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Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: A Review

Very likely the best book written in New Testament studies in 2006 is Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham (now in its second edition). In this magnum opus Bauckham argues persuasively that the Gospels reflect (named) eyewitness testimony. According to Bauckham, the ideal source in ancient Greco-Roman literature was not the dispassionate observer, but the eyewitness. The written Gospels, so Bauckham, contain oral history related to the personal transmission of eyewitness testimony, not merely oral tradition which is the result of the collective and anonymous transmission of material.

Overall Thesis

On page 93 of his book, Bauckham states his thesis as follows:

“It is the contention of this book that, in the period up to the writing of the Gospels, gospel traditions were connected with named and known eyewitnesses, people who had heard the teaching of Jesus from his lips and committed it to memory, people who had witnessed the events of his ministry, death, and resurrection and had formulated the stories about these events that they told. These eyewitnesses did not merely set going a process of oral transmission that soon went its own way without reference to them. They remained throughout their lifetimes the sources . . . .”

In this context, the twelve served as “an authoritative collegium.” Especially important in this regard is the phrase “from the beginning,” which is found at several strategic points in the Gospels and the New Testament record (e.g. Luke 1:2; 1 John 1:1; cf. John 1:1). Several other literary devices are used to stress the Gospels’ character of eyewitness testimony, such as “the inclusio of eyewitness testimony” (see esp. Mark 1:16–18 and 16:7 for Peter; John 1:40 and 21:24 for the Beloved Disciple). According to Bauckham, the transmission process of the Jesus tradition resulting in our written canonical Gospels is best understood as a formal controlled tradition in which the eyewitnesses played an important, and continuing, part.

The Gospel material was transmitted not merely in a given community’s quest for self-identity but for profoundly theological reasons, in the conviction that the events of Jesus’ history were of epochal historical significance when understood in the larger framework of the (salvific) activity of Israel’s God. Jesus was viewed not merely as the founder of a movement, but as the source of salvation. Christianity was not just a new movement; it celebrated the fulfillment of God’s promises in Jesus the Messiah who had now come and died and risen.

Unwarranted Denial of John’s Apostolic Authorship

With regard to John’s Gospel, Bauckham contends that the Beloved Disciple should be regarded as the author, but he identifies John the Elder, not John the apostle, the son of Zebedee, as the author, primarily, it seems, because of his reading of patristic evidence (Papias, Polycrates, Irenaeus) and because of his understanding of the reference to the “sons of Zebedee” in John 21:2. Regarding the latter point, Bauckham finds the Beloved Disciple’s anonymity throughout the Gospel an insurmountable obstacle to the apostolic authorship of John’s Gospel, since the “sons of Zebedee” are named; he believes the Beloved Disciple is one of the two unnamed disciples in that list.

This may be so, but there seems to be no good reason why John the apostle (if he was the author) could not have put himself inconspicuously at the scene without lifting his anonymity as the author. Put a different way, since the Beloved Disciple must be one of the seven disciples mentioned in 21:2, but since he cannot be Peter, Thomas, or Nathanael, there is at least a 25% possibility that he is John the son of Zebedee, and if his brother James is ruled out (as he should), the probability rises to 33%. The argument for John the apostle as the author becomes all the more compelling when one considers the following list of concerns with Bauckham’s argument:

(1) Mark 14:17–18 clearly places the twelve in the Upper Room with Jesus at the Last Supper; this militates against Bauckham’s thesis that the author was not one of the Twelve and seems to pit one apostolic eyewitness (Peter as the source for Mark) against another eyewitness (that of the Beloved Disciple)

(2) What is the historical plausibility of someone other than one of the twelve being at Jesus’ side at the Last Supper, even more so as we know that Judas (one of the twelve) was on the other side?

(3) Bauckham makes nothing of the strong historical link between Peter and John the apostle in all of the available New Testament evidence (all four Gospels, Acts, and Galatians); this is especially significant in light of the fact that Peter and the Beloved Disciple are indisputably and consistently linked in John’s Gospel

(4) The presence of the phrase “I suppose” (oimai) in John 21:25 as a device of authorial modesty (in keeping with the label “Beloved Disciple”) supports the integrity of the entire Gospel as from the same author, who is identified in the Gospel as eyewitness at strategic points (e.g., 13:23; 19:35).

(5) Methodologically, the question arises how legitimate it is to put a large amount of weight on one’s reading of the patristic evidence over against the internal evidence of the Gospels themselves.

(6) How likely is it, in light of Bauckham’s own theory, that the primary eyewitness behind John’s Gospel is a non-apostle—yet one whose testimony is superior even to that of Peter? In this regard, the question arises whether the early would ever have received such a Gospel, especially if written a generation after the Synoptic Gospels and in light of the crucial importance placed on apostolicity in the canonization process.

(7) Why did the author leave out the name John, other than for the Baptist? Surely it is surprising that someone as important as John the apostle would not be mentioned in the Gospel at all (apart from 21:2)? Would it not considerably more likely that he is in fact the Beloved Disciple and author of the Gospel?

(8) Which other John (other than the John of Acts 4:6, by Polycrates) was ever credited with the authorship of the Gospel of John in the early church?

Conclusion

The cumulative force of the list suggests that Bauckham’s argument, while generally sound when he affirms the importance of eyewitness testimony for the Gospels, is unduly biased when examining the evidence for the authorship of John’s Gospel. In fact, one gets the impression that the non-apostolic authorship is all but assumed at the outset of Bauckham’s argument. This is all the more surprising as it seems to follow from Bauckham’s overall thesis. After all, Bauckham’s point is not merely that eyewitness testimony is important for the Gospels, but that we are dealing here with apostolic eyewitness testimony, that is, eyewitness testimony that is credible because it comes from those who were closest to Jesus during his earthly ministry. In this regard, it is hard to see how the testimony of one largely unknown “John the Elder” (not mentioned in any of the Synoptics or other non-Johannine New Testament writings) would satisfy Bauckham’s own criterion. On the other hand, the apostolic authorship of John’s Gospel, coupled with Peter’s importance as a secondary witness, would fit perfectly with Bauckham’s overall theory.

For these and other reasons we welcome and concur with Bauckham’s overall thesis regarding on the Gospels’ eyewitness character yet do not find his case against the apostolic authorship of John’s Gospel convincing. Much more likely, in our opinion, is the view that John’s Gospel, like the other three canonical Gospels, are founded on apostolic eyewitness testimony, and that John, in fact, is the Gospel that is written by the apostle who was closest to Jesus during his earthly ministry, a claim that fits historically only with the apostle John, who according to the unified witness of Matthew, Mark, and Luke was one of three members of Jesus’ inner circle together with Peter and John’s brother James.


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