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.