The ‘Criteria of Authenticity’ and (Not) Writing about the Historical Jesus


August 17, 2014 by Harnessing Chaos

When writing a book on the historical Jesus, it is required, or so it seems, to include a section on methodology or the criteria for establishing authenticity which, it might be suspected, is a more formal way of presenting scholarly hunches. Remarkably, it is only the past few years that there has been a more widespread awareness that the criteria of authenticity are of minimal use (see especially Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne).

Let’s have a look at some of the main ones.

Dissimilarity automatically assumes as a matter of method that Jesus must have been dissimilar from Judaism and what came next. An obvious counter argument: what if Jesus wasn’t different, then what is the point of the criterion? Or, what if an apparent difference was created by someone other than Jesus? What if there isn’t enough evidence to show Jesus was different from Judaism or some strand of developing ‘Christianity’? What if ‘Judaism’ is ‘Judaism’ constructed by a scholar or scholarship as a backdrop to make Jesus better? The growing consensus is right: dissimilarity is of no use in historical reconstruction. Indeed, how can it possibly be a ‘criterion’?

Double dissimilarity and double similarity is about as much use. And, despite its more recent liberal makeover, it is not really that much different from dissimilarity in the sense that it still looks for a significant degree of difference and so is ultimately susceptible to the same criticisms. Watch out for apologetic forms of double dissimilarity which can, from time-to-time, function something like this: a bit dissimilar from Judaism, in complete continuity with Christianity.

The criterion of embarrassment has held up relatively well over the years but is only of limited use. The appeal of its logic is understandable: any passage or saying about Jesus deemed to be embarrassing is more likely to come from the historical Jesus. A classic example would be Mark 6.5-6. However, this is still of limited value. If a given saying or passage is embarrassing, why should we assume Jesus said or did the embarrassing something? More damaging still: how do we know if something was embarrassing? Embarrassment is in the cheeks of the embarrassed. John’s Gospel may well have been excluded stories about ‘sinners’ and exorcisms because they were embarrassing but Matthew, Mark and (especially) Luke did not. Perhaps we might salvage something from this and tweak it by suggesting that if something goes against the grain of a given Gospel writer’s tendency then it might be a pre-Gospel tradition. This is not, however, the same as going back to the historical Jesus (or John the Baptist). To take one (for now hypothetical) example, there are plenty of good reasons to think that Mark 6.17-29 is a fictional account of the death of John the Baptist but that its relatively positive or sympathetic portrayal of Antipas goes against the grain of Mark and may thus reflect an earlier tradition.

If we were to use cases of texts going against the grain, then we might try to locate a given tradition historically, culturally, geographically and so on. Here, if we are talking about traditions somehow relating to the historical Jesus, the criterion of historical plausibility is the most useful of those criteria reviewed so far. This criterion could be used to argue that a passage or theme in question might share the cultural assumptions of Palestine or Galilee around the early- or mid-first century, or at least plausibly be part of such contexts, and lack interest in the influence of later developments in the early church. Against this, however, Jesus theoretically could have been a revolutionary figure of his time and said things that were thought to be remarkable. Theoretically. Yet, we could use this thinking to an advantage. If various traditions were, as far as we know, typical of (say) 20s or 30s Galilee or Palestine then this may be of some indication that the traditions may have been from that general time or place. But this does not necessarily mean we have the words and deeds of the historical Jesus, of course.

This criterion is sometimes used to construct a figure who influenced what came after him. The counter argument to this would be: what some/much/all of Jesus’ teaching had no serious influence? At the very least this must be a possibility because the earliest ‘Christians’ found themselves in a range of different cultural and geographical contexts. Such are the problems when we raise guess work to the level of ‘criteria’.

There are connections to be made between the sometimes unfairly maligned criterion of Aramaic influence which has received far more sceptical comments than other criteria (perhaps, we might speculate, because not many read Aramaic). But the standard criticisms still carry weight. Clearly, there could have been (additional) Aramaic or Hebrew influences on the tradition at a post-Jesus stage. Clearly, overlapping exegetical traditions in Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic could keep influencing one another. Clearly, it would have been possible to ‘re-Aramaize’ a tradition. Yet, this kind of (clearly warranted) scepticism has not been applied to other criteria which are also deserving (e.g. multiple attestation) and I am not convinced Aramaic influence should be placed in a sub-class of criteria because most criteria are not even much use as a guiding principle. Nevertheless, the establishment of cultural assumptions associated with historical plausibility could again add weight to an argument (the idiomatic use of the Aramaic ‘son of man’ might be an example of this). But this does not necessarily get us back to the historical Jesus; it only potentially gets us back to earlier (Palestinian) traditions.

This is where the overrated criterion of multiple attestation has some use. Irrespective of what sources (and forms) we count as ‘independent’ (and useful), the most multiple attestation can do is to establish that a given theme is early and possibly pre-Gospel. The multiple attestation of miracle stories can only show that they were popular and widespread early on. Obviously it cannot prove Jesus really was performing miracles.

So what can we say in (what is hopefully) a post-criteria world? To some degree, we are simply left with an old fashioned view of historical interpretation: interpretation of the material (and, as Rafael Rodriguez has stressed, we are doing nothing but relentlessly interpreting even when using the criteria), guesswork about contexts and the combining of arguments to make an argument of collective weight. But an argument for what? Certainly not proof of what Jesus said or did. Jesus may or may not have said word-for-word what some of the Gospel passages claim but we have no idea if this is in fact the case. All we can do is make a general case for the kinds of themes present in the early Palestinian tradition.

I think this is actually a good thing. It gets us away from the obsession with, and impossibility of, trying to extract Jesus the Great Man from the swirling mix of traditions. It also allows a range of material (which might simultaneously be contradictory) which may, for all we know, have come from Jesus, may have come from his earliest interpreters, may have come from fictional haggadic traditions, and may have been associated with people other than Jesus. We might then be able to make some general cases for the ways in which people (not just this elusive and supposedly overwhelmingly influential Great Man) engaged with the social changes in 20s and 30s Palestine.

And we haven’t yet mentioned the negative: showing traditions that really do not come from 20s and 30s Palestine…


17 thoughts on “The ‘Criteria of Authenticity’ and (Not) Writing about the Historical Jesus

  1. Gerhard Kittel III says:

    Ja genau!


  2. Michael Bird says:

    Interesting, I’ll post my own thoughts in a few days.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Alan and Alan Smithy says:

      Don’t feel bad! Sometimes my wife and I go for several days without any thoughts coming into our heads, either.


  3. Morgen Kinder says:

    So how would you assess Matthew 19:13: “Then little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them”.

    Is this his Rolf Harris moment?


  4. Jim Linville says:

    I really don’t get the embarrassment criteria at all, and the verse you gave as an example, Mark 6.5-6, seems a particularly embarrassing to the embarrassment advocates. All it suggests is the belief of a writer that healing was related to the ill person’s faith and that Jesus could be amazed at something. This makes the verse really interesting from the point of view of developing thoughts about Jesus/God’s omnipotence and omniscience, but does not necessarily imply anything about a historical Jesus.


    • Yes, not necessarily indeed. And Mark doesn’t seem particularly embarrassed by it. He may have blushed when reading it out but I’ll try and find criteria for establishing that.


  5. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James’ Ramblings.


  6. JGB says:

    Dr. Crossley,
    Two questions:
    1) Why call it a “post-criteria world” if you are willing to acknowledge that some of the individual criteria have “uses” or justifiable applications?
    2) You mention that it is “impossible” to extract Jesus. (Penultimate paragraph: “It gets us away from the obsession with, and *impossibility of, trying to extract Jesus the Great Man from the swirling mix of traditions.”) But why is it *impossible* rather than say, just difficult or something like that, where it’s still *possible*?

    (*Quick answers will suffice. Not interested in lengthy discussion; just asking questions that might spawn further future consideration. :))

    Looking forward to your book.


    • Ok, let’s try some quick answers…

      1) post-criteria world. Like most academic terms, there’s an element of rhetorical flourish. But I think it is possible that the dominance of the criteria in historical Jesus research could be over. Yes, some uses remain to make general cases but I can’t see how they can be applied as strictly and systematically as they have been. Or, indeed as off-hand, as they have been (e.g. here’s my argument and look how my texts are also multiply attested therefore…).
      2) This may be a semantic issue but I think I would say that we can make some educated guesses about general themes associated with Jesus e.g. eschatology. And that it may well be that we do have a lot of sayings and deeds that go back to Jesus but in most cases (perhaps all) I don’t know how we can ultimately prove it. Maybe ‘very difficult’ would be a better phrase but I’m content with knowing that we can work with early material (which may or may not have come from Jesus) to make arguments because I am not confident of sifting the material at this pre-Gospel stage.
      Does that make sense?


  7. Ryan says:

    I’ve written my own thoughts about the criterion of embarrassment here:

    In brief, I think there are so many problems with criterion in the context of New Testament Studies that make it effectively worthless.


  8. […] on from the ‘criteria of authenticity’ post and writing about the historical […]


  9. Kris Rhodes says:

    What kinds of methods can be recommended other than the classical criteria you mentioned in this post?


    • I mention (or hint at) one or two e.g. using something like some of the traditional criteria collectively to make arguments about general pre-Gospel tradition. But (and including the case of the criteria) I think it is a case of making critical arguments based on the evidence. So, for instance, we might see if a given passage might plausibly be located in 30s Palestine, if it was less likely to be a creation of the early church, goes against redactional grain and so on. And even then it is only going to get us so far. To be blunt, I think it is a case of thinking critically about how we might establish historical backgrounds of many/most/all events in human history and I don’t think there are strict hard and fast rules for doing this.


  10. […] feast of Herod and the meal Jesus provided for his followers (Matthew 14:1-21). James Crossley (here | here), Chris Keith (here | here) and Michael Bird interact over the criteria of authenticity […]


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