Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Quest for the Historical Jesus, Part V: Criteria

In earlier posts, I have explored various aspects of the quest for the historical Jesus:
In this post I take up in more detail the criteria I introduced in Part IV.

The Earlier the Better

Because it is likely that the stories about and sayings of Jesus as they were told and retold over time, this rule of evidence argues that earlier sources are more likely to reflect the sayings and deeds of Jesus than are later sources. This is why scholars are more likely to use Mark and Q to reconstruct Jesus' life than they are John and Thomas, which were probably written much later. This is a commonsense rule, but the dating of sources is not as straightforward as one would hope. Indeed, the temptation exists to date those sources that reflect one's preconceived idea of who Jesus was as early and those that don't as late.

Take, for instance, the debate among biblical scholars as to whether Jesus was a Jewish apocalypticist, that is, one who believed that God would soon overthrow the forces of evil and establish the kingdom of God. Most contemporary scholars believe this to be true, but there are some, such as John Crossan and Marcus Borg, who do not. To argue that Jesus was not apocalyptic, however, requires scholars to date his apocalyptic sayings late and his non-apocalyptic sayings early. This becomes quite tricky when dealing with a source such as Q since it is "chock-full" of apocalyptic sayings. What's the solution? Argue that Q came out in multiple editions:
"According to this line, the original edition of Q did not have the apocalyptic traditions about Jesus. These were only added later, when the document was edited by Christians who were a bit obsessed with the imminent end of the age. Thus, according to this theory, Q as we have it (well, even though we don't have it), may be an apocalyptic document. But in fact it provides evidence of a non-apocalyptic Jesus" (Bart Ehrman, "The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings," 3rd ed., p. 257)
What Ehrman critiques here is the temptation that many biblical scholars succumb to of making more out of Q than is warranted. Of course, Q is just one document. What does one do with the fact that most of our early sources -- Q, Mark, M & L -- portray Jesus as an apocalypticist? One solution is John Crossan's, which is to argue that these are not our earliest sources:
"Crossan engages in a detailed analysis to argue that other sources not found in the New Testament are earlier than the sources that are. These others include such documents as the 'Egerton Gospel,' a fragmentary text from the second century that contains four stories about Jesus; the Gospel of the Hebrews, which... no longer survives, but is quoted a bit by some church fathers in the late second to the early fifth centuries; and parts of the Gospel of Peter, which survives again only as fragments. Such sources, Crossan claims, provide more reliable access to Jesus than the New Testament Gospels, which everyone, including Crossan, dates to the first century."
"But this strikes most scholars as a case of special pleading. Most recognize clear and certain reasons for dating the New Testament Gospels to the first century. But giving yet earlier dates to noncanonical Gospels that are, in most cases, not quoted or even mentioned by early Christian writers until many, many decades later seems to be overly speculative and driven by an ultimate objective of claiming that Jesus was not an apocalypticist even though our earliest sources indicate that he was" (Ehrman, "The New Testament," p. 258)

This criterion contends that any sayings or deeds of Jesus that we cannot trace to 1st Century Judaism or the early Christian Church are more likely to have originated with Jesus than those that we can. This criterion can be used negatively (i.e., to eliminate sayings attributed to Jesus) or positively (i.e., to identify sayings attributed to Jesus that otherwise might not be seen as one of his sayings).

An example of how it is used negatively can be seen by how most members of the Jesus Seminar regarded the phrase, “Anyone here with two ears had better listen!”, which appears at the end of several of Jesus’ parables and sayings (e.g., Mk 4:9, Mt. 13:9). Most concluded that the saying does not originate with the historical Jesus because it is the sort of admonition that any 1st century sage or teacher might have used with his students (i.e. it is not dissimilar from 1st Century Judaism).

An example of how scholars can use the criterion positively is illustrated by how Bart Ehrman concludes that Mark 8:38 ("Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of that one will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.") probably goes back to the historical Jesus. Ehrman believes that since the early Christian Church identified Jesus as the Son of Man, to include a saying of Jesus's that suggests that someone other than Jesus might be the Son of Man is not something the early Church would have made up:
"Now we know that the earliest Christians believed that Jesus himself was the Son of Man (cf. Rev. 1:13). For that reason, when Jesus talks about himself as the Son of Man in the Gospels -- as he frequently does -- there's no way to know... whether that's the way he actually talked or if that's how Christians -- who believed he was the Son of Man -- 'remembered' him talking. But in sayings like Mark 8:38, there is no indication that he is talking about himself. In fact, if you didn't know in advance the Christian idea that Jesus was the Son of Man, there'd be no way you would infer it from this saying. On the contrary, just taking the saying on its own terms, Jesus appears to be referring to someone else" (Ehrman, "New Testament," p. 252).
An obvious (and common) critique of this rule of evidence is that it assumes that Jesus was neither influenced by the Judaism of his day or that his teachings did not influence the beliefs of later Christians – a questionable assumption at best. Jesus was a Jew, after all, and it seems reasonable to assume that those who followed him followed him because they happened to agree with him. To revisit one of the examples from above, since Jesus was a 1st century sage/teacher, it seems highly likely that on occasion Jesus did end his parables and sayings with the phrase, “Anyone here with two ears had better listen!”

Thus, we need to be careful when applying this criterion. One of the critiques of the Jesus Seminar is that it uses it too often to eliminate sayings that they shouldn't. Instead, these scholars argue that the criterion should be used, not to eliminate sayings, but rather to identify those sayings that might otherwise be considered unhistorical.

Multiple Sources

Most scholars agree that a saying or deed attributed to Jesus is more likely to authentic if it is found in two or more independent sources than if it only appears in one. The logic lying behind this criterion is sound, for if two more more independent sources provide essentially the same account of one of Jesus's deeds or sayings, then it is hard to argue that they both made it up. As I noted in an earlier post, however, this rule forces scholars to often turn to non-canonical sources since seldom does one find a saying in either Mark, Q, M or L and the Gospel of John.

A question that naturally arises is whether scholars actually follow it. And as a number of individuals have pointed out, they don't always seem to. For example, the Jesus Seminar concluded that Jesus's prediction of Peter's betrayal (Mark 14:27-31; John 13:36-38) was inauthentic (i.e., they voted it black) in spite of the fact that the story appears in all four New Testament Gospels and is attested to in two independent sources (Mark and John). Or again, when Jesus's challenge to those who arrest him in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:48-49) also appears in all four Gospels and is independently attested to in Mark and John, but the Jesus Seminar voted it black.

Then there are the sayings that can be traced back to only a single source, such as "The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35), “The Parable of the “Prodigal Son” (Luke 15:11-32) and “The Parable of the Shrewd Manager” (Luke 16:1-8), that the Jesus Seminar voted as either red or pink. One cannot help but wonder whether their preconceived ideas of who they want Jesus to be influenced which color of bead they ultimately dropped into the box.


This criterion focuses on sayings and actions of Jesus that would have embarrassed or created difficulty for the early Church. It is based on the belief that it would have been natural for the early church to not have circulated embarrassing stories unless they reflected what actually happened.

For example, why do the Gospels tell the story about Jesus being baptized by John? John’s baptism was meant for sinners. So, if Jesus was sinless (as many Christians believed), why would he submit to John's baptism? Consequently, most scholars believe that this must have happened.

Or again, why would the Gospels include an embarrassing story about one of the Church’s early founders (and considered a pillar of the church) unless it actually occurred? Thus, while a number of biblical scholars (e.g., the Jesus Seminar, Fredriksen) don't believe that the setting of Peter’s denial as it appears in the Gospels is historical (see the previous section), they have concluded that it seems likely that Peter must have denied being a follower of Jesus at some point after Jesus’s arrest and/or execution.

Rejection and Execution

This rule of evidence differs from the previous four because it focuses on deeds and sayings that may have contributed to Jesus’ execution. According to this criterion the sayings and deeds attributed to Jesus that infuriated, disturbed or agitated people have a good chance of originating with the historical Jesus.

Most scholars seem to believe that Jesus was executed for sedition by Rome because he was seen as a threat. Thus, any sayings or acts on the part of Jesus that could have alarmed Roman authorities are often interpreted by biblical scholars as being authentic. As John Meier notes: “A Jesus whose words and deeds did not threaten or alienate people, especially powerful people, is not the historical Jesus" (John Meier, "A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Vol. 1"). Or, as Catherine Murphy puts it, "If your portrait of Jesus paints him as an innocent flower child healing people on a hillside and acting like an all-around good guy, it will be tough to square that with the most indisputable fact about him: that he was crucified by Rome: ("The Historical Jesus for Dummies," p. 36).

Not everyone feels this way, however. Paula Fredriksen ("Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews"), for example, doesn't believe that Roman authorities perceived Jesus to be a threat or that they executed him for sedition.  Rather, she contends that they executed him because they believed that his presence in Jerusalem at the time of Passover when there was a huge influx of people could lead to civil unrest. Thus, they put him to death as a preventive measure not because he was some sort of enfant terribleNevertheless, in making her case, Fredriksen implicitly draws on this rule of evidence in order to sort the historical from non-historical.

Consistency (Coherence)

This final criterion holds that other sayings and deeds of Jesus that fit well with the other sayings that have already been determined to be authentic using the previous criteria are likely to have originated with the historical Jesus. As one might guess this rule of thumb can function as a vehicle for bringing in sayings and deeds of Jesus that don’t meet the previous criteria but are theologically (ideologically?) consistent with them.

Indeed, many scholars appear to draw on this criterion to justify including sayings such as “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” and “The Parable of the Shrewd Manager” in their “Jesus database.” However, while this criterion makes perfect sense, it also presents a temptation to scholars who want to “sneak in” those sayings and deeds of Jesus that cohere with their image of who they want Jesus to be.


As one can see, scholars have developed a relatively systematic set of criteria on which they can draw in their quest to uncover the historical Jesus. That said, as it should also be clear, these criteria do not prevent modern scholars from creating Jesus in their own image, a critique, you may recall, Albert Schweitzer lodged against 18th and 19th century biblical scholars in what has become known as the first quest for the historical Jesus. As we have seen, dating sources is hardly a science and while multiple, independent sources are useful in separating the wheat from the chaff, their presence (or absence) does not seem to get in the way of scholars rejecting (or accepting) the historicity of a particular saying or deed.

In short, the quest for the historical Jesus is fraught with difficulties. In spite of scholars' best efforts to objectively uncover what Jesus said and did, in many ways the quest is still more art than science. Moreover, the temptation to create Jesus in our own image is so powerful that it is terribly difficult to transcend in our quest for objectivity. Recognizing this difficulty, Robert Funk, one of the founders of the Jesus Seminar, once warned that we should beware of finding a Jesus that is entirely congenial to us (Robert Funk, "The Five Gospels," p. 5), but the Jesus that emerged from his own research (Robert Funk, "Honest to Jesus") fit quite nicely with his own theological and political leanings.

My sense is that Jesus was neither (to use contemporary terms) a conservative nor a liberal. If he were to suddenly appear in 21st century America, I think it likely that we would find some of his teachings quite comforting and others very challenging. He would, I am certain, push us out of our comfort zone. For example, he might oppose the death penalty, while at the same time opposing abortion and euthanasia. Or, he might support gay marriage but believe that sexual relations are only appropriate within the bounds of marriage. Or, he might embrace pacifism while supporting the right for gays and lesbians to be in the Army. Who knows for certain? I certainly don't. The best we can do is sift through the evidence as objectively as possible and resist embracing a Jesus who doesn't constantly challenge who we are, what we believe and what we do.


  1. A trenchant analysis that, for me, draws precisely the right conclusions. The important point for me is that, taken as a whole, the canon of writings that are attributed to Jesus provide a message that if taken seriously, is capable of changing the world. Ironically, especially for the Jesus Seminar scholars, it seems to me that the need to declare some parts authentic and others inauthentic derives from an implicit suggestion that only those passages that are authentic Jesus sayings can be of any value to us in shaping our own lives. I reject this notion and suggest that we decide which of his alleged sayings are useful by evaluating them on their own merits.