Review of "Jesus and the Eyewitnesses" by Richard Bauckham

Since Bauckham is one of my favorite NT scholars, I chose to review this book for one of my graduate classes. After finishing the book, I was disappointed with the argumentation. I thought he made a solid case for the Petrine origin of Mark, but his treatment of John was much less powerful (though it seems to be more important to him in the course of the book). Anyhow, I figured that the review I wrote for class, highly constrained by the word limit, might help someone. So I am posting it here. Cheers :-)

Review Introduction

Did the Evangelists draw from densely elaborated oral tradition when writing the gospels, or did they access eyewitness testimony? As a direct challenge to form criticism, Bauckham argues that oral tradition had a very small role to play in the formation of the gospels, with the result "that the texts of our Gospels are close to the eyewitness reports of the words and deeds of Jesus." (240) Fully aware that his position runs counter "to almost all recent New Testament scholarship," (240) Bauckham provides a bedazzling array of reasons and defenses for his position.

On account of the many chapters in seemingly unordered sequence, a review of Bauckham's argument would best be served by grouping his chapters according to their subject matter. Bauckham intends to demonstrate three overarching points: 1- Accounts of Jesus in the early church are "controlled" teachings which fall into the genre of "testimony"; 2- The Gospel of Mark encompasses testimony as told by an eyewitness, Peter; 3- The Gospel of John encompasses testimony as told by an eyewitness, the Beloved Disciple.


Point 1: Bauckham's tome is richly complex in its argumentation, and many of his chapters feed into multiple points. For the most part, however, chapters 1-6, 10-13, and 18 serve to defend this point. Bauckham posits that, in accordance with Graeco-Roman historiographical best practice, eyewitness testimony was prized more highly than written sources by the Evangelists and early Christian communities. As such, eyewitnesses provided the necessary "control" over Jesus traditions by being the authorized tradents of these accounts.

To defend this point, Bauckham argues extensively for various positions: a- Papias, far earlier than is generally assumed, demonstrates normative practice by seeking information from "living and surviving voices" (students of disciples who are still alive, namely Aristeon and John the Elder); b- at least two of the Gospel authors indicate an understanding that sufficient testimony can only come from eyewitnesses who had been with Jesus "from the beginning" (Acts 1:21-22 and John 15:27); c- names are provided within the Gospels to specify living eyewitnesses that can vouch for the reports; d- onomastic analyses indicate an authentic Palestinian roster of characters in the gospel accounts; e- Jesus tradition is transmitted by individuals to communities (not vice versa) in a formal and controlled manner; f- this formal, controlled transmission dates to the time of Jesus (as noted by Jesus' commissioning of the 12 and 72) and is evidenced in Paul (by well-developed formulae, such as 1 Cor 15:3-8 and 1 Cor 11:23-26); g- these traditions were the kind that are, for the most part, resilient to alteration via memory dysfunction; and finally h- that, as testimony, these accounts "ask to be trusted." (5)

These points cumulatively show that two disciples of Jesus (not among the twelve) were alive at the time of Papias, that the Evangelists wrote early enough to have access to these (and other) eyewitnesses, that named eyewitnesses were specifically referenced to verify the traditions, that the roster of eyewitnesses could not have been a fabrication, and that the traditions shared by the eyewitnesses were likely to be formulated and taught from the time of Jesus. In addition, these early, verifiable, formally controlled traditions are to be primarily approached with trust and secondarily with critical evaluation. (478) In an effort to account for data that may appear to run contrary to these points, Bauckham concedes that oral tradition allowed for a certain degree of narrative and stylistic variability, but this variability is constrained to the degree which one finds in the Synoptics.

Point 2: After laying this foundation, Bauckham defends the argument that Mark is primarily a documentation of eyewitness testimony, and that the eyewitness source was probably Peter himself. The defense is composed of three main sub-points.

First, borrowing from Theissen, Bauckham argues that the omission of certain names in Mark's Passion account is for "protective anonymity," indicating that a fear of retribution still existed when Mark wrote. This closes the temporal gap, increasing the probability of an eyewitness source.

Second, the literary device known as inclusio is introduced, referencing Lucian and Porphyry as contemporary employers of this device. Bauckham emphatically posits that this device was used to indicate a primary witness by bracketing an account with the name of the eyewitness. In the case of Mark, Peter brackets the Gospel starting at 1:16 and ending at 16:7. This implies that Peter's testimony begins immediately after Jesus' baptism and carries through to the end of the Gospel, where Peter's name is the last name to be used.

Third, Bauckham argues for the Petrine origin of Mark by demonstrating that the Gospel has a strikingly Petrine perspective. He shows that the Gospel refers to Peter frequently, that it provides deep insight into the character and attitudes of Peter, and, by referring to Cuthbert Turner's 1925 work on the "plural-to-singular narrative device", that Mark appears to use language that is a remnant of Peter's first person accounts.

Point 3: Perhaps Bauckham's most ambitious argument is that the Fourth Gospel was written by the Beloved Disciple. He attempts to demonstrate an inclusio of the anonymous disciple starting at 1:35 and ending at Jn 21:20. To argue the inclusio, Bauckham must demonstrate both the reference to the beloved disciple in Jn 1 and the genuine authorship of Jn 21, which he attempts to do by marshaling a wide range of evidence, including numerical patterns and literary devices. In addition to this approach, Bauckham argues that the Gospel presents the Beloved Disciple as a superior witness to Peter, since he has special intimacy with Jesus, is present at key points in the story, is mentioned alongside superior observational detail, and is presented as perceptive. Lastly, it is pointed out that the perspective of the Gospel is one which is outside the inner circle of Peter, James, and John, and yet is intimately acquainted with Peter and other disciples mentioned only in passing in the Synoptics. These points cumulatively argue for authorship by the Beloved Disciple.

Finally, Bauckham argues that the identity of the Beloved Disciple is none other than John the Elder based on a prima facie reading of Irenaeus and complex readings of Papias and Polycrates.

It is by this course of argumentation that Bauckham, through an impressive display of erudition and reflection, makes his case for the eyewitness authorship of the gospels in the setting of formally controlled eyewitness testimony.


One of the foremost difficulties in grappling with Bauckham's tome is that his argument is not streamlined in the least. This makes it difficult to analyze, causing comprehensibility and explanatory power to suffer. This critique will analyze the argument in general and then pay attention to the three overarching points enumerated in the introduction.

General: Bauckham's arguments often seem rather tendentious and strained. Indeed, certain points are significantly unpolished. For example, Bauckham states on p.126 that John mentions Peter's name more frequently than any other Gospel, offering statistics in support, but twice in subsequent chapters relies on an argument that Mark is most frequent in naming Peter. In addition, many arguments appear overstated (the argument that the list of the Twelve in the Synoptics is a sign of an authoritative collegium which authorized the Synoptic accounts, p.97) or under-evidenced (the argument against the pseudepigraphy of the Fourth Gospel, p.409). Moreover, Bauckham builds extensive portions of his case based on these shaky foundations.

Point 1: Concerning "controlled" teachings and the genre of testimony, Bauckham's study is apropos. It is true that his use of Bailey and generous conclusions regarding the efficacy of memory are not compelling, and it is also true that ad hoc argumentation causes one to question his objectivity at times (such as his argument that the allowable variability in oral tradition is constrained to the level found in the Synoptics). That said, he does accomplish his objective: he shows that eyewitnesses probably provided more stability to the oral tradition than is generally allowed by form criticism.

Point 2: Bauckham demonstrates his prowess as a synthesizer of evidence; his strongest points are those he marshals from Ilan, Theissen, and Turner. The argument for a Petrine Mark, including onomastic analyses, an early Passion, and Petrine perspective, as well as the argument from inclusio, is thus surprisingly compelling.

Point 3: Where there is much to be desired, however, is with regards to the authorship of John. Bauckham does successfully address apparent difficulties, such as his exposition on the Johannine "`We' of Authoritative Testimony" to explain Jn 21:24. But Bauckham's thesis demands too much from the evidence, and his case, though theoretically possible, is not compelling. Magnifying the problem is the cumulative nature of his case. That Jn 1:35 contains a silent allusion to the Beloved Disciple is somewhat improbable. That Jn 21 is original is argued to a point between possible and plausible, but is certainly not compelling. The argument for the Beloved Disciple's authorship would be compelling were it not for the fact that it requires the two previous points to be conceded. This says nothing about the argument which identifies the Beloved Disciple with the Elder John (an argument that is itself not compelling) and the argument for authentic authorship at the hands of the Elder John (virtually absent). All these points must be valid, in succession, in order for Bauckham's thesis to stand, and his argument falls short of meeting the burden of proof.

Bauckham is to be lauded for forcefully tackling issues which are regularly taken for granted: the popular conception of oral tradition and its ramifications on Gospel origins. By introducing fresh tools to the field, such as onomastics and testimony analysis, Bauckham has significantly contributed to the methods of New Testament research. The result is a bolstered position for those who claim eyewitness testimony for Mark, and an intriguing new perspective on the authorship of John.

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