Mark Goodacre on Historical Jesus Criteria

Mark Goodacre (Mark G.) has a post on a forthcoming work criticizing the criteria in the quest for the historical Jesus (HJ), developed to respond to form critical skepticism of how to distinguish between what goes back to HJ, to the “situation in life” of the early churches and to the evangelist’s redaction.  In my HJ posts I have been dependent on the criteria but it is clear it can be used to support completely opposite judgements.  I like much of the recent work on memory and how it captures the gist of how Jesus was widely remembered as a sage, apocalyptic prophet or figure of some significance in the eschatological scenario but if we want to weigh between differing & conflicting memories in our varied sources and make specific judgments (did the temple incident happen, did Jesus speak of the apocalyptic Son of Man) then some sort of criteria is unavoidable and I worry some conservative scholarship  study of eyewitnesses or oral tradition/social memory is to bypass  having to make an explicit judgment that something in the tradition is secondary or not historical (note this concern does NOT apply to Mark G. nor Dale Alison, but some others it may apply).  So lets look at the criteria:

  • Double Dissimilarity: this one tries to reach an assured minimum (if it can’t be attributed to other Jews or Christians it must have be the HJ), but I agree it is a bad criterion.  The HJ appears in a vacuum neither influencd by his Jewish context or influencing his followers.  It assumes we know enough about Second Temple Judaism(s) or Christianities to ever declare something  unparalleled and the criterion was born in a German liberal Protestant context which wanted to claim Jesus as unique and superior visa-vie Judaism.  Instead, it might be useful looking for something relatively distinctive (e.g., son of man is characteristically on Jesus lips but is rare outside the gospels or for others to refer to Jesus as son of man), but also understandable in both a Jewish context and explains the rise of early Christian views.
  • Multiple attestation:  This criterion can’t prove something historical, but what it can show is that if source X and source Y independently attest event Z than the memory of Z must be earlier than both X and Y.  If seems to me a standard that if something is in multiple early, independent sources, it has a greater chance of reflecting how an event was widely remembered from early on and greater likelihood of being historical (NOT to say a singly-attested event is not historical).  Mark G. will critique this criterion and, if his view of the literary relationships of the Gospels is correct, it does shrink the pool of independent sources (i.e. Matthew/Luke dependent on Mark, Luke dependent on Matthew so no “Q” source, John dependent on Mark, Thomas dependent on Synoptic tradition = but perhaps some special sources in Matt/Luke/John/Thomas were independent of Mark as well as Paul to be useful for multiple attestation?).  This is why the Synoptic Problem is important!
  • Embarrassment: I discussed this with Mark G. in the comments here (see my example of John’s baptism and the responses) as it seems to me that historians should look for counter-voices that the evangelists may try to suppress, or if an event is too well known in the tradition to be denied then the efforts of damage control (e.g., each stressing Jesus’ superiority to the Baptist).  Of course, this criterion must be used with caution as what embarrasses a later theologian may not be so embarrassing to an earlier one (e.g. Jesus cry “why have you forsaken me” on the cross did not embarrass Mark/Matthew as it fits the scriptural background of the suffering righteous man [cf. Psalms 22], but was omitted by Luke for the trusting “into your hands I commit my spirit”) and I am comfortable with how Mark G. shifts the terminology to traditions to “go against the grain” and therefore are at least earlier than the evangelists themselves.
  • Aramaic: this one may be used as both a positive and negative criterion to see if a saying in the Greek Gospels can be reasonable reconstructed back into Aramaic and if there are good reasons to do so (e.g., puzzles in the Greek text best explained by positing an Aramaic original rather than other literary explanations).  Of course, since Jesus’ Jewish followers spoke Aramaic this has no guarantee of going back to Jesus without the use of other criteria, but it means that a tradition about Jesus circulated very early in a Jewish Aramaic speaking milieu and may go back to HJ.
  • Coherence: depends on what other sayings or deeds the scholar thinks passes the other criteria, so is pretty subjective.

There are a few other criteria used (cf. John Kloppenborg’s discussion).  If still seen as deficient, perhaps we can propose new criteria?  Finally, to help students from different faith backgrounds come to terms with the study of the HJ, I like to distinguish between Jesus and the HJ.  We do not have access to the former, unless we invent a time machine, apart from the memories of his followers.  The HJ is a scholarly reconstruction built on arguments about probability and evidence, but if a saying/deed doesn’t pass the criteria does not necessarily mean it didn’t happen (just that it cannot be demonstrated using the current tools of the trade, though that may be contested in the future) or that the HJ represents all that Jesus in all his complexity was (and for Christian worshippers, who he is).  What do you think of the criteria?

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9 Responses to Mark Goodacre on Historical Jesus Criteria

  1. Doug says:

    I remain convinced that embarrassment is useful (as I did the other day although I agree that the “against the grain” way of putting it is probably better.

    i also think we need to be careful users of historical plausibility, by which I mean: “Does this story seem to work in a late Second Temple Palestinian context? (With the additional implication “at least as well if not better” than in a post-70, Diaspora or ecclesial context?) I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on that one.

    • Mike K. says:

      Thanks Doug for the comment and the interesting post that Jesus carried on John’s baptizing ministry (I think Meier defended John’s accuracy on this too if I remember correctly).

      The second question about historical plausibility can be tricky because I think Mark may be located somewhere in Syria-Palestine and by a Jewish author familiar with Palestine and steeped in understanding of Second Temple Judaism (perhaps Matthew too?). I think generally speaking that the Synoptic portrait present Jesus of Nazareth as a historically plausible first-century Jewish figure, though perhaps the criterion of plausibility can also be used in the negative sense to weed out anachronisms that may reflect what you note as “post-70, Diaspora or ecclesial context” (e.g., Matthew’s developed ecclesiology with rules for church discipline, Luke’s support for the Gentile mission by editing the Nazareth synagogue scene, John having Jesus followers excommunicated from the synagogue, etc.)? What do you think?

      • Doug says:

        Thanks for the response, Mike. I agree that the negative use is one way of applying the criteria of plausibility. I think though, when used with coherence, (especially in Dale Allison’s “gist” type of approach) it can be more positive. For example, it is (I think) really the only criteria applicable to attributing the “summary of the law”, as Mark gives it, to the historical Jesus. It makes sense in the context of inter-Jewish debate and discussion about “Torah in a nutshell”. Of course, you may have other views …?

        • Mike K. says:

          Thanks Doug, I would agree that plausibility can be useful when used with coherence with one’s emerging reconstruction of the HJ. I also agree that Jesus halakhic debates about the Torah were all inter-Jewish as well.

  2. [...] will be presenting.There’s more around the blogosphere from Mark Goodacre, Nijay Gupta, and Mike Kok, focusing primarily on the book, the conference, and the criteria themselves, respectively.The [...]

  3. Brian S. says:

    That sounds about right, though we might have to admit that historically the Nazarene, is a bit of an elusive figure, and thus we must be humble about what we can really know. Though I’m also rather skeptical about those sorts of sentiments [except the humility part]. Since it seems to me that we are still under the impression that in order to paint an accurate portrait of Jesus we must have objective and unbaised sources that are free from the faith of the early Church and I personally do not think that can be done. Faith in Jesus likely began the moment he first instructed his disciples to take up their cross and follow him. And in addition to all that, I don’t think that just because our sources are saturated in the faith means that we can only know what later generations thought of their master. It would seem to me that even if the memories and stories contained in the gospels aren’t wholly true, they can still teach us about Jesus and the traits he was thought to have had. Besides, we can learn a lot about people by asking their friends and family. We don’t need access to Jesus’ inner mind to come to an accurate understanding concerning who he is, because there is more to us than simpily what we think of ourselves.

    Anyway, concerning the other criteria, I think that the criterion of embaressment, multiple attestation, and coherence are our best bet. Though I perfer now to interpret reoccurant themes in our sources than to isolate and idenify quasi-virginal logia. As for the cross not embaressing Mark/Matthew, I think we should be more cautious about saying that. Jesus’ death by crucifixion had caused his earliest interpreters to stumble a bit, and you can see that by some of their bitterness toward those who could not believe that God’s annointed could simpily perish like that. Mark Goodacre has written an excellent article in which he has argued that the scriptural fullfillment motiffs served the purpose of not only trying to argue from scripture that Jesus’ untimely death was in conformity with his messianic status but that it was in some way, God’s will and nothing to be ashamed of.

    So simpily arguing that it suited the evangelist’s purpose isn’t very convincing… because usually theology is the articulation of a prior belief rather than starting from scratch.

    Anyway as for your last comment. I would like to add that those of us who profess the faith should take into consideration the Quest, we don’t need to replace our theology for the latest reconstruction but it is still important to take those reconstructions into consideration.

    • Mike K. says:

      Thanks Brian, I agree we have no “objective” or “neutral” sources apart from faith perspectives, thus always dealing with “Jesus remembered” (i.e. Dunn). So there may be something to looking for recurrent themes rather than isolated logia or parables that without a context could mean anything. Perhaps our task is then sorting out the earliest memories of the community (or even reliable memories that may have only been recorded in later, singly attested sources) from what are later developments. I also take your point about the embarrassment of crucifixion with Paul’s claim it was a stumbling block for Jews and foolishness to Greeks (you may like Gundry’s commentary “Apology for the Cross” which sees Mark as an apologetic presentation of a Christology of Power in response to outsiders who find the crucifixion shameful). My point was more that we should just be cautious of claims that the words “my God, why have you forsaken me” definitely pass the criteria of embarrassment because Mark does in fact want to present Jesus as the suffering righteous man who fulfills the script of passages like Psalm 22 (perhaps it may still be historically accurate on other grounds), whereas a later reader of Mark with a more developed christology might wrestle with it more. Finally, I agree that the Quest might have something useful to address to theology (emphasis of Jesus’ full humanity, providing a historical context for the Gospels so that they are not misused, ecumenical or inter-faith discussions about Jesus the Jews) though I wouldn’t want Christian faith to have to depend on the latest historical reconstruction.

  4. Steven Carr says:

    Why do Islamic scholars use different criteria to establish what the historical Muhammad and his companions said?

    Could New Testament scholars learn from the criteria that Islamic scholars have developed?

  5. [...] the Demise of Authenticity” The blogosphere  has become quite active [see Nijay Gupta; Michael Kok; James McGrath; Mark Goodacre] in drawing attention to a conference, and resulting book, that [...]

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