In the final chapter of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Richard Bauckham seeks to justify his approach to the gospels over against the trend in historical Jesus scholarship. Much of that scholarship stands on a mistrust of the sources. It stands on suspicion. It stands on the idea that the documents do not want to tell you the truth, but that you have to metaphorically interrogate them by torture in order to get them to give up the real truth.
Contrary to this, Bauckham wants us to read the gospels as eyewitness testimony. The thing about testimony is that it is a form of communication that not only attests to information but asks the hearer or reader to trust the experience of the one who testifies.
Ancient historians thought the best history came from people like Josephus who had actually participated in many of the events he described in his work about the Jewish War. Bauckham compares this to the way people since World War II have received testimony about the Holocaust. The most powerful witnesses have been participants in the events.
I pause here to relate a personal experience. One afternoon a few years ago an old widower in a church I was serving invited me to come over a look at some photo albums. When I went to see him, I had no idea what a kind of experience this would be. He had been a tanker in WWII. He had participated in the liberation of two of the death camps. His albums included unbelievable photos he had taken. He showed me the pictures and talked about his experience.
This is eyewitness testimony. And I have to admit that it is indeed the best kind of history. Sometimes testimony is so striking that it gives you an immediate sense of the reality of the past.
Bauckham thinks this is especially true of “uniquely unique” events. The Holocaust qualifies. In a different way (Bauckham tries to be sensitive about this), the passion and resurrection of Jesus also qualify. The gospels are testimony and those who testify—the author of John, a member of the Twelve named Matthew, Peter, the women disciples, and several named individuals—seem to have been eyewitnesses to the ministry of Jesus.
I think that in regard to the anecdotes in Mark that seem so vivid and the geographical and chronological notes in John that seem better than the synoptics, Bauckham has a strong case. However, the same event sometimes gets told in ways that can’t be reconciled. So, to say that the gospels in their entirety are reliable eyewitness testimony seems to go too far.
Take, for example, the nativity narratives in Matthew and Luke. They don’t agree with each other in details other than Bethlehem as the birthplace and that Mary did, indeed, conceive as a virgin. But these events happened at least three decades before the ministry of Jesus. Were there still any eyewitnesses around in the late first century? The family of Jesus, still prominent at Jerusalem, could have testified to a family tradition. But they would not have been eyewitnesses.
And then there are the sayings of Jesus that are the basis for “red-letter” Christianity. Were the discourses of Jesus really verbatim transcripts based on memorization? There is reason to doubt it.
One place in the New Testament where we can know for certain that we have an eyewitness author describing a historical event is in Paul’s description in Galatians of the apostolic conference. Paul was a participant. Yet there is another account in Acts 15 that varies considerably from Paul’s account. So we cannot take the historical unevenness out of the New Testament by asserting that it is all based on eyewitness testimony.
In everyday life we have to apply suspicion and doubt to advertising and political news. So it is natural that we carry this over into historical studies. Every writer has a point of view. Postmodern deconstruction is something we do without thinking about it when listening to MSNBC or Fox. The news about what happened yesterday already comes to us with spin. So how are we supposed to trust what we get from two millenia ago?
Yet Bauckham is quite right that the results of methodological doubt in the historical Jesus studies have not been encouraging. They come up with Jesus as a wandering Cynic philosopher, Jesus as Jewish mystic, Jesus as a revolutionary, or Jesus as a doomsday preacher. Take your pick. Bauckham’s emphasis on eyewitness testimony should serve to restrain some of the claims that take us far away from the overall impression of Jesus given in the gospels.
My own thought, however, is that Bauckham stresses the reportorial aspect of eyewitness testimony too much. It was not “eyewitness news”. It was testimony about the reality of the saving events of incarnation, death, and resurrection. So we still need to use tools like source criticism and archeology to make judgments about the historicity of the various stories and sayings in the gospels.