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Book Notes: Jesus and the Eyewitnesses

Bauckham, Richard. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006. 538 pp. ISBN: 0-8028-3162-1.

I would remind my readers again that I am writing some notes on my experience of reading this book and not a formal review.

I requested this book via interlibrary loan because it was recommended by a reader who commented on one of my posts blogging through What Have They Done with Jesus?. I objected to the idea that one could improve on the picture of Jesus by first building a picture of the eyewitnesses and then discussing what those eyewitnesses could tell us about Jesus. Since there is much less documentation on each of the eyewitnesses than there is on Jesus, any picture we create of them will be much less certain than even what we can say about Jesus himself, so just how does this procedure help us in getting a true picture of Jesus?

Reading Bauckham on this topic has enlightened me somewhat on the intentions, if Witherington is indeed working on the same basis as Bauckham, but I remain essentially unimpressed with the final result. Bauckham is much plainer in expressing his procedure, and his book is more academic in style. (This isn’t particularly a criticism of Witherington who was intentionally writing a popular book.)

If I can summarize in the briefest possible time, Bauckham is arguing that the gospel story was passed on by a form of controlled informal tradition, and that those who controlled this were the eyewitnesses sprinkled through the church.

He finds evidence for this in a number of lines of argument including the use of names in the gospels, the shape of the stories, the level of divergence that is tolerated, and what is not tolerated, and even some cases of anonymity in the passion narrative of Mark. Why, for example, is it “one of the men with Jesus” who draws a sword in Mark 14:47, but the man is identified with Simon Peter in John 18:10? Bauckham argues that at the time Mark was written, this person’s identity needed to be protected because the authorities would be after him, while by the time John was written he (Simon Peter) was already dead.

That is only one in many arguments for the survival of the eyewitnesses and their role in preservation of the story. I’m not going to make a real attempt to summarize all of these, as it would be impossible to do justice to the arguments. The book is only a bit over 500 pages; read it for yourself!

While I have never been convinced by the argument that there were no eyewitnesses remaining by the time the gospel text was written, I am also unconvinced of the value of eyewitness testimony in and of itself. You may rightly ask what this leaves me.

In the third quest the emphasis has been on evaluating sayings and incidents according to a set of criteria. This results generally in a very minimalistic Jesus, because some of the criteria, even necessary and good ones, tend to weed out a great deal that is quite possibly true, but which simply cannot be demonstrated well enough. This result seems surprising given the large amount of written material about Jesus, more than we have on many figures of history that we nonetheless feel free to characterize in more detail.

It is no wonder that Christians seek something that will work a bit better. Perhaps they need look no further than how modern writing about ancient history is actually done. In essence, historians take the pieces that they have, sift them as they make sense, and attempt to fill in the blanks. I may simply be missing something in my reading, as I have only read a tiny fraction of what’s available on the historical Jesus, but I think Jesus is the only historical figure concerning whom we are barely willing to speculate. He becomes a very uninteresting figure.

Part of this results from scholars who seem to want a Jesus who could occupy the office down the hall in the ivory tower. I think the argument over wisdom teacher vs. eschatological prophet is just such an issue. Many people of that time combined aspects of both. Why is this not possible for Jesus to do? He doesn’t have to fit our notions of consistency and a coherent philosophy.

If we take this kind of approach, then I think we can also give serious consideration to the idea that the earliest generations of Christians might have had some idea of what they were talking about. They just may have had some idea of the character of Jesus. We would prefer a Jesus who perhaps never made the seemingly grandiose claim to be the Messiah. Let the early Christians do that for him. But somehow he made such an impression on them that a fairly substantial movement was able to get the idea that he thought he was the Messiah.

Even if we view the tradition as an imperfect mirror, with the real Jesus dimly reflected therein, it seems a bit hasty to discard the mirror and start from scratch. In this sense I’m in tune with Bauckham, though that is saying much less than he is.

On the other hand, it seems to me that many orthodox Christian writers are trying to combat the historical Jesus scholars by finding a way to say that Jesus is just as portrayed in the canonical gospels and that this is history, every bit as sound as any other form of history. Thus we have Bauckham arguing at great length that eyewitness testimony was important to ancient people, and finally in his conclusion that perhaps we should take it more seriously as well. “Trusting the eyewitnesses” is to replace “applying criteria” and result in a more complete and substantially accurate picture of Jesus.

Here is where I part company. In trying to establish the eyewitnesses, Bauckham has made a number of arguments that are quite possibly true, but are nonetheless often no better established than the reasoning behind various criteria for historicity. This doesn’t mean he’s wrong; it simply means that when all is said and done we don’t know. My suggestion is that we go ahead and get comfortable with that.

In my view, there is one problem with bringing orthodox theology in line with good historical methodology. In general, historical methodology is based on probability; not generally calculated probability, but a sort of common sense decision as to what is more likely. If two kings claim a great victory, we know they can’t both be right, so we look for more evidence, or we draw some common sense conclusions.

In the case of Jesus, however, orthodox theology claims that he is unique, God in the flesh living amongst us. What does common sense say about a claim to virgin birth? Not likely. So if the options are either illegitimate birth by natural means or virgin birth, historical probability suggests the former. What does common sense say about people who die? They don’t come back. So if the claim is that somebody rose from the dead, historical probability suggests it’s not true.

In practically every case of virgin birth claims (all that I know of) and all but a very small number of resurrection claims, neither believers nor unbelievers would decide differently. Yet I, an otherwise rational person (I think!), believe that Jesus rose from the dead. This is not an historical event that can be made probable. Even assuming miracles are possible, which I do, I am not going to assume that they are the most probable explanation. This can be tested by presenting the miraculous claims of another religion, and seeing how likely one is to accept them.

In addition, I know my own experience. I did not come to believe in Jesus by historical methods. I came to believe in Jesus through contemporary testimony. I find the Jesus of orthodox faith fits that. I believe there is historical evidence for such a Jesus, but that this evidence falls far short of proof, and even short of probability. It must be so, because the Jesus of my faith is inherently improbable, unique in fact.

Now you may be thinking that I’m not all that far from Bauckham, even if I got there afterward. And indeed the picture of Jesus in my head goes well with what Bauckham (and Witherington, for that matter) have written. That is indeed the case. But I sense in both writers the intention to make this more historically firm, to suggest that this is an historian’s conclusion. The jacket blurbs and advertising text tend to suggest this as well, though heaven knows many writers are badly served by their book covers! Thus far, I just don’t think they have done so successfully.

I nonetheless strongly recommend this book for anyone interested in historical Jesus research. As I have repeatedly noted, each book on this topic is extremely good at critiquing the views of others, even if you find that their own pictures of Jesus are no more probable. In addition, Bauckham documents well and examines arguments in detail, so that you can profit no matter where you stand on the final result.


Here’s an overview of the chapters so you can get a better idea of the course of the argument. I have left the notes in an abbreviated form as I wrote them immediately after reading.

1: From the Historical Jesus to the Jesus of Testimony
General overview of the idea – going to the Jesus of testimony, specifically eyewitness testimony
2: Papias on the Eyewitnesses
Rehabilitating Papias

3: Names in the Gospel Tradition
Studying use of names. Why are certain characters named and others not.
4: Palestinian Jewish Names
Palestinian Jewish names – an exceedingly useful chapter even if you wind up disagreeing with the thesis of the book.
5: The Twelve
Looking at the lists of the apostles; reconciling most, error in Levi=Matthew equation.
6: Eyewitnesses “from the Beginning”
What constituted an eyewitness?
7: The Petrine Perspective in the Gospel of Mark
Looking at indicators that Mark is based on someone’s testimony, and that this testimony is that of Peter the apostle.
8: Anonymous Persons in Mark’s Passion Narrative
Arguing they are not named so as to protect the guilty.
9: Papias on Mark and Matthew
Deals with the differences in how the two gospels are put together and how their sources are to be understood.
10: Models of Oral Tradition
We get to one of the big questions-what does oral tradition preserve and how?
11: Transmitting the Jesus Tradition
Bauckham now argues that we have a “controlled informal” transmission, with the “controllers” being the eyewitnesses surviving in the community.
12: Anonymous Tradition or Eyewitness Testimony
Looking at the reasons why we should see the gospels as eyewitness testimony rather than a tradition of the community without named sources.
13: Eyewitness Memory
One of my own key questions, and one that I don’t think Baukham manages to deal with adequately, but nonetheless he does look at it more carefully than most.
14: The Gospel of John as Eyewitness Testimony
I think this will easily be the most controversial chapter, though I think Bauckham makes the best case possible.
15: The Witness of the Beloved Disciple
Identifying who this person was, and then assigning him as author of the gospel of John.
16: Papias on John
A very difficult search for reflections of the views of Papias on the gospel of John. His (possible) references could be to John the Elder, whom Bauckham identifies as the author rather than John son of Zebedee.
17: Polycrates and Irenaeus on John
Looking for more patristic evidence and judging whether it can apply to John the elder, and just how did the identification of the author with John son of Zebedee occur?
18: The Jesus of Testimony
Summary of the case.

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