James Crossley and the Criteria of Authenticity

James Crossley and the Criteria of Authenticity August 23, 2014

Over at Harnessing Chaos, James Crossley comments on the value of the “criteria of authenticity” used in historical Jesus research.

After assessing the relative strengths and weaknesses of the various “criteria,” Crossley concludes:

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.

I confess that I’ve gradually lost my confidence in the criteria in being able to prove or disprove anything in the Jesus tradition. The claim that the criteria can provide an objective or empirical history seems particularly naive now. I’ve used the criteria in my past research, with due caveats and cautions, simply because they were part of the toolkit that I inherited as an emerging historical Jesus scholar. But I’ve come to the view that, at the end of the day, the best we can probably do is weave a story about Jesus from the sources that has the most explanatory power and accounts for most of the evidence … with our without any criteria for doing so.

That said, I’m not a 100% sold on abandoning the criteria in toto, since I think that they can have tertiary or ancillary value, and sometimes make a lot of sense (there might be a forthcoming book on this topic, wait and see!). Also, in contrast to Crossley, I’m not prepared to say that all we can do is go back to primitive traditions since those traditions presumably have a referent and source in Jesus at least some of the time. But how do you know and can you know? Social memory theory provides at least a hermeneutical framework for tackling some of these issues, but it still lacks the nitty gritty tools for evaluating perciopae and sayings as authentic or inauthentic, which is often what historians want to know. That is the new epistemological crisis in historical Jesus research in a post-criteria world! So what do you do now? Abandon the “quest” (like Scot McKnight) or did I just hear someone say “Fourth Quest for the Historical Jesus”?

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • jwillitts

    Mike, I couldn’t agree more with our friend James. I’m glad to see you’ve moved close to my position after a decade! It was my paper at ETS on “Why I’m not a historical Jesus scholar” that motivated you to send me a letter via snail mail all those years ago. Our friendship emerged from these topics! Amazing!

  • Doug

    I’d be grateful for some clarification. If the criteria have a tertiary value, what do you see as having primary and secondary value?

    • Michael Bird

      Doug, social memory and reception history.

      • Doug

        Mike, I think that clarification leaves me more confused. You cite reception history over any criteria. That leaves me baffled by, say. wondering why Mel Gibson’s reception history of Jesus before Pilate, in which Jesus speaks Latin, has anything to say about the historicity of the trial narratives.

  • Michael Bird

    Joel, I see the limitations of HJ methodology more acutely these days, but I ain’t giving up on the whole HJ enterprise! FYI, I still think your Jamie Oliver intro was lame bro!!!