What Do Burning Children and the Defense of Jesus Have in Common?

In Richard Bauckham's book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, the author tries to show the power of testimony and why it is necessary for telling what happened when it comes to the unique events in the life of Jesus. So he uses Holocaust testimonies as examples. Here is page 497 in his book:

Bauckham writes:
The passage concerns perhaps the most unbelievably inhuman feature of the destruction of Jews in Auschwitz: the cremation of small children alive. I quote first another report of this before turning to Wiesel's account:
The other gas chambers were full of the adults and therefore the children were not gassed, but just burned alive. There were several thousand of them. When one of the SS sort of had pity upon the children, he would take a child and beat the head against a stone before putting it on the pile of fire and wood, so that the child lost consciousness. However, the regular way they did it was by just throwing the children onto the pile. They would put a sheet of wood there, then sprinkle the whole thing with petrol, then wood again, and petrol and wood, and petrol - then they placed the children there. Then the whole thing was lighted. [From L.L. Langer, Holocaust Testimonies (Yale University Press, 1991), pp. 54-55].
Wiesel's reference to this way of killing children is in one of the most famous passages of Night. The young Wiesel and his father arrive in Auschwitz:
Not far from us, flames were leaping up from a ditch, gigantic flames. They were burning something. A lorry drew up at the pit and delivered its load -little children. Babies! Yes, I saw it - saw it with my own eyes ... those children in the flames. (Is it not surprising that I could not sleep after that? Sleep had fled from my eyes.) ...

I pinched my face. Was I still alive? Was I awake? I could not believe it.

How could it be possible for them to burn people, children, and for the world to keep silent? It was a nightmare ....
Isn't it strange that Bauckham uses these stories to make a point about testimonies of God's love in Jesus and utterly fails to see in them the horrible nature of God's impotence to help these children? What's with it, Christian?

These stories force Christians to do what theologian John Roth said when trying to justify God's purported ways with us: "No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children."

Christian, care to try?


Vinny said...

Did you really read all the way to p.497 in that book John? I borrowed it through inter-library loan because I had seen the guy cited so much, but I sure couldn't get that far.

John W. Loftus said...

I read most of it, and skimmed other parts.

John W. Loftus said...

Since you'll want to know what I think of the book let me just say that he makes a good case for the historicity of Jesus and the authenticity of more of his sayings. But even if so, not much of interest follows. For I have independent reasons for rejecting his sayings about the return of the "Son of Man," hell, and the devil. So even if he can establish some of these sayings go back directly to Jesus it only shows me that Jesus was a child of his times, a failed apocalyptic doomsday prophet, and we've seen them come and go.

I also want to thank someone for buying this book for me from my wish list. Such things really are needed, and they help me out a lot.

Curiosis said...

And, according to bible-believing christians, those Jews that were old enough are now burning in hell. All of them would gladly go back to the death camps to avoid their eternal torture.

I'd like someone to justify that thinking.

Vinny said...

I got the book because I had seen Greg Boyd cite Bauckham as authority for the idea that oral tradition was capable of preserving the stories and teachings of Jesus until someone got around to writing them down. I was interested in seeing how his analysis compared to Crossan's in The Birth of Christianity and I thought it compared very poorly. Crossan discussed the actual evidence that researchers looked at while Bauckham mostly quote-mined conclusions.

I really don't know what to make of the clues he managed to tease out of the gospels, like inclusio, that supposedly showed who the eyewitnesses were. It seemed like wishful thinking more than evidence to me, but I suppose there could be something to it. Most of what I know about the evangelical arguments for this stuff come from popular apologetics so I did not feel like I had the background to evaluate it.

badger3k said...

I may have to add this to my wish list, but I am curious to how he counters the fact that (as studies by anthropologists have shown) that oral traditions are not usually faithfully transmitted, but are often changed to fit the speakers situations. It was only after we started to make written accuracy important that things got better. Does he discuss this problem or does he just assume it (presumably by trying to show comparisons between written sayings)?

(and for the record, I have seen these studies before, but I need to go back and see if I can get them now)

John W. Loftus said...

Bauckham argues that people have better memories than that in one long chapter, and the traditions were transmitted by named people who also had written things down. There's more to it.

Kevin H said...

This strikes a hard sorrowful chord with me. I have often thought that burning alive is one of the most disturbing things in human life. Especially at the hands of others. In the Middle Ages, we have records that it sometimes took those burned at the stake four days to die. The vast majority of times the person goes into shock, numbing and killing him. Most die from smoke inhalation rather than the burns.

I cannot, as a Christian, make it more tolerable that people die this way. My only recourse is to consider that any form of painful death in this fallen world is infinitesimally brief in comparison to eternity.

Children who die go to be with God. That brings up "age of accountability" issues but I'm speaking generally. And our hearts often break more profoundly for children than for adults.

Maybe I shouldn't comment on this blog. It seems to target a fundamentalism beyond me, i.e. I anticipate the Hell issue now. No, I don't think there will be fire in Hell as we know it -certainly not the chemical combustion we know of. The Rich Man in "the flames" could carry on a rational conversation. Try doing that while on fire!

Of all the depictions of evil and suffering I've heard, nothing has hurt me more than Eli Weisel's account in Night of a little boy hanged in the camp between two adults. The adults died instantly. The little "pipel" struggled for half an hour.

"Where is God?", cried one of the prisoners as they filed past.

Weisel replied, "He's hanging here on those gallows!"


Jon said...

It's a good point, John, but as a side issue I would have to say that I cannot believe this story is accurate. It sounds to me a lot like recent stories I've heard about Al Qaeda cooking children alive and serving them for dinner (seriously, this is a story I've heard from some big fans of the "War on Terror"). Sounds contrived. Perfectly tailored to provoke outrage and sorrow it sounds highly suspicious to me. Seriously, people can't bring themselves to kill cattle this way, let alone children. Remember, these officers would go home to their own families. Could they really face their own children after a day like that? Maybe I'm wrong, but I'd need some good evidence before believing this.

It would be ironic if Bauckham had invoked a supposed eyewitness account to justify his trust in the gospels as accurate history, and yet his example turned out to be false.

John W. Loftus said...

Well Jon, you truly are a skeptic, aren't you? While I think these two stories are inconsistent with how they both describe the burning of children, and exaggerated somewhat, I think there are other confirming witnesses to such events to be found.

Nonetheless, you raise an important point. Just because someone tells a story and claims to be an eyewitness may not make it so!

Evan said...

There is increasing understanding of the limitations of eyewitnesses. If the eyewitness is alive and reporting what he is certain he saw, he can be wrong 50% of the time.

All the more reason to doubt in the extreme hearsay testimony based only on eyewitnesses with no corroborative circumstantial evidence.

James F. McGrath said...

The accusation has been made, interestingly enough, that the particular work Bauckham used as an example of eyewitness testimony of the holocaust was in fact a fraud. As a New Testament scholar, I found Bauckham's work helpful in many respects, but ultimately unsatisfying as an attempt to argue against the role of oral tradition and that eyewitness testimony resolves the historical difficulties related to the study of Jesus and the Gospels.

Michael Ejercito said...

Isn't it strange that Bauckham uses these stories to make a point about testimonies of God's love in Jesus and utterly fails to see in them the horrible nature of God's impotence to help these children?
God did not want to save those children.

He wanted to comfort the survivors.