Eyewitness accounts provide evidence for legitimacy of Gospels
FORT WORTH, Texas (SWBTS) – A blind man was among the early eyewitnesses whose testimony about Jesus remains in the Gospels, Richard Bauckham, retired professor of New Testament at St. Andrews University in England, said during the Huber L. Drumwright Lectures at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, March 6-7.
According to Bauckham, the Gospels stand apart from other ancient historical biographies by giving close attention to “massively ordinary people who are largely ignored by ancient historians” and “especially in the Gospels, the really poor, the destitute, the beggars.”
“One of these blind beggars”— Bartimaeus, who was healed by Jesus in Mark 10:46-52—“even has a name,” Bauckham said during his first lecture. “He must be … the only blind beggar in ancient literature that has come down to us with a name.” According to Bauckham, the names of Bartimaeus and other characters within the Gospels were recorded because they were the eyewitnesses who first recounted the events recorded in the Gospels. Their names were connected to the stories they told about Jesus. During his second lecture, Bauckham discussed Peter’s role as an eyewitness source for Mark’s Gospel. In his third lecture, he suggested that the three named women who first saw the empty tomb were also eyewitness sources for the resurrection account within the Gospel.
Bauckham’s lecture series, focusing on the evidence for eyewitness testimony in the Gospel of Mark, was based upon his research in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. Paul Wolfe, associate professor of New Testament and the Huber L. Drumwright, Jr. Chair of New Testament at Southwestern, said that Bauckham’s work “undermines the skepticism of enlightenment scholarship,” upholding the right of biblical scholars to take the Gospels as legitimately historical documents.
“What I attempted to argue in the book (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses) is that the traditions about Jesus as we have them in the Gospels are close to the way that the eyewitnesses told the stories themselves,” Bauckham said in his first lecture during the seminary’s chapel service, March 6. “Now this argument flies in the face of the whole trend of Gospel scholarship since the German form critics of the early 20th century.”
These Gospel scholars of the last century held it as an established fact that when the Gospels were written, the oral traditions about Jesus had already gone through a long period of development. “Now on this view,” he said, “the eyewitnesses were no doubt the first to tell stories about Jesus and to repeat his sayings, but from then onwards the oral traditions about Jesus acquired a life of their own with which the eyewitnesses had nothing more to do.” The names of eyewitnesses, in fact, were not even attached to the traditions they articulated.
Although form criticism permits a wide range of views concerning the historical reliability of the traditions about Jesus, many form critics “emphasized the creativity of the communities, who they claimed were not interested in history but in contemporary relevance.” According to this view, the early church “adapted the traditions quite freely to their needs and even originated a good deal of the material.” Other scholars, however, suggested that the early church faithfully preserved the traditions about Jesus, but they did so while still assuming that the church passed down these traditions over a long period of time before the writing of the Gospels.
“Of course the eyewitnesses did not disappear from the early Christian communities as soon as they had formulated a few traditions,” Bauckham said in response to these views. “They were not only still alive, but were in touch with the Christian communities. The major eyewitnesses, such as the twelve apostles … would have remained throughout their lifetimes the accessible sources and the authoritative guarantors of the traditions that they themselves had formulated at the beginning … There were also many minor eyewitnesses, who told the story perhaps of the miracle by which they themselves had been healed by Jesus or of some other encounter with Jesus that had changed their lives.”
Bauckham’s lecture at the seminary’s chapel service may be accessed on the seminary’s Web site at www.swbts.edu/chapelarchives.
The Huber L. Drumwright Lectures in New Testament were established at Southwestern Seminary in 1987 by Minette Drumwright Pratt as a memorial to her late husband. Drumwright, a former pastor, served on the New Testament faculty at Southwestern Seminary for almost 30 years and was dean of the School of Theology for seven years.