Saturday, September 24, 2005

Thinking authentically (follow up)

Over on Hermeneutica Edmund Fearon just posted on the criteria of authenticity, which is of course similar to my previous post. I think it's really interesting to think about the early Christians' (and particularly the evangelists') use of the criteria. Obviously, it is doubtful that, say, Matthew examined the traditions at his disposal, asking, 'Is this dissimilar?' or 'Is this multiply attested?' But, as Edmund suggests, first-century Christians may (must?) have been in a better position to verify traditions about Jesus' sayings and deeds than we are.

But I think this impinges on another issue: the rhetoric of critical historiography in Jesus research. It seems, in some circles at least, that being a critical (= good) historian of Jesus requires us to judge some traditions about Jesus 'inauthentic'. Not that there is one tradition that must be considered inauthentic, but that a good scholar will think at least one tradition to give false information about Jesus. Anyone who doesn't is 'credulous' or 'uncritical' (= bad). But this seems, to me, as weak a position as the fundamentalist one that requires that we automatically, and beforehand, adjudge every tradition authentic.

Rather, it must surely be better (and more scholarly) to reserve judgement until after analysis. Relatedly, that analysis must not be solely focussed on the Jesus tradition, but also upon our own status as historians. What it means, in other words, for us to find a tradition authentic or inauthentic says something about both the tradition in question and the status of critical historical inquiry in the twenty-first century, and this latter aspect of our work too easily escapes attention.

In the end I suspect I'm preaching to the choir. Most of us are at least somewhat aware of the complexity of the issues concerning reconstructing Jesus and of the difficult issues invovled in doing history today. But, if only for my benefit, it would be good to name the subtle pressure to be 'critical' (= unbelieving), and in so doing to start coming out from beneath it. But I hope this only helps me to be a more sensitive, careful, even 'critical' (= questioning) student of the early Christians and their traditions.


metalepsis said...

Welcome Raf and I look forward to hearing what you have to say on your blog. Can't wait to see you at SBL, give our love to Andrea and little Raffy jr.

Michael F. Bird said...

1. I know the Princess Bride well and can quote portions of it at length.
2. On "authenticity", scholars keep using that word but "I do not think it means what you think it means". [Change authenticity in "inconceivable" and it will make sense as PB quote].
3. I don't know which James will find more offensive: being called Dooku or Humperdink?

Michael F. Bird said...

4. I like what Witherington calls "justification by doubt" i.e. the view that one's scholarly acumen is determined by one's ability to plead agnosticism or skepticism on anything and everything. We should avoid this in HJ studies.

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