Miracles and History

The so-called criterion of authenticity can applied to the miracle stories.  For example, all strata of the tradition indicate that Jesus did miracles, including Mark, Q, M/L, and John.  This ought to satisfy the criterion of Multiple Attestation since miracles appear in all of the various forms suggested by form criticism.  Given the methodology of even the Jesus Seminar, one can confidently conclude that Jesus had the reputation as a miracle worker, that he claimed to do miracles, healings, etc.

Healing a Blind ManThe criterion of plausibility argues that an event is more likely historical if it is a plausible event.  If this is applied to the miracles, many will dismiss miracles because they do not seem plausible.   What is or is not plausible is highly subjective, and very often implausible events actually occur.  To me, it is implausible that anyone claiming to be a messiah in the Second Temple Period would not do miracles.  While the modern worldview would dismiss miracles as implausible, the Second Temple Period would require them if Jesus was to be taken seriously as the messiah!

This is the sort of thing that Anthony Le Donne suggests in his The Historical Jesus (Grand Rapids, Mich.: 2011).  There are many memories of Jesus acting as a healer or exorcist, even raising the dead. These memories are in a wide range sources, and there is variation among these sources.  Le Donne refers to this as memory refraction – people are the same events with slight variations, but the main contours of the event are the same.  These variations actually increase the likelihood that a given event is historical (130).  In the case of Jesus’ miracles, not only are there variations on the same event, but many miracles around given themes (healing, exorcism  etc).

The criterion of embarrassment is more helpful.  If a deed seems like it might have been an embarrassment to the growing theology of Jesus, and they passed it along anyway, it has a greater claim to validity.  The healing of the woman with the flow of blood, for example, has Jesus healing the woman without really consciously thinking about it, the power just “went out of him” and he did not know who it was that touched him.

In addition, Jesus was known to have been a man of prayer, yet there are no stories in which Jesus prays in connection to a healing.  If the early church were going to create or enhance the prayers of Jesus (which they very well may have), it is remarkable that they did not create prayers to be added to the miracles of Jesus. This means that Jesus did not heal in the same way Jewish holy men healed, through prayer and ritual.

In short, it is historically plausible that Jesus was known as a miracle worker during his own lifetime, even if the modern thinker dismisses the possibility of miracles.  Do these sorts of “criteria” for authenticity work for miracles in Jesus’ ministry.

Or is this a case of “preaching to the choir”?  For example, what is the difference between my argument here and saying, “lots of people think Santa brings the presents at Christmas so it must be true”?

Prayer and Study of Torah

Daily Prayers were accompanied by the reciting of the Shema. While the Qumran community prayed three times a day, most Jews appear to have prayed twice a day.  These prayers were either at the time of the morning and evening sacrifice or at dawn and sundown at whatever location the person happened to be at (they did not have to go to the synagogue to pray.) Home was the primary place of worship for the Jew.  In addition to memorized prayers, individuals presented petitions to God for their own health and happiness.

The Synagogue at Gamla

The Synagogue at Gamla

The Eighteen Benedictions represent prayers used in public worship, although it is impossible to know for sure if they date to the pre-70 period. These prayers emphasize the attributes of God (his justice and mercy), his uniqueness, his willingness to forgive and to heal the sick as well as his control of the harvest. Sanders is doubtful first century Jews did any prayers (or hymns) in unison, but this cannot be certain since there is no evidence either way.

How often the average Jew studied the scripture is unclear.  This may refer to simply going to the synagogue and heard the scripture read (especially for the non-educated who would not be able to read.)  In addition, scrolls were expensive, only the incredibly wealthy would be able to own a scroll to study.

The Synagogue is of critical importance to the Jews of the first century.  While we do not know when the synagogue was first used, we do know of synagogues dating to the first century (in the town of Gamla and one in Masada and the Herodian, likely built by Zealots long after Herod’s time.) Often synagogues were built over the site of an older building, accounting for the lack of first century archaeological remains. The synagogue at Tiberias was large enough to hold a crowd gathered to discuss the impending war (Life 277, 280, 290-303). We know from the Bible that both Jesus and Paul taught in synagogues regularly.

Philo describes the synagogue meeting which took place on Sabbath: a priest or elder would read from the scripture and comment on the text while people listened, then anyone who was moved to comment would do so.  Usually they simply sat in silence and listened. Essenes were taught in the law every day, but more often on the Sabbath. The synagogue as designed with benches around the perimeter to encourage participation by all in attendance, as demonstrated in Mark 1:14-15, 6:1-5.

I am not sure Jesus challenges this institution of Second Temple Judaism. He is often described as participating in Synagogue discussions may have been asked on occasion to address the group as a teacher.  But it is possible Jesus does subvert the normal practice of gathering to study Scripture at a Synagogue in other ways, but teaching on hillsides or other locations.

The Cutural Context of the Gospels: The Temple

E. P. Sanders once said “Judaism was more a way of life than a doctrinal system” (Judaism: Practice and Belief, 3). Sanders describes practical details of daily Jewish life as well as the fundamental teachings of Judaism most the Jews of the first century were in agreement. But Second Temple period Judaism sometimes differed about how to live out the Jewish life in their present circumstance. These hotly debated questions centered concerned both internal affairs, such as who controls the national institutions, such as Temple and sacrifice or who interprets and administers the Law. But there was a range of views on external affairs such as cooperation with the Romans. Could a faithful Jewish person cooperate with Rome and not violate the law? Is rebellion against Rome possible?

Over the next series of posts I want to discuss this cultural landscape forming the background of the Gospels. Beginning with the Temple, I will briefly outline some of the more important institutions and practices found in first century Judaism, with an eye to showing how Jesus in some ways is consistent with these beliefs and institutions, but also how he challenged them in his ministry.

Jewish TempleWhile the synagogue was a place for prayer and study of scripture, the Temple was a place for sacrifice. Just as sacrifice of animals is always a part of religion in the ancient world, it played an important part of the practice of religion in Jerusalem. Judaism differed from other pagan religious ceremonies in some very important ways. For example, unlike Greco-Roman religions, there is only one place in the world where and acceptable sacrifice can be made, the Temple at Jerusalem. A Roman could offer a sacrifice anywhere, at any time, even when there was no temple or priest to officiate.

Judaism was different from other ancient religions because it brought everything under the heading of “Divine Law” (50). The Greco-Roman world had religion and philosophy; religion dealt with the gods and philosophy dealt with ethical and practical issues. Judaism combined these two elements since there was nothing in life except one’s duty to God. Any daily practice could be tied somehow to one’s religious devotion (Josephus, Apion 2.170-173).

The Temple was therefore central to the life of the common Jew. “At the heart of Jewish national life, for better or worse, stood the Temple” (N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 224). The impression from reading the more extreme views of the Essenes or from Jesus’ sharp critique of the Temple in the New Testament is that the Temple was viewed negatively in the first century. Despite politically ambitious High Priests and possible corruption in the first century, most Jews supported the Temple through offerings willingly given. Diaspora Jews even supported the Temple through the half-shekel “Temple Tax,” a practice the Romans required to be continued after the revolts, although the money was diverted to Rome (War 7.218; Dio Cassius, 66.7).

In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus is not impressed with worship in the Temple. He only visits the Temple in his final week (although John describes him visiting Jerusalem more often). He famously declares the Temple to be a “den of robbers” and disrupts commerce in the Temple courts (Matt 21:12-13). He mourns for Jerusalem (Matt 23:37-39) and declares the Temple will soon be destroyed (Matt 24:1-2).

How shocking would this be for his disciples to hear? To what extent is Jesus attacking the heart of Jewish worship?

What About the “Actions of Jesus”?

What would historical Jesus studies look like if we started with the things Jesus did first, rather than the words of Jesus? Frequently Historical Jesus studies begin with the words rather than the activities of Jesus. Sayings judged as authentic are then used to decide which things Jesus might have actually done.

In his monograph on the relationship of Jesus and Judaism, E. P. Sanders suggested that this method is backwards.  Rather than beginning with the sayings of Jesus, Sanders created a list of activities which we can be certain Jesus did. He then used this list to evaluate the words of Jesus.  For Sanders, Jesus’ activity in the Temple becomes the starting point for his study, but any certain activity might be chosen. We know without a doubt Jesus was crucified by the Romans. What might he have taught in order to attract the attention of the Romans? I doubt the Romans went around crucifying people for loving their neighbors. But if someone was implying they were some sort of an “heir of David” and hinting they might be about to restore the kingdom to Israel, perhaps the Romans would respond by arresting and executing the person for challenging the peace of Rome.

jesus-at-supperAnother example is Jesus’ table fellowship with sinners. There is little doubt that Jesus among scholars Jesus ate with sinners. This practice was nothing like that of the Pharisee or Qumran community. Neither group would have eaten with people outside of their group, let alone “sinners” who had contact with Gentiles. If there is anything certain about Jesus’ ministry it is that he ate and drank with sinners. Even some of the followers of John the Baptist questioned Jesus on his eating habits! N. T. Wright, for example, considers the fact that Jesus welcomed “sinners” into table fellowship a “fixed point” for historical Jesus studies (Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 267).

This reputation was so well-known that Jesus is described as a “glutton and drunkard” and a friend of “tax–collectors and sinners” (Matt 11:19 / Luke 7:34). This description of Jesus is undoubtedly authentic since it is unlikely such a description would be created by a later Christian community. If you are creating legends to prove Jesus is God, you do not create stories about him eating drinking with prostitutes. Likewise, if you were creating stories to encourage holy living, perhaps you might describe Jesus as a “friend of sinners who have already repented.”

If we know with certainty Jesus ate with sinners, then sayings about welcoming sinners are consistent with those actions. The parable of the Great Banquet in Luke 14 replaces the invited guests with the poor and crippled, as does the Wedding Banquet parable in Matt 22. The often challenged sayings in Mark 2:13-22 may very well be authentic because it is related to Jesus’ practice of feasting rather than fasting.

What other challenged sayings of Jesus that would be less problematic if we started with what Jesus did?

The Words of Jesus and Skepticism

AuthenticityOne of the commonly cited reasons for suspending judgment on the words of Jesus is that studies seeking to authenticate the words of Jesus tend to be concerned only with methods for authenticating the words and less interested in what is actually said in the Gospels. These types of studies fall into three categories. Some reject virtually everything the gospels report as words of Jesus.  The classic example of this historical skepticism is R. Bultmann, who famously said that we can know little more than the fact that Jesus lived and died. His “Jesus of History” and “Christ of Faith” dichotomy is not particularly helpful and yields very little in the way of historical insight. Others accept the words of Jesus as presented in the gospels with no attempt to sort out the voice of the Gospel writer from the voice of Jesus. This is problematic for the simple reason that we do not have the words of Jesus at all. He taught in Aramaic, we read the remembrance of those words recorded in Greek many years after they were first spoken.

Most scholars who work in the field of Historical Jesus research attempt to find a place between these two extremes.  This approach to the words of Jesus would use the tools of the scholarship to weigh sayings of Jesus less skeptically than the first group, but also less naively than the second. While it is obvious that we do not have the actual words of Jesus, we have access to the “voice of Jesus” as reported by the evangelists. In this view, various criteria of authenticity are favored over others, producing differing results. As is typically the case for middle positions, the skeptics find this approach to be inadequate (or worse, faith–based) and the conservative finds them too restrictive (or worse, liberal).

This is not to say that I am skeptical of the sayings of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels. On the contrary, I am convinced that the Synoptic Gospels accurately record the “voice of Jesus.” The work of N. T. Wright, for example, attempts to read Jesus within the story of the Jewish people and treats the words of Jesus within that narrative world.  Similarly, J. D. G. Dunn argues that the synoptic traditions were shaped by an oral tradition repeatedly performed by disciples interested in what Jesus actually said or did.

Is it even necessary to argue for the authenticity of the Words of Jesus? What (if anything) is the benefit of using the criteria of authenticity when we study Jesus?

 

Bibliography: Excerpted from Jesus the Bridegroom (Eugene, Ore.: Pickwick, 2013).

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.

Are the Biblical Sources About Jesus Accurate?

The second question Wilkins and Moreland ask in Jesus Under Fire is “Are the Biblical Sources About Jesus Accurate?” To answer this question we might need to talk a little bit about manuscripts and the copying process, but what is really at stake here is the intention of the original authors. Were they interested in writing an accurate history of Jesus? Everyone accepts the fact that the gospels are theological documents, but that something is a “theological document” does not mean that it is historically inaccurate.

When Historical Jesus scholars approach this question, they usually construct several tests for any given saying or event in the Gospels in order to determine the likelihood that the story really happened. For example, the Jesus Seminar uses several criteria of authenticity to dismisses much of the gospels as inaccurate, fanciful, or at best, a reflection of what might have happened to the real Historical Jesus. There is an assumed distinction between the “Jesus of History” and the “Christ of Faith.” The Jesus of History is virtually unknown, all we really know about is what the faithful believers who wrote the New Testament said about him One only needs to know the Christ of Faith for salvation, but that does not mean that he has to believe in the Jesus of History quite the way the Bible presents him.

A serious problem with these criteria is that they are only employed to support the scholar’s preconceived opinion.  In most cases, a particular criterion could be used to prove or disprove a particular event or saying is an accurate reflection of Jesus.  One example is the saying in Mark 10:45, which appears in a number of “layers of tradition.” The saying is not quite what we would expect from a Jewish perspective (“Messiah as a ransom” is not a common view in the Second Temple period).  Nor is it particularly what the early church might have created to put in Jesus mouth (a “ransom” is not a pervasive metaphor for salvation in other NT documents).  Yet the saying is rejected by the Jesus Seminar since it is too theological for their Jesus to say.

Is it likely that the biblical writers passed along information accurately, or were they inclined to “make things up” in order to present Jesus in a better light? Based on documents that are clearly later “fanciful” creations of Christians (such as the Infancy Gospel of James), the Gospels are sober-minded and historical treatments of the events of Jesus’ life. Unless one is inclined to some sort of conspiracy theory, Luke’s claim to be writing an ““accurate account” of the life of Jesus seems to mean that he thought his story was “what happened.”

I suppose that someone could say this is a circular argument since Jesus does miracles which could be described as “fanciful.” But the miracles found in the gospels are all signs of the messianic age drawn from the Hebrew Bible. That the Messiah would heal the sick and even raise the dead makes perfect sense after reading Isaiah 61 or Ezekiel 37. Even the Feeding of the 5000 (a miracle recorded in all four gospels) is an allusion to Israel’s wilderness experience. Jesus declares he is the good shepherd who provides food for true Israel in the wilderness. The reason for the miracles is drawn from the Hebrew Bible, not Greco-Roman myth. Jesus would look quite different if Luke (or anyone) were trying to write the Jesus story to imply “Jesus is like Apollo.”

I find many of the miracles in the post-biblical Gospels less grounded in the Hebrew Bible, reflecting a later, Greco-Roman sense of the miraculous.  To me, that is a hint they were created by later writers and ought to be deemed as legend. In contrast, the miracles of Jesus are the sorts of things one would have expected from the Messiah after reading the Hebrew Bible.

Obviously there is more to this, but I think that the writers of the New Testament Gospels were interested in telling the story of Jesus accurately, but they were also interested in explaining what happened theologically.  The combination of those two ideas are what bothers some scholars.  A “theological document” does not necessarily mean a “historically inaccurate document.”