Book Review: Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity, by Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne

Media of Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity

Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity, Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne, 2012, 256 pp. 978-0567377234

As someone who has a great interest in the Historical Jesus studies, I was excited to get a review copy of the book Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity, by  Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne. The premise of the book is whether what historical Jesus scholars utilize to establish as to what Jesus really said is authentic. The criteria that are 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.

Here are the criteria that are discussed in this book:  

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. Let me go ahead and give an example: All four Gospels attest to Jesus’ baptism by John at the very beginning of his ministry. Would the Gospel authors make up such a tradition? In the Jewish culture, it was understood that the one who was being baptized was spiritually inferior to the baptizer himself. A careful reading throughout the Gospels demonstrate embarrassing issues such as where the disciples portray themselves as dim-witted, uncaring, uneducated, cowardly doubters who are rebuked by Jesus.

Furthermore, it can be observed that the disciples did not believe in Jesus’ prediction of his own resurrection (Mark 8:31–33; 9:31–32; 14:27–31). Given that the disciples had spent time with Jesus and had personally witnessed His messianic sayings and actions, what benefit would it be for Mark to leave such an incident in His Gospel? Furthermore, after the resurrection, Mary does not recognize Jesus (John 20: 11-15) and Thomas is seen as disbelieving it (John 20:24-25). It seems that if John wanted to convince his audience of the truthfulness of the event, he would portray Jesus’ followers in a more positive light. The fact that John decided to leave these details in the story only lends credibility to the authenticity of the event.

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: 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 Christian church 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.”

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.’

 My thoughts on the book:

The overall mood of the book is that 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. In other words, 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, perhaps it is time for Jesus scholars to move on to a more postmodern historiography.

Each chapter attempts to show the shortcomings of each of these criteria. It is because of this that I  find that the authors overstate their case. If I was to see this book rewritten, I would like to see the authors say the criteria need to be modified and not entirely “jettisoned.” Despite the book’s shortcomings, there are some strengths. Overall, each article is well written and the footnotes leave the reader with plenty of extra reading material to pursue for further research. Each scholar is qualified to speak on these topics. The issues they bring up are very relevant to the topic of Jesus studies.  I also found Mark Goodacre’s chapter on Multiple Attestation chapter to be helpful. This is mostly because I have always found Q to be a questionable source to use for Historical Jesus scholars. I also agree with some of the criticisms about the dissimilarity criteria.

In my conversations with Michael Licona about the book, he has told me there will be a response to this book sometime later this year. After all, almost all the Historical Jesus books on my shelf have utilized some of the criteria.  For me personally, I think the work on eyewitness testimony by Richard Bauckham and the ongoing work of social memory is promising. I advise reading Michael Bird’s latest book The Gospel of the Lord and the book  Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?: A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture

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