Daily Archives: 2008-06-11 18:33:25 UTC

Criteria for authenticity – final post (Fabricating Jesus / Evans)

Continued from More criteria . . . . Again, this post is part of a series of posts in response to Evans’s accusation that “no one trained in history” would ever think the evidence for the “historical Jesus” to be as thin as some of the radical critics assert.

Evans (Fabricating Jesus) lists two more criteria for establishing authenticity of Gospel sayings and deeds: Semitisms and Palestinian background, and Coherence (or consistency),

Semitisms and Palestinian background

This criterion . . . suggests that sayings and deeds that reflect the Hebrew or Aramaic language (Semitisms), of reflect first-century Palestine (geography, topography, customs, commerce) are what we should expect of authentic material. (pp. 50-51)

This explanation hardly lends justice to claiming that “semitisms and Palestinian background” ought to be regarded as a “criterion” for authenticity. I am quite sure Evans does not mean to suggest that if a saying does not reflect a “semitism” or a deed does not point to a specific “Palestinian background” that they must be ruled out as inauthentic!

Evans himself is clearly aware of the weakness of this “as a criterion of authenticity” on other grounds, too. He admits that semitisms detected behind the Greek translation do not mean that a saying was spoken by Jesus.

By all means it is certainly true that if Jesus did speak Aramaic (though in cosmopolitan Galilee is it not also possible he spoke Greek?), and if some of these sayings were handed down and translated into Greek and appeared in that form in our Gospels, then yes, we might expect some of them to retain traces of semitic constructions behind the Greek translation. But it does not follow that such a train of events preceded any particular case of a Greek saying that shows some evidence of a semitic original.

Ditto for the Palestinian background. The mere fact that the story of the gospels is set in Galilee and Jerusalem makes it virtually inevitable that there will be some “Palestinian background” reflected in some deeds and sayings. It does not follow that the narrator is faithfully recording the sayings and deeds of an historical Jesus.

Coherence (or consistency)

Finally, the criterion of coherence (or consistency) is also useful and functions in some ways as a catch-all. According to this criterion, material that is consistent with material judged authentic on the basis of other criteria may also be regarded as authentic. (p.51)

Nothing to say on this that has not already been said, in particular with the discussion of the criterion of Historical Coherence.

Summing up the criteria

Not one of the criteria can be used logically as a basis for judging the authenticity of a deed or saying. At best they can indicate plausibility. All historical events are at face value plausible — simply because they have actually happened. (Some events have appeared to be out of character for the actors involved, and some have happened unexpectedly, but that only means there are degrees of plausibility in hindsight.)

Much historical fiction, propaganda, false rumours and widespread beliefs only ever gain a foothold to begin with simply because they are plausible to the hearers or readers.

Criteria for authenticity that claim to be able to help us second guess what actually was said or done are not a substitute for genuine historical evidence. They are a lounge-chair substitute for primary evidence, if they are indeed expected to tell us as much. But no one “trained in history” can have any justification for placing on them any logical burden greater than they can bear.

The fundamentalist subterfuge

At this point Craig Evans writes:

All of these criteria have their place and can make (and have made) useful contributions to the scholarly study of the historical Jesus. They enable historians to give good reasons for judging this saying or that deed attributed to Jesus as authentic. The problem is in assuming that everything that is attributed to Jesus that does not enjoy support from one or more of the criteria should be regarded as inauthentic. (p.51)

In other words, I believe I am safe in interpreting this to mean that Evans wants just about everything in the Gospels to be believed as authentic even if none of the scholarly criteria for authenticity can support it. “Just about everything” because elsewhere Evans concedes that a few passages like that about the woman taken in adultery in the Gospel of John do not belong in any of the early manuscripts.

I also believe I am on solid ground in detecting dog-whistle language in the above paragraph by Evans. Read carefully, he says no more than that the criteria are “have their place”, “can make useful contributions”, “enable . . . good reasons”. But of course faith does not depend on “good reasons” that are better constructed to assist the tasks of a scholar. And Evans implies the obvious, that the criteria do not “have their place” and can make no “useful contributions” in those cases where a Gospel saying or deed are not supported by any of the criteria.

If I am seeing intellectual subterfuge where it does not really exist then I will be happy to be better informed. But having spent many years of my life within the ranks of fundamentalist believing Christians of various ilks, I think I am safe in saying I know enough of how they think and relate to the (unbelieving) public to make this accusation here with some confidence.

More criteria for authenticity: Historical Coherence (Fabricating Jesus / Evans)

Continuing from 3 criteria for authenticity . . . . (this little series was prompted by Evans accusation that no historian “trained in history” would ever come to the sorts of conclusions about Jesus that some radical critics have arrived at.)

Historical Coherence

When the Gospels tell us things that cohere with what we know of Jesus’ historical circumstances and principal features of his life and ministry, it is reasonable to believe that we are on solid ground. (Fabricating Jesus, p.48 )


I do not follow the logic here. Either something happened or it didn’t. A novelist can create scenes that “cohere” with what is known of the historical period and personalities that are consist the background of their work of fiction. A theologian or preacher may create a moral tale that “coheres” with the historical characters and settings the audience knows. People will often believe false propaganda about an enemy if it “coheres” with what they believe to be known historical facts.

Coherence and/or Historical Fact

A “coherent” story is not any more true by virtue of its coherence. Stalin was known to have distrusted just about everyone. So if I read a historical tale that he trusted Hitler not to invade Russia I can dismiss it, according to the logic underpinning the “criterion of historical coherence”. That the most distrustful of people (as evidenced by the executions and purges of those closest to him) should trust the least trustworthy of men not to commit the thing he feared the most is not “historically coherent”, but of course, it is historical fact. So it is a matter of fact and logic that “historically/biographically incoherent” things can and do happen, and that fictitious events can be and are created that are “historically coherent”.

The criterion of “historical coherence”, it seems to me, suffers the same logical difficulty of circular reasoning as the criterion of Dissimilarity (discussed in previous post).

Is a well constructed plot all that is needed for plausibility? What of authenticity?

Evans continues:

Jesus drew a following, attracted the attention of the authorities, was executed and yet was proclaimed Israel’s Messiah and God’s Son. Deeds and sayings attributed to him in the Gospels that cohere with these major elements and, indeed, help us understand these major elements should be judged authentic.

This of course is completely circular. It does not help establish historicity. It assumes historicity. It assumes that at least some parts of the Gospels are true, and argues that therefore anything that explains those bits of the Gospels must also be true. We know the widow in this crime novel murdered her husband, so we know it was true that she stood to collect a nice insurance payout if her husband died, because that explains why she murdered him.

Historical coherence can inform us of the plausibility of an event or saying within a given context, but it cannot of itself establish its historical status.

If it were that simple, then it one could say that it is reasonable to believe that Jesus ordered a fish to be caught so it could be opened up to yield a coin to pay his taxes, that he walked on water and rose from the dead simply because these are coherent with other statements in the Bible about him. In other words, even the most implausible claims can be raised to a status of credibility simply on the grounds that they are told within a coherent story narrative.

Logically this means that even the miracle stories of Jesus found outside the canonical gospels — e.g. his miraculously extending the length of a piece of timber that his carpenter father had cut too short — are also “authentic” too. Will Christian fundamentalists allow this criterion to be applied consistently across all surviving gospels?

Historical coherence used to disprove the biblical narrative?

Evans is not alone in using this criterion to assert the authenticity of any event in the Gospels that can be interpreted as giving Pilate a rationale for crucifying Jesus.

I find it odd that many fundamentalist Christians will likewise claim that Jesus was crucified by Rome because “it was believed” he was a political subversive. The way this statement is expressed is necessarily a a bit vague because the Bible itself flatly contradicts the claim. The claim is made because it fits a natural historical explanation for a crucifixion, but it is made in defiance of the Biblical narratives. The one thing all the Gospels are clear about is that Pilate did NOT believe Jesus was a political subversive. They are unanimous in asserting that Pilate found Jesus innocent of any such charge. Pilate crucified him, it is unanimously agreed, to please the blood-lust of the mob. This is doubly emphasized in the Gospel of John where the author points out that the title was over Jesus head on the cross was not a statement of his crime (that “He said, I am King of the Jews”) but an ironic image with theological import for the readers of the gospels, or perhaps a statement that Pilate believed he really was the king, albeit innocent of subversion.

So those sayings and events in the Bible that Evans says are “historically coherent” with Jesus being crucified as a political subversive were judged by Pilate — according to all four Gospel authors — to be not at all necessarily coherent with subversive activity.

Or are such apologists claiming that certain deeds and sayings of Jesus are historically coherent with a secular hypothesis that proposes a nonbiblical reason for Jesus’ death?

It’s a little amusing to think that many fundamentalists who use this criterion to “authenticate” certain deeds and sayings of Jesus because they “explain his crucifixion”, do so in contradiction to the Bible they are seeking to defend. And could there ever have arisen a Gospel narrative about the death of Jesus unless the authors told what some moderns seem to think must have been their “holy white lie” about the reasons for it?


As I concluded my previous post, these sorts of criteria cannot establish historicity, only plausibility — within certain contexts. I by no means say that all biblical scholars think otherwise. This post is meant primarily for those who do place more value on them than they are truly worth.