One of the surprising pleasures of my professional life this past year has been leading a class on liturgy for clergy of other denominations who are in the process of being received as Episcopalians. In partial fulfillment of the canonical requirements for their reception, we’ve been meeting once a week and working our way through the liturgies and theology of the Book of Common Prayer. The opportunity has allowed me to return to my own notes from the classes I took with Prof. (now Bishop) Paul Marshall back in the day and add to them my own experience after nearly twenty years of using the liturgies in regular worship. Answering their questions of “why?” has gotten me to revisit my own pat answers and realize that there’s now more nuance to them than they used to have.
I guess because the Bishop here saw how much fun we were having, he asked if he and couple of others could occasionally crash the party. (Well, not actually, but it sounds good.) He and the Canon to the Ordinary join us a couple of times a month. When that happens we put away our regular lesson plan and substitute a seminar like discussion of challenging recent book that would be of interest to all of us. Right now we’re reading through Antony Flew’s latest “There is a God” and next up is Rene Girard’s “Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World”. Our first book was Richard Bauckham’s “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses”.
Bauckham’s book, which won the Ramsey prize for theological writing last year, was not exactly a page turner. His academic writing style slows the reader down and forces us to pay attention to his line of thinking. He marshals an incredible amount of data, often presented in table form, and the reader needs to pour over these if one is hoping to read his book with any sort of academic integrity so as to ask him to convince them of his thesis.
And it’s a thesis that’s worth the work. He argues contra much of the academic tradition of the latter part of the twentieth century that the oral traditions of the New Testament writing are very reliable. Furthermore he points out that the time between the founding of the Church and the writing of the gospels was so short that there were still eyewitnesses who could and would challenge details of the narratives if they were fanciful or fraudulent.
He begins with a return to the fragments of Papias’ writing found in Eusebius’ Church History. Papias has been granted some recent notoriety for his claims that he disdained the written accounts of Jesus life preferring instead to hear the accounts of the eyewitnesses to the events who were still alive in his day. Bauckham reexamines these words and finds not a disdain, and makes a rather sophisticated argument that the gospels and the actual writings of Papias are written in the form of best historical works of their day.
Bauckham then spends a goodly portion of the rest of his book pointing out that what we can actually test of the narratives (context, sitz-im-leben, narrative style, names, etc) is consistent with this idea.
The point of the argument seems to be this: The gospel authors intended to write accurate accounts. They wrote in a form that was recognizably a historical biography (of which most of the contemporary examples of the genre have been lost). They wrote in a period in which there still people who could write challenges if they made claims that weren’t true.
People who have dismissed the gospels as clumsy pieces of propaganda written by unlettered rubes, making up a genre as they went have to confront this challenge. The writers, according to Bauckham’s view, wrote in the form of the best history of their day. They wouldn’t have done so if they weren’t trying to convince their readers of the veracity of their account. If they are as unlettered as is argued, then they wouldn’t have had the sophistication to use the form they did. If they we sophisticated liars, then why didn’t they do a better job smoothing over the rough spots of the gospels?
I’m not sure the critics of the gospels as historical documents really can answer this challenge satisfactorily.
And if this is all so, then rather than read the Gospels as something quaint, we can approach them as reliable documents, certainly of the quality of other documents of the same period which we have traditionally used as primary sources for doing academic history.
The reading group I led did not follow uncritically to this idea. But we all arrived in agreement that except for a few quibbles of side issues, Prof. Bauckham proves his point.
And that point, that the Gospels are not to be dismissed as narrative fiction, but reliable accounts of something unique in human history, forces one to once again ask the question: “Who do I say Jesus is?”
As a believing Christian I’ve answered that question the same way most of my life: “My Lord and my God.” But now I say that with a greater degree of certainty that I’m referring to the historical Jesus of Gospels as well as the full revelation of the Divine in the man Jesus that the early Church followed.
If you’re a preacher, put this book on your reading list.