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Getting Ready to Play
RULES MAKE a difference. They determine what can and cannot work in a game. Just take soccer and football. In one of the great ironies in American sports, soccer (appropriately called football in most of the world) allows use of the feet but not the hands; while American football hardly uses the feet at all in relation to possession of the ball. The difference involves the rules of the two games.
So also in Jesus studies, there are rules that apply in order to make a corroborative case for the historicity of the accounts and, as a result, to understand what Jesus said and did. These rules are technically called the “criteria for authenticity.”1 They test whether we can show a text to have its roots authentically in the actual events in Jesus’ life. Where the church allows the gospel texts to stand as witnesses for Jesus without such corroboration (because these texts are included in the canon that makes up Scripture), in historical Jesus studies, we have to make a historical case for any event or saying that is tied to Jesus. Like soccer and football, different rules make for a different game: the church uses faith, and historical Jesus studies use corroboration.
THEOLOGICAL VS. HISTORICAL
One of the earliest rules involved setting aside claims or qualifying claims of divine activity for what was called a more rational approach to Jesus. Rather than working from heaven or through a claim about divine revelation to get the story, one worked from the earth. This was done in three ways.
First, some said we cannot speak of God at all as a historical matter, but that speaking of him is a theological matter—and theology is different from history. Since divine activity cannot be validated, it must be left off the table of history. The most skeptical form of this view argues that God is a human construct or that history and God have nothing to do with each other. In this most radical form, little conversation is possible. Wherever God is said to act, something else is going on, not divine activity.
A second approach argues that history and theology are distinct, but both address distinct realities within events. Historians address only what humans do and can show only what humans did. If God is to be included, it has to be understood as a matter of faith and is theology, not history. This second view contends that history has limitations and that God is real; so whenever God is addressed, we have moved from discussing history to treating theology. Think of this view as erecting a kind of secular wall in the discussion of history. Those who hold to it argue that history is not equipped to make theological judgments.
However, there is a third view that contends that a person must still be open to God and the possibility of his working in history. You may not be able to prove absolutely that God acted, but the historical work shows that the most likely explanation for an event is that God acted as claimed by some involved in the event. Even if absolute proof of divine activity cannot be established, a case can be made for the likelihood of events rooted in divine activity.
In the origins of the historical approach to Jesus, rationalism becomes the key over any form of theism. Our mind and its judgment become the key arbiters in the game. This is where understanding the rules and the nature of the game is important. The church in general does not handle this topic as historical Jesus scholars do. In the church, faith relies on God’s guidance and inspiration when it comes to the gospels, both the writing and canonization. But in this particular kind of historical discussion, claims of divine activity are ruled out, or bracketed off to the side. A case has to be constructed for the claim of divine activity, so we have to rely on the historian’s toolbox, that is, corroboration.
CORROBORATIVE SUPPORT REQUIRED
Historical Jesus study requires corroborative support and validation for claims. This means that singularly attested materials are largely set aside (even though they might contain real information about Jesus). “Singularly attested material” means accounts that are told from only a single source, even if others used that source. There are complicated ways singularly attested material can be brought in at a later stage of study, but for the most part, much of what is uniquely attested is set aside for lack of corroboration. Lack of corroboration simply means that there is no confirmation that what these single sources attest is true or not. This is a key limitation of the corroborative process because it can well be the case that a singularly attested event took place. One just cannot corroborate that it did.
This chapter seeks to explain the rules that we shall be applying to the twelve key events we study in subsequent chapters. These are the rules most historical Jesus scholars use.
RULE 1: MULTIPLE ATTESTATION OF SOURCES
At the core of technical gospels study are the sources that one argues stand behind the gospels. Luke 1:1–2 tells us about traditions, oral and written, that he was aware of as he wrote his gospel. Verse 1 speaks of written materials, while verse 2 describes those who as eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word verbally passed on material about Jesus. Scholars refer to these kinds of sources in doing their work. There are written sources and oral traditional materials. These traditions are said to come from eyewitnesses. That is important, but in historical Jesus discussion, the credibility of that source, even if it is early, has to be established. The claim alone is not enough.
The First Source—Mark
Although scholars debate the exact order of the writing of the gospels (as is the case with many matters in scholarly discussion), most Jesus scholars see Mark as the first one written. They name his work as one of the sources, if not the key source, for understanding the historical Jesus. Almost all of Mark is also found in Matthew or Luke. More than that, the other gospels follow an outline of events very parallel to Mark. These facts point to Mark’s importance. So Mark is our first key source.
The Second Source—Q
The second source commonly appealed to is called Q. This single letter stands for the term source, because the German word for “source,” Quelle, begins with the letter Q. This source is hypothesized (posited as likely) because some 220 verses of Jesus’ teaching are shared between Matthew and Luke—almost 20 percent of each of these gospels. Most scholars believe that Matthew and Luke did not use each other in writing their gospels. For example, the accounts of Jesus’ birth are quite different in the two gospels. Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7) differs significantly from Luke’s Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6:20–49). Matthew has five key discourse units, but Luke lacks some of these.
The accounts about Jesus’ appearance after the resurrection differ in their locale, with Luke highlighting Jerusalem and Matthew, Galilee. So the theory goes, if Luke did not use Matthew and vice versa, where did those 220 verses come from? The argument is they shared a circulating traditional source of some type, which has never been found, that had similar teaching in it. The idea is that something has to explain the size of this agreement and overlap, even if we have never found such a written source.
In calling Q a source, we are not committing to the idea that Q is only a written source, a source reflective of oral tradition, or a mixture of the two. Variations on all of these positions exist when it comes to Q. The point is only that Matthew and Luke share a strand of tradition that circulated in the church without having used each other. So Q becomes the second source.
Material unique to Luke becomes our third key source. It is often called simply L. Material unique to Matthew is the fourth source. It is called M.
John’s gospel counts as a source; but as we noted in the last chapter, most of its material is unique and so it is not frequently used as evidence because it cannot be easily corroborated. In the view of many, the best we can do is to use John carefully as it might lend support to what is also present elsewhere. Others will use John more extensively and bring in other types of arguments beyond corroboration to utilize what it presents. Material from Paul’s letters or from one of the other New Testament epistles can also count as a source, but it is rare that specific events of the gospels also appear here. (These are usually very limited references to the Last Supper, transfiguration, crucifixion, and resurrection.)
Potentially, other materials, such as other gospels outside the Bible, can be counted as sources when there is reason to believe the materials might go back to the events of the authentic Jesus. However, this historical link often is quite disputed, because the pedigree of these extrabiblical gospels in going back to the earliest apostolic circles is even less clear than with the biblical gospels, whose apostolic roots are also often discussed. So these extrabiblical materials are used only in a limited way in historical Jesus study.
Rarer still, but able to count as well, is testimony from near contemporary non-Christian sources, such as the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, or the early second-century Roman historians Suetonius and Tacitus, who together testify multiple times to the fact that Jesus lived in first-century Galilee and died at the hands of Rome (see discussion in rule 5 below). But for most scholars, the key sources used for historical Jesus studies are four: Mark, Q, L, and M.2
Multiple attestation argues that if a saying, teaching, or theme is attested in multiple sources, then it has a better chance of being authentic, that is, of going back to authentic events in the life of Jesus. Note how the rule guides a historian’s judgment about an event. A historian cannot say outright that this event took place, nor does this prove all the details. This kind of history does not work that way. It makes judgments about events and their relationships based on how it views the sources that describe those events. The rationale here is that the more widely distributed an idea is across the independent levels of the tradition, the more likely it is to be old and reflective of actual events. The independence of the sources from one another means that no one of them created this event, but rather the event stands attested across distinct pieces of the tradition and is older than a given source.
Multiple attestation is one of the most important of the rules, since it is most obviously connected to the idea of corroboration. We will see it applied to many of the events we’ll consider, but a straightforward example involves the words of Jesus at the Last Supper, which are attested in their gist in distinct versions in Mark (Mark 14:22–25) and by Paul (1 Corinthians 11:23–26). These constitute multiple sources for the reporting of this event. Within these multiple sources, there are two versions of the wording. Matthew’s version is like that in Mark, and Luke’s is like that in Paul, but these only count as two source streams despite the repetition in four texts. (Remember we are not counting how many passages the material appears in, but how many distinct source strands attest to it.)
RULE 2: MULTIPLE ATTESTATION OF FORMS
This rule is a variation on multiple attestation. Here the issue is not sources but the literary shape of the story or saying, which is known as a form in scholarly study. Forms include miracle stories, discourse teaching ranging from proverbs to parables, pronouncement accounts (where the key goal in telling the account is presenting a saying at the end of the account called the pronouncement), and stories designed to elevate the stature of Jesus. When a theme or event shows up in multiple forms, then it again is seen to be widespread in the tradition and thus more likely to go back to Jesus. We use this rule when verifying Jesus’ association with tax collectors and sinners—a theme that appears in discourses, miracles, and pronouncements.
RULE 3: VARIOUS FORMS OF DISSIMILARITY
The next rule is more radical in its approach, so radical that variations on it have emerged. Dissimilarity argues that if a saying or event corresponds neither to the Judaism of the time (called Second Temple Judaism) nor to the early church, it is likely to go back to Jesus. The early church is seen as referring to the beliefs of the first few generations of the faith (say, up to approximately 100 CE, the date most take to be the latest for the writing of any of the gospels).
Sometimes this criterion is called double dissimilarity because the case for authenticity is said to apply only when the Jesus element is distinct from both Second Temple Judaism and the early church. The logic is that neither Judaism nor the early church can be responsible for this material since there is no match with either. This makes sense, but it turns out that very little material makes it through both ends of this sieve. These dissimilar elements may end up presenting to us the unique Jesus, but much of what Jesus did also had connections either to the diverse beliefs within first-century Judaism or to the early church, if not to both settings. Jesus could not have been so detached from his cultural and religious context that much of what he said was unrelated to it. This is why this rule is seen as so radical. The point reminds us that failure to meet a criterion is not necessarily evidence that something did not take place. Failure to meet a criterion simply means that way of seeking corroboration is not attained.
Some scholars have reworked the rule in an effort to make it more realistic to Jesus’ participation in a first-century setting. The most common of these reformulations argues that if an account has distinctive elements from both Judaism and early Christianity and yet looks like something that forms a bridge between them, then that is likely to be authentic. This has been called either “double similarity/dissimilarity” or the “continuum approach.” Here the logic is that we can see a line between where we start with an idea and where we end up. Jesus is seen as the middle figure in the movement.
Double dissimilarity can be used to corroborate Jesus’ saying to allow the dead to bury the dead. Both Judaism and the early church continued to bury people, and even though Jesus’ remark is seen as hyperbolic, it is seen as something stated so powerfully against the normal cultural grain that it goes back uniquely to him. The continuum approach could be used to corroborate Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, which although singularly attested, portrays the return of the unfaithful in Israel in a way Judaism would not espouse—as we find represented in the resentment of the elder son, who might reflect the attitude of the Pharisees.
RULE 4: EMBARRASSMENT
This next rule is also important because it argues that the church would not have created certain stories, because they have an element of embarrassment to them that would not have been a created or made-up detail. The embarrassing point in the story would ring true because it was a real part of the event. In such cases, it is usually either Jesus or major early church figures who are presented in an unfavorable light.
A simple example is the very fact of Jesus’ crucifixion, which requires he be seen as some type of criminal in order to have faced such an execution. Another example is the existence of Judas and his betrayal as one of the Twelve whom Jesus chose. The embarrassing feature here is that Jesus is seen normally as making good choices. In a sense this is a negative criterion because it says the church would never have made this one up, so it must have happened.
RULE 5: CRITERION OF REJECTION AND EXECUTION
Events that explain how Jesus was rejected by Jewish authorities and crucified by the Romans are likely to be authentic. One of the best-attested events in Jesus’ life is his crucifixion. Even the Roman historians Tacitus (Annals 15.44) and Suetonius (Claudius 25.4) attest to Rome’s execution of Jesus, as does the first-century Jewish historian Josephus (Antiquities 18.63–64). So how did we get to such a death? Many scholars believe Jesus’ act in the temple is said to meet this criterion.
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These are the key rules, but others exist to supplement them. They are not as highly regarded in helping make judgments, but are sometimes applied here and there, especially as supportive reasons for authenticity.
RULE 6: COHERENCE
This rule argues that anything that coheres with or is consistent with material judged as authentic on the basis of the key rules is also a good candidate for authenticity. The weakness of this rule is that a judgment on consistency involves a good measure of subjectivity, depending on the interpreter. However, it is a rule that may allow a singularly attested element to be accepted.
RULE 7: ARAMAIC OR HEBREW TRACES
This rule argues that material that reflects Aramaic roots may point to authenticity. The logic here is that Jesus likely spoke Aramaic as his primary language. However, the gospels come to us in Greek. So if we find traces of Aramaic (or even Hebrew, its linguistic cousin) within a tradition dominated by Greek, then we can know something has been translated and could well go back to Jesus. The problem here is that Aramaic is also the language of Jesus’ earliest followers. So it is not a given that if something has Aramaic traces it must be rooted in what Jesus said. So often it is the case that this rule does not work on its own, but is tied to another rule to strengthen the case for authenticity.
RULE 8: PALESTINIAN ENVIRONMENT
This rule argues that if something fits the customs and life of first-century Palestine, then it is likely to be authentic. However, this rule is like the last one. Jesus’ followers also lived in this environment, so accounts from them could just reflect the general life of the time and not be distinctive in pointing to Jesus. So this rule, when it is applied, is often used to supplement other rules.
RULE 9: INHERENT AMBIGUITY
This rule argues that the early church would have been explicit about who Jesus was or what he did, so if it invented a statement or event about Jesus, it would be clear, not ambiguous. If, however, a statement or an event has inherent ambiguity within its meaning, then it is less likely to have been made up by the church. In other words, the church was more likely to be clear than ambiguous in its affirmation of Jesus. This less-well-known rule is one we will appeal to often, as we will see when we get to Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi and when we discuss the story of Jesus arriving in Jerusalem. This was a rule our group formulated as a part of its work, since in many of the events we will cover, the presentation of who Jesus is was more implicit than explicit. If a person were to argue that the event was created by the early church to declare clearly who Jesus was, then such a claim would not be ambiguous. So ambiguity points to authenticity.
RULE 10: HISTORICAL-CULTURAL PLAUSIBILITY
This criterion argues that what is authentic must fit into a Second Temple Jewish setting of the early first century and yet show an influence on the early church not entirely in line with the church’s major tendencies. This rule is close to the continuum approach we saw earlier under dissimilarity. Jesus’ ministry focused on Jews in Israel, and the general lack of overt outreach to Gentiles fits this rule. The activity fits Jewish concerns and the context out of which Jesus emerged, yet it does not line up with the church’s later clear emphasis on its Gentile mission.
THE RULES AS A GROUP
As was already suggested, these rules are not ironclad. Meeting one or a few of them does not guarantee the general acceptance of a piece of Jesus material as authentic. They serve more as guides; the more rules that apply to a saying or event, the stronger the case for corroboration.
However, these rules and their logic are so debated among scholars that some doubt whether any work based on the rules takes us anywhere. Such doubt can come from conservatives, who do not like any questioning of the gospel tradition, or from those more liberal, who doubt such rules are really clear guides. So this way of discussing the historical Jesus is not unanimous in its acceptance, in part because the rules are not perfect guides by any means.
The problem is that without such rules, making judgments about the material can become either a complete matter of faith or an exercise in complete subjectivity. How else can we begin to make a case for or against a saying or event unless we have some set of standards with which to weigh it? We would be forced to choose faith or personal preference. The advantage, then, of some rules to work with is that a case for corroboration can be made without appeal to purely theological claims (even though theological claims are sometimes valid), which opens up the possibility of conversation with someone whose theological convictions may differ from our own. The rules also serve as a check on the whim of the interpreter about what he or she may think Jesus is likely to have done or about what the church is likely to have created. So although we can see that the rules involve judgment and are neither ironclad nor comprehensive in their logic, they can be useful.
CONCLUSION ON RULES
So these ten rules are the ones many Jesus scholars use. As you can see, there are many judgments involved in what sayings and events can show and how these rules apply. The only way to really see how the game is played and how the conversation proceeds is to look at specific events, apply the rules to them, and see how the rules work. So we approach our core task with these rules in hand. We shall look at a dozen key events, apply these criteria, and see what we may be able to learn about Jesus by looking at things through this particular lens. We begin with John the Baptist and his association with Jesus.