Richard Bauckham, “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony” (second edition)

This is a prize-winning book, including an award from Christianity Today, and I read it because of endorsements by Lee Strobel (in The Case for the Real Jesus) and N.T. Wright (“a remarkable piece of detective work”).  The key theme — as the title suggests — is that the Gospels are based on eyewitness testimony.  And I heartily recommend it, though it’s very long and has its dense spots.

When you read this book, it’s worthwhile to get the second edition, since it includes three additional chapters at the end:  “Eyewitnesses in Mark (Revisited),” “Who Was the Beloved Disciple? (Continued),” and “The End of Form Criticism (Confirmed).”  But note that apparently the entire first edition is available online here [link:].  At the beginning of the second edition, I rather like the fact that the author says (xviii) that he’s made no changes, just additions, since he hasn’t changed his mind about anything (see also 542-47).   I also like this, from the preface to the first edition:  “Much of this book was written during a gradual recuperation from prolonged illness.  I believe it could not have been written without the prayers of many who supported me during that period — to use Paul’s phrase (2 Cor 12:9) — God’s grace working as power in weakness.”


One of the book’s early and interesting points is that the names we find in the Gospels are representative of what historians can now document — that is, that the names that are common in the Gospels were historically common at that time, and the names that are less commonly found in the Gospels were less common then.   This is good evidence of historical authenticity, and in particular that the Gospel’s authors wrote at the time and place that they said they did.  It’s amusing to learn that, just as the popularity of names increases now if a royal has one, so that was true back in first-century Palestine (74).

Here’s the conclusion of chapter 4, “Palestinian Jewish Names” (84):

Onomastics (the study of names) is a significant resource for assessing the origins of Gospel traditions.  The evidence in this chapter shows that the relative frequency of the various personal names in the Gospels corresponds well to the relative frequency in the full database of three thousand individual instances of names in the Palestinian Jewish sources of the period.  This correspondance is very unlikely to have resulted from addition of names to the traditions, even within Palestinian Jewish Christianity, and could not possibly have resulted from the addition of names to the traditions outside Jewish Palestine, since the pattern of Jewish name usage in the Diaspora was very different.  The usages of the Gospels also correspond closely to the variety of ways in which persons bearing the same very popular names could be distinguished in Palestinian Jewish usage.  Again these features of the New Testament data would be difficult to explain as the result of random invention of names within Palestianian Jewish Christianity and impossible to explain as the result of such invention outside Jewish Palestine.  All the evidence indicates the general authenticity of the personal names in the Gospels.  This underlines the plausibility of the suggestion made in chapter 3 as to the significance of many of these names:  that they indicate the eyewitness sources of the individual stories in which they occur.


It’s important to note that Bauckham believes that the author of John, while himself an eyewitness and indeed someone personally close to Jesus, was not the apostle John.  I admit that my first reaction was to be startled and disturbed, but on reflection I suppose that this does not undermine the gospel’s credibility, so long as this other John is himself a reliable and close witness, and Bauckham makes a persuasive case for that.  One recalls Mark Twain’s wonderful line about modern scholarship proving that the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey was not Homer but another Greek of the same name.

I’ll note that, if Bauckham is right, there is a pleasing (providential?) complementarity among the Gospels.  We have one from the perspective of the leading apostle (Mark, who presents Peter’s account), one from another but much less prominent apostle (Matthew), one from a close disciple who was not one of the twelve but represents a different, Jerusalem-based following (John), and another from a Gentile/Pauline view (Luke).  What else could we ask for?

Oh, and Bauckham suggests that the author of Matthew, while intending to present Matthew’s perspective, was not himself Matthew (108-12).


Another of the author’s key points is the inclusio — that is, that a witness who was around at the beginning and on through to the end of some historical event could claim special credibility.  See especially chapter 6, “Eyewitnesses ‘from the Beginning,’” the conclusion of which reads:

Scholars have often supposed that the Gospel writers cannot have attached much importance to eyewitness testimony since they do not indicate named eyewitness sources of the traditions they use. In previous chapters we have argued that the occurrence of specific personal names in some Gospel stories indicates the eyewitnesses with whom these particular stories were connected in the tradition. We have also argued that the list of the Twelve, carefully preserved and presented in all three Synoptic Gospels, functions as naming the official body of eyewitnesses who had formulated and promulgated the main corpus of Gospel traditions from which much of the content of these Gospels derives.

In the present chapter we have shown that three of the Gospels — those of Mark, Luke, and John — make use of the historiographic principle that the most authoritative eyewitness is one who was present at the events narrated from their beginning to their end and can therefore vouch for the overall shape of the story as well as for specific key events. This principle highlighted the special significance of the Twelve but also of others who were disciples of Jesus for much of the period of his ministry. Accordingly, these three Gospels use the literary device we have called the inclusio of eyewitness testimony. This is a convention also deployed in two later Greek biographies, by Lucian and Porphyry, which may lend further weight to the identification of the inclusio of eyewitness testimony in three of the Gospels. Though later than the Gospels, these two works may well attest a literary convention that belonged to the tradition of Greco-Roman biographies, of which most examples contemporary with the Gospels have not survived. But however much weight should be given to these parallels outside the Gospels, the data within the Gospels is itself adequate to attest the convention as one that the Gospel writers deliberately deployed. Especially important in establishing the inclusio of eyewitness testimony is the way in which Luke and John seem clearly to have recognized Mark’s use of the device and to have adapted it to their own narratives and purposes.

Mark’s use of the device singles out Peter as the most comprehensive eyewitness source of his Gospel. Luke and John both acknowledge the importance of Peter’s testimony by using the device with respect to Peter. In Luke’s case, this is his acknowledgement of his use of Mark’s Gospel — taken by Luke to embody principally Peter’s testimony — as providing the overall structure of his own narrative as well as much specific content. Luke’s preface claims firsthand access to people who were eyewitnesses “from the beginning.” These can include Peter because Luke takes Mark’s Gospel to be substantially Peter’s testimony. Probably the women disciples of Jesus were also an important eyewitness source for Luke, indicated by an inclusio of the women that is rather less inclusive than the Petrine inclusio, but nevertheless very comprehensive (from the Galilean ministry to the empty tomb). John’s use of the Petrine inclusio is rather more subtle. By creating an inclusio of the Beloved Disciple’s witness that trumps Peter’s by inclosing more, but only a very little more, of John’s narrative, John acknowledges the special importance of Peter’s testimony, embodied in Mark’s Gospel, for his readers’ knowledge of Jesus, but also stakes his own Gospel’s claim for the, in some respects, superior role of the Beloved Disciple’s witness, embodied in John’s Gospel.

Thus, contrary to first impressions, with which most Gospels scholars have been content, the Gospels do have their own literary ways of indicating their eyewitness sources. If it be asked why these are not more obvious and explicit in our eyes, we should note that most ancient readers or hearers of these works, unlike scholars of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, would have expected them to have eyewitness sources, and that those readers or hearers to whom the identity of the eyewitnesses was important would have been alert to the indications the Gospels actually provide.


In this section I’ll quote some other passages I thought important.

Here’s the conclusion of chapter 7, “The Petrine Perspective in the Gospel of Mark”:

Mark’s Gospel not only, by its use of the inclusio of eyewitness testimony, claims Peter as its main eyewitness source; it also tells the story predominantly (though by no means exclusively) from Peter’s perspective. This Petrine perspective is deliberately, carefully, and subtly constructed. Mark’s Gospel is no mere transcript of Peter’s teaching, nor is the Petrine perspective merely an undesigned survival of the way Peter told his stories. While it does correspond to features of Peter’s oral narration, Mark has deliberately designed the Gospel in such a way that it incorporates and conveys this Petrine perspective. Several literary features combine to give readers/hearers Peter’s “point of view” (internal focalization), usually spatial and visual or auditory, sometimes also psychological. It is this literary construction of the Petrine perspective that has so far gone almost unnoticed in Markan scholarship. Not only has Mark carefully constructed the Petrine perspective; he has also integrated it into his overall concerns and aims in the Gospel so that it serves Mark’s dominant focus on the identity of Jesus and the nature of discipleship. Thus, in deliberately preserving the perspective of his main eyewitness source through much of the Gospel, Mark is no less a real author creating his own Gospel out of the traditions he had from Peter (as well as, probably, some others).

The perspective is that of Peter among the disciples, whether the inner group of three or more generally the Twelve. The perspective is Peter’s “we” perspective, the perspective of Peter qua member of the group of disciples, rather than an “I” perspective, that of an individual relating to Jesus without reference to the others. (Only in the story of Peter’s denials does the “we” perspective narrow to an “I” perspective, and even here Peter does not step outside his narrative role as one of Jesus’ disciples.) Therefore there are no “private” reminiscences of Jesus, such as modern readers might expect in a work closely based on Peter’s eyewitness testimony. Such expectations are inappropriate because it is Peter’s teaching, not his autobiographical reminiscence, that lies behind Mark’s Gospel. The Gospel reflects the way Peter, as an apostle commissioned to communicate the gospel of salvation, conveyed the body of eyewitness traditions that he and other members of the Twelve had officially formulated and promulgated. Even the story of Peter’s denials, though it must have derived from Peter, was probably part of such a body of traditions that was not peculiar to Peter. No doubt Peter adapted, varied, and augmented the common traditions, recounting them from his own perspective, but he did not turn them into autobiography. Purely personal reminiscences of Jesus — even if Peter did relate such reminiscences in private conversation — would have been out of place in the public apostolic teaching of Peter on which Mark’s Gospel is based.

In Mark’s Gospel Peter is always in some sense aligned with the other disciples. But he does not appear purely as a typical or representative disciple. In his narrative role he is at the same time typical and more than typical of the other disciples. It is within his commonality with the others that he emerges as a distinctive individual, the most fully characterized of all Mark’s characters other than Jesus, and it is entirely plausible that this kind of individuality is the kind that was conveyed by Peter’s own recounting of the Gospel stories. The sequence of events in which Peter emerges most clearly as an individual who has his own story — his own story as a disciple of Jesus, that is — is the one that runs from his protestations of loyalty at the last supper to his distraught condition after denying Jesus. Here Peter exceeds the other disciples both in loyalty and in failure. This personal story does not serve merely to denigrate Peter — whether as hostile criticism from some anti-Petrine faction or as self-denigration by Peter himself — but actually qualifies Peter for his apostolic task. It is a story of personal transformation through failure, self-recognition and restoration (the latter something to which Mark’s narrative points, without recounting it), a dramatic example of the encounter with the meaning of the cross that every Markan disciple must undergo. In this respect too it is both credibly the story Peter told about himself and a significant component of the story Mark has told.

In chapter 11, “Transmitting the Jesus Traditions,” the author notes that Paul may have concluded that he “lacked … detail about the words and deeds of Jesus” and (266-67):  “It is very notable that in Galatians, even in the context of Paul’s strong concern to maintain the independence of his apostleship from Jerusalem, he admits that three years after his call to be an apostle he did visit Jerusalem and spent two weeks with Peter (Gal 1:18). Two weeks of conversation with Peter… is a lot of conversation. As C. H. Dodd memorably put it, ‘we may presume they did not spend all the time talking about the weather.’ We should rather presume that Paul was becoming thoroughly informed of the Jesus traditions as formulated by the Twelve, learning them from the leader of the Twelve, Peter.”  Later in the same chapter (276, footnote omitted), the author also notes:  “Lemcio’s work coheres strongly with the general, though quite recent, acceptance in Gospels scholarship that, generically, the Gospels are biography — or, more precisely, they are biographies (bioi) in the sense of ancient Greco-Roman biography. Different as this genre is from modern biographies, it nevertheless entails a real sense of the past as past and an intention to distinguish the past from the present. No ancient reader who identified the Gospels as bioi could have expected their narrative form to be merely a way of speaking of the risen, exalted Christ in his present relationship to his people. They would expect the narratives to recount the real past and not to confuse this with the present.”

From chapter 12 (304-05):

These two lines of argument establish that as soon as the Gospels circulated around the churches they had author’s names attached to them, even though such names were not part of the text of the Gospels. Our further question about anonymity concerns the contents of the Gospels: do the Gospel-writers present the traditions they preserve as derived from named eyewitnesses or as anonymous community tradition to which no specific names could be attached? Here we need only to resume the evidence we discussed in chapters 3– 8:  (i) Where the names of relatively minor characters are given in the Gospels, the reason is usually that the tradition to which the name is attached derived from that person.  (ii) In all three Synoptic Gospels, the explanation of the care with which the list of the Twelve has been preserved and recorded is that they were known to be the official body of eyewitnesses who had formulated a body of traditions on which the three Synoptic Gospels depend.  (iii) Three of the Gospels — Mark, Luke, and John — deploy a literary device, the inclusio of eyewitness testimony, to indicate the most extensive eyewitness source( s) of their Gospels. Mark’s use of the device points to Peter (indicating that Mark’s traditions are those of the Twelve in the form that Peter told and supplemented). Luke also acknowledges Peter as the most extensive eyewitness source of his narrative, but by making also a secondary use of the device he indicates that the group of women disciples of Jesus were also an important eyewitness source of his Gospel. John’s Gospel plays on Mark’s use of this device in order to stake its claim for the Beloved Disciple as an eyewitness as important as — even, in a sense, more important than — Peter. …

These arguments show not simply that, as a matter of fact, the traditions in the Gospels have eyewitness sources but, very importantly, that the Gospels themselves indicate their own eyewitness sources. Once we recognize these ways in which the Gospels indicate their sources, we can see that they pass on traditions not in the name of the anonymous collective but in the name of the specific eyewitnesses who were responsible for these traditions.

From the discussion in chapter 14 of John’s Gospel (364-65, footnotes omitted):

The structure of the concluding parts of the Gospel is quite coherent: there is a narrative epilogue (21:1-23) framed by a conclusion divided into two carefully designed stages (20:30-31 and 21:24-25). One reason the conclusion comes in two stages is that they serve to fence off the narrative in ch. 21 from the main narrative of the Gospel, thus indicating its status as an epilogue. An epilogue, it should be noticed, is not the same as a subsequently added appendix. While being deliberately set apart from the main narrative, an epilogue may be fully part of the design of a work. In the case of this Gospel, the Epilogue balances the Prologue at the beginning of the Gospel (1:1-18). The Prologue sketches the prehistory to the Gospel’s story, while the Epilogue foresees its posthistory. Just as the Prologue goes back in time to creation, so the Epilogue previews the future mission of the disciples, symbolized by the miraculous catch of fish, and focuses especially on the different roles that Peter and the Beloved Disciple are to play in it. The time projected by the Epilogue runs to the parousia (future coming) of Jesus. Its last words, in v. 23, are Jesus’ words “until I come,” corresponding at the other end of time to the first words of the prologue: “In the beginning” (1:1).

The correspondence between Prologue and Epilogue is confirmed by an element of numerical composition (of which this is one of many in the Gospel). The prologue consists of 496 syllables, appropriately since 496 is both a triangular number and a perfect number and is also the numerical value of the Greek word monogenes (meaning “only son” and used in 1:14, 18).  Odd though these considerations may seem to us, people in the New Testament period were fascinated by certain special sorts of numbers, including triangular and perfect numbers, and were used to the idea that words had numerical values, which were easily calculated because all the letters of the Greek alphabet were also used as numerals. But the importance of the number 496 for our immediate purpose is that it links the Prologue and the Epilogue together. For, while the Prologue has 496 syllables, the Epilogue (a considerably longer passage) has 496 words. That the correspondence should be between the number of syllables in the Prologue and the number of words in the Epilogue is quite appropriate, because the Prologue is a poetic composition, in which one might expect the number of syllables to be important, whereas the Epilogue is a narrative. Further evidence of numerical composition can be found in the fact that the two stages of the conclusion to the Gospel (20:30-31 and 21:24-25), framing the epilogue, each consists of 43 words.  This provides an initial indication that they should be read together and in parallel.

From chapter 18, “The Jesus of Testimony,” which is the final chapter of the first edition (479-80):

In this book, I have followed Samuel Byrskog in arguing that the Gospels, though in some ways a very distinctive form of historiography, share broadly in the attitude to eyewitness testimony that was common among historians in the Greco-Roman period. These historians valued above all reports of first-hand experience of the events they recounted. Best of all was for the historian to himself have been a participant in the events (direct autopsy). Failing that (and no historian was present at all the events he needed to recount, not least because usually some would be simultaneous), they sought informants who could speak from firsthand knowledge and whom they could interview (indirect autopsy). This, at least, was historiographic best practice, represented and theorized by such generally admired historians as Thucydides and Polybius.  The preference for direct or indirect autopsy is an obviously reasonable general rule for acquiring the testimony likely to be most reliable.  Not only did it mean that the risks of transmission through a chain of informants were avoided; it also meant that the historians were able to cross-examine their witnesses in a way somewhat similar to legal practice in court.  They could draw out the kind of information they most needed and they could form some judgements as to the likely reliability of an informant.  Of course, it is not always the case that firsthand testimony is more reliable than other forms of testimony, and even the best historians did not rely exclusively on it.  But they sought to rely primarily on it, and this entailed the view that contemporary history — history still with living memory — as the only kind of history that should, properly speaking, be attempted.  This did not mean, of course, that the historians thought only contemporary history could be known.  They trusted, to a large extent, historians of the past who had written of the events within living memory of their day.  But, generally speaking, they did not think they themselves had any means of doing better than past historians had done in writing of the events of the past.


Here’s the book’s last paragraph (615):

The kind of research and argument I have been advocating should not be misunderstood as yet another attempt to reconstruct a historical Jesus other than the Jesus of the Gospels. It is rather an attempt to validate the Gospels themselves as sources that are historically trustworthy at the same time as being testimonies of faith. They give us Jesus interpreted — interpreted from the perspective of the eyewitnesses and the Gospel writers. They give us representations of Jesus but representations whose historical basis can be tested. My claim is that they transcend the dichotomy between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. They give us the Jesus of testimony.

And here’s (508) what must have been the concluding paragraph in the original edition:

In summary, if the interests of Christian faith and theology in the Jesus who really lived are to recognize the disclosure of God in this history of Jesus, then testimony is the theologically appropriate, indeed the theologically necessary way of access to the history of Jesus, just as testimony is also the historically appropriate, indeed the historically necessary way of access to this “uniquely unique” historical event. It is in the Jesus of testimony that history and theology meet.


Some odds and ends:

  • I like the parallels drawn in the book with classical history — that is, comparing the approach that classical historians (e.g., Plutarch) took with the Gospel writers.
  • I’ll note that I often view the randomness of details in the Gospels as evidence of their historicity; Bauckham is, I think, less likely to view many details as random, given the careful craftsmanship he ascribes to the Gospel writers.   See especially page 343 (under heading, “(5) Irrelevant detail“).
  • He rather casually suggests (197 carryover) that head/feet is misrepresented by John.
  • My first reaction was also to be startled and disturbed by the comparison of Holocaust memory with the Gospels (c. 493), but again on reflection I see his point:  In both instances, the historian must take account of the fact that we are dealing with events “uniquely unique” — albeit at opposite extremes of the human experience.


Finally, here are some other, longer passages I noted:

  • Pages 364-65, first and carryover paragraph.
  • Pages 503-05, “Testimonial Form” (link: )
  • Pages 510-12, “The Pattern of Reference to Peter in Mark” (good summary) (link: )
  • Page 603, full paragraph (link: )
  • Page 613, first full paragraph (link: )