In the Mouths of Two or More Witnesses

Review of Richard Bauckham. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. Grand Rapids, MI:
Eerdmans, 2006. xiii + 538 pp. $26.00.

In the Mouths of Two or More Witnesses

Reviewed by Noel B. Reynolds

For readers who have found the pervasive skepticism of
twentieth-century scholarship on the four Gospels and the life of Jesus Christ
tedious and even challenging, Richard Bauckham has produced a late-career tour
de force that builds on other attempts to counter the skeptics while advancing
a powerful and radically new refutation of that dominant approach. He lines up
the skeptics’ assumptions and systematically refutes them all, either by
invoking and extending the arguments of other scholars or by developing his own
arguments and forms of evidence. That alone would be a major achievement to be
widely heralded. But Bauckham goes on to give us powerful and largely original
arguments to establish credible direct control of the wording of three of the
Gospels by recognized eyewitnesses, concluding that

1.    Mark
contains Peter’s account of Christ’s ministry as formulated by Peter and
memorized by Mark and others who knew Peter;

2.   Luke
draws on both Mark’s presentation of Peter’s account and the accounts of other
equally knowledgeable eyewitnesses, including especially the women in Jesus’s
life; and

3.   John is
in fact authored by John, another eyewitness from the beginning, but not the
son of Zebedee.

Bauckham reviews the evidence for
different authors and presents a strong argument for his conclusion that John
the Elder, as he was known in first-century Christian circles, was the author
of the Gospel of John and the three epistles that bear his name. This makes the
Gospel of John the only one of the four Gospels to be actually authored by its
principal eyewitness.

 Although other
conservative New Testament scholars have advanced important objections and
modifications to the dominant approach of form criticism, Bauckham aims at a
complete refutation of the assumptions of the form critics that he sees
dominating scholarly work on the Gospels. He specifically targets the idea that
“the traditions about Jesus, his acts and his words, passed through a long
process of oral tradition in the early Christian communities and reached the
writers of the Gospels only at a late stage of this process” (p. 6). In
spite of much evidence against that view, he sees it firmly in place: most
scholarly work continues to assume that the eyewitness accounts of Jesus’s
ministry suffered “a long process of anonymous transmission in the
communities” (p. 6) before their incorporation into the Gospels, which
would have been written independently of any direct influence of the
eyewitnesses. Against these assumptions, Bauckham presents evidence that the
Gospels were written under the direct influence of living eyewitnesses, and he
does this without any revision of the standard dating for their composition.

Using the recognized technique of inclusio, he argues
that “the Gospels themselves indicate their own eyewitness sources”
(p. 305). He also presents an elaborate study of memory and transmission
evidence to support his conclusion that the eyewitnesses actually controlled a
transmission process based on memorization to preclude the normal tendency to
modify an account in the retelling. Extending the work of Birger Gerhardsson,1 Bauckham develops a careful critique of the long-standing practice of form
critics treating oral tradition as folklore. In many ways he demonstrates the
careless superficiality of this approach. He stresses the necessary reliance of
all good history on eyewitness testimony. Bauckham’s argument builds on the
work of Samuel Byrskog 2 to show how classic historians depended on eyewitness reports for both the
facts and the interpretation or meaning of those facts. Bauckham sees the
marriage of historical reporting and faithful interpretation in the Gospels’
use of testimony as a built-in solution to the long-standing tension between
the historical and faithful approaches to New Testament scholarship.

Bauckham’s bold and challenging
theories have already provoked both admiring and critical responses from other
New Testament scholars.3 Many of his assumptions and evidentiary claims will be carefully evaluated in a
process that may play out over a period of many years. But no one can claim
that the issues he addresses are unimportant or that the arguments and evidence
he advances are not deserving of the most careful examination. Bauckham has
stirred a sensitive pot, and the fallout will inevitably be both interesting
and enlightening for serious readers of the Gospels.

Noel B.
Reynolds (PhD, Harvard University) is a senior professor of political science
at Brigham Young University.


1.   Birger
Gerhardsson, The
Reliability of the Gospel Tradition
(Peabody, MA: Hendrickson,
2001), 40.

2.   Samuel Byrskog, Story as
History—History as Story: The Gospel Tradition in the Context of Ancient
Oral History
(Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Sieback, 2000; Leiden: Brill,

3.   For an excellent
review of Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses from the perspective of a
Latter-day Saint New Testament scholar, see Thomas A. Wayment in BYU Studies 48/2 (2009): 165–68.