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

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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.

Exactly what it is: Is it a forgery or the real thing? (This question can apply just as well in the next question about provenance.) Is it history or theology or fiction or what?

And nearly all seem to take for granted that the Gospels are some form of ancient history or biography. That is the default position and it is nested in millennia of cultural tradition. But the work most often cited to support the biographical nature of the Gospels, What Are the Gospels? by Richard Burridge, is (in my view) little more than a high-school or undergraduate level series of dot-point comparisons of superficial or surface points of similarity between aspects of the Gospels and certain ancient biographies. Contrast the richly theoretically grounded study The Problem of Markan Genre by Michael Vines that argues Mark is more justly understood as a Jewish novel. (Compare my posts on Burridge and Vines for details.)

Is it a compilation of oral sources or a unified literary whole or something a bit different from either? Where does it sit in the wider literary world of the time? How does its style, its motifs, its structure, compare with those aspects of other literatures? (It seems relatively few theologians seem to know much about literature contemporary with the Gospels apart from a few select religious texts and a few even react with ridicule or hostility if anyone tries to show them another light for comparison at the further end of the cave.)

Do the contents of the work have linkages with other works of the same or other eras? What other works know about it, or know about the sorts of contents it contains? What is its genre? That can be a clue (not necessarily decisive, however) of the author’s intention. Is it a blend of genres?

Does it appear to cite other sources? Of what kind? How can we tell? Ever since Detlev Fehling wrote Herodotus and His Sources historians have learned (well, many of them anyway) to be open to the possibilty that an ancient author who cites many sources may in fact be fabricating them all and what on the surface appears to be history is very often creative fiction. Katherine Stott (Why Did They Write This Way?) has argued the same for the sources cited in the Old Testament historical books.

What is its provenance? Who wrote it — and what do we know about this person? What was his place in society? For whom was he writing and why?

New Testament scholars are good at making lots of educated guesses about the target audiences of the Gospels and the general area where they and the author lived. Few critical scholars, I believe, have ever hazarded guesses about the identities of the Gospel authors, however.

It is, I think it fair to say, unthinkable for historians to be working with sources of unknown provenance. By what rule can an historian possibly evaluate sources and their value for yielding certain types of information unless one knows their provenance?

I have discussed this with a couple of New Testament scholars or three and it is clear that they do acknowledge the importance of the provenance. So what do they do? They redefine provenance to make it fit their ignorance about the Gospels. The author was a Christian — what else do they need to know? — and he was writing in the Eastern half of the Mediterranean, or perhaps in the West. And he was writing about Jesus to instruct the Church!

Of course!  — If only other historians had it so easy!

Most historical Jesus scholars do little more than repeat — in more or less detail — the inherited assumptions about the provenance and nature of the Gospels.

How much easier it is to work these things out when one’s historical inquiry is mandated by one’s cultural heritage.

Cultural Heritage: Here you are Mr and Ms Historian. Here are the writings of the early church about the founder of our Christian religion. Find out what you can about this Jesus as he really was in history through these writings that recorded memories and traditions about him.

Historian: Yes, Cultural Heritage. Certainly, Cultural Heritage. I’d love to make a contribution to you, Sir and Madam.

So the parameters of the Quest for the Figure of Jesus are inherited. The figure is a historical person because that’s in the mandate. There is no room to even consider the possibility that that figure might be a phantom.

So, with those little asides warning readers what is in my mind as I prepare to review Jens Schröter’s chapter two, let’s continue . . . .

Schröter explains he will examine in his own way the criteria approach to historical Jesus studies, and then

ask for an alternative — and perhaps more appropriate — treatment of the Jesus tradition by taking up some aspects of theory of history from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. (p. 51)

This reminds me. I have been wanting very much to do a series of posts on the nature of history since the nineteenth century through to today. I’d love to take time to clarify what is meant by the postmodernist approach, and how that compares with other historical approaches, past and present. Some theologians toss around postmodern and positivist with little evident appreciation of where and how such terms apply to the wider field of historical studies beyond theology and what all of this has to do — if anything — with the quest for the figure [historical or otherwise] of Jesus.

But hope to get seriously into chapter two next post in this series.

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Neil Godfrey

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