Sunday, June 21, 2009

Bauckham attests to significance of gospel eye-witnesses

Richard Bauckham is one my favourite New Testament scholars. Is that because he once passed me in an important exam? I could not possibly say! He is great because he writes well - a compelling case with all sorts of fascinating insights which draws me through an article or book like a good mystery writer - and because he resurrects old views and makes us think, 'Why did we stop believing that! It's common sense really.' Recently he won a prestigious award for one of his latest books Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Here is part of an interview published in the Church Times (H/T to Anglican Taonga) - read the whole here:

What is the crux of your argument about the import ance of eyewitnesses in the Gospel stories?

Richard Bauckham: The central idea is to put the eyewitnesses back into our thinking about how the Gospels originated. My argument is that they are not just people who started a long process of tradition that eventually took form in the written Gospels. They must have been people who had known Jesus and stayed around, who were well known in the Early Church — people you would go to if you wanted to learn about Jesus’s teach ings or Jesus’s life.

If you think about the eyewitnesses in this way, it helps you to think differently about the process of oral tradition, and it becomes a great deal more likely the Gospel-writers would have been in a direct, or very close relationship, with the eyewitnesses.

You make it sound like a common-sense view. But in fact it’s quite a radical view at the moment, isn’t it?

It is true that when I speak to ordinary people, churchpeople who might know nothing about modern scholarship of the Gospels, they often say: “Isn’t that rather obvious?” And, of course, it was the accepted view for many centuries. But it has really been discredited in modern scholarship. In a sense, I am restoring a traditional view, but I am doing so with a great number of new arguments. I am not just going back to the kind of argu ments that people used to use.

Does it matter who the eye witnesses were, or where the Gospel stories emanated from?

I think it comes down to the question: when we read the Gospels, are we in touch with the real Jesus? In other words, is this how Jesus really was? I think the trend of modern scholarship has been to say: in order to get at the real Jesus, we have to dig behind the Gospels and do a great deal of historical reconstruction of a figure who in many ways may be quite different from the figure the Gospels present.


  1. I too have found Bauckham's book fascinating. It places, or restores, an important element into the discussion about the development of the gospels. However, to my mind it doesn't banish the questions raised by 20th century form criticism and tradition history, but rather shifts them into another dimension.
    A new set of questions arises. What happens to the voice of an eyewitness within a community of faith in which their own story has become community property, indeed the foundational story of the group, preached and expounded and defended and suffered for by new generations of believers? To what extent are the eyewitness's memories shaped by this communal process? Given that gospel writers may be aware of this communal process and wanting to counter it, can they differentate between their own desire to appeal to the eyewitness as validation and actually allowing the community's account to be significantly corrected by the eyewitness?
    Having spent eight years within a intensive faith community that constantly reworked the story of its origins, these are living issues for me. I want to take some time to bring them to an ordered response to Bauckham's thesis before long.

  2. They are good questions, Howard!

    Perhaps the point is that 'reshaping' in the presence of either eye-witnesses or the possibility of appeal to eye-witnesses had some limits ... stories could not be totally revised as though they were Soviet statistics of Ukrainian tractor production!