Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Chapter 18c

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by Neil Godfrey

Testimony and Its Reception (pp 490-493)

Bauckham writes:

To repeat, trusting testimony is indispensable to historiography. . . . . But for most purposes testimony is all we have. There are, indeed, other traces of the past in the present (such as archaeological finds), which can to a degree corroborate or discredit testimony, but they cannot, in most cases, suffice for the study and writing of history. They cannot replace testimony. In the end, testimony is all we have. (p.490)

Archaeological finds
Think about that passage and its implications. It would have been helpful had Bauckham given an example of a case where he acknowledges that archaeological finds do indeed discredit testimony. But he doesn’t, and his decisive “testimony is all we have” leaves one assuming that archaeological finds themselves ought not be interpreted within the canons of generic scientific or long tested archaeological principles, but within the framework of a testimony that purports to reference the time of the archaeological evidence. In other words, if there is a stone found in a certain layer of the Jerusalem area it is to be interpreted within the story framework of the Bible history. The Bible story, in that case, will remain beyond question. The story would be given a special status above normal archaeological methods and interpretations. The more honest approach is, contra Bauckham, to study the material archaeological evidence by the same standards we study and interpret the finds of Catal Huyuk, and if that raises questions about a written testimony, so be it. If one does not agree with this approach, one should demonstrate why archaeological methodology as applied to Catal Huyuk and any other non-biblical site is flawed.

Other finds
Bauckham speaks of other traces of the past in the present and archaeological finds are only one example. Another would be human DNA by which the “testimony” that speaks of the story of Adam and Eve, or descent via Noah, can be tested. On which side would Bauckham fall here? Is he giving support in effect to “Intelligent Design” arguments by offering them licence to accept “testimony” over post-enlightenment science?

More archaeological finds
Another archaeological example would be the Exodus and story of Moses and the burning bush. Now archaeology denies the possibility of the Exodus as per the biblical account yet we have the tradition of this and Moses even in the gospels. Is Bauckham again denying the validity of archaeological finds and scholarly interpretations or is he allowing us to criticize the “testimonies” about the Exodus and Moses?

The answer is not at all clear. Because Bauckham continues by praising ancient historians willingness to make use of “testimony” in a way modern historians are not — so the question remains: Is Bauckham actually quietly asserting the gospel claims about Moses over secular archaeological conclusions?

“In spite of itself”
Bauckham laments that modern historians ask questions of evidence that it was not designed to answer. Well of course they do! But B reminds us of Bacon’s metaphor from torture — modern historians ask questions of the evidence that the evidence was not designed to answer — hence to answer “in spite of itself”. B’s complaint is fatuous. A child attempting to forge a note for his school teacher in a way to suggest it comes from his parents will generally unfortunately find that the note in the end yields some information, evidence, “in spite of itself”. A propaganda pamphlet will yield evidence to the astute “in spite of itself”. The stone-engraved bombastic imperialist and divine claims of ancient kings always yield information to modern readers “in spite of themselves”. A gospel account of Jesus giving a command that could only have relevance to a much later church custom inevitably yields evidence “in spite of itself”.

Bauckham’s complaint that there is something illegitimate about pushing evidence to yield information “in spite of itself” is simply misplaced and/or naive. If Bacon’s phrase “in spite of itself” originated in the torture chambers of the 17th century, it has come to mean something quite different today — something akin to naivety blushing to betray its innocence. Like a child trying to hide its true motives in a way that to a parent makes them only all the more obvious.

Modernist prejudice?
Bauckham again misrepresents modern historians when he goes on to speak of a “modernist prejudice against interested and therefore biased parties”. (Check out my previous post on 10 characteristics of fundamentalism — and note #1 referencing counter-modernism!) I have studied history formally and informally for many years and I can state categorically that historians find just as much value in ‘biased’ accounts as anything else. But they do attempt to identify the interests affecting the account and make evaluations of the evidence with that identification in mind. Why not?

Bauckham links his misrepresentation of modern historiographical practice with the importance of participant or eyewitness accounts giving an insider experiential perspective. B is mischievous for suggesting that modern historians are not interested in these accounts. They definitely do have their place, contra B. Unfortunately one is hard pressed to find clear or unequivocal examples of these in the gospels! Check my earlier post re Hitchens vs Bauckham — where Hitchens notes that no-one seems to have bothered to ask those resurrected from the dead what the experience had been like!

The next section to come next post
Bauckham then leads in to the section that I find the most abhorent and callous: he equates the difficulties to believe the testimonies of the Jewish Holocaust with the difficulties of the modern historian to believe the miracle stories in the gospels! If I were a Jewish holocaust surivivor I would be doubly outraged against B’s use of this event to push his theological agenda, but even as a non-Jew far removed from that horror I can still be outraged enough to expose the logical and semantic rot to which B descends to make his case . . . . . (next post on this topic!)

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Neil Godfrey

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