On Testimony and Eyewitnesses

(à propos of Richard Bauckham, et al, and as on-topic and strictly attentive to the ideas as I can get...)

When we say that the gospel texts are witnesses, we may mean several things. The first concept that idea raises is that the gospels are witnesses to the events they report. That is to say, that they give testimony about a specific set of historical events, standing in some relationship to eyewitnesses of those events. That their authority to speak is the authority of eyewitness accounts, and that we trust them because (even if by some custodial chain) they were there.

There is an alternative, of course; it is not necessary that the texts were written to witness to the events. The events may have been told in order to witness to something else. This is the nature of early historiography—and of most history in scripture. An explanatory history is constructed well after the fact in order to describe the past for the sake of a present circumstance. Which is, in many circles today, a very unpleasant idea to contemplate, in spite of all of its critical usefulness for the texts we actually have. It doesn't fit the canon by which we understand non-fictional history as the validity of "truth."

In fact, it often seems like this idea works against the idea of eyewitness testimony, and that, to accept it, we need to defeat this eyewitness idea. The problem, of course, is that there is nothing wrong with the desire for eyewitness historical accounts; we have been trained by modernity to prefer them. The real problem is the lengths we are tempted to go to make the evidence fit the idea. So, instead, let us attempt to prove this idea according to its own canons of evidence, which will do much of the work.

Validating Witnesses

If one wishes to prove that the canonical gospels—or any account of a series of events, for that matter—are eyewitness testimony, what must be done? Simply prove that the authors were present for the events they describe. Nothing more or less than that. That will not, of itself, prove the truth of their accounts, but that is why forensic process brings together multiple eyewitnesses along with external evidence in order to reconstruct what may actually have happened. In fact, we do not trust the testimony of singular witnesses, and we have less reason to trust overly-polished eyewitness testimony. Eyewitnesses always distort events through a combination of perspective and conjecture, because what they saw is always only part of what happened—and the distortion grows the longer they are permitted to consider their testimony before delivering it. The witness is naturally tempted to fill in gaps, and to become more (artificially) certain about what they think happened. This is precisely why forensic process demands the independent agreement of multiple sources, preferably those that can be authenticated as first-hand witnesses, with the available facts.

How do we authenticate an eyewitness? Not principally by their story. We authenticate the person and their claim to presence, and that is the quality that validates the story. And for this, we must have either another witness who corroborates their presence ("Mark was there and also saw this."), or probable circumstantial cause to believe that they were present for the event in question. It is, in fact, easier to do this with a hostile witness than with a friendly one! The desire to "tell your story" clouds the matter of whether you were there.

No story, by itself, can prove presence at the event—though two independent stories that agree in their details might serve, as long as one author could be proven to have been present. Which leaves us with the same question. Knowing facts not generally known except to other witnesses of the same event is a way of proving presence, after the fact. But that still requires a first-hand witness, or something close. If I have reason to suspect that your story is really based on someone else's story, or is an imaginative combination of second-hand evidence, I have no reason to trust you as a witness to the event. (Which, again, is not a matter of accuracy, but of presence.)

So the only sufficient proof for eyewitness status is being personally witnessed by another eyewitness. Turtles all the way down. Can we establish that we have an eyewitness to the events of the life of Jesus?

Third-Party Reporting

The best option would be to have a disinterested observer of the same events, someone who also participated in them. To know from external facts that certain events happened, about which we have stories. From such things, we could compare witnesses and stories about the events, and judge accuracy. That's not possible for every event, certainly, but it'd be nice if Pilate or one of the Herods left us a note, or if we had something by the Baptist, or the Sanhedrin, or a high-priestly writing, or a scribal account. We don't. We'd love to, but they're not there.

Now, that doesn't mean that no such things ever existed, but it does mean that we don't have them, and therefore that we cannot presume to take them as evidence in their absence. If they existed, nobody bothered to preserve them for us. Which is to say that the life of Jesus has a lot of coverage in stories, many more in fact than are in the canon, but no objective evidence. This puts the events of that life in the pile with the overwhelming majority of events from the period. You have to be very important indeed, in an oral culture, to get first-hand witness of you recorded in writing somewhere, and then have that writing preserved. Scribes are expensive, and there were no public-minded news reporters—anybody who was out noticing things professionally (i.e. "spying") was doing so for the sake of someone powerful.

I'm sure there were such reports, potentially involving Jesus, somewhere, but none of them would have had the kind of special importance that would get them intentionally preserved for posterity. Perhaps, if the stories we have are at all accurate, the non-imperial Judean authorities might have tasked someone to watch Jesus once he became an obvious nuisance. But I can't imagine, in the period, that that would have involved anything more than oral reporting. "Paper" is the province of bureaucracy and high-status culture. The Oxyrhynchus mounds demonstrate this. And even if the Judean authorities did have "files" on Jesus of Nazareth, they didn't survive 70. Otherwise, we're looking for mention of Jesus caught in nets designed for other things, some part of Jesus' existence as an acknowledged fact in reports about something else.

Subjective Verification

This means that, absent such objective verification, all we have are stories about events in the life of Jesus. And what we're looking for among them, if we want eyewitnesses, is now an interested first-hand account of events in Jesus' life. Which means that what we're really looking for is a set of independent but cross-referencing first-hand accounts, in order to be able to authenticate eyewitnesses.

Or we would be, except that we're not out of third-party options yet. First, let's look at Paul, who is not an eyewitness, but whose letters are the best first-hand sources in the NT for a number of reasons. Paul does some of the things we might want from third-party reporting. He is not an eyewitness, and in fact situates himself as authoritative against the value of eyewitnesses to the details of Jesus' life. In the process, he tells us something important: there is a center of religious authority in Jerusalem, one among others, based on eyewitness to the life of Jesus, and the "pillars" of this community are Peter, James, and John. This is used exactly as we would want it to be, from a "disinterested observer" standpoint: Paul mentions it as a fact with which his audience is also familiar, but without having a self-interested reliance on its truth. This fact does not authenticate Paul, even though he does go on to use the tolerance and agreement of this group to validate his project. If we have grounds to believe that there are eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus, these folks have the most authenticated claim (available to us) at that time—say around 50.

Do we have eyewitness testimony from them? Note that I am not asking whether there was some; we assume there was. The question is, does it survive as eyewitness testimony? Do we have a warrant for calling it such?

Canonical Literature

Paul does not speak of these "pillars" as writers, but only as authorities. We have no evidence that Paul was aware of these men having authored works for the edification of the faithful. For that matter, Paul doesn't tell us about any writings, except the OT and personal communications. In Paul's world, there are scriptures, and there are apostles, but no apostolic scriptures. If Paul knows of a life of Jesus, he doesn't mention it. Which means that no such thing worth mentioning circulated to his communities, for example. Paul finds himself working against missionaries trading on the authority of the life of Jesus, and perhaps invoking Peter, James, and John, and he finds himself working against the far more religiously-observant authority of a "James," whether the same man or another, but he mentions no texts in the process, only the messages of missionaries working for various positions in the Judean religious landscape.

Now, certainly we have literature that claims the names of Peter and John, but nothing in the canon makes a bid to validate these claims with testimony to the connection to the men that knew Jesus, and whom Paul knew in Jerusalem. 1 Peter does not refer to anything more about Jesus than Paul does. It certainly doesn't engage in anecdotes. 2 Peter arguably makes a better showing for its connection to Peter, the man who knew Jesus, but isn't distinguishable in its references from a writer who knew the Synoptic traditions and the circulation of Paul's letters. It is the only such claim to Petrine authorship on the basis of Jesus anecdotes that was accepted in the canon, and its acceptance was not unquestioned.

And, while we have these two letters, which are validated by the Christian Fathers in contrast to a host of pseudepigrapha that do claim more direct anecdotal testimony of Peter, what we don't have are anything like arguments from Peter's person, from people who knew him. In most cases, the arguments about authorship are about the acceptability of the theology of the writings, and ruling out claimants to Petrine authorship on the basis that they protest too much, that their pretense is too obvious. Even Fred Lapham's remarkable inclusive study on Petrine literature, friendly as it is to the eyewitness idea, only succeeds in constructing a unified picture of a character central to a defined corpus of texts; the idea that Peter was an author is excluded from the beginning by his illiteracy. What we still lack is any proof from the person of Peter, rather than claimants of his authority in the tradition.

The same problem pertains to the character of John and the Johannine literature. The Gospel of John does not claim to be the testimony of this John, presumably the son of Zebedee and brother of James, who knew Jesus, nor do the letters claim pieces of the life of Jesus as marks of their authority as even 2 Peter does. The gospel does claim to be testimony, but in different ways, and does not identify itself with a known character in the story.

So: these "pillars" of this Jerusalem sect figure strongly as characters in our literature, as well they should, but never from a first-person perspective. And the assumption is made that attribution is equal to authorship, but not from any ground that could demonstrate eyewitness knowledge of an eyewitness author. What we don't yet have from the existing literature is an authentication of a piece of it as eyewitness testimony to the life of Jesus—only people who claim the authority of eyewitnesses without authentication.

Patristic Literature

The Papias fragments, and the attestation of quotations from Papias' writings, are a mainstay of the eyewitness arguments, and an interesting source. He seems to be alone among the Fathers as a source for critical judgments about the Synoptics, and as such he is later used by Ignatius as proof against heresies, though Eusebius finds him more dubious in the Ecclesiastical History. He has, at any rate, convenient opinions for the eyewitness argument.

Papias of Hierapolis is a man of the early second century, by accounts a companion of Polycarp of Smyrna and Ignatius of Antioch, a gentile Christian in a gentile context. And what he has of the apostolic tradition he claims comes to him through Aristion and an elder named John, distinct from the apostle John who belongs to the tradition relayed to him. (With the exception of Eusebius, it isn't until after Jerome that these two are consistently confused, and Papias becomes a companion of the apostle, or the evangelist, which at that point has come to be the same thing on the assumption that the gospel is an eyewitness testimony of that John. At any rate, the confusion begins late-3rd/early-4th century.) Beyond this oral tradition, it cannot be deduced from his writings that he knows anything we don't have in manuscript tradition for the NT already, "eapr" in the Alands' terms, besides the non-canonical traditions of this John. But he certainly knows Revelation and Hebrews, which places him relative to the formation of the circulating canons.

Papias' primary concern is with "the living and abiding voice" of Jesus in the tradition. But he also deals in validation of texts, though on entirely subjective grounds. Which is to say that he does not authenticate authorship, even though he relays the elder John's claims. And this John claims that Mark is an accurate recorder of Peter's chreiai, which may be analogous to the hadith of the Prophet—sayings recorded "out of order," as usually rendered, but more appropriately understood as without providing them with the kind of style that Matthew does. Of course, Papias/John also claims that there was a Hebrew original of Matthew built upon Mark, for which there is no evidence. Eusebius combines this report about Mark with that of Clement of Alexandria to produce a thicker story, and adduces 1 Peter's closing claim about his son Mark, but none of these serve as validation of the eyewitness claim by eyewitnesses—only justification of a tradition.

And, of course, the problem is also that Mark does not read as a collection of sayings. Mark is a story in its own right, told in its own chronology by an omniscient narrator. It coheres as a story in ways Papias discounts—but then, Papias also discounts the value of texts, period, in his desire for oral tradition. His five books, as they are known, are books of sayings, and they stand external to the canon. Perhaps, as is common in the period, Papias is illiterate, and only knows the oral traditions as he receives them. If he is in fact reliant on others who can read—which was not such a shame in the ancient world, as reading was as expensive a specialty as writing—this would explain his knowledge of the existence of the canonical writings, and of passages from them, and also his failure when it comes to accurate analysis of them as texts. Papias is, at best, a second-hand reporter of oral tradition, whose reportage cannot be authenticated secondarily and becomes muddier the longer it is transmitted.

Interestingly enough, in much later traditions, Papias himself comes to be claimed as the author of the Gospel of John, in a manner similar to his claim about Mark and Peter. Which actually picks up on an important thing to notice: Papias knows the Synoptics, but not the Gospel of John. It makes you wonder whether the John whose opinion he has on the Synoptics is in fact the evangelist. Given that the terminus ante quem for John is its appearance in the Rylands fragment, P52, and that can only be paleographically dated to the second century at the earliest, with high demonstrated unity with the canonical text of John, it would not surprise me if the elder John known to Papias—who gave him the opinions recorded about Mark and Hebrew Matthew—was the author of the Gospel of John. It also wouldn't surprise me, since we have a medieval history of Hebrew versions of Matthew, if there were much earlier Hebrew versions made, and if someone finding one of these were to suppose that, being in Hebrew, it were more original than the Greek on the basis of speculation about the authors.

Lifespan Issues

What would surprise me utterly is if such a person were in fact an eyewitness of the life of Jesus, and Papias and friends never mentioned it, and simply accepted from him the traditions of the apostles rather than claiming him as a direct authority. Since no such claim is made for continuity of this John with the apostle John until much later, no claim that this John serves as first-hand witness to the life of Jesus can be validated.

Such claims—Bauckham and Hengel, for example, follow the medieval traditions in claiming that the elder John of Papias' time, c. 115, is not only the author of the Johannine literature but also a first-hand disciple of Jesus and therefore eyewitness—rely on assumptions of very long lifespans for working-class Judeans from the period and place of first-century Galilee. The pious sentiments of later tradition point in two directions, but both from the standpoint of gentile imperial citizens after the second century: either miraculous preservation into century-long lives, or heroic first-century martyrdom. And you can't very well have both, in many cases!

But let us consider basic dating, if the canonical gospels preserve anything like the appropriate period data. We may suggest that the events of the gospels are set around 30-35CE. The disciples as portrayed are, at the earliest, men in the second half of their teens. No longer boys, some (like Peter) married, and working with a fair degree of independence, but in strong connection to their family businesses in several cases. Let's estimate birth dates around 15-20CE. This is the generation after Jesus and his cousin John, the generation that comes to see them as leaders. By the time Paul knows these men as the "pillars" of Jerusalem, these men are in their 30s—and Paul is likely of similar age. Capable, respectable, but not young anymore. By the time Jerusalem is razed in 70CE, these men are in their 50s. Geriatric, especially for the time, even if they have been preserved from hardship by their authoritative status and comparable lack of travel.

Do you think they survived? Where do you think they went? Do you really think they went to Rome, with Vespasian surviving the year of the four emperors by military right? Of course, the tradition also suggests that Peter died a martyr's death in Rome in the 60s, under Nero, which would have required him to leave the Jerusalem community before that, and also to leave Syria and Asia and Greece and basically the whole local neighborhood. (Which only really makes sense to non-Judean authors for whom Jerusalem is not the center of the world, and for which, like most things, we have no eyewitness testimony to, only traditions.) But rather than argue that, let us say that it is plausible on many fronts that Peter dies by 70CE.

If John's account of Markan recording of Petrine sayings happens, it must happen before this. Given the turbulent period of the 60s, and the possibility that he died before 65, we might suggest that it happens in the mid- to late-50s. This would make sense; Peter is an acknowledged authority and likely leader of a community at the time, and if we credit Eusebius' composition of the story, that is the basic situation. A competent witness even to that time is likely very elderly indeed by Papias' time. Let us assume a birthdate around 35-45CE. Such a person is in their 70s, 60s in the best case if we push the event later, as a "contemporary" of Papias. And that's without the calculation for being a peer of the first generation of apostles. Such a man would be nearing 100, which is a miraculously long life even given modern geriatric science. For such a man to then compose the gospel of John ... let us say that this stretches credulity. For such a man to be a leader of a community is impossible. And such a man would not be conveying apostolic traditions; he would be telling his own story, and be reported as such. It would be a remarkable thing! But no such reports exist, only conjectures based on similarity of name and reputation as an authority, made by authors over 150 years later.

Let's Wrap Up

Now, we're discussing this like the canonical gospels make adjudicable claims to being eyewitness testimony in the first place. And I've spent quite long enough here, that I'm not going into that, but I'd love to see someone adduce for me passages in which these writings claim any such thing for themselves. I'll deal with the matter that way. But even Luke claims to be writing a historical reconstruction from the best collection of available sources, presumably as a support for his Acts story.

If you want a real claim about eyewitnesses, as far as I'm concerned the answer is that we have no access to them, and therefore no way to validate the authorial narratives of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John with respect to any sort of eyewitness standing—even of their sources! None of these writings, except Luke, claim to stand in even direct relationship to eyewitness testimony, and Luke expects to be trusted as to that claim, and does not provide evidence for his sources.

The tradition, in fact, does not get around to claiming eyewitness standing for the writings of the circulating canons until it attempts to assemble one authoritative (gentile) Christian canon from them, and defend its interpretations against those of others in the fight for normative orthodoxy. Which is to say that we have no external claims to eyewitness standing for our existing writings that do not stand first as claims to personal interpretive orthodoxy in a later period of time. We have no early Christian appeals to the historical persons of the companions of Jesus as authors in their own rights. And we have no validated eyewitnesses to transmission history from such companions.

So: judgment time. By any contemporary canon of validating eyewitnesses, untwisted to the demands of piety and religious authority, we have none upon which we can rely as such. We may trust that they existed, but we cannot prove that anything exists behind our canonical gospels, except their own interconnections. We do violence to both the texts we have, and the meaning of eyewitness testimony, if we attempt to say otherwise. And we do a disservice to ourselves to believe about these texts what we cannot prove from them, or from their contemporaries. Which has a related lesson attached: always take the Fathers cum grano salis. If you lean too hard on them, you will find that they are merely pious men, who thought about these things before us, and not truly our betters before God and the facts.

I'm not opposed to the idea of there being eyewitnesses. But I've never seen a relevant demonstrable contemporary of Jesus. Our only witness is tradition.