The Four Gospels as Authentic Testimony

Richard Bauckham
Friday, February 29th 2008
Mar/Apr 2008

We have the great privilege of interviewing Richard Bauckham to talk about his book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Eerdmans, 2006). First of all, can we really get to first-century events through the documents that we have?
In my book I argue that the Gospels are very close to the way the eyewitnesses of the history of Jesus told their stories and reported his sayings. One of the Gospels, John, is actually written by an eyewitness and the others are close to the eyewitness testimony. The argument of the book is that we get about as close to Jesus as we can, that we can trust the Gospels. It’s an argument against the feeling around at the moment that the Gospels are not reliable. A lot of people have the idea that in order to find the historical Jesus, we have to dig behind the Gospels and rely on historians. The Gospels, however, are the best access we have to Jesus. The testimony in them comes firsthand from people who participated in the events and those deeply affected by the events. They do not give us mere facts; they give us interpretation, the significance of what they’ve experienced. Historians in the ancient world valued eyewitness testimony; they thought one could only write history within living memory of the events-either one had been an eyewitness or else interviewed eyewitnesses of the events. At least three of the Gospels were written around the time that the eyewitnesses must have been dying off.

Hence Luke’s sense of urgency?
That’s right. The argument of my book is that the eyewitnesses not only told their own stories at the beginning and created the oral tradition that then continued, but that the eyewitnesses were there right through that period, as long as they lived. I think they would have been regarded as the sources and, in a way, the guarantors of the tradition, those who were faithfully preserving the tradition. In terms of current New Testament scholarship, my book is putting the eyewitnesses back into the picture.

What makes these eyewitness reports distinct from other eyewitness reports of supposedly miraculous events in other religions and the mythological proportions that the Greek and Roman wars take on? What makes these eyewitness reports have a ring of truth about them?
A number of things. It is important that these are reports within living memory. The ancients themselves distinguished between the sort of history that was going way back into history, which they never thought was reliable-unless, of course, you’re repeating what an eyewitness had written at that time; but generally speaking it’s contemporary history that counts. Readers of the Gospels would have expected that. They would have been disappointed if it turned out that the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses or had not transmitted eyewitness testimony. In the ancient world, it was a normal part of reading and writing literature. If you compare the Gospels with other writings of history and biography of the time, you’ll find that so many of the characters were common people or even people at the bottom of the social heap. Most ancient biography and history were about the top people, the elite, the top two percent-rulers, aristocrats, the wealthy. Common people hardly make an appearance in other Greek and Roman biographies and histories. In the Gospels, we’re close to witnesses who were in the crowd; they were with Jesus. They weren’t someone sitting in the governor’s office who heard about Jesus; they’re the sort of people Jesus mixed with, which makes a difference.

Who wouldn’t have had anything to gain politically or economically by their testimony.
Exactly. The use of names in the Gospels is interesting because there are names you wouldn’t expect. You’d expect famous people like Pontius Pilate and the major disciples of Jesus (Peter, Mary Magdalene); but if you look at those who were healed and who encountered Jesus in some way or another, there are dozens and dozens of them in the Gospels. Remember Mark’s story (Mark 10:46-52) of the blind beggar Bartimaeus where Jesus restores his sight? Why is Bartimaeus named and a whole lot of other people who are healed by Jesus are not? I think it must be because Bartimaeus was well known in the early Christian community and that he went around telling his own story. I find this illuminating. Bartimaeus probably had only a few stories about Jesus to tell; but as this story was incredibly important to him, he’d tell it to everyone he met.

Do we have external corroborating evidence that lends credibility to these eyewitness reports?
While we don’t have evidence of the events that they’re recording, we do know a great deal about early first-century Jewish Palestine. The gospels are full of details about places, people, religious groups, and controversies. One way of verifying that the Gospels are credible is from this geographical-historical context, which is actually one of the most important historical methods of confirming testimony. The term “testimony” implies that we can’t actually verify independently everything the witness says. The whole point of a witness is that they tell you something you don’t know yourself; but what you can do is assess witnesses as either trustworthy or untrustworthy. This was the case in the ancient world and it’s the case still today that if someone tells us something and they’re not a reliable source, we doubt them. It’s what happens in a court of law: you assess which witness is trustworthy and then you believe what he or she says. Testimony asks to be trusted.

The idea is a nonstarter that we have to go through every little piece of tradition in the Gospels and verify each one-which a lot of Gospel scholarship has been trying to do for the last century. We don’t have the resources to verify each saying of Jesus one by one and decide whether they’re authentic or not. The way to go about it is through the ordinary historical method of looking for ways in which we can verify the trustworthiness of the source rather than everything the source says. This truth to the context-correspondence to the historical context at the time in which the stories are set-is a key method that Gospel scholars have neglected because they’ve been going with other incredibly difficult tasks, like a Jesus seminar when they vote on each saying of Jesus, each story about Jesus, and come out with red, gray, or black. It’s not the right way to go about it. What I’m trying to argue in the book is that there is good reason to suppose that these Gospel texts conform very closely to Jesus and, that being so, I think there’s good reason for trust-unless there’s evidence to make us think they’re untrustworthy. The burden of proof lies on those who decide these are not trustworthy witnesses.

You mention the author of John’s Gospel as an eyewitness. That goes against a lot of New Testament scholarship, doesn’t it? Isn’t John supposed to be the latest Gospel?
It is, and I think it’s the latest of the four because there’s good reason to think that the author outlived most of the other disciples. That doesn’t, of course, mean that he wrote the Gospel all at the end of his life when he was an old man. I do put it late in the first century, but it’s the one Gospel that I think was actually written by an eyewitness. The Gospel of John actually claims that. It says: “This is the disciple.” That’s the disciple who appeared anonymously in the Gospel and was called the disciple that Jesus loved. It says, “This disciple testifies to these things and has written them” (John 21:24). There have been attempts to ignore the obvious meaning of that sentence, but it doesn’t work linguistically; it can’t mean anything other than that this disciple was the author of the Gospel. So, either that’s a pretense or we have here firsthand eyewitness testimony. The reason many scholars are reluctant to go with that is the considerable differences between the Fourth Gospel and the other three Gospels; and anything one says about the Fourth Gospel in terms of how it originated has to account for the differences. Why is John so different? One of the keys is that the beloved disciple moved in a circle of disciples different from the circles of the other three Gospels. The people who appear by name in the Fourth Gospel are disciples of Jesus; some of them are much more prominent in the Fourth Gospel (Philip and Thomas, Martha and Mary), and some of them appear only in the Fourth Gospel (Nathaniel, Nicodemus, Lazarus). The indications here are that we’re in touch with someone, probably a Jerusalem resident; he knows the disciples of Jesus in and around Jerusalem. It’s a different circle and so we have different stories. The other difference is it’s a much more reflective and interpretative Gospel. Here we have an author who over the course of his life has reflected long and hard on the meaning of the events he experienced. It’s entirely credible that an eyewitness should do that. I think John thought that because he was close to Jesus, he was in a good position not only to recount the stories, but also to reflect on the meaning of the stories.

How much of the criticism of your argument is that there is so much theological interpretation that it represents Jesus Christ as God incarnate? Is there a bias in New Testament scholarship against that which claims Jesus is God as being of earliest significance?
I think there is. Many New Testament scholars work with a picture whereby the early Christians’ view of Jesus started as an ordinary human being-not an ordinary human being because he’s the Messiah, but a human being-and that there was a development during the period of the New Testament that culminates in John’s Gospel, which is the highest Christology we have in the Gospels. It must be the result of a development that started much lower down in terms of its view of Jesus. That’s completely wrong. I think the early Christians started with an extremely high view of Jesus, the meaning of which was then worked out and developed. The key is that these are the reflections on the historical Jesus-things that Jesus said and did, the meaning of which has been drawn out in John’s Gospel more than in the others; although the other Gospels also interpret Jesus and also have a high Christology. John, by writing the sort of Gospel that he has, left himself space to reflect and bring out the meaning of Jesus’ words and deeds at some length.

What do we do with those who claim that Jesus never existed at all, that the New Testament documents have been fabricated out of whole cloth?
It’s worth saying that there is a very, very small minority of people who say that. Most historians, who may not be Christians at all and may not have Christian faith in Jesus, would accept as one of the basic facts of ancient history that Jesus existed. It’s not as though all our evidence for Jesus comes from Christian sources. We have Greek and Roman sources that refer to Jesus; the historians Tacitus (AD 56-117) and Suetonius (AD 69/75- c. 130) refer briefly to Jesus, and we also have Jewish traditions that may be independent of the Gospels that say a few things about Jesus. It’s probably more impressive simply to look at the rapid growth of the Christian movement, on what everybody agrees was going on in the second century. It seems unlikely that a purely legendary figure could have had that effect; or, indeed, if they were setting out to invent the Gospels out of nothing, why do we come up with these Gospels? Why do we come up against a Jesus who fits so well into the time and place in which the Gospels put him? The evidence for that is mounting all the time, because we know more and more about Judaism and other features of early first-century society in Jewish Palestine. I think it’s unlikely that someone making it up would get it right in that respect.

You’ve written a great deal about eyewitnesses and the various names you find in the New Testament. Could the geographical places Jesus went-such as Caesarea Philippi and Bethsaida (which changed to Julius)-help to accurately date the time?
Yes, we can say that. John’s Gospel, interestingly enough, has the most precise topographical references. Some of them have been debated and for some of them we don’t have the evidence, but it’s not too unlikely that someone who knew the time and place would know about some places that are lost to us. There is the geographical coherence with what we know of Palestine at that time.

Why are there four Gospels presented in the New Testament? Weren’t there additional gospels that were subverted? The hypothesis has gone out there that the church suppressed many other gospels and left only the four that presented Jesus as divine. What’s wrong with that thesis?
Part of it depends on too hierarchical a view of the process, as though there were councils of bishops who were doing this. I think the canon of the four Gospels must have been happening as a grassroots process in the early church. If you think about what went on in early Christian worship-they were reading Christian writings alongside Old Testament Scripture-they would have had to decide which gospels were suitable for this use. By the end of the second century, there were a lot of gospels around and the mainstream church had to make decisions. The four Gospels had an established authority as the gospels that could be trusted to report the teaching of Jesus and the apostles. At that stage, the church tested these other gospels against the criterion of the four Gospels and they came out very differently. So the church had to make some such decisions faced with a huge variety of gospel literature. They couldn’t all be true.

The Gnostic gospels are different sorts of literature-huge religious differences, but huge historical differences as well. Unlike the four Gospels, the Gnostic gospels are not interested in historical details; their Jesus is a purely mythic figure who teaches revelation from the other world. This means that their Jesus is a different kind of figure, which is one of the key elements in the church’s sifting through these works and coming up with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as the four authentic ones.

What are some of the other ways that the Gnostic gospels are different from the traditional four Gospels?
The New Testament Gospels are biographical-they tell the story of Jesus. The Gnostic gospels don’t do this at all. The typical form of a Gnostic gospel is set after Jesus’ resurrection; Jesus appears to a group of the disciples and imparts esoteric teaching to them. It’s teaching additional to the teaching Jesus had given the disciples before the crucifixion, which the Gnostics say was secretly imparted to a small group or sometimes to one favored disciple after the resurrection-mythical stuff dealing with heavenly beings, emanations of one world from another; all working around the basic Gnostic myth that this world is a terrible place, material, evil. The world, therefore, must have been created by an evil and bungling creator God who made a mess of it and, in any case, was ill-intentioned; and the true God, the high God, is not that creator of the world, but is beyond that. Jesus’ mission is from that high God to enlighten the Gnostics as to who they really are and the fact that they belong in that other world. “Gnostic” is related to the Greek word gnosis meaning knowledge; it’s special knowledge that Jesus gives by no means to everybody, but to the select few that belong in the other world.

And so these gospels don’t mention fulfilled prophecy from the Jewish Old Testament, or they don’t mention the name of God?
The Gnostics regard the God of the Old Testament, the God of Israel, as this evil sub-god, the creator of the world, not the true God. They have no time for connection with the story of Israel, unlike our four Gospels, which all make close connections with the Old Testament story of Israel and see themselves as reporting the culmination of the history of Israel in Jesus; Jesus is the one who fulfills all the prophecies, all the hopes of Israel in the Old Testament. The Gnostics cut all those connections. Their Jesus is a radically different figure who comes out of nowhere with a message that has had no preparation for it, so they would never cite Old Testament Scripture as fulfilled by Jesus-all that belongs to this evil material world, from which the Gnostic desire is to simply escape.

Do you think Christians in our day have failed in their task to adequately explain the historical reliability of the New Testament, and that they portray belief as just a matter of the will-here’s inerrancy, you should just believe this-rather than giving people evidences or arguments for that?
Yes, I don’t think that approach is true for the Gospels themselves, particularly if you look at Luke’s preface to his Gospel, which is written the way ancient historians wrote prefaces to their historical works (it uses the same kind of terminology and claims about deriving from eyewitness testimony). Luke thinks that Theophilus, the patron for whom he writes the Gospel, would have expected it to go on to many other readers. He expects them to value what he’s saying because of its historical credibility, because it’s based in eyewitness testimony, because it fits with whatever they know about history. The first readers would have read them with expectations of a contemporary biography written within living memory of the subject. They would have expected this to be based on good sources. Early Christians would not have accepted these as documents dropped from heaven. They would have expected them to be rooted in history, written and compiled with care by people sensitive to whether the traditions were reliable or not. We have the opportunity to explain that to people, partly because we actually do know so much more about Jewish Palestine of the period in which the Gospels are set; the Dead Sea scrolls are an example people know; there’s lots of archaeology and all kinds of evidence. We can describe the context of Jesus accurately now and we can see whether the Gospels fit that context. One thing we can do well, if we have access to the sources, is to root the Gospels in history.

Do you think one of the reasons for this lack of attention in our day is because modern Christians are more into subjective experience of religion rather than the objective and historical rootedness of the Christian faith?
There is a postmodern climate that is terribly relativist and for which what matters is the attitude of, “If that works for you, fine; something else works for me,” and a disregard, therefore, for truth. On the other hand, when these Gnostic gospels receive publicity, people think, “Maybe the gospel of Judas is the one that’s about the real Jesus.” At that point, people actually want some solid historical ground. Modern culture is quite contradictory on this. There’s the strong experiential pull toward what works for me, but there’s also this basic desire to know the historical facts. Christians have the opportunity to bring those two things together. It’s not that the Gospels are non-experiential and it’s certainly not that it makes no difference to us. The whole point of it is that we experience salvation and come to know Jesus, the God of Jesus, through the Gospels. It’s an experience rooted in what God has objectively done in history. These two views have flown apart in the postmodern climate and neither of them makes much sense on their own. It’s when you bring them together that you have a credible way of seeing the world and experiencing whatever there is to find of authentic religious experience.

Do you see a conservative drift in New Testament scholarship?
That’s a difficult question. There is certainly a polarization in New Testament scholarship, but it’s a much more American phenomenon. Scholarship-evangelical, conservative, more liberal, whatever terms you use-is not so polarized in Britain, where people recognize the scholarly credentials of those with whom they disagree and yet still participate in conversation. My impression of the New Testament scholarly world in America is that people read what is written by those with whom they’re going to agree, and that they are often quite contemptuous of others. I don’t think that’s a climate in which to do good scholarship.

Friday, February 29th 2008

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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