Tuesday, June 07, 2011

on the hermeneutics of authenticity

In a 2009 article in The Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, I argued that one of the [many] problems facing the criteriological approach to identifying authentic sayings of the historical Jesus in the Gospels involves the hermeneutical decisions that precede such identifications. In other (hopefully simpler) words, when NT scholars judge a particular logion an authentic saying of Jesus (or, more typically, when they reject a saying as inauthentic), they do so on the basis of a particular interpretation of the saying in question. The argument looks something like this:
  • A particular verse claims that Jesus said x.
  • X means interpretation-of-x.
  • Jesus could not have ever said and/or meant interpretation-of-x.
  • Therefore, x is inauthentic.
The argument to the contrary proceeds along similar lines:
  • A particular verse claims that Jesus said y.
  • Y means interpretation-of-y.
  • No one other than Jesus could have ever said and/or meant interpretation-of-y.
  • Therefore, y is authentic.
The following two quotes from my article are especially appropriate here:
Some criteria, however, have an exegetical function that has gone unremarked in a number of studies. That is, a given logion’s meaning shifts under the weight of our assessment that it differs from extant Jewish and Christian traditions. As an example, James Crossley has challenged a common interpretation of Mt. 8.22‖Lk. 9.60 (‘Leave the dead to bury their own dead’) in which Jesus ‘was prepared to override biblical law and common piety concerning the burial of dead parents’. This passage’s ‘dissimilarity’ from previous and subsequent teachings, on discipleship or otherwise, has earned a favourable assessment among a broad cross-section of critics. Crossley, however, doubts that this passage portrays Jesus as being ‘prepared to say that following him superseded the Torah’ and ‘therefore prepared to challenge the adequacy of the “Mosaic dispensation”’. Whether or not we find Crossley’s reinterpretation of Mt. 8.22‖Lk. 9.60 persuasive, we should note that his criticism pertains to the interpretation of this logion as dissimilar from its religio-cultural milieu and not its authenticity. In this case, the criterion of dissimilarity seems to have motivated an interpretation of this logion that the text itself does not require. (164–65)

And a little later on:
As always, we deal here with probabilities rather than certainties, and therefore a more provisional use of the criteria is warranted rather than the flat declaration ‘authentic’ or ‘inauthentic’. When we pose the question of ‘dissimilarity’, for example, we ought to ask what it means for the interpretation of, say, Lk. 4.25-27 if we posit its origin in Luke’s redaction/creation of Jesus tradition to frame the programme of Luke–Acts, on the one hand, or in the proclamation of Jesus, on the other. The assessment of ‘inauthentic’ too often presupposes a particular interpretation of the tradition being assessed. The question of ‘dissimilarity’ from later Christian theology requires us to note that the traditions to which Jesus refers in Lk. 4.25-27 are involved in political polemic against Israel, but this polemic, as Luke presents it, originates from and remains within Israel. On what basis can we presume, a priori, that Jesus as a Jew could not have levelled theological, social, or political criticism against his own ethnos? That Luke’s programme was overtly concerned with the extension of God’s blessing to the gentiles is, therefore, less relevant to the question of Lk. 4.25-27’s authenticity than to this text’s significance in its current context. (166)

As so often within NT scholarship, this point is not new. D. G. A. Calvert, in an article published in 1972, makes exactly the same observation with respect to the criterion that states, "A saying is authentic if it contains elements that could not be from the Church":
The weakness that [Dennis] Nineham reveals in this pillar argument is that whether we regard a saying as impossible of invention by the Church depends entirely on the interpretation we give to the saying. ("An Examination of the Criteria for Distinguishing the Authentic Words of Jesus," NTS 18 [1972], 216)

Calvert's article was published five years before I was born, and yet historians of Jesus as diverse as E. P. Sanders and the Jesus Seminar continue to ignore the hermeneutical assumptions underlying their employment of the criteria to authenticate sayings purportedly spoken by Jesus. We should be able to do better than this.


Anonymous said...

It seems that what you are finding is that there simply is no historical data about a jesus character. It has even gotten to the point where people are creating really dopey speculative ideas. None of these are demonstrable. So we are left with accepting that we simply do not have any historical data about any jesus character.

Cheers! RichGriese.NET

Chris Keith said...

Rich, I'm not entirely sure you've understood what Dr. Rodriquez has said here.

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