Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Chapter 14

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by Neil Godfrey

Meanwhile, have made a few minor changes/additions to points 3 and 6 (’emotional involvement’ and ‘point of view’) in my previous chapter 13 discussion since originally posting it.

14. The Gospel of John as Eyewitness Testimony

This chapter attempts to establish three points:

  1. that the author of the gospel of John identifies himself as “the Beloved Disciple” (– but exactly who that was B reserves for a future chapter)
  2. that the original ending of the gospel was 21:24-25
  3. that significant “we” references testify to an “authoritative we”

On these three points I found Bauckham’s conclusions (although not all his arguments) refreshingly persuasive.

What was far from persuasive, however, was the general thrust of where Bauckham’s argument here is leading. The mere fact that there is a signature on a work cannot be a methodological basis for assigning a work to “real history” or “real eyewitness testimony”. The Gospel of Peter was “clearly” written by “Peter”. The Epistula Apostolorum was “clearly” written by eleven of the Twelve apostles.

Why do we so often see scholars toss out any methodological nous when it comes to their canonical scriptures? This methodological gaffe of relying the Gospels as a priori sources of historical information has been calling out for attention and correction at least since 1904. The following initially addresses this gaffe in relation to how historians read Papias (not inappropriate here) but continues by applying the same argument even more to the case of the Gospels:

With regard to the recurrent inclination to pass off Papias’s remarks about the first two Synoptists as “ancient information” and to utilize them in some fashion or other, a somewhat more general observation may not be out of place. The history of classical literature has gradually learned to work with the notions of the literary-historical legend, novella, or fabrication; after untold attempts at establishing the factuality of statements made it has discovered that only in special cases does there exist a tradition about a given literary production independent of the self-witness of the literary production itself; and that the person who utilizes a literary-historical tradition must always first demonstrate its character as a historical document. General grounds of probability cannot take the place of this demonstration. It is no different with Christian authors. In his literary history Eusebius has taken reasonable pains; as he says in the preface he had no other material at his disposal than the self-witness of the books at hand . . . . how much more is this not the situation in the case of the Gospels, whose authors intentionally or unintentionally adhered to the obscurity of the Church, since they neither would nor could be anything other than preachers of the one message, a message that was independent of their humanity? . . . .

This is from an academic paper delivered in 1904 by E. Schwartz: “Uber den Tod der Sohne Zebedaei. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Johannesevangeliums” (= Gesammelte Schriften V, 1963,48-123). It is cited in a 1991 chapter by Luise Abramowski titled “The ‘Memoirs of the Apostles’ in Justin” pp.331-332 published in “The Gospel and the Gospels” ed. Peter Stuhlmacher.

Methods versus conclusions

While I have no difficulties with Bauckham’s conclusions on his three points in this chapter I do hold reservations about some of the arguments he employed. I mention these because they are further demonstration of the faulty logic that underpins so much of the entire hypothesis of this book.

The parallels between the two concluding statements
Bauckham cites numerous parallels between the first closing statement in 20.30-31 and the final one at 21.24-25. But it is circular reasoning to use these parallels to support the argument that the same author was responsible for both. It is just as reasonable to conclude that a later redactor based his conclusion on the style of the initial ending.

Magic numbers
Bauckham sees the 496 syllables in the Prologue matching the supposed 496 words in the Epilogue as evidence of originality of the ending in our version of the Gospel. (I admit I had visions at that point of Ivan Panin’s The Last Twelve Verses of Mark using complex alpha-numeric calculations to “prove” the divine inspiration and originality of the later ending of that gospel but B does not go that far.) Whatever the strength of these syllable-word counts (and I have not read Menken’s work on which B seems to rely here, and do not know the basis of his decisions for opting for certain manuscript evidence over others) this sort of data does not prove the originality of our current text’s integrity. Could not such patterns have just as likely been the result of later redactional editings, especially given that there is much evidence of later redactional hands adding new layers to the Johannine literature of the course of its early history?

Other reasons

What I found more persuasive (though very little can be anything but tentative given the extent and nature of the evidence in biblical studies) was Bauckham’s pointing to the balancing content of both the prologue and epilogue: the former looking back to the beginning of the world and the latter looking forward to the time of the end when Christ comes. I also find it “tidier” to see the 2 ending statements as forming an inclusio around the epilogue to mark it off as a distinct story set from the rest of the “Signs” gospel. I fully admit this is a strictly aesthetic judgment, and that I also like it because it coheres nicely with my earlier blog post about classical endings in noncanonical literature. So I am also quite prepared to revise my opinion about this ending being original given more persuasive evidence.

Breathtaking . . . staggering . . .

I cannot resist one final wry comment here.

Richard Bauckham takes to task scholars who have arguably drawn unwarranted conclusions from the Gospel of John’s use of the word “to write” (graphein) in John 21.24. (The unwarranted conclusions have to do with suggestions that the word could be interpreted as meaning ‘spiritual responsibility’ for what is written rather than its obvious meaning of ‘he wrote’, etc.) Bauckham writes in response:

The progression of thought in these three sentences is breathtaking. . . .

Not a single example is given . . . . to assert . . . .

No evidence at all is added to the . . . evidence that . . . .

What is even more remarkable is the way in which this staggeringly faulty piece of argument has been uncritically followed by . . . .

It must be stressed that no one has yet produced any evidence that . . . .

No one seems even to have looked for such evidence . . . .

scholars have found this view credible despite the lack of . . . evidence . . . .


Now, what was it I have been saying about Bauckham’s hypothesis till now . . . . . ?

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Neil Godfrey

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0 thoughts on “Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Chapter 14”

  1. I’m hoping you will get this update on this random post, but I’ve been looking into 1 John 1:1 (specifically the “hands have touched” aspect) recently and was wondering if you thought that epistle/sermon would fall into a similar category of hearsay authoritative status. I’m struggling to find skeptical resources to understand this issue and I would appreciate any heads up you could give.

    1. I don’t see any esoteric meaning here. If the author of the epistle is commenting on the Gospel’s Prologue (as per John Ashton, Understanding the Fourth Gospel, 2nd ed. p.361, n.58) then he is claiming to represent eyewitnesses of Jesus during his ministry on earth. Whoever is writing it is clearly claiming to have been an eyewitness. But there is of course no evidence that this claim is correct. The author does not identify himself and is the product of one of the Johannine schools that contributed to the editing of the gospel through many iterations. The letter goes on to speak of Christ in purely mystical or similar terms and is unknown till the second century.

      1. Would you consider this pious fraud? Or some acceptable genre of the time where everyone knew it wasn’t quite true, but no one cared? How do the people in these schools of thought get away with churning out these kinds of claims in each others’ midsts?

  2. The notion that early Christian forgeries were in some sense a pious genre that everyone fully understood as making well-meaning but non-literal claims — this notion is a modern rationalization attempting to whitewash what was outright deceit. (I’m sure if the same were found among early Moslem authors fewer Christians would be willing to attribute the practice to “piety” or an “acceptable genre”. I wonder how many are even quite so generous re the gnostic gospels claiming to be by Mary, Philip, et al.)

    I’ve been posting on this very thing recently — “Was Forgery Treated Seriously by the Ancients?

    1. Neil,

      How much of the NT does this outright deceit cover? And is most of the case “against” it more about showing no one can establish the credibility of any of the claims? That may be correct, but it makes discussing any of the details of the gospels rather meaningless pick and choose skeptical presupposition even if that presupposition is basically justified. I just don’t like falling into that rut without telling people exactly what it is I’m doing up front, and why exactly it’s justified…sticking mostly to those reasons and not really going very far with it like it’s getting anywhere explicitly objective. It’s too many steps removed from where the explanatory power is coming from. We could spin a thousand naturalistic stories loosely based off of the “gist” of the documents if we just don’t really have to give a crap about the contents of the NT. How do you deal with this kind of thing in a way that makes you feel like you have intellectual integrity? Is there something more substantial to it rather than just picking at a slew of random dubious sounding details?

      It seems we would really have to start out a presentation to a Christian audience with something like this, “I think half the NT is outright pious fraud because supernatural claims in general have not shown to be credible, these documents purport to be eyewitnesses to such fantastic claims, and there is nothing but to show that their testimony on the matter is credible either. There are plenty of other reasons they may have been written.”

      Would something like that represent a general thesis?

      I do appreciate your responses. I noticed that Richard Carrier wrote in “The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave” the following:

      (pg 156) “This does not mean these authors must be considered liars. The logic of their sectarian dogma would lead to an honest and sincere belief in an empty tomb: since Jesus must have risen in the flesh, his tomb must have been empty. The rest they can have total confidence in through the two popular ‘excuses’ of their day, which were respectable then, but now are often agreed to be dubious: (1) historical truth can be revealed directly by God through the Holy Spirit, and (2) whatever isn’t historically true is nevertheless didactically true. Just as Paul can find ‘hidden meaning’ in the Old Testament Prophets, and Philo and the Therapeutae can find deep symbolic truths in ostensibly historical narratives like that of Exodus, so could the Gospel authors create narratives with deeper, hidden meanings under a veil of history. It was honest work then, even if it disturbs us today.”

      Do you believe he is mistaken?


  3. Carrier is surmising, and I have sometimes thought the same. Maybe it is true, but who can tell the motives of past authors for certain? I am sure many do believe sincerely in their own speculations. Even today it is recognized the best liars are those who believe their own lies.

    But I don’t bother attempting to argue with believers of any faith. Believers are only interested in winning you or winning the argument, and not in honest open discussion — unless they themselves are beginning to waver in their faith.

    For me, the evidence for the historicity of Jesus or any of the New Testament narrative is so non-existent that I simply respond to anyone who attempts to impress me with it by saying that “it’s just a story — there is no evidence that any of it is true.” Of course they go into overdrive at that point and argue this and that but at each point I simply ask how they know the story was not made up, an adaptation of Old Testament stories, etc. They will usually try to reverse the argument by asking how I know anything about anything, etc. But I remind them we are talking about ancient stories of gods and miracles and why single out the Christian ones over the pagan ones?

    I simply have nothing in common with people who want to believe in demons and souls and miracles and angels and resurrections and holy writings and fuzzy men and other characters in the sky etc and consider it a waste of time arguing with such mentalities — which are surely a relic of past ignorance and should be a minority position on earth by now. (Which might explain my preference for blogging over debating as I used to do in this and that discussion group. I prefer to share my own thoughts and readings and learnings with anyone else with a similar or exploratory interest. I only occasionally drop in to the debating/discussion forums now.)

  4. Understandable. Well, I’m certainly not trying to change your own personal mission, whatever that may be (or if you even have one other than boredom). But I do regularly engage believers and am looking for the most straight forward, sober, and honest framework for addressing various NT claims.

    Thanks for your help.


  5. I’d probably try to challenge a believer on how he knows what he knows — hearsay, what the church says, etc. etc. — but part of the belief system is to be on guard against attempts sent to tempt them away from the faith 🙂

    Still, it’s not a bad thing to engage and challenge either — who knows when a seed planted will decide the time is right to germinate.

    1. I focus on merely trying to be understood rather than trying to explicitly convince anyone per se. I would rather present a different option for understanding some issue while taking their objections carefully into consideration, and then graciously leaving it at that. I make it clear they are free to disagree and I’m not going to hound them like I’m their intellectual keeper. I try to make friends and reach out to everyone. It’s not a battle to the death every five seconds on the internet like anyone that I comment to is going to be changed overnight. But I can’t really successfully do this kind of thing if I don’t myself have a good grasp of the big picture. If my views don’t make sense or only half assedly account for things, then what’s the point of even presenting them uncontentiously as such? “Wow, he’s a nice guy, but has no idea what he’s talking about!” hehe


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