Defending the Criterion of Dissimilarity

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by Tim Widowfield

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)

Ehrman’s definition of the CoD

If you hadn’t read Bart’s book, or if, like most of Bird’s audience, you were never going to read it in the first place, you could get the impression that Ehrman had claimed the only way to tell if a saying of the historical Jesus is truly authentic is if and only if it’s completely different from later Christianity. But that’s because Bird has carefully carved out a fragment that misleads the reader. Here’s the actual argument from How Jesus Became God:

Christians would not have made up stories that work against their views or interests. If they told stories like that, it was simply because that’s just the way something actually happened. This methodological principle is sometimes called the criterion of dissimilarity. It states that if a tradition about Jesus is dissimilar to what the early Christians would have wanted to say about him, then it more likely is historically accurate. (Ehrman, p. 49, emphasis mine)

Ehrman is using the criterion to determine the likelihood of a tradition’s authenticity. As an example, he cites the tradition that Jesus came from Nazareth.

Let me illustrate. Jesus is said to have grown up in Nazareth in Mark, M, L, and John; so it is multiply attested. But it also is not a story that a Christian would have been inclined to make up, because it proved to be an embarrassment to later Christians. Nazareth was a small village—a hamlet, really—that no one had ever heard of. Who would invent the idea that the Son of God came from there? It’s hard to see any reason for someone to make it up, so Jesus probably really did come from there. (Ehrman, p. 49, emphasis mine)

Here, Ehrman relates an example of the criterion of embarrassment (CoE) to explain the CoD. Sadly, he has a tendency to confuse the two. John P. Meier (A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1, p. 171) says the two are closely related, presumably because both criteria focus on words and deeds that “go against the grain.” However, it isn’t all that difficult to tell them apart. Embarrassment is the “why-would-anybody-make-it-up?” criterion. On the other hand, the CoD has to do with the distinctiveness of Jesus’ teaching. Quoting Meier:

The criterion of “embarrassment” (so Schillebeeckx) or “contradiction” (so Meyer) focuses on actions or sayings of Jesus that would have embarrassed or created difficulty for the early Church. (Meier, p. 168)

[T]he criterion of discontinuity (also labeled dissimilarity, originality, or dual irreducibility) focuses on words or deeds of Jesus that cannot be derived either from Judaism at the time of Jesus or from the early Church after him. (Meier, 171)

By the way, Ehrman is not alone in his confusion over the two criteria. In Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity, Dagmar Winter writes:

The criterion of dissimilarity to Christianity is based on the principles of historical criticism: if what is found in the source appears dissimilar, that is, disadvantageous or embarrassing to the author or first readers, the only reason for it to be reported is its historical authenticity. The criterion is therefore also called the criterion of embarrassment . . . (Keith, Le Donne, et al., p. 118)

That’s incorrect. Consider two features of Jesus’ sayings in the gospels: his self-designation as the Son of Man and his proclamation of the coming Kingdom of God. In the immediate post-Easter setting his followers shifted their attention. Their gospel was no longer centered on the coming Kingdom of God, but on the returning exalted Lord and salvation through the Son of God. We have absolutely no evidence of embarrassment about the earlier teaching. It’s still there, but the focus has changed.

For what it’s worth, Bird stumbles into a more-or-less correct definition of the CoD.

In extreme cases some scholars looked for a double dissimilarity, whereby a tradition is authentic when it is dissimilar to both Judaism and to the early church. Ehrman wisely uses it in its less extreme form and only applies it to dissimilarity from the early church. (Bird, Evans, et al., p. 33)

Käsemann’s definition of the CoD

Finding teachings in the gospels that are distinctive from Judaism and Christianity is not the extreme form of the criterion; rather it is the criterion in its original form.

This so-called “extreme” case is actually the way Ernst Käsemann first explained it:

[T]here is an almost complete lack of satisfactory and water-tight criteria for this material. In only one case do we have more or less safe ground under our feet; when there are no grounds either for deriving a tradition from Judaism or for ascribing it to primitive Christianity, and especially when Jewish Christianity has mitigated or modified the received tradition, as having been too bold for its taste. (Käsemann, Essays on New Testament Themes, p. 37)

He was, of course, building upon Bultmann’s view that the only way to verify the authenticity of a similitude of Jesus is to establish that it is distinct from Judaism and Christianity. Käsemann expanded the idea to encompass the entire tradition.

Anyone with even the most rudimentary understanding of the CoD ought to know where it came from and how scholars have applied it. In fact, anyone who takes the trouble to write about historical criteria and pass judgment on their usage should at least have read and understood Ernst Käsemann, Norman Perrin, John Meier, etc. Finding teachings in the gospels that are distinctive from Judaism and Christianity is not the extreme form of the criterion; rather it is the criterion in its original form.

Ludicrous speed!


“They’ve gone to plaid!”

In his ignorance, Bird mock-praises Ehrman for only using the approved, “less extreme” version of the CoD. But that still isn’t good enough for Bird.

But even then it verges on the ludicrous. Think about it. A story about Jesus or as a saying attributed to Jesus is only historical if it does not sound anything like what the church was saying about Jesus. What historian would say that the historical Plato is different from what the platonic school said about Plato? (Bird, Evans, et al., p. 33, emphasis mine)

A better question might be, “What historian would say the historical Socrates is different from the Socrates in Plato’s dialogs?” Bird follows with other hypothetical examples:

Who would say that reliable information about the Teacher of Righteousness who founded a community by [the] shores of the Dead Sea can only to be found when material attributed to him in the Dead Sea Scrolls sound nothing like the Dead Sea Scrolls? Who thinks that the real John Wesley can only be retrieved by searching for un-Wesleyan things that Wesleyans said about John Wesley? (Bird, Evans, et al., p. 33, emphasis mine)

A huge rupture, and other unpleasantness

Bird misleads his readers with the word “only.” He implies that all scholars who use the CoD believe that Jesus tradition can be authentic only if it is completely unlike Judaism and early Christianity. But that simply isn’t the case. Perrin, for example, used the CoD to establish the foundation of Jesus’ teaching, but built upon that foundation using the criterion of coherence. That is to say, he determined what is the core, distinctive teaching of Jesus, then filled in the picture with other material that fit with that core.

The criterion of dissimilarity posits a huge rupture between a movement founder and his or her subsequent movement that is simply absurd. You end up with a Jesus who said, thought, and did nothing that his earliest followers believed that he said, thought, and did. Jesus becomes a free-floating iconoclast artificially insulated from the movement that took its name from him, claimed to follow his teachings, and memorialized his deeds and actions. (Bird, Evans, et al., p. 33, emphasis mine)

Bird has proved that if you create an absurd straw man, you can hang it up before the world and ridicule its absurdity. Just to be clear: NT scholars who use the CoD do not envision a “huge rupture” between Jesus and early Christianity. Jesus, they argue, must have been distinctive in some way or he would not have drawn followers and stayed in people’s memories. Yes, he was thoroughly Jewish, but if a saying of Jesus is completely in harmony with early Judaism, how do we know he really said it?

So we have to ask, what were the distinctive features of Jesus’ message? And since we know that the gospels are overladen with post-Easter kerygma, they argue, we need to find core teachings that early Christians modified or perhaps simply ignored. Remember, too, that the distinctive features we’re looking for are not necessarily diametrically opposed to Judaism and Christianity but simply reflect a different emphasis.

Keep in mind that early Christians’ determination to preserve the tradition while explaining that tradition within the context of the resurrection, the message of salvation, the proclamation of the Lord — i.e., kerygma — is precisely why it’s so hard to uncover the authentic life of Jesus.

By acting as it did the community bore (and still bears) witness to history as being living and contemporary. It interprets out of its own experience what for it has already become mere history and employs for this purpose the medium of its preaching. It is precisely by this method that the community rescues the facts of the past from being regarded only as prodigies and wonders. And in so doing it demonstrates that in its eyes Jesus is no mere miracle-worker, but the Kyrios, from whom it knows itself to receive both grace and obligation.

To state the paradox as sharply as possible: the community takes so much trouble to maintain historical continuity with him who once trod this earth that it allows the historical events of this earthly life to pass for the most part into oblivion and replaces them by its own message. (Käsemann, Essays on New Testament Themes, p. 20, )

Bird fails to understand that the “movement that took its name from him” did claim to follow his teachings, and did strive to memorialize his deeds and actions . . . but a funny thing happened on the way to the gospels.

To dream the implausible dream

Early Christians didn’t differentiate between the earthly and risen Jesus. Recall that Luke believed Paul was a witness of Jesus. It’s almost enough to make you want to throw in the towel.

If Bird thinks the CoD verges on ludicrous (perhaps it’s only ridiculous?), then what should take its place?

No wonder, then, that the criterion of dissimilarity has been near universally abandoned and replaced with something far more credible, like a criterion of historical plausibility. We can regard a unit in the Gospels as claiming a high degree of historical authenticity when a saying or event attributed to Jesus makes sense within Judaism (i.e., plausible context) and also represents a starting point for the early church (i.e., a plausible consequence). (Bird, Evans, et al., p. 33, emphasis mine)

That might seem fine to Bird, but it’s hopelessly naive. It simply papers over the problems earlier scholars faced squarely. As Perrin in Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus, wrote:

The point is that contemporary scholarship, as we shall argue below, has been completely successful in explaining pericope after pericope on the basis of the needs and concerns of the early Church, and that over and over again pericopes which have been hitherto accepted as historical reminiscence have been shown to be something quite different.

So far as we can tell today, there is no single pericope anywhere in the gospels, the present purpose of which is to preserve a historical reminiscence of the earthly Jesus, although there may be some which do in fact come near to doing so because a reminiscence, especially of an aspect of teaching such as a parable, could be used to serve the purpose of the Church or the evangelist. (Perrin, p. 16, emphasis and reformatting mine)

Without some sort of control mechanism, we have no way of telling what Jesus really said versus what the church wanted or needed him to say (and thus invented or received through prophecy). It’s a difficult situation. Early Christians didn’t differentiate between the earthly and risen Jesus. Recall that Luke believed was Paul a witness of Jesus. It’s almost enough to make you want to throw in the towel.

Indeed, on accepting this view of the tradition, one’s first impulse is simply to give up the ghost and content oneself with selecting from the earlier strata of the tradition such teaching as is in keeping with one’s overall view of the historical Jesus, making no systematic attempt to defend the authenticity of each saying used. But this could lead to a multiplicity of pictures of Jesus of Nazareth and could amount to an abandoning of any scientific historical research upon him and his teaching. (Perrin, p. 32, emphasis mine)

In case you missed it, Perrin had already anticipated Bird’s beloved criterion and explained why it’s a dead end. The result of using plausibility as one’s rule of thumb is a portfolio of Jesuses who look just like the artists who sketched him. Don’t say Perrin didn’t warn you. Oh yeah, Käsemann did, too:

The inevitable consequence is a bewildering confusion of allegedly trustworthy portraits of Jesus: now he appears as a rabbi, now as a teacher of wisdom, now as a prophet; or again, as the man who thought of himself as the Son of Man or the Suffering Servant, who stood for an apocalyptic or a realized eschatology: or finally, as some sort of a mixture of all these. (Käsemann, p. 35)

Perrin’s use of the CoD

Clearly neither Bird nor Ehrman understands the CoD, so maybe we should consult with someone who did: Norman Perrin. First of all, Perrin explained why we need criteria of authenticity. Simply put, it’s because the material in the NT is unreliable and, hence, the burden of proof is on anyone who would assert that a given element in the tradition is authentic.


Briefly, here are some reasons Perrin considered the NT tradition historically unreliable.

  • The evangelists’ primary concern was not preserving historical data. Every pericope that appears in the gospel can be shown to have a purpose for the early church.
  • The early Christian community did not differentiate between the risen Christ and the historical Jesus.
  • We know that the gospels contain a great deal of “teaching ascribed to Jesus and yet, in fact, [it comes] from the early Church” (Perrin, p. 16)
  • The evangelists show a remarkable degree of freedom in how they changed or added to the traditions they received.
  • Even Mark, which most scholars believe is the earliest gospel, shows clear signs of theological motivation.

Conservative scholars push back against this bleak assessment. Bird quotes Sean Freyne:

“Either we accept that the early followers of Jesus had some interest in and memory of the historical figure of Jesus as they began to proclaim the good news about him, or we must abandon the process entirely.” (Bird, Evans, et al., p. 32)

We’ve seen similar protestations from Bauckham, Dunn, and the usual suspects. But Perrin explained that against the argument that there were eyewitnesses as well as people who wanted to keep that pristine memory alive:

This argument would be effective if we could show that these men, unlike Paul and Luke, did feel that it was important to maintain the separate identity of the historical Jesus, and hence to preserve the Jesus tradition from changes under the influence of the risen Lord. It has always to be remembered that no one in the early Church regarded the changes going on in the synoptic-type Jesus-tradition as due to anything other than the influence of the risen Lord. The only man whose work we can trace in the synoptic tradition who ever concerns himself to remain reasonably true, in our sense of that word, to his sources is Luke, and even he does not hesitate to make very considerable changes indeed when he has theological reasons for doing so. (Perrin, p. 28, emphasis mine)

Burden of Proof

Given the nature of the tradition, Perrin admitted that if he wanted to claim any tradition is authentic, the burden was on him. He recognized the challenge and accepted it.

What next? Well, clearly we have to ask ourselves the question as to whether this saying should now be attributed to the early Church or to the historical Jesus, and the nature of the synoptic tradition is such that the burden of proof will be upon the claim to authenticity. This means in effect that we must look for indications that the saying does not come from the Church, but from the historical Jesus. Actually, our task is even more complex than this, because the early Church and the New Testament are indebted at very many points to ancient Judaism.

Therefore, if we are to ascribe a saying to Jesus, and accept the burden of proof laid upon us, we must he able to show that the saying comes neither from the Church nor from ancient Judaism. This seems to many to be too much to ask, but nothing less will do justice to the challenge of the burden of the proof. There is no other way to reasonable certainty that we have reached the historical Jesus. (Perrin, p. 39, bold emphasis and reformatting mine)

We should note here that many of today’s conservative scholars deny the unreliability of the tradition and the burden of proof. Eddy and Boyd, for example, insist:

[O]ne is justified (on purely historical grounds) in concluding that the Synoptic portrait(s) of Jesus is quite historically plausible — in fact, that it is the most historically probable representation of the actual Jesus of history. At the very least, we contend, the cumulative case for the general reliability of the Synoptic presentation(s) of Jesus is such that the a posteriori burden of proof . . . rests on those who contend that this portrait is generally unreliable.

Boyd, Gregory A.; Eddy, Paul Rhodes (2007-08-01). The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition (Kindle Locations 127-131). Baker Book Group – A. Kindle Edition.

Their arguments may not convince you or me, but it’s really the only choice for those who want to scrap the criteria of authenticity and argue that we can know anything for certain about the historical Jesus. They somehow must try to prove against all evidence that the tradition is reliable.

Perrin’s definition of the CoD

Perrin called the criterion of dissimilarity “the fundamental criterion for authenticity upon which all reconstructions of the teaching of Jesus must be built.

[T]he earliest form of a saying we can reach may be regarded as authentic if it can be shown to be dissimilar to characteristic emphases both of ancient Judaism and of the early Church, and this will particularly be the case where Christian tradition oriented towards Judaism can be shown to have modified the saying away from its original emphasis. (Perrin, p. 39, emphasis mine)

While it’s painfully clear that reliance on this criterion excludes large amounts of teaching that agrees with Judaism or early Christianity, “we have no choice.”

There is simply no other starting-point that takes seriously enough the radical view of the nature of the sources which results of contemporary research are forcing upon us. (Perrin, p. 43)

But there’s more to it:

With the criterion of dissimilarity as our starting-point, and with the results of the application of this criterion as the only foundation upon which we can build, the next step is to find a criterion by means of which we can move carefully into areas of tradition where this criterion would not be applicable. Here we propose a second criterion, which we will call ‘the criterion of coherence’: material from the earliest strata of the tradition may be accepted as authentic if it can be shown to cohere with material established as authentic by means of the criterion of dissimilarity. (Perrin, p. 43, emphasis mine)

By “coherence,” Perrin explained he meant simply that it all “hangs together.”

The real problem with the CoD

As we alluded to earlier, conservative scholars do not like and never have liked the CoD. It doesn’t produce the historical Jesus they need. To fight back, they resort to some or all of the following tactics:

  1. They note that the CoD had its roots with skeptical German form critics, and you know how they are.
  2. They fight back against the charge that the gospels are unreliable by asserting that they are.
  3. They push the burden of proof back on critical scholars who say the gospels are not generally reliable.
  4. They caricature the CoD as a ludicrous thought experiment that divorces Jesus completely from Judaism and Christianity.

And now I must reveal my true intentions. I have exhumed the body of the CoD only to bury it again, because there truly are fundamental issues that inhibit its effective use. Specifically, it assumes that we know more about first-century Judaism than we really do, and that we can confidently state what would and would not fall within its boundaries.

Here’s how Morna Hooker put it in her 1970 essay, “Christology and Methodology.”

Since the method proceeds by eliminating ideas found in Judaism and early Christianity, it presupposes a fairly confident knowledge of both areas. To what extent is this justified? Use of this criterion seems to assume that we are dealing with two known factors (Judaism and Early Christianity) and one unknown — Jesus; it would perhaps be a fairer statement of the situation to say 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. (Hooker, p. 482, emphasis mine)

It’s a variation of the black swan problem.

  • All swans are white.
  • Stanley is a swan.
  • Therefore Stanley is white.

We only know what we can learn from our limited observations. Until black swans were found in Australia, one could confidently state the above syllogism and be confident of its soundness. But now we know it’s unsound, or to put it more delicately, it will not yield reliable results.

One thing we do know is the more we learn about primitive Christianity, the more fragmented we find it to be. Can we be sure of dissimilarity with so much diversity? Probably not. Scholars think they can, but wind up looking foolish.

Sheep and goats

Here’s an example of the problem, as manifested in Ehrman’s latest book. He recounts Jesus’ story of the sheep and the goats which teaches a doctrine of salvation and damnation according to a person’s works. But Ehrman says that conflicts with early Christianity:

It is a spectacular passage. And it almost certainly is something very close to what Jesus actually said. And why? Because it is not at all what the early Christians thought about how a person gains eternal life. The early Christian church taught that a person is rewarded with salvation by believing in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The Apostle Paul, for example, was quite adamant that people could not earn their salvation by doing the things the law required them to do, or in fact by doing anything at all. If that were possible, there would have been no reason for Christ to have died (see, for example, Gal. 2:15–16, 21) Even in Matthew’s Gospel the focus of attention is on the salvation that Jesus brings by his death and resurrection. In this saying of Jesus, however, people gain eternal life not because they have believed in Christ (they have never even seen or heard of the Son of Man), but because they have done good things for people in need. This is not a saying that early Christians invented. It embodies the views of Jesus. (Ehrman, p. 54, emphasis mine)

Stated as a syllogism:

  • All early Christians believed in justification by faith alone.
  • This passage promulgates a doctrine of justification and damnation by works.
  • Therefore, early Christians did not invent it; it’s an authentic teaching of Jesus.

Ehrman has somehow forgotten the riotous diversity not just in early Christianity but within the text of the NT itself. Who can forget the words of the risen Jesus in Revelation?

2:23 — “And I will kill her children with death; and all the churches shall know that I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts: and I will give unto every one of you according to your works.”

20:13 — And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.

22:12 — “And, behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be.” (KJV)

John of Patmos saw Jesus as the righteous judge of the quick and the dead who cared about what people did, not what they believed. Sadly, Ehrman’s Protestant background leads him to believe in a mythical proto-orthodoxy in which the “original” expression of Christianity was that of Paul. But not every Christian would have believed that way. His very reference to what “the early Christian church taught” is an anachronism and is highly misleading.

This is the guy who wrote a book called “Lost Christianities.” How did Ehrman miss the lamentation* of black swans milling about in his back yard?


Above I mentioned some of the tactics conservative scholars use to discredit the CoD, and said that a big reason for this behavior stems from their dissatisfaction with its results. I suspect, however, that we can also explain their attacks on the CoD to a visceral denial of its foundations. For my part, I fully agree with Perrin’s and Käsemann’s critique of the tradition as we have it. My problem lies with the application of the CoD to rescue authentic tradition from the text of the NT.

Just how far will they go to discredit the CoD? Here’s a tidbit from Anthony Le Donne in his chapter on the criterion of coherence. He lists his issues with the CoD, ending with:

Third, if the criterion [of dissimilarity] could isolate elements of Jesus’ ministry that were dissimilar from Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity (and I am not sure that it can), it would only serve to exaggerate the importance of idiosyncratic, minor, and/or peripheral content in Jesus’ ministry. For example, Jesus’ statement on divorce is elevated to undue prominence, while statements about the Jerusalem priesthood are obscured. It would be like beginning a biography of Adolf Hitler; with emphasis on the fact that he was a vegetarian, while obscuring his statements about European politics. Put colloquially, “[T]he criterion of dissimilarity is hogwash.” [quoting Jack Sanders] (Keith, Le Donne, et al., p. 108-109, emphasis mine)

Within the synoptic gospels, one can hardly think of a more central teaching than the coming Kingdom of God.

Le Donne has forgotten that Perrin’s first example of Jesus’ distinctive teaching was the coming Kingdom of God. It’s a pervasive and fundamental theme in the Synoptics. While Jewish prayers frequently mentioned the kingdom “appearing” and God also “appearing” as its king, we have no references at all to its “coming.”

The teaching of Jesus, on the other hand, not only regularly uses the verb ‘to come’ in connection with the Kingdom and avoids the other verbs more characteristic of ancient Judaism, it also never speaks of God ‘appearing’ as king as do the Jewish texts. While Jesus is concerned with essentially the same eschatological hope as is found in the ancient prayers and apocalyptic literature, both in preferring ‘Kingdom’ to direct references to God (The expression ‘Kingdom of God’ is in fact surprisingly rare in the apocalyptic literature. See N. Perrin, Kingdom, p. 168.) and also in using the verb ‘to come’ in connection with the Kingdom, he differs significantly from his immediate background. (Perrin, p. 58)

Note well here that Perrin acknowledged the origin of the term Kingdom of God, but recognized the new twist that Jesus seems to have put on it. It’s a matter of emphasis. Perrin continued:

On these points, however, not only does Jesus differ from ancient Judaism — the early Church also differs from him. Outside the synoptic gospels we never find the verb ‘to come’ used with Kingdom, for what is to come, in the view of the early Church, is not the Kingdom but the Lord Jesus (I Cor. 16.22; Rev. 22.20) and, especially, of course, the Lord Jesus as Son of man, whereas we do find the verb ‘to reign’ with God as subject, albeit only in the book of Revelation (11.17). 

[footnote: In Rev. 12.10, which RSV translates, ‘Now the salvation . . . and the Kingdom of our God . . . have come’, the verb is not erchomai or phthanō but ginomai.] (Perrin, p. 58-59, emphasis mine)

Further, Perrin noted that in ancient Jewish texts, what “comes” is not the Kingdom of God but the New Age. Perrin posited the following trajectory. What is coming?

  • Judaism: The New Age, in which God will rule in his kingdom.
  • Jesus: The Kingdom of God
  • Christianity: The Lord Jesus

So, despite Le Donne’s insistence that the CoD “would only serve to exaggerate the importance of idiosyncratic, minor, and/or peripheral content in Jesus’ ministry,” we find exactly the opposite to be true. Within the synoptic gospels, one can hardly think of a more central teaching than the coming Kingdom of God.

By the way, do you think that reference to Hitler was a fluke? It must be. Nobody would go all Godwin on the CoD just to prove a point.

Of course, playing the anti-Semitism card is another matter. Dagmar Winter in a chapter of Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity, entitled “Saving the Quest for Authenticity from the Criterion of Dissimilarity: History and Plausibility” writes:

The criterion is predicated on a poor appreciation of Second Temple Judaism, coupled with a prejudicial anti-Judaist, if not anti-Semitic, view of Jewish religion. (Keith, Le Donne, et al., p. 124, emphasis mine)

Nice, huh? It isn’t enough to burn the city to the ground; they have to bury landmines and surround the rubble with concertina wire. I surely wouldn’t want to use an anti-Semitic criterion, would you?

* Lamentation is a collective noun for a group of swans. By the way, I plan to write more about Ehrman’s book and its critics under the series title: “An Exaltation of Sarx.” I just wanted to claim copyright on that one before anyone else thought of it.

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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11 thoughts on “Defending the Criterion of Dissimilarity”

  1. JW:
    There is logic to CoE. I think the best example is the supposed baptism. Are “Matthew”/”Luke”/”John” embarrassed by their Jesus being baptized? You bet. Is it evidence that a baptized Jesus was in their source? Sure. But their source is “Mark”, not necessarily history.

    “Mark’s” primary theme is that Jesus needed to be embarrassed so you have strong literary evidence that Markan narrative with supposed embarrassment may not be historical, but just a literary device.

    CBS (Christian Bible scholarship) generally takes Jesus’ supposed baptism as a fact due to multiple attestation and CoE. But here CoE is countered by weak source evidence (anonymous authors) and the likely original baptism narrative written with major style and contrivance (evidences for fiction).

    There’s nothing wrong with CoE, it’s just its application here by CBS that is at fault. CoE is literary criticism and is therefore secondary evidence to source criticism. Here the source criticism evidence is all for history but is weak due to lack of credibility by the authors. At the same time the literary criticism evidence for fiction is strong. The baptism may be historical but it is not proved by CoE which is secondary evidence and is offset here by evidence for fiction.


  2. “It states that if a tradition about Jesus is dissimilar to what the early Christians would have wanted to say about him, then it more likely is historically accurate. (Ehrman, p. 49, ….)”

    One of the things that bothers me a great deal about current Jesus studies is when inductive probability is sloppily subsumed within a deductive criteria argument. We see this above where Ehrman uses the phrase “more likely”. In order for the phrase to be accurate, there would need to be evidence for Ehrman’s claim that is greater than 50% (unless he is arguing simply that his interpretation is better than others in which he is making a more-plausible-than-those-other-deductions argument and not one that establishes historicity). It may exist but I have not seen any work that attempts to canvas Antiquities literature for evidence that this criteria has evidential support to the tune of 51% or more.

    One cannot just stick a probability premise into a syllogism. A less wrong way to phrase Ehrman’s statement above might be, “It states that if a tradition about Jesus is dissimilar to what the early Christians would have wanted to say about him, then it more likely is historically plausible. This cleaned up approach helps us to avoid the mistake you point out whereby historians sometimes assume more knowledge about the events in question than evidence actually shows.

    1. Just to be clear, a fully cleaned up usage of this criteria statement would be to use it as a working hypothesis that then is tested against actual external evidence.

      1. Assuming we’re talking about the criterion of embarrassment (mislabeled as dissimilarity), even if we could prove the specific, I don’t see how it helps Ehrman’s case.

        For example, suppose we can really conclude that the author of gJohn was embarrassed by the baptism of Jesus. We don’t know that John the evangelist is representative of all his contemporaries. In fact, I would argue strongly that he merely represents one of many understandings of Christianity at the time. We are not justified in arguing from the specific (John) to the general (all Christians).

        Further, even if we could generalize from John’s supposed embarrassment, we cannot make the logical leap to say it’s an authentic historical event. Of course, many HJ scholars take the logic train way past the last station and insist Jesus was a disciple of John the Baptist.

  3. Yes. It appears to me that the argument rests on the false dilemma/excluded middle fallacy which is the kind of thing that could be cleared up if we actually had sufficient evidence concerning the (various) belief foundations of early adopters.

    1. The knee-jerk reaction from the scholars is to accuse us of being overly skeptical or trying to erase history.

      I was thinking the other day about whether it actually bothered me that we can’t know anything about the historical Jesus. Sure, it’s a tantalizing mystery, and I’d love it if we found, say, an early version of Q (if it exists) that would cause us all to rethink our positions.

      However, if I had a choice in the matter, there are a lot more important lost works I’d rather see turn up, starting with Claudius’ 20-volume history of the Etruscans or perhaps Livy’s lost books on the history of Rome.


      1. Just to satisfy my own curiosity and not because it would necessarily prove anything at all regarding the HJ hypothesis, I would be interested in a pre-250 or so Antiquities. My hypothesis would be that if one were found, there would be no mention of Jesus Christ in either Book 18 or Book 20. Whether H(1), H(2), or H(3) were supported by such a find would have, I think, methodological ramifications.

  4. “Until black swans were found in Australia, one could confidently state the above syllogism and be confident of its SOUNDNESS. But now we know it’s UNSOUND, or to put it more delicately, it will not yield reliable results.”


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