Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Think Apologetics. Tabernacle of David considers this resource trustworthy and Biblically sound.
Jesus, Skepticism, and the Problem of History: Criteria and Context in the Study of Christian Origins, Darrell L. Bock, J. Ed Komoszewski , 2019. 384 pp. ISBN 978-0310534761
Back in 2012 a book was released called Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity, by Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne. The premise of this book was whether what historical Jesus scholars utilize to establish as to what Jesus really said is authentic. The criteria that were analyzed in this book have been mentioned in John P.Meier’s A Marginal Jew. I should note that some of these criteria are mentioned in the online article Robert H. Stein, “The ‘Criteria’ for Authenticity,” R.T. France & David Wenham, eds., Gospel Perspectives, Vol. 1, Studies of History and Tradition in the Four Gospels. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1980. pp.225-263.
The criteria discussed in the book by Keith and Le Doone were the following:
1.Criteria of Multiple Attestation: The likelihood of the historical reliability of something increases if it is found in more than one source or more than more than one literary context.
2.The Criteria of Embarrassment: a test that was put forth by John P. Meier in his A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus: The Roots of the Problem and the Person, Vol. 1. This criteria seeks out material in the Gospels that would have been would create awkwardness or difficulty for the early church. This type of material would most likely have not been created by the early church because it would have been provided material useful for the early church’s opponents.
3.The Criteria of Coherence: This criteria judges as authentic those elements which fit well with what has been established about Jesus by the other criteria.
4. The Criteria of Dissimilarity: Robert Stein summarizes this here: “Although this criterion is usually treated as a single tool, it consists essentially of two different parts which could be and have been separated into two different criteria. The first “part” involves whether we can find in the Jewish thought of Jesus’ day elements similar to the particular teaching or motif in question. If we cannot, the assumption is then made that the said material could not have arisen out of Judaism and later have been attributed to Jesus. The second part of this criterion involves the question of whether we can find in the early community elements similar to the particular teaching or motif in question. If we cannot, the assumption is then made that the material in question could not have arisen out of the early church and then read back upon the lips of the historical Jesus.”- see Robert H. Stein, “The ‘Criteria’ for Authenticity,” R.T. France & David Wenham, eds., Gospel Perspectives, Vol. 1, Studies of History and Tradition in the Four Gospels. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1980. pp.225-263.
5. The Criteria of “Semitic (Aramaic) Influence on the Greek” : Once again, Stein says“Another tool for authenticity that has been suggested involves the presence of Aramaisms in the gospel materials. Since it seems certain that the mother tongue of Jesus was Aramaic, and in particular a Galilean dialect of Aramaic. The presence of Aramaic linguistic characteristics in our Greek gospel materials argues in favor of the primitiveness of those particular traditions and the more primitive a tradition is, the more likely it is that it stems from Jesus. As a result the Aramaic background of a saying ‘…is of great significance for the question of the reliability of the gospel tradition’, and ‘…the closer the approximation of a passage in the Gospels to the style and idiom of contemporary Aramaic, the greater the presumption of authenticity.’- see Robert H. Stein, “The ‘Criteria’ for Authenticity,” R.T. France & David Wenham, eds., Gospel Perspectives, Vol. 1, Studies of History and Tradition in the Four Gospels. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1980. pp.225-263.
The conclusions of the Keith and Le Doone book were the following: the criteria that have been and continued to be used by Jesus scholars need to be “jettisoned.” The attempt to use such criteria is a form of what Le Donne calls “positivist” historiography. Hence, the attempt to “verify” and “objectify” a historical Jesus is a very tricky endeavor. Granted, there have been plenty of debates about what we can know about the “Historical Jesus.” In other words, perhaps it is time to move on. Thus, there is no such thing as any kind of objective criteria that would ever help us to get to the Historical Jesus. So in the end, the authors of the essays in that volume tended to call into question the usefulness of an approach to the historical Jesus that rests heavily on a set of criteria for distinguishing what in the Gospels is historically authentic information about Jesus from early interpretation of him and his significance.
Anyway, fast forward to 2019. The book Jesus, Skepticism, and the Problem of History: Criteria and Context in the Study of Christian Origins, edited by Bock and Komoszewski is a series of essays that ask whether Keith and Le Doone are overstating their case and whether the criteria really should be “jettisoned.” This book give specific examples about where the criteria can be used and in some cases is quite helpful. Some of the essays don’t discuss the criteria but they do discuss issues that impact what we can know about the historical Jesus. For example, Craig Blomberg and Darlene Seal give an overview of the historical Jesus studies in the essay “The Historical Jesus in Recent Scholarship.”
The book provides two chapters on Acts: Social Memory in Acts by Michael Bird and Ben Sutton and Acts: History: or Fiction?” by Craig Keener. Paul Eddy’s chapter “The Historicity of the Early Oral Jesus Tradition: Reflection on the “Reliability Wars” provides an update on the history of the orality/oral tradition topic. It is well known there was a gap of time between the ascension of Jesus and when the Gospel authors actually wrote their individual biographies about the life of Jesus. Therefore, there was an oral period where the words and deeds of Jesus were committed to memory by the disciples and transmitted orally. It is true that we don’t have access to the oral phase of the Jesus story. Thus, there aren’t any sound recordings or videos of the disciples of Jesus talking about Him that remains today. Therefore, all we have is the written evidence. The New Testament contains 27 texts, and all of them were written sometime during the first century CE.
Also, none of these appear to be transcriptions or descriptions of an oral performance of Jesus. So Eddy’s chapter gives a nice summary on the endless debates about this topic. Something that is related to the orality topic is memory and whether memory can be trusted. Thus, Robert McIver’s chapter called “Collective Memory and the Reliability of the Gospel Tradition” is a discussion on this issue. Naturally, Richard Bauckham’s work is discussed in this chapter. He has had some dissenters that aren’t as willing to grant memory is reliable as Bauckham thinks it is. The role of the reliability of collective memory and the eyewitnesses of Jesus is discussed and as McIver notes, “The Gospels are in large part a product of a process that developed and preserved collective memories of Jesus’s activities and teaching. Collective memories are selective in that they are shaped to fit the present needs of those that use them.
It is important to note, however, that while collective memories are selective, what is selected is likely to be based on memories of actual events. Furthermore, while such memories may incorporate inaccurate details, even the inaccuracies are most likely to be consistent with what Jesus did and said. In other words, like the substance of other collective memories, the gist of the gospel traditions is reliable and provides a sound general picture of Jesus’s sayings and doings.”- pg 204-205. Darrell Bock’s chapter A Test Case: Jesus’s Remarks before the Sanhedrin: Blasphemy or Hope or Exaltation?”, Craig Evans and Greg Monette’s chapter on the Burial of Jesus, Michael Licona’s chapter, Jesus’s Resurrection:, Realism and the Role of the Criteria of Authenticity and Daniel Wallace’s chapter on Textual Criticism and the Criteria of Embarrassment all deal more specifically with the criteria mentioned in the Le Doone and Keith book and actually provide specific examples how the criteria can still be utilized in a positive fashion.
One of the longest chapters is Paul Anderson’s chapter on John’s Gospel. Three responses are given at the end by the late Larry Hurtado, Scot McKnight and Nicholas Perrin. Hurtado wonders if the authors of this book have noted that in the Keith/Le Donne volume , they differentiate between criteria used to isolate “authentic” material, i.e., material that has supposedly not been affected by the transmission of it, and critical principles that can be used in assessing historical claims about Jesus. The Keith/Le Donne contributors (and certainly Keith himself) are critical of the former, but not the latter. So in the end, Hurtado doesn’t think there is as much disagreement as was initially thought.- pg 386.
McKnight, who has been viewed as being overly critical of the historical Jesus studies clarifies his position. He does believe history is important and the relationship between faith and history as well as apologetics does matter. But he is more concerned about the practical outworking of the historical studies and its relationship to the church itself. Is the church enslaved to the conclusions of historical Jesus studies? As he says “ One can prove that the tomb was empty with reason; one can prove that Jesus died; one can prove that events happened around Jesus for which there was no natural explanation. What one can’t prove on the basis of historical method is that Jesus’s death was atoning; that his resurrection ushers into us new life that lasts for eternity; that miracles are a reasonable explanation for things done by Jesus and that God was behind it all.”- pg. 386.
Perrin concludes by saying that the supposed need to say goodbye to the criteria is exaggerated (pg 386).
In the end, this book is detailed and covers several topics that were not mentioned in the Jesus, Keith and Le Donne book. I honestly don’t know how much of an impact the Keith and Le Doone book made on the academy. Historical Jesus studies continue on and it seems that the main focus is on collective memory, orality and genre studies. I don’t foresee this debate ending soon. Craig Keener just released a massive book this year called Christobiography: Memory, History, and the Reliability of the Gospels.
Why do I think Jesus, Skepticism, and the Problem of History: Criteria and Context in the Study of Christian Origins matters? It matters for someone like myself as well as others who have been doing campus apologetics for several years. I deal with atheists and skeptics who believe everything Bart Ehrman says (even about the unreliability of the burial account of Jesus and memory) is true. Also, I deal with Mormons who think their text gives people a religious experience despite there is little or no external evidence for the Book of Mormon. I also have Muslims who say Jesus didn’t even die and tell me the New Testament is corrupted. Others are online and continually attack the veracity of the New Testament. So this book is fine contribution to the ongoing debate in the Historical Jesus studies as a wonderful contribution to the field of historical apologetics. I highly recommend it.