Clarity Within the Background Noise: Can We Get to the Historical Jesus?

This is the last post in a series about the Historical Jesus. The basic idea is to suggest a way forward. How do historians today deal with sources about Jesus? For the last several decades scholars have applied something called “Criteria of authenticity” as a way of answering the methodological challenges historians are faced with when they investigate the life of Jesus. What does it mean to use “Criteria of authenticity”? In a nutshell: They would start with sayings or paragraphs or events from Jesus’ life, and then they would run them through a gauntlet. They would ask questions such as “Is this saying of Jesus or an event from his life tested only in one source (e.g. Mark’s Gospel) or does it have multiple independent attestations? The underlying assumption is that if something has independent multiple attestations then it is something that wasn’t created by any of the writers or the early Church. In other words, it goes back to an earlier time preceding them which ups the odds that this is something that comes from Jesus himself! More about “Criteria of authenticity” see: here!

This is still a standard methodology used by most scholars. Six years ago, I became interested in that subject. I wanted to know what is the best methodological approach historians can take faced with the question of the Historical Jesus. For months I’ve read everything I could get my hands on including a lot of studies on social memory and the psychology of remembering. Eventually, I wrote an article with professor Karlić (Catholic Faculty of Theology) arguing against the standard methodology. I don’t think that the traditional criteria of authenticity can help us a lot. It seems as if they sometimes “catch a big fish”, but most time everything gets through the nets. Moreover, different scholars have come to radically different conclusions about who historical Jesus was – even though they used the same methodology. Obviously, something is wrong with the tools they applied. In a couple of decades, several scholars have tried to come up with an alternative way of think. Although, to be honest: the first scholar to do that was C. H. Dodd who published a book in the 1930s arguing that it is misleading to try to authenticate a particular saying or a particular event from Jesus’ life. So, what should we do? How do we approach this problem? To be completely blunt, this is a really difficult task. How do you prove or demonstrate that somebody who left nothing in writing actually uttered this or that sentence which is attributed to him in books (Gospels) written decades after his death? Could you remember the exact words that your girlfriend/boyfriend/husband/wife told you last Christmas? Could you remember the exact words your mother said to you 20 years ago? What about the words that your grandpa said to your father 40 years ago who then passed those words to your mother 25 years ago who then told you 10 years ago? Would you remember that? I sincerely doubt it.

How Should We Proceede?

C. H. Dodd suggested that we should look at the source material as a whole looking for the themes and motifs that appear all across the sources. I think this is the safest place to start and this was the suggested starting point of our article. So, what does that mean in practice? You may not be able to prove the actual words Jesus uttered about the devil or that this particular exorcism took place. However, if you look at the sources as a whole (e.g. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John + Paul’s epistles!), they seem to remember that Jesus understood his ministry (among other things) as combat with Satan; that he was an exorcist, and that people thought that he was a fairly successful one! I think you can do a lot with this methodological approach that Dale Allison has called “recurrent attestation”. It’s not the multiple attestations of a particular saying or particular event. It’s about the themes and topics that recur in multiple sources in multiple sayings. In those stuff we can find historical Jesus without trying to authenticate every single saying.

I want to come back to the question in the title of this post: Can we get to the Historical Jesus? Actually, I think that the question itself is misleading (even though it’s catchy!) because it puts agendas of evangelists on one side, and then Jesus on the other side. I tink one has to be really cautious here. Jesus of Nazareth was a teacher with dozens of people who followed him around for months – if not years. From that group several of them (e.g. Peter, and John) emerged as the leaders of the first Christian movement after Jesus’ death. These people must have had some beliefs they got from Jesus. They certainly didn’t just create whole story about Jesus ex nihilo. If these people didn’t have theological agendas, if the evangelists didn’t have theological agendas; if they couldn’t have used Jesus for their own theology and their own ideology to promote what they wanted and what they believed in, they would certainly forgotten him! It’s precisely their theology or ideology (in a broader sense), their religious beliefs that made memories of him useful. Moreover, it’s their memories that to some extent form their theology. Let me give you an example of what I have in mind here. If you look at the Gospel of Matthew, it is highly probable that the narrative about Jesus have a strongly developed “Moses typology”. For example, when Jesus was born, there was an evil king on the throne. What does he (Herod the Great) do? He kills Jewish infants! In spite of that, the savior of the Jewish people is miraculously born, and at one point he goes down into Egypt with his family. Upon returning to Palestine, he goes down into the water (baptism). Afterwards, he goes into the desert and stays there for 40 days where he’s tempted by idolatry and by hunger and then he goes up on the mountain and then he gives his commandments and he come down. The narrative structure of the Gospel is in line to the Moses stories. The author occasionally even steals phrases from Exodus (Old Testament) and puts them in his narrative about Jesus’ life. So, it is obvious that “Matthew” thinks Jesus is like Moses and that somehow, he’s replaying the Exodus. It must be therefore that “Matthew” thinks Jesus is the prophet like Moses. On the basis of all of this, one can say “that’s Matthew and his theology, he is reformatting the tradition; arranging things so that everything about Jesus can fit in his Moses typology”. However, if you look at the sources very carefully you can see that Jesus himself likely thought he was the prophet like Moses. In sources other than the Gospel of Matthew, he casts out demons by the finger of God which is what Moses does. Furthermore, Jesus in other Gospels feeds a big crowd in the wilderness, he speaks about the blood of covenant which is a phrase taken straight out of Exodus where it is related explicitly to Moses. In other words, I think if you read sources carefully, Jesus himself thinks somehow that he is like Moses or that he is in a “new Exodus” or that he is a Messiah within the Moses typology. The later agenda actually grows out of what I think is there in the beginning and what brings us real close to the historical Jesus.

This is just one example of the new methodological approach to the Historical Jesus. So, there are really important lines of continuity here which give me some confidence that there is a lot of social (collective) memory and that people aren’t just making all these things about Jesus out of thin air. They are also remembering some things about Jesus, his life and his deeds. Do they every single time report the exact words of Jesus? I doubt it. Nevertheless, the gist of his message is still available to historians who are ready to look beyond the crude methodology of the so-called Criteria of authenticity.

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