Jesus and the Criteria of Authenticity Among Friends and Enemies – Thoughts from a Review Panel at #scj11

Jesus and the Criteria of Authenticity Among Friends and Enemies – Thoughts from a Review Panel at #scj11 April 9, 2011

Jesus among Friends and Enemies: A Historical and Literary Introduction to Jesus in the GospelsAs promised, I’m sharing some thoughts I prepared for the review panel at the 2011 Stone Campbell Journal Conference. The book being reviewed was Jesus Among Friends and Enemies, forthcoming from Baker. Multi-author books are particularly hard to review, and so I will focus here, as I did at the conference, on the final chapter which seeks to point in new directions regarding historical methodology. And here, unlike at the conference, I won’t run out of time, and so some of the thoughts I share here go beyond things I actually mentioned in my panel presentation.

Chapter 12 is an epilogue by Chris Keith and Larry Hurtado. It focuses on how the narrative portraits of Jesus in the Gospels relate to the historical Jesus – here meaning Jesus as he really was, not merely historians’ reconstructions. But the key aspect of the quest for the historical Jesus, as outlined here, is skepticism about the extent to which the Jesus of the Gospels is Jesus as he really was (pp. 442-443).
This is, in one sense, the climax of the book, and a major focus is an exploration of dissatisfaction with the criteria of authenticity used in historical Jesus studies (pp.450-451). For instance, one major objection to the criterion of multiple attestation is uncertainty about which sources are independent (p.452).

I found the criticisms of the criteria of authenticity less than powerful or persuasive. The objection that the criterion of dissimilarity results in a historically absurd Jesus results from the attempt to misuse the criterion for negative rather than positive ends: it seems to have a legitimate use in identifying a small number of sayings the authenticity of which is very highly probable – but this should not lead either to those sayings being regarded as typical or central importance; nor should the criterion itself become a tool by which to make a case that Jesus was completely discontinuous from both his Jewish context and his later followers, as numerous scholars have emphasized. The suggestion that it requires exhaustive knowledge of what went before and what came after likewise seems at best a statement that is true of all matters of history: to know with complete certainty, we need comprehensive information. And since a major assumption of the critique is that the modern quest for certainty and for authenticity was and is misguided, there is something ironic about using our inability to be certain to critique a methodological principle.

If one is seeking certainty in the real world of partial historical evidence, then one seeks in vain (as Tony Le Donne has emphasized in his recent book Historical Jesus). But the historian is charged with the task of making as much sense as possible of the piecemeal evidence we have, and not merely wishing idly that we had more, or indeed that we had it all. And Le Donne’s book which I just mentioned illustrates well that one can integrate the new insights of postmodernism, psychology of memory and other relevant perspectives, without abandoning the tools that historians have developed and used up until now.

The question asked on p.456, about why discontinuity or continuity should matter in an evaluation of authenticity, likewise has an answer. It should not be treated as obvious that anything that coheres with Christian belief was invented. But as in a criminal investigation, there is motive. All crime dramas feature multiple people with motives, and except in Murder on the Orient Express, they are not all guilty. Motive raises suspicion. In the absence of other considerations, material that supported Christian aims and beliefs are things about which we will have a lesser degree of confidence that they were not invented, or perhaps we’ll even suspect that they most likely were invented. Dissimilar material removes the motive, and while removing motive doesn’t prove innocence, it certainly lessens the case for guilt. Historical study deals in probabilities, although they are human judgments about likelihood rather than some sort of logical calculus that is easily quantifiable as a percentage.

Mention of enemies is also relevant in connection with the criteria of authenticity. It is sometimes asked why Christians would preserve material at all which was either embarrassing or discontinuous with their emphases. In response, it bears saying that Christians did not write nor proclaim their message in a vacuum. Opponents would gladly have reminded them of things they would just as soon have forgotten. That is why the criterion of embarrassment carries some weight. The things it recalls are presumably ones well-known enough that they could not, at least within the lifetime of the first generation, be ignored. Others remembered, and reminded, and thus explanation rather than silence was the only route.

Drawing on Theissen and Winter, Keith and Hurtado argue that historical study should explain not that some material is authentic while other is not, but how the impact of Jesus led to both kinds of material being present in the tradition (p.460). “[T]he Gospels are not Jesus tradition to be chopped and discarded or retained, but rather Jesus tradition to be explained” (p.460). This doesn’t represent a rejection of criteria such as dissimilarity, but a shift in emphasis (pp.460-461).

The contrast between an older method, creating piles of inauthentic and authentic material, and a newer one that seeks to explain the whole tradition, sounds promising, but has the potential to be overplayed. Surely the older method did something of the latter, at least in the best examples of its practices. It explained some material as taking us back to a pre-Easter setting and some as created by the church to cope with some disappointments and instances of cognitive dissonance. And so for the “new approach” to seem genuinely new and genuinely better, it will have to offer not merely a slight difference of nuance, but a more persuasive historical explanation. And crucial to this is the recognition that not everything that reflects a response to Jesus incorporates memory. Some deliberately inverted what they remembered, or fabricated around its edges, either engaging in slander or magnifying the status and ability of Jesus beyond anything they witnessed, as their “memories” were shaped by ideological commitments and by their mutual polemic against one another.

The following quote from Dale Allison is offered on p.462: “Jesus is long gone, and we can never set our pale reconstructions beside the flesh-and-blood original. We should not deceive ourselves into dreaming that methodological sophistication will ever eventuate either in some sort of unimaginative scientific procedure or in academic concord. . . . Until we become literal time travelers, all attempts to find the historical Jesus will be steered by instinct and intuition. Appeals to shared criteria may, we can pray, assist us in being self-critical, but when all is said and done we look for the historical Jesus with our imaginations—and there too is where we find him, if we find him at all” (Dale Allison, Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet, p.7).

New Testament scholars have sometimes been pioneers. The attempt to define criteria of authenticity was in fact an attempt to articulate more precisely and rigorously things that in most other areas of history were determined in much the same way, but with a far greater degree of intuition and instinct. In this case, I think that Allison’s point represents New Testament study catching up with mainstream historical scholarship, and its awareness that writing history is a creative activity – constrained by available evidence, to be sure, but not for that reason something objective or purely scientific in character.

The quest for Jesus is arguably more controversial than any other matter that history investigates. A discussion of whether Socrates existed will never generate the number of blog posts that the question of Jesus’ existence is able to, and things that would simply be accepted as plausible or probable but not certain in other areas are, in the case of Jesus, questioned, cross-checked, second-guessed and doubted to an extent that goes beyond reasonable doubt. And so it doesn’t seem to me that the issues Allison and others raise are fatal for the historical Jesus enterprise, but are fatal for the misguided and futile quest for certainty that “fact fundamentalists” have brought with them into the discussion. When we recognize that our best guesses are still that, we will not have abandoned historical Jesus studies, but will have finally caught up to where mainstream historical study finds itself.

But the best guesses of the majority of scholars are not to be treated as mere hunches, and it is important to emphasize that the recognition of subjectivity must not be allowed to dissolve into a pandering to a popular form of postmodernism that suggests that because we all have presuppositions, and there is always uncertainty, anyone’s view is as good as anyone else’s. The truth is that an expert’s best guess will always be far superior to that of someone not as profoundly familiar with the time period or sources in question. And when the experts fail to agree, a simple explanation is at hand – we do not have the information we need to exclude certain possibilities. But not having the evidence we need to attain consensus in one area doesn’t mean that we cannot reach consensus about others, however few in number they might be. That some things are genuinely uncertain needn’t mean that all are, or even that others are to the same extent. Each question must be answered in terms of the evidence available.

As Allison puts it, “After years of being in the quest business, I have reluctantly concluded that most of the Gospel materials are not subject to historical proof or disproof, or even to accurate estimates of their probability” (The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus, p.55). This is not an indictment against criteria, as though our reaching as much certainty as possible is misguided. It is a recognition that in the case of most questions and most evidence, we remain unsure. And a new method that sets aside criteria of authenticity will not necessarily thereby do a better job of depicting Jesus as he really was or of getting as close to him as possible.

What is important in Allison’s criticism is his suggestion that a certain subset of historical Jesus researchers – perhaps typified in particular by members of the Jesus Seminar – have expressed confidence that they can find nuggets of reliable material in Gospels which got the gist of Jesus wrong. And so perhaps the best conversation historians and scholars can now have is whether we can take the most useful of criteria and use them in conjunction with a serious consideration of how memory works and what it remembers best. How do we combine these tools – which are essentially an articulation of probabilities – with Allison’s emphasis on making gist paramount?

There is a danger that some of the newer approaches will fail to ask the critical questions of the text that have thus far defined historical Jesus study. Focusing on the text as a whole, as for instance Luke Timothy Johnson and N. T. Wright do, may usefully lead us to ask about the impact of Jesus across a broader spectrum of early Christianity. But if it leads to the treatment of details unique to one Gospel and which show strong signs of being later, apologetic developments – such as Matthew’s resurrected saints or guards at the tomb – as though a historian can accept this as material for a reconstruction of the historical Jesus, then we have ceased to do something that deserves to be called historical critical study at all, and are deceiving ourselves if we think otherwise.

As I was reflecting on this topic and reading the final pages of the book, I also had the opportunity to watch some of the BBC documentary series The Bible’s Buried Secrets (now viewable on YouTube). I was struck that even something as controversial as Israel’s polytheistic period and the existence of a divine consort seem to have left their mark on texts that sought to denounce such ideas and the worship associated with them. Is it really inconceivable that we might find traces of a Jesus who is at odds with the emphases of the Gospel authors nonetheless visible in spite of a deliberate attempt to reinterpret him? I am not suggesting that that is what happened; but if it were, it might nonetheless be possible to catch glimpses of him, although it will not be as easy as catching glimpses of Asherah, who can be known through archaeology and not textual sources alone.

In turning to the impact of a better understanding of memory on historical Jesus studies, paraphrasing the standpoint of Dunn, the authors write “criteria of authenticity are useless because one cannot strip the interpretation of the Gospels from pure history—the latter never existed in the first place” (p.467). While it is surely true that an attempt to find an uninterpreted Jesus amid the interpretation of the Gospel authors is implausible, it does not follow that criteria of authenticity are useless. What we seek to catch glimpses of are Jesus as he interpreted himself, and Jesus as his disciples interpreted him prior to the changed perspective resulting from Good Friday, and from whatever subsequent experiences and reflections persuaded them that he had been raised from the dead and exalted to God’s right hand. It is not an uninterpreted but an “authentic” Jesus that should be sought, and the misuse of criteria or their poor application to the object of study need not necessarily count as evidence that the criteria themselves are useless.

I share many of the concerns and the desire to see a shift of emphasis in historical Jesus study. I am largely sympathetic to the program of Keith, Allison, Dunn, and many others. But I see a baby floating away in discarded bathwater, and I am troubled. [If you picture the baby that is floating away as baby Jesus, you will most likely find my argument here even more persuasive than you would otherwise]. To the extent that the classic criteria are simply an attempt to articulate our method and treatment of evidence, we ought to be asking whether the principles that there is talk of discarding are being used, refined, or discarded by historians more generally. If not, then it may be that historical Jesus studies is about to take a wrong turn, rather than be at the cutting edge.

One of the aims of the earliest moves towards questing for a historical Jesus was to get back beyond dogma and tradition to history. Even if it can be said that, ultimately, the impact of Jesus resulted in the creeds of Nicaea and Chalcedon, should we apply even to such a later period the statement that historians can or should do little more than “explain what type of person the historical Jesus must have been to generate such a memory” (p.470)? If we are not simply to provide a history of interpretation of Jesus, but a historical portrait of Jesus, then we still need a way of tracing developments and distinguishing later layers of interpretation from what lies beneath them.

The book Jesus Among Friends and Enemies places this new approach, it seems, among friends and enemies. At the very least, the diverse approaches of the various contributors to the relationship between narrative and history illustrates the confusion that already exists, and thus the extent of the task that lies before those who would bring innovation and fresh insight. But whatever one’s stance on the classic criteria, the point presented prominently in the book’s title and highlighted on the final pages also bears emphasizing. Whatever criteria we may use or not use, we cannot make sense of Jesus in a vacuum. “Triangulating” in relation to other figures with whom he seems to have interacted is a helpful method, and a crucial one, in seeking to locate and understand the historical figure of Jesus, as well as the figure of Jesus found in the Gospels and other early Christian literature.

These are just some of the thoughts I had after reading the volume, and for the most part they relate to just one chapter in the book. And so hopefully this will give a good indication of how stimulating I found this volume. Even though I have expressed some points of disagreement, I hope it will be clear that I think that this is a valuable and provocative book which, even though envisioned as a textbook, will stimulate discussions not only in classrooms but among scholars.

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