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

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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.


Form-criticism has served a number of functions, some more useful than others.

First: a literary tool

MH points out that form-criticism is “first, and most obviously”, a literary tool. It classifies different material into different literary categories (or “forms”) — MH mentions miracle stories and apophthegms but for us novices it is helpful to have more illustrations to help grasp what is involved, so she could just as well have added pronouncement stories, parables, controversy stories, call and commissioning stories — according to their respective features.

MH comments:

At this stage, form-criticism is being used simply as a literary tool, to sort the material into piles according to its shape – and my reaction is a somewhat bored but polite “How interesting”.

Second: the Sitz im Leben

MH finds this much more interesting. Sitz im Leben refers essentially to the “life setting” of a saying or story we read in the Gospels.

MH’s comment again:

It is at this stage that form-criticism becomes exciting and that one may rightly speak of something which has proved invaluable – since it has revolutionized the way in which we look at the gospels . . . . Form-criticism itself, as a critical tool, attempts to discover the way in which the material was being used and applied to the life of the community at the time when it came into the written tradition.

But with the excitement there comes a problem. Here MH quotes Bultmann pointing to the “inbuilt circularity in the method”.

The forms of the literary tradition must be used to establish the influences operating in the life of the community, and the life of the community must be used to render the forms themselves intelligible.

Here I wonder about the applicability of arguments for the evolving character of the Q community are just as flawed with circularity. But let’s continue with MH’s comments on the circularity at the heart of the reconstructions of the communities related to the various sayings addressed by the form-critics:

We have no independent knowledge of the groups which formed the pericopes which we are discussing, and we can only deduce the needs and interests of the community which shaped the material from that material itself. The Sitz im Leben to which a pericope is assigned – often with great confidence – is only a hypothesis, and sometimes one feels that the hypotheses demonstrate an excessive endowment of imaginative ability on the part of those who put them forward . . . .

Third: getting carried away — using it as a Historical Tool

So form-criticism, MH concludes, tells us something about

  • the shape of the material

and it attempts on the basis of that shape to tell us something about

  • the way in which the material was being used — about its function within the community. (my formatting)

Here is where scholars fall over or fly off into the skies, according to MH:

It is at this stage, it seems to me, that the form-critic gets carried away. For he next tries to deduce, from the material which he has before him, what the earlier forms might have been; it is at this stage that he begins to use form-criticism as a historical tool.

Scholars have leapt from the above to using form-criticism to try to find the very original form of the material they are reading.

How to do this? Find some “laws” about how oral sayings change, and then look at some of the changes of a saying or narrative across the Synoptic gospels, and then extrapolate any patterns back to the presumed oral period of transmission.

The aim of form-criticism, wrote Dibelius, is “to rediscover the origin and the history of the particular units and thereby to throw some light on the history of the tradition before it took literary form”. In order to do this, one has to establish certain “laws” about how oral tradition is changed: this is done by looking at certain tendencies in the Synoptic material, and reading them back into the oral period.

I think most of us must immediately feel questions arising in our minds as we read something like this. But MH saves us from having to articulate them for ourselves:

Certain dangers in this method are immediately apparent.

One is the assumption that the same developments apply at the oral stage as at the written; those who have conducted experiments maintain that they do not.

The issue is complicated by the fact that, at the time when the gospels were being written, the oral tradition was still a present reality, and it is possible that the processes of handing on tradition, on the one hand in an oral form, on the other in a written, were moving in opposite directions – that, for example, traditions could at the same period become shorter as they were repeated orally and lost details, and longer as they were written and attracted detail.

The other obvious danger is that of generalization; however much one tries to establish “laws” about the material, there are always some stories which refuse to fit the theory. One may discover a general tendency but that means only that the majority of cases behave in a certain way; any particular case may well belong to the minority, and behave in a quite contrary manner. (my formatting and bolding)

Now here is where MH sees New Testament scholars leaping like lemmings over the cliff of reality when they argue they have found the “original” of any saying:

In attempting to suggest earlier forms than those which at present exist, therefore, the form-critic is once again postulating hypotheses; there can be no certainty that his suggestions are correct. Moreover, in attempting to reconstruct earlier forms behind those which we now have, we can never be sure that we have got back to the earliest form.

For the form is shaped according to the purpose to which the early community put it – and the purpose is deduced from the form. We do not know what earlier forms there may have been, shaped in accordance with purposes no longer recoverable; the evidence for both forms and purposes has vanished.

All we can do is to examine the existing material and, where the material is found in different forms, to discuss which of them is likely to be the earliest — though even that may be difficult (perhaps impossible) to determine. But we can never be certain that the form we have is the original — that there is no pre-history of the material.

The trap

The trap into which the form-critic so often falls is that he equates the Sitz im Leben with the origin of the material; the Sitz im Leben is not simply the “setting” of the material but, according to Puller;’ its “creative milieu”.

Now this is all right so long as by “creative” is meant “that which licked the material into its present shape”. But at this stage the form-critic too often makes the mistake of confusing form with content.

Because he has no knowledge of earlier forms, and because he can see the relevance of the material in its present form to the life of the early community, as he understands it, he thinks he has discovered the origin of the material. Of course he may be right: but he is making an assumption on the basis of insufficient evidence. Explorers have often been misled into thinking they have discovered the source of a river – and NT scholars have perhaps sometimes similarly been misled, though with less excuse.

MH sums up the problem thus:

The tool of form-criticism can tell us about form; it also tries to tell us about the use which has shaped the material into that form. But it cannot tell us anything about the material itself and its reliability — except where, by a comparison of parallel traditions, it can be clearly seen that elements have been added to the material or changed. Nor can form-criticism tell us about the history of the material before it took its present shape. To suppose that it can is to assume a knowledge about Jesus and the community which we lack.

Enter criteria of authenticity

So the New Testament scholar has other tools to supposedly assist in digging behind “the traditions” we have in our Gospels. (My own comment: “digging” — a wonderful metaphor that would equate the arm-chair scholar with the archaeologist who does indeed uncover literal reality.)

This brings us to the wider field of “traditio-historical criticism” and its two primary methods that are,

we are often assured, “universally” recognized as the proper method of undertaking this task. They are the two principles of “dissimilarity” and “coherence”.

The criterion of dissimilarity comes with the heavy-weight commendations of Bultmann, Käsemann, Conzelmann, Perrin and Fuller.

Sayings of Jesus that are parallel with other sayings in the Jewish tradition (think of its apocalyptic and rabbinic literature), and those that reflect the “faith, practice and situations” of the early Church, must be eliminated from the candidates for authentic sayings of Jesus. The reason is not that Jesus could not have said them, but because it is impossible to know if he did or if such sayings attributed to him are merely put in his mouth for some other reason.

But MH wrote in 1972 that there are “serious faults in the logic of using these particular criteria to establish the authentic message of Jesus.” She lists nine.

Fault one

Use of the principle of dissimilarity, it is claimed, gives us what is distinctive in the teaching of Jesus. But the English word “distinctive” can have two senses . . . . “distinctive” can mean “unique” . . . . or it can mean “characteristic” . . . .

And these two senses are too often confused by those who use the criterion of dissimilarity, says MH. What the criterion gives us is what is “unique” — what is different from other Jewish and Christian sayings. But what we want, MH reminds us, is what is “characteristic” of Jesus.

So the method will remove from the record those instances where Jesus was in agreement with either Judaism or Christianity. (Scholars are generally aware of this problem, but nonetheless tend to sweep it under the carpet.)

And such an exclusion will seriously distort whatever Jesus himself might have been teaching. To illustrate this, MH offers an analogy:

As an example, we might consider three typical speeches by three political leaders at election time; if we were to eliminate what was common to all three, how much would be left of any one speech? Probably very little! The result might give us what was distinctive of a party in the sense of what its members believe and members of other parties do not, but it would certainly not be representative of the policy of the party.

Fault two

The criterion of dissimilarity would eliminate from the menu any ideas found in Judaism of the day and earliest Christianity.

But that assumes we are dealing with “two known factors (Judaism and early Christianity) and one unknown — Jesus”.

MH suggests a more accurate account would acknowledge that we are dealing with three unknowns,

and that our knowledge of the other two is quite as tenuous and indirect as our knowledge of Jesus himself . . . .

Fault three

The method dictates its own conclusions.

The method is actually question begging. Our criterion tool demands that Jesus be unique and lo and behold, that’s what it finds. So we have a Jesus who stands out from all his contemporaries. Yet he makes no messianic claims for himself — he cannot, as MH points out, because those are made for him by the early Church. And he is, of course, opposed by the Jewish authorities. All this is inevitably the conclusion of the criterion of dissimilarity.

Fault four

The criterion of dissimilarity presupposes that much of what we read in the Gospels was the product of the creativity of the early church itself. Inspired prophets within the church came up with sayings that met certain needs of their fellows.

But did not those same inspired prophets sometimes utter sayings which have no known parallel in contemporary Judaism and the early Church? If individuals in the Christian community were as creative as is supposed, then presumably some of them at times spoke – as Jesus had done – in “distinctive” ways.

So might not even some of those “unique” sayings of Jesus really belong to the Church also?

Fault five

Here lies another contradiction. Verifiably “authentic” sayings of Jesus are supposed to be unique, but at the same time they are expected to “be ‘at home’ in first-century Palestine.” So an authentic saying must be both “dissimilar” from Judaism but at the same time “reflect the language and style of Aramaic.”

So Norman Perrin will argue that Jesus never spoke of himself as the “son of Man” because this term did not exist as a title in Judaism at the time. BUT, as MH points out, if it HAD existed at the time as a title, again Jesus could not have used it because it would no longer have been “dissimilar” from Judaism!

Fault six

MH quotes Bultmann again when she writes:

Subjectivity is seen also in the suggestion that authentic teaching can be guaranteed by the presence of “the distinctive eschatological temper which characterized the preaching of Jesus”.

But how can we know that Jesus’ teaching was indeed eschatological until we first establish what sayings were authentic? So circularity sets us spinning again.

Fault seven

What of the criterion of coherence? I have always struggled with this as a basis for historical factness, but here are MH’s words:

Subjectivity is still a danger when we turn to the principle of coherence or consistency, by which similar sayings are added to the core (or rump) of teaching which has been separated by the principle of dissimilarity. We may be able to sort out what seems coherent (or in-coherent) to us – but we are living in a completely different world, and what seems incoherent to us may have seemed coherent in first-century Palestine – and vice versa. Moreover, some of Jesus’ sayings – if they are genuine – are paradoxical, and that alone should perhaps warn us against looking for what seems to us to be consistent. (p. 577)

Besides, doesn’t coherence merely point to plausibility or possibility? That’s a long way from evidence that something really did happen or really was said. Coherence is even moreso a criterion of fiction, is it not?

Fault eight

MH points out that if we have made an error with our criterion of dissimilarity, then we are likely to only compound that error if we further subject its results to the criterion of coherence. So if dissimilarity leads us to collect only “future Son of Man” sayings, then coherence will lead us to reject any saying that speaks of the present Son of Man.

Fault nine

MH notices inconsistencies in the application of these criteria and points to the case of Jesus addressing God as Abba in prayer.

Here is a good example of something which is Aramaic in form but to which an exact parallel has not been found in Judaism; but it is used by the early Church (see Rom. 8: 15 and Gal. 4: 6), and by the strict application of the principle of dissimilarity it should be eliminated.

Yet it seems to be almost universally accepted that Jesus addressed God as “Abba”, and taught his disciples to do the same. Why?

Perrin writes “These [two verses] may not be regarded as representing early Christian tradition as such”.’ But why not? This seems like special pleading. The real criterion being used here is not the principle of dissimilarity, but the scholar’s own understanding of the situation. (p. 577, my formatting and bolding)

As another example of inconsistency MH compares the way scholars treated the expressions “Son of Man” and “Kingdom of God”.

  • Both are spread similarly throughout the gospels and sources
  • Both are without real parallel in the Old Testament — though one may appeal to extra-canonical sources in each case
  • Both are used sometimes in a futuristic sense and sometimes in a present sense
  • Both refer to an entity possessing divine authority that has momentarily suffered a reversal of fortune

But each term is treated remarkably differently by the scholars.

The Kingdom of God is generally considered to be the very core of Jesus’ teaching — despite it also being found in the writings of the early Church (which should mean it is excluded from Jesus’ teaching according to “dissimilarity”.)

Yet it is just as widely assumed that Jesus did not use the “son of man” expression or that he only ever used the expression eschatologically.

Similarly, if one really applied this principle rigidly to the Son of man sayings, one would find that it was the eschatological group which was eliminated, and the present and suffering sayings which were left. But this must not be.

Since the principle of dissimilarity has let the investigators down at this point, they fall back on another principle – the old one of multiple attestation; we have returned to dear old source criticism and dragged out Q, in support of the argument that since the suffering Son of man sayings are almost entirely Marcan, they are clearly inauthentic.

Now it may be proper for the NT scholar to use whatever tools are available; but when he throws down one tool and picks up another like this, it certainly looks as though he is selecting his tool to fit his conclusion. (p. 578)

What is really happening here, MH advises, is that scholars have presupposed on the basis of 1 Enoch that the Son of Man title is a messianic one who will ride the clouds in judgment on the last day, and also that Jesus never applied messianic titles to himself so he could not have referred to himself as the “son of man”. (I understand that there have been a few variants from this since MH wrote in 1972.)

The circus

So when scholars look at the same passages and get different answers there is clearly something wrong with the tools they are using.

But they do not draw the logical deduction from this fact. They go on, hammering or chiselling away with their pet tools, and using the pieces which are left as the sure foundation on which they then erect their edifice.

MH follows with an outpouring of the sort of subjective rationalization that steers these so-called “objective” criteria:

But if these tools fail us because they are too imprecise, can we not find others? The history of NT criticism is a continuous search for such criteria. There were, for example, Schmiedel’s famous pillar sayings2 – sayings which the early community clearly could not have invented; but if we are to apply this rule, then we must first be sure that we have understood the saying; and then, when it comes to asking whether there could have been a situation at some stage in the community’s life to fit it, some commentators prove to have more lively imaginations than others; the force of the argument depends once again on our knowledge ofthe early community – and that is inadequate.

Or perhaps you prefer Jeremias’s appeal to Aramaisms; in his recent New Testament Theology, Part I, he has an impressive list of Aramaic words which occur on the lips of Jesus; my confidence in this as a method of approach was shaken badly when I discovered that a third of the words listed are found in a sentence attributed to Jesus in a polemical passage in the Babylonian Talmud! The remainder turned out to be words like abba, mammon, Gehenna, and the word from the Cross.

And of course, even if we succeed in showing that the form of the material, its sentence structure and so on were Aramaic, we could with certainty claim only to have dug back to a layer belonging to a Palestinian community – which would not necessarily even be early: we should not have proved that these were “words of the Lord”.

Jeremias uses another criterion in looking at the Son of man sayings; he suggests eliminating as dubious any which have parallels in an “I form”. The existence of such parallels may well be a matter of chance however – as is demonstrated when we have to tum to the Gospel of Thomas to fmd some of them; once again, our material is too limited to justify our using this kind of method. And the whole thing founders when we discover that the majority of the Son of man sayings which have no “I parallel” are those which refer to the Son of man coming in glory; for by their very nature these are precisely those sayings which cannot be put into an “I form”; once again we have been going round in a circle.

Then there is the principle that any reference to the Old Testament must be credited to the early Church, and represents the earliest Christian exegesis; why Jesus himself must be presumed never to have referred to Scripture has never been clear to me. This principle is no more valid as a criterion than the older, opposite view that O’I’ references are a sign of the authentic teaching. And finally, we have an old criterion in a new guise with the advent of redaction criticism. It is suggested that anything which is incompatible with an evangelist’s plan and purpose could be regarded as authentic teaching of Jesus.”

Such incompatability would, however, prove nothing – except that the author has included material which he found already existing in the tradition. And, of course, to establish even that we should first need to discover the plan and purpose of the evangelist, with which the material is said to be incompatible. One glance at the innumerable and widely differing interpretations of the redaction critics will show how far we are from discovering that

The end of the matter

MH laments the fact (in 1972) that there are no other tools to use so the scholar is stuck with these. What counts is that the scholar must use them cautiously and with a deep sense of awareness that he may be wrong. (MH regularly used “he” generically for all scholars.)

For in the end, the answers which the New Testament scholar gives are not the result of applying objective tests and using precision tools; they are very largely the result of his own presuppositions and prejudices.

If he approaches the material with the belief that it is largely the creation of the early Christian communities, then he will interpret it in that way. If he assumes that the words of the Lord were faithfully remembered and passed on, then he will be able to find criteria which support him.

Each claims to be using the proper critical method. Each produces a picture of Jesus – and of the early Church – in accordance with his presuppositions. And each claims to be right. The man who gets a different answer is accused of being a bad critic, because he has got the wrong answer. (p. 581)

Unfortunately, Morna Hooker is bound to return to a presumption that the Gospels contain narratives from which we can learn a lot about the historical Jesus, or through which we can at least learn how a historical Jesus impacted others. I hope to address some of this argument that is woven through Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity in future posts.

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Neil Godfrey

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11 thoughts on “‘I told you so!’ Why Criteria for Historical Jesus Studies Don’t Work”

  1. It’s remarkable that Hooker can write such a devastating critique of historical Jesus methods but then conclude that we can still learn about the real Jesus through the gospels after all. Critics always have to include that caveat because they realize without it, there would be nothing more to study.

    1. I think the point is that the Jesus of faith is the real Jesus because he’s the only Jesus there is so whatever there is to be known about him can be learned from the gospels. The mistake is in thinking that this Jesus corresponds to a historical person.

  2. Well, the methods they might be using are bankrupt, but these scholars all have degrees, so they are the ones who are qualified to talk about Jesus and not Internet bloggers.

    You will find a full discussion of why experts get to be call themselves experts at http://larryhurtado.wordpress.com/2012/08/09/the-jesus-discussion-lets-move-on/

    ‘ To these I’ve tried to indicate briefly why it is that scholars tend to prefer certain inferences as more likely than others. It’s been disappointing that sometimes the response has been an unfair accusation that I haven’t given a basis for scholarly views. I have, and repeatedly, but necessarily in abbreviated form, and I have urged seriously interested people to work through the scholarly studies where the fuller analysis and arguments are presented.’

    Look, these methods might be bogus, but amateurs don’t grasp the sheer amount of scholarly study involved in the bogosity!

    If only amateurs would read these scholarly studies where these bogus methods are employed, they would stop questioning scholars.

  3. her critique is exemplcized by crossan, i find him the most erudite of the scholars, but of course my own prejudice comes into play (liberal catholicism). in his “the birth of christianity” he concludes something that i personally wish for. this doesnt make me any more or less hypocritical than the rest of them, but it doesnt help.

    1. This was exactly my experience with Crossan, in my more naive explorations. Having studied peasant movements myself, I was taken by Birth. (Liberal catholic upbringing myself, by the way.) Crossan’s Jesus was the Jesus I hoped to find when I started exploring this subject myself in an attempt to “disprove” the Jesus of evangelicals.

      I’ve really enjoyed reading Neil’s posts on this book and the Carpenter book, by the way.

  4. This is what one gets when one starts with a conclusion, and then is required to fabricate evidence by which to justify that conclusion, and to ignore contrary evidence.

  5. Hooker is mostly right in her criticisms of historicism, and the Criteria. However, I can remember the early days when the Criteria were being discussed, and then increasingly accepted; in the 1960’s and 70’s. And significantly, they were being propounded … almost always, with strict caveats and reservations and warnings. Key scholarly articles mentioning the Criteria, warned explicitly that this method was a special case method; using assumptions that would never hold water in real, full Historical study. The Criteria were only being provisionally employed in religious study … only because there just wasn’t enough real historical evidence. All we had were texts; not physical evidence. For that reason only, a number of otherwise-questionable methods were being provisionally allowed; because there just wasn’t enough material there for real historical study.

    The first real wave of Criteria-based study therefore knew full well, that these were not fully acceptable, fully historical methods. And even that they were in most applications, logically unsound. To say for example – as the Criteria of Embarrasment and Difference imply – that something must be true and historical, if in contradicts expectations, if it seems to contradict popular ideas – is an idea shot through with holes, of course. Since there are many ideas that contradict expectations, not because they are true and historical, but just because they are ridiculous, and wrong.

    The first great wave of acceptance of the Criteria therefore, c. 1960-70, actually issued continuous warnings about this methodology; stipulating that normally absurd, fallible assumptions were being allowed … because there just wasn’t enough real historical evidence there to use in a real Historical investigation. Over time however, as these methods were taught to believers in seminaries, the initial reservations and caveats were simply overlooked, and forgotten. And those who used the Criteria thought – and then adamantly asserted – that they were doing real History. And had derived from it a “real,” “Historical” Jesus.

    It would be useful for any critic of the Criteria to go back and quote one or two of the earlier evaluations of the Criteria, from c. 1970 or so. Though some of this material, written before the Internet, is a bit hard to find.

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