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The Gospels and the Quest for the Historical Jesus

The problem: is is possible to distinguish what the historical Jesus said and did from the oral traditions developed around him or the theological interests of the Gospel writers?


1.  Double Dissimilarity: A saying or deed is likely to be historically authentic if it cannot be ascribed to either Jesus’ Jewish predecessors/contemporaries or his Christian followers (can you spot the flaw with this criterion?)

  • “Let the dead bury their own dead” (Matt 8:21-22; Luke 8:59-60; contra Gen 23.3-4; Tobit 6.13-15; m. Ber. 3.1; m. Nazir 7.1; cf. Exod 20:12)
  • “Love your enemies” (Matt 5:44/Luke 6:27; but cf. Prov 25:21, 22; Rom 12:14, 20)
  • Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?  As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.  The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.’ (Mark 2:18-20).

2.  Embarrassment: A saying or deed is likely authentic if it seems counterproductive to the aims of later Christian theology.

  • John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins… In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John. (Mark 1:4, 9)
  • Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. (Matthew 3:13-15)
  • [Herod] added this to them all, that he shut up John in prison.  Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened… (Luke 3:20-21; was John imprisoned before Jesus was baptized?)
  • John’s Gospel keeps John the Baptist and the Spirit descending like a Dove but skips the baptism itself (see John 1:29-34).
  • The Gospel according to the Hebrews has Jesus ask “what sin have I committed, that I should go and be baptized by him’ (Jerome, Pelag. 3.2)

3.  Multiple Attestation: if a saying or deed is found in multiple and independent sources, rather than one source copying another, it is more likely authentic or at least an earlier tradition.

  • Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery (Mark 10:11-12; Matt 19:9 permits divorce for unchastity)
  • Every one who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery (Luke 16:18/Matt 5:31-32 = Q?, Matthew adds permission to divorce for unchastity)
  • To the married I give charge, not I but the Lord, that the wife should not separate from her husband (1 Cor 7:10, but cannot forbid an unbeliever divorcing a believer)
  • Apocalyptic Son of Man sayings in Mark (13:26, 14:62), Synoptic double tradition (Matt 24:27, 37-39/Luke 17:24, 26-27, 30), singly attested Matthean and Lukan tradition (Matt 13:40-43; Luke 21:34-36), and possibly known to Paul (1 Thess 4:16) and John  (1:51). The title is rare outside the Gospel tradition (Acts 7:56, Heb 2:6, Rev 1:13; 14:14), so it may not be a common title in Christian devotion imputed back to Jesus.

4. Aramaic reconstruction

  • A different group of scholars argues that behind the Greek title “the Son of Man” (ho huios tou anthropou) lies the Aramaic bar (e)nash(a), an idiomatic expression either as a circumlocution for “I” (Vermes) or that has a general level of meaning about humanity in general with particular reference to the speaker (Casey).
  • “The Sabbath was made for [the son of] man, not [the son of] man for the Sabbath, therefore the son of man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28)
  • “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Luke 9:58/Matthew 8:20)

5.  Coherence: other sayings or deeds may be accepted if they cohere with others that already passed the criteria of authenticity. This seems like an extremely circular criterion.

6.  Historical Plausibility: in direct contradiction to double disimmilarity, a saying or deed qualifies as historical if it fit in the context of Second Temple Judaism and helps to explain the rise of the Christian movement (historical controversies in Galilee/Judea, Aramaisms, Torah, Temple and purity, halahkic debates, eschatology, etc.)

  • “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matt 6.9)
  • “Father, hallowed be your name. Your Kingdom come.” (Luke 11.2)
  • “May he establish his kingdom in your life and in your days and in the life of all the house of Israel, speedily and in a short while.” (Qaddish, Aramaic prayer addresses ‘their Father who is in heaven’)
  • Then comes the end, when he [Christ] delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. (1 Corinthians 15:24)
  • “…as the Lord commanded in his Gospel, pray thus: “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy Name, thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, as in Heaven so also upon earth; give us to-day our daily bread, and forgive us our debt as we forgive our debtors, and lead us not into trial, but deliver us from the Evil One, for thine is the power and the glory for ever.” Pray thus three times a day. (Didache 8:2-3)
  • “God is besought to bring about a definitive manifestation of his power, glory and holiness by defeating the Gentiles, gathering the scattered tribes of Israel back to the holy land, and establishing his divine rule fully and forever. It is within this trajectory that Jesus’ prayer that God will sanctify his name and bring in his kingly rule is to be understood” (John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Volume II, 292).

See John Kloppenborg’s review of the criteria (http://homes.chass.utoronto.ca/~kloppen/criteria.htm). Recently, several scholars have rejected the criteria approach with its aim to separate historically “authentic” facts about Jesus from theological inventions of the early churches or evangelists in a positivist manner, insisting that our only access to Jesus is how he was interpreted in the social memory of his earliest follower. For instance Dale Allison’s Constructing Jesus notes the limitations of memory – it is 1. reconstructive, 2. post-event , 3. projects present circumstances or biases, 4. becomes less distinct as past recedes, 5. sequential, 6. forms meaningful patterns to advance agendas, 7. rehearses the memories valued by groups, 8. shaped by narrative conventions, 9. vivid subjective compelling memory may be inaccurate (pp. 2-10). Allison argues that memory can capture the “gist” or general outline and that we should settle for the “characteristic Jesus” in the different communal memories of him contained within our earliest sources (pp. 10-14).

The incident of Jesus in the Temple as recording in the Gospels may be a helpful test case.

Further reading:

  • Allison, Dale C. Resurrecting Jesus: The Earliest Christian Tradition and its Interpreters (London and New York: Continuum, 2005); Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010)
  • Arnal, William. The Symoblic Jesus: Historical Scholarship, Judaism and the Construction of Contemporary Identity (London and Oakville: Equinox, 2005)
  • Casey, Maurice. Jesus of Nazareth (London:  T&T Clark International, 2010)
  • Chilton, Bruce and Evans, Craig (eds.), Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research (Leiden: Brill, 1994)
  • Crossan, John Dominic.  The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991)
  • Dunn, James D.G.  Jesus Remembered (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003)
  • Fiorenza, Elisabeth Schüssler.  Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet: Critical Issues in Feminist Christology
  • Fredriksen, Paula. Jesus of Nazareth:  King of the Jews (New York: Vintage, 2000)
  • Freyne, Sean. Jesus, a Jewish Galilean (London/New York: T&T Clark/Continuum, 2004)
  • Funk, R.W., Hoover, R.W. and the Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (New York: Schribner, 1993)
  • Horsley, Richard. The Prophet Jesus and the Renewal of Israel:  Moving Beyond a Diversionary Debate (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2012)
  • Keith, Chris and Le Donne, Anthony. Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity (Bloomburg, 2012) 
  • Meier, John P. A Marginal Jew (multi volume; New York: Doubleday, 1991-)
  • Porter, Stanley. The Criteria for Authenticity in Historical Jesus Research (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000)
  • Sanders, E.P. Jesus and Judaism (London: SCM, 1985); The Historical Figure of Jesus (London: Penguin, 1993)
  • Theissen, Gerd and Merz, Annette. The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 1998
  • Vermes, Geza. Jesus the Jew (London: SCM, 1973); The Religion of Jesus the Jew (London: SCM, 1993)
  • Witherington, Ben. The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth. InterVarsity Press: 1997
  • Wright, N.T. Jesus and the Victory of God (London: SPCK, 1996)
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