Book Review

“Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony” by Richard Bauckham

Shane Rosenthal
Richard Bauckham
Sunday, July 1st 2018
Jul/Aug 2018

It has been over a decade since Richard Bauckham’s critically acclaimed book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses was first published. Last spring, Eerdmans released a new edition with three completely new chapters, a new preface and an updated bibliography. In his foreword to this second edition, Cambridge scholar Simon Gathercole acknowledges the importance of Bauckham’s original work in the world of New Testament scholar-ship: “Whenever I have been asked over the past ten years what the most significant recent books in my discipline are, I have invariably made mention of this book” (xi).

Not long after Jesus and the Eyewitnesses was first released, we had the opportunity to interview Bauckham on White Horse Inn; and in that conversation, he laid out his overall approach:

The gospels are actually full of all kinds of little detail about people and places, and all kinds of stuff about the historical context in which the stories take place. So that’s one way of verifying that the Gospels are credible from that geographical-historical context that they claim to be about. And that I think is one of the most important historical methods of confirming testimony. You see, the term “testimony” of course implies that we can’t actually verify independently everything that 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. And if you decide that a witness is trustworthy, then you trust them. . . . 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.

One fascinating aspect of Bauckham’s work relates to his use of Tal Ilan’s database of Palestinian Jewish names. Essentially, he argues that when you combine all the names from the four Gospels and the book of Acts, the ten most commonly used names are strikingly similar to the top ten names of this larger database of some three thousand names from this same time and place. By contrast, when you examine the names of characters from the Gnostic Gospels, other than those found in the canonical Gospels, they are invariably names that were uncommon in first-century Palestine. Jens Schröter, a New Testament Scholar at the Humboldt University of Berlin, was critical of this part of Bauckham’s research, saying that this “simply shows that the Gospel authors gave their narratives a realistic effect.” Bauckham took the opportunity to respond to Schröter and others in this new updated edition as follows:

Even supposing that a Gospel writer would try to make the range of his names realistic . . . he was only responsible for one Gospel. Nobody planned the . . . data we get from putting all four Gospels together. . . . While contemporaries would realize that some names were common and others rare, they are unlikely to have known . . . the relative proportions of name usage. . . . The evidence is therefore much more precise . . . and strongly suggests that . . . the names are those of historic individuals. (543–44)

The first of Bauckham’s three new chapters is an evaluation—or revisitation, as he calls it—of the eyewitnesses in Mark’s Gospel. Most of the claims of this gospel, the author argues, are rooted in the eyewitness testimony of Peter and sometimes other members of the Twelve. But this makes the reports of the crucifixion scene all the more interesting, given the fact that none of the Twelve were actually reported as being pre-sent during this crucial period. Bauckham observes that the way women are described in this portion of Mark’s Gospel “seems to me to leave hardly any possible doubt that Mark is naming them as the eyewitnesses of the most critical events of his whole Gospel narrative, and indicating that they were the source . . . of his own accounts of these events” (521). According to Bauckham, this becomes “obvious” when one at-tends to “the repeated use of verbs for seeing in connexion with these women” (521; cf. Mark 15:40–16:7).

In the second new chapter, Bauckham further develops the argument he made in the first edition: that the Beloved Disciple should be seen as a unique Jerusalem disciple, who is not to be equated with the apostle John. One of the reasons he gives for this relates to the absence of the Twelve in Mark’s Gospel. If one of the Twelve had actually been present during Jesus’ crucifixion, then why would Mark (or the other Synoptics, for that matter) resort to the eyewitness testimony of a few women in a culture that did not value their testimony (cf. Luke 24:11)? But according to the Fourth Gospel, the Beloved Disciple was present at Golgotha, which is a fact difficult to account for if this figure is to be equated with the apostle John. Bauckham also spends a good amount of time in this chapter defending his view of the authorship question by inter-acting with the claims of various conservative critics.

The final new chapter is titled “The End of Form Criticism (Confirmed)” and is perhaps the boldest of the three additions, given that the author himself refers to his own argument as an “extreme conclusion” (590). In fact, he goes on to say that once we look hard at the evidence, we’ll see that form criticism “is no more than a ghost, haunting the corridors of Gospels studies” (603). Bauckham sums up the situation for us nicely:

Skepticism has become endemic in Gospel studies as a result of form criticism. Many New Testament scholars seem to suppose that the more skeptical of the sources they are, the more rigorously historical is their method. But this is not how historians usually work. In good historical work it is no more an epistemic virtue to be skeptical than it is to be credulous. In everyday life, we do not systematically mistrust everything anyone tells us. When someone who is in a position to know what they tell us does so, we normally believe them. But we keep our critical faculties alert and raise questions if there is specific reason to doubt. (613)

This new updated edition of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses is must reading for New Testament students and scholars alike. In N. T. Wright’s words, it is “a remarkable piece of detective work.” If you already own the first edition, list it for sale on eBay and get yourself a copy of this newer second edition.

Shane Rosenthal is the executive director of White Horse Inn radio broadcast, and a ruling elder at Christ Presbyterian Church in St. Charles, Missouri.

Sunday, July 1st 2018

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