Richard Bauckham and the Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony




manicstreetpreacher proffers his heretical, unscholarly opinion of Anglican New Testament historian, Richard Bauckham, after hearing his debate on Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable?, 29 August 2009.

Richard Bauckham -v- James Crossley on the Gospels as eyewitness testimony, Part I, Unbelievable?, Premier Christian Radio, Saturday, 29 August 2009

I’ve just finished listening to the first debate between Richard Bauckham and James Crossley and found it to be the same old circular, assertive, self-opinionated and ultimately frustrating and unconvincing mode of thinking that leads me to conclude that theology and biblical scholarship are not really subjects at all.  Bauckham, author of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, committed the usual mistake of assuming that Jesus and all the other characters actually existed and the basic narrative of the Gospels is in some sense historically true and proceeding from there.

Bauckham mentioned Paul’s account of five hundred people seeing Jesus ascending in heaven (1 Corinthians 15:6), but failed to acknowledge the fact that Paul mentions very few other details about Jesus’ life and nothing was written down until the Gospel of Mark, a full 50 to 60 years after the supposed crucifixion.  As an aside, Acts 1:15 states that the number of witnesses who saw Jesus before the ascension was 120, so which account is the more accurate?   (For more in a similar vein, see Skeptics Annotated Bible: Contradictions and Self-Contradictions in the Bible by William Henry Burr.)

Bauckham also put great trust in the Gospel of Luke.   What he omits to mention is that Luke messes up his historical dates in relation to the nativity something rotten and fabricates a Roman census with the ludicrous obligation for the populous to return to the town of their ancestry to be registered in order to fulfil the prophesy that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem.   As Robin Lane Fox summarises in The Unauthorized Version:

Roman censuses cared little for remote genealogies, let alone false ones: they were based on ownership of property of the living, not the dead.  As the Gospel has already stated at the time of the Annunciation (Luke 1:26), Joseph and Mary were people from Nazareth in Galilee, the home town which later rejected its prophet, Jesus.  A Roman census would not have taken Joseph to Bethlehem where he and Mary owned nothing and were therefore assumed to have needed to lodge as visitors in an inn…

The scale of the Gospel’s error is now clear.  The first census did occur under Quirinius, but it belonged in AD 6 when Herod the Great was long dead; it was a local census in Roman Judea and there was no decree for Caesar Augustus to all the world; in AD 6 Joseph of Nazareth would not have registered in Bethlehem and was exempt from Judea’s registration; his wife had no legal need to leave home.  Luke’s story is historically impossible and internally incoherent. It clashes with his own date for the Annunciation (which he places under Herod) and with Matthew’s long story of the Nativity which also presupposes Herod the Great as king.  It is, therefore, false.  (London: Penguin, 2006, p. 31)

These are very straightforward objections raised by “New Atheists” Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.  Critics chide them for relying on “unscholarly” sources, but this amounts to little more than ad hominems against bibliography as a means of avoiding answering their actual objections.

Personally, I don’t think the single man Jesus of Nazareth actually existed.  My two-pence is that the character is based on several eccentric preachers doing the rounds in 1st century Palestine, and there were no shortage of those.  Perhaps one stood out more than others, but we simply don’t have enough evidence to be certain.  As American mathematician, John Allen Paulos, points out in his superb little bastion of common sense, Irreligion, we are used to reserving judgement on events that happened within recent memory for which we have far more of contemporary documentation and living eyewitnesses to hand.  Let’s take the Watergate scandal for example: we still don’t know who ordered what and are prepared to reserve our final opinions until conclusive evidence comes to light.

The fact that the debate over the historical Jesus has been so long running and scholarly opinion so varied has to say something in itself.  I recently read Who On Earth Was Jesus? by Quaker humanist writer and former World In Action journalist, David Boulton.  I was interested to read about J P Meier’s multi-volume study of the historical Jesus, A Marginal Jew, since first time I appeared on Unbelievable?, my theologian opponent, Andy Bannister, mentioned it.

Meier’s “Criterion of Embarrassment” particularly fascinated me: the more difficulties the stories would have caused for the early church, the less likely they were fabricated.  Christians see the discovery of the empty tomb by Mary Magdalene and her girlfriends as concrete evidence for the story’s authenticity.  Since women did not have equal standing with men at that time and place as it was unlikely to have been concocted by the early church.

As is so often the case, Christopher Hitchens put a rather different spin on matters in a debate with Dinesh D’Souza at Freedom Fest 2008: “What religion that wants its fabrication to be believed is going to say, ‘You’ve got to believe it, because we have some illiterate, hysterical girls who said they saw this’?”


The following quote from Daniel Dennett’s book, Breaking The Spell, which spends all of six pages on discussing the arguments for God’s existence(!) is, in my view, the last word on assessing the truth of the Holy Scriptures:

We can begin with anthropomorphic Gods and the arguments from the presumed historical documentation, such as this: according to the Bible, which is the literal truth, God exists, has always existed, and created the universe in seven days a few thousand years ago.  The historical arguments are apparently satisfying to those who accept them, but they simply cannot be introduced into a serious investigation, since they are manifestly question begging.  (If this is not obvious to you, ask whether the Book of Mormon (1829) or the founding document of Scientology, L Ron Hubbard’s book Dianetics (1950), should be taken as irrefutable evidence for the propositions it contains.  No text can be conceded the status of “gospel truth” without foreclosing all rational enquiry.)  (London: Penguin, 2007, pp. 240 – 241)

Manifestly question begging” is the key phrase here.  The Bible, like the notion of God, raises more questions than it answers.  The most satisfying explanation is to take out Ockam’s trusty razor and consign it to the flames, along with all other sophistry and illusion as the great Mr Hume once advised.

Returning to Bauckham, I can do no better than the comments of prolific ‘net infidel Steven Carr regarding Jesus and the Eyewitnesses in response to the “scholarly” Mr Bannister:

“Have a look at Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses for example”

And laugh heartily at the arguments it presents which are ridiculous.

Apparently, the anonymous Gospel of Mark is based on the eyewitness testimony of Peter, and this is proved because Peter is the first person named in the Gospel and also the last person named in the Gospel.

What a load of trash!

Not one single ancient author ever said he used that technique of “inclusio”.

Not one ancient reader ever said he head heard of that technique.

And no ancient author ever discussed such a technique, although there were many other writing techniques discussed.

Bauckham says on page 124 that this “inclusion” technique is “hardly noticed by modern scholars.”

Which is code for “I just made it up and pulled it out my behind”.

How should we treat first-century sources like the Gospel of Mark which were anonymous, undated, have no indication of sources, have no chronology, steal plot lines from the Old Testament and have scenes of Jesus speaking to Satan in the desert?

There is absolutely nothing in the Gospel of Mark to indicate it is even intended to be history.

Indeed, the characters in it are absurd…

Mark 4:11 says that the secret of the kingdom of God has been given to the disciples.  What was this secret?  When was it given to the disciples, who seem totally ignorant of who Jesus was (Mark 4:41)?

In Mark 6:7-13 till 29-30 the disciples are sent out to preach and teach.  As the disciples did not know Jesus was the Messiah until Mark 8:30, that must have been interesting!

Surely the average Christian would fall about laughing if he read such stories in the Book of Mormon or the Koran.

Serious scholars, (and not jokes like Bauckham and his “inclusion” Bible-code techniques), have treated the Gospels just like other first-century sources.

This is why the Quest for the Historical Jesus has failed so miserably that “serious scholars” are now counting the failures (First Quest, Second Quest, Third Quest).

Treating the Gospels as ancient sources means you fail to find the Historical Jesus so totally that you can have books devoted to documenting and classifying the failures.

Following Bannister’s recommendation, I did actually purchase a copy of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. I haven’t read it in detail yet, but a quick skim through a couple of chapters made my left eyebrow virtually fly off my forehead.  If I concocted a story about the exploits of His Noodly Appendage and used the word “witnesses” a lot, challenging readers a few centuries down the line to go out and find them, would that make the story a lot more easy to swallow?

Also, Bauckham should consider Victor Stenger’s comments regarding of the reliability of eyewitness testimony in God, The Failed Hypothesis.  When DNA forensic evidence was passed as admissible in court, numerous people on death row convicted of serious crimes on the basis of eyewitness testimony alone had their convictions overturned after their cases were re-examined.  Eyewitness testimony based on reliable oral tradition?  I think not.

I will hopefully get round to reading Bauckham’s book more thoroughly, although I do not have very high hopes for it.  I’ve been doing this religious-debate thing long enough to hear all of the kinds of arguments that apologists throw at me.

Ultimately, we have a collection of disparate documents, based on third hand accounts by people who never net the man, set in the pre-scientific past, copied, re-copied, edited, altered by countless anonymous scribes with their own theological axes to grind, which portray a world that bears scant resemblance to our own.

I will listen intently to next week’s show on the reliability of the New Testament miracle accounts, but I think it too will be a foregone conclusion.  Sam Harris’ recent chastisement of theistic scientist, Francis Collins, sums up the woeful inadequacy of the Gospels’ account beautifully:

[E]ven if we had multiple, contemporaneous, first-hand accounts of the miracles of Jesus, this would still not constitute sufficient support for the central tenets of Christianity.  Indeed, first-hand accounts of miracles are extremely common, even in the 21st century.  I’ve met scores of educated men and women who are convinced that their favourite Hindu or Buddhist guru has magic powers, and many of the miracles that they describe are every bit as outlandish as those attributed to Jesus.  Stories about yogis and mystics walking on water, raising the dead, flying without the aid of technology, materialising objects, reading minds, foretelling the future are circulating right now, in communities where the average levels of education, access to information, and sceptical doubt are far higher than we would expect of first century fishermen and goatherds.

In fact, all of Jesus’ powers have been attributed to the South Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba by vast numbers of eyewitnesses who believe that he is a living god. The man even claims to have been born of a virgin.  [Christianity] is predicated on the claim that miracle stories of the sort that today surround a person like Sathya Sai Baba – and do not even merit an hour on the Discovery Channel – somehow become especially credible when set in the pre-scientific religious context of the 1st century Roman Empire, decades after their supposed occurrence, as evidenced by discrepant and fragmentary copies of copies of copies of ancient Greek manuscripts.

Does anyone else see a problem with that?

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

12 Responses to “Richard Bauckham and the Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony”

  1. manicstreetpreacher Says:

    The podcast of Richard Bauckham –v- James Crossley on the Gospels, Part 2, Unbelievable? Premier Christian Radio, 5 September 2009 can be downloaded here.

    The veracity of the eyewitness accounts of the miracles is discussed and as I predicted, I have nothing to add to Sam Harris’ comments on Eastern gurus like Sai Baba.

    Nevertheless, I cannot believe that Bauckham is giving the alleged sighting of the Virgin Mary at Fatima, Portugal in 1917 more than a moment’s thought.

    The First World War is raging. Millions of young men are being slaughtered on the Western Front. And all the Almighty can be bothered to do is send his mum down to make an appearance to a bunch of stupefied peasants in a backwater miles from the war zone?

    I never ceased to be amazed just how impressed Christians get when their lord and master spills a few crumbs from his table for them…

  2. manicstreetpreacher Says:

    The following comprise relevant correspondence and Internet postings regarding the Bauckham discussions on Unbelievable?

    from: MSP
    to: Justin Brierley, Andy Bannister
    date: 30 August 2009 22:43
    subject: Richard Bauckham and Allan Porchetta pieces linked

    Dear Justin

    I hope you’ve had nice long weekend off work. The manicstreetpreacher has had a busy Bank Holiday weekend as evidenced by the links below:

    I noticed you read an extract from Allan Porchetta’s attack on Peter Hearty from the Premier Christian Community web forum a few weeks ago. I have been meaning to respond to it for some time, as it is frankly the most inane piece of trash that has ever disgraced the site! It is at the link below and I’ve also posted on the thread on the Premier forum, so hopefully Mr Porchetta will receive it:

    Listened to yesterday’s show with Richard Bauckham and James Crossley. Can you please forward the link to this piece on Richard’s work:

    Andy, suffice it to say that I was somewhat underwhelmed by Bauckham’s discussions about “context”…

    And just for good measure, here is an unconnected piece on someone from Nebraska who attempted to sue the Lord for damages in case you are interested:



  3. manicstreetpreacher Says:

    from: MSP
    to: David Boulton
    date: 30 August 2009 23:08
    subject: Richard Bauckham piece linked

    Hello David

    I hope you are well. How did your book tour of the USA go?

    Below is a link to a piece I have written on Jesus and the Eyewitnesses author, Richard Bauckham, which references your book. I hope I haven’t incriminated you!

    With very best wishes


    from: David Boulton
    to: MSP
    date: 31 August 2009 11:58
    subject: Re: Richard Bauckham piece linked

    Hi Edward

    It’s a cracking piece you’ve done on Bauckham. Of course the nativity stories and probably the passion stories too are pure fictions, as is Mark’s narrative and the narratives that follow it. As you know, my view remains that, on the balance of probabilities, it is more likely that those extraordinary and complex parables, plus mind-boggling stuff like “love your enemies”, are the work of a flesh-and-blood sage than the concoctions of a committee… I still hope we’ll find an opportunity to enjoy a public smackdown on that some day!

    The US tour was crazy, 12 TV and radio interviews in 9 days, east and west coast. Can’t possibly have paid for itself in book sales, but got some fierce debates going. Tomorrow I’m off to Australia and New Zealand for more of the same, but some holiday too. Won’t be back now for seven weeks.

    Good luck!


  4. manicstreetpreacher Says:

    Unbelievable? DJ Justin Brierley posted this thread on the Premier forum, September 3, 2009 at 11:03am.


    I’m in an unusually assertive mood in this post. My statement comes after having the conversations with Richard Bauckham and James Crossley (Shows of 29 Aug 09 & 05 Sep 09) on Bauckham’s book “Jesus and the eyewitnesses”. Its a fascinating book, and I think has a compelling argument for the authorship of the gospels being direct eyewitness testimony of Jesus life and ministry.

    Non-Christian NT historian James Crossley differs with Bauckham on a number of points and has less confidence in him on the relatively unperturbed transmission of the accounts of Jesus. Nontetheless, both historians would dismiss out-of-hand the notion that “Jesus never existed”.

    When you are actually immersed in the wealth of bilical-historical literature that bears witness to Jesus, however one might dipute the details, to claim that he never even existed is a huge leap of faith (that is out of character for the “rationally minded” individuals usually making the claim).

    Internet films such as “The God who wasn’t there” and “Zeitgeist” don’t even get off the ground with their “Jesus was an aggregation of other myths”. Its just ridiculous to ignore the welath of evidence in favour of a conspiracy theory.

    Richard Dawkins makes the claim in TGD. He was forced to retract it in debate with John Lennox a year ago (because he basically read it off the internet and that’s good enough research when it comes to writing about religion, natch.), but I’m guessing he’s not going to be making any amendments to further prints of the book.

    That’s my rant for the week!


  5. manicstreetpreacher Says:

    My response to Justin on the Premier forum:


    Dawkins most certainly does not make the claim that Jesus never existed in The God Delusion! What he actually says is that a serious case, “though not widely supported”, can be made that Jesus the person did not exist and cites G A Well’s Did Jesus Exist? as such an example.

    In the Dawkins/Lennox debate that I heard, Dawkins said that some historians doubt whether Jesus existed, but he places little importance on the point. People should listen and judge for themselves.

    Note that in the website text for the debate Dawkins “outs” Lennox for misrepresenting his views on the deist God in a lecture that Lennox gave a few days after the debate at Oxford. In my view, Lennox also drastically over-eggs the concession that Dawkins made to the historical Jesus during their debate.

    Dawkins actually believes that Jesus existed, but obviously not that he was the son of God etc. He actually has rather a soft spot for old JC, as evidenced in his article, “Atheists for Jesus”.

    In Lennox’s post-debate lecture, he bangs on about how Wells is not “qualified” to pass judgement on the existence of Jesus, because he is a professor of German literature and not a “proper” biblical scholar, but utterly fails to address Wells’ arguments. This is a very sloppy tactic and is far more complacent than any of Dawkins’ work.

    Aside from asking why you need to be qualified in order to criticise when no qualifications are required in order to believe, I would direct bloggers to my unscholarly verdict on Richard Bauckham on my blog, which gives a damning assessment on Bauckham’s, erm, “arguments”.

    I was fascinated to hear on Unbelievable? a while back that serious “scholar” J P Holding failed to make a dent into cockney wide-boy and head of the Jesus Never Existed website, Ken Humphries. That has to say to say something.

    I am equally fascinated to note that whenever apologists are hauled up on whether Jesus existed they simple fire off ad homs comparing doubters to Holocaust deniers etc. without actually saying a single word to prove that Jesus existed. QED: I as an atheist am less likely to believe that Jesus existed.

    Tut, tut, tut. Strawman argument, Mr Brierley!


  6. manicstreetpreacher Says:

    Reply by James Croft on the Premier forum:

    Well put. Furthermore, the discussion around the historicity of the Bible on Unbelievable for the last two weeks has been fascinating – at no point in either episode does the Christian guest advance an argument based on historical evidence! Rather he makes arguments based on his own suppositions that happen to be consistent with the historical information as he reads it, while dismissing other possible readings without good cause. The arguments often came in the following form:

    “Section X seems to me to admit of only two possible readings, reading A and reading B. I prefer B (for no good reason).”

    The atheist guest would then advance a potential alternative (Reading C) and the discussion would move onto another point. Bizarre.

  7. manicstreetpreacher Says:

    My reply to James Croft on the Premier forum:

    James – see below links to two very good articles on just what a vacuous subject theology is. I think they easily apply to biblical scholarship as per your comments on the Bauckham shows:

    Edmund Standing, “Are the ‘New Atheists’ avoiding the ‘real arguments’?”

    Richard Dawkins, “The Emptiness of Theology”.

    It all seems so made up and based on one’s own perceptions without feeding in any evidence from the outside world.

    A few years ago, thirty of the world “top” theologians met at the Vatican to discuss what happens to the souls of babies who die before they are baptised. The result was that they decided to abolish the doctrine of limbo: a state of eternal bliss while being denied the grace of God.

    Can you think of a more intellectually forlorn exercise? Did any of those theologians actually possess a shred of evidence as to what really does happen to the souls of un-baptised babies after they die? Or even any evidence that human beings in general do have a soul that is separate from their bodies and floats off their brains towards a tunnel of light to be reunited with their loved ones in some kind of theme park in the sky?

  8. manicstreetpreacher Says:

    Richard Morgan’s reply to me on the Premier forum:

    Edmund Standing :
    “The notion of ‘faith seeking understanding’ demonstrates clearly how intellectually vacuous theology is,”
    And he prides himself on having a BA in Theology & Religious Studies with First Class Honours? Four years of studying vacuousness?
    Well, if it took him fours years of intense study to discover that theology is a non-subject, I guess I’ve got my work cut out for me. 😉

    Maybe if I work hard, in four years I too will be able to boast “I’ve obtained a First Class Honours degree in nothingness.” Would it be useful on my C.V.? What sort of job opportunities would it open up for me?

    Just joking, guys…

  9. manicstreetpreacher Says:

    My reply to Richard Morgan on the Premier forum:

    Richard – I consider Edmund Standing to be a good friend of mine. I’ve never met him in person, but I contacted him after reading some superb pieces in the articles section of Butterflies&Wheels.

    He also blogs at Jewcy and Harry’s Place. If you go to the website of the think-tank, Centre for Social Cohesion, he has also written a 75-odd page report on the Internet activities of British fascists, nationalists and all-round right-wing, racist nut-jobs.

    Standing said that he began his theology degree as a believer and indeed, his father is a clergyman. However, the more he studied, the less he could believe and is now a firm supporter of the Four Horseman. He has also proofed a few of my postings and given me much advice and reassurance.

    It has to say a great deal that even someone with a first in the subject can think that theology is a vacuous non-subject.

    So there!


  10. manicstreetpreacher Says:

    Richard Morgan’s reply to me on the Premier forum:



    I was only teasing!!!!
    Having said that, I had a girl-friend in Nottingham in 1969 (ah…Alison…) whose father was an Anglican Vicar. I remember him telling me that in his very first week as a Theology student at some quite prestigious place like Oxford or Cambridge or Llanymynech (I can’t remember) a renowned lecturer assured ALL his students that they would be atheists at the end of their studies.
    Apparently it works that way for some.

  11. manicstreetpreacher Says:

    from: MSP
    to: Justin Brierley, James Crossley, Richard Bauckham
    date: 31 August 2009 11:58
    subject: Re: Richard Bauckham piece linked

    Hi Justin

    I’ve listened to the second show and have added the following comment to my piece on Richard Bauckham from last week:

    The podcast of Richard Bauckham –v- James Crossley on the Gospels, Part 2, Unbelievable? Premier Christian Radio, 5 September 2009 can be downloaded here.

    The veracity of the eyewitness accounts of the miracles is discussed and as I predicted, I have nothing to add to Sam Harris’ comments on Eastern gurus like Sai Baba.

    Nevertheless, I cannot believe that Bauckham is giving the alleged sighting of the Virgin Mary at Fatima, Portugal in 1917 more than a moment’s thought.

    The First World War is raging. Millions of young men are being slaughtered on the Western Front. And all the Almighty can be bothered to do is send his mum down to make an appearance to a bunch of stupefied peasants in a backwater miles from the war zone?

    I never ceased to be amazed just how impressed Christians get when their lord and master spills a few crumbs from his table for them…



  12. David Aaronovitch debunks the evidential standard for pseudo-history (and perhaps that for biblical scholarship) | manicstreetpreacher Says:

    […] Premier Christian Radio’s debate show Unbelievable? in 2008, Unbelievable? stalwart Jay Smith and Richard Bauckham who appeared on the show in 2009 debating atheist scholar, James […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: