A Summary of Chapter 1 of Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses

1. From the Historical Jesus to the Jesus of Testimony

The Historical Quest and Christian Faith

From the perspective of Christian faith and theology we must ask whether the enterprise of reconstructing a historical Jesus behind the Gospels, as it has been pursued through all phases of the quest, can ever substitute for the Gospels themselves as a way of access to the reality of Jesus the man who lived in first-century Palestine.  It cannot be said that historical study of Jesus and the Gospels is illegitimate or that it cannot assist in our understanding of Jesus.  To say that would be . . . a modern sort of docetism.  It would be tantamount to denying that Jesus really lived in history that must be, in some degree, accessible to historical study.  We need not question that historical study can be relevant to our understanding of Jesus in significant ways.  What is in question is whether the reconstruction of a Jesus other than the Jesus of the Gospels, the attempt, in other words, to do all over again what the Evangelists did, though with different methods, critical historical methods, can ever provide the kind of access to the reality of Jesus that Christian faith and theology have always trusted we have in the Gospels.  By comparison with the Gospels, any Jesus reconstructed by the quest cannot fail to be reductionist from the perspective of Christian faith and theology.

Here, then, is the dilemma that has always faced Christian theology in the light of the quest of the historical Jesus.  Must history and theology part company at this point where the Christian faith’s investment in history is at its most vital?  Must we settle for trusting the Gospels for our access to the Jesus in whom Christians believe, while leaving the historians to construct a historical Jesus based only on what they can verify for themselves by critical historical methods?  I think there is a better way forward, a way in which theology and history may meet in the historical Jesus instead of parting company there.  In this book I am making a first attempt to lay out some of the evidence and methods for it.  Its key category is testimony.  (pp. 4-5)

Introducing the Key Category:  Eyewitness Testimony

Bauckham suggests that the Gospels are a kind of historiography known as testimony.  Testimony asks to be trusted.  It does not ask to be trusted uncritically but it also should not be treated as credible only to the extent that it can be independently verified.  There can be good reasons for trusting or distrusting a witness thus making trust or distrust the “rationally appropriate way of responding to authentic testimony” (p. 5).  All history, indeed nearly all knowledge, relies on testimony.  Moreover, testimony provides a theological model for understanding the Gospels (p. 5):

Theologically speaking, the category of testimony enables us to read the Gospels as precisely the kind of text we need in order to recognize the disclosure of God in the history of Jesus.  Understanding the Gospels as testimony, we can recognize this theological meaning of history not as an arbitrary imposition on the objective facts, but as the way the witnesses perceived the history, in an inextricable coinherence of observable event and perceptible meaning.

Thus, testimony enables us to read the Gospels in both an historical and theological way.

Bauckham will argue in future chapters that the Gospels are much closer to the form in which the eyewitnesses told their stories than is commonly held in modern scholarship.  In the case of the Gospel of John, he will argue that it was written by an eyewitness.  This close relationship between the eyewitnesses and the evangelists is what gives the Gospels their character as testimony.

Bauckham’s views are much different from the views of those who have been influenced by form criticism.  Those influenced by form criticism assume that there was a long, anonymous transmission of traditions from the time of the eyewitnesses to the time the Gospels were written.  Those who hold this view may disagree about whether the traditions were carefully preserved or heavily adapted, but they agree that eyewitness testimony had little direct connection with what was written down in the Gospels.

There is a simple and obvious problem with such an assumption:  it assumes the eyewitnesses vanished immediately after Jesus’ ministry.  Accepting the commonly held dates of the Gospels, however, means the evangelists were writing about events within living memory.

Samuel Byrskog and the Eyewitnesses

In Story as History, History as Story:  The Gospel Tradition in the Context of Ancient Oral History Samuel Byrskog compares the practice of Greco-Roman historians with the recent discipline of oral history.  Ancient historians such as Thucydides, Polybius, Josephus, Tacitus, and Xenophon thought that true history could be written only within the living memory of the event.  Greco-Roman historians found the ideal witness to be someone who had participated in events and could understand and interpret their significance.

Modern oral history also recognizes that bare historical facts do not make history and that subjective aspects of an eyewitness’s account should not be discarded.  Furthermore, it realizes that a person involved in an event remembers the event better than a dispassionate observer.  However, this does not mean that the historian does not have an interpretive task.

Since eyewitness testimony was essential to ancient historiography we should expect a similar role to have been played by it in the composition of the Gospels.  Critics of Byrskog charge that  he asserts rather than demonstrates that the Gospels are comparable to Greco-Roman histories regarding eyewitness testimony and that he provides no methodology for identifying eyewitnesses or their testimony.  In building up his argument, Bauckham intends to take these criticisms to heart.


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