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?