Jesus and the Eyewitnesses – review

A momentous, rare event has just occurred in our household – I have finished another book! In fact this has been a pretty good year for me; if you’ve been reading my blog at all lately, you’ll know that I also got a couple of other heavy books out of the way – The Resurrection of the Son of God, and The Wrong Messiah.

Testament to the insane degree of my bibliophilia, I’ve also had Jesus and the Eyewitnesses on the go for some time. (Recommendations for therapy welcome.)

Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, by Richard Bauckham, has been creating something of a stir in the academic and lay-scholarly Christian community since its publication in 2006 and it is likely that readers of this post may have heard of it. It is said that after he gave a lecture on the same topic around the time of publication, one audience member commented that he has blown a hundred years of scholarship out of the water – or something to that effect.

Bauckham tackles especially Bultmannian (and related forms of) ‘form criticism’ which, earlier in the twentieth century, essentially approached the Gospels with a healthy dose of historical skepticism, leading such critics to conclude that they were the result of decades of community-formation and redaction, rather than the product of first- or second-hand testimony to the actual events surrounding Jesus’ life.

Through a diligent, detailed approach reviewing theories on authorship of the Gospels, the nature of eyewitness testimony and so on, Bauckham reveals what ought to be the serious historian’s most natural conclusion, namely that the Gospels arguably represent eyewitness testimony, and that such testimony should reasonably be taken as a viable form of historical witness, even if containing events of a ‘uniquely unique’ nature.

That last paragraph condensed hundreds of pages of argument, and obviously does a whopping injustice to the breadth of Bauckham’s scholarship. It seems that no stone remains unturned in his scrupulous investigation of all the related issues. This is not to say that his approach, specifically the order of it, makes complete sense as you read through, making the 500+ large pages of nicely-printed but nonetheless plentiful text, something of a challenge. Were I conducting such research, for starters it would probably amount to about 500 words rather than pages, and secondly I might begin by looking at the pitfalls of form criticism, move on to Gospels authorship issues, and conclude with commentary on testimony in general. Though this could almost be seen as the pattern Bauckham takes, there is a whole lot more that he seeks to include, and various issues pertain more to different Gospels, breaking up his examination thereof; moreover some arguments of necessity take place over a number of chapters, making the book as a whole, much like this sentence, an exhausting read.

But that is not to say that it isn’t rewarding; on the contrary, it is extremely so. I must especially recommend his examination of John’s Gospel, which majors on the subject of testimony within the Gospel, and the issue of authorship. There was so much in the four chapters he devotes to it that was new to me, that I have no doubt I shall revisit these chapters some time in the near future.

After all this I have still done petty justice to the book; nor indeed was it in the chapters on John’s Gospel alone that I learned anything new. The whole thing has had a deep impact already into the realm of Christian apologetics; for example Bauckham did two successive shows with Justin Brierley on Premier Radio’s show Unbelievable, defending his position against a more skeptical Biblical critic. The podcasts are available and may be a good starting point for anyone who isn’t sure if they want to delve into the book just yet!

Let me say that, aside from the obvious importance of the book as far as its impact in the scholarly community has made clear, it is worth having on your shelf for the many illuminating arguments and eye-opening pieces of information you might glean. For anyone wishing to engage more fully with Gospels scholarship in general, I may echo the review of Choice as featured on the back of the book: ‘It will be hard to take seriously future works on the origin of the Gospels that have not interacted with Bauckham…recommended!’

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