Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Chapter 15a

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by Neil Godfrey

15. The Witness of the Beloved Disciple

Bauckham opens this chapter with:

In the last chapter we demonstrated that, according to John 21:24, the Beloved Disciple was both the primary witness on whose testimony the Gospel is based and also himself the author of the Gospel. (p.384)

Correction. What Bauckham demonstrated was that the text of the gospel of John implies [or arguably affirms] the Beloved Disciple was both the primary witness and the author. The Gospel of Peter claims explicitly it is written by Peter. But that was not accepted into the canon. Bauckham nowhere demonstrates any interest in applying normal standards of historical and literary analysis and criticism to those scriptures in which he has theological faith and in which he wishes to arrange a “meeting” between theology and history.

Bauckham draws attention once again to Samuel Byrskog’s work demonstrating that ancient historians had a preference for eyewitness testimony, and he uses Byrskog to argue that the gospels, naturally being expressions of highest historiographical standards, therefore likewise drew on eyewitness accounts for their sources. au seems to regard the only alternative to his assumption of the gospels being ‘histories’ is form-criticism’s view that the gospels were the product of anonymous evolutionary traditions. Bauckham has assumed the gospels are a form of serious historical writing from the beginning no less than he has assumed that eyewitnesses of Jesus were the direct sources for their accounts. It is this assumption that has led him (bizarrely) to interpret “inclusio” as evidence for the main eyewitness source for three of the gospels (why not four? and why not Acts too? and why the curious ‘friendly rivalry’ exceptions in John?). In other words, the reasoning is entirely circular.

As my previous post summarizing a Norman Petersen article demonstrates, not once does the author of Mark present the conscious experience of any character except the narrator. The narrator presents other words and actions but only in order to have them evaluated by himself, either as the narrator through his plot or through his chief character, Jesus. The narrator is the omniscient narrator of fiction, reading minds and reporting actions where there are no other witnesses. There is no evidence in any of the gospels that a narrator or compiler has anywhere “reported” the experience and eyewitness account of an eyewitness as that eyewitness must surely have delivered it — with his/her own perceptions (different from the narrator’s) and accounts of what they actually saw people do and how they responded (not what they felt or thought).

In much of this chapter Richard Bauckham is defending his historiographic hypothesis against Andrew Lincoln’s arguments that the Gospel of John’s appeal to “witness” is essentially the literary construct of a legal metaphor (derived largely from Isaiah 40-55), and not historical. I hope to add notes from Lincoln’s article in a future blog post. (The link is to Lincoln’s 2002 article but Bauckham additionally cites his book of 2000 on the same subject.)

The Beloved Disciple among the Witnesses in God’s Lawsuit
Bauckham acknowledges the validity of Lincoln’s stress on the lawsuit metaphor throughout John’s gospel and its relationship to the “witness” motif, but adds:

though it is, of course, also important that the Gospel’s story of a cosmic lawsuit includes the literal events of judicial proceedings against Jesus . . . (p.387)

Why? This statement contradicts the whole thrust of Lincoln’s argument and in this context requires justification. Lincoln writes in his 2002 article:

The truth claims of the Fourth Gospel’s narrative are not to its circumstantial accuracy ensured by eyewitness testimony but to the explanation of God’s purposes for human existence implied by its narrative discourse. (p.26)

The judicial proceedings in John are unlike those in the synoptic gospels not because “the Beloved Disciple” happened to have been a witness to the events, but because the author is maintaining his cosmic lawsuit metaphor. Jesus’ words have been “spoken openly to the world” (18:20), and before Pilate Jesus assumes authority questioning the governor (18:34) and preaches to him the same message he has preached openly in the temple (18:37) to the whole world (all those reading this gospel). No real trial scene is reported here. The trial is as much a metaphorical construct by the theologian author as any other scene in the gospel.

Bauckham further acknowledges the validity of Lincoln’s dividing the trial metaphor into two phases, the gospel event of Jesus with 7 witnesses and the period subsequent to the gospel with 2 witnesses. These 2 witnesses are the Paraclete and the disciples (including the Beloved Disciple), and their role is to point back to the earlier 7 witnesses. In this way (not sure if this is from Bauckham or Lincoln here) the 7 witnesses of the gospel continue to testify. These 7 are:

  1. John the Baptist (1:7)
  2. Jesus (3:11)
  3. the Samaritan woman (4:39)
  4. God the Father (5:32)
  5. Jesus’ works or signs (5:36)
  6. the scriptures (5:39)
  7. the crowd who witnessed Lazarus’ resurrection (12:17)

Bauckham writes of these 7 witnesses that their “content” consists of “the history of Jesus” (p.388). One might wonder if he quite fully grasps Lincoln’s notion of metaphor. He writes that unless these seven witnesses are in some sense “reported” (as historical events that have been witnessed) then any interpretation of them (and the gospel does clearly offer interpretations of them) is based entirely on something, in effect, made up by the Beloved Disciple. Both the ‘events’ and their ‘interpretation’ are literary constructs. That, of course, Bauckham cannot accept. He simply dismisses the thought without argument, insisting that Lincoln is right as far as he goes but that Bauckham is also right to insist that real events really did happen behind their metaphorical portrayal.

If the events were not actually “reported” (that is, if they were mere literary devices) then:

the seven witnesses become no more than forms of expression of the Beloved Disciple’s own witness. (p.388)

He is right. They are no more than forms of expression of the implied narrator’s own witness. A metaphor is a metaphor and does not demand a historical ‘report’ to bring it into existence.

Metaphor versus reporting
That Lincoln has established the metaphorical device of the witness in a grander metaphor of the cosmic lawsuit in the Gospel of John does undermine Bauckham’s hypothesis. Another of Bauckham’s defensive ploys is:

there seems no reason why the Gospel’s understanding of witness should not take up and in a significant way coincide with the historiographic notion of eyewitness reporting. (p.388)

All the affirmative reasons for a particular interpretation are against Bauckham’s hypothesis so B must fall back on “no reason why not”, which of course could logically be applied to any hypothesis at all.

But won’t the idea that the Beloved Disciple is a real historical witness go against the whole thrust of the metaphorical use of ‘witness’ terminology throughout the gospel? Bauckham admits this:

If that makes the Beloved Disciple’s witness in that respect exceptional within the Gospel’s broader use of witness terminology, this exceptionality results from the logic of the overall metaphorical structure, not from some alien intrusion into that structure. (p.388)

One can scarcely imagine a more alien intrusion into a metaphor than a nonfigurative interpretation of a metaphor.

Medieval thought
Bauckham will have to do better than asking historians to believe that John really saw the spirit descend like a dove upon Jesus, Jesus historically turned water to wine, that Jesus really did read minds, that God spoke with a loud voice from heaven, that the Jewish scriptures truly prophesied of Jesus, and that Lazarus really was raised from the dead, to arrange for those historians to “meet theology” in harmony.
Lincoln aptly references Vanhoozer here:

Vanhoozer is right when he goes on to claim the testimony requires ‘Anselmian hermeneutics’, that the basic response it demands is ‘faith seeking understanding’. (p.24)

Anselmian? I recollected that name. Pulled out an old history book and refreshed my memory. Of Anselm’s thought it says:

It takes belief in God [no doubt also anything in the Bible] as established: it offers rational evidence to support that belief. (p.102 of Gordon Leff’s Medieval Thought)

Unfortunately it seems to be beyond the brief of ‘Jesus and the Eyewitnesses’ to ‘offer rational evidence to support’ the beliefs that appear to be underpinning it. Bauckham’s belief that eyewitnesses reported the events of Jesus to our gospel authors seems to be part of his assumed belief in the historicity of the miracles. Searching for “proof” of one aspect of this belief complex in such devices as “inclusio” and a common list of names found in 3 out of 4 gospels (2 of which clearly knew and copied the other), and now attempting to salvage something historical beneath an obvious literary metaphor, is scarcely adequate.

Inclusio again
One cannot help but notice an odd little tangle Bauckham offers in this section. Till now he has argued that inclusio is the signature of the primary eyewitness source of a gospel (well actually only 3 of them). But he cannot resist the opportunity to alert readers to another inclusio in an effort to prove his argument about the Beloved Disciple continuing the witness of the other 7 witnesses. This inclusio is of John the Baptist in the Prologue offering witness and of the Beloved Disciple at the conclusion likewise offering witness: 1:15 and 21:24. Dare one suggest that Bauckhams unthinkable thought is really valid, and that John the Baptist is nothing more in this gospel than a form of expression of the theology of the implied narrator after all?

the seven witnesses become no more than forms of expression of the Beloved Disciple’s own witness. (p.388)

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Neil Godfrey

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