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

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by Tim Widowfield

[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?

Which came first?

Biblical scholars since at least the late 18th century have pondered over the correct chronology of the events depicted in the New Testament. At first they attempted to harmonize Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Eventually, however, (mostly German) scholars began to focus specifically on the first three canonical gospels. In 1776, the famous text critic Johann Jakob Griesbach admitted that even these three “synoptic” gospels contained so many chronological contradictions that a truly convincing harmonization was impossible. William Farmer in The Synoptic Problem writes:

Henceforth, those who followed in his footsteps would no longer seek to reconcile the conflicting chronologies of the Gospels, but rather would seek to understand the relationships between the Gospels in terms of their direct literary dependence, or in terms of their indirect literary dependence through the mutual use of earlier hypothetical sources. (Farmer, 1976, p. 6)

Here in a nutshell is the Synoptic problem. Some sort of literary dependence exists in the first three gospels, but exactly how do they relate to one another? And, more to the point of this post, what sorts of tools do we have in order to determine which gospel came first? By “tools,” I mean what E.P. Sanders in The Tendencies of the Synoptic Tradition called “criteria for judging the relative antiquity of parallel traditions.”

The question is, when two forms of one pericope exist, how one distinguishes the relatively earlier from the relatively later. Lacking apparent references to historical events (such as occur in Mt. 24.15//Mk. 13.14//Lk. 21.20), how can the relative age of different forms of the same story be fixed? (Sanders, 1969, p. 2)

How indeed? We have traditions that often agree word for word, for long stretches, and then diverge. It stands to reason that one or more evangelist is copying from the earlier gospel, or that they’re copying from some long-lost source, or some mixture of the above. So, what’s the answer?

The answer has always been that one may distinguish relatively early from relatively late forms of a certain story on the basis of knowledge of how the tradition will show certain characteristic changes when compared with earlier tradition. It is our purpose to examine these characteristic changes in order to determine if they be characteristic, and if so, how characteristic they are. We are thus concerned to examine the validity of ‘internal criteria’, that is, criteria for assessing relative age which are based on knowledge of the internal development of the early Christian tradition. (Sanders, 1969, p. 2, emphasis mine)

The search for solutions to the Synoptic Problem naturally drove scholars to divide the gospels into individual pericopae, and attempt to deduce which came first and, consequently, which were secondary. Even non-form-critical scholars began to suspect that these individual stories may have existed independently in a period of oral tradition between the life of Jesus and the writing of the first gospel. See, for example, the preface to the 1930 edition of Burnett Hillman Streeter‘s The Four Gospels, in which he accepted just enough oral tradition to support his pet theory of a Proto-Luke (pp. xiii-xxi).

Laws of Transmission?

Note well that we aren’t talking about criteria of authenticity, but rather criteria of antiquity. In other words, well before the advent of form criticism, scholarly practitioners of source criticism were arguing that specific, known, provable tendencies in the transmission of folk traditions in general and Christian tradition in particular could help us determine which gospel came first.

Many scholars whose names you would doubtless recognize proposed laws of transmission that explained how the gospels got the way they are. New Testament form critics certainly applied those criteria more self-consciously, since their theoretical framework depended on Markan priority, but all scholars used them.

Returning to Ehrman’s example of named and unnamed characters, Rudolf Bultmann and Martin Dibelius assumed that details accumulated as tradents recounted stories in oral performance and as writers committed those stories to papyrus. But sometimes the evidence in the synoptics goes against the grain.

In Bultmann’s view the general tendency was to substitute particular characters (such as Peter) for general names (disciples). He meets here a difficulty, however, caused by the fact that it is sometimes Mark who has the proper name rather than Matthew and Luke. (Sanders, 1969, pp. 88-89)

So now we need to explain why Matthew or Luke would delete some names they found in Mark while adding others.

Those awkward places at which Mark has a proper name while another Gospel has the general term ‘disciples’ are explained as due to a later interest in the Twelve as a group. Bultmann’s explanation is not overly convincing, however, since in the passages he names Matthew does not use the word ‘twelve’, and, indeed, does not use it so often as Mark anyway. (Sanders, 1969, p. 89)

In some cases Bultmann posited a copyist’s error to explain the appearance of names in Mark; in others, he thought they were present in the original text. But no matter how ingenious the reasons for this or that addition or omission, at some point it begins to feel like an ad hoc argument. Moreover, there appear to be as many arguments as there are scholars.

Streeter saw the matter in a different way.

It is a law of the evolution of tradition that names to which no incident of dramatic interest is attached tend, either to gather incidents around themselves, or else to drop out (Streeter, 1924, p. 349)

He does not tell us where he discovered this ‘law of the evolution of tradition’, but it is an interesting one and should be kept in mind in studying lists of names. (Sanders, 1969, pp. 89-90)

That last sentence seems uncharacteristically droll for Sanders, but perhaps he was serious.

Antiquity vs. authenticity

Before William Wrede demonstrated that even the Gospel of Mark bore the unmistakable signs of redaction for theological purposes, one could imagine that finding the key to the synoptic problem would bring us close to the historical Jesus. Even afterward in enclaves of Wrede-denial (especially in the conservative universities and seminaries of the English-speaking world), scholars opined that Mark’s gospel was practically a transcript of the stories told by Saint Peter.

For example, the British form critic Vincent Taylor was certain that the details in Mark proved it predates the other gospels. As he understood the “laws of transmission,” details — no longer relevant or needed — wore away over time. But there were exceptions to Taylor’s laws.

We may repeat that, for Taylor, details in Mark are early, but those which occur elsewhere are not. The real point of departure for him, as for Weisse, Stanton, and Hawkins, is that Mark rests, partially at least, on Peter’s eye-witness account. It is Taylor’s view that there is a positive correlation between the more detailed sections in Mark’s Gospel and the sections which depend on Peter’s testimony. (Sanders, 1969, p. 93, emphasis mine) 

In his commentary, The Gospel according to St. Mark, Taylor lists 111 “important elements peculiar to Mark” from chapters 1 through 6 alone. He grants that some could be later redactional items that “may be the result of inference and imagination.” However:

There may be other passages of this kind [i.e., later additions by the author], but the great majority of items in this list have rather the appearance of graphic details recorded because they were given in the tradition. What point, for example, is there in mentioning ‘the hired servants’ (i. 20), the fact that the paralytic was ‘borne of four’ (ii. 3), the description of the breaking up of the roof (ii.4), the statement that the disciples plucked ears of corn ‘as they went’ (ii. 23), the reference to the little boat (iii. 9), ‘other boats’ (iv. 36), ‘the cushion’ (iv. 38), the desperate cry, ‘Carest thou not . . ?’ (iv. 38), the ironical repetition of the question, ‘Who touched me?’ (v. 31), the place ‘where the child was’ (v. 40), ‘the executioner’ (vi. 27), the half sarcastic question about the buying two hundred pennyworth of bread (vi. 37), ‘companies’, ‘green grass’, and ‘ranks’ (vi. 39 f.), His passing by the disciples (vi. 48), mooring (vi. 53), and other details, unless these things were known and remembered? (Taylor, 1966, pp. 139-140, emphasis mine).

Taylor saw no problem with the fact that Mark at other times described events with colorless prose and scant detail. On the contrary, for him it proved that he was not an inventive writer like Matthew and Luke.

The explanation can only be that for these narratives, Mark was dependent on fragmentary tradition and did not attempt to color it . . . (Taylor, 1966, p. 140)

For other scholars, however, Mark’s seemingly off-handed details and sprinklings of Semitisms were little more than attempts at verisimilitude. Hence, they showed that Mark wrote his gospel later than the other two synoptics. Still others argued that Mark’s details do prove antiquity with respect to Matthew and Luke, but that the entire enterprise is problematic, because of the process of transmission through the stage of oral tradition.

Explaining the views of Henry J. Cadbury, Sanders writes:

The Gospel materials ‘have passed from their original connection to their present connection through an intermediate stage of reduction to single units‘. The earliest tradition, then, was detailed, but the details were lost quite rapidly as the material was passed down in isolated pericopes. Details were once more added at a late stage when novelistic interest led to the filling out of the material. On this view details themselves do not prove primitiveness, but are the indications of it in documents already thought to be early. (Sanders, 1969, p. 95, emphasis mine)

So we can see how scholars could use criteria of primitivity — which include “rough” Greek, Semitisms, Aramaic words, and either a lack or a surfeit of details — to prove or disprove either antiquity or authenticity, depending on how they understood the transmission of tradition.

The roots of criteriology

An important clue in finding the origins of the criteria of authenticity are the words “secondary” and “redactional.” We may justifiably consider these words euphemisms for “inauthentic,” and recall that in polite company scholars who study the Synoptic Problem have tended toward very careful language. Make no mistake: if we are singling out certain pericopae in Mark as reflecting the most ancient tradition and possibly preserving the memory of actual events, then what does that say about the material we have excluded? We cannot escape the implication that the other, later accretions may well be not merely secondary, but inauthentic.

Before we leap too far ahead, we cannot overlook the fact that the criteria of antiquity often produce uncertain results.

C.M. Tuckett writes:

In particular, there is the problem of what criteria one can legitimately use to decide about literary priority. Very often the evidence is ambiguous and open to more than one interpretation. . .

In this respect, the study of the Synoptic Problem is very similar to the study of the historical Jesus in its attempt to decide what is authentic in the gospel tradition. Both fields of study are concerned with seeking to distinguish between early material and later adaptations. The areas of study differ: historical Jesus research is concerned with the period from Jesus up to that of the earliest gospel, whereas study of the Synoptic Problem is concerned with the period from the earliest synoptic gospel to the latest. (Tuckett, 1983, p. 9, emphasis mine)

Tuckett believes we can apply the criticisms of criteria in HJ research, wherein their use is more self-conscious, to the criteria of antiquity. In fact, when compared to one another, we find remarkable similarities. For example:

This [antiquity] criterion of the ‘Jewishness’ of a tradition is very similar to the [authenticity] criterion of ‘Aramaisms’ in the quest for the historical Jesus. However, exactly parallel criticisms have been made there: an Aramaism in the tradition need show only an origin in an Aramaic-speaking community, rather than in Jesus’ own words. (Tuckett, 1983, p. 11, emphasis mine)

Perhaps most striking:

Farmer’s fourth criterion, about redactional elements in one gospel appearing in a parallel tradition, is perhaps the most useful. In itself it is not new, as it was used prominently in the debates of the Tübingen school. For example, it was the basic presupposition in Zeller’s linguistic arguments for the GH [Griesbach Hypothesis], and Ritschl was appealing essentially to this criterion in arguing for the priority of Mark. (Tuckett, 1983, p. 11)

And this criterion may sound vaguely familiar to you:

In many respects it is analogous to the criterion of ‘dissimilarity’ in historical Jesus research: where there is a parallel between a gospel saying and an idea in either Judaism or the early church, one suspects that the latter might be the source of the former. So too, in the Synoptic Problem, if a dominant Markan motif appears in a Lukan parallel, one deduces that Luke’s text is dependent on Mark. (Tuckett, 1983, p. 11, emphasis mine)

How awkward. The same sorts of tools that solidified the consensus on Markan priority are now considered by the Memory Mavens to be the tainted implements of the form critics — those red-headed stepchildren of NT scholarship.

Interim Conclusions

Before we move on, I want to summarize what we’ve learned so far:

  1. The close, critical study of the Synoptic Problem resulted in the tendency to view the gospels as a series of discrete pericopae, which each evangelist had arranged according to his own theological purposes, rather than according to historical chronology.
  2. Source critics developed arguments about how to determine the antiquity of a pericope, with the hope of discovering the earliest version of a saying or story of Jesus.
  3. Form critics used these criteria of antiquity to go behind the first gospel and to theorize about the transmission of the oral tradition.
  4. Both form and source critics were often guilty of using criteria in an ad hoc fashion to prove their pet theories.
  5. Both form and source critics often called later material “secondary” or “redactional,” not wishing to rock the boat with infelicitous words such as “inauthentic” or “fictional.”

Coming next

In the second half of this post, we’ll look more closely at the historical criteria before Bultmann. And finally, we’ll examine the origins of criteria according to the Memory Mavens. For the moment, let’s just say they “remember things differently.”

Ehrman, Bart D.

How Jesus Became God, The Great Courses, 2013

Farmer, William

The Synoptic Problem, Mercer University Press, 1976

Sanders, Edward P.

The Tendencies of the Synoptic Tradition, Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2000 (digital printing of 1969 edition)

Streeter, B.H.

The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins, Treating of the Manuscript Tradition, Sources, Authorship, & Dates, Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2008, (digital printing of 1936 edition)

Tuckett, Christopher M.

The Revival of the Griesbach Hypothesis, Cambridge University Press, 2005 (digital printing of 1983 edition)

Taylor, Vincent

The Gospel according to St. Mark, Macmillan, 1966


  • Bob Jase
    2018-01-25 02:15:51 UTC - 02:15 | Permalink

    Too deep for me to have a valid opinion but I’m looking forward to more.

  • Der Gottesverachter
    2018-01-26 16:56:51 UTC - 16:56 | Permalink

    “The earlier form of Jesus was the unnamed they”
    Did Ehrman really say that, or is it a transcription mistake?

    • Tim Widowfield
      2018-01-26 22:20:28 UTC - 22:20 | Permalink

      I’ll go back and listen to it.

    • Tim Widowfield
      2018-01-26 23:02:01 UTC - 23:02 | Permalink

      I had dropped the word “burial.” It’s fixed now.


  • Greg Shelley
    2018-01-29 14:17:17 UTC - 14:17 | Permalink

    Are any of these criteria actually used by real historians? I could imagine some – such as obscure details (something akin to the picking ears of corn mentioned above), but the issue would be that we don’t expect ancient historians to change or add details for theological reasons, whereas the majority of non fundamentalist biblical scholars will do so. If one ancient account of a battle names just “the enemy generals”, but one dated 100 years later gives their actual names, do we think it likely that these names were made up for some particular reason, or just that the later author just wanted to be more thorough? If it is the other way? If the earliest account names the generals, but the later ones don’t?

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