More on eyewitness accounts

In the comments on my rant on making biblical scholarship available to congregational members, Michael Bird writes:

Also, I think you’ll find that Bauckham is not interested in purely “proving” the history of the Synoptics. His main interest seems to be in turning over the Form-Critical consensus that the eyewitnesses vanished and did not influence or affect the shape of the oral tradition. I think he overstates his case at points, e.g. his version of the ancient witness protection program, but the Form Critics have long been due their coup de grace. For what it’s worth, many conservatives have big problems with his views on the authorship of John’s Gospel and 2 Peter, so I don’t think Bauckham is writing apologetics for the masses.

I am still in the process of re-reading Bauckham (rotten head cold plus people thinking I ought to do other things as well is making this a slow process) so I may change my mind, but at the moment I think Michael’s right – ‘proving’ the gospel is not Bauckham’s main aim. I think, however, that he certainly sees the fact that eyewitnesses affected the oral tradition as a good thing. I guess I have always conceptualised the oral tradition as having been based on eyewitness account and assumed that eyewitnesses would have had some role in preserving it as long as they were available, so I am in sympathy with Bauckham at one level. I was, however, interested in the reaction of the psychologists here at UNE when I asked them about current research on eyewitness testimony and explained why I was interested.

Their reaction was that eyewitness accounts introduce a range of inaccuracies that have to be taken into account in evaluating what they say. They were puzzled about why anyone might want to do that, but it now occurs to me that maybe they have a fairly literal view of the Bible as inspired by God (not because I think they’re fundamentalists, just because I don’t think it’s an area they think about much at all). Coming from this kind of perspective, of course it would be puzzling that you would want to substitute human-produced inaccuracy for divinely-inspired accuracy!

However, looking at some of the contemporary psychological writings on eyewitness accounts, it seems to me that what happens when you shift from the form-critical perspective to Bauckham’s perspective is that you substitute one set of problems for another. For example, if you say that text X came from a community that didn’t like the group A, then you need to look for signs of bias in its accounts of group A.  The problem with this is that if one text is negative about group A and another is not, how do we know whether this is because group A were nasty or whether the community out of which the negative text arose was biased? If you say that text X arose from a particular eyewitness, you need to look for the particular sorts of bias that eyewitnesses introduce. According to psychological research, there is an impressive range of things that can affect accuracy, including how traumatic the event is that a person is witnessing (negative moods result in more accurate remembering), the sorts of retrieval cues that are used (particular sorts of questioning can cause the remembering and forgetting of particular kinds of information) and whether or not the eyewitnesses attention was divided during the witnessing of an event. Many of these things are unknowns for early Christian texts.

I am very interested in looking at the sorts of complications that conceptualising texts as controlled by eyewitnesses will introduce. It might even become a paper at our forthcoming postgraduate conference.


3 thoughts on “More on eyewitness accounts

  1. Hi Judy,
    I think you have made some very good points about the problems of introducing eyewitness memory as a vehicle for bolstering a strong case for the historicity of the gospels.

    In terms of incorporating research on memory from psychology and anthropology I think Crossan does a far better job in his book “The Birth of Christianity”.

    As for your other point about Bauckham trying to prove the historicity of the synoptic gospels – i think you are right on the money. Of course Baukham has the intermediate goal of overturning the form critics but the ultimate goal is surely to establish a very strong case for the historicity of the gospels.

  2. One big problem in accomodating the eye-witness accounts of the Gospels is the “witness problem.” That can only be overcome if Jesus had survived the crucifixion and lived long afterwards to be able to dictate many of the events to his writer, one of the Twelve. Then, if this writer and a successor had continued to write down his ministry, in India, until Jesus died in early 2nd century, as various writings based on oral tradition hold, a transcription of the source material would not have been delivered back to the Palestinian region until then. This would explain why there is no good evidence that the Gospels had appeared before 120 or 130 CE, and how Paul’s influence had time to gain dominance.

    The first-person viewpoint of the eye-witness accounts were then preserved, while anything else that went counter to the teachings of Paul and the early churches was heavily redacted as the Gospels were written, especially the first gospel. This approach is set forth in my website at, where the rest of the story is also presented.

    If the gnostic gospels had trouble surviving, think of how impossible it would have been for the original heretical source, as outlined above, to survive, even in the present era after its discovery in Jerusalem in 1963. Hence only a (German) translation survived, which helps explain why NT scholars shun this source. But one of the document’s co-discoverers is still alive to vouch for the historicity (if not legality) of their find, and others who know him well vouch for his honesty and lack of any deceitfulness.

    In searching for firmer evidence, though still indirect, the best I’ve found is some 127 instances of redaction in Matthew that scholars have not yet pointed out, presented in and links. These I was able to spot thanks only to the hindsight of having a translation of the source on hand.

    To accompany this source’s revelations, the success of a modified Augustinian hypothesis is presented at to explain the many reasons why a Hebraic Matthew may have come before Mark after all.

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