Book Review: Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony by Richard Bauckham

I’d not really come across Richard Bauckham much before and this was the first book of his I had read. He was heavily referenced with some favour by Tom Wright in The Resurrection Of The Son Of God, and a five minute search reveals that Bauckham is an emeritus professor at Edinburgh (though currently on placement to Cambridge), where Wright now has a nominal post, though I understand this is merely to let him write his prodigious amount of books.

There is no great lengthy introduction to this work, and Bauckham dives straight into his proposition, giving us a quick glance at the conclusions he will reach (I would graciously assume that the book was researched and the conclusions reached prior to the writing of the introduction). The title kind of says it all, although Bauckham does not think that the 4 gospels were all first-hand eyewitness accounts. Rather, his assertion is that they faithfully record the eyewitness testimony of others.

The depth and breadth of Bauckham’s reading and understanding can hardly be doubted, and this is a work of immense scholarship. The downside is that in being rigorous, it gets extremely dry in places. It took me an awfully long time to get through this, not least because I kept dropping off during my daily commute, though that may have had something to do with the workload I have had of late.

I did get the impression that at times he made a little too much of some very scant evidence, though that is not to undermine his whole argument. For those who would contest his viewpoint that the gospels were based on eyewitness testimony and were not either invented or significantly distorted through oral traditions, Bauckham’s work would need to be very carefully dissected; something I am not knowledgeable enough to do.

The book’s first main contention is that those who were name-checked in the gospels were present because they were witnesses. I found this quite an unusual proposition and not entirely convincing. From here, Bauckham looked at the frequency of names in the society at the time, and concluded that the names we find are fairly typical of what we might expect, though I was unsure of what this was meant to prove. That said, it did contain some extremely interesting points about individuals known by two different names (I immediately thought of Saul/Paul, though Bauckham, oddly, didn’t mention this) as the disparity between lists of names is an objection I often find cited against the gospels.

One writer on whom he hangs a lot of his argument is Papias, who I think is very seldom known in modern Christian circles (at least the ones I move in). This demonstrates for me quite well how historians have to deal with the evidence they have available, as opposed to scientists who can devise experiments in order gather evidence. For those of you who don’t know, there are no known surviving works of Papias. So how can Bauckham rely on his writings, if we don’t know what they are? Well, it’s because he is quoted by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History. The quotes amount to just a few hundred words, much shorter than the length of this review!

One of the most interesting chapters concerns the proposition that Mark’s gospel (widely regarded as the first to be written) was based predominantly on the testimony of Simon/Peter. The main piece of evidence in favour of this is some Greek grammar, where a third person perspective is used quite awkwardly, when a first person perspective would read more naturally. Unfortunately, my Greek grammar is not good enough to be able to form a suitable critique on this, though there is a lot more to it than the crude outline I have given.

After his detailed look at Mark, Bauckham then moves on to look at the way the testimonies of the original eyewitnesses would have been passed on. He takes a sceptical view of the form critics, most notably Rudolph Bultmann. He also takes a look at the more modern, moderate style of form criticism, more widely accepted, as put forward by Kenneth Bailey in his highly influential work, Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels; a copy of which you can find, for free, here.

In Bauckham’s analysis he draws out a very important point which is often ignored by critics who dismiss gospel tradition as “Chinese whispers” in that the gospel stories were not passed down through many generations, with each generation adding new material in an uncontrolled way. Rather, we are talking about 1-2 generations, where many of the original eyewitnesses were still alive and could be consulted if there were any doubt on the details.

From here, he takes a slightly different direction and looks at psychology. I suspect that this may be Bauckham’s weak area, unless he is a true polymath. He looks at whether or not eyewitness memory can be reliable at all. He cites a couple of examples both for against the proposition, before looking at the characteristics of what distinguishes true memory from false memory and examining the gospel evidence to determine which we find there.

His last piece of analysis is to look at the gospel of John in more detail and to examine the view (which Bauckham supports) that is the testimony of the unnamed “disciple whom Jesus loved.” Much of the discussion regards the identity of “the disciple whom Jesus loved” and whether this was John the Elder or John the son Zebedee. However, given the earlier discussion on the frequency of names, John was the 5th most common name, so the discussion, though interesting, does not really progress the argument much.

The concluding chapter of the book is one of the most thought-provoking and I intend to write a much fuller post on this chapter alone. As mentioned at the top, there is very little by way of introduction. It is only now, at the end that I realise why; the introduction is at the end! In this chapter, Bauckham sketches his epistemology and his reasoning behind why he considers the testimonies he has reviewed to be of value to the historian and the theologian (as well those for whom the two disciplines are intimately entwined). He adopts a possibly controversial approach by drawing parallels, albeit with significant caveats, to the testimonies of Holocaust survivors. Much of the best available evidence we have for the details of the Holocaust has come from the witness of those who were present at the time, and similarly the best available evidence for the details of the life, death & resurrection of Jesus comes from the witness of those who were present at the time. I can understand that some may see this as poor form, citing an event so emotionally charged and volatile, which his critics may pounce on, though I think Bauckham does not overstep the boundary into disrespect or emotional blackmail. In this chapter, Bauckham is extremely critical of those who would undertake an historic review of the gospels with a default position of rejection. So, it might be reasonably said that the author is advocating a hermeneutic of credulity, though this would be to misunderstand him, as he does explicitly state that witness testimony should be reviewed critically.

There is one interesting omission, which I felt was not dealt with properly, and that was the relation of gospel writers (OK, Matthew & Luke) to the nativity. In his chapter “Eyewitness from the beginning” Bauckham is clear that this refers to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, when he was around 30 (according to John). There is no space given to the discussion of the possible eyewitnesses to the birth of Jesus, his early life, or the family tree (however problematic that is!).

So what shall I say in conclusion? Well, it’s not the faint-hearted. It does get quite tedious at times and Bauckham’s writing style is not the most lively I have read. Nonetheless, it is a book worthy of very serious consideration, with many important questions asked and challenges raised to those who would not accept the gospels as being grounded in the contemporary eyewitness testimony.

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