Monday, February 13, 2012

Bauckham on the Transmission of Eyewitness Testimony

In my latest reading of Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, the focus was largely on the question of whether or not the Gospels contain anonymous oral traditions that were transmitted within the early Christian community, or eyewitness testimony whose transmission the eyewitnesses themselves (specifically some of the apostles) supervised. Bauckham argues the latter. One reason is that Paul himself affirms that he received traditions about Jesus, and, since Paul says that he knows Peter and James and regards them as pillars in the church, he probably received those traditions in part from these particular eyewitnesses. And Paul was faithful in transmitting these traditions accurately, Bauckham maintains, which means that Paul did not alter them dramatically to make them relevant to the church. For example, Paul in I Corinthians 7 clearly distinguishes between Jesus' command on divorce and his own opinion and ruling.

So how does Bauckham account for the variance of traditions within the Gospels----how Gospel stories about particular incidents are different from one another, often in contradictory ways? Does this not show that traditions could be changed or updated? Bauckham offers a variety of proposals: that sometimes these similar-yet-different traditions are describing separate occurrences; that the traditions were orally recited and performed in different ways, within different settings; and that the different stories about particular incidents do agree on the essentials, showing a degree of conservatism in the transmission of traditions. And Bauckham acknowledges that, in some cases, the eyewitnesses' traditions have been updated in light of the post-Easter situation of the church. But Bauckham does not think that this occurred as often as the Rudolf Bultmann school believed, and Bauckham notes differences between the Gospels and what we know from the epistles are post-Easter thoughts about Jesus: in the Gospels, for example, Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man, whereas Jesus is not called the Son of Man in the post-Easter epistles. My question is this: Could Jesus have come to be referred to as the Son of Man after the time of the post-Easter epistles, which is when many biblical scholars date the Gospels?

On pages 309-310, Bauckham states the following: "Redaction criticism was often carried to excess, and can now be seen to have made too much of minor verbal and narrative differences among the Synoptics that may be better seen as the kind of performative variations normal in oral tradition, not necessarily embodying highly nuanced ideological divergences. But it remains the case that the Gospel writers should be seen as sophisticated authors who ordered and shaped their traditions into narrative wholes with distinctive understandings of Jesus and Christian faith. It is unlikely that the traditions as formulated by the eyewitnesses were able to do this to more than a fairly small extent (with the exception of the eyewitness who wrote the Fourth Gospel...). It was left to the Gospel writers to integrate their testimonies into biographies...of Jesus."

So, ultimately, for Bauckham, the Gospels contain eyewitness traditions, and yet they come to us through the distinct ideologies of the Gospels' authors.

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