Theology lecture at St Mark’s Church

On Tuesday April 14th I met Beth in town and did some browsing in shops with her, buying a good new set of boots, as my boots are all deciding to give up. We then enjoyed sharing a gluten free cake together in Filmore and Union café and a couple of delightful infusions; Beth had a sage drink and I had a ginger and mint infusion. We were fortunate to be able to get a seat, as it was not warm enough to sit outside. They are setting up a larger restaurant when it is ready we will not have to worry about getting a table. Beth treated us to the cake we shared in the café. I bought us a couple of cakes to take out as well; one for Beth and one for me and my beloved to share. My beloved and I enjoyed pottering in the garden enjoying the welcome afternoon sunshine after a slow cloudy start to the days. Seeing the sun always makes us feel better. I began to tackle some eagerly sprouting dandelions and grasses growing in tubs and through the pebbles. My beloved managed to mow the lawn as we were not sure how long it would be dry enough; we had a lot of rain a few weeks ago and the ground is still quite wet. That unfortunately meant he has been shattered and achy since. He also did some necessary modifications to the step just outside the summerhouse as well.

On Saturday I went to a theology day led by Richard Bauckham on the theme of ‘The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony.’ I found the talk fascinating and inspiring. He posed the questions about whether the gospels were a reliable source about Jesus’ life; whether Jesus even existed!! He referred to the need historians had to strip the gospels back to reconstruct Jesus, the historical Jesus in contrast with the Christ of faith. Richard asked the question of how the Jesus traditions reached the Gospel writers. Papias, who lived at the beginning of the second century, made some of the earliest statements about the origins of gospels. Many accepted the views of old fathers that the gospels were from anonymous oral traditions or from disciples of the apostles. Papias thought that Mark had recorded his gospel from the point of view of the eyewitness Peter, which Richard Bauckham agreed. Richard also thought that an eyewitness disciple, but not one of the twelve wrote John, based on John’s reflections and eyewitness account. Luke acknowledged that his gospel was based on eyewitness statements. At the end of John’s gospel says it has been based on the testimony of John, especially as he had obviously lived the longest.

Do all the gospels indicate they are based on eyewitness statements? Luke and John do but Matthew and Mark do not specify that, but Mark’s gospel is regarded as the earliest gospel. However Mark’s gospel would have had strong indications when it was compiled about who the eyewitness was.

The gospels were in the genre of an ancient biography, usual for the life of a great person. The people would have known that the gospels narrated events in living memory. It was a history based on eyewitness testimony. Readers of the gospels would be interested to see the indications of who the eyewitness was. Luke could be referring to other disciples of Jesus, if not the twelve. The early church would know from first hand of Jesus’ ministry from his baptism to his resurrection. Who might the key witness be in Mark’s gospel? The first disciple mentioned in the gospel was Simon, (later Peter) and his brother Andrew. Peter appears most often in Mark’s gospel narrative and he is the last disciple mentioned in the gospel, which marks Peter out as the eyewitness. Peter is present in the gospel up till the denial. No disciple was present at the crucifixion or the tomb, which is the most important part of the gospel narrative, as they had all failed and fled. Surely it must be based on eyewitness statements? 3 women disciples were at the cross and 2 saw where Jesus was buried. They saw and observed and are the eyewitness of those events. However Peter was the principal eyewitness through Jesus’ ministry.

A lot of Mark’s gospel is set in Galilee and the place names mentioned make sense from the perspective of a Capernaum fisherman like Peter. The places named are round the Northern shores of the Lake, from Magdala on the western shore to the Region Decapolis on the south east shore of the lake. Other areas of Galilee are only named in other gospels. The first eight chapters were set round the Lake or near the Lake. There are 6 journeys in Mark’s gospel by boat on the Lake, from one side to the other side. Bethsaida and Gennesaret are on the side of the Lake, which would have been on Peter’s side of the Lake, where they fished from Bethsaida southwards to the Western shore. That side was thickly populated by Jewish people, whereas the south side was only sparsely populated. Towards the south the population were mostly Gentile, so they often did not go ashore. The world of the fishermen was different from the majority of inhabitants of Capernaum who were farmers of the fertile soil. The Capernaum fishermen travelled over all Galilee but only remembered those place names that were most familiar to them. Outside their area the details are vague and general such as the region of Tyre. There are more details about places near Jerusalem, such as Jericho, Bethany, the Mount of Olives. The closest disciples like Peter would have reasons to remember those spots, especially as Peter lived in Jerusalem after the resurrection for some time.

The eyewitnesses were not detached observers of events, but describe events they remembered as significant in their lives. Old historians valued such a witness from people who were involved in the events. We can only know from the insiders who were affected by the events what really happened. Life changing events such as those who survived the holocaust felt impelled to share their testimonies. Testimony is always a blend of fact and interpretation; we all interpret events as we remember them. We need testimonies from participating eye witnesses when history is being recorded. We need to read the gospels as history and read as testimony in faith.

Women were very prominent in gospel narrative, but at that time women were seen as more emotional than rational like men. Male Christians were obliged to take note of their testimony. The women saw where Jesus was buried so they knew where to go after the Sabbath. It was very counter cultural to allow women to become more prominent. Why was the original ending to Mark’s gospel not more joyful? A lot of Mark’s gospel does point forward to things that would happen in Galilee. People did care about what happened but it was not a scholarly history, but something to learn from. The gospels were written with a Christian purpose to explain the significance of Jesus and what happened. Jesus’ temptations were not witnessed so Mark gave no examples. Later gospels referred to those temptations in more detail, probably from what Jesus told them. We are dependent on what people tell us unless we were there. Matthew and Luke’s writers drew on the source of Mark’s gospel and expanded on it. John’s writer did not include sources from Mark, unless he had a reason to do; for example the feeding of 5000 is in all the gospels; John expanded on the miracle by adding extra images. John was more selective; he only has 6 or 7 miracles whereas Mark has 17 miracles. John probably did not know Matthew or Luke’s gospels. John wove discourses round sayings of Jesus probably current at the time. John claimed to be the beloved disciple, so he might have had greater authority to interpret what Jesus had said. Miracles were portrayed in a matter of fact way, as there were a number of healers and exorcists around at the time of Jesus. The reports of such events would occur soon afterwards; no reason to think they were not eyewitness reports. Richard confirmed that if God is the sort of God he believes in, then the miracles can too be believed. He asks us whether we are sure that miracles can’t happen. Science can’t tell us that miracles can’t happen, yet they cannot rule them out. Scientists can’t know if a miracle is an exception to a previously held view. Richard’s talk helped me understand about the importance of the eyewitness statements on which the gospels were based.

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4 Responses to Theology lecture at St Mark’s Church

  1. Great that you got to hear Richard Bauckham. He is very highly thought of as an NT scholar. He occasionally contributes guest blog posts over on my NT Blog.

  2. helenbeech says:

    I felt privileged to hear him. We were so fortunate to have him speak if he speaks at Duke too.

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