The Gospels Gain Respect (Edward Fudge, used with permission)
For the past century, much of scholarly opinion has held that the Gospels as we have them were not written by the men whose names they bear, or at a time anywhere near the events or sayings that they supposedly report. It is true, according to an analytical method known as “form criticism,” that some of the sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels are just as Jesus said them. But, form critics say, other Gospel sayings are included as they were said by the people, largely unknown and much later, who wrote the final Gospels. (Remember the childhood game “Telephone” or “Gossip”?). Still other sayings of Jesus supposedly originated with God--Knows-Who, during a period of God-Knows-How-Long, the time that passed between Jesus and the actual Gospel writers.
Only a scholar well-versed in form criticism can accurately sort out these layers and levels now scattered throughout our canonical Gospels, say the form critics. That also means that only teachers who are trained in the deconstruction and analyses of this guild can really understand what is being said. Since form criticism decreased confidence in the credibility of the Gospels, can we acknowledge that it bore any useful fruit. Yes, I believe we can. It is good to try to understand the time, place and recipients of the Gospels. We are benefitted to learn that the Gospels contain not only sayings of Jesus but sometimes also some later “commentary” on those sayings (John 2:21-22; 12:15-16). And it is edifying to understand that varying circumstances and particular needs of the Gospels’ original recipients might account for some differences in wordings of what appear to be direct quotes from Jesus.
Today, form criticism is becoming passé, and the Gospels are finding a renewed appreciation and trust among more and more sophisticated New Testament scholars. Helping to lead the way to this new respect is one of the world's foremost New Testament scholars. He is Dr. Richard Bauckham, now at Cambridge University, formerly longtime professor of New Testament studies at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, and a fellow of both the British Academy and the Royal Society of Edinburgh. The publication in 2006 of his groundbreaking, 551-page book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, was met with critical acclaim. Since then, it has fueled the ongoing demise, not only of form criticism itself, but also of the negative presuppositions with which scholars often were presumed to be obligated to approach the text of the Gospels. Professor Martin Hengel, himself a pioneer in the form criticism movement, lauds Professor Bauckham’s “convincing historical method and broad learning” that “help to overcome widespread modern Jesus fantasies.”
I add four notes in closing. First, in my opinion, any serious and experienced reader of English can understand and appreciate this book, some perhaps deciding to skip the technical footnotes. Second, for a sample of spoken discourse from this gentle but brilliant scholar, see this ten-minute video on eyewitnesses and the Gospels. Third, I just received word that Professor Bauckham will be the honored guest speaker at the 64th Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society this coming November (2012) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Fourth, I am pleased and grateful to mention that Professor Bauckham contributed a most commendatory foreword to the third edition of The Fire That Consumes.