A comment by ‘Pulse’ on one of my recent posts about the resurrection, has sparked an idea: the need for a checklist of historical criteria for claims about Jesus. One purpose for such a checklist is to enable others to think critically about claims about Jesus. Another purpose would be to enable one (myself included) to think more systematically and objectively about such questions, to avoid ‘cherry picking’ the relevant evidence.
Jesus scholars often discuss and use criteria of authenticity to separate out history from fiction in the Gospel accounts, so there are lists of such criteria offered by various Jesus scholars. But historical issues surrounding the Gospels are more extensive than what those criteria cover, so I think it would be useful to assemble a broader and more comprehensive list of criteria that can and should be used to evaluate the historicity or probability of a particular claim about Jesus.
I can think of at least three areas where historical criteria can and should be used concerning Jesus:
Criteria of Authenticity (of Jesus’ sayings and events in Jesus’ life)
Criteria of Historicity (of the existence of Jesus)
Criteria of Historical Reliability (of a Gospel)
So, discussions of these three sorts of issues can be used as input for assembling a more comprehensive checklist.
I envision a checklist that has two or three levels of abstraction:
1. Specific readily applicable criteria (e.g. How many years between time of event and time that the historical document was written?)
2. More general categories or criteria that subsume various ‘specific readily applicable criteria’
3. Possibly one more level of abstraction higher that encompasses two or more of the general categories/criteria.
The purpose of the more general categories is to provide some logical organization and to help in identification of logical gaps, to make the checklist as comprehensive as possible.
I propose to start by examining specific points made in support of a skeptical view about the authenticity or historicity of certain claims about Jesus, or about the unreliability of a Gospel, and identify the questions at issue (i.e. the specific readily applicable criteria that are being used), and then abstract more general categories or criteria from those specific criteria.
Next, to make sure that my list is comprehensive and not skewed in favor of skepticism about Jesus, I will examine specific points made by Christian apologists in support of the authenticity or historicity of certain claims about Jesus, or in support of the historical reliability of a Gospel, and identify the questions at issue (i.e. the specific readily applicable criteria that are being used), and then abstract more general categories or criteria from those specific criteria.
I think by going through such an exercise, I can produce a useful checklist for the evaluation of historical claims about Jesus, which might also help with evaluation of other historical issues.