January 23, 2008

Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses

Jesus and the Eyewitnesses is a ground-breaking study by NT scholar Richard Bauckham that questions many of the assumptions current in much New Testament scholarship today, especially about the formation of the Gospels. In this seminal book, Bauckham makes a sustained case for the involvement and centrality of eyewitnesses in the formation of the Gospels as they appear in their current, written canonical form. I won't attempt to recreate his arguments here, for they are many and detailed, but he covers evidence from other ancient historiographies about method, he looks at the statistical prevalence of names in the Gospels verses their known prevalence in the ancient world, and he studies the literary cues from within the Gospels themselves. He also looks very carefully at the earliest testimonies from outside the Gospels about their origin, espeically Papias, Eusebius, Iranaeus, and Polycrates.

A second major thrust of all of this, and maybe the most essential part of the entire book, is his sustained case, summarized and carefully argued in chapter 11, "Transmitting the Jesus Traditions, but supported by work in other chapters as well, is an alternative account of the origin and transmission of the traditions about Jesus and how they came to be written down. It is essentially a sustained (and I believe devastating) critique of form criticism, with its assumption of a long history of traditions and anonymous transmission of various "forms." His critique of form criticism is many-fold, but a few of its highlights are the emphasis on the relatively short period of time between Jesus' life and the writing of the Gospels, and even more especially, as the title of the book betrays, on the involvement of guarantors of the various traditions, which remained in many or even most cases, connected with certain named and known individuals.

He then spends a significant bit of the later portion of the book focusing on issues of authorship in John's Gospel, helpfully illuminating the history of scholarship about authorship, and looking carefully at the claims made by John's author, and also by looking at the early evidence, especially in Polycrates and Papias, about who this certain John was, concluding that the author of John was John "the Elder," a different John than the son of Zebedee, and that this John is in fact the beloved disciple, who later lived in Ephesus, and whose testimony was know at second hand by Papias, and who wrote down his account in his Gospel.

I estimate Bauckham's work to be a monumental achievement of scholarship, and I am hopeful that it will make significant waves in Gospels scholarship in the coming years. It is certainly a force to be reckoned with. Now, I don't expect all of his proposals will meet immediate approval by the guild, but I do think the broad scope of his argument, espeically as to the weakness of many of the assumptions linked with form criticism and still mostly current in Gospels scholarship today, even if beneath the surface, will help bring to light the need to reevaluate the types of documents that the Gospels in fact are. While Bauckham certainly doesn't provide evidence to in some way guarantee the accuracy and validity of the Gospels, he does give a very compelling case for linking the documents with certain named eyewitnesses, including but certainly not limited to the Twelve, among others. It is a very interesting and readable offering in NT scholarship, and one that I highly recommend. I think, along with works like J. D. G. Dunn's Jesus Remembered, Bauckham's work will help continue turning the tide toward reevaluating the relationships between the Gospels themselves and the nature of their development.

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