Jesus, Criteria and the Demise of Authenticity

Jesus, Criteria and the Demise of Authenticity January 11, 2012

Several bloggers have mentioned the upcoming conference and accompanying book, with the title Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity.

It might seem that the title could more naturally have been “Jesus and the Demise of Criteria of Authenticity.” But I suspect that the wording is intentional – what has changed is not so much the usefulness of the classic criteria, which often remain useful tools for sifting through evidence, but the expectation that the use of such criteria can somehow lead to objectivity and thus to certainty about matters of authenticity and inauthenticity in the Jesus tradition. The conference web site suggests that historical positivism is indeed a major focus of the critique that is expected to unite the range of scholars who will be presenting.

There’s more around the blogosphere from Mark Goodacre, Nijay Gupta, and Mike Kok, focusing primarily on the book, the conference, and the criteria themselves, respectively.

The conference will be held in October at Lincoln Christian University in Illinois, and since it will be within driving distance, I certainly hope to be able to attend. Further details can be found on the conference web page at

I’ll be teaching my historical Jesus course again this semester, starting in just a few days’ time, so if you have thoughts on criteria of authenticity, historical methodology, and/or the historical Jesus, I’d love to have a conversation here. And given that several of the presenters are also bloggers, I expect that a multi-blog conversation will be in order – [humor] if only to ensure that Rafael Rodriguez is no longer wrong by the time the final version of his paper/chapter is completed! 🙂 [/humor]

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  • Brian S.

    Here is my post from Michael Kok’s blog…


    That sounds about right, though we might have to admit that historically the Nazarene, is a bit of an elusive figure, and thus we must be humble about what we can really know. Though I’m also rather skeptical about those sorts of sentiments [except the humility part]. Since it seems to me that we are still under the impression that in order to paint an accurate portrait of Jesus we must have objective and unbaised sources that are free from the faith of the early Church and I personally do not think that can be done. Faith in Jesus likely began the moment he first instructed his disciples to take up their cross and follow him. And in addition to all that, I don’t think that just because our sources are saturated in the faith means that we can only know what later generations thought of their master. It would seem to me that even if the memories and stories contained in the gospels aren’t wholly true, they can still teach us about Jesus and the traits he was thought to have had. Besides, we can learn a lot about people by asking their friends and family. We don’t need access to Jesus’ inner mind to come to an accurate understanding concerning who he is, because there is more to us than simpily what we think of ourselves.
    Anyway, concerning the other criteria, I think that the criterion of embaressment, multiple attestation, and coherence are our best bet. Though I perfer now to interpret reoccurant themes in our sources than to isolate and idenify quasi-virginal logia. As for the cross not embaressing Mark/Matthew, I think we should be more cautious about saying that. Jesus’ death by crucifixion had caused his earliest interpreters to stumble a bit, and you can see that by some of their bitterness toward those who could not believe that God’s annointed could simpily perish like that. Mark Goodacre has written an excellent article in which he has argued that the scriptural fullfillment motiffs served the purpose of not only trying to argue from scripture that Jesus’ untimely death was in conformity with his messianic status but that it was in some way, God’s will and nothing to be ashamed of.
    So simpily arguing that it suited the evangelist’s purpose isn’t very convincing… because usually theology is the articulation of a prior belief rather than starting from scratch.
    Anyway as for your last comment. I would like to add that those of us who profess the faith should take into consideration the Quest, we don’t need to replace our theology for the latest reconstruction but it is still important to take those reconstructions into consideration.

  • Chris Keith

    James, thanks for the post and we look forward to having you on campus.  I’ll note, though, that the criticisms are not limited to the concept of “authenticity” but extend to the criteria themselves.  There’s a variety of opinions in the book, and thus will be at the conference as well.  Some of us want to retain them, but use them in modified forms; some of us want to chuck them altogether.

  • You can read the introduction to the book at, which provides a good idea of the focus of the conference/argument.

    Also, did you see mythicism has obtained its first peer-reviewed journal article? 
    Only issue is that it is in a philosophy journal, and well it seems to advance its argument by depending upon the rather facile point that because the supernatural elements of Jesus’ life likely didn’t occur, then neither did Jesus himself(!)

    I do wonder if Law knows he might be able to discount the existence of some of the ancient world’s most known characters on the basis that they had miraculous events associated with their lives which will have insufficient “spectacular evidence”. Its classical/biblical history 101…

    • I’m glad to see proponents of mythicism submitting their work for publication in this way. It forces them to make the best case they can, opens it to analysis by a wider range of scholars than will find their blogs and self-published books, and eliminates the path of claiming that you are being ignored or not getting proper scholarly hearing for your ideas.

      I will have to make a point of getting hold of the article…perhaps a response will seem appropriate! 🙂

    • Landon Hedrick


      I wonder if, perhaps, you’re trying to object to Law’s paper before having read his argument.  Like, maybe there’s something to be said for actually reading the article before raising your “Biblical History 101” objections, rather than just relying on the abstract.

      I’ve read the paper by the way.  Worth having a look.

      • Dont’ fear Landon, I haven’t written it off. I have a passing interest in mythicism, and to be honest some of their arguments have exercised me to rethink or re-structure certain positions I take on the historical Jesus (but I am far, far from being convinced by their varying hypotheses). I made my remarks on Law’s paper though on the assumption that his abstract fulfilled its proper function of providing an overview of his argument. I did say “seems” to try and avoid the charge you just raised, but perhaps I didn’t stress this qualification enough.

        I can’t seem to find a way of accessing it online- how did you track it down? I should be receiving the article in post sometime this week. If there is a more substantive argument that he advances I shall try to either respond or highlight my agreement on my blog.

        Also and I found this on his blog, which does articulate the line of argument I feared he would:

  • Vinnyjh

    Brian S.,

    If the only sources we had for the life of Joseph Smith were those produced by devoted Mormons forty years after his death, do you think that we could come to an understanding of who he was or what he did that was even remotely accurate?  Would it be safe to draw any conclusions beyond what Mormons believed about him when the sources were produce?  If not, what would make you believe that we can accomplish anything more with respect to the historical Jesus? 

    • Vinnyjh,

      Well it is complicated due to the dependence (even preference) for oral transmission of history in antiquity- and particularly for Jewish people (e.g. see Doron Mendels’ “How Was Antiquity Treated in Societies with a Hellenistic Heritage? And Why Did the Rabbis Avoid Writing History?” 

      If you think there existed an oral tradition that was established during the lifetime of Jesus, that was then transposed to literature (a different account than the one you implied above when it was “produced” forty years later) then you can see how your analogy isn’t fit for purpose. As far as I am aware it would be hard to find people who think the synoptics weren’t drawing upon such traditions. What you outlined above in your scenario sounds more like what people think the Gospel of John did- and because of this it is rarely utilized to discover the historical Jesus.

      • Erlend,

        It was not my intent to imply that the stories Mormons recorded forty years after the death of Joseph Smith were invented out of whole cloth.  I think that there existed a tradition that was both written and oral going back to the man himself.  That did not, however, prevent the Mormon Church from developing a picture of his life and deeds that is greatly at odds with what almost any non-Mormon historian truly believes to be the case.

  • Thanks James for the link, look forward to the further conversation

  • goodacre

    Thanks for the comments, James.  Great news that you’ll be at the conference.  I am looking forward to it.  I’ll certainly be blogging about it some more in due course.

  • goodacre

    Thanks for the link to Morna Hooker’s paper, Erlend.  There’s some interesting Maths on the last page, “what Manson wrote, not forty but eighty years ago . . . in 1942”!

  • Landon Hedrick

    This sounds awfully familiar.  Oh wait, it’s largely the topic of this forthcoming book:

    • I’m not sure how similar the books will be. I suspect that it will not be possible to use Bayes’ Theorem to assess historical probabilities without using some criteria which will be not altogether unlike those currently employed.

      • Landon Hedrick


        I don’t know how similar the books will be either.  But each of them will apparently be challenging the so-called “historicity criteria,” which is all I really meant when I made the connection.  I doubt this book will defend a Bayesian methodology, whereas Carrier will.

        As for whether or not the use of Bayes’ Theorem will be possible without resorting to the historicity criteria, we’ll see.  I think it’s Carrier’s view that some of the criteria can be salvaged if you fix them up in the right way, but once they’re spelled out in the “right way” they end up being explained by Bayes’ Theorem.  (So when they agree with BT, they’re good; and when they contradict BT, they’re bad.  At least that’s how I understand Carrier’s view.)

        Another problem he has is that the criteria aren’t applied correctly by New Testament scholars.  I’ve read most of the manuscript for the book, and he does discuss examples of this.

        By the way, Ehrman’s book “Did Jesus Exist?” (Harper Collins) should be out in March:

        • I’ve put in a request to get a copy of Law’s article via interlibrary loan, and I’m looking forward to reading and blogging about Ehrman’s book and Carrier’s when they are available.

          • Landon Hedrick


            I’m looking forward to your take on those books.  Also looking forward to your further engagement with Doherty’s book.

          • I keep meaning to get back to working through Doherty’s book, but other things (including other books I’ve been asked to review) have had to take priority. But I do plan on resuming my blogging about it, and relatively soon.

  • Landon Hedrick


    I got my copy, like James, via interlibrary loan.  Stephen’s argument is not a thorough argument for mythicism, as you’ll see when you read it.  He offers and defends some principles which, he thinks, casts doubt on the historicity of Jesus.  But I don’t think he actually argues that we should think that Jesus never existed.  If I remember correctly, he was just arguing that we have a good defeater for the belief in the historicity of Jesus.

  • James Ernest

    See for updated info on location.