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Jesus and Authenticity Criteria

September 7, 2019

Especially since the 18th century, scholars have devoted much attention to separating out what they thought was “authentic” material about Jesus from subsequent interpretations that derived from circles of early Christians.  Particularly in the 20th century, this effort grew to a crescendo in the various putative criteria devised to identify “authentic” material.  The prolonged efforts of the Jesus Seminar are probably the largest organized project to apply this approach.

But for several decades other scholars have raised penetrating questions about these criteria.  A multi-author volume published several years ago now gathered up critiques of the use of these criteria:  Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne, eds., Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity (London: T&T Clark, 2012).  I emphasize that the critiques were directed against the assumptions that underlie these criteria, and their limitations for historical Jesus investigation.  The authors weren’t rubishing the historical Jesus enterprise itself.

That’s important to note, for a newly-published multi-author volume could give readers the impression that the Keith/Le Donne volume represents a “skepticism” about historical knowledge of Jesus altogether:  Darrell L. Bock and J. Ed Komoszewski, eds., Jesus, Skepticism and the Problem of History:  Criteria and Context in the Study of Christian Origins (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 2019).  I was asked to give a response to the essays in this volume, and my response is included, pp. 341-50.

I found some of the essays more cogent and on target than others, but I didn’t have space to offer comments on them individually.  So, instead, I chose to make some broad points to bear in mind.  In particular, I emphasize that the Keith/Le Donne volume doesn’t reject the historical Jesus project, but redirects it.  The older criteria-based efforts that they criticize rested on the premise that the Gospels include some pretty well unaltered “authentic” material about Jesus, along with later and interpreted material stemming from early churches.  The task, on this premise, was to devise criteria to identify the unaltered material.

The authors in the Keith/Le Donne volume, however, point out cogently that the Gospels were wholly written to serve the needs of the early believers for whom they were composed, and so all the material is “interpreted”, at least in the sense that it is presented to inspire, shape, and inform believers.  To be sure, the Gospels do reflect a desire to emphasize that the exalted Lord of believers is the Jewish prophet and Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.  And their narratives are thick with historical context, relating Jewish disputes about Torah-observance, Galilean/Judean geography, housing construction, Jewish dress, Jewish religious parties, and still more topics.  But this historical context is related, not for antiquarian purposes, but to inform the intended readers about who this Jesus of Nazareth is.

Another point that I made in my response is that the older criteria approach tended to focus heavily on the sayings material, to the neglect of the events related.  One of the strong points in the study by E.P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, was his emphasis that the narrative of events is also important.  As the great Nils Dahl emphasized, any picture of the historical Jesus must give due attention to the fact that he was crucified as a result of collusion by the Jerusalem temple authorities and the Roman governor. A gentle, humane Jesus, whose greatest offence was a few wise-cracks just doesn’t fit with what happened to him.

We should also take due note of the emphasis in all four Gospels that Jesus was historically connected to John the Baptizer.  Indeed, the rather consistent view of John ascribed to Jesus is one of admiration and affirmation.  Jesus is presented as, in the eyes of some at least, as the successor to John, even though there are also differences in emphasis between John and Jesus.  Certainly, Jesus’ repeated affirmation of John as a true prophet means that in a sense Jesus’ ministry has to be seen as aligned with John’s.

Readers of both volumes will have to judge for themselves, and will have in these two books much food for thought.  I judge that in the end the two volumes aren’t at loggerheads.  Both groups of authors believe that we can make historical judgments about Jesus of Nazareth, and form at least a broad impression of his message and activities.  The “skepticism” about the historical Jesus objected to in the Bock/Komoszewski volume isn’t applicable to the Keith/Le Donne volume, even if the two books approach the task somewhat differently.

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  1. John Mitrosky permalink

    I gather from your statement, “A gentle, humane Jesus, whose greatest offence was a few wise-cracks just doesn’t fit with what happened to him,” means that you believe some sort of temple incident (like that with the money-changers described) is historical? As you know, many scholars are divided even on this point. For example, Mack and Fredriksen suggest it is Mark’s invention. Sanders and Desjardins think it is the cause of his crucifixion. The problem, of course, is if Jesus disrupted the table of the money-changers, you think he would have been arrested immediately. I would tend to side with Sanders and Desjardins on this, but I don’t know. Perhaps John’s gospel gets the scene correct by sort of implying that a dangerous stampede of still alive, sacrificial animals, may have diverted attention and enabled Jesus to escape into the crowds immediately afterwards? What do you think?

    • No, John. I don’t think that “the temple incident” can by itself carry the weight assigned by Sanders. I’ve laid out my views in LJC about how Jesus had a polarizing effect, exhibited in the collusion to execute him.

  2. Michael Mojica permalink

    Regarding the sayings of Jesus and people’s understanding of what/who the Messiah was supposed to do/be: Do you think both Jews and gentiles clearly understood Mark 1:1 as a direct contrast to Augustus Caesar (e.g. the Priene Calendar Inscription and the other Roman inscription) in which Caesar is seen as son of god, savior, and where the term evangelion is used to be now appropriated to Jesus? Also, do you think 4Q246 (Lk. 1:32-33) and 4Q521 (Lk. 7:21-22), etc to be understood on the popular level in Jesus’ day or were these just niche/esoteric understandings appreciated only by a few?

    BTW, do you have your “response is included, pp. 341-50” as a link?


    • Michael: As to your question about Mark 1:1, who knows what associations various readers might have made? But the only explicit association that the author gave is his quotation of the two biblical texts in the following verses. That suggests that for this author the primary context in which to see Jesus as God’s “son”, etc., is the biblical (OT) background.

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