Daily Archives: 2014-04-23 17:00:27 GMT+0000

Defending the Criterion of Dissimilarity

Ernst Käsemann
Ernst Käsemann

The limits of historical criteria

Longtime Vridar readers will recall that both Neil and I view the use of criteriology as employed by historical Jesus researchers with a great deal of skepticism. They consistently ask too much of the criteria. We might be able to say, for example, that applying a given criterion can determine the antiquity of a logion (e.g., a traditional saying that may predate both Paul and Mark) but it cannot prove authenticity (i.e., that Jesus said it).

However, I now find myself in the odd position of defending at least one criterion against a detractor. In How God Became Jesus, a book intended to refute Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God, Michael Bird writes (in a chapter called “Did Jesus Think He Was God?”):

I’ve used [historical criteria] myself at times, but like others I’ve become increasingly aware of their limitations and become convinced that they do not offer a path to an objective history of Jesus. For a start, trying to sort out the authentic traditions from the inauthentic traditions is not really that easy, for the simple fact that the history of Jesus has been thoroughly welded together with the early church’s proclamation of Jesus at every point. (p. 33)

Bird’s definition of the CoD

I would, of course, shy away from the term “the early church,” especially in the singular, because it implies unity within ancient Christianity. But other than that, Bird and I mostly agree. If any history at all lies within the gospels, it will necessarily be entangled with the theological concerns of the evangelists and the proclamation of Christ by Jesus’ early followers. No historical criterion can reliably separate them.

Bird offers up the criterion of dissimilarity (CoD) as a failed example.

For [a] case in point, let’s consider Ehrman’s use of the “criterion of dissimilarity,” which on his account dictates that a given unit in the Gospels is historically authentic if “it is dissimilar to what the early Christians would have wanted to say about him.” [Ehrman, 96-97] This criterion is well-known and has received a devastating barrage of criticism to the point that I am, to be frank, at a loss as to why Ehrman continues to use it. It jumped the shark about the same time that the TV show Dawson’s Creek did. (Bird, Evans, et al., p. 33, emphasis mine)

If you’re wondering about that Dawson’s Creek reference, I regret to say that the authors continually veer off into stilted pop culture references. Each time they drag one out, I can’t help but picture an awkward youth pastor in Dockers and a sweater vest trying to sound “hip” for the kids. It’s a constant reminder that we are not their intended audience. Here’s another rib-tickler from Bird:

The background to this saying and the explanation for why Jesus was thought to have committed blasphemy is something like a Jewish version of the TV show Game of Thrones. (p. 43)

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Biblical Scholars in a “Neoliberal-Postmodern” World

jesus-in-an-age-of-neoliberalism2This is part 2 of my review of Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism: Quests, Scholarship and Ideology by James G. Crossley. (Once again I invite Professor Crossley to alert me to anything he sees in these posts that he believes is a misrepresentation of his views.)

The point of chapter 2, Neoliberalism and Postmodernity, is to

provide the broad contextual basis for analysing some of the ways in which Jesus has been constructed in scholarship and beyond in recent decades. (p. 21)

To explain postmodernism and postmodernity Crossley directs us to Terry Eagleton’s understanding in The Illusions of Postmodernism, p. vii:

The word postmodernism generally refers to a form of contemporary culture, whereas the term postmodernity alludes to a specific historical period. Postmodemity is a style of thought which is suspicious of classical notions of truth, reason, identity and objectivity, of the idea of universal progress or emancipation, of single frameworks, grand narratives or ultimate grounds of explanation. Against these Enlightenment norms, it sees the world as contingent, ungrounded, diverse, unstable, indeterminate, a set of disunified cultures or interpretations which breed a degree of scepticism about the objectivity of truth, history and norms, the givenness of natures and the coherence of identities. . . . Postmodernism is a style of culture which reflects something of this epochal change, in a depthless, decentred, ungrounded, self-reflexive, playful, derivative, eclectic, pluralistic art which blurs the boundaries between ‘high’ and ‘popular’ culture, as well as between art and everyday experience.

Crossley explains that he will attempt to link “postmodernity with the political trends in Anglo-American culture”, if not precisely, then by means of a “general case” that itself will be “a strong one”. We’ll see how strong it is as we progress through these reviews.

Crossley did say (see the previous post) that

This book is at least as much about contemporary politics, ideology and culture as it is about Jesus, and in many ways, not least due to unfamiliar approaches in historical Jesus studies, this is almost inevitable. (p. 10)

Now there is much about Crossley’s politics that I like. I share his despair at the political conservatism, the lack of critical political reflection and awareness among his biblical studies peers. I like his idealism and frustration with his peers as well as his respect for their individual decent natures. Unfortunately I sense that too often Crossley loses himself in his efforts to politically educate his peers that he only maintains the most tenuous links with how these political views influence the shape of the historical Jesus produced by these scholars.

The chapter is wide-ranging as we expect when discussions of postmodernity and postmodernism arise. The cultural, economic and political context involves a broad-ranging discussion that consists masses of data: “near hagiographical treatments of the ‘material girl’ Madonna and her MTV stage”,  “Steve Jobs, advertizing his iPoducts as the machinery of the casually clothed”, the politico-cultural symbolism of decaffeinated coffee, television parodies of entrepreneurial culture, 1970s Chile, the recession and oil crisis of 1973, the “sharp rise in personal image consultants in the 1980s”. . . .

Only passing mentions to biblical scholars are found in this chapter (for the reason I mentioned above) and I will focus on those in this post. read more »