Bauckham’s …Eyewitnesses

Having been reading Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses over the last few weeks when I could squeeze in the time, I have to say that I have found myself non-plussed. As I mentioned in response to several readers’ inquiries, I found E. Earle Ellis’ work on the subject of “traditioning” and his scenario for the production of the Gospels, as found in The Making of the New Testament Documents and in the shorter History and Interpretation in New Testament Perspective to be not only more convincing, indeed compelling, but in particular better in interaction with various other trends of scholarship. I have found Bauckham’s work to be very interesting, to be sure, but the digressions and the overall diffuseness of argumentation without specific referents for opposing viewpoints (perhaps something to be expected from an Eerdmans book, admittedly more popular than scholarly press?), the relatively scanty annotation, and the numerous distracting lists to lead me away from taking it as more than a thought excercise, a published notebook of sorts. In comparison, the treatment of tradition in NT formation by Ellis is well-argued, well-discussed, and well-annotated, particularly with reference to German Biblical scholarship, which is typically where the most serious opposition to traditionary approaches to New Testament (and Old Testament, etc) formation has come from. I suppose that Bauckham’s work is gaining the better press as it is coming from a press that has been able to distribute more copies at a lower price than both of Ellis’ above-mentioned works, which are published by Brill, so they are, of course, both out of print in hardback, were extremely expensive when in print, with only The Making of the New Testament Documents now in paperback, though even that appears to have run out of print now as well. That’s a shame, that such excellent work on this subject hasn’t received the attention that it deserves. Traditionary input is not even so much a matter of faith as it is common sense. Who else would even have cared about Jesus or the very first Christians? The Romans? The Judean authorities? The Galilean Gentiles? Hardly. Those who witnessed bore witness to it.

These accounts were passed on from that point, sometimes becoming garbled and adulterated. But there have always been groups of people receiving and faithfully passing on what was passed down from earlier generations, leading all through the years from those first disciples down to the present, otherwise all those books would have been lost long ago. In the same way, there have been those through the years who have taken that message and run with it in another direction. Depending upon the place and time, sometimes the former were in the majority, sometimes the latter, sometimes the traditional and “orthodox,” sometimes the innovating and “heretical.” None of this is in question except in perhaps the outer limits of extremely skeptical scholarship, I had thought. On second thought, perhaps not.

The reason that Bauckham and others are finding it necessary to belabor the point of traditionary input in the formation of the New Testament perhaps lies not only in the extreme reaches of skeptical scholarship, but also lies in the extreme anti-traditionary aspects of certain trends in modern popular religion. I’ve heard with my own ears and read with my own eyes various derogatory references to “tradition” in various thoughtless low-browed works. Of course, the same will reference “ancient Christian tradition” and even quote some Church Fathers when it suits their purposes, in a species of unreflective proof-texting run rampant.

Nonetheless, Bauckham is an interesting read, but not one that has managed to hold my attention at the moment, unfortunately. It has now joined McDonald’s The Biblical Canon (see my short review) on a particular shelf for me to return to when I actually don’t have something better to read. But that’s just me! I enjoy reading other reviews, and expect to see a number of them appearing on various blogs, as it appears that numerous Biblical studies bloggers are currently reading the book. It’ll be a good thing to compare notes, in the end.


  1. I should clarify. It’s not that I didn’t like this book. I liked it fine enough. I just didn’t love it as much as I thought I would. I think I was expecting more from it, because of being wowed by other, earlier works by Bauckham, particularly God Crucified, which, to me, was one of those forehead-slapping, “Of course!” kinds of books, even though it was so short. I’d still like him to get to a fuller treatment of that. I’ve been impressed by a number of his articles, too, in which one finds fine examples of illumination through documentation and reasoning in a short amount of space. As I said above, I found this book a bit more diffuse than I was used to for anything from his pen (keyboard?).

    So, I don’t want anyone to get the wrong impression from my off-the-cuff comments above. The book is a fine book, full of good things, but one should be prepared for quite a slog through it all, and to expect synthesis much later in it than one would typically expect from Bauckham. When I have more time, I’ll return to it, and I’m sure I’ll have even better things to say, and more interaction to note. For now, I’m focused elsewhere….

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