Baker Academic

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Richard Bauckham Responds

Last week, I wrote a short blog post inspired by this fine article by Brent Landau. I took issue with a minor detail concerning "eyewitnesses." I felt that this detail - while minor - betrayed a larger problem within historical Jesus research. Focused and emboldened by this most serious matter, I wielded all of my best Michael W. Smith and whoopee cushion anecdotes to provide an example of what Landau called "quite minor events" decades removed from eyewitness experience. As is often the case when you write about pseudo-flatulence, a senior scholar whom you've admired for years emerges to defend his work.

Below I've copied and pasted the portions of the comments thread wherein Bauckham responds. There were many other interesting comments on this thread. Here I only reproduce those that find Bauckham in direct conversation. I've also tinkered with the chronology a bit to clarify who is responding to whom.

Richard Bauckham:
What is routinely ignored in discussion of my Eyewitnesses book, is that in the chapter on the psychology of eyewitness memory I explained that eyewitness memory can be very unreliable, but for that reason I drew from a an extensive study of the psychological research literature conclusions about what sort of things are most likely to be remembered well and under what conditions eyewitness memory is likely to be reliable. Therefore my arguments are not refuted simply by general claims that eyewitness memory is often unreliable. It is one of many points at which my critics simply have not read my work adequately.

Nor did I claim that direct eyewitness testimony is necessarily more reliable than eyewitness testimony at secondhand or thirdhand (which is what your examples amount to). My claim is that the way the eyewitnesses told the stories lies not far behind the text of the Gospels as we have them. With the exception of parts (not all) of John's Gospel (in my view), we have in the Gospels eyewitness testimony at second or thirdhand. My general argument was directed to showing that access to eyewitness testimony mattered in the early church and that, in a variety of ways, the Gospels do claim such access. This is quite contrary to the form critical view. People say, But that doesn't get us very far because the eyewitness testimony need not be reliable, are failing to recognise that it gets us a lot further than the form critical paradigm allows. It makes it worthwhile taking the Gospels to be potentially good historical sources and to start assessing that by appropriate means - means different from the failed criteria of authenticity that were the best that could be done if the form critical paradigm of the transmission of Gospel traditions were right. Historical method is generally about evaluating sources as generally reliable and then trusting them - or not. Even the most reliable sources will be unreliable in parts but (unless we have really ample multiple sources) we often just have to take that risk. It's what history is always like - more or less probable, never 100% certain. And that's all without taking the subjectivity of eyewitness testimony in to account, as I do in the last chapter. It still remains the case that one condition for the reliability of a source is usually that it had plausible access to eyewitness testimony.

And what is the "philosophical assumption" you accuse me of making?


Anthony Le Donne:
Richard,

I cannot claim to have read all your critics. Certainly you know them better than I do. I've only read a handful of essays that criticize you on this point. At least two I can think of take you to task for building your case atop a superficial survey of psychological studies. I simply do not know the field of psychology well enough to know if this is the case. From my limited view, I would not point to this as a weakness in your work. One person’s “superficial” is another person’s “judiciously selective.” I would point, furthermore, to the first three chapters of McIver's book on the Ebbinghausian forgetfulness curve to fortify your case. My own criticism would take a different tact.

There are two matters, it seems, that are on the table here. (1) Did the Gospel writers think that they were conveying eyewitness testimony? And if so, did they think that this was important? (2) Should we place a higher value on source material that seems to have derived from what "Mark" et al. considered eyewitness testimony? I suspect that we will agree on the first and disagree on the second.

One point that I've tried to make in various publications is that earlier tradition is not necessarily better. In the same way that you say that history is never 100% certain (yes!) we can point to episode after episode in history wherein the first generation misunderstood the details and/or significance of their own events. Subsequent generations rewrite the narratives of their forebears because they benefit from a Wirkungsgeschichte that “eyewitnesses” can’t see. We are always revising our memories and histories. Sometimes we are able to improve our histories via revisionism. What interests me about appeals to eyewitnesses is not that they are “reliable” or generally trustworthy sources but in the way that the rhetoric promotes a perception of continuity with the past. I.e. Luke’s sources don’t need to be reliable; they only need to have distorted according to reliable patterns of memory distortion.

Also I'm quite happy to call Luke a historian. As long as we agree that we often project anachronistic categories when we use this term.

-anthony


Richard Bauckham:
In response to your last paragraph, I would say, for a start, that all later revisions and reinterpretations of historical events are still ultimately dependent on accounts by eyewitnesses. We can reinterpret the significance of events, but we can't supply the information that only an eyewitness could have had in the first place. If we find reason to correct the eyewitness's information (this is sometimes possible) we are still in fact dependent on the eyewitness's account.
Your last sentence seems to imply that you are not interested in the events (of the history of Jesus) at all but only in how later Christians perceived what they took to be the past. If you are interested in the events, then part of an assessment of Luke as a source would be precisely whether or not his sources "distorted according to reliable patterns of memory distortion." And to identify such patterns, I would say we need precisely psychological research and the sort of arguments I pursue in my book on the basis of psychological research (though of course there is scope for a great deal more work on those lines).


Anthony Le Donne:
I am indeed interested in historical events. But I am not comfortable divorcing the impact of said events. In order for them to become "historical" they must emerge and make sense within an/many interpretive framework/s. I.e. the interpretation is integral to the event. For more see my The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology, and the Son of David (Baylor Univ. Press).

And thanks for chiming in. This has been an unlooked for but welcome discussion!

-anthony


Richard Bauckham:
I note also in Anthony's piece this sentence: "He is not only interested in defending Luke’s status as “historian” and he knows very well the anachronism involved in projecting that category onto an ancient author." The point about anachronism will sound ridiculous to anyone who has studied the historiography of the ancient world. If he just means that they didn't do or write history in the same way as 21st century historians, that is no reason for saying they were not "historians." Thucidydes, Polybius, Josephus not historians?? Of course, there have been and still are many different sorts of history, but that is no reason to deny that people in the ancient world who enquired about the past with serious standards of evidence and method were not historians.


Anthony Le Donne:
Richard, concerning this comment: "...note also in Anthony's piece this sentence: "He is not only interested in defending Luke’s status as “historian” and he knows very well the anachronism involved in projecting that category onto an ancient author." The point about anachronism will sound ridiculous to anyone who has studied the historiography of the ancient world."

The part that you quote here was meant to point out that Dr. Landau is not primarily an apologist. I wanted to indicate that Laudau is not *only* in the business of defending Luke's reliability.

-anthony

___ ___ ___

Chris Keith:
Thanks for this, Anthony. To complement what you've said, it's also important to remember that in ancient historiography, claiming "eyewitness" status or information held an important rhetorical value irrespective of the quality of the information being transmitted. I'm always surprised at this not receiving more emphasis among those who want to stress the significance of eyewitness testimony. It was important for ancient historians to make this claim, but it didn't necessarily mean that they had more information than non-eyewitnesses.

My point here is simply that the value of the claim about the past has to be assessed separately from just noting the claim. I know you agree here, but just wanted to clarify my ramblings.



Richard Bauckham:
This is true in the sense that reference to eyewitness put your work in the category of serious historiography for which eyewitness testimony was regarded as essential. Therefore bad historians made fraudulent claims to access to eyewitness testimony that they didn't possess. Lucian exposes them mercilessly. But we shouldn't take "rhetorical" to mean, as it were, just rhetorical and so not fraudulent. Ancient readers cared whether the claims to eyewitness testimony were genuine or invented.


Chris Keith:
Richard, while we have you here, I have a question for you. In your future work, will you be doing anything more with the category of "testimony"? This was, for me, one of the more interesting aspects of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses and I think it has the capacity to serve an important role as it underscores the inherently hermeneutical nature of any presentation of the past. It has much in common, I think, with much of what Anthony and I and others have emphasized in our work.



Richard Bauckham:
On eyewitness claims, I wasn't necessarily disagreeing with you. I just wanted to underline that they were rhetorical only because ancient historians really thought that good history must be based closely on eyewitness testimony. They are "rhetorical" in just the same sense that footnote references to archival sources might be for readers of a modern historian.
I am planning a sequel to Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, and I might take up testimony again if I find I have anything more to say about it. But if so, I guess I'll be mainly interested in taking issue with the epistemological scepticism about testimony that is rife in our postmodern atmosphere and insisting that testimony is a very ordinary, indeed indispensable, means of real access to the past.


Jonathan Bernier:
History is a funny thing. The truth is, I don't know how I would decided specifically which if any of Jesus's healing acts recorded in the gospels describe events that actually occurred. I do know that Jesus as healer is sufficiently deep in the tradition that I have a hard time imagining how a Jesus who wasn't considered to be a healer could lead to the accounts that exist before us. That is, "Jesus as healer" is a far stronger conclusion than "Jesus performed this specific act of healing." This is part of the problem with the criteria approach, and more generally with addressing the question of "reliability" towards the level of individual pericope: it wants to begin with the least certain, and so little surprise if it yields such little historiographical fruit. The question is not "Is this pericope reliable? Is this one? This one? This one?" but rather "Why this particular assortment of pericopes and only this particular assortment in our data?"


Chris Keith:
I agree entirely, Jonathan. As you know, I think this focus upon individual pericopae is rooted in form criticism. I've just written an essay that argues this even further, noting that this is why form-criticism-inspired Jesus studies tend to ask questions about the historical value of individual traditions whereas more recent approaches tend to ask questions about general claims of the narratives.



Richard Bauckham:
I absolutely agree that the dire result of form criticism was the attempt to assess individual pericope one by one. But I'm also opposed to the retreat to generalities (Dale Allison style). For one thing, I find "Jesus was a healer" pretty uninteresting, as opposed to all the hugely interesting stuff in the stories. But I also think it was the stories that were remembered. Dale Allison seems to me to have an odd sort of memory when he says he remembers general things about his grandparents but no specific incidents. When I remember (for example) an aunt I knew quite well, what come at once to mind are a whole lot of vividly remembered occasions in which she featured, which have stuck in my memory for a variety of reasons. To come up with generalities about her, I would have to think. That would be a process of abstracting from the particulars which are what I actually remember. Am I odd in that respect?

People remembered specific headings Jesus did that were important enough to them or unusually enough to stick in their memories - stories that they then told over and over (a condition of remembering well). Jesus was only remembered as a healer because lost of these specific stories were remembered. (After all, there's not much in the sayings traditions to tell us he was a healer.) In some cases, we can in fact find indications of eyewitness origins: names (Bartimaeus) or locations not otherwise known in the Jesus traditions (Nain, Cana). It doesn't mean that these stories are more plausibly reliable than others. It's that such cases give us reasons to suppose most of the stories are basically reliable (of course, details are often storytelling variations). That some of them may not be and we can't tell which they are doesn't bother me at all. History is like that. But if we have historical access to Jesus it is through these specific stories, as it is through specific sayings (not just - "he talked about the kingdom of God": so what?). What form criticism distracted us from was from looking at the mass of traditions in the Gospels and looking for the historical indications that make the general run of them credible. There are ways of thinking about that that have been grossly neglected for a long time.


Chris Keith:
Richard, I think we agree about the impact of form criticism upon historical Jesus studies and approaches to the Gospels in general. I also agree with your earlier comment that any interpretation is necessarily dependent, in some form or another, upon the earliest interpretations, even of eyewitnesses. I think you've undersold Dale's argument here, however. Let me ask a question that your comment here prompts and preface it by saying that, in general, I am actually in favor of a form of Gerhardsson's idea that the disciples and others actually played a role in controlling the tradition in the early stages. That notwithstanding, you've here said specific names like Bartimaeus or locations like Nain and Cana are "indications of eyewitness origins" that indicate that the stories are "basically reliable." But you also state that these indications don't necessarily mean that "these stories are more plausibly reliable than others" and that you aren't worried about the fact "that some of them may not be [reliable] and we can't tell which they are." How, then, do you get from the facts that (1) these indications don't, in and of themselves, necessarily mean that the stories are plausibly reliable and (2) we can't, at the end of the day, necessarily know which are reliable and which aren't, to the conclusion that the stories are generally reliable? Could not an ancient tradent have inserted such details (not necessarily with ill motives) in order to give the story the ring of authenticity? Stated otherwise, how does the modern historian distinguish between a usage of such details that reflects the fact that the tradition is reliable and a usage of such details that reflects the fact that the tradition is designed to look reliable? This is where I would say that the value of eyewitness testimony must be assessed separately from the claim for eyewitness status. But I'm wondering how you might deal with this historiographical issue.



Richard Bauckham:
My argument was too brief to be clear. 

For a start, one has to go back to the way form criticism understood the transmission of Gospel traditions in the early church and how they reached the Gospels. This meant that, if one were to identify “authentic” Jesus material, one could not proceed (as historians most often do) by a assessing the general reliability of a source containing a lot of material. One could only assess items of tradition one by one. Moreover, the nature of the transmission meant that the odds against authentic material surviving were high (more or less, depending on the scholar). So one could only proceed at all by using criteria that were thought to be highly rigorous in order to isolate a few bits of authentic stuff in this mass of very unpromising material and go on from there. This seems to me to have got Jesus scholars into a frame of mind in which they want arguments for authenticity to be foolproof in a way that one doesn’t normally either in history (so many of them have never done any other sort of history) or ordinary life. The retreat to generalities seems to me (I could be wrong) just another way of trying to deal with the same general situation and rescue something from the very unpromising pool of traditions as the form critics pictured them.

Some people are now using memory studies to argue that, leaving form criticism aside, we are nevertheless in much the same sort of situation as the form critics left us in, because memory is unreliable. I think, as far as the psychology of memory goes, this is a mistake. The results of research tell us more detailed and interesting things about how and when memory is reliable or not. And once again, as historians, we are only looking for the degrees of reliability we ordinarily depend on all the time in ordinary life (and without which we cannot function). We’re not looking for infallibility.
Plausible access to eyewitness testimony is one condition of a historically reliable source. Of course, not the only condition, but a hugely important one. I and others have emphasized it because the form critics denied that the evangelists had plausible access to eyewitness testimony, even at several times removed, and (importantly) said that neither the evangelists nor other tradents were at all interested in it. For the form critics, eyewitness testimony was a late apologetic claim by Luke and John. That’s why so much of my argument in the book was directed to arguing that the Gospels do, in various ways, claim eyewitness testimony and that it was important in the early church long before the Gospels. People complain: That doesn’t get us very far (claims can be false, eyewitnesses get things wrong….). But in terms of getting us back behind the whole form critical approach to a position where we can start again in a different way, actually it does get us a long way. 


Chris Keith:
Ok. I got it and am in agreement for the most part. In my own work, I have given much attention to the way form criticism undergirds the quest for "authenticity" via criteria and have criticized this approach pretty heavily. I tend not to see the "retreat" to generalities as something of the same thing, however. I think there's a different epistemological assumption as well as a different methodology in terms of how one does "history" at work in folks like Allison, Schroeter, and, if I may say, myself. It's not an attempt to rescue bits of the tradition that can be recovered; rather, it's an attempt to account for the interpretations we see in the Gospels. In other words, it doesn't chop the narratives up but rather starts with them as what must be explained. I think this lines up with your approach in the Eyewitnesses.

You're right that some people are using memory studies in order to argue that we are in the same position as form criticism left us. I think that's a misuse of the theory, in particular sociological approaches to memory but also many cognitive approaches to memory. I think the theory shows that memory is capable of being both reliable and unreliable, but the theory itself does not demonstrate any given instance to be either . . . it's up to the historian to do that, in my opinion. You're absolutely right, though, that this puts us regardless in a much different position that form criticism left us.



Richard Bauckham:
Part 2:
So now we can look holistically at the contents of the Gospels and ask for general historical indications that these are good sources or not. Bear in mind that, especially in ancient history, one can more or less always come up with SOME sort of alternative possibility to explain the evidence. Was Julius Caesar really assassinated by Brutus and Cassius? Maybe our sources had reasons for suppressing the real truth. But we’re looking for reasonable probabilities and the case for the Gospels is going to be cumulative, based on a whole lot of different considerations. The form critics inculcated a methodologically fragmented way of looking at all this stuff. Fragments are particularly vulnerable to historical scepticism. Good history, in my view, is about a whole lot of things coming coherently together.

On the healings (my computer keeps changing this to headings – why?) my point about names is part of an argument I can’t repeat now, that does make it stronger than you take it to be, Chris. But what I meant was: There may be some stories that have particular features that especially favour their authenticity. But that doesn’t mean other stories are less likely to be reliable. It increases the probability that the healing stories in general are reliable. Then I made a separate point that there could have been some inauthentic accretions to the general stock of such stories and we may not be able to distinguish these. You are pressing me to put the two points together, and I guess it means the stories with particular indications of authenticity can be exempted from this possibility of being legendary accretions or have a lower such possibility. If there’s an inconsistency there it’s because I’m trying to say (a) the general grounds for treating the general run of these stories as reliable are increased by the presence of particular indications in some (I was guarding against the view that the marks of authenticity in some stories implies the unreliability of the other stories), (b) as a general principle a degree of agnosticism is built into such arguments because – this is what history is like!


Chris Keith:
I agree entirely that what we should really be about is "a whole lot of things coming together coherently" and that, of course, there is much we cannot know. I apologize if I portrayed your comments as less potent than the full argument, with which I am very familiar and find incredibly thought-provoking, but I was indeed trying to parse through what you just said on the blog and get you to connect your two points. I may be drastically misreading you (I hope not), but in my opinion your argument isn't as far away from Allison's argument about gist as you may think. I should add, though, that I do not think we always have to be content just with assessing generalities, though they are perhaps the places where we can have the most confidence. I do think that, on occasion, we can deal with specific details.



Richard Bauckham:
Thank you, Chris, for your detailed attention to my arguments. I'm glad that we are in agreement about a lot of things. As you know, I esteem your work. We are both (and Anthony) facing up squarely to the key question: Where do we go now that form criticism has collapsed?


___ ___ ___

Thanks again to Richard Bauckham for this lively and robust exchange! The original post and comments thread can be found here. 

-anthony