Monday, February 05, 2007

Initial Impressions Of Richard Bauckham's Book

I recently finished reading Richard Bauckham's Jesus And The Eyewitnesses (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2006). I've already linked to reviews by Chris Tilling and Ben Witherington, and Patrick Chan has linked to a review by Craig Blomberg. A lot of what needs to be said about the book has already been said.

The role of eyewitnesses in shaping the New Testament and early Christianity is stated explicitly in many early sources, and it would be reasonable to expect eyewitnesses to be highly influential even without any explicit discussion of the subject in the early documents. Bauckham adds stength to a case that was already strong by bringing attention to a lot of less explicit evidence that's often neglected. It seems likely that the neglect of such evidence, both the more explicit evidence and the less explicit evidence, is often due to the fact that some scholars don't like the implications that follow. Bauckham repeatedly refers to conclusions that some scholars reach with "no evidence" (p. 278) or in the teeth of large amounts of contrary evidence. For example:

"It is a curious fact that nearly all the contentions of the early form critics have by now been convincingly refuted, but the general picture of the process of oral transmission that the form critics pioneered still governs the way most New Testament scholars think." (p. 242)

He comments on how the study of memory hasn't been given much attention by form critics or by New Testament scholars in general (pp. 310-311, 319-320). Bauckham addresses the issue of memory in depth, and his conclusions render many of the theories of modern scholars, particularly more liberal scholars, implausible. Human memory isn't as bad as the more critical theories of Christian origins require.

Bauckham also effectively draws out the implications of the larger context in which Christianity originated. It was commonplace to seek out eyewitness testimony, and the people of the ancient world were often critical of non-eyewitness testimony and miracle claims in particular. Bauckham cites a common expression, found in multiple sources, to the effect that eyes are better witnesses than ears. In other words, eyewitness sources should be sought out rather than relying on sources who only heard an account with their ears. Bauckham cites many extra-Biblical parallels to the circumstances and literary practices of early Christianity. We can often tell that the early Christians were interested in eyewitness testimony because they express that interest in the same manner in which non-Christian sources did.

The book is a little over 500 pages long, and it discusses many subjects and goes into a lot of detail. I'm planning to post some excerpts in the coming days, but I'll only be able to scratch the surface. It's a good book, and I recommend reading it.

I do have some disagreements with Bauckham. One of my biggest disagreements is over the authorship of the Johannine documents. He makes a good case for authorship of the fourth gospel by a disciple of Jesus named John, but he argues for a John other than the son of Zebedee. His view is similar to Martin Hengel's. D.A. Carson is supposed to respond to Bauckham's argument in a commentary on the Johannine epistles that is, as far as I know, not out yet (D.A. Carson and Douglas Moo, An Introduction To The New Testament [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2005], n. 23 on p. 235). I assume that, if Carson was still working on the commentary when Bauckham's book came out, he'll include a discussion of Bauckham's latest arguments on the subject. I'm sure that Carson's evaluation of Bauckham's case will be better than mine, but I want to mention some of my initial impressions on the issue after reading Bauckham's book. He discusses this authorship issue at length and in multiple parts of the book. I can't interact with every detail of his argument in an article like this, and I might forget or misunderstand some of the points he made. I'm going by my initial impressions after reading a book that's more than 500 pages long. I did take notes, but not of every detail.

I still believe that the fourth gospel was written by the son of Zebedee, and here are some of the problems I see with Bauckham's case:

- He doesn't produce any explicit evidence that a second disciple of Jesus named John even existed, much less that this second John authored the fourth gospel. All of the evidence he cites, without exception, is of a highly ambiguous nature. For example, while it's true that the Muratorian Canon calls John "disciple" while calling Andrew "apostle", the terminology is too fluid to give much weight to Bauckham's argument. Bauckham himself cites examples of both terms being used of the same class of people in other second century sources. While the disciple/apostle distinction does add some weight to Bauckham's case, he needs evidence much weightier in order to overcome the large amount of more explicit evidence supporting authorship by the son of Zebedee. Similarly, while Polycrates' reference to John as "wearing the high-priestly frontlet" might be derived from Acts 4:6, it seems highly unlikely that Polycrates would have seen the John in that passage as a close disciple of Jesus, and, once again, Bauckham himself mentions some reasonable alternatives that would reconcile Polycrates with authorship of the fourth gospel by the son of Zebedee. Again, Bauckham needs much weightier evidence if he's to overcome the large amount of explicit evidence supporting the traditional view.

- All of the evidence he cites against authorship by the son of Zebedee is highly ambiguous. He asks why the fourth gospel would keep referring to the author as "the beloved disciple", without naming him, then name him in passing in John 21:2. But John 21:2 doesn't name the beloved disciple. It names a group that includes him (the sons of Zebedee). I'm not aware of any explicit evidence against authorship by John the son of Zebedee, in Bauckham's book or anywhere else.

- The second John who Bauckham argues for is supposed to have been close to Jesus as His beloved disciple. Yet, none of the other three gospels, Acts, or the writings of Paul mention this second John. They all mention the son of Zebedee. Bauckham notes that the sons of Zebedee are "barely" in the fourth gospel at all (p. 403), which would be a significant contrast with the other gospels and other early sources. But if the beloved disciple is one of the sons of Zebedee, then the fourth gospel would be more consistent with other early sources with regard to the prominence of the sons of Zebedee. The traditional view that the beloved disciple is John the son of Zebedee makes better sense than Bauckham's theory in this context.

- Bauckham points out that Irenaeus sometimes refers to people other than the Twelve as "apostles", so that he might have somebody outside the Twelve in view when he refers to the author of the fourth gospel as an apostle. That's true. But given the fact that the son of Zebedee was more prominent than Bauckham's second John (assuming that second John's existence), shouldn't we assume that the son of Zebedee is more likely in view when a John is referred to as "apostle" without any attempt to add further qualifiers? If Bauckham's John was considered an apostle, it would have to be in some lesser sense than the sense in which the son of Zebedee was an apostle. An unqualified reference to a John who is an apostle is more likely to refer to a John who was an apostle in the highest sense.

- As far as I recall, Bauckham never addressed the fact that the beloved disciple in the fourth gospel is close to Peter (13:23-24, 20:2-3, 21:20), something we know to be true of the son of Zebedee in the other three gospels, Acts, and Galatians (Mark 5:37, 9:2, Acts 3:1-4:23, 8:14-25, Galatians 2:9, etc.). Apparently, we're supposed to believe that not only was there a second disciple of Jesus named John who became universally confused with another John, but we're also supposed to believe that this second John shared the characteristics of being a close disciple of Jesus and being close to Peter, two characteristics that we know to be true of the son of Zebedee. In other words, Bauckham's theory doesn't just suggest that these two Johns were similar in sharing the same name. It also suggests that they were similar in other unusual ways.

- Bauckham acknowledges that some second century sources identified the son of Zebedee as the author of the fourth gospel, and he comments that attribution to the son of Zebedee seems to be "universal" in the third century (p. 452). If sources of the late second century, such as the Muratorian Canon and Polycrates, were still attributing the fourth gospel to some other John, then how likely is it that attribution to the son of Zebedee would be universal in the third century? Some of those third century sources lived in the second century also. If a large variety of second century sources identify the author of the fourth gospel as a person named John, all of those references can reasonably be identified as the son of Zebedee, Bauckham acknowledges that some of them are references to the son of Zebedee, and attribution to the son of Zebedee seems to be universal in the third century, then why should we think that proposing a second John never explicitly mentioned anywhere makes better sense of the evidence?

- As far as I know, the earliest source to explicitly advocate the theory of a second John is Dionysius of Alexandria, around the middle of the third century. He doesn't seem to have known of any long-standing tradition of a second John, but instead was speculating on the basis of internal evidence and what he had heard about the existence of tombs for more than one John in the city of Ephesus (Eusebius, Church History, 7:25). Similarly, not long after Dionysius, Eusebius (Church History, 3:39:5-7) offers another speculative and unlikely argument for another John based on a passage in the writings of Papias and an appeal to Dionysius' argument for two tombs of John in Ephesus. Both men would have had reason for mentioning a long-standing tradition of the existence of multiple Johns, but they don't. If their highly speculative theories left explicit traces in the historical record, and other theories about authorship by somebody other than the son of Zebedee left explicit traces in the historical record (the claim by the Alogoi that Cerinthus wrote the Johannine documents), doesn't it seem likely that arguments surrounding the existence of Bauckham's second John would have left more explicit traces? Instead, he has to rely on highly questionable readings of sources like Papias, the Muratorian Canon, and Polycrates.

- Bauckham repeatedly states or suggests that early Christian sources would have had a strong desire to attribute the Johannine documents to the son of Zebedee rather than Bauckham's second John. But if that second John was not only a disciple of Jesus, but even Jesus' close "beloved disciple", then why would the early Christians have much of a problem with attributing documents to him? They attributed documents to Mark, Paul, Barnabas, and other men who weren't as close to Jesus as the beloved disciple was. What motive would have been so strong as to result in a universal replacement of Bauckham's second John with the son of Zebedee? Bauckham never proposes a motive that I would consider anywhere close to sufficient.

- The idea that Eusebius or other early Christians were trying to suppress what Papias wrote about a second John is highly unlikely. Papias' work was extant until the Middle Ages, and a large variety of people had access to it and commented on it. (See here.) Some of the people who commented on it either say that Papias attributes the fourth gospel to the son of Zebedee or write as if Papias' testimony is consistent with that conclusion. I don't remember Bauckham ever discussing this fact in his book. At the web site linked above, see the comments of George the Sinner and Balthasar Cordier. If Bauckham is correct about his second John and the son of Zebedee becoming merged into one person in the minds of later sources, then when a later source like Jerome refers to how Papias was a disciple of John the evangelist, shouldn't we conclude that Jerome had John the son of Zebedee in mind? But if Papias refers to some second John instead in his writings, writings that men like Jerome had access to, wouldn't they know that some other John was in view? If somebody like Eusebius was deliberately ignoring what Papias said about a second John, then what about all of the other sources who also had access to Papias' writings and who either state or suggest that the John in question is the son of Zebedee? Were all of these other sources suppressing the truth along with Eusebius? Did all of them misread Papias?

Again, I would expect D.A. Carson to offer a better response to Bauckham on this issue than I can. I hope that Craig Keener, Craig Blomberg, and other advocates of the traditional view will also interact with Bauckham on this point.

I think that Bauckham's theory is the second best option available, but authorship by John the son of Zebedee still best explains the evidence. Though I disagree with Bauckham on this point, I think highly of him as a scholar, and I recommend his book. I consider it one of the most significant books in Biblical scholarship in recent years.

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