Sunday, April 1, 2012
Eyewitnesses of Jesus...
He points out that the Gospels were telling a story within the living memory of the hearers and to which other eyewitnesses could attest or challenge. When you tell a story and people within ear shot were there, you cannot fudge the details.
The Gospels include little bits to indicate reference to eyewitnesses whose testimony supports the record of what was written. For example, the noting of Simon of Cyrene, who carried Jesus' cross, as father of Alexander and Rufus, is itself an appeal to Simon's eyewitness testimony -- if not directly to him at least through his sons.
When the Gospels record Mary Magdalene, Mary, Mother of James and Joses, and Salome, it is surely an appeal to people still living, known to the readers and to those who, in this case Mark, were writing. Note how the verb see is used in Mark. Mark in particular appeals to women who observed or witnessed the truthfulness of what is being told.
Sight, direct sight, is critical for witness in the ancient world. Being there and seeing with your own eyes is clearly the import of witness and not hearing something repeated by others.
Even a figure like Bultmann recognized these eyewitness sources but in order to betray their testimony, he was forced to question their historicity as people.
Testimony is what people say when they want us to believe what they are saying. It is not casual conversation. It is pivotal conversation because any falsehood in what is attested betrays the value of the whole witness.
Casual observers are generally not very reliable witnesses. They have nothing at stake. What they see is not pivotal to them. It is distant from them. Those who participated in the events are much more reliable witnesses. Every prosecutor and defense attorney knows and recognizes this. The person who is involved in the event has a greater stake in that event and pays greater attention to the details of that event. Such is the nature of the eyewitnesses to Jesus and the record of those eyewitnesses in the Gospels.
Fact and meaning co-inhere in the testimony of the witness. The witness is not simply recounting the record of what he saw and heard but at the very same time trying to understand what he saw, heard, or participated in. Our modern historical criticism assumes the unreliability of the witness and attempts to deconstruct fact from witness -- that which is itself foreign and alien to the way witnesses and events were recorded in ancient times.
So what does this all mean? As we march into Holy Week we are given a huge array of details and minute facts that would be known to many people and questioned or challenged by those who witnessed these events and participated in them.... unless they deemed them accurate and reliable. The history and events of Holy Week are not theological drama but actual historical events, witnessed both by those who had nothing at stake and those whose lives were tied into the outcomes of what took place (for example, the difference between the Roman Centurion who says surely this was the Son of God and the record of the unnamed disciple who drops his drawers and runs in fear when the authorities go after him).
Christians, we have nothing to fear about the accuracy and reliability of the written record of the events on which our salvation rests. In fact, we have more going for us (both outside and inside the written records of the Gospels) than nearly any and all historical events and people before and after this moment in time.
I say this as one who believes in the Scriptures and their reliability and truthfulness in every case and as one who recognizes forms and patterns in those words which attest both inwardly and outwardly to the fact that what we read and hear is authentic and trustworthy.