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Briefly Reviewed: April 2021

Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Second Edition)

By Richard Bauckham

Publisher: Eerdmans

Pages: 680

Price: $50

Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses effectively defends the Gospels as eyewitness testimony dating from the first century and persuades the reader that the fourth Gospel, that of John, was written by the eyewitness himself, “the beloved disciple,” a member of the high-priestly family. Bauckham is a Protestant writing against the “form critics” of the 20th century. Catholics might have a couple of legitimate reservations about this book — for instance, Bauckham completely ignores the Virgin Mary as the eyewitness for the infancy narratives and calls the name Peter a “nickname”! — but, on the whole, he has produced a first-rate work. Form critics such as Rudolf Bultmann and his followers taught that the accounts of Jesus’ words and actions had passed through a long, anonymous process of transmission before being written down as Gospels. They alleged that early Church communities had adapted these accounts to their own needs and interests, turning them into legends, folktales, and myths. Their “methodological skepticism” about the Gospels has plagued biblical scholarship for over a century.

Nowhere in the literature of early Christianity is the handing down of traditions about Jesus attributed to communities rather than to authorized persons. Nevertheless, form critics depersonalized the process of transmission and assumed that the Gospels had circulated for many decades within illiterate communities that could not distinguish past from present. After these critics had discredited the Gospels as eyewitness testimony, they were followed by redaction critics, literary critics, and social-scientific critics — all of whom took form criticism of the Gospels for granted.

Bauckham shows that the 12 Apostles were the “official body of eyewitnesses who formulated and authorized the core collection of traditions” in the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). He also explains how written records were used from the beginning, because illiteracy was not as common in ancient Palestine as the form critics imagined. Books existed, yet chiefly to be memorized. Also, some of those who heard Jesus’ words and saw His healings recorded them in private notebooks, which then became “proto-Gospels.” From the start, therefore, accounts of Jesus’ words and actions were passed on by both memorization and the written word. Bauckham thinks the Gospels were all produced by the end of the first century, but the Catholic philosopher and biblical scholar Claude Tresmontant, in his magnificent work Hebrew Christ: Language in the Age of the Gospels (1989), convinces the reader that they were all written before A.D. 70, the year the Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed, because there is not the slightest hint of that crucial event (about which Jesus had prophesied) to be found in the New Testament. He adds that they mention only the Jewish persecution of Christians, not the official Roman persecution that began with Nero in the 60s.

Bauckham says the earliest manuscripts we have, which are from A.D. 200, have titles like Gospel “according to Mark,” “according to Matthew,” “according to Luke,” and “according to John.” Clearly, the Gospels had to be distinguished from one another in order to be used in the liturgy. There is no evidence that they were ever known by any other names, nor were these titles ever disputed. They were all believed to depend on the official eyewitness accounts of the Apostles and disciples. Contact with these witnesses in the first century was feasible, for Paul speaks of 500 eyewitnesses of the resurrected Christ, most of whom were “still alive” (1 Cor. 15:6). He takes for granted that they were accessible. Bauckham explains in much detail how Peter is the privileged eyewitness in Mark’s Gospel, as is the “beloved disciple” in John’s Gospel. Luke, in the preface to his Gospel, claims to have had firsthand access to those who were eyewitnesses “from the beginning.”

In ancient historiography, eyewitness testimony was considered crucial. Bauckham gives examples of this from Xenophon, Polybius, and Josephus. He also cites Christian writers from the second century on this score, among them Papias, who prized his contact with John the Elder, the beloved disciple, and Irenaeus, who spoke of Polycarp’s conversations with John the Elder. In their mistaken notion of anonymous transmission, the form critics simply ignored such personal contacts with authorized witnesses. Papias also called Mark the scrupulous translator of Peter’s teachings, while St. Justin Martyr said that Mark had written Peter’s memoirs and that the Gospels in general were the Apostles’ memoirs. Evidently, the early Christians were sure that the Gospels contained eyewitness testimony of Jesus’ life on earth.

Where Bauckham differs from the “large majority of contemporary Johannine scholars” is in saying that the beloved disciple should be believed when he claims to be both eyewitness and author of his Gospel (cf. Jn. 21:24). He was given credence until modern times, when form critics started alleging that the last chapters of John were a late addition. Bauckham shows that they actually form an epilogue that parallels the prologue. He gives a convincing argument, as does Tresmontant, that the beloved disciple was not John the son of Zebedee but a personal friend of Jesus and a resident of Jerusalem, like Lazarus, Martha, and Mary, none of whom traveled about with Jesus.

In the fourth Gospel, the 12 Apostles are not prominent, and John names disciples who are not mentioned in the other Gospels. While Peter is the chief pastor, Bauckham says, the beloved disciple is the “perceptive witness.” His Gospel is a deeply insightful and “extensively interpreted” account of Jesus’ words and actions. Bauckham cites a letter sent by Polycrates to Pope St. Victor I, bishop of Rome, circa A.D. 190, saying that John the beloved disciple was of the high-priestly family, wore the “petalon” on his forehead (a gold frontlet with the name of Yahweh inscribed on it), and was one of the five sons of the high-priest Annas (which explains why he was an eyewitness at the trial of Jesus). Polycrates also states that John the Elder, who wrote the Gospel and died in Ephesus, is the very John mentioned in Acts 4:6 as a member of the high-priestly family.

Even at the end of the second century, the Ephesian Church did not identify the beloved disciple with the son of Zebedee. Moreover, St. Irenaeus, who, like Polycrates, was from the province of Asia and had known Polycarp, wrote that John the Elder was the beloved disciple who wrote the fourth Gospel. Bauckham sees this priestly John as the unnamed disciple who follows Jesus (cf. Jn. 1:35-40), becoming a witness “from the beginning.” Bauckham sees him as reclining at the right hand of Jesus at the Last Supper, possibly because he is the host, and attending Jesus’ trial in the court of his father, Annas. He sees him as present in the Garden of Gethsemane and standing faithfully at the foot of the Cross, where he receives the Mother of Jesus into his care. There the beloved disciple observes that Jesus’ legs aren’t broken and that blood and water flow out of His pierced side. At the empty tomb, he sees the significance of the grave-clothes and believes (cf. Jn. 20:8).

Bauckham makes an unanswerable argument in this book that the Gospels must be read as what they are: eyewitness testimony. Only in this way can one receive them in all their uniqueness. Modern biblical scholars are at fault when they try to drag the supernatural down to the natural.

A Politically Correct Dictionary and Guide

By Kevin Donnelly, and Illustrated by Johannes Leak

Publisher: Connor Court Publishing

Pages: 180

Price: AU$29.95

Review Author: David Daintree

Spoof dictionaries and reference books have delighted us for nearly 150 years, ever since the appearance of Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary in the late 19th century. The one I’ve enjoyed most so far has been playwright Alex Buzo’s A Dictionary of the Almost Obvious (1998). Buzo’s tart but delicious humor spares nobody, though New Zealanders, South Australians, and sensation-seeking media practitioners come in for the harshest treatment. A couple of my favorite entries are:

Backflip: “Any perceived change of heart or mind, any degree of flexibility, any change of policy occasioned by revelation of new facts, but above all any kind of personal growth and maturing.”

Bitser: “A mongrel in Oz, but a gambling term in Kiwese — e.g. ‘The horse dropped did, so all bitser off,’ said the bookie.”

In the interest of decency, I won’t quote Buzo’s wonderful entry on Kant. Interested readers are encouraged to look it up for themselves.

It is against this background that I approach the pleasurable task of reviewing Kevin Donnelly’s A Politically Correct Dictionary and Guide. At the outset, an obvious difference between this and A Dictionary of the Almost Obvious is that Buzo wrote primarily to amuse, though he was clearly engaged emotionally with some of the issues that particularly irritated or vexed him. By contrast, Donnelly’s book is driven, in the first instance, by a kind of righteous anger about some of the delusional follies of modern thought (I use the term loosely), yet he knows how important it is to sugar the pill, charmingly and wittily. So we’re dealing here with a serious book, a critique of modern life, couched in and relieved by some very entertaining language.

After a foreword by Peta Credlin and the author’s own introduction, the book falls into two principal parts, the first a dictionary of 218 entries, and the second a collection of seven essays on the impact of political correctness in various departments of our lives. One of the things that impressed me about the first part, the dictionary proper, was its fairness. Entry 45, Cultural appropriation, for example, provides a definition and reports the views of individuals so crisply that, if read out of context, one would not have any sense of the writer’s own viewpoint. Entry 132, Marriage, was also exemplary in its statement of the current range of opinions, without overtly ruling in favor of one or the other. The same thing may be said of the articles on Patriarchy, Safe schools, and Sexuality.

Evenhandedness is all very well, but you can’t keep it up forever, especially in the face of the kind of mass mania that has so transformed public life. In his long Entry 197, Transphobia, Donnelly can no longer contain himself. This whole gender thing is a nonsense so breathtakingly crazy as to make the Emperor’s New Clothes actually look chic, and our author doesn’t pull his punches. There are other peculiar dogmas of our time that we might describe as self-satirizing: no effort required, just summarize them, and their absurdity speaks for itself. Good examples are Entries 199, Trigger warnings, and 210, Whiteness.

Deliberate humor may play a secondary role in this serious work, but it’s there all the same, and in abundance. The following entries are particularly good fun: 49, Deaf as a post; 59, Dunny man; 113, In bed with a wog; 148, Nip in the air; and 150, Non-animalist language.

On the debit side, I thought 133, Meme, could have been clearer, and I would like to have seen a definition of the prefix Cis-. In origin, it’s a Latin preposition meaning “on this side” (its opposite is ultra), but I struggle to understand terms such as cisgender. Perhaps that’s the point. They might not be susceptible to rational understanding.

The book’s second part, comprising essays on political correctness and the cultural Left’s so-called Long March through the Institutions, nicely unites the various strands. For me, the most charming is The Past Is a Foreign Country, reflections on growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. The concluding essay, What’s to Be Done?, sadly but inevitably falls short of offering a sure remedy — apart from mere mockery. And mockery may turn out to be our best defensive weapon; after all, the mind that succumbs to PC ideas is essentially a humorless one. It cannot bear mirth. But the capacity to smile and laugh is one of the distinguishing marks of our humanity and, in the long run at least, it will prevail. Johannes Leak’s splendid illustrations lend support to that campaign too. I warmly recommend this book as a powerful aid to social recuperation!


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