The Emergence of Another Way
Recently, I have come across in my reading another set of assumptions which I believe is more faithful as we deal with the interpretation of scripture. It is what I call the hermeneutic of trust. Much of my thinking has come as a result of reading Scottish scholar, Richard Bauckham’s book: Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Accounts. Bauckham argues that the gospels are not to be seen as recorded ancient history. They do not fall into that category of literature. Instead, they are to be seen as ancient biographies. The rules for writing such literature differed a bit from historical accounts, but there are some important things of note regarding the writing of such literature:
A. The writers of such biographies believed in the importance of being as close to the subject of the biography as possible. Fourth or fifth hand information was not considered acceptable.
B. The Gospels were probably written 35-50 years after the death of Jesus. Eyewitnesses would still have been alive. The authors would have known this. Luke admits so in his introduction. He also admits to consulting with them. The hermeneutic of suspicion relies on the assumption eyewitness testimonies were unimportant to the people writing the gospels–Bauckham, and others, argue vehemently otherwise.
C. Bauckham believes the gospel writers–Matthew, Mark, and Luke–gave us clues as to who their main eyewitnesses were:
Mark: the apostle Peter.
Matthew: Mark’s account + the disciple Matthew
Luke: Mark’s account + several women disciples
D. Bauckham believes John was written by an eyewitness to the events of Jesus’ life, and the author is the beloved disciple as named in the work.
There are issues with viewing the gospels as eyewitness accounts-namely, eyewitnesses don’t exactly get their stories completely straight at times. Details vary. Sometimes people see what they want to see and hear what they want to hear. Other times, they interpret events instead of simply reporting them. Yet, Bauckham actually deals with many such objections in his book, and I will not go into those now.
What I want to delve into is approaching the gospels as eyewitness testimony. For testimony demands an element of trust as one approaches it. For instance, if you sit down at the dinner table with your spouse and he/she tells you, “I had a good day at work. I finished up a major project.” And you respond, “Do you have any corroborating evidence?” You will probably have a rough evening.
Testimony demands to be trusted unless a witness is shown to be untrustworthy. The ultimate question one must ask in this vein of thought is whether or not the gospels as we have them are in fact, trustworthy. Of course, I say they are.
If we take this track for interpretation, there then is little mystery as to why the early church accepted the four canonical gospels despite their varying claims. As with eyewitness accounts of an event, some witnesses remember certain details while omitting others. Some eyewitnesses add some interpretive thoughts (John is especially guilty of this). Some say the red car ran the light while others say the blue one did–yet no one disputes the crash!
The early church believed one could take the four gospels in their totality to understand and get a full picture of who Jesus was. They did not make distinctions based upon “what Matthew’s Jesus said” or “what John’s Jesus said or what “the Lukan community said” or what the “Markan community said.” They were comfortable with the differences and the interpretations of events trusting the testimony of the witnesses. Should we be any different? That is the important question governing each of these modes of interpretation.