As a young believer in Sunday school I was taught rather straightforwardly that the gospels were written by real, historical persons with a direct relationship with Jesus of Nazareth. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John told their story just as it was lived. The Gospels (and all of Scripture) were divinely inspired and as such were inerrant and authoritative.
After I graduated from high school (and from my local church) I began my formal education. My first classes introduced me to form criticism, source criticism, and many other criticisms. Even though most of my professors held to a high view of Scripture, one could not help but view the Bible with a healthy skepticism. In the end, I was taught that the gospels were the product of many anonymous sources lost to history. The Jesus of the gospels was the Jesus of a received tradition developed by the faith community. The real Jesus, the Jesus of history, has become hopelessly lost in the layers of anonymous tradition and we must be content with the gospels in their final canonical form.
Before I go further, let me state that although I value my education, I never bought into the distinction between the Christ of history and the Christ of faith. I have consistently maintained that the gospels were apostolic and probably written prior to the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. In other words, the Jesus of the gospels is indeed the Jesus of history. But, among New Testament scholars that view is scorned by the majority.
In Jesus and the Eyewitnesses Richard Bauckham asserts that the Gospels are indeed the reliable testimony of first century eyewitnesses. Bauckham begins with the early second century work of Papias (c. AD 130), the Exposition of the Logia of the Lord, in which Papias says that he discounted the written and oral traditions of the elders in favor of those who spoke “from a living and surviving voice” (16). Bauckham defines “a living and surviving voice” as “the voice of an informant – someone who has personal memories of the words and deeds of Jesus and who is still alive” (27). Papias probably wrote his work “some considerable time after the time of which it speaks” (417) placing his eyewitnesses in the late first century or very early in the second century. The point of this discussion is that the gospels are not the product of long forgotten, or anonymous sources, but are dependent upon surviving eyewitnesses who are well known to the Christian community of the early second century.
What’s in a name? That is, why are some characters in the gospels anonymous, but others are named? Bauckham suggests that some of the characters are named because they (Lazarus, Jairus, Simon of Cyrene, Clopas, and others) are themselves the original sources of their stories and that they were the surviving voices who were known to the first century Christian community. Some of the characters are anonymous, or unnamed, because they were forgotten or unknown by the early church. But there may be more behind some of the unnamed characters. Peter is not named as Malchus’ assailant in the Synoptics because Peter was alive and in danger of prosecution. He was named in John because Peter had subsequently died. Also, why is the story of Lazarus (John 11) not told in the synoptic gospels? Bauckham asserts that it may have been because Lazarus was still alive and in danger of persecution while the synoptic gospels were being written. By the time John was being written, Lazarus had died and it was therefore safe to tell the story.
What about the role of the Twelve as the deposit of the authoritative apostolic tradition? Bauckham affirms the Twelve as “an authoritative collegium” located at Jerusalem. But he suggest that the authoritative testimony about Jesus included disciples not among the Twelve who “had been eyewitnesses of the whole ministry of Jesus, from its beginning when John was baptizing to Jesus’ resurrection appearances” (116). These eyewitnesses (Greek: autoptai) are “firsthand observers of the events” (117). The gospel writers did indeed depend upon various sources, but their sources were known persons – living voices. The primary source of the Gospel of Mark is the eyewitness testimony of the Apostle Peter. Mark conveys “the body of eyewitness traditions that he (Peter) and other members of the Twelve had officially formulated and promulgated” (180). The Gospel of John is the eyewitness testimony of “the beloved Disciple,” most probably not the Apostle John (the son of Zebedee), but John the Elder who was not one of the Twelve, but was a disciple of Jesus and an apostle in his own right.
Jesus and the Eyewitnesses is a must read for serious students of Christian origins and the gospels. Bauckham presents a compelling case that is supported by meticulous research, examples from ancient historiography, and reasonable arguments. In the end, the Christian faith is not dependent upon four primary evangelists; nor is it dependent upon anonymous or lost sources. Bauckham has demonstrated that the Christian faith contained in the four canonical gospels actually reflects the eyewitness testimony of scores, perhaps hundreds, of first century disciples of Jesus.