Tag Archives: Criterion of Dissimilarity

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

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. read more »

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?

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Defending the Criterion of Dissimilarity

Ernst Käsemann

Ernst Käsemann

The limits of historical criteria

Longtime Vridar readers will recall that both Neil and I view the use of criteriology as employed by historical Jesus researchers with a great deal of skepticism. They consistently ask too much of the criteria. We might be able to say, for example, that applying a given criterion can determine the antiquity of a logion (e.g., a traditional saying that may predate both Paul and Mark) but it cannot prove authenticity (i.e., that Jesus said it).

However, I now find myself in the odd position of defending at least one criterion against a detractor. In How God Became Jesus, a book intended to refute Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God, Michael Bird writes (in a chapter called “Did Jesus Think He Was God?”):

I’ve used [historical criteria] myself at times, but like others I’ve become increasingly aware of their limitations and become convinced that they do not offer a path to an objective history of Jesus. For a start, trying to sort out the authentic traditions from the inauthentic traditions is not really that easy, for the simple fact that the history of Jesus has been thoroughly welded together with the early church’s proclamation of Jesus at every point. (p. 33)

Bird’s definition of the CoD

I would, of course, shy away from the term “the early church,” especially in the singular, because it implies unity within ancient Christianity. But other than that, Bird and I mostly agree. If any history at all lies within the gospels, it will necessarily be entangled with the theological concerns of the evangelists and the proclamation of Christ by Jesus’ early followers. No historical criterion can reliably separate them.

Bird offers up the criterion of dissimilarity (CoD) as a failed example.

For [a] case in point, let’s consider Ehrman’s use of the “criterion of dissimilarity,” which on his account dictates that a given unit in the Gospels is historically authentic if “it is dissimilar to what the early Christians would have wanted to say about him.” [Ehrman, 96-97] This criterion is well-known and has received a devastating barrage of criticism to the point that I am, to be frank, at a loss as to why Ehrman continues to use it. It jumped the shark about the same time that the TV show Dawson’s Creek did. (Bird, Evans, et al., p. 33, emphasis mine)

If you’re wondering about that Dawson’s Creek reference, I regret to say that the authors continually veer off into stilted pop culture references. Each time they drag one out, I can’t help but picture an awkward youth pastor in Dockers and a sweater vest trying to sound “hip” for the kids. It’s a constant reminder that we are not their intended audience. Here’s another rib-tickler from Bird:

The background to this saying and the explanation for why Jesus was thought to have committed blasphemy is something like a Jewish version of the TV show Game of Thrones. (p. 43)

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