Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Chapter 12a

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by Neil Godfrey

12. Anonymous Tradition or Eyewitness Testimony

Eyewitnesses: a superfluous hypothesis?
Bauckham argues that the primary sources of the gospel authors (following best historical practice by ancient standards) were the eyewitnesses. He therefore takes issue with Dunn when he says:

[ I]t is almost self-evident that the Synoptists proceeded by gathering and ordering Jesus tradition which had already been in circulation, that is, had already been well enough known to various churches, for at least some years if not decades. (p.291 — Dunn p.250)

But then Bauckham seems to admit that Dunn’s statement here is quite sufficient as an explanation for our gospel materials when he responds:

Of course, the Synoptic Gospel writers would have known the oral traditions that were doubtless frequently rehearsed in whatever Christian communities (by no means necessarily one for each author) they were familiar with, but they would most likely also have heard eyewitnesses themselves rehearse their own traditions on many occasions, in these same communities or elsewhere. (p.292)

Bauckham assumes that the gospel authors would have been faced with a choice of either working from the traditions they well knew within the churches or, being good historians, leaving those years’ old traditions aside, and turn rather to the eyewitnesses themselves. Bauckham, then, is not content with a simple and well tried and tested hypothesis that is adequate to explain our gospels.

So what need have we of the eyewitness hypothesis option thrown in as an extra to explain our gospels? Bauckham is clear. B’s hypothesis is not an attempt to explain the origins of our gospel texts. Dunn has already offered a sufficient explanation for that. B’s intention is to have theology and history meet. To this end, B is not simply seeking an explanation, but an explanation that comes loaded with both theological and historical authority:

It [B’s hypothesis] is that the traditions as transmitted in the churches explicitly acknowledged their sources in the eyewitnesses and the authority of the eyewitnesses for their reliability. (p.292)

Is B asking me to believe that Jesus really did walk on water and was raised from the dead?

Endless genealogies
A significant reason Bauckham appears to oppose the form-critical model of transmission through “anonymous” communities is because ancient authors like Papias and Irenaeus describe hearing gospel stories from named individuals. Clearly the “community transmission model” was not devised without awareness of these reports, so what Bauckham needs to do, but fails to do, is address the reasons the “community transmission” are not persuaded by these reports of transmission from named persons.

We know that Papias and Irenaeus pointed to prominent names in a chain of transmission to establish the authority of their teachings. Such name-trees served the same purposes as ancient family-tree genealogies. These were political constructions, subject to re-writing and name-changes as power and social situations shifted. Similarly genealogies of teachers made it clear who was “right” and who was “wrong”. They were not absolute truths passed on with iconic reverence: Justin’s genealogy of teachers differs from Irenaeus’s; rival christianities created rival genealogies reflecting their doctrinal views of Paul.

Bauckham nevertheless gives strong weight to the tendentious narratives of Irenaeus, admitting that he was writing as a propagandist, but saying he was nonetheless “using a conventional ancient model to describe” the transmission of ideas; and with Papias he can see no evidence that there was anything tendentious in his account, and gives no suggestion that such a judgment ought to be qualified given that so few lines of his are preserved by someone using him for fourth century ecclesiastical propaganda. Of course there was a personal element in the passing on of traditions, but whether any of these persons were eyewitnesses of Jesus or to what extent they had power to shape the traditions within specific communities is not yet established with any direct evidence in this chapter.

Our understanding of the transmission of ideas and organizations has advanced on what ancients understood of these processes and their “models” for it. One cannot simply take the face value of ancient writings as the first and last in a correct understanding of a matter. They lacked the insights we have gained into how societies work. There is much that we will never know about ancient societies, but at the same time there is much that we probably understand far better about them (e.g. the forces of economics, social organizational and large group dynamics, functions of myths, etc. etc.) than they ever did themselves.

Anonymous collectives and strange depersonalizations
Bauckham also appears to confuse the anonymity of an academic model for transmission with a literal anonymity of persons involved in the real life transmission process. He speaks negatively throughout this chapter (and others) of the “anonymous” character of community transmission model. He cites Martin Hengel’s “anonymous collective” (a phrase which to many will interestingly bring to mind certain modern political associations) and refers to it as “a rather strange depersonalization of early Christianity” (p.297).

Yet his own model equally involves anonymous “teachers” and even anonymous eyewitnesses. What he objects to, of course, is that the community transmission model does not make room for renowned or authoritative individuals like the Twelve being the ones who were ultimately responsible for what was transmitted and how.

The authority of Jerusalem
Bauckham argues that it was the Jerusalem church itself that “had a key place in the formulation and transmission of Jesus traditions.” The evidence for this is the large number of names of eyewitnesses listed in the Book of Acts:

We have the Twelve and those qualified to have taken their place in the lottery along with the mother and brother of Jesus, and Bauckham cites the many places each of these gets a mention in Acts for support.

B also includes anyone who was called an early disciple, or an apostle on the assumption that such a label must have been applied only to eyewitnesses (no mention of the questions posed in the literature that casts doubt on this hypothesis), and this extends the list of names to include Mnason and Silas.

And finally a lot of other names are thrown in the pot because, while not known to have been eyewitnesses, “they might have been” (p.298): Agabus, Ananias and Sapphira, John Mark, Stephen, Philip the evangelist, the rest of the Seven (why not?), Philip’s daughters, Rhoda and others.

This does not seem a particularly exact list to use as supporting evidence for a sub-hypothesis that requires them all to be authoritative eyewitnesses.

How Paul supports Acts
B is aware that not everyone recognizes the historical value of Acts, so calls on Paul for backup support. B cites all the places Paul refers in his letters to Peter, John, “the rest of the Twelve”, James, Barnabas, Andronicus and Junia (Paul calls them apostles so B reasons they “must have been present at a resurrection appearance” p.298) and Silvanus. Although these names in Paul are presented as support for the authority of Jerusalem, and to back up the lists in Acts of so many eyewitnesses in Jerusalem, it does not seem to be a problem for B that only a handful of these names are associated by Paul with Jerusalem.

The meaning of Jerusalem
Bauckham suggests that the centrality of Jerusalem in the life of the church, in particular as the headquarters of doctrinal authority, is self-evident. The Christian community expected the fulfilment of prophecies that proclaimed it would be the place from which Jesus would send out his word to the ends of the world and to which in the end Israel and all the nations would come.

That will be surprising news to many who have thought Paul was at odds with the Jerusalem church. Bauckham explains:

Paul . . . nevertheless in his own way recognized the centrality of Jerusalem (Gal 2:1-10; Rom 15:19). His collection for the community there was his way of acknowledging it (cf. Rom 15:25-27) (p.299)

I doubt that Paul would have been impressed with Bauckham’s interpretation of his act of charity. One can imagine Paul retorting with an “I lie not!” as he reminds his modern readers that it was “for the poor”. (Furthermore, as many commentators have noted, it does seem odd that the author of Acts overlooks to tell readers how Paul’s offering was received.)

Bauckham refuses to see any conflict between Paul and Jerusalem (the evidence is well discussed and available almost everywhere) and this means he cannot approach the evidence of Acts with a critical eye to its value as evidence, as historians are always expected to do with all their evidence. Best historical practice — not the extremes of naive gullibility or critical sceptism for its own sake — demands this. Without this approach he has no option but to fall back on rationalizations and harmonizations of his reading of both Paul’s letters and Acts itself.

He also has to reject the scholarship that sees in the earliest gospels a rejection of Jerusalem by God as the centre of the kingdom. Galilee, the crossroads of the “nations” or gentiles, symbolizes the new kingdom (it is in Galilee, not in Jerusalem, that the disciples were to find the resurrected Jesus in the earliest gospels); and this is consistent with Stephen’s speech; and with Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman at the well. Acts is viewed by many as a pointer to Rome as the new centre of the church, as the “new Jerusalem” of the future; by others as a political document to assert the authority of “Jewish-grounded” Christianity over its more dominant rivals.

The meaning of history
But these are questions that arise when the historical method of examining the nature and provenance of the sources is practiced. Best practice historical method has a tendency of cutting through the front presented by source documents and examining what really went into their production. This is history at its best, and it is highly valued by everyone — except when it is found to have application to national, ideological or religious myths.

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Neil Godfrey

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