The Memory Mavens, Part 8: Chris Keith, Post-Criteria Scholar? (1)

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by Tim Widowfield

Ricky Jay
Photo: Lincoln lays his hand on Ricky Jay
Poster from the film Deceptive Practice.

When magician Ricky Jay performs an amazing card trick, people will often ask, “How do you do that?” He always answers, “Very well, thank you.”

Such masters of prestidigitation rarely, if ever, give away their secrets. Sometimes they take their arcane methods with them to the grave, leaving even their fellow conjurers to wonder for eternity, “How did he do that?”

Of course, it isn’t supposed to be that way in scholarship. We should be able to look at a paper’s abstract and have a fairly good idea as to the author’s thesis, methods, terminology, etc. And yet, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read the works of the Memory Mavens and wondered to myself, “What are they getting at?”

Worse than that, I’m frequently left wondering how the scholar, after many pages of legerdemain, leaves us with a portrait of Jesus left on the table — which is exactly the one he predicted (and hoped) he would find. What was his method? “How did he do that?”

A New Methodology?

The Memory Mavens often spend a great deal of time expounding upon the deficiencies of the criteria approach. In Chris Keith’s Jesus Against the Scribal Elite: The Origin of the Conflict he says it “represents [an] ill-conceived historiographical method that is essentially stuck in historical positivism.” (Keith, 2014, Kindle Locations 1539-1540) He writes:

. . . I consider it irreparably broken and invalid as a historical method. The issue for the scholarly agenda now is to define a post-criteria quest for the historical Jesus. (Keith, 2014, Kindle Locations 1559-1561, emphasis mine)

As far as Keith is concerned, we can take the criteria of embarrassment, dissimilarity, coherence, and all the rest, and throw them right out the window. They aren’t just broken; they’re fundamentally flawed.

In his concluding essay to the volume, Jesus among Friends and Enemies: A Historical and Literary Introduction to Jesus in the Gospels, Keith notes with disdain that relying on criteria “mistakenly” assumes we can extract the “real” Jesus hidden behind the text. He notes that more and more scholars are abandoning this approach.

Since the criteria of authenticity are built upon this assumption, and devised as a means of separating one from the other, this abandonment problematizes the usage of criteria of authenticity. (Keith, 2011, Kindle Locations 6314-6315, emphasis mine)

I hate when things get problematized, and I’ll bet you do, too. So the best thing, clearly, would be to set them aside.

Keith advocates a different methodology, one based on “memory theory research.” (He always says those three words together, and I salute his discipline.) In his book, Jesus Against the Scribal Elite, he has a good opportunity to try out this new approach. He argues that we have two conceptions of Jesus within the gospels — one as a scribal-illiterate teacher versus one as a scribal-literate teacher — because people who watched him preach and who witnessed his disputes with scribal authorities came away with different impressions.

In order to get to that point he must first build a case establishing the historical probability that:

  1. Jesus actually existed.
  2. Jesus was a teacher (viz., an itinerant teacher from Galilee).
  3. Jesus engaged in disputes with scribal authorities (Pharisees, scribes, Sadducees, etc.).
  4. Jesus was not literate, at least not sufficiently literate to read the texts under dispute.

Having established these foundational points, he will then proceed to argue how some people remembered Jesus as a literate teacher while others thought he was not.

Did Jesus Exist?

Obviously, this item is just a placeholder. You’ll have to imagine NT scholars engaged in an honest discussion about Jesus’ basic historicity. Nothing to see here. Move along.

Well, there is something I suppose we could mention with respect to Keith’s point of view. He has no patience with people who are “overly skeptical.” He rhapsodizes about Barry Schwartz’s views on anti-presentism.

The fact that a narrative carries symbolic value in a later period (such as Jesus in the controversy narratives symbolically representing later Christians and his enemies in the narratives symbolically representing their enemies) does not automatically render that narrative ahistorical or useless for historical research. While indicting this type of overly skeptical Jesus scholarship, Schwartz provides an apt counterexample from American history: “John F. Kennedy’s birthplace, Boston, connects him to the beginning of the American Revolution, but this hardly means that he was not born in Boston.” (Keith, 2011, Kindle Locations 420-424, emphasis mine)

English: John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Hist...
English: John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site in Brookline, Massachusetts (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In one sense, Schwartz and Keith are correct. We shouldn’t discard the idea that JFK was born in Boston simply because it connects him to memories of Lexington and Concord. On the other hand, just a few seconds on Google (at the risk of being labeled “overly skeptical”) shows us another, better reason to discard the idea.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was not born in Boston.

As Ed-M pointed out in a comment from Neil’s post “Does Social Memory Theory Advance Historical Jesus Studies?“:

Actually, John F. Kennedy wasn’t born in Boston. He was born in Brookline, Mass., which never was a part of the City of Boston, and still isn’t, even unto this very day.

Now, “born at Boston”, or “born in greater Boston”, has a ring of truth to it, instead of being just truthy while actually being a falsehood!

Unlike many of the surrounding communities that Boston has annexed over the years, Brookline has remained staunchly independent since 1705. They’re proud of their native son and would be disappointed to know that some scholars are giving Boston all the credit. Inadvertently, Keith has helped demonstrate an apt, ironic example of scholarly credulity and faulty memory. People will believe what they want to believe, including people with PhDs.

We “know” some things

Keith, for example, wants to believe that the baptism and the crucifixion definitely happened. In a Biblical Studies Online interview, he says:

. . . [A]t one point in time I realized I was defending myself against questions about whether I thought that we could know anything about the historical Jesus. [Chuckles.] I was getting asked whether he was really baptized or whether he was really crucified. Of course those things happened! I have no problem saying that. [Chuckles] I think, as I said, I think we can know a lot about the historical Jesus. (Keith, 2015, 17:10-17:30)

If you’ve followed NT scholarship for any length of time, you’ll recognize the preceding as a confession aimed not so much at us slobs, but rather at his colleagues, which explains why he giggles and his voice raises two octaves when he says, “Of course.” Note that where an actual historian might be content to say “we can be reasonably certain,” Keith says “we know.” One does not wander too close to the third rail of NT studies without some degree of trepidation; the best way to stay safe is to confess quickly and loudly.

How and why does Keith “know” these things? Well, partly because he believes social memory theory shows that certain kinds of events in the past constrain how people remember them in the present. James Crossley, right on schedule, brings up the Holocaust (citing Hayden White). Keith responds:

So, part of it is semantics, of course, and all scholarship is, but I think that, you know, what you noted about Hayden White and the Holocaust is a classic example of this. Now, no one is saying that real things didn’t happen in the past. The question is how we know about those things, how we come to make judgments about those things, and whether we can access the raw, uninterpreted past. You know, I adhere to a particular stream of social memory theory research that insists that in some instances like the Holocaust, or I would say like the crucifixion of Jesus, the past forces itself upon the present. There’s only so many things you can do hermeneutically with really tragic, atrocious events. You’re limited . . . The past actually constrains the present interpretive activity. So, of course the past really does come to us, but it never comes to us in an unpackaged reality. (Keith, 2015, 19:45-20:41, bold emphasis mine)

If you’ve been reading along with the Memory Mavens series, you’ll recall that Maurice Halbwalchs essentially said the exact opposite: that it’s often the most traumatic events that lead to deep reflection and heavy reinterpretation. Jan Vansina vindicated those earlier insights while studying oral tradition in the field, concluding that: “The memory of oral tradition is more dynamic at all times than individual memory.” (See Part 1 of this series.)

Was Jesus a Teacher?

Like any NT scholar worth his salt, Keith needs to build his case on a sure foundation. I was looking forward to watching that process unfold. He had whetted my appetite for this new memory-theory-research-based approach that could replace or at least begin to replace the criteria of authenticity, and I really wanted to see it in action.

Let’s be clear: Keith says we absolutely must do this, because the old methodology is “hopelessly broken.” He explains his position in great detail in his essay, “The Indebtedness of the Criteria Approach to Form Criticism and Recent Attempts to Rehabilitate the Search for an Authentic Jesus” (in Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity):

I must pause to note the significance of these conclusions, with which I agree and have elsewhere defended at length. The assumption that scholars can establish “authentic” tradition as something in contrast to, and recovered from, early theological interpretation is the foundational basis of the criteria approach. It is the soil from which all further logical developments—such as using “dissimilarity,” “embarrassment,” or “multiple attestation” in order to perform the separation and extrication of the tradition—grow and have their sustenance. Once that foundation crumbles, the criteria approach is irreparably broken. If there is no such thing as past-without-interpretation in gospel tradition, there is no such thing as “authentic tradition” as the criteria approach defines it, and therefore nothing for the criteria of authenticity to extricate. (Keith, 2012, p. 40, bold emphasis mine)

Not only do the criteria of authenticity have form-critical cooties all over them, but, he explains, the whole idea that we can separate authentic tradition from the NT is misguided.

Good old-fashioned arguments

But don’t despair. Keith thinks historians can still “make arguments” to determine whether or not something probably happened. In his interview with Crossley, answering the question, “What do you do now?” — or more specifically how historical Jesus study is now done, without reliance on criteria, he says:

Yeah, that’s a great question. It’s one, frankly, that I’ve kind of come to despise when it gets asked kind of at conferences, and after papers and what not. You know, because the implication is: “Oh, you’re taking this away, and you’re not putting anything it its place.” And I think it just — that type of question, not the way you asked it, but the way that I get asked it sometimes, just shows the — in many ways the fact that historical Jesus research has become so accustomed to letting the criteria of authenticity make our decisions for us. You know, “Well, if you take away this, how do we do anything?”

Well, the quest for the historical Jesus has always been much bigger than the criteria of authenticity; they’re not the only game in town — and never have been. I really like what you did in your most recent book in saying that what we’re really looking for is we’re back to kind of this — you used this phrase — it’s kind of an old-fashioned argument, you know, making arguments about collective weight, what carries the most weight, what’s the best argument that we can make? But it has to be done on a case-by-case basis. 

You know, the important thing about, for me, the implications of social memory theory for what replaces the criteria of authenticity is that social memory theory itself doesn’t make determinations about historical value it only kind of provides a context in which you can make those, but scholars have to go about making them themselves. In other words, we have to do what scholars have always done, which is forward arguments about likely scenarios — why we think that that’s most likely or what’s not most likely, and then let our peers judge it, but it’s up to us to make those arguments. (Keith, 2015, 28:39-36:18)

I am at a disadvantage here, since I can only hear what Keith is saying, unable to watch his hands wave convincingly. However, in a nutshell, I gather that one makes arguments without the use of criteria by making arguments. (You might want to write that down.) Just go out there and make an argument, young scholars. And how do you make that argument? By explaining why.

A post-criteria argument?

Now that we’re properly armed for the task ahead, let’s watch how a professional does it. Keith argues that Jesus was a teacher. I will reproduce his argument below in full.

According to Matthew, Mark, and John, Jesus’s followers often referred to him as “rabbi,” a word used in Aramaic and Hebrew that technically means “my great one” but functioned as an honorific title for pedagogical figures. [1] Thus John 1:38 translates the transliterated rabbi for its readers as “Teacher” (didaskalos). [2] Didaskalos appears in all four Gospels in reference to Jesus. [3] The Gospels, therefore, collectively affirm that those around Jesus recognized him as a rabbi and teacher, and there is no reason to doubt this portrayal. [5] (Keith, 2014, Kindle Locations 555-561)

Endnote 1: Matt. 26: 25, 49; Mark 9: 5; 11: 21; 14: 45; John 1: 38, 49; 3: 2; 4: 31; 6: 25; 9: 2; 11: 8. Rabbi never appears as a title for Jesus in Luke’s Gospel.

Endnote 2: See also John 20: 16, which translates the related term rabbouni also as “Teacher.” Rabbouni occurs elsewhere in Gospel tradition only at Mark 10: 51.

Endnote 3: Matt. 8: 19; 9: 11; 10: 24, 25; 12: 38; 17: 24; 19: 16; 22: 16, 24, 36; 23: 8; 26: 18; Mark 4: 38; 5: 35; 9: 17, 38; 10: 17, 20, 35; 12: 14, 19, 32; 13: 1; 14: 14; Luke 6: 40; 7: 40; 8: 49; 9: 38; 10: 25; 11: 45; 12: 13; 18: 18; 19: 39; 20: 21, 28, 39; 21: 7; 22: 11; John 1: 38; 3: 2, 10; 8: 4; 11: 28; 13: 13, 14; 20: 16.

Endnote 4: Dale C. Allison Jr., Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010), 24. Consider also Keener, Historical, 186, who notes that Jesus’s identity as a sage is something “the majority of scholars today accept regardless of their views on other issues.” Further, Leander E. Keck, Who Is Jesus? History in Perfect Tense, SPNT (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000), 65, claims, “To a considerable degree the history of the quest [of the historical Jesus] is the quest of Jesus the teacher.”

Endnote 5: Bruce Chilton et al., “Rabbi as a Title for Jesus,” in A Comparative Handbook to the Gospel of Mark: Comparisons with Pseudepigrapha, the Qumran Scrolls, and Rabbinic Literature, ed. Bruce Chilton et al., NTGJC 1 (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 561. In sharp contrast, Martin Hengel, The Charismatic Leader and His Followers, ed. John Riches, trans. James C. G. Greig (Edinburgh: T& T Clark, 1981), 50, argues that on account of the lack of clarity for the meaning of “rabbi,” “we should desist altogether from the description of Jesus as a ‘rabbi.’”

In the first sentence we learn that three of the four gospel writers refer to Jesus using the term “rabbi.” The second sentence shows that the author of the Fourth Gospel equated the term “rabbi” with “teacher” in Greek. The third sentence tells us that every gospel uses the term didaskalos (διδάσκαλος). Therefore, given its multiple attestation in the gospels, we have no reason to doubt the fact that Jesus was a teacher.

Post-criteria criteria?

Hang on. What’s that again? Multiple attestation? I thought the Memory Mavens had tossed the criteria into the bin marked Irreparably Broken. Wasn’t Keith going to use the context of “memory theory research” in order to argue his points? I’m confused. Perhaps that last sentence will clear things up: “The Gospels, therefore, collectively affirm that those around Jesus recognized him as a rabbi and teacher, and there is no reason to doubt this portrayal.”

Well, that looks like multiple attestation to me. What’s worse — Keith doesn’t even take the time to establish any kind of source independence, which is a problem, because if all the other gospels have copied from Mark, then the argument has no weight. Remember how we were going to make old-fashioned arguments that have weight?

And what’s with the “no reason to doubt” tagline? I get rather edgy when people say that, because it implies that the default position is to believe something is true, that it’s up to overly skeptical skeptics to produce evidence to the contrary, and that I shouldn’t even waste my time doubting it because “there is no reason.”

In endnotes 1 and 3 Keith provides a list of every occurrence of rabbi and teacher in the gospels, though I can’t imagine who wouldn’t just refer to a Greek concordance of the NT for that task. And in fact, if we check a concordance for appearances of the Greek words meaning teacher, instruction, teach, etc., we find an abundance of them in the gospels — nearly all applied to Jesus himself. Yet the remaining New Testament books have few, if any.

Surely we must consider both facts remarkable. The epistles contain far fewer occurrences of these words, and when they do, they almost always refer to human teachers of the gospel and to instruction about Jesus. As you recall, in part 6 of this series, we asked: “How Did Paul Remember Jesus?” We noted the stark differences between Jesus’ and Paul’s gospels.

Word usage as keys to Paul’s conception of Christ

Paul’s writing about Jesus lacks the words teacher, instruction, and disciple, because these conceptual categories do not exist in Paul’s gospel.

To these differences we must add a more pervasive, more fundamental difference: Paul’s conception of Christ. In the previous post we wondered why Paul would reject or disregard “the teachings of the disciples who supposedly knew and learned from the greatest teacher who ever lived.”

However, a further study of the terms he used in his letters suggests that Paul simply did not conceive of Jesus as a teacher who imparted instruction to disciples. He assiduously avoids these terms. Instead, Christ is their Lord who (however infrequently) dictates commands that are relayed by apostles. Consider, for instance, one of the very few places in which Paul seems to be passing on teaching from the earthly Jesus:

To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband. 1 Cor. 7:10 (ESV)

Instead of “charge,” some English translations use the word “instruction” or “commandment” here. The underlying word in Greek is παραγγέλλω (paraggéllō), whose etymology we can trace to the military practice of passing orders through the proper chain of command. Hence, Paul is telling us that the Lord, through him, has given them an order not to divorce.

Anyone who insists that Paul knew of the tradition about Jesus’ teaching concerning the proscription against divorce should at least try to explain why Paul, a supposed Pharisee who would have felt completely at home in a structured discussion of the Torah that would prove Jesus’ point, dropped it completely. Not only does Paul tell us he had received training in the law as a Pharisee, but he also analyzes the Torah in his own epistles to extract proofs to further his own gospel.

We have two choices, either of which is damaging to the case that we have “no reason to doubt” that Jesus was a teacher:

  1. Paul knew of the tradition and ignored it.
  2. Paul had no knowledge of the tradition.

Note that we aren’t just talking about semantics. Paul doesn’t simply prefer some words over others; rather, he conceives of Christ differently from the portrayal of Jesus in the gospels. Paul’s writing about Jesus lacks the words teacher, instruction, and disciple, because these conceptual categories do not exist in Paul’s gospel.

I honestly can’t think of any argument to explain the first choice above (i.e., Paul disregarded Jesus’ teaching), that isn’t ad hoc, and that doesn’t pretend “to get behind the text.” Was Paul so pigheaded that he wouldn’t listen to Jesus’ disciples? Was he so jealous of his own converts that he refused to give anyone else credit? Did Paul simply forget to mention in every one of his letters that Jesus was the ideal teacher and that followers of Christ are heirs to a great and important body of teaching?

Let me offer an alternative explanation. For Paul, the categories of teacher and prophet are distinctively human categories, incompatible with his Christology. Teaching, prophesying, along with speaking in tongues and other gifts of the spirit emanate from God through Christ to humans.

Teachers are people (men) who are like us, except that they have knowledge along with the gifts of learning and teaching. Prophets are humans who experience brief, fleeting contact with the divine realm in order to relay messages from that realm. But Christ is in perpetual union with the divine realm. Paul considers himself a teacher. Christ (his Lord) cannot be in the same category. Jesus is the proclaimed. Paul and his coreligionists are the proclaimers.

Furthermore, while the other apostles may have objected to the way Paul had expanded the movement to the Gentiles, they did not correct him on his basic conception of Christ. Why? The simplest answer is that they conceived of Jesus in exactly the same way. More to the point, while they had misgivings about Paul’s views on ritual law, circumcision, dietary restrictions, and other cultic issues, they also envisioned a celestial Lord, an exalted Christ.

References to teaching in the Johannine epistles

As we consider the appearances of “teaching” [διδαχή (didaché)] outside the gospels, our eye is drawn to the second letter of John. In it we read:

Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ [τῇ διδαχῇ τοῦ Χριστοῦ], hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son. (2 John 9, KJV, emphasis mine)

At first it seems this passage is clearly referring to teaching or doctrine from Jesus. In fact, most modern translations render the term as “teaching of Christ.” But as you may know, the range of meanings covered by the Greek genitive is quite broad. Depending on the context, it can refer to the subjective, the objective, or the plenary. Simply stated, we could translate the text in three different senses:

  1. Objective Genitive: Teaching about Christ.
  2. Subjective Genitive: Teaching from or of Christ.
  3. Plenary Genitive: An ambiguous combination of senses 1 and 2.

We can’t really say with any degree of certainty what the author meant unless we consider the rest of the letter. And when we do, we see that his purpose is to warn against incorrect instruction.

For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. (2 John 7, ESV, emphasis mine)

He wrote the letter in order to warn against false doctrine about Jesus (probably docetism) and to encourage his readers (listeners) to cling to the true doctrine. This “true” teaching or doctrine holds that Jesus came in the flesh to endure crucifixion, to perish, and to rise again. Hence, just as 2 John 7 refers to a “false” doctrine about Jesus, 2 John 9 refers to the “true” doctrine about Jesus.

References to teaching in other non-gospel writings

Social memory preserves what it wants, erases what it doesn’t want, and generates what it needs.

The epistles and John’s apocalypse concern themselves with post-Easter instruction (doctrine) about the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus, while the gospels focus on teaching transmitted by Jesus himself while on Earth. And yet most of us would probably agree that the letters, at least those by Paul, were written many years before the gospels.

Some non-gospel writings in the New Testament come from a period in which the authors’ conceptions about Christ were well entrenched, and in which threatening, rival doctrines were emerging. We learn of “anti-Christs” in the Johannine epistles. And in the letter to the Hebrews we read:

Do not be carried away by varied and strange teachings (NASB, 13:9a)

And in Revelation we find:

But I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit acts of immorality. So you also have some who in the same way hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. (NASB, 2:14-15)

In case after case throughout the rest of the NT, we find teachings about Christ, but no teachings from or by Jesus. It is unfortunate that Keith appears to be uninterested in this conundrum, since memory theory research might give us insights into how these writings came about. Did social memory factors cause Paul to forget everything about Jesus’ life? Did other social memory factors produce fictional memories of Jesus, perhaps inspired by the war with Rome, the siege of Jerusalem, and the destruction of the Temple?

Social memory preserves what it wants, erases what it doesn’t want, and generates what it needs. Sadly, the mavens are almost exclusively interested in its capacity to preserve, enlisting the power of memory theory in that time-honored apologetic exercise of harmonizing the writings of the NT.

Blinders against other witnesses

If Chris Keith wants to backslide and use irreparably broken criteria, that’s his prerogative, but why does he limit our witnesses only to the gospels? Keith presents the thesis that two conceptions of Jesus exist side-by-side in the gospels: one as literate and the other not literate at the scribal level. He argues that these conceptions go all the way back to “memories” in the actual life of Jesus. Ultimately, he will conclude that Jesus was not scribally literate, although he acted in ways that led some members of his audience to think that he was.

But right out of the gate, our myopic maven restricts his scope. He ignores New Testament writings — very early writings — whose conception of Christ excludes the category of teacher altogether. Even when he chooses to embarrass himself by taking E. P. Sanders to task for being “overly skeptical” in Jesus and Judaism, he stays tightly focused on what Paul taught and what Jesus taught. He ignores the elephant in the room. He cannot bring himself to ask, “What in Paul’s letters would lead you to believe that he thought Jesus was a teacher of any sort?”

End of Section 1

I had hoped to wrap up my critique of Chris Keith’s scholarship in a single post. However, I’ve only scratched the surface. We still have many things to cover, not least of which is how social memory theory has virtually no impact on Keith’s arguments concerning Jesus’ literacy and how his followers and later Christians conceived of him as a teacher. And for all the talk about not wanting to use outmoded words like “authentic,” when referring to Jesus’ words and deeds, it’s remarkable how often he is willing to argue that we know certain things actually happened and that the text as we have it today looks the way it does because of real witnesses to a historic (presumably authentic) Jesus.

Keith, Chris

Jesus against the Scribal Elite: The Origins of the Conflict, Baker Publishing Group (Kindle Edition), 2014

Jesus among Friends and Enemies: A Historical and Literary Introduction to Jesus in the Gospels, Editor with Larry Hurtado, Baker Publishing Group (Kindle Edition), 2011

“The Indebtedness of the Criteria Approach to Form Criticism and Recent Attempts to Rehabilitate the Search for an Authentic Jesus” in Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity, with Anthony Le Donne (Editor), Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2012


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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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27 thoughts on “The Memory Mavens, Part 8: Chris Keith, Post-Criteria Scholar? (1)”

  1. Any interpretation of The New Testament which is trying to determine what (if anything) teaches us about the historical Jesus has to involve the application of criteria, even if the criteria only remain on an implicit level: if you judge that a passage teaches us about the historical Jesus, then the passage has met a criteria that we are using to determine what applies to the historical Jesus. We make judgements, for or against something, by applying criteria to see if something meets those criteria or not. We consider those judgements to be correct when they give us a sense of certainty, which, as Jacques Derrida pointed out, isn’t a rational foundation, just a psychological sense of comfort the judgement gives us. Postmodernism points out there is no rational foundation for judgements beyond the sense of certainty certain judgements give us. And we all know we can be wrong about things we are certain of. The history of philosophy based on truth as “psychological certainty” is what Jacques Derrida calls the metaphysics of presence.

    1. So, a postmodernist like Derrida would say a particular scholar’s interpretation of Jesus is (1) “explanatory,” in that it agrees with the evidence we have about Jesus and (2) as far as we can tell there is no evidence that “disconfirms” the interpretation. But the truth value ends here. False interpretations can be explanatory but still be false, and we might find out later that there is data that would disconfirm the interpretation. Interpretations are merely explanatory, and might always turn out to be false at a later time. To be “explanatory” is to merely agree with the evidence, and false interpretations often agree with the evidence. Interpretations can be “explanatory,” never “true” in the sense of “certain,” and always run the risk of being “falsified” at a later date.

  2. Well, I wouldn’t attach too much authority to “texts” known as “Derrida”! On the other hand, there a case for
    Popper’s neo-fallibilism whereby hypotheses are subject to revision or abandonment when new evidence or rational argument is applied to them.

  3. I may not understand Derrida fully, but the sense I got from “Of Grammatology” was that presence is traceable all the way back to the Logos, which is essentially little more than a cultural assertion. It seemed to me that Derrida was interested in a general critique of epistemology, whereas when we focus on the JC historicist argument, we are looking at a very unique cultural desideratum, namely, we must find that Jesus existed. He cannot be found not to have existed. This would undermine all of western culture. The approach being discussed in this particular blog seems like little more than a substitute, somebody horning in on the NT scholars’ territory of “criteriology” — criticizing it, then offering a substitute.

    Here is something it seems should have been previously observed: The historicists, especially Ehrman in his book, Did Jesus Exist?, love to say, This is our turf. Stay off it, for only we may be taken seriously. However — they are not historians. They may have specialized historically-oriented training, but their field is religious studies, not history. When they practice what they call “history,” it is they who are stepping off their turf and onto a foreign turf. Or if not, then point us to the books about the “historical” J that are written by trained historians with PhD’s in history, on faculties of history in the universities. The criteria that should be used to determine historical J are the same that are used by trained historians — not self-serving, rationalized “criteria” in the service of another discipline with a cultural desideratum as its starting point.

    1. As I see it, establishing Jesus’ existence must be done using the same hermeneutic techniques we would use to establish any other textual interpretation (eg., that Hamlet was paranoid). If this is the case, how does the existence of Jesus ever get any more certainty then any other textual interpretation?

      1. Is this the case, though?

        Would a hermeneutic deconstruction of Anne Frank’s Diary establish whether she really existed as a real person like me or possibly you?


      2. I don’t see genuine historical research involving criteria of the kind proposed by HJ scholars. Criteriology is their own invention, made necessary by the absence of the sorts of data/evidence that historians normally have to work with in order to investigate their questions. Normally historians will not even begin a historical study if there is insufficient data/evidence to work with.

        The “quest for the HJ” is the exception as far as I am aware — with the assumption of historicity built into the very framing of the question.

        1. Most of the criteria of authenticity have their roots in tools that were developed in the study of the Synoptic Problem. I mostly concur with Morna Hooker’s assessment that using them to find “authentic” material is misguided, since they can only at best reveal older material and perhaps indicate which bits come from earlier tradition and which bits are redacted.

          My beef with this new bunch of scholars who talk about a “plausible” Jesus and invoke “memory” as a new approach is (1) they generally don’t understand the criteria and (2) they keep trying to shove the criteria in through the back door. If you don’t actually understand the framework you’re abandoning, you will probably make the same fundamental mistakes when constructing a new one.

      1. Thanks for the link, Neil. Very interesting. Notice that Grant starts with the assumption that Jesus was the greatest figure who ever lived. That’s the cultural desideratum. He’s writing about the Gospels. He’s left the realm of objective historical research (apparently) and adopted the values of western culture. Naturally, this happens all the time. That’s the point of having a culture. All of western history proceeds with the same assumption. This is why you end up with a critique such as Derrida’s, i.e., sooner or later someone gets around to questioning first principles. Kant did it before Derrida.

        I agree with you that Biblical hermeneutics is substantively different from the contextual , rather than purely textual, concerns of literary or Biblical interpretation. The question of Hamlet’s paranoia is not at all similar to determining whether a real person existed in history. However, the question of whether there was a real Hamlet would work, and then it becomes a source study about Saxo Grammaticus, etc.

        1. Consider a few other characters from ancient “history” with “religious” aspects – John the Immerser, Zoroaster, Buddha, Appolonius of Tyana…. How would an objective historian go about establishing their actual personal existence? Would he start with the presumption that they are completely fictional simply because of allegedly “supernatural” acts connected with their stories?

          1. “How would an objective historian go about establishing their actual personal existence? Would he start with the presumption that they are completely fictional simply because of allegedly “supernatural” acts connected with their stories?”

            Well, I imagine an objective historian would first consider the nature of the source material because the converse situation, i.e., the absence of supernatural acts, could not be used as a basis for establishing the historicity of an historical character. For example, Gone with the Wind does not ascribe any supernatural powers to Scarlett O’Hara, but we know she never lived because she is a character from a work of fiction. Simply by properly classifying Gone with the Wind as fiction, an objective historian would end any inquiry into an “Historical Scarlett” before it began.

            The only reason the search for “Historical Jesus” continues is because of the persistent, often subconscious misclassification of the Gospels as history instead of fiction.

            1. We already know that “Gone With The Wind” is completely a work of fiction, although it could contain some material based on real people or places.

              Scarlett O’Hara did not have a following that claimed her real existence as the basis of a movement with subsidiary literature, practices and beliefs.

              There are of course cults based on fictional themes, such as Scientology and originally the Aetherius Society, but Hubbard was a real person (unlike his Thetans) and Adamski was a real person (unlike his Orthon).

              There are works of fiction based on biography of real people, and there are biographies that contain fiction.

              We cannot likewise assume from the outset that the Gospels are completely fictional until this is shown to be the case. We have references to a real Jesus outside the canonical gospels, including one probably authentic reference by Josephus and in Celsus.

              1. I like using the Little Big Man analogy, for these reasons: Little Big Man is written as the oral history of the last white survivor of Custer’s Last Stand. Jack Crabbe, known to the Cheyenne as “Little Big Man,” comes face to face with a number of historical figures, including Custer and Wild Bill Hicok, We know that Jack Crabbe is fictional, but there was an actual Little Big Man, who I believe was Sioux and played a pivotal role in the arrest and killing of Crazy Horse. Many of the events portrayed in the book are historical: the Sand Creek Massacre, the Washita river massacre, Custer’s habit of bringing along a band to play garryowen as he charged into villages.

                We know that Little Big Man is fiction, because we know the genre it was intended to be. We also know that the author, Thomas Berger, is a fiction writer (he also wrote a book about King Arthur, Arthur Rex, also fictional). Maybe Berger based Jack Crabbe on a real person, but if so, there is no trace of that real person existing. All we have is a novel written 100 years (maybe 90?) after the event. The actual Little Big Man that does leave evidence in the historical record bears little resemblance to Jack Crabbe (for one thing, he wasn’t white and photos purporting to be of him tend to confirm that). Even so, as a writer of fiction, we can’t really say Jack Crabbe is historical, even if Berger had some actual person in mind (which is unlikely).

                We can also note that Oliver Barrett was claimed to be based on Al Gore (by Al Gore) or Tommy Lee Jones (by the author himself). That doesn’t make Oliver Barrett an actual person in history.

                So then we come to Jesus. Historians have to first consider the sources they will use to answer a particular question. In the case of “Did Jesus exist?” the evidence is problematic. We don’t know the exact purpose of the writings. There are different scholarly opinions on this, but generally it is agreed that they are not histories. They are apparently based on the same source, either Mark or some primitive version of Mark. They contradict the earliest first person sources, the epistles, on key points, especially on the characterization of Jesus. Those earliest sources are also problematic in that the authenticity of key passages, some of them the most relevant to the question at hand, for example 1 Thess 2:17-18, which would seem to establish the fact of a key early witness (though not eye witness) to an earthly Jesus. Unfortunately, the reliability of this passage is questioned by important scholars.

                We can go on. We know the problems. When we get through with source analysis, there is no reasonable warrant to conclude certainty on any question related to whether Jesus was real or not. That’s the problem with Bible scholars: they claim absolute, 100% certainty on a question that is fraught with problems. It’s very curious to me, much like the test-based accountability movement claims about standardized testing in the face of consistent, reliable research that undermines those claims. They pretend the problems don’t exist. So, as an expert in a fiied inflicted with rampant false paradigmitis, I can totally understand the affliction as it applies to the question of the historical Jesus in Biblical studies.

          2. Personally I don’t see how the question of establishing the personal existences of certain persons can ever arise for any historian. There are countless questions that can never be investigated, far less answered, simply because we lack sufficient sources.

            There are many persons whose existence we can’t prove and who must always remain unproven but at the same time our inability to prove their existence makes no difference to the histories we have written. For example, no one can prove Hillel existed. But so what? Whether a historical person or an eponymous creation representing a certain subset of rabbinic teachings, it makes no difference to our understanding of ancient Judaism and what we can understand about its character.

            I think it is even possible to question the existence of a literal Socrates but even if we did it would make no difference to our understanding of Greek democracy and the emergence of western philosophy.

            If more evidence did exist then historians could enjoy the task of learning more biographical information about such persons in history, but such inquiries never arise because we don’t have that evidence.

            Jesus is a special case for ideological/cultural reasons.

            1. Well, I suppose it might matter to some historians whether some events attributed to X were imaginary or not. These events might include teachings.

              It is also worth considering how much “eponymous creation” might have occurred, and why.

              Certainly the ideas attributed, rightly or wrongly, to (say) Plato, Confucius, Paul, Maimonides, Kant, Hitler or Derrida might well be more interesting than whether these people actually existed, married or had eggs for breakfast.

  4. Undermining “all western culture” is a preconceived project that some have happily entertained. See the “opposite” views of Derrida by (say) Christopher Wise and Kevin MacDonald.

  5. Copying here my comment on another post

    “What I . . . find of most significance . . . is that the earliest references to the crucifixion are never historical, they are never “reports” or “accounts” of a news type or biographical event. They are always theological statements. They are not even about a normal human but about a divinity. And the crucifixion in these theological claims has no significance or meaning without the resurrection.

    Prima facie there is simply no historical question to investigate. It is an entirely theological claim about a divinity and a miracle that come together to change the religious status of believers.

    The historical sources that most directly make this point are almost universally agreed to have been written well before the Gospels. Historical inquiry of this sort is more like a forensic than a literary exercise. Methods do exist that really can and do give us some certainties (even if we want to call our most certain fact a mere 0.999999999999999999999 probability) that will in reality never change however we decide to interpret those certainties.

  6. Great post. Although I’m not sure I get the Johannine letters section point fully.

    And yes, the pull quotes aren’t formatted at all on WordPress mobile site, so it appears as regular text. In fact without a paragraph break before the next text. But the mobile does the sidebar so much better, and I think the comment threads too (less indenting it seems) that it’s well worth using.

    1. In a nutshell: I’m accusing Keith of cherry-picking data. He wants to say that the gospels are unanimous in their conception of Jesus as a teacher. But the other books of the NT — the epistles and Revelation — decidedly do not share this conception.

      Now the question becomes, “Are there points in the epistles of John that appear to imply that there are ‘teachings from Jesus’?” I argue that in all the places in which we see “teaching of Christ,” it doesn’t mean from; it means about.

      So even in the rare case in which it looks as if some epistle writer is indirectly calling Jesus a teacher, it turns out he isn’t.

  7. “Such masters of prestidigitation rarely, if ever, give away their secrets. Sometimes they take their arcane methods with them to the grave…”

    Your opening comment is a classic example of ‘scholarly credulity’.

    This myth of taking secrets to the grave was even attached to Houdini.

    I can assure you that such a claim is completely untrue.

    Master magicians have provided detailed accounts of the methods they used.

    Rick Jay is more reluctant tp publish the specifics of his own material but the methods he uses can be reconstructed and are firmly set within the conjuring canon.
    Indeed , he often makes a point of presenting material and patter from Erdnase(1902).

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