Many unbelieving scholars believe that the original stories about Jesus underwent changes and picked up fictional additions before they were finally written down in our canonical Gospels. Young people from our congregations who go to college may hear this paradigm of how the Gospels came to be. Richard Bauckham challenges this paradigm. He starts with what all scholars, liberal or conservative, acknowledge: the canonical Gospels were not written hundreds of years after the events they portray. Even the Gospel of John, which most think was written in the 90s A.D., fits within a relatively long life span of an eyewitness. “The Gospels were written within living memory of the events they recount” (7).
From that premise, Bauckham argues that the eyewitnesses would have functioned as guarantors of the stories about Jesus that were circulating within the Christian communities. If someone had incorrectly told a story about Jesus, the eyewitnesses would have been present in the community to set the record straight. In fact, the eyewitnesses themselves would have been the ones normally telling the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. We know from the rest of the New Testament that early Christian leaders like Peter and John travelled widely. Thus they would have functioned as guarantors of the events of the life of Jesus even for far-flung Christian communities. If someone had a question about something that happened in the life of Jesus, a living eyewitness would have been available to them. Bauckham points out that Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:6 encourages the Corinthians to go and ask the eyewitnesses about what they saw. Paul assumes the accessibility of the eyewitnesses. In fact, “one reason the Gospels were written was to maintain this accessibility and function of the eyewitnesses beyond their lifetimes” (308).
Bauckham argues against “form criticism,” which posits a long line of tradition and transmission before the Gospels were actually written down. Bauckham’s argument is that the time period between the events of the life of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels is far too short to imagine a long line of transmission and tradition. The narratives about Jesus came directly from the eyewitnesses.
Bauckham’s thesis is that the eyewitnesses stand directly behind our written Gospels. He argues that in the ancient world historiographic best practice was to interview eyewitnesses (9), and this is exactly what Luke did before he wrote his Gospel (34; cf. Luke 1:1-4).
Bauckham argues that the Gospels have several ways of naming their eyewitness sources. First, he points out that in the Gospels the people whom Jesus healed “are usually unnamed” (39). But what about the ones who are named? “While most beneficiaries of Jesus’ healings … are anonymous, Jairus (whose daughter was raised) is named in Mark and Luke, Bartimaeus in Mark, Lazarus in John” (40). If the people who only encounter Jesus once are usually not given names, why are these particular people named? Bauckham’s explanation is that:
“these people were themselves the eyewitnesses who first told and doubtless continued to tell the stories in which they appear and to which their names are attached. A good example is Cleopas (Luke 24:18): the story does not require that he be named and his companion remains anonymous. There seems no plausible reason for naming him other than to indicate that he was the source of the tradition. … The story Luke tells would have been essentially the same story Cleopas himself told about his encounter with the risen Jesus (47).”
The second way that the Gospels name their eyewitness sources is by listing the names of the twelve disciples (Matthew 10:2-4; Mark 3:16-19; Luke 6:14-16). “It is not difficult to imagine that their role in the earliest Christian community would include that of authoritative transmitters of the sayings of Jesus and authoritative eyewitnesses of the events of Jesus’ history” (96). “It could well be that the twelve are listed as the official body of eyewitnesses who formulated and authorized the core collection of traditions in the Synoptic Gospels” (97).
The third way that the Gospels indicate their eyewitness sources is by means of inclusio. An inclusio is when one says the same thing at the beginning and the end, like when a pastor at the end of a sermon comes back to the illustration he made in the introduction. Bauckham accepts the early Christian tradition that Peter is the main eyewitness source for Mark’s Gospel. Peter is the first mentioned disciple in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 1:16), and also the last (16:7) (124-127). If “the beloved disciple” is one of the two disciples of John the Baptist who follow Jesus, then he is the first (John 1:35) and the last (21:24) eyewitness mentioned in John’s Gospel. John 21:24 contains a specific reference to eyewitness testimony: “This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.” Luke also forms an inclusio by making reference to the women who followed Jesus at 8:2-3 and again at 24:10. Luke
“does not, like Matthew, Mark, and John, name [the women] when he refers to their presence at the cross (23:49). Instead, he reserves that information until the end of his story of the women’s visit to the empty tomb: ‘Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles (24:10). … These two passages that name some of the women [8:2-3 and 24:10] … form a literary inclusio bracketing all but the earliest part of Jesus’ ministry (131).”
Some have said that eyewitness testimony is biased, especially eyewitness testimony that has a personal stake in the events. On the contrary, Bauckham argues that for events that exceed normal human experience, eyewitness testimony is absolutely necessary. Otherwise the people who didn’t see the events will minimize their reconstruction of the events to fit their own presuppositions about the limits of what could happen. Bauckham gives the Holocaust as an example. “The Holocaust is an event whose reality we could scarcely begin to imagine if we had not the testimonies of survivors” (493).
“Gospel scholarship must free itself from the grip of the skeptical paradigm that presumes the Gospels to be unreliable unless, in every particular case of story or saying, the historian succeeds in providing independent verification. … [T]his approach is seriously faulty precisely as a historical method. It can only result in a misleadingly minimal collection of uninteresting facts about a historical figure stripped of any real significance (506).”
There is much in Bauckham’s book with which I wholeheartedly agree. But I disagree on two very important points. First, Bauckham does not believe that the apostle Matthew wrote the Gospel of Matthew. In Mark and Luke, the one whom Jesus calls at the tax-collector booth is named Levi (Mark 2:14; Luke 5:29). Bauckham thinks that the author of Matthew’s Gospel changed the name to Matthew because “he intended to associate the Gospel with the apostle Matthew but was not himself the apostle Matthew” (112). Bauckham thinks it too unlikely that the tax-collector had the two names Matthew and Levi. But it is not uncommon for a person to be known by two names. In John’s Gospel, we learn that Thomas was also called Didymus (John 11:16).
The second point on which I disagree is that Bauckham does not believe that John the son of Zebedee wrote the Gospel of John. He believes that it was written by a different John, John the elder, who was not a member of the twelve but was a companion of Jesus. According to Bauckham, this John the elder was “the beloved disciple” (John 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7; 21:20) (416), who had privileged access to Jesus and was the one seated next to Jesus at the Lord’s Supper (John 13:25). Bauckham believes that the Gospel of John is absolutely reliable eyewitness testimony. It’s just not from John the son of Zebedee.
I would say that in John the son of Zebedee we have a perfectly good candidate for the identity of the beloved disciple. As one of the inner three (Mark 5:37; 9:2), John the son of Zebedee had the privileged access to Jesus which fits with the beloved disciple. There is no compelling reason not to believe that John the son of Zebedee is the beloved disciple and author of John’s Gospel.
With all of his insistence that the twelve were the authoritative eyewitnesses, it is sad that Bauckham does not acknowledge that two of the Gospels were actually written by members of that group. In Bauckham’s account, none of the Gospels were written by a member of the twelve. Bauckham is right that the twelve were the authoritative eyewitnesses. So I’m not sure why he denies that two of them (John and Matthew) wrote their own authoritative accounts.
These two issues aside, there is much that is valuable in Bauckham’s book. He boldly swims against the stream of critical scholarship and demonstrates that the Gospels should be taken seriously as reliable eyewitness testimony to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Richard Bauckham (PhD, University of Cambridge) taught New Testament at The University of St. Andrews in Scotland from 1992-2007. His other books include The Theology of the Book of Revelation, God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament, and The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple. His most recent book is Gospel of Glory: Major Themes in Johannine Christology.