Thursday, February 24, 2011

Richard Bauckham on the Nature of the Gospels (part two)

Lectures 2-4: The Gospels as Multi-Perspectival Micro-History ‘From Below’

In my last blog post, I shared in some depth the insights gleaned from the first of Richard Bauckham’s four lectures in the Julian Gay lecture series at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, last Tuesday and Wednesday (February 16 & 17, 2011). This afternoon, I want to share a few thought from his latter three lectures.

First, Bauckham emphasized the unique nature of the Gospels as ancient history ‘from below’. Modern history ‘from below’ focuses on the perspective and agency of “the common people” instead of the traditional focus on the elite. In ancient history, such a perspective is almost entirely unknown. Greco-Roman biographies focused on the lives of the powerful elites of society; when slaves or commoners were mentioned, it was only insofar as they furthered the plot and story of the elite biography.

The New Testament Gospels, on the other hand, have a distinct concern for and focus upon non-elite segments of society. Bauckham stratifies first-century Palestinian society into six different groups: the elite, retainers, the common people, slaves, the poor, and outcasts. All six groups (of which the common people are the vast majority) are strongly represented as active agents in the Gospels. More intriguingly, Jesus’ followers are found amongst all six social groups.

Bauckham then spent considerable time drawing the basic conditions and proportions of the six social strata – an illuminating discussion that I will not recap here.

In his final lecture, Bauckham talked about ‘micro-history’, the focus upon a narrower picture or segment of the past. The Gospels, according to Bauckham, are filled with little stories of little people, whose lives would otherwise be unnoticed and insignificant. In this fashion, the gospels were a challenge to the prevailing Greco-Roman metanarrative. Whereas the Roman historians and biographers focused almost exclusively upon the powerful elite, the Gospels intentionally focus upon the lowest and the least. Bauckham identifies in this focus a purposeful, provocative challenge to the imperial powers: “You are not what ultimately matters,” the Gospels say, “Rather, Jesus and the ‘least of these’ are penultimate.”

The micro-history from below climaxes at the cross. On the cross, Jesus is socially degraded, cast out of the social order altogether. Is this the logical ending to his ministry, which has identified and associated with commoners and outcasts particularly? Jesus has made ‘the least’ socially amongst the most visible in his community of followers; now, on the cross, Jesus joins ‘the least’. Hence, while Roman historians would avoid (or deny) the reality of the cross in writing a biography of the powerful Jesus, the Gospel-writers emphasize and highlight the cross as the climax of Jesus’ life and ministry. Ironically, you can detect the Greco-Roman emphasis upon powerful elite status in biography within Muslim historians and theologians, who generally deny the reality of Christ’s death of the cross, holding that Allah must have rescued his prophet ‘Isa’ from such a humiliating death.

Micro-history is further highlighted in the resurrection narratives. In the discovery of the empty tomb and the resurrection appearances, ‘minor’ characters are allowed to speak for themselves, rather than being shaped and revamped by emerging Christian narrative. Like N. T. Wright, Bauckham finds it significant that the Gospels’ accounts of the resurrection do not even mention the post-mortem Christian hope conveyed by Christ’s resurrection. The resurrection narratives speak for themselves instead.

Bauckham closed his last lecture by addressing post-modernism and its challenges to historiographical knowledge. Bauckham rejected the argument that post-modernism makes historical knowledge impossible; but he acknowledged that postmodernism rightly chastens historiography, reminding us that history is multi-perspectival. We cannot take a God’s-eye view of history; we are situated subjects. Thus, we are well-advised to take into account multiple perspectives of historical events. In particular, Bauckham concluded that we need to take the four Gospel accounts seriously, as multi-perspectival historiography.

If you are intrigued by Bauckham’s thoughts, as I am, I recommend you read his Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. He has penned other titles, including The Testimony of the Beloved Disciples and Jesus and the God of Israel. Bauckham is a solid, richly rewarding scholar to read (and to listen to).