A challenge for students of the Bible

22 July 2009

Alan Storkey considers a new, radical way of looking at the New Testament

ESTABLISHMENTS are everywhere — in education, the Church, Marxist analysis, Sloane Square, and infant-school playgrounds, and they always tend to be more prob­lematic than their occupants will admit. To pass from corruption in Parliament to the biblical-studies establish­ment is hardly a smooth transition, but the latter is worth consideration.

The Michael Ramsey Prize award panel was unequivocal in saying that Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans) changes New Testament studies radically.

Professor Bauckham assembles substantial evidence that the people who were there with Jesus were the main resource for the Gospels. Previously, the focus has been on the construction of the text, redaction criticism, and linguistic analysis, and the activity of forming the text has been dated to the late first century. Professor Bauckham’s focus pulls the temporal locus of New Testament studies forward several decades, to what the eyewitnesses might have seen.

For established scholars, this is quite a difficult transition. The greatest educational establish­ments arise from what academics have already invested in their studies, and those who have invested a couple of decades of study in redaction may be loath to reconsider modes of interpret­ation.

Yet the challenge remains. We have a hermeneutic tradition of seeing the Gospels as distantly edited texts, and yet much of their content defies this pattern in the character of the report­ing they contain. Histories, or even weekly news reports, usually lose a great deal of the detail that comes from immediacy, but the Gospels usually do not.

Daily reports in the The Guardian or The Daily Telegraph retain many details, but a month later they are gone. Any reading of the Gospels conveys such details. We can see body language, interper­sonal dynamics, crowd frisson, misunderstand­ings, and reports that Jesus’s teaching was not under­stood. This seems an amazing immediacy, which stands in flat contradiction to the emphasis on distant redaction.


How do we know about the details of the wedding at Cana — the quick word from Mary to Jesus, the obliviousness of the married couple, and the exact details about the jars — apart from the accounts of those who were there? How do we know about the puzzling discussion of Jesus with Nicodemus, if not from the one who faced this Pharisaic mind-shattering experience?

These living dynamic texts seem to defy an authorship that is a generation away from the events. Those who claim expertise in this area need to address this immediacy and Professor Bauckham’s arguments about eyewitness testimony. In relation to this greatest of all texts, we cannot have an unchallengeable establishment.

Of course, there are many possible arguments to consider, but the modernist scepticism about textual reliability may reflect more about ourselves than the actual formation of these texts. We may have a Synoptic bonus, a richness of text, rather than a Synoptic problem.

It is as if we have an obsession with later interpretations of Einstein’s students’ lecture-notes rather than with the content of his actual lectures; for, surely, the overwhelming significance of the Gospels lies in the words and life of the world’s greatest teacher, the Son of God. If the eyewitnesses were there, as in the case of John, who was walking a few steps behind Jesus and Peter on the beach after the resurrection (John 21.20), then New Testament studies might have some reorientation to do, and it would be good to hear the scholars thinking aloud.

Dr Alan Storkey is the author of Jesus and Politics (Baker Book House, 2005).

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