Yesterday I wrote that I had begun reading two books that address the so-called “Quest for the Historical Jesus.” The first book I discussed was John Piper’s What Jesus Demands from the World. The second book is Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. This book is written on a totally different level than Piper’s book. It is written by a world class scholar, and it is written for scholars. The main argument of Bauckham’s book is an important one as it confronts one of the key assumptions of Jesus Questers.
Scholarship has argued for many years that the teachings of Jesus and the apostles circulated in the earliest churches in the form of oral tradition. Many scholars (especially form critics) allege that the oral tradition was modified by the early churches who were passing it down from one community to the next. They modified it so much, that the reliable eyewitness testimony of the apostles got lost and/or suppressed in transmission. Thus within decades of Jesus’ death, the oral tradition was no longer historically reliable. Since the four canonical Gospels are based on this oral tradition, the written Gospels themselves cannot be historically reliable.
In Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Bauckham shows that this set of assumptions is totally off-base. He writes:
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. . . They embody the testimony of the eyewitnesses . . . 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 (p. 6).
If, as I shall argue in this book, the period between the “historical” Jesus and the Gospels was actually spanned, not by anonymous community transmission, but by the continuing presence and testimony of the eyewitnesses, who remained the authoritative sources of their traditions until their deaths, then the usual ways of thinking of oral tradition are not appropriate at all. Gospel traditions did not, for the most part, circulate anonymously but in the name of the eyewitnesses to whom they were due (p. 8 ).
Thus Bauckham is arguing that when we read the canonical Gospels, we are reading eyewitness testimony. And that testimony should be treated with due regard. He writes:
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. . . But it is also a rather neglected fact that all history, like all knowledge, relies on testimony. . . We need to recognize that, historically speaking, testimony is a unique and uniquely valuable means of access to historical reality (p. 5).
I am thankful for both of these books (Piper’s and Bauckham’s). They both make the attempt to put the Jesus of the Gospels before the world as the only true and authentic Jesus. Having taken a few laps around the “houses of cards” built by the Jesus Questers, I can agree with all my heart that the Jesus of the Gospels is the only Jesus worth having.
Hello Dr. Burk,
A question out of context. If you were to write a dissertation on JOhn what are some of the number of issues that will be of interest to you?
From a reader who reads your blog frequently and is passionate about John’s Gospel.
You should ask Jim Hamilton that question: http://jimhamilton.wordpress.com. He wrote his dissertation on the Holy Spirit in John’s Gospel.
I just worked through Bauckham about two months ago. It is an excellent read, even though I am not persuaded on his take about authorship of John’s gospel. What he does masterfully is build a case for the importance of eyewitness testimony in the gospels, and rejects the common critical view that the gospel stories are the final product of a long tradition that fundamentally changed (and even created) certain details, events, words, etc. A must read for those working in the gospels.