Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Chapter 18b

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by Neil Godfrey

Bauckham’s use of Paul Ricoeur

Bauckham pursues the fundamental role of testimony for history through reference to internationally renowned French philosopher Paul Ricoeur‘s “Memory, History, Forgetting” (2004). Before discussing this section of B’s final chapter I want to address a sentence of Ricoeur’s on which Bauckham places particularly heavy and repeated emphasis:

First, trust the word of others, then doubt if there are good reasons for doing so. (p.165, Memory)

I have already commented that such a rule, if applied to everyday life, would be a rogue’s or charlatan’s dream. Yet Bauckham, in quoting this sentence of Ricoeur’s, follows it with his own spin:

This general rule for everyday life applies also to the historian in relation to her sources. (p.487, Eyewitnesses)

Together these sentences carry the scent that Ricoeur’s p.165 sentence is a “general rule for everyday life”, and that Ricoeur himself has persuaded Bauckham to call on historians to believe the sort of sources regarded by biblical scholars as “eyewitness historical evidence” as readily as they believe a neighbour’s report that he has a leaking tap. On a page where there are a total of 7 footnotes, all but 6 attributed to Ricoeur’s “Memory, History, Forgetting”, it is easy for a quick reader to assume that this spin is also derived from Ricoeur. It is not. It is cited, rather, to another bible scholar, I. A. Provan, who is arguing the same point about testimony as is Bauckham.

Does Paul Ricoeur really intend his statement to be extrapolated to mean that the literal testimony of a gospel should be trusted so quickly and easily?

Ricoeur is discussing the testimony of survivors of horrific state-sponsored barbarism. His book is a philosophical exploration of why some of those episodes such as the “Holocaust” are in the forefront of collective consciousness while others such as the Armenian genocide and the terrorist role of France in Algeria are distant shadows at best. Further, as much as Bauckham would like elsewhere to place the Holocaust in the same category of “incredible” as a miracle said to be performed by Jesus, the analogy is simply outrageous. The Holocaust speaks to what people know humans are capable of — the incredulity arises from the fortunate rarity of the event in our time, and the trauma involved with attempting to grasp that people are doing this “again”, “now”, “to us”, or with such “new technology” that empowers such an “unprecedented” pace of death.

Ricoeur explains exactly the sort of testimony he means, especially on pages 161-166 of his book “Memory, History, Forgetting”. It is the testimony of one who is available to repeat his testimony, and who demonstrates his steadfastness with his testimony over time. It is the testimony of one who is prepared to answer doubts and scepticism and can point to others who experienced or witnessed the same things. The testifier can and will offer the challenge: “If you don’t believe me, ask someone else.” It is the testimony that contributes to the social bond in that others can have confidence in what is said. The rule for everyday life is that people generally do not believe one testifying to having been abducted by a UFO or having witnessed an unnatural miracle — apart perhaps from the opportunistic author and a credulous fringe of the community.

That kind of testimony is exactly what we don’t see evidenced in the gospels according to Bauckham’s own discussion. According to Bauckham’s own argument, the gospels do not bring multiple witnesses to bear on any particular miracle. His argument in fact advances the opposite: that a key character witness or recipient of a miracle is “the testifier”, and he/she alone, of that miracle to the gospel author. There is absolutely nothing in the gospels to suggest that the authors had access to whole “socially bonded” communities who could support the miraculous events they narrated. Bauckham is at pains to explain the written testimony is attributable to but one particular named or unnamed character alone. The different gospel variations on the telling of any particular miracle, Bauckham concedes, are the fruit of the varying theological perspectives of the author — NOT the outcome of interviewing the same witness or other community supporters over time. Indeed, had the authors access to the same witnesses or even portions of the community of those who supported and believed those witnesses, their testimonies would surely be expected to have been more similar, not more at variance from one another.

When Ricoeur says:

First, trust the word of others, then doubt if there are good reasons for doing so

one may respond in relation to the gospels and “the general rules for everyday life” that one, or even two dozen, who report that a man walked on water or rose from the dead, that “everyday life” — that “the general rules for everyday life” teaches us that such individuals are not to be trusted by the bulk of the community. Bauckham would have us think that witnesses were not available to their archivists (gospel authors) over time, but that a witness passed on his story to one author and subsequent authors had no option but to write as if that original “eyewitness” were no longer accessible or they simply opted to copy the words of the earlier “gospellor”. That is not the sort of testimony which Ricoeur discusses. No gospel author anywhere offers a hint of passing on from any “eyewitness” of a miracle the suggestion that that “eyewitness” was pleading for another to “ask others too, don’t just take my word for it.” Bauckham’s hypothesis pushes the contrary, even to the point that inclusio (bookend) rhetorical devices are meant to alert the ancient readers to the identity of the individual responsible for confirming the contents of the gospel.

The gospel accounts demonstrate all the signs that their authors varied their accounts on the basis of their theological differences. Bauckham nowhere addresses the sort of evidence or testimony that Ricoeur discusses in “Memory, History, Forgetting”.

There is no question that the archives historians of the Holocaust must rely on are the product of individuals claiming to be eyewitnesses. It is not conceivable that historians generations from now will question this. (Holocaust deniers are quickly proving to have a very short shelf-life.) There is every reason to interpret the variations in the gospel accounts as the product of the different theological perspectives of the authors — not the “eyewitnesses”. There is no evidence that any of the gospel authors cared to relay any presumed interest of their sources to appeal to other witnesses to support their claims. The closest we come to that phenomenon is in the fourth gospel, that of John, which says that if everything known about Jesus were recorded the entire world would not have room to shelve the books. This claim would carry more weight if it were f0und in a book that at least came close to the the longer histories produced by ancient authors (e.g. Polybius, Livy, Tacitus) and not, rather, in one of the shortest and most overtly theologically orientated gospels that listed a mere 7 (or 8, depending on what one chooses to count) miracles!

To be continued . . . . as soon as real-life permits!

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Neil Godfrey

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3 thoughts on “Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Chapter 18b”

  1. You said: “There is absolutely nothing in the gospels to suggest that the authors had access to whole “socially bonded” communities who could support the miraculous events they narrated.”

    Isn’t the fact that the gospels report that huge crowds, many followers and disciples, the apostles, and his opposers, all followed Jesus in large numbers, suggest a huge number of other eyewitnesses could have been called on to record their eyewitness testimony if requested? Unfortunately most of them were probably illiterate or deceased by the time it was decided to put pen to paper in the form of the gospels. Also, the apostle Paul later reported that “up to 500” disciples knew Jesus in the flesh; this indeed suggests a ‘socially bonded’ community of available eyewitnesses, does it not?

  2. The one isolated reference to the 500 witnesses is problematic to all who read it simply because of its disconnect with anything else in the New Testament. There is no connect between these and any other pericope, event or person in the gospels or Acts — as would be expected, even required, if they really were a cohesive body of eyewitnesses. Nothing. A single reference to a group that bears no relationship to any other “report” or narrative is not evidence of a socially bonded community of eyewitnesses available to any of the NT authors.

    Matthew, Luke and very probably John were all dependent on Mark, as evidenced by both consistency of wording and structures. It is equally clear that they modified — changed — Mark according to their own theological differences. There is no evidence that a single miracle story in Mark was revised to make way for additional or variant eyewitness input.

    Historians and novelists can write about heroes being followed by crowds etc without any assumption that they had direct personal access to anyone among those crowds etc. This assumption — without any supporting evidence (and despite contrary evidence pointed to above) — is too easily made by those who wish to find some historical basis to the gospel narratives. The crowds following Jesus in Mark, moreover, are clearly modeled on the large companies that were with Moses, or Elisha: as the author describes Jesus escaping from Herod to a sea, with large multitudes, and then ascending a mountain to appoint his chosen twelve, readers are reminded of Moses and the exodus with the multitudes to the mountain; and then as he describes the miraculous feeding of large numbers from a very little, readers are reminded of a similar miracle by Elisha. The crowds in the gospel are part of the stories built up from older stories.

    The author is the all-seeing narrator. He knows what happens to Jesus when he is alone; he knows what transpires in royal courts far off. Ancient historians were often quite open enough about informing readers of their sources when they spoke of events they felt readers might find bordering on the miraculous or incredible. The gospel authors are equally informative — their verbal allusions demonstrate they adapted their stories directly from earlier literary sources such as the Jewish scriptures; and then from one another. There is no evidence that anyone actually spoke to a real Bartimaeus for example. None. The only details we read are those that have some symbolic or theological significance. They are characters crafted for a theological narrative, not people “recorded” for their historical interest.

    Similarly, according to the gospels, the crowds who had come together to see Jesus perform miracles are never heard of again after they have served their limited narrative function in their respective pericopes. They are dispensed with and forgotten at the hour of desolation and desertion at the end. Matthew doesn’t even suggest the disciples themselves remained a “socially bonded community” — he says some of them simply did not believe they saw the resurrected Jesus at the very end. This is the opposite of what Bauckham, using Ricoeur, was arguing how the gospels work. Rather, the reality of Matthew concludes thus: “Hey, I really saw Jesus risen from the dead — just ask, um … ask Matt, and Jo, and Fred — but not Bart over there (he was there too but didn’t believe it), same with Bob — he’ll tell you a different story, too . . . . But if you scout around enough you’ll find others who do think the same way as me.”

    As for Paul’s 500, Paul says that they (also Peter) saw him the same way Paul saw Jesus. That was not “in the flesh”. Of course, this little detail was completely unknown to the evangelists. This hardly suggests a “socially bonded community” of eyewitnesses available for the “recorders” of the events to draw on. Even if we take the passage as original to 1 Corinthians (there are good reasons for disputing its authenticity but we’ll leave those aside for now) — how could the average reader really follow up the implied challenge to go and first find, then interview, any of those supposed 500? Especially in the context of a letter that is aimed at making them feel spiritual failures if they even doubt the resurrection and teaching of Paul. It’s a rhetorical device. “You don’t believe in alien abductions? Just ask any of the thousands who are alive today who have experienced it!”

    As a “historical detail” it is unknown to anyone else. And Paul himself does not need the testimony of any of these witnesses, as he abundantly makes clear — and that is his point. He argues at length from poetic analogies, and for some reason fails to try to convince any of the opponents of the resurrection by urging them to actually go and check with any of those supposed 500 witnesses. He makes no appeal at all to his readers or opponents to go and consult with a 500 strong community of eyewitnesses. He forgets them as soon as he mentions them. They are not treated by Paul like a genuine core body of verifying eyewitnesses.

    His list of “witnesses” in this chapter reads like a bare-bones recited catechism. And by including his own vision beside the others, there seems little way of avoiding the conclusion that the author is speaking of reported visions. The gospel narratives know nothing of this passage in 1 Corinthians. (The closest we find to it is in Luke who appears to know of a growing tradition that Jesus first appeared to Peter. He strains to weave in to his material some ‘after the fact’ aside commnet that Jesus really did appear first to Peter after all.)

    Simply saying that people described in the New Testament were the sources of the NT stories is meaningless. Anyone can say that of any story. There need to be reasons for arguing this. And if we see that the authors did have other literary sources, including the copying of each other, then we have no need to postulate other sources for which we have no evidence.

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