I’m starting to think there must be a better way to explain to laypeople – and even to scholars – the best way we can show what the historical Jesus himself said and did. Since I was a graduate student I have done what every other budding New Testament scholar was doing: name the “criteria” that are used to show which elements of the Gospels are legendary and which are historical, explain their logic, justify them, and then use them. Now I’m starting to think that just ain’t the way to go.
In case you don’t know, scholars use a set of criteria to decide what is authentic to the life of Jesus. The reason we need to do that is that we don’t have any audio or video recordings of his life, or stenographic accounts of his teachings, or highly reliable, fully documented, authoritative records of his activities. What we have are accounts written decades later (30-65 years later, at best), by people who did not know him, living in different parts of the world from him, speaking a different language, reporting stories that had been circulating by word of mouth year after year after year, throughout enormous stretches of territory, almost always being told by people who also did not know him, hear him, or see him, but who were retelling stories they themselves had heard from others who had heard them from others. Yikes.
But despite the “yikes,” none of that would necessarily mean that the four NT Gospels are more legendary than historical. The bigger problem is that – with that as background reality – the four accounts we have are inconsistent with one another, sometimes completely contradictory, often in little ways and sometimes in seriously important ways. Moreover, not only are some of the stories at odds in many places, they are also, in some instances, completely contrary to what we know from the historical record, or, when pressed hard, simply don’t make sense. On the other hand, there are also a lot of notable consistencies, regularly reported sayings and events, and many accounts that fit perfectly well into a Galilean and Jerusalem context in the late 20s CE.
I’m not going to demonstrate all that here – I’ve talked a lot about it in my books (e.g., Jesus Interrupted, Jesus Before the Gospels, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, etc.). In those books I’ve also explained how scholars deal with the various problems we encounter in our source by explaining the “criteria” (which I’ll describe in a moment). And I’m about ready to give up the ghost on that one. Not on using these criteria, but on naming them and justifying their names.
My reason for thinking it is time to try something different is that whenever I or anyone else explains how we go about establishing what Jesus himself did say and do, it sounds like we’re just makin’ stuff up. We’ve invented the criteria for this one special case and applied them. And since (it seems) we’ve just invented some criteria out of the blue to know about Jesus, we’re making him and the sources about him a special case, unlike any other historical figure people read and talk about. How many biographies of Jefferson, or Christopher Columbus, or Seneca spend pages or even chapters explaining their historical criteria?
In case you’re not familiar with all this Jesus criteria-talk (and for the record) I’m referring to the Criterion of Multiple Attestation; the Criterion of Dissimilarity, and the Criterion of Contextual Credibility. These are just the ones I use; other criteria often mentioned in the scholarship are the Criterion of Embarrassment; the Criterion of Coherence; the Criterion of Aramaisms; etc. All of these are rather unfamiliar technical terms that have to be explained just to have them make sense. (And no, I’m not going to define them here! That’ll just perpetuate the problem). But naming, explaining, and justifying them – as a procedure – simply raises all sorts of questions. Why have you come up with these? Why not invent others? And why are you Jesus scholars just comin’ up with your own rules? THAT don’t make sense!
Anyway, I’ve stuck with the criteria for a very long time. I was just counting this morning. I started studying and explaining them to others 43 years ago; I started teaching them in the university classroom 38 years ago; I started writing about them 23 years ago; and I started blogging about them 10 years ago (https://ehrmanblog.org/jesus-and-the-historical-criteria-for-members/).
Let me affirm: I am still a BIG believer in the criteria. And I am planning on using them in my next book on Jesus’ teachings of love and charity, because once more I will be talking about the historical Jesus (though I’ll be dealing with a specific topic I’ve never taken head-on before). But I’m thinking about getting away from labeling them and justifying the labels. And I think I’m completely justified in not justifying them.
For a very simple reason: these criteria simply are the guidelines that historians of all kinds ALWAYS use to establish what happened in the past in connection with an important person – whether Jefferson, Columbus, or Seneca. But NO ONE writing a biography on these important figures, begins by naming technical criteria and justifying them (at least, no one that I’ve read). They talk about the sources, but they figure out what is historical in them by applying clearly reasoned and sensible guidelines that have proved time and again to work.
My book is going to be largely about Jesus’ teachings about love and the radical change these teachings made in the ethical discourse of the ancient world, affecting the course of both ethical discourse and moral actions down to the present time. (Spoiler alert: I will NOT be arguing that people were immoral until Christianity came along or that love is a Christian invention!).
To do that, of course, I have to explain why it is difficult to know what Jesus himself actually taught. But I’m not going to do that by naming criteria. Or at least I don’t think I will. Instead I think I’ll just explain how historians work, since historians of all kinds are ALWAYS dealing with problematic sources. If the sources were not problematic, we would not need historians. We could just reprint what Plutarch *says* about Alexander the Great or what Suetonius *says* about Nero or, say, what Rabbi Dov Ber *says* about Baal Shem Tov. Historians don’t do that.
How do historians deal with their problematic sources?
- Historians gather all the sources of information about the person they can, hopefully from sources contemporary with them, and if such are not available (or even when they are) sources from close to the time, as close as we can get.
- Historians read the sources carefully, in great detail, compare them with one another, see where they are at odds with one another and where they agree.
- Historians try to determine which parts of the sources appear to contain non-historical (legendary) information, based for example on: 1) what they know from a range of other historical sources whose accounts have independently been confirmed through prior careful analyses of *them* as sources and 2) what is historically plausible.
- If accounts are implausible, historians try to figure out if they are at least within the realm of possibility or if that can’t be determined; if they are possible but not plausible, historians try to think of how the stories may have come into existence if they are not historical (why would someone have made them up, e.g.) and / or how in fact they maybe *could* have happened despite it not seeming likely.
- In many instances, historians have to simply decide what they think probably happened or say there is no way of knowing.
- Historians favor information about a figure in the past when there are:
- Found in early sources and not only in later ones, especially if it looks like these later ones copied the story from one another.
- Widely attested in lots of sources that give the same information in basically the same way, even though these sources haven’t relied on or even known about the existence of one another.
- Sources give information that it seems highly unlikely someone would have made up about the person.
- In addition, historians discount stories that are anachronistic – that is, that do not fit into the alleged historical context (e.g., a story about a 17th century French artist who moved to the United States).
In a very strong sense, historians work like criminal lawyers. They try to find as many reliable witnesses as they can; they try to show these witnesses agree with each other on main points rather than contradict each other repeatedly; they try to show that some of the testimony is not what a witness would have wanted to make up. (If a mother is forced under cross-examination to admit that her beloved son’s alibi doesn’t hold up, that’s not something she would have *wanted* to say; so it’s far less likely she made it up). And they try to show that the combined testimony is completely plausible even when it seems unexpected or unusual.
When historians approach the historical Jesus the way other historians approach other figures of the past, these are the kinds of considerations they take into account. And so there is little point, as I see it, to spend time worrying extensively about the validity of, say, “The Criterion of Dissimilarity.” It’s simply a commonsensical way of treating historical records, used by a range of historians who have never even heard the term.