Tag Archives: Biblical Criticism

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

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 »

Who wrote the Bible? Rise of the Documentary Hypothesis

This post looks at the rise of the dominant scholarly hypothesis that the Old Testament came together through the efforts of various editors over time collating and editing a range of earlier sources. The structure and bulk of the contents of the post is taken from Philippe Wajdenbaum’s discussion of the Documentary Hypothesis.

The complete set of these posts either outlining or being based on Philippe Wajdenbaum’s Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible, are archived here.

Before the Documentary Hypothesis there was Spinoza.


Let us conclude, therefore, that all the books which we have just passed under review are apographs — works written ages after the things they relate had passed away. And when we regard the argument and connection of these books severally, we readily gather that they were all written by one and the same person, who had the purpose of compiling a system of Jewish antiquities, from the origin of the nation to the first destruction of the city of Jerusalem. The several books are so connected one with another, that from this alone we discover that they comprise the continuous narrative of a single historian. . . . .

The whole of these books, therefore, lead to one end, viz. to enforce the sayings and edicts of Moses, and, from the course of events, to demonstrate their sacredness. From these three points taken together, then, viz. the unity and simplicity of the argument of all the books, their connection or sequence, and their apographic character, they having been written many ages after the events they record, we conclude, as has just been said, that they were all written by one historiographer.

So Spinoza was led to conclude (from the common style, language and purpose) that there was a single author (albeit one who used earlier source documents) and he opted for that author being Ezra.

Debt to Homeric Criticism – and left in the dust of Homeric criticism

read more »

Nazareth fictions, Aramaic blindspots and scholarly bias: Filling some gaps in Sheffield’s review of Casey’s ‘Jesus of Nazareth’

view of Nazareth
Image via Wikipedia

I know I said I would not touch Casey’s book (Jesus of Nazareth) again for a while, but Mike Kok’s review of chapter 3 (Historical Method) on the Sheffield Biblical Studis blog does call out for some response.

No archaeological evidence for Nazareth in early first century

I ignored Casey’s critique of Zindler’s and Salm’s arguments over the evidence for the presence of Nazareth and Capernaum in the supposed time of Jesus largely because I thought anyone reading Casey’s book would clearly see that Casey gives no evidence at all in his rebuttal of their claims, and the claims of “trained scholars” whom they each cite. (I like the word “trained” as a descriptor of biblical scholars as it is used by both Kok and Casey. Training has connotations of Pavlov dog like behaviourist conditioning to say the right things in order to be accepted by the academic guild.) But Kok failed to notice what I took to be obvious, so presumably others will overlook the weakness of Casey’s argument, too:

He also critiques the extreme view that Nazareth did not existed (Zindler, Salm) based on a problematic handling of archaeological and textual evidence (128-32). read more »

The pseudo-scholarly “hermeneutics of charity”

No, Tommy!

No, Tommy!

Mantra #1 (from 17+ mantras of biblical scholarship)

Any narrative which purports, on the face of it, to be telling about events that actually happened deserves to be treated as true unless it can be demonstrated not to be.

Rational alternative

Withhold judgement about the truth of any narrative until one has evidence to decide either way.


This reminds me of Dieter Georgi’s observation that I noted in How Jesus has been re-imaged:

The reversal of the principle of burden of proof in favor of those who claimed authenticity of material that was obviously and thoroughly shaped by faith in the continued presence of Jesus after his death did not happen by way of methodological argument but by way of decree.

It is not a sin to say “I don’t know” pending evidence that allows one to decide either way. I suspect that biblical scholars who mouth this mantra are really only interested in applying it to the certain selected biblical literature. read more »

17+ Mantras of biblical scholarship

242px-Aum.svgThis post is being regularly updated with links to responses to each of the mantras. 

Here are some lines that seem to me to have acquired the “power” of mantras in biblical scholarship. I call them mantras because I have seen each of them so often in the books, papers, theses and articles I have read by biblical scholars, and they appear to be used as statements whose words carry unassailable potency in argument. Like Motherhood Statements or the Apostle’s Creed they do not require justification. They are their own justification. And their presence in an argument is clearly intended to have the power to ward off all that is contrary. They may read like formulaic debating lines, but I see them as substitutes for rigorous argument. They are, for most part, dogmatic and circular assertions that really ought to be made to justify themselves. (Some that may not be circular are simply false; or if not false, vacuous.)

If you can apply them to any particular argument you can say you have won without even having to do a surveillance of whatever might exalt itself against “fair mindedness and reason”.

Of course, if some do toss in one of these mantras as a cherry on top of a major serious argument, that is fine (I think). But one so often encounters them as complete “arguments” in themselves.

The points that follow were all most conveniently found in a single 4 page article. Hence their convenience for isolating and repeating here. (Now I don’t mean to put down their author. Many biblical scholars use these, many of whose works I learn much and highly value. And the particular scholar whose article I took them from is one I have particularly found to be insightful and informative reading in other respects.)

I substitute ZZZZ of COCO etc for the name of a text or person. They represent blanks to be filled in with just about whatever text or name you like. read more »