ISBN 9780802863904 (0802863906)
Eerdmans, 2006 (538pp)
Who, exactly, wrote the Gospels? How did the accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John reach their present form? Was it through a long sequence of oral transmission, of telling and retelling the Jesus stories in the early church, refining, editing and subtly — or not so subtly — changing them until they became the stories that are now so familiar? Or can we, in fact, trace them back to eyewitness accounts — to Jesus’ actual followers and disciples? Are we, to put it bluntly, dealing with fact or fiction? With genuine history or with history radically reinterpreted through the eyes of faith? How many layers do we need to dig away to find the truth, the real Jesus?
These are the issues that Richard Bauckham addresses in this remarkable — some might say groundbreaking — book. Bauckham goes against the flow of what seems to be the vast majority of biblical scholarship to argue that what we find in the New Testament emerges not from a doubtful sequence of oral tradition but from a reliable source of oral history: from eyewitness testimony.
He constructs his case carefully and meticulously, building particularly on the work of Samuel Byrskog (Story as History — History as Story) and, in his conclusions, drawing especially upon Paul Ricoeur’s Memory, History, Forgetting; but Bauckham writes clearly and cites enough of his conversation partners for his work to be readily followed by readers such as myself who haven’t read those works — enough, in fact, to tempt me to obtain copies. This, I think, is always a sign of a good book: it makes me want to dig deeper. Frustratingly, however, whilst there is an index of modern authors (as well as indexes of ancient persons, places, scriptures and other ancient writings, pp.509-538) there is no actual bibliography: we are forced to return to the first mention of each work in the footnotes for full details.
Bauckham, of course, has not given us the final word on this thorny topic — but he has pushed open a door that, according to many scholars, had been firmly closed: not so much to the historical reliability of the Gospels as to the underlying trustworthiness of the Gospel writers themselves. Once we recognise the Gospels for what they in fact are – eyewitness testimony – we can begin to take them seriously on their own terms rather than on terms imposed upon them by scholars determined to demonstrate their own impartiality — because such impartiality is the very thing that the Gospels cry out against: indifference is not an option when encountering Jesus.
Such an approach, Bauckham explains,
takes the Gospels seriously as they are; it acknowledges the uniqueness of what we can know only from this testimonial form. It honors the form of historiography they are. From a historiographic perspective, radical suspicion of testimony is a kind of epistemological suicide. It is no more practical in history than it is in ordinary life. Gospels scholarship must free itself from the grip of the skeptical paradigm that presumes the Gospels to be unreliable unless, in every particular case of story or saying, the historian succeeds in providing independent verification. … Testimony asks to be trusted. This does not mean that historians must trust testimony uncritically, but rather that testimony is to be assessed as testimony. (p.506)
I’d like to suggest an alternative subtitle for this book: “Why history is boring — and why it doesn’t need to be.” As Bauckham essentially concludes, p.490, “In the end, testimony is all we have” — and in attempting to detach themselves from testimony, in desperately seeking objectivity, historians effectively kill history: they turn it from the living, breathing — and all too often bloody and brutal — story of human life into dry bones and skeletal remains. If you find that difficult to grasp, go read an article in an encyclopaedia of history then read a novel of the same period by Bernard Cornwell.
In a review of this length I can barely skim the surface of this book, but hopefully I’ve said enough to whet your appetite. For a more in-depth study along with an early author interview, head over to Chrisendom, Chris Tilling’s blog. Chris is slightly deranged but has probably spent almost as much time interacting with Bauckham’s book as Bauckham himself spent writing it: Chris Tilling’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses Series.
This is, as James D G Dunn — another of Bauckham’s conversation partners — puts it, a blockbuster of a book, and I do not envy the Michael Ramsey Prize judges their task in choosing between this, Richard Burridge’s Imitating Jesus and the other shortlisted titles. Nonetheless, that decision will be announced on Thursday 28th May this year at the Guardian Hay Festival. If you can’t be there, be sure to follow events as they happen on twitter: @guardianhay.
Finally, for anyone who may find a tome such as this more intimidating than invigorating, fear not: there’s a very accessible ‘condensed’ version available courtesy of Grove Books: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grove Biblical Series, B48, 9781851746897). At only £3.50 – available as ebook or in print – you’d have to be crazier than Chris to miss it.
Phil Groom, May 2009
Phil Groom is this site’s Webmaster and Reviews Editor. He’s a regular contributor to Christian Marketplace magazine and is the manager of London School of Theology Books & Resources. Any opinions expressed here are personal and should not be taken as representing the views of London School of Theology or of any other group or organisation.