How did traditions of the sayings of Jesus and the events of his history reach the writers of the Gospels?
That is the opening question of Richard Bauckham’s chapter, “Gospel Traditions: Anonymous Community Traditions or Eyewitness Testimony?”, in Jesus Research: New Methodologies and Perceptions — The Second Princeton-Prague Symposium on Jesus Research, Princeton 2007. His is the opening chapter in the section on Sources.
Our questions determine the answers we find and here we see questions arising from several layers of unquestioned assumptions.
Firstly, the section on Sources contains twelve chapters all of which embed the presumption of the gospel narratives having derived from historical events. Not one considers the possibility of the story having been crafted from “midrahic”-type retellings of “Old Testament” characters, stories and sayings despite our awareness of the many works linking almost every section of the various gospels to some “Old Testament” text.
The title of Bauckham’s chapter assumes that the gospel narratives were developed from sources for which we have no evidence — unless we take the conclusions of form criticism as evidence for earlier community traditions. Of course absence of evidence for pre-gospel eyewitness testimony is not proof that it did not exist, but in the absence of that evidence we surely need to have a very strong explanatory argument for the various sections of the gospel narratives to support the hypothesis. Is the “criterion of embarrassment” really a strong explanation for the particular details narrated about the baptism of Jesus?
Then we come down to the opening sentence itself. The question assumes that the gospel narratives were based on “the sayings of Jesus and the events of his history”.
The Kind of Question a Biblical Critic and Historian Asks
But contrast the question the historian Aviezer Tucker says is the one the historian should ask of his/her sources:
But this is not the kind of question biblical critics and historians ask. They ask, “What is the best explanation of this set of documents that tells of a miracle of a certain kind?” The center of research is the explanation of the evidence, not whether or not a literal interpretation of the evidence corresponds with what took place.
Tucker, Our Knowledge of the Past, p. 99
Fair enough. Tucker is addressing miracles here. But Bauckham does believe that miracles were indeed believed by eyewitnesses to have been performed by Jesus although he may have a more sophisticated modern understanding of what Jesus actually did. But I think we can take Tucker’s statement as a more professional guide to how historical inquiry ought to proceed.
How a ‘minimalist’ approach might transfer to the New Testament
If we do so, I believe we will be moving more in the direction that the sadly recently departed Philip R. Davies suggested biblical scholars should move on the question of Christian origins: Continue reading ““How did traditions of the sayings of Jesus and the events of his history reach the writers of the Gospels?””