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Jesus and the Eyewitnesses – where does Bauckham go wrong?

June 16, 2015

I host a radio show called, Logos Live. It’s broadcast on a couple of radio stations in Australia.

This is an episode I recorded last year and it was broadcast this last week. I interviewed well respected scholar Richard Bauckham about ‘Jesus and the Eyewitnesses’. I discussed with him many (reasonable) questions and objections that skeptics often ask. For example questions including, ‘Are the Gospels historical?’, ‘Isn’t eyewitness testimony unreliable?’ ‘Aren’t the Gospels fiction?’ ‘Are miracles incompatible with history?’ and so on. It made for a fascinating discussion and it’s recorded here.

I’d be really keen to hear some atheist/skeptical responses to Bauckham’s arguments. What do you think he gets wrong? (and why?) Is there some literature or author he has overlooked? I’d be keen to hear some atheist responses.

Also (for the sake of balance) – I’d be keen to hear (from skeptics) what were the things that Bauckham says which you find reasonable, noteworthy or will require you to make further investigations?

I hope this interview stimulates some fruitful and thoughtful conversations and discussions.


From → Bible, History, Jesus

  1. Skeptic here.

    I’ve not got round to listening to the piece yet so can’t comment directly.

    My view on the historical made Jesus is that there isn’t the evidence to make a definitive conclusion. He could have existed or he could be an invention.

    The testimonies and miraculous accounts are all in a single source. A source that needs them to be true in order to bolster the salvation message. It’s also a source that had undergone a lot of editing so can we really be certain of its historical accuracy?

    So I doubt the miracles but I’m undecided on the person because I don’t think there’s enough information to be sure.

    • Thanks for your comments. Always appreciate thoughtful comments. It would be good to listen to the piece some time if you’re able.

      Not quite sure I agree that there isn’t the evidence to make a definitive conclusion about the existence of Jesus. Historians agree that there is overwhelming evidence that he really existed.

      The testimonies and miraculous accounts are not in a single source – there are multiple authors and they all suggest the same thing.

      In terms of editing – I’m not quite sure what scholarly research you’re referring to. It hasn’t undergone wholesale editing and we have greater reason to trust the textual fidelity of the Gospels than we do any other ancient document.

      Thanks for your comments – hope you comment again some time.

  2. This was a relatively short programme in which to cover a big topic, so any observations are subject to the caveat that I have not read Bauckham’s book and he may develop his arguments more fully there.

    The gospels are not eye witness testimony. No argument was presented for that. They may or may not have been compiled from the testimony of people who were eye witnesses, but even if they were, that would still make them hearsay. So at best, they are an account of what the writer was told by somebody else, and we know nothing about those other people so we cannot judge their reliability or truthfulness.

    Bauckham was rather too willing to minimise or misrepresent (I’m not suggesting dishonesty, just a bit of cognitive bias!) the problems with even first-hand eye witness accounts. It’s not just lapse of time or lack of interest in what’s happening that account for inaccurate memories:

    I try to avoid telling “war stories” on these forums, but a recent case I dealt with is so pertinent that I have to include it. An elderly man had his ATM card stolen while he was withdrawing money. His statement, made the same day, described how the thief took him by the arm as he was trying to insert the card, then how he (victim) grabbed the card back but was pushed away by the thief, who ran off. Because of the use of force to achieve the theft, the defendant was charged with robbery. When we finally got the CCTV it did show evidence capable of proving that the defendant had stolen the card whilst the victim was distracted, but at no time did he lay a finger on the victim, the victim never even tried to grab his card back and the defendant walked, rather than ran off. The charge was reduced from robbery to theft. I don’t doubt for a moment that the victim was honest. But he was wrong. There’s your problem.

    • Frances.

      Thanks for your comments. I appreciate them and I do apologise for the slowness of responding. I have been away on holidays for a couple of weeks and I was a bit pressed for time before I left.

      I’m intrigued by your claim that the gospels are not eyewitness testimony. I wonder if it could be a difference of opinion on what constitutes eyewitness testimony? What would you consider to be eyewitness testimony?

      I think Bauckham would say that there are instances where the actual eyewitnesses themselves have written accounts (e.g. Mark or John) but in other cases the author (editor) has collected the stories by eyewitnesses and gathered them together – a bit like how Luke describes his method (Luke 1:1-4). Why would you trust that record less than by the witnesses themselves? This would still be a form of eyewitness testimony would it not? I have a history book on Auschwitz by Laurence Rees and he interviews eyewitnesses and collects them in a book. Should I be skeptical on his reliability? Could this book be still described as containing eyewitness testimony?

      I appreciate your ‘war story’ about the credit card and that is very helpful. Yet I think Bauckham would agree that there are details which get changed or remembered incorrectly in eyewitness testimony. Yet the core of the story is still reliable – i.e. no-one denies that the card was stolen. This part of the story was certainly reliable. Couldn’t this be a demonstration that the Gospels are actually more likely to be eyewitness testimony? As the Gospels vary details but all agree on central aspects of the story – i.e. there was an empty tomb and people saw Jesus alive?

      Thanks again for your comments and I hope you’re going well.


      • Hi Rob,

        I hope you had a good holiday.

        What constitutes eye witness testimony would be the testimony of the eye witnesses themselves, in their own words. For instance, if I tell you that I have seen the Loch Ness Monster, you have eye witness testimony. If you tell your friend, Amy “Frances saw the Loch Ness Monster!” then Amy would *not* have eye witness testimony. But if you had made a video or audio recording of me telling you that I had seen the LNM and played it to Amy, or even if you had taken a verbatim note of what I said to you and read that to her, then Amy *would* have eye witness testimony.

        That is why Lawrence Rees’ book would properly be said to contain eye witness testimony, as presumably he reproduces their own words verbatim. But that is not the only distinction with the gospels. I assume Rees names his sources and provides some details about them. Sources in the gospel remain conspicuously unnamed. Although Bauckham claims that in some cases, because persons are named, the writer “must have” got his account from that person, I see no reason to believe that and anyway, if you got your account from that person why not just come out and say so? What could be more impactful than saying “And I spoke to this person and s/he told me this him/herself”?

        I imagine that Rees may make some general observation of his own about how things worked in Auschwitz where he speaks in his own voice. But the reason we can rely on him when he does this is because he will be able to show his sources, so where he says (e.g.) that prisoners were frequently subjected to roll call he will then back it up either by quoting from an eye witness who describes this or providing a reference to a document which bears this claim out. If he did not do this, if all we had were Rees’ words with no quotes from named sources or references to checkable documents, then absolutely you should be sceptical on his reliability!

        When you cite Mark as an instance of where the eye witness themselves wrote the account, do you mean Matthew? I have always understood that Mark was never supposed to be an eye witness whereas Matthew traditionally was. But either way, why do none of the gospels ever use the first person singular or plural when referring to that person as an individual or as part of a group if any of the gospel-writers were actually there?

        The ATM thief: I wouldn’t go so far as to say that “no-one denies the card is stolen.” It’s very much a matter of interpretation as you can’t actually see the card being stolen. But is that the core of the story? If the CCTV had shown pushing but no theft, then would “use of violence” become the core of the story? I guess what I’m saying is that it’s maybe too easy to claim a “hit” every time “something” fits the story. If your argument is reliability of witnesses, the misses are more pertinent, IMO.

        The gospels do all say that the tomb was empty, but they were not written independently of each other. And Mark, generally accepted as the earliest, makes no mention of anyone seeing Jesus alive, which most people would regard as very odd commission, if that had really happened.

        PS – on a complete digression I am greatly looking forward to going to the inaugural meeting of the Christians and Skeptics discussion group tonight, set up by Ed!

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