Over at the Marginalia Review of Books, Helen Bond reviews Jesus Criteria and the Demise of Authenticity (ed. Chris Keith & Anthony Le Donne). After a thorough consideration of the book’s subject matter she concludes that the volume should be considered “essential reading for anyone even contemplating any kind of reconstruction of the historical Jesus.” Check out her review, and more importantly, check out the book. If you get a chance, you should also check out Bond’s very useful book, Historical Jesus: A Guide for the Perplexed.
Anyone who reads my posts on this blog (or my previous blog) knows that I have been largely won over by the movement to dispense with the Jesus criteria. However, I’m not completely ready to jettison every potentially good lesson (cultural, literary, historical, etc.) that may have been spawned by discussions about the criteria. I have always been fond of the criterion of embarrassment because I felt that, among other things, it helped us trace historical developments in the gospel traditions. While I think Rafael Rodriguez has made a very strong case that we cannot use this as a means of getting back to the historical Jesus, I’m wondering if we can’t use the concept of “embarrassment” to help us better understand the evolution of certain teachings within the canonical gospel traditions? Let me turn to the paradigmatic example: Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist.
It has often been said that Jesus’ baptism by John was a source of embarrassment to the early church that is subsequently explained away as the tradition evolves. I think there is something to this, though I don’t necessarily think it “proves” the baptism is historical.
In the Gospel of Mark, John proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (1:4) and shortly thereafter, the audience learns that Jesus comes to him and is baptized (1:9). I like to tell my students that after this event, there is no parenthetical note to the audience which reads: “Dear followers of Jesus, do not be dismayed by this turn of events. Jesus was sinless from the foundation of the world. This merely took place as an object lesson for future disciples.” Instead, Mark, simply unaware of later Christological trajectories that would proclaim Jesus as “divine” (e.g. John 1, Hebrews 1, Colossians 1, etc.), proclaims something that was not AT THE TIME embarrassing. Mark’s presentation of Jesus’ baptism only becomes a source of potential embarrassment as the early church engages in sustained theological reflection on the life, vocation, and death of Jesus. It is hard for me to read Mark as an autonomous narrative and not feel that later traditions try to explain (Matthew) or even explain away (John), Jesus’ baptism. For Matthew and John the tradition seemed to be a source of embarrassment, even if Mark had no problem with it.
Recently in one of his podcasts, Mark Goodacre took aim at the criterion of embarrassment, commenting that the early church simply would not have retained something that would have been embarrassing. While I agree with much that he says there, I’d like to suggest a qualification to his point. Many of us make choices at a point in time that is not AT THAT MOMENT, embarrassing, but may prove to be at a later time. To illustrate this, we only need to think back to some of the hairstyles or clothing choices of our younger days. When many of us see photos of our youth we cringe at the sight of ourselves. When I was 21 years old, I had both ears pierced with big gold hoops and hair down to my shoulders. I recently saw a picture of myself from that period and I couldn’t believe how ridiculous I looked. At the time, I thought I looked “cool.” Today I look at myself and wonder, “what was I thinking” (and also, “what was everyone else thinking?”).
My point is this: We often have no way of knowing in the present what we might regret or be embarrassed by in the future. So, perhaps things that were embarrassing to the early church did find their way into the NT, and while we can’t necessarily use those to demonstrate the historicity of a given saying or action in the NT, we can use them to evaluate the historical development of traditions within the canonical gospels. I’m interested in your thoughts on this….
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.