Continuing to Re-Think the Jesus Criteria (Skinner)

Historical JesusTracy 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.


18 thoughts on “Continuing to Re-Think the Jesus Criteria (Skinner)

  1. Chris, thanks for these thoughts. I think you’re dead on about the entrenched nature of the criteria with a particular group of scholars. I can think of at least two reviews of Demise that basically say, “Yes, but you can still use them if you’re careful,” without ever engaging the main thrusts of that book. So it’s nice to hear that others are listening carefully to what the contributors are saying, especially since they’re not all saying the same thing!

  2. Yes, Chris (Skinner): This is very good. And helpful. Part of the problem is that the criteria are just so damn teachable! How do you teach 18–19 year old undergrads to think about the historical Jesus in one or two lectures? The easiest way: Dissimilarity, multiple attestation, embarrassment, coherence, etc. Sometimes, pedagogy is the enemy of history.

    • Not only this, Rafael, but I think the bigger problem is that scholars have spent the better part of several decades in their careers using and perfecting the criteria and they just don’t want to hear that they’ve built a career on a house of cards. I was listening to Dale Allison on my iPod the other day and he very soberly commented,”All of our views will become passe soon enough.” By looking at our exegetical forbearers, we can clearly see that even the most grounbreaking scholars (e.g., Wrede, Bultmann, etc.) are remembered for the new ways in which they examined the material, but hardly any of their conclusions are accepted universally. We would all do well to hold on to the fruit(s) of our own tendentious research loosely.

  3. Hey Chris, I have written a post ( where I still think some of the criteria have limited use in tracing back earlier traditions. I would agree with those voices in the book that urge a more modest use of the criteria (i.e. not insisting that we can make a definitive list of authentic versus inauthentic based on what passes the tests) than those that advocate wholesale abandonment as throwing out the baby with the bathwater. I mean, some of the criteria such as that multiple independent sources are better or that the Gospels give indication of working with earlier sources by translation errors or theological divergences seem to me common sense.

    • Mike, I know you were addressing this to the other Chris, but I have to jump in here. I’ll go and read the post, but I have to note now that I think that characterizing the position of me, Allison, Schroeter, and Rodriguez as “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” is a fundamental misunderstanding and/or mischaracterization of what we’re saying. (And you’re certainly not the only one who’s said this. Craig Blomberg and Craig Evans have basically said the same in reviews.) Our argument is that there never was a baby in the first place. And until someone demonstrates that the criteria can deliver “authentic” Jesus tradition, which the criteria and their developers defined explicitly as uninterpreted Jesus tradition–tradition detached from early Christian interpretation–saying that we’re “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” is simply a red herring in the discussion that attempts to portray us as overly zealous and thus those who don’t “throw the baby out with the bathwater” as more sober-thinking. In other words, the core issue that must be addressed is not whether we have taken it too far, because “too far” is relative to the position of the individual. The question is whether the criteria can lead to an uninterpreted Jesus. If people use them for other purposes, that’s a different issue. But they were designed to do precisely this and only this.

      • Chris, from what I’ve gathered from reading material from you, Le Donne and others is that postmodern historiography essentially makes the idea of an “uninterpreted Jesus” meaningless. Is that correct?

      • It’s probably not necessarily the case that it’s meaningless but simply impossible. And it’s worth saying here that this would be the case even for eyewitnesses.

  4. “Part of the problem is that the criteria are just so damn teachable!” Agreed, Rafael. I have argued that this is in fact their basic purpose — to train students in a basic way about how to do history. Once one has done that introductory work, we simply have to transcend them, or we are doomed to doing our historical Jesus work with the naïveté of the newcomer.

  5. Mike – thanks for your comments, and specifically for mentioning me in your post. As I say in my contribution to the book, it is of course the case that two independent sources are generally better than one. Nevertheless, my problem with multiple attestation is also a pretty basic one about how the criterion is conceived. If we take the criterion of embarrassment seriously, it means that of necessity certain important traditions about Jesus will not make it into the source material we have — people simply don’t broadcast loudly things they are embarrassed about. And if we take that point seriously, then surely some key traditions about Jesus are going to be singly attested. One of the examples I use is the use of spit in Mark’s Gospel. It may well be an early, “authentic” tradition, but it does not find its way into Matthew and Luke, who may have been embarrassed by it. Thus here, single attestation could be a sign of authenticity.

    • Thanks for these responses.

      My bad, Chris Keith, no misrepresentation intended and you are right to call foul on the rhetorical trick of trying to claim the centre for my position. I can meet with your view to the extent that if the criteria were put in place to differentiate authentic memories of Jesus free from interpretation from the theological creativity of the early Church or the evangelists, then it is a wrong-headed approach. But I stand by my post on how some criteria can be profitably used in getting back to earlier memories than our extant sources and memories that seem to go against the theological tendencies of the early Christ followers as far as we can reconstruct them may be more likely to accord with something like what Jesus might have said/done. This may use the criteria for purposes other than for which they were originally conceived, but it this the way scholarship evolves (an analogy may be that the key reasons scholars find Markan priority to be the most compelling solution may not be the same as those who first formulated the theory)?

      Mark, my main point was that a genuinely multiply attested item must be earlier than the independent sources that attest to it and so narrows the gap between Jesus and the Gospels, but that just might indicate that it was a popular early tradition. I agree that a singly attested item may be just as valuable and I like your example, but how would you respond to Rafael’s case against the criterion of embarrassment (I can’t remember if he covered this example but suppose he would say we can’t know if the embarrassment of Matt/Luke was shared by all early Christ followers or even Mark who recorded it)?

      • Fair enough, Mike, and thanks for this response. I suppose we will have to see how the scholarship plays out now, but please know that I sincerely appreciate you and your efforts to interact with our study. One question about the criterion of multiple attestation for you. How do you tell the difference between material that’s widespread early because it’s historical truth and material that’s widespread early because it’s a really successful untruth?

      • This is where I really do agree with what Jens Schroeter said about imagination and the element of subjectivity when we make our own historical reconstructions that we think best explain all the data. That is, multiple attestation can be a valuable tool to bring us back to the widespread early and then we have to make the argument whether it is more plausible that something Jesus did generated the memories or early theological creativity.

      • Ok, then you would here be in agreement with Anthony Le Donne. And my only point is that, in is case, the criterion is not actually being used to make decisions about the historical Jesus. It’s being used as a tradition-historical tool. And so, I think, my point about that it does not actually lead to the historical Jesus, which is what it was designed to do, would stand. Perhaps we all win?

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