Friday, April 01, 2011

Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham

In recent months I've read more than my fair share of critical / liberal / unsound (delete as applicable) books on Biblical topics, so I figured it was time to read something reasonably sound for a change. Having heard Richard Bauckham defend the central thesis of this book on an episode of Unbelievable (on Premier Christian Radio) last year, I thought this might be interesting, thought provoking and possibly challenging.

The essential thesis of this book is that the four canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, as they are commonly known) contain eyewitness testimony, and that this can be demonstrated from the texts themselves. Furthermore, the book claims that the 4th gospel was actually written by an eyewitness to the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Of course, mainstream Christian belief has always believed that the four gospels were written by the four characters whose names they bear: Matthew - one of the Twelve, Mark - a minor character in the Bible and an associate of Peter's, Luke - a minor character in the Bible and an associate of Paul's, and John - brother of James, one of the Twelve.

This book breaks away from that conventional belief by positing that the 'beloved disciple' who wrote the 4th gospel was called John, but was not John the son of Zebedee, brother of James. But we'll get there in a moment.

I found some bits of the book quite interesting, some thought provoking, tiny little bits challenging, and significant chunks of it really quite dull. The dullness reaches a peak in the final chapter of the book, when the author, having provided sufficient evidence to prove to himself that the four texts are eyewitness testimony, attempts to show why eyewitness testimony is so essential to the gospel. It is the longest and most completely unnecessary chapter in the book. And the final chapter makes the classic mistake of invoking an example from Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. As soon as someone invokes the Nazis in a debate, you know that they know that their case is weak. But anyway, back to the interesting bits.


The first part of Bauckham's thesis rests squarely on the writings of Papias, a Christian bishop who wrote in the early 2nd century, and who appears to have collected as many gospel stories as he could (earlier in his life, when eyewitnesses may have still been living) and compiled them into a written work which no longer exists. What we know of Papias, we know from later writers who quote him.

From what we know of Papias's writings, a few things are evident:
  1. He knew of written gospels attributed to Mark, Matthew and possibly John.
  2. He preferred oral testimony of eyewitnesses to written testimony.
  3. He never met any eyewitnesses, but knew of two still living as he was compiling his work: 'John the Elder' and 'Aristion'. Neither of these were among the Twelve. Neither is named in any of the gospels.
From what Papias apparently wrote (I say 'apparently' as some scholars have serious doubts that what is attributed to Papias actually originated with him), it can be inferred that Mark's gospel contains the eyewitness testimony of Peter, recorded in Greek, but this account is not presented in chronological order. We can also glean that the gospel attributed to Matthew contained a translation (by persons unknown) of Matthew's recordings of his eyewitness testimony, originally recorded in Hebrew. Again, the order of events was understood to be incorrect. Finally, the gospel attributed to John the Elder was held to be both eyewitness testimony and presented in the correct order.

There is a problem here. The gospel we know as Matthew is clearly reliant on the gospel we know as Mark's. Several passages are word-for-word the same in Greek. This could not have happened if Matthew's gospel was a translation from a Hebrew original. This leaves us with two basic possibilities: either the gospel that Papias attributed to Matthew is not the same as the one we have that goes by that name, or Papias was simply wrong. Either way, this doesn't help to prove that our version of Matthew's gospel is reliable. Also, there is a further possibility that the gospel Papias knew as Mark wasn't actually the same as our Mark - there are some early, non-canonical writings which fit his description of Mark's gospel better than our Mark does.

Having said that, I found much of the stuff about Papias fascinating, and intend to read up on him at some point in the future.

The thing that Bauckham doesn't really go into detail about, and which really causes problems for his central thesis, is the incompatibility between points 1 and 2 about Papias above. Papias apparently believed the gospels he had were eyewitness testimony, and yet deferred to 2nd or 3rd hand stories transmitted orally out of preference. This makes no sense to me? Maybe its because I'm not a 2nd century person, but maybe its just because it doesn't add up. All we know about Papias's writings are a few snippets chosen, presumably selectively, by later writers. The majority of these snippets relate to Papias's opinions on the written gospels, not to the other stories he collected. Which he preferred. In other words, the material which Papias preferred is the stuff that has been lost, and our Bible only contains the less trustworthy material (as far as Papias was concerned).

Bauckham's central thesis appears to rely on giving Papias the benefit of the doubt, which certainly doesn't fill me with confidence in his conclusions.

But anyway, moving on...


The next pillar of Bauckham's thesis is that the gospels all contain hallmarks of witness testimony. In other words, they were all written in the style of testimony. Bauckham gets really quite bogged down into demonstrating that there is an 'inclusio' in the gospels: basically, that the text is arranged in such away as to demonstrate that the eyewitness upon whose testimony the gospel is based was present at the start of Jesus's ministry, and was still there at the end. Thus in Mark, Peter is the first named disciple, and the last mentioned disciple at the end of the story. This apparently demonstrates that the story is written from his point of view. In Luke, some unnamed women are mentioned early on and again at the end (hardly compelling that) and (least compelling of all) in John there is an unnamed disciple with Andrew right at the start (before Peter is named) and 'the beloved disciple' is the last referred to character (just after Peter's final mention). Of course, these must be the same person, right? Sorry, I'm not convinced.

Bauckham demonstrates the inclusio was used on other contemporary historical works, but - in my opinion - doesn't really gain anything by this. It almost seems like he's trying too hard to prove a flimsy case at this point. And in any case, just because a book is written in the style of a testimony, doesn't mean that the testimony is true. All this demonstrates is that the authors of these works wanted them to conform to a particular genre. (Incidentally, Luke's gospel apparently really mixes the genre styles and doesn't come across as a historical testimony, so say those in the know).

Form criticism

The next pillar of Bauckham's thesis is an attack on 'form criticism'. Bauckham paints a not very flattering caricature of the form critics and suggests that all their theories are all built on the assumption that the gospel stories existed more or less as 'folk tales' before being written down. Bauckham demonstrates that the transmission of the Gospel traditions was not of the form of folk tales, but was rather transmitted formally from named eyewitness to named 'tradent' and that the living eyewitnesses and first generation tradents functioned as a 'check' on the transmission of the stories during their circulation up to and including the time when they were written in gospel form. In other words, enough people knew the 'real' stories well enough to stamp out the transmission of false stories before they became established.

All well and good, but Bauckham's theory rests on a number of major assumptions, and the evidence of the gospels themselves tends to cast doubts on the theory. If there were a 'canonical' set of real stories ('pericopes' as the theologians say) which were handed down from tradent to tradent and kept rigorously in check by the eyewitnesses, then how can it be that the 4th gospel is so different from the others? There was clearly nobody keeping a check on this one. And this is the one that is claimed to be a genuine eyewitness testimony. Beyond that, the gospels which rely on Mark (i.e. Matthew and Luke) change details of the stories in the retelling. This implies that either they think Mark's version was wrong (that is, Mark's gospel wasn't kept in check by the tradents) or they had no qualms about modifying the stories to fit their own agendas (that is, their gospels weren't kept in check by the tradents). Furthermore, all of this relies on the assumption that the stories being transmitted were real in the first place. An eyewitness can correct a mistelling of the story of an event he witnessed, but he would be completely unable to 'correct' or refute a spurious story of a fictional event. Thus, the fictions would get wider transmission than the real events.

In summary of this, Bauckham's discussion attacks a methodology, but provides no compelling evidence that his alternative theory is able to take us back to anything real.


The final pillar of Bauckham's thesis is that John the Elder wrote the 4th gospel. I have to say that by the time I got here I was fairly bored with the book, and even though I stuck it out to the end, I'd lost interest. Yes, the 4th gospel appears to be written from the point of view of an eyewitness to some of the events, but I have to say that I find the case for this being Lazarus at least as compelling as the case for this being John the Elder, a character otherwise unknown in Christian literature. The evidence presented appears fairly flimsy. Yes, it does make a plausible case, but the reasoning is far from compelling and the conclusions are far from probable.

Also, the fact that the 4th gospel story flatly contradicts the synoptics is never dealt with here. In the other three gospels Peter goes to the empty tomb. In the 4th gospel the other disciple is present. Surely if there were two witnesses to the empty tomb the other gospels might have mentioned it?


In conclusion, I don't think Bauckham's book succeeds. It's central thesis doesn't convince me. And I'm a Christian who actually wants the thesis to be true, but sadly the evidence points the other way. I'm actually happy to believe that Mark's gospel contains some reminiscences from some of the original disciples, possibly Peter. But Matthew's and Luke's gospels are not. They're basically padded out versions of Mark and, for that reason alone, cannot be written by eyewitnesses. They were written by non-eyewitnesses who had heard some stories that weren't in Mark, and other stories that actually contradicted Mark, and they both sought to improve on the original gospel. As for the 4th gospel, while it is written from the point of view of an alleged eyewitness, I'm fairly convinced that this aspect of the narrative is fictional and the writer was someone who hadn't even spoken to any eyewitnesses, let alone been one.

I'm afraid I can't recommend this book to anyone as it is not compelling, is quite dull in large chunks, and is - essentially - wrong.


Chris M said...

Excellent review. I just finished downloading that Unbelievable podcast yesterday. Glad to have a bit more background about Bauckham's views before I giving it a listen. Thanks.

Mike Gantt said...

In this review, you have certainly lived up to your name for I could not find a single instance where, when given the opportunity to doubt the veracity of the accounts of Jesus, you did not take it.

I would rather hope that you'd seek to live up to the better moments of Thomas' life rather than his notably weak one.

Vinny said...

Mike Gantt,

I think it is called critical thinking. Even if you would like a scholar's conclusions to be true, intellectual integrity demands that you consider whether the scholar has confronted the strongest counter-arguments to his position. I too thought that there were many obvious objections and questions that Bauckham simply glossed over.

Ricky Carvel,

I thought that Bauckham's reliance on Papias was particularly shaky. Eusebius thought that Papias wasn't very bright and the few snippets that survive of Papias' work do little to undermine that conclusion. While it is certainly possible that Eusebius was wrong, he apparently had access to all five volumes of Papias' work putting him in a much better position than Bauckham to assess Papias' reliability. We don't know much about Papias, but what we do know seems sufficient to preclude giving him the benefit of the doubt.

kilo papa said...


It was interesting reading a critique of Bauchams work from a "doubting" Christian perspective.

If you're interested, there is a very detailed chapter by chapter review of this book by a Christian-turned-Atheist on Neil Godfreys

Rev Tony B said...

Like you, I'm a Christian who wants the accounts to be reliable, but I have to say I wasn't entirely persuaded by Bauckham's thesis. The one which exercised me was 'inclusio' partly on the grounds you mention, but also because it depends on the whole 21 chapters of the gospel being a literary unity. It wasn't. I have long been persuaded that it originally ended at ch.20, because 20:30-31 is a perfect conclusion to what has gone before, while 21:25 is - well, lame by comparison. Ch.21 is so obviously a PS, added presumably after the death of the Apostle to explain that his death doesn't invalidate the whole thing.

As to John the Elder, 2 and 3 John are signed "the Elder", and are in the same style of Greek as 1 John and the Gospel (while Revelation is in a completely different kind of Greek, and a very different theology). Try this for a hypothesis - John the apostle was on Patmos, and did have visions; after his release he worked them into an apocalypse. While at Ephesus, he was the grand old man, the last surviving apostle, and told his stories and remembrances, and reflections. He was too frail to write, so John the Elder became his scribe and editor, so the Gospel which arose from his eyewitness account and lifetime reflections was written by the hand of his friend, whose style overlaid the account. It is clear that scribes did have a great deal of freedom in writing down what was dictated - the Greek of 1 Peter is never the Greek of a Galilean fisherman, but is the virtually classical hand of Silvanus (5:12), who has "tidied up" what the Apostle said as he wrote it. So I'm inclined to think of John's Gospel more as 'the Gospel of the Johns.'

As Vinny said, that's critical thinking. It isn't inconsistent with faith, even evangelical faith. It works for me!

unkleE said...

Thanks for your review. I too found some aspects of the argument less than totally convincing, but, unlike you, I found it very interesting and readable. I think Bauckham has aimed to hit an astonishing number of targets, and am not surprised he misses a few. But overall, I thought he hit more than he missed, and the material on oral transmission was extremely interesting, and seemed to me to be way ahead of what we've had in the past with form criticism.

One point of yours I disagree with (I think): your doubts about Papias on Matthew. If Matthew composed a "logia", a bunch of sayings, and then it was translated into Greek, padded out with Mark, etc,to form the Gospel of Matthew we have now, wouldn't that all fit?

Further, if we believe Luke's introduction, he never claims to have been an eyewitness, but to have taken eyewitness reports and incorporated them. That is one step removed, but still close to the events, I think.

Best wishes.

Rev Tony B said...

There's been a lot of debate over the years as to what Papias was actually talking about. It is usually argued that the current Gospel of Matthew isn't 'translationese' - ie, most scholars don't think it shows signs of being translated from a Hebrew (Aramaic?) original. Not sure about that one - it's the sort of problem John Meier discusses in "A Marginal Jew" when he considers the criteria by which sayings are judged to be original or not. The problem with looking for Aramaisms is that it ignores sayings which were translated by someone who was good at translating. Alongside that, Maurice Casey has always argued that Mark's Gospel is based on Aramaic originals, even arguing in his latest book that it is actually a first draft from Aramaic sources (which is why it hasn't got the resurrection accounts - it would have had if he'd got round to it...) So I'm not sure how far anyone could argue that Matthew was or was not translated from an Aramaic original, but the clear literary relationship between Matthew and the other synoptics suggests not, that this text was composed in Greek. That doesn't rule out the possibility of an Aramaic sayings-source, of which Papias had heard - indeed, when Streeter first wrote about Q, there was a lot of speculation whether Q was this original source. Not convinced, myself- too many variations in the parallels for it to be a single source. The other theory which I've heard is that Papias was confusing Matthew with the Gospel of the Hebrews. I don't have a copy of that, so I can't compare them, but it's an interesting idea. It reminds us that Papias was working some time after the events, when things might not have been so clearly remembered.