Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Philosophical Issues and Methodology in Jesus Research (Part 3)

(Read previous parts of this essay: 1, 2)

2. Ongoing Philosophical Presuppositions Behind Quests for Jesus
As we saw in the last section, the consequence of the subjection of faith to critical reason had massive ramifications for Scripture study and Jesus studies. Reimarus’ account of the development of Christianity has become a cornerstone of critical scholarship. The a priori rejection of anything that resonates with traditional Christian faith continues to play a large role in reconstructions of the historical Jesus. The use of methodical doubt and the Enlightenment bias against faith is probably most clearly seen in the use of what has come to be called the “criteria of authenticity.” These criteria owe much to Reimarus’ work.

The most prominent Jesus scholar associated with these principles is probably John P. Meier. While Meier recognizes that there is an inherent subjectivity in studying Jesus, he asserts that the solution to the problem is “to admit honestly one’s own standpoint, to try to exclude its influence in making scholarly judgments by adhering to certain commonly held criteria and to invite the correction of other scholars when one’s vigilance inevitably slips.”[1] Meier’s three volume work on the historical Jesus (A Marginal Jew) is largely built upon five authenticating criteria: embarrassment, dicontinuity, multiple attestation, coherence, and rejection and execution. Since the definition and delineation of these criteria often vary from scholar to scholar I have chosen to focus on Meier’s presentation of them. [2]

2.1. Embarrassment
This criterion is attributed to Ernst Kasemann.[3] This criterion affirms the historical validity of those passages which would “embarrass” the early Church or seem to contradict some tenet of Christian faith. Meier explains:
“The point of the criterion is that the early Church would hardly have gone out of its way to create material that only embarrassed its creator or weakened its position in arguments with opponents. Rather, embarrassing material coming from Jesus would naturally be either suppressed or softened in later stages of the Gospel tradition, and often such progressive suppression or softening can be traced through the Four Gospels.”[4]
This criterion ought to be applied not only to the sayings of Jesus but also his actions.[5]

One example of an “embarrassing” episode is Jesus’ baptism.[6] Since John’s baptism was intended for the forgiveness of sins (cf. Mark 1:4) Jesus’ baptism seems to conflict with the belief of the early Church that Jesus was sinless (cf. 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15). As the gospel tradition developed, it seems that this event progressed from explanation to total suppression. Meier’s argument goes as follows. In Mark no theological explanation is given for Jesus’ need for baptism. Matthew, in contrast, does provide such a justification (“it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness,” Matt 3:15), even mentioning John’s initial protest at Jesus’ request: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matt 3:14). Luke never mentions who baptizes Jesus. The event is never narrated in John.[7]

Another case Meier turns to is Jesus’ assertion that he is ignorant of the precise day and hour of the “end.” The full passage is found in Mark 13:32: “But concerning the day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Meier mentions that later manuscripts of Mark and Matthew drop “nor the Son.” The passage is also absent from Luke and John. In fact, John stresses Jesus’ knowledge of the present and the future and is consistently portrayed as one who is never taken by surprise.[8]

Meier acknowledges certain limitations of this principle and insists that it can only be properly used in relation to the other criteria. In fact, there are few passages that fit neatly into this category. Furthermore, certain passages which at first appear to fit this criterion, upon closer examination have alternate explanations. Jesus’ cry on the cross, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me,” may appear to conflict with Christian beliefs about Jesus’ divinity. However, scholars now recognize that Jesus is citing a psalm that describes the suffering and vindication of a righteous man.[9]

The underlying assumption of this criterion is that the early Christian beliefs stand in tension with Jesus’ teaching. As we saw earlier, this was a fundamental part of Reimarus’ reconstruction. Meier admits that the Gospel tradition is composed not only of a creative element, but also of a conservationist concern as well (which is, obviously, willing to recount events even when they pose problems for Christian theology).[10] However, the underlying assumption in all of this is that the Gospels are mostly the creation of the early Church. Yet, is it not a mistake to suppose that earliest Christian beliefs contradicted the very teachings of Christ—especially given that those who had actually seen and heard Jesus were still alive? Surely it is not unhistorical to suppose that the early Church inherited certain beliefs from Jesus himself. Since this criterion defines Jesus only by those aspects of his teachings which were not continued, his significance and impact as a historical figure is greatly diminished.[11]

Part 4 continued here...

[1] Meier, John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (vol. 1 of The Roots of the Problem and the Person; ABRL Vol. 1; New York, Doubleday, 1991), 6.
[2] Meier lists five “primary” criteria along with four “secondary” ones. Here will limit our focus to the “primary” criteria. Meier states that since he agrees with Ockham that categories ought not be multiplied he has attempted to “distill” the criteria down as much as possible. It should be noted, however, that many other scholars have reduced the criteria down to three. See Gerd Theiben, “Historical Skepticism and the Criteria of Jesus Research or My Attempt” in Scottish Journal of Theology :147-75; M. D. Hooker, “Christology and Methodology,” in New Testament Studies 17 (1970-1): 480-7; M. D. Hooker, “On Using the Wrong Tool,” Theology 75 (1972):570-81; Ben Meyer, Critical Realism and the New Testament (Princeton Theological Monograph Series 17; San Jose: Pickwick, 1989),129-45.
[3] Ernst Kasemann, “The Problem of the Historical Jesus,” Essays on New Testament Themes (SBT 41; London: SCM, 1964), 15-47.
[4] John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (vol. 1 of The Roots of the Problem and the Person; ABRL Vol. 1; New York, Doubleday, 1991), 169.
[5] Meier, A Marginal Jew, 1:187 n 8.
[6] Meier, A Marginal Jew, 1:168-9.
[7] Meier argues that this is because author of the fourth gospel was engaged in an ongoing dispute with latter-day disciples of John who refused to acknowledge Jesus’ messianic claim. Meier, A Marginal Jew, 169.
[8] Meier, A Marginal Jew, 1:169.
[9] Meier, A Marginal Jew, 1:170.
[10] Meier, A Marginal Jew, 1:170.
[11] Mark Allan Powell, Jesus as a Figure in History: How Modern Historians View the Man from Galilee (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1998), 48.

1 comment:

Steven Carr said...

' The event is never narrated in John.'

If the baptism is never narrated in John, how do we know he knew about it?

Is the baptism historical because of the embarrassed silence in John?

If John had mentioned this alleged baptism, would it then be historical because of the criterion of multiple attestation?