With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Monday, January 05, 2009

Can I Get a Witness?

I'm very slowly making my way through Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapid and Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company,2006). I still have a ways to go yet, but so far the book is really captivating. The first chapter ("From the Historical Jesus to the Jesus of Testimony") provides a good overview of his project.

Bauckham begins by addressing the relation between the "Historical Jesus" and the "Christ of faith;" though this is, in fact, a dichotomy that Bauckham himself denies. For Christians, theology and dogmatic faith have always rested upon a profound trust that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John give us access to the "real" Jesus: Jesus as He existed in history. Yet the quests for the historical Jesus (with their various sequels) have generally operated with a profound distrust of the canonical Gospel accounts. Because of more honed historical methods, the historicity of the Gospels is suddenly challenged: now tangled up in the concerns of later church communities and the countless contaminating influences affecting the authors and their agendas. The Gospels, once transparent windows into the reality of Jesus, are now more like padlocked doors. Their methodological shoddiness masks the truth of Jesus' history more than it illuminates it. The truth of the figure known as Jesus must then be sought behind, rather than in, the Gospels. And the source of Christian faith in such accounts cannot derive from the authority of text or tradition themselves, but only from the reconstruction of the historical figure that the scholar molds, passing the clay through the furnace of methodological skepticism.

But as Bauckham notes, the methodology of the quests can only result in diverse reconstructions, rather than one solid consensus on the person of Jesus. We end up with divergent historical accounts that we can intelligibly call alternative gospels: the good news according to Crossan, Borg, Meier, Wright, Sanders, etc. This is because contra historical positivism, all historiography is inherently a combination of factual data and interpretive construction. It's rather obvious in the case of the Gospels; for as written for the specific purpose of inspiring faith in their subject, they are an apparent collage of theologically interpreted history. While the Gospels are not exactly upfront about their factual errors, the modern scholarly gospels have what seems to be the opposite problem: by continually emphasizing their historical-factual precision, they tend to disguise the dimension of interpretation and intuition in their accounts. They tend to silently presume an Archimedean point of view from which they gaze plainly upon the truth of the past, often ignorant of their own hermeneutical biases. Much like the Enlightenment accounts of pristine universal reason, we often get projects acting as if there is nothing at all in the background, and nothing at all brushed under the rug.

So if all historiography is inherently an amalgam of fact and interpreted meaning, then all historical sources -ancient or modern- should be scrutinized with attention to both dimensions. And that means appraising modern reconstructions with a keen eye to what is presupposed, what conceptions about the world and about truth and even about history itself are informing the historian's work. Modern reconstructions are still profoundly similar to the Gospels, precisely because they are both constructions.

It is then rather easy to see that increased historical knowledge can only complement the Gospel accounts, for which the theological meaning of the facts may be considered more central than the facts themselves. But the crucial question for Bauckham is: can a modern reconstruction ever replace the Gospels? Can a novel attempt to do precisely what the evangelists did, but with new-and-improved historical methods, ever provide the kind of access the the reality of Jesus that the Gospels themselves do in the eyes of Christianity? Can it ever provide the same kind of foundation for dogmatic reflection?

As the path diverges in the theological forest, Bauckham refuses to follow either the way of secularized historiography or a kind of Docetic theology divorced from history. Rather, he sees the paths converging in the historical Jesus through the key category of "eyewitness testimony." The kind of historiography that the Gospels are, he claims, is a testimony that intrinsically calls for trust in its proclamation. The criteria for trusting or distrusting such a history are the same criteria for trusting or distrusting witnesses. The proper response to authentic testimony is trust.

Understood as testimony, the Gospels become a perfectly reliable means of access to the historical Jesus. Testimony, which is in some sense involved in all historical enterprises, provides a way to read the Gospels both historically and theologically without conflict. For testimony unites the reliability of an eyewitness, involved in some measure in the historical events, with the theological interpretation of the events that the eyewitness was in a unique place to provide. So while historiography remains an entangled combination of fact and interpreted meaning, the Gospels are no longer viewed as imposing much later, alien interpretive concerns on events that are factually distant from them. The paradigm for the Gospel stories is now the interpreted factual accounts of the eyewitnesses: or rather, the events as interpreted by those involved in the events themselves. The question can thus be phrased this way: can the factual precision of modern critical methods ever trump the unique interpretive vantage point of the eyewitnesses to Jesus' historical reality and their traditions? Can the meaning provided by a purer collection of historical data ever replace the meaning of the events as seen by those who were part of Jesus' story?

To secure this ideal, Bauckham must argue that the Gospel texts are much closer to stories that the eyewitnesses told than is commonly acknowledged. The editing and layers of interpretation do not obscure their fundamental faithfulness to the stories the eyewitnesses told, not nearly to the extent that most scholars have come to accept as "gospel truth." Bauckham bolsters his account by drawing from ancient Greco-Roman historical methods, in which eyewitness testimony served as the ideal source for writing about the past: participation in the events, and not a sober dispassionate perspective, was cherished above all; for their unique vantage point of interpretation was not considered an obstacle to the meaning of what really happened but rather essential to it. Eyewitnesses were as much interpreters as observers (so why not trust their combination over the research and interpretation of modern alternatives?). If this is the way historical work operated, how events were passed on, then the canonical Jesus was already an interpreted Jesus from the very first telling. Such a paradigm seems to put a grand restriction on the ambitions of modern reconstructions to get back to a Jesus that was unsullied by someone's "perspective" (since ANY material considered by the standards of the time to be reliable history would have been already an interpretation!). Remembering and retelling were themselves hermeneutical acts, and the unique authority eyewitnesses had regarding the meaning of events was key.

Contra form criticism, Bauckham vigorously attacks the notion that the Evangelists were removed from the first-hand accounts of the events by a long process of anonymous transmission of the traditions; arguing rather that the Evangelists were more likely in direct contact with eyewitnesses. Bauckham seems to have exposed a chink in the armor of form criticism by noting that, if they got it right, how then explain the disappearance of the disciples and their stories from the historical map? Are we to believe that the individuals whom Christ chose to carry on his message did not tell their story, did not attract followers who heard them and respected them with the authority of an eyewitness (common to ancient times), and that the way the Christian movement interpreted the life of their founder would be so remarkably detached from the way the very first followers told the tale? It is far more likely, according to Bauckham, that the disciples would have traveled, taught, preached, and told their stories to the communities they founded. And their versions of Jesus' teachings and life story would naturally have taken precedent in the communities over those of followers more historically or geographically removed. In place of "anonymous tradition," the stories were likely attached to specific, personal tradents who became authoritative figures. Further, the Gospels were likely written within living memory of the events they recount, not nearly as separated in time as many scholars assume; probably put in writing so that once the eyewitnesses passed, their stories would not be forgotten or distorted. The accounts of anonymous oral transmission analogous to folklore traditions simply presuppose a patently unrealistic temporal and spatial gulf: communities were not nearly widespread enough and not nearly enough time had passed to be comparable!

Bauckham makes a number of unpopular scholarly claims, ones with a heavy argumentative burden on their shoulders. He spends pretty much the rest of the book providing analysis and historical evidence to back up these claims. Apart from the staggering scope of his project, and the mountain of opposition needed to be scaled, his arguments are eminently convincing. They ring with a certain reasonableness and certainly shatter the presumed hegemony of the modern quests in my mind. Overall, the book has been clear, well-argued, and simply exciting. Bauckham seems to be fighting inch by inch to reclaim a little space, a bit of breathing room, for the fundamental reliability of the Gospels. All while maintaining allegiance to historical-critical standards and theological potency. It is, without doubt, a work to be talked about for some time to come.

For those interested, the latest issue of Nova et Vetera contains a number of essays discussing the book, along with Bauckham's responses.

Pax Christi,


Post a Comment

<< Home