In this series of posts I am addressing the criticisms levelled by Neil Godfrey at Richard Bauckham’s philosophy of testimony, as outlined in ch.18 of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Here I am responding to the observations found in this post:
Bauckham’s use of Paul Ricoeur
Godfrey moves on to Bauckham’s use of Paul Ricoeur’s work on the role of testimony in historical investigation. We have seen that Ricoeur’s axiom in evaluating testimony is to “first trust the word of others, then doubt if there are good reasons for doing so.” Bauckham insists that “This general rule for everyday life applies also to the historian in relation to her sources.” (p.487)
Godfrey accuses Bauckham of implying 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… it is easy for a quick reader to assume that this spin is also derived from Ricoeur. It is not.”
Of course Bauckham does no such thing (he nowhere attributes the previous statement to Ricoeur), and it is incredibly discourteous for Godfrey to jump to conclusions about Bauckham’s rhetoric and intentions to mislead his readers.
In any case, the crux of the matter is that Godfrey does not think that Ricoeur himself would approve of Bauckham’s appropriation of his axiom: “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?” Well, of course not, and neither does Bauckham. As I noted earlier, there is nothing ‘quick’ or ‘easy’ about the way Bauckham argues for the general reliability of the Gospels. Deciding whether to trust the Gospel reports about Jesus is definitely not in the same league as deciding whether to trust a neighbor’s report of a leaking tap, but the same principle (i.e. approaching testimony with an initial attitude of general trust) should apply in both cases.
NEIL: So you say in your last line that I SHOULD approach both my neighbour’s report about the leaking tap and the gospels with the same initial attitude of general trust — on principle. But that was my criticism of Bauckham. But before that you said Bauckham does not say that.
The fact that there is nothing “quick” or “easy” about the way Bauckham argues his case is beside the point. And the way B argues for the reliability of the gospels — to “prove” they are eyewitness testimony — is arcane, relying heavily on the positions and numbers of certain names in the texts with a lot of surmising and rationalizations to try to patch it together.
Godfrey’s presentation of the options available for deciding whether to trust or distrust testimony is incredibly simplistic and certainly not what Bauckham is arguing (Several times Godfrey brings up the canard that “such a rule [i.e. trusting the word of others if there is no reason to doubt it], if applied to everyday life, would be a rogue’s or charlatan’s dream.” This is just paranoid and fails to take into account the robust and generally reliable ways we have for discerning whether our trust in others is justified. We may start by trusting a charlatan, only to withdraw that trust if/when it becomes apparent that such indeed he is. One would be foolish to go on trusting a charlatan once one has good reasons for thinking so.)
NEIL: Do you trust astrology? If not, is it because you find some of its predictions are wrong? Or because it is an unfalsifiable claim? Or because of its contradictory writings? If these are your reasons then why do you think the astrologer is not persuaded by them? Because his trust in astrology will always enable him to find an explanation for the apparent failures or prove the contradictions are only apparent contradictions.
Many trust the Bible the same way many others trust astrology. I’ve heard it described as Bibliolatry.
Godfrey then summarizes what Paul Ricoeur ‘actually’ means by testimony which we should trust in the absence of good reason for doubting it:
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
But Godfrey is sure that, according to Bauckham’s own argument, this is just what the Gospel sources do not give us:
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
Ironically, not only is this a gross misunderstanding of Bauckham’s argument, but by Ricoeur’s own criteria as summarized by Godfrey the testimony of the Gospel eyewitnesses passes with flying colors. Bauckham does argue that specific named persons were the authoritative sources of particular traditions, but the testimony to Jesus’ life and ministry as a whole was the province of a wide community, including the apostles, numerous elders and teachers, individual benefactors of Jesus’ ministry, etc.
NEIL: Yep, that’s what B claims. Now what was the evidence he cited to support any one of those claims again? That’s why I wrote, as JD quoted, “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.”
With respect to the apostle Peter’s role as an eyewitness to Jesus, Bauckham insists that
we should not imagine an aged apostle reminiscing expansively in
autobiographical mode, but an apostle fulfilling his commission to preach the
Gospel and to teach believers, relating the traditions he has been recounting
throughout his life…in the forms in which he had cast the memories of the
Twelve and himself for ease of teaching and communication. (p.172)
Peter, then, is certainly “one who is available to repeat his testimony,” and by all accounts one who “demonstrates his steadfastness with his testimony over time.” (Cf. Acts 5:42: “And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.”) The eyewitness sources of the Gospels (for example, Peter and John) could definitely point to others who experienced or witnessed the same things: in the book of Acts Peter proclaims to the crowd, “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses.” (Acts 2:32) Another important example comes from Paul, who in his account of the resurrection tradition states that “[Jesus] appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.” (1 Corinthians 15:5-6) As a matter of fact the Gospels, Acts and Paul’s letters are filled with such claims to authentic testimony. Whether one views these as mere rhetoric and/or propaganda is another story. In the context of Godfrey’s critique, we are examining whether Bauckham’s argument as it stands can benefit from Paul Riceour’s criteria for reliable testimony, and it most certainly can.
NEIL: You rightly say Bauckham insists that we should “imagine” Peter doing certain things, and you say then that this “is certainly” the case. And you support this certainty with quotations from the Book of Acts and one of Paul’s letters.
Peter was the leading apostle and the one to whom the resurrected Jesus first appeared, but this aged apostle, “who [was] available to repeat his testimony”,didn’t think it important enough to pass on his experience of that event for the gospel authors?
Paul says the resurrected Jesus appeared to 500 people? And the Gospel authors failed to mention this?
A Gospel says many saints rose from the dead after the resurrection of Jesus and Acts fails to mention a single one of these?
Acts says the resurrected Jesus appeared to the disciples around Jerusalem yet:
- the first gospel says Jesus appeared to them once on a mountain in Galilee, some doubted, and it was from Galilee that they were sent out to evangelize the world;
- the second gospel denies the apostles ever saw the resurrected Jesus;
- the third gospel says Jesus went back to heaven a day or so after his resurrection and the disciples spent their time in the temple, not the house as in Acts;
- the fourth gospel says they went back fishing after seeing Jesus, and Jesus had to visit them again in Galilee.
These contradictions and anomalies against Acts and Paul can only be rationalized by a believer’s imaginative building of hypotheses upon hypotheses.
I can read non-biblical stories about other deities and miracles, and other non-orthodox Christian texts about miracles of Jesus and acts of apostles. Should I give them initial trust until I find good reason to distrust them?
But what if I trust that they were grounded in apostolic authority and wide-community support too? And what if I find that their contradictions are also only “apparent contradictions”, and that with a bit of “epistemological virtue” I can rationalize them into a consistent whole?
Godfrey also voices at several points a complaint regarding the content of the alleged eye-witness testimony of the Gospels. Since this includes reports of the miraculous, Godfrey insists that, following Hume, they certainly cannot be trusted:
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
Apart from the dubious use of the phrase ‘unnatural miracle’, it is not at all clear that this ‘rule’ has general validity even in everyday life. Godfrey takes for granted the largely Western, Enlightenment-based cognitive environment of general skepticism towards supernatural claims, which was based in part on the explicit arguments of the likes of Hume, Paine, et al but also to a large extent the outworking of various sociological factors having nothing to do with rational argument (see for example R. Mullins, Miracles and the Modern Religious Imagination; P. Berger, A Rumor of Angels). It is not clear that we should accept this ‘rule’ as having been rigorously established as an infallible guide to truth. This is not to say that we should just take each and every miraculous claim at face value. Just like with any other claim, we should investigate as much as possible the integrity of the witnesses, the extent of corroboration amongst them, etc. But there is no a priori reason we should not take testimony concerning the supernatural just as seriously as other testimony, at least initially.
NEIL: Understood. You should hold an enquiry into any claim for the miraculous the way the Pope does.
Godfrey makes another misleading claim concerning Bauckham’s argument when he insists that
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.
Actually, Bauckham lists five factors involved in explaining the variations among the versions of different Gospel narratives, only one of which includes “deliberate interpretative alterations or additions, by which a tradent sought to explain or to adapt the teaching when the post-Easter situation seemed to require this.” (p.286) He concedes that “these arguments…require extensive testing against the phenomena of the Jesus traditions as we have them,” (p.287) which he was unable to do in his book, but he points to the work of J.D.G. Dunn, who has plausibly argued that many differences in the various Gospel accounts can and should be attributed to factors other than theological differences among the authors (see Dunn, Jesus Remembered, pp.210-253). Godfrey clings to the old form-critical view of the Gospel tradition which explains all the variation among the Gospels in terms of theology, constantly looking for evidence of rivalry and rhetorical character assassination. But this represents a preconceived outlook on the Gospels, and says more about Godfrey’s own stance than that of the evangelists.
NEIL: I do? That’s news to me, since over recent years I’ve written quite a lot against form-criticism as an interpretative guide to the gospels. But “constantly looking for evidence of rivalry and rhetorical character assassination” sounds like a terribly boring waste of time. I’d much rather enjoy the challenge of studying and learning more about the nature of the evidence itself and wherever it appears to lead.
to be continued…
Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)
- Need Help — to translate a German passage - 2021-03-04 08:39:42 GMT+0000
- John the Baptist: Another Case for Forgery in Josephus - 2021-03-03 15:02:04 GMT+0000
- The End of Global Capitalism and the Rise of China - 2021-03-02 14:23:12 GMT+0000
If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!