15 ways of recovering reliable information about Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

What serious enquirer after the historical Jesus can bypass a title like The Historical Jesus: An Essential Guide by James H. Charlesworth?

Chapter 2 addresses ways of “obtaining reliable information” about Jesus and about two-thirds of this chapter discusses a number of “methodologies” that include our familiar criteria:

  1. Embarrassment
    • deeds and sayings embarrassing to the evangelists would not have been fabricated by them
  2. Dissimilarity
    • teachings unlike environmental Jewish thought and unlike those of his followers probably originated with Jesus
  3. Multiple attestation
    • a saying or deed of Jesus found in two or more independent sources is more probably original to Jesus than something found in just one source
  4. Coherence
    • when a deed or saying of Jesus is virtually identical to one that is shown to be very likely (on the grounds of the other three criteria above) then we may think of it as probably reliable
  5. Historical plausibility (Palestinian Jewish setting)
    • a tradition may be authentic if it reflects the culture and time of Palestine in the early first century.

We know the arguments for these and their logical flaws. But happily Charlesworth is offering readers more than the commonplace and familiar. He adds “ten additional supporting methods” to provide “supporting insight and information” about Jesus:

  1. Editing traditions at their beginnings and endings leave a core that may be original
    • Since editors very often edited beginnings and endings of “core traditions” (to merge them into the narrative; to explain their meaning or how a reader should think about them) what is left untouched ‘in the core’ may represent earlier tradition.
  2. Explanatory expansions of passages
    • Explaining Jewish customs for gentiles, for example, suggests that the author is working with a received early tradition.
  3. Exhortations to search
    • A passage that exhorts readers to search for its meaning and otherwise opens up some ambiguity (e.g. Matthew 9:12-13) may indicate a passage that was not created to meet the needs of the later church but arose from an authentic Jesus setting.
  4. Studying how and in what ways the Jesus tradition is developing
    • Paul edited his sources, as did Mark and John; Matthew and Luke edited Mark. By tracing these editings back to their earliest points we are getting closer to the original tradition.
  5. Retracing the development of Christology
    • Thus we move from the high Christology of John’s gospel (Jesus is the Logos and “perceived as God”, to Matthew saying Jesus is “God with us”/Emmanuel, to Mark’s having Jesus revealed as the Son of God, to the Philippian Hymn’s Jesus taking on the form of a servant, to Jesus himself being quoted as saying that he is merely “greater than Solomon”, to his words in Mark questioning whether he should even be called “good” — leads to a person who is “impressively humble: Jesus”. This is Charlesworth’s explanatory trajectory.)
  6. What is against the theology of an evangelist is probably earlier tradition
    • According to Charlesworth Matthew expresses his conviction (sic) that the Law was only in force “until John the Baptist (11:13); so when Matthew has Jesus say (sic) that not one jot or tittle of the Law would be removed then he is having Jesus say something against his own (Matthew’s) theology — so it is probably historical.
  7. Transliterated Aramaic is likely evidence of received traditions
    • Maurice Casey would love this one. Even though most early preaching by the followers of Jesus in Palestine was conducted in Aramaic, “there is no reason to doubt some Aramaic sayings transliterated in Greek and attributed to Jesus most likely derive from him.” Examples are from Mark 5:41; 7:34; 14:36; 15:34 and John 9:7 and other Semitisms in the gospels.)
  8. Historical predictions that contradict what actually happened is most probably not invented by the evangelist
    • Jesus predicted he would be stoned (Matt. 23:37; Luke 13:34; and in the Parable of the Wicked Tenants — Matt 21:33-45; Mark 12:1-12; Luke 20:9-19 — where he is expected to suffer the same fate as Jeremiah and Honi, explains Charlesworth)
  9. Evidence of a creative genius who knew Semitics may reveal Jesus’ own mind
    • “The Evangelists report that Jesus was a creative and poetic genius, and they attribute Semitic concepts and phrases to him. It is unlikely that all or most of these are to be attributed to an unknown Semitic poet who was a follower of Jesus. Examples abound, such as Jesus’ teaching and actions regarding purity, Jesus’ perception and actions on . . . the Sabbath, and especially the poetic and well-couched Semitic phrases such as [straining at a gnat {qalma} and swallowing the camel {qamla}]”.
  10. Passages portraying Jesus as “very Jewish” may well derive from reliable Jesus traditions
    • Since the Gospels were written for Gentiles it is unlikely Jewish essences would have been made up: e.g. the reference to the fringe on his garments, his teaching on the greatest commandment, and the importance of the Temple.
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22 thoughts on “15 ways of recovering reliable information about Jesus”

  1. I comment rarely because I am most likely the least erudite of your readers. But even I can see that, in the first list of 5 criteria, that 2)dissimilarity and 5)historical plausibility, constitute a pair of pliers from which escaping both jaws is unlikely.

    It is nice to have a bunch of criteria in order to make up for the lack of credible unbiased sources 🙂

    1. Very much so, Vinny. Just like those mortgage bundles, you have to peel back several layers before you find out what the whole structure is based on. The top layers are rated “AAA” because the experts say they are “AAA,” and they’d certainly like to explain why that is, but it’s very complicated, and you probably wouldn’t understand it. Run along now.

      Try to follow the reasoning behind naming Ephesus as the “probable” location for the writing of the the Gospel of John. When you get beyond the hand-waving and copious footnoting (in which they all quote one another to add “weight”), it mostly boils down to tradition. But what they usually don’t tell you is that traditionally people thought that the same John that wrote the gospel also wrote the Revelation of John. And since Patmos is just a short swim from Ephesus….

      BTW, I actually met a young minister a couple of years ago who was utterly convinced that John wrote the gospel, the letters, and the apocalypse. I was a bit surprised, thinking that most seminaries wouldn’t teach that anymore. You don’t have to know very much Greek to notice that the language of Revelation is very different from that of the Gospel. And would the evangelist agree that we will all be judged “each man according to his work”?

      Given the right conditioning there is nothing the human mind cannot be made to believe.

      1. The top layers are rated “AAA” because the experts say they are “AAA,” and they’d certainly like to explain why that is, but it’s very complicated, and you probably wouldn’t understand it. Run along now.

        And right on cue as I read this I also am reading Professor James Charlesworth writing the essential guide to the historical Jesus in which he tells readers to accept the Tacitus passage about Christians as genuine because “experts now concur that this passage is genuine” so there!

  2. I have seen it seriously argued that the crucifixion is a true history because it was embarrassing to the early Christians. When applied liberally, we can use this criteria to prove almost any mythical story is true. The story of Hercules must be true because it is embarrassing that he was poisoned with his own poison. The story of Prometheus must be true because having birds eat your liver is embarrassing. The story of Pandora must be true because it is embarrassing to release all the sins into the world. The story of Inanna must be true because she was hung from a hook on a wall and died. The story of Osiris must be true because it is embarrassing to be hacked up into pieces. The story of Darth Vader must be true because it is embarrassing to be a Jedi and not be able to lift yourself away from burning hot lava …

    And so on.

  3. I actually don’t have a problem with the criteria given, as long as we’re talking only about weighing relative probabilities. Take the two sayings: (1) “I and the Father are one” and (2) “Talitha Koum.” Is it likely that Jesus said (1) without being stoned on the spot? It’s hard to imagine. Could Jesus, if we assume he was from Galilee could have said something in Aramaic? Yes, it’s possible.

    So saying (2) is more plausible than saying (1). How do we get from the set of all plausible things Jesus could have said and done to “secure historical facts”? The more conservative NT scholars tell us that the burden of proof is on the person who, like me, asks that question. That is, unless proven otherwise, we should adopt the hermeneutic of charity and assume the writers of the gospels are telling us historical truth. I can’t accept this as a rational argument. We know that the evangelists told stories that were ahistorical in order to advance theological points — behavior which makes them unreliable historical witnesses. If they were reliable, we wouldn’t need criteria to sift out the wheat from the chaff.

    Taken as a whole, Charlesworth’s Fabulous 15 would be fine for establishing probable antiquity, but not historicity. I know that NT scholars like to assume there is a strong correlation between the two, but simply demonstrating a greater likelihood that one saying is older than another is not the same as proving that Jesus said the older saying. Antiquity does not equal authenticity.

    1. Taken as a whole, Charlesworth’s Fabulous 15 would be fine for establishing probable antiquity, but not historicity. I know that NT scholars like to assume there is a strong correlation between the two, but simply demonstrating a greater likelihood that one saying is older than another is not the same as proving that Jesus said the older saying. Antiquity does not equal authenticity.

      I think this is an important distinction to make. Antiquity only means that it goes back to the earlier or earliest traditions. But unless Jesus was the only itinerant preaching Jew living in Palestine in the first century, claiming that it goes back to Jesus himself is an unwarranted assumption. I’ve never actually read anywhere any NT scholar pointing out this very necessary caveat. Why couldn’t something be a saying of Peter instead of a saying of Jesus? I think this is what’s meant when it’s pointed out that a historical Jesus (at least, a wandering preaching Jesus) is simply assumed.

      1. J. Quinton: I’ve never actually read anywhere any NT scholar pointing out this very necessary caveat.

        Paula Fredriksen: How do we assess the historicity of this tradition specifically with reference to Jesus? Multiple attestation of itself demonstrates not authenticity, but antiquity: a given tradition predates its various manifestations in different witnesses, if those witnesses are independent.” (http://www.bu.edu/religion/files/pdf/Gospel-Chronologies.pdf)

        Of course this brings to light another problem in NT Studies. If the arguments for antiquity (if not authenticity) depend on the independence of witnesses, then the burden of proof should rest upon those who claim the sources are independent. And we shouldn’t confine this stipulation only to literary independence. If the New Testament writers were all aware of the same “rich oral tradition” then they are not truly independent, at least not in the sense of independent eyewitnesses who simply have a different perspective.

        1. ‘a given tradition predates its various manifestations in different witnesses, if those witnesses are independent.”

          Happily, we can easily get many independent witnesses , by chopping the Gospels of Matthew and Luke into the strands of the triple tradition, Q, M and L, producing 4 independent witnesses from just two documents.

          And these independent witnesses often interact with each other, with one independent witness being embarrssed by a tradition found in another independent witness, almost as though the writing of that independent witness was dependent upon his knowing a tradition found in another independent witness.

          But still being totally independent, of course.

          1. Only 4? You’re way behind, Steven. The most highly distinguished professor, James H. Charlesworth, is someone from whose works I have learned much. But when he writes about the historical Jesus he let’s his viscera show. Hegelians, Existentialists, Mythicists — they are all abhorent to him. In his The Historical Jesus: An Essential Guide he shows that there was no such thing as a Sanhedrin trial of Jesus and that it is quite conceivable on the basis of the evidence that Caiaphas and Annas merely wanted to remove Jesus from the scene for a week or so for his own safety! (We don’t want to leave any room for thinking the Gospels might be anti-semitic, now, do we!)

            Charlesworth can sum up seven reasons not to believe Jesus was resurrected in one page yet find he needs three and a half pages to clarify six reasons and three historical criteria that affirm a belief in the resurrection of Jesus.

            He can demonstrate that non-canonical sources such as the Talmud even preserve traditions going back to sayings of Jesus before his crucifixion.

            But here are the TEN (10) independent sources he identifies for Jesus in chronological order:

            1. Q (a puttative source of Jesus’ sayings used by Matthew and Luke)
            2. S (a possible Signs source used by John)
            3. Pl (Paul’s letters referencing quotations by and allusions to sayings of Jesus)
            4. Mk (Mark)
            5. J(1) (First edition of the Gospel of John)
            6. M (Traditions inherited only by Matthew)
            7. L (Ditto by Luke)
            8. A (preservation of the Jesus’ traditions by the author of Acts)
            9. J(2) (Second edition of the Gospel of John — without 7:53-8:11)
            10. T (Gospel of Thomas)

            But that’s being modest. Charlesworth also says that the first source there, Q, “may preserve up to three internal sources”!

            So let’s not be shy — we have 12 independent sources for the historical Jesus! One for each tribe of Israel, disciple and sign of the zodiac!

            But I am still not fully open. Some of those other traditions above like M (Matthew’s unique sources) embrace many independent traditions. So let’s add one more — a 13th — to collate all of these extra independents, and assign them to Benjamin, to Paul (the 13th apostle), and to Ophiuchus or whatever is the latest reference to that hidden thirteenth sign of the zodiac.

            Charlesworth himself cites 12 independent sources — the original 10 listed here plus Josephus and Tacitus.

            So if you like the number 14 (7+7) most of all then go for it!

            1. Neil: “…it is quite conceivable on the basis of the evidence that Caiaphas and Annas merely wanted to remove Jesus from the scene for a week or so for his own safety.”

              How does this work? Scholars used to be “confident” that the evangelists had no access to the trial transcripts and that nobody from the movement could have been an eyewitness. Hence, that part of the Passion narrative, at least, was a product of imagination and OT-mining.

              However, Charlesworth now concludes that not only do we have no access to true witnesses, but that the episode never occurred. How do we square this with four gospels who say the Sanhedrin trial did occur? How do we reconstruct the motives of people involved in an unsourced event that never took place?

              1. Charlesworth:

                It is certain that the Jews are not Christ-killers, despite two thousand years of infamy cast upon them. Jesus died by Roman execution, decreed by the Roman prefect. Anti-Semitism in the telling of Jesus story must cease; he was a Jew, and his early followers were all Jews.

                Yet some Roman quislings among the priesthood, including Caiaphas and Annas, were probably behind his arrest. Did they wish for him to be crucified? It is conceivable that they knew Jesus was in danger and wanted him removed from the public scene for a week or so. We shall never know what was in the minds of Caiaphas and Annas.

                It is certain that no official meeting of the Sanhedrin (an official court of seventy one Jews . . .) condemned Jesus to death. . . . it never met at night, as the earliest accounts report.” (p. 111)

                AIPAC has delivered to us the first Jewish president and obliged him to turn 180 degrees on what he promised a year ago. In a world where even criticism of party-policy and state foreign policy is enough to label one an anti-semite we should not be surprised at the ideological trend to re-write the history of Jesus. It was not a Jewish mob who was responsible, only two quislings who conceivably were well-intentioned anyway.

              2. ‘It is conceivable that they knew Jesus was in danger and wanted him removed from the public scene for a week or so. ‘

                What danger? Did the Jews want to kill Jesus or something?

  4. How many of these criteria could be applied to the Hitler Diaries?

    As a scientist, I am simply shocked at the standards of historical Jesus research.

    Haven’t these people ever heard of ‘facts’ and their importance?

    1. Dr McGrath engaged in conversation in response to my post “Fear of Mythicism” @ http://vridar.wordpress.com/2011/08/08/fear-of-mythicism/ and from comment #33 on he and I began a serious attempt to discuss the nature of “facts” as distinct from “interpretations” etc in relation to history. I thought we were making some sort of progress until we finally came to the point where the Doctor could see that the conversation was leading him to face up to the “fact” that historical Jesus studies do not deal with “facts” of history in the same way other historians deal with “facts”.

      As exrelayman notices, all this gumpf about “criteria” is nothing but a scholarly sounding cover to make up for the “fact” that HJ studies are not about interpreting the facts of history (like most other historical studies are), but about trying to find some ‘facts’ buried beneath lots of mythical (i.e. christological) narratives calling on people to believe and have faith entirely on the basis of supposedly fulfilled prophecy and reports of the miraculous.

  5. Charlesworth evaluates a story that might have elements that are true and elements that are false. He lists criteria for identifying the story’s true elements.

    I propose another method for evaluating a story of unknown truth.

    Let’s assume that the writer wrote the story in which all the elements are false. The story is conpletely fictional but was written to deceive readers into believing that it is entirely true. Furthermore, let’s assume that the story’s purpose is to convince at least some (not necessarily all) readers to donate ten percent of their incomes regularly to a charity controlled by the writer. In other words, the story has to be deceitful and also motivating.

    In other words, we are evaluating a story of unknown truth, and so we are thinking about a worst-case possibility — that the writer wants to deceive the readers completely and also wants to motivate the readers to send money to the writer. What methods might such a writer use for such a deception?

    I think that the writer’s main strategy would be to write a story in which the situation and main characters are close enough to evoke the readers understanding, sympathy and solidarity (so that the readers are motivated to donate) but far enough that the facts are difficult for the readers personally to verify.

    For example, if the writer and his readers live in the USA, then the writer might place his story in Mexico. The readers feel close enough to neighboring Mexico that they might respond to a situation there by donating money, but the readers personally cannot verify the story effectively, because the location is a little too far, the culture and language are a little too different.

    Furthermore, Mexico is exotic enough for the readers that they are more willing to believe that strange events might happen there. If a reader were told that some strange event happened in his own neighborhood in the United States, he might reject the story immediately as preposterous, but if told that the event happened in Mexico, he might be more willing to believe it. For the readers, Mexico is an exotic place, so exotic events seem to the readers to be more plausible there.

    The writer could use various other methods to make his story plausible — claims that the events were seen by many people, the insertion of real people into the events, the detailed description of concrete details, and so forth.

    I began writing this comment as a mental exercise. In fact, I do not think that Matthew, Luke and John wrote their long gospels with deceitful intent. But I wanted to think about the possibility that they did so. How might such a deceitful intent succeed?

    This mental exercise has helped me speculate about what I think really did happen. I think that the original gospels were short fictional stories about Jesus Christ descending to Earth. When the stories were created and shared, everyone understood that they were fictional. However, many decades later some people decided that some of the stories were true, and eventually those “true” stories were assembled into the three long gospels that are now in the New Testament.

    Apparently, all the original short and final long gospels were created and assembled in Greek by Greek-speakers in Greek cultures outside of Israel and Judea, but the overwhelming majority of the stories take place among the Aramaic-speaking population in Israel and Judea. How might this contradiction be explained?

    I speculate that the gospel stories that took place in Israel and Judea were more believable to the later readers who thought that some of the gospel stories were true.

    Imagine some Greek-speaking Christians living in Antioch, Syria, in about the year 120. They have a collection of gospel stories about Jesus Christ descending to Earth in various places — in Syria, in Lebanon, in Israel, in Judea and in places east of the Jordan River. Perhaps the stories that took place in Israel and Judea were easier for the Antioch Christians to believe. Those two places were close enough to be somewhat familiar but far enough that facts could not be verified and exotic enough that miracles seemed plausible.

  6. Robert is right. Mike, you give us nothing to discuss. Just a lot of “let’s imagines” and “what ifs” and “perhaps’s”. If you want to explain a contradiction in a meaningful way then you need to offer concrete evidence to support both your scenarios and your explanations.

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