Modern critics doubt that eyewitnesses stand behind the four Gospels. In fact, they argue that the first followers of Jesus told others about Jesus who told others about Jesus who told others about Jesus, and eventually someone wrote all those stories down—much like the game of telephone. According to this theory, anonymous figures wrote the Gospels in places like Turkey, Greece, and Rome.
Biblical scholar Richard Bauckham begs to differ. One of the more brilliant ways Bauckham pushed back against the form criticism of the early twentieth century was to highlight that the names in the Gospels correspond to the names in the broader Palestinian record. In other words, one would expect a slew of unrealistic Palestinian names (like Marcus or Gaius) if someone was merely writing hearsay from across the Roman Empire. This point is especially true when one considers that the Jewish names across the Empire were radically different from the Palestinian Jewish names. The fact that the Gospels give realistic names suggests that the accounts can be traced back to Palestine itself.
But Bauckham also looks at the names from a different angle to provide further support for eyewitness testimony. He argues that the presence of certain names seems highly unusual unless they were the eyewitness sources behind their stories.
Anonymous by Default
Most of the people in the Gospels are anonymous. Besides the disciples, government officials, and a few key figures, just about everyone else remains anonymous. Allow me to give you some samples from Luke:
- Luke 5:12 — “While he was in one of the cities, there came a man full of leprosy.”
- Luke 6:6 — “On another Sabbath, he entered the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was withered.”
- Luke 7:2 — “Now a centurion had a servant who was sick and at the point of death, who was highly valued by him.”
- Luke 8:43 — “And there was a woman who had had a discharge of blood for twelve years, and though she had spent all her living on physicians, she could not be healed by anyone.”
- Luke 10:25 — “And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, ‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’”
- Luke 13:14 — “But the ruler of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, said to the people, ‘There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.’”
I could list more. By my count fifty-one anonymous characters appear in Luke. This does not count large groups such as the five thousand or the seventy-two. Nor does this list include generic statements where Jesus heals “many” or interacts with a crowd.
Since obscure characters are usually anonymous, we should take notice when one of them gets mentioned.
Simon of Cyrene
Mark mentions three obscure figures in Mark 15:21. He notes, “And they compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross.” It’s noteworthy that none of these three figures show up anywhere else in the narrative. Moreover, while Matthew and Luke also mention Simon of Cyrene, they leave out his two sons. What best explains this phenomena?
Church tradition suggests that Mark’s Gospel is more or less Peter’s account of things. Yet, Peter wasn’t in all places at all times. In fact, he drops out of the narrative in the previous chapter. He’s presumably in hiding after Jesus’ arrest. So how would Peter or Mark know that Simon carried Jesus’ cross? Who’s testimony stands behind this story?
It most certainly has to be Simon of Cyrene. Furthermore, the mention of his two sons Alexander and Rufus suggests that Mark expected his readers to know who they were. In fact, if Mark wrote his Gospel in Rome (as tradition suggests), it’s reasonable to believe that the church heard this story from Alexander and Rufus themselves. Think about it. Alexander and Rufus must have heard the story dozens of times from their dad. And now as they relayed this same story to the church in Rome, imagine how proud they must have felt. That’s our dad! He carried Jesus’ cross! Since neither Matthew nor Luke mention these two sons, we can assume that their audiences (places other than Rome) would not have been familiar with them.
After his resurrection from the dead, Jesus appears to two individuals on the road to Emmaus — Cleopas and an anonymous figure. Why mention Cleopas and not the other? The story obviously does not require him to be named.
The most reasonable explanation is that Cleopas must be the source for this specific account. Again, none of the disciples were present. Luke himself was not present. But as Luke mentioned in his prologue, he spoke with different eyewitnesses before compiling his Gospel account (Luke 1:1-3). Cleopas was one such eyewitness.
Also worth noting is that Cleopas was probably Jesus’ uncle. Elsewhere, John reports, “but standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene” (John 19:25). While the spelling is different in John, Bauckham argues that “Clopas is a very rare Semitic form of the Greek name Cleopas, so rare that we can be certain this is the Clopas who, according to Hegesippus, was the brother of Jesus’ father Joseph.”
Writing in the early fourth century, church historian Eusebius references Hegesippus’ quote on Clopas. He writes:
After the martyrdom of James and the conquest of Jerusalem which immediately followed, it is said that those of the apostles and disciples of the Lord that were still living came together from all directions with those that were related to the Lord according to the flesh (for the majority of them also were still alive) to take counsel as to who was worthy to succeed James. They all with one consent pronounced Symeon, the son of Clopas, of whom the Gospel also makes mention; to be worthy of the episcopal throne of that parish. He was a cousin, as they say, of the Saviour. For Hegesippus records that Clopas was a brother of Joseph.
According to church tradition, Clopas’ son, Symeon, the cousin of Jesus and James, became the overseer of the church in Jerusalem after James’ martyrdom in AD 62. Thus, we can see why Clopas’ testimony might carry some significant weight in the early church. He was the uncle of Jesus, and his son was a prominent leader in the Jerusalem church.
Names and Eyewitnesses
A few other names also fit this same description (Jairus, Bartimaeus, and Zacchaeus to name a few). By looking at the general pattern in the Gospels, these obscure figures should have remained anonymous. Therefore, their names seem rather significant. I believe Bauckham is correct when he suggests “that many of these named characters were eyewitnesses who not only originated the traditions to which their names are attached but also continued to tell these stories as authoritative guarantors of their traditions.”
 Richard Bauckham, Jesus, and the Eyewitnesses, 47.
 Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 3.11.
 Richard Bauckham, Jesus, and the Eyewitnesses, 39.
Recommended resources related to the topic:
Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels by J. Warner Wallace (Book)
Why We Know the New Testament Writers Told the Truth by Frank Turek (mp4 Download)
The Top Ten Reasons We Know the NT Writers Told the Truth mp3 by Frank Turek
Ryan Leasure holds a Master of Arts from Furman University and a Master of Divinity from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Currently, he’s a Doctor of Ministry candidate at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He also serves as a pastor at Grace Bible Church in Moore, SC.
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