tothesource: You’ve just written a rather “startling” book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, in which you argue that the Gospels are actually eyewitness testimonies of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. But on the face of it, that seems to be just a statement of what Christians take for granted-especially during Easter. How could it be that this is shocking news? Or should we ask, to whom is this a revelation?
Richard Bauckham: I guess most Christians do take it for granted that the Gospels provide us with eyewitness accounts of the events. But for a long time this has not been the view of most New Testament scholars, and ordinary Christians who learn something of what the scholars think can find it quite disturbing. This is especially the case because the media love to give prominence to those scholars who are the most skeptical about the historical value of the Gospels, such as prominent members of the Jesus Seminar. It should be said that those very skeptical scholars are not representative. There are many New Testament scholars who think the Gospels do, on the whole, preserve reliable traditions of Jesus’ life and teaching. But even many of these scholars think that a long process of oral transmission of these traditions intervened between the eyewitnesses themselves and the writing of the Gospels. This has been the dominant view in New Testament scholarship for a century. Actually, the reasons for taking such a view have been losing their cogency for some time now. The time is ripe for re-assessing the issue very thoroughly. If my book is ‘startling’ to New Testament scholars it’s because I do that.
Basically, I want to put the eyewitnesses back into our understanding of how the traditions about Jesus reached the writers of the Gospels. In my view, one of them, John’s Gospel, was actually written by an eyewitness. This is probably my most ‘shocking’ departure from current views among scholars today. But I think that the other three Gospels are based quite closely on the testimony of the eyewitnesses. They give us traditions about Jesus in the form in which the eyewitnesses told them. For example, I think there is a lot to be said for the traditional view (first stated by Papias in the early in the second century) that Mark’s Gospel is quite closely based on Peter’s version of the traditions about Jesus. Few recent scholars have found this at all plausible, but I’m arguing that there are neglected features of Mark’s Gospel itself that strongly support Papias’s view.
tts: Obviously you have a bone to pick with some of the major developments in New Testament scholarship, especially what is called “form criticism.” Could you give us a layperson’s account of form criticism?
Bauckham: Form criticism is a method of studying the Gospels that was pioneered by a group of German scholars around 1920. It has been enormously influential. Earlier scholars were preoccupied with the issue of written sources behind the Gospels, but the form critics wanted to get back behind written texts to the period in which the Gospel traditions were transmitted orally. They wanted to reconstruct the way in which this oral transmission affected the traditions during the period of about forty or fifty years between Jesus and the written Gospels. They borrowed some of their methods and assumptions from the study of folklore. They thought the way in which sayings of Jesus and stories about Jesus were transmitted in the Christian communities was determined by the use to which these communities put them, mainly in preaching and teaching. The emphasis was on the creative adaptation of the traditions to the needs of the communities. Some, perhaps many, of the traditions were actually created by the communities to meet their needs. Crucially, the pioneers of form criticism did not think the early Christian communities were interested in preserving history; they were only interested in the present situation in which they were putting the traditions to religious use. By reconstructing the ways in which the Gospel traditions reflect the communities that transmitted them, the form critics hoped to reconstruct the earliest forms of the traditions and to decide which of them really went back to Jesus himself.
The only place the form critics had for the eyewitnesses was at the very beginning of the process of oral tradition. No doubt, they were the original source for the earliest traditions, but, once they had set the process in motion, the oral tradition took over. The process of transmitting, adapting and creating Jesus traditions was ‘anonymous,’ not attributed to named persons, because the form critics envisaged the sort of folk traditions that are told over and over by communities. When scholars today take a very skeptical view of the historical value of the Gospels, what lies at the basis of their views is usually the picture of the transmission of traditions about Jesus that the form critics created.
I should stress that many scholars have used the form critical approach but argue for a much more faithful preservation of the traditions than the major form critics themselves presumed. But these scholars work with the same picture of a period of oral transmission in which the traditions passed through many hands before reaching the Gospel writers.
tts: What are the essential problems it causes for sound biblical scholarship?
Bauckham: Someone has said that, if the form critics were right, the eyewitnesses must have ascended to heaven almost as soon as Jesus did. My argument in the book is directed to establishing that, on the contrary, the eyewitnesses themselves played a key part throughout the period between Jesus and the writing of the Gospels. This period, after all, was no longer than a fairly long lifetime. The Gospels were written within living memory of the events and the living memory of the eyewitnesses was actually available and important throughout the period. They included some people, such as Peter, the rest of the Twelve and Jesus’ women disciples, who were well known major figures in the early Christian movement, but also many people who might tell just one or a few stories of their own encounters with Jesus (some of these would be named minor characters in the Gospels, such as Bartimaeus or Cleopas or Zacchaeus). Paul said, around AD 50, that of the five hundred believers who witnessed one of the resurrection appearances of Jesus, most were still alive and (the implication is) were available to confirm this themselves.
Against the neglect of the eyewitnesses I have two main sorts of argument. One is to highlight the largely unnoticed ways in which the Gospels themselves indicate their eyewitness sources. The traditions were not anonymous. Secondly, we know a lot more about how oral tradition works than the early form critics did. Oral communities have ways of preserving traditions quite faithfully if that’s what they want to do. Often there are specific persons responsible for guarding such traditions. I think it highly likely that the eyewitnesses played such a role in the early Christian communities. Anyone writing a Gospel at a time when the living memory of the eyewitnesses was still available would naturally have gone to the horse’s mouth.
Behind all these issues about form criticism and eyewitnesses is a much larger issue about how history and faith relate in Christian reading of the Gospels. Can Christians trust the Gospels to put them in touch with the real Jesus – as he was then as well as how he is believed to be in the present experience of the church? Or must we follow historical reconstruction and speculation back behind the Gospels to find a ‘real Jesus’ whose historical reality was very different from the way the Gospels portray him?
Of course, it is true that the Gospels not only report but also interpret. All history embodies interpretation as well as ‘brute facts,’ and the ‘brute facts’ that an uninvolved bystander at the events might report to us would not usually be of much interest or significance. What we have in the Gospels, I argue, is very good access to the TESTIMONY of people who had been involved participants in the events. When I say the Gospels are eyewitness testimony I want us to think, not just about their relationship to the eyewitnesses, but also about what testimony is and does. Unless we have good reason not to, we constantly trust the testimony of people we judge are in a position to know and understand what they attest. The Gospels do not give us a list of ‘brute facts,’ but the sort of combination of fact and meaning that ‘insiders,’ people whose understanding of the events stems from their personal involvement in them. This, I suggest, is the best sort of access to the ‘real Jesus’ that we could have.
tts: What reaction have you gotten from the academic community?
Bauckham: So far, largely positive, but it is early days. I have seen only two reviews so far. I certainly expect there to be some vigorous rebuttals. I’m advocating something like a paradigm shift in study of the Gospels. So the process of scholarly debate is essential.
tts: Now for the most important question, we return to Easter. One of the most effective ways that people have been disconnected from Christianity, is through acceptance of the scholarly “consensus” that the Gospels are not eyewitness accounts (but more or less fantastic rumors of the uneducated circulating long after the fact), and that the man Jesus died, and that was it. That would seem to take considerable glory out of Easter, since the historical Jesus is entirely disconnected from the Christ of faith. I assume you would like to see a reconnection take the place of this disconnection?
Bauckham: We need to ask two main questions: Do the Gospel accounts of the empty tomb claim to report eyewitness testimony? Are the eyewitnesses to be trusted?
For the first question, read one of the Gospel accounts of the passion and resurrection and look out for references to ‘seeing’ (e.g. Mark 15:40, 47; 16:4-7). Look out also for names of people who were present: Why does Mark tell us the names of Simon of Cyrene’s sons (15:21)?; why do the names of the women vary in the various references to them in the various Gospels?; why does Luke name Cleopas but not his companion (Luke 24:18)? (If you’re stumped by these questions, read my book!)
For the second question, recall that we trust testimony, not because we can verify it for ourselves (then we wouldn’t need the testimony), but because we assume the witness to be reliable. This is how testimony works in a court of law and also very often in daily life. In order to distrust testimony we need a definite reason for not trusting it. In this particular case, we might think that what the witnesses claim (the bodily resurrection of Jesus) is something we just cannot believe and so we have to regard the witnesses as unreliable even if we have no other reason to distrust them. But if we are in the least open to the transcendent and surprising action of God in the world then we can give the witnesses a respectful hearing. What I think we can be fairly confident about is that these stories in the Gospels are substantially how the eyewitnesses told it.