Jesus and the Eyewitnesses

by Richard Bauckham (2006), review by Vern Ratzlaff

Bauckham presents a telling argument for a paradigm that examines the gospels, a paradigm that does not depend on form criticism analyses but that looks at the gospels as eyewitness accounts conveyed by oral tradition.  ‘Mark’s gospel was written well within the lifetimes of many of the eyewitnesses…’ (p 7).

The period between the ‘historical Jesus’ and the gospels spanned not by anonymous community transmission but by the continuing presence testimony of the eyewitnesses….  In imagining how the traditions reached the Gospel writes, not oral tradition but eyewitness testimony should be our principal model (p 8).

Eyewitness reliability (testimony) provides a more reliable basis for the gospel’s meaning than the skepticism about oral traditions (a la Bart Ehrmann) provides.  ‘The ideal eyewitness (for Greek and Roman historians) was not the dispassionate observer but one who, as a participant, had been closest to the events and whose direct experience enabled him to understand and interpret the significance of what he had seen’ (p 9).  (ie the criterion used in part for canonical decisions made regarding the common scriptures.)

Bauckham details Kenneth Bailey’s category of ‘a formal controlled tradition’ (p 253), where the community exercises control to ensure that the traditions are preserved faithfully (p 255), and looks at the eyewitness accounts by victims of the Holocaust (pp491-499).

The burden of this book is that the category of testimony, eyewitness account, does most justice to the Gospels both as history and as theology, even testimony’s claim to the radical exceptionality of the event.

A fascinating study of the implications of eye witness accounts and oral tradition for understanding the gospels.