The Demise of the Criteria of Authenticity? (Part 3 of 3)

The third and final section of Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity (ed. Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne) includes two essays of a more reflective nature.

Scot McKnight resurrects the ghost of Martin Kähler by contending that “historical Jesus proposals are of no use to the Church” (175). Because all historical work is interpretive in nature, no account of Jesus is devoid of interpretation. In this regard, McKnight is echoing many of the other essays. But where this is germane to his topic is in the fact that the Church has always accepted the interpretations of the four Evangelists as the authoritative accounts of who Jesus was and is. The canonical gospels have already done the Church’s interpretation of history, but modern historical Jesus study assumes that the Church got things wrong when it comes to Jesus’ identity. McKnight, admitting the provocative nature of his claim, states that “the act of (re)constructing the historical Jesus is … a rebellion against the church’s Jesus or at least a departure from the church’s Jesus” (179). McKnight’s three main reasons for concluding that historical Jesus work is useless for the church are:

  1. History is meaning-making and that meaning (related to Jesus’ identity) has been made by the gospels and creeds.
  2. The criteria used in historical Jesus studies have not led to anything close to a consensus, thus the enterprise is unconvincing.
  3. Recent memory studies make it difficult to be very confident in reconstructing a historical Jesus.
  4. Historical Jesus studies continue to shift over time.

McKnight’s admittedly provocative thesis goes further than it needs, in my estimation. Is it true that historical Jesus work is entirely useless for the church? I think otherwise. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that such studies are not authoritative for the church, or are of secondary importance, but to say they have “no use” goes further than I would.

Dale Allison pens the final contribution, a reflection on how his views on historical Jesus studies have evolved over his lifetime. He notes an early uneasiness with the criteria approach, but since he could come up with no better approach to the historical Jesus, he initially followed the pack of other HJ scholars. Over time, he came to find more convincing the idea of finding patterns in the Jesus tradition that would indicate Jesus’ identity. As is the case with many of Allison’s works, his frankness and sincerity come through clearly as he describes his own struggles within the scholarly guild. If only others in the field could follow his lead, we might all benefit.

10 thoughts on “The Demise of the Criteria of Authenticity? (Part 3 of 3)

  1. Tim:

    I have a hard time relating to “critical scholars” in general.

    They strive so hard for emotional and intellectual objectivity that the gap between their perspective and the perspective of the New Testament authors is too deep and wide to be bridged. So pure atheists as well some theological conservatives are welcome members of the guild. And shaky — even bizarre — theories are shown as much respect as thoughtful and cautious interpretations. (Sadly, the more bizarre usually get the most publicity.)

    The distant, analytical approach of Historical Jesus theorists — and other biblical specialists — removes critical studies from the apostolic lineage of the believing church. So much so that the church is irrelevant to their work. If the church disappeared tomorrow, critical scholars would go on speculating, driven by whatever level of curiosity and theoretical standards-of-expertise motivate them today.

    Put differently, these scholars — as far as their work is concerned — intentionally stand outside the worshipful attitude of the apostles and their heirs. Any of these critics who display a motivation that reflects identification with the apostles and the historic church disqualify themselves. They are now “creedal” and not “critical,” so they are more or less useless to the enterprise. (I guess the question is not whether Historical Jesus studies are useful to the church, but whether the church is useful to Historical Jesus studies. And the answer is a firm — No.)

    When I read what critical scholars write, I am sometimes moved to respect them, because they project insights I had not thought of. But often I am bothered by what appears to be very naive speculations, some of which seem to have been repeated so often that they are now written in stone. (My reaction is based on my own reading of historical topics in general and my training in both formal and informal logic.)

    Critical scholars have caused me a lot of pain, as a pastor who must deal with educated adults and young people — both of which are easily influenced by the media and professors with letters after their names.

    The essays you are surveying in this series hold out some hope that assumptions and methods are being questioned, but this kind of questioning is not sensational enough for the media or the professors at our local university. And I doubt that most of the accepted “criteria of authenticity” will change much.

  2. Bobby, your comment above is insightful, well-thought out and IMHO quite moving. Thank you for sharing those thoughts. I am working on a response that I hope will reflect your same tone.

    In brief, I think that this discussion reflects a long-standing debate: should the Church be founded on the Jesus of faith or the Jesus of history. 20th century “liberal” theologians like Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann argued in essence that the Church could not be based on a historical Jesus, as a meaningful Jesus was not knowable historically. But after WWII Ernst Kasemann forcefully argued that the Church cannot survive if it is cut off from its historical roots. This is a question we can discuss if you like.

    On a certain level, this argument can be resolved by assuming that the Jesus of history IS the Jesus of faith. I think this is what many practicing Christians believe. But on a deeper level, this is no solution, as the assumption (standing alone) is itself a proclamation of faith. I’m not sure that Kasemann would agree with this, but if the foundation of the Church is the historical Jesus, then presumably any good historian (regardless of faith) should be capable of discovering this Jesus.

    There are good arguments to be made in response to this presumption. For example: one might argue for the value of the perspective of an insider – we might value a history of Japan written by a Japanese scholar, so why assume that an historian of Christianity must separate herself from her Christianity in order to write good history? But in the same vein, we might NOT say that one must be Japanese to write a good history of Japan. So I’d say that in the quest for the historical Jesus we might value the perspective of a Christian insider, but we shouldn’t require this perspective.

    Another argument here is more post-modern: let’s assume that in the process of creating history, bias is unavoidable. So no matter who the historian, the historian brings a bias concerning Christianity to the quest for the historical Jesus. From this perspective, one might argue that the Church has no interest in history written by historians biased against Christianity. I’m personally something of a post-modern, so this kind of argument appeals to me. But the argument becomes problematic if the Church filters the history it will consider based on the bias of the historian – should Catholics read only Catholic historians, and evangelicals read only evangelical historians? At a certain point, the bias filter starts to function like a faith proclamation, where the value of a historian’s work on Jesus is measured not on its historicity but on whether the work reflects the Church’s existing faith.

    There are other arguments here, including some you’ve made in prior posts. But I think the essence of the problem boils down to the Church’s need for an historical Jesus, or whether the Church can survive based solely on the Jesus of faith.

    I will read your comment more carefully later today, and I’d also appreciate your reaction to my comment.

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  4. I am probably more comfortable with history as a legitimate theological resource than you are

    The confession of the church, from the beginning, were statements about space-time events — capable of confirmation on various levels — that substantiated truth that extends beyond space and time.

    One of those levels, for me, is the perspective of a relatively well-educated person, reading the New Testament and what some other people have written about it — people with a much better education in these matters than me. But I can only go with my best judgment that sometimes seems far better than the judgment of these better educated authors.

    And my perspective is — with what I know of historical studies and my background in theology and philosophy — I believe the New Testament witness stands the test of general historical accuracy concerning a real person — Jesus — who spoke and acted, at least in a general way, as he is depicted in each of the Gospels, including John.

    There should be no doubt that he rose from the dead and that this is depicted successfully and artfully in various literary formats in the New Testament, ranging from: (1) the tight, substantive (but riddle-like) fashion of Mark (that I believe to be a written account of Peter’s well-rehearsed oral presentation) to (2) the elegant Jewish testimonial of Matthew to (3) the well-researched biography-history (by first-century standards) of Luke and Acts to (4) the thoughtful theology of John to (5) the frank statements about the matter in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.

    Literary works of the kind we have in the New Testament are capable of preserving and passing along real experiences, and I think the New Testament does that.

    The rabbi Jesus — acting with intent, charismatic appeal, and eloquence — taught his chosen apostles a series of truths that were very difficult to grasp, though they got what he meant eventually. They finally got the truth, because Jesus demonstrated the reality of what he was saying in controversial encounters with the religious authorities and in various miracles, ending with the stupendous event of the resurrection and his continued ministry to them afterward.

    The idea is indefensible that — again generally speaking — the words and deeds of Jesus in the Gospels were made up and that Jesus, as presented there, is essentially a purely literary figure.

    The authors of the New Testament believed in Jesus (the Christ of faith), because they experienced him (the Christ — not just the “Jesus” — of history), both before and after the Resurrection.

    • Bobby, while your second comment is also well-written and carefully thought out, your two comments here strike me as taking different positions. You write both that critical scholars “intentionally stand outside the worshipful attitude of the apostles and their heirs”, and that “the New Testament witness stands the test of general historical accuracy”. These two statements can be reconciled – particularly if we conclude that the critical scholars you referred to in your first comment are producing bad history – but I see some tension between these two statements.

      Perhaps this tension is easiest to identify when you state that “there should be no doubt that [Jesus] rose from the dead”. If what we’re talking about is history and not theology, then of course there should be doubt! Even a Mike Licona describes the skeptical and questioning stance he took as an historian to the question of the resurrection. Please understand, I fully respect your belief that Jesus’ resurrection actually happened in the manner depicted in the Gospels. I also share your view that we should approach the Gospels with the view that they were written by sincere and honest people who were doing their best to convey the truth as they understood it. This is the view that I hope outsiders take to my religious texts, so it is incumbent on me to bring this same attitude to your religious texts. From this, I’m probably inclined to take the Gospel accounts more seriously than some, and to keep my personal speculation within a narrower limit than others.

      My respect for the Gospels need not go so far as to read them as 100% historically accurate accounts of the life of Jesus, let alone of what happened to Jesus after his crucifixion. My respect for Christianity is for Christianity as a faith, and not as an unquestionable authority about “space-time events” (nice turn of phrase there!). You talk about relying on history as a “legitimate theological resource”, and you’re quite right, I’m not personally comfortable with that. But if history is to be a resource for theology (and not the other way around), then history needs to be practiced as history, using historical methods that are open to all and that can be critically scrutinized by all. At the end of the day, we may find that we cannot prove the historical truth of many events that are critical to our faith, so that belief in the space-time truth of these events must be a matter of faith and not of history (to which I say, amen!).

      I share your frustration with much of what passes as “history” in this field. I share your feeling that the “criteria of authenticity” create a picture of the historical Jesus that suffers from both distortion and reductionism. I fail to understand how these criteria can be used to reject so much of what appears in the Gospels, and yet (somehow) the criteria allows for the rampant speculation we see in so many popular “histories” of Jesus. But if you want your Church to be built on the foundation of the historical Jesus, as opposed to Jesus as a literary figure, I think you’re going to have to live with the fact that history is an essentially secular project. You may also have to live with the fact that not all history is created well, and that your only arguments against shoddy history must come from your superior ability to employ the methodology of the historian. More difficult, you’re going to have to live with the fact that the historical value of a given piece of scholarship cannot be judged on whether the scholar stands outside of “the worshipful attitude of the apostles and their heirs”.

      • lbehrendt:

        The apostles’ attitude of worship and their confident faith were based on concrete experience; and they offered testimony (preserved in the New Testament) about the reality of their experiences — in order to cause others to join them in worship and faith. There is no tension here. Space-time events can be a convincing basis for thinking soundly about realities that extend beyond space and time. This is an apostolic way of thinking.

        In contrast, critical scholars see the apostolic stance and purpose as criteria that work against the historical value of their testimony. (“If the early church believed and taught a certain thing,” they say, “it is not something the historical Jesus believed and taught,” or some such nonsense.)

        The critics create a “tension,” as you call it, between faith as a category and history as a category. (I think it is more like a division into parallel universes that have nothing in common, with no possible means of reconciliation.)

        To the critical mind, space-time events are “secular” in an absolute sense. So to be a respected critical scholar, you begin with the assumption that Jesus was a mere man to be understood — comprehensively — within the context of his time. in other words, the critic begins by rejecting the apostolic way of thinking; and he/she leaves no way to get from history to theology or from theology to history.

        People who think this way cannot possibly understand or explain the literature of the New Testament. “Distortion and reductionism” — that you name — are only two of the long list of errors they are bound to make.

        A jet airplane is not a car, so someone who insists that the only existing vehicle we have for travel is a car can only make a fool of himself as he tries to account for all the small gadgets in the cockpit of a plane, let alone the wings, tail, and retractable landing gear. (Heaven help us if he decides to take a test drive on the highway.) This is the kind of thing that appears to be happening in much of what I read from Jesus historians. A good pilot could really help the understanding of anyone who thinks a jet is a car. And any thoughtful person who is an heir to the apostles could help the understanding of these critical scholars who have cut off the upper half of reality before they begin their work.

        As to the level of confidence, I said nothing about “100 % accuracy” or about “proving” anything from a study of records left us that purport to be historical. The study of history is a study in probabilities, not in the philosophical sense of Hume who excluded any consideration of the miraculous. (One of the distinguishing marks of a miracle is its rarity and unexpectedness that interrupts the natural, routine flow of events.) A historical event is the one that seems most probable, based on the weight of evidence.

        That is why I said, even when we take into consideration the various literary expressions of the New Testament: “There should be no doubt that Jesus rose from the dead” and “The ideas are indefensible that — again generally speaking — the words and deeds of Jesus in the Gospels were made up; and Jesus, as presented there, is essentially a purely literary figure.”

        I’ve read the Book of Mormon and other Latter Day Saint literature, and am as certain as is possible that the broad story they tell is fabricated and unhistorical. But when I read the compiled library of literature we call the New Testament, I am just as certain that the broad story they tell is based on recollections concerning a real person of magnificent stature who compels us to worship and trust him.

        • Bobby, I want to be respectful of Tim’s space here, and not take up too much space with my own thoughts. You and I have opportunities for discussion elsewhere, on your blog if you have one, or on mine. I thank you for your comments, which I regard as heartfelt, honest and insightful. I’ve responded to the best of my ability, and I look forward to further comments from you and further exchanges.

  5. We probably don’t need to say anything more — on any blog.

    I’ll try my best to deal with whatever I read that the critical scholars write. But because of their openness to extreme speculation and their rule-setting that strains rationality, they are causing a lot of mischief in the minds of educated people.

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