The Memory Mavens, Part 8: Chris Keith, Post-Criteria Scholar? (2)

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by Tim Widowfield

Today’s text comes from Molière’s play, Le Médecin malgré lui (The Doctor in Spite of Himself). We join in as Sganarelle, a poor, drunken woodcutter, posing as an eccentric but brilliant physician, pretends to diagnose Lucinde, the daughter of a wealthy couple. Her parents, Géronte and Jacqueline, along with their servant, Lucas, watch and comment as Sganarelle bamboozles them with a stream of nonsense. Sganarelle seeks to explain why Lucinde has lost the ability to speak.

Front page of Le Médecin malgré lui (1666) by ...
Front page of Le Médecin malgré lui (1666) by Molière (1622-1673) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sganarelle: . . . But to come back to our reasoning. I hold that that interference with the action of the tongue is caused by certain humors, that, among ourselves we scientists call humors peccantes. Peccantes, it should be said — humors peccantes. Moreover, as the vapors formed by the exhalations of the influences which originate in the region of the affected area come, — that is to say — ah — do you understand Latin?

Géronte: Not a word.

Sga.: You don’t understand the Latin?

Ge.: No.

Sga.: Cabricias arci thuram catalamus singulariter nominative heac musa “la Muse” bonus, bonum, Deus Sanctus, estne oration latinas? Etiam “oui” Quare, “pourquoi?” Quia substantivo et adjectivum concordat in generi, numerum, et casus E —

Ge.: Ah, why didn’t I study Latin?

Lucas: Yes, it is so beautiful that I do not understand a word of it.

Sga.: Now, these vapors of which I talked, as they come to pass from the left side, where the liver is, to the right side where the heart is, find themselves at the lungs as we call it in Latin, armyan, having communication with the neck that we name in Greek by means of the venicava, that we call in Hebrew cubile, encounter in their way the aforesaid vapors, which fill the ventricles of the shoulder blades, and because the aforesaid vapors — pay close attention to my reasoning, I beg of you, — and because the aforesaid vapors have a certain malignity — listen carefully to that I conjure you —

Ge.: Yes.

Sga.: Have a certain malignity which is caused — attention, if you please —

Ge.: I am attending.

Sga.: Which is caused by the accretion of humors engendered in the concavity of the diaphragm, it comes about that these vapors. . . . ossidbandus nequeys, nequer, potarinum, quipsa, milus. Behold, this is exactly the cause of your daughter’s speechlessness.

Jac.: Ah, that’s well said, my man.

Ge.: No one could reason better, but there is one thing that has shocked me. It is the place of the liver and of the heart. It seems to me that you have placed them otherwise than as they are, that the heart is on the left side, and the liver on the right.

Sga.: Yes, certainly it used to be that way; but we have changed all that, and we now practice medicine by an entirely new method.

Ge.: That’s what I didn’t know, and I beg pardon for my ignorance.

Sga.: No harm done. You are not obliged to be as learned as we.

Sganarelle utters a line near the end which many of us learned in the French: “Nous avons changé tout cela.” It has become a sort of cliché for anyone sweeping away the old ways of doing things, replacing it with something new — anything new, often radically new, occasionally nonsensically new. Sometimes this new thing is so beautiful that we, like Lucas, don’t understand a word of it.

We have changed all that

I’ve thought of Sganarelle’s signature line many times while reading the works of the Memory Mavens. For not only do they tell us that the criteria for authenticity, once the mainstays of historical Jesus research, are utterly broken, but that their foundation (supposedly form criticism) has rotted away. Yes, they tell us, things used to be that way, but they have changed all that. They resolve to follow a new path, to practice NT scholarship by an entirely new method.

In the first section of this post, we noted that in Chris Keith’s Jesus Against the Scribal Elite: The Origin of the Conflict he tells us that the criteria approach is “irreparably broken and invalid as a historical method.” That’s a rather serious indictment. Imagine if I told you I have some great new ideas about orbital mechanics, but the bad news is you need to forget calculus, because it’s irreparably broken and invalid as a mathematical method. That would mean a great deal of existing research is now moot, and it would also mean we need to start over from scratch.

In a sense, the news that the criteria approach is invalid and broken is pretty exciting. It means we get to re-examine all of our results. It signals a whole new beginning.

Unfortunately, we also learned last time that Keith is willing to use the “irreparably broken” criteria when it suits him. And in this post, we’ll see that he is willing to build his case on existing scholarship that in turn depends on a broken foundation.

Did Jesus teach in synagogues?

First, however, recall last time we said for Keith to argue that some people remembered Jesus as a literate teacher while others thought he was not, he needed to build a case establishing the historical probability of the following:

  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.

We have already mostly covered points 1 and 2, but to be completely accurate, I should have split the second point into two parts. Keith believes not only that Jesus was an itinerant teacher from Galilee, but also that he taught in synagogues.

2.1. Jesus was an itinerant teacher who taught in rural Galilee.
2.2. Jesus taught frequently in synagogues.

As we pointed out last time, Keith, unexpectedly, appeals to the criterion of multiple attestation to determine whether his earliest followers recognized Jesus as a Rabbi and a teacher. But what about the notion that he was a teacher who spoke regularly in synagogues?

Well, first we have to establish that there actually were synagogues in Galilee in the first century, before refugees came pouring in from Judea after the war with Rome. You may already be familiar with some of the discussion surrounding this issue, with some scholars saying that the likelihood is greater that people met in private dwellings to worship on the Sabbath. According to this argument, dedicated buildings only began to spring up in Galilee after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.

Capernaum Synagogue
Capernaum synagogue by David Shankbone” by David Shankbone (attribution required) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

Conceptually, then, the synagogue as an institution existed, but we won’t find actual, physical structures until the second century. As it turns out, the archaeological record thus far tends to support this position. We have not found any clear-cut examples of dedicated synagogues from the period of Jesus’ life (the first three decades of the Common Era).

The idea that synagogues didn’t exist in Galilee in the first century has never sat well with conservative scholars, since they see the gospels as historically reliable documents. And as we’ve noted in previous posts, the Memory Mavens see them in this way, too. In other words, for all Keith’s talk about wanting to approach the text as the text, he dutifully ignores the questions of genre and authorial intent and looks behind the writings to see human recollections of historical events. The job of the historian, according to the maven mindset, is to explain how those “memories” came to be.

In Keith’s Jesus Against the Scribal Elite, he proudly displays a photograph of the ruins of Capernaum’s synagogue with this caption:

The remains of a synagogue in Capernaum dating from around the third or fourth century CE. This synagogue was built upon a previous structure dating to the first century CE, most likely the synagogue mentioned in Mark 1:21-29; Luke 4:31–38; 7:1–5; and John 6:59. (Keith, 2014, Kindle Locations 845-847, emphasis mine)

The uninitiated reader might never know that signs posted at the “White Synagogue” in Capernaum tell tourists the structure dates from the late fourth century CE. (And remember, the tourists sites in Israel cater to the deep-pocketed American tourists who want to “walk where Jesus walked.”) The desire for early dates is not restricted to the gospels. Apologists tell us breathlessly that the synagogue rests on an older foundation. Is it from the first century? Of course! Was that first-century structure the synagogue where the historical Jesus actually taught? Well, sure — why not?!

Scholarly consensus?

You cannot substitute honest ignorance with false knowledge and call yourself a historian.

Keith builds his argument’s foundations (steps 1 through 3, above) relying primarily on “broken” criteria and scholarly consensus. Of course, we fully expect Keith’s summary of the current scholarship. We see it all the time in dissertations. Scholars rarely start from a blank canvas: were that the case, their resulting works would run in the thousands of pages, and we would criticize them for operating in a vacuum.

Yet we cannot forget what Keith said about the set of tools most scholars have used over the past few decades. If the criteria approach is more than simply ineffective — if it’s actually invalid — then we can’t help but call results of previous scholarship into question. For example, when Keith seeks to build a case for the notion that the historical Jesus really did spar with scribes, Pharisees, etc., he quotes Donald A. Hagner from his paper, “Jesus and the Synoptic Sabbath Controversies.” (The PDF is available online here.) Keith writes:

Regarding the Sabbath controversies in particular, and acknowledging that “we necessarily deal with degrees of probability rather than absolute certitude,” Hagner argued in 2009 that “the evidence warrants acceptance of these accounts as highly probable, trustworthy history.” (Keith, 2014, Kindle Locations 2499-2500, emphasis mine)

Indeed, Hagner argues quite forcefully that the controversy stories in the gospels are historical. But Keith fails to tell us how Hagner reached his conclusions. We should first note that Hagner believes in the hermeneutic of charity. He thinks John P. Meier applies the criteria of authenticity too stringently.

As with virtually all the Gospel materials, so too with regard to the Sabbath controversies, the typical tests for authenticity naturally come into play. The three well-known criteria, dissimilarity, multiple attestation, and coherence, can, to be sure, be useful at times. They are nevertheless not without their problems, as has frequently been pointed out. Extremely problematic, on the other hand, is the insistence of some that the burden of proof lies with those who would accept an element of the tradition as authentic. Such a view cripples the possibility of historical knowledge so fundamentally that it is unrealistic and counterproductive, to say the least. There is something very wrong with a methodological approach that produces an empty cipher. The burden of proof here must remain with those who would deny historical authenticity of the materials we have. Peter Stuhlmacher makes the point well: “When one treats the gospel tradition not with a finally uncritical, flat-out doubt, but with an appropriate ‘critical sympathy’ (W. G. Kümmel), it is appropriate to proceed methodologically not from its historical unbelievability, but from its believability.” Given how admittedly little we often have available, no other approach can be fair to the documents we possess. (Hagner, 2009, p. 218, emphasis mine)

I believe I speak for Neil and for anyone who cares about the craft of history when I say that there is nothing wrong with an approach that produces an empty cipher. If your evidence can only support the conclusion, “I don’t know,” you cannot simply move the bar. You cannot substitute honest ignorance with false knowledge and call yourself a historian. It truly is possible not to know something in history, and the honest historian is not afraid to admit it.

History as an act of confession

At least we now know Hagner’s stance. He’s inclined to believe stories in the gospels until someone can prove otherwise. Moreover, he uses the criteria of authenticity (loosely, so as not to be left with an empty cipher) to bolster his argument. He writes in the article’s abstract:

The historicity of the Sabbath-controversy passages passes a variety of tests including historical plausibility, dissimilarity, and multiple attestation. These passages find a natural place in Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees. The plucking of grain on the Sabbath and the Sabbath healings could not but raise the ire of the Pharisees, who thought of themselves as the guardians of the law. (Hagner, 2009, 215, emphasis mine)

He thus argues that not only did Jesus have general run-ins with Pharisees, but that the specific stories in Mark concerning Jesus’ acts on the Sabbath are historically true or, to put it his words, “highly probable, trustworthy history.” However, Hagner’s goal is not the historical Jesus, but the “real” Jesus. He concludes:

It is worth remembering that “the quest for the historical Jesus” is a misnomer. It is not a search that can bring us the real Jesus (although that often seems to be the implication) but rather a search that provides what necessarily and finally must remain an artificial construct. The fact remains that the historical method, strictly practiced à la Meier, is ill-equipped to deal with the uniqueness represented by the story of Jesus. (Hagner, 2009, 248, emphasis mine)

This is confession, not history. Keith tells us that Hagner talks about degrees of probability, but he neglected to mention that Hagner shifts the burden of proof to anyone who suspects the stories don’t represent authentic history. He also failed to tell us that Hagner’s desire to believe trumps his interest in history as a rational enterprise.

Keener on the authenticity of the conflict stories

Next, Keith quotes from Craig S. Keener’s The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, citing a passage from a section with this title: “Authenticity of the Conflict Accounts.” According to Keith:

Also with appropriate caveats acknowledging the interpretive influence of later Christians on the controversy narratives asserted and also in 2009, Keener claimed, “The substance of these accounts is likely authentic.” (Keith, 2014, Kindle Locations 2501-2503)

Of course, as you may already suspect one reason Keener believes the controversy accounts really happened has to do with our “broken” criteria — specifically the criterion of multiple attestation.

Third, multiple attestation supports the thesis that Jesus did have Sabbath conflicts. They appear in Mark (e.g., Mk 2:23-28), apparently independently in John (Jn 5:1-9), and perhaps independently in special Lukan material (Lk 13:10-17). (Keener, 2009, Kindle Locations 5638-5640)

We should give a tip of the hat to Keener for understanding that multiple attestation means nothing without independence, a concept that wholly escaped Hagner.

Rather than continue to harp on Keith for his happy reliance on broken criteria when it suits his needs, I would instead draw your attention to the words “authenticity” and “authentic.” As a historian of the gospels and as an NT scholar writing about the historical Jesus, Keener understands that part of his job is determining whether passages in the gospels are authentic or inauthentic.

Now as it turns out, he’s far too conservative for my taste, but that’s beside the point. Keener argues for authenticity and uses the criteria of authenticity to make those arguments. But if you’ve read Keith carefully over the past few years, you will immediately see a problem. I’ll let Keith explain:

Those scholars studying memory and its social dynamics have offered further criticism. In particular trouble from this perspective is the dichotomy of authentic/inauthentic. In the criteria approach, this dichotomy resides on a further past/present dichotomy wherein the past is associated, as was observed above, with a lack of interpretive frameworks and the present is associated with a presence of interpretive frameworks. The authentic/inauthentic dichotomy is false precisely because, in memory, the past is always packaged in interpretive frameworks borrowed from the present. If not for those frameworks, the past would not survive at all, whether in individual or collective memory. The notion that there is a past entity—a personal memory, unit of gospel tradition, historical figure, etc.—that one can detach from the interpretations that gave it meaning to a person or group, is simply erroneous. (Keith, 2012, pp. 38-39, emphasis mine)

Criteria: broken? Authenticity: fool’s gold? Well, it depends.

We could, I suppose, imagine that at some point in the proceedings, he has redefined what authenticity means so that when he tries to determine whether Jesus really did something or really said something, it’s a valid quest.

Remember that for Keith, form criticism lies at the root of all our criteriological evils. As he explains in what sounds like a Memory Maven Manifesto:

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. (Keith, 2012, p. 40, emphasis mine)

Keith here argues that we cannot separate authentic from inauthentic text, because the evangelists have presented us with highly interpreted material. The uninterpreted, truly “authentic” stories behind the gospels are irretrievable. At least, that’s what he appears to be saying here.

Depending on which way the wind blows, he either covets or eschews authentic tradition. When looking for authentic tradition — e.g., evidence that a mostly illiterate Jesus preached in a way that led some people to assume he had achieved scribal literacy — Keith will gladly whip out the tools of authenticity. On other occasions he heaps scorn upon them. For example:

If “authentic tradition” as the criteria approach understands it is unrecoverable, the important question is why these scholars continue to employ the criteria approach at all. Boats with irreparable holes do not push on and have otherwise productive maritime careers. They sink. (Keith, 2012, p. 47, emphasis mine)

We could, I suppose, imagine that at some point in the proceedings, he has redefined what authenticity means so that when he tries to determine whether Jesus really did something or really said something, it’s a valid quest. Perhaps a special dinghy keeps Captain Keith afloat while his fellow scholars slip beneath the waves. But I don’t understand how he can with one hand condemn the criteria approach but embrace it with the other.


So far we’ve seen that Keith’s methodology in Jesus against the Scribal Elite depends upon (1) criteria, which he himself has discredited; (2) the citation of scholars who seek to retrieve authentic material from the NT, a process which he has dismissed on several occasions; and (3) an appeal to memory, but not social memory, in which he claims to have deep expertise, but personal recollections lying behind the text.

Hagner, Donald

“Jesus and the Synoptic Sabbath Controversies,” in Bulletin for Biblical Research 19.2 (2009) 215–248

Keener, Craig

The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co (Kindle Edition), 2012

Keith, Chris

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

“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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4 thoughts on “The Memory Mavens, Part 8: Chris Keith, Post-Criteria Scholar? (2)”

  1. Tim said: “I believe I speak for Neil and for anyone who cares about the craft of history when I say that there is nothing wrong with an approach that produces an empty cipher. If your evidence can only support the conclusion, “I don’t know,” you cannot simply move the bar. You cannot substitute honest ignorance with false knowledge and call yourself a historian. It truly is possible not to know something in history, and the honest historian is not afraid to admit it.”

    AKA David Hume

  2. Judges 12:6 — they said to him, “Then say Shibboleth,” and he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand of the Ephraimites fell at that time.

  3. Historically, Christianity has often been accused of obscurantism, and humbuggery or imposture. And hocus pokus; from a phrase in the Latin mass.

    Generally the theory is that the church has deliberately sought hard-to-understand language and magical thinking. To avoid anyone clearly understanding.- and then exposing – the fraud.

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