Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Chapter 15b

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by Neil Godfrey

(forgive tardy responses to some comments on earlier entries — will get there soon)

A Comparison with Luke-Acts
Bauckham continues to search for ways to treat the Gospel of John’s witness motif as something other than a metaphor:

  1. He interprets the reference to “from the beginning” in Luke’s Prologue to eyewitnesses being “with Jesus” from the beginning of his ministry, and relates this to the first speech of Peter in Acts that announced a replacement for Judas had to have been with Jesus from the time of the baptism of John. Both Luke and Acts clearly speak historically. Bauckham concludes that it follows that the author of the Gospel of John must therefore have had a similar historiographic intent with reference to “from the beginning”. Of course there is no logical reason why one author’s historiography should be vicariously implanted into another author’s metaphor.
  2. In Acts the use of witness is generally reserved for those who had been personal disciples of Jesus — except of course for Paul. John 15:27 has Jesus also speak of his personal disciples being witnesses. Bauckham is attempting to undermine John’s metaphorical use of the term by discussing it in tandem with the term found in another author who had no interest in metaphor. This is hardly an argument against John’s use of the term, but it is a clever debating tactic and a mutation of the old guilt by association fallacy.
  3. Bauckham’s third attempt is as follows:
  • John drew on Isaiah 40-55 for his lawsuit metaphor idea;
  • Isaiah speaks of “witnesses” as a metaphor or theological term;
  • Luke also drew on Isaiah 49:6 when he wrote in Acts 1:8 of the disciples being witnesses to “the end of the earth”;
  • Therefore Luke correlates metaphor and historical usage;
  • Therefore John also uses “witness” as both a metaphor and a nonfigurative historical report — a third variation of the association fallacy. (Okay, RB does use the word “suggest” here — Luke’s usage “suggests” John thought the same way. I’m not sure if that’s any more logical, but this “suggestion” will become the bedrock fact from which B will launch the rest of his discussion.)

The Inclusio of Eyewitness Testimony
Bauckham reasons that the more “elaborate” an inclusio (I’d prefer descriptors like “less obvious” or “obscure”) the more important is the source so “identified”. Bauckham undertakes an investigative process in order to “identify” the Beloved Disciple as the unnamed disciple in 1:35-40 and again in 21:2, 20, 24. Since Andrew is identified in the company of an unnamed disciples near the beginning of the gospel but is not named towards the end, and since the “Beloved Disciple” (BD) is instead possibly implied as one in company of another unnamed disciple at the end, then it appears that the author has done a switch — replacing Andrew by relegating him to the unnamed status at the end and in the process identifying the first unnamed disciple as the BD. It’s a neat pattern, but symmetrical patterns plus intuition are hardly strong arguments. (Why not simply accept that the gospel opens with 2 unnamed disciples without feeling an obligation to see some coded artifice at work here?) What would be the status of such an argument from anyone other than an accredited member of academia?

Such an elaborate way the author has gone about “identifying” the BD as the two bookends of this inclusio, B reasons, testifies to the importance of the BD as the eyewitness source of the Gospel of John. The BD, we learn, spent a few more hours with Jesus before Peter even met Jesus (1:39-41), and is destined to continue witnessing after Peter’s martyrdom. His career thus outspans Peter’s at both ends and this qualifies him as a more more significant witness. And his book, the Gospel of John, will also last until the Parousia so in one sense the BD is the single “eyewitness” from the time of John’s baptism to the Parousia! So on the strength of highly debatable interpretations that argue that the BD was both a historical character and whose time with Jesus and/or witnessing career with Jesus outspanned Peter’s (by but a few hours at one end), B asserts that this otherwise completely unknown disciple outranked Peter in importance as the primary Jesus-eyewitness for all time.

Another set of belated reflections on inclusio:

  • Why does Matthew not identify his sources through inclusio again? But more importantly why does Matthew conclude with a statement implying that some of the Twelve could not be trusted as eyewitnesses (28:17)?
  • Why not accept John’s inclusio consisting of the more obvious “testimony of John the Baptist” in the Prologue with “the testimony of the BD” at the end? Why resort to ‘elaborate’ weavings when the clearest evidence is of inclusio being a form of well known literary harmonics, not an obscure or effectively secret signature?
  • In Mark, why not see the real inclusio as comprising of roughly dressed John the Baptist in the wilderness at one end as he announces the coming of Jesus, and the finely dressed young man in the tomb at the other as he announces the whereabouts of the resurrected Jesus? Now that’s an inclusio that is clear and easy to identify. Taking Peter who was named Simon half way through chapter 1 and one end, and then does not even appear but is merely referenced in another’s speech at the other, and who is not even the last follower of Jesus mentioned in the gospel, is not readily identifiable as an inclusio at all.
  • RB has nowhere established any evidence that inclusio inform readers of the identity of eyewitness sources of the gospels. The reasoning once again appears to be a mixture of reliance on a quite subtle pattern — the more subtle the greater its importance — mixed with intuition about the meaning of the pattern. Pointing to 2 other works (by Lucian and Porphyry) with similar apparent patterns does nothing to establish that that pattern was itself intended to be the code for identifying those names as “eyewitness sources”.

But possibly the most significant sentence in this section expresses once again Bauckham’s difficulty with Lincoln’s analysis demonstrating the metaphoric use of of the lawsuit/witness motif throughout John:

In both passages (John 1 and John 21) the “following” of Jesus is literal (walking behind Jesus) but there is also the symbolic connotation of following as discipleship. (p.392)

Bauckham simply cannot accept a metaphor as a metaphor. He has to interpret the image of walking as an historical report that is subsequently imputed with symbolic meaning. But a symbol is not a metaphor. Bauckham fails to appreciate that a historiographic interpretation is as much an interpretation in need of justification as a literary-metaphor interpretation. He is out of his depth in taking on Lincoln’s arguments. But he has no choice since his eyewitness hypothesis simply fails before it starts in the face of the metaphor analysis.

The Beloved Disciple as Ideal Witness and Author
Bauckham contrasts the BD’s portrayal as the perceptive or ideal witness against Peter’s calling to “active service”. The BD’s qualifications for this witnessing role are fourfold:

  1. The BD has a special intimacy with Jesus (he asks Jesus “a delicate question” at the last supper; he is entrusted with the care of Jesus’ mother; and if one finds no room for doubt that he is the unnamed disciple in chapter 1 then he spends a few extra hours with Jesus, albeit in the company of Andrew;)
  2. The BD is present at key points in the narrative ( — assuming, as above, that one accepts there is no need to doubt the argument that he is the unnamed disciple in chapter 1 — at John the Baptist’s testimony; at the cross; at the trial before Annas and at Peter’s denials — again assuming that 18:15-16 is the BD; with Peter at the empty tomb; and with 6 others at the final resurrection appearance — again assuming the argument)
  3. The appearances of the BD are marked by “observational detail”. Lincoln reminds us of the obvious, that such detail is the common fare of any good storytelling, but RB replies that the fact that such detail is used with the BD demonstrates that he, the BD, is qualified to be an eyewitness! (Might this be called “the fallacy of having one’s cake and eating it too”, or simply the fallacy of “the rules apply to them but not to me”?)
  4. The BD is portrayed as the perceptive witness. He understands more than the others.

Bauckham, pursuing the modern ecumenical ideal, sees no disharmony here with Peter’s role. The BD is qualified to be the author of the gospel while Peter is qualified to be the Shepherd. Peter loves Jesus but Jesus loves the BD. Peter is the leader of the church but the BD is the leading witness. Bauckham does not attempt to reconcile this with his earlier discussion of the Twelve, and principally Peter, being the chief guardians of the “traditions” that were relayed to the authors of the gospels. Nor does he address any issues of John passing through multiple redactional layers.

Bauckham reasons that Peter is portrayed in this gospel as the chief Shepherd or church head “under Christ” subsequent to the resurrection while the BD is the chief witness throughout the same time. One begs to know why, then, the BD has only his own self-authored/published book, and why that appeared so late, and is not the chief ‘eyewitness’ source for any other gospels. Surely RB’s logic implies that Peter was stepping outside his role and delivering an inferior witness when he allowed himself to be the source of the bulk of “eyewitness” testimony that went to the majority of the gospels. Would RB suggest that this anomaly in his hypothesis can be explained away as just another example of “friendly rivalry”? Again, as I mentioned earlier, Bauckham is consistently vague and sometimes contradictory about what, exactly, were the roles of the Twelve and Peter.

So humble he can afford to boast
Would the “Beloved Disciple” really be so lovable if he identified himself as the one whom Jesus loved? Bauckham suggests that such a question “presupposes too modern a concept of appropriate modesty” (p.401). (This is the first time I have read a Christian author comparing pagan values — including specfically those of boasting of personal achievements — favourably to Christian ones from the earliest days. I am used to reading Christian commentary on the boastings of emperors as something mercifully superceded by Christian humility even among the ruling “shepherds”.) To be persuasive here RB would need to supply cases from the source literature to demonstrate this ‘presupposition’, but the closest he comes to this is a comment on chapter 6 of Porphyry’s ‘Life of Plotinus’. Porphyry is obliged to boast of his right to succeed Plotinus and this boasting is apparently necessary to guarantee the success of the right succession. I had understood Christian humility was set in opposition to pagan values of boasting. But B appears to suggest that the values of the BD were at one with those of Porphyry, and apparently understood that the best way to protect the status of “the truth” was to boast and intimidate people into due deference to the “right” leaders.

One only has to think of Jesus’ teachings about assuming the place of honour to have good reasons to question B’s nervousness about the question. B’s reasoning reminds me all too well of first hand experiences I have had with modern cult leaders who likewise excuse such obvious boasting with the Orwellian doublespeak of high titles being a “fearful burden of responsibility”. The only ones fooled by such obvious doublespeak are the faithful followers, those who follow like sheep, like humble children — all virtues that deny independent critical (“human”) thought. (What other type of “thought” can we possibly have!)

Just as Paul had no qualms about claiming his calling to proclaim Christ to all the Gentiles . . . so the author of the Gospel of John had no inhibitions about describing himself as Jesus’ favourite disciple, since this was, after all, his qualification and his authority for writing the Gospel. (p.401)

The “authority” word again. Bauckham’s interest, as previously noted, is to establish the “authority” of the Gospels. Bauckham has already taken care of what many commentators see as unseemly boasting by Paul by earlier assuring us that Paul really was subservient to Peter, and his comments appearing to suggest otherwise were awkward diplomatic expressions designed to address a particular situation. One wonders if Bauckham’s ultimate hypothesis is really “godly peace reigns in the church” — the only rivalries are “friendly rivalries” — no matter what evidence your eyes see!

Surely the simplest explanation for the epithet “the disciple Jesus loved” (B shows that it was an epithet, not a formal title) is that it is part of the overall metaphor of the Gospel. Despite B’s special pleading for us to think otherwise, it really is nonsense to think that a favourite of Jesus would address himself as Jesus’ favourite in any place but the world of literary device!

The Beloved Disciple and the Other Disciples
Bauckham now builds even higher on his inclusio and historiographic hypotheses. Since the ‘beloved disciple’ first appears with that label in 13:23 it follows (assuming historicity) that:

  • he must have known Jesus at an earlier point in the story;
  • and it is possible to argue that a (contrived?) inclusio informs us that he was the unknown disciple in 1:35;
  • and if he was known to Jesus beforehand, he would have been a witness at events in the gospel where the gospel does not even say he was present!

Hypothesis (eyewitness source of events where the gospel otherwise suggests there were no eyewitnesses) upon hypothesis (modified inclusio) upon hypothesis (historicity as opposed to metaphor).

For a second time RB draws a direct comparison between the BD and Josephus. Just as Josephus could openly boast that he was an eyewitness to events he describes, so in the Gospel of John the BD (unnamed) says he was a witness of the events concerning Jesus. Again, an interesting attempt to persuade by mirror-association.

Contra the Twelve
The Gospel of John does not contain a list of the names of the Twelve. This, RB says, is evidence that the author of this gospel “does not wish to be based on the official witness of the Twelve.” (p.403) The names of apostles in John otherwise known to be members of the Twelve are only minor characters in the other gospels (Andrew, Philip, Thomas). So how can they also be among the witnesses in this gospel while this gospel does not want the authority of the Twelve behind it? Bauckham explains:

that official and corporate witness of the Twelve did not prevent individual members of the Twelve from also being tradents and guarantors of traditions they transmitted as individuals. (p.403)

Why not use evidence like this against Matthew’s claim that not all disciples believed when they saw the resurrected Jesus and propose a hypothesis to explain this data: say, that John and Matthew that most of the apostles failed and only Peter and John remained true — the 2 witnesses? The reason I rejected astrology years ago was because it reasoned that if the Sun signs did not answer everything, one could turn to the Moon signs, and if there were still problems, one could look at the ascendants and things, and for further solutions one could look at the aspects of the planets . . . . and on and on. I am reminded of that sort of ad hoc and unfalsifiable reasoning when I read this book. Both are founded on faith looking for an explanatory reason for that faith. It is time that the study of the Christian texts and questions of Christian origins were handed over to the History faculties to be subject to the same standards and methodologies as any other texts and questions.

The Meaning of Eyewitness “Seeing”
Bauckham then engages in a lengthy debate with Lincoln’s demonstrations that “seeing” in John is synonymous with verbs like “receiving”, “knowing”, “believing”. “Seeing” has a strictly interpretative, metaphorical application. Bauckham’s argument follows the same logic as his earlier argument — that there is no reason that the metaphors in John could not have some non-metaphorical significance also. His conclusion is similar:

That the empirical aspect is by no means the whole of what is meant by these claims does not invalidate all kinship with the primacy of sight in historiography. Once again it seems that John’s understanding of testimony (in the case of the disciples) unites historiographic and theological aspects inseparably. (p.406)

The respective arguments are lengthy and detailed. (I have posted a link to the article Bauckham debates.) My view is that Bauckham attempts to win by giving “metaphor” an additional definition of “symbolic meaning” imputed to an “historical event”. It’s not clear if B is implicitly redefining metaphor, misunderstanding it, or attributing to it a second and even contradictory definition. As long as the metaphor of John stands as metaphor his hypothesis cannot get up off the ground.

But an aside. It is now clear to me what Bauckham means by a meeting of “historiographic and theological aspects”. This is code for historical events being given symbolic or theological meaning. It leaves no room for real “history” as understood by genuine historians. A historian’s starting point is to examine and evaluate the nature of the source documents by the standards and methodologies acknowledged as legitimate by peers. Bauckham avoids this discussion.

Why Is the Beloved Disciple’s Role as Principal Witness and Author Not Revealed until the End of the Gospel?
Confident he has won the debate with Lincoln, B is able to claim that readers “know from the beginning” that the “implied (literary) narrator” of the Gospel of John is indeed the “real narrator” and an historical eyewitness of the events portrayed in the gospel. Forget metaphor and literary device. The debate is over. Lincoln’s metaphor is trounced by a deft de facto implied switch in definition of terms.

So B’s BD now emerges as one who:

  1. has a strong claim to be an authoritative eyewitness but only he knows this fact;
  2. was not a well-known disciple (evidence? his identity as the “BD” is withheld till the end);
  3. but was well-known enough for a rumour to spread that he would not die.

These together might be more persuasive if I was reading this late at night after a tiring day. How can anyone imagine a favourite of Jesus, THE favourite of Jesus, the one whom surely all eyes could see that Jesus loved more than any other, the one about whom rumours spread throughout the Christian communities that he would live till the Parousia of Jesus Christ, — how can anyone imagine such a person not being well-known, let alone not being begged by interested parties to reveal all?

Did Jesus and this disciple have a secret affair going on? Was THAT why Jesus kept popping down to Jerusalem AND why the scandalized synoptic authors tried to hide those trysts by limiting Jesus’ career to but 12 months? Or were they hiding these rendezvous in a spirit of “friendly rivalry with” this favourite? In Bauckham’s defence I could remind myself that even Bob Dylan after a late night could propose recording rubbish to his recording managers.

Bauckham sees the BD shyly and slowly poking his not-quite-real identity through the Gospel. First he writes of an unnamed disciple. Then in chapter 13 he finally confesses to the epithet “beloved disciple”, and, well, he never has the courage to go further than this, but everyone would surely know who Jesus’ favourite was . . . . but no? he was not known at all? so they would never know who he really was after all? . . . .?? But everyone knew he would never die! Did they all say “The Unknown One will not die . . . ?” No no no, ridiculous. They must have known his name at the time this was written, so what was the reason for this author’s shy modesty again? . . . . the modesty that could only identify itself as “I was Jesus’ Favourite” when everyone knew him as the “anonymous one who would not die!”??

I think Lincoln’s literary device arguments win by miles.

Authentic or Pseudepigraphical?
I have to eat my words that I expressed at the opening of this chapter. Bauckham obviously wrote his opener quickly and did not express any of the nuance that he expresses towards the end of this chapter. B is fully aware of the question of a text’s self-reference versus the independently verifiable external reality of the text. Did the BD really write this gospel or was the BD a pseudonym – or an anono-pseudonym?

Lincoln’s metaphor (modelled on Isaiah 40-55) is long forgotten. Presumably B wtote those Lincoln sections separately and later inserted them into that earlier part of the chapter? So the simple answer to the authenticity question is of the ilk so often repeated by apologists:

why should a pseudepigraphical author in search of a suitable pseudonym choose such a character? Why not write, as the authors of other pseudepigraphical Gospels did, in the name of a well-known disciple . . .? (p.409)

Rhetorical questions are not an argument, only(again) a clever debating tactic. My Hennecke ‘New Testament Apocrypha’ includes the chapter headings “Gospels Under General Titles” (not attributed to a famous apostle!) and “Gospels Under the Names of Holy Women” (the supposed inferior or less trusted witnesses — one may ask ‘Why not under the names of more authoritative men?’). One may indeed respond that B’s question is a worthwhile one, IF it is applied to ALL gospels in that class — AND if it could be established that Lincoln’s metaphorical interpretation was invalid.

Bauckham’s rhetorical question would have carried some weight if accompanied with a methodology for distinguishing between “pseudepigraphical gospels” and presumably “authentic gospels”.

But to address B’s question here: Andrew Lincoln has already answered this question. If B had not implicitly redefined metaphor to mean “an historical literal event that has been imputed with a symbolic meaning” this question would not arise. The question has been answered but B’s changing of the definitions of the debate to score one point there has lost him this point here.

The Eyewitness as Historian
Bauckham rightly claims that “all scholars” see the Gospel of John as a far “more thoroughly and extensively interpreted version of the story of Jesus” than we have in the Synoptics. Since Greco-Roman historians often, unlike the Synoptics yet like John, wrote more unified biographies expressive of their own interpretative reflections, Bauckham classifies John as closer to these other historical works than the Synoptics. Plato’s story of Atlantis was also a unified account overtly expressive of the author’s interpretation, so it makes little sense to use “unified account” and “overt interpretative framework” as criteria of a degree of historiography. Dictys’ and Dares’ Trojan War amply demonstrates that unity of account and extent of reflective interpretation is just as likely an indicator of lack of historicity. Those who write entire stories as metaphors are philosophers and poets, not historians. And Bauckham appears to have forgotten that he had earlier conceded the essentially metaphorical nature of GJohn. (Only that he additionally seems to want metaphor to additionally mean “historical fact given a symbolic meaning”.)

Maurice Casey (Is John’s Gospel True?) explains why the BD is a literary device to establish the authority of Jesus within the Gospel and the authority of the Gospel itself. He first appears in the last supper to demonstrate that Jesus is completely in charge and nothing is happening — not even his betrayal — without his permission. The author introduces him for the first time in 13:23 for the purpose of using him to show the reader that Jesus knows who is to betray him. Once Jesus informs the reader who the betrayer is, he remains silent. The BD cannot tell Peter who is the sort of character one would expect to attempt to stop Judas. The BD knows it is a good thing that Jesus is about to die and does nothing to interfere with the work of Satan, and the reader shares this assurance. The only narrative reason for this private exchange between Jesus and the BD has been to show the reader that Jesus is completely in charge of events leading to his crucifixion. The BD next appears at that crucifixion, again as an expression of theological authority. Bauckham sees in the BD the voice of eyewitness authority, but it is entirely implausible that a disciple scarcely known to the Twelve or the rest of the Christian community should have such authority. Casey’s argument that he is the medium of theological and narrative authority is far more coherent.

The air of mystery many of us have given the BD has more to do with the author’s gauche inability to insert him into the narrative seamlessly. Compare the author’s relocation of the Temple-cleansing scene. In order to introduce Jesus as the true Temple he has placed the Temple scene at the beginning of the gospel and, as Casey notes, causes a string of narrative problems as a result. Jesus’ action in the Temple has no consequences in John as it does in the Synoptics, and John must use the Lazarus story instead as a prompt for the Jewish authorities to begin their action against Jesus. Yet Lazarus is another otherwise complete unknown. How could such a figure have so completely disappeared from the Christian record had he really been so central to the events of the last days of Jesus? Bauckham proposes that his companions were trying to protect him from the authorities, but this is simply implausible given that no similar protection was given to any of the Twelve, and that he was supposedly so well known to those authorities and so many others in Jerusalem anyway.

The BD is an authority on the meaning of Jesus’ death but not an authority as an eyewitness of history.

Casey also reminds us that John’s gospel is anachronistic when it tells us that a man was expelled from the synagogue for acknowledging Jesus. We know from the other gospels and Acts, as well as from the nature of Judaism at the time, that no-one was or could have been expelled from synagogues in the time of Jesus for such a reason. Judaism at this time was a widely diverse set of standards, teachings and speculations. The Synoptics contain prophecies of a future time when Christians would be expelled from the synagogues. Acts tells us that Christians long continued to worship in the Temple. John is transplanting a scenario from the author’s own time back into the time of Jesus.

The Gospel of John tells us more about the historical situation of the Johannine community in Asia Minor (and as seen in the Johannine letters) than it does about the historical events of Jesus.

Bauckham takes issue with scholars who say the high level of theological interpretation in the gospel of John disqualifies it from being an eyewitness account. He insists, rather, that since the BD was the only eyewitness to write a gospel, this fact entitled him to write the most interpretative account (p.411). Unfortunately for this argument, the author of this gospel has put much of his interpretation of Jesus into the very mouth of Jesus himself –unless one believes, contra the Synoptics, that Jesus really did proclaim publicly that he was in effect equal with God, and that this is what the BD really heard and saw Jesus testify before the Jews. If the BD has the most authority as an eyewitness are we meant to understand that the Synoptic gospels are peddling falsehoods when they say the eucharist took place on the Passover or that Simon of Cyrene carried Jesus’ cross?

But is the Gospel of John really the “most interpretative” of the gospels? It is certainly the most metaphorical. But as for the “amount of interpretation” it is no more subjective an account as is the Gospel of Mark, as discussed in my notes from Norman Petersen post.


In this Gospel we have the idiosyncratic testimony of a disciple whose relationship to the events, to Jesus, was distinctive and different. It is a view from outside the circles from which other Gospel traditions largely derive . . . . In its origins and in its reflective maturation this testimony is idiosyncratic, and its truth is not distinguishable from it idiosyncrasy.” (p.411)

Has anyone ever heard of an idiosyncratic view, by definition a view with no contact with a broader base, being embraced as the defining orthodoxy? Even if one would like to think that the ‘base’ eventually came to that view over the generations of time, how on earth was it preserved all through that time to be waiting at the other end as “the answer” to which they had all been working? All this only makes sense to a believer who trusts in the divine guidance and preservations of the texts — who trusts in theology. There is no room for secular history here, however.

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Neil Godfrey

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