10 April 2007

1 John 1.1-3

Another nail in the form-critical coffin; from a review of Richard Bauckham's fresh take on the Synoptic Problem, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses:

The Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – present a conundrum that is probably unique in the annals of literary research. On the one hand they display similarities which are sometimes so close that it has been thought impossible they should have occurred had not the author of one had access to at least one of the others (and the reigning but not the only possible hypothesis is that Matthew and Luke both made use of Mark). On the other hand they have differences, mainly of verbal expression but sometimes also of content and arrangement, which generations of scholars, brought up in the tradition of historical criticism, have assumed is due to the use of different sources – so much so that the notion of “source” (Quelle in German) has given rise to the reconstruction of a document (“Q”) that is assumed to be the “source” of material that appears in similar form in Matthew and Luke but is absent in Mark. The consequence is that a Gospel writer must be imagined, no longer as a serene recipient of inspiration from on high (as envisaged in so many ancient works of art) but as a sometimes puzzled, sometimes creative, editor, using scissors and paste to weave together several different narratives or “sources”, and (according to more recent scholarship) compounding the complexity of his task by introducing theological interpretations of his own.

For this improbable scenario – the task would be difficult even with modern filing systems and computers, let alone with the limited resources available at the time – there is of course no ancient evidence whatever. Yet it has been unquestioningly adopted by scholars for a century and a half, mainly because, on the assumption that there is a literary relationship between the three Gospels – that is, that one writer had access to the work of another and could physically incorporate it in his own – it has seemed the only plausible explanation of the extraordinarily complex relationship that exists between these three documents. But is this assumption correct? Can the close verbal similarities be explained only by one writer’s having faithfully reproduced (with his own minor amendments) the exact words of a precursor? Are the differences best explained by the use of different sources at certain points in the narrative and by the manipulation of those sources carried out by an “editor” anxious to impress his own theological understanding on the raw material lying on his desk?

. . .

But now a new approach altogether has been proposed by Richard Bauckham, a scholar who already has an impressive record of research into Christian origins. In a previous book – Gospel Women (2002) – he was able to show, by a close study of personal names both in our texts and in the records of Palestinian culture, that a particular group of individuals in the New Testament, and their relationships with one another, have a striking internal consistency with regard to names and provenance and also reflect accurately the naming and family connections that were customary in their culture. In the face of such evidence, it is hard to believe either that these names could have been fabricated or that there was any serious loss of accuracy in remembering and recording them by the time the Gospels came to be written. In Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Bauckham continues his investigation into named individuals, and shows that the same conclusion holds for all. We have every reason, therefore, to assume a faithful and unbroken link between the original witnesses of Jesus’ life and death and the record of these things in the Gospels.

Following this clue, Bauckham then suggests we should take seriously the testimony of two second-century churchmen, Papias and Irenaeus – the first of whom has usually been dismissed by scholars as unreliable. Carefully examining the relevant texts – including the famous statement of Papias that Mark’s Gospel is derived from anecdotes heard from St Peter – Bauckham concludes that these writers gave absolute priority to eyewitness accounts of Jesus, many of which are likely to have been given by his closest followers; indeed, he argues that the fact that some minor characters in the Gospels are named, while others remain anonymous, strongly suggests that it was the named ones who were consulted for their personal recollections and that the Gospel writers, or those whom they consulted, were drawing on first-hand evidence that was inherently reliable and consistent, though with the inevitable variations and slight lapses which attend the exercise of memory in any age or culture – hence both the close similarities and the sporadic divergences exhibited by the Synoptic Gospels.



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