The Ideal Eyewitness

Quite some time ago I “borrowed” from my dad Richard Bauckham’s book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospel as Eyewitness Testimony. I think I asked for it as a resource for my thesis, which ironically, was the very reason I didn’t get to read it. As the title makes obvious, the book is written in order to detail the eyewitness authority of the Gospels. If you don’t know already there is quite the contingency that says the Gospels were written much later by the community of Jesus-followers. As such, they didn’t really write down what happened; rather they wrote down what they wanted to have happened or what they thought should have happened. Arguments along those lines have been rampant, yet flawed, and now Bauckham’s work staunchly challenges that.

One quote that stuck out was concerning the role and identity of these eyewitnesses:

“…for Greek and Roman historians, the ideal eyewitness was not the dispassionate observer but one who, as a participant, had been closest to the events and whose direct experience enabled him to understand and interpret the significance of what he had seen.”

The historians of the Romans and Greeks didn’t look for those whom were sitting on the outside of the events they were chronicling. Some of the ancient historians were themselves participants of the events they were writing about. By taking action within the event itself, their eyewitnesses could attest to what actually did happen, thus making them the originators of the stories. Not only did this make them the responsible ones for getting the story out, it also made them the continuation of the story. Bauckham argues this is what is happening when we read the Gospels. We are reading the events and those listed in the stories because of their involvement as the story-tellers. As the story-tellers they could be looked up and asked what happened as the events that occurred were public events which could be evaluated and fact-checked if needed be. Hence, Luke tells us this is exactly what he did. He checked out the living actors in the story of Jesus for his gospel for the actual story. Just like their Greek and Roman contemporaries, the historians of the Gospels looked for, and in some instances were, eyewitnesses of the events and stories of Jesus.

The thing that struck me was the participatory nature of the “ideal eyewitnesses”. Objectivity wasn’t overruled by the subjective nature of the eyewitnesses, if there is such a thing as objectivity, but that’s another story. Imagine the story of someone who was in a car accident versus the story of someone who watched it from the nearby house. Or the person on the Manhattan street on September 11th versus those of who watched it on television. Whom do you think would have had a better story? Whom do you think would have a memory lasting for his/her lifetime? Whom do you think would be the authority on what actually happened?

Now for my point: Perhaps the Church isn’t being as impacting because we aren’t being participants. How can we be eyewitnesses to what God is doing if we aren’t participating in it? For too long we have made Church about going to a building and getting our needs met. Think about our services. Are they participatory and formative in a way that sends us out to be a blessing to the world? Think about our programs. Are they inward focused, becoming “huddle-and-cuddle” times? Think about our lives. Have we become “dispassionate observers” or are we jumping into the mix and participating in what God has set in motion? Do we even know the story we are a part of?

We have to be participating in the story in order to know, tell, and do the story.


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