August 17, 2014 by James Crossley
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…