham is not content with Dunn’s explanation that the stories provided early Christians with “self-identification”. B says they were more interested in “salvation” than “self-identification”. The story of Jesus was a new chapter in the story of God acting to save, and it was this salvation history was what they were preserving when they preserved the historical accounts. This seems to me a naive understanding of the psychology of religious belief vis a vis self identity, but will leave that aside for now and for others to think through. A far bigger question is how the church could possibly have come to such an interest in salvation if at the same time they lost any biographical or historical interest in the supposed founder of their salvation for its own sake? It’s a romantic model, a good faith-based Christian model, but it does defy the logic of human experience. (No doubt many will see in that comment testimony to its divine standing.)

Intelligent Design in History?
B then appears to contradict the previous section in which he has argued that historical accounts were preserved for their religious meaning by insisting that the accounts were originally preserved (and only marginally modified subsequently) without regard for being a part of anything else, but strictly for their own sakes. This, coming hard after the section that insisted the interest in preservation was purely theological, strikes me as double-speak. If not, then it appears that Bauckham is effectively saying that the words and deeds of Jesus were literally and historically of theological import — and that God really does act in history. This of course returns us to B’s initial hypothesis in his earliest chapter. History and theology “meet”. Which sounds like code for “the Gospel of Jesus is historically true and a naive (noncritical) reading of the texts will verify this.” This is not a meeting of history and theology. It is theology destroying the historical method. It is a rejection of the humanist and scientific values that undergird history. It might even be the equivalent of “Intelligent Design” for scientific History.

What we see is what is meant to be
Bauckham concludes after a discussion of the role of memorization in the transmission:

In short, memorization was a mechanism of control that preserved the Jesus traditions as faithfully as the early Christian movement required. . . . While memorization accounts (in part) for the stability of the tradition, several other factors account for its variability. Factors making for stability and factors making for variability should not be considered in tension with each other. Each balanced the other to produce the combination of fixity and flexibility that was considered appropriate to each of the various types of Jesus tradition. (p.287)

In other words, what we have in the New Testament is exactly what the early church — a single harmonious body united in the tradition by the guardianship of the Twelve and with whom Paul was but one subservient part — is exactly what that early church wanted and needed, just as it is. If scholars have found rivalry in the Gospel of John then Bauckham can assure us it was only “friendly rivalry”. Paul had no rift with Peter and the Jerusalem apostles, only diplomatic presentations and theologically alternate explanations. No contradictions, no rival Christianities, no tensions, only every part fitting exactly in the body where it pleased the body.

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Neil Godfrey

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  • Steven Carr
    2007-02-24 18:51:12 GMT+0000 - 18:51 | Permalink

    ‘Bauckham cites James Dunn’s explanation for support. Dunn, B points out, says that Paul needed to know more details, for supplementary or corrective purposes, about the Jesus story than he had been able to pick up as a persecutor.’

    I see.

    So Bauckham argues that Mark hid the name of Lazarus from persecutors, such as Paul, for the purposes of ‘protective anonymity’ while also claiming that persecutors would not have known details of Jesus life like the stories of his miracles.

    It is all just made up off the top of his head!

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