Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels As Eyewitness Testimony

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Overview

This momentous book argues that the four Gospels are closely based on the eyewitness testimony of those who personally knew Jesus. Noted scholar Richard Bauckham challenges the prevailing assumption that the accounts of Jesus circulated as “anonymous community traditions,” asserting instead that they were transmitted in the names of the original eyewitnesses.

Bauckham draws on internal literary evidence, and recent developments in the understanding of oral tradition. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses also taps into the rich resources of modern study of memory, especially in cognitive psychology. Finally, Bauckham challenges readers to end the classic division between the “historical Jesus” and the “Christ of faith,” proposing instead the “Jesus of testimony” as presented by the Gospels.

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Editorial Reviews

Times Literary Supplement
...Richard Bauckham’s careful and eloquent presentation of his argument, supported not just by careful scholarship but by admirable common sense, deserves earnest consideration by all who have the training and the perseverance to pursue the elusive explanation of one of the most tantalizing literary relationships in ancient literature, appropriately known since the nineteenth century as "the Synoptic problem".
—A. E. Harvey
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802863904
  • Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 9/28/2008
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 552
  • Sales rank: 466,857
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard Bauckham is Professor of New Testament Studies and Bishop Wardlaw Professor, St. Andrews. His numerous authored and edited books include Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Eerdmans).

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Read an Excerpt

JESUS AND THE EYEWITNESSES

The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony
By Richard Bauckham

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2006 Richard Bauckham
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-3162-0


Chapter One

From the Historical Jesus to the Jesus of Testimony

The Historical Quest and Christian Faith

For two centuries scholars have been in quest of the historical Jesus. The quest began with the beginnings of modern historical critical study of the New Testament. It has often seemed the most significant task that critical study of the New Testament could pursue. Thousands of scholars have been drawn into the pursuit, and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of books, scholarly and popular, have been products of the quest. Interest and activity have waxed and waned over the years. Many have pronounced the quest misguided, fruitless, and finished. Others have castigated their predecessors but put their faith in new methods and approaches that they claim will succeed where others failed. Whole eras of western cultural, as well as religious, history have been reflected in the various stages of the quest. Attitudes to the quest, positive, negative, or qualified, have distinguished whole schools of theology.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century the quest of the historical Jesus flourishes as never before, especially in NorthAmerica. The unprecedented size of the industry of New Testament scholarship and the character of the American media both play a part in this. But the fact that the figure of Jesus retains its supremely iconic significance in American culture, as compared with the more secularized societies of Europe and the British isles, is what makes the continuing efforts of historians - rather than theologians or spiritual leaders - to reconstruct the historical reality of Jesus a matter of seemingly endless interest to believers, half-believers, ex-believers, and would-be believers in the Jesus of Christian faith. Is the so-called "historical Jesus"- the Jesus historians may reconstruct as they do any other part of history - the same Jesus as the figure at the center of the Christian religion? This is the question that both excites and disturbs the scholars and the readers of their books alike.

From the beginning of the quest the whole enterprise of attempting to reconstruct the historical figure of Jesus in a way that is allegedly purely historical, free of the concerns of faith and dogma, has been highly problematic for Christian faith and theology. What, after all, does the phrase "the historical Jesus" mean? It is a seriously ambiguous phrase, with at least three meanings. It could mean Jesus as he really was in his earthly life, in that sense distinguishing the earthly Jesus from the Jesus who, according to Christian faith, now lives and reigns exalted in heaven and will come to bring history to its end. In that sense the historical Jesus is by no means all of the Jesus Christians know and worship, but as a usage that distinguishes Jesus in his earthly life from the exalted Christ the phrase could be unproblematic.

However, the full reality of Jesus as he historically was is not, of course, accessible to us. The world itself could not contain the books that would be needed to record even all that was empirically observable about Jesus, as the closing verse of the Gospel of John puts it. Like any other part of history, the Jesus who lived in first-century Palestine is knowable only through the evidence that has survived. We could therefore use the phrase "the historical Jesus" to mean, not all that Jesus was, but Jesus insofar as his historical reality is accessible to us. But here we reach the crucial methodological problem. For Christian faith this Jesus, the earthly Jesus as we can know him, is the Jesus of the canonical Gospels, Jesus as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John recount and portray him. There are difficulties, of course, in the fact that these four accounts of Jesus differ, but there is no doubt that the Jesus of the church's faith through the centuries has been a Jesus found in these Gospels. That means that Christian faith has trusted these texts. Christian faith has trusted that in these texts we encounter the real Jesus, and it is hard to see how Christian faith and theology can work with a radically distrusting attitude to the Gospels.

Yet everything changes when historians suspect that these texts may be hiding the real Jesus from us, at best because they give us the historical Jesus filtered through the spectacles of early Christian faith, at worst because much of what they tell us is a Jesus constructed by the needs and interests of various groups in the early church. Then that phrase "the historical Jesus" comes to mean, not the Jesus of the Gospels, but the allegedly real Jesus behind the Gospels, the Jesus the historian must reconstruct by subjecting the Gospels to ruthlessly objective (so it is claimed) scrutiny. It is essential to realize that this is not just treating the Gospels as historical evidence. It is the application of a methodological skepticism that must test every aspect of the evidence so that what the historian establishes is not believable because the Gospels tell us it is, but because the historian has independently verified it. The result of such work is inevitably not one historical Jesus, but many. Among current historical Jesuses on offer there is the Jesus of Dominic Crossan, the Jesus of Marcus Borg, the Jesus of N. T. (Tom) Wright, the Jesus of Dale Allison, the Jesus of Gerd Theissen, and many others. The historian's judgment of the historical value of the Gospels may be minimal, as in some of these cases, or maximal, as in others, but in all cases the result is a Jesus reconstructed by the historian, a Jesus attained by the attempt to go back behind the Gospels and, in effect, to provide an alternative to the Gospels' constructions of Jesus.

There is a very serious problem here that is obscured by the naive historical positivism that popular media presentations of these matters promote, not always innocently. All history - meaning all that historians write, all historiography - is an inextricable combination of fact and interpretation, the empirically observable and the intuited or constructed meaning. In the Gospels we have, of course, unambiguously such a combination, and it is this above all that motivates the quest for the Jesus one might find if one could leave aside all the meaning that inheres in each Gospel's story of Jesus. One might, of course, acquire from a skeptical study of the Gospels a meager collection of extremely probable but mere facts that would be of very little interest. That Jesus was crucified may be indubitable but in itself it is of no more significance than the fact that undoubtedly so were thousands of others in his time. The historical Jesus of any of the scholars of the quest is no mere collection of facts, but a figure of significance. Why? If the enterprise is really about going back behind the Evangelists' and the early church's interpretation of Jesus, where does a different interpretation come from? It comes not merely from deconstructing the Gospels but also from reconstructing a Jesus who, as a portrayal of who Jesus really was, can rival the Jesus of the Gospels. We should be under no illusions that, however minimal a Jesus results from the quest, such a historical Jesus is no less a construction than the Jesus of each of the Gospels. Historical work, by its very nature, is always putting two and two together and making five - or twelve or seventeen.

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 our understanding of Jesus. To say that would be, as Wright points out, 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 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.

Introducing the Key Category: Eyewitness Testimony

I suggest that we need to recover the sense in which the Gospels are testimony. This does not mean that they are testimony rather than history. It means that the kind of historiography they are is testimony. An irreducible feature of testimony as a form of human utterance is that it asks to be trusted. This need not mean that it asks to be trusted uncritically, but it does mean that testimony 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, but these are precisely reasons for trusting or distrusting. Trusting testimony is not an irrational act of faith that leaves critical rationality aside; it is, on the contrary, the rationally appropriate way of responding to authentic testimony. Gospels understood as testimony are the entirely appropriate means of access to the historical reality of Jesus. It is true that a powerful trend in the modern development of critical historical philosophy and method finds trusting testimony a stumbling-block in the way of the historian's autonomous access to truth that she or he can verify independently. But it is also a rather neglected fact that all history, like all knowledge, relies on testimony. In the case of some kinds of historical event this is especially true, indeed obvious. In the last chapter we shall consider a remarkable modern instance, the Holocaust, where testimony is indispensable for adequate historical access to the events. We need to recognize that, historically speaking, testimony is a unique and uniquely valuable means of access to historical reality.

Testimony offers us, I wish to suggest, both a reputable historiographic category for reading the Gospels as history, and also a theological model for understanding the Gospels as the entirely appropriate means of access to the historical reality of Jesus. 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 the 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. Testimony is the category that enables us to read the Gospels in a properly historical way and a properly theological way. It is where history and theology meet.

In order to pursue this agenda, we need to give fresh attention to the eyewitnesses of the history of Jesus and their relationship to the Gospel traditions and to the Gospels themselves. In general, I shall be arguing in this book that the Gospel texts are much closer to the form in which the eyewitnesses told their stories or passed on their traditions than is commonly envisaged in current scholarship. This is what gives the Gospels their character as testimony. They embody the testimony of the eyewitnesses, not of course without editing and interpretation, but in a way that is substantially faithful to how the eyewitnesses themselves told it, since the Evangelists were in more or less direct contact with eyewitnesses, not removed from them by a long process of anonymous transmission of the traditions. In the case of one of the Gospels, that of John, I conclude, very unfashionably, that an eyewitness wrote it.

This directness of relationship between the eyewitnesses and the Gospel texts requires a quite different picture of the way the Gospel traditions were transmitted from that which most New Testament scholars and students have inherited from the early-twentieth-century movement in New Testament scholarship known as form criticism. Although the methods of form criticism are no longer at the center of the way most scholars approach the issue of the historical Jesus, it has bequeathed one enormously influential legacy. This is the assumption that the traditions about Jesus, his acts and his words, passed through a long process of oral tradition in the early Christian communities and reached the writers of the Gospels only at a late stage of this process. Various different models of the way oral tradition happens - or can be supposed to have happened in those communities - have been canvassed as alternatives to the way the form critics envisaged this. They will be discussed later in this book (see chapter 10). But the assumption remains firmly in place that, whatever the form in which the eyewitnesses of the history of Jesus first told their stories or repeated Jesus' teachings, a long process of anonymous transmission in the communities intervened between their testimony and the writing of the Gospels. The Gospels embody their testimony only in a rather remote way. Some scholars would stress the conservatism of the process of oral tradition, which preserved the traditions of the eyewitnesses rather faithfully; others would stress the creativity of the communities, which adapted the traditions to their needs and purposes and frequently augmented the traditions with freshly invented ones. But, however conservative or creative the tradition may have been, the eyewitnesses from whom it originated appear to have nothing significantly to do with it once they have set it going.

There is a very simple and obvious objection to this picture that has often been made but rarely taken very seriously. It was put memorably in 1933 by Vincent Taylor, the scholar who did most to introduce the methods of German form criticism into English-speaking New Testament scholarship. In an often-quoted comment, he wrote that "[i]f the Form-Critics are right, the disciples must have been translated to heaven immediately after the Resurrection." He went on to point out that many eyewitness participants in the events of the Gospel narratives "did not go into permanent retreat; for at least a generation they moved among the young Palestinian communities, and through preaching and fellowship their recollections were at the disposal of those who sought information." More recently Martin Hengel has insisted, against the form-critical approach, that the "personal link of the Jesus tradition with particular tradents, or more precisely their memory and missionary preaching ... is historically undeniable" but was completely neglected by the form-critical notion that "the tradition 'circulated' quite anonymously ... in the communities, which are viewed as pure collectives." Part of my intention in this book is to present evidence, much of it not hitherto noticed at all, that makes the "personal link of the Jesus tradition with particular tradents," throughout the period of the transmission of the tradition down to the writing of the Gospels, if not "historically undeniable," then at least historically very probable.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from JESUS AND THE EYEWITNESSES by Richard Bauckham Copyright © 2006 by Richard Bauckham. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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