Richard Bauckham is a Cambridge University graduate who has spent the better part of his life teaching at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. There he held the position of Bishop Wardlaw professor and taught New Testament studies. He has published on the gospel of John and is also an expert in Jürgen Moltmann's theology.
Since then he has retired and is now the senior fellow at Ridley college, Cambridge University. There he is now focusing on publishing, focusing on the gospel of John and NT Christology.
So, obviously a fairly well educated and influential figure in NT studies. This book represents the pinnacle of his work on the gospels, and in the words of some random magazine (the 'Choice' magazine)
"It will be hard to take seriously future works on the origin of the Gospels that have not interacted with Bauckham..."
So what does he have to say to us in this first chapter?
Well first off he sets his book in the context of current work on who Jesus was. Here he draws two large distinctions, that of the Jesus of History and the Jesus of faith (or theology). He suggests that the mainstream work has polarized the two quite severely and that his book is meant to bridge this gap. To this end he invents a whole new category. The Jesus of Testimony. Testimony, he argues, demands to be trusted and taken as fact. He then argues, that using this method we can have a valuable tool with which we can discover the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith in the same method, without conflict.
Now he throws down the gauntlet. Modern Scholarship, he claims, has been dominated by what has come to be known as Form Criticism.
Form Critics have argued that the gospels were compiled by anonymous evangelists who were working within an oral tradition that had been passed down from the eyewitnesses anonymously. In the past this has been taken as the norm, and since then has had both conservative elements and more liberal elements. Oral tradition in and of itself says nothing of the reliability of the gospels. However I find that if we are to just leave Form Criticism unchallenged, then we do leave the status of the gospels as trust worthy documents about the life of Jesus in an interesting limbo between trustworthy and fabricated (note: I do not mean entirely fabricated, but less reliable than a Christian might want). For example, Form critics will look at the gospels and look for discrepancies between them (say, the number of woman at the empty tomb) and make any number of conclusions based on those dependent on various other presuppositions they may or may not have. Another important part to mention, is how reliable is the oral tradition through the lens of the Form critic?
Here is an example i conjured up in my head well playing tennis this evening:
Oral tradition will only be as reliable as the passer's on of said information allows, and if we accept the presupposition that the eyewitnesses are dead by this time, then there are few, if any, authoritative figures to correct wrong saying attributed to Jesus etc. So, a form critique might be looking for Greek influences on the oral tradition. We know that there were Greeks who called themselves believers quite early on (Paul's letters to the Corinthians/Ephesians etc.) Now, the Jews were quite historically grounded people who had a large amount of respect for concrete real history. However, the Greeks were not as picky as them, to the Greeks there was no Orthodoxy like the Jews had, they were quite okay with people fiddling with their traditions and changing them into tragedies etc. (the closes equivalent in Jewish culture I can think of is Midrash) So, maybe they felt a bit freer to play fast and loose with Jesus' words. An astute observer might, for example, notice that the last supper in Mark 14:22-24 sounds somewhat familiar to the traditions connected with Dionysius regarding Omophagia (Eating of raw flesh, done by Dionysius' initiates) He might then note Paul's quote in 1 Corinthians 11:24-25 which may make him think its more likely to be authentic, but then he remembers that Paul quotes some Greek poets in Acts 17:16-21, and then he might remember that the lords supper is never explicitly mentioned in Acts (there is 'breaking of bread' in Acts 2:42, but for the sake of argument, lets say he comes up with a clever argument that washes that away) and using that argument from silence in the early church conclude that all mentions on the last supper are in fact interpolations from a Greek person in the oral tradition source. (possible even Paul himself).
However, if we have eyewitnesses still floating around, then we have authoritative figures to check up on gospels etc.
Finally, he introduces us to the forerunner to this book, a book by a Samuel Byrskog, a Swedish scholar who argued for the necessity of eyewitnesses to be around because in the ancient world, good history can only be written within living memory, for that one needs eyewitnesses. This is the beginning of Richard Bauckham's argument.