Saturday, September 24, 2005

Thinking authentically

In my SBL FORUM essay I try to question what it means when Jesus scholars identify some unit of tradition 'authentic' or 'inauthentic'. James Crossley has responded positively to my essay (cf. here), though he has also expressed concern that 'it seems to me that everything is historically valid in some degree or other'. He asks, 'There are plenty of historical examples where memories are deliberately or accidentally false (historically speaking) so couldn't the same thing being going on somewhere in earliest Christianity'? I think this has the potential to be a very interesting conversation.

In essence, the answer is, 'Yes', but I think James is missing the point (either that, or I am). My critique of the concept of authenticity is not an attempt to prejudge the entire Jesus tradition 'authentic', thereby sneaking in 'authenticity' by the back door. Rather, it seems to me that past and present interact in such a way that so-called 'inauthentic' memories, as well as 'authentic' ones, experience the same kinds of pressures, and it is through these that we can know something about 'the historical Jesus'. In more traditional terms, it may be true that early Christian theologising about Jesus generated traditions about him, but that theologising itself was constrained about what was already known about him. But then how does this affect our understanding of authenticity?

The whole point of authenticity/inauthenticity, as far as I am able to discern it, is to discriminate between those traditional units that accurately report the sayings or actions of the real Jesus from those that originated later, with his followers. Theoretically, we can so discriminate because 'inauthentic' Jesus tradition reflects the theology of early Christians, whereas 'authentic' tradition reflects Jesus' own theology (or, more often, at least does not reflect that of early Christianity). The problem is obvious: 'authenticity' only works if we posit a yawning chasm between the beliefs of Jesus and those of his followers. The more narrow that chasm, the less effective the concept 'authentic', and if, per chance, Jesus' followers actually continued to believe the things he taught before his death, then we are hardly in any position to discriminate between our traditions. As I've said elsewhere (cf. my paper, in .pdf format, here [p. 3]), 'we find ourselves in the somewhat awkward position that our categories "authentic" and "unauthentic" are indiscernible and, therefore, useless.

Here James would say that, for example, either Jesus was raised from the dead or he wasn't, so authenticity remains an analytically useful category. Yes, of course. And my point is not that authenticity is completely useless. But it seems to me that the example of the resurrection, especially, must be decided on other (e.g., philosophical) grounds. Unlike, for example, the question of whether Jesus thought of the kingdom as present or imminent, the question of the historicity of the resurrection is unlikely to be answered by textual analysis and determination of 'authenticity'. If Jesus wasn't raised from the dead, then of course every tradition that says he was or relates what he said or did after his resurrection is inauthentic (but not, ipso facto, those in which Jesus predicts the resurrection). But certainly it isn't very convincing to argue - with whatever level of sophistication - that Jesus' followers believed he had been raised from the dead, so that traditions saying he was have been generated by their theology and not a historical event (the resurrection).

This seems to me to be just the beginning of a discussion, but this post is already getting too long. More later?

1 comment:

eddie said...

Interesting, interesting. Im reading Eugene E. Lemcio, The past of Jesus in the gospels, SNTS 68 (Cambridge: University of Cambridge, 1991), where he argues that the Evangelists produced narratives that distinguished Jesus time from their own in terms of vocabulary and theology. I think he successfully demonstrates that the "kerygma" within the gospels (pre- and post-easter) does not reflect the "kerygma" of the other NT documents (some exceptions with John's gospel). This suggests that we should not presume a 'reading-back-into' on the part of the evangelists. This, too, may cut away at the idea of 'authenticity'.

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