A Review of Richard Bauckham’s “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses”; discussion with Historian Adam Francisco, Part 17

“Apart from what we can reconstruct of Papias’ treatment of John’s Gospel, the most valuable patristic witness to the identity of its author is Polycrates, who was the bishop of Ephesus late in the second century.”  p. 438

My review of chapter 17:

Conservative NT scholar Richard Bauckham believes that only one of the four Gospels in our Bibles today was written by an eyewitness, the Gospel of John.  However, contrary to the opinion of most conservative Christians, Bauckham does not believe that this Gospel was written by the Apostle John, son of Zebedee, one of the original Twelve disciples of Jesus.  Bauckham believes that the Gospel of John was written by a man named John the Elder, whom the second century Asia Minor Christian bishop, Papias, references in his writings as being a “disciple of Jesus”.  Bauckham believes that this designation, “disciple of Jesus” means that this “John the Elder” was a disciple and companion of Jesus during Jesus’ life and ministry and therefore a witness to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  Even more, Bauckham believes that this John the Elder was none other than the mysterious “Beloved Disciple” mentioned in the Gospel of John.  Therefore, according to Bauckham, the disciple who lay on the breast of Jesus at the Last Supper and the disciple who ran with Peter to view the Empty Tomb was not John the son of Zebedee, it was this mysterious, unknown to most modern Christians, John the Elder.

What I find interesting in this chapter is Bauckham’s use of Polycrates as one of the two principal sources for his belief that John the Elder was the author of the Gospel of John, yet, Bauckham is forced to admit that Polycrates believed some pretty outlandish things, the most outlandish being that Polycrates believed that this same John was at one time the high priest in Jerusalem; leader of the entire Jewish Faith!!!

My, my, my.  I’d loved to hear what Jewish scholars say about that claim!  The author of the fourth Christian Gospel a former Jewish high priest!  Oy veh!

Bauckham states that this belief by Polycrates, that the Elder John of Ephesus had once been, or at least temporarily officiated as, the Jewish high priest in Jerusalem, was probably not historically accurate or even metaphorically accurate but was based on Polycrates’ “exegesis” of a passage in the fourth chapter of the Book of Acts.  To me this is “theological-ese” to say that Polycrates misinterpreted a Bible passage and based on his misinterpretation innocently concocted false history.

Therefore, to me, Polycrates, as we saw with Papias in an earlier section of this book review, is NOT a reliable source of historical information.  Why Bauckham would trust the reliability of a source who believed that a first century Jewish high priest converted to Christianity and eventually wrote one of the four Christian Gospels, is beyond me!

And what about Irenaeus?

Bauckham admits that much of Irenaeus’ information most probably came from Papias  (By the time we finish this chapter we will see that all sources of information regarding the traditional authorship of the Gospels lead back to Papias!)  Bauckham also admits that even though Irenaeus claims to have sat at the feet of Polycarp when he was a young boy (when Polycarp was an old man), and that Polycarp was a disciple of “John”…it is unclear exactly who this John was!  So contrary to the assertions of many Christian apologists and pastors, according to Bauckham, there is no certain evidence that Polycarp was a disciple of the Apostle John, the son of Zebedee!  Another claimed apostolic link to the early Church Fathers bites the dust!

How about Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria?  Do these early Church Fathers give us a clear indication as to the authorship of the Gospel of John?  Not according to Bauckham!

“Unfortunately neither of them [Justin Martyr nor Clement of Alexandria] provides the clarity we would wish.”  —Bauckham, p. 466

Gary:  This highly esteemed conservative NT scholar has claimed that only ONE of the Gospels we possess today in our Bibles was written by an eyewitness, the Gospel of John.  However, he disagrees with the overwhelming majority of conservative Christianity regarding the identification of the eyewitness author of this Gospel.  So if conservative Christian scholars can’t even agree on the identity of the author of the one Gospel they all agree was written by an eyewitness, the evidence that ANY Gospel was written by an eyewitness is seriously called into question.

And that, dear readers, is very, very different from what my former LCMS pastor originally said in my local parish newsletter on this subject which started this entire discussion:

“Prima facie a strong case could be made for the fact that much of the New Testament, including the Gospels and the sources behind them, was written by eyewitnesses.” 

If you remember, I challenged my former pastor on this statement and was told that I had not read enough scholarship.  He then gave me a list of books by conservative Christian scholars to read.  The first on the list was a book he had co-authored, Making the Case for Christianity.  I read the book.  However, much to my disappointment, this book regurgitated the same fundamentalist scholarship I was taught as a fundamentalist Baptist in my youth:  The Gospels were written very early, prior to the destruction of the Temple, and, Papias was carefully and accurately recording eyewitness testimony about the authorship of the Gospels in 80 AD.  80 AD!  Most historians believe that Papias was born in circa 70 AD!  That would have made him TEN years old!

In addition, one of the authors of Making the Case for Christianity presents a hypothetical legal case which he believes proves that “the evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus is as solid as any fact in the ancient world” (p. 89).   Wow!  The evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is just as solid as the evidence for Alexander the Great’s destruction of the city of Tyre???  Why then is Alexander’s destruction of Tyre found in every university world history text book as a fact of history but the Resurrection of Jesus is not?  Think about that.

I pointed out to the authors of Making the Case for Christianity that these positions were  either outdated scholarship or fringe scholarship.  I was told by one of the authors, Dr. Adam Francisco, that I still needed to read more conservative scholarship.  I was told that the consensus of New Testament scholarship that the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses nor by the associates of eyewitnesses is biased.  He recommended that I read another conservative NT scholar’s book.  He recommended that I read Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.  So I read it.  Not only have I read it, I have reviewed it chapter by chapter here on this blog.

And if you boil all of Bauckham’s evidence down into one sentence it is this:  Papias’ testimony regarding the authorship of the Gospels of Mark and Matthew should be viewed as reliable, and, the authors of the Gospels left hidden literary clues within their Gospels which if carefully examined will tell us the eyewitness sources of their stories.

Dear Readers:  Is that all conservative Christianity has?  Is that all conservative Christianity has to prove the historical reliability of the Gospels?  Is their best evidence Papias and hidden literary clues?

Is that really the best that the Creator of the Universe could do to reveal the truths of his universe to us?  Is that the best the King of Heaven and Earth could do to demonstrate that Jesus of Nazareth really is the Savior of Mankind?  Seriously?  The Lord God Almighty expects us to accept as reliable the testimony of a second century man who also believed that Judas Iscariot’s genitalia swelled to enormous proportions?  The omniscient, all-powerful Lord God expects us to go digging through the Gospels for literary clues to find his eternal truths?  Dear friends, if there is a Creator God, isn’t it likely that he is much more intelligent than that?

And isn’t it much more probable, folks, that Papias’ third and fourth hand, second century information was wrong and that the hidden literary clues that Bauckham sees in the Gospels are present only in his vivid imagination which so desperately wants the Gospels to contain eyewitness testimony to support his conservative Christian faith?

Let’s accept the evidence.  The majority of NT scholars are right.   The Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses nor by the associates of eyewitnesses!  The majority of scholars do not hold this view because they are biased, they hold this view because that is what the evidence demonstrates.

Watch the above five minute You Tube video. In it, NT Wright, renowned New Testament scholar, admits that NO ONE knows who wrote the Gospels, where they were written, nor when they were written!

Therefore, if the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses, my friends, no modern, educated person should believe the very improbable, 2,000 year old, tall tale that a three-day-dead Jewish preacher walked out of his sealed tomb, ate a broiled fish lunch with his former fishing buddies, and a few days later flew off into outer space where he sits today on a golden throne, at the edge of the universe, as King of the Cosmos, Lord and Master of Heaven and Earth!

It is an ancient tall tale.  It is a superstition.  It didn’t happen.

—Gary Matson, Jr., author, Escaping Christian Fundamentalism Blog, Web address:  http://www.LutherWasNotBornAgain.com

A copy of this post sent to:

-the authors of Making the Case for Christianity 

 Rev. Matthew Harrison, President/Bishop of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod

-Rev.Larry Stoterau, President/Bishop of the Southwest District, LCMS

-Rev. Jonathon Fisk, author, Worldview Everlasting Website 

-Rev. Jordan Cooper, author, Just and Sinner Blog


3 thoughts on “A Review of Richard Bauckham’s “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses”; discussion with Historian Adam Francisco, Part 17

  1. Here is an excerpt from someone else’s (Neil Godfrey of Vridar blog) review of this chapter of Bauckham’s book:

    “John the high priest

    But the identity of this John in the letter of Polycrates must wait for Bauckham’s discussion of the reference to John being a priest and the priestly insignia he wore. Bauckham concludes that Polycrates had no historical reason to attribute a priestly status to his predecessor bishop John. The reason he described his relative John as a wearer of the high priest’s crown was because of “scriptural exegesis” (p.451). Polycrates had apparently seen in John 18:15 where a disciple entered the high priest’s quarters (Bauckham believes this unnamed disciple was the Beloved Disciple, John the Elder) and therefore concluded he was the same John as described as part of the high priest’s family in Acts 4:6. This was apparently reason enough for Polycrates to believe that John the Elder of Ephesus had been a high priest in Jerusalem.

    But Bauckham notes that by describing John as a high priest he would have been hinting to the bishop of Rome that such a one would not have been likely to have erred in recalling that the day on which Jesus was crucified was the Passover. If that was the impact on the bishop of Rome, and it was presumed that he also “knew” that the same John really was the Beloved Disciple who had written the Gospel, then one must be impressed with the subtlety of the exchange.

    Although Bauckham does not consider how Polycrates might have reacted to his highly esteemed predecessor and blood-relative, John the Elder and bishop of Ephesus, having been party to a hostile interrogation and threatening of Peter and John the Son of Zebedee, he does note something far more critical for his hypothesis.

    By believing that Polycrates must have identified his Beloved Disciple with the John in Acts 4:6, he has ruled out the possibility that Polycrates could have for a minute ever thought that this John was also the Son of Zebedee. The latter John was the one on trial before the John of Acts 4:6. And this is the goal of Bauckham’s study — to prove that it was John the Elder, not John the Son of Zebedee, was the author of the Gospel of John. (One might facetiously ask if Polycrates was revealing some deep seated jealousy of his more honoured relative, John, by tarnishing his reputation by identifying him with the John of Acts 4:6 who was an enemy of the early church.)

    Finally, some might think it odd that B would expect Polycrates to rely on biblical exegesis to decipher the background of one he (B) believes to have been a blood-relative, and therefore presumably privy to inside family information.”

    Source: http://vridar.org/2007/03/18/bauckhams-jesus-and-the-eyewitnesses-chapter-17/


  2. Here is another fascinating excerpt from Neil Godfrey of Vridar blog from his review this chapter of Bauckham’s book dealing with Justin Martyr and his knowledge of the Gospel of John:

    Justin [Martyr]

    B [Bauckham] rightly concludes regarding Justin’s knowledge of the author of the Gospel of John that “we cannot tell” what he thought or knew.

    B could have also said, but doesn’t, that Justin does not indicate any knowledge at all of a list of Twelve names. His knowledge of the Twelve is contrary to the standard canonical gospel and Acts narratives. Justin’s Twelve received their knowledge of church ordinances and the institution of the eucharist directly from the resurrected Jesus, and they all went out immediately to the whole world from Jerusalem after Christ ascended into heaven — immediately prior to Jerusalem being overrun by the Romans. (And that day was the last day Israel was ruled by a Jewish king.) For details check the links here. Justin knows only an anonymous Memoirs of the Apostles, although Peter is linked to them at one time. A reference to the Gospel of Peter? Some of Justin’s knowledge of the gospel narrative certainly does conform to what we read in that gospel. More likely, the gospel narrative was still in its final days of coming together. Justin does not know of a neatly defined canonical story that we all understand and accept — some of his knowledge directly contradicts what we take for granted in our gospels. Again check the links above for details.

    Source: http://vridar.org/2007/03/18/bauckhams-jesus-and-the-eyewitnesses-chapter-17/


  3. Neil Godfrey of Vridar Blog gives this excellent summation to his review of chapter 17 of Bauckham’s “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses”:

    Bauckham finally concludes that once his John the Elder was regularly labelled an “apostle” he was easily confused with the Son of Zededee. (There is much to chew on in this passage of B’s for those who hold to a Marcionite and second century origin for the Pauline corpus, too!)

    This discussion of the trend to employ the “apostle” word more frequently in association with the beginnings of authority of an emerging canon and interest in tracing an organizational or doctrinal authority back to “legitimating” sources (the apostles) points to something about the possible role of Papias not addressed by Bauckham. Note Justin’s ignorance of any legitimating apostolic names. His Twelve are anonymous — they merely serve to explain how Christianity came to be “everywhere” at the time he wrote.

    Papias, (see my previous post on a first attempt to place external controls on any study of Papias) may be said to have made his appearance between Justin (despite the self-reference of the text) and Irenaeus. He was a first step on the way of the proto-orthodox in beginning to construct a legitimate lineage for their authoritative books and teachings. The time of the “riotous diversity” characterizing the earliest Christian “community” was to come to an end.

    Source: http://vridar.org/2007/03/18/bauckhams-jesus-and-the-eyewitnesses-chapter-17/

    Gary: Exactly! Early (proto-orthodox) Church Fathers seem to have had a low opinion of Papias but…he served one VERY important purpose: he gave them at least two, tenuous, yet fairly early claims to apostolic authority for texts which supported THEIR theology.


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