Crumbling Criteria: Constructing an Authentic Jesus – By Helen Bond

Helen Bond on Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne’s Jesus Criteria and the Demise of Authenticity

Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne (eds.), Jesus Criteria and the Demise of Authenticity, Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2012, 256pp., $34.95

Historical Jesus work used to be easy. Cocooned in his book-lined study, the scholar would painstakingly sift through isolated units of Jesus tradition, eventually assigning each tiny fragment to one of two piles: authentic and inauthentic material. His tools for the job were a set of criteria, carefully devised tests that cast a semblance of objectivity and scientific method on the proceedings. It was only when this process was complete, and all inauthentic material was safely discarded, that our scholar would gather up the meagre contents of the authentic pile and begin to piece together his own reconstruction.

This criteria approach had its origins with the German form critics of the early twentieth century and enjoyed its heyday in the so-called new Quest for the historical Jesus of the 1950s and 1960s. It was fine-tuned in the work of Joachim Jeremias and Norman Perrin, and quickly became the standard method of historical reconstruction, particularly when it came to identifying the actual words spoken by Jesus. To be fair to them, most of those engaged in the task realised that their criteria had a number of shortcomings, and critical voices were often raised — most notably by by Morna Hooker in an important article in New Testament Studies in 1970. But the criteria approach demonstrated a remarkable staying power and still commands some popularity amongst contemporary scholars, including pre-eminent Jesus historian J. P. Meier and those associated with the Jesus Seminar.

Even modern scholars who express severe doubts about the use of criteria have not quite been able to break free of their hold, and appeals to the criteria of dissimilarity, multiple attestation, or embarrassment are frequent in the literature. But there are at least two basic problems with this way of doing things. First, our view of the gospels and their authors has shifted quite dramatically in recent decades. We no longer regard the evangelists as compilers and redactors, but as creative writers, even inspired theologians. The criteria-approach ignores the huge contribution of narrative approaches, not to mention insights drawn from memory studies, orality or performance studies. Can we be sure any more that what appears to be Matthean redaction is really to be relegated to the inauthentic pile? Might not even a legendary sounding story preserve some historical insight? Second, and related to this, our view of history itself has changed enormously in the last half century. Most of us no longer think that history is a set of objective facts that can be reconstructed. Rather, post-modernism has taught us that all history is interpretation, and that while we may be able to agree that certain events took place, interpretation of the significance of these events will have varied considerably, even in the earliest period. Does it make any sense, then, to detach past events from the narrative contexts that gave them meaning? And are the criteria simply far too clunky to reconcile with this much more sophisticated view of history?

When this volume by Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne first landed on my desk, I have to confess a certain amount of surprise. Surely, I thought, the criteria are dying out, why not let them expire in their own time? If pushed for an opinion, I might have suggested that the criteria needed modification — and that is also the view of some of the contributors (Le Donne, Dagmar Winter, and to some extent Mark Goodacre). Working my way through these essays, however, has underlined to me just how embedded in an outdated view of both the gospels and the historical enterprise the criteria really are. I’ve now been completely won over by those who would jettison the criteria altogether (Keith, Morna Hooker, Jens Schröter, Rafael Rodriguez and Dale Allison) — and the sooner the better. Let’s have a look at them and see why.

There can be no better place to start than with the criterion of multiple attestation, which asserts that material can be considered historical if it appears in more than one source (and preferably in a number of different forms — parables, sayings, narratives etc). Superficially this is one of the most benign of the criteria; but scratch the surface and things become more complicated. Mark Goodacre expertly demonstrates that the criterion depends upon the two-source hypothesis as an explanation for the literary relationships between the gospels, specifically the existence of a document known as Q that was used independently by both Matthew and Luke in addition to Mark. Quite apart from the fact that Q is hypothetical (and doubters seem to be increasing), the criterion gives particular weight to material contained in both Mark and Q. If, however, Mark knew Q, or Luke knew Matthew as well as Mark (as Goodacre himself thinks likely), then all the criterion has done is to skew the data. Similar concerns over independence extend to John’s Gospel, the Gospel of Thomas, and even the hypothetical special tradition used by Matthew and Luke (M and L respectively). Multiple attestation, then, encourages an overly simplistic view of gospel relationships that does not even begin to address questions of orality, and historical Jesus scholars would be well advised to use it with considerably more caution.

Of all the criteria, the one that has sustained the greatest amount of scholarly criticism is the criterion of dissimilarity. This argues that we can be sure that a tradition is authentic if it differs from both the surrounding Jewish world and the early church. The danger here, of course, is that excessive use of the criterion can produce a Jesus completely divorced both from his Jewish context and from the movement that followed him. Indeed, recent approaches have turned the criterion on its head, taking as most historical that which aligns Jesus most closely both with first century Judaism and the emerging church. In this volume, Dagmar Winter exposes the prevailing anti-Semitism of late-nineteenth and early twentieth century Germany, a climate in which the dissimilarity of Jesus to his Jewish contemporaries appeared to be self-evidently desirable. Other cultural impulses too — rationalism, romanticism, and the idea of Jesus as the first Christian — all converged in disassociating Jesus as much as possible from his Jewish heritage. The criterion is certainly a fascinating cultural phenomenon, but as a method of reconstructing the historical Jesus, it clearly has very little merit.

Jesus and the Apostles - Cappadocian Fresco
Jesus and the Apostles – Cappadocian Fresco. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Closely allied to dissimilarity is the criterion of coherence. This emerged at first in a supporting role, suggesting that traditions that cohered with material already declared authentic by the criterion of dissimilarity should similarly be regarded as trustworthy. More recently, in the light of dissimilarity’s fall from grace, it has tended towards a broader sense that traditions aligning with material deemed historical on any ground may well be authentic. (This is how it is used by J. P. Meier or Robert Funk.) It does not require the rigorous proof demanded by other criteria, and thus helps to broaden out our store of reliable material. But even in its more modern, respectable version, it will only ever be a weak guarantee of historicity. Anthony Le Donne shows that it is fundamentally linked to a binary view of reality, where material is either authentic or inauthentic, and takes little account of an early Christian reality in which memories, concepts, and ideologies evolved in several different directions at the same time.

More promising is the criterion of Semitic influence on the Greek, the idea that identifying an Aramaic stratum behind the present Greek text points to authentic Jesus material. This approach was pioneered by Joachim Jeremias, Matthew Black, and more recently by Maurice Casey. Drawing on socio-linguistics, however, Loren Stuckenbruck ably demonstrates the complexity of language, noting that we need to reckon not only with considerable interpenetration (both ways) between Aramaic and Greek in this period, but also with the possibility of a re-Semitization of the tradition at some point. Detecting Aramaisms, then, is no guarantee of authentic material.

We’re left with the criterion of embarrassment. This is the view that the gospels contain a number of traditions that were too embarrassing to the early church to have been invented, but too well-known to have been omitted. The only strategy open to the evangelists was to seek to ameliorate their effects. A number of rather awkward gospel episodes fall into this category: Jesus’s baptism by John, the charge that he was demon-possessed, his scandalous table-fellowship, his stilted family relations, his erroneous expectation of an imminent end/second coming, the failures of key disciples, and the crucifixion. The difficulty with all of this, however, as Rafael Rodriguez ably points out, is that we cannot be sure that any of these were embarrassing to the first followers of Jesus, or that they were equally embarrassing all the time. The connection with John the Baptist, for example, may well have enhanced Jesus’s standing, particularly in the early years when John was more famous than Jesus. We simply know too little about what early Christians would have found embarrassing to use this criterion in a meaningful way. One by one, the criteria seem to have crumbled.

How, then, are we to go about reconstructing the historical Jesus without the traditional criteria? This will undoubtedly be the challenge for the next few decades. In one of the volume’s concluding essays, Dale Allison charts his own personal disillusionment with authenticity criteria, a disaffection that came to a head with his recent Constructing Jesus (2010) and led to his decision to analyse larger patterns across the sources rather than subject single episodes to the traditional criteria. This seems to me to offer a way forward. It is clear that future historical work will need to abandon the traditional piecemeal approach. Instead, we’ll need to attempt to understand each source on its own merits, as embodying a specific interpretative framework. We’ll need to attune ourselves to memory studies, and the impact that social memory has exerted on the transmission of Jesus traditions. It is only then, and with an appropriate degree of reservation, that we can ask what historical events might have given rise to these particular (and often conflicting) interpretations.

This isn’t a volume for beginners, but it will find a wide audience amongst scholars and upper-level students. More importantly, it should be essential reading for anyone even contemplating any kind of reconstruction of the historical Jesus.

[Editorial Note, April 3: The reviewer was an advisor for one of the co-editor’s doctoral program. The editors deemed the conflict of interest materially insignificant in this case. The volume under review is a multi-authored work, of which the former student of the reviewer is only a co-editor, and the reviewer judiciously avoided commenting on his particular contribution.]

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