Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: Interview with Richard Bauckham

Richard J. Bauckham is an English Anglican scholar in theology, historical theology and New Testament studies, specializing in New Testament Christology and the Gospel of John. He is a senior scholar at Ridley Hall, Cambridge.

In 2006, Bauckham published Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, described by many scholars as a paradigm shift in Gospels study. In this book, Bauckham argues that the Synoptic Gospels are based “quite closely” on the testimony of eyewitnesses, while the Gospel of John is written by an eyewitness, against the current scholarly consensus that the Synoptic Gospels are closer to the eyewitnesses and John further removed. The book won Christianity Today’s Book of the Year: Biblical Studies in 2007, the Burkitt Medal in 2008, and the Michael Ramsey Prize in 2009. Bauckham updated and expanded the book to respond to critics in a second edition, published in 2017.

Also, his classic work, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, is considered one of the best introductions to Revelation available.

1. You earned a Phd. in history from the University of Cambridge prior to your publications in New Testament studies and your teaching appointments at the University of Manchester and the University of St. Andrews. How did that season of your academic life inform your research into the Jesus of Testimony?

It was an excellent training in historical method. I like to think that, as a result, I have a better sense of how to assess historical evidence and how to develop historical arguments than some biblical scholars. There is a danger that biblical scholars learn their historical method only from the way other biblical scholars work, with the result that a kind of historical method evolves within biblical studies that doesn’t compare well with the way other historians work in other areas of history. I also have an insatiable historical curiosity, which leads me to pursue questions that may not seem to be of much importance or relevance – but which can then turn up material that actually does prove relevant to key issues in NT study.

2. Why do you think Jesus and the Eyewitnesses found an audience among non-academics, like pastors and even lay Christians, since most works of biblical scholarship tend to stay within the confines of the academy?

It was a surprise to me. One factor was clearly that the subject matter was of genuine interest to many people. At least in the UK I think the fact that it won the Michael Ramsey prize (given for a theological book that can be recommended to a wider than academic audience) helped it on its way. Given that I needed to pursue complex and sometimes technical arguments, I did try to write as clearly and accessibly as possible. Though I needed to discuss Greek, I never quoted Greek without giving a translation. Many scholarly monographs simply do not try to be accessible to non-scholars and, of course, we need scholarly books that pursue the scholarly discussion within the academy. But it is possible to write in a way that, without sacrificing rigour or detail, is more accessible than is often the case. Having said that, to appeal to a broader audience the subject matter obviously needs to be of real interest to such readers.

3. In the newly-released second edition of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses you respond to criticisms the first edition received. You expected the book to be controversial (p. xviii), but did the nature of the criticisms surprise you? Some critics misunderstood your arguments; yet in other cases, they may not have even read them (e.g. p. 546-547). Did you receive any feedback (reviews or otherwise) that lead you to reconsider any of your arguments, other than mere clarification or elaboration? If not, does this confirm that you are correctly interpreting the historical data (e.g. Tal Ilan’s Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity: 330 BCE – 650 CE) in relation to the Gospels?

I was a bit surprised when some reviewers grossly misunderstood arguments that, when I looked back at them, seemed to me to be presented as clearly as anyone could wish. I think what the good criticisms mainly did was to lead me to seek better evidence for some arguments that were relatively weakly supported in the evidence I offered. In these cases I think I have much improved the arguments (now in the 2nd edition). One thing I realised for myself after the book was published was that I should have said more about how the issue of Gospel genre is important for my approach. I think now I would describe what I called the “Petrine inclusio” (in Mark and Luke) in a slightly different way, though without substantially affecting the argument. Another clarification that I should probably have made (I simply took this for granted as obvious) is that of course my arguments do not guarantee the historical accuracy of everything in the Gospels. No historical argument could possibly do that. The best historical sources are not immune from error. Eyewitnesses get things wrong – of course. But usually they are at least the best qualified to provide broadly reliable accounts.

4. In the second edition, in the substantially new chapter titled, “Who Was the Beloved Disciple? (Continued),” you challenge the notion that John the son of Zebedee wrote the Gospel of John. Some who praised your book in aggregate, found fault with this particular argument. Given that your view of the authorship of the Gospel retains both apostolicity and eye-witness testimony (p. 552-553), what is the real issue in your view? Why does this topic touch a nerve?

four evangelists

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John

Well, I suppose it disturbs a traditional way of reading the Gospel which is so familiar to many people that they think the authority of the Gospel depends on it. Since I argued that the Gospel of John was actually written by an eyewitness, a disciple of Jesus (which is rarely maintained by other Johannine scholars), I was surprised by the vehemence with which some “conservative” critics responded. Which eyewitness, which disciple of Jesus is surely comparatively unimportant? I suspect that these scholars are used to an apologetic kind of argument about the authorship of the Gospel and the identity of the Beloved Disciple that avoids facing up to the real difficulties of supposing the BD is John the son of Zebedee and wrote the Gospel. For example, they claim that in Mark only the Twelve are with Jesus at the last supper but ignore the fact that in Mark only the women disciples are present at the cross. I find it much easier to attribute the Gospel to an eyewitness if the eyewitness was not one of the Markan trio (Peter and the sons of Zebedee). I also find it enriching to see that this Gospel offers us a perspective on Jesus from outside the circle of the Twelve.

5. Also in the second edition, in the substantially new chapter titled, “The End of Form Criticism (Confirmed),” you write that “many New Testament scholars seem to suppose that the more sceptical of the sources they are, the more rigorously historical is their method” (p. 613). From the perspective of a historian such as yourself, why is that an unwise approach? How would you briefly summarize a better approach?

Historians are concerned to assess the general reliability of their sources. They are not usually in the business of reducing the reliable sources to a minimum whose reliability they can consider 99% certain. In history we must usually be content with a good probability of reliability. If a source was produced by people who were in a position to know what they are talking about, then it is treated as innocent unless proved guilty. We do not need additional evidence in support of everything it says. To discredit it we need good evidence against it. The problem with being too sceptical is that we discard lots of good evidence. If we are too credulous we credit bad evidence, but if we are too sceptical we discredit good evidence. History is in some ways much like ordinary life. in believing or doubting what we are told, we need to keep our critical faculties alert, but if we treat everything as suspect unless we can prove it we would hardly be able to manage our lives at all.

6. How has your research regarding the Jesus of Testimony increased your own affections for Christ?

I haven’t really thought about this, but I think the effect of my proposal is that the better we know the Gospels the closer they really do bring us to Jesus. We shouldn’t think of the Gospels as texts that get in between us and the real Jesus, but as texts that bring us to Jesus. That doesn’t mean harmonizing their different perspectives artificially, but realizing that the reality of Jesus is such that we need the varying perspectives of the Gospels to get us anywhere near to who he truly was and is.

7. What’s next for you? Are your current research and writing projects about the Jesus of Testimony? How can readers follow your ministry?

The major project I have just completed is a book about Magdala, the home town of Mary Magdalene, which lies a few miles south of Capernaum and has now been quite extensively excavated. These are, I think, the most important recent and current excavations for relevance to Jesus and the Gospels. I have edited the book (other contributors include archaeologists) but have written a lot of it (about 95,000 words) myself. It will be published by Baylor University Press in autumn 2018.

There is a big volume (700 pages) of my collected essays (written over many years and previously published in lots of different journals and books) to be published very soon (hopefully it will be available at SBL). Title: The Christian World around the New Testament. (It is meant to be a companion to my earlier collection The Jewish World around the New Testament.) It is a quite miscellaneous collection, but includes quite a lot about the Gospels.

I hope that fairly soon I will get together a second volume (following Jesus and the God of Israel) of essays on NT Christology.

I shall say no more just now about current and future projects, because too often my expectations are not fulfilled – and then people are disappointed. (Yes, there are going to be two commentaries on John, if I live to write them – but I really have no idea when!)

I have a website (richardbauckham.co.uk) and I always keep the lists of publications there up to date. Lately I have been bad at keeping it up to date in other respects (such as forthcoming speaking engagements) but mean to do better!

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