Saturday, April 16, 2011

My review of Bauckham's 'The Gospels as History' Part 1

I just returned from a long walk in the desert with my dogs, and while I should have devoted my attention to watching out for rattlesnakes, my attention was instead focused on some downloaded audio lectures. Yes, it was time to join the rest of the 21st century world, shove crappy white plugs in my ears, and take my ipod out on a walk with me with part 1 of Richard Bauckham’s lecture series ‘The Gospels as History'. So why not listen along, write your own review, tell me what you learned, or comment back to my own review!

Not sure who to thank for this idea – LikeAChild, DMA, DaGoodS, but DaGoodS has written his review here. I will read what others have to say when I am finished writing my own review.

Before I begin my review, I think it is fair to give my own attitude to the whole subject and study of ‘The Historical Jesus’. The subject, no matter what theological perspective the student of the subject holds, is tainted. It carries historical, philosophical and emotional baggage. Many historians attempt to pull the “Jesus of History” from the Gospels, which portray a “Christ of Faith”, and various methods of filtration are used. The Gospels are not long. It takes a few of hours to read through the four canonical Gospels. But these sparse sources have yielded countless pages of attempted historical reconstruction. I suppose the fact that the Gospels are such a puzzle is what gives them their allure.

The only “Lives of Jesus” that I find satisfactory are those that are de-constructive. I have read my fair share of “Historical Jesus” books, including Bauckham’s own Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, and each time a book attempts to construct a historical Jesus, I come away more confused than enlightened. The only ones that I can personally make sense out of are those that show what we cannot know. My thinking is most influenced by David Friedrich Strauss’ Life of Jesus, and Charles Guignebert’s Jesus, both of which deconstruct the Gospels into historically unworkable minutia, and demonstrate that the True History of Jesus is hopelessly buried under heavy accretions of myth and legend. As frustrating as this conclusion may be to the historian, this is the only view that I find personally satisfying. I do think that the Gospels do contain history, but the history it does contain is locked away and hidden between the lines.

I want to state this upfront to place my initial view of the subject in contrast with the more conservative view of Bauckham. To my surprise Bauckham does not devote time in his lecture to arguments or evidences for considering the Gospels as History. That the Gospels are history, or at least some kind of history or historiography, is a given. Bauckham wishes, rather, to consider what kind of historiography the Gospels are. I wish to read any book on Jesus assuming the same bedrock foundation that the author lays, so I will do so with Bauckham. Let us then assume, with him, that the Gospels are indeed history of some kind, and let us see what conclusions we can come up with. He asks, under what genre of ancient history can the Gospels then be categorized?

I think Bauckham is correct to ask this interesting question, and it is something I also often think about. I also think the Gospels are a history of some sort. Perhaps historiography is a better term for what needs to be considered. Historiography, as Bauckham explains it, is ‘literature about what happened in the past’. I think Bauckham makes a great observation here, and I agree with this distinction. The problem from here is categorizing these types of historiography or ‘literature about what happened in the past’, or even defining what is meant by ‘historiography’ as opposed to strict history. ‘History’ in the sense of historiography can be gleaned from nearly anything, an extreme example perhaps being the apocalypses of the Old Testament. No, the stars did not fall, and the world did not shake on its foundations, but history can be gathered behind the veil of this fantastic language. Does this make most anything open to the genre of historiography? Perhaps so. However, as the lecture continued, Bauckham seemed to back away from this initial view of ‘historiography’ or ‘literature about what happened in the past’ to trying to justify the Gospels as strict ancient biography. The question of historiography, then, I think was not addressed. Rather, I think Bauckham was trying, in his lecture, to see how far he could move the Gospels away from mere ‘historiography’ and into the more solid ground of Biography and History.

Bauckham compares the Gospels to the various forms of histories found in ancient history and biography. In doing so, I can’t help but think that Bauckham narrows the criterion for History just enough to include the Gospels in that genre, then once included, he widens the gap again by claiming that the Gospels are biography, but of an extraordinary type. For instance, he lists the various genres of biography used in the Greek and Roman world, and compares those descriptions against the Gospels as ancient biography. In comparing the Gospels with these other ancient biographies, Bauckham notes the similiarites as justification for placing the Gospels in the genre of ancient Biography – opening prologue, narrative length, an active object of the narrative or subject of the biography, formal structure, etc. But once fitted narrowly in, Bauckham then widens the criteria by claiming that genres of history and biography are malleable, flexable, and change over time.

Bauckham pulls this trick a few times. He variously states that the Gospels fit in the genre of history, yet they have unique traits, yet they are biography, yet not like the biographies of the philosophers or sages. It seems a case of fitting the argument to match the conclusion. Bauckham goes on to talk about the different criteria that the ancients used when considering the validity of their biographies. He claimed that biographers were considered more reliable when they were near their sources. I don’t really know about this, but this seems more of a modern idea of history. Do we know anything about what the ancients considered as criteria for sound historicity? Perhaps there are plenty that I am just unaware of, but I am aware that even contemporary history was not unaffected by fantastic hagiography. For instance, just off the top of my head, I can think of one of Plato’s contemporary biographers, his own nephew Pseusippos, who studded Plato’s life with the fantastic, such as that he was the son of Apollo.

When Bauckham stated that histories were generally considered more reliable if they were written by eye-witnesses or a source close to an eye-witness, I confess that I said aloud “Oh boy, here we go…” knowing that the implication was towards the traditional authors of the Gospels. Does Buackham have a statement from an ancient philosopher or historian that states these criteria, or is Bauckham extrapolating our criteria back onto the ancients? And if so, why extrapolate this particular criteria if he did not have an end in mind – that of vindicating the historicity of the Gospels?

Bauckham makes some interesting claims about the Gospels to demonstrate their uniqueness as Biographies, and Jesus as a unique biographical figure. Bauckham states that the uniqueness of Jesus should not prove difficult to consider as history, if we consider the uniqueness say, of the biography of an ancient athlete, should one be found. A biography of an athlete would surely be unique, but historical, so why not a unique biography Jesus? Do I really need to state what is obviously wrong with this analogy? The baggage that the study of Jesus brings, is the baggage of his miraculous deeds, divine birth and his claims concerning the divine. This is the problem of historicizing this figure, and mere analogies like this almost never work. Jesus is unique, because he is portrayed as unique, and the problems of historicizing such a fantastic, divine character are not the same problems of historicizing a mere athlete. This almost seems to be trivializing the whole approach – as if the history of Jesus were really that easy. Bauckham as much as admits this when he considers the type of person that, he says, the Gospels present Jesus as. Jesus was not merely a sage, not merely a wise teacher – Bauckham claims that Jesus of all the Gospels is portrayed as the unique Messiah and the Son of God. He is certainly a national Messiah, but is also portrayed as a salvific figure for the whole world. While I think there are problems in the Gospels with all these claims, I will ignore that for now and move on to where I think Bauckham really derails his own approach to the study of the Gospels as merely history.

The Gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy which demonstrates Jesus is of the heritage of David, the national Messiah of Israel, and Abraham, the Messiah of the Gentiles – so that Jesus represents both Israel and the World. (Abraham as Messiah of the Gentiles??? Did I hear that right?) The Gospel of Luke is more interested in Ceasar Agustus, via his order of a census, while the Gospel of Matthew is more interested in the local ruler Herod, and his order to Slaughter the Innocent. This contrasting reach of Jesus between the two Gospels, Bauckham says, also demonstrates the uniqueness of the Gospels of History – and at this point I think that Bauckham has left the world of history and entered the world of Supernatural Design. Describing the irony between the two Gospels, the one focused locally, the other focused globally, as evidence that the Gospels are each individually unique biographical documents, is really a more sophisticated way of describing the four Gospels as “each true, but each miraculously designed by The Holy Spirit to focus on one particular aspect of Jesus” – an approach that I do not think anybody would claim is historical.

I think I have typed enough on this, and I have some house chores I must get to. In summary, an interesting listen, and I will listen to the remaining three lectures, but I can’t help but think that my initial categorization is correct. The Gospels are indeed unique literary creations, and were probably unprecedented when they were written. They fit in the literary genre of, not biography, not history, not sage wisdom, not philosophy, not apocalypse, not hagiography, not mythology, but a jumbled combination of each. A genre called …



D'Ma said...

I tend to agree with what you've said here. Bauckham starts out by saying he isn't interested in this lecture series in proving the "reliability" of the gospels. Then he outlines the various genres and types of histories and biographies. He tries to categorize the gospels and goes in and out of histories and biographies. Then he settles on both. He leaves history altogether in my opinion after that and tries to use his opinions to support his conclusions about the gospels and the writers of them.

HeIsSailing said...

Thanks for replying, DMA. Not much I can add here than has not already been said by you over at DaGoodS's site. I finished listening to all four lectures, and have finished responding to three. I think the best lecture of the lot is probably #3, but to be blunt, this in my opinion, was not a very good lecture series.