Bishop Timothy Whitaker

Bishop Timothy Whitaker: The Gospels and Eyewitness Testimony

on April 29, 2014

The following guest post is from Bishop Timothy Whitaker. Bishop Whitaker was elected to the United Methodist episcopacy in 2001, and led the Florida Annual Conference.He retired in 2012.

The traditional view of the four Gospels is that they were written in order to preserve the memory of Jesus of Nazareth when the eyewitnesses were all beginning to die.

Most kinds of historical Biblical criticism such as source criticism, redaction criticism, and literary criticism do not necessarily challenge the traditional view of the Gospels. The case is different with Formgeschichte or “form criticism,” which is a kind of historical Biblical criticism developed by German New Testament scholars in the early twentieth century, notably Karl Ludwig Schmidt, Martin Dibelius, and Rudolf Bultmann. The value of form criticism is that for the first time it addressed the literary problem of how to understand the existence of distinct units in the Synoptic Gospels called “pericopes.” The form critics proposed that these units are close to the “forms” in which they were transmitted orally in the early church and that they were linked together by Mark. This insight then led to the more controversial aspect of form criticism, which was an attempt to explain the history of the oral phase of the transmission of the traditions about Jesus. The form critics proposed that these “forms” were transmitted over a long period of time in anonymous Christian communities in which they were creatively adapted to the needs of the communities. The impression is created by the form critics’ theory of the oral phase of the transmission of the traditions about Jesus that the Gospels tell us more about the early Christian communities than they do about Jesus. Formgeschichte, which literally means “form history,” does indeed challenge the premise that the Gospels were written to preserve the memory of Jesus’ life by eyewitnesses.

Richard Bauckham has written an important study that attempts to refute the theory of the oral transmission of the Jesus tradition proposed by the form critics and, more importantly, to propose an alternative understanding of it. Bauckham is a historian and fellow of Cambridge University. His influential study is Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006, 538 pages).

Bauckham says, “It is the contention of this book, that, in the period up to the writing of the Gospels, gospel traditions were connected with named and known eyewitnesses, people who had heard the teaching of Jesus from his lips and committed it to memory, people who had witnessed the events of his ministry, death, and resurrection and themselves had formulated the stories about these events that they told. These eyewitnesses did not merely set going a process of oral transmission that soon went its own way without reference to them. They remained throughout their lifetimes the sources and, in some sense that may have varied for figures of central or more marginal significance, the authoritative guarantors of the stories they continued to tell” (page 93).

If Bauckham is correct, then there is a close connection between the eyewitness testimony of those who knew Jesus and the written Gospels.

Bauckham makes his case by carefully examining the internal evidence in the Gospels, reassessing the information about the Gospels reported by Papias and other early second century figures, and by drawing on insights about ancient historiography, the new discipline of oral history, and psychological research into recollective memory.

Bauckham proposes that the personal names in the Gospels are in many cases the names of eyewitnesses who told their own stories and were well-known in the early church. These particular eyewitnesses would include Bartimaeus, Simon of Cyrene or his sons Alexander and Rufus, the women who saw the empty tomb, and Cleopas (whom Bauckham identifies as Clopas, the brother of Jesus’ father Joseph) on the road to Emmaus. He also analyzes a recent study of Palestinian Jewish names which confirms that the names of persons mentioned in the Gospels correspond to the names of Jews in Palestine during Jesus’ era.

The primary eyewitnesses of Jesus were the Twelve who had been with Jesus “from the beginning” (Luke 1:2; John 15:27). The Twelve constituted “an authoritative collegium” in the early days of the church in Jerusalem who formulated the whole story of Jesus and served as its guarantors. Bauckham’s evidence for this role of the Twelve are the lists of the Twelve in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts (which are carefully described to indicate how they were known to each other in their own circle) and the evidence in the writings of the apostle Paul. Paul spent two weeks with Peter (Galatians 1:8) from whom he obtained the official testimony of the Twelve about both the apostolic kerygma (I Corinthians 15:3-5) and the Jesus tradition (I Corinthians 11:23-26). In addition, the women disciples of Jesus played an important role in transmitting their eyewitness testimony, which is emphasized in the Gospel of Luke whose author may have been informed primarily by Joanna (Luke 8:3).

Bauckham performs a literary analysis of Mark, Luke, and John to demonstrate that these Gospels employ a literary device known as the inclusio to indicate their eyewitness sources. For instance, the naming of Peter at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark (Mark 1:16) and at the end (Mark 16:7) is an inclusio that indicates that the primary eyewitness source for this Gospel is Simon Peter. Luke uses the inclusio to incorporate the eyewitness testimony of the women disciples, and John uses it to incorporate the testimony of the Beloved Disciple. This is probably the most controversial of Bauckham’s contentions because he cites only two documents in Greco-Roman literature in which this literary device was used; since the publication of his book he has identified a third example of the inclusio as a literary device in Greco-Roman literature.

One of the most fascinating chapters of the book is an analysis of psychological studies of recollective memory. Bauckham demonstrates how the pericopes in the Synoptic Gospels compare closely with the way in which persons perceive events, recollect them, and communicate them to others. He concludes that psychological studies of memory answer the question the form critics never really answered, namely, “Where do the forms come from?” The forms represent the way in which the human mind schematizes the perception and memory of events. The stylized form of the pericopes in the Gospels do not represent an impersonal and anonymous transmission of oral tradition but rather the way in which eyewitnesses recollected their memories and performed them orally in telling others.

Bauckham performs an intensive literary analysis of the Gospel of Mark to show that it represents the memory of Jesus from the Twelve and the inner circle headed by Peter. He thinks that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source because they recognized it as the Petrine tradition and that John also acknowledges this Petrine tradition in Mark although he did not use Mark as a source for his Gospel.

Bauckham presents a compelling account of the authorship of the Gospel of John by presenting a case that the entire Gospel is a literary unit written by the Beloved Disciple and providing evidence from Papias, Polycrates, and Irenaeus that the original local tradition of the province of Asia was that the Beloved Disciple was John the Elder, who was not a member of the Twelve but a personal disciple of Jesus who moved among a circle of disciples in Jerusalem and who was chosen by Jesus for the role of being a “perceptive witness.” Hence Bauckham claims that John is the only Gospel written by an eyewitness and that it is a much more reflective and free handling of the Jesus tradition precisely because it was written by an eyewitness: only one who knows he is an eyewitness is free to offer his interpretation of the meaning of what he witnessed.

The conclusion of the book is an examination of the concept of testimony in philosophy and historiography in order to show that testimony is the key to linking history and theology, for the eyewitness testimony in the Gospels is both an account of events and an interpretation of God’s presence and activity in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Bauckham shows how the testimony of Holocaust survivors is similar to the testimony in the Gospels of events, especially the resurrection of Jesus, which is at “the limit” and “uniquely unique.”

Bauckham’s case that the written Gospels are close to the oral transmission of eyewitness testimony is one that will have to be addressed by New Testament scholars, and it should be read by seminarians, clergy, and laity. As the late Martin Hengel said, it will “help pastors and students to overcome widespread modern Jesus fantasies.”

  1. Comment by cleareyedtruthmeister on April 30, 2014 at 3:02 pm

    Fascinating read. I think this article shows that objective scholarship is coming full circle and underscoring the validity of traditional views.

  2. Comment by gary on April 7, 2019 at 4:15 pm

    The consensus of NT scholars is that neither eyewitnesses nor the associates of eyewitnesses wrote the Gospels. This majority consensus includes the majority of Roman Catholic scholars who very much believe in the supernatural, miracles, and the bodily resurrection of Jesus. The only scholars who believe in the eyewitness authorship of the Gospels, with few exceptions, are evangelicals and fundamentalist Protestants. That should give believers in the apostolic authorship of the Gospels serious pause.

  3. Comment by Gary on September 7, 2019 at 8:29 pm

    Are you aware that most New Testament scholars reject the eyewitness authorship of the Gospels? Not only that, even a significant percentage of scholars who believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus reject the eyewitness authorship of the Gospels. So how can you claim that the evidence for the eyewitness authorship of the Gospels is “good”? And if the Gospels are not eyewitness sources, how good is the evidence for the alleged resurrection of Jesus??

    Believe in the resurrection of Jesus by faith, if you wish, but to claim that there is good evidence for this event is a major stretch of the truth.

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