Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: Actually Groundbreaking?

Nick Norelli notes that Chris Tilling has posted an extremely erudite and thorough review of Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006). While I'm often skeptical of Bauckham's scholarly conclusions, I'm always impressed by the intellectual depth and rigor of his arguments, and I regret that I haven't had a chance to read the entire book (although I did read some rather extensive portions prior to the review session at the SBL Annual Meeting in 2007). Chris opines that it "is a major contribution to New Testament scholarship, a bomb thrown into the playground of ‘historical Jesus’ scholarship"; furthermore, it is "[p]erhaps the single most important book to have been written on the historical Jesus in decades... [and] will rightly be at the centre of the developing debate over the coming years." Although I must preface my comments with the reiteration that I have not read the book in its entirety, I'm deeply skeptical of these claims, particularly the last. The competition for this honor is simply too fierce; E.P. Sanders' Jesus and Judaism (the inaugural winner of the Grawemeyer Award in Religion) and the volumes of John Meier's A Marginal Jew series (the last of which will be released this spring) immediately come to mind. While it may be years before the matter can be definitively settled, Sanders' dramatic revival of Jesus' apocalypticism, together with Meier's meticulous journey throughout every aspect of his life and ministry, seem more likely to have a lasting influence.

The most significant source of my skepticism surrounding the overall impact of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, however, concerns its ability to transcend--or at least forcibly engage--disparate poles of New Testament scholarship. This was apparent to me at the review session which responded to the book at the SBL Annual Meeting. The reviewers (one of whom was Adela Collins, a professor of mine at YDS) were largely, if not completely, unconvinced by Bauckham's claims. Prof. Collins, in particular, pointed out that the establishment of a new literary category for the gospels does not remove the problem which the miracles pose for any post-Enlightenment exegete; they remain beyond the bounds of critical history, and must be accepted or denied as a matter of faith. In short, it appears that those who would have agreed with Bauckham's conclusions before the publication of the book embraced it enthusiastically, while those who would not, did not. The validity of its claims aside, this does not strike me as the mark of a groundbreaking work--which, by definition, should radically redefine the course of the discipline in which it appears. Albert Schweitzer's The Quest of the Historical Jesus, with its inescapable indictment of the "liberal lives of Jesus," is an obvious example of such a work; similarly, while many of conclusions given in Sanders' Paul and Palestinian Judaism have been strongly challenged or even dismissed, virtually every treatment of Pauline thought or the nature of Second Temple Judaism in the past three decades has been forced to respond to it in some way. Thus far, I do not see this sort of transformative power or monolithic shadow in store for Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.

6 comments:

Jim said...

we had a colloquium with bauckham on the biblical studies list. you might enjoy searching the archives by 'bauckham'.

Jim said...

oh and i like the new layout much better than the old one.

Matthew Burgess said...

Thanks, Jim.... I'll definitely check that out. And I'm glad you like the new look!

Yirmeyahu said...

Pseudo-scholarly, confined to the traditional box research. The break-out book, taking up where Oxford historian-scholar James Parkes and Bagatti left off, is Who Are the Netzarim? But it will challenge your traditional views and conflict with your belief system.

Info at www.netzarim.co.il

Doug Chaplin said...

I believe Meier's next book will simply be his fourth, not his last. There is at least one other yet to come.

Matthew Burgess said...

Doug, the conclusion of the previous volume, Companions and Competitors, stated that the fourth volume would be the last (pp. 645-646). But I would certainly love for him to keep going... there's always more to be said!