Sunday, February 26, 2017

Who told the stories of Jesus?

Christ Pantocrator in the Cefalù Cathedral.
What are we to make of the stories about Jesus in the New Testament. Are they collections of oral tradition handed down through the years? Or are they the actual testimony of real people who were there at the time?

An answer comes in the book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham, a biblical scholar and theologian. The writer Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry has reviewed the book. 

Here are excerpts:
A number of prominent Bible scholars believe that Bauckham’s book just might be the most important book of New Testament scholarship in many decades–the kind of paradigm-shifting work that will be ignored by most current scholars and only taken up by a new generation, as science advances “one funeral at a time”.
In a word, the book argues that the Gospels are books of oral history; in other words, that they are based on the direct accounts of specific, named eyewitnesses to the life and ministry of Jesus. This is contrary to the assumption of most New Testament scholarship, drawn from the form criticism of the early 20th century, that the Gospels are works of oral tradition, in other words collections of anonymous traditions passed down through many iterations between the actual witnesses and the writers of the Gospels.
Bauckham digs deep into the evidence. Sometimes an argument turns on a specific phrase which has (Bauckham argues) been widely misinterpreted, and so Bauckham will spend many pages on the meaning of one or two Greek words to dispatch the many opposing arguments and get the sense just right.
Why is this important to us?
As Bauckham writes, finally, looking at the Gospels under the category of testimony brings together the “Jesus of History” and the “Jesus of Faith.” It is because of the testimony of the Gospel that we Christians believe in Jesus. And it is by looking at the Gospels as testimony that historians can actually do justice to these important pieces of evidence we call the Gospels, and do justice to their craft (which, of course, does not entail taking this testimony uncritically).
We have just sort of gone along with this oral tradition notion, Bauckham writes, even though there isn't much evidence for it, and even though it is not supported by common sense.

Gobry doesn't say this explicitly, but I will: Oral tradition can easily be relegated to myth, thereby negating the power of the Gospels, whereas oral history has the authenticity of truth.

There is a lot more in the full review.

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