on 3 September 2007
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.