I am blogging through Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.
He opens his 5th chapter with a statement of just what he is contending in this book. He is contending that up until people wrote down the gospels, there were known and named eyewitnesses who guaranteed the accuracy of the material in the narrative about Jesus. Those people had heard Jesus teach and memorized his teachings. They had witnessed the events of his ministry, passion, and resurrection. These people had not only initiated the telling of Jesus’ story, they continued all their lives to be a checkpoint for the authenticity of the teachings about Jesus (p. 93).
Foremost among these known and named people were the twelve apostles. They are listed by name in the gospels and in the Book of Acts. I was interested to see how Bauckham would deal with the seeming contradictions and discrepancies in these lists. Would he sweep the differences away or would he let them stand as divergent testimonies? The answer is mixed.
He sets the stage for his discussion of the twelve with a detailed survey of names in Jewish Palestine. There is a new source for this. In 2002 the Israeli scholar, Tal Ilan, published a Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity: Part I: Palestine 330 BCE-200 CE. In this she tells us what the most common names were and how Hebrew, Greek, and Latin elements all had a place in Jewish names of the period. Since male names like Simon, Joseph, John, and Jesus were extremely common, all kinds of ways of distinguishing came about. These included father’s names (Simon bar Jonah), place names (Jesus of Nazareth), occupation names (Levi the tax collector) and nicknames (Thomas the twin).
One of the discrepancies in the lists of the twelve is that Mark and Matthew list a Thaddaeus while Luke and Acts list a Judas son of James in that place. Bauckham is trying to argue that the twelve constituted a very important group in the early church and so they were remembered and listed with care. So he harmonizes these lists by claiming that Thaddaeus and Judas son of James are the same person. Harmonization is not always wrong, he says. But the best he can argue is that it is possible that these are two different ways of referring to the same person. Yes, it is possible. But if there was a standard list, why the variation?
The other big discrepancy is that Mark tells the story of Levi son of Alphaeus in Mark 2:14 ff. and lists Matthew as one of the twelve. Nothing in Mark identifies Levi and Matthew as the same person. However, Matthew’s gospel identifies Levi and Matthew. Here Bauckham breaks with the harmonizers. Matthew/Levi would have had two Semitic names. This is so rare as to make it implausible.
Bauckham explains this by saying that Matthew’s author picked up on the fact that both Levi and Matthew were tax collectors who followed Jesus. He identified the two because a Matthew figured in the title of the gospel. He appropriated the call of Levi as a call story for Matthew. He wanted to tell a story of Matthew’s call in the gospel associated with Matthew. This means that the author of Matthew wanted to associate the gospel with Matthew but was not himself Matthew.
This gives a plausible motive for Matthew’s departure from Mark here, but it seems to me that it hurts Bauckham’s overall case that the twelve were a well-known official body guaranteeing the authenticity of the gospel narratives.
Just a few years after the passion of Jesus, Paul came to Jerusalem and did not find an official body of the twelve. There were James the brother of Jesus (never listed as one of the twelve), Peter, and John. Paul calls these “pillars” (Galatians 2:9). So the twelve had not established themselves in Jerusalem. The twelve did not play a role in the Apostolic Conference according to either Galatians or Acts 15. Were the twelve an institution in Galilee or Syria sitting as an official body? Well, maybe. The Syrian church eventually produced a work called The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles. But most traditions have the twelve soon scattering as missionaries and martyrs.
So I am skeptical of Bauckham’s idea that the twelve functioned primarily as guarantors of the tradition. If they did so at all it seems to me they must have done so locally and briefly in Galilee or Syria and never for the whole church. Perhaps they were behind the so-called Q document. But that is speculation.
I have read only five chapters so far. So Bauckham may yet win me over. I am just expressing some of the problems I see as I go along.