The Gospels: Where everybody knows your name

Have you ever wondered why you know the names of certain characters in the Gospels? Why do you know the name of blind Bartimaeus, who begged by the roadside at Jericho (Mk 10:46-52)? Why do you know, not only the name of Simon of Cyrene but (in Mark’s Gospel) the name of his two sons, Alexander and Rufus, as well? Why do you know Jairus’ name? Or the name of one guy on the Emmaus road but not the other?

Short answer: Because ancient word processors did not have a footnote function.

Permit me to explain. In his book “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony” (Eerdmans, $30), New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham argues that the evangelists are obedient to the conventions, not of myth-writing, but of ancient Greco-Roman historiography and biography. For ancients, lacking the kind of easily accessible massive archives we are used to, the conviction was that “you could only write real history within living memory of the events. Real history was contemporary history,” writes Bauckham. And so eyewitness testimony was extremely important.

Papias of Hierapolis, for instance, relates his interest in hearing the “living word” of the apostles as a young man and seeks out what might be called “traditions with credentials behind them.” That is, he doesn’t want rumors and legends about Jesus. He wants stories that come from apostolic eyewitnesses, whether written or handed down orally, much as someone today interested in the Kennedy administration (separated in time by roughly the same distance as the young Papias was separated from Jesus) would be interested in hearing members of the administration or reading their memoirs. The Gospels indicate precisely the same interest in traditions that arise, not from the murk of a Christian rumor mill about Jesus from people who never met him, but from specific apostolic sources and eyewitnesses. That’s why the first three Gospels give us lists of Twelve Apostles: to make clear that these men, eyewitnesses all, are the reliable custodians of the story of Jesus.

And the Gospels also include the names of minor characters such as Jairus and Bartimaeus. Why? Because this is the conventional way of noting that the person involved in the incident being recorded is, in fact, the source of the story being related.

Take, for instance, Mary Magdalene. Here is a person who is briefly mentioned early in the Gospels, but who plays no other part in the story of Jesus right up until Easter morning. She is, further, someone whom no evangelist in the ancient Jewish world would invent as their primary witness to the Resurrection. A fabulist inventing the story of the Resurrection would avoid her like the plague since a woman’s testimony was inadmissible in court, to say nothing of a woman out of whom seven demons had been driven (Mk 16:9-11; Lk 8:1-3). Yet all four Gospels name her as the first witness to the risen Christ instead of simply having Jesus appear to the apostles. Why? Because it is what happened and she is the source of the story of the incident at the tomb for the whole early Church (including the apostles). She and her companions (whom some of the gospel writers also name) know what transpired at the tomb that morning. The apostles were not there.

Or take blind Bartimaeus. Here is a person with very low social standing, a man who spent his life begging by the roadside near Jericho. And yet we know his name as we do not know the name of numerous other recipients of healing miracles. Again, why? Mark tells us: After Bartimaeus received his sight from Jesus, he got up and “followed him on the way” (Mk 10:52). Bartimaeus, in short, became a member of the early Christian community and told the story of his miraculous healing countless times. When the Gospels were written, they named him to pin down the fact that his is an eyewitness testimony.

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Sometimes a Gospel writer will note a detail like this because it will matter to his particular audience. So, for instance, all of the synoptic Gospels will record that Simon of Cyrene helped Jesus bear his cross, but only Mark notes that Simon was the father of Alexander and Rufus (Mk 15:21). Because Alexander and Rufus are known to the community in Rome to whom Mark is writing. You can see this in Paul’s greetings to the Roman Church, when he specifically gives a shout-out to Rufus (Rom 16:13).

Jairus is another example of a figure who is known to the early Church because he is a member of it (and a prominent one since he was a synagogue ruler). His testimony not only bears witness to another healing miracle of Jesus, but also to the fact that the gospel is compatible with and a fulfillment of the law and the prophets whom Jairus proclaims.

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Another important figure in the early Church is Clopas, who is also known as Cleopas (rather as “Simon Peter” is also known as “Simeon”). The reason we know Clopas’ name and not the name of his companion on the Emmaus road is, again, because he is the source of this particular story of an encounter with the Risen Christ. But the story of Clopas does not end there. Because Clopas does not exist in a vacuum. He is married to “Mary, the wife of Clopas,” who is recorded by John to have stood at the foot of the cross of Jesus with her “sister,” the Blessed Virgin Mary, as well as Mary Magdalene. As is obvious, the Blessed Virgin’s parents are not so uncreative as to have named two daughters “Mary,” so “sister” means “female relative” (likely cousin). And Mary, the wife of Clopas, is also identified elsewhere in the Gospels as “Mary, the mother of James” and, in addition, the mother of “Joseph” or “Joses” (Mt 27:55-56; Mk 15:40-41; Mk 16:1-8; Lk 24;1-12). In short, the Mary, the wife of Clopas is the “sister” of the Blessed Virgin and the mother of James and Joses (whose other siblings are Jude/Judas and Simon). She will not only be one of the women with Mary Magdalene at the tomb on Easter morning, but her son James will himself be granted an appearance by the Risen Christ, according to Paul (1 Cor 15:7). And he will go on to become one of the most well-known figures in the early Church: James, the bishop of Jerusalem, who presides over the Synod of Jerusalem in Acts 15 and writes the epistle of James.

All of which means that when we are listening to the Resurrection narratives (especially in Luke), we are hearing the testimony, in large measure, of James’ family, kin of Mary and Jesus, and highly esteemed figures in the early Church. Indeed, the early Church historian Eusebius notes that when James died in the early ’60s, the Church at Jerusalem chose Simon, son of Clopas as his successor. Why? Because he was James’ kid brother.

It has become popular to imagine that the gospels are written by people remote from the events they describe. But the data in the Gospels is increasingly making clear that they preserve eyewitness testimony from “those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” (Lk 1:2).

Mark Shea writes the “Catholic and Enjoying it!” blog at Patheos.com.