- Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony
What kind of biographies are the four gospels of the New Testament?
Since the early twentieth century, scholarly conventional wisdom has been that a long age of communal oral tradition lies between Jesus's lifetime and all four written gospels. Memories of Jesus were handed down and shaped as folk wisdom before being collected and arranged by anonymous evangelists. So "form critics" investigate the gospels for influences this process has left in them, and theorize about both these communities and Jesus's actual history.
All this is now so axiomatic that terms such as "the Johannine community" and "apothegm" (a formulaic presentation of an aphorism or adage) trip naturally off of the tongues of New Testament scholars. Some, such as John S. Kloppenborg and Burton L. Mack, have gone so far as to write monographs about the discrete communities that must have been responsible for each of several "layers" of the traditions that found their way into "Q," a hypothetical (and in my opinion probably non-existent) document that the writers of Matthew and Luke are presumed to have drawn on in writing their gospels. Even where these ambitious projects have been dismissed as speculation, the consensus is only that they have gone out too far on what is basically still a solid limb.
In his latest project, Richard Bauckham shows that there is no limb. He contends that the gospels at their heart are not crystallizations of oral folk tradition, but testimony arranged by writers who either had access to the eyewitnesses of Jesus's life, or were the eyewitnesses themselves. These persons themselves, not community folklore, span the decades between Jesus's life and the gospels' publication with their own presence, reflections, and teaching.
This is of course what people had thought all along. Both the plain sense of the texts themselves (see, for instance, Luke 1:1–4 and John 21:24) and the corroborating accounts of Papias and other second-century chroniclers of early Christianity convinced earlier readers that the gospels spoke for people who had known Jesus directly. This assumption was largely abandoned under pressure from critiques of Papias's historical trustworthiness, modern historiographical skepticism towards testimony, and widespread confidence that sociological models locating knowledge in the lives of whole communities explained the rise of Christian belief and narrative better than older "individualistic" accounts.
Bauckham refutes the form-critics' arguments, denies the anonymity of the gospels, demonstrates the reliability of testimony in ancient as well as contemporary historiography, and rehabilitates Papias and other traditional [End Page 290] sources on the gospels with fresh and careful readings. Yet he also uncovers new evidence that the gospels are eyewitness testimony, much of it unnoticed textual evidence from the gospels themselves. He uses all these to develop an understanding of the gospels' character and origins that neither reverts to precritical naivete nor indulges in a postcritical "second naivete" (the term is Paul Ricoeur's) that affirms the critical conventional wisdom.
Form critics regard pericopes as flexible folk traditions whose characters received names only once the evangelists were committing them to writing outside their original Palestinian setting. Yet the gospels' patterns of naming and anonymity fit Papias's picture better than critical conventional wisdom. Bauckham shows that the relative frequency of characters' names in the gospels roughly matches the relative frequency and conventions of first-century Palestinian (but not Diaspora) Jewish names. He finds that, with common-sense exceptions such as public figures, what distinguishes named characters in the gospels (for instance, the women at the cross, Jairus and Bartimaeus, Simon of Cyrene and his sons, and Jesus's named brothers) from anonymous characters is that they likely became well-known figures in the Christian movement who were still available to confirm the stories concerning them. Anonymity in later gospels (for instance, Salome is not named at the scene of the cross in Matthew or Luke) reflects their unfamiliarity or unavailability to each later gospel's writer. Even the exceptions...