Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Jesus and the Eyewitnesses book review

Richard Bauckham is professor emeritus at the University of Saint Andrews, Scotland, in New Testament studies. He is senior scholar at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, and a fellow of the both the British Academy and the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He has written many books involving the New Testament. This review of his most recently published book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, is intended to very briefly present a few of the key concepts described therein.

From the beginning
If the Gospel accounts contain eyewitness testimony, how much of the material is directly attributable to specified individuals? Are these accounts a collection of events witnessed by different people over the span of Jesus’ ministry? Richard Bauckham describes a literary device utilized by biographical writers of that time period which particularly identifies one or more individuals who were present throughout the duration of the events written in the account. For example, Mark specifically mentions Peter very early in his account (Mark 1:16). Hellenistic historiography commonly used a phrase identifying “eyewitnesses from the beginning” (p.118). This is a claim that eyewitnesses had been present throughout the entirety of the events described. Philo of Byblos, writing about the same time as Luke, used language that was very similar to Luke’s Gospel:  “from the first” and Plutarch wrote that he recounted “everything from the beginning” (p.120). Luke’s Gospel claims his account was “handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses” (Luke 1:2). And, when Jesus spoke with the disciples after his resurrection of the coming Holy Spirit, He then said:  “You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning” (John 15:27).

A similar related device used by Mark and John is termed the Inclusio by Bauckham, meaning that an eyewitness – in these cases, a disciple of Jesus – was present at or near the start of Jesus’ ministry as well as present at the end. This person is specifically named in the earliest portion of these books, then again near the end, indicating that this person was a participating eyewitness for the entire duration of the events and, therefore, is a reliable witness. For example, Mark first mentions Simon Peter in Chapter 1, verse 16, immediately after Jesus’ baptism by John as one of the first two disciples called with his brother Andrew. After more than 20 specific references to Peter, Mark then bookends his eyewitness testimony with a reference in the last chapter after the resurrection when the angel at the tomb told the women to “go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee.’” (Mark 16:7) Luke also made sure that Simon Peter was the first and last disciple to be individually named in his Gospel (4:38, 24:34). This technique of eyewitness testimony was also used by non-Christian writer Lucian in his biography of Alexander written around 180 AD. Lucian wrote with the purpose of exposing Alexander as a charlatan (p.132). Early in the account, he mentioned Rutilianus as Alexander’s most prominent follower, specifically referenced him about a dozen more times, then again at the end, indicating that he was present essentially throughout the time span of the writing. And, neo-Platonist philosopher Porphyry wrote a biography of his teacher Plotinus about 30 years after the death of Plotinus, which is at least as much as the time period between Jesus’ death and Mark’s writing. Porphyry wrote of Amelius, a close follower of Plotinus, in the first section of his account, over 20 more times specifically, then again at the end. Porphyry also includes himself throughout much of that span, using the same literary convention of eyewitness testimony, according to Richard Bauckham.

Eyewitness Memory
We are typically confident of our own memories, but frequently skeptical of those of others. The reliability of eyewitness testimony presented as evidence in court is frequently questioned. And, many psychological studies have been conducted concerning the accuracy of recollective memories. To answer the questions regarding which types of events are best remembered, as well as which sort of memories are more likely to be reliable, Bauckham lists the following factors as important considerations:
1.    Unique or unusual event. Studies have confirmed – as have our own personal experiences – that these are more likely to be remembered than typical, repeated events. We remember those which are out of the ordinary. Closely connected to this is the unexpectedness of the event (p. 331) and Jesus was the master of doing or saying the unexpected.
2.    Salient or consequential – those which are more important to us or more significant. The many landmark events witnessed by Jesus’ disciples would have been of huge personal significance and, in many cases, the most memorable events of their lives.
3.    Personal emotional involvement. Intense emotions can be related to positive or negative events. The gospel eyewitnesses were not detached observers, but intimately involved participants. On several occasions, they feared for their lives (Mark 4:38 and John 20:19). On others, they were very distraught (Luke 22:62).
4.    Irrelevant detail. If one or more persons involved in an event recall details which are not directly related to the main event, this lends itself to trustworthiness of the account. The paucity of irrelevant details in the gospel narratives does not contradict their reliability since these have likely been honed for ease of remembering.
5.    Dating.  Recollected memories often “exclude absolute time information from most events” (p.333). Alternatively, typical memories include information related to location, actions, persons, emotions, and thoughts. While we may remember the time of day (e.g., morning, night, etc.), the date is not recalled unless it is significant for some other reason, such as birthday, holiday, or anniversary.
6.    Frequent rehearsal. Other than #1 above, this is probably the most significant factor in the New Testament accounts. The retelling of an event, particularly in the presence of other eyewitnesses, further solidifies it in the memory. Events surrounding the life of Jesus were certainly retold by eyewitnesses many, many times. 

Anonymous tradition or eyewitness testimony?
The whole argument of the book can be boiled down to the proposition that the Gospel accounts were written by individual authors (not passed on by communities), by named eyewitnesses, who remained the living and active guarantors of the traditions (p. 290). The disciples of Jesus preached throughout the region about what they saw and heard. As they grew older, followers or students learned from the disciples personally and continued the tradition. For example, Polycarp spent much time with John, a firsthand eyewitness, and Irenaeus spent time with Polycarp. Basilides received his teaching from Glaucias, a personal disciple of Peter. Valentinus received traditions from Theudas, a disciple of Paul. So, the Gospel accounts were far from anonymous traditions.
In the 20th century, a widespread assumption among some New Testament scholarship was that the written Gospels had been circulated anonymously in the early church. Like folklore of that time, these were supposed to have been passed down by communities anonymously. However, Bauckham cites several reasons for rejecting this view.
First, evidence shows that at least three books – Luke, John, and Matthew – were not intended to be anonymous. Though the author’s name does not appear specifically in the text, hearers of that time knew the identity of the author. In fact, it was not unusual at that time for the author’s name to not be listed. Much of Lucian’s Life of Demonax, a biographical account, is written in the first person and readers were obviously expected to know he was the author.
Secondly, evidence of the earliest manuscripts, from c. 200 onward, indicates titles of the four canonical Gospels were in the form “Gospel according to …” And, it was standard procedure to mark the scrolls on the exterior with the author’s name and a brief title. Codices were typically marked in several locations on the outside.

Papias – “A living and surviving voice”
One of the earliest church fathers who transmitted the traditions in eyewitness accounts was Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis, located not far from Laodicea and Colossae. He completed a major work, Exposition of the Logia of the Lord, in five books, early in the second century. Unfortunately, this work did not survive, but portions were passed down to us through Eusebius in his work, History of the Church. Papias was personally acquainted with the daughters of Philip the evangelist, who were well-known as prophets (Acts 21:8-9). Philip himself spent the last years of his life in Hierapolis and Papias may have also met him personally. Papias wrote of a period of time around 80 A.D. when he made a concerted effort to collect the oral reports of the words and life of Jesus. This was near the time when the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John were in early circulation as well (p.14). Eusebius quotes the prologue to Papias’s work:
     “… I learned carefully in the past from the elders and noted down well, for the truth of which I vouch … I inquired about the words of the elders – [that is,] what [according to the elders] what Peter said, or Philip, or Thomas, or James, or any other of the Lord’s disciples, and whatever Aristion and the elder John, the Lord’s disciples, were saying. For I did not think that information from books would profit me as much as information from a living and surviving voice (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 3.39.3-4).”
A key point here is that Papias, though he was aware of the written Gospel accounts in circulation, valued greatly a “living and surviving voice” to personally tell of eyewitness accounts of Jesus. These were not anonymous traditions spread by word of mouth through multiple retellings by uninformed individuals. The transmission of historical truths by Papias is indicative of the spread of information regarding the life of Jesus – from eyewitnesses who personally described what they saw and heard.

Form criticism and names
Form criticism of the Gospels was pioneered and developed by three very influential German scholars around 1920:  Karl Schmidt, Martin Dibelius, and Rudolf Bultmann. These and other similar critics identified the Gospels as folk literature that began as oral traditions of stories surrounding Jesus of Nazareth. As the tales were spread, they were shaped by the needs of each individual community, the Sitz im Leben (“setting in life”) in which they were told. Some examples of the forms these stories took include:  preaching, worship, catechism, and apologetics. One of the identifying factors of form criticism is allegedly increasing detail, such as personal names which may not have been present in the early spread of the stories, but were added later. In the Gospel accounts, this would be evident in comparing the book of Mark, written first, with the other Synoptics – Luke and Matthew – written later. Then, further comparison could be made with John, written last. Bauckham notes that material common to the three Synoptic Gospels show an unambiguous tendency toward the elimination of names, refuting Bultmann’s argument (p.42). For example, Mark names Bartimaeus (10:46), who is mentioned, but unnamed, by Matthew (20:30) and Luke (18:35).  
The Beloved Disciple and the Gospel of John
Bauckham spent two chapters discussing, in some detail, the identity of the writer of the book of John. He believes the author of this Gospel was an eyewitness and a personal disciple of Jesus, putting him in a small minority among contemporary Johannine scholars (p.552). He presents some evidence that the term “disciple” included more than the traditional twelve, such as Luke 6:13, 19:37, and Acts 1:21-23. Bauckham believes the “Beloved Disciple” wrote the Gospel of John, but is not John, son of Zebedee (Matthew 4:21), or any of the twelve. He presents evidence that the writer may be a less well-known disciple of Jesus, whom Papias calls John the Elder. The identity is still debated among Biblical scholars and Backham’s contribution is well-researched.

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