Friday, April 22, 2011

Richard Bauckham ItunesU Lectures 2 and 3– The Gospels as History from Below

I admit that I am new to the world of ItunesU, and there are probably plenty of interesting audio lectures and courses out there, but this four part lecture series by Richard Bauckham is probably not the best introduction to Audio Lectures that I could have had. I have listened to all the audio lectures, and have really struggled on how to write this review or response. It is not necessarily a matter of whether or not I agree with Bauckham's historical analysis and methodology, it is not even that his presentation style is unengaging (heck – some of my favorite professors were terrible speakers), it is rather the whole thesis, or lack thereof, of his presentation.

Simply put, I don’t know what point the man is presenting. Is he arguing a case? Is he stating mere facts? Is he trying to convince us of some new way to view things? I can find no central theme, no focal point, to this series of lectures. Maybe I am too dense to see it – I grant that. This is a series for graduate studies at Reformed Theological Seminary – Orlando, to an audience who has studied this sort of thing, I assume, full-time for at least a few years. Me? I am a mere layman in the area of historical methodology. So I grant that he may be just talking over my head. But with that said, since I could find no central theme to his lectures, this article, which I am writing in response, is as random and disjointed as I found Bauckham’s lectures to be.

Lectures 2 and 3 were on the same theme, so I shall review them together. Bauckham’s stated purpose to the lectures was “reconstructing the social world of the Gospels” by using the Gospels. Bauckham feels confident in doing this, since he considers the Gospels to be “A people’s history” or what he calls “A History from Below”, that is, one viewed from the perspective of the common person. He believes that the Gospels contain characters of all social strata and in a representative distribution to that actually in place in Palestine at that time, so he is able to derive a history of the social strata represented by the Gospels - of the person who lived off the land, e.g. a fisherman or a farmer.

How is Bauckham able to do this? He has written down a list of all the persons who appear in the Gospels along with their assumed social position. Sometimes Bauckham has to infer this, as in the case of Simon the Leper (Mark 14:3-9). Simon may have been of the wealthy class, Bauckham argues, since he was able to host a meal for Jesus. The woman who anointed Jesus may have been using very expensive ointment, and Bauckham uses this as further evidence to place Simon the Leper in the elite category. If I remember correctly, these or similar arguments are made in his Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.

The social classifications of some of the other characters in the Gospels are derived less rigorously. Consider Jesus’ family. According to Bauckham, Eusebius (early 4th century) records traditions from one Hegesippus (c 2nd century) regarding the grandsons of Jesus’ brothers. The beauty of the Internet means that all these citations of the “early church fathers”, references which only a few short years ago could only be found in reference libraries and seminaries, are now readily available to us commoners at the click of a mouse. Here is what Hegesippus, cited by Eusebius, has to say on the matter:

There still survived of the kindred of the Lord the grandsons of Judas, who according to the flesh was called his brother. These were informed against, as belonging to the family of David, and Evocatus brought them before Domitian Caesar: for that emperor dreaded the advent of Christ, as Herod had done.
So he asked them whether they were of the family of David; and they confessed they were. Next he asked them what property they had, or how much money they possessed. They both replied that they had only 9000 denaria between them, each of them owning half that sum; but even this they said they did not possess in cash, but as the estimated value of some land, consisting of thirty-nine plethra only, out of which they had to pay the dues, and that they supported themselves by their own labour. And then they began to hold out their hands, exhibiting, as proof of their manual labour, the roughness of their skin, and the corns raised on their hands by constant work.

I don’t find anything particularly implausible in this story, but Bauckham uses this citation to infer that Jesus himself was also a farmer, but that he was called a tekton (Matt 13:55, Mark 6:3) because this was a supplemental occupation that also gave uniqueness to his name. Bauckham also states that the citation of Hegesippus may imply that the family farm of Jesus may have been one of some distinction. I don’t see that at all – the addition of “they did not possess cash”, “thirty-nine plethora only” and the fact that Domitian later releases them as being of little consequence, as “too mean for notice”, seems to me to imply that the family of Jesus was in debt, owned only a small plot of land with no cash, and were of no distinction.

It is not that I necessarily agree or disagree with Bauckham concerning the family of Jesus, nor do I really care. But the historical methodology which he employs, to derive the conclusions that he does, seem to me to be really slipshod. It seems to me like deriving history from these sources is using a methodology that can be better described as “anybody’s guess”. Especially ironic is when Bauckham leans on such methodology, yet considers using this derived social status to infer the audience of Mark’s Gospel as “a move frought with such methodological hazards, it should simply not be attempted, I think. I think we are on much firmer ground by supposing Mark’s narrative represents with some accuracy the social world from which these traditions come, that is, the world of Jesus himself and his disciples.”

WHAT? How I wish Dr Bauckham would, at this point, distinguish between the methodology which he is using, that is, of using 4th century citations from an historian of dubious reputation, of a 2nd century writer who’s works are lost to us, to determine the social stratification and main occupation of Jesus and his family, and a methodology “fraught with … hazards”. In addition, when Bauckham compares the results of the social make-up of 1st century Palestine which he derives from the Gospels, to that which actually existed at that time, I assume he is doing this, not to add additional data to what we know of 1st century Palestine, but to vindicate what he considers the historical accuracy of the Gospels. Perhaps I am wrong in this, I admit, but his point of comparison is against a model of an “advanced agrarian society” Which is? Bauckham never explains this model, or even what it is (other than that it supposes 70-80% of common people lived directly off the land) or how it was derived. But wouldn’t you know it, the social world he derives from the Gospels matches up very well with his “advanced agrarian society” model. Whatever that is.

Bauckham moves on to compare the Gospels with three other works of the ancient world which can be compared to the Gospels, Philostratus’ Apollonius of Tyana, and the biographies of Homer and Aesop. I was most excited to listen to his analysis of Apollonius, since I am more familiar with that work than I am with Homer or Aesop. While I think Bauckham was correct in his description of Apollonius, I think he was incomplete. But I also, again, am at a loss for how to respond, since he never states his purpose in the comparison. Is he comparing Apollonius to the Gospels to show how the differences make Apollonius unhistorical? Is he just showing that Apollonius, with its huge cast of philosophers, sages and royalty, does not accurately represent the social strata of the ancient world, and thus cannot be used for the type of analysis? I can list off a number of attributes which Apollonius has that might give it a more historical basis than the Gospels, such as that it includes dozens of letters attributed to the hand of Apollonius himself, but I don’t even know if that is Bauckham’s point in comparison! I honestly have no idea, and that is why I have struggled with this response.

That is my review of Lectures 2 and 3. At this point, I feel like bailing on this listening project. I did listen to Lecture 4, but I found it to be the most disjointed of all the four lectures, and despite listening intently, I honestly cannot remember a thing about it. Perhaps that is more a comment on my listening than on Dr Bauckham’s lecture, but it just seemed to me so random, so pointless, without any central theme, unity, or focal point that I just drifted.

But with that, let me at least give my general impression of the entire lecture series. I do not necessarily agree nor disagree with anything Dr Bauckham has said. I found this series so unfocused that I do not know if there is anything to agree or disagree with! To me, it is more a matter of his completeness and methodology. If the methodology that Dr Bauckham employed in this lecture is an example of how history is derived from the Gospels, well, forgive me if I am unimpressed. I believe history, or something close to it, can be derived, but it must come from a variety of sources – Religious and secular writings of the period and archeology. Having derived this history, can one special group of writings be held separate and compared against the bulk of the rest? I think so, but only if the comparison is complete. For example, how I wish Dr Bauckham would have extracted other kinds of history from the Gospels for comparison. Perhaps the Slaughter of the Innocents, inflicted on the infants of the town of Bethlehem at the hands of Herod the Great (Matt 2:16-18). If history can be derived from the Gospel, this is surely one example to be used in comparison – but since there is no outside verification of this story in any ancient source, and it is only found in the Gospel of Matthew, is Dr Bauckham willing to discard it as unhistorical? Will he do the same for the census of Ceasar Agustus imposed on the “entire Roman World” (Luke 2:1), even though there is no record in the entire Roman World of any such census taking place? I seriously doubt it. So, again I ask, what is the point of comparing a social world, derived from the Gospels with dubious methodology, to that of an undescribed “advanced agrarian model”, if more emphatic historical claims from the Gospels are not given similar comparison?

I am left with this – perhaps the whole reason that this lecture series seemed to me to be unfocused and disjointed, is because any actual history that can be inferred from the Gospels, seems as forced out of the Gospels as water sucked out from a rock. If this is the only history that can be pulled from the Gospels, perhaps the only history that actually exists in the Gospels is too sparse to allow for a central theme or focus. I do hope that my next ItunesU listen is a better experience.


DoOrDoNot said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one struggling with the purpose of this series. I kept asking myself what point bauckham was trying to make. I inferred that he compared the gospels with the bio of appolonius to show the gospels unique in doing history from below. However not sure what the significance of that is. Does lecture 4 answer that question? I'm about to listen to it.

HeIsSailing said...

DoOrDoNot, I listened to lectures 2 and 3 twice and lecture 4 once. I paid as close attention as I could, and took notes as he spoke. Not a big deal, since I did it all on the bus to and from work. All the same, I figure since I could not catch any focal point of the lectures after that many listens, I figure I do not want to listen to them any further to try again. Although Bauckham promises to devote Lecture 4 to the implications of his previous three lectures, never seems to me to do so. Lecture 4, in my lousy opinion, was a disjointed, rambling mess. I don't even remember what it was about even though I just listened to it yesterday. If you listen you might catch something I didn't but I don't feel like replaying it to find something in it.

DagoodS said...

I find it significant how similar our findings are. I thought of summing up the problem in one sentence: “If I didn’t know what the title of the lectures was, I wouldn’t have a clue what Bauckham was arguing for/against.”

Are the Gospels bios? Histories? Unique? Different than other works? Similar? Depending where and when you listen you would come up with very different answers to these questions.

I also questioned the stretched argument about Jesus’ family farm. But I figured:

1) This is so typical Bauckham. Create a mountain out of a molehill and then forget the original molehill was created out of a grain of sand.

2) Not sure (once again) how this was relevant to the discussion. Was he saying Jesus was on the more wealthy side? Or the poor side? Is there a question somewhere as to how wealthy Jesus was?


Don’t give up on iTunes U! Listen to an actual class in something you are interested in. Again, if you don’t like the person after the first few lectures—find another. You will find you can learn without something so agenda-driven.

HeIsSailing said...

DaGoodS sez:

Was he saying Jesus was on the more wealthy side? Or the poor side? Is there a question somewhere as to how wealthy Jesus was?

NO DOUBT! You hit it on the head. Bauckham would make a generalization about something, then give a piece of conjecture that would either support or go against his generalization, then move on to something else. HUH??? So what's your point Bauckham???

You know, since my time blogging on the Internet, I have had two authors respond to my critical reviews of their books - Craig Blomberg and Michael Dowd. I am half hoping that Bauckham will respond here to this criticism .. ... eh, on second thought I am sure he has better things to do with his time ;-)

D'Ma said...

Whew! I thought maybe it was just me. I listened to the first lecture 4 times and to the second lecture 3. I've listened to the third lecture but will have to listen again. I thought surely I was just missing something. I had decided I was either dense or I was getting distracted by his speaking style. ;)

HeIsSailing said...

DMA sez:
" I listened to the first lecture 4 times and to the second lecture 3..."

WOW such patience. If I don't get it the first time, I will re-listen, but if I still don't get it after that, I consider it a lost cause. Forgive my arrogance, but dare I say that lecture series was a bit of a disaster. Again, not because I did or did not agree with the guy - there was just no organization or structure to the thing!

D'Ma said...


I mostly did this while I was landscaping around my house. As I was digging holes, I thought, "wow, did I really get that distracted by digging a hole?"LOL! So I'd replay the thing to see what I'd missed. I really did think that since this was my first experience with the historical aspect of the gospels it was just me. :)