The Witness and Identity of Jesus

With Richard Bauckham

On 28 September, the Study Center for Faith and Society, the CUSO (Conférence Universitaire de Suisse Occidentale) and the Faculty of Theology of Fribourg organised a conference with Prof. Richard Bauckham on the theme "The Witness and Identity of Jesus".


The Study Center for Faith and Society along with the University of Fribourg and other Swiss Universities (CUSO), organized a conference on ‘The Witness and Identity of Jesus’ with Professor Richard Bauckham. The conference took place on  September 28, 2017 and more than 60 people attended. Various professors, lecturers and doctoral students of the University of Fribourg responded  to Bauckham. These stimulated lively, fruitful discussions involving Dr. James Morgan, Professor Dr Thomas Schumacher, Professor Dr. Luc Devillers and Revd. François Rochat.


Eyewitness Accounts in the Gospels

Bauckham examined historical and theological issues which are often under-represented in New Testament studies, or are decried as unscholarly. He stressed that the Apostolic Fathers of the 1st and 2nd centuries, such as Papias of Hierapolis, had already emphasized that the Gospels had the character of apostolic testimonies. During the Enlightenment, this traditional paradigm of apostolic testimonies was replaced by a modern paradigm, which largely contested the historical reliability of the Gospels. Bauckham maintains that there is a third way: the traditional paradigm can be in fact supported through the methods of historical-critical exegesis. For instance, there are indications in the Gospel of Mark that the Evangelist included the eyewitness accounts of Peter, who plays a major role in Mark. Other less prominent figures, such as the women who stood near the cross, also appear as eye witnesses. These witnesses, named explicitly, were likely to have been Christians known to the early Church. Members of the Church could therefore have interrogated them about their testimony.

Professor Richard Bauckham is known for his work on the history of the development of the New Testament, particularly in the Gospel of John and Christology. His groundbreaking book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses questions the hegemony of form criticism and brings the categories of ‘testimony’ and ‘eyewitnesses’ back into the discourse about the Gospels' development. Moreover, in his book Jesus and the God of Israel, Bauckham develops a ‘Christology of Divine Identity’ and opens up new avenues for understanding Christology.

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Historical Arguments for Christian Apologetics

The hypothesis that the Gospels were written based on eyewitness accounts offers one means of arguing in favor of the historical plausibility of the Gospels. However, Bauckham acknowledged that the historicity of the Gospels is not supported by this hypothesis, not least because there are no proofs as such in the study of history. Bauckham himself is a trained historian. These views were the subject of a controversial and stimulating discussion. Bauckham concluded: ‘Historical studies do not primarily serve apologetics, but there are historical arguments in favour of a Christian apologetic.’


Jesus’ Divine Identity

The second part of the conference was dedicated to the issue of Jesus’ divine identity within Jewish monotheism. Bauckham stressed that God’s faithfulness manifests itself in His continuous commitment to the salvation of Israel in particular, and to all of creation in general, within and despite the brokenness of earthly reality. In Jesus, God manifests this same faithfulness through both Jesus’ identity and his nature. The belief in Jesus’ divinity was at the heart of the message of the Gospels, and was not merely the product of later Christological debates. Moreover, Bauckham argued, that for the early Christians there was no contradiction between the divinity of Jesus and Jewish monotheism. Bauckham’s theses again led to profound discussions, particularly about the relationship between biblical and patristic Christology.


Constructive Debates

The conference was organized by the Study Centre together with Professor Dr. Franz Mali (Professor for Patristics and the History of the Early Church, Fribourg) and his doctoral student, Revd François Rochat. The fact that so many other professors of theology at the University of Fribourg attended, indicates an increasing collaboration between the University and the Study Center. Professor Bauckham was enthusiastic about the work of the Study Center and expressed a willingness to contribute to future conferences. The controversial but constructive discussions of the day testified to the need to bring unusual and thought-provoking hypotheses into both academic and public discourse. This was also confirmed by the conference's high attendance.