What They Beheld
Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony
reviewed by Peter J. Scaer
Many of my conservative friends, pastors who stand squarely within the Church’s Great Tradition, no longer pay much attention to Biblical Scholarship. Some feel it is too esoteric. Others complain about its clinical, too technical nature. Still others feel as if they have been burned too often by its liberalism. As if the Jesus of scholarship is so far removed from the biblical Jesus as to be unrecognizable.
Rudolf Bultmann taught us that the real Jesus was irretrievably buried beneath layers of history, and that the Resurrection was an unknowable event. The Jesus Seminar took skepticism about our knowledge of Jesus to new heights (or depths), even as folks like Bart Ehrmann, who appears to take pleasure in enumerating perceived biblical errors, seem to get all the press.
Yet, perhaps, it’s time for another look. This past decade has witnessed an insurgency. Some of biblical scholarship’s most talked about books have been written by scholars who have largely supported, using the tools of their discipline, the accuracy of the Gospel accounts.
Richard Bauckham, a professor of New Testament at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland, launched the first salvo with God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament in 1999. This mighty little work contends that early Christians did indeed worship Christ as Lord (Yahweh), even as they maintained their belief in the one true God.
Next came N. T. Wright’s monumental Resurrection of the Son of God (2003) , which forcefully argues that the doctrine of the Resurrection is based on historical evidence, and Larry Hurtado’s powerful Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (2003), which systematically contends that Christians worshiped Jesus as Lord and God from the very earliest times. More recently, the young but formidable Simon Gathercole has shown in The Pre-Existent Son (2006) that the Gospels do indeed portray Christ as the heavenly Son, sent by the Father to redeem humanity.
Now add another work by Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, in which the New Testament scholar suggests that the Gospels were indeed based on eye-witness accounts. The scholarly assumption has long been that the Gospels were written many years after the events they describe. Form critics such as Dibelius and Bultmann contended that the Gospels were products of a long evolutionary process. The stories of Jesus were told in isolated communities, and passed on in oral tradition.
These stories were shaped over time, and sometimes fabricated, in order to meet the needs of the community. Miracle stories were supposedly added in order to bring the Jewish faith to the larger Greco-Roman world. Other stories were greatly embellished to meet the needs of the Church. Hence, there is an unbridgeable divide between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith.
Bauckham uses scholarship to undermine the old assumptions. He notes that too many scholars have relied on outdated models of oral tradition, and have succumbed to romantic notions of community creativity.
Taking a fresh look at the biblical evidence, and giving special attention to the eyewitness testimony of Peter in the Gospel of Mark and that of the beloved disciple in the Gospel of John, he contends that “the Gospels were written within living memory of the events they recount.” The time span between the life of Jesus and the appearance of the Gospels is not to be measured by generations, but “by the continuing presence and testimony of the eyewitnesses, who remained the authoritative sources of their traditions until their deaths.” The Gospel writers used not oral tradition, but eyewitness testimony as their guide.
Who were the eyewitnesses? Bauckham draws our attention to the whole assortment of major and minor characters found in the New Testament story. He notes “the possibility that many of these named characters were eyewitnesses who not only originated the traditions to which their names are attached but also continued to tell these stories as authoritative guarantors of their traditions.”
The Gospel stories bear the marks of historical authenticity. People such as Jairus’s daughter, blind Bartimaeus, Zacchaeus, Cleopas, Mary and Martha, Lazarus, Malchus, Simon of Cyrene, and Joseph of Arimathea—undoubtedly members of the early worshiping community—give the Gospel stories a true ring of authenticity.
Interestingly, New Testament scholars have often argued that the repetitive presence of the names Jude and Mary shows that the Gospels were literary creations. Why are there so many “Marys” at the cross?
Bauckham, the Sherlock Holmes of New Testament studies, compiled a list of the most popular names in Palestine during the life of Jesus. And what did he find? Mary was, by far, the most popular name of the time. A good fiction writer would have named the women differently. The Gospel writers, concerned with history, did not have that luxury.
The evidence, he notes, “shows that the relative frequency of the various personal names in the Gospels corresponds well to the relative frequency in the full database of three thousand individual instances of names in the Palestinian Jewish sources of the time.”
Bauckham also takes a look at the special role of the apostles. Following the Swedish scholar Birger Gerhardsson, he argues that they served as an authoritative collegium, who not only witnessed the life of Christ, but also served as the main preservers and transmitters of the Jesus tradition.
This helps explain one curiosity. Half of the apostles named in Matthew 10 are not mentioned anywhere else in the synoptics. Why then the list? Because “the Twelve are listed as the official body of eyewitnesses who formulated and authorized the core collection of traditions in all three Synoptic Gospels.”
Why do the lists differ slightly from Gospel to Gospel, a point that has been used by skeptical scholars to impugn the accuracy of the accounts? “To preserve precisely the way they were known in their own milieu during the ministry of Jesus and in the early Jerusalem church,” answers Bauckham.
His Own Voice
Bauckham also offers fascinating observations on the transmission of the Gospel traditions. The Gospel writers, contrary to assumption, were keen on preserving the Jesus traditions and were not in the business of projecting their own words, expressions, and theology into the mouth and life of Jesus.
As an example, Bauckham notes that the pre-Easter Jesus refers to himself repeatedly as “the Son of Man,” a term that is found in only one other place in the New Testament (Acts 7:56), and rarely in the early church descriptions of our Lord. “Not only do the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels display a characteristic vocabulary and idiom not found in early Christian usage,” he writes,
In other words, the Evangelists felt the need to let Jesus speak in his own voice, not in one they imposed upon him.
Bauckham proceeds to discuss the actual mechanics of how the Jesus tradition was maintained. Following the words of St. Paul (i.e., 1 Cor. 11:2; 15:1; 1 Thess. 2:13), he argues that the Jesus tradition was handed down formally and consciously.
This handing down of the tradition was aided first by intentional memorization. As he notes, in any school of the day, “memorization was indispensable to any deliberate attempt to learn and transmit tradition faithfully.” A teacher like Jesus, who expected his students to take his teaching seriously, would have expected them to put his words to memory. Especially since they were to be his official representatives (Matt. 10:40).
Bauckham, however, goes another step. He notes that, at the time of Jesus, students commonly employed “private notebooks” “as aids to memory precisely in learning and recalling the oral traditions.”
The first disciples were not all illiterate peasants, as some have suggested. Matthew the tax collector would have been ideally suited to serve as the group’s scribe and secretary. Thus, there was most probably a written record, even during the time of Jesus, that helped to control and aid the oral tradition.
Thus, under Bauckham’s close and scholarly scrutiny, the idea of malleable and formless Jesus traditions falls apart. In Jesus and the Eyewitnesses he argues compellingly for the basic reliability of the Gospel accounts, even as Wright has contended for the Resurrection, and Hurtado and Gathercole have lent support to those who confess Jesus as Lord.
This insurgency may not amount to a revolution, but it is welcome nevertheless.
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“What They Beheld” first appeared in the October 2008 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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