If you have been following this blog you know that lately I have been involved in an ongoing discussion with Lutheran author and historian, Dr. Adam Francisco, regarding my review of his book, “Making the Case for Christianity”. In his book, Dr. Francisco and his colleagues make the claim that Christians can be very confident that the Gospels are reliable sources of history as they were written by eyewitnesses; even going so far as to say that the Gospels were written by the traditional authors—Matthew, John Mark, Luke the physician, and John the son of Zebedee.
I disagree with this claim. I believe that the current consensus of NT scholars is that none of the four Gospels were written by eyewitnesses. I have given a list of sources for this claim here.
Dr. Francisco has asked me to read Richard Bauckham’s book, “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony”. Dr. Francisco says this about Bauckham’s book:
“His book has made quite a splash; some says it’s paradigm shifting. (I’m not an ancient historian, my knowledge of Greek is pretty slim, so I need to rely on an expert. I suspect you aren’t an ancient historian and have limited knowledge of Greek, too.) We could look at each of the pieces of evidence Bauckham provides and assess it based on our own research of the primary sources. What do you say?”
I have agreed. So let’s start the review.
But first, how will I as a non-theologian, non-Koine Greek speaking layperson review a book written by a NT scholar who is known for his scholarly detail and his ability to interpret ancient Greek? Well, I intend to review his book as Dr. Francisco would review a medical book regarding tobacco smoking and its relationship to lung cancer. I will review the book looking for claims by the author which seem contrary to my perception of the current consensus opinion of experts in the field and compare the two positions. Just as Dr. Francisco would not accept the claims of just one cancer specialist who states that there is no relationship between tobacco smoking and lung cancer, neither will I accept the claims of just one NT scholar based solely on the fact that he is an expert in the field. There are outliers in every field. I am open to examining evidence which Bauckham claims refutes the current scholarly consensus on the authorship of the Gospels, but just as Dr. Francisco would not accept just any claim or any alleged evidence that tobacco smoking does not cause cancer, I too will not settle for mediocre evidence. I will insist upon very compelling evidence to side with Bauckham against the consensus position of NT scholars.
Chapter 1, From the Historical Jesus to the Jesus of Testimony
“Here then is the dilemma that has always faced Christian theology in the light of the quest of this historical Jesus. Must history and theology part company at this point where Christian faith’s interest in history is at its most vital? Must we settle for trusting the Gospels for our access to the Jesus in whom Christian believe, while leaving the historians to construct a historical Jesus based only on what they can verify for themselves by critical historical methods? I think there is a better way forward, a way in which theology and history may meet in the historical Jesus instead of parting company there. In this book I am making a first attempt to lay out some of the evidence and methods for it. Its key category is testimony.” p.5
So Bauckham believes that there is a better way for people living today to discover the real historical Jesus. He believes that the standard method used by historians to investigate the historical Jesus (critical historical methods) are inadequate and flawed. He is going to strike out on a new course of finding the real Jesus. But why? Why does he believe that historians have it wrong? Why does he believe that the historical critical method is flawed? Would he use the historical critical method to investigate the historical Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great? If so, why not use it for Jesus? Well, hopefully he is going to tell us later in the book.
“I suggest that we need to recover the sense in which the Gospels are testimony. This does not mean that they are testimony rather than history. It means that the kind of historiography they are is testimony. An irreducible feature of testimony as a form of human utterance is that it asks to be trusted. This need not mean that it asks to be trusted uncritically but it does mean that testimony should not be treated as credible only to the extent that it can be independently verified.” p. 5
So Bauckham is saying that testimony should not be automatically excluded from credibility just because it cannot be independently verified. I can buy that…for most claims. If Farmer Brown, an upstanding member of your community, one day states that two men with a red pickup truck stole one of his cows, I think we should view his testimony as credible until proven otherwise. But what about if the same Farmer Brown claims that little green, antennae-toting, Martians abducted one of his cows? How credible should we view this claim without independently verifying it? I would say that regardless of Farmer Brown’s reputation for honesty and integrity, we should only believe his very out of the ordinary claim if we are able to independently verify this claim. And I think that most people would use this same standard when evaluating truth claims based solely on testimony. Reasonable, ordinary claims by a reputable person are believed until disproven. Very unusual, out of the ordinary claims, even if made by very reputable people, are rarely accepted as fact without additional evidence and thorough investigation. Even Christians must agree that the resurrection of a dead body is not an ordinary, every day occurrence. In fact, Christians believe that there has only been ONE of these events in all of history, making it EXTREMELY rare. Therefore, I agree that most eyewitness testimony should be accepted as credible, but most modern, educated people are not going to accept very extra-ordinary testimony without first thoroughly investigating the very extra-ordinary claims in that testimony and obtaining strong supporting evidence for those claims.
“Gospels understood as testimony are the entirely appropriate means of access to the historical Jesus.” p. 5
But were the authors of the Gospels writing history books? Was their primary purpose for writing these books to provide an accurate historical biography of Jesus of Nazareth? I would like to see Bauckham prove this. Isn’t it entirely possible that the primary purpose of the Gospels was to spread the “Good News” of eternal salvation through belief in Jesus as the Christ? If that was the purpose, then why does every story about Jesus necessitate that it be historically accurate? Why couldn’t some of the stories have been created to teach a moral or theological lesson? Isn’t it entirely possible that the early Christians who first heard these stories did not expect them to be historically accurate? Maybe what was important to them was that the GOSPEL message was accurate. That is the issue, my friends. Bauckham has (as of yet) no proof that the four Gospels were written with the intent to provide an accurate historical biography.
“We need to recognize that historically speaking, testimony is a unique and uniquely valuable means of access to historical reality.” p.5
I agree that testimony is important. The question is: Are the Gospels eyewitness testimony, or just hearsay testimony?
“Testimony is the category that enables us to read the Gospels in a properly historical way and a proper theological way. It is where history and theology meet. p.5
Yes, if that testimony is from eyewitnesses, and, if any very extra-ordinary claims in that eyewitness testimony can be verified with supporting evidence, as is the standard of most modern, educated people as discussed above.
“I shall be arguing in this book that the Gospel texts are much closer to the form in which the eyewitnesses told their stories or passed on their traditions than is commonly envisaged in current scholarship.”
Ok. But isn’t it interesting that this conservative Christian NT scholar (whom Dr. Francisco has asked me to read to bolster his book’s claim that the scholarly consensus is that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses) concedes that “current scholarship” is not in agreement with him (so therefore, not in agreement with Dr. Francisco) on the closeness of the Gospels to the original story told by any alleged eyewitnesses to the alleged Resurrection of Jesus.
“They (the Gospels) embody the testimony of the eyewitnesses, not of course without editing and interpreting, but in a way that is substantially faithful to how the eyewitnesses themselves told it, since the evangelists were in more or less direct contact with eyewitnesses, not removed from them by a long process of anonymous transmission of the traditions. In the case of John, I conclude very unfashionably, that an eyewitness wrote it.” p. 6
How does Bauckham know that the evangelists were in more or less direct contact with the eyewitnesses? Let’s see the evidence. Note too that Bauckham asserts, “unfashionably”, that the Gospel of John was written by an eyewitness. What a stunning statement. Using the term “unfashionably” indicates to me that Bauckham’s is indicating that his position is not “in fashion” with the majority of scholars on this issue. He is in the minority among scholars on this issue. Note that Bauckham does NOT claim that the Gospel of Matthew was written by an eyewitness! Wow! What does that say for the claim in Dr. Fancisco’s book that the traditional authors, including Matthew the Apostle, wrote the four Gospels!
This is going to be a very interesting read, and hopefully, a very interesting discussion with Dr. Francisco.
Attention Readers: My regular readers and guests to this blog are welcome to contribute to this discussion by leaving comments below each post. However, Dr. Francisco is a busy man and therefore may not engage anyone but myself in this discussion. Please do not be offended if he does not reply to your comments. —Gary
Read part 2 here.