Names, Appeals to Eyewitnesses, and Whether It Matters

I’m continuing my way through Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony.

There were a lot of arguments that I encountered in this book for the Gospels containing eyewitness testimony:

1.  When a Gospel mentions the name of, say, a person whom Jesus heals, Bauckham believes that we are seeing an appeal to the eyewitness testimony of that person whom Jesus healed.  Bauckham does not believe that we are seeing something similar to Second Temple Jewish literature’s tendency to name anonymous characters from the Hebrew Bible (one that comes to my mind is the Pharaoh in Genesis 12), for the Gospels that give the names of certain people whom Jesus healed leave a lot of characters anonymous.  Moreover, Bauckham notes that the names often reflect Palestinian Jewish names from 330 B.C.E. to 200 C.E. (which means that they were not ascribed to anonymous characters by a Diasporan author), and that the Palestinian Jewish names are in many cases not the most popular, increasing the likelihood that they are authentic to the people who were healed (since, if an author were simply ascribing names to anonymous characters, he’d probably pick a popular name).  According to Bauckham, the reason that we see traditions in which the people healed are anonymous, while being named in a parallel tradition, is that those transmitting the traditions at some point chose not to mention the names because members of the Christian community no longer knew who these people were.  Bauckham also refers to Quadratus, whom Eusebius mentions.  Quadratus says that he knew people Jesus healed during his own lifetime, demonstrating (for Bauckham) the importance of eyewitness testimony in early Christianity.

There are many questions that I have.  First, when does Bauckham date the Gospel of John?  Many scholars date John as being later than the synoptics.  But John names people who are anonymous in the other Gospels.  If the other Gospels drop names because those names are no longer relevant to the Christian community, why would a later Gospel, John, mention those names?  Or does Bauckham believe that John contains earlier traditions, and that John is faithfully preserving those traditions, even if they have stuff (the names of some whom Jesus healed) that is not relevant to its audience, which does not know who these people are?  Second, would a person ascribing a name to an anonymous character only choose a popular name?  Bauckham discusses the naming that occurs in extra-canonical literature: the centurion at the cross is named Petronius in the Gospel of Peter, two medieval testimonies to the Gospel of the Nazarenes say that the woman with the hemorrhage was named Mariosa, etc.  Were these popular names?  Third, does the extra-canonical or Second Temple Jewish literature that names certain characters name all characters, or is there a mixture of named people and anonymous people, as we see in the Gospels?

2.  Bauckham advances other arguments: the emphasis on certain women seeing events in the life of Jesus, the statements in the New Testament that the disciples were eyewitnesses to Jesus, and the way that Mark frames his story with Peter, which, for Bauckham, supports Papias’ view that Mark contains eyewitness testimony going back to Peter himself.  Bauckham regards some of the factors that people have cited against the historicity of the Gospels—-contradictions on the names of the women who witnessed the risen Jesus, and contradictions on the names of the disciples—-as verifications of the carefulness and knowledge of those who preserved those traditions.  Regarding the names of the women, Bauckham notes examples in which Gospel writers do not mention as eyewitnesses to the risen Jesus certain women whom they highlighted earlier in their Gospels, and the reason for this (for Bauckham) is that those particular women were not known as eyewitnesses to the risen Jesus, and so the Gospel writers did not mention them as such.  For Bauckham, the Gospel writers are being careful in naming who was an eyewitness.  On the names of the disciples, Bauckham maintains that the names are different out of a desire to avoid confusion of certain disciples with each other, since some of them have the same name.  For Bauckham, the knowledge of these accounts about the epithets that were used to distinguish the disciples from each other attests to the “hypothesis that the Twelve were the official eyewitnesses and guarantors of the core of the gospel traditions” (page 108).

I have a few more points:

1.  I read in some of David Marshall’s books that the vividness of the Gospel narrations supports their status as eyewitness testimony.  Bauckham disagrees with this argument.  (He does not mention Marshall, specifically, though, since the argument is probably widespread.)  According to Bauckham, a gifted storyteller can use vivid language, plus a record of eyewitness testimony is not necessarily vivid, for vivid details can disappear as a writer records what he hears from an eyewitness.

2.  Bauckham makes some statements that make me wonder if the Gospels are exact transcripts of what actually happened, even if they do contain eyewitness testimony.  First, Bauckham argues that Matthew and Levi the tax-collector were not the same person (one reason being that Mark does not identify the two with each other), and that the Gospel of Matthew applies the story about Levi to Matthew because it seeks to “to narrate the call of Matthew in the Gospel that was associated with him” (page 111).  But Bauckham does not appear to think that the writer of the Gospel of Matthew was being dishonest, for he says that the writer knew that Matthew was a tax-collector, and that the story of Levi “is so brief and general it might well be thought appropriate to any tax collector called by Jesus to follow him as a disciple” (page 111).  In any case, what we see in this scenario is not exactly the same as recording what really happened.  Second, Bauckham states on page 127: “For readers who know Mark, it will seem that John displaces Peter from the priority he has in Mark…”  Even if John and Mark reflect eyewitness testimony, both filter events through ideology and a desire to exalt or dethrone certain people. 

Bauckham also refers to something that Plutarch wrote that was fictional, and yet was in accordance with “the conventions of historiographic writing known in his time”—-conventions that, in part, are relevant to eyewitness testimony (pages 119-120).  Does this mean that a work can be fictional and yet appeal (in some manner) to eyewitnesses?  I wouldn’t say that this is entirely true of the Gospels, but I do think that the fact that an appeal to eyewitnesses does not necessarily equal historicity should be remembered as one weighs whether or not the Gospels reflect eyewitness testimony and are historically-accurate.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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2 Responses to Names, Appeals to Eyewitnesses, and Whether It Matters

  1. Pingback: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony « James’ Ramblings

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