Book Review: Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses

Book Review: Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, Eerdmans, 2006

Richard Bauckham is a distinguished academic, a prolific author, and Professor of New Testament at St Andrew's University in Scotland.

In his latest book he works through the evidence of the four Gospels, and the writings of Papias [fl. 98-117 AD], in the context of various kinds of writing and historiography in the first century. He claims that the notion of eyewitness was recognised in the writing of history and in the writing of 'lives' of famous people in the first century, that it has good claim to be authentic, and that this kind of eyewitness account forms the substance of the four Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. Richard Bauckham applies this theory in great detail to the gospel of John, which he claims is the witness of John the elder of the church in Asia [not John son of Zebedee].

The significance of this claim must be seen against the background of Gospels' scholarship over the last 100 years. The key questions to ask is: what was the source and focus of the theological creativity which produced the Christian movement and which is reflected in the four Gospels? There have been three answers to this question over the last century.


That Jesus himself was the source and focus of this theological creativity, and that this work is faithfully recounted in the Gospels, which, though written many years later, give an accurate account of this theological creativity in his teaching. In this view, when we read the Gospels, we hear the teaching of Jesus from the perspective of the author of the Gospel.

That although Jesus got things going, the Gospels reflect the theological creativity and theological interests of the early church after Pentecost, as Jesus original teaching was passed on in spoken form, reformed and transformed to meet the needs of the time [Form criticism]. In this view, when we read to Gospels, we hear the teaching of the early church communities.

That the Gospels express the theological convictions of their editors or 'redactors,' who used the oral or written traditions they inherited, and then shaped the Gospels to reflect their own theology [Redaction criticism]. In this view when we read the Gospels, we hear the teaching of the editor or redactor of the Gospel.

It is important to note that in both ii. [Form criticism], and iii. [Redaction criticism], the actual historical teaching of Jesus is veiled behind the Gospels, and there is uncertainty what this teaching was, because the Gospels obscure, rather than convey, his teaching.

Richard Bauckham argues that the four Gospels are based on accurate eyewitness accounts of the life, ministry, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus. This means that this information is not lost, and that it is found in the four Gospels.

He does not fall into the trap of things that the Gospels reflect modern view of how history should be written, but carefully places them in their historical literary context. The effect of this is to puncture the hot-air balloon of the assumptions of Form-Critical scholarship, as, for example, expressed in Dennis Nineham's extraordinary claim:

And so it is an article of belief of the form-critic that the Gospel tradition owed the form in which it reached our evangelists almost entirely to community use and its demands, and hardly at all to direct intervention or modification on the part of the eye-witnesses ['Eye-witness testimony and the Gospel Tradition,' 1958, in Bauckham, p. 348].

That belief is likely to produce the obvious results! No wonder that Graham Stanton of Cambridge University states that this book 'shakes the foundations of a century of scholarly study of the Gospels.'

Of course each Gospel is influenced by the community from which it comes, and each editor has chosen what aspects of Jesus' teaching to emphasize to serve his purpose in writing his Gospel. However each Gospel is still based on trustworthy eyewitness account of Jesus' life, ministry, death and resurrection. As Bauckham shows, this means that we should not think of the Gospels as merely history, or merely theology, 'for the category of testimony or witness does justice to the Gospels both as history and as theology' [p. 505].

In 1963, Avery Dulles perceptively described two possible weaknesses in our view of Jesus Christ.

The adventures of non-Catholic biblical criticism of the past century make it evident that he who rejects the Christ of faith will soon end up by reducing the Jesus of history to a pale figure without religious significance. Conversely, he who makes light of the flesh-and-blood Jesus of history in the name of a more spiritual faith will end up prostrating himself before a timeless myth. If we are true to the Gospels, we shall insist on retaining both fact and interpretation, both history and faith. [Avery Dulles, Apologetics and the Biblical Christ, Burns and Oates, 1963], p. 57.

A crucial part of Jesus' ministry was his teaching, as his title 'Rabbi' makes clear. We should not make light of that teaching, lest we end up serving only 'a timeless myth.' We should also accept the fullness of the Biblical revelation about Jesus Christ, lest we end up serving only 'a pale figure, without any long-term theological significance.'

N. T Wright commends this book in these words,

Richard Bauckham, in a characteristic tour de force, draws on his unparalleled knowledge of the world of the first Christians to argue not only that the Gospels do indeed contain eyewitness testimony but that their first readers would have recognised them as such. This book is a remarkable piece of detective work, resulting in a fresh and vivid approach to dozens, perhaps hundreds, or well-known problems and passages.

A technical book, but a great read. It will, I hope, have a big impact.1


Peter Adam is the principal of Ridley College and a member of the General Synod Doctrine Commission. Among the most important of his daily tasks is walking his poodle, George.