A Review of Richard Bauckham’s “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses”; discussion with Historian Adam Francisco, Part 4

My review continues.  Chapter four is titled, “Palestinian Jewish Names”.

This is a technical chapter but interesting nonetheless.   Bauckham bases most of his assertions in the chapter on the research of Israeli scholar, Tal Ilan, who compiled a collection of all the recorded names used by the Jews of Palestine during the period of 330 BCE-200 CE.

“It’s sources include the works of Josephus, the New Testament, the texts from the Judean desert and from the Masada, ossuary inscriptions from Jerusalem, and the earliest (tannaitic) rabbinic sources.   …the practices of name-giving seem to have remained fairly constant over this period and also, importantly, that a large proportion of the data actually comes from the first century CE and early second century (to 135 CE), just because the sources for this shorter period are much more plentiful than for other parts of the whole period.  It may come as a surprise to many readers that we know the names of as many as three thousand Palestinian Jews who lived during the five centuries covered by Ilan’s Lexicon.”  p. 67-68

Gary:  The six most common names for first century Palestinian Jewish men were:  Simon, Joseph, Eleazar, Judah, Yohanan, and Joshua.  The most popular names of Jews living outside of Palestine were different.  Based on Bauckham’s analysis of Ilan’s Lexicon, Bauckham draws this conclusion: 

“…the names of Palestinian Jews in the Gospels and Acts coincide very closely with the names of the general population of Jewish Palestine in this period, but not to the names of Jews in the Diaspora.” p. 73

Gary:  In other words, the characters named in the Gospels reflect the names of the Palestinian Jewish population at that time.  If an author today writes a book allegedly based on real, live, twenty-something year old American men living in the United States in 2016, we should expect to see names such as Robert, James, Richard, Michael, Jason, etc..  We would be a little suspicious if the names of the characters were Beauregard, Milton, Thaddeus, Clancy, etc..

Bauckham’s conclusion:

“Onomastics (the study of names) is a significant resource for assessing the origins of Gospel traditions.  The evidence in this chapter shows that the relative frequency of the various personal names in the Gospels corresponds well to the relative frequency in the full database of thee thousand individual instances of names in the Palestinian Jewish sources of the period.  This correspondence is very unlikely to have resulted from addition of names to the traditions, even within Palestinian Jewish Christianity, and could not possibly have resulted from the additions of names to the traditions outside Jewish Palestine, since the pattern of Jewish name usage in the Diaspora was very different.  The usages of the Gospels also correspond closely to the variety of ways in which persons bearing the same very popular names could be distinguished in Palestinian Jewish usage.  Again these features of the New Testament data would be difficult to explain as the result of random invention of names within Palestinian Jewish Christianity and impossible to explain as the result of such invention outside of Jewish Palestine.  All the evidence indicates the general authenticity of the personal names in the Gospels.”  p. 84

Gary:   So the evidence, if correct, seems to support that the authors of the Gospels either…

  1. …recorded true stories of real people living in this time period in first century Palestine.
  2. …recorded false stories using names consistent with the names of people living in first century Palestine.
  3. …recorded partially true stories of real people living in this time period in first century Palestine.

I believe that the evidence presented in this chapter is very persuasive, and in my opinion, undermines any attempt by fringe skeptics who would like to assert that the Gospels are entirely invented stories.

Most scholars believe that the Gospels were not written in Palestine.  So if these books are purely fictional, the authors of these stories did a remarkably good job of choosing fake characters with names that fit perfectly with the pattern of Jewish name-giving in far-away first century Palestine.  That would take remarkable skill or incredible luck.

So I don’t believe that these stories (the Gospels) are entirely fake.

But think about this:  What if all the characters in the Gospel of Mark were real persons, and the only “fake” parts of the stories were the elaborateness of the miracles?  Maybe Jesus really did feed a group of people with a small amount of food…but it was a group of thirty people not several thousand.  See what I mean?  So the core of the individual stories are true, they simply became exaggerated over the decades as they passed from one person to another, one city to another, one country to another, during the time period between the death of Jesus in circa 30 AD and the writing of the first gospel, the Gospel of Mark, in circa 70 AD, in far-away Rome.  For instance, the female characters who allegedly arrived at the Empty Tomb on Easter morning had already been mentioned in earlier stories in the Gospel of Mark; stories obtained by word of mouth, originating in Palestine (ie., the core of these stories and the names of the characters were true)…but…the author of Mark then uses these known characters to create a fictional Empty Tomb scene…for theological purposes…and the authors of Matthew, Luke, and John, take this (theological) embellishment…and run with it, adding their own details.

Or maybe there was an empty tomb.  Maybe the women Mark names in his Gospel really did arrive at the tomb of Jesus.  Maybe there really was a young man sitting in the empty tomb that Sunday morning.  Maybe this young man did tell the women that Jesus had been resurrected and that they should tell the disciples to go back to Galilee to meet him there.  Maybe…the story that Jesus had been resurrected started with this young man…whose co-conspirators had just left the scene with the body of Jesus…

Aren’t these possible explanations much, much more probable than the supernatural version (versions, actually) of events that “Matthew”, “Luke”, and “John” would later write in their anonymous Gospels??

Bauckham ends his conclusion for this chapter with this statement:  ““This underlines the plausibility of the suggestion made in chapter 3 as to the significance of many of these names:  that they indicate the eyewitness sources of the individual stories in which they occur.”  p. 84″

Gary:  Speculation, speculation, speculation.  The idea that just because the names of the characters in the stories fit with the name distribution and popularity of the names of Jewish men in first century Palestine in NO WAY proves that these stories originate from the named characters in the stories.  Bauckham is simply grasping at any and all possible evidence to support his foregone conclusion that the Gospels are (entirely) historically accurate.





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