I recently finished reading Richard Bauckham's book 'Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony' and thought I would share my thoughts with you. I'm not going to do a lengthy-ish review of it like I did with Timothy Keller's 'The Reason For God' last month, as there are really only a handful of things I wanted to say in response to this book.
For starters the book is quite a hefty tome, but it has long footnotes at the bottom of most pages which significantly reduces the average page length of actual content, so it's not as long of a read as it first gives the impression of. The book is fairly easy to understand although Bauckham tends to be quite tangential, and by that I mean he has asides which last up to 10 pages before continuing his argument, this detracts somewhat from his arguments, but I managed to follow them well enough.
The content and arguments however I found extremely underwhelming and often particularly specious. He often relies on many assumptions which I am not willing to accept and I do not think he provided sufficient reason for them. The first of these is his reliance on Papias of Hierapolis. The problem I see with Bauckham's reliance on Papias is that we do not have Papias' writings. What we have are a few quotations of his works by Eusebius and a mention by Iranaeus. Despite this, Bauckham takes the liberty to espouse the mind of Papias well beyond what the dubious quotes can possibly tell us. Bauckham does not address many of the problems associated with Papias such as the fact that his descriptions (via quotation) of the Gospel of Matthew and Mark do not match up with the gospels that we have today, so to rely so uncritically on the word of Papias as attesting to the eyewitness tradition within these gospels I find is very credulous and disappointing.
The other frustrating assumption I encountered while reading the book was the trustworthiness of the canonical gospels. Bauckham uses internal evidence within the gospel narratives to point to eyewitness testimony. One of the examples he uses is the preface of Luke, which alludes to the testimony upon which the author says he based his writing on. Bauckham pokes around the words used in this passage and finds a definition that supports his case, which has connotations of eye-witness testimony to the actual events. He seems to accept this rather uncritically, how we know the author was telling the truth Bauckham never reveals. His other main piece of internal evidence really requires a stretch of the imagination, it is what he called the 'Inclusio'. This is a literary device used in ancient literature by which the author conveys the source of information via using their perspective in the text, without outright claiming it came from them. Bauckham primarily claims Inclusio in the gospel of Mark as Peter's witness and in the gospel of Luke as the women disciples' witness. Bauckham seemed pretty convinced of his arguments strength here but I simply failed to see how he actually demonstrated that this was in fact the case. Like I said, it's a stretch of the imagination.
Overall I think Bauckham overstates the force of his arguments, but I commend him for putting forth new arguments and as he admits in the text, he is effectively going against the grain of nearly all modern New Testament scholarship. Credit is due to him for bringing a new spark to the debate, but I think the book was overwhelmingly unsuccessful in giving a solid case for eyewitness testimony.
For a far more in-depth critical analysis of the book and its specific arguments I suggest having a read of Neil Godfrey's blog Vridar, where he did a thorough review of the book in 2007. If you're more audio-inclined you may want to have a listen to a few of Robert M. Price's Bible Geek podcast, relevant episodes linked below.
January 19th 2012, Dr. Price reads Theodore J. Weeden's review of 'Jesus and the Eyewitnesses'
February 14th 2011, Dr. Price answers a listener's questions about the validity of Bauckham's arguments.