Serious Discussion of the Criteria of Authenticity

Serious Discussion of the Criteria of Authenticity April 9, 2011

I was particularly delighted to have the opportunity to go out to dinner yesterday evening with folks from the conference and sit with AnthonyLe Donne, Chris Keith, and Rafael Rodriguez. We talked about all sorts of things, but a particular highlight was the subject of the criteria of authenticity, about which we disagree and nuance our views in different ways. In fact, there will be a conference at Lincoln Christian University next year challenging the traditional criteria, and a connected volume will appear soon after that.

We all agreed that the modernist approach that sought certainty is rightly being set aside, but disagreed about whether and in what ways many of the same approaches to evidence set forth by the criteria do or do not continue to serve us well even in the context of this newer paradigm.

The contrast between that sort of discussion we had as New Testament scholars about the presuppositions, applicability, and effectiveness of the criteria, and the recent post on the blog Vridar about the criteria, shows why it is impossible to take the mythicism represented by that blog seriously for very long even if one tries. Not only is the discussion there stuck in an older paradigm, but the criteria are in many instances misrepresented (although I will graciously give the benefit of the doubt that #1 may simply be a typo) and then dismissed for reasons which, even when they make some sort of sense, do not get at the heart of the issue in any meaningful sense.

To pick one particularly egregious example, here’s what is said by Neil Godfrey about the criterion of multiple attestation:

Multiple Attestation? If multiple attestation were reliable then we can have no doubt at all about alien abductions and UFOs, or homeopathy.

Obviously the first question to ask is how this criterion supposedly demonstrates the truthfulness of claims about UFOs or homeopathy. The second obvious point is that we do in everyday life take this principle seriously. If one person says they saw a UFO, we may well dismiss it. If a group of people unrelated to one another all saw something, we will take it far more seriously. It will remain an Unidentified Flying Object and does not by virtue of multiple witnesses become an alien spacecraft. But we will take the claim to have seen something seriously because of the multiple attestation.

But third and most disturbing – and reminiscent, I might add, of the similar problem with various forms of creationism – is that all the “criticism” offered is akin to what we get from those who complain that the judicial system is fundamentally flawed, because it at times allows the innocent to go to prison or a criminal to go free, but without offering any suggestion on how the system we have can be improved upon, and what better criteria of evidence would allow juries to convict fewer innocent parties and acquit fewer guilty ones.

No system humans have come up with to evaluate evidence is perfect, nor are the actual human beings who seek to implement them. But it is precisely our imperfections and biases that led scholars to develop historical methodologies and criteria of evidence in the first place. If the tools are imperfect, I know of no scholar or historian who would object to serious constructive suggestions on how to improve them. But while I see genuine criticisms being offered by fellow scholars, and we can have an intelligent discussion of the matter, mythicism remains a discussion by those who do not grasp the issues nor have solutions to offer to what problems have been identified.

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