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.

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What I’m Reading (Gathercole, Keith/Hurtado, Jones)

I always love the summertime because it allows me to catch up on some long-neglected reading from the academic year. Over the past few weeks I have read several useful books, three of which I’d like to mention.

The first is Simon Gathercole’s, The Composition of the Gospel of Thomas: Original Language and Influences (SNTMS  151; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012). I have been a fan of Simon’s work for some time now and the same is true for his most recent offering. He possesses such a strong command of the requisite languages that it’s hard to ignore his treatment, even if you walk away disagreeing. For those who read my blog or have read any of my work on the Gospel of Thomas, it’s no secret that I lean in the direction of an original Greek work that is dependent (to some degree) on the Synoptic tradition. Simon makes a sustained case for both, while also introducing other possible influences on the development of Thomas, including Paul, the Epistle to the Hebrews, and the “Two Ways” tradition. In my opinion, the most convincing part of the book is found in Simon’s argument that Thomas shows its reliance upon the Synoptic tradition through the multiple instances of Matthean and Lukan redaction it retains. This book is very technical and one must have at least a basic working knowledge of the biblical and related languages. That said, this is an important book that is poised to make an enduring contribution to the study of the Gospel of Thomas.

The second book I have read and enjoyed is Jesus Among Friends and Enemies: A Historical and Literary Introduction to Jesus in the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), co-edited by Chris Keith and Larry Hurtado. This book combines the two methodologies most important to my own scholarship–historical criticism and narrative criticism, and is meant to fill a lacuna in historical Jesus scholarship. The volume introduces the reader to the most important figures in the life of Jesus (both friends and enemies, as the title indicates) by examining their presentation outside and inside the Gospel narratives. The book begins, I think appropriately, with a discussion of Jesus both within and outside the NT. Subsequent chapters discuss God, angels, various disciples, and Jewish leaders. I think this could be a useful text for several different graduate courses, including those devoted to the historical Jesus and the canonical gospels. The content is perhaps too advanced for the average undergraduate, though it could be used with benefit in some undergraduate contexts.

Finally, I have just received Brice C. Jones’s little volume, Matthean and Lukan Special Material:  A Brief Introduction with Texts in Greek and English (Eugene, Ore: Wipf and Stock, 2011). Students of the Gospels are often forced to consult commentaries, synopses, and their Greek texts to locate and examine the material that is commonly labeled “M” and “L” by Gospels scholars. This creates a situation in which the student must have a number of volumes open at the same time and be forced to look continually back and forth for comparison. A scenario like the one just described was, in part, the genesis for the present volume. Jones writes, “The idea for this book developed during my own studies of the Gospels as a graduate student. I would often sit in my Greek exegesis classes on the Gospels with my Q parallels and Synopsis, and wish that I had at my disposal a small book that printed the special material of Matthew and Luke” (p. 13).  This helpful little book consists of three chapters. The first chapter is devoted to a brief sketch of the synoptic problem and concludes with a decided preference for the Two-Source/Four-Source theory. Chapters 2 and 3 provide Greek texts and English translations of material unique to Matthew and Luke, respectively. I envision this being a helpful resource for students and scholars. Check it out if you get a chance.

I shouldn’t forget to thank the good people at CUP, Baker Academic, and Wipf and Stock for providing review copies of each book!