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Jesus and the Historical Criteria

QUESTION:

I’ve seen, somewhere on the internet (I know, great source!) some discussion that modern scholarship is moving away from the idea of criteria (such as multiple attestation, dissimilarity, etc.) and that the use of criteria is becoming seen as outmoded. Is there any truth to this, or were these sources just blowing

 

RESPONSE:

This question is about the criteria that scholars use to establish historically reliable material about the historical Jesus.   For  background: there are several criteria that get used; the two most common are independent attestation and dissimilarity.   To make sense of them, one needs to realize what was happening to the traditions of Jesus as they were being circulated, mainly by word of mouth, in the Roman empire.  It’s a long story.  The short version of it is this:  stories were being changed by the story-tellers and some stories were being made up.  There’s simply no way around this, from a historical perspective.  Just about the only ones who disagree are people who have theological reasons for thinking that every single story about Jesus in the NT is absolutely historically accurate in all its details – that is, conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists who have a theological rather than a historical approach to the Bible.  For virtually everyone else, of course the NT contains stories that have been altered or invented about Jesus.

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So how do you know which ones are made up?  That’s where the criteria come in.  The criterion of independent attestation says that if you have a tradition about something Jesus said and did that is attested in multiple, *independent* sources (so that one of them did not get it from others), then it is more likely to be authentic (since no one author made it up).    I think this is a good criterion: obviously if you have five people who independently have the same story and they haven’t gotten it from one another, it has a better chance of being authentic than if you have just one source that says so.

The second criterion says that if there are stories about what Jesus said or did that do not fit what the Christians would have wanted to say about him, those stories are more likely authentic than ones that could easily be imagined as something a Christian would have wanted to make up about him.   This too is a good criterion, although it has limitations.  But on the upside, if the stories are being changed (or invented) in light of the Christians’ self-interests in telling them, then anything that works against those self-interests found in the tradition are not stories the Christians have invented.

One can use these criteria to show that Jesus was born a Jew, that he had brothers, that he was baptized by John the Baptist, that he preached an apocalyptic message, that he had twelve disciples, that he was betrayed, that he was crucified, and lots of other things.  I give the details in my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.

Still, it is true that the criteria are under attack in some historical circles, because even if they are the best available, they are problematic.

Independent attestation, for example.  Lots of things may be independently attested because they were firmly rooted in the tradition about Jesus early on in the process of telling stories about him, so that writers twenty or more years later could well have independently heard stories that were made up (say ten years before they were writing).

And dissimilarity assumes that we know what every single story teller among the Christians had as his or her agenda, and that there was not a wide variety of followers of Jesus with a wide variety of agendas.  What might seem “counter” to what Christians would have wanted to say about Jesus (e.g., that he was baptized by someone else for the remission of sins) you can imagine some Christians very much wanting to say (he was baptized showing that we should be too).

So yes, the criteria are problematic and coming under attack.  The question is whether anything can be put in their place.   (It is much easier to tear down than to build up!)  And whether the flaws they have are on the margins or at the core.  My sense is that they are on the margins, and that as history is not an objective quantifiable science, but based on value judgments rooted in probabilities (this is more probable than that), they are usable and useful for establishing what happened in the past – not just for Jesus, but for anyone who lived in the remote past.


More on the Criterion of Independent Attestation
Faith, History, and Isaiah 7

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Adam  September 29, 2012

    Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium is a must read

  2. Avatar
    jimmo  September 29, 2012

    I’ve been reading a number of books on historiogaphy and the concept of multiple/independent attestation appears frequently, although I have only see that specific term in regards to NT studies. However, the criteria of dissimilarity is suprisingly absent. It would seem to me that if a civil war general, for example, was writing his memoirs and wrote something “embarrassing” historians would consider that more likely to be true. What is your take on that? What specific book(s) on historiography would you recommend?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 1, 2012

      I think it’s a good criterion, across the board. On historiography, I’d suggest Georg Iggers, HISTORIOGRAPHY IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY (Wesleyan UP, 1997); Keith Jenkins, RE-THINKING HISTORY (Routledge, 1991, 1992); and my friend and colleague, Elizabeth Clark, HISTORY, THEORY, TEXT (Harvard UP, 2004). If you have comments about any of these, I’d love to hear them.

      • Avatar
        jimmo  October 2, 2012

        Thanks for the suggestions. I have Iggers’ “Turning Points in Historiography” (although I haven’t read it,yet), so I decided to start with that one. It’s interested that he notes in the introduction that the English version is not the exact same book as the German. I also found the German version on Amazon.de for 3€ so I figured it would be interesting to see how they differ.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  October 2, 2012

          I’d be interested in knowing which of the books you’ve read you have found to be most useful.

          • Avatar
            jimmo  October 4, 2012

            It depends on what you mean by “most useful”. Michael Grant’s “Greek and Roman Historians” was useful in understanding basic aspects of Greek and Roman historiography, but the “most useful” aspect for NT studies was the fact it pointed out that both Greek and Roman historians would embellish stories, even make up things (while at the same time chastising other historians for doing the same thing), and that their goal was primarily to teach a lesson as opposed to presenting a completely accurate depiction of the person or events. This aspect is important when dealing with apologists who insist that the Gospels are 100% accurate. That simply doesn’t fit the pattern of historians of the time, particularly considering written history at the time was still considered a literary work, as opposed to science or philosophy (Jodi Magness, in her Teaching Company course “Holy Land Revealed”, referred to it as “entertainment” for people in the 1st century).

            In dealing with mythicists, this fact is useful because it shows that it was almost the rule that historians would take an historic core and embellish it to some extent. Claims by the mythicists that the Gospels must be complete fiction because they parallel other stories is refuted because this was standard practice at the time. Grant points to Plutarch’s “Parallel Lives” as a prime example of this. However, there is very little detail on historiography in general.

            I think Marc Bloch’s “The Historians Craft” should be read by anyone interested in historiography who is just starting out, even though he never finished it. You get a good overview of the history of historiography, plus a more modern perspective. Obviously this is not completely modern (being over 60 years old), but it provides a good introduction to the field. This is “most useful” because it is a quick read and almost every other book in the past few decades on historiography references it.

            Howell and Prevenier’s “From Reliable Sources” provides information about more current perspectives, plus details various aspects missing from Bloch. So far, this has been my favorite, despite limited information about the history of historiography. This is “most useful” because it is easy to read while giving you a lot of details. I’ve started Aviezer Tucker’s “Companion to the Philosophy of History and Historiography”, which goes into much more detail than “From Reliable Sources”, but I think it is too “scholarly” as a first book on the subject. Personally, I am glad I read “From Reliable Sources” first.

            I think C.B. McCullagh’s “Justifying Historical Descriptions” is also “most useful” because this is was Craig references in his books, debates and lectures. However, considering the kinds of mistakes Craig makes, my guess he probably just read the Wikipedia entry on the historical method and not all of the book.

            I would be curious about what you think of Langlois & Seignobos “Introduction to the Study of History” and von Ranke’s “The Theory and Practice of History”. Both are referenced in other works and seem to form the basis of the “scientific historiography” of the 19th and early 20th century. However, I am hesitant to invest the time if their only real value is historic.

            Another thing I am curious about is your opinion of using Bayesian probability in historiography. Obviously Craig uses it and so does Carrier, and from what I read in other places so does Tucker in his book “Our Knowledge of the Past: A Philosophy of Historiography”. Personally, I see it nothing more than an intellectual exercises, because it is all guesswork. For example, is the a priori probability of the resurrection 0.25, 0.5 or 0.75? What is the probability that the evidence in the gospels is reliable? Craig would say the probability of the gospels being reliable is 1.0. Considering the historiography of the 1st century, I would say it is much closer to 0.1. At best, all you can do with it is to see how the probability change based on assumptions. It most certainly does not mathematically prove God. 😉

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  October 5, 2012

            OK, I don’t have time to respond to all of this, but I will say that Bayesian probability seems to be used by one group to “prove” that Jesus must have been raised from the dead (Swinburne; Craig) and by anotehr to “prove” that he never existed. I wonder what htat says about the method….

      • Avatar
        jimmo  October 15, 2012

        I just finished Georg Iggers’ HISTORIOGRAPHY IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY. When I asked for recommendations, I was actually thinking along the lines of methodology and not history of historiography. However, I have been looking for a good book on the history for a long time, so Iggers was a very pleasant surprise. Most of the books have a brief overview, dropping a few names and not much else. I found it to be very enjoyable and had trouble putting it down. He made it really clear to me that understanding the changes that have occurred in the last 200 years is as important as understanding the methodology. Elizabeth Clark is next!

  3. Avatar
    hwl  September 29, 2012

    Bart,
    First as an aside, in “Reasonable Faith” (Crossway, 2008), William Lane Craig accuses you of naivety in reiterating Hume’s argument: “Similarly, Bart Ehrman, a best-selling New Testament scholar and vociferous ex-Christian, naïvely reiterates the argument of Hume against the identification of miracles, apparently without even knowing its provenance…” You may be pleased to know you have a reputation for being a “vociferous ex-Christian”.
    In the same book, Craig accuses you of “perverting” historical criteria:
    “Bart Ehrman…while explaining factors like multiple attestation and dissimilarity positively as criteria of authenticity, repeatedly inverts them to try to demonstrate inauthenticity. For example, he renders the negative verdict, ‘Some of the best known traditions of Jesus’ birth cannot be accepted as historically reliable when gauged by our criteria,’ when at most he should have said that these traditions cannot be positively proven to be historical when gauged by these criteria. In fact, the Virgin Birth and Jesus’ being born in Bethlehem are multiply and independently attested, but Ehrman doubts their historicity because they are not more widely attested. Similarly, he rejects the historicity of such events as the Virgin Birth, Jesus’ claiming to be the Son of Man, his Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, his passion predictions, and the crowd’s calling for Jesus’ crucifixion—all of which are multiply and independently attested — on the grounds that they are not dissimilar to early Christian beliefs. So to argue is to pervert the criteria;”

    Yet in “Did Jesus Exist”, you criticise the mythicist Robert Price for misusing the criteria of dissimilarity:
    “Price’s modus operandi is to go through all the traditions of the Gospels and show that each and every story of Jesus can be shown to meet some need, concern, or interest of the early Christians, so there are no stories that can be shown to go back to a historical figure, Jesus…My own view is that this is completely wrong, for several reasons. For one thing, it is a misuse of the criterion of dissimilarity to use it to show what did not happen in the life of Jesus. The criterion is designed to be used as a positive guide to what Jesus really said and did and experienced, not as a negative criterion to show what he did not. …The criterion may make us suspicious of this or that tradition, but it cannot demonstrate on its own merits whether or not it is historical. In other words, by its very character the criterion does not and cannot indicate what Jesus did not do or say, only what he did do or say.”

    Has Craig totally misrepresented you?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 1, 2012

      Ah, William Craig, that expert in all things academic.

      I’m not sure how well he has read me. But you can judge for yourself! Doing history is not a quantitative science, as Craig seems to think. It is a weighing of probabilities. (He, of course, thinks he has a mathmatical proof that Jesus was almost certainly raised from the dead!!!)

      • Avatar
        tcc  October 1, 2012

        I feel like I’m getting brain cancer every time I hear Craig in a debate. Dude’s insufferable.

        The dishonesty of Christian apologetics is a big reason I lost my faith.

      • Avatar
        jimmo  October 2, 2012

        I shake my head every time I think of him pulling out that equation during that debate with you. It’s like he read the first few pages of John Earman’s book and ignored the rest. I can just imagine him rubbing his hands together with a smirk on his face saying, “I have him now!”

        I would be interested in someday hearing a more detailed rebuttal to that Bayesian probability equation than “if you think I’m going to change my mind because you have mathematical proof for the existence of God, I’m sorry, but it ain’t gonna happen!”

    • Avatar
      jimmo  October 2, 2012

      My take is yes, Craig is misrepresenting him. Looking through just the passage you quote Craig says “multiply and independently attested”. While two (Matthew and Luke) could be considered “multiply”, there is nothing wrong with “Ehrman doubts their historicity because they are not more widely attested.” Two sources with an obvious motivation to add a story of a virgin birth in Bethlehem and which different on all of the other major points is a good indication they are not reliable. So it is obviosuly reasonable to doubt “their historicity”.

      It seems that Craig is simply using the course guide from Bart’s Teaching Company course “The Historical Jesus”, as opposed to the course itself. I certainly disagree with Craig’s assertion in the footnote that “The context makes
      clear that Ehrman means that these traditions should be regarded as historically unreliable.” Bart is qutie clear with “In the end, we have no way to know.”

      Note, too, that Craig says, “he rejects the historicity of such events …on the grounds that they are not dissimilar to early Christian beliefs.” An obvious misrepresentation because Bart simply says “the story does not at all pass the criterion of dissimilarity” and *not* that “he rejects the historicity of such events”, as well as “The idea of the crowds calling for Jesus’ blood does not pass the criterion of dissimilarity; later Christians telling the story may have wanted to emphasize the culpability of the Jewish people.” It simply does not pass the criterion with no statement about what conclusions we should or can draw.

      I think is clear that by saying “does not pass the criterion of dissimilarity”, in my opinion Bart is simply saying we cannot use the criterion of dissimilarity. In the course itself, this is all Bart says, as well. Had Bart said “It does not pass the criterion of dissimilarity and therefore we must consider it as unreliable,” Craig would have a point, but that is not what Bart said.

      One thing that annoys me a great deal with Craig’s comments here and in many places in “Reasonable Faith” is that he ingores the “argument to the best explanation” put forth by C.B. McCullagh in “Justifying Historical Descriptions” while at the time referencing them himself. For example, one of the criteria is “The hypothesis must be disconfirmed by fewer accepted beliefs than rival hypotheses.” All of the details in the trial are “disconfirmed by fewer accepted beliefs”, just to name one thing.

  4. Avatar
    Jacobus  September 29, 2012

    Thank you for a short and clear explanation. If the above criteria are dismissed, what else can help a “historian” to reconstruct a portrait of the historical Jesus?

  5. Avatar
    gregmonette  September 29, 2012

    Hi Bart:

    My questions is this: can you list all the stories about Jesus that you think are sheer fabrication? I’m not talking about some redaction here and there when Matthew and Luke alter Mark’s account. I mean, which stories are complete bunk? I always thought the historical criteria for authenticity were able to help and make positive judgements, but I wasn’t aware that if a saying or deed relating to the canonical stories about Jesus fell outside of the criteria that you could call them “fiction” or “made up by the early church”.

    This could be kinda fun: construct the non-authentic Jesus for us. Paint a portrait of the Jesus who never existed out of the fictional material that the early church made up.

    Thanks,
    Greg

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 1, 2012

      Interesting idea, but no, I don’t think it’s that easy, that we can list pure fabrications and partial fabrications. History is messy, not clean! But if you have any particular stories in mind, I’d be willing to tell you what I think. (As examples, I think Jesus really was crucified; and I think there is no way Jesus’ parents traveled to Bethlehem to register for a world-wide census in the days of Caesar Augustus, so that he happened to be born there)

      • Avatar
        gregmonette  October 1, 2012

        I guess I’m referring to what you said above in the body of the post: “So how do you know which ones are made up? That’s where the criteria come in.” My question is really this: How do the criteria help us know which stories (or parts of stories) are made up? Did you mean to write it like that? I’m not sure you did. I was a little confused.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  October 1, 2012

          Well, the criterion of contextual credibility can tell us that. But no, strictly speaking, the other criteria establish what is probably, not what is improbable. But one always has to make a judgment. If Jesus pronounces that he has come from the pleroma in order to impart the gnosis that brings liberation from this material world — would we be amiss to judge that htis is not historically credible as something Jesus would have said? (Answer: no!)

  6. Avatar
    Jim  September 29, 2012

    I must first apologize because much of my knowledge of history comes from movie sources like Pirates of the Caribbean, MP’s Holy Grail etc. Also I realize that in order to study history systematically, standardized criteria like multiple attestation, dissimilarity, etc. are a logical tool set.

    However my question relates to how valid are these criteria when applied to a very specialized and an initially tiny sample like early Christianity? Jesus was born under very humble circumstances in a backwoods region of the Empire. He was executed as a political criminal, and at that time this usually meant that whatever personal history you may have had was typically erased with you. Thus it would seem to be nearly impossible to meet the good “multiple independent” criteria requirements. In addition, there may have only been around 5K Christians living in the third quarter of the first century compared to approximately one million people living in the city of Rome alone. Other than for one well-known pyromaniac, everyone else at that time was probably wondering what the hell is a Christian anyway?

    Many of the NT letters appear to have been strictly written for internal consumption (Christian community to Christian community) and no doubt there was story tweaking going on. However this doesn’t necessarily prove that what Christians wanted to say about Jesus to each other did not actually have its origins in some form of reality (as opposed to the time when “apologetics” began to kick in). It seems it would be nearly impossible to sift through what was deliberate intentional bias in a small close knit community because the stories obviously had meaning to them. I suppose the only criteria might be science versus miracle.

    Given the limited data originating from a small community regarding Jesus, I’m asking how well does current historical criteria perform when applied to narrow and originally low profile situations like Christian antiquity as opposed to higher profile situations (i.e. Roman Empire etc.), or are there other (new?) criteria better suited for this type of specialized scenario?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 1, 2012

      I should think given the small numbers, independent attestation and dissimilarity are made even more compelling: if there aren’t that many Christians, it’s harder to be truly independent, and without huge numbers it is easier to establish what is “dissimilar.” Or so I should think.

  7. Avatar
    SJB  October 1, 2012

    Prof Ehrman

    I noticed in your updated list of speaking engagements for 2013 you will appear on March 30 at the American Atheists Association meeting in Austin. Am I mistaken in thinking that your presentation, “Agnostics and New Testament Studies” will expand on the subject of this very post, especially the final paragraph?

    As one who has been involved somewhat in the atheist/skeptical movement I must say how amazed (and disappointed) I am that “mythicism” has so quickly spread and become almost a dogma in some parts of the community. Your defense of the historical Jesus has befuddled many who at least considered you a fellow traveler because of your previous works.

    I congratulate you on taking on this argument. (I will avoid Biblical metaphors like “lion’s dens”.) The truth is, you will find most of these folks genuinely want to understand and will listen and consider what you have to say. The small but loud group of polemicists and “minds already made up”? Well these we always have with us, alas.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 1, 2012

      Thanks: I haven’t actually decided what my talk will be about! That’s the problem with these programs: they need a title long before the person has written a talk!

  8. Avatar
    donmax  October 1, 2012

    My inclinations lean to Albert Schweitzer’s “Historical Jesus.” By that I mean such a person cannot be found, whatever the criteria, just facsimiles thereof.

    DCS

  9. Avatar
    DominickG  November 28, 2012

    Bart.

    In any other area of academic research there would not be so much antagonism.
    Unfortunately, “faith” does color people’s attitudes.

    I think you can be a committed Christian and at the same time believe that an historical Jesus Christ
    did not exist.

    I may be wrong but I don’t believe I am. Indeed, Christianity would be less impressive for
    me if it was to be found that an historical Jesus Christ did exist but I think any mythicist needs to address two issues:

    1. An explanation for the origin of the name “Jesus Christ”
    2. An interpretation of Mark’s gospel that makes sense.

    In other posts I have described how the name “Jesus Christ” could have been created through a fusion of the “Christ”, (an appropriation of the name of the authority figure for those who saw Christ in their own hearts) and “Joshua” (one who was to take the Law to the Gentiles).

    Regarding Mark’s gospel: Mark’was the earliest of the gospels that was written and much of the material was incorporated into the later gospels. For me, the gospel is one of the great works of literature but it does need interpretation.

    The interpretation cannot from “knowledge” or “study” or “expertise” in any way but insight into human nature.

    I am conscious that this may sound somewhat gnostic but it really is just a development of the ancient Greek idea of the tripartite soul and what that means.

    This is the scenario in the first century:

    There was a huge desire to see Jews and Gentiles become united and many saw the unification achieved through a shared commitment to the Jewish Law (or Torah).

    Unsurprisingly, most gentiles were not enamoured of these hundreds of rules listed in the first five books of the New Testament.

    The question then is – if the Law is to be rejected – how then do you construct a meaningful ethic of how people should live their lives.

    Now if the psyche of each one of us has a tripartite nature and the cosmos also has a tripartite nature then we “sin” when an aspect of our tripartite nature is out of tune with an aspect of the tripartite psyche of the cosmos.

    So imagine each of us has a tripartite nature comprising SPIRIT, REASON and FAITH.

    Now imagine that each of these elements is out of tune with an element of the cosmic psyche.

    We will have six fractures:

    SPIRIT out of tune with DIVINE REASON – We act impetuously with no regard for the consequences

    SPIRIT out of tune with FAITH IN THE DIVINE – We make a commitment we fail to honor

    REASON out of tune with DIVINE SPIRIT – We exploit another’s trust and friendship for our own ends

    REASON out of tune with FAITH IN THE DIVINE – We avoid the responsibility that is rightfully ours

    FAITH without DIVINE REASON – We don’t listen , we don’t explain and we are dogmatic or are deliberately provocative in our language.

    FAITH without DIVINE SPIRIT – We are intolerant of others, of different ideas and we act harshly when we feel threatened.

    Now read the Passion story in the Gospel of Mark and reflect on the six players:

    The CROWD act impetuously with no regard for the consequences.

    PETER makes a commitment that he fails to honor.

    JUDAS exploits another’s trust and friendship for his own ends.

    PILATE avoids the responsibility that is rightfully his.

    JESUS doesn’t listen, doesn’t explain and is dogmatic and deliberately provocative in his language,.

    The HIGH PRIEST is intolerant of others and different ideas and acts harshly when he feels threatened.

    This is simply brilliant and it should be taught.

    Kind Regards

    DominickG.

    For the mythicist there are a number
    There are reasons

  10. Avatar
    Marko071291  April 1, 2018

    Hi Bart,

    As a historian of ancient history (doing my PhD now on gnosticism and proto-orthodoxy) I’m familiar with all the major historiogriphal names of the past century. We were obligated to read Bloch, Grant, Jenkins, Lynn Huntd, Carr etc..I started doubting traditional criteria of authenticity for a number of reasons (is it even possible to separate clear history from theological moves and legends. Especially if one is doing that by going from one story in gospels to another. But that’s not my point here). I was wondering what do u think about Dale Alison approach to the subject. Is it (for you) a good hypothesis with some interesting arguments but also with some problems or is it just flat out wrong? I don’t see my self as a experience historical jesus scholar (after all I m just at a starting point in my career) but Allison’s approach has stucked with me, especialy from a methodological point of view. I don’t have a degree in theology so I’m looking on all of this from a historical point of view. A lot of historical jesus scholar (at least in my country) don’t have a degree in history and it seems to me that they are missing a lot because of that. But, that’s also another topic. So, what do u think about Alison’s approach?
    Thanks
    Marko

    • Bart
      Bart  April 2, 2018

      What in particular about Alison’s work are you thinking of?

      • Avatar
        Marko071291  April 2, 2018

        I m thinking about the idea that we should get rid of trying to find authenthic words of Jesus but to look for the what he calls recurrent attestation: themes and motives that one can find across the synoptic and Paul. With that historian can say some general things about Jesus. Allison argues that something like 90% of his sayings are either or. In another words, one can easily, using traditional criteria, can say for those 90 % of sayings that Jesus did indeed said that but also one can say, using the same criteria, that Jesus didn’t say that. I m thinking about the arguments he made in his book Constructing Jesus.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 3, 2018

          My view is that *some* sayings are more probably things he said than other sayings. History is always dealing with probabilities, rarely with certainty. I agree that themes and topics etc. are easier to establish; but I don’t give up on knowing a few of the things that he approximately said.

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