More on Bauckham and the Eyewitnesses

I’ve just spent several hours reading two papers whose authors were kind enough not only to draw my attention to them but also to remind me that I had meant to read them but not managed to do so. One is a philosophy paper published in the Journal of Political Ecology and written by one of my office-mates. Tanzim Khan has written a fascinating account one of the outworkings of the tension between forest conservation and energy procurement in Bangladesh, which, of course, has nothing at all to do with the topic of this post, but I enjoyed reading it.

The second is by John N Collins – “Re-thinking ‘Eyewitnesses’ in the Light of ‘Servants of the Word’ (Luke 1:2)” (Expository Times 2010 121: 447). It is just the kind of thing I enjoy most. The first part sets Bauckham’s work in the context of Catholic scholarship over the past half century or so; the second takes a close look at translation issues and how they affect our understanding of theological concepts and as an added bonus John writes really well. Lest this sound condescending, I need to say that I’ve spent the last two days at work struggling with an abominably written report so John’s smooth prose was a delight. (Tanzim, writing in his second language produced a significantly more readable result than this report.)

In the first section of the paper, John traces the approach of the Catholic church to biblical scholarship from pre-Vatican II rejection of Bultmann through the 1993 Pontifical Biblical Commission’s The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church which states the importance of the place of the Historical Critical Method to the point where Pope Benedict XVI, writing as Joseph Ratzinger, expresses reservations about the historical method in his 2007 book Jesus of Nazareth. Collins suggest that Richard Bauckham “has arrived at the same conundrum as Benedict but after travelling in the opposite direction” (449). I think it is helpful to be reminded that there are times when Catholic biblical scholarship comes at issues from a somewhat different direction- something I was conscious of during my theological training at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.

Having established the differences and similarities between Bauckham and Benedict, Collins goes on to look at how the term ‘eyewitnesses’ (autoptai) is used at the beginning of Luke’s gospel. He argues that Luke’s autoptai are not the oral tradents that Bauckham suggests, but those who are working with a literary tradition; and that their role as “guarantors of the tradition” began siginficantly later than Bauckham’s argument would require. I can’t reproduce his reasoning here, but I would recommend the paper.

As I read through Collins’ paper, I was reminded again of why Bauckham’s thesis is so attractive to Christian biblical scholars. Those of us who grew up in a church community just assumed that the gospels were eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ ministry and our first encounter with twentieth-century biblical scholarship required a significant mental gear-change. At some level, I suspect we all want to be convinced that the gospels are historically accurate, because faith would be so much easier if we could prove this. Unfortunately, I don’t think this can be done without the aid of a time machine, but Bauckham’s work has certainly prompted a significant number of people to think in new ways about the gospels, which can’t be a bad thing. 🙂

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9 thoughts on “More on Bauckham and the Eyewitnesses

  1. Another undersandig of eyewitness. Schubert M. Ogden writes: We now know not only that none of the Old Testament writings is prophetic witness to Christ in the sense in which the early church assumed them to be, but also that none of the writings of the New Testament is apostolic witnss to Jesus as the early church itself understood apostolicity. The sufficient evidence of this point in the case of the New Testament writings is that all of them have now been shown to depend on sources, written or oral, earlier than themselves, and hence not to be the original and originating witness that the early church mistook them to be in judging them to be apostolic. – – As to just where we should locate the apostolic witness, I have nothing to add to the proposal of Willi Marxsen. Marxsen argues that the real Christian norm is the witness to Jesus that makes up the earliest layer of the synoptic tradition. (The Q sayings tradition, more epecifically the Sermon on the Mount, see Hans Dieter Betz, Essays on the Sermon on the Mount). Quote is from Faith and Freedon by Schubert Ogden – onlne.

  2. Thanks, Judy, for your generous comment. Glad it hit the mark. May I add that the fuller understanding of ‘autoptai/’those who see for themselves’ means Bauckham’s own new way of thinking about the gospels cannot be the right way. The same holds for his close colleagues Ben Witherington (on this subject) and Craig Keener (The Historical Jesus of the Gospels).

  3. Judy, I’m new to your blog. Are you saying you disagree with Bauckham’s fundamental conclusion that the gospels were considered eyewitness accounts by those who compiled them and those who initially read them?

    • Hi Mike,

      I can see why you might get that impression from this post. Poor wording on my part. No, I don’t disagree with that. I think that the people who wrote the gospels and the people who read them considered them to be eyewitness accounts, if that was a category they used. The problem I have is what Bauckham (to a lesser extent) and some of his readers (to a greater extent) try to hang on this understanding.

      An account of an eyewitness that was written down even days after the event is not likely to contain the exact words of any person who was speaking, except in very short bursts.

      For example, the principal of my theological college said to me five years after I graduated that he still remembered my reaction to being told where I was going for my first ministerial appointment. I expect he was able to give a verbatim account, because I said “Oh s**t*” and burst into tears, took the profile he was offering and left the room. My Christology tutor also said, five years down the track, that he still remembered the tutorial paper I gave on unity and diversity in the Synoptic gospels, because it had been an exceptionally good presentation. I doubt, however, if he (or I) could have accurately reported anything I said. He wasn’t interested in my exact words – what had impressed him was the structure and the content.

      I suspect that what we have in the gospels is an eyewitness account with a similar level of accuracy about wording to the one that my Christology tutor would have been able to give five years down the track, and what parts of the church are trying to suggest we have is something more akin to what the Principal could remember.

  4. Found this by accident, but I really appreciate Prof. Collins’ comment on Bauckham. I wrote a critical review of the book (CBQ I think) from another perspective, but I concur with Prof Collins and the comments on this blog. Thanks, Judy, for your blog.

  5. On eyewitness. Schubert Ogden quoting the late Willi Msarxsen makes the point that none of the writings of the NT, the letters of Paul, the Gospels, as well the later NT writings is apostolic witness to Jesus. The sufficient reason for this point is the fact that they all depencd on sources earlier than themselves and thus are not the original originating sources the early church misstook them to be.
    Hans Dieter Betz more specifically attributes this point to authoral intent. “The Gentile-Christian authors of the Gospels transmitted to us only that part of the teaching of Jesus that they themselves understood; they handed on only that which they were able to translate into the thought caregories of Gentile Christianity, and which they ju dged worthy of transmission.” which explains how little we know of Jesus and his teaching.

    • Ed, I think that you are trying to paint the picture with too broad a brush.

      There is a significant difference between what Paul wrote and the gospels. Paul never tries to suggest that anything he writes is an eyewitness account of the life and teaching of Jesus. I would also suggest that there is a significant difference between the notion of eyewitness accounts of Jesus life and teaching and “apostolic witness”. The latter could well be faithful in content to the teachings of Jesus, even though it had been handed down through several iterations of tellings, without necessarily being totally accurate in terms of content.

      I would also suggest that Hans Dieter Betz can’t be sure about how the original authors were thinking when they recorded things. While it goes without saying that the Gentile-Christian authors would only have transmitted the teachings that made sense to them and spoke to them, I don’t know how he can tell what level of judgement about worth was made at the time. In making this comment, though, does Betz reject the idea that Matthew’s gospel was written for Jewish Christians or is he only talking about the other gospels?

  6. When Ed, Schubert, Willi, and Hans have spilled as much blood in the cause of Christ on our behalf as the apostles, I might be more interested in their challenge to the integrity of the New Testament documents.

    The way to truly know of Jesus and His teaching is to read the Scriptures with a view to do.

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