JESUS AND THE EYEWITNESSES: Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, by Richard Bauckham

JESUS AND THE EYEWITNESSES: Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, by Richard Bauckham

Peter Westmore

The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony
by Richard Bauckham
(Eerdmans, 2006, 538pp, $50.00. Available from Freedom Publishing.)

Richard Bauckham's award-winning book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, throws into question over a century of biblical scholarship in a work which radically challenges the fashionable view that Jesus was merely an itinerant Jewish rabbi executed by the Roman Governor of Judaea, and that Christianity is a religion devised by his zealous followers.

This line of thinking, described as the quest for the historical Jesus, was designed to separate the facts of Jesus' life from the miraculous, the supernatural and prophetic, which were seen as the product of later Christian writers and apologists.

The separation of the "Jesus of history" from the "Christ of faith" has dominated biblical scholarship for the past 200 years.

It has resulted in a denial of Jesus' divinity, and by asserting that Christianity is a human construct has radically undermined the Christian faith and given birth to a liberal Christianity which is particularly influential in many universities and centres of religious formation.

Third way

Richard Bauckham, professor of New Testament Studies at St Andrews University, Scotland, cuts through this by putting forward a third way of looking at the Gospels, as eyewitness testimonies to Jesus' life and death.

He does this by looking carefully at the works of early Christian writers, particularly Papias, who wrote about 120AD, and Eusebius, Bishop of Caesaria, often called the Father of Church History.

Bauckham shows that other historical works of the period relied heavily on eyewitness accounts and demonstrates convincingly how persons named in the Gospels (as opposed to others who are unnamed) were the eyewitnesses to particular events, and were living at the time of writing.

By careful analysis of the four Gospels, he shows that the Gospel writers did not randomly add names to colour their accounts, but every specific reference to a person is because of that person's presence as an eyewitness who can validate events, miracles and statements which appear in the Gospel. This is truly a ground-breaking insight.

Bauckham also explains that some of the problems of our understanding of the Gospel accounts stem from the writer's desire to protect sources of information from persecution, a "protective anonymity", particularly in Mark's narrative of the Passion, which points to a very early dating of this Gospel (40-50AD) when the early church was being violently persecuted in Jerusalem.

Some sections of the book are contentious, such as the author's identification of the author of the fourth Gospel as John the Elder (a disciple), and not John the Apostle, the son of Zebedee.

And other parts could have been better developed, including the relationship of Luke's Gospel with that of Matthew and Mark. It is clear, for example, from the prologue of Luke's Gospel, that he was not an eyewitness, and relied both on other accounts (including Matthew's and Mark's) and on other witnesses, including the Virgin Mary.

In light of the fact that Luke's Acts of the Apostles contains references to Paul's presence in Rome but no reference to his martyrdom there about 67AD, it is likely to have been written before that event took place. This means that Luke's Gospel, which preceded Acts, was written in the early 60s, and strongly supports Bauckham's assessment of the critical role of eyewitnesses in the New Testament accounts.

This important book rescues biblical scholarship from those who, in their quest for the "historical Jesus", have reduced Jesus to the status of a moral sage, and broadly reinforces the Church's traditional understanding of the origins of the New Testament.

Peter Westmore is the publisher of AD2000.

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