Monday, December 7, 2009

Babes in Bookland

Something light for a change, even trivial. I've been reading Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: the Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2006). an interesting and possibly important scholarly attempt to reconstruct the role of eyewitnesses in the formation of the Jesus tradition. Bauckham tries to build a solid case that the four gospels rely more or less directly on the testimony of Jesus' original disciples. I don't think he succeeds (and I intend to write quite a bit more about that soon), but it's a challenging attempt, worth the attention of anyone who's interested in the question. For one thing, Bauckham, who has several earlier books to his credit, shows that conservative (even fundamentalist?) scholars can make serious contributions to New Testament studies, which shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with the field but may surprise many, Christian or atheist, who think of fundamentalists as a bunch of subliterate hicks. Many are, but so are many liberal Christians.

Eerdmans has published a number of serious scholarly works that have earned my respect over the years I've been reading on this subject; they even published a very effective critique of fundamentalist icon C. S. Lewis's religious philosophy, C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion by the philosopher John Beversluis, in 1985. (I just learned that a new edition of that book was published in 2007 by the secular-humanist house Prometheus Books, which tells you how much of a stretch it was for Eerdmans to publish such a thing a quarter-century ago.)

But I'm getting heavier here than I intended. While reading Jesus and the Eyewitnesses I remembered a book I read in the 1980s when I was studying Christian apologetics and scholarship for a writing project of my own. The book was Clumsy Construction in Mark's Gospel: A Critique of Form- and Redaktiongeschichte, by John C. Meagher, published in 1979 by the Edwin Mellen Press. Since Form and Redaction Criticism are Bauckham's principal targets, and I'd enjoyed Meagher's book when I read it before, I decided it was time to have another look at it. To my surprise, it was checked out of the university library, so I found a used copy (it's long out of print, of course) online at a decent price and ordered it.

Used books are often interesting objects in themselves, and this copy was a good example. Usually the interest lies in signs of a previous owner's use of the book -- marginal notes and such; this one is the opposite. Meagher's book was originally issued in paperback, and like many such books this copy had been rebound in hardcover for its previous owner, a Catholic seminary. It still had the pocket and check-out card that the library used to track it in those pre-computerized days. And, I realized, it had never been checked out in all the time they owned it. (It has no note of its acquisition date nor the date it was discarded, but the bindery stamp says January 1981, so it must have been purchased around then.) The copy is essentially pristine, then. It's no big deal, but I found that interesting, especially since someone considered the book significant enough to borrow it from my university's library. Even though this copy is around 30 years old, it was basically new.