Tracy Chapman’s 1988 hit song begins: “Don’t you know, they’re talkin’ about a revolution and it sounds like a whisper.” To be sure, some revolutions come swiftly, much like the “Arab spring” that garnered so much media attention over the past three years. Other revolutions come in, as Chapman’s lyrics suggest, “like a whisper.” Such seems to be the case with our re-thinking of the Jesus criteria. This subject is on my mind quite a bit right now as I’m teaching a class on Jesus and the Gospels.
Last year I had the privilege (and that’s not hyperbole) of reading carefully through Chris Keith’s and Anthony Le Donne’s edited volume, Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity (London: T & T Clark, 2012). I was not only blown away by the insightfulness of the book but by my own ignorance. As I have said elsewhere, I had taught the criteria–quite approvingly I might add–for the better part of the previous eight years without ever thinking through the issues raised by the essays in that volume. By way of background, I did my doctoral work in the School of Theology and Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America. Even though John Meier left CUA for Notre Dame a little over a year before I began my doctoral studies, his work on the historical Jesus had clearly shaped discussions of the historical Jesus that went on inside our department. Anyone who has read Meier’s magisterial works knows that he relies heavily on the criteria. During that time I devoured the first three volumes of A Marginal Jew, and I guess you could say I bought in lock, stock, and barrel to the approach advocated there.
I now believe that approach to be deeply flawed and think that Keith and Le Donne (and their contributors) have demonstrated with relative clarity the emptiness of the criteria approach. At the time of the book’s publication, I noticed a lot of support in the blogosphere for their thesis, and it doesn’t seem to me that that enthusiasm has waned to any significant degree. However, for all of the positivity surrounding this new way of thinking, scholarly use and/or approval of the criteria remains ubiquitous. Over the past few months I have reviewed two different books in which the Jesus criteria factor prominently. The first was the recently revised second edition of Mark Allan Powell’s book, Jesus as Figure in History, which I reviewed for Biblical Theology Bulletin and the second was The Story of Jesus in History and Faith by Lee Martin McDonald which I am currently reviewing for Interpretation. To be fair, both of these books were being produced around the same time as the Keith/LeDonne volume, so there may not have been time for either author to incorporate their findings and still meet their own publication deadlines. But I have also found in personal conversations with friends who teach and research in the field that the Jesus criteria remain entrenched. I even learned the hard way that an older generation of scholars–especially those committed to defending the historicity of Jesus’ words and deeds–will not let the criteria go away without a fight. This year at SBL in Baltimore I had a scholar whose opinion I respect–one of my mentors, in fact–essentially denigrate the entire enterprise of dispensing with the criteria. This visceral response was a shock to me, but I’m starting to realize that it shouldn’t be.
For my part, I am now committed to thinking of the historical Jesus enterprise in new ways. I can only hope that this new light on the criteria will prove to be as revolutionary as many think it is. For the time being, however, perhaps all we can expect is a whisper.