Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospel as Eyewitness Testimony

Bauckham, Richard
Eerdmans (2006)
Buy this book from

During the 20th Century two major techniques for seeking to understand the New Testament emerged, alongside the continuing "search for the historical Jesus" as opposed to "The Christ of Faith", namely Form Criticism and Redaction Criticism, both of which, according to Bauckham, lack any factual justification: the first of these posited that during a period of some 50 year between the death of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels, traditions were evolved by early Christian communities and then written down; whereas the second shares the same time frame but posits that the Evangelists wrote about Jesus within the framework of their respective theological agendas. Meanwhile, the very cleavage between the "historical Jesus" and the "Christ of Faith" was based on both a temporal and material distancing between the life of Jesus and Evangelical writing.

The central thesis of Bauckham's exhaustive (and exhausting) enquiry which won the 2009 Michael Ramsey Prize for theological writing is that the four canonical Gospels are based on eyewitness testimony. He aims to show that Mark is based on the preaching of Peter and, more radically, that the Gospel of John was written by the "Beloved Disciple" who was not a member of the Twelve and was certainly not John the son of Zebedee. His evidence for Matthew depending on eyewitnesses is more tenuous and the case for Luke is flawed by a failure to come to grips either with the issue of whether Luke gathered some of his testimony from Mary, the mother of Jesus, or Paul.

Much of Bauckham's argument is based on the surviving fragmentary testimony of Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis at the turn of the First Century who is said to have known eyewitnesses of the mission of Jesus circa 80 CE. More intriguing is Bauckham's claim that there was a rich vein of eyewitness testimony (predominantly female) which supplied elements of the Passion narrative after the Disciples had fled, as well as Resurrection testimony; and the very proximity of the writing of Mark to the events themselves explains the anonymity of such characters as the woman who anointed the feet of Jesus (Mark 14:1-9) as Messiah, the striking of the blow (Mark 14:47) and the man who fled naked (Mark 14:51), both of whom would still have interested the authorities when Mark wrote but not by the time that John was writing.

As a piece of textual analysis and detective work this book is brilliant, although it frequently relies upon single sources for some of its non theological elements (on the nature of memory and testimony) and somewhat  obscure articles in journals for some of its theological insights but its very refusal to follow mainstream opinion is its genius. If it has a really major weakness it is the tendency to support its own conclusions by showing that opponents have failed to prove their negative which is not quite enough in some cases.

The importance of this book is that it seriously boosts the claim that the Gospels combine eyewitness narrative with profound theological insight which, combined, can be classified as testimony. On this basis, the reason why John's Gospel is most theologically coherent is that it contains the testimony of one eyewitness who was present at all the events he describes; the Synoptic writers, on the other hand, were reporting second hand on what eyewitnesses had told them, so they were more cautious. If this is true, John is the Gospel nearest to the Jesus tradition rather than being, as is generally supposed, the furthest away.

For people like me who classify themselves as "Catholic Evangelicals" this book provides a powerful new perspective, necessarily moderating the tendency to put the tradition of organic theological development in opposition to Scripture. I so desperately want Bauckham to be correct but I am not certain he has quite got there; but almost.

Anybody with a serious interest in the New Testament should read this book. It is likely to influence New Testament Scholarship for as long as we live.