Testimony as History

I am currently reading Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 2006) and need to stop and think about his statements about eyewitness testimony. I have thought for quite some time that the earlier dates for all the gospels would not preclude the possibility that at least one of the sources that the authors had to draw on would be eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry and death, but what I’ve read of Bauckham’s book so far (the beginning, bits of the middle and the end) leaves me with questions.

The book builds on the work of Samuel Byrskog (Story as History – History as Story: The Gospel Tradition in the Context of Ancient Oral History. Leiden: Brill, 2002) and in his first chapter he tells us that Warren Carter critiques the fact that Byrskog provides little in the way of criteria either for identifying eyewitnesses or for identifying eyewitness testimony in the tradition. (11) Bauckham says he will attempt to do this in the following chapters. I recognise that this is a big ask, but I haven’t found the criteria for identifying eyewitness testimony yet (even by cheating and reading the last chapter). This is disappointing, since I’ve had a gut feeling that Thomas is potentially closer to eyewitness accounts than the canonicals and a nice, neat list of critera for testing this would have been really great! Bauckham does, however, spend quite some time on identifying the eyewitnesses.

Bauckham says in the first chapter that we need to recover the sense in which the Gospels are testimony and contends that testimony is a valid form of history and that it “should not be treated as credible only to the extent to which it can be verified. “(5) He also says “Testimony offers us . . . both a reputable historiographic category for reading the Gospels as history, and also a theological model for understanding the Gospels as the entirely appropriate means of access to the historical reality of Jesus.” (5)

In talking about testimony, Bauckham stresses the kind of testimony that comes from a court of law. At least in British, Australian and North American courts, this kind of testimony is fairly objective. Witnesses are generally not permitted to pass on hearsay, or to speculate much on the significance of what they have experienced or witnessed. They just recount their memories of what actually happened.

My problem with testimony outside a court setting is that it normally involves significant amounts of interpretation and Bauckham seems not to deal with this aspect. Modern Christian testimony tends to begin “Let me tell you how God has been working in my life this week . . .” and while it will tell you facts as perceived by the person speaking, it will also attribute explanations to those facts that come out of a particular world view – one in which God is very actively involved in the lives of human beings. Thus testimony will tell you that when person X was running late for an important appointment she prayed that God would guide her and someone drove out of a parking space right outside the place where she needed to be just as she got there, so she was able to arrive at the appointment right on time. This, then, is proof that God hears and answers prayer and/or that God wanted her to make it to the appointment on time.

In many circumstances, there is no reason to doubt that the parking space event really happened, but we might not want to accept the intepretation that goes with the story. On the other hand, when someone else in the local Christian community hears the story and decides to write it down as part of a set of examples about how God answers prayer, we may be more cautious about believing even the story itself, depending on what we see as the motivation behind the retelling.

In church over Easter I found myself reflecting on John’s account of the crucifixion. (Someone thought it would be cool to present chs 18 & 19 in plainsong chant with choir and soloists, which took over 20 mins, so there was plenty of opportunity for reflection.) I got stuck on 19:22-24:

23 When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. 24 So they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.” This was to fulfill what the scripture says,“They divided my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing they cast lots.” (NRSV)

I have no idea what translation they sang, but it actually said “They did this to fulfill what the scripture says . . .” I remember thinking “Sure they did – four Roman soldiers decided to cast lots for Jesus’ robe so they could fulfill Hebrew Scripture!” The NRSV is not quite so problematic, but it certainly fits into the category of testimony that involves interpretation from a faith perspective, which in turn makes me wonder about how likely it is that this kind of material is close to an eyewitness account and how much it might have been re-remembered over time to fit the notion that Jesus came in fulfillment of Scripture.

Bauckham includes a very helpful chapter on Eyewitness Memory, which looks at recent research on the nature and reliability of eyewitness accounts, but it raises for me the question of why it is important whether or not we have eyewitness accounts.

He contrasts the heavily embroidered and largely fictional account that Rossini gave in later life of his youthful attempt at meeting with Beethoven with the very reliable account of an 85 year old man of an event that happened when he was ten years old. This highlights for me the patchy nature of eyewitnesses – the fact that we have an eyewitness account means very little without significant evidence that it is the account of a reliable eyewitness. An eyewitness account from a Rossini type would be of significantly less value than something that had been passed through several layers of oral transmission within a community like the one described by Kenneth Bailey (“Middle Eastern Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels.” Expository Times 106 (1995): 363-67), where the audience saw themselves in the role of custodians of accuracy, reminding the teller when s/he left something out or got important details wrong.

So, while I did not take much convincing that the gospels could easily be quite close to eyewitness accounts (especially Thomas), I haven’t found any criteria for making this judgement and I am not sure that I really see why this is so important. In the end, most of us are making (non?)faith-based/religious judgments about whether or not the gospels are reliable, trustworthy documents and I don’t see that this is likely to hinge on how close they are to eyewitness accounts.

Maybe I’m just being slow, or maybe I should have waited until I’d finished it before blogging? Constructive comment would be most welcome.

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5 thoughts on “Testimony as History

  1. Thanks for raising these excellent points! I have some research I’ve had brewing on the back-burner for a while now and hope to tackle in more detail this summer. The focus is largely on the saying about the temple being destroyed and rebuilt, in relation to oral tradition and its development. It appears possible to see indications in Paul’s letters that the reinterpretation of this saying in ways later recorded in the Gospels of Mark and John had already taken place by his time. In that period, the involvement of eyewitnesses in the reinterpretation is very plausible. Not enough has been done on the psychology of recollection as applied to the development of New Testament memories and traditions.

    On a related note, I wonder whether the idea that the Gospels go directly back to eyewitnesses will in fact be more controversial among certain conservatives, since it would mean that, rather than individuals who had not witnessed the events reinterpreting traditions for a later time, it is the eyewitnesses themselves who are rewriting their experiences, and that is potentially more radical!

    http://blue.butler.edu/~jfmcgrat/blog/

  2. What an interesting point! I think that the very conservative already know that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses or at least recorded from eyewitness testimony, but yes, if you’re current position is that the traditions were interpreted for a later time, this could be interesting. OTOH, most conservative scholars have a fairly literalist interpretation of the notion that all Scripture is “inspired by God/God-breathed”, so perhaps it won’t be a problem.

  3. Pingback: Eyewitnesses - accuracy vs reliability « Judy’s research blog

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