Here I continue the thread on how scholars go about establishing which traditions in the Gospels appear to reflect what actually happened in the life of Jesus.   Of all the things I’ve said so far, this is the most controversial.   But after thinking about it for some forty years, I still think it makes good sense, for reasons I try to explain.




What An Odd Thing to Say!  The Criterion of Dissimilarity.

The most controversial criterion that historians use, and often misuse, to establish authentic tradition from the life of Jesus is sometimes called the “criterion of dissimilarity.”  The criterion is not so difficult to explain, given what we have already seen about the Gospels.

Any witness in a court of law will naturally tell things the way he or she sees them.  Thus, the perspective of the witness has to be taken into account when trying to evaluate the merits of a case.  Moreover, sometimes a witness has a vested interested in the outcome of the trial.  A question that perennially comes up, then, involves the testimony of interested parties: are they distorting, or even fabricating, testimony for reasons of their own?  The analogy does not completely work, of course, for ancient literary sources (or for modern ones either, for that matter).  Authors from the ancient world were not under oath to tell the historical facts, and nothing but the facts.  But when examining ancient sources, the historian must always be alert to the perspective of the witness.

We know that early Christians modified and invented stories about Jesus.  There is no one who disputes this: otherwise we would have to think that …

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