Bauckham-Ireneaus on the age of Jesus

I am almost finished with Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.  With the holiday weekend activities coming on (Labor Day in the USA), I do not quite feel up to summing it all up yet.  So today’s post is a side note.

Bauckham’s theory about the authorship of John’s gospel really is not the main theme of this book.  His main theme is that eyewitnesses can be identified as guarantors of the reliability of the New Testament gospel’s witness to Jesus.  In language we usually use about the Hebrew Bible, Bauckham is a maximalist, whereas many scholars– most of those associated with the Jesus Seminar, for instance– are minimalists.

However, despite it not being his main theme, he devotes a lot of space to discussing his theory that someone named John, an eyewitness to the ministry of Jesus but not a member of the Twelve,was the author of John.  This John, he believes was the senior teacher and elder of the church at Ephesus about the end of the first century.

In the course of doing this he has a chapter about what the church fathers, Polycrates and Ireneaus, said about the authorship of John.

Now Ireneaus is my favorite patriarch.  He was bishop at Lyons in about 180 CE.  He has a theology that enables one to go back behind Augustine and see other orthodox possibilities for understanding things like original sin and the atonement.

But Bauckham reminded me that Ireneaus strongly argued that the common idea that Jesus was 33 years old at the time of his passion was wrong.  Ireneaus claimed that Jesus was over 40.  He said that John 8:57–“you are not yet 50 years old”–means that Jesus was over 40.  Otherwise they would have said, “you are not yet 40″.  This was part what appears to be a preference for information from John over the other gospels.  John had been an eyewitness, so he would know.

Ireneaus had a theological point to make with this argument.  His recapitulation theory that Jesus’ atonement involved redeeming every aspect of human life, meant that Jesus had to have lived past mid-life.  That way Jesus experienced youth, middle age, and what Ireneaus thought of as old age.  Of course, I would wonder why Jesus did not have to be female as well in order to redeem every aspect of human life.

Still, it is worth noting that Luke’s statement that Jesus was about 30 at the time of his baptism is pretty inexact.  Did Luke really know?  Or was he estimating?  And does “about 30″ correspond to our phrase, “30 something.”  The popular notion that Jesus lived exactly 33 years is not biblical.

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Bauckham-an eyewitness author of John

When you google Richard Bauckham and the Beloved Disciple you see that Bauckham has written a book about the Beloved Disciple and some articles. I think the book is made up of a bunch of articles pulled together. So he has more to say about this than what we find in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.

His position here is that the Beloved Disciple is the eyewitness author of the Gospel of John, and that he is in fact the Elder John mentioned by Papias. The identity of the author isn’t crucial for his thesis here. What is important is that an eyewitness wrote the Gospel of John. He bases this on the statement in John 21:24,

“This is the disciple who testifies about these things and has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true” (NET Bible).

An alternative interpretation of this verse says that it does not apply to the whole gospel, but just to chapter 21 or to an earlier stage of the gospel. Bauckham argues that John 21 is integral to the gospel.

Another view is that the “we” who know the testimony is true speaks of the Johannine community or all Christians.. Bauckham argues that “we” is an ancient rhetorical device by which the author actually refers to just himself.

My first question about this would be why, if the gospel was written by an eyewitness, are the discourses written in a style that resembles 1 John rather than a style that represents Jesus as he speaks in the synoptics. Sure there are differences between, say, the style of Jesus’ speech in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount and the style of Jesus in Luke’s Sermon on the Plain. But the basic way of presenting material is the same in spite of the differences. In John, the words of Jesus are nothing like that.

Bauckham’s answer seems to be that ancient historians took a lot of leeway in presenting speeches of characters. So, yes, the discourses in John are the author’s interpretation and elaboration of Jesus’ teaching. If so, the notion that eyewitnesses memorized the master’s teaching and rehearsed it for their disciples does not hold in the case of John.

When I was in seminary my professors still followed Bultmann’s Idea that the discourses in John came out of a Hellenistic world view. That view has mostly been abandoned. We began to notice that some of the motif’s in the Dead Sea Scrolls matched up with motif’s in John’s discourses–so a Hebraic, rather than a Hellenistic, context.

This fed into the idea that John’s gospel developed in a rather isolated community that spoke with a distinctive, Qumran-like vocabulary. Bauckham thinks that Qumran and John independently drew on Hebrew scripture for these motifs. So he thinks John had a broad audience and did not develop in an isolated community.

I find much of value in Bauckham’s proposals. However, a couple of things worry me.

First, he relies a lot on rhetorical criticism. This is a useful approach for certain purposes. We want to know what genre a piece of writing is. We want to know the assumed relationship between author and the readers. Rhetorical criticism can illuminate some of these things. But it is not a rigorous scientific method. There is a lot of subjectivity to it. It seems to me that Bauckham uses rhetorical criticism to draw historical conclusions. I wonder if the method is suited for that purpose.

Second, whatever Bauckham’s intentions were, the evangelical apologetics movement has warmly received his book.  These are people who make it their mission to refute objections to evangelical Christianity. They often have a stake in the doctrine of the inerrancy of the Bible. Bauckham’s work lends itself to this because he uses the idea of eyewitness testimony as a pointer to the reliability and historicity of the canonical gospels.

But is precise historicity really what eyewitness testimony in John’s gospel is about? Think about the very real possibility that the Elder John, still alive during Papias’ life, had been a small child during Jesus’ ministry. Perhaps he was one of the children Jesus blessed. Perhaps he was the child of one of the disciples or one of the women who followed Jesus. His having actually been in the presence of Jesus would give him a certain status in the early church. He would be an eyewitness to the ministry of Jesus. Yet his value would not be in recalling precise details or words of Jesus.

For John, the importance of the eyewitness was not to verify the veracity of the various incidents of Jesus’ life and ministry. It was to verify the doctrine of the Incarnation. Take a look at 1 John 1:1-2,

 “This is what we proclaim to you:  what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and our hands have touched (concerning the word of life – and the life was revealed, and we have seen and testify and announce   to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us)” (NET Bible).

The point of this is that the eyewitnesses have heard, seen, and touched Jesus in the flesh. They are witnesses over against those who deny that Jesus came in the flesh (I John 4:2-3).  It would not be necessary that someone like that could give exact biographical information.  It would be enough that he had been in the presence of Jesus, the real human being.

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Bauckham-memory and anecdotes

I am reading through Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eye Witnesses.

He has a long chapter about memory. His position is that the gospels are much more based on eyewitness testimony than critics have credited. They are not anonymous documents of long developing collective memory. They are documents based on specific memories of individuals.

But how reliable is memory over time? He goes into psychological studies of memory. One of two alternative views is that memory is a copy of events. That is, memory is like replaying saved video footage that copies what happened. The other alternative is that memory is reconstructive. In this view, our minds put our memories together based on a little bit of what happened and a lot of filling in the blanks.

These are not cut and dried alternatives. Some of both go on. We do reconstruct memories. But there is usually also a bedrock of actual recalled events.

If an event is unique or unusual, we will likely remember it better. If an event is of consequence for our community (JFK’s assassination or 9/11) it is likely to lodge itself more firmly in our memory. If we are emotionally involved in an event, it will make us more likely to remember it. On the other hand, personal memories often become confused in regard to dates and chronology even when they are otherwise accurate.

This was interesting because it has become recently more apparent to me how complex the issues around memory are. In the last few years my family has dealt with some trauma: my dad’s dementia and death, what seemed like a sudden outbreak of cancer in several family members, and some other things particular to certain individuals. One family member has just lost a huge chunk of memory related to all this. He kept a diary during part of the time. He is using that and other people’s recollections to try to recover memories. In spite of that, he does not actually remember months and months of events. PTSD, we think.

What do we really remember? And what do we reconstruct based on other people’s memories and records like diaries and photographs?

Bauckham cites some studies that memories often take the form of anecdotes. We reinforce anecdotes by rehearsing them repeatedly. They become part of the lore of our family or community. Personal memory and collective memory merge in retold anecdotes. Yet, the anecdote is usually the primary memory of one individual. As a pastor I saw this many times when I interviewed a family in preparation for a funeral. There were anecdotes about the deceased that had become a part of the collective memory of the family.

Bauckham sees no need for the form critic’s assumption that the anecdotes about the ministry of Jesus in the gospels had to be stories that developed and built over time and with use in the church. Rather, such anecdotes would have become fixed at an early stage and then rehearsed or performed in that fixed form until written down.

Much of this seems likely, especially about the vivid anecdotes in Mark’s gospel. But Bauckham’s case here is pretty modest. Sometimes eyewitness testimony is unreliable. Sometimes people reconstruct memories with a prejudicial agenda that distorts the memory. People even have false memories. Bauckham acknowledges all this. But he argues that for most part in daily life, memory is remarkably reliable. Memory success is the norm.

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Bauckham-oral performance and my speculation about Joanna

Richard Bauckham, in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, has three chapters about the oral transmission of the stories about the words and ministry of Jesus.

He outlines three approaches to this. First and most common even today is the form critical approach. The form critics say that the churches, through an informal, fluid and creative process, formed the individual stories of Jesus for use in teaching. The gospels came about at a late stage.

Then, second, a Scandinavian approach associated mostly with Birger Gerhardsson said that there was a formal transmission of oral tradition from designated teachers who memorized and controlled an authoritative tradition.

Finally, Kenneth Bailey has taken a middle way and people like James Dunn and N.T. Wright have followed. Kenneth Bailey lived in the Middle Eastern villages and he followed how tradition got passed on in such communities. He proposed an informal process that the community itself monitored for accuracy.

Bauckham ends up taking a position closer to the Scandinavians. He believes that the process was more formal and more controlled than most scholars believe.

But, from Kenneth Bailey, he does take the idea that the oral process involved performing the stories. In the communities Bailey observed, the oral transmission of tradition meant community gatherings where storytellers performed.

Today a performance often involves music or a scripted drama. But in village society the telling and retelling of stories before the community was performance.

For Bauckham’s take on all this to be true, there must have been officially designated performers. The “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” in Luke 1:4 would be people recognized from the early days as the authorized performers of the gospel tradition.

He turns to the letters of Paul to argue that such officials existed. He uses the two passages in 1 Corinthians where Paul uses the language of passing on and receiving tradition, 11:23 and 15:1-3. He argues that there had to be a formal process of passing on and receiving involving authoritative bearers of tradition.

Here is why this does not convince me. First, these passages about the Lord’s Supper and the Resurrection have to do with the very important events at the end of Jesus’ ministry. They do not show that stories of teachings, parables, and healings came down in the same way. Second, Bauckham tries to make Paul’s recognition that there were “teachers” in his churches into the designation of an official position for passing on traditions about Jesus. That this was the function of Paul’s teachers does not seem at all obvious to me. Also Bauckham still has not offered an explanation for why the parallel traditions in the gospels vary so much. I would not expect this in a process that was formal and controlled.

However, I am intrigued by the idea that at least the passion story was regularly performed in the churches. Paul says to the Galatians that before their eyes someone had vividly portrayed Jesus as crucified (Galatians 3:1). I had always assumed that Paul was talking about his own preaching. But maybe he was accompanied by an eyewitness or someone steeped in the Jerusalem church’s passion story. Maybe this storyteller had the job of performing the passion story before the gathered community.

Paul’s tradition about the Lord’s Supper in i Corinthians 11:23 ff. differs from Mark’s. It is closer the Luke’s. We know that John Mark sometimes accompanied Paul. So, if Mark’s gospel came from John Mark, one would expect Paul to have received Mark’s version of the passion story. Bauckham earlier argued that Luke got his unique eyewitness material from the women who accompanied Jesus. So I wonder if one of the women performed the story for Paul’s churches.

In Luke 8:3 a woman named Joanna is listed right after Mary Magdalene in the list of women who went around with Jesus and the disciples. In Romans 16:7 Paul greets Junia, which could be the Greek form of Joanna. He says she was once a prisoner along with him and that she is prominent among the apostles. So.  . . .  Was Joanna an eyewitness source of Paul’s information about Jesus? It is speculation, but I would like to think so.

Anyway, I am not convinced by Bauckham’s idea that the process of oral transmission was formalized and controlled from early on. As I have said before, I think authority early on was more charasmatic than formal and official. Later in the first century the church tried to make things more official. There seems to be some reading of that back into the early days. Nevertheless, Bauckham is making a valuable case that eyewitnesses were more important than we have thought and that form criticism has some big holes in it.

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Atheists misunderstanding faith

Here is a link to a book review at Slate.  The review is of Nick Spencer’s Atheists:The Origin of the Species.  The “species” of the title is atheists.  The book is a kind of history of atheism.  And the review is a good take down of the ignorant, fundamentalist kind of atheism so much in fashion today.

 If your idea of God is not one that most theistic traditions would recognize, you’re not talking about God (at most, the New Atheists’ arguments are relevant to the low-hanging god of fundamentalism and deism). But even more damning is that such atheists appear ignorant of atheism as well.

For instance, what would these new atheists do with someone like Elizabeth Johnson whose Ask the Beasts we just read through on this blog?  She believes in evolution and thinks Thomas Aquinas would have loved Darwinism.  She is an orthodox Catholic Christian.

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Bauckham-Papias on Mark, Matthew (and John)

I am reading and reacting to Rickard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.

Bauckham has argued that eyewitnesses like Peter stand behind the New Testament gospels and give us some assurance of their reliability.

He has impressively argued that Mark’s gospel has internal pointers to Peter as the eyewitness behind it. So he can affirm this relationship of the gospel to Peter even without the quotation from the Church Father, Papias.

Finally Bauckham does give us a full discussion of Papias. It is a detailed discussion. He goes through what Papias says about Mark and Matthew phrase by phrase. So I am not going to try to summarize that. I will just tell you the conclusion that Bauckham reaches.

It is a fascinating conclusion. He understands Papias to say that both Mark and Matthew rest on eyewitness testimony, but that both are flawed in terms of order.

About Mark, he says that Peter was the eyewitness. But when the eyewitness testimony of Peter passed through Mark, who translated it into Greek, it lost the chronological order someone who traveled with Jesus could have given it. Papias had written a commentary on the words and acts of Jesus, which we do not have. He chose an order for that commentary that differed from Mark’s order, so we have this quote from his introduction justifying the use of a different order.

There is a similar situation with Matthew. The author was an eyewitness. As such he could put the story of Jesus in proper order. But he wrote in Aramaic. This had been translated by various people who had each altered Matthew’s order. So the gospel of Matthew in Greek no longer gave us the original order. Thus Papias justifies following a different order in his commentary.

Bauckham presents good evidence that Papias knew the gospel of John. It was John’s order that he used in his commentary. Further, Bauckham thinks that the Elder John, whom Papias knew, wrote John. He has already argued that the Elder John, according to Papias, was an eyewitness, though not one of the twelve.

Only an eyewitness could present the gospel in proper order. Papias valued Mark and Matthew, but saw them both as filtered through non-eyewitnesses who did not know the chronological order of Jesus’ life. John, however, was an eyewitness and had written a gospel that preserved the proper order. So John’s order is the one Papias is going to follow in his commentary.

He believes that the order Papias cared about was chronological order. But in Luke the introduction also talks about how others have tried to make accounts of Jesus’ life, but that Luke is going to now put them in order (Luke 1:4). Luke, however, cannot mean chronological order. He uses a kind of geographical order to show the gospel going from Galilee to Jerusalem and then, in Acts, from Jerusalem to Rome. One of his devices is the story of the trip Jesus and the disciples make to Jerusalem. But this trip, when you compare the incidents with the other gospels, was obviously not put in chronological order.

From Papias’s point of view Luke would have been, like Mark, not an eyewitness. So he could not have put the story in order. Papias does not seem to have known Luke’s gospel. My point is just that for ancient writers order does not always mean chronological order.

It may have included chronological order for Papias.  Some scholars, who do not think John is generally reliable, do prefer his chronology with its series of journeys to Jerusalem for various festivals (C.H. Dodd followed by several others including Paula Frederickson). The synoptics make everything seem to happen in one year or a few months. This may have been the problem with the order of Mark and Matthew that Papias saw.

Sometimes Bauckham tries to figure out what Eusebius may have purposely left out when quoting Papias. Eusebius, he thinks, may have suppressed Papias’s preference for John’s gospel. Maybe. But the one thing we know about why Eusebius did not think highly of Papias is that he disliked the millenial theology of Papias. Yet John’s gospel is the one least given to end-time prophecy. So Papias’s preference for John and Eusebius’s suppression of it are mysterious.

Some have thought that in the time of Papias Mark and Matthew were under attack by Gnostics and Papias is defending them. Bauckham’s overall understanding seems to me to be a better one. Papias is defending his own use of John as superior to Mark and Matthew. That makes sense to me.

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Bauckham-protective anonymity

I continue my August reading project.  I am writing about Richard Bauckham’s book, Jesus and the Eyewitness.

There are some odd things about Mark’s story of Jesus’ passion.  These include several anonymous people.  Bauckham has argued that the named and known people in the gospels are often eyewitnesses.  Anonymity generally would not need an explanation. It is the naming of characters than needs explanation.  But, as I said, the anonymous people in Mark’s passion story strike one as odd.

These people are 1) the bystanders to whom the disciples give a password and from whom they receive the colt for the triumphal entry in Mark 11:3,  2)the woman who anointed Jesus in Mark 14:3,  3 ) the man carrying a water jar (women usually carried water jars, so this would make him stand out) who led the disciples to the upper room (Mark 14:14), 4) the “bystander” who cut off the ear of the high priest’s slave (Mark 14:47),  5) the high priest himself who remains nameless in Mark, and 6) the high priest’s slave himself, 7) the young man who ran away naked (Mark 14:51).

Gerd Theissen has a thesis that the passion narrative arose in Jerusalem sometime between 30 and 60 CE and that the anonymity is protective.  It is protective because people still alive and known in Jerusalem could have faced consequences had they been named.  Theissen argues this particularly with reference to the one who struck a blow with the sword and the one who ran away to avoid arrest.  Mark does not even say that they were disciples.  Both of these were disciples who had resisted and so continued to be endangered.  Also the high priest remains anonymous because there is no reason to name and shame him.  That would only aggravate the danger he already posed to the early church.

Bauckham goes beyond Theissen to suggest that this may be the reason for the other anonymous people in the story as well.   An atmosphere of danger and conspiracy in Jerusalem marked both the initial events and the time storytellers strung the story together.  He points out that John names people who were anonymous in Mark.  Peter is the one who severed the ear.  The man he cut is Malchus.  And the woman who anointed Jesus is Mary the sister of Martha.  This is not because John made up names to make the story more vivid.  It is because there was no longer a need to protect these people.  In addition to that, Bauckham thinks John has independent knowledge of the facts.

This is an interesting chapter.  Bauckham has considerable discussion of the stories of the anointing of Jesus and the young man who fled naked.  He does not really come to firm conclusions. Mary was the sister of Lazarus.  Lazarus may have been the person most in need of protective anonymity.  So Mark never mentions him, although maybe he was the one who ran away without his cloak.  But Bauckman knows this is all speculative.

His main point seems to be that it was a convention to name eyewitness sources in the gospels.  But protective anonymity might have overridden that convention in the case of Mark’s passion narrative.

I am a little puzzled about Bauckham’s view of Mark as an author.  He sees Mark as relying on Peter as eyewitness for much of the story outside of the passion narrative.  He accepts that there was a pre-Markan passion narrative.  He accepts Theissen’s idea that it comes from the early Jerusalem church.  But he also sees Mark as artistically shaping the passion narrative.

Was Mark really artistic and using a lot of clever literary devices?  He seems pretty unsophisticated to me.  He certainly did not use literary Greek.  But then the majority of scholars today seem to think Mark ended his gospel in the middle of a sentence to make an ironic point like some kind of postmodern author.  Rolls eyes.


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