I am reading and reflecting upon Richard Bauckham’s book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.
Bauckham wants to replace the idea that the New Testament’s gospels are compilations of anonymous collective traditions with the idea that those traditions go back to eyewitnesses who walked with Jesus, many of whom we can name.
The 2nd century writer, Papias, is an important cog in his argument. His five books explaining the sayings of Jesus have been lost. Later writers, Eusebius and Irenaeus, give us a few quotes from him. A quote from his introduction says he made inquiries of people who might know about Jesus’s life. Papias inquired of the elders and those who had been under the teaching of the elders. “Elders” seems to mean the senior teachers in the churches in Asia. So information from them would have been like the community tradition modern scholars think lay behind the gospels.
But Papias goes on to say that some of this tradition related to material the elders had gotten directly from named members of the twelve apostles. In other words, some of the elders living in Papias’s day had listened to the testimony of people who were eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus. He also says he got information from Aristion and John the Elder who were disciples of the Lord.
Bauckham thinks that while the twelve are all dead by the time Papias was making inquiries, Aristion and John the Elder had known Jesus in the flesh and were still living and teaching in Asia Minor in perhaps 90 C.E. which may be the time Papias is talking about. Bauckham argues that the time when Papias wrote may have been decades later than the time he is talking about, the time when he was making these inquiries.
Whether this interpretation of Papias’s meaning is correct or not, Bauckham is right that Papias put a high value on information from people who had personally known Jesus. He may have shared the idea with other ancient historians that “best practice” in history was to get in touch with the living tradition derived from eyewitness accounts. Thus, anonymous community traditions are unlikely to be what the gospels build on. He argues that it is more likely that the traditions have particular, known individuals as their source.
From Papias, Bauckham turns to the phenomena of personal names in the gospels. It is hard to figure out why individuals in the gospels sometimes get called by name and sometimes not.
For instance, there is Cleopas and his companion in the Road to Emmaus story in Luke 24. Why is Cleopas named and his companion not named? Bauckham suggest it was because Cleopas was well known within the early Jerusalem church as the source of this tradition.
For instance, there is Cleopas and his companion in the road-to-Emmaus story in Luke 24. Why is Cleopas named and his companion not named? Bauckham suggests it was because Cleopas was well known within the early Jerusalem church as the source of this tradition.
He also talks about the named women who accompanied Jesus. He suggests that Mary Magdalene was well known as the source for the empty tomb report. Mary the Mother of Joseph was another and she continues to be mentioned because of the veracity of two witnesses in Jewish culture. But Susanna, who was mentioned in Mark, dropped out in later accounts because she was not well known to the churches.
He talks about the named people whom Jesus healed. The Christian apologist, Quadratus, in about the year 117 C.E. claimed that there were still people alive at that time whom Jesus had healed or raised from death. It may be that some who had been healed by Jesus proved powerful witnesses for a long time in the early church and have their names remembered because they were the source of those stories.
A fascinating case is that of the sons of Simon of Cyrene, the man made to carry the cross bar to the place of Jesus’ execution. Mark for some reason mentions that he was the father of Alexander and Rufus (Mark 15:21). Mark thought his readers would know who these people were. Bauckham thinks that the best explanation for this is that Mark is referencing the eyewitness account of Simon, which was known to the church though the testimony of his sons.
(One of my professors, although he doubted many reports in the gospels, had basically worked out a detailed biography for Simon. He thought he was the same as “Simeon called Niger” in Acts 13:1. Bauckham, though, suggests that Simon himself may have died or never become a Christian, so his sons bore his witness.)
I assume that Bauckham’s case is cumulative. So it would be unfair to judge it based on just the first chapters. He has made some very interesting points. I anticipate seeing how it all develops.
One thing that stimulates my thought about people like Papias, Quadratus, and Hegesippus (who wrote memoirs about the 1st and 2nd century Judean church which the family of Jesus continued to preside over) is that we don’t have their books. What we have are a few quotes, probably taken out of context, or some fragments. Wouldn’t it be great if someone found a lost library that had the full texts?