Tuesday, March 25, 2014

"Jesus and the Eyewitnesses": Blogging Through Bauckham - Chapter 1

There are some books too important to simply write a short (or even lengthy) book review and then move on only to return to survey the highlights and comments one made in the margins. Recently while researching a number of topics regarding the Gospels, one book repeatedly came up: Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony by Dr. Richard Bauckham. After reading the first three chapters, it became clear to me why I came across it so many times and why a simple book review would not do. So just as I did with Dr. Millard Erickson's systematic theology textbook Christian Theology, I want to blog through Bauckham's volume. In this series I want to, for the most part, limit it chapter-by-chapter.

The first chapter, as one might expect, establishes Bauckham's thesis. He begins by surveying the lay of the land of the past two hundred years particularly when it comes to the so-called Quest for the Historic Jesus. I have lost count as to how many quests have been made since the first. Almost immediately, Bauckham reveals the problem with such quests: the quests, born in modern liberalism, tries to severe the Jesus of history from the Jesus of faith.

Immediately we confront our first problem. To the Gospels (and the rest New Testament), such a effort is superfluous. To them, the Jesus of history - and the Gospels claim to be historic documents - is the Jesus of faith. If Jesus was historically and physically raised from the dead, Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 15, then He is the Jesus of faith.

Though this point ought to be obvious, Bauckham shows that the said quests view the Gospels, essentially, as too theological and not historic enough. Though they ought to be taken seriously, they ought not be taken too seriously for the historian. He then argues:
Yet everything changes when historians suspect that these texts may be hiding the real Jesus from us, as best because they give us the historical Jesus filtered through the spectacles of early Christian faith, at worst because much of what they tell us is a Jesus constructed by the needs and interests of various groups in the early church. Then that phrase "the historical Jesus' comes to mean, not the Jesus of the Gospels, but the allegedly real Jesus behind the Gospels, the Jesus the historian must reconstruct by subjecting the Gospels to ruthlessly objective (so it is claimed) scrutiny. It is essential to realize that this is not just treating the Gospels as historical evidence. It is the application of a methodological skepticism that must test every aspect of the evidence so that what the historian establishes is not believable because the Gospels tell us it is, but because the historian has independently verified it. (2-3)
He then makes this insightful observation.
The result of such work is inevitably not one historical Jesus, but many. Among current historical Jesuses on offer there is the Jesus of Dominic Crossan, the Jesus of Marcus Borg, the Jesus of N. T. (Tom) Wright, the Jesus of Dale Allison, the Jesus of Gerd Theissen, and many others. The historian's judgment of the historical value of the Gospels may be minimal as in some of these cases, or maximal, as in others, but in all cases the result is a Jesus reconstructed by the historian, a Jesus attained by the attempt to go back behind the Gospels and, in effect, to provide an alternative to the Gospels' constructions of Jesus. (3)
We could add two more recent names to this list no more credible (in fact less credible) than the names he offers: Dan Brown (of The Da vinci Code fame) and even more recently Reza Aslan whose interview with Fox News went viral gaining him unnecessary and undeserved attention come immediately to mind.

This leads to an important point when it comes to the work of history: interpretation. Bauckham writes, All history - meaning all that historians write, all historiography - is an inextricable combination of fact and interpretation, the empirically observable and the intuited or constructed meaning (3). This is not to deny that history cannot be done or that all history is inaccurate. Instead, we must acknowledge the difference between facts (Jesus was crucified) from interpretation (He was/was not the Christ).*

So what must the historian do? This gets to Bauckham's main thesis. He suggests that we need to recover the sense in which the Gospels are testimony (5) Why? Because an irreducible feature of testimony as a form of human utterance is that it asks to be trusted (5). Furthermore, the Gospel texts are much closer to the form in which the eyewitnesses told their stories or passed on their traditions than is commonly envisaged in current scholarship (6). Thus Bauckham wants us to take the Gospels seriously and he shows in this book why we should. After all, The Gospels were written within living memory of the events they recount (7) by eyewitnesses in some cases (as in John). In fact, Bauckham argues, the Gospel traditions did not, for the most part, circulate anonymously but in the name of the eyewitnesses to whom they were due (8).

If such a thesis can be proven true, and I believe Bauckham makes a convincing argument in the book, then any so-called quest for a historical Jesus must begin, and ultimately end, with the Gospels. This is not to deny the value of non-canonical texts (earlier he called such an approach docetic citing NT Wright), but to recognize the historic value of the Gospels.

I seriously doubt any of those searching for the "real" Jesus and especially those that promote such quests in the media will be interested in Bauckham's argument. The media, anymore, is in the realm of entertainment, not historic accuracy (just look at the direction of the History Channel in recent years) and the sensational (read "unhistoric") claims of many "scholars" with their new (real "same old") reinterpretation of Jesus gets the most press.


* I should briefly point to a point I made earlier. For the Evangelists, the historic fact that Jesus was raised from the dead is proof of their interpretation that He must be the Christ. See Thomas' confession in John 20.


For more:
"The Historical Jesus": A Lecture by Ben Witherington
"The Story of Jesus" Documentary
We've All Heard This Before: "Zealot" and the Same Search For the Missing Jesus  
12 Proofs of Jesus' Deity From the Synoptic Gospels
Ravi Zacharias' 12 Arguments For the Historicity of the Resurrection
"The Case For Christianity" Documentaries
"Raised With Christ" by Adrian Warnock: A Review
NT Wright: Did Jesus Really Rise From the Dead?
"The Jesus Inquest" by Charles Foster: A Review
"The Case for Easter"
"The Case For the Real Jesus" by Lee Strobel
"The Case For Christianity" Documentaries
The Quest For the Historical Satan: Introduction - Part 1
The Quest For the Historical Satan: A Subtitle Please - Part 2
The Quest For the Historical Satan: Yes Jesus Does Save - Part 3   
The Quest For the Historical Satan: Because the Bible Says So - Part 4
The Quest For the Historical Satan: We Know Better & a Conclusion - Part 5
The Quest For the Historical Satan: The Entire Series  
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