A Review of Richard Bauckham’s “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses”; discussion with Historian Adam Francisco

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.


16 thoughts on “A Review of Richard Bauckham’s “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses”; discussion with Historian Adam Francisco

  1. This is my attempt to crawl out of my Luddite cave and sign into a blog (a first for me). i haven’t read this post yet. But already have one request: I’m not a theologian. Could you just refer to me as “…Historian, Adam Francisco”? No need for the title of Dr either. Now let me hit enter and see if this posts.


    1. Yes, Adam, I will change the title from “theologian” to “historian”. I will address you as “Adam” but I think it’s best in the posts to refer to you as “Dr. Francisco” as it allows readers who may come into the discussion midstream to have the ability to know that you have authority to speak as an expert. You are not just some guy on the internet with an opinion (like me!).


  2. Dear Readers,

    I believe that the following will probably be the biggest issue in our review of Bauckham’s book: What was the purpose/intent of the authors of the Gospels in writing their books? Was it:

    1. To give an accurate historical biography of Jesus of Nazareth.
    2. A means of evangelization; a means to spread the “Good News” of salvation through faith in Jesus the Christ, the Son of God.

    I believe that there is good evidence to believe that the purpose of these books was the latter and not the former. Here is the evidence:

    We know that embellishments exist in the Gospels. We know that several stories that exist in our Bibles were not in the original Gospels. Here are two examples: The story of the angel stirring the water at the Pool of Bethesda and the story of the woman caught in adultery. The belief that these stories are later scribal additions to the Gospels is not a minority view. It is the consensus position of scholars. “But it doesn’t matter. These additions do not change the central doctrines of Christianity one iota,” conservative Christians will say. True, but it does show that the early Church was not interested in strictly preserving an accurate historical biography of Jesus. If the early Church knew that these stories were not authentic parts of the Gospels, but were additions/embellishments, why didn’t they take them out? Answer: These stories were deemed useful to the MESSAGE of the Church: the spreading of the Good News.

    To me this is proof positive that early Christians were much more concerned about the message than historical accuracy, and, were willing to invent/add stories to the Gospels to further that message!

    So if it was perfectly acceptable to include invented stories in the Gospels about angels stirring waters and adulteresses receiving Jesus’ forgiveness, what would be the problem with inventing detailed, fictional post-death appearances of Jesus , or, even the Empty Tomb story! The addition of these stories does not change the doctrines of Christianity. Christians already believed that Jesus had died, been buried, rose from the dead, and had appeared to over 500 people after his resurrection, based on the Early Creed found in First Corinthians chapter 15. If these stories in the Gospels are embellishments (fiction) they change not one iota of Christian doctrine.

    Note that no where in Paul’s writings does he mention any of the detailed post-resurrection bodily appearances that we read in the Gospels nor does he mention the empty tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. So for all we know, the earliest Christians (prior to the writing of the Gospels) believed in the bodily resurrection of Jesus based on visions (vivid dreams), false sightings of Jesus, or misperceptions of natural phenomena (bright lights) and not on seeing an actual flesh and blood body. I can’t prove that this is really what happened, but Christians can’t prove that it didn’t.

    When the Gospels appeared beginning in circa 70 AD with unheard of before stories of a Rich Man’s Empty Tomb and detailed bodily appearances stories, once again, the Church was not concerned. It wasn’t concerned about the non-historicity of these stories because history was not the primary purpose of these books. Their primary purpose was evangelization…and wow, did they do their job!


  3. And here is something else to think about: As I have shown above, the early Church seemed to be much more concerned with evangelization—spreading the MESSAGE of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ—than they were with the historical accuracy of Christian writings, including the four Gospels. As I pointed out in the previous comment, we have at least two stories in the Gospels that were not written by the original authors of the Gospels; the story of the angel stirring the water at the pool of Bethesda and the story of the woman caught in adultery. Yet the Church allowed these stories to remain in the Bible. But that isn’t all. Take a look at the final chapter of the Gospel of Mark in a modern English translation of the Bible. What will you see in the footnotes? You will see that the oldest manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark had ZERO post-resurrection appearance stories. Zero. The post resurrection story you see at the end of the Gospel of Mark was an addition to the original story, written by a later scribe.

    To me this is more evidence that the early Church was not that concerned with maintaining the historical accuracy of the Gospels. They were primarily focused on the message. And since the original Gospel of Mark lacked post-resurrection appearance stories, it appears that a story was later added to the Gospel of Mark to keep the message of all four gospels congruent. Read the four Gospels’ post-resurrection appearance stories in parallel. There are some MAJOR differences. In one Gospel Jesus appears in the Upper Room to all Eleven disciples on the same day as the Resurrection. In another Gospel, Thomas is not present in the Upper Room on the Day of the Resurrection. He does not see Jesus until a week later. To me all this evidence points to the strong probability that the detailed post-resurrection stories found in Matthew, Luke, and John; stories about which the original author of Mark seems to be oblivious; are theological embellishments, just like the story of an angel stirring the waters of a pool and Jesus forgiving an adulteress caught in the act.

    I believe that the evidence is clear that the primary purpose of the Gospels was NOT historical accuracy but evangelization.


  4. True. John 20 is pretty clear: “these things were written so that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God.”

    The account in the gospel of Matthew reporting that the Jewish authorities paid off the guards to explain the empty tomb by claiming the disciples stole the body suggests the same. It also suggests that the author (Matthew?) was trying to pre-emptively answer any doubts or rebuttals to the claim that the tomb was empty. This might imply that the author was also trying to persuade his readers/hearers of a resurrection that it, in his mind, really happened.

    So I’d add that it’s likely both 1& 2 are true. Later first century Christian writings (e.g. Clement of Rome) suggest the same, that the apostles and disciples who were dying off in the second half of the first century really believed the resurrection to be a matter of fact. That’s certainly Paul’s belief. He stakes the truthfulness of Christianity in 1 Corinthians 15 on it.

    Let me add one more thing in connection with 1. One has to be careful not to expect modern standards of “accurate historical biography.” It would be, from an historian’s vantage point, arrogant or, as CS Lewis put it, chronologically snobbish to expect first century people to meet 21st century standards. Now, I don’t mean they can be factually inaccurate, or that later scribes may or may not have added stories that either went missing after the autographs or were in fact pious inventions (e.g. the ending of Mark or the story of the woman caught in adultery). But if they were trying to present something accurate (like the prologue to the gospel of Luke claims) they would have follow the standards for an accurate biography in the first century.

    Regarding the two later additions to John and Mark, they are later additions. Such things are very common in ancient manuscripts. Why they were added, no one really knows. What modern textual criticism suggests (including the peer-reviewed publications of Bart Ehrman before he went pop and sensationalist) is that, while we don’t have the original autographs, a comparison of the thousands of manuscripts we have of the gospels demonstrates we have pretty good evidence to what the original texts said. It’s not certain. Nothing is, except maybe Euclidian geometry and tautologies. But estimates almost across the board among text critics (as opposed to higher critics) is that we are 95% (give or take a few) certain of what the original text said.


    1. “…while we don’t have the original autographs, a comparison of the thousands of manuscripts we have of the gospels demonstrates we have pretty good evidence to what the original texts said.”

      I agree. I believe that the evidence strongly indicates that the thousands of copies of the Gospels which we have today are very close to the originals. So my issue is not with the copies…but with the originals.

      If it is true that the early Christians were not concerned about strict historical accuracy, but evangelization, what problem would be caused by the author of the original Gospel of Mark (the first Gospel written) inventing the story of Arimathea’s Empty Tomb? It doesn’t change Christian doctrine one bit. And what problem would it have caused if either Matthew or Luke invented the first detailed post-resurrection appearances stories and then Luke (or Matthew) and John picked up on this theme…for evangelization purposes? Such invented appearance stories would not change any doctrines or the message of Christianity so what would be the problem. They weren’t writing history books, but evangelization “tracts”.

      I fully agree that very early on after Jesus’ death, early Christians believed that Jesus had risen bodily from his grave. The question is: Why did the earliest Christians believe this? Was it due to the Empty Rock Tomb of Arimathea and the detailed post-death appearances as described in the not yet written four Gospels? Or, was the original resurrection belief based on visions (vivid dreams), false sightings and misperceptions of natural phenomena such as bright lights…as occurred with Paul on the Damascus Road?

      I am suggesting that just as stories about angels stirring water in pools and Jesus forgiving adulteresses of their sins were LATER added to the Jesus story without causing anyone in the Church to blink an eye, maybe the ORIGINAL stories too contained theological embellishments (non-historical fiction) that did not trouble the early Christians. They knew these stories were not historically factual; it was the MESSAGE of salvation, and its propagation, that was the primary purpose of the Gospels; not recording accurate history. So if a detailed story about an empty rock hewn tomb and detailed post-resurrection appearance stories helped propagate the message, “no problem!”

      Adam, can anyone, including Bauckham, prove that the original authors intended to only include accurate, historical facts in their Gospels? I don’t think so. I and most skeptics do not believe that the Gospel authors wrote these embellishments to deceive anyone…they were writing to CONVERT everyone…and if a fictional story helped to clarify and propagate the message of Eternal Salvation by faith in Jesus Christ, what was the problem??


  5. Do scholars believe that there are any “embellishments” in the ORIGINALS? Yes. Many scholars, including conservative NT scholar, Mike Licona, believe that “Matthew’s” story of dead saints being shaken out of their graves to walk the streets of Jerusalem on the Day of the Resurrection is most likely a theological embellishment, not an actual historical event.

    So why couldn’t the Empty Rock Tomb story be a theological embellishment? Why couldn’t the detailed post-Resurrection appearance stories in Matthew, Luke, and John (but not the original Mark) be theological embellishments?


  6. Hi Gary,

    This is a very interesting discussion. If some “evangelicals” accept some form of myth in the gospels, then how much is there? If one’s presuppositions lean towards the general historical reliability of the NT, then one would minimise the amount of myth. If one’s presuppositions are that miracles are possible but very unlikely then (as you point out), unless there is strong empirical evidence that miracles occurred, one would think that there are large elements of myth in the NT.

    It is clear, as Adam pointed out with his reference to the Gospel according to John, that John was written with the purpose of evangelisation in mind. So there is agreement between you and Adam on that issue. I suppose that Adam’s confessional stance as an LCMS Lutheran (or at least one who agrees with that faith stance) largely determines, I suppose (though I may be wrong here as Adam is a phd historian and can argue very well ), the final outcome for him.

    Most NT scholars (including some “evangelical”, most moderate and almost all liberals) do not seem to have accepted Bauckham’s approach about “eyewitness” testimony or the way Bauckham approaches the relation between history and theology (or theological history). But I am a bit weak on Bauckham and look forward to the rest of your review and to the ongoing discussion between you and Adam.


    John Arthur


  7. I just discovered my public library has an ebook version of Bauckham’s book (updated 2017 version). I look forward to reading it a bit later on when I have time since it’s a big book, but in the mean time, I’m glad I can read this multi part review.


      1. I started reading part two and noticed no comments from Dr. Francisco, so I cheated a bit and quickly opened tabs for all 17 parts just to skim the comments to see if he comments at all – but nothing. I know I’m late to the party and this was several years ago, but do you remember what happend? Did he lose interest or get upset or maybe get discplined by his school for some faux pas in engaging skeptics?


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