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Australian Biblical Review


ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 56, 2008

RICHARD BAUCKHAM, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: Eerdmans, 2006). Pp. xiii + 538. Hardback. $US32.00/18.99.

Richard Bauckham acknowledges that he is swimming against the stream of scholarly consensus. His main aim is to demonstrate that the canonical gospels are closer to eyewitness evidence for the words and deeds of Jesus than has usually been accepted in recent scholarship. Form criticism has bequeathed the idea that individual stories were handed down communally and anonymously until they were finally incorporated in the Gospels. Bauckham proposes instead that the minor characters in particular Gospel stories were the sources of those stories, and that they continued to tell their stories so long as they were able. This approach allows Bauckham to evade form-critical views of the functions of the various types (Gattungen) of stories in the life-setting of the early Christian communities (Sitz im Leben). In principle, Bauckham also sees main characters of the Gospels as major sources for the narratives. In practice, since he accepts the priority of Mark, this view applies especially to Peter in Mark.

The assumption that minor characters were the sources of their own stories is most plausible when they were the only disciple-characters present (e.g., women at the cross and the tomb in Mark and Matthew). But especially in such cases, the historicity of the stories must also be assumed. And when other characters were present (e.g., healing of blind Bartimaeus), any of the observers could be the source of the story. Bauckham arbitrarily explains the omission of the name “Bartimaeus” in Matthew and Luke on the ground that “Bartimaeus was presumably no longer a figure of wide repute” (54). Bauckham’s case for Peter as the major source for Mark depends on Peter being “the most fully characterized individual” (175), who is frequently mentioned in the narrative and especially near its beginning and end, suggesting that Peter’s “testimony includes the whole” (125).

Questions of genre arise at various points in Bauckham’s discussion. He rightly acknowledges that there is a distinction between ancient historiography and biography, that there is a range of types within biography, and that the Gospels belong to a particular type of biography. But he also claims that the Gospels follow best historiographical practice, and that in the Graeco-Roman world best practice entailed contemporary historiography, where the writer could at least interview participants or had actually been a participant. By this standard, for Bauckham the only eyewitness among the canonical evangelists was the author of the Gospel of John.

Classical historians did seek contemporary eyewitness testimony and in some cases were themselves participants; but they might also begin their histories in legendary or even mythical times. The Gospels fit better the type of laudatory biography which presents an account of the life of a man from birth or from the beginning of his career. Bauckham relies on several debatable assumptions to support the eyewitness status of the author of the Gospel of John: the Gospel is a unity; the author also wrote the three Johannine Letters; this author is “John the Elder” mentioned by Papias (Eus. HE 3.39.4), not the son of Zebedee; John the Elder is identical with the Beloved Disciple; and the Beloved Disciple is also the anonymous disciple at John 1:37; 19:35; 21:2; and perhaps 18:15.

Within the first chapter Bauckham introduces “testimony” as a “kind of historiography,” which “asks to be trusted” without the need to be “independently verified” (5). In the body of the book there are chapters which provide information and analysis of the relevant early Christian writings, and chapters which take a more theoretical approach to oral tradition and memory. Then in the last chapter Bauckham returns to his understanding of testimony. Its main characteristic is still that it “requires trust” (475). Bauckham follows Ricoeur in making “testimony as the record of memory indispensable for historiography” (488). However, he now acknowledges more frankly that testimony should be subject to “testing by critical questioning” (486). Indeed, the “question is whether it is trustworthy, and this is open to tests of internal consistency and coherence, and consistency and coherence with whatever other relevant historical evidence we have and whatever else we know about the historical context” (506). This necessary concession seems to undermine the claim for testimony to be taken on “trust” without the need to be “independently verified.”

In the detailed discussion of his topic, Bauckham makes many interesting observations and speculative claims. But he has not satisfactorily demonstrated that “the period between the ‘historical’ Jesus and the Gospels was actually spanned, not by anonymous community transmission, but by the continuing presence and testimony of the eyewitnesses” (8).

Review by
Darryly W. Palmer
Centre for Classics and Archaeology
The University of Melbourne VIC 3010