Baker Academic

Friday, July 5, 2013

Research Award Essay—Chris Keith

Anthony was kind enough to congratulate me a while ago on winning a research award here at St Mary’s University College for my essay, “The Indebtedness of the Criteria Approach to Form Criticism and Recent Attempts to Rehabilitate the Search for an Authentic Jesus.”  This essay is my contribution to my and Anthony’s co-edited Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity (T&T Clark, 2012) and extends a line of argumentation that I first forwarded in an article (Chris Keith, “Memory and Authenticity: Jesus Tradition and What Really Happened,” Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 102.2 [2011]: 155–77).  T&T Clark, great folks that they are, have agreed to let me accept an invitation to put a slightly revised version of this essay on the Bible and Interpretation website.  I’m working toward that and will post here once it’s live.  In the meantime, I include the abstract of the essay that I submitted for the award competition below.

‘The Indebtedness of the Criteria Approach to Form Criticism and Recent Attempts to Rehabilitate the Search for an Authentic Jesus’ is primarily concerned with the usage of so-called criteria of authenticity in historical Jesus studies.  Although certain aspects of their logical framework date significantly earlier, scholars developed these criteria in earnest in the 1950s and 1960s.  Since then, they became standard features in historical Jesus studies, regarded widely as means by which scholars can separate the historical Jesus from early Christian interpretation of his life in the canonical Gospels.  This essay argues that the criteria of authenticity have not worked and cannot work as a historiographical method because they are essentially rooted in the historical positivism of modernity.  It has three main arguments.  First, it argues that the criteria of authenticity in historical Jesus research are, in reality, a 20th-century methodology known as form criticism, which New Testament studies abandoned decades ago.  Second, it argues that more recent developments in orality studies and memory studies demonstrate the impossibility of attaining “authentic” Jesus tradition, stripped of interpretation, which is the goal of the criteria of authenticity.  Attaining this goal is impossible because the past is always packaged in interpretive frameworks, whether for the individual or community.  Third, it argues that more recent attempts to integrate the criteria of authenticity into postmodern historiographical paradigms have not yet come to grips with the degree to which the criteria are incompatible with those paradigms as a result of their historical-positivist foundation.  Overall, I argue that historical Jesus scholars must abandon the criteria of authenticity since they seek an academic unicorn—uninterpreted past reality.  I propose that this frees scholars to work with the interpretive categories of the sources rather than in spite of them.’


  1. Chris, I've been looking for a good avenue to raise with you some questions about your chapter in "Jesus, Criteria ..." and also the chapter 2 in your terrific "Jesus Literacy". So ...

    You argue that "the entire enterprise of criteria of authenticity is dependent on form criticism." Here is how I understand the dependency, paraphrasing arguments from your book:

    1. Form criticism was out to discover the pre-literary history of the Jesus tradition, which was presumed (probably incorrectly) to be in early Palestinian non-Hellenistic Christian communities, and in oral non-narrativized form.

    2. According to form criticism, the gospels represent later Christian interpretation of the earlier tradition. But the form critics thought it was possible to extract the earlier Jesus tradition preserved in the gospels (or at least, in the synoptic gospels) from the later interpretive work of the Gospel authors.

    3. New Testament scholarship has largely abandoned form criticism.

    4. One technique used by the form critics was criteria of authenticity.

    Granted, I’ve simplified your argument. But from the above, I see two problems. First, the fact that form criticism is seen as a failure does not impugn every technique used by the form critics. If a suspension bridge collapses in a strong wind, we don’t abandon every tool (hammer, screwdriver) used to build the bridge. We'd only abandon those tools that themselves failed. In other words, we'd evaluate the tools separately from the bridge. It is not clear from your argument that the form critics' failure was caused by their using authenticity criteria as a tool.

    The second problem is a bit more complicated to explain. Let’s say we’re talking about three things in theory: (a) things Jesus said and did, (b) the pre-literary Jesus tradition of the earliest Christians and (c) the Jesus tradition in the gospels. We might say that the form critics are trying to move from (c) to (b), and that modern historians of a certain bent are trying to move from (c) to (a). I think your argument is that the form critics and the modern historians have something wrong in common in the way they try to move from (c). But the move from (c) to (b) is different than the move from (c) to (a). The former move assumes that it’s possible to recover an earlier tradition from a later tradition, with nothing in hand except the later tradition. That’s a neat trick! But the latter move is, traditionally, what historians do: they read source material critically, employing historiographical techniques, in an effort to discern what is and is not true historically. I don’t think we can assume that the latter move is suspect just because the former has failed.

    Ultimately, I worry that your argument here is something like intellectual guilt by association, the association being with form criticism: you are condemning the criteria of authenticity because of the company they kept!

    Rest assured, I understand your criticism of the criteria, apart from their association with form criticism. I just don't see what form criticism has to do with it. But I’m probably missing something. Right?

  2. Larry, I'm out of town and can't respond in full, but you might want t have a closer read. That's not precisely my argument and I even say some of the things you've raised here.

  3. Once again with limited Internet access, the criteria are direct outgrowths of form criticism as a method, and are dependent on a particular aspect of form criticism that is not just misguided but impossible. It's not guilt by association. It's impossibility by direct dependence. That doesn't imply that all of form criticism is wrong. I don't think that.

    1. Well ... OK. I'll simply classify this among the many things that others understand and I don't ... like quantum mechanics, and the international appeal of soccer, and relish in tuna fish salad.