Criteria of Authenticity and the Historical Jesus

CRITERIA IN THE QUEST FOR THE HISTORICAL JESUS

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; cf. Exod 20:12)
  • “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 fulfill 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.

  • 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; Matt 19:9 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 [Matthew adds permission to 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 cannot forbid an unbeliever who wants to divorce a believer)
  • Apocalyptic Son of Man sayings in Mark (13:26, 14:62), Q (Matt 24:27, 37-39/Luke 17:24, 26-27, 30), M (Matt 13:40-43), L (Luke 21:34-36), and possibly known to Paul (1 Thess 4:16) and John  (1:51). The title is rare outside the Gospel tradition (Acts 7:56, Heb 2:6, Rev 1:13; 14:14) so it may not be a common title in Christian devotion imputed back to Jesus (i.e. does it qualify as dissimilar to early Christian theology or are the Gospels expressions of one stream of Christian theology?).

4. Aramaic reconstruction

  • A different group of scholars argues that behind the Greek title “the Son of Man” (ho huios tou anthropou) lies the Aramaic bar (e)nash(a), an idiomatic expression either as a circumlocution for “I” (Vermes) or that has a general level of meaning about humanity in general with particular reference to the speaker (Casey).  “The Sabbath was made for [the son of] man, not [the son of] man for the Sabbath, therefore the son of man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28)

5.  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)

6.  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 John Kloppenborg’s discussion of the criteria of authenticity (http://homes.chass.utoronto.ca/~kloppen/criteria.htm).  Recently, several scholars have called into question the aim of the criteria with their aim to separate historically “authentic” facts about Jesus from theological inventions of the early churches or evangelists, insisting that our only access to Jesus is how he was interpreted in the social memory of his earliest follower.  For instance Dale Allison’s Constructing Jesus notes the limitations of memory – it is 1. reconstructive, 2. post-event , 3. projects present circumstances or biases, 4. becomes less distinct as past recedes, 5. sequential, 6. forms meaningful patterns to advance agendas, 7. rehearses the memories valued by groups, 8. shaped by narrative conventions, 9. vivid subjective compelling memory may be inaccurate (pp. 2-10) –  and its ability to capture the gist or general outline (pp. 10-14) – and argues that we should settle for the “gist” or “characteristic Jesus” in the different communal memories of him contained within our earliest sources (pp. 10-14).  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)

 

EXAMPLES IN DETAIL

Example:  Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9-13/Luke 11:2-4 – Double Tradition or “Q”)

“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come.  Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread.  And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.  And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.” (Matt 6:9-13)… “Father, hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come.  Give us each day our daily bread.  And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.  And do not bring us to the time of trial.” (Luke 11:2-4)

And do not pray as the hypocrites, but as the Lord commanded in his Gospel, pray thus: “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy Name, thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, as in Heaven so also upon earth; give us to-day our daily bread, and forgive us our debt as we forgive our debtors, and lead us not into trial, but deliver us from the Evil One, for thine is the power and the glory for ever.” Pray thus three times a day. (Didache 8:2-3)

May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified in the world that He created as He willed.  May He give reign to His kingship in your lifetimes and in your days, and in the lifetimes of the entire Family of Israel, swiftly and soon. (also uses “their Father who is in heaven) – Qaddish prayer

“God is besought to bring about a definitive manifestation of his power, glory and holiness by defeating the Gentiles, gathering the scattered tribes of Israel back to the holy land, and establishing his divine rule fully and forever.  It is within this trajectory that Jesus’ prayer that God will sanctify his name and bring in his kingly rule is to be understood.” –  John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Volume II, p. 292

It is unlikely… that Jesus taught his disciples the prayer as a whole, even in its reconstructed form… given the conditions under which oral discourse is transmitted, that he employed the four petitions from time to time but as individual prayers. He, of course, frequently used “Abba” to address God. Someone in the Q community probably assembled the prayer for the first time; Matthew and Luke then copied the Q version, while editing and revising it at the same time. – Robert Funk, Five Gospels, p. 327 (only Abba/Father in Red, rest is pink and grey)

“Still, despite the fact that the Lord’s prayer must be a very early summary of themes and emphases from Jesus own lifetime, I do not think that such a coordinated prayer was ever taught by him to his followers” – John Dominic Crossan, Historical Jesus, 294

 

Example: The Temple Incident Mark 11:15-17

And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves;and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, ‘Is it not written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”?  But you have made it a den of robbers.’ (Mk 11:15-17)

Some stood up and gave false testimony against him, saying, ‘We heard him say, “I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.”  But even on this point their testimony did not agree. (Mk 14:57-59, cf. Mk 15:29)

See, your house is left to you, desolate. (Matt 23:38/Luke 13:35 = Q)

In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money-changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’… Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews then said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body. (John 2:14-21)

Jesus said, “I will destroy [this] house, and no one will be able to build it […].” (Thomas, 71)

They set up false witnesses who said, ‘This man [Stephen] never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.’… Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands [part of Stephen’s defense for why building the Temple was not God’s intent] (Acts 6:14-15; 7:48)

They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises (Romans 9:4)

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? (1 Cor 3:16; 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16; cf. Eph 2:21-22, an implicit critique of the old temple?)

“Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God” (2 Thess 2:3-4, cf. Mk 13:14)

“He did not wish to purify the temple, either of dishonest trading or of trading in contrast to ‘pure’ worship.  Nor was he opposed to the temple sacrifices which God commanded Israel.  He intended, rather, to indicate that the end was at hand and the temple would be destroyed, so that the new and perfect temple might arise.” – E.P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, p. 75

“Mark’s fiction of an anti-temple messiahship (a contradiction in terms) could have worked only after the temple had already been destroyed.” – Burton Mack, A Myth of Innocence, p. 282

If Jesus had predicted the Temple’s destruction as a sign of the End of the Age… then it is at least odd, I think, that he [Paul] evinces no knowledge whatsoever of Jesus’ prophecy… Shrunk by the size of the Temple’s outer court, muffled by the density of the pilgrim crowds, Jesus’ gesture — had he made it — would simply have been swallowed up.” – Paula Fredriksen, “Gospel Chronologies, the Scene in the Temple, and the Crucifixion of Jesus”, pp. 11, 13

“… Jesus criticism of the financial and trading arrangements in the Temple was consistent with his rejection of oaths by the Temple, with his criticism of the Korban system, of tithing mint, dill and cumin, and of the observance of additional purity laws concerning vessels full from the proceeds of wealth acquired by the rich from the poor.” – Maurice Casey, Jesus of Nazareth, 415

 

Example:  Sabbath Controversies (Mark 2:23-3:6)

One sabbath he was going through the cornfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain.The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions’ [*check out 1 Samuel 21:1]… ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath;so the Son of Man [‘human’] is lord even of the sabbath.’ Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.’ Then he said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ (Mk 2:23-3:6)

But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.’ But the Lord answered him and said, ‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for 18 long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?’ (Luke 13:10-15)… [After healing a man with dropsy] ‘If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?’ (Luke 14:1-5, see also Matthew 12:11-12)

Jesus said to him, ‘Stand up, take your mat and walk.’  At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.Now that day was a sabbath.  So the Jews said to the man who had been cured, ‘It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.’  But he answered them, ‘The man who made me well said to me, “Take up your mat and walk.”… Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the sabbath.  But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is still working, and I also am working.’ For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God… (John 5:8-11, 16-18)

If a man receives circumcision on the sabbath in order that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because I healed a man’s whole body on the sabbath? (John 7:23)

“Controversy between Jesus and his opponents concerning the Sabbath is one of the best attested features in the Gospels.  It is found in three of the four traditions behind the synoptics and absent only from Q, which is hardly surprising since Q contained but one narrative.  Moreover, the independent tradition behind the fourth Gospel contained two Sabbath controversy stories… the sabbath controversies are best understood as the conflict between holiness and compassion” – Marcus Borg, Conflict, Holiness and Politics in the Teaching of Jesus, p. 158-59

“Are we to imagine that Pharisees regularly patrolled grainfields on the Sabbath, looking for possible violations? Or have the Pharisees sent out a special commission to spy on Jesus and his disciples in this particular grainfield?… “If this scene gives us a true picture of the biblical knowledge and teaching skill of the historical Jesus, then the natural and effective response of the Pharisees would have been not fierce anger and concerted opposition but gleeful mockery. They would have laughed their heads off-and invited the populace to do the same-at this uneducated woodworker who insisted on making a fool of himself in public by displaying his abysmal ignorance of the very scriptural text on which he proposed to instruct the supposedly ignorant Pharisees.” – JP. Meier, ‘The Historical Jesus and the Plucking of Grain of the Sabbath’

“Most importantly for this study is that Mark in no way portrays Jesus condoning non-observance or an abrogation of the Sabbath… Mark 2:23-28 is very Jewish and unlike anything known from the early church.  Thus it is possible that this is a passage that accurately reports an event from the ministry of the historical Jesus” – James Crossley, Date of Mark’s Gospel, 160, 164 [note Crossley does argue that Jesus breaks the Sabbath Law in commanding the man to pick up his mat based on Jeremiah 17:22 and goes beyond Mark in claiming equality with God in John’s Gospel]

 

Example: the Lord’s Supper (Mark 14:12-26)

While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.’  (Mk 14:22-25; cf. Matthew 26:17-30)

Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, ‘Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’  Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.  (Lk 22:16-20, italicized words absent in some manuscripts)

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread,and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ (1 Corinthians 11:23-25)

And concerning the Eucharist, hold Eucharist thus: First concerning the Cup, “We give thanks to thee, our Father, for the Holy Vine of David thy child, which, thou didst make known to us through Jesus thy child; to thee be glory for ever.” And concerning the broken Bread: “We give thee thanks, our Father, for the life and knowledge which thou didst make known to us through Jesus thy Child. To thee be glory for ever. (Didache 9:1-3)

“On the grounds of multiple attestation (Paul as well as Synoptic tradition) Jesus’ words about the cup, the bread, his body and blood are among the most secure elements of our traditions about Jesus.” – Craig Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, p. 299

“[J]esus probably did not use the term covenant to explain his death at the last supper… Jesus probably said only ‘ this is my blood’ – a tidy parallel to ‘this is my body'” (Scott McKnight, Jesus and His Death, 308, 310)

“But the Didache, a late first century document, shows no awareness of a ritual deriving from the Last Supper, no connection with the Passover meal, and no commemoration of the death of Jesus…  What Jesus left behind was the tradition of open eating as a sign of the inclusiveness and equality of life in the kingdom of God.  Later, certain Christian groups created the Last Supper ritual…” – John Dominic Crossan, Who is Jesus, p. 56

“Christian scholarship has traditionally seen here the institution of the Eucharist.  We found instead a dramatic story of Jesus celebrating his final Passover with his disciples… Jesus death was seen in this light.  As God had redeemed Israel at the Exodus, so he would redeem Israel by establishing his kingdom.” – Maurice Casey, Aramaic Sources of Mark’s Gospel, p. 25

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