Christianity from its start was a bookish religion. The apostle Paul began writing letters to churches about two decades after the death of Jesus. And Christian communities sprung up across the Empire (and beyond). Yet the disciples of Jesus, although numbered in the hundreds, eventually would die out. How would later generations hear the story of Jesus?
The answer is that eyewitnesses of Jesus would commit their memories to writing to preserve the history of Jesus for future generations. That eyewitness testimony lies behind the Gospels provides a clue not only to the historical transmission of the Gospel traditions about Jesus but also, as Richard Bauckham argues in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, the theological mode of communication.
The Gospels are testimony about Jesus. After Jesus, Peter is mentioned more times than any other named person in the Gospel according to Mark, and Peter’s name appears at the beginning and end of the Gospel (Mark 1:16; 16:7; p. 510). This suggests that Mark used the eyewitness testimony of Peter to compose the Gospel of Mark.
We know Luke went to eyewitnesses because of his introduction (Luke 1:1–4). And John’s Gospel also makes the claim to being an eyewitness account: “This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true” (John 21:24). It stands to reason that Matthew has done the same.
But is this not plain upon reflection? Who else could have recorded Peter’s three-fold rejection of Jesus, if not Peter himself? And who could have heard Jesus praying in the garden when all the disciples had fallen asleep if not the mysterious figure who later loses his linen cloth and flees naked from the authorities (Mark 14:51–52)?
The answer seems to be that eyewitnesses reported these things and that the Gospel writers incorporated these reports into their writings.
Yet the account that I’ve been narrating contradicts the form-critical narrative so common in the 20th century. The form-critical school assumed that the story of Jesus was told from generation to generation before, finally, the Gospels were written. On this reading, the real history of Jesus lies underneath layers of additions made by story-tellers.
Bauckham challenges the notion that story-tellers developed traditions about Jesus for many years before the Gospels were written. Actually, the Gospels were written while disciples of the Lord still lived. And these disciples served as eyewitness to Jesus.
Papias, writing from the early 100s about an earlier time period, speaks about two living disciples of the Lord, Aristion and John the Elder. Papias could, therefore, have checked his understanding of Jesus and the Gospels by hearing the testimonies of living disciples of Jesus—likely, he heard from those who heard the disciples directly. But it’s possible he could have heard from these disciples directly too. Their lives did overlap. If Papias could have done so, why not the Gospel writers?
So the idea that long periods of time passed from the eyewitnesses of the Lord before the composition of the Gospels is incorrect. Eyewitnesses testified to many people about Jesus, and it was this reliable testimony that provided the historical accounts of Jesus, which the Gospel writers used in their compositions.
Bauckham goes to great length to demonstrate that ancient historiography valued eyewitness testimony to a high degree. And so it makes sense that the Gospels would use it. And we return to the idea that testimony is not only the historical mode of transmission of the Jesus tradition, but it also the theological category of communication in the Gospels. We are to read them as eyewitness testimonies to Jesus.
In the words of Bauckham:
The kind of research and argument I have been advocating should not be misunderstood as yet another attempt to reconstruct a historical Jesus other than the Jesus of the Gospels. It is rather an attempt to validate the Gospels themselves as sources that are historically trustworthy at the same time as being testimonies of faith. They give us Jesus interpreted — interpreted from the perspective of the eyewitnesses and the Gospel writers. They give us representations of Jesus but representations whose historical basis can be tested. My claim is that they transcend the dichotomy between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. They give us the Jesus of testimony. (Bauckham, 2017: 615).
The Christ of faith and the Jesus of history is the “Jesus of testimony.” It is how we learn of him historically and conceive of him theologically. We see Jesus through the eyes of witnesses, who testified that he has come from God.
Why did Bauckham write a second edition of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses? The answer is not that the first edition presented bad research. In fact, chapters from the first edition remain unchanged here. They stand the test of time. But Bauckham has used the opportunity to add three new chapters at the end of the book to clarify earlier arguments or to respond to critics.
The chapters discuss eyewitnesses in Mark, the identity of the Beloved Disciple, and form criticism. These chapters add clarity to Bauckham’s work and function as something like a personal reflection. Bauckham reflects on what he said and how people responded to it, giving measured and helpful responses.
Anyone interested in New Testament studies should read Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. His arguments and thorough presentation of evidence warrant a careful engagement with his work. It simply cannot be ignored. Readers should expect an academic, thoroughly researched work, which is nevertheless readable.
Academics, pastors, and church leaders should read Bauckham to understand the means by which the Gospels were written. And not only this but also to grasp the theological mode of testimony in the Gospels.
Bauckham, Richard. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. 2nd edition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017. pp. 704.
Eerdmans provided me with a review copy of this book without any obligation to give it a positive review.