Friday, April 15, 2011

Gospels as Histories, iTunes U. Part One

Over at Like a Child’s Blog I recommended looking at courses on iTunes University as such courses are 1) free and 2) convenient. DoOrDoNot suggested listening and discussing a course together; D’Ma and I readily agreed. Anyone else is free to join as well.

It was settled we would listen to Gospels as Histories--a four part lecture by Dr. Richard Bauckham. (If the iTunes Link does not work, it is under iTunes U/Humanities/Religion. Scroll through the pages ‘till ya find it.)

I am familiar with Bauckham, having read Jesus and the Eyewitness: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimonies--as this covers similar ground, so far my impression is much the same.

How does one review an audio course? I decided to listen as I normally would; my commute takes 45 minutes, so an hour lecture would be spread over one day, with a long break. I don’t take notes while driving—in keeping with that, I didn’t take notes for this lecture. If I forgot something that means it didn’t resonate enough for memory.

Simply put, I listened as my ordinary routine, and here are a few thoughts after the first lecture:

I found, at times, Dr. Bauckhan’s accent to follow. My mind worked a bit harder, sometimes figuring out what the word was after. Two examples. He referred to a genre in Greco-Roman literature as “acuna” (as far as I remember)—where a person is praised. I’ve tried finding the word, and cannot.

Or he mentioned making up a word “biographee” or “biographeed” (again it was difficult to tell which, because if there was a “d” at the end of the word, it was very soft) as being the person to whom a biography was about. Say this sentence out loud, “The biography about the biographee places the biographee within the world of the biography.” As you can see “biographee” and “biography” sound amazingly the same!

He laid out the genres in Greco-Roman writing:

1) Historiography*;
2) Bios (biography);
3) Novel
4) Acuna (?) – praise of a person.

*Dr. Bauckham points out (correctly, in my opinion) there is a difference between “history”—what happened and “historiography”—the actual recording of what happened. The records we have, and utilize, are peoples’ stories about events, including the person’s biases, impressions, preferences, choice of words, etc. It may not be precisely what actually happened.

He then indicated genres did not have rigid demarcations—genres are porous, blending and merging, sometimes utilizing elements of other genres. In indicating the gospels are bios he stated “of course the most closely related genre would be histories.”

I wondered why? Couldn’t acuna (?) be closely related? Or novels?

Then Bauckham went on to relate how histories were considered more reliable when written by people who were actually involved in events, then slightly less reliable if written by contemporaries and finally the least reliable if written by persons long after the events occurred. He claimed it was “plausible” if histories were considered this way, then the close genre of bios would be too.

Ah…THERE’s the Bauckham I remember from his book. I felt (again this is my impression) he tended to make an argument to stretch to a point which was plausible, but then in the next chapter take the point as a certainty to make his next stretched point. Eventually, I felt like saying, “What a minute—isn’t this speculation upon speculation? Isn’t this getting thinner down the line?”

Here we have bios genre that can utilize elements from historiography genre. And we have historiography which tended to favor contemporary accounts. Therefore, according to Bauckham, bios genre favored contemporary accounts See what I mean?

I also wondered about Mark’s use of chiasm—a Greco-Roman element within novels—as being a merger of bios genre with novel genre. Not to mention the typography similar to midrash in aligning Tanakh stories with Jesus’ accounts.

Bauckham then stated some writers of historiography would (to boost credibility) falsely “insert” themselves into their stories. I wonder if Bauckham will talk about Matthew? (He indicates in his book one of the reasons he does not think Matthew was the author of the Gospel was Matthew’s “insertion” into the story of Levi to make himself one of the disciples.)

Three categories of bios were given:

1) Political or Military Figures;
2) Philosophers
3) Holy men.

Baukham noted that traditionally Jesus was placed in the “philosophers” category, due to his teaching. He then goes on to argue it would be more appropriate to place the bios in the political arena, as the Gospel authors considered Jesus to be the Messiah. He utilized the beginnings of Matthew and Luke to demonstrate the authors considered Jesus as a King. He did not deal with Mark (the Messianic Secret) nor John’s prolific teaching.

Curiously, Bauckham argued the gospels are NOT like bios in that they are unique—they are discussing a Messiah, not a philosopher. They are discussing the son of God—not a king. I found this to be both question-begging and a bit of “having one’s cake and eating it, too.”

Question-begging as ALL biographies are unique. Indeed, the very reason one biographs a particular biographee with a biography, is their unique nature. Ghandi was unique. George Washington was unique. Alexander the Great (who Bauckham acknowledges comes close to Jesus in terms of bios) was unique. So what?

Further, it was bothersome he wanted to equate a genre—biography or bios--as applicable when convenient, and then abandon it when it was not, because Jesus was unique. Thus leaving us with no method whatsoever, so why talk about genre at all?

At this point (after Lecture One) I am left with the familiar feeling—can any one really approach the Gospels as a literary work? It seems we all—even Bauckham—have baggage when doing so. We can read the Lives of Roman emperors and discuss which events occurred. But come to the Bible and all of a sudden the methodologies become mixed. Many become consumed with pursuing an agenda.

Next will be Part Two


  1. Okay. Well, I'm out. Instead, I'll just read and sip my tea and look forward to your report on lecture two. :-)

  2. I felt (again this is my impression) he tended to make an argument to stretch to a point which was plausible, but then in the next chapter take the point as a certainty to make his next stretched point.

    I share your impression and it is a problem with a lot of apologetic arguments, which I tried to point out to Clay Jones when he insisted upon his step-by-step approach. If the chain of logic has five independent links, even if every link has a 75% chance of being true, the odds that all five links are true is less than 25%. (That is why I was more willing to concede Jones' points than you or Atimetorend were.) Apologists seem to think that if they can establish a proposition as more likely than not, they can treat it as 100% certain every time they need to use it again. Probability doesn't work that way.

  3. Per Vinny's comment above, excellent points about plausibility and probability. It seems like the apologist is engaging in sleight of hand when attempting to build a case like that, trying to trick the listener into believing something is in their hand, when it has actually been dropped into their lap. It is really dealing in logical possibilities, rather than actually probable scenarios.

    The iTunes course sounds interesting, but I probably won't have time to listen, I'll just read along.

  4. Hey DaGoodS, looks like fun. Rosemary just bought me an ipod a couple of weeks ago, and after trying it, I am wondering what took me so long - I love it! I just finished putting all my music CDs on it, so this gives me a good excuse to try something new with it. I will try to find the lectures/podcast/whatever it is that you are reviewing so I can give it a listen.

    I too read Baukham's book a couple of years back. I remember only the basics of that book, and sadly I did not write a review of that book or take any notes to help me remember. I will have to skim it again.

    I intentionally did not read any of the spoilers in your article, so I could listen to the lesson/lecture/whatever without being tainted by your commentary. When I find it, I will listen on my own and come back to your commentary later.

  5. HeIsSailing,

    I"m sure you probably already know this, but I had to download the iTunesU app to my iTunes software. You may not have that issue though.

  6. DMA, thanks - I am trying to download now, but am having a few problems - maybe it is that iTunesU app that you speak of! When my tech-guru wife comes home, I am sure she can help me out though!

  7. O.K., this is just embarrassing to say how much Apple has its hooks in our family. With no further ado, this is the listing of iPods in my house:

    1g Nano
    2g Nano (3)
    2g suffle
    1g Touch
    4g Touch (2)
    5g shuffle
    iPad 2g

    I never had to upload an app. Do you have the latest iTunes? (Maybe I did a long, long time ago. But I’ve been listening to iTunes U for awhile.)

  8. DagoodS asks:
    "Do you have the latest iTunes? "

    Seriously? Blast if I know. I will wait for RoseMary, my personal techno-wizard, to help me with this stuff. When it comes to gadgets, I am absolutely clueless. Before I met her, the most sophisticated piece of electronics in my house was probably my CD player/boom box.

  9. The app I had to download wasn't on my iPod itself. It was in the actual iTunes software on my computer. Do you see the iTunesU icon in your iTunes software? It should be in the Library section.

  10. I had the latest iTunes updates, but the iTunesU app wasn't there. I had to download/install it.

  11. OK, my review is up. Now to comment on yours!


    “Or he mentioned making up a word “biographee” or “biographeed”…

    I think he said, biograpee. Yeah, now that you mention that, it was a bit confusing, but just a bit. He probably cooked it up when writing a paper, and did not think out how it would sound in a lecture! Why not just call the subject of a biography a ‘subject’?

    “Dr. Bauckham points out (correctly, in my opinion) there is a difference between “history”—what happened and “historiography”

    I agree it is correct, but.. it seems very broad to me. A future historian can learn much of our contemporary history by reading our contemporary novels. Does this mean they are ‘historiography’? Without intention, I think they are – history that must be inferred, but history all the same. Do you Bauckham should make the distinction between, shall we say, intentional and unintentional historiography, or am I making too big an issue of this?

    “I also wondered about Mark’s use of chiasm—a Greco-Roman element within novels—as being a merger of bios genre with novel genre. Not to mention the typography similar to midrash in aligning Tanakh stories with Jesus’ accounts.”

    I also wondered about this but did not include it in my review – just because I wanted to work on as much similar ground with Bauckham as I could. But I also wondered, should we not consider the Apocalypic genre, the hagiography genre (I guess what Bauckham called ‘acuna’) when considering the genres of the Gospels? If not, why focus exclusively on those elements that make them similar to Biographies at the expense of the other genres? Special pleading?

    “He did not deal with Mark (the Messianic Secret) nor John’s prolific teaching.”

    Nor the problems of when and to whom Jesus revealed himself to be Messiah, nor the ambiguity of what Messiah meant to a given author, nor the ambiguity of the term ‘Son of God’ etc...

    “Alexander the Great (who Bauckham acknowledges comes close to Jesus in terms of bios) was unique. So what?”

    I am cutting Bauckham some slack on this – I kind of agree with him. The Gospels seem to me to be unprecedented literary genres. They seem to pop up from out of nowhere in the literary landscape. They combine elements of all sorts of stuff that was previously known, biography, hagiography, apocalypse, sage wisdom, etc… and rolls it all up into one new.. .. unique invention. I am aware of nothing like them written at the time. All sorts of historical figures were given miraculous elements in their biographies – Plato, Pythagoras, etc, but from my readings, the Gospels are in an unprecedented genre all their own – for the time they were written. And what followed the Synoptics? An avalanche of imitators – The Gospels of Peter, John, Thomas, Judas, James, Pilate, Sam, Harry, Click and Clack. The Acts of Peter, James, John, Paul, Henry, Clyde, etc, etc…

    I kind of view it like the movie Star Wars. That movie was basically a cheesy western. But add a few other elements that were also prevalent at the time – science fiction, pop eastern mysticism, wait for the right cultural climate, then …

    BOOM – an unprecedented phenomenon. It did not just affect the world of cinema, but international culture that we are still feeling the effects of 35 years later. Sub-par sequels, TV specials and novels followed it – along with countless imitations. etc etc.. but something started it all – a new revolutionary genre was born then.

    I kind of see the Synoptics that way. OK, its been fun – see you for part 2

  12. The genre in praise of a person is actually encomium, not acuna. I actually didn't remember it from the lecture, I remembered "lacomium", but I looked up the definition and found the word. That's a problem with not being able to write while listening to the lecture. Your memory served you quite well though.

    In terms of my reaction to the lecture and your comments...I agree with your points. However, I also am with HeIsSailing on the belief that the gospels seem to be a new genre creation, so labeling them properly does pose a dilemma.

    Bauckham talked as if every writer intentionally set out to write in a particular genre and followed some guidelines in doing so, such as Josephus or other historians did when writing history. However, for nonprofessionals, was this really the case? Can we know if the gospel writers actually set out to write in one particular genre or if they knew all the conventions about them? I was very curious about that.

    I know Bauckham's lecture was not intended to cover this but what are the implications for viewing the gospels as historical biography rather than history as has traditionally been done?

    I'll add more later after my date night.

  13. These are my observations:

    I agree that trying to fit the gospels into a particular genre is problematic. They seem to be a mix of genres. They seem to be a mix of historiography, biography, and emcomium. Though, to me, this didn't seem like earth shattering news. I had always viewed them as a biography of the person of Jesus and as history. Bauckham believes that the category of bios the gospels most closely fit into is political/military figures as anti-political. All of this is problematic to me as we are not speaking of professional writers unless the writers are not who he argues them to be. These have traditionally been understood to be writings that recorded the events as they occurred and as they remembered them. Not that they couldn't use literary license, but probably not intentionally in my opinion.

    I also noted that he argued that ancient historians were not taken seriously and were looked down upon if they relied primarily on previous writings. Thus to be taken seriously as a historian, minimal dependence on other written documents was expected. Thus he argued that the writers of Matthew and Luke were either eyewitnesses or close to eyewitnesses who had firsthand knowledge of the events. He also noted that historians sometimes pretended to have this firsthand knowledge and would insert themselves into a narrative to lend to their credibility.

    Thus it seemed to me that he was arguing that Matthew and Mark, albeit indirectly, were not reliant upon Matthew and the Q document, but were instead independent writings of eyewitness accounts.

    He also made a point that he believes the John, the beloved disciple was the author of the book of John, and that unknown authorship of the other three gospels was not problematic because in his view they were eyewitness accounts. Not necessarily eyewitness accounts by the authors themselves but eyewitnesses that these authors were close to.

  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

  15. Thus it seemed to me that he was arguing that Matthew and Mark, albeit indirectly, were not reliant upon Matthew and the Q document

    That was supposed to say, "thus it seemed to me that he was arguing indirectly that Matthew and Luke were not heavily reliant upon Mark and the Q document.

  16. HeIsSailing and DoOrDoNot,

    I have yet to be convinced the gospels are unique. As you go through the lectures, Bauckham continues to vacillate on this point—making them unique when convenient, and then smashing them into a particular genre at other times. I wonder if you will continue this thought after the third lecture. (to whet your appetite)

    I also hesitate to embrace the “unique position” as I fear it is off-putting to Christians. As if they could complain I am looking for some excuse to relegate and eventually reject the historical claims therein.

  17. D’Ma,

    I found your impressions most interesting. As if the oral Bauckham comes across much different than the written Bauckham. (I also can’t help wonder if my reading his works influences where I anticipate he will go.)

    For example, I agree listening to him would cause me to question his thoughts regarding Matthew’s (and Luke’s) use of other written works, and whether this diminishes their historical reliability.

    But in his book, he argues Matthew could not be the author of the Gospel for two strong reasons (if I recall correctly):

    1) Because of his reliance on Mark; and
    2) Because of Matthew’s insertion of himself into the Markan Levi Tax Collector story.

    The very two things he notes in his lecture impinging the ancient historian’s credibility! He saves Mark (and John) to lose Matthew (and to a lesser extent, Luke.)

    Further, I have noticed Bauckham, when talking to more conservative groups, makes it a bit opaque regarding his position on John’s authorship.

    Bauckham believes the author (who self-identifies as “the Beloved Disciple”) was a Jerusalem follower of Jesus, most likely the Elder John Papias refers to. NOT the author commonly attributed—the Disciple John, son of Zebedee, one of the Twelve.

    Yet he rarely makes this distinction clear. I’ve had this discussion before, attempting to clarify.

    Were you left with the impression it was the Disciple John?

  18. I was left with the impression from the lecture that it was the Disciple John, himself. I'm definitely not coming at this with the same perspective you are since this is my inauguration into historical studies of the gospels and I've not read any of Baukham's books.

    DagoodS said:

    But in his book, he argues Matthew could not be the author of the Gospel for two strong reasons (if I recall correctly):

    1) Because of his reliance on Mark; and
    2) Because of Matthew’s insertion of himself into the Markan Levi Tax Collector story.

    I'm coming into these lectures with no preconceived notions of his intent or conclusions. Having said that he begins the lecture saying he isn't concerned with the reliability of the gospels but then drastically shifts, in my opinion, to trying to prove their reliability.

    I have heard the whole "Matthew’s insertion of himself into the Markan Levi Tax Collector story" and didn't realize from the lecture that Bauckman also takes this positon. Because of his assertion that inserting oneself into a history lent to it's unreliability.

  19. Oh, the reason I was left with the impression he was arguing for Johanine authorship of the book of John: He says, to the best of my recollection, that unfashionably believes that it was the Beloved Disciple, himself, thereby giving one eyewitness and/or participant in the history. I'll see if I can locate the quote.

  20. I did go back and find the quote. At 35:50 in the lecture he talks about arguing that the four gospels are not written as anonymously as supposed. That they come from those close to eyewitnesses or are eyewitnesses themselves. When he discusses the Gospel of John he says, "One of the gospels I very unfashionably think, the gospel of John, was written by the Beloved Disciple it claims as it's author."