Historical Jesus 3: The Criteria

Although the majority of our information about the historical Jesus comes from the Gospels, these sources cannot be used without care. They do not agree among themselves on matters important to the historian, large or small. How, then, shall we make our decisions?

The answers to this question are pretty much as varied as the historians who propose them. In this post, we’ll begin to look at those articulated by John P. Meier; in future posts we’ll take a look at some others. (A Marginal Jew, vol. 1, pp. 167-184)

Meier uses nine criteria in his work. Five of them he considers of primary value, while the four others are quite secondary. These secondary criteria, if used at all, tend to simply supply additional confirmation of what is suggested by their more robust siblings.

    Criterion of Multiple Attestation

This criterion suggests that those sayings or events which enjoy multiple attestation in either literary source or form enjoy a higher degree of probability. By literary source, Meier means principally Mark, Q, Paul, and John.

Multiple attestation in form means that something appears in instances such as parables, beatitudes, aphorisms, miracle stories, or prayers. Exorcisms and healings form a special category of miracle stories.

This criterion is of special value when dealing with broad themes and motifs. That Jesus spoke about the kingdom of God/heaven is readily affirmed: the idea is found in Mark, Q, M, L, John, and Paul. It is also found parables, beatitudes, prayers, and a whole raft of miracle stories.

Yet this criterion has an obvious shortcoming: there is no guarantee that something reported only once didn’t happen, and no guarantee that something reported more than once did. This brings us to the need for a second criterion…

    The Criterion of Embarrassment

This one is pretty straightforward: folks don’t make up and then disseminate embarrassing items. If an event casting either Jesus or the disciples in an unfavorable light appears, it may well mean that the memory of the event runs so deep that it cannot be passed over.

There’s a nice selection of events that fit under this criterion. Foremost are probably the baptism of Jesus by his spiritual inferior John the Baptist, the denial of Peter, the betrayal of Judas, and even the admission in Mk 13:32 that the Son doesn’t know the time of his own parousia.

Three ideas arise from this discussion. First, a combination of multiple attestation and embarrassment is a powerful signal that something happened. The details may be poorly resolved, but there’s enough smoke it’s time to get serious about the fire extinguisher.

Second, this criterion also tells us that there surely was some kind of control on the imagination of the earliest Christian writers. That this control appears to have been lost by the second century suggests that some elements of actual, eyewitness, memory are involved.

Finally, this criterion cannot be used apart from a sensitive historical awareness. A case in point is the final words of Jesus from the cross in Mark: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This raises all sorts of eyebrows in the 21st century, but in the 1st century it was rightly understood as the culmination of the relationship between the obedient Son of God and his Father.

    The Criterion of Crucifixion

This criterion is different from the first two, indeed it is different from the other eight. It points out that Jesus died a very violent end, and asks us to consider what things he may have said or done that led him to be condemned for treason against the Roman state. Often, it is called into play against some idea about the historical Jesus.

Since Meier’s formulation of this criterion is interesting in its own right, I’ll quote him directly:

“While I do not agree with those who turn Jesus into a violent revolutionary or political agitator, scholars who favor a revolutionary Jesus do have a point. A tweedy poetaster who spent his time spinning out parable and Japanese koans, a literary aesthete who toyed with 1st century deconstructionism, or a bland Jesus who simply told people to look at the lilies of the field—such a Jesus would threaten no one. The historical Jesus did threaten disturb, and infuriate people—from interpreters of the Law through the Jerusalem priestly aristocracy to the Roman prefect who finally tried and crucified him. This emphasis on Jesus’ violent end is not simply a focus imposed on the data by Christian theology. To outsiders like Josephus, Tacitus, and Lucian of Samosata, one of the most striking things about Jesus was his crucifixion or execution by Rome. A Jesus whose words and deeds would not alienate people, especially powerful people, is not the historical Jesus.” (Meier, Marginal Jew, p. 177.)

We’ll pick up with the rest of Meier’s criteria in the next post. I’d just like to remind anyone who actually reads these things that the historical Jesus is a construct used to examine and classify the state of our knowledge. It is the Risen Lord in whom Christian faith properly resides, who is the only “real Jesus” that matters, and who cannot be studied using properly critical historical methods.

7 Replies to “Historical Jesus 3: The Criteria”

  1. Excellent post. I love Meier’s work, especially how he takes the time to carefully explain what he is going to do, then does it thoroughly, then tells you what he just did. I really like his chapter in which he explains the difference between the historical Jesus and the real Jesus. His work The Marginal Jew series is just an incredible resource (especially the notes.)

  2. Thanks, I know what you mean about Meiers. His work was a major part of my preparation for comps precisely because of his lucid writing and his thorough presentation.

  3. Awesome stuff.

    I like the “Jesus as revolutionary” idea myself, even though there are a few, small holes in it. Mark 15:7 is good for this, as also the verses indicating that Jesus was crucified with two lestes (transliteration questionable), the word that usually falls into English as “robber,” yet we know the Romans didn’t crucify common chicken-thieves. A lestes might be an insurgent of sorts? It seems like Jesus also stages his teachings in the “wilderness,” or on the fringes of Judea at times, which might also point to insurgent activity (zealots/sicarii often staging their revolts in the “wilderness”?). All speculation, but fun speculation at that.

    Mogget, were Galileans such as Jesus generally viewed with more contempt than Jews from other regions?

  4. David J–

    Right you are, as usual. The co-crucified are lestes (bandits) in Matthew and Mark and kakourgos (evil-doers, malefactors) in Luke. And as you say, his two fellows were not there because they let their horses drink from public water fountains.

    Although, Jesus can’t be too much of a revolutionary, because he’s innocent of the charges against him…

    Without a doubt, the fact that Jesus was crucified as “just one criminal among others” is another illustration of the indignities to which the innocent Jesus was subjected. It also ties back to the Gethsemane scene (Mk 14:48) where Jesus pointed out the contrast between his innocent behavior and the conspiratorial activities which brought his arrest about.

    Luke’s redactional activity in shifting the description may represent a desire to avoid the connotations that lestes acquired in the last decades of the 1st century. Were we to translate it now according to the political implications it probably picked up after Jesus died, the best word would might be “terrorist.”

    As for the wilderness, the implications must be read from each individual scene. Yes, the wilderness was a place of lawlessness and violence, but it was also the place where Israel has some pretty important interaction with God.

    And you are right again, Galileans were treated with contempt. It was more than just the urban / rural thing, too. I don’t remember all the details, so I’ll have to get back to you tomorrow.

  5. Mogget,

    About the criteria — I’m fine with how the scholars and interested parties have dealt with the Jesus of History vs. the Christ of Faith criteria, but I wonder just exactly how they go about deciding which belongs to which. Make sense? Furthermore, I feel like sometimes the criteria of the crucifixion could be somewhat weak. For example: true, a man who runs around talking about the lillies of the field and the birds of the sky is not fit for crucifixion. But, it also begs the question about the possibility that the Jesus of history could have actually said those things to one particular audience, but said more “insurgent” things to another audience, thereby adjusting his discourses and modes of speech according to those who were listening. My point is: does the scholarship allow a cross-over with some of the criteria? It seems like Jesus could have discussed lillies and birds up in Gallilee, but once he came down to Jerusalem he started discussing swords and insurrection. Or a mix of the two. It seems like some of the criteria create a false dichotomy. Is that correct, or am I just fuzzy on all this?

  6. I wonder just exactly how they go about deciding which belongs to which

    It’s a question of what can be thought of as taking place in the “realm of history” versus what is a matter of faith. It’s not, however, a totally scientific process. Let me give you some examples, with perhaps just a dash of hyperbole thrown in:

    Historical Mogget: Jesus died, probably by crucifixion, under Pontius Pilate.

    Exegetical Mogget: Mark interprets the death of Jesus in terms of the restoral of a covenant. What that covenant might be, or why it should require his death, is never spelled out.

    Easter Mogget: Jesus died for my sins.

    Historical Mogget: There’s a whole raft of people who think Jesus did not remain dead, but was resurrected by God

    Exegetical Mogget: The Synoptics understand the resurrection of Jesus as the vindication of his message by God.

    Easter Mogget: Because Jesus lives and I live in Jesus, I too share God’s life. And I will share it more fully in the future.

    Historical Mogget: There’s a whole raft of people who thought Jesus was able to miraculously heal the sick and cast out demons. Go ask a theologian if miracles and demons exist.

    Exegetical Mogget: The Synoptic authors use Jesus’ healings and especially his exorcisms to show the presence, and eventual triumph of the kingdom of God. Don’t talk to theologians, they’re typically clueless and will make your head explode if you actually pay attention.

    Easter Mogget: It doesn’t matter whether or not it can be shown that Jesus actually miraculously healed anyone, cause whatever happened then, what’s important now is my relationship with the real Jesus who lives forever. I am a theologian, let me tell you all about it.

    The thing about the Historical Mogget is that all sorts of folks would probably agree: Christians, Buddhists, space aliens, atheists. Exegetical Mogget might get a fair amount of agreement, too. Good exegesis doesn’t usually reveal much about the confessional stance of the exegete.

    But Easter Mogget is a different matter… Easter Mogget is basically concerned about the death and resurrection of Jesus. And to make things a tad more personal, in LDS-speak this means that I don’t have testimony of a great many things, and the things I do have a testimony of are not the sort of things you can investigate historically. Some things are appropriate for a testimony, and some are not. The precise identity of the author of Hebrews is in the “not” category.

    (Does John C. remember this discussion from last summer?)

    the criteria of the crucifixion could be somewhat weak

    None of the criteria can be used alone. Some are far weaker than others. The ones we have done so far are the strong ones. That should tell you something!

    Using Meier’s criteria, the strongest combination is embarrassment and multiple attestation. There’s one other one, the criterion of dissimilarity, which is also powerful, but has so limited a scope as to be rarely useful.

    We’ll consult some other criteria, as well. But Meier is something of a gold standard in these things.

    Jesus could have discussed lillies and birds up in Galilee, but once he came down to Jerusalem he started discussing swords and insurrection.

    Oh yeah, baby, and this is precisely what so intrigues me about the historical Jesus! Are you familiar with the debates over a coherent theological center for Paul? Similar idea, but in spades.

    When you establish a set of sayings and events that you feel have a certain level of historical plausibility, you naturally start to ask yourself what sort of person would do these kinds of things. And what you find, I think, is that you’ve never met this sort of a person before. Lot’s of caveats to add to that, of course…

    Anyway, very interesting stuff. I’m sure the Jesus Seminar will stir things up soon, and if not soon, then at Easter. That’ll give up some real-time stuff to chew on. I’m also on the look-out for a relatively clear-cut article in a refereed journal.

  7. Ah, I see the tension now. Very insightful. I would probably like to hang out most with Easter Mogget.

    Don’t talk to theologians, they’re typically clueless and will make your head explode if you actually pay attention.

    Mogget, I bear my testimony, by the power of the revelations of the Holy Ghost, that your words are true. Amen.

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