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4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating but deserves to be treated with caution., 3 Sept. 2007
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This review is from: Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Hardcover)
This is an important, scholarly and absorbing book. It should be read by anyone involved in New Testament studies. Yet its central thesis deserves to be treated with caution. The thesis might be summed up in Bauckham's own words.
The "period between the `historical' Jesus and the Gospels was actually spanned, not by anonymous community transmission, but by the continuing presence [sic] and testimony of eyewitnesses, who remained the authoritative [sic] sources of their traditions until their deaths" .
As a historian I have many reservations about the way in which Bauckham deals with evidence especially eyewitness evidence which is traditionally treated by historians with caution especially when it is first recorded many years after the event. It is a sad fact that eyewitnesses seldom remember what historians want them to have remembered! His concept of `testimony' is also difficult to deal with as it seems to imply than the evidence of anyone who heard Jesus is somehow more reliable than eyewitness accounts of other events. Yet the emotional drama surrounding many of Jesus' reported activities, large crowds, open disputes, apparent miracles and the trauma of the crucifixion are precisely the kinds of events which do not get reported accurately. Participants are hardly likely to maintain the level headed approach needed for accurate reporting. One sees this everyday in the press!
Bauckham talks of the `continuing presence' of eyewitnesses. Excavations of burials at the Qumran community suggest that few men lived beyond forty in this period. Someone who was the same age as Jesus was more than likely to have been dead by AD 40, someone ten years younger by AD 50. The likelihood of any eyewitness surviving into the 70s, let alone the 80s and 90s, is certainly remote. Those close to Jesus appear to have suffered a high rate of martyrdom and others alive must have perished in the sack of Jerusalem in AD 70. Even if there had been a few survivors they would not necessarily have been the best eyewitnesses and their memories would have become distorted with time. Two useful books here: D. Draaisma, Why Life Speeds Up as You Get Older: How Memory Shapes the Past, 2006, David Patterson, Sun Turned to Darkness, Memory and Recovery in the Holocaust Memoir, Syracuse, 1998. (This last book is important in view of Bauckham's attempts to link Holocaust memories with those of the gospel eyewitnesses. Holocaust testimony is not as accurate as he would suggest.) There is a mass of evidence relating to the ways in which memory distorts with time. A lot of it comes from diaries which have not been read for many years. There is often an enormous discrepancy between how an event was recorded at the time and how it is remembered many years later. Rather too much of Bauckham's thesis appears to rest on the maintenance of accurate memories over long periods of time.
Other points 1) Bauckham assumes the gospel writers were more immersed in Greek culture, specifically that of history writing , than any evidence from their own writing suggests. Where can one find in Mark, Matthew and even Luke much evidence that they had read widely in Greek literature or know of any Greek historians? Read, for instance, Plutarch's Lives (early second century, a few years after the gospels) which show just how sophisticated a leading Greek scholar of the day was in dealing with his sources in comparison to the gospel writers. Readers should make their own comparison but if they do I think few would be convinced by the argument that the gospel writers compare favourably with the more highly educated Greek historians. Plutarch, and his predecessors, Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius (The Rise of Rome), all reflect on their sources, point out their strengths and weaknesses, and then explain their own conclusions. The only example I know of a gospel writer doing this is to be found at John 19:35 where the writer vouches for the testimony of an eyewitness.The evidence suggests that the gospel writers were writing within the traditions of Greek-speaking Jews, not highly educated upperclass Greek speaking pagans. The Greco-Roman empire was culturally very diverse, different schools, followers of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Epicurus , tended to develop their own traditions. I felt that Bauckham had rather too rigid a definition of Greek culture. It was also difficult for anyone without considerable resources to accumulate more than a few literary sources as each would have had to be copied out by hand. The vast majority of literate Greek speakers would have had no access to the long, and therefore very expensive classic texts,although they may have heard some of them recited at fesitvals if they attended them.
2) Papias' memories. Doesn't Bauckham assume too easily that the reminiscences that Papias attributes to a Mark recording the sayings of Peter are the same as the gospel that Irenaeus attributed to Mark (which is the gospel we know today as Mark) ? (Irenaeus' attribution is probably c. 185 and many scholars believe that the names he gave to the gospels were somewhat arbitrary.) Papias had heard from an elderly Christian informant that a Mark took down Peter's sayings but not in order: Peter `used to adapt his instructions to the needs of the moment but not with a view of making an orderly account of the Lord's sayings.' Papias goes on to suggest that his Mark's account is rather lengthy -'he made it his aim to omit nothing he had heard'. This is just what one might expect from Peter, a man of little education but brimming, of course, with powerful memories, contributing his reminiscences to a devoted scribe, which is why Papias might well be a reliable source. If he was, his Mark seems very different from Irenaeus' Mark's taut narrative. The 'Papias Mark is 'our' Mark' thesis also assumes that Peter spoke good Greek- Mark is not a translation from Aramaic. This view is sometimes sustained by the view that Bethsaida, Peter's home' was a Greek colony. Twenty years of excavation at the supposed site of Bethsaida by the University of Nebraska have found only fragmentary remains of building in this period, but much evidence of fishing activities. The real importance of the site was much earlier, in the Iron Age. In fact the archaeological evidence (as it exists so far) for this New Testament period seems to support the lonely place mentioned in Luke (9:13) as a fishing village (other gospel references) . So it is unlikely that Peter would have picked up Greek in Bethsaida or anywhere else. It stretches the imagination to believe that Peter spoke good enough Greek to provide eyewitness material which Mark could use in the relatively sophisticated way he does. On balance the identification of Papias' `Mark's gospel' with that of Irenaeus Mark's gospel ('our' St Mark's gospel) seems very unlikely- they appear to be two different documents. It is, however, a central thesis of Bauckham's book that they are the same. (The tragedy is ,of course, that we have lost Papias's document. Think how much our knowledge of the 'historical' Jesus would have been enriched if the reminiscences of Peter as Papias describes them had actually survived! We all (except, I assume, some fundamentalists) live in hope that early documents such as these will be found one day in a cave. ) The more I read the more I felt that Bauckham's thesis, although not impossible, rested on very shaky foundations . If Papias was an accurate recorder then 'his ' document does not seem to be what we call Mark's gospel, if he not an accurate reporter then why rely on him at all?

3) Bauckham's view that John the Elder was the eyewitness responsible for John's gospel is already subject to dispute in website discussion. There are too many other possible 'John" candidates even if it was a John who actually wrote the gospel ( was it simply another case of Irenaeus putting an authoritative name to an unnamed document?). Again the lateness of John's gospel, ?90 AD, perhaps ten years later, makes it very difficult to argue that a surviving eyewitness would have been able to contribute a direct oral record.

It always takes three or four years for a book of this importance to find its niche.There does seem a lot to argue about and the enthusiastic and perhaps rather uncritical reception this book has received in some quarters may prove premature when scholars have reflected on its claims. A historian testing the historical accuracy of the gospels would hope that as many eyewitness memories as possible were recorded as soon as possible after the events so that the recorder could have a hope of checking accuracy and resolving discrepancies while the eyewitesses were still alive. Then the results would need to be written down before they became distorted in the mind of the recorder. This is what the Greek historians hoped to do even if they did not always have access to the eyewitnesses they would have liked. If this is (contra to what Bauckham argues) had happened then one might be able to trust the historical accuracy of the gospels as Bauckham believes we should. Again as with the Papias thesis, Bauckham's view that these very later eyewitness testimonies ( if such they were) would lead to an accurate record, goes against the assumptions with which mainstream historians work.
One looks forward to seeing how the debate unfolds. I have simply set out here some obvious objections to the thesis of this book which need further discussion. It in no way reflects my admiration for the breadth of Bauckham's scholarship -it is just that I feel that his central thesis might all too easily crumble under pressure from other biblical scholars and readers should be warned of this. I am only giving a historian's response to his thesis.
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Showing 1-10 of 68 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 5 Apr 2008 18:55:19 BDT
This review needs to be read with a good degree of scepticism.

Why? Because:

"As a historian I have many reservations about the way in which Bauckham deals with evidence especially eyewitness evidence which is traditionally treated by historians with caution especially when it is first recorded many years after the event. It is a sad fact that eyewitnesses seldom remember what historians want them to have remembered! His concept of `testimony' is also difficult to deal with as it seems to imply than the evidence of anyone who heard Jesus is somehow more reliable than eyewitness accounts of other events."

This "historian" seems to be suffering from a serious attack of ethnocentricity - judging other people and cultures by the standards of one's own as though they were the same.

That is to say, this reviewer seems to make no allowance for the fact that the culture of 1st century Palestine, unlike the US/UK of the 21st century, was very orally-oriented to balance out the fact that literacy was comparatively limited, He also seems to ignore the fact that, as Luke states at the start of his gospel, there were a number of what might nopw be called "orthodox" accounts of Jesus' life which pre-dated Luke's gospel (generally accepted as having been written around 60 A.D.).

In other words, the fact that there is a gap of several decades between the estimated date of the death of Jesus the Christ and the earliest dates allotted to the various gospels does NOT mean that no records existed during the intervening period. Nor does it allow for the fact that the apostles spent the intervening period verbally repeating their rememberences of the life and teachings of Jesus over and over again. They did NOT go off and do something completely different for 40 or 50 years before suddenly deciding to write down what they could still remember.

No the sort of errors one would expect from a historian offering an "expert" review, as I imagine we are meant to treat these comments.

In reply to an earlier post on 10 Jun 2008 13:32:08 BDT
Yoda says:
Luke is NOT "generally accepted" as having been written "around 60 A.D." The actual generally accepted dating of Luke/Acts is around 80 A.D.

Also, Luke does not imply that there were "orthodox" or reliable accounts of Jesus' life pre-dating his word. On the contrary, his words imply he found them to be unsatisfactory and felt he could do a better job at it. If we accept Marcan priority (generally placed around 60-70 A.D.), then we can see the ways how Luke rectifies Mark.

I personally found the review by Charles Freeman to be very helpful.

Posted on 25 Aug 2008 14:37:27 BDT
D. M. Ohara says:
The reviewer states: "The likelihood of any eyewitness surviving into the 70s, let alone the 80s and 90s, is certainly remote."
Remote or not, we know of several early Christian Leaders who lived to a ripe old age. St. Polycarp was martyred at the age of 86. St. Hosius of Cordova, who chaired the Council of Nicea, lived to be over a hundred. So did St Anthony of the Desert.
Had a younger follower of Jesus, born - shall we say - in 15AD, lived to the end of the first century, he would have been 85.
For someone born in 10AD to be still alive in 95AD may be unusual, but far from unlikely. Undoubtedly, fewer people in the first century reached a ripe old age [but how many do today in parts of Africa?] - that is no reason to doubt that some did.

In reply to an earlier post on 25 Aug 2008 14:47:54 BDT
D. M. Ohara says:
Yoda is perhaps rather out of date is claiming that it is still 'generally accepted' that Luke and Acts were writen about 80AD. There has been a significant shift in the last 20+ years to earlier dates for the NT documents. Indeed a very good case has been made by a number of NT scholars since JAT Robinson published 'Re-dating the New Testament' for dating Luke and Acts to the mid 60s, which would make Mark, and probably Matthew, even earlier. The three principal candidates for authorship of the Fourth Gospel are John bar Zebedee, John the Elder and Lazarus. Bar Zebedee is the traditional candidate, but Bauckham makes a good case for John the Elder, and Ben Witherington a slightly less good case for Lazarus. All three candidates would have been known to - and by -Jesus.

Posted on 5 Dec 2008 14:06:43 GMT
C. R. Jones says:
This thorough well-argued review is perhaps the single most thoughtful book review I have come across on the Internet. Its balanced argument is evidence to me that there is intellegent life on earth.


In reply to an earlier post on 5 Jan 2009 16:03:37 GMT
Yoda says:
Having gone through a number of recent NT intro's, I will say that D. M. Ohara is the one out of date when it comes to the dating of Luke-Acts (and other NT documents). While challenges have arisen now and then, there has been no "significant" shift in the tendency of dating the NT documents. I should rephrase my earlier comments, however, as follows: Luke-Acts is generally dated around 80 A.D., but often with the realization that this is not a fixed date. The date could be anywhere between the following: 70 A.D. - 90 A.D. That the date is NOT 60 A.D. or "around" 60 A.D. CONTINUES to be generally accepted.

Mark continues to be generally placed around 65 A.D. (Hengel prefers 69 A.D) which means the remaining gospels, if Marcan priority is accepted, were composed even later - though precisely how late we cannot say.

Now I PERSONALLY do not see any reason why, say, Matthew and Luke, had to be composed a decade or so after Mark. They might as well have been composed a year after Mark as well, thus being in circulation by 70 A.D. Why not? All I am saying, however, is that it is WRONG to assert that scholars "generally" place the gospels, such as Luke (and Acts), in the 60's or "very early" and that there has been an alleged "significant" shift over the past 20 or so years on the date debate.

The fourth gospel, likewise, continues to be deemed the latest gospel, composed anywhere between 80-95 A.D, no matter which precise authorship proposal is accepted. Furthermore, there remains the generally accepted scholarly understanding that John is a more theological and interpreted account and should not be treated as strict history - something accepted by Bauckham as well.

Finally, there are strong rebuttals and critiques of JAT Robinson's redating of the NT (one example, the late J.V.M. Sturdy).

In reply to an earlier post on 16 Jan 2009 12:49:12 GMT
Neutral says:
As a trained historian myself I find Charles Freeman's assertions that he is reviewing as a historian somewhat strained. The Rankine approach to history was rejected a century ago. The tools of the historian are an understanding of the history in context rather than the refashioning of history from our own perspective. Mr Bradbury has written an excellent critique of Mr Freeman's reviewing method

In reply to an earlier post on 26 Jan 2009 09:45:13 GMT
Last edited by the author on 26 Jan 2009 09:50:02 GMT
The scholarly consensus remains that the gospels are relatively late, Matthew, Luke and John, all writing some fifty years or more after the Crucifixion. We know enough about death rates in the ancient world to suggest that very few eyewitnesses would have survived this long. We also know that accounts recorded so long afterward are often hopelessly inaccurate. During the Second World War, a group of observers kept daily diaries ( which were archived -The Mass Observation Project). Thirty years later they were asked to talk about their memories. The contrast between these and the diaries was remarkable, everything had become muddled up. In addition, we have the problem that the original eye-witness accounts would have been in Aramaic, yet the gospels were in Greek. It is a pity that the gospel by a Matthew which Papias records as having been written in Aramaic has not survived - that is more likely to have had eye-witness evidence than the Greek accounts. Eye-witnesses seldom record what historians would like them to have recorded. A study of repeated oral evidence shows that it often evolves in new forms with time- witness the different layers of Homer's epics. One should try and avoid being part of any ephemeral school of history and start with pragmatic analysis of the evidence! Charles Freeman.

In reply to an earlier post on 19 Jun 2009 11:07:42 BDT
Last edited by the author on 23 Jun 2009 18:44:38 BDT
Dr Dee says:
Charles Freeman sets up a straw man argument. The gospels are late - fifty years after Jesus' death - therefore eyewitnesses to his ministry are unlikely to have been alive then, and if they were would have distorted memories of what was said and happened.

The fact is there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest the gospels had to be written in the 80s AD or later. If anything the opposite is the case. Acts, for instance, ends with Paul's imprisonment in the early to mid 60s AD. It is not unreasonable to assume from this that Luke's two volume work antedated Paul's execution.

As Luke refers to other accounts of Jesus' ministry which inspired his own, we can assume, on the above reckoning, that they must have been circulating during the 50s AD at the very latest.

These writings (which likely included Mark's Gospel - or some version of it) must in turn have been based on earlier Jesus traditions (either written or oral) which were doing the rounds in the fifteen or so years following Jesus' death.

This brings us considerably closer to the time of his ministry than Freeman allows.

In reply to an earlier post on 1 Oct 2009 00:06:04 BDT
Last edited by the author on 1 Oct 2009 00:08:39 BDT
How funny that no one in this seemingly scholarly debate has actually pointed out the elephant in the room. I would be prepared to wager a good deal that Charles Freeman and those who write in support of his review above do not a have a personal faith in Jesus as the resurrected son of God - and those who criticise him and defend Bauckham's book (including Bauckham himself) probably do.

Charles Freeman is extremely polite about Bauckham's scholarship and resists the temptation to question his motives. It seems to me that there are a number of highly intelligent writers in a variety of fields today, in this case ancient history and textual criticism, who are straining every sinew to establish a more rational 'proof' and historical basis for Christian belief. They aim to turn the tide which has threatened to engulf orthodox Christian belief since the Germans started picking holes in the biblical texts using archaeology and rational textual criticism in the early 19th C. In my view much of this recent scholarship is spurious - as Charles Freeman hints - because it comes with an agenda and is motivated by faith.

For my part I'm not sure why these people bother - or is it that they think they can 're-convert' all of the rational atheists they have lost from the fold over the last 200 years? If you believe that the Bible is the word of God, or its human writers were inspired by God, then surely you don't need to worry about how many years after Jesus' death they were written down. Why get into arguments about how reliable the human memory or an oral tradition might be over several decades (personally I couldn't even write down a completely accurate version of a conversation I had yesterday - and when I tell stories about things that have happened to me I spice them up a little bit to make them worth re-telling - doesn't everyone?) if your mind is made up anyway?

A couple of questions for those historians in the 'faith' camp:
1) Why is there no mention in any other ancient source of the census which Augustus calls in order to get Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem?
2) Was Quirinius the Governor of Syria while Herod was King of Judaea, as one of the Gospels suggests?

These are just minor quibbles of course. I won't ask if there are any scientists in the 'faith' camp who have done extensive new research into how a man can walk on water or a virgin give birth to a child. The point is that trying to 'prove' all this rationally is a waste of time. There are some Christians out there who can accept evolution and the fact that the gospels are a mixture of myth, legend and propaganda (to say nothing of the mystical psychedelic madness of the Revelation) and still maintain a kind of faith.

How they manage it I'm not quite sure - the more I read about this period and the history of the church in general, the less I believe. I will certainly be buying a copy of Charles Freeman's new book 'A New History of Early Christianity'.
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