Historical Jesus 3: The Criteria

Although the majority of our information about the historical Jesus comes from the Gospels, these sources cannot be used without care. They do not agree among themselves on matters important to the historian, large or small. How, then, shall we make our decisions?

The answers to this question are pretty much as varied as the historians who propose them. In this post, we’ll begin to look at those articulated by John P. Meier; in future posts we’ll take a look at some others. (A Marginal Jew, vol. 1, pp. 167-184)

Meier uses nine criteria in his work. Five of them he considers of primary value, while the four others are quite secondary. These secondary criteria, if used at all, tend to simply supply additional confirmation of what is suggested by their more robust siblings.

    Criterion of Multiple Attestation

This criterion suggests that those sayings or events which enjoy multiple attestation in either literary source or form enjoy a higher degree of probability. By literary source, Meier means principally Mark, Q, Paul, and John.

Multiple attestation in form means that something appears in instances such as parables, beatitudes, aphorisms, miracle stories, or prayers. Exorcisms and healings form a special category of miracle stories.

This criterion is of special value when dealing with broad themes and motifs. That Jesus spoke about the kingdom of God/heaven is readily affirmed: the idea is found in Mark, Q, M, L, John, and Paul. It is also found parables, beatitudes, prayers, and a whole raft of miracle stories.

Yet this criterion has an obvious shortcoming: there is no guarantee that something reported only once didn’t happen, and no guarantee that something reported more than once did. This brings us to the need for a second criterion…

    The Criterion of Embarrassment

This one is pretty straightforward: folks don’t make up and then disseminate embarrassing items. If an event casting either Jesus or the disciples in an unfavorable light appears, it may well mean that the memory of the event runs so deep that it cannot be passed over.

There’s a nice selection of events that fit under this criterion. Foremost are probably the baptism of Jesus by his spiritual inferior John the Baptist, the denial of Peter, the betrayal of Judas, and even the admission in Mk 13:32 that the Son doesn’t know the time of his own parousia.

Three ideas arise from this discussion. First, a combination of multiple attestation and embarrassment is a powerful signal that something happened. The details may be poorly resolved, but there’s enough smoke it’s time to get serious about the fire extinguisher.

Second, this criterion also tells us that there surely was some kind of control on the imagination of the earliest Christian writers. That this control appears to have been lost by the second century suggests that some elements of actual, eyewitness, memory are involved.

Finally, this criterion cannot be used apart from a sensitive historical awareness. A case in point is the final words of Jesus from the cross in Mark: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This raises all sorts of eyebrows in the 21st century, but in the 1st century it was rightly understood as the culmination of the relationship between the obedient Son of God and his Father.

    The Criterion of Crucifixion

This criterion is different from the first two, indeed it is different from the other eight. It points out that Jesus died a very violent end, and asks us to consider what things he may have said or done that led him to be condemned for treason against the Roman state. Often, it is called into play against some idea about the historical Jesus.

Since Meier’s formulation of this criterion is interesting in its own right, I’ll quote him directly:

“While I do not agree with those who turn Jesus into a violent revolutionary or political agitator, scholars who favor a revolutionary Jesus do have a point. A tweedy poetaster who spent his time spinning out parable and Japanese koans, a literary aesthete who toyed with 1st century deconstructionism, or a bland Jesus who simply told people to look at the lilies of the field—such a Jesus would threaten no one. The historical Jesus did threaten disturb, and infuriate people—from interpreters of the Law through the Jerusalem priestly aristocracy to the Roman prefect who finally tried and crucified him. This emphasis on Jesus’ violent end is not simply a focus imposed on the data by Christian theology. To outsiders like Josephus, Tacitus, and Lucian of Samosata, one of the most striking things about Jesus was his crucifixion or execution by Rome. A Jesus whose words and deeds would not alienate people, especially powerful people, is not the historical Jesus.” (Meier, Marginal Jew, p. 177.)

We’ll pick up with the rest of Meier’s criteria in the next post. I’d just like to remind anyone who actually reads these things that the historical Jesus is a construct used to examine and classify the state of our knowledge. It is the Risen Lord in whom Christian faith properly resides, who is the only “real Jesus” that matters, and who cannot be studied using properly critical historical methods.

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