Historical Jesus 4: More Criteria

Since the majority of our information about Jesus comes from the Gospels, when we try to work out the details of the historical Jesus, we are obliged to sift and weigh these sources. In Part 3, we opened a discussion of John Meier’s ten criteria for this effort with the three strongest. Today, we continue with the remaining two strong criteria, then summarize the five weak ones.

    Criterion of Discontinuity

Meier’s fourth standard for judgment is quite powerful – and many prominent students of the historical Jesus actually prefer it over all others. This criterion points us to the aspects of Jesus which separate him from both his Jewish times and that of Christianity which came after him. The three examples most often cited are the absolute prohibition of oaths and divorce, and the rejection of voluntary fasting (Mk 2:18-22).

But this criterion has serious deficiencies. First, as Morna Hooker noted, it assumes that we know what we don’t know: what ideas were constitutive of, or even around in, 1st century Judaism and Christianity. Since sources are limited and neither the Judaism nor Christianity of the time seems to have been a monolithic enterprise, the safest bet is a certain modesty.

The second objection to this criterion is obvious to the artistically inclined among us. No musician, artist, or thinker is totally divorced from the society in which he or she works – if it were so, the works produced would be unintelligible. Since Jesus was by all accounts a great teacher, he must have had significant continuity with his own society.

By the same token, no really profound contribution is left without imitation. The imitation may be rote, dull, and unchanging, or it may reflect a second genius building on firm foundations, but there will be imitation. And the more striking the contribution, the more likely it will be imitated.

So although we can say by this criterion that it is quite likely that Jesus spoke against voluntary fasting, divorce, and oaths, we cannot use it to produce some sort of an “assured minimum.” The historical Jesus so developed would be a caricature. In reality, this criterion focuses on Jesus’ idiosyncrasies, and not necessarily on those things that were central to his efforts.

    Criterion of Coherence

This last criterion is called into play after a certain amount of material has been rounded up by the earlier criteria. It says that other sayings and deeds attributed to Jesus which fit in well with the earlier established events enjoy a fairly good chance of being historical. Since it is impossible to ensure that this sort of an event or saying is not an imitation, the usual method is to speak about them as “authentic insofar as they convey the message of the historical Jesus,” but not authentic in the narrowest sense (Meier, Marginal Jew, p. 176).

This criterion must also be used with discretion. It can legitimately be used to broaden an already existing set of events, but it cannot be used to declare something inauthentic. There are three reasons for this. The first two reasons are quite straightforward: we assuredly don’t have everything Jesus said or did, and we cannot expect him to have been totally consistent.

The third reason, however, requires more insight. Among the things that separate us from Jesus and his times is culture. Modern western thought values Aristotelian logic and non-contradiction. These values are not universal, and are particularly suspect when applied to ancient Semitic thought as Jesus would have known it.

And that’s it for John Meiers’ five “primary” criteria. We now turn to his “secondary” or dubious criteria.

    The Criterion of Traces of Aramaic (Secondary Criteria)

This criterion is strongly associated with Joachim Jeremias (2nd Quest) and his students, who held that traces of Aramaic vocabulary, grammar, syntax, rhythm, and rhyme in the received Greek text could be signs of an authentic saying.

But there are problems. First, the earliest Christians were Aramaic-speaking Palestinian Jews who shared the language of Jesus, so their contributions cannot be weeded out. Second, the fact that a saying can be easily retroverted into Aramaic may say far more about the quality of the original translation from Aramaic to Greek than about the authenticity.

At best, this criterion can be used to provided secondary evidence in support of evidence culled by other means. It cannot stand alone.

    The Criterion of Palestinian Environment (Secondary Criteria)

This criterion holds that those sayings which reflect a concrete knowledge of 1st century Palestinian beliefs, judicial practices, commercial and agricultural affairs, or social and political conditions, have a good chance of being authentic. It is much more useful when applied negatively, that is, to hold something inauthentic.

When used positively, it has all the faults associated with the Criterion of Aramaic Traces. It is also true that, in the absence of major social upheavals, these sorts of things do not change all that quickly. This makes it rather difficult to insist that one can distinguish between, say, 32 CE and 38 CE – and that is a period we would very much like to know more about.

    The Criterion of Vividness of Narrative (Secondary Criteria)

This criterion says that liveliness and concrete details in the narrative, especially when not germane to the storyline, can be evidence of authenticity. On the other hand, good writers or oral storytellers can create precisely the sort of vivid narratives we associate with eye witness reports.

The only thing that Meier can say for this criterion is that there are, in fact, some places where vivid detail seems to be completely unnecessary to the narrative, and there are places which are “ripe for exploitation” that seem to receive no such attention. In this latter group, the choice of the Twelve and the treachery of Judas might be mentioned.

What I would like to say is “Good luck, and don’t let the Snarker catch you at this one.”

    The Criterion of the Tendencies of the Developing Synoptic Tradition (Secondary Criteria)

Form critics such as Rudolf Bultmann were rather optimistic that they could detect the laws of development which governed the growth of the Synoptic tradition. When events went against these laws, they could be declared inauthentic. These laws could also be used to reconstruct original sayings.

The most common example of such a law is a hypothetical tendency to add details as the gospel narrative passed from Mark, to Matthew, and then to Luke. This sort of thing would add proper names, concretize details, shift indirect discourse to direct discourse, and eliminate Aramaic constructions.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the case. The tradition seems to move in both directions – becoming longer here, and shorter there, according to the proclivities of the evangelists. And if we did discover some guidelines, we would still be limited to things from post-Mark to Luke. What we’d really like to know about is the pre-Marcan oral tradition!

Meier appears to include this criterion only for negative use. If the redactional interests of Matthew and Luke can be determined, then those passages obviously suffused with their characteristic vocabulary and theology can be eliminated.

    The Criterion of Historical Presumption (Secondary Criteria)

This criterion is itself a matter of much debate. Which side must “prove” its point? Do those that hold something authentic need to so prove? Or does the burden of proof lie with those who find something inauthentic?

The reality of the matter is this: anyone who wants to take either position must be prepared to make his/her case. And the upshot is this: there will always be many cases for which we must just simply say “Not clear.”

And that’s Meier’s ten criteria. Next time, we’ll begin to look at an example, perhaps from either the baptism of Jesus or the denial of Peter.

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  • Taylor

    Wow, thanks for the summary! I have copied this into my general exams research summaries! I am struck at how lame these criteria are. They seem too have deep theological undercurrents to them (search for Jesus’ uniqueness, etc). On the other hand, they are also pretty weak historically. How can you prove that the evangelist’s community didn’t aramaicize the saying? or that they didn’t abstain from all oaths, divorce, etc but these practices were abandoned within a generation or less?