John Meier continues his quest for the historical Jesus in the fifth installment of A Marginal Jew by looking at Jesus’s parables. His work relies solely on the criteria of authenticity. Unless a historian can apply one of his five primary criteria (embarrassment, discontinuity, multiple attestation, coherence, or rejection), the event cannot be attributed to the historical Jesus. Unlike radical skeptics, Meier states that failure to satisfy one of the criteria does not mean that a saying is inauthentic; however, the historian must consider it non liquet—unproven. This approach provides shocking results. Meier traces only four parables back to the historical Jesus: the mustard seed (Matt. 13:31–32; Mark 4:30–32; Luke 13:18–19), the evil tenants of the vineyard (Matt. 21:33–43; Mark 12:1–11; Luke 20:9–18), the great supper (Matt. 22:2–14; Luke 14:16–24), and the talents (Matt. 25:14–30; Luke 19:11–27). The remainder were created by the Evangelists or are banished to the category of non liquet. Meier suspects that Jesus spoke some of these, but without the support of the criteria, the historian can only wish thoughtfully. Citing Jacob Neusner, Meier states, “What you cannot show you do not know” (p. 371).
Meier comes to this conclusion, arguing that the Gospel of Thomas relies on the Synoptic tradition. Thomas, a sayings document, contains several of the Synoptic parables. If Thomas were independent, then two traditions would attest to these parables and they would be considered authentic. Meier shows where the author of Thomas copies Matthew’s and Luke’s redaction, highlighting the notion that Thomas does not rely on a source behind the Gospels, but that Thomas relies on Matthew and Luke specifically. As a result, Thomas’s use of these parables does not provide an independent witness to them.
Despite the confidence that the criteria might offer to a historian, Meier’s meager results indicate problems with the approach. Recently the criteria approach itself has come under attack. When Meier began the project, the criteria of authenticity represented the gold standard for historical Jesus research. But a number of critics doubt the usefulness of the criteria. First, many question the theory of orality upon which the criteria rest. Orality studies show that the early church most likely took care to maintain these traditions, rather than leaving them floating in a fluid context. Second, the results will undoubtedly give an incomplete or a disfigured portrait of Jesus. The criteria might confirm material that undoubtedly comes from Jesus, but it may not provide Jesus’s most essential teaching. And even though a particular parable may not meet the criteria, it might represent Jesus’s teaching.
These problems lead Jesus historians to consider other models. For example, Dale Allison argues that repeated patterns and themes in the Gospels present historians with a characteristic Jesus. An index of these features will not provide a list of authentic sayings per se, but they do present general features of the historic Jesus. This approach might be best when it comes to the unique nature of the parabolic material. Jesus surely reused parables and images in his itinerant speaking ministry. For example, Jesus used the image of a lost sheep—to describe someone who left the community (Matt. 18:10–14) and to describe a repentant sinner (Luke 15:3–7). Jesus likely used the image of a lost sheep, but it is impossible to know the original context; it is doubtful that a single context exists, since Jesus himself reused material to make different points.
It has been a quarter of a century since Meier’s initial publication, and he has faithfully applied the methodology throughout the project. Meier’s discussion of the Synoptic relationship to Thomas is helpful, but his lack of attention to matters of methodology is an oversight, particularly since so many have questioned the criteria he uses. It would also be helpful to see some discussion on what Jesus communicated through his parables. But having such scant results makes this impossible.
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