Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Chapter 12b

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by Neil Godfrey

We probably should envisage . . .

We probably should envisage a carefully compiled and formulated collection of Jesus traditions, incorporating other important eyewitness testimony as well as that of the Twelve themselves, but authorized by the Twelve as the official body of witnesses. (p.299)

This would surely be not too difficult to test. What would we expect the final compilation of this collection to look like? What features would it have that would clearly indicate it was “carefully compiled and formulated”, and that it incorporated different classes of eyewitness testimonies? Do those features appear in or explain textual and stylistic characteristics of any one of the gospels? Has the fact that few if any scholars have attempted to explain the variations among the gospels, and specific literary features of any of them, in terms of what B says, been entirely the fault of the blinders of “form criticism”?

My first response to envisaging what such a model would produce:

  • a single document,
  • lengthy,
  • and a whole lot of “This is what Peter heard Jesus say….” “This is a list of the acts of Jesus when he accompanied ….”
  • clear and unambiguous attestations to the authority of its sources and authors to establish its clear authority (we do find such unambiguous attestations in ancient historical works, and when it’s overdone in early church literature it is often seen as evidence of forgery — ancients knew the value of being more direct than dropping coded clues like inclusio).
  • Alternately I would perhaps expect something like a writer composing something like “The Memoirs of the Apostles” — a bit like the book Xenophon titled as his “Memoirs of Socrates”.
  • Of course I could well be wrong so must be prepared for surprises, but so that I’m not so open minded that my brains fall out I should also decide on a few things I would not expect from such a model. Such as contradictions without some annotation explaining the reason for the inclusion of those contradictory statements.

Now we know we have nothing like any of this at all, so I would have to fall back on Plan B and demonstrate how this model explains the many problems of textual and literary criticism that have beset scholars without hope of finding answers in the quicksands of form-criticism. Should Bauckham produce a sequel demonstrating how his model offers far more economical solutions to major textual and literary questions in the gospels then I will be among the first to be most impressed.

Anonymous gospels?
Bauckham does not believe that our canonical gospels originally circulated anonymously. His initial objection is once again to “form critics” who assumed the gospels were folk literature and therefore by definition anonymous. He gives three reasons for his belief:

Reason 1:
The evidence within the gospels of Luke, John and Matthew shows these were not intended to be anonymous. (“Many ancient works were anonymous in the . . . formal sense . . . . For example, this is true of Lucian’s Life of Demonax . . .” — I would have been interested to see more than just one of “many” examples available along with an explanation of how we know that work was by Lucian. Such details would help the reader make a better assessment of B’s claims.)

  • The evidence within Luke is that Luke wrote a prologue and “it is inconceivable that a work with a named dedicatee should have been anonymous” (p.301) B. does not explain why it should be inconceivable, nor address the possibility of literary artifice at work here; let alone the much studied textual history of Luke’s gospel that persuades many scholars of the possibility that the original Luke is quite different in significant ways from our version.
  • The evidence in John’s gospel is 21:23-24 which “ostensibly, at least” (p.301) shows that the author was the Beloved Disciple and that it was a widespread rumour that he would not die. He must have been known, therefore. Paradoxically (or perhaps ironically?) Bauckham has already warned us that he will argue that the real author of this gospel was not the John the son of Zebedee whom most have assumed was meant to be indicated as the author.
  • The evidence that the title of Matthew’s gospel originally included the name of Matthew is that the name Matthew currently appears in the title and “here we need take the title of Matthew simply as evidence from some early stage of the Gospel’s transmission.”(p.301-2)! I have not discussed the slight changes made in the text of this gospel where Levi is replaced by the name Matthew etc, because Bauckham himself dismisses such modifications as “surely not prominent enough to have made readers think Matthew must be the author.” But B nevertheless attributes enough force to these “not prominent enough” modifications to start his logic spinning in circles.
  • Bauckham does not discuss Mark’s anonymity at all here.

Reason 2:
Bauckham rightly observes that each of the current names of our gospels (Gospel according to Matthew, Gospel according to Luke . . .) presupposes the existence of the others. The names they currently bear were thus attributed to them when they needed to be distinguished from each other.

So how would communities have recorded the titles or authors of the works if they did not come with these in the written texts? (It was not universal practice for an author to assign a title to a work.) Each community would store its books (codices or scrolls) side by side on a shelf. To identify each “book” a name of a title or author would be attached or written on its outside. B cites Hengel’s argument that the titles of our gospels would have derived from the shelf-titles thus assigned them in each community’s collection. I find difficulty with that because there is no evidence of variation in titles of any of our gospels. Communities left to assign their own titles to each gospel would not produce the same titles or even record the presumed authors uniformly. One librarian might use the first line of a text as a title and sufficient identifier, another some other known association of the work. (Librarians even today find it hard enough to maintain consistent standards in the attribution of titles and authors to works! And I speak as a librarian of many years experience whose job is standards maintenance.)

Bauckham then raises an excellent point when he reminds us that our canonical gospels have only ever been known by the titles they currently bear, yet they must have had similar titles from the earliest times they were known collectively since this would be the only way of distinguishing them from one another.

The evidence Bauckham cites for the long-term uniformity of these titles is that there is no evidence that these titles were ever disputed. He could have added there is no evidence they ever existed either. So far he has only drawn the conclusion, logical as it is, that they existed. I would argue that Bauckham’s conclusion (in bold) from the evidence more economically supports the argument for the 4 canonical gospels being shared in a common Christian community from a relatively late date — not long before we learn their names from Irenaeus around 180 ce. Of course this conclusion, far more economical, would oppose B’s argument for the “authoritative” status (both theological and historical?) of the gospels.

Reason 3:
Reason 1 + Reason 2 = the gospels had authors’ names attached to them from the moment they circulated around the churches — although B concedes Matthew is a special case and Matthew himself was not the author and its original form was quite different from our version (why not address the evidence of the same for Luke?); and he does not agree with the most widely accepted authorial attribution of John.

But recall that the main question about anonymity concerns the content of the gospels, and B takes the opportunity here to sum up the evidence that the gospel authors “present the traditions they preserve as derived from named eyewitnesses”:

  1. Where a minor character is named the reason is “usually” that that person was the eyewitness source of the story attached to their name. (If Richard Bauckham had been a little more consistent with his rationales for named characters he might have had an answer for the problem I raised in my “Interlude” post: What better source of the trial of Jesus than Caiaphas himself!? — by the way, one can’t pull Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea out of the cupboard to testify as eyewitnesses here either — the narratives inform us that all those present condemned Jesus.)
  2. What other explanation can there be for the “care with which the list of the Twelve has been preserved and recorded” in the Synoptic gospels other than they were the ones known to the authors as their primary eyewitness sources?
  3. Three of the gospels — Mark, Luke and John — use inclusio and B’s explanation for this is that it is a flag to indicate the principal eyewitness source of the author.

These arguments show not simply that, as a matter of fact, the traditions in the Gospels have eyewitness sources but, very importantly, that the Gospels themselves indicate their own eyewitness sources.” (pp.304-5 — my emphasis)

Controlling the tradition
In Polynesia, New Zealand, Hawaii and Rwanda oral societies are known to have ways of preserving with near word perfect formal recitations and performances of traditions. Richard Bauckham brings the research to the readers’ attention. He then extrapolates from these ritualistic performances to argue that the early Christian communities would have had similar “controllers” to ensure the accurate transmission, and that the most logical controllers would have been the eyewitnesses themselves.

I don’t understand the relevance of traditional performances to communities hearing new messages from eyewitnesses. Nor do I understand why the eyewitnesses were there as controllers of those “performing” the tradition in early Christian communities as B says. Why would not the eyewitness him/herself simply tell the story? What would prompt the earliest eyewitnesses and their audiences to formally and ritually “perform” their stories? No, these are the sorts of things that appear after a long time. But B has already addressed this and so have I earlier.

Bauckham sees Jewish Christians visiting the Twelve in Jerusalem over the years each time they attended the festivals — at least those Twelve who were still in Jerusalem. Here Bauckham might be charged with denying the authority of Acts this time, since that same book opens with a command from Jesus that leads readers to expect that the Twelve will eventually leave Jerusalem and go out to the whole world.

Paul and 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 (again (sorry))
Looks like I jumped the gun and discussed this in the previous chapter. Bauckham studies it in detail here. From his discussion I have nothing to add to my critique in chapter 11. I am surprised that Bauckham seems unaware of the anomaly of quoting the exact tradition the Jerusalem Twelve (B has previously said it was Peter, as rep of the 12, who passed on the tradition to Paul but here he more generally sticks to Paul receiving this from “the Jerusalem Twelve”) passed on to him — the quote quite naively includes Jesus’ appearance to Paul! So Paul learned from the Twelve how to recite and pass on his own Jesus appearance?

But Paul is a maverick even despite B’s best efforts to subordinate him to Jerusalem. B notices that Paul himself probably broke from “the received tradition” and unfaithfully added to it — he added the reference to the 500 witnesses himself! Why? As added authentication of the tradition. Looks like Paul thought there were more persuasive eyewitnesses than the Twelve after all. And I would agree that 500 eyewitnesses would have been far more persuasive than a mere 12. Did the Twelve keep silent about them for fear the masses would undermine their status? (yolk) Some commentators seem to have little difficulty in suspecting the resurrected saints after Christ’s resurrection was a bit of a well intentioned pious exaggeration; why not accept the same possibility that the volatile Paul capable of as much, too?

I have already addressed this point and its fictional nature is surely obvious. It is clearly the sort of detail that could only be added to a text at least a generation removed from the time setting of the text itself. It simply defies all sense to think that there really were 500 witnesses accessible to Christians in any community let alone worldwide (Paul, B says, is telling the Corinthians that they can check any of these eyewitnesses of the resurrection) and for this “detail” to go completely unnoticed until here. The author of this passage can point to 500 witnesses because he knows his audience is not the implied audience of the letter — it is not really the Corinthians living in 55 ce. His audience are those who are reading this letter as if it were history. The Pauline corpus was completely unknown before the second century, and it addresses the immediate ecclesiastical concerns of the second century, such as unity and heresy, Jewish Christianity and antinomianism, church governance and order.

Bauckham is impressed with the “explicitness of this detail” (p.308). Any student of literature 101 knows that explicitness of detail is the bricks and mortar of any good writer who wants to present the most realistic scene, fictional or nonfictional. This reference to the 500 is as fictional as if an author says “And the palace records of this story are still kept to this very day in a vault in the palace tower.” For a discussion of this in ancient letters check my review of Rosenmeyer’s Ancient Epistolary Fictions.

Creative writers?
Bauckham claims that he is allowing for both a faithful preservation of eyewitness testimony “and also for the creative work of the Gospel writers as true authors” (p.310). Till now I could see little room for author creativity. But Bauckham explains that the writers were free to “integrate their testimonies into biographies of Jesus”. They were free to order and shape the material. This brings my thoughts at least back to that Jerusalem centre of authority — were they simply compiling or reciting stories without any sense of order or shape at all? If they were, did they say it didn’t matter, but that individual authors could play with the material as they thought fit?

But more importantly in one sense is that Bauckham allows the authors to shape the traditions in not only literary but also theological ways. I suggest Bauckham is unclear about the exact role and function of the Twelve in his model. How could their work of preservation and guardianship have possibly avoided theological import? And how could that theological meaning have failed to have been part of their preservation and guardianship brief?

Bauckham knows he cannot ignore the questions raised by redaction and literary criticism (p.309) so this is his response. The Twelve were in some sense, it seems, neutral guardians of facts (words and events) that were at some level “value free” and were happy to allow each author to impute the theological meanings and orderings as appropriate. The result? Contradictions, ambiguities, the gospels we know today. So what exactly did Bauckham mean when he said that the Twelve were responsible for a “carefully controlled and formulated collection”? — as quoted at the top of this post.

When I said I would be the first to be impressed if Bauckham wrote a sequel explaining how his model better answers the questions raised by the studies such as redaction and literary criticism I was expecting a bit more than this. B seems content that his hypothesis advances no solutions to any of their questions. It is enough that the questions exist because of his model and not that of the form critics.

Bauckham’s last part of this chapter is a discussion of individual and collective memories. I will leave this with B’s conclusion of this discussion:

Individual recollective memory did not lose its own identity through absorption into collective memory, but maintained that identity even when it was transmitted by the collective memory. The incorporation of the testimony of the eyewitnesses into the Gospels insured the permanence of that identity. (p.318)

Finally Richard Bauckham softly whispers a hint that he is addressing fellow-converts of the faith rather than students of history per se:

Christianity’s continual fresh discovery of the relevance of the story of Jesus to new circumstances has always taken the form of negotiating past and present. All such negotiation has had to account for itself with reference to the Jesus represented in the four Gospels, the Jesus of eyewitness testimony. (p.318)

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Neil Godfrey

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