Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony

by Ben Witherington, III

Jesus and the EyewitnessesThere are books that are interesting, there are books that are important and then there are seminal studies that serve as road markers for the field, pointing the way forward. Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses is in the latter category, to be sure. It thus deserves a thorough review, but a little background is in order.

Richard Bauckham and I have been friends for many years and have encouraged each other’s work. I was in St. Andrews University, in Scotland, last July to spend a week with Richard just before a wonderful conference on the Book of Hebrews, and the proofs of this book were sitting on his coffee table. He offered to let me read it, and I did. I realized at once the book’s importance, and Richard himself told me, in his reserved and understated British way, “I think this may be my most important book thus far.” I agree; it is indeed a seminal study, and we may be grateful for it coming now in the midst of so much nonsense being published about early Christianity and its documents.

Jesus and the Eyewitnesses is to a great extent based on a close reading of the Papias traditions found in Eusebius and elsewhere. Papias was Bishop of Hierapolis, in Turkey, and was one of those bridging figures in Christian history who lived during the end of the first century and the beginning of the second century A.D. and thus had occasional contact with eyewitnesses to events in the New Testament and with those who had heard the eyewitnesses. Though Papias was a literate man, like so many in his oral culture he preferred the viva voce, the living voice, of oral testimony.

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Bauckham believes very much in the importance of eyewitness testimony, including that of Papias, which suggests that there was a close connection between various of the canonical Gospels and eyewitnesses to the ministry of Jesus, with Mark connected to Peter, and John connected to at least John the Elder (otherwise known as John of Patmos, the author of Revelation but not of the other Johannine documents), whom Papias himself met and discoursed with.

Part of Bauckham’s intention is to show that the old form-critical ways of looking at Gospel traditions were wrong. According to classic form criticism (the basis of the work of the Jesus Seminar), early Christian traditions circulated anonymously in communities that were viewed as if they were faceless collectives (for example, the “Q community”). Bauckham thinks this theory is deeply flawed and suggests instead that there were personal links from the Jesus tradition to known and named tradents (carriers of tradition) throughout the period of transmission right down to when these traditions were included in the Gospels. Bauckham is quite right to insist that analogies with modern folklore to explain how ancient Gospel traditions were handled are simply wrong and anachronistic. The period between the time of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels is relatively short (between 30 and 60-some years, depending on the Gospel), and during that entire time there were still eyewitnesses who could act as checks and balances to the formation of the early Christian tradition…

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