Handout (2nd/3rd years): Criteria of Authenticity and the Historical Jesus

This is my handout on the historical Jesus for a 2nd/3rd year class on the Gospels I taught as a substitute lecturer.  It was getting too long so I have divided it into two parts:  this first part introduces the criteria of authenticity in the “quest for the historical Jesus” and a bibliography.  In the next post, we get to pretend to be the Jesus Seminar and vote with coloured beeds on specific sayings or deeds in the Jesus tradition (this may be less funny for the students for many of them were now born in the 90s and have no memory of the Jesus Seminar and I am not sure how much impact it had anyways in the UK)


1.  Double Dissimilarity: A saying is likely to be historically authentic if it cannot be ascribed to either his Jewish predecessors/contemporaries or his Christian followers but is distinctive (can you spot the principal problem with this criterion?)

  • “Let the dead bury their own dead” (Matt 8:21-22; Luke 8:59-60) (contra Gen 23.3-4; Tobit 6.13-15; m. Ber. 3.1; m. Nazir 7.1)
  • “Love your enemies” (Matt 5:44/Luke 6:27) (but see Prov 25:21, 22; Rom 12:14, 20)
  • Jesus said to them, ‘Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?  As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.  The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.’ (Mark 2:18-20)

2.  Embarrassment:  A saying/deed is likely authentic if it embarrasses or was counterproductive to the aims of later Christian theology.

  • John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins… In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John. (Mark 1:4, 9)
  • Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness.” Then he consented. (Matthew 3:13-15)
  • [Herod] added this to them all, that he shut up John in prison.  Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened… (Luke 3:20-21; was John imprisoned before Jesus was baptized?)
  • John’s Gospel keeps John the Baptist and the Spirit descending like a Dove but skips the baptism itself (see John 1:29-34).
  • The Gospel according to the Hebrews has Jesus ask “what sin have I committed, that I should go and be baptized by him’ (Jerome, Pelag. 3.2)

3.  Multiple Attestation: The more a saying/deed is found in multiple and independent sources (not just later sources borrowing from Mark), it is more likely authentic or at least early.

  • And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”  (Mark 10:11-12; see Matt 19:9 except permits divorce for unchastity)
  • “Every one who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.” (Q = Luke 16:18/Matt 5:31-32 [except Matthew again permits divorce for unchastity])
  • “To the married I give charge, not I but the Lord, that the wife should not separate from her husband.  (1 Cor 7:10, except he adds that a believer is not to divorce an unbeliever but he permits an unbeliever who wants to separate)

4.  Coherence (other sayings/deeds may be accepted as they cohere with others that have already passed the criteria of authenticity; this seems like an extremely circular criterion)

5.  Historical Plausibility:  In direct contradiction to double disimmilarity, does a saying/deed fit in the context of a first-century Jew in Second Temple Judaism and also help to explain the rise of the Christian movement after him (historical controversies in Galilee/Judea, Aramaisms, Torah, Temple and purity, halahkic debates, eschatology, etc.)

  • “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come.  Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matt 6.9)
  • “Father, hallowed be your name.  Your Kingdom come.” (Luke 11.2)
  • “May he establish his kingdom in your life and in your days and in the life of all the house of Israel, speedily and in a short while.” (Qaddish, Aramaic prayer addresses ‘their Father who is in heaven’)
  • Then comes the end, when he [Christ] delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. (1 Corinthians 15:24)

See also Professor John Kloppenborg’s discussion of the criteria of authenticity (http://homes.chass.utoronto.ca/~kloppen/criteria.htm).  However, recently a number of scholars have called the criteria into question as reliable in separating the historically “authentic” tradition from the later accretions, arguing that our only access to Jesus is how he was interpreted in the memory of his earliest followers and advocating social memory approaches (e.g., what is the “gist” or the “characteristic Jesus” that emerges in the different communal memories of him within our earliest sources).  What do you think?

Further reading:

  • Allison, Dale C. Resurrecting Jesus: The Earliest Christian Tradition and its Interpreters (London and New York: Continuum, 2005); Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010)
  • Arnal, William.  The Symoblic Jesus: Historical Scholarship, Judaism and the Construction of Contemporary Identity (London and Oakville: Equinox, 2005)
  • Casey, Maurice.  Jesus of Nazareth (London:  T&T Clark International, 2010)
  • Chilton, Bruce and Evans, Craig (eds.), Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research (Leiden: Brill, 1994)
  • Crossan, John Dominic.  The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991)
  • Dunn, James D.G.  Jesus Remembered (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003)
  • Fiorenza, Elisabeth Schüssler.  Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet: Critical Issues in Feminist Christology
  • Fredriksen, Paula.  Jesus of Nazareth:  King of the Jews (New York: Vintage, 2000)
  • Freyne, Sean.  Jesus, a Jewish Galilean (London/New York: T&T Clark/Continuum, 2004)
  • Funk, R.W., Hoover, R.W. and the Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (New York: Schribner, 1993)
  • Horsley, Richard.  The Prophet Jesus and the Renewal of Israel:  Moving Beyond a Diversionary Debate (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2012)
  • Keith, Chris and Le Donne, Anthony.  Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity (Bloomburg, 2012) 
  • Meier, John P.  A Marginal Jew (multi volume; New York: Doubleday, 1991-)
  • Porter, Stanley.  The Criteria for Authenticity in Historical Jesus Research (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000)
  • Sanders, E.P.  Jesus and Judaism (London: SCM, 1985); The Historical Figure of Jesus (London: Penguin, 1993)
  • Theissen, Gerd and Merz, Annette. The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 1998
  • Vermes, Geza.  Jesus the Jew (London: SCM, 1973); The Religion of Jesus the Jew (London: SCM, 1993)
  • Witherington, Ben. The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth. InterVarsity Press: 1997
  • Wright, N.T.  Jesus and the Victory of God (London: SPCK, 1996)

2 Responses to Handout (2nd/3rd years): Criteria of Authenticity and the Historical Jesus

  1. […] Michael Kok has gone with Kloppenborg’s first five criteria. […]

  2. […] utilized by various questers for the historical Jesus that linked back to my older post on the subject and I wanted to update some of my thoughts.  I have recently read Anthony Le […]

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