2008-06-10

3 ‘criteria for authenticity’ (“Fabricating Jesus” / Craig Evans contd)

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by Neil Godfrey

In Fabricating Jesus Craig Evans writes:

Some of the criteria used for supporting the authenticity of Jesus’ sayings apply in the case of his mighty deeds. (p.140)

The criteria for authenticity that he cites in this context are: Multiple Attestation, Dissimilarity and Embarrassment. Elsewhere he lists additional criteria that he says are also useful for assessing the authenticity of the deeds and sayings of Jesus (e.g. Historical Coherence), but will look at those separately in another post.

Multiple attestation

By this is meant “two or more independent sources” for a particular event, suggesting that the event was “not invented by a single writer”, so the event is deemed to have a more reliable documentation for its historicity. (p.48 )

Comment 1: What can reports themselves logically tell us?

All multiple attestation can really tell anyone is what beliefs or stories were circulated widely via a number of sources. The question of the historical authenticity of the content of those stories is another matter entirely. Surely this is simple logic. How many independent sources have there been for the miracles of Aesclepius or the miracles at Lourdes or for the experiences of alien abductions? We have several ancient “reports” testifying to the existence of the Phoenix, but only one first hand report of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

No historian worth their salt will make use of reports, however numerous they be, uncritically. The interests and purposes of the authors of the reports need to be assessed; as also their sources of information. This means making judgments about reports that take into account their provenance, their social and cultural or political (or religious) matrix, their authors. This is all part of “the training of a historian” that Craig Evans speaks dismissively of in relation to those who are sceptical of fundamentalist claims about the Bible.

Comment 2:

Craig Evans then lists some biblical examples of multiple attestation that can as well be argued as evidence that multiple authors have borrowed from each other or all borrowed from a single independent source. (p. 49)

At least Evans must be given credit for avoiding the mistake too often seen in other scholarly works that assert the testimony of all four gospels is a case of “multiple attestation”. In reality the appearance of a word or deed in all the gospels may mean nothing more than that the others (possibly even the Gospel of John) copied from the Gospel of Mark or a source known to him.

But Evans mostly says that the multiple attestations totalled no more than “two”: usually Q and Mark’s gospel. Since the argument for the existence of Q is still open, this makes Evans case for multiple (=dual) attestation an academic construct more than a bedrock fact. Not that I am opposed to academic constructs. But they are a poor substitute for primary evidence when it comes to making judgments about what actually happened.

Dissimilarity

Evans explains that this “is trying . . . to rule out sayings and deeds that may have originated in Jewish circles, on the one hand, or in early church circles, on the other” (p. 50).

Of this criterion, Evans writes:

Used properly, it can lend support to the conclusion that a given saying or deed is authentic. Applied improperly, it unnecessarily and unreasonably rules out of bounds a host of sayings and deeds. (p.50)

Comment 1: Circularity

In other words, the problem of circular reasoning lies at the heart of this criterion. It is hard to avoid suspecting that Evans is saying here that if its use supports a conclusion he does not like it is used “improperly” but if its use supports the reliability of the Bible as an historical record then it is used “properly”.

Nevertheless, Evans claims it can be used in a “positive fashion” to argue that a two types of actions of Jesus in the Gospels (his mixing with sinners and his healings) are authentic. Evans would do better to reject this “criterion” entirely, or explain how his particular applications of it are not themselves further instances of circular logic.

Comment 2: The word Emulation works better

In relation to the healings of Jesus, Evans rightly points out that the gospels describe Jesus’ healings and exorcisms being carried out differently from the way other Jews practiced these arts. They would use magic words or chants and props like rings and certain plants etc. The fact that the Gospels narratives describe the Son of God demonstrating superior powers and being able to heal the same way God created the world, by a mere word, is hardly evidence that such miracles really happened. Virgil portrayed his proto-Roman hero. Aeneas, with greater powers and superior techniques to his Greek counterparts like Odysseus. His superior access to divine favour and personal skills enabled him to avoid some of the tragic experiences of Odysseus as he sailed through dangers towards his destiny. The gospels regularly show Jesus as superior not only to healers and exorcists known to ancient audiences in the real world, but even to Moses and Elijah and other great prophets of well-known Jewish literature. The sea opened before Moses, the very heavens opened before Jesus; Elijah’s call to a follower resulted in response after a short delay; Jesus’ call to followers resulted in instant responses; Elisha could feed 100 people with 20 loaves; Jesus 5000 with 5, and so forth.

As Evans observes:

Jesus’ mighty deeds were different from and more impressive than those of his near contemporaries. (p.141)

A word used by a number of scholars to describe such comparisons is “emulation”, the portrayal of a hero so that he not only equals but even surpasses the feats of earlier famed names. No-one argues Aeneas was historical because his deeds were “dissimilar” (more impressive or different) from those of Odysseus. And of course the evangelists believed they should follow the standard set by the first gospel and portray his miracles as worthy of one from the divinity who created the world and performed all sorts of other miracles throughout the Old Testament at the sound of a mere command.

Embarrassment

Evans explains this criterion: “All it means is that material that potentially would have created awkwardness or embarrassment for the early church is not likely something that a Christian invented sometime after Easter” (p. 49).

The classic illustration: Jesus’ baptism

He cites the classic illustration used for this criterion, John’s baptism of Jesus. No Christian would make up this story, Evans (along with many others) argues, because baptism was for the symbolic washing away of sins, and Jesus was sinless.

Surely, the early church would not invent a story like this if it had no basis in historical fact. (p.140)

But this argument falls apart when one takes note that the first time this baptism is narrated there is

  1. not the slightest hint of embarrassment in its telling — the only evidence of embarrassment is found in subsequent gospels who appear to have found their own ways to re-write Mark’s account in ways that indicated their embarrassment with Mark’s original telling of it;
  2. no suggestion that Jesus was sinless before his baptism — the gospel in fact has been argued by some scholars to present an adoptionist christology. That is, the view that Jesus only became a son of god at his baptism.

Comment 1: Christological debate, not historical embarrassment

Evans’ argument (and he is by no means alone) assumes that the early church had pretty much the same christological views as the orthodox church that came to completely dominate the Christian world centuries later.

If Mark was adoptionist, later gospels clearly were not. And it is with these subsequent gospels that the embarrassment is first observed: in Matthew the author makes it clear that Jesus really was God in the flesh before his baptism, and appears to think that the baptism had to happen as an example to others even if unnecessary for Christ himself; in Luke the author likewise asserts the divinity of Jesus before his baptism, and glosses over a description of the actual baptism of Jesus altogether; and in John, the classic pronouncement of Jesus’ divinity, there is no mention anywhere of Jesus being baptized (the Baptist’s role being merely to announce the Christ, not to baptize him).

There is thus no evidence that the Baptist scene caused the least embarrassment at the time when it was first narrated; the only embarrassment that is evidenced is with the narrative of Mark, not with any apparent “historical event”. And Mark’s baptism scene was as much embedded in a particular christology as subsequent (embarrassed) gospels were likewise embedded in a different christology. Christology, not historicity, is arguably at the root of all baptism accounts, and christology also functions as the most economical explanation for their variants.

Comment 2: Other theological issues

There are additional theological explanations underlying the origin of the baptism narrative in Mark’s gospel. Mark is widely acknowledged as the gospel of ironic twists, of reversals of normal expectations, of breaking through and beyond established cosmic barriers. So why do so many commentators seem to slip a gear when it comes to the baptism scene and treat it differently when it clearly is part and parcel of the ironic themes that characterize this gospel? The opening of a dramatic story with the ironic tension of a greater being obliged to submit to a lesser is as old as the opening of the Iliad. The trope was as old as the myth of the greatest of Greek prophets, Calchas, having to yield to the greater prophet whom he eventually met, Mopsus, who was as much of divine heritage as human. And that Jesus should enter upon his divinely ordained mission through and out from the trappings of the Old Law and Prophets so evidently symbolized by John the Baptist, the baptism and wilderness settings, strikes a reader as abundantly rich with theological associations. So theologically abundant that one must wonder if the author would have considered an historical interpretation as completely missing the point. As Vardis Fisher observed a generation ago, the story of Jesus is a parable. One destroys it if one tries to read it as history.

And the miracle stories

Evans uses the gospel accounts of the disbelief of Jesus’ own family and neighbours in his miracles as evidence that the miracle stories were authentic.

I have not yet heard anyone use this embarrassment criterion in conjunction with disbelieving kin and disciples of Jesus in those stories that would “prove” the authenticity of the virgin birth, however. Joseph appears not to have believed the angelic vision to Mary, and then in a noncanonical gospel Salome has to have her hand burned when she attempts to test the claim of Mary’s virginity. Such stories must surely have been embarrassing to the early church. No early Christian would have made them up if not true. So goes the logic of the argument.

Comment 1: Family rejection — embarrassingly unique or a proud literary company?

But of course there is no need to call on a criterion of embarrassment in an effort to support the authenticity of the story of Jesus’ kin and townsfolk rejecting him. Such rejection is a normal motif used of prophets and those chosen by God in the Jewish scriptures. It is used of

  • Jacob when he is hated by his brother Esau and mistreated by Laban;
  • of Joseph when he is rejected by his brothers and chastized for his dreams by both them and his father;
  • of Moses when those he would rescue reject him and force him to flee into the wilderness, and even later in the wilderness they regularly rejected him, and on one occasion were about to stone him;
  • of Jephthah when his kin cast him out for his illegitimate birth;
  • of Samuel when his people reject his rule in his old age;
  • of David when his father and brothers clearly think dismissively of him;
  • of Elijah when he complains that he feels he alone serves God and all his people have turned against him;
  • of Jeremiah and other prophets who are disbelieved and imprisoned.

The application of the same trope to Jesus is no more a compulsory survival of an “embarrassing truth” than it is in any of these other stories. We have no primary evidence that Jesus’ family rejected him. We only have a late narrative that serves a theological function. This gospel shows Jesus, the Suffering Servant, makes his appearance in the same mould as Joseph, David, Moses, Elijah et al. To read it historically or biographically is to lose its meaning entirely.

Comment 2: Woops, Let’s try that one again, just to complete the symbolic doublets!

One other miracle story Evans draws attention to is Mark’s narrative of the time Jesus healed a blind man in two stages. Evans takes this as “two attempts” by Jesus to heal and something that would not have been recorded unless it were true — since it shows the Jesus’ power to have been less than absolute (p. 141). Evans does not, however, seem to see any significance that the other gospel authors apparently did choose not to tell the story! Did they find it too embarrassing and therefore omitted it? If so, then why could they not have simply omitted the baptism story too? Of course, the most obvious reason it is omitted from the other gospels, and why it is told in the Gospel of Mark, is because Mark’s gospel alone used it as a symbolic act for the reader to interpret. The two-step healing follows the two miracles of mass miraculous feedings, each followed by the failure of the disciples “to see” their meaning. That a beggar could be healed after two attempts but not the disciples is Mark’s way of highlighting with an added punch the spiritual failure of the disciples. The two step healing act is a literary artifice. Not an historical truth so embarrassing that only one evangelist could be found with the courage to narrate it.

Criteria for authenticity

Criteria for authenticity are not and can never be primary evidence of facts that happened. They can only be used as guides for helping one sift from a number possibilities that might have happened which ones are more plausible than others.

Such criteria are theoretical constructs that need to be assessed beside other hypotheses that may also be brought to bear on gospel narratives. As seen above, it is easy to overlook more obvious theological or literary hypotheses that have the advantage of being evaluated within the constraints of the rest of the gospel narrative.

Criteria of authenticity, it should be kept in mind, are predicated upon an historical model that is itself hypothetical. They assume that the gospels are a collation of oral traditions of varying authenticity that have eventually come to the attention of the gospel authors. But working with the evidence available to us, particularly narratives in other literature, both Jewish and gentile, some scholars have come to the conclusion that the gospel narratives are explained most simply and coherently as creative works by theologians who were adapting or building on other stories from well-known literature such as the Jewish Scriptures. If so, the attempt to assess the historicity of gospel narratives through the filter of “criteria of authenticity” may well be a misplaced exercise.

But if I were to write a historical novel, I could not go past the criteria of authenticity as a checklist by which to evaluate each setting, character and incident or event I chose to invent to make my creation as “authentic” as fiction will allow.

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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “3 ‘criteria for authenticity’ (“Fabricating Jesus” / Craig Evans contd)”

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