Baker Academic

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Form-Critical Dependence of the Criteria of Authenticity - Chris Keith

In my introductory post I noted that, before becoming fascinated with historical Jesus studies, I had been convinced that they were passé.  One aspect of that prior conviction has been important for my subsequent work, especially as it relates to the conference surrounding my and Anthony’s book Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity.

Because of my work at the graduate level with social memory theory (under Tom Thatcher), I believed intuitively that the criteria of authenticity were really just “form criticism in disguise.”  I believed this because of their assumption that the gospel tradition was capable of being fragmented into bits of tradition that either reflected the Sitz im Leben Jesu or the Sitz im Leben der Kirche.  This, in my mind, was not only a false choice but also simply a transferral of the form-critical conviction that the gospel tradition could be broken into bits of tradition that either reflected earliest Palestinian Christianity or later Hellenized Christianity. 

In passing, I made comments to several people at SBL about this, including Rafael Rodríguez and Anthony Le Donne.  They both listened to my statements in the way that you do when someone is claiming something you don’t entirely buy but you also don’t want immediately to shoot down in front of their face because it would be rude—lots of “Hmmm, that’s interesting” with a sip of their drink and no follow-up comment.

My ego undeterred by their polite dismissals, I decided to pursue this and worked it up for a presentation that I gave in Heidelberg in 2011.  It was subsequently published as “Memory and Authenticity: Jesus Tradition and What Really Happened,” in Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 102.2 (2011): 155–77.  In this essay, I argue essentially that, even though we all know we can’t actually access “what really happened,” we are going to try anyway and get as close as possible.  The question itself always has and always will drive the quest for the historical Jesus.  Even if postmodern historiography demonstrates conclusively that there is no uninhibited access to the “actual past” (and it has), publishers will still release thirty books this year on Jesus claiming to do precisely this—and we’ll buy them and read them!  Given this set of circumstances, I argue that the criteria of authenticity are wholly inadequate as a historiographical method because they assume precisely that we can discard the interpretive frameworks of the Jesus tradition, what postmodern historiography and memory studies have shown us is impossible.  And this problem, I argue, is due to the criteria approach’s dependence on form criticism.  I detail where the “criteria approach” (as I call it) borrowed methodologically from form criticism.  Perhaps more importantly, though, I argue that the “memory approach” of those working with social memory theory holds more promise precisely because it includes accounting for the interpretive frameworks in the historiographical task (rather than dismissing them).

My argument that the criteria are broken at a base, foundational level, has served as an implicit basis for Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity, although each contributor to that volume develops his or her own arguments and do not necessarily agree with, or even mention, me (though some do).  In my contribution to the volume, I detail further where the developers of the criteria of authenticity explicitly acknowledge their dependence on form criticism, and the implications of this state of affairs for more recent attempts to rehabilitate the criteria.   

The type of ground-clearing effort that this book/conference represents is one reason that I’m excited for the future of Jesus studies.


  1. What Chris is trying to say (but cannot bring himself to say) is that historical positivism is rampant in historical Jesus study. The root of the problem is not the "criteria approach" as he calls it.

    We inherited the criteria from an era that wanted to turn history into science and failed. So much of what the (later) Form Critics passed onto us contains ghosts of Xmas past, so to speak. It should be said, however, that the Form Critics gave us many useful categories. As always, such categories must be nuanced. My point is that the simple guilt-by-association with the Form Critics argument isn't quite as damning to me as it might be to others.

    Finally, the phrase "what really happened" is also a ghost left to us by historical positivism. But Chris seems quite happy to use this paleonym. More on this old chestnut coming soon.


  2. Readers should know that Anthony and I have gone round and round about this in our offices prior to our departures from our previous employer. And along those lines, let me say that what I was trying to say is precisely what I did say. I think Anthony's entirely right about the ghost of historical positivism, but my arguments are not that it's guilt by association, but direct dependence on a method that was never equipped to make historical statements in the first place. This, of course, is a point that Morna Hooker made years ago. And it goes without saying that the form critics left us much worth keeping.

  3. I realize that this is a blog about historical Jesus studies, but I am interested in how it applies to the local church. Is it too insubstantial to suggest that one can approach the text through the presence of the resurrected Jesus? I realize that prayer is not going to appear on the criteria for a scholarly inquiry, "quest", or otherwise. However, I find that this is the framework where the average person in my congregation can access as a starting point.

  4. Shane, thanks for your comment. The history of historical Jesus studies is filled with ebbs and flows on how to answer your question, with different scholars holding different opinions on how the historical Jesus relates to faith. This much can be said for certain--dealing with the "perspective" of belief in the resurrected Christ is part of the historical task whether or not one is a believer him- or herself, for the simple reason that our earliest sources for Jesus' life are written from that perspective. Of course, what one does with that perspective is another issue. I think most contemporary historical Jesus scholars would affirm that participation in the discussion neither requires nor precludes a faith perspective. Those watching on the sidelines sometimes have a different opinion, though. It'd be interesting to hear some other opinions on this.

  5. Chris,

    I haven't yet delved into Dunn's 'Jesus Remembered', but this sounds a bit like arguments I have heard him make in talks about the book. Does your line of thinking intersect with his as concerns emphasizing the fact that the Jesus was have is the Jesus remembered by his followers? Do you rely on Dunn at all?

    1. Brian,
      I don't rely upon Dunn, although I do mention his approach. My historiographical approach is almost entirely based on social memory theory, and Dunn's been hesitant about that approach. There are common emphases, though, and I think he's entirely right about the Jesus we have being the Jesus remembered.

  6. Shane,
    Your question really deserves more than a single thread as it is such an important topic. I would want to add three quick points.

    (1) It is inevitable that Christians with Christological interests study Jesus. Moreover, it is impossible for these folks to check their faith(s) at the door on the way to the historiographical round table, nor should they be asked to do so. But there is a very long spectrum between pre-scripted theological answers and relative objectivity. I think that John P Meier does a good job of arguing that being closer to relative objectivity is better than no objectivity whatsoever. Jon Levenson has made a similar point (although he didn't have Jesus in mind as he made his point).

    (2)It is quite important that people of faith who sit down at the round table discussion about "the historical Jesus" use terminology that does exclude folks of other faiths. To proclaim that the resurrected Jesus has guided one to any particular conclusion really shuts down the conversation. We must find talking points that include rather than exclude. Ask John P Meier, Tom Wright, Howard Marshal, Craig Evans, etc whether they have benefited from the historiographical discussions beyond the "insiders" of the Church - there is no doubt that they have benefited a great deal.

    (3) If I study the Gospels in the presence of the resurrected Jesus and you do the same... and if we come to different portraits of the historical Jesus... would you please ask your Jesus not to punch my Jesus in the face?


  7. correction in point two: "that does NOT exclude folks of other faiths." my apologies.

  8. I fully agree to your opinion of the demise. As you know, I criticized form-critical method from the perspective of "interdirectionality," in my publication, Jesus and Gospel Traditions in Bilingual Context (BZNW 186; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2012). Dealing with the transmission of Jesus tradition and Gospel tradition I criticized that form criticism and redaction criticism (even literary criticism) are based on three unidirectionality criteria such as modal unidirectionality criterion(from oral tradition into written tradition), linguistic unidirectionality criterion(from Aramaic tradition into Greek tradition), and geographical unidirectionality criterion(from Judaeo-Palestinian tradition into Hellenistic tradition). And it has been said that the three criteria are based on temporal criterion that earlier tradition is more original than later tradition. I proposed interdirectionality hypothesis that the former three traditions are not always earlier than the three latter traditions and that the earlier tradition is not always more original than later tradition. This means that we cannot use the four criteria in relation to prove authenticity.

  9. Anthony and Chris,

    Thank you for responding. I was curious regarding your initial thoughts about historical Jesus studies, and if this blog will touch on that subject. I am an amateur enthusiast and would like to someday study further, but for now I am working in the local setting.
    I am deeply interested in getting people to question what they believe especially regarding who Jesus was and what it means for our perceptions.
    I am interested in what those outside the church think about Jesus and certainly appreciate their perspective. Thank you, Anthony, for the list of some people to look up. I have read some Evans and Wright. Who doesn't have an ever expanding reading list?
    I like the idea of relative objectivity. I suppose I just never heard the term.
    I look forward to future posts and conversations.
    And, Anthony, I affirm one Lord, faith, and baptism. And from what I understand our Jesus can take a punch.

  10. Chris: a link of the Criteria say, to Form Crit, by way of "Sitz," seems interesting, and usefully integrative. Though by the way, I've always felt there was a sort of inside joke to the Criteria. First there is a sort of sly sarcasim, to suggest that 1) we would regard as valid only those elements that contradicted the Church's expectations, hopes, and biases.

    2) Especially droll in yet another way, is the the Criterion of Embarrassment (& Difference); when they said that when something seems ridiculous and absurd, then it must be true; since no one would make it up. Which is of course another inside joke. If this were true, then only absurdity is true. And absurdity and illogality is true all the time. While logic is useless.

    In all seriousness, I have always felt that the Criteria have always been merely an inside joke; a sort of puzzle and initiation riddle that scholars must pass, before being considered competent. The Criteria are so patently ridiculous, that they could only have been advanced as a sort of inside joke; as a logic test to see who could figure it out.

    You are admitted, only if you smile or laugh out loud.