Book Plunge: Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Second Edition

What do I think of Richard Bauckham’s book published by Eerdmans? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

I want to think Eerdmans and Bauckham himself for making sure I got a review copy of this book. The first edition was indeed a classic and something all interested in the reliability of the Gospels should read. The second one is no exception and expounds further than the last one did.

Something that is striking to me about this book as I read through it is how different the argument is from most works. Most works will start with dating the Gospels and then argue from there by pointing to events like archaeological findings. Bauckham doesn’t do that, well not in the exact sense. Archaeology I think is only mentioned once that I recall and this concerning the destruction of Jerusalem and Josephus. The closest you get to dating is by looking at the names that show up in the Gospels.

Why would anyone do that? Because when we look at the Gospels, we see the names used in them match the commonly used names at the time and the ones that are exceptions match that same ratio as well. This is not the kind of thing that a later writer would easily produce. We can tell the common names today because we have a whole catalog available to us of all the names being used. Back then, you couldn’t jump on Google and see what popular names were so a writer would not know about that.

Interestingly to me, much of the time Bauckham spends examining Mark and John. Not much is said about Luke or Matthew, though some is of course. I find this surprising since for many of us, the place we’d go to the most for eyewitness testimony is Luke. He specifically mentions eyewitness testimony and there’s much archaeological evidence for Luke and Acts.

Meanwhile, John is usually seen as highly unreliable. Bauckham argues that the Gospel is likely from the perspective of the beloved disciple. He doesn’t believe this to be John, the son of Zebedee, but he does say that this person was part of Jesus’s entourage and was an eyewitness of what he reported. If this is so, then scholars really need to rethink how they see John.

But isn’t eyewitness testimony unreliable? You can see stories about how people got facts wrong about 9/11 when interviewed later about it. How can this be? These people were eyewitnesses. Bauckham does make a case for eyewitness testimony being reliable in many many cases.

Still, as I thought about this, I thought that many of these “eyewitnesses” were really “TV witnesses.” If we really wanted eyewitness testimony about an event like 9/11, what would be best would be to interview people like survivors who worked in the building, people who lost loved ones on that day, and firefighters and police officers who went in and got people out.┬áThese are all people who had skin in the game.

This would be the closest parallel perhaps to Jesus. If you want to know who to talk to about the life of Jesus, talk to the people who were active participants in it and not just bystanders. Sure, bystanders can get some things right, but they won’t remember long-term details. A college student watching 9/11 on TV won’t know as much about it as someone who had a loved one in the towers wondering if they would get out.

Speaking of this, many people like Carrier and others often talk about how the Gospels didn’t cite their sources like other writers did. One thing to say about this is there weren’t exactly many written materials to cite. A second thing to say is that ancient writers didn’t use footnotes and endnotes like we do and did not cite all their sources. A third thing is that if Bauckham is right, they did. When they named someone in the Gospels who was not a famous figure, this was a method of citation. Names could drop out then because that person had died and was no longer available.

One example I can think of immediately with this is the resurrection of Jesus in John. In his Gospel, only Mary Magdalene is named, but in the story she uses the word “we” to describe going to the tomb. Could it be that there were other women there, but only Mary is named because only she was still alive?

One other point worth mentioning is that according to Bauckham, form criticism is dead. One can certainly hope so. We have learned so much since the time of Bultmann and others that we should discard an ideology if it is no longer being used. Unfortunately, we do live in the day and age of the internet where an idea being dead doesn’t mean it can’t be used. (Those of you who argue Jesus never existed and is a copy of pagan gods? I’m talking to you especially.)

This book is full of many in-depth arguments, many of which are too in-depth to go into here. Anyone wanting to discuss the reliability of the Gospels owes it to themselves to check out this work. Bauckham is no slouch in the field and his reputation should not be taken lightly. I hope this study will be the start of many many more such studies.

In Christ,
Nick Peters