Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity
Keith and Le Donne assemble a team of scholars to assess the use of the criteria of authenticity, specifically for historical Jesus research. They divide the book into three parts. After some introductory matters, the first part addresses the general use of the criteria in the quest for the historical Jesus. The second part provides an analysis of specific criteria. The third part discusses future prospects for historical Jesus research. As the title suggests, each contributor questions the value of the criteria for the future of historical Jesus research; yet not all of the contributors arrive at the same conclusion. Some believe that the criteria are beyond repair and should be abandoned altogether; others believe that the criteria can be salvaged. Some argue that the goal for historical Jesus studies is to describe the past with some level of approximation; others have given up on this. Each contributor questions the present state of the criteria, but the diversity provides several different perspectives on the issue.
Morna Hooker, who was one of the first to question the use of the criteria in two valuable articles (“Christology and Methodology,” New Testament Studies 17 : 480–87; “On Using the Wrong Tool,” Theology 75 : 570–81), writes the forward. Despite the growing popularity of form criticism at the time, she criticized the use of the criteria, which developed out of form criticism. She contended that form criticism and form-critical tools were designed to analyze literary units, not assess history. From the start, the criteria of authenticity should be questioned as a historical tool. Many of the contributors echo this point.
After a short introduction by Le Donne, the first part of the book consists of critiques by Keith and Schröter at the macro level. Keith provides a more detailed analysis of the form-critical roots of the criteria and the later adoption of the criteria by New Quest historians. Keith notes that the form-critical assumption of a distinction between Palestinian and Hellenistic Christianity, a distinction that most scholars now reject, is a significant problem. Use of the criteria persists, however. Jens Schröter takes the argument further. The Evangelists provide a representation of the Jesus event from their own social context. Extracting individual themes from the Gospels ignores the larger framework of the Gospels that the early church developed.
The second part evaluates individual criteria. Each contributor shows the development and use of a particular criterion and exposes its blindspots. The volume addresses the criterion of semantic influences, the criterion of coherence, the criterion of dissimilarity, the criterion of embarrassment, and the criterion of multiple attestation. The reader will find different opinions about the usefulness of the criteria. This will not surprise most who work with them. Even John Meier, the most recognized champion of a criterological approach highlights the drawbacks for their use. For Meier, even though they are flawed, they are the best tools available (Meier, A Marginal Jew: The Roots of the Problem and the Person [New York: Doubleday, 1991], 167–95). Yet the contributors to the volume hold less hope than Meier for the future use of the criteria.
Scot McKnight and Dale Allison round out the volume with two capstone essays. McKnight argues that the historical Jesus is of no benefit to the church. As historians apply different historical critical tools, they narrate competing versions of Jesus, which shifts the Christology of the Gospels. Instead, the church’s Jesus is narrated through the fourfold canonical Gospels. McKnight’s criticisms, apply to historical Jesus projects that create an image of Jesus completely different from the Gospel presentation, but historical work can help in understanding how the Evangelists present the life of Jesus. Allison offers a personal account of his use of the criteria. It is helpful to realize that despite one’s misgivings, the thrust of the research can sway one’s opinion. Keith ends the volume with a short essay outlining future prospects for historical Jesus studies in light of the present misgivings about the criteria.
The title suggests that contributors doubt the historian’s ability to come to authenticity; yet the thrust of the book deals with the criteria of authenticity. Contributors raise the issue of how to access the past as it relates to the application of the criteria. Again, each contributor provides a distinct voice to discussions of the ability to construct an authentic (or accurate, original) image of Jesus. Keith and Le Donne have put together an essential manual for students working within historical Jesus research. Anyone who thinks about making use of the criteria should think through the various difficulties that each criterion entails.
About the Contributors
Benjamin I. Simpson
Dr. Simpson joined the faculty in 2006 as the registrar. In 2011, he moved to Houston to work with the Houston campus. In 2016, he and his family moved to Washington DC where he continues helping external students complete their degrees while positively influencing their ministries. His research interests include Jesus, the Gospels, and hermeneutics. He is married to Amber and they have two children: Madison and Eli.