Monday, February 21, 2011

Richard Bauckham on the Gospels as (Reliable) Historical Biography

Richard Bauckham Lectures – What Sort of History are the Gospels?

This week Dr. Richard Bauckham (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple) was in Louisville, Kentucky, to deliver the Julian Gay Lectures at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I had the privilege of taking in all four of his lectures, two on Tuesday, two on Wednesday. They were fruitful, illuminating, and enjoyable. I wanted to share some thoughts from Bauckham’s lectures, particularly the first one, but with some insights from the second and third ones as well.

Bauckham spent the first lecture discussing the genre of the New Testament Gospels. He examined Richard Burridge’s argument (Burridge, What Are the Gospels? [Eerdmans, 2004]) that the Gospels most closely fit the ancient genre of bioi, or Greek biography. Bauckham asserted that Burridge’s thesis has widespread (though not universal) acceptance amongst Biblical scholars. He stressed that bioi was not a strict, iron-clad genre, but was rather flexible and porous, with considerable overlap with proximate literary genres—particularly historiography (accounts of historical events) and encomium (training manuals). The Gospels, then, according to Bauckham, are best classified as “historical biography.”

Bauckham then examined the different types of biography in extant Greek literature—intellectual biographies (focusing on philosophers and their thought-systems), military biographies (studying generals, e.g. Plutarch’s Life of …), and hagiographies (biographies of religious figures and ‘holy men’, e.g. Life of Apollonius of Tyana; Porphyry’s Life of Plotinus). Bauckham noted that this last type of biography (hagiography) is actually difficult to distinguish, and he rejects the distinction altogether.

Bauckham then examined a key distinction that the ancient Greeks made between contemporary and distant biographies. Contemporary biographies involved writing while the subject was still alive, or within living memory—e.g. Lucian’s Life of Demonas. Distant biographies recounted the lives of individuals long-since dead—e.g. The Life of Aesop, the Life of Homer. According to Bauckham, non-contemporary history and biography was not esteemed to the same extent as that close to the events they narrated. Along the same lines, contemporary history was expected to rely on personal eyewitness testimony; indeed, to be considered “reliable” or “good”, history had to rely on eyewitnesses.

Bauckham then discussed the work of Samuel Byrskog (Story as History, History as Story [Brill, 2002]). Byrskog contends that in history both ancient and contemporary, the ideal witness is not an unbiased, dispassionate observer, but rather one who was socially involved (or an active participant) in the events narrated. Bauckham proceeded to list factors that tend to heighten both memory and the reliability of eyewitness testimony. (1) Personal involvement, engagement, or investment in the events remembered/narrated. (2) Attaching significance or importance to the events remembered/narrated. (3) Retelling/rehearsing the events. Bauckham noted if an individual recounts an experience that they have witnessed, the account soon takes on a relatively fixed form, and does not diverge much from it afterward. In other words, the most reliable memory and trustworthy eyewitness account comes from someone who was personally involved or invested in the events, believed the events to be of tremendous significance to themselves and others, and has recounted or told the story regularly since the original occurrence. That is why, even 18 years later, I will still recount and retell my conversion to Christianity is remarkably similar terms. (Indeed, one good friend used to tell me that he found my testimony boring, because it was always the same. But that’s simply the nature of eyewitness testimony—the story doesn’t change!)

This leads naturally to a discussion of the reliability of memory in eyewitnesses. Several researchers, among them Dale Allison and John Dominic Crossan, have suggested that human memory is inherently unreliable. Crossan recounts several examples; one of the most interesting being recorded memories of the events of September 11, 2001. A class of college freshman was given a questionnaire within a week of 9/11, asking several questions: (1) where were you when you heard; (2) what were you doing; (3) what was your immediate reaction or response? Three years later, as college seniors, the same group of students was given an identical questionnaire. Responses to the two questionnaires were very different. This leads Crossan to discount the reliability of memory in general, and to suggest that the Gospels as “eyewitness testimony” does not increase their trustworthiness as historical accounts.

The analogy fails, however. Students may have remembered their own physical location, occupation, and even immediate responses to the events of 9/11 differently three years later; but they remembered the actual events of 9/11 similarly. That is, the key historical event, the terrorist attacks upon the World Trade Center and other targets, was remembered accurately, even while the extraneous details (where were you, etc.) were not. This is neither surprising nor remarkable, and it certainly does nothing to undermine the thesis that Bauckham is defending.

To the conclusion of the matter, then. Bauckham argues that ancient history was esteemed when it was written within living memory of the events it narrated; and that reliable history had to record the accounts of eyewitnesses. Hence, eyewitnesses would have been prestigious individuals within the early church. They would have remained authoritative sources and guarantors of the Jesus tradition in the early church.
The New Testament Gospels in particularly were written at a time when (1) eyewitness testimony was still available; but (2) was becoming unavailable as the original generation of eyewitnesses began to die out. Even on relatively liberal/critical dating, Mark’s Gospel (the earliest) is written around 70; Matthew and Luke by 85, and John by 95—the original generation is almost extinct by the time John writes, but there are still living eyewitnesses to the events the Gospels narrate. The presence of living eyewitnesses has two significant effects upon the Gospel accounts: (1) there is a negative check, in that false accounts would be corrected by the eyewitnesses; and (2) there is a positive check, in that eyewitnesses could affirm the truthfulness of the Gospels.

Thus, Bauckham argues, the Gospels are historically reliable as (1) historical biography, (2) written close to the time of the events they narrate, (3) relying on the testimony of personal eyewitnesses, (4) who were personally present and involved in those events, (5) found those events to be of incredible significance, and (6) retold and rehearsed the events of the gospels regularly and repeatedly in oral form.

That’s a basic summary of Bauckham’s first lecture—God willing I will return later this week to share some of the latter three lectures.