What is the difference between what the Bible says about Jesus (testimony carried on), and what history can tell us (history outside of the Bible)? It is claimed that when true scholars subject the Gospels to objective scrutiny, much doubt is cast on their storytelling. It seems legit that we believe what we see in the Bible not because it said so, but because “the historian has independently verified it.” To an extent, this is understandable, but when we refuse to treat the Gospels as historical documents themselves, we rob them of their legitimacy as witness reporting. In our study with our skeptic friend, we began to talk about why the Bible is mistrusted as a source of history.
In his book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Bauckham’s key example to help us understand the issue here is the eyewitness testimony of the Holocaust. Many historians would argue that history and testimony are two different things: History is the study of what happened by examining primary sources; testimony is the practice of telling stories based on what you think you saw. But this attitude becomes problematic when you look at examples like The Holocaust. If you disregard all testimony, and only seek to prove it through the examination of records independent of testimony, you may be led to believe, as some have, that the tragic extermination of millions of Jews never occurred. The Nazis did a good job of covering things up. But what of the testimonies of countless Jews who survived? Did they make it all up?
Bauckham’s argument? “All history, like all knowledge, relies on testimony.” We know what we know from the Holocaust because of what surviving Jews told us, much of it oral, some of it written without prior verification.
Bauckham wants us to draw a line between eyewitness testimony and oral tradition. In ancient times, eyewitnesses were considered more reliable than writers of history. He explains, “the ideal witness was not the dispassionate observer but one who, as a participant, had been closest to the events and whose direct experience enabled him to understand and interpret the significance of what he had seen.”
Consider Holocaust survivors. People who arrive to record evidence will find very little, but Holocaust survivors, in great numbers, vividly recall precisely what they went through. A million people can’t invent sharing the same experience at once. Even though they were in the middle of it, even though they were affected by it, they are our best source of understanding what happened. This does not mean that survivors of that tragic extermination are incapable of falsifying their experiences, but the overall narrative we fully trust in mostly due to the testimony of these witnesses. Their stories corroborate.
Our friend accepted this concept as applied to the Holocaust, but still experienced hangups with the subjectivity that people could still experience in trying to recall their own experiences. It’ an understandable skepticism when applied to daily life, or to events in which people find the necessity to cover things up. Later, the book brings up the science of memory.
But for the next post, we turn to the testimony of an early Christian writer named Papias.