Jesus and the Eyewitnesses

Making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland

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Jesus and the Eyewitnesses

I am currently partway through reading Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Professor Richard Bauckham (based at the University of St. Andrews). The purpose of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses is to consider whether the gospel accounts should be considered reliable historic documents. Professor Bauckham defends the reliability of these texts, arguing that the Gospels heavily rely on the testimony of eyewitnesses.

One of the most interesting and helpful things that I have read so far is the way in which Professor Bauckham understands some of the variations in the gospel accounts. Why is it, for example, that only the Gospel of Mark names Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus, a blind beggar who is miraculously healed by Jesus (Mark 10:46-52)? Or why is it, following the resurrection, that the women named at the empty tomb differ in each gospel account and why is it, for example, that only Mark mentions Salome and only Luke mentions Joanna? Should we be concerned? Does this give us cause to doubt the reliability of the gospels as historically accurate documents? And, if we can no longer rely upon the accuracy and truthfulness of the gospel, what would this do to the Christian faith?

Paul addresses this very issue in 1 Corinthians 15 and presents the great defence of the gospel as a reliable historic event. For Paul, the foundational truth of the gospel is grounded upon historical events: Christ came, Christ died and Christ rose again (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). For Paul, the historicity of the gospel truths is not optional. Indeed, Paul, in citing the named witnesses to the resurrection, tethers the reputation of the Apostles (and by extension, the New Testament writings) to the historical accuracy of the gospel (1 Corinthians 15:5-8). If Christ was not raised from the dead, Paul reasons, then the Apostles, the writers of the New Testament, are found to be misrepresenting God (1 Corinthians 15:15). This would make the Apostles (including Paul) liars and, as such, everything that we believe that we know about God would begin to crumble. How can we be sure that there is a God, that this God is merciful and offers salvation to undeserving sinners if we can no longer trust that the gospel accounts are true.

The qualities of reliability, truth and trustworthiness are intrinsically bound together. If we do not trust the gospel accounts, we will not rely on their truthfulness and we will be lost. Paul writes as much when he argues that if Christ is not raised from the dead then our believing is in vain (1 Corinthians 15:14).

What then should we make of the variations in the names cited in the gospel accounts? Professor Bauckham makes an astonishing observation the case of Simon of Cyrene. All three synoptic gospels (i.e. Matthew, Mark and Luke) record that Simon of Cyrene was compelled to carry the cross as Jesus made the harrowing walk to Golgotha (Matthew 27:32, Mark 15:21 and Luke 23:26). Only Mark, however, describes Simon Cyrene as the father of Alexander and Rufus.

Now this is interesting for two reasons, firstly, my wife and I are expecting a second son shortly and I am looking for solid biblical names and it seems to me that Rufus is a name worth reckoning with. Secondly, and more importantly, it is very unusual to identify an individual by naming his sons. Normally the construct is the precise opposite, for example, Simon Peter is named as the son of Jonah (Matthew 16:17).

Why then does Mark take the trouble of naming Alexander and Rufus? Consider Paul’s salutations to the church in Rome:

Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; also his mother, who has been a mother to me as well. (Romans 16:13)

Some commentators believe that this is the very same Rufus mentioned in Mark’s gospel and this brings me to Professor Bauckham’s explanation of why the three gospel writers name different individuals throughout their accounts.

Professor Bauckham argues that the gospel writers were selectively naming individuals known to their immediate audience at that time. For example, it is believed that Mark compiled his gospel from first hand material that he received from the Apostle Peter while in Rome. In which case, Mark’s immediate audience was the church in Rome in which Rufus was a well known member. Mark is, therefore, taking great care to present the gospel account as history. Doubters and detractors in Rome are, in effect, set against Rufus an actual eyewitness to the crucifixion and perhaps even to the resurrected Christ.

Similarly, Professor Bauckham argues that Salome, Bartimaeus, Joanna and the rest were believers known to the early church. Rather than weakening our confidence in the reliability of the gospel accounts, these variations should fill us with great confidence. Following the ascension of Jesus, the eyewitnesses remained and so the gospel spread like wildfire.

The church father, Eusebius, makes this exact point,

[T]he works of our Saviour were always present, for they were always present, for they were true: those who were healed, those who rose from the dead, those who were not only seen in the act of being healed or raised, but were also always present, not merely when the Saviour was living on earth, but also for a considerable time after his departure, so that some of them survived even to our own times (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 4.3.2)

We can be confident that the gospel is reliable and true and, as such, those of us who believe can trust that we are loved by God, that he saved us and that he stands for all of those who trust and believe in him.