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4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating but deserves to be treated with caution., 3 Sep 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 21-30 of 68 posts in this discussion
In reply to an earlier post on 16 Dec 2011 01:14:13 GMT
Sturdy's book (unfinished) was 2007, and is revisionist, going back to the ideas of the discredited 19th century Tübingen scholars. One wonders how ideology-laden Sturdy's argument is. Which other scholars have argued convincingly against Robinson?

In reply to an earlier post on 16 Dec 2011 09:40:51 GMT
trini says:
Dr Jeynes,
In support of your comment that 'every historian has a point of view', I take the liberty of reprinting here a comment which I wrote on another reviewer's review of the book 'Reinventing Jesus'. The discussion there was centred on the writings of the Jesus Seminar. (See also my own full review of 'Reinventing Jesus' there.)


Concerning Richard J Bradshaw's reference to the Jesus Seminar, I copy in a comment that I am attaching in one form or another to several reviews of books of this kind, which deal with the historicity of the New Testament. My comment takes the form of an analysis of four approaches to the scholarly study of the New Testament. There is of course a huge literature on this topic, but the analysis which I am using appears in a book by P R Eddy and G A Boyd (Baker Academic Press, 2007), entitled "The Jesus Legend" (not a helpful title, in my view - it would have benefited from, say, a question mark after 'Legend', because it attacks the idea that Jesus is only a 'legend', a fiction). I found it excellent.

Its significance here is that Eddy/Boyd also massively attack the approaches of various named Jesus Seminar scholars, who support one or more of the first three of the four approaches or VIEWPOINTS discussed by Eddy/Boyd [which I am about to describe - in other words 'the historians' viewpoints' which Dr Jeynes refers to]. (Look up the index of their book under Jesus Seminar, Borg, Crossan, Funk, Price, Miller, Wink ... )

So here goes.
On pages 24-27 the authors [Eddy/Boyd] discuss four possible VIEWPOINTS of New Testament scholars dealing with Jesus, the PARADIGMS with which they work, characterized by the eminent scholars who follow them.
(1) "Scholars such as Bruno Bauer, Arthur Drews and GA Wells [and RM Price] [argue] that the Jesus tradition is virtually - perhaps entirely - fictional in nature ... [there are] no good grounds for thinking any aspect of the Jesus narrative is rooted in history, including the very existence of an actual historical person named Jesus".
(2) "The work of scholars such as Rudolf Bultmann and Burton Mack suggests that we have enough evidence plausibly to conclude that an actual historical person named Jesus existed. But ... the reports we have of him are so unreliable and saturated with legend and 'myth' that we can confidently ascertain very little historical information about him".
(3) "An increasingly common view among NT scholars today - especially scholars who stand in the post-Bultmannian tradition - is that historical research can indeed disclose a core of historical facts about Jesus. But, they argue, the Jesus we find at this historical core is significantly different from the legendary view presented in the NT. Most significantly, scholars in this group grant that the Gospels' reports about the authoritative claims made by Jesus as well as the miracles he performed - those aspects of the Gospels' portrait(s) of Jesus that shaped what came to be known as the orthodox Christian faith - are, by and large, part of the legendary, not the historical, Gospel material." [Thus e.g. Robert Funk, JD Crossan.]

(4) "A fourth and final group of scholars argue that positions (1)-(3) are overly skeptical toward the Gospel material. ... scholars such as John Meier and NT Wright argue that the Jesus who can be recovered through responsible historical investigation is, generally speaking, fairly reflected in the portrait(s) of the Synoptic Gospels. One important common factor [of this group] ... is the significant degree to which they take seriously the JEWISHNESS (religiously as well as ethnically) [italics in text] of both Jesus and his cultural context".

Of course, Eddy/Boyd's book The Jesus Legend is a closely reasoned defence of position (4), and attack on positions (1)-(3). I am arguing now that it is a very useful reply to all of those who hold an unbelieving - especially a naively unbelieving - position regarding the supernatural in general and the divine Jesus, Son of God and Saviour of the world from sin, as related in the New Testament, and a strong support to such a book as 'Reinventing Jesus'. I recommend it strongly.


In reply to an earlier post on 16 Dec 2011 09:59:13 GMT
Thanks, trini. I also think N.T.Wright's contribution is outstanding. Obviously I'll have to get hold of Eddy+Boyd. Wright's discussion of historical method in "Jesus and the Victory of God" is exemplary.

In reply to an earlier post on 31 Jul 2012 18:25:07 BDT
[Deleted by the author on 31 Jul 2012 18:30:03 BDT]

In reply to an earlier post on 31 Jul 2012 18:40:41 BDT
Yoda says:
The fact is that there has been no great 'shift' over the past 20+ years in the dating of the gospels and it is only the highly conservative scholars who opt for earlier dates (placing Luke in the 60s and the Mark even earlier). So my assertion about 'no great shift' remains accurate.

And yes each reading should make up his/her own mind and it is perfectly valid to go through recent intros to the NT and recent commentaries to gain an idea about the 'state' of current scholarship.

In reply to an earlier post on 24 Aug 2012 10:55:30 BDT
Last edited by the author on 24 Aug 2012 10:57:27 BDT
J Grainger says:
I find it curious that Charles Freeman writes as 'a historian' and then goes on citing the example of the modern press in discussing something which relates to the oral tradition of the 1st Century. One thing we can be certain of is that this is like comparing chalk and cheese and is hardly something a serious historian would do.
A more appropriate example might be the young muslim children who can recite the Qur'an word for word without error. Or to draw on Milman Parry's work on Oral tradition in preserving Homer's work (rather earlier than the 1st Century AD) and the more modern oral traditional poetry in Bosnia.
In any event such debates are ultimately sterile with people entrenched in opposing views.

In reply to an earlier post on 24 Aug 2012 11:33:32 BDT
J., Grainger. Thanks for yours. The reason for this is that Bauckham himself, in Chapter 13 'Eyewitness memory' ,used only contemporary 20th century examples himself to back his views on eyewitness memory so I was responding to him at that level. ( i was totally unconvinced by this part of this book as you can see from two 20th century counter examples that I quoted.) Again Bauckham suggests that the eyewitnesses were present at the writing of the gospels- in the cases you cite (Homer, Qur'an) this is an original version repeated and passed on over many years - i would actually think this is closer to the truth that Bauckham's view that the eyewitnesses lived on and produced accurate material thirty, forty or more years later.
Whether I am a serious historian or not , I leave to others to judge. Next year I reach forty years of earning my living as a professional historian but perhaps that is not enough! ( I can just about remember my early days but according to the experts my memories of them will be distorted by now!)

In reply to an earlier post on 24 Aug 2012 14:42:04 BDT
This is not the case, Yoda. J.A.T.Robinson, in "Redating the New Testament" (1976) is much more than 20 years old, and he is hardly a "highly conservative scholar"! His dates are earlier than anyone's. Who has presented a cogent argument against him?

In reply to an earlier post on 24 Aug 2012 15:01:41 BDT
Well, Charles Freeman, I think you are misreading Bauckham whose argument is better than you think.

For example, you say in your Review :- "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 seems entirely false to me - Bauckham wasn't saying this (crazy!) thing at all! He was drawing a distinction between an "eyewitness account" and "eyewitness testimony". And if Papias was aware of Thucydides' strictures on what counts as "history" then I am sure Luke was too.

Bauckham's point is that the testimony we find in the Gospels (and Paul too) is not just stuff dredged up after forty years or so, but is a well-rehearsed story that obtained an essentially fixed form very early in the oral tradition (it is very easy to see how). Moreover, I have not yet seen anything to disturb J.A.T.Robinson's conclusion that the Gospels were all early (pre-70). Also, life expectancy is one thing, but actual (documented!) life spans of individuals is something else entirely!

In reply to an earlier post on 24 Aug 2012 15:38:08 BDT
Last edited by the author on 24 Aug 2012 15:59:19 BDT
Dear Dr. Jeynes, As i understand it , Bauckham accepts the conventional dating e.g. Mark AD 65, Luke, Matthew c. AD 85 , John later. Can you show me anywhere where he implies otherwise? ( I can't find anything in the book about Robinson's dating, for instance.) So we need to be working over these long time spans. There is no problem in accepting that some early accounts were preserved and used by the gospel writers, the question remains as to whether an actual surviving eye-witness presented the material to a gospel writer- wherever this writer was based- at the date when the gospel was written.
I don't think Luke would have written as he did if he had been educated with the classics such as Thucydides- he clearly has picked up some literary conventions as in his preface, but hardly much more than this. There was a wide gap in this period between those who had picked up koine Greek and could write in it (e.g. Luke and the gospel writers) and those who had had a formal education in the classical texts of four hundred years earlier-See Simon Swain, Hellenism and Empire, Language ,Classicism and Power in the Greek World, AD 50 -250, Oxford 1996.
But we are arguing over issues that have been argued over for generations= of course, we still don't know the answers but I think Bauckham goes too far in suggesting eyewitness evidence delivered in person to the gospel writers. It would have been an extraordinary coincidence if there had been a survivor able to give a coherent account who happened to track down someone prepared to write a gospel. Did an aspiring gospel writers place an the local newspaper asking for surviving eye-witnesses- how would it actually have happened?
Please note too my recommendation that the book should be read as it is important whether you agree with it or not!
P.S. I am not going to reread the book specially to give chapter and verse but when i first read it, I was surprised to find that Bauckham was making all kinds of statements about Greek literature, often of works written in a very different context from the gospels and of different dates e.g. Polybius , without any reference to the many scholars of classical literature working in this field.It was as if he simply did not know how much work on issues of composition,etc, has been going on outside the world of biblical studies. My suspicion is that if this book had been read outside his field it would have been quickly dismissed.

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