Lately I’ve been pondering the classic criteria used to derive portraits of the historical Jesus. Some appear to remain more useful than others. Here I use a rating scheme of 0-4, where
4 = very useful; can hardly go wrong with it
3 = useful guide; helpful in getting at probabilities
2 = some limited use
1 = poor criterion; may need redefinition
0 = completely useless; wrong in principle
and come up with the following:
Embarrassment — 3
Dissimilarity to the early church — 3
Rejection/execution — 2
Multiple attestation — 1
Coherence — 0
Dissimilarity to Judaism — 0
I continue to find the criteria of embarrassment and dissimilarity (to the church, not Judaism) helpful, even if what sometimes appears embarrassing or dissimilar may not be. For the most part, when things cut against the grain of what later Christians believed about Jesus, the likelihood increases that we’re onto something historical.
They’re useful guides, not skeleton keys. A good illustration of their limits can be seen when they conflict with each another, as in the case of Mk 9:1/Mt 16:28/Lk 9:27: “I tell you, there are some standing here who won’t taste death before they see the kingdom of God come in power.” It’s embarrassing as an unfulfilled prophecy, but could have served the needs of the early church by answering concerns about first-generation Christians dying before the apocalypse — offering, in effect, the assurance that at least some first-generation Christians won’t die before the kingdom comes. It puts one in mind of the kind of concerns behind I Thess 4 and I Cor 15. (See for instance Meier, Marginal Jew, Vol II, pp 342-344.) That embarrassing accounts can serve the church despite themselves advises caution.
In view of the crucifixion, I’m attentive to anything which passes the criterion of rejection/execution. Three noteworthy candidates include Jesus hailed as a messianic liberator during passover, his threat against the temple, and his oblique opposition to Caesar/taxation. It’s a useful criterion in getting at the end result, but that’s about it. Jesus obviously did plenty of things which didn’t call for blood.
Other criteria leave me cold. Coherence is too elastically defined, and on top of that wrong in principle. Early Christians obviously would have come up with ideas which echoed and cohered with their savior’s. And Jesus could have been as inconsistent as the next person (like Paul). As far as I can tell, “coherence” as an index for authenticity is useless.
Multiple attestation seems terribly overrated, not only for depending on precarious reconstructions and datings of independent sources, but for pointing toward nothing more than what is multiply attested by the time of the sources. What are our earliest? The seven or eight letters of Paul; maybe James. If Q is a phantom (I’ve believed so since my second reading of Goodacre), that removes a cherished pre-70 source. Thomas may have predated one or more of the canonical gospels, but I doubt it (or a form of it) traces to the pre-70 period. Since there’s not much early attested material, the question of multiple attestation seems almost moot.
Dissimilarity to Judaism is misguided and question-begging from so many angles. (1) Jesus was an (ethnic) Judean but a (geographic) Galilean. Does this mean he was “dissimilar” if he took a callous attitude to the purity codes which codified southern Judean practice (Mk 7:1-13) distinct from Galileans? (2) Or, if a tradition like Mk 7:1-13 isn’t against purity per se, only a sectarian disagreement about how much of priestly purity should be brought into everyday life of non-priests, is this again “dissimilar”? To whom and what? (3) The premise that an historical figure is chiefly characterized by differences to his/her heritage makes no sense in any case.
Such is my take on the classic criteria at present. I’ve drawn up an appendix of how they’ve been used in recent years by scholars. It’s interesting to compare the results.
Appendix: How scholars have used the criteria
Here I assign my 0-4 ratings, based not only on how the criteria are explicitly assessed, but how they actually play out in the scholar’s methodology.
John Meier, A Marginal Jew, Vol I, esp. pp 167-184.
Embarrassment — 3
Dissimilarity — 3
Multiple attestation — 3
Coherence — 3
Rejection/execution — 3
Traces of Aramaic — 1
Palestinian environment — 2
Vividness of narration — 1
Tendencies of the developing synoptic tradition — 0
Historical presumption — 0
Meier thinks the first five criteria are useful to get “from the merely possible to the really probable” (p 167). They are helpful when used this way but have limitations: embarrassment is useful, but “what we might consider an embarrassment to the early church was not necessarily so in its own eyes” (p 170); dissimilarity (or discontinuity) is fine, but “a complete rupture with religious history just before or after him is apriori unlikely” (p 172); against multiple attestation, it’s possible that invented sayings can meet the needs of the church so that they rapidly enter into a number of different strands of tradition” (p 175); etc.
The next three can only “act as secondary, supportive criteria, reinforcing the impressions gained from one or more of the primary criteria” (p 184), though Meier acknowledges that the criterion of Palestinian environment “is much more useful in its negative guise”, meaning what applies outside the domain of a Palestinian environment may likely be a later church creation (p 180). And the last two are (rightly) dismissed as useless (p 184).
E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus.
Embarrassment — 3
Multiple Attestation — 3
Rejection/Execution — 2
Dissimilarity — 0
The criterion of embarrassment guides many of Sanders’ findings — the baptism of Jesus by John (p 94), unfulfilled prophecies (pp 180-182), the promise that Judas will participate in reigning over the twelve tribes (p 190). He also invokes multiple attestation, as in the “best-attested saying” against divorce (pp 198-200). Finally, his entire reconstruction of Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem rests on an implied use of the criterion of rejection/execution (pp 258-275).
Dissimilarity goes out the window with Sanders. “Similarity” is his implied criterion, which is why, for instance, he rejects most of Jesus’ Torah-breaking behavior as later invention.
John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant.
Multiple Attestation + Early Dating — 4
Crossan’s use of this dual criterion is heavy-handed. He refuses to consider anything singularly attested — regardless how it might pass other criteria — and entertains material only from sources which he dates earlier than 60 CE (pp xxxi-xxxiii).
Sometimes, however, he supports arguments derived from multiple attestation with the criterion of embarrassment (“theological damage control”), as in the case of Jesus’ baptism by John (p 232). Other times he sidesteps his own dogmatic reliance on multiple attestation (when he wants to get authenticity out of something he really likes) by appealing to the criterion of intertextual linkage: for example, the “Q” saying about Jesus being called a glutton and drunkard (Lk 7:31-35/Mt 11:16-19), while singularly attested, contains an ascetic theme which squares with the doubly attested saying in Mk 2:18-20 and Thom 104 (pp 259-260).
N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God.
Double (Dis/)Similarity — 4
Like Crossan, Wright relies on a pet criterion which he wields with abandon. He defines “double similarity and dissimilarity” as
“When something can be seen to be credible (though perhaps deeply subversive) within first-century Judaism and credible as the implied starting point (though not the exact blueprint) of something in later Christianity…Double similarity and double dissimilarity must characterize any analysis that claims history.” (pp 132, 220)
The problem is that virtually everything in the synoptic tradition ends up (almost magically) fitting this elastically-defined criterion. Wright’s Jesus is a “double-revolutionary”, fulfilling Israel’s promises while undermining them at the same time. Not only is the criterion too elastic to be of much use, it seems tailored to accommodate a (Christian) promise-fulfillment approach to the Old Testament.
Dale Allison, Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet, esp. pp 51-58.
Apocalyptic eschatology — 3
Embarrassment — 3
Dissimilarity (to early church) — 3
Themes and motifs* — 3
Intertextual linkage — 3
Dissimilarity (to Judaism) — 0
*parables, antithetical parallelism, rhetorical questions, prefatory “amen”, divine passive, exaggeration/hyperbole, aphoristic formulations, unexpected or paradoxical
Allison believes that the Jesus tradition shows every sign of characterizing a failed apocalyptic movement, marked by embarrassing unfulfilled prophecies and later accommodating church revisions. He says the above indices (criteria) are fallible, “suggestive but not demonstrative” (p 51), and that “after we have passed portions of the Jesus tradition through the indices, we should feel no moral certainty about the outcome” (p 57). They raise the level of plausibility — “but that is all historians will ever have, higher and lower levels of plausibility” (ibid).
Donald Akenson, Saint Saul: A Skeleton Key to the Historical Jesus, esp. pp 186-197.
Dissimilarity — 2
Embarrassment — 2
Multiple Attestation — 0
Akenson dismisses dissimilarity as worthless (p 188), but then allows some value to it when redefined — “if applied,” he says, “in cases where Jesus’ words and deeds go against Judaic practices as understood in the New Testament” (p 189).
He makes slim allowances for embarrassment, saying that what appears to be embarrassing usually isn’t. Of four classic examples — the baptism of Jesus by John, the betrayal by Judas, Peter’s denial, and the crucifixion of Jesus — only John’s baptism is truly embarrassing. The crucifixion was a badge rather than embarrassment to the Christians; and the denial of Peter and betrayal of Judas work well in the passion narratives (see pp 191-192).
Multiple attestation then goes out the window in a confusing caricature: “The New Testament is composed of many separate texts, but all of them have been filtered, homogenized, and censored in their construction and in the weeding-out process that finally permitted each of them to be included in the canon. Thus, as historical evidence, the New Testament must be treated as comprising multiple repetitions of material from a single source…A single source cannot produce multiple attestations of anything.” (pp 195, 194). Uh, no.
William Herzog, Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God, esp. pp 36-44.
Rejection/execution — 2
Multiple attestation — 1
Coherence — 1
Dissimilarity — 0
Herzog registers impatience with the criteria. Commenting on dissimilarity: “dissimilarity is dissimilar to something, and that something needs to be spelled out” better than it has been (p 41). He then dismisses it on grounds that a Jesus alien to Judaism and the early church is “nothing more than a historical version of the docetic Christ” (p 42).
Multiple attestation “may yield a likelihood that material traces back to an early stage in the tradition, but there is no certainty that it traces to Jesus” (ibid). And “of what good is the criterion of coherence when the materials in relation to which coherence is measured are themselves established on such weak ground?” (ibid)
Herzog has nothing to say about embarrassment, but he does rely on an implied use of rejection/execution in discussing Jesus’ final days in Jerusalem (see pp 218-246).
In the end, he resists criteria in favor of simply “proposing a view of Jesus and testing it by analyzing the Jesus tradition in light of it” (p 43). But of course, almost any proposal can be vindicated when tested against what has proven to be a malleable tradition.