Monday, April 6, 2009

Are The Gospels Historically Reliable? A Review of Bart Ehrman’s, "Jesus, Interrupted", and Richard Bauckham’s, "Jesus and the Eyewitnesses"

These are two of the latest and most compelling books written on the subject of the historicity of the Gospels. Bauckham’s book came out in 2006 and Ehrman’s in 2009. The books are written in very different styles and with different purposes. Ehrman’s book was written on a more popular level, while Bauckham’s book is written in the style of a doctoral dissertation. Reading Bauckham is like being served a meal, but he first takes you in to the kitchen to show you the recipes and process of how the meal is cooked. Ehrman’s book is the meal without the explanations. So, Bauckham is a more thorough, but complicated read. I felt like I had to plow through Bauckham to get to the interesting insights, because he spends so much time taking you to his sources and building his case. Ehrman was more enjoyable to read. You don’t have to know arguments A, B, and C in order to understand argument D, as you do with Bauckham. But, Bauckham is covering new ground with his ideas, so he does the right thing as a scholar to provide careful reasoning and support. Ehrman is no less scholarly than Bauckham, but Ehrman is writing to the masses who do not know about the controversy over the historicity of the Gospels. Part of his stated purpose is to expose the masses of church going Christians to the 200 year old system of Historical Criticism, which views the gospels as non-historical. He claims that the reason most Christians don’t know about this method of doing history is because scholars have not communicated it on a level that people can understand. He also blames it on seminary trained students who have not properly taught their congregations that the Gospels are unreliable historically. But, he never concludes that maybe these students do not agree with the Historical Critical Method. Rather, he attributes the confusion to the pastoral interest to see the Gospels as devotional rather than historical.

Ehrman’s thesis is that the gospels were written by unknown authors far removed from the actual events, who wrote in different places with differing agendas. This is why the gospels are full of discrepancies and therefore cannot be trusted to give us the real history of Jesus. Bauckham’s thesis is that the gospels were biographical accounts of Jesus’ life written within the living memory of the eyewitnesses and that the eyewitness testimony of the disciples was the basis for the written Gospels. Therefore, the Gospels can be trusted to give us the real history of Jesus. Here are several reasons Bauckham and Ehrman are diametrically opposed to each other:

First, and most foundational, they have differing theories of how we should "do" historical analysis of the Gospels. Ehrman explains that the Historical Critical method requires a skeptical and disinterested analysis of the text of the Bible, as well as comparing the texts with other related documents of the period. By “disinterested” he means you cannot have a theological or personal interest in the outcome of the study of the text. You want to let the text speak for itself without any bias, so that you can let the chips fall where they may. For instance, you cannot bring with you to the study of the Gospels the assumption that God inspired the text of the Gospels. That would be a theological interest that would keep a scholar from getting to the real history behind the text. Bauckham appears to be a textual critic, but unlike Ehrman he is not skeptical of the gospels as real history. His study leads him to the conclusion that ancient historians at the time of Christ had a very high view of historical accuracy because of their trust in eyewitness testimony. Bauckham’s theory of historical knowledge is based on what the ancient historians thought about history, whereas Ehrman’s theory applies a modernist skeptical understanding of history.

Second, Ehrman and Bauckham have conflicting views of how the history of Jesus was transmitted and then written down as the Gospels. Ehrman sees the transmission of the eyewitness testimonies as “oral tradition”. That is, the witnesses testified originally to one or more people and then the story was retold to the next person or group and so on down the line. Finally, after countless transmissions of the stories the gospels were written down as fragments with the gospels as the final product. The fragments were the basis for the synoptic gospels, written between 35 and 65 years after Jesus died. He compares the impossibility of trusting this kind of historical transmission with the well known example of the telephone game. A story is told to one person, then that person tells the story to the next person, so that by the time it passes through several people it is a different story. (pg. 147). Bauckham sees Ehrman’s theory as outdated and wrong headed, based on how the Ancients actually “did” their history. To him, the Historical Critical method of Ehrman does not take the Ancients seriously. Actually, Bauckham’s whole book is a refutation of the kind of historical theory that Ehrman espouses. I think this is what makes the comparison reading of these two books interesting. Bauckham makes the case that the Ancients were very distrustful of any historical accounts that were not rooted in eyewitness testimony and which were not written during the “living witness” of the person who witnessed the events. In other words, the gospel writers wrote down what was testified to them by the actual witnesses, or by trusted elders of the Christian Community who carefully preserved the testimony of the witnesses. The discrepancies or contradictions can be accounted for by the nature of the gospel literature as biographies and the various perspectives from which the witnesses saw the events unfold. Bauckham never deals with the actual discrepancies, as Ehrman does, but that is not his purpose. However, it is clear from the development of this theory that he would not see them as irreconcilable.

Third, Ehrman and Bauckham have a very different understanding of the reliability of eyewitness accounts. Basic to Bauckham’s theory is the reliability of testimonial evidence. He builds a case for accepting testimonial evidence as a valid means of gaining historically accurate information. He claims that it is as valid epistemologically as inference, perception and memory. He acknowledges that it requires trust and cross examination, but we can ultimately rely on it. After all, this is how the Ancients understood the recording of history; they would have been careful. Furthermore, Bauckham has a persuasive chapter on “Eyewitness Memory” where he develops his theory that eyewitness recollection, as in the case of the gospels, is highly reliable as a source of history. He builds his case upon memory studies and theory. Ehrman completely overlooks this kind of possibility and dismisses the eyewitness concept of history within the space of one paragraph, essentially “declaring” eyewitness testimony unreliable (page. 103). Bauckham builds a case that demonstrates the gospels to be eyewitness accounts that were embraced by the leadership and community of the earliest churches. The stories were kept faithfully in tact, according to Bauckham. He bases much of his support for this upon Papias, an early church historian. Papias’ writings do not survive, but fragments of his writings are recorded within the writings of others contemporary to him. Papias was a second generation believer who claimed to know “the elders” who had known the original disciples. Papias provides a history that supports the authorship of the gospels by Mark and Matthew based on the eyewitness testimony of the disciples. For instance, he claimed that Peter’s testimony was the basis for Mark’s gospel. Ehrman addresses the Papias question, but dismisses Papias as unreliable and therefore untrustworthy.

I must say that I found myself appreciative of Ehrman’s clear and fair presentation of the problems with the gospels. He showed a number of apparent contradictions between the Gospels that I think every thinking student of the Bible must deal with. However, I came away distrustful of Ehrman’s conclusions. He often makes the claim that the Bible is “full” of contradictions, which renders them untrustworthy. His chapter titles are very suggestive of this kind of “all-or-nothing” conclusion, “A World of Contradictions”, “A Mass of Variant Views”. He leaves no room for discussion about whether or not the discrepancies in the gospel texts can be reconciled. He does not present any opposing arguments. He simply states that the discrepancies are impossible to reconcile. But, what about Bauckham’s theory of the Ancient concept of doing history? Ehrman does not even address this theory, which appears to be a very valid approach. For all the claims that the Historical Critical Scholars make about being “historical” in their scholarship, I don’t see Ehrman addressing Bauckham’s historical approach to history. Perhaps he dismisses it as non-sense and unworthy of consideration?

Ehrman concludes the book with his understanding of who the “real” Jesus of history is. But, if we cannot trust the gospels to give us the “real” history, as Ehrman argues, then what is his source? As with all such historical critics Ehrman is left with a “pick-and-choose” approach to the Gospels for the discovery of the historical Jesus. A major criticism of those who utilize the Historical Critical Method to find the real historical Jesus is that the Historian creates his own Jesus. If you read those who follow Ehrman’s historical methodology you get a different picture of Jesus from each historian. There is the Jesus of John Dominic Crossan, who sees Jesus as, “The Wise Sage”. There is Marcus Borg’s Jesus, who he sees as, “The Man of the Spirit”. There is Bart Ehrman’s Jesus, who he presents in this book as, “The Apocalyptic Prophet”. And so on…. Of course, this is understandable if the gospels are not completely historical. You have to cherry pick what you think is true and what is not. But, how is this more trustworthy than accepting an eyewitness testimony in the Gospels as historical? I think a follower of Bauckham’s theory would be able to see a much more objective picture of who Jesus was, because the sources are the four historically trustworthy gospels. Every scholar is on the same playing field when defining the historical Jesus and so you get a more unified picture of him.

My own view is that I’ll stick with the Apostle Peter’s presentation of the historical Jesus, who said, “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. II Peter 1:16


Vinny said...

I thought Bauckham’s reliance on Papias undermined his entire case. As far I can see, Bauckham offers no reason for considering Papias reliable other than the fact that Papias supports his thesis. Eusebius, who had access to all of Papias’ works didn’t think that he was very bright. The few fragments of Papias that survive, e.g., the corpulent Judas story, don’t give us any reason to think that Eusebius was wrong. Bauckham simply declares Eusebius to be prejudiced without engaging any of the evidence that would suggest that Eusebius knew what he was talking about.

Joe Staub said...

Well, he didn't completely rely on Papias, but he certainly was one piece of his argument. I think his case still has validity without Papias. But, I am going to go back and look in to Papias a little more as a result of your comment.

Thanks Vinny, I appreciate the input.


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