Q&A: The Jesus of Testimony

The Jesus of Testimony

How would you evaluate the modern quest for the historical Jesus?

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The quest of the historical Jesus is, of course, what many gospel scholars have been doing since the early 19th century. And it, really, consists in an attempt to go back behind the four gospels. It presumes, I think, that the four gospels are not entirely reliable sources, or at least, that they are heavily interpreted sources. In a sense, this is true, of course. The writers of the four gospels have their own views about who Jesus was, and the significance of Jesus, and so forth, and they are not writing, simply, a chronicle of facts. They are interpreting, as all historians do. The idea behind the quest, I think, has often been that people want to, as it were, strip away all that interpretation, and get back to the, sort of, bare facts of what happened in the history of Jesus. But the result, I think, of course, is, what you get, is a modern historian's interpretation of Jesus. We can never have bare facts, or the bare facts that we could have are simply not interesting. It's only when we think about the significance of the facts that they make history, and make something interesting.

And what I think we should be doing is not to try and strip away the interpretations of Jesus that we have in the four gospels, but rather, to recognize that there is a level of interpretation of Jesus that actually goes back to the eyewitnesses, themselves, who witnessed the events of Jesus' history, who were, themselves, involved participants in the events. And where is it modern people, often, suppose that, if we get the testimony of some disinterested bystander, we'll have something much more reliable than if we have the testimony of people who were participants and involved and affected by the events? Ancient historians usually thought quite the opposite, and I think their point of view was better, that it's insiders who can really tell us most, and give us the most interesting and reliable evidence. For one thing, if you are deeply affected by something, you will remember it much better than if you were simply a bystander who wasn't particularly involved. But also, you will have a sense of the significance of these events which has come to you, you know, as you experience them. So, I think what we have in the Gospels is the Jesus of testimony, by which I mean, Jesus as these early eyewitnesses of Jesus told their stories. And we do have a blend of fact and interpretation, but we have a blend of fact and interpretation, which goes back to these involved participants. So, I think, actually, that is much more trustworthy than the views of some modern historian, who has gone back behind the Gospels, and, really, imposed his own interpretation. We never have facts without interpretation. If we don't have Mark's interpretation — if we don't have Peter's interpretation that, I think, lies behind the Gospel of Mark — then we have some modern historian's interpretation. The idea that we can, sort of, as it were, get outside interpretation is a mistake.

So, I think our approach should be not to try to get back behind the Gospels, but to study the accounts we have in the Gospels. And there are various reasons, of course, there are kinds of evidence that we can bring for relying on the Gospels, for supposing that they come from trustworthy sources. But in the end, we have the way these early companions of Jesus, people whose lives were transformed by Jesus, people who were deeply influenced by the events and, therefore, wanted to tell everybody about them. What we have is those people's testimony to the events.

Answer by Dr. Richard J. Bauckham

Richard Bauckham (M.A., Ph.D. Cambridge; F.B.A.; F.R.S.E) is a widely published scholar in theology, historical theology and New Testament.