Today, my review of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans, 2006) was published on the Philippine Online Chronicles. However, it was edited for understandable reasons. There are some more arcane references that did not make it, so I’m posting the full pre-edited version below:
I find that a problem with a good number of books in academic theology, and in many specialized fields for that matter, is their tendency to resist all but the most perfunctory and uninterested (not disinterested) reading. In other words, they can be boring. It is something that even a writer like David Cunningham, who wrote on the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity in These Three Are One, had to admit at the outset. He said that his book may at times come off as too technical or too obtuse, but then again, he said, he had to read through those kinds of books too! It comes as no surprise, then, that I find myself reading books like Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, a voluminous work of astonishing scope, with an aim to avoid getting bored with it too quickly. Its volume is both a blessing and a curse, but more of a blessing for those who bear patiently with its argument.
Richard Bauckham is a professor of theology at the University of St. Andrew’s in Scotland, and for this book, he won the 2009 Michael Ramsey Prize for best theological work. His thesis can be found at the very end of the book: “[In summary,] if the interests of Christian faith and theology in the Jesus who really lived are to recognize the disclosure of God in the history of Jesus, then testimony is the theologically appropriate, indeed the theologically necessary way of access to the history of Jesus… It is in the Jesus of testimony that history and theology meet.” (p. 508)
To understand this idea, we must go back a bit to what Bauckham is addressing. There is a long-standing controversy in the field of biblical studies over whether the Gospels, the four books of the Bible that relate Jesus’ life and work, represent a record of eyewitness testimony. Ever since the 1800s, there has been a consensus that they do not, having come down to us in a form that was compiled by the early Christian communities mainly from their common oral heritage, not from some eyewitness testimony. (This is a result of what biblical scholars trained in the historical-critical method call “form” and “source” criticism.) I do recall learning about this in college theology classes, and it would have made a satisfactory interpretation…except that the text of one Gospel itself in particular doesn’t seem to say so, and attempts to explain it away are somewhat unconvincing:
“This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true.” (Jn. 21:24)
Richard Bauckham is aiming to address the meaning of this statement. In 508 dense pages, he starts from a letter written by a church leader from Ephesus named Papias, and takes the reader through everything from lists of common names in Palestine and studies on the anonymous characters (and why they are so) in the Gospel of Mark. He also discusses models of how oral tradition is developed, and draws on fields like anthropology and sociology in the process. His work is painstaking, sometimes even difficult upon first reading, but there are rewards to be gained, especially a fresh perspective on texts Catholics and other Christians hear in church week after week.
The passage I quoted from above is really at the culmination of this work, because of all the four Gospels, John’s account is the only one which makes a claim that this was based on recorded eyewitness testimony. Bauckham’s study works through how the early Church understood who wrote this Gospel, and examines the structure of the Gospel itself (a strategy he employs in this book extensively) to see how the author’s claim was made and strengthened. He reverts to the extra-biblical literature towards the end, making a detour through what I feel is one of the more important chapters of this book. Here, he concludes with the hypothesis that it is more likely a disciple of Jesus named John the Elder, who may have also written the three epistles that bear John’s name. (To this day, some Christians maintain the belief that it was John, the son of Zebedee and one of the Twelve Apostles, who wrote this Gospel, and Bauckham would disagree with that view.)
If there is a particular chapter I appreciated for being the one that could, in a sense, stand on its own while being useful in the context of this book, it is the one on eyewitness memory and how it works. I find that it offers new insights for those of us who are concerned not only with the preservation of our tangible history, like the buildings of Intramuros, but also with our intangible, oral ones. It discusses how eyewitness testimony is generally reliable and detailed, and goes through the workings of eyewitness memory and how it is remembered and recalled. (It also includes an appendix on the question of “eyewitness testimony” in court, useful as a summary for those interested in legal aspects.) Noteworthy here is that this is one of the first books I have encountered where Paul Ricoeur’s Memory, History, Forgetting is referenced since its English translation was published in 2004, and this text by a French thinker cannot be ignored when talking about memory in the humanistic fields.
What Jesus and the Evangelists offers over-all, though, is a well-argued, carefully nuanced way of looking at the Gospels. Its conclusions are sharp and surprising, and in many ways, it poses a challenge to those who continue to unthinkingly assert the orthodoxies of modern biblical scholarship. However, it also serves a more important purpose than revisiting a complex question on the origins of the Gospels. I am brought to mind of an incident I witnessed at a theological school I visited before (not here in the Philippines), where during a lecture in which a professor was holding forth on the doubtful authorship of certain passages in Paul’s letters, one older woman asked a remarkable question: “You know, I wonder if such views will be of any comfort to those back in the church where I come from.” I think Bauckham starts from the position of faith, and that is perhaps what makes this more valuable: it is at heart truly theological and constructive. It challenges but as a result strengthens.
As someone who believes that deepening one’s faith does involve a lot of intellectual growth, I found much value in exploring this book. It forced me to return to familiar texts and ask, for example, why the woman who anointed Jesus was anonymous in one Gospel and named (Mary) in another. It made me wonder how valuable the stories of my forebears, and indeed those of our ancestors, were in shaping our histories. Most of all, it allowed me to ask why indeed the Jesus story, as told by the eyewitnesses, became so powerful that it still wields a huge influence on us today. It may have been of the courage of the martyrs who lived and died for the faith. But it may have been because, in the end, these things were true.