A Defense of Richard Bauckham's Philosophy of Testimony, Part I

In the last chapter of his monumental new book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Richard Bauckham attempts a philosophical discussion of testimony as an epistemological category to make sense of the kind of historiography found in the canonical Gospels, and as a theological category appropriate to the kind of access to Jesus which Christians have through those Gospels (p.473). Drawing on the work of philosophers such as C.A.J. Coady and Paul Ricoeur, as well as historians like Samuel Byrskog, Bauckham argues that testimony represents a properly basic cognitive process on par with memory, sensation and inference. More specifically, testimony is irreducible to other kinds of knowing. He notes that “It is simply not true that each of us has done anything approaching sufficient observation for ourselves of the correlation between testimony and observable facts to justify our reliance on testimony.” (p.477) This implies that the proper approach to the evaluation of testimony begins with a fundamental trust in its general reliability: “We have no reason to suppose that the perceptions of others, given us in testimony, are less worthy of belief than our own.” (p.478) When it comes to historical research, however, Bauckham finds that many modern historians approach the testimony of the past with a fundamental skepticism rather than trust, and this has led to a methodologically flawed approach to the study of the Gospels. The thrust of his argument, when applied to Gospel research, is that in the Gospels we are presented with the testimony of those who were eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life and ministry, and just as we do with other kinds of testimony, we should approach the texts with a hermeneutic of charity, that is, only doubting their reliability when we have sufficient reason to do so.

It should be obvious that this approach to Gospel criticism is very congenial to theological and apologetic concerns. It puts the burden of proof on the skeptic to demonstrate inauthenticity rather than the believer to demonstrate authenticity. Therefore it is not surprising that Bauckham’s method should come under criticism, and blogger Neil Godfrey has provided a lengthy critique of Bauckham’s philosophy of testimony in several blog posts. Godfrey’s critique, however, is both discourteous and misguided on several fundamental issues. In this series of posts I want to address his criticisms in some detail, and in so doing clarify and expand Bauckham’s position on these issues, drawing on his replies to members of the Biblical Studies Y! group (NB: Neil Godfrey has reviewed the whole book in detail on his blog, and a complete list of posts can be accessed here; I am responding however only to his criticisms of the final chapter of Bauckham’s book).

On the Reliability of Testimony (responding to arguments found in this post):

Godfrey seems to accept C.A.J. Coady’s argument concerning the nature of testimony (found in his Testimony: A Philosophical Study), but disapproves of its application by Bauckham to biblical scholarship. In response to Bauckham’s endorsement of Ricoeur’s axiom to “first trust the word of others, then doubt if there are good reasons for doing so”, Godfrey complains that

B[auckham] does not explain what sorts of reasons might prompt one to doubt a
report in the first place. Should one declare everything one hears and reads as
true until one runs into a blatant contradiction among the reports? What
safeguards are there against gullibility? One can imagine institutional leaders
and fraudsters of all stripes, but particularly political ones, finding such an
approach to all of their testimonies as a heaven(?) sent dream... Under what
circumstances can testimony ever be proven unreliable if it is treated as
reliable? To ask the doubting question is to break the first precept of treating
the gospels as reliable testimony!

On the contrary, Bauckham stresses at several points in his chapter that there is a complex dialectic between trust and criticism and that “in particular cases one cannot, in the same breath, both trust what a witness says, and subject it to critical evaluation.” (p.478, quoting Coady, p.46) What Bauckham has in mind is not that, once testimony is trusted it cannot be criticized. Rather, an initial general attitude of trust is appropriate to the evaluation of testimony, and is an epistemic virtue. He acknowledges that “there appears to be a wider range and number of possible factors making for distortion and falsification of testimony” and that this justifies, among other things, “the modern historian’s use of methodologically refined critical tools for assessing the testimonies that come to us from the past.” (p.479) It is just these tools which provide safeguards against gullibility, and which Bauckham employed throughout the rest of his book to arrive at the conclusion that the Gospels should generally be considered reliable historical sources, based on a number of lines of evidence, including but not limited to: 1) the apparent existence of a formal controlled method of transmitting the Jesus tradition, based on the efforts of persons who were the guardians of specific traditions, 2) the actual pattern of agreement and disagreement among the Synoptic traditions which suggests that a conservative force was at work in this transmission process (i.e. it did not radically change in its successive phases), 3) the conscientiousness of the evangelists to separate the time of Jesus from their own with regard to teaching and theological developments (based on the work of Eugene Lemcio) and 4) an overview of the psychology of eyewitness memory which suggests that the events the disciples witnessed of Jesus’ life and ministry were of such a kind as to be easily and accurately remembered.

In my exchange with him in the comments section, Godfrey insists that “Bauckham never explains what he means by ‘critical questioning’ of sources and nor did he demonstrate what he meant anywhere in the previous 17 chapters.” Here it must be admitted that Bauckham does not provide an explicit list of formal principles to be used when deciding whether or not to trust testimony. He does, however, exemplify the use of critical historical methodology throughout his book, which has been honed by historians for the explicit purpose of weighing the value of historical testimony. For example, in Bauckham’s chapter on Papias (ch.2), he deals with the fragments of sayings we have from Papias in the standard way, as to dating, corroboration with other accounts, internal evidence, historical plausibility, etc. And he states clearly at the beginning of the chapter that that is what he is going to do, i.e. re-examine the evidence from Papias concerning the origin of the Gospel traditions about Jesus. This is historical method, no different than, say, John Dominic Crossan arguing for the reliability of the Gospel of Thomas in reconstructing the teaching of Jesus.

A larger question, however, is whether we can explicitly lay out formal rules for deciding when to discredit testimony. I doubt very much whether this is possible except in general outline, or in very specific cases (such as the courtroom). We have all had the experience of coming to doubt someone else’s word on a particular issue, whether because of contradictions, a general impression of untrustworthiness, the word of a third person that the witness is untrustworthy (whom we trust even more), but it seems that the tests we tacitly apply to testimony cannot be employed mechanically in the same way in every situation, with different cognitive parameters. It is not incumbent on Bauckham to provide a checklist of the features of unreliable testimony. If Godfrey thinks that he can produce such a list, he should do so and in an instant solve every single problem concerning the reliability of sources current in historical studies.

Godfrey then insinuates that Bauckham intentionally ignores an argument by Coady to the effect that the authenticity of historical documents must be established before they are to be considered reliable. Apparently Godfrey thinks that this runs counter to Bauckham’s insistence that sources should be treated as reliable until proven otherwise. But actually Bauckham does insist that sources must be authenticated. In a response to a member of the Biblical Studies list, he states that “I have no difficulty with [critical scrutiny of historical documents]... My point is that it's critical assessment of a source as a whole. It is not an attempt to verify independently everything a source says. Once we regard the source as trustworthy, we trust it.” Again, Bauckham’s own book is a demonstration of just this concern, which Godfrey overlooks or chooses not to see.

If Bauckham had arbitrarily decided to trust what the Gospels say with no concern whatsoever for historical questions, he would not have composed a 500+ page book arguing that the Gospels put us in touch with the eyewitness testimony of those who were with Jesus and that we have good historical and psychological reasons (outlined in ch.13) to think that they give us reliable testimony. But Bauckham is concerned to argue that the Gospels as a whole are generally reliable, even if perhaps not in every detail. He thinks that one of the mistakes of form criticism was to focus on authenticating (or discounting) each and every pericope in the Gospels without taking a wider view of their generally reliability as a whole (Cf. the following comment on the Biblical studies list:

I am increasingly dubious that the criteria of authenticity really get us
anywhere. I think it is far more important to assess the general reliability of
the Gospels as historical sources (taking account, of course, of the fact that
they are also more than historical sources) than to try to assess individual
stories or sayings. Form criticism left us with only the latter sort of
assessment available to us. My approach is more in line with the way historians
generally approach their sources and also the way we deal with "testimony" in
everyday life. I think we have to live with a margin of error. A generally
reliable source may be unreliable here and there, but I doubt, owing to the
nature of our evidence in this case, we are very likely to be able to identify

In any case, Coady certainly is not arguing that historical authentication consists of independently verifying each and every detail of our sources, which would contradict his insistence on the irreducibility of testimony as an epistemological category. The question concerns sources as a whole, and in this respect Bauckham is completely in line with Coady’s argument, which again I note Godfrey does not seem to object to.

to be continued...


Neil Godfrey said…
Hi JD, Have read your first response to my review of Bauckham's Eyewitnesses and have posted my reply here.

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