Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Completing Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses

I finished Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. In my latest reading, Bauckham defends his view that the Gospel of John was written by John the Elder, not John the son of Zebedee, and he also discusses broader questions about how we should approach eyewitness testimony as historians----with trust, with skepticism., etc.?

Regarding John the Elder's authorship of the Gospel of John, Bauckham argues that Papias identified the Gospel of John with that particular individual, even though Eusebius does not preserve that for us, since Eusebius believed that John the son of Zebedee (not John the Elder) wrote that Gospel. Bauckham looks at the Muratorian Canon, which is "the earliest known example of a New Testament canon list" (page 425), and he notices that what it says about Mark is similar to what Papias says in Eusebius. Bauckham concludes that the Muratorian Canon is relying on Papias. The Muratorian Canon calls John a disciple, right before calling Andrew an apostle, and Bauckham maintains that it is distinguishing John (the author of the Gospel) from the Twelve in doing so, and that Papias himself did not regard that John as one of the Twelve, but rather as John the Elder. Later, however, when discussing the implication by Justin Martyr and Clement that John the apostle wrote the Gospel of John, Bauckham argues that "apostle" can refer to people other than the Twelve. After all, Clement referred to Clement of Rome as "Clement the apostle"! Personally, I have difficulty saying that the Beloved Disciple was not one of the Twelve, for he is sitting right next to Jesus at the last supper (John 13:23), which tells me that he was part of Jesus' inner circle.

At the same time, something that I found interesting was Bauckham's discussion about John the Beloved Disciple being a priest in the Temple. Polycrates, a second century bishop, refers to the Beloved Disciple as a priest, and Acts 4:6 mentions a priest named John. This intrigued me because I vaguely recall reading that the Beloved Disciple was close to the high priest, and the justification for this may have been that the Gospel of John appears to manifest awareness of the priestly establishment's deliberations and plots about Jesus----for example, that the high priest decided it would be expedient for one man to die for the sins of the people. If the Beloved Disciple were a priest, then he was not the son of Zebedee, for John the son of Zebedee was a fisherman.

Regarding how historians should approach eyewitness testimony, Bauckham essentially says that we should do so with a degree of trust, since eyewitness testimony is essentially our main source for historical reconstruction, and yet we should look at the sources critically, evaluating their coherence and consistency and comparing them with other evidence that we have. And there were some arguments that Bauckham made that reminded me of David Marshall's arguments for the Gospels being eyewitness testimony: that the Gospels describe events that are somehow unique (unique in terms of wonder), and that the resurrection stories are bare-boned in their accounts of what happened.

I was thinking some about eyewitness testimony as I was reading Susan Faludi's 1991 book, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. (You will see my posts on that in March, which is Women's History Month.) Faludi profiles anti-feminist intellectual Sylvia Ann Hewlett. Hewlett says that, when she was teaching economics at Barnard College, she tried to balance child care with career, and yet she got no sympathy from the feminists at the college, whom she says were opposed to a maternity policy. Jane Gould, who at the time was the director of the Barnard Women's Center, disagrees with Hewett's recollection of the events, for Gould says that feminists formed the committee supporting maternity leave, that Hewett did not play a central role in that campaign, and that the women opposing maternity leave were not even feminists. That tells me that eyewitnesses can remember events differently. Bauckham may then say that I'm focusing too much on the individual rather than collective memory, for he makes that distinction within his book. He may believe (if I am interpreting or characterizing him correctly) that collective memory is more reliable than individual memory, since people can then help each other remember and correct each other's mistakes. Perhaps, but it can also result in a kind of group-think in which people subordinate their own personal recollections and interpretations to what the herd (or the strongest personality within the herd) wants them to think.

I would not throw out the importance of eyewitness testimony, however, for, as Bauckham states, it is often all that we have for reconstructing the past! I also would not be as extreme as, say, the Jesus Seminar in terms of evaluating the Gospels for what is historical and what is not. For example, why should we dismiss as un-historical (or less likely to be historical) everything in the Gospels that accord with Christian theology after the time of the historical Jesus? Perhaps Jesus originated some of those ideas. But there should be a degree of criticism when looking at the sources, an awareness that people describe the past in light of their biases and ideologies.

Something that I wished Bauckham addressed more was why Matthew doubles certain characters: Matthew presents Jesus healing two demoniacs or blind men, whereas Mark says Jesus healed one. To what would Bauckham attribute this? To the eyewitnesses performing the story differently? Why would they add a demoniac or a blind man? To different recollections of the same event? That's how some handle this issue, but Bauckham actually agrees with much of New Testament scholarship that Matthew is drawing from Mark a lot.

Overall, this was a good book, particularly in that it looked at what the New Testament and early Christian literature said about the transmission of traditions.

2 comments:

  1. Hi. Your groupthink idea is interesting. I have sometimes wondered if this is what happened. Do you think this is what the gospels are then - a combination of eyewitness testimony and groupthink?Wouldn't all the other eyewitnesses and the strongly entrenched oral tradition act as a bulwark against that?

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  2. Those are good questions, Refinedtruth. As you know, there are different ideas about what the Gospels are. I'd say that other eyewitnesses and entrenched oral tradition wouldn't be a bulwark against different views on Jesus arising in the first few centuries of Christianity, because they did arise.

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