Book Review: Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham

Image of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses book cover

The Gospels are Eyewitness Testimony

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and encourage you to check it out. The full name of the book is Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. If you want to purchase the book, I encourage you to do it through Amazon Smile ( and select Worship Arts Conservatory as your charity. One warning: this is a 700 page scholarly book, so you will need to keep your brain engaged as you read it.

This book is both a Biblical studies book and an apologetics book - which means it is written to defend the Christian faith and strengthen your faith in God and His Word. Specifically, this book defends the position that the Gospels are eyewitness accounts written down by the eyewitnesses or by someone who talked to an eyewitness.

I will do my best to summarize some of the main points of this excellent book, but I cannot get close to covering all of the topics of a 700 page book in even a long blog post. So, with that in mind, here are some of what I thought were the key concepts taught in this book.

The Author

Dr. Richard Bauckham, according to his website, is a biblical scholar and theologian. He was Professor of New Testament studies at the University of St Andrews, Scotland until he retired in 2007. His website includes links to some of his sermons, poetry and even a couple children's stories.

Picture of Richard Bauckham

Why the Emphasis on Eyewitnesses?

A lot has been written about the "historical Jesus" in contrast to the Jesus found in the Gospels. The principles of form criticism convinced many that the Gospel accounts experienced a long period of aural transmission during which time the original accounts became significantly altered. This belief caused many to think that the stories and teaching of Jesus in the New Testament are unreliable and the true "historical Jesus" was hidden behind the fables and distortions that developed over this period of aural transmission. Richard Bauckham, in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, counters this belief by showing that the Gospels are actually trustworthy eyewitness accounts written down during the lifetime of the eyewitnesses.

Much current scholarly discussion ignores the fact that the eyewitnesses were still around and people sought out their witness over second hand accounts. Scholars often make the mistake of assuming the written accounts were far removed from the eyewitnesses, but, according to Bauckham, this was not the case.

Image of person with question mark over his head

Form Criticism Is Dead

The proponents of Form Criticism taught that the various types of literature found in the Gospels developed over time during a long period of aural transmission. This long development explains the variations in the Gospels. Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, points out that nearly all of the major teachings of Form Criticism have been proven incorrect and he declares Form Criticism to be dead. Instead, he explains that the differences we see in the Gospels can easily be understood by accepting a process of "formal controlled tradition."

The fact that such a direct transmission from eyewitness to evangelist never enters the horizon of possibility for most Gospels scholars is the continuing legacy of form criticism’s model of anonymous community transmission. A key purpose of my book was to put that model into radical question and to substitute a model in which key roles were played by individual, well-known, named tradents. (pp. 600-601)


The "Anonymous" Gospels

Another common claim made by followers of form criticism is that the Gospels were anonymous. Although it is true that the authors of the Gospels do not name themselves in the text, the idea that the Gospel authors were unknown is not historically defensible. In Jesus and the Eyewitnesses Bauckham gives three arguments to defend the fact that the Gospel authors were known in the the Christian community from the beginning. The easiest of these, and I think sufficient to prove the point, is that the current titles of the Gospels are the only ones that we know of. It is very difficult to believe that these titles were added at some later date after they were spread around the known world. How would that even be possible? It is much more reasonable to believe they were the original names given to these documents.

Again the universality of these ascriptions of authorship and the fact that they seem never to have been disputed indicate that they became established usage as soon as the Gospels were circulating. (p. 304)

The Historical Value of Names

Probably the most well-known topic in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses is Bauckham's defense of the historical reliability of the Gospels and Acts based upon the names used in the documents. The names of Jews and frequency of the usage of each name in the Gospels and Acts line up very closely with the general population of Palestine at the time, but not with the names of Jews in the Diaspora (living outside Palestine). No one could make up these names and be this accurate. The names, at least, must be accurate and not later additions.

Another indication of this is the use of disambiguators. About half the population were called by only a dozen names, so most people needed a way to distinguish themselves from others with the same name. This was done by using nicknames or mentioning their father. For instance Simon (a very popular name at the time) was called Peter, and James and John were referred to by the nicknames "Sons of Thunder" or "the sons of Zebedee". The historically correct use of disambiguators throughout the Gospels strongly supports the belief that the names are accurate.

For more information on this topic see What's in a Name? The Names of the Disciples.

Why Were Some People Anonymous?

Bauckham points out that many of the people that are anonymous in the Gospel of Mark are no longer anonymous in the Gospel of John. If the names of eyewitnesses was so important to ancient historians then why are some important people left anonymous in the earlier Gospels? In Jesus and the Eyewitnesses Bauckham argues that these people were likely in danger from the Jewish leadership.

For instance, in Mark we learn that someone cut off an ear with a sword during the arrest of Jesus. This would be an action worthy of punishment and thus the person is left anonymous to protect his identity. But in the Gospel of John we learn that this person was Peter. By the time the Gospel of John was written it is likely that Peter had already died. There was no longer any need to protect his identity.

Bauckham gives multiple examples of anonymous people in Mark who could have been in danger if their names were revealed. This fact supports both the authenticity of the Gospel of Mark and the early dating of the Gospel.

The Twelve

In Jesus and the Eyewitnesses Bauckham argues that the listing of the Twelve near the beginning of each of the Gospels is a sign that they were the primary protectors of the traditions of Jesus. He notes that the names are listed in a way that makes them easy to memorize and also points out that their epithets are exactly what you would expect to help distinguish one member from another.

I find his argument to be a very reasonable assumption although not necessarily provable. Who better to protect the accounts about Christ than those who traveled with Him throughout His ministry? I think it is extremely likely that they carefully protected the accuracy of these stories since they believed they were the most important events in history. This leads to the next few key points in this book.

"From the Beginning"

Ancient historians thought that the best witnesses are those who experienced the events from beginning to end. They used special techniques to highlight these eyewitnesses in their documents without actually naming who the eyewitnesses where. Bauckham describes these techniques and demonstrates their use in the writings of Lucian and Porphyry. One common technique was the "inclusio", where the person is named at the beginning and end of their eyewitness account.

Mark uses this device to show that Peter was his main source. Luke also points to Peter and to the woman who followed Jesus. Matthew was himself an eyewitness. John points to the Beloved Disciple as the primary source and author, but acknowledges Peter as also important, but slightly less.

The Reliability of Oral Transmission

Many people incorrectly envision the gospel stories going through a process similar to the children's telephone game. One person whispers a sentence into the ear of another person then they pass that on to the next and so forth until they get to the last person. Then that person tells you what they heard and it is usually something funny and totally different from the original sentence.

Instead we should picture a formally controlled process. Here are some good reasons given by Bauckham to believe the stories were preserved accurately:

  1. First of all, the whole process is being overseen by the twelve and other eyewitnesses. If anyone gets an account wrong, the twelve step in to correct it. These eyewitnesses were around until the accounts were written down.
  2. The early Christians believed their traditions were about the most important event in history. They would have been very careful to preserve it accurately.
  3. The fact that Jesus sent the the disciples out to teach, strongly suggests that they had already memorized His teachings before He died.
  4. The variations we see in the Gospels fit into the normal variations we would expect: Jesus may have varied his teachings from place to place; the accounts needed to be translated from Aramaic to Greek and different people could have translated them differently; and the writers may have made slight changes to the accounts to fit them into their narrative.
  5. It is highly likely that some or all of the traditions were written down before being collected into the Gospels. The Christian community included scribes. Matthew almost certainly could write and most likely took notes of Jesus' teachings.

The Gospel of John

A significant portion of the book is dedicated to the Gospel of John. Bauckham, in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, argues that the Gospel of John is a very carefully constructed narative and that it clearly points to the Beloved Disciple as the author. Some interesting facts I learned in these chapters were:

  • The Epilogue and the Prologue are designed to balance each other. The Prologue is 496 syllables describing what happened before the Gospel accounts and the Epilogue is 496 words talking about what is going to happen. The overall complexity of the Epilogue and the way it is designed to balance the Prologue strongly suggests that the whole document was written by one author and this author claims to be the Beloved Disciple.
  • The Beloved Disciple is shown as the ideal witness, while Peter is portrayed as the future leader. The Beloved Disciple makes it very clear that he personally saw most of the events he describes.

Bauckham presents extensive arguments for why he thinks the Beloved Disciple is not John the Son of Zebedee but rather a lesser known follower of Jesus named John the Elder. I do agree with Bauckham that since Mark and Luke are not written by members of the Twelve, then it would not be a big issue if John was written by someone other than John the Son of Zebedee as long as the author was an actual eyewitness. Nevertheless, none of the arguments are convincing enough to me to override the traditional view that the author is John the Son of Zebedee.


Bauckham ends by stressing the fact that we must be willing to accept eyewitness testimony if we are to know much at all about historical events.

Reading the Gospels as eyewitness testimony differs therefore from attempts at historical reconstruction behind the texts. It takes the Gospels seriously as they are; it acknowledges the uniqueness of what we can know only in this testimonial form. It honors the form of historiography they are. From a historiographic perspective, radical suspicion of testimony is a kind of epistemological suicide. It is no more practicable in history than it is in ordinary life. (p. 506).

He also warns that we cannot eliminate the possibility that something exceptional has occurred. In other words, just because the account includes extraordinary events (miracles) should not be used as proof that it is incorrect or inaccurate.

We must beware of a historical methodology that prejudices inquiry against exceptionality in history and is biased toward the leveling down of the extraordinary to the ordinary. Exceptional events in history are, almost by definition, exceptional in very different ways. (p. 506).

Finally, he argues that testimony is the best way, really the only way, for us to know about a one-time historical and supernatural event. And this testimony about Jesus is where faith, theology and history all meet.

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. (p. 508)

If you are interested in history, apologetics or biblical studies, then I highly encourage you to pick up Richard Bauckham's book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. ....

By Dr. Jerry Wyrick, President, Worship Arts Conservatory

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