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.