Category Archives: Criteriology


Defending the Criterion of Dissimilarity

by Tim Widowfield
Ernst Käsemann

Ernst Käsemann

The limits of historical criteria

Longtime Vridar readers will recall that both Neil and I view the use of criteriology as employed by historical Jesus researchers with a great deal of skepticism. They consistently ask too much of the criteria. We might be able to say, for example, that applying a given criterion can determine the antiquity of a logion (e.g., a traditional saying that may predate both Paul and Mark) but it cannot prove authenticity (i.e., that Jesus said it).

However, I now find myself in the odd position of defending at least one criterion against a detractor. In How God Became Jesus, a book intended to refute Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God, Michael Bird writes (in a chapter called “Did Jesus Think He Was God?”):

I’ve used [historical criteria] myself at times, but like others I’ve become increasingly aware of their limitations and become convinced that they do not offer a path to an objective history of Jesus. For a start, trying to sort out the authentic traditions from the inauthentic traditions is not really that easy, for the simple fact that the history of Jesus has been thoroughly welded together with the early church’s proclamation of Jesus at every point. (p. 33)

Bird’s definition of the CoD

I would, of course, shy away from the term “the early church,” especially in the singular, because it implies unity within ancient Christianity. But other than that, Bird and I mostly agree. If any history at all lies within the gospels, it will necessarily be entangled with the theological concerns of the evangelists and the proclamation of Christ by Jesus’ early followers. No historical criterion can reliably separate them.

Bird offers up the criterion of dissimilarity (CoD) as a failed example.

For [a] case in point, let’s consider Ehrman’s use of the “criterion of dissimilarity,” which on his account dictates that a given unit in the Gospels is historically authentic if “it is dissimilar to what the early Christians would have wanted to say about him.” [Ehrman, 96-97] This criterion is well-known and has received a devastating barrage of criticism to the point that I am, to be frank, at a loss as to why Ehrman continues to use it. It jumped the shark about the same time that the TV show Dawson’s Creek did. (Bird, Evans, et al., p. 33, emphasis mine)

If you’re wondering about that Dawson’s Creek reference, I regret to say that the authors continually veer off into stilted pop culture references. Each time they drag one out, I can’t help but picture an awkward youth pastor in Dockers and a sweater vest trying to sound “hip” for the kids. It’s a constant reminder that we are not their intended audience. Here’s another rib-tickler from Bird:

The background to this saying and the explanation for why Jesus was thought to have committed blasphemy is something like a Jewish version of the TV show Game of Thrones. (p. 43)

read more »


History and Verisimilitude: “Real” vs. “Realistic”

by Tim Widowfield

Yet Another Ehrman-Evans Debate

In a recent Bart Ehrman blog post, he referred to a debate he had with Craig Evans on the reliability of the New Testament, which took place back in January of 2012. If you watch it (perhaps you already have) and you’re familiar with these guys, don’t expect to see or hear anything new. I’ve come to realize that whenever Bart starts a sentence with, “I tell my students at Chapel Hill,” he’s going to tell a story I’ve heard at least ten times already.

However, Evans did say something that caught my ear. If you click on the start button on the video below, it should cue up to the 14:04 mark, at which point Evans says . . .

Second, New Testament scholars, historians, and archaeologists view the gospels as essentially reliable, because they exhibit verisimilitude, a Latin word that means “they resemble the way things really were.” That is, the contents of these writings match with what we know of the place, people, and period described in the document.

Their contents cohere with what is known through other written sources and through archaeological finds. Their contents give evidence of acquaintance with the topography and geography of the region that forms the backdrop to the story. The authors of these documents exhibit knowledge of the culture and customs of the people they describe. Ancient narratives that possess these characteristics are used by historians and archaeologists.

The New Testament Gospels and Acts exhibit a great deal of ver-ee-similitude. They speak of real people — Pontius Pilate, Herod Antipas, Annas, Caiaphas, Herod Agrippa I, Herod Agrippa II, Felix, Festus — and they speak of real events — the death of John the Baptist, the death of Agrippa I. They speak of real places — villages, cities, roads, lakes, mountains — which are clarified and corroborated by other historical sources and by archaeology.

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Making of a Mythicist — ch 17 . . . Unreliable Criteria

by Neil Godfrey

marginalJewBrodieContinuing the series on Thomas Brodie’s Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery, archived here. (I am breaking up Brodie’s chapter 17 into a series of smaller posts, and adding more of my own commentary in the process. I hope I keep the distinction between my own thoughts and Brodie’s clear.)

In the previous post we reviewed what Brodie sees as “two key problems” in John Meier’s A Marginal Jew:

  • reliance upon oral tradition,
  • inadequate engagement with the literary features of the sources.

These two shortcomings in turn lead to further problems. The first of these is criteria.

Brodie explains that by beginning with the assumption that the Gospels are derived from oral tradition, scholars are led to the “delicate operation” of trying to sift what is historical from the final narratives. So criteria of historicity have been developed. A Marginal Jew (like probably most historical Jesus works) relies heavily upon these.

Brodie begins with the criteria of contradiction and discontinuity. That is,

if something in the Gospel is seriously out of line with what is said elsewhere in the Gospels or Epistles, then the reason for including it must be very strong, must be due to reality in history, in the life of Jesus. (p. 157)

Most of us have read the methodological and logical flaws in these criteria, but Brodie does not address these here. Instead, he points out something about “contradictions and discontinuities” in the Biblical literature that only a handful of his peers seem to be conscious of. Contradictions and discontinuities are, Brodie reminds us, are prevalent throughout the books in the Bible. They are integral features of biblical literary artistry. It starts with Genesis. Man is first created in the image of God (1:26); then he is made of clay (2:7). First he is made to rule the earth (1:28); then he is made to serve it (2:5).

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How Can We Know If the Jesus Narratives Are Memories Or Inventions? (Revised)

by Neil Godfrey

Anthony Le Donne has written a book that I find is both chock-full of many fascinating nuggets in the Gospel narratives and riddled with startling revelations (if only discerned between the lines) about the foundations of “Gospel Narrative Origins” studies, The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology, and the Son of David. (This post does not address Le Donne’s main thesis. I have addressed core aspects of that in Searching for a Good Fantasy, though I would like to explore his thesis in more depth in a future post. Here I focus on Le Donne’s foundations for believing there was anything historical at all in the Gospels.) I say “Gospel Narrative Origins” studies in preference to “Historical Jesus” studies for several reasons, one of which is that the term “Historical Jesus” presumes that there was an “historical Jesus” to study.

Historical origins of the icon we call “Jesus”

Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...Further, I believe the question of “the historical Jesus” is fundamentally an ideological or dogmatic expression. Its meaning derives from the most fundamental core doctrine of Christianity — that in some sense God historically appeared in or through the person of Jesus. After two millennia of Christian heritage the concept of “Jesus” has come to transcend religiosity and become a cultural icon advocating hosts of idealistic aphorisms. The true question for the historian, then, ought to be concerned with how to explain the origin of Christianity. That includes explaining the origin of its Jesus. If the best explanation leads us to an historical Jesus, then, and only then, will we have a valid rationale for attempting to explore such a figure.

Bultmann’s test for insanity

Readers who find the above line of reasoning far too radical to swallow can find solace in Rudolf Bultmann’s words quoted by Anthony Le Donne:

Of course the doubt as to whether Jesus really existed is unfounded and not worth refutation. No sane person can doubt that Jesus stands as founder behind the historical movement whose first distinct stage is represented by the oldest Palestinian community. (Bultmann, Jesus, 13. Cited in Anthony Le Donne, The Historiographical Jesus, p. 36)

Bultmann is surely being deliberately provocative here, since in his own day there were several very intelligent (and far from insane) scholarly persons (e.g. Georg Brandes, Paul-Louis Couchoud, Arthur Drews, and several notable others) questioning the authenticity of Jesus, as Albert Schweitzer himself acknowledged. (Robert M. Price has, if I recall correctly, even suggested that Bultmann was cornered into making such “protesteth too much” denunciations because some readers were inferring the non-historicity of Jesus from his own studies.) Theologians have since found a place in George Orwell’s dark visions as the guardians of correct thought who declare insane (or misfits of some variety) any lesser life-forms who question the historicity of Jesus.

Soviet asylum for the insane, that is, for those who expressed incorrect doubts.

“Unfounded and not worthy of refutation”?

Now I could well understand someone saying that doubt as to whether Augustus Caesar really existed is “unfounded”. I would baulk at going so far as to saying it is “not worth refutation”, however. Surely any doubt is worth a valid refutation. Scholars don’t want to isolate themselves into exalted ivory towers out of touch with ordinary folk, do they? If ordinary folk are hearing rumours that Augustus Caesar did not exist, but was a conspiratorial invention of Latin school teachers or whatever, or if they are hearing Intelligent Design advocates arguing that evolution is not true, then I am sure scholars would be happy to open up and spill out all the evidence to reassure them otherwise. In the case of Augustus Caesar they could point to

  • primary evidence (real physical remains testifying to be from the actual time of that Caesar),
  • the secondary evidence of surviving historians whose claims are in varying degrees of validity supported by their record of verifiable identity and provenance,
  • the independently established genre of the above records and what this, on probabilities, indicates about the intent of the authors,
  • the clearly established independence of these sources from one another,
  • the overwhelming explanatory power of all of the above for the events that clearly followed.

Or let’s take a more lowly figure like Socrates who left no monumental evidence. We have relatively strong evidence for his historical existence as a real person, too:

  • Independent testimonies from people who appear to have known him personally (followers Plato, Xenophon) or at least knew of him in their generation (satirist Aristophanes),
  • and about whom we know enough to appreciate
    • their reasons for wanting to write about Socrates
    • and their ability to know anything about him,
  • and whose works/testimonies are in the form of genres not inconsistent with an interest in relaying historical realities.

The evidence for Socrates is far from iron-clad proof but it is enough satisfy most, even those of us who are mindful of the way genres can be turned inside-out in order to write a spoof or otherwise deliberately deceive readers. At the same time one can find reasonable grounds for at least asking if it is possible that Socrates was nothing more than a literary figure. So if doubts about the historical existence of the person Jesus are indeed “unfounded” as Bultmann said, what are the foundations for his existence?

How can we know?

The closest Anthony Le Donne comes to addressing that question directly is when he asks of Gospel narratives:

Does the story have an origin in perception or invention?

That is, are we reading in the Gospels stories that originated in the perceptions of certain eye-witnesses and that were filtered through other ideas, values, beliefs, biases of some of those witnesses, and that were then transmitted through others who also had their own filtering biases and interests? Or are we reading in the Gospels stories that an author or his source completely made up? read more »


Who’s “Rejecting Critical Inquiry”?

by Tim Widowfield

Dr. McGrath has taken me to task for my last post on “Getting to the Root of the Criteria Problem.” Actually, he’s unhappy about several things. You can tell he’s upset, because he calls me a canard-repeatin’ mythicist. That’s like a Tea Party guy calling you an atheist-Muslim or a communist-Nazi. It’s so bad.

I think I’d rather be called a Jesus minimalist or a Jesus agnostic. But in any case, the issue at hand wasn’t the existence of Jesus but the state of the evidence and what you can and cannot justifiably claim based on that evidence.  Look, I’m willing to entertain the idea that Matthew was embarrassed by what Mark wrote. I don’t think he was, but if you want to argue that, go ahead. But you can’t leap from the theory that Matthew was embarrassed by Mark to the “fact” that the early Church was embarrassed by a historical event.

I gather he didn’t like my crack about quote-fishers either. He thinks I’m doing “some dubious things with Jan Vansina’s work in the realm of oral tradition and history.”  McGrath writes:

The last point is somewhat new and so worth commenting on further. Widowfield suggests that Vansina’s adoption of something like the criterion of embarrassment is radically different than its use by historians working with texts, because in recitations of oral traditions, the embarrassment of the reciter might be seen in their speech and behavior. Historians can respond to this by pointing out that texts too can indicate an author’s discomfort with material, indicating that it did not originate with them. Moreover, historians prefer to have texts that allow us to actually hear testimony from the past, to having a live reciter of oral tradition, our inability to see whether an ancient author’s brow creased when writing certain things notwithstanding.

First, for clarification, by “historian” I’m pretty sure he’s talking about the theologians and doctors of divinity who write books on the historical Jesus. Jan Vansina, who earned his doctorate in history back in 1957, did in fact write about something that sounds like the criterion of embarrassment. A quote-fisher like McGrath could easily have mistaken it for just the sort of thing that John Meier was talking about in volume 1 of A Marginal Jew.

Are they radically different? Yes, radically and categorically. Here’s why.

read more »


The Parable of the Ropes — Getting to the Root of the Criteria Problem

by Tim Widowfield
Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity

Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity

Right for the wrong reasons

A few years back I was on the phone with an acquaintance who is as far to the right politically as I am to the left. At the time the Democratic-led Senate was trying to push through the Affordable Care Act. So he asked me what I thought about the initiative. It turns out we both disapproved.

I explained that I’m for a single-payer solution and that the ACA (now either derisively or proudly called “Obamacare”) would introduce a system that forces citizens to become customers of insurance companies. And since they had dropped the public option from the legislation, I couldn’t support it.

He said he was against it because it’s “socialized medicine.” It isn’t. Sometimes people can agree on something for entirely different reasons. Sometimes you can be right for the wrong reasons.

As I told my brother when he pleaded with me not to vote for Obama because he’s a Marxist! — “You disapprove of Obama because you think he’s a socialist; I disapprove of him because I know he isn’t.”

I was thinking of those conversations the other day when I looked at my notes for Raphael Rodríquez’s “The Embarrassing Truth about Jesus: The Criterion of Embarrassment and the Failure of Historical Authenticity” (in Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity). On the last page I had scribbled in frustration: “Rodríquez: Right for the wrong reasons.

[See Neil’s review of this book, starting here.]

This book, which tantalizes with its title but disappoints with its content, missed a great opportunity to get to the roots of the criteria problem. Instead, the authors were content merely to graze the surface, while taking every opportunity to redirect the blame to the Formgeschichte Frankenstein. Or should we call it the “Bultmann Bogeyman”? When the authors aren’t playing threnodies to the form critics, they’re singing paeans to Morna Hooker.

What do I mean by the “roots” of the criteria problem? Perhaps I can best explain by way of a parable.

read more »


How to Think and Write Like an NT Scholar: Part 1

by Tim Widowfield

This post inaugurates what I hope will be a long-running, informative (albeit tongue-in-cheek) series. In it, we’ll attempt to shine some light on the inner workings of the New Testament scholar’s brain.

There is no reason to doubt . . .

New Testament scholars fall back on stock phrases when they’re pushing a weak argument, presenting poor evidence, or stating an opinion as fact. Ironically, the stock phrases they pull out of the old filing cabinet usually have the opposite effect from what they intended. That is, they draw attention to the problem.

Not in This Stove

He’s not in this stove!

We might call this the Oz Distraction Disorder (ODD), as in: “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” It could be an act of desperation, or perhaps it’s a subconscious thing. Maybe they want us to figure it out, much as Bugs Bunny purposely drew attention to the bank robbers he’d stashed in the gas stove.

One of the most common ODD phrases is: “There is no reason to doubt . . .” (TINRTD) Whenever you see this phrase, you should be on the lookout — the author is probably about to describe something you ought to doubt. We’re apparently supposed to shut off the skeptical parts of our brains when we hear this magic formula, triggering a kind of post-hypnotic suggestion.

Here are some fine examples.

Lukan parables that “must be” authentic

Klyne Snodgrass, in his book, Stories With Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, writes:

With Jülicher and most others there is no reason to doubt that these two parables are genuine words of Jesus. (p. 385, emphasis added)

Snodgrass pulls the TINRTD card when considering the authenticity of Luke’s parables of the Tower Builder and the Warrior King. Snodgrass snorts:

read more »


Myths about Christopher Columbus: Why Would Anybody Make Them Up?

by Tim Widowfield
Face Christopher Columbus

The face of Christopher Columbus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What an odd thing to say!*

Recently, while catching up with the second edition of James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me, I noticed something I had missed earlier while reading the chapter on Christopher Columbus. The first time I read the book, now over a decade ago, the grisly stories of conquest and genocide, along with the subsequent whitewash and heroification took center stage. But this time I was struck by the number of myths that at first glance might seem unflattering to Columbus. People inventing stories uncongenial to the hero? How could this be?

History as practiced by NT scholars places a great deal of faith in what can most accurately be described as a thought experiment. That is, if you can’t imagine why anybody would make up a story, then it is probably true.

As Bart Ehrman in Did Jesus Exist? (DJE) puts it:

It seems unlikely that Jesus’s later followers would make up the claim that his friends were chiefly outcasts and prostitutes, so this may indeed have been his reputation. (DJE, p. 236, Nook ed.)


Since Nazareth was a tiny hamlet riddled with poverty, it is unlikely that anyone would invent the story that the messiah came from there. (DJE, p. 219, Nook ed.)

NT scholars find this line of reasoning very compelling. Quoting Ehrman once again, this time from Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (AP):

“Dissimilar” traditions, that is, those that do not support a clear Christian agenda, or that appear to work against it, are difficult to explain unless they are authentic. They are therefore likely to be historical. (AP, p. 92, Oxford paperback ed.)

But how well does this criterion hold up under scrutiny?

From such humble beginnings

Columbus’s origins are obscure. He may have been from Genoa, as your high school history text told you, or he could have been a recently converted Spanish Jew or a Polish heir to the throne. As Loewen notes:

Many aspects of Columbus’s life remain a mystery. He claimed to be from Genoa, Italy, and there is evidence that he was. There is also evidence that he wasn’t: Columbus didn’t seem to be able to write in Italian, even when writing to people in Genoa. (Loewen, p. 48)

The lack of hard facts did not deter Washington Irving from invention. In A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus he constructs a story of humble beginnings from which our hero rises on his own merits. His is the archetypal Great Man. And herein lies the reason for the myth. Irving’s aim was to provide a legendary example to follow. Americans, from humble origins, could achieve greatness if they would simply “pick themselves up by their bootstraps.”

The humble-origin myth resonates in American history (think of Abe Lincoln as a boy reading by candlelight), but it is also quite common in Biblical legends. Having given up on Saul, God tells Samuel to pick the new anointed king from the sons of Jesse. And so David, the youngest son, a humble shepherd from the village of Bethlehem eventually rises to take the throne.

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Confusing “Narrative Voice” of Gospels with “Historical Truth Claims”. . . . Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity, ch. 2 final

by Neil Godfrey

Revised 23rd May 2016

Jens Schröter writes what in many respects is an admirable lesson for scholars of Christian origins on how really to do history. I can only spot what I believe is one oversight in his lesson where one suddenly hears in his words echoes of apologists and fundamentalists.

This post concludes my review of chapter 2, “The Criteria of Authenticity in Jesus Research and Historiographical Method”, by Jens Schröter, in Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity. In my earlier posts I used introductory presuppositions in Schröter’s chapter as a starting point from which to detail the fundamental, culturally inherited assumptions that are never questioned by most theologians exploring Christian origins. In this post I will concentrate on the last part of Schröter’s essay in which he proposes a more orthodox method of historical analysis as a replacement for the criteria approach.

Schröter has more to say about the weaknesses of the so-called “criteria of authenticity” approach in historical Jesus studies, but most of his points overlap with what I have covered in reviews of earlier chapters of this book. He does add a couple of new criticisms but I will mention those at the end of this post (for sake of completeness) and not lose any more time getting straight to Schröter’s proposed alternative to the criteria approach. (All posts in this series are archived here.)

One gets the impression, on reading contemporary works by a number of New Testament scholars explaining the role of interpretation and imagination in the historian’s investigation of sources, that New Testament scholars generally really have been left behind in the dark as to how history has been known to work in more generally for a hundred years now. The following representatives of milestone developments in “how history works” outside Theology Departments appear to have remained unknown among most biblical scholars: read more »


Take Two: Chapter 2 of Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from Historical Method versus Jesus Research: Chapter 2 of Jesus, Criteria and the Demise of Authenticity. . . .

Jens Schröter reminds us of flaws with the criteria approach to find the historical Jesus. They encapsulate what I have covered in my posts on Chris Keith’s chapter one:

  1. Criteria were designed as a tool to assist with form criticism
  2. Form criticism assumed that Gospels could be peeled apart layer by layer to find sections originating with the Church, sections originating with Judaism and other sections that originated with the earlier oral tradition about Jesus independent of Judaism and the Church.
  3. Criteria were designed to assist with arriving that the earliest Jesus traditions.
  4. The earliest Jesus tradition was defined as “authentic” if it did not overlap with traditions that could be identified as belonging to Judaism or the early Church.
  5. Historical Jesus scholars came to reject form criticism but continued to use criteria of authenticity, but they used them to supposedly discover the historical Jesus. The criteria were originally designed only as a literary tool to locate the earliest traditions surviving in the Gospels — not as historiographical tools to find historical persons and events.
  6. So the criteria approach has been criticized as invalid as a tool to unearth the historical Jesus. (Criteria were originally part of the package of the literary study of form criticism.)

In response to the failure of the criteria approach have been those who advocated a “memory approach”, and I have discussed this also to some extent, in particular with respect to Le Donne’s presentation in a popular publication.The justification and the problem of this approach are that it does not claim to arrive at an “authentic” picture of the past, but only to some understanding — through the haze of “subjective recollections and interpretations” and potential “misperception, wrong information, oblivion and projection” — of “what might have happened”

One of the must fundamental principles every historian learns to apply before studying a source for the “memories” it contains or any other “historical information” that it writes about, is to analyse the source to ascertain exactly what it is, where it came from, who put it together and for whom. read more »


Criteria’s Demise and the Black Hole of Historical Jesus Studies: Concluding Chapter 1 of Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity

by Neil Godfrey

Continued from the previous post . . . .

We have a problem

Chris Keith explains that the serious problem for the criteria approach to historical Jesus studies is that the assumptions about the “nature of the gospel tradition” upon which those criteria (and form-criticism itself) were built upon “have now been shown to be untenable.”

My own view is that it is a mistake even to speak of “gospel tradition” at this stage since such a concept is itself an untested assumption. What we have are gospels. Scholars generally assume they are products of authors compiling traditions. But I don’t know if this has been argued with reference to evidence by anyone — though I have seen many arguments for it that are based entirely upon the hypothesis (or cultural tradition) that the core narratives ultimately originated with the life of an historical Jesus.

Keith points out that studies since the time of the classical form critics have shown that scholars may have overestimated the extent to which the Gospel authors reshaped the traditions they inherited. Further, the form-critical assumption that the Gospels can be dissected into various layers of traditions is now in serious doubt.

More specifically, Hengel’s Judaism and Hellenism demonstrated conclusively that the distinction between early Palestinian Christianity and later Hellenistic Christianity, which the form-critics took as axiomatic and Bultmann even acknowledged was “an essential part of my inquiry,” was a false dichotomy. This distinction provided for the form critics the foundational justification for separating the written Gospel texts. Scholars now routinely note its widespread rejection. (pp. 37-38, my bolding here and in all quotations)

Surely this fact (that Palestinian and Hellenistic Christianities are a false dichotomy) leaves us with less reason to assume that the Gospel authors were garnering and weaving “traditions” into narratives that so clearly appear to be creative imitations and adaptations of other literature.

But this assumption of “pre-gospel traditions” is not questioned by Keith. Another tool must be found to study these assumed traditions:

[I]n the words of Kirk, “Little of this tradition model can survive scrutiny in light of advances in research on the phenomenology of tradition.” In view here are those Gospels scholars working in the increasingly-overlapping areas of oral tradition and social/cultural memory-theory. (p. 38)

So the problem with the criteria approach is not only that criteria are the wrong tools to uncover history (see previous post for details), but that “the Gospels are not the type of ground in which one can dig.”

It is now widely accepted that

one cannot peel through the layers of faith to an “original”: “We can never succeed in stripping away that faith from the tradition, as though to leave a nonfaith core. When we strip away faith, we strip away everything and leave nothing.”

Thomas L. Thompson has said essentially the same in another context:

Removing miracles or God from the story does not help an historian, it only destroys narratives. One can never arrive at a viable history with such an approach. (The Bible in History: How Writers Create a Past, p.44)

Historical Jesus scholars appear to be on the way to replacing one set of failed tools with a lot of postmodernist mumbo jumbo.

At this point Keith writes on behalf of many historical Jesus scholars when delves into abstract complexities that appear to be necessary solely because there is no evidence for Jesus that is comparable to the sorts of evidence historians generally study. The idea of first analysing the documentary evidence to assess what questions can be asked of it (as is correctly done in other historical studies) remains far from scholarly consciousness here. The tradition shapes the question and the evidence must be made to answer it no matter what. read more »


The Rise and Fall of Criteria in Jesus Studies: Chapter 1 of Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity

by Neil Godfrey



The above exchange is the message of Chris Keith’s opening chapter of Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity. My “idiot’s guide” is a tad unfair to Käsemann, however, since he did have willing accomplices and Keith mentions Norman Perrin and Reginald H. Fuller as guilty of formalizing more criteria of authenticity. The above may also be unfair to Morna D. Hooker whose arguments Chris Keith is supporting. But this post is about what I see as the good, the interesting and the missed opportunity in Keith’s chapter, so he gets the starring role above.

The title of this chapter is “The Indebtedness of the Criteria Approach to Form Criticism and Recent Attempts to Rehabilitate the Search for an Authentic Jesus”.

In the first part of this chapter Keith shows how the criteria used by historical Jesus scholars (criteria of embarrassment, of multiple attestation, of coherence, of dissimilarity, etc.)

  • originated as a tool for form criticism;
  • rely upon the discredited form-critical assumption that it is possible to distill pre-literary traditions from theological narratives of the Gospels;
  • were designed to identify pre-gospel oral traditions, not actual history (or historical persons) behind those traditions.

After discussing this and briefly the second part of this chapter I will conclude with a return to Anthony Le Donne’s arguments for “triangulation” and “memory refraction”, this time with another critic’s more positive evaluation, than I raised in a recent post.

But before getting into the detail of the chapter here is my explanation of the “cartoon” above: read more »


‘I told you so!’ Why Criteria for Historical Jesus Studies Don’t Work

by Neil Godfrey

Morna D. Hooker

Morna D. Hooker cried out in the academic wilderness forty years ago against the validity of “authenticity criteria” — criteria of coherence, criteria of dissimilarity, in particular, but also of embarrassment, multiple attestation, etc — then being used to supposedly uncover the historical Jesus. Her reflections on the state of play since that time are found in her foreword to Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity and can be downloaded as a pdf file. (It begins with the ‘I told you so’ of the title for this blog.)

Her arguments in 1970 and 1972 were ignored, such (Morna believes) was the pressure on her peers to “produce a scientific result”. Criteria were seized upon by theologians as if they could be worn as badges proving to the world that they were not letting their religious beliefs influence their research, “but were motivated by the same scholarly impartiality shown by those working in other disciplines.”

Chris Keith supports Morna Hooker’s earlier views in his first chapter of Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity, and adds to her criticisms that the problems is

also with the notion that the proper historical task consists of digging in the Gospels in this manner in the first place, and especially with assuming that one can get closer to the actual past by eliminating Christian interpretation from the reconstruction effort. (p. 48)

Keith reinforces Hooker’s view when he writes that

criteria reached a quasi-canonical status because of their appearance that they were objective scientific common ground between scholars of different theological persuasions. In the excitement and effort to function like the hard sciences, then, scholars overlooked (or were simply unconcerned with) the criteria approach’s foundations. (pp. 27-28)

This post looks at those foundations and returns to one of Morna Hooker’s earlier articles. So before discussing Chris Keith’s chapter I thought it useful to cover one of Hooker’s publications on which his own chapter is based.

It is “On Using the Wrong Tool” and appeared in Theology in 1972.

Morna Hooker (MH) argues that the tools used by scholars to discover the historical Jesus “cannot do what is required of them.”

Authenticity grew out of form-criticism so MH begins with that foundation. read more »


Historical Jesus Studies ARE Different Methodologically From Other Historical Studies

by Neil Godfrey

Well, well, well. After all of Dr James McGrath’s attempts to tell everyone that historical Jesus scholars use the same methods as any other historians, and that I was merely some sort of bigoted idiot for saying otherwise, what do I happen to run across while serendipitously skimming my newly arrived Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity? This:

Jens Schröter

The idea of formulating certain “criteria” for an evaluation of historical sources is a peculiar phenomenon in historical critical Jesus research. It was established in the course of the twentieth century as a consequence of the form-critical idea of dividing Jesus accounts of the Gospels into isolated parts of tradition, which would be examined individually with regard to their authenticity.

Such a perspective was not known to the Jesus research of the nineteenth century and it does not, to my knowledge, appear in other strands of historical research.

In analysing historical material scholars would usually ask for their origin and character, their tendencies in delineating events from the past, evaluate their principal credibility — for example, whether it is a forgery or a reliable source — and use them together with other sources to develop a plausible image of the concerned period of history. (pp. 51-52, my formatting, underlining and bolding)

That’s by Jens Schröter, Chair and Professor of Exegesis and Theology of the New Testament and New Testament Apocrypha at the Humboldt University.

But don’t misunderstand. Jens Schröter does understand why this difference has arisen and explains his view of the reason. Historical Jesus studies have traditionally been necessarily different because the earliest sources about Jesus’ life (the Gospels) are theological narratives, and as a consequence,

historical data are interwoven with quotations from Scriptures of Israel, early Christian confessions, and secondary elaborations of earlier traditions . . . It has been argued that the faith of earliest Christianity has imposed its character on the historical data and must therefore be distinguished from Jesus’ word and deeds themselves.

It is at this point that Schröter sees historical Jesus studies as having jumped the rails. What has happened is that HJ scholars have taken this starting point as a rationale for trying to locate a more authentic event or saying that lies behind the Gospel narratives. That is not how other historical studies work. read more »