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.