Daily Archives: 2018-01-24 23:00:07 UTC

The Memory Mavens, Part 11: Origins of the Criteria of Authenticity (1)

[This post has been waiting in draft status since 19 February 2015. This year I’m going to try to finish up some of the series we’ve left dangling on Vridar. –taw]

A considerable number of New Testament scholars have recently jumped on the memory bandwagon (see, e.g., Memory, Tradition, and Text, ed. Alan Kirk). Characteristics of this movement include an appeal to social memory and cultural memory as a way to explain ancient literary documents, combined with an often strident rejection of the criteria of authenticity used by many Historical Jesus scholars.

Neil and I generally agree that the criteria approach is useless for uncovering the “real” Jesus. However, besides debunking the criteria on the justifiable grounds that they are circular and do not work, the Memory Mavens also attempt to delegitimize them by tarring them as the misbegotten progeny of the form critics (see Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity). To put it more crudely, they view them as Bultmann’s Bastards.

In this post we’ll demonstrate how the criteria of authenticity actually grew out of the existing criteria of antiquity — i.e., the arguments that source critics employed to address the Synoptic Problem. Further, we’ll note that early historical Jesus scholars used nearly identical criteria in an attempt to prove the authenticity of some parts of the written gospels. We’ll show how the form critics adopted those criteria to try to identify material that came directly from Jesus by way of oral tradition. And we’ll see once again that this new crop of NT scholars is curiously unaware of their own heritage.


English: Burial of Christ, Nicodemus depicted ...

English: Burial of Christ, Nicodemus depicted on the left, Joseph of Arimathea depicted on the right (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What’s in a name?

Recently, while out on my daily walks, I’ve been listening to Bart Ehrman’s course, How Jesus Became God, from The Great Courses (don’t pay full price; use Audible.com), and something he said struck me. While discussing the legendary Joseph of Arimathea, he noted that the apparently older tradition found in Acts 13:29 has a group of unnamed Jewish leaders take Jesus down from the cross an bury him in a tomb.

What appears to be happening here is a phenomenon that occurs throughout the gospel tradition. As people tell stories about things that happened, they start providing names for the nameless. This can be traced throughout our long Christian tradition. There are a number of people in the gospel stories who are left nameless.

So, who were the three wise men that came to Jesus, if there were three of them? Later traditions named three people. Who were the two robbers killed with Jesus? Later traditions named the two robbers.

When people are nameless, later in the traditions people add names to them. The earlier form of Jesus’ burial was the unnamed they — the members of the Jewish Sanhedrin — but as the tradition developed later, the nameless got named. That would suggest that the Joseph of Arimathea story is a later tradition. (“Lecture 9: Jesus’ Death—What Historians Can’t Know,” bold emphasis mine)

This line of thinking reminded me of the discussions surrounding the Synoptic Problem and the methodology for determining which gospel predates the others. In one sense, Ehrman is right: For any story or parable in the New Testament with anonymous characters, Christian tradition (especially post-canonical) will eventually provide names. Besides the names of the “Three” Wise Men and the robbers at Golgotha, Christians eventually supplied names to a host of unnamed people, such as the shepherds in Luke’s Nativity, the Samaritan woman at the well, and the rich man in the parable of Lazarus.

Of course, you’re probably already thinking to yourself, “What about Jairus and Simon of Cyrene?” You’d be right to ask. These names appear in Mark’s gospel, but they’re missing from Matthew. Does that mean Matthew predates Mark? Ehrman clearly thinks not, because he invariably calls Mark “our earliest gospel.” So what’s going on here?

read more »

On Provisional Judgments and Operational Atheism

In a recent blog post, I said I don’t believe in the supernatural. This statement, I realize, takes a pretty broad swipe at the universe. But if you have read my previous statements on belief, unbelief, atheism, etc., you’ll understand my lack of belief is, for the most part, not characterized by active disbelief. Instead, I consider it a provisional judgment on how to deal with life. To me, the natural world is the world.

Similarly, when I say I don’t believe in gods, angels, demons, leprechauns, elves, or any other magical beings, I’m not saying I positively know they don’t exist; I’m merely saying I lack belief in them. Operationally, I find no need for them. Can I prove they don’t exist? No, I cannot — nor do I wish to waste time trying.

A commenter on Vridar, John MacDonald, recently wrote:

It’s just as much a paralogism to think (i) There is sufficient evidence to conclude there is such a thing as the supernatural, as to think (ii) There is sufficient evidence to conclude there is no such thing as the supernatural. Both theism and atheism are factually incorrect and intellectually lazy. Agnosticism is the “Thinking-Person’s Position.”

If you haven’t studied for the SAT, the LSAT, or the GRE recently, a paralogism is “A piece of illogical or fallacious reasoning, especially one which appears superficially logical or which the reasoner believes to be logical.” [OED] In the realm of logic, it normally refers specifically to an argument that is invalid, but unintentionally so. However, in the general sense, it has come to refer to any invalid argument as well as any invalid conclusion. I’ll assume he means that I have reached an incorrect conclusion, since I presented no formal argument. read more »