Posted by: chuckbumgardner | June 21, 2008

Richard Bauckham on Eyewitness Testimony in the Gospels

In his interesting work Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Eerdmans, 2006), Richard Bauckham makes a good response to hard-line critics of the veracity of the gospels who argue that those lives of Jesus are theologically motivated and thus unreliable, particularly where independent verification is not available.  Here is a key paragraph which introduces the work:

I suggest that we need to recover the sense in which the Gospels are testimony.  This does not mean that they are testimony rather than history.  It means that the kind of historiography they are is testimony.  An irreducible feature of testimony as a form of human utterance is that it asks to be trusted.  This need not mean that it asks to be trusted uncritically, but it does mean that testimony should not be treated as credible only to the extent that it can be independently verified.  There can be good reasons for trusting or distrusting a witness, but these are precisely reasons for trusting or distrusting.  Trusting testimony is not an irrational act of faith that leaves critical rationality aside; it is, on the contrary, the rationally appropriate way of responding to authentic testimony.  Gospels understood as testimony are the entirely appropriate means of access to the historical reality of Jesus.  It is true that a powerful trend in the modern development of critical historical philosophy and method finds trusting testimony a stumbling-block in the way of the historian’s autonomous access to truth that she or he can verify independently.  But it is also a rather neglected fact that all history, like all knowledge, relies on testimony.  In the case of some kinds of historical event this is especially true, indeed obvious. . . . We need to recognize that, historically speaking, testimony is a unique and uniquely valuable means of access to historical reality. (5)

And Bauckham summarizes his main contention well here:

. . . in the period up to the writing of the Gospels, gospel traditions were connected with named and known eyewitnesses, people who had heard the teaching of Jesus from his lips and committed it to memory, people who had witnessed the events of his ministry, death, and resurrection and themselves had formulated the stories about these events that they told.  These eyewitnesses did not merely set going a process of oral transmission that soon went its own way without reference to them.  They remained throughout their lifetimes the sources and, in some sense that may have varied for figures of central or more marginal significance, the authoritative guarantors of the stories they continued to tell.” (93)

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