Bauckham and Four Gospels

Always interested in new perspectives, and noting he had written “Jesus and the eyewitnesses”, I listened to a talk given by Dr. Bauckham entitled “The Four Gospels and other Gospels: is our canon right?”. I was disappointed, and probably will not be reading his book.

The generality of what he had to say was entirely reasonable in relation to the plethora of Infancy Gospels, post-resurrection appearance accounts and the like which are now known to us, but with one important exception, the Gospel of Thomas. He was, to be fair, able to point out that there was argument as to whether the Gospel of Thomas was in fact Gnostic, a label he used for the remainder (and he admitted he used the term loosely; I cannot argue with that).

I was waiting for him to say at each point he made “but this does not, of course, apply to the Gospel of Thomas”, but he only came close to that on one occasion. On two other occasions the point he was making might possibly have applied to the Gospel of Thomas, but would have required further argument before I felt it reasonable to apply it (that it was not narrative and therefore did not include a wealth of detail about the Palestinian circumstances of the time is true, but not as far as I am aware a reason given by the Church Fathers for non-inclusion of a work; and that it did not present a view of Jesus entirely consistent with that of the four canonical Gospels, which I would argue but which has some measure of validity).

As a result, he ended up dismissing what I consider to be possibly the least redacted early source for Jesus’ actual words, by association with other works, under a number of headings which it plainly does not fall within. I hope that this was sloppy scholarship and/or presentation rather than deliberate evasion of the issues surrounding Thomas. It would have been trivial to note at the beginning that the scope of his talk did not extend to Thomas and that it was therefore a separate issue; more reasonably, he should have addressed Thomas entirely separately and at length.

Two other points in his talk were, to me, dubious in the extreme. Firstly, he considers all the canonical Gospels to date from the period within living memory of the events and, therefore, to have been written with access to the eyewitness accounts of apostles. Now, I have written elsewhere about the testimony of Papias as quoted by Eusebius which, to me, makes it impossible that the narrative Matthew and Mark were written in this period (and if narrative Mark was not, neither was Luke). Textual criticism, to me, makes it beyond reasonable argument that all four canonical Gospels were multiply redacted; this of itself renders this timing and association dubious. The manifold errors of geography in the synoptics (a point he uses against some of the Gnostic writings) make it very unlikely that they were written by people with first hand knowledge of the Holy Land or by people who had access to eyewitnesses. Lastly, they appear to have been written in Pauline influenced churches, which would mean that access to the majority of the immediate disciples and particularly apostles would be extremely limited (those adhering to the Jerusalem church), Peter being a possible exception.

The second point I take issue with is his comment that historians of the period were careful to rest their accounts on eyewitness evidence if they themselves were not eyewitnesses. This attitude was, it is true, becoming counsel of excellence in the Roman world (although Roman historians of the times were not necessarily particularly good at following it and were sometimes abysmally bad at checking the veracity of statements they had heard) but had not by any manner of means been the case in Greek “historical” writing to that date – and we are talking about the Greek-speaking rather than the Latin-speaking world here. Frankly, what I would expect from a Greek writer of this period is uncritical fabulation as much as actual reporting of fact.

I will grant that Josephus, who like the majority of the gospel writers was a Hellenised Jew, displays a much higher standard, but he was not writing as an adherent of a religion. For an indication of the historical accuracy of Jewish writings of adherents of the period, we need only look at the tales recorded rather later in the Mishna, which cannot by any stretch of the imagination be regarded as careful history (that tendency was still largely unchanged five centuries later with the assembly of the Talmud).

As I say, I was disappointed. I am open to argument that this was an aberration on his part, or persuasion that despite this, I should actually read something of his (which, it is fair to say, might be better argued).

One Response to “Bauckham and Four Gospels”

  1. hneufeld Says:

    I think we generally overstate the value of eyewitness testimony in historical study. We need to evaluate the length of time between the event witnessed and the testimony, the reliability of the witness, and the accuracy of hearing and reporting on the part of the historian.

    On Baukham, I previously reviewed his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, which generally failed to impress me.

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