Reviewed by: S. M. Baugh
Date posted: 02/10/2008
Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, by Richard Bauckham. Published by Eerdmans, 2006. Hardback, 504 pages, list price $32.00. Reviewed by Prof. S. M. Baugh, of Westminster Seminary California.
For two centuries, gospel scholarship has been dominated by the use of various methods (source, form, and redaction criticism) that allegedly show how the Gospels originated. A hidden agenda has often been to undermine the reliability of the canonical Gospels as witnesses to the historical Jesus. However, not only have these methods failed to produce a scholarly consensus, but some of them have been noisily abandoned in favor of new and more useful approaches that interpret the gospel texts as we have them.
Although the search for the supposed compositional histories of the Gospels does not dictate the agenda of gospel studies anymore, most critical scholars still believe that the Gospels represent oral stories that passed through a long process of creation, adaptation, and augmentation in various communities. Because of this oral history, we are told that we possess only a distant and unreliable picture of Jesus in the Gospels.
Against this background, Richard Bauckham, professor of New Testament at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, expertly shows in this book that the Gospels were composed by authors who either were themselves eyewitnesses to the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus or had direct contact with eyewitnesses. Bauckham says: "The Evangelists were in more or less direct contact with eyewitnesses, not removed from them by a long process of anonymous transmission of the traditions. In the case of one of the Gospels, that of John, I conclude, very unfashionably, that an eyewitness wrote it" (p. 6).
To substantiate his conclusions, Bauckham builds on recent work by various scholars to show how the Gospels evidence their embodiment of eyewitness testimony. The gospels of Mark (who "translated and wrote as Peter spoke" (p. 207) and John (a disciple and eyewitness of Jesus) are firsthand accounts, rather than community compilations of oral traditions. Bauckham writes with remarkable clarity, with prudent critique of various critical speculations, and he contributes his own expert discussion of the testimony of the early fathers—most notably, Papias. He also discusses the ancient practice of memorization and ancient conventions for writing biographies, providing a stimulating affirmation of the reliability of the Gospels.
This is a long, technical book, but it is well written, so that the novice can easily understand it. It will be particularly helpful to students in our congregations who may have encountered college professors who argue for a special-interest Jesus made in the their own image, based on the "assured results of modern scholarship." We may not agree with all of Bauckham's views or conclusions (e.g., Matthew in Matthew 9: 9 and Levi in Mark 2: 14 are different men (pp. 108-12), but this is still a remarkably helpful and interesting book, which covers a broad range of important issues pertaining to the Gospels.