Jesus and the Eyewitnesses

For much of the history of Judaism and Christianity, the scriptures of the Bible have been studied in a largely devotional manner. Even though differing views were certainly held on the interpretation of many passages, these differences were often defended by appeals to faith and philosophical teachings, rather than the sciences. However, by the 18th century – and more so by the 19th century – a new approach to biblical study began to emerge, thanks in part to refinements and developments in the fields of history and archaeology. Scholars such as Friedrich Schleiermacher, Jean Astruc, David F. Strauss, and Julius Wellhausen, initiated a great deal of the research and theorizing that has formed the basis of what is commonly now known as the historical-critical method.

The historical-critical method is a set of procedures used in analyzing the origins of a text, and often, by extension, its meaning. To understand the when, where, and who, behind the Genesis creation account, for example, can also give us a glimpse into how the author viewed his/her world and how this view comes into play in the text. Likewise, understanding literary techniques and their place in history can help in our search for the origins and meaning of a text. The form critics of the late 19th and early 20th centuries devised the concept of sitz im leben, or “situation in life”, to emphasize the importance of the sociological context of a document. Predictably, though, as scholarship began to pull further and further away from tradition, there would be a push back in favor of modesty and ‘that old time religion.’ In the early 20th century, a collection of essays called The Fundamentals offered a very traditionalist response to historical critics and liberal theologians, and the flame of religious dissent would continue to flare up through Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and others who advocated a more orthodox approach.

Undoubtedly, some of the criticisms put forward by the so-called conservative side are entirely merited. Form criticism did, in a few ways, over-step the limitations of what it could justifiably argue. But, on the other hand, much of the historical-critical method of biblical study has won out. While believers of the past felt so confident in the uniformity of the gospels that they created several harmonized versions of it, like Tatian’s Diatessaron, today new voices of protest are arising in typically inerrantist denominations (take Evangelical scholar Peter Enns, for example). The reliability of the scriptures has become an area of significant debate even among fairly conservative academic circles.

This is the backdrop to Richard Bauckham’s 2006 book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Bauckham, who is professor of New Testament at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, attempts to make the case for the four gospels being based upon eyewitness testimony. He acknowledges that he is swimming against the current here, defending a position that is still unpopular in biblical scholarship. To his credit, though, he does not recycle the failed arguments from the past or resort to the fallacious defenses made by apologists, but he introduces a few new arguments of his own and dives deep into source criticism. This fact, along with the high praise many Christians (and some scholars, notably) have accorded the book, motivated me to pick up a rather costly copy and make the trip through its 508 pages. Is this the victory that some believers consider it to be?

I. Papias

In my opinion, the strongest support for Bauckham’s central thesis comes from his dissection of Papias. Sometime around 125 CE, Papias of Hierapolis composed a multi-volume treatise, An Exposition of the Lord’s Oracles. Though this work no longer survives, fragments are preserved in Eusebius, who wrote about two hundred years later. The relevant pasage reads as follows:

And the presbyter would say this: Mark, who had indeed been Peter’s interpreter, accurately wrote as much as he remembered, yet not in order, about that which was either said or did by the Lord. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but later, as I said, Peter, who would make the teachings anecdotally but not exactly an arrangement of the Lord’s reports, so that Mark did not fail by writing certain things as he recalled. For he had one purpose, not to omit what he heard or falsify them.1

Here Papias says that a presbyter informed him that Mark’s gospel is based on the testimony of the apostle Peter. This presbyter is an individual named John, as Eusebius states in introducing the material. In another passage, Papias talks about what kind of sources he considers trustworthy:

But whenever someone who had followed the presbyters came along, I would carefully ask about the words of the presbyters, what Andrew or what Peter had said or what Philip or what Thomas or James or what John or Matthew or any other of the disciples of the Lord, and which Aristion and the presbyter John, disciples of the Lord say too. For I did not assume that whatever comes from books is as helpful to me as what comes from a living and lasting voice.

The last line is often taken as indication that Papias preferred oral tradition over written accounts, but I have to agree with Bauckham that it appears more likely that the “living and lasting voice” refers to a personal interview. Note that Papias distinguishes Aristion and John the presbyter from the other names, though all are called disciples of the lord. Eusebius tells us that these two men were the sources used by Papias, and he additionally quotes the church father Irenaeus (c. 185), who calls Papias a “hearer of John.” Bauckham further mentions the difference in verbs between the John and Aristion group and the rest of the disciples named in the passage. The latter have “said” things, suggesting that they were dead by that time, while the former “say” things, implying that they were alive – “living and lasting” voices.

I take no issue with the idea that Papias was getting his information from direct interviews with a couple disciples. Yet I do take issue with the assumption that the gospel described by the presbyter and attributed to Mark is the same Gospel of Mark found in the Christian canon today. Papias provides us no citations or useful way of confirming which text he is identifying as the work of Mark. While it is frequently observed that there is no evidence of the four gospels being attributed to any other figures besides Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, this is no more of a warrant to assume authenticity than it is to do so with the apocryphal gospels, which likewise show no evidence of additional attribution.

More problematic is the use of written source material in Mark’s gospel. There are stories in the text, like the raising of Jairus’ daughter in Mark 5, which are very clearly influenced by Old Testament stories – Elisha and the Shunammite woman, in this case. Mark 5:37 unequivocally notes that Peter was present during the healing of Jairus’ daughter, and yet the author has apparently integrated a tale from 2 Kings either along with Peter’s testimony or instead of it. According to biblical scholar Helmut Koester, the Gospel of Mark shows the signs of relying upon numerous sources, such as miracle stories similar to those in John’s gospel, sayings collections – specifically of parables and apocalyptic materials – and a passion narrative.2 It is inexplicable why Mark would create this kind of composite work when he had an eyewitness like Peter available to him.

Papias’ testimony gives us the same problem with Matthew too. Papias, quoted by Eusebius, reports that, “Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.”3 The trouble with this remark is that the only copies of Matthew we have found are in Greek, Greek that doesn’t read like a translation, and is formed from other Greek sources like Mark and, presumably, Q. Although Matthew, like most of the New Testament, contains some Semitic idioms, these may be explained by the use of the Septuagint, which was a translation of Hebrew to Greek, or they may even be explained as reproductions of colloquial Greek that are not actually Semitic in origin. Those who wish to rest a case for an originally Hebrew text of Matthew on the presence of Semitic idioms do so in defiance of the manuscript evidence, the general absence of translational peculiarities, and the two-source hypothesis.

As one final comment on Papias, we should also take note of where he can’t help us. Papias has nothing to say on the gospels of Luke and John, at least not in the fragments that have been preserved. This is especially interesting in the light of the mysterious John the presbyter known to Papias. If this John was the same John who authored the fourth gospel, you’d think that might be worth mentioning. Even the fact that this presbyter isn’t spoken of in a manner that relates him to the life of Jesus, as Peter is related to Jesus in the passage, makes the exact role of John’s discipleship questionable. Another area where Papias can’t help is actually with the crucifixion and resurrection in Mark. The gospel ends at 16:8, and while speculation continues over whether this was how the author intended it to end, or if the original ending is lost, Peter is surprisingly absent during the most important parts of the passion, which is not the case in Luke or John. Thus, Papias can only be of so much use in the relevance of Bauckham’s thesis to the reliability of Christian beliefs.

II. What’s in a Name?

One of the central arguments in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses is that names of figures who are participants in the stories identify eyewitness sources, to a large extent. As he notes, the gospels share a good number of named characters, but some drop certain names, and some actually add names. Richard theorizes that a name is added where an author is aware of the eyewitness or when it’s no longer dangerous to name them, and a name is omitted where the eyewitness has become too obscure in the community to be worth mentioning anymore. It’s telling, perhaps, that Bauckham presents no other examples of this practice in antiquity that are outside the Christian world.

Stephen J. Patterson, in a critical review of Bauckham’s book published in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, points out that some of this pattern of naming is not really as bizarre as it seems. What is the case with Luke 4:22, he asks,

where Luke omits Mark’s reference to Jesus’ mother and brothers (Mk 6.3)! In fact, four of these six cases of omission [where Matthew and/or Luke omit names from Mark] are minor agreements and should probably be accounted for in terms of this literary phenomenon.4 A good guess would be that these names were added in the subsequent development of Mark, after Matthew and Luke had made use of earlier versions of Mark as a source.5

Bauckham also notes that the gospel authors would likely have had to cut some of the content from their sources. Writing materials were not cheap, and manuscript prices were based partly on length, meaning that if Matthew’s author was adding in Q, Mark, perhaps some other unknown sources, and maybe even his own content, he would have had to make adjustments. We know he was engaged in redactional work, and it’s quite plausible names were omitted as part of the process. In fact, the two instances in Matthew where names are dropped from a Markan story (Matt. 9:18 [Jairus], 20:30 [Mark 10:46]), are instances where the characters are arguably unimportant.

But isn’t it a bit strange that in light of his thesis Bauckham should be addressing names omitted from the gospels in the first place? If, as he believes, names preserved eyewitness sources, and were used for the purpose of demonstrating reliability, and all four gospel authors were engaged in this practice, then why do certain gospels drop some of these names? Saying that these eyewitnesses were no longer known is hardly a sufficient explanation if we are to think that both the authors and their audiences were expecting this “proof” of sorts.

III. Elusive Inclusio

Along with Papias and the use of names in the gospels, Bauckham proposes a third argument in support of his case: the inclusio of eyewitness testimony, as he calls it. An inclusio is kind of like a bracket in the text which starts and ends in some similar way, and Bauckham believes that the gospels make use of this device as a means of indicating eyewitness testimony. For example, the mention of Peter (called Simon) at the beginning of Mark’s gospel, and then at the very end in 16:7, suggests to Bauckham that Peter is the eyewitness source behind the Gospel of Mark. He draws comparisons to Lucian’s Alexander and Porphyry’s Life of Plotinus – both written quite a while after the gospels – but he offers little more than speculation that a figure in each text might well have been an eyewitness source. It may be informed speculation, but it is speculation nonetheless.

Let’s look at a specific example, though, such as Bauckham’s claim of inclusio in the Gospel of John. The “beloved disciple”, he notes, is the last figure mentioned in the text, other than Jesus. The first portion of the alleged inclusio he finds in John 1:35-39, where an unnamed disciple accompanies Andrew. This unnamed disciple, Bauckham contends, is John, who is said to “follow” and “remain” (21:20,22), just as this companion of Andrew follows (1:37) and remains (1:39). However, David Catchpole, in another article published in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, criticizes this argument by pointing out that not only are the verbs “follow” and “remain” commonplace in John, but the unidentified partner to Andrew seems to simply be part of a theme of pairs that continues in John 1:40-42,43-51.6

The phrase “from the beginning,” such as we find in the preface of Luke, is another indicator of eyewitness inclusio, according to Bauckham. Astoundingly, though, he practically argues against himself by citing a pseudonymous text written by Plutarch, which purports to be the work of someone who was present at the 6th century sympozium of the Seven Sages. This was included in the text to lend verisimilitude to the account, Bauckham says, apparently unaware that this harms his case for reliable eyewitness claims more than it helps. Whether or not this was a common practice for historical writings, its presence in Luke no more points to authenticity than its presence in Plutarch’s deceitful little document does.

To his credit, Bauckham admits to uncertainty on the origins of his inclusio of eyewitness testimony.7 The device does appear in a number of literary works, but the notion that it identifies eyewitness sources in any instance is a contentious one. Psalm 118 begins and ends with the same phrase, forming an inclusio, and there are many other examples in the Tanakh, in Rabbinic literature, and other literature of antiquity. This type of literary device is commonly used because it is appealing for the orderliness it provides and how it suits memory by employing repetition. There is, however, little basis for assuming that the gospel authors meant for it to designate eyewitness testimony, if they were even aware of employing the inclusio to begin with.

IV. A Thesis Built on Sand

Clever as some of Bauckham’s case may be, it ultimately suffers from two daunting problems. First, a claim of reliance upon eyewitness testimony still has to be evaluated based on what we know of the author, the purpose and style of the document, and the other claims made in the document. There are plenty of examples of ancient historians, generally regarded as reliable, who would sometimes venture into the territory of myth and rumor. The Jewish historian Josephus is one of the best known historians of the first century, and yet his claim that Alexander the Great visited the Jerusalem temple is overwhelmingly rejected by modern historians.8 The Greek historian Strabo reported his experience hearing a strange sound coming from the Theban necropolis, which was believed to be the voice of the god Memnon calling out to his mother, Eos. Mary Lefkowitz has shown that Greco-Roman biographies were just as likely to contain fiction as Greco-Roman histories.9 Even if the gospels really were written with inclusio and other signs of eyewitness testimony, the question of their reliability still remains to be answered.

This brings us to the second problem. Although Bauckham defends eyewitness memory in a chapter of the book, his treatment of psychological research and anecdotal evidence leaves much to be desired. He tells the story of a man who could amazingly and accurately recall details from a newspaper article he had read seventy years before, but the relevance of this rare ability to the greatly mysterious authors and eyewitnesses behind the gospels is never elaborated. In Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, he draws heavily on Samuel Byrskog’s Story as History – History as Story, which examines the early Christian texts in light of anthropology. Byrskog has criticized Bauckham’s use of his work for how it minimizes the role and importance of interpretation both in eyewitnesses and the ancient historians who utilized them.10

As someone who very recently took a semester’s worth of social psychology classes, Bauckham’s chapter on eyewitness memory appealed immensely to me. It is sadly true that many of the analyses of gospel reliability fail to take psychological or neuroscientific studies into serious account. Bauckham begins the chapter by mentioning the various ways in which the mind can be fooled and eyewitness memory can be faulty, and then proceeds to discuss the ways that we retain accurate information. Frederic Bartlett’s influential theory of the schema suggests that our minds are actually wired to interpret and distill information in a moderately reliable way, under specific contexts. Using various sources, Bauckham compiles a list of nine factors that help to determine the accuracy of memory recollection. I commend Bauckham for doing the thorough research he did in this area for the book, but his interpretation of some of it, and especially his application of it all to the gospels, is more of the same presumption seen in the other chapters.

Let’s start with schema theory. Bauckham is careful to note how schematization includes omission of material judged irrelevant, how it rationalizes things that are confusing in the context of the mental narrative, how it shapes information in accordance with cultural norms, and how changes can occur at any stage of the process. What this tells us is that memory is not fixed and unchanging; new experiences influence the schemata, and our memories evolve as we evolve. Humorously, Bauckham makes a sharp turn after explaining all this to reassure us that schemata don’t impede our access to reality, “they enable it” (p. 336). While I agree that Bartlett’s theory is no cause for hyper-skeptical solipsism, it doesn’t work quite as reliably as Richard wants it to either. “[W]e are well enough familiar with ways of challenging and correcting” misleading simplifications and distortions, he says. Although I might question this overly-optimistic statement in the modern era, it is fairly obvious this was not the case in the first century, long before science and psychology began to reveal the complex problems in the human brain.

Disappointingly, Bauckham doesn’t really address the troubling implications of schema theory for the reliability of the gospels under his thesis. What kind of omissions would an eyewitness make from their experiences of the life of Jesus? Would their rationalizations exclude important details that might seriously undermine their beliefs? How big of a role would their culture of Jewish-Roman conflict and messianic expectations play in their perception of events? When Bauckham applies schematization to the gospels, all he discusses is the “failure” of form criticism, which is fairly ironic when you consider how culture’s influence on schemata strikingly resembles the sitz im leben proposed by form critics. Strong as his distaste for the form critical paradigm may be, Bauckham only does himself and his readers a disservice in neglecting to tackle these not insignificant questions schema theory implies for his thesis.

As already mentioned, Bauckham lays out nine factors important to memory recollection. The event should: (i) be unique or unusual, (ii) be salient or consequential, (iii) be emotionally involved, (iv) have vivid imagery, (v) lack irrelevant detail, (vi) have a particular point of view, (vii) place less emphasis on dates, (viii) be consistent in the gist of things, and (ix) show signs of frequent rehearsal. Several of these factors are less likely to point to reliability than the others, though, as Bauckham agrees. Studies are mostly inconclusive about the role of emotional involvement and irrelevant detail in memory retention (p. 332-333), and the point of view can be so many things – first person, third person, a mix of both (p. 333) – that it’s practically useless. The remaining factors can also be interpreted in different ways. Bauckham imagines the unique and consequential nature of the gospel narratives would make their events memorable to the eyewitnesses, but were these stories really “unique” or “salient” when many Jews were expecting a messiah and a resurrection of the dead? Many of the gospels lack vivid imagery too.

Perhaps it would be asking too much to expect a book like Jesus and the Eyewitnesses to dive deep into the nitty gritty of psychological and sociological factors involved in memory. If Bauckham’s work was of a more exploratory and hypothetical sort, I would surely concede this, but there are conclusions drawn in the book that give the impression of far more robust support than we actually find. Judith Redman, in an article printed in the Journal for Biblical Literature, offers a perfect summary:

…psychological research into eyewitness testimony makes it clear that Bauckham’s work in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses does not provide strong evidence for the historical accuracy of the content of the Gospels. Although it is clear that transmission of stories in oral cultures is remarkably accurate once a community decides that something should be preserved and skilled oral tradents are entrusted with the task of preserving it, many of the inaccuracies in eyewitness memory come into being within hours, days, or weeks of the event being witnessed. Furthermore, these eyewitness accounts come from within a faith community formed around the subject of the stories, which adds a particular source of bias not present in other histories of the time… It is not possible, therefore, to say, as Bauckham does that “[t]estimony offers us … a theological model for understanding the Gospels as the entirely appropriate means of access to the historical reality of Jesus.”11

V. The Verdict

Admittedly, I’m of two minds about this book. On the one hand, Richard Bauckham is clearly a very intelligent person in possession of a great wealth of scholarly knowledge that often shines through in his writing. Though I disagree with his interpretation of many sources, he has put together a huge amount of research here, much of which is intriguing and informative. On the other hand, he often stretches himself well above and beyond the evidence, and his style can be downright tedious to read at times. There were numerous occasions where I struggled to find the motivation to continue reading, due to the dry, repetitive, and heady content. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses is not for a lay audience and will probably not be enjoyed unless you’re super fascinated with the subject matter, or you’re on Bauckham’s theological side of the fence.

In regard to its aim, I think there is little question that the book falls short. The response of the scholarly community has been predominantly critical, as is shown in the excerpts I have cited from the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus and the Journal for Biblical Literature. While this has only justified the ’cause’ to Bauckham and his supporters, their reaction may serve as a final ironic nail in the coffin of eyewitness testimony. One of Richard’s primary talking points in the book is about how the form critics are guilty of an a priori approach to the Bible, which he claims he will triumphantly avoid. As it turns out, Bauckham has more in common with form criticism than he might think, with a case built on so much speculation and modeled around an interpretive framework of its own that it’s difficult to imagine how it could be anything but a priori.

Jesus and the Eyewitnesses is not a terrible book in any sense, but neither is it the landmark piece of game-changing scholarship that many in Christian communities have treated it as. It has its definite highs and lows, yet when it comes to the central focus on eyewitness testimony in the gospels, Bauckham is mostly grasping at straws.


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1. Stephen C. Carlson, External Evidence: Papias (Oct. 10, 2004), Synoptic Problem Website. Retrieved Dec. 8, 2012.
2. Helmut Koester, Ancient Christian Gospels (1990), p. 286-289.
3. Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 3.39.
4. Mk 2.14//Mt. 9.9//Lk. 5.27; Mk 10.46//Lk. 20.30//Mt. 18.35; Mk 15.21//Mt. 27.32//Lk. 23.26; and Mk 15.40; 16.1//Mt. 27.56; 28.1//Lk. 24.10.
5. Stephen J. Patterson, “Can You Trust a Gospel?” JSHJ, Vol 6 (2008). p. 199.
6. David Catchpole, “On Proving Too Much,” JSHJ, Vol. 6 (2008), p. 177.
7. Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (2006), p. 132.
8. Timothy Wardle, The Jerusalem Temple and Early Christian Identity, Ch. 2, p. 35.
9. Mary Lefkowitz, “Patterns of Fiction in Ancient Biography,” The American Scholar, Vol. 52, No. 2 (Spring 1983), pp. 205-218.
10. Samuel Byrskog, “The Eyewitnesses as Interpreters of the Past,” JSHJ, Vol. 6 (2008).
11. Judith Redman, How Accurate are Eyewitnesses? JBL (March 22, 2010).