1. Ted Weeden: “Kenneth Bailey’s Theory of Oral Tradition: A Theory Contested by its Evidence”, JSHJ 7 (2009): 3-43. As my first major reality check this essay places at the top. It was published in 2009, but I saw the arguments gestating on the Crosstalk mailing list years before. Weeden proved — the word is not too strong — that we cannot rely on oral models to show that Jesus’ words (or even their “gist”) have been fairly preserved in the gospels. Anecdotal evidence of Mediterranean village life doesn’t reflect an “informally controlled oral tradition” in the way Kenneth Bailey thinks. Communities keep their stories alive not to preserve facts but to validate their values and social identities which are always in flux. It’s true that such stories show patterns of oral tradition, but that tradition has vast amounts of flexibility, variation, and mutation.
2. Mark Goodacre: The Case Against Q, 2002. I was hostile to this book until I allowed myself to process it on a second pass. I always liked Q, or the idea of it — a hidden gospel hinting at more primitive ideas — and Goodacre was an unwelcome intrusion to say the least. But I’d had nagging doubts too. As an undergrad back in ’91 I remember being taught the way Luke faithfully preserved Q’s social concerns whereas Matthew spiritualized them away (“blessed are the poor” –> “blessed are the poor in spirit”) while being told in same breath that Luke had a social agenda for the poor and outcasts. Today in retrospect it actually stuns me how flimsy the basis for Q is. Its defenders have manufactured problems where none exist. For me, giving up Q was painful. It made the criterion of multiple attestation much harder to satisfy, and it removed what I thought was a reliable window into the years before 70 AD.
3. William Arnal: The Symbolic Jesus, 2005. This reality check is different. It’s not about what we can know about Jesus, rather what we should be aware of in ourselves. You would think that Jesus’ “Jewishness” is a trivial fact, but it’s become something of a scholarly holy symbol. In the hands of evangelicals it can reinforce supersessionism in the name of fighting it. (Tom Wright thinks that Christianity’s DNA is so Jewish that it can’t possibly be supersessionist, yet his readings of the NT are often precisely that.) Even in more benign hands, Jesus’ Jewishness is a talisman — brandished to make us feel good about ourselves and ascribe badness to others. I admit I used to be guilty of this in criticizing members of the Jesus Seminar. While Crossan and his ilk are hard to take seriously, it’s cheap to imply (as I did) that they operate out of an implied anti-Jewish framework. The days of Nazi scholarship are long past, and we don’t need to push Jewishness as a hot-button item. As I see it, Arnal extends Schweitzer’s lesson: even as an apocalyptic alien, Jesus can say a lot about us without our knowing it. We use his Jewishness to mask Christian superiority and fabricate offense in others.
4. John Meier: A Marginal Jew (Vol 5): Probing the Authenticity of the Parables, 2016. For me this was The Case Against Q all over again. For years I’d been nursing doubts about parable authenticity, and Meier shows (with astonishing ease) that there is no warrant for treating them as the guaranteed “voice” of Jesus. Many of the stories probably don’t originate with him. Perhaps a meager four: the Mustard Seed, the Great Supper, the Talents, and the Wicked Tenants. All others — The Good Samaritan, The Prodigal Son, The Leaven, The Sower, The Seed Growing Secretly, The Laborers in the Vineyard, The Unmerciful Servant, The Shrewd Manager, The Pharisee and the Toll Collector, The Unjust Judge, The Friend at Midnight, The Rich Fool, The Rich Man and Lazarus — either shout a later creation, or can at best be judged indeterminate. The dominant view is a house of cards: only circular reasoning and wishful thinking justifies the pride of place which has been given to the parables.
5. Richard Carrier: On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason to Doubt, 2014. Mythicists take a pounding for good reason, but here at last is a decent argument that Jesus didn’t exist. I’m not ultimately persuaded by it; I still think a historical Jesus best explains the early Christian movement. But Carrier at least demolishes the confidence we might have in a historical Jesus. He shows how embarrassingly limited, if not useless, the classic criteria are, and refutes many bad arguments for a historical Jesus (the Josephus passage being one, as an obvious forgery). By Carrier’s weighing of the evidence, the likelihood of Jesus having existed is at worst .008%, and at best 32%. The way he arrives at these numbers can be disputed, but he makes a reasonable case that Jesus began as a heavenly wish-fantasy and was later historicized in the gospels.