Guarantors of the Tradition: A Review of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony
(Richard Bauckham, Eerdmans ,2006)


David Mathewson, September 30, 2007

Richard Bauckham has written a significant work which will be sure to provoke much thought and even reassessment of previous ways of approaching Gospel criticism. Bauckham (St. Andrews University, Scotland) is already well-known for his significant work on Revelation and the General Epistles. Now he continues in his tradition of saying something groundbreaking on nearly every area he touches by tackling the field of Gospel studies. Bauckham challenges much previous Gospel criticism laboring under the dominant influence of form criticism, which postulated that the Gospel traditions were passed on orally and anonymously over a period of time, and in an uncontrolled fashion. Further, they reflected more about the community that shaped and gave rise to the traditions, than historical events.

Against this approach to the Gospels, Bauckham suggests that scholars have not paid sufficient attention to the concept of “eyewitness testimony.” The heart of the argument of this book is that the traditions of the Gospels originated with and were formulated by named eyewitnesses who functioned as guarantors of the tradition. “The Gospels were written within living memory of the events they recount” (7). The following summarizes some of the important arguments of Bauckham.

1. Greek and Roman historians relied as much as possible on those who had actually participated in the events, that is, eyewitnesses (he relies on the work of Samuel Byrskog). The fact that they were not disinterested participants meant that, far from hindering accurate recording, those personally involved were better able to remember accurately.

2. Bauckham argues for the essential reliability of Papias’ [early second century Christian leader] testimony, based on the fact that it does not reflect apologetic exaggeration. Moreover, he convincingly argues that Papias’ preference for the “living voice” does not mean that he prefers oral over written tradition, but rather that he prefers reliance on eyewitness testimony!

3. Bauckham intriguingly suggests that the names found in the Gospels were not added in the passing on of tradition, but instead identified eyewitness. In particular, the twelve apostles would have functioned as authoritative guarantors of the tradition. The point: traditions were identified with named individuals.

4. Bauckham finds in Mark and John a key literary feature that points to their reliance on eyewitness testimony. Mark contains an inclusio, where the first and last disciple named in the book is Peter, apparently confirming Papias’ testimony of Mark’s reliance on Peter. Likewise, John contains an inclusio with the beloved disciple referred to first and last in the Gospel. This intentional framing device points to a major eyewitness testimony in each of these books.

5. Bauckham goes further and shows that not only are the Gospels based on eyewitness testimony, but that testimony is reliable. By relying on studies of memory, he argues for the general trustworthiness of memory.

6. Returning to Papias, Bauckham argues that the “beloved disciple” in the Gospel of John was the author, and that he is to be identified with Papias’ John the elder, not John who was one of the twelve.

7. In a final chapter Bauckham demonstrates the trustworthiness of eyewitness testimony by appealing to analogies with accounts of the Holocaust. The passionate and personal accounts did not distort, but enhanced memory of the events. Relying on Paul Ricoueur’s “uniquely unique events,” Bauckham argues that certain events, such as God’s disclosure through Jesus Christ, require first hand witness and testimony.

All in all, Bauckham has mounted a persuasive argument for the both the role of eyewitnesses in the production of the Gospels and the reliability of those eyewitness accounts. This book will provide a welcome alternative and correction to more skeptical and destructive methods of Gospel and Jesus research, at both an academic and popular level.

Dr. David Mathewson is Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Gordon College, Wenham, Massachussetts.




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