The Memory Mavens, Part 11: Origins of the Criteria of Authenticity (2)

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by Tim Widowfield

In the first part of this post, we examined some instances of New Testament scholars employing historical criteria before the advent of Formgeschichte, demonstrating that these criteria and methods did not differ significantly from what we would later call criteria of authenticity. In this post, we’ll look more closely at the ways source critics argued for the “genuineness” of passages, insisting that some terms, concepts, and sayings in the NT “must have” come from the historical Jesus himself.

Christ before the High Priest — Gerrit van Honthorst

Big Questions

Historical Jesus studies, like many historical endeavors, has several “big questions.” For example, Did Jesus think he was the messiah? Even the painfully pious Anglo-American scholars of the early twentieth century, who took as much as possible in the NT to be true, asked such questions. Granted, in most cases German (or perhaps Dutch or French) scholars spurred them to write what were essentially apologetic rebuttals; nevertheless, they dared to ask the questions.

Regarding the question: Did Jesus use the term “Son of Man”? Julius Wellhausen in Das Evangelium Marci, had said, “Er ist gleichzeitig mit der Erwartung der Parusie Jesu entstanden.” (It emerged simultaneously with the expectation of the parousia of Jesus.) In other words, only later in the church did the belief arise that Jesus must have foreseen his suffering and death, and that he predicted his return when he will “appear in the clouds of heaven.” (Wellhausen 1903, pp. 65-69)

But Willoughby Charles Allen disagreed.

Wellhausen, for example, argues . . . [The Church] put into His mouth the words, “The Man of whom Daniel spoke will appear in the clouds of the heaven.” This was soon interpreted as equivalent to “I will return.” The next stage was to make the Son of Man the subject in the prophecies of death and resurrection where it becomes necessarily a designation of Christ Himself. Finally, the phrase was introduced into non-eschatological sayings, where it becomes equivalent simply to “I.”

Now Wellhausen is a brilliant philologist, but he is often a very bad interpreter, and his exposition of the development of this phrase in the Church is contrary to all the evidence. (Allen 1911, p. 309)

In a footnote, Allen said he was happy to discover Adolf von Harnack believed the phrase was genuine and that its use by Jesus himself was a secure fact. We may note here that, despite what some Memory Mavens suggest, discussions about which traditions were authentic and which were apocryphal or secondary did not start with the form critics.

How should we evaluate the evidence in the New Testament to determine whether Jesus used the term Son of Man? And if we decide that he did, how do we know what he meant by it? Simply by asking these questions, we have admitted that what Jesus actually said and what the gospels have recorded might not be the same.

What we’re looking for, then, is the truth behind the text.

Serious scholars and sophisticated methods

In any case, we surely know that assumptions of the form critics and “their” tools just won’t do. Good heavens, no.

You may recall that some modern scholars scoff at such balderdash. Chris Keith, for instance, huffed:

[S]ince the idea that scholars can get “behind” the text to an objective past reality is a façade [or a charade, perhaps? (taw)], the Jesus-memory approach does not remove Jesus traditions from their narrative framework in the written tradition. (Keith 2011, p. 63)

Don’t mistake them for “skeptics,” though. The Mavens do want to construct a historical portrait, but they imagine they’re doing something fresh, new, and sophisticated. Here’s how Jens Schröter puts it:

[The criteria] approach fails in acknowledging that doing history always means to scrutinize the sources as selective, often incomplete, remains of the past. It never means to go behind the sources to the “real” events. Therefore, what can be gained by pursuing the quest of historical Jesus as a historical enterprise is a portrait developed on the basis of critical scrutiny of the earliest narratives under the presuppositions of the present knowledge and ethical norms. (Schröter 2012, p. 70, emphasis mine)

What they might deem legitimate, sufficiently sophisticated, critical scrutiny is both a nebulous goal and a moving target. In any case, we surely know that assumptions of the form critics and “their” tools just won’t do. Good heavens, no.

However, Allen, a devout scholar and Anglican priest, who lived during the age wherein scholars routinely referred to Jesus as “our Lord” and to the author of the second gospel as “Saint Mark,” cannot have been tainted by Bultmann back in 1911. So let’s see if he can pass Memory Maven Muster.

Allen conceded that Son of Man (ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου) may indeed have originally come from the Aramaic bar-nasha or bar-‘anosh. And in such usage, we may think of it as nothing more than “a man,” as in: “The son of man hath not where to lay his head.

Yet in other cases, it seems obvious that the term is laden with eschatological import. Here, he is the cosmic judge at the End of Days or perhaps the figure in Daniel’s vision: “One like a son of man.” He concluded that the evangelists must have found the terms in their sources, and that both forms existed side by side. Is one form earlier than the other?

In fact there is not a shred of evidence that the phrase in non-eschatological passages is later than it is in eschatological contexts. (Allen 1911, p. 309)

Finding proof in what is avoided

Moreover, Allen reminds us that later Christians refrained from using this phrase, not only later in the patristic age, but even as early as Paul. Any solution to the Son of Man Problem needs to address all of these issues: (1) The existence of both forms in the earliest tradition and (2) the fact that it fell out of use almost immediately in Christian communities. Allen concludes:

The evidence of the Gospels, whether of Mark the earliest of our Gospels, or of the alleged discourse source lying behind Matthew and Luke, or of the editors of Matthew and Luke or of St. John, is all in the same direction. Christ used the phrase of Himself, and probably, though this is a controversial point, did so to suggest that in His person would be fulfilled the prophecy of Daniel, not however limiting the phrase to sayings where this would be immediately suggested, but employing it in passages of quite general import. The Christian Church of the New Testament period seems to have avoided the phrase for reasons which need not be discussed here. But this reserve is itself a proof of the antiquity and genuineness of the Gospel passages in which it occurs. (Allen 1911, p. 310, emphasis mine)

I hope you will recognize the method Allen is employing here. First, he is arguing that the historical Jesus really used “Son of Man” in his discourses, and that he probably used it in an unusual, eschatological, figure-in-Daniel’s-prophecy sort of way. Second, he contends that later Christians did not use the term, and that the trajectory “is all in the same direction.”

If I may take his argument to the next logical step, Jesus used a familiar term in Aramaic in a way specific to himself and dissimilar to his Jewish, Aramaic-speaking background. On the other hand, the term fell out of favor among early Christians. Hence, instances of Jesus referring to “The Son of Man” remained in the earliest Gospel traditions, Mark and Q, because they are authentic.

There, in a nutshell, is the classical application of the criterion of double dissimilarity. You might not recognize it if you have only read the cartoonish versions presented by the Memory Mavens. However, what I just described closely mirrors the same line of reasoning Norman Perrin used to show that the way Jesus used the term “Kingdom of God” was both highly unusual and, therefore, authentic.

[T]he earliest form of a saying we can reach may be regarded as authentic if it can be shown to be dissimilar to characteristic emphases both of ancient Judaism and of the early Church, and this will particularly be the case where Christian tradition oriented towards Judaism can be shown to have modified the saying away from its original emphasis. (Perrin 1967, p. 39, emphasis mine)

I have said more than once here on Vridar that this criterion has many problems, and I’m not defending it as an assured means of determining historical authenticity. But for the Memory Mavens to sweep it aside without understanding its origins and applications, to blame its existence on form criticism (which they either do not or cannot understand), and to misrepresent the history of NT scholarship smacks of intellectual malpractice.

The criterion’s detractors too often focus on the disjoint, the totally new, the genius-inspired uniqueness of a given tradition. Chris Keith predictably laments “the criterion of dissimilarity’s dual focus on discontinuity.” (Keith 2012, p. 42) However, the point is not to identify radically new fragments that had no antecedents, but to find modified traditions that arose from Judaism. Not something abruptly new and discontinuous, but rather familiar, yet transformed with a new emphasis.

A historical-critical method that preserves

Consider for a moment that the typical tools of historical analysis tend to falsify rather than verify evidence. You can see how excruciatingly pious scholars might naturally gravitate toward a method that claims to prove the truth of gospel tradition. Whether they called it “dissimilarity” hardly matters. It proved useful for their needs.

For example, William Sanday happily notes that John the Baptist himself never thought of himself as Elijah, despite his unusual choice of clothing and unconventional behavior.

John himself had no idea that he was Elijah. The Fourth Gospel relates how a deputation came down from Jerusalem to inquire who he was. They asked if he was Elijah; and he answered that he was not (John i. 21). I pause for a moment to point out what an authentic touch this is — all the more authentic, because it runs counter to the general Christian tradition. (Sanday 1908, p. 32, emphasis mine)

Here we find an argument for authenticity, which appeals to the notion that Christian tradition insisted that the Baptist most assuredly was the Forerunner and was the second coming of Elijah. Yet a dissimilar counter-tradition persists in the Gospel of John. That can only be the case, Sanday reasoned, because it was authentic.

Dissimilarity with Judaism

In the above two examples, we see scholars finding differences mainly between traditions in the gospels and later conceptions in the Church. What about the other side of the dissimilarity coin? Dagmar Winter says we won’t find them until later:

By contrast and despite an underlying assumption of dissimilarity, concrete formulations of the criterion of dissimilarity to Judaism [CDJ] do not appear until the mid-twentieth century. In contrast, numerous Jewish scholars expressed clearly much earlier the opposite to the concept of dissimilarity and advocated coherence with Judaism as a good criterion for authentic Jesus tradition. (Winter 2012, p. 121, emphasis mine)

Well, yes. Many 19th- and early 20th-century scholars did in fact build their historical Jesus reconstructions around the assumption that a more Jewish-sounding tradition was more likely to be genuine. Coherence, for them, was the first rule of thumb. However, we needn’t look very far to find cases in which pious scholars rescued the traditions they preferred by contrasting Jesus’ teaching with prevailing Jewish ideas.

For example, Burnett Hillman Streeter argued against the notion that Christianity started with a doctrine of the imminent, cataclysmic end of the age and the impending last judgment. He insisted that Mark and Matthew got these ideas from Jewish conventional apocalyptic archetypes, which they used to embellish their gospels. By placing supposed Q traditions at the headwaters of the tradition stream, he rescued Paul and the author of the Fourth Gospel from secondary status and installed them as champions of Jesus’ “true” teaching.

Sayings which appear to imply a catastrophic coming of the Kingdom are rare in Q. The eschatological sayings characteristic of Q are rather those that imply a Kingdom which is in some sense already present and which will increase by a gradual growth. . . .

Thus in Q, while the catastrophic eschatology is undoubtedly present, it is vague and undefined. The eschatology which is really characteristic of Q is of a different kind. (Streeter 1911, p. 427, emphasis mine)

Streeter showed how, in his estimation, Mark and Matthew added apocalyptic imagery to the Olivet Discourse, taking us further and further from the true teaching of “our Lord.”

The above sketch is far from exhaustive, but it suffices to show clearly that in the series Q, Mark, Matthew, there is a steady development in the direction of emphasizing, making more definite, and even creating, sayings of our Lord of the catastrophic Apocalyptic type, and of thrusting more and more into the background the sayings of a contrary tenor.

But what right have we to assume that the process had not already begun even before Q crystallized the tradition into writing. The sayings preserved in Q were not taken down at the time by a shorthand writer; they had lived for many years in the memory of the disciples. The human memory retains little that it does not transmute, and the more interesting the thing remembered and the more often it is repeated to others, the more inevitably does it become coloured by the idiosyncrasy of the teller. Hence a tendency which continued to modify the record of our Lord’s sayings even after they had been reduced to writing cannot but have operated previously when memory was unchecked by the written document. (Streeter 1911, p. 433, emphasis mine)

But these apocalyptic ideas didn’t simply spring out of nowhere; they came from the earliest disciples’ Jewish milieu. Jesus, according to Streeter, had distinct ideas about the eschaton — far different from his immediate followers, who read their Jewish ideas into his teaching. (Yes, I’m pretty sure Streeter was aware that “his Lord” was also a Jew.)

Not only in Religion, [but] equally in Philosophy, Literature, Art, even sometimes in Science, the rule holds good that the great man is only partially understood by his followers. Some one-sided aspect of the Master’s thought is seized upon by his admirers, and by a change of emphasis what was almost an accident in his conception becomes an essential tenet of his School. What wonder then if the early disciples of our Lord, steeped in Jewish Apocalyptic thought, seized upon and amplified this element in His teaching, and slowly modified the tradition of His actual language into accord with their own interpretation?

But the process was not allowed to go on unchecked. Two great religious geniuses, St. Paul and the author of the Fourth Gospel, stemmed the tide, and by a counter evolution brought back the Church to profounder and more spiritual conceptions; which, though often expressed in terms of a Hellenized philosophy foreign to the Master’s own environment, surely present some aspects of His mind which in the Synoptic Gospels are almost buried under the picturesque materialism of Jewish Eschatology. (Streeter 1911, pp. 435-436, emphasis and formatting mine)

I may not be the best judge of concrete formulations, but this certainly looks like a concrete application of CDJ. It looks to me as if Streeter “knows” that the material in Q is earlier than Mark and is therefore more authentic than Mark, specifically because it isn’t contaminated with the “picturesque materialism of Jewish eschatology.”

In other words, authentic sayings of Jesus in Q are dissimilar from Judaism, which sets them apart.

What is the real difference here?

This spiritual constancy at the expense of rational consistency, as well as all blindness to it, remains today one of the hallmarks of Christian apologetics.

We could keep digging up more and more cases of pious English and American scholars using arguments that are obvious antecedents to the historical criteria the Memory Mavens condemn, including the ones they blame on the form critics. However, we should spend our time more profitably here by showing what was different back then and explaining what actually changed, and what’s really going on here.

First, these older scholars had no overarching historical paradigm. They had no rational methodological foundation. They began from the unshakable belief that the New Testament is true, or at least that the ideas behind it are true. “Their Lord” and their true religion lay at the heart of these writings. As a result, they would use any and all tools at their disposal without regard to consistent methodology.

The very tool used to prove some authentic teaching here might be used in the next breath to disprove some heresy over there. This spiritual constancy at the expense of rational consistency, as well as all blindness to it, remains today one of the hallmarks of Christian apologetics.

Recall above where Willoughby Allen “proved” that Jesus used the term Son of Man in an eschatological manner and probably applied it to himself. Well, Sanday went even further.

That is the wonder of it, that a creature to all appearance so poor and feeble should have such an exalted destiny. It seems to me that our Lord must have dwelt much on this, as well as on the other side of the picture, and that He looked at it in the light of His own experiences. At a later date, when the Passion came clearly into view, a new set of scriptures was brought to remembrance — all those which helped to portray the suffering Servant whether in psalm or in prophecy. So no element in the complex nature and fortunes of Man was left out. We might say that on these lines the Son of Man fathomed the mystery of His own incarnation. (Sanday 1908, p. 130, emphasis mine)

For Sanday and scholars like him, history was just another mundane tool to be used to reveal divine truth. In fact, rather than engage in actual arguments for authenticity, they would often simply prove by assertion: “This is genuine” or “There is no reason to doubt its authenticity.” Hence, all arguments were by definition ad hoc arguments, conscripted into service to their Lord.

Because of their ad hoc nature, and since these scholars felt no internal or external pressure to conform to some consistent historical framework, we won’t see explicit formulations of criteria. They would pick up each argument like a plastic fork at a church picnic, use it, and then toss it aside. The truth of Jesus was the only framework they recognized.

Something happened

But then something did change. A couple of scholars came along and upset the world of NT scholarship. Thanks to them, biblical scholarship changed forever.

Stay tuned.

Allen, Willoughby C.

“The Aramaic Background of the Gospels” in Studies in the Synoptic Problem (ed. W. Sanday) Oxford, 1911

Keith, Chris

“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, T&T Clark, 2012

Jesus’ Literacy: Scribal Culture and the Teacher from Galilee, Bloomsbury, 2013

Perrin, Norman

Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus, Harper & Row, 1967

Sanday, William

The Life of Christ in Recent Research, Oxford, 1908

Schröter, Jens

“The Criteria of Authenticity in Jesus Research and Historiographical Method,”  in Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity, T&T Clark, 2012

Streeter, Burnett H.

“Synoptic Criticism and the Eschatological Problem” in Studies in the Synoptic Problem (ed. W. Sanday), Oxford, 1911

Winter, Dagmar

“Saving the Quest for Authenticity from the Criterion of Dissimilarity: History and Plausibility” in Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity, T&T Clark, 2012

Wellhausen, Julius

Das Evangelium Marci: Übersetzt und Erklärt, Georg Reimer, 1903


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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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12 thoughts on “The Memory Mavens, Part 11: Origins of the Criteria of Authenticity (2)”

  1. The One True Crriteria of Authenticity – if I, as an apologist, like then its authentic and I’ll make the facts up to prove it.

    Biblical scholarship by believers is a fraud colored by their own personal presumptions.

  2. I like this quote:

    The criterion of dissimilarity is problematic for two reasons. First, there is still much we do not know about early Judaism or the early Jesus movement, so that it is often problematic to label something as “dissimilar.” Second, this criterion implausibly removes Jesus from his Jewish identity and context (continuing the de-Judaizing of Jesus), and it similarly threatens his connection with those who followed him.

    – Sarah J Tanzer, “The Historical Jesus” in “The Jewish Annotated New Testament (ed. Amy-Jill Levine and Mark Brettler, 2nd edition, 2017),” pp 628-633.

    I would guess, too, that the apparently dissimilar stuff might have just been put there for literary shock value: to get the reader’s attention, and excite them to explore further.

    1. I agree with the first part of the quote. But I disagree with the second part (see my post above), because it’s a caricature of what Perrin and others actually did. Naturally, I don’t expect anything to change; it’s too convenient for them to present the straw man and say, “My heavens! What were they thinking?”

  3. The earliest tradition, that would be Paul. So “son of man” fell out before it was in according to Allen. Either he was dating the Gospels very, very, early or he was running in circles! It seems forgotten Mark is dated to c.70 because it can’t be dated earlier. Jerusalem surrounded by armies, the abomination of desolation etc.; ignoring that actually better fits bar Kockva’s war c.130. Which is easier and more obvious, making the Marcan Mountain from the Pauline Mole-hill or a Paul, who so obviously contradicts them (hence the Pastorals and Acts to obfuscate and re-write him), building on the Gospels? “Tradition”, my arse.

    The scales fell off when I was barely a teenager, I genuinely don’t get how anyone can give this stuff more than a cursory glance beyond high school and not realise it is just bullshit larded on more bullshit. I admire the pair of youse labour but you only have to pull out the keystone for the arch to drop. Going on to pound the bricks to dust is a bit OTT!

    1. The powerful allure of Q isn’t simply that it explains the double tradition in Matthew and Luke, but that it provides a whole framework of attractive (to NT scholars) ideas. They imagine a community of followers who were writing stuff down on wax tablets even before the crucifixion. They wrote down the Sermon on the Mount. They memorized parables. And this was back in Galilee, way before Yoko broke up the band.

      The Q framework reminds me of the whimsical stories surrounding the canals of Mars, an ancient civilization with a system of waterways, all gone to rot, overgrown and green. Yes, a once-great civilization that’s in decline, and so they turn their alien eyes toward the blue planet nearby. . . .

      What’s that you say? There are no canals? Oops. Never mind.

        1. Not only is that a common argument, but it’s the reason the reconstructed Q uses the chapter-and-verse numbering from Luke. But at the heart of the controversy is this: Did Matthew add extra material he liked to Q, or did Luke subtract material from Matthew?

          I can argue it either way. If push comes to shove, I would come down on the side of Q’s existence, but I can’t go along with the extra stuff that comes with it — the imagined community, the Aramaic scribbling on wax tablets, etc.

          1. I find it similarly difficult to argue for a separate “M” source, as Ehrman does, to explain the material unique to Matthew that does not come from Mark or Q. Matthew is clearly inventing stuff sometimes, such as the “Jesus is the New Moses” stuff, and his Judaizing of the gentile Gospel of Mark, so it seems equally as likely that he had an “M” source as it is that he was simply making stuff up.

  4. I’m currently reading Ray Brown’s “Birth of the Messiah” after first encountering it many years ago. I’m about halfway through.

    In the first sentence of the text proper he tacitly presumes the historicity of Jesus, later to be constantly repeated and reinforced both implicitly and explicitly without discussion.

    In the last sentence on the first page he labels “a general incredulity about the supernatural and the miraculous” as to be itself ‘just as unscientific as the credulity it replaced’.

    On the second page he asserts that ‘the disciples [having presumed their existence] came to a more adequate understanding of who Jesus was. Their preaching was eventually shaped into an account of the passion which constituted the oldest consecutive narrative about Jesus” …. and from ‘christian preachers’ came the ‘traditions’ of Jesus’ ministry”.

    So, before 2 pages has been completed, he has created an artifice that presumes, without evidence or argument that:
    1. Jesus existed
    2. He had disciples as followers
    3. Who narrated accounts
    4. Which were repeated and embellished to form ‘tradition’.

    Then he gets into his material proper for the next 500 plus pages with that mind set providing the frame for his analysis at every step.
    He breaks his analysis of the infancy narratives into smaller discrete sections, analyses them thoroughly identifying the OT sources and how they have been used and adapted.
    And then … writes a section labelled for each labelled [for Matthew] “Pre-Matthean narrative’ which presumes such was the ‘tradition’ which existed before Matthew adapted, redacted and embellished to give us the final product.

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