Today I begin to post about Richard Bauckham’s book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.
Bauckham takes on the quest for the historical Jesus. The question arises, “What does historical mean?” For much of the literature on the historical Jesus, historical means what is left after scholars apply postmodern-style deconstruction to the gospel stories. Another way of saying this is that you apply methodological doubt to the the gospels. Doubt everything that you can doubt. Question the motives of the authors. Perhaps there is some residue left. That residue can be considered the historical Jesus.
One problem with this is that you end up with more than one historical Jesus. Read Dominic Crossan, Dale Allison, Marcus Borg, N. T. Wright and so on. They do not agree on just who Jesus was. Their reconstructions of the history provide intriguing alternatives, but no certain results.
Bauckham says, “By comparison with the Gospels, any Jesus reconstructed by the quest cannot fail to be reductionist from the perspective of Christian faith and theology” (p. 4).
Historical, however, has not always meant the residue left after deconstruction.
Bauckham wants to explore the New Testament story of Jesus as testimony. Testimony has not always been under the kind of suspicion modern historians tend to have for it. Ancient historians thought that testimony from people who had participated in events was the best ground for history. You get not only reporting on the events they experienced, but you get what those who first experienced the events thought they meant.
Biblical scholars tend to treat the gospels as a generation or more removed from the events. The standard understanding is that each of the gospels arose from a community. The original tales have become community theology meant to meet the needs of certain churches in the late first century. The gospels do not have individual authors. They are community tradition.
Bauckham takes the unfashionable position that his view of the gospels is messed up. The gospels, he thinks, go back to individuals who actually experienced Jesus. The gospels represent the testimony of these individuals. Testimony, unlike straight reporting or the citation of sources, asks us to trust the one who testifies.
Bauckham knows that his approach breaks with mainstream scholarship. He is not, however, without some scholarly company. Some scholars, especially in Scandinavia, have long argued that oral history was much more reliable than we today think. Birger Gerhardsson argued that the teacher-disciple relationship required the disciple to be able to accurately reproduce the teacher’s discourse. Moreover, Bauckham goes into some detail about the work of Samuel Byrskog. This Swedish scholar published in 2000 a book called Story as History–History as Story.
According to Byrskog, the best practice of a historian was to get oral information from people who had participated in the events. It was especially good if the historian had personally experienced the events. Xenophon, Thucydides, and Josephus are examples of historians who had participated in the events they wrote about.
Greek and Roman historians did not have the idea that a writer was discredited if he was not a dispassionate observer. This contrasts with the prevailing idea today that history is flawed if you can undermine a writer by digging into the interest and privilege behind what he or she writes. Passionate involvement in the events was considered an asset for the historian, not a detriment.
Byrskog went on to argue that the gospels reflect the oral history passed down by participants in the ministry of Jesus. Of course, this history was passed down in various communities, but the original witnesses remained active in these communities during the first generation. So the original witnesses were able to influence the tradition up until the time someone wrote the texts of the gospels.
Bauckham takes note of some criticisms of Byrskog’s work and admits that Byrskog did not make a complete case. Bauckham ends his first chapter by saying that his aim in this book is to complete Byrskog’s case.
Well, this will be an interesting read. I particularly want to see how Bauckham handles contradictions and farely radical differences between the gospels. After all, even though it is certainly true that historical Jesus authors do not all end up with the same Jesus, one could ask whether, say, Matthew and John end up with the same Jesus.
The question about what history is needs careful attention. I always think of Tolkien’s introduction to the Lord of the Rings where he rejects the idea that LOTR is an allegory. He says that he prefers history “real or fiegned”. He certainly goes to great lengths to fiegn history–inventing back history, languages, and calendars. So, in one sense, history is a type of literature. Even fantasy can look like that type of literature. But when we ask if something is historical, we usually mean to ask if it corresponds to past events. Is it real history?