Book reviews

Bauckham, R., Jesus and the Eyewitnesses – The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony

With over 500 pages, this book is an example of thoroughgoing biblical scholarship. Bauckham expands extensively on his hypothesis that the gospels are based much more on eyewitness accounts than is generally accepted, and I think this conclusion is correct. This is an important achievement, as the gospels were supposedly written between 40 and 60 years after the events occurred. Below, however, I will try to show that the eyewitness case is much more straightforward than Bauckham expounds in this book.

Let me be clear from the outset: I have many objections against this book. I'll set aside the most fundamental ones for the second part of my review. Let’s start with two ‘minor’ objections that question Bauckham’s intellectual honesty.

The first is that Bauckham discredits two early Christian writers, Quadratus and Philip of Side (and Papias of Hierapolis along with the latter). The information these authors provide is embarrassing for anyone accepting the traditional chronology of the origins of Christianity, so Bauckham tries to dispose of them. Quadratus reports that some of those who were healed or raised from the dead by Jesus (who, according to the gospels, was crucified around 30 CE) were still alive in 125 CE, the year to which Quadratus’s work can be dated with certainty. Philip of Side, a fourth century Christian writer, mentions Papias of Hierapolis, a contemporary of Quadratus, and according to the former Papias gives exactly the same information: ‘about those who were raised from the dead by Christ, he says they survived until Hadrian’. Hadrian was the Roman emperor from 117 to 138 CE. Bauckham postulates that Philip of Side has mistaken Papias for Quadratus. Doing so he deceivingly tries to dispose of both witnesses simultaneously, because the weight of one source is almost nil compared to two sources. However, in the Papias fragment he provides, Philip of Side shows that he is well-informed about Papias, so I believe these two fragments independently inform us about a chronological problem of the origins of Christianity as presented in the gospels.

My second ‘intellectual honesty’ objection is the way Bauckham discusses three of the apostles’ names: Iscariot, Zealot and Bariona. The only explanation he offers for Judas Iscariot is that the name refers to Judas being ‘from (the village of) Kerioth’, while he does not even mention the ‘Iscariot = sicarios’ hypothesis. The latter suggests that Judas was possibly a ‘dagger fighter’, a member of the guerrilla fighter faction which was active in the 50s and 60s of the first century CE, the decades preceding the war against the Romans. A similar statement may be made for Simon the Zealot, about whom Bauckham develops a strange argument: because the name Zealot does not appear in the relevant sources before the outbreak of the Jewish war in 66 CE, Simon is not a real (military and insurrectionist) zealot, but a zealot in the broader sense, to be interpreted as ‘zealous for the law’. For Bariona (Simon Bariona), Bauckham uses the same method of omission as for Iscariot. He does not raise the possibility that Bariona might not be ‘bar Jonah’ (‘son of Jonah’), but rather could refer to Simon as a member of the biryonim (singular biryona), the ‘outlaws’ or ‘brigands’ who were also associated with the rebellion against the Romans. Bauckham misleads his readers by writing these apostles out of the war period.

Let’s now turn to the fundamental objections. A first major objection is to be found in Bauckham’s discussion of the gospel of John. Bauckham discusses this gospel at great length, and brilliantly demonstrates that the fourth gospel is not just ‘the last and the least trustworthy’, but that it is much more important and trustworthy than is generally accepted because it has been written by one of Jesus’ disciples, and not by just any one of them, but by Jesus’ beloved disciple. Bauckham however does not tell the other part of the story. How did this authorship happen chronologically, accepting that Jesus was crucified around 30 CE and the gospel of John was written around 90 CE? Let’s suppose that John was a young adult, in his early twenties, when Jesus was crucified. Then he would have written his gospel when he was between 80 and 85 years old. Although this is not impossible biologically, it is highly improbable for several reasons.
A first reason is that the circumstances of life were much more uncertain during that era than they are nowadays. Bauckham himself gives a good quote from the Church Father Irenaeus (second half of the second century): ‘For everyone will admit that the age of thirty is that of someone still young and this period of youth extends to the fortieth year. It is only from the fortieth and fiftieth year that a person begins to decline towards old age.’ How then are we to imagine John waiting until his very old age to write down the exceptional events he experienced 60 years before?
A second reason is comparison. As far as I know no other author in world history has ever waited so long to commit his story to paper, and as far as I can see there is no reason to consider John is an exception. This long delay just does not make sense, all the more so because what Jesus and his companions had experienced was so spectacular that the need to report it soon after the events must have been greater for John than for any other author experiencing less important things.
One could also imagine that writing practice in Antiquity was very different from our days. But as far as I know there are no examples of first reports following four decades after the events. In the same years as the first gospel (Mark, written shortly after 70 CE) Josephus wrote his account of the war of the Jews against the Romans (66-70 CE). Also Paul wrote his letters to the communities he founded shortly after he founded or visited them, without any significant delay.

The argument from the gospel of John also extends to the canonical gospels in general. Bauckham emphasizes several times that the gospels are biographies (‘bioi’), and he also asserts that ‘in their close relationship to eyewitness testimony the gospels conform to the best practice of ancient historiography’ (p. 310). This ‘best practice’ implies that the accounts, stemming from the authors themselves or from eyewitnesses they interrogated, were recorded soon after the events.

If the traditional chronology is to be taken for granted, this huge time gap between the events and their report has to be filled. An enormous amount of literature has been produced to justify this chronological anomaly. Bauckham also sets himself the task to do so. ‘Oral history’, ‘tradition’ and ‘recollecting memory’ are the main concepts of this section of his book. Although the ‘recollecting memory’ theory is interesting in itself, this section of the book is not at all convincing. The whole ‘tradition’ concept is an empty vessel which does not provide any sound argument of how information was stored and passed along during these ‘tradition’ decades. Bauckham extensively fights the form criticism school of biblical scholarship and he is right to do so, but I believe his theory suffers from the same defect. These three concepts are rationalizations of something which makes no sense.

In the same spirit Bauckham postulates that the gospels were written when and because the eyewitnesses were old and near death. How should we imagine this concretely? As stated before, life was much more fragile then than it is nowadays. How did the gospel writers cope with the uncertain life conditions of the eyewitnesses and of themselves? For example, did Mark think in 60 CE: Peter, an important eyewitness, is 55 years old now, I shall wait some more years to write down his story which I have known now for (many/some) years? Did he continue to think this year after year without picking up his pen and a scroll of papyrus?

I have researched the origins of Christianity extensively, and I think the case is much simpler than the far-fetched ‘oral history’ and ‘tradition’ theory set forth in this book (and in countless books before). The main result of my investigation is that the gospels contain the most spectacular case of chronological fraud ever committed in historiography. The gospels were not written after 70 CE after a waiting period of 40 years, but they were written then because the crucial events of these works took place in 70 CE and the years before. So the gospels were written by eyewitnesses – of course they were – in the years following the events. Why would their writers have waited 40 to 60 years to tell the world about the great and extraordinary things which had befallen them, the events that in their eyes constituted God’s acts for the salvation of the world? After the terrible defeat against the Romans, however, it was far too dangerous to tell the real story. It was safer to antedate the events by some decades, and to introduce a ‘good Roman’ (Pilate) and the ‘bad Jews’ to give this story a chance in the hostile Roman empire. Bauckham is an expert in the Jewish/Christian pseudepigraphical literature, he can affirm that antedating was a common literary technique in that era to conceal subversive liberation stories from the enemy.

At the end of his book Bauckham says that the trustworthiness of testimony as a form of historiography should be tested, its internal consistency and coherence as well as its consistency and coherence with other historical evidence we have and that it should be confronted with whatever we know about the historical context. In this way the gospels could tell things in spite of themselves. I have tested the historiographical value of the gospel stories in a combined reading of the New Testament, the works of Josephus, the Apostolic Fathers, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament and the Nag Hammadi library. Numerous connections, generally subtle and veiled, between these writings have surfaced and the discovery of the real chronology of the origins of Christianity is the chief result of my investigation.

In Life, the Jewish historian Josephus reports a case of three prisoners of war executed by crucifixion at the very end of the siege of Jerusalem in the summer of 70 CE. ‘Two of them died in the physicians’ hands; the third survived.’ Quite some imaginative powers are needed to see that this is the report of the core event of the gospels. Meticulous research has uncovered numerous vestiges of the war of the Jews against the Romans in the gospels.