The Words of Jesus and the Criteria of Authenticity

jesus-say-bulletin-graphic-01Mark Strauss does an excellent job describing and assessing the so-called “criteria of authenticity” used to evaluate the sayings of Jesus (Four Portraits, 359-62).  I have expanded this list a bit using volume 1 of John Meier’s The Marginal Jew.  The use of criteria for determining the authenticity of Jesus’ sayings are part of an inductive argument which can only lead to the likelihood that a given saying goes back to Jesus.  If multiple criterion imply that a saying is authentic, that increases confidence in that saying.

  • Dissimilarity (Discontinuity in Meier, 1: 171-174, also known as originality, or dual irreducibility). If a saying is unlike anything found in Judaism or the early church, then it is more likely to be correct.   But there is a serious problem here:  How can a historical Jesus be divorced from Judaism, the religion of the Hebrew Bible and the first century Palestine in which he ministered? Why Jesus reflect a culture different from Judaism if he was a Jew?
  • Multiple Attestation. This assumes at least a two source hypothesis,  If a saying is in Mark and Q, then it is more likely to be authentic.  If a saying appears in Mark, Q, and Gospel of Thomas, etc, this “triple attestation” that is more likely to be original.  On the surface, this seems reasonable although it assumes several things about source criticism.  However, it is not applied consistently by some scholars. For example, Mark 10:45 appears in multiple layers of tradition (as defined by the Jesus Seminar), et the saying is dismissed as a creation of the church.
  • Coherence (Meier, 1:176-177, also known as conformity, or consistency). The criterion of coherence states that whatever statements of Jesus that are supported generally by the other criteria are more likely to be authentic. This assumes that one has been able to isolate some authentic material using the other criteria and have established a database for dealing with other sayings.  This is not unlike the Jewish method of judging a prophet – the Torah was the database by which prophetic books were evaluated.  If they contradicted the Torah, they could not be authentic.
  • Embarrassment (Meier, Marginal Jew 1:168-171, also known as contradiction). The pericope is not the sort of thing that the early church would have gone out of their way to create. If one were imagining a community of believers creating stories about Jesus, it follows that they would suppress stories that were embarrassing or difficult to fit into the developing Christology of the church.  Meier uses the example of the baptism.  Jesus (the sinless son of God) presents himself to John the Baptist, a sinful mortal, in order to be baptized, even though John’s baptism was announced as for repentance and the forgiveness of sins.  Mark 1:4-11 has Jesus simply presenting himself for baptism, Matthew 3:13-17 has Jesus explain to John why baptism is necessary, Luke 3:19-22 places the arrest of John before the baptism story (as a flashback) so that the reader does not immediately connect John with the actual baptism.  By the time John writes, there is no actual baptism, only the witness of the Spirit to the identity of Jesus.
  • Rejection and Execution (Meier, 1:177). This element is quite different than the others.  It assumes that Jesus was in fact arrested by the Jews and tried for something, and executed by the Romans.  What might he have taught and done that would have led to that level of punishment?  If he was a teacher of parables and short witty aphorisms, then he is unlikely to get himself crucified.
  • Semitic Flavor. Strauss includes although it was not really one of the Jesus Seminar’s original criteria. If a saying or action of Jesus has a “pronounced Jewish or Palestinian flavor, it is more likely to be authentic” (361). His example is the use of the Aramaic word abba in Mark 14:36. The assumption is that Jesus spoke as a Palestinian Jew and (presumably) later writers would be unfamiliar with a Semitic context. This criterion may not be helpful if the writer is Jewish; Matthew could create Jewish things for Jesus to say, for example.
  • Divergent Traditions. Occasionally authors preserve traditions which do not serve their purposes. In Matt 10:5-6 Jesus tells his disciples to not go to the Gentiles, yet in Matt 28:16-20 he tells them to go to all the nations. As Strauss points out, this criterion is difficult to use since we may not understand the purpose of the Gospel writer. In the example given, it is possible the situation during Jesus’ ministry was different than after the resurrection.

In the end, do these tests achieve anything? It has become standard among conservative to state that the use of the Criteria tells us very little about Jesus and then dismiss them out of hand.  But I like how Blomberg concludes his discussion of the criteria: these arguments build on faith evidence with does actually exist (Jesus and the Gospels, 221).

I would unpack this statement in two directions.  If one already has faith that the Gospels accurately record Jesus’ words, then the criteria of authenticity provide evidence in favor of that faith.  We can be assured that we have accurate accounts of the sorts of things Jesus actually said.  On the other hand, if one assumes Jesus did not say certain things (Son of Man, eschatology, etc.), then the criteria will prove that assumption, Jesus could not have said the things the Gospels claim.

In the end, these tests are still matters of faith, and pretending that they are objective is a sham.

16 thoughts on “The Words of Jesus and the Criteria of Authenticity

  1. No criteria can provide us with solid proof, the kind of proof we can find at mathematics. We can only expect evidence that corroborates our faith which is a prerequisite. Let’s not forget that the unbelievers didn’t believe even when they saw Jesus raising the dead…

    • It is an inductive method, as I said. As such, it will never yield 100% certainty, but an inductive argument does move toward a higher probability of truth. In the case of a particular saying of Jesus, these methods can only conclude it is more or less likely Jesus said something. It is always possible someone argues a particular saying is highly probable to have come from the Historical Jesus, but (in reality) it did not. I suspect that is the case for some of the Gospel of Thomas sayings, maybe the Adulterous Woman story in John 8 (a highly controversial example!) But over all, a judicious and fair use of these criteria will allow a student to know there is a high historical probability Jesus said the things they already believe him to say.

      I am not sure this is a bad thing.

      • Not at all. I agree. All I am saying is that nothing can provide us with faith if we, ourselves, don’t already believe and accept certain things. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we must not make use of scientific methods to do apologetics. On the contrary… PS: This whole series of posts is very useful. Thank you for all the thoughts.

  2. There are many subjective ways through the “criteria of authenticity” that we can view Jesus’ words as either even more valid than before or less valid, it depends on the lens of the viewer in this particular circumstance. Bu, for example, how can the criterion of dissimilarity possibly back up the authenticity of the words of Jesus when as P. Long puts it, “How can a historical Jesus be divorced from Judaism and the first century Palestine in which he ministered?” (The Words of Jesus and the Criteria of Authenticity) Or in the criteria of coherence, one Bible supporting Christian may be apt to find a more effective database to back up his belief in the legitimacy of the words of Jesus than the doubting skeptic. But when it comes down to the criteria of authenticity of the Word, one must simply not overly analyze or criticize, as many biblical scholars do, but understand that the Word is God breathed (2 Tim. 3:16), therefore of truth, and that, “no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation.” (2 Peter 1:20-21) Scripture and the words of Jesus can often be over scrutinized allowing for a lack of faith in our judgment, or lack of judgment, of scripture.

  3. The ‘criteria’ implies there might be degrees of authenticity – leaving us with oxymoronic assertions that a saying of Jesus is ‘very authentic’, ‘possibly authentic’, ‘probably inauthentic’, etc. I have more questions: Does determining a saying as inauthentic clarify anything or does it lead to more confusion? Is ‘authentic’ synonymous with ‘authoritative’? J.M. Robinson in his ‘New Quest’ asserts that sayings Jesus did not say may be more relevant than actual sayings of the historical Jesus. Could Robinson be correct?

    • Robinson could be correct, sure. I really doubt any saying was created out of nothing, everything in the Gospels attributed to Jesus is (IMHO) related to what he said. I think I would rather talk about degrees of certainty rather than degrees of authenticity. These tools are used to establish confidence (or not) in a particular saying. Back in the Jesus Seminar days, that confidence was thin, while other scholars use these methods to become increasingly confident.

      In both cases, these tools only prove what you already believe.

      As for the Robinson comment, a saying might be an accurate recollection of something Jesus used to say alot, even if the actual words are not precisely what Jesus originally said.

      • I also doubt that the sayings were created out of nothing, but many higher critics say exactly that. The degree of certainty posited by the Jesus Seminar (JS), color coding and all, seemed to be an end in itself for many liberal scholars.

        When it became obvious that the JS enterprise was a cul de sac, several JS scholars jumped the ship that Bultmann and his disciples had launched. Many took to reader-response criticism, narrative criticism and canonical criticism – areas that focus more on the unity of biblical texts and, by the way, often less hostile to evangelical presuppositions.

        As to Robinson, I think he may have meant that whether a saying attributed to Jesus was actually spoken by Jesus is not necessarily related to the impact the saying has had on the church. For example: A scholar may state (however foolishly) that John 14:6 was never actually spoken by Jesus, but that same scholar cannot deny the impact of those words on the church and even the world.

  4. Like everyone else Is saying, it is true that the authenticity of Jesus’ words can never be 100% proven. I found it interesting what Dr. Long said about rejection and execution. I never thought about people believing that Jesus was being executed for something more than being a righteous teacher. In this element, could it be that Romans executed Him solely because they disagreed with his teachings? Or maybe it was His persistency of claiming that He was the Messiah that the Jews found to be worth arresting and crucifying. In Strauss’s book, he discusses the “burden of proof”. He claims that the burden of proof belongs to those who claim certain sayings of Jesus are authentic. “If a writer or historian can be demonstrated to be generally reliable, then the benefit of the doubt may be given to that writer in disputed cases” (Strauss, pg. 385). It is made clear in Luke 1, that he supplies the authenticity of his writings. Luke says in chapter 1 verses1-4, “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first eyewitnesses and servants of the world. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. ” Although this doesn’t quite prove how accurate “the red lettering” is throughout the new testament, Luke clarifies that the things he has written down come from a reliable source.

  5. I believe that authenticity tests achieve many things. One of which is giving us a reason to say why we can believe in the Bible. For many people who do not believe that the Bible is authentic, these tests are crucial to help them see the Gospels in a different light. Often, we cannot use the Bible as our primary source when talking with an unbeliever because many do not believe the Bible is a true and trustworthy source. This is especially true in today’s world where we constantly need to test validity. Tests such as the multiple attestations test and the coherence test help unbelievers to see that while we do take the Bible at its word, we also have reasons for why we take the Bible at its word. Many Christians today have grown lazy and complacent in their faith and don’t even know what they believe in. However, Christians who are being persecuted for their faith must know what they’re dying for. Christians need to understand their faith and these tests help prove the authenticity of the Bible. I believe that we should be willing to die for what we believe in and we can’t gain this kind of confidence by being complacent about our knowledge of the Scriptures, but instead by putting Scripture to the test and growing in our faith. I think the tests of authenticity can achieve important things because they “provide evidence” for believers and proof for the unbelievers (Professor Long, 2014).

  6. Alison,
    I agree with your statement that one of the reasons why authenticity tests matter is because it gives us a reason to say why we believe in the Bible and that it is pretty crucial to have when speaking with non believers. It is true that when speaking with non belivers in today’s culture that Christians hear a lot of “well, how can you prove that?” and “well, science can prove itself, why can’t you?” and that “the Bible was written like, a thousand years ago, how am I supposed to believe that?” So, in today’s culture, people want sources, they want some sort of evidence to their questions. So, simply providing them verses from the Bible they don’t know to be true or “authentic” or saying, “just have faith” is not going to convince non believers of the Bible’s authenticity. That is why authenticity tests are important because it provides the “why’s” for non believers.
    Non believers want to know why people are willing to die for their faith, they want to know why we choose to follow the teachings of Jesus, they want to know why we feel so passionate about the Word and the need to share it. People who claim to be Christian should have a deeper understanding of their faith beyond just Scripture and when you’re speaking with non believers, they want to know why they should believe too and the tests of authenticity as Alison and Professor Long said, “can achieve important things because they provide evidence for believers and proof for the unbelievers” so that in turn can grow a Christian’s faith or give a non believer the opportunity to be saved–if he or she believe the evidence that would be provided to them through authenticity tests.

  7. • I found these “criterion” to be very interesting, because, as usual, there are two ways to view something. For example, in the category of “dissimilarity” the argument could be why would Jesus speak using different culture if he was a Jew? The thought is that Jesus would use examples and terminology from his culture, religion, and background. However, I think that dissimilarity would be more evidence for rather than against its validity. Why? I would say that because we know that Jesus was here not to just save the Jews, but also the Greeks, both slave and free, Jesus wanted all kinds of kinds. That would be an explanation for a different use in terms with different audiences. He is a God, a Savior, a King who relates with his people. I also believe that the contradictions people find regarding the order of events is sad. I do not see how the order would make a difference in the truths that the stories display. It is not a salvation issue. I think it is good to be curious, but not necessarily good to criticize (in the not academic study way). Something else to keep in mind, I believe, is that the way we read the Bible today is in an entirely different language than it was written in. There could be some differences throughout the gospels due to different manners of translation. The divergent traditions I think are well explained by the nature of Jesus’ ministry. He was working on making things new. He was reaching out to a people that had not been reached before. He was sitting, eating, teaching the lowest of the lows. I also agree with Strauss’ point that we do not know the purpose of the Gospel writer. We do know however that the Holy Spirit works in each writer to bring the Word of God to the people. The Holy Spirit works to reveal Christ to us, using the Scriptures to soften our hearts, transform us, and grow us. As stated before, it is a matter of faith. These are good practices to be aware of context, of the uniqueness of Scripture, to become hopefully stronger in faith, and to appreciate the work of the Spirit in Scripture. The more we practice these things, the more equipped we are to defend our faith and the written Word of God.

  8. I would say that these tests do achieve something. They honestly help give us human reasons to explain why we believe in the Bible. When talking to an unbeliever just saying that you have faith is not usually very helpful. That means nothing to them since they themselves have no faith in God. As PLong said, “these tests are still matters of faith.” So a nonbeliever will still have to struggle with that, but it might make it slightly easier to understand. Non Believers do not see the Bible as truth so it is important to use as many gadgets from our Batman utility belt as we possibly can. As a Christian, I believe that everything in the Bible is true because of the faith that I have, so there is no discussion for me of whether or not what Jesus said was accurate.

  9. How can one believe the believe that Bible is true? Well, 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “All scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and training in righteousness,” (ESV). But if that is not enough, these authenticity tests can help back up why we can believe in the Bible. The verse may be enough for those who believe in the Bible, but I think these tests are really for the people who are on the fence. It gives them even more proof that the Bible is a true and trustworthy source that is “breathed out by God”. People who do not believe in the message, will not listen to you quoting Bible verses trying to get them to believe. People nowadays only believe something if they can see it or if it comes from someone/something that they “trust”. These tests allow them to see that we not only believe in it, but we have evidence to back up why it is truly authentic.

    Not all of the Gospel’s messages have to fit in line perfectly with one another. If that were the case, why would God have inspired individuals to write it for Him? As Strauss says, “we do not know the purpose of the Gospel writer” (p. 435). Each writer has a different purpose for writing and there is nothing wrong with that. The Holy Spirit works to reveal Christ to us, using the Scripture to transform our paths and allow us to grow deeper with him. These authenticity tests are a way to solidify the fact that the Bible is the greatest book to ever be written.

  10. This was a very thought-provoking blog post. Moreover, reading chapter 11 was very interesting and important because it broke down all the different viewpoints and presuppositions of all the popular scholars. However, the thing that resonated with me the most comes from the bottom of the blog post stating that “I would unpack this statement in two directions. If one already has faith that the Gospels accurately record Jesus’ words, then the criteria of authenticity provide evidence in favor of that faith” (P.Long). This stood out to me the most because if we “Christians” have a pure heart and true faith in the Bible and in the word of God; then there should be no “test”. Moreover, there will be only a stronger connection between God’s word and our trust to fulfill it. To end the blog post P.Long also states that “In the end, these tests are still matters of faith, and pretending that they are objective is a sham” (P.Long). I one hundred percent agree with this last comment in the blog post because if we have true faith and believe in what the Bible says, no matter the interpretation we will be living a life pleasing to Him; on the other hand, if we start trying to dig deeper and start coming up with these sham ways to interpret it then we will forever be lost. A prime example would be that of dissimilarity. Just because there is a minor difference that was not said in one of the Gospels does not deem it true and vice versa; we need to look at the context and interpret it for what it is and really means, rather than trying to compare and contrast.

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