Wednesday, February 29, 2012

John Meier on Evaluating the Gospels for What's Historical

In my write-up today on volume 1 of John Meier's A Marginal Jew, I will talk about Meier's analysis of scholarly criteria for determining what in the Gospels is historical.

1. Meier discusses what he calls "PRIMARY CRITERIA".

a. Criterion of Embarrassment

According to this criterion, what is embarrassing to Jesus was most likely historical, since the early Christians would not have made up anything that put Jesus in an embarrassing light. For instance, Jesus in the Gospel of Mark is baptized by John the Baptist. That early Christians were embarrassed by this is evident from how subsequent Gospels treated this event: Matthew explains why Jesus was baptized (to fulfill all righteousness), Luke does not say who baptized Jesus, and John omits the baptism scene altogether. Meier does not think that this criterion is fool-proof. For example, Jesus in Mark asks God why God has forsaken him. Subsequent Gospels may have been embarrassed by this, for Luke's Jesus instead commends his spirit to the Father, and John's Jesus triumphantly cries out "It is finished." Does that mean that Jesus really asked God why God forsook him? Not necessarily, for Meier can think of a reason that Mark would make this up: to show that Jesus is close enough to God to boldly confront him, and to highlight that Jesus trusts in a God who is silent.

b. The Criterion of Discontinuity

This criterion says that things that Jesus says or does that are discontinuous with his Jewish context and later Christian teaching is most likely historical. The idea may be that the original teachings that are attributed to Jesus had to come from somewhere, so why not Jesus himself? Plus, the early Christians would not attribute to Jesus something that contradicted their own teachings, so it must be authentic to Jesus. Meier has at least three problems with this criterion. First, it detaches Jesus from history, for why should we assume that Jesus did not reflect his first century Jewish context or inspire some of the teachings of early Christianity? Second, the criterion assumes that Christians after Jesus could not have come up with something original, in that it attributes original stuff to Jesus himself. And, third, scholars cannot even agree on the validity of this criterion. E.P. Sanders, for example, says that the historical Jesus most likely did not proclaim all foods clean (Mark 7:15) because that would have been too revolutionary. So, for Sanders, an excessive amount of discontinuity with first century Judaism demonstrates that something is not historical.

c. The Criterion of Multiple Attestation

This says that something appearing in multiple independent sources is historical. Meier's problem here is that "a saying invented early on by a Christian community or prophet [could have] met the needs of the Church so perfectly that it rapidly entered into a number of different strands of tradition" (page 175), meaning that the saying technically has only one attestation and that its appearance in multiple sources does not make it historical. Moreover, Meier notes that scholars have accepted the historicity of things that appear in only one source, such as Jesus calling God "Abba" in Mark 14:36.

d. The Criterion of Coherence

The idea here is that things that cohere with what we know about the historical Jesus are historical. Meier's problem here is that the early Christians could have invented things that cohered with the historical Jesus, and also that the criterion of coherence wrongly precludes paradox and tension.

e. The Criterion of Rejection and Execution

My impression is that this criterion is saying that Jesus had to have offended people (especially powerful people) in order to get killed, and so we should keep that in mind when seeking to reconstruct the historical Jesus, lest our version of Jesus be inoffensive and thus historically implausible. Meier appears to agree with this criterion.

2. Meier also discusses what he calls "SECONDARY (OR DUBIOUS) CRITERIA".

a. The Criterion of Traces of Aramaic

The idea here is that sayings in the Gospels that point to traces of Aramaic----meaning that they can be "easily retroverted from Greek into Aramaic" (page 178)----are most likely authentic to Jesus, who spoke Aramaic. One problem that Meier has with this is that many of the earliest Christians were from Palestine and spoke Aramaic, and so they could have invented sayings that point to Aramaic, meaning they're not necessarily from Jesus himself. Another problem is that a saying that does not resemble Aramaic can still be from Jesus because a translator could have translated the Aramaic saying into elegant Greek rather than being wooden in his translation. The third problem that Meier identifies is that many Greek-speaking Christians were familiar with the Greek of the Septuagint, which had a Semitic flare, and so they could have imitated that. In short, a saying resembling Aramaic does not mean that it came from Jesus, and a saying not resembling Aramaic does not preclude it from originating with Jesus.

b. The Criterion of Palestinian Environment

The idea here is that the sayings that reflect first century Palestine came from Jesus. The problem, according to Meier, is that Christians after the time of the historical Jesus also came from first century Palestine, and so they could have invented the sayings that manifest familiarity with what first century Palestine was like.

c. The Criterion of Vividness of Narration

The idea here is that narratives with "liveliness and concrete details----especially when the details are not relevant to the main point of the story----are sometimes taken to be indicators of an eyewitness report" (page 180). Meier's problem with this is that the vivid oral traditions that came to Mark could have been that way for the purpose of effective storytelling.

d. The Criterion of the Tendencies of the Developing Synoptic Tradition

Meier refers to Rudolph Bultmann, who claimed to identify laws of development in the synoptic tradition: details are made more concrete, proper names are added to the stories, indirect discourse is made into direct quotation, Aramaic words and constructions are eliminated, etc. But Meier says that these laws are far from absolute, and that a tradition could be shortened in the course of its development. (On a related note, against those who argue that the Gospel of Thomas is a first century document because its sayings lack the meaningful contexts that they have in the synoptic Gospels, showing that the Gospel of Thomas came before the synoptics and is not dependent on them, Meier argues that the Gospel of Thomas could have drawn the sayings from the synoptics while not preserving their contexts in order to be esoteric.)

e. The Criterion of Historical Presumption

I don't know to what extent this is a criterion, but essentially it's a disagreement about where the burden of proof lies. Should we treat the Gospels as guilty until proven innocent, or innocent until proven guilty? Should each saying be shown to be historical, or should we accept the saying as historical unless there is reason to believe otherwise? According to Meier, those who stress the decades between Jesus' death and the composition of the Gospels as well as the flexibility of oral tradition go with the former, whereas those who maintain that eyewitnesses guarded the tradition hold to the latter. Meier appears to lean towards the former, but he also acknowledges that there are many cases where it is not clear whether a saying is historical or not.

3. For the primary criteria, Meier supports using more than one in tandem to allow for mutual correction. Regarding the secondary criteria, Meier says that a-c can serve to reinforce what's gleaned through application of the primary criteria, and that d-e of the secondary criteria are useless. Meier then affirms that we are dealing in the realm of probabilities when attempting to reconstruct the historical Jesus, not certitude.

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