Can we trust the Gospels? Did reliable eyewitnesses pen them? In our search for the “historical Jesus”, should we consider them accurate sources?
At one point in time, these questions would never have been asked. The historicity of Jesus was taken for granted as was the reliability of the accounts of his life. Thanks largely to the rise of form criticism and theologians such as Rudolph Bultmann, the Gospels came to be doubted. Today, in our post-modern culture in which all historical information is considered suspect, we are faced with having to defend the Bible and the fact that Jesus did indeed walk this earth. This task is made easier by scholars such as Richard Bauckham who has delved into the issue of the dependability of the Gospels in his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.
While proponents of form criticism (the basis of the work of the Jesus Seminar), maintain that early Christian traditions circulated anonymously throughout a long period of transmission, Bauckham asserts that “the Gospels were written within living memory of the events they recount” (7) and that “Gospel traditions did not for the most part, circulate anonymously, but in the name of the eyewitnesses to whom they were due” (8). For this reason, he says, tackling the topic of reliability isn’t a matter of looking at oral tradition as the means of transmission, but at eyewitness testimony which is “a unique and uniquely valuable means of access to historical reality” (5). He adds that, “understanding the Gospels as testimony, we can recognize (the) theological meaning of the history not as an arbitrary imposition on the objective facts, but as the way the witnesses perceived the history” (5). Testimony, he says, is “where history and theology meet” (6).
To back up these statements, Bauckham takes a number of approaches. One involves a discussion of Papias, the bishop of Hieropolis (Turkey), whose life bridged the first and second centuries. As a “third-generation” Christian living at the intersection of two well-travelled roads, he was in the right place, both chronologically and geographically, to receive information about the life of Christ from both eyewitnesses and those who had spent time with them.
Much has been made of his statement that he preferred “information from a living and surviving voice” over books. Some believe he was saying he preferred oral tradition over the written word. Bauckham disagrees. He notes that there is a difference between oral history and oral tradition. The former refers to contemporary accounts from the participants of events while the latter refers to information passed along by those who themselves were not witnesses, but merely purveyors of material given to them at a later date. Bauckham asserts that Papias was speaking of oral history, that is, information received from eyewitnesses, and notes that ancient historians such as Thucydides, Polybius, Josephus and Tacitus agreed that true history could be written only while events were still within living memory.
This understanding of “living and surviving voices” is the key to understanding the bishop’s statements regarding the authorship of the Gospels. While we know nothing of his thoughts on Luke, we do know that Papias believed Peter to be the source of Mark’s Gospel (his is the first record we have of this) and Matthew to be the author of the book that bears his name. Bauckham also studies the identity of John the Elder who Papias knew personally. Was he John, the son of Zebedee, one of the Twelve, author of the Gospel and known as the Beloved Disciple, or was he another John altogether? Bauckham looks at the evidence on both sides.
Bauckham asserts that it was not just the disciples who guaranteed the correct transmission of information about Jesus and the events of his life, but that other people named in the Gospels bore that duty as well. As known members of the early Christian movement, they would have been trusted because they were eyewitnesses. It is precisely for this reason, Bauckham says, that some of the “minor” players in the Gospels are named. He cites Cleopas, for example. Why give his name and not the name of his companion on the road to Emmaus? Bauckham suggests “there is no plausible reason for naming him other than to indicate he was the source of this tradition” (47).
Bauckham also tackles the question of why some people were named in one Gospel, but remained anonymous in another. While it might be attributed to an author’s failure to remember the names of everyone, Bauckham suggests that faulty memory had nothing to do with it. Take the example of Malchus. In Mark’s Gospel, we are told that “one near Jesus” took a sword and cut off the ear of a slave. In John’s Gospel, they are both named – Simon Peter sliced off the ear of Malchus. Since Peter is the source of information for Mark, the author could not have left the names out because they were unknown. Bauckham suggests that it was a matter of “protective anonymity”. Malchus was an influential person in the high priest’s entourage. It was better for Peter to remain unnamed so there would be no recrimination. But John wrote his Gospel after Peter’s death and, therefore, Peter no longer needed protection. Therefore, John identified him.
Bauckham spends considerable time looking at literary devices that point to the authorship of the Gospels and verification of them as eyewitness testimonies. For example, Luke begins his book with the words, “eyewitnesses from the beginning”. This is a literary device used by ancient historians to let their readers know that what they are about to read is credible because it came from those who participated in a given event. Then there is the “inclusio”, a device in which a text is bookended with the same information such as Mark’s bracketing of his Gospel with information about Peter.
Bauckham also looks at the issue of oral tradition, discussing the views of James Dunn and Kenneth Bailey in particular. He then outlines the character of the transmission process of the Jesus traditions as a formal controlled tradition in which the eyewitnesses played an important part. He offers evidence from Paul’s letters and discusses how memorization and written texts complemented each other. Recognizing that people’s memories are not infallible, he offers a series of diverse examples of remembrances including a British news item about a mysterious death in 1901, Mark Twain’s reminiscence of his brother, and Holocaust testimonies, indicating what elements make some eyewitness testimonies more reliable than others.
Just as an archaeologist sifts carefully and thoroughly through grains of sand to find the tiniest tidbit from the past, so, too, does Bauckham sift through the Gospels, searching for the smallest bit of evidence to back up his arguments. While it is true that some of his conclusions may be labelled as conjecture (i.e. the reason Cleopas was named), even his harshest critics must agree that his arguments for them are logical, persuasive and, above all, perfectly possible if not entirely provable. For anyone interested in historical apologetics, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses is a must-read.
Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Mary Lou is a Canadian journalist currently working on a Master’s degree in Theological Studies from Tyndale University College and Seminary, Toronto, Ontario. She holds three other degrees, including one in history, and writes poetry and fiction as well as non-fiction.