Tag Archives: Richard Bauckham

The Gospels as eyewitness testimony – Richard Bauckham

Richard Bauckham, a professor in theology in Cambridge has written a little booklet on the reliability of the eyewitness accounts of Jesus contained in the gospels, The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony published in the Grove series. It is based on his longer book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. He is primarily writing against form criticism, the predominant method used by some scholars to deconstruct the gospels and test for authenticity. They often hold up a dichotomy between the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of Faith” – one can be known from the gospels, but the other cannot. Bauckham reconciles the two by looking for the “Jesus of Testimony” – the Jesus who is described in the gospel by those that were there.

Form criticism relies on the fact that the stories contained in the gospels were handed down through oral tradition – a community telling the stories of Jesus to each other for a few decades until it was eventually handed on to those who wrote them down in the gospels, having forgotten who originally told them. With such an method, adherents of form criticism would say that surely many details got changed or forgotten!

There are many communities that practice handing down stories through oral tradition over several generations, but the early Christian community, Bauckham asserts, was not one of them. The gospels were all written within a few decades (30-40 years) of Jesus’ death, within the lifetimes of people who were there with Jesus. The stories, therefore, never needed to be handed down through many people, but came directly from the eyewitnesses themselves. This adds an authenticity to the stories of Jesus as they came from people who were there at the time (and we often rely on eyewitness accounts to describe details of history now – for example, details of the horrors of the Holocaust are only known through the testimony of survivors).

Bauckham later hypothesises about the inclusion of names of particular minor characters in the gospels, when so many others were left nameless – that these names were pointing to well known Christians who were alive at the time of writing who were the eyewitness source of the event:

Why is it that in Mark’s gospel Jarius and Bartimaus were named, while all other recipients of Jesus’ healings are anonymous (Mark 6:3; 10:46)? Why does Luke, in his narrative of the two disciples who meet the risen Jesus on the way to Emmaus name one of the two (Cleopas) but not the other (Luke 24:18)… The only hypothesis I know that accounts for the evidence is that in most of these cases the names persons became members of the early Christian communities and themselves told the stories in which they appear in the gospels.

One could derive from Bauckham’s conclusion that the Jesus of history can be found through the pages of the four gospels found in the Bible. And once we stop picking him apart we can start to know him as the Christ of Faith.