Gospel and Testimony

Richard Bauckham
Richard Bauckham

In his 2006 Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Richard Bauckham suggests:

that we need to recover the sense in which the Gospels are testimony. This does not mean that they are testimony rather than history. It means that the kind of historiography they are is testimony. An irreducible feature of testimony as a form of human utterance is that it asks to be trusted. This does not mean that it asks to be trusted uncritically, but it does mean that testimony should not be treated as credible only to the extent that it can be independently verified. There can be good reasons for trusting or distrusting a witness, but these are precisely reasons for trusting or distrusting. Trusting testimony is not an irrational act of faith that leaves critical rationality aside; it is, on the contrary, the rationally appropriate way of responding to authentic testimony. . . . It is true that a powerful trend in the modern development of critical historical philosophy and method finds trusting testimony a stumbling-block in the way of the historian’s autonomous access to truth that she or he can verify independently. But it is also a rather neglected fact that all history, like all knowledge, relies on testimony. (5; italics original)

Thus, it is perhaps not without irony that we find ourselves still under the sway of a certain kind(s) of testimony even when we seek most to avoid or to exercise our independence from testimony of some other kind(s) (cf. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 354; Lewis, “Meditation in a Toolshed,” 215).

The Power of Private Presuppositions

Presuppositions that remain unacknowledged at least to oneself can still exercise strong influence. Indeed,

[a] person who believes he is free of prejudices, relying on the objectivity of his procedures and denying that he is himself conditioned by historical circumstances, experiences the power of the prejudices that unconsciously dominate him as a vis a tergo. A person who does not admit that he is dominated by prejudices will fail to see what manifests itself by their light [because it will not be foregrounded from them] (Gadamer, Truth and Method, 2006, 354 and Gadamer, Truth and Method, 2013, 369).

We sometimes see this dynamic at work when we cannot see any other possible resolution for a given problem or interpretation for a given data set than the one that we prefer. “This must be that,” we think, for, “How could it be otherwise?” A close cousin to this kind of logic is an argument that, of the possible interpretations, only one is any good, and the other is bad. Or, only one is good, and all the others are equally or effectively just as bad as each other.

Of course, some interpretations do explain the relevant data more comprehensively and more coherently than competing interpretations, but evaluating these other interpretations, as it were, from inside the horizons from which they come is a valuable skill to cultivate. For, this skill can help minimize the tendency to adopt less coherent or comprehensive interpretations simply because of things that we do not realize that we think—and that we have not, therefore, evaluated to determine their own legitimacy. Moreover, in a rhetorical context, considering the same information from another standpoint can help refine and strengthen one’s own positions as well as suggest more effective ways of communicating these positions to others.