Monday, September 08, 2008

The Criterion of Dissimilarity to Christianity in Historical Jesus Research

The criterion of dissimilarity from Christianity (CDC)[1] is frought with similar difficulties as the criterion of dissimilarity from Judaism (CDJ).[2] The criterion seeks to distinguish the authentic Jesus material from that originating later from the early Church by highlighting material dissimilar to Christianity.[3] Closely related to this tool is the criterion of embarrassment.[4]

In the first place, these tools suffer from one of the problems the CDJ faces: we do not possess a complete knowledge of early Christianity thus making it impossible to really render a sure judgment that a particular idea or teaching is dissimilar to Christian belief.[5]

Moreover, the CDC seems undermined by one of the very form-critical presuppositions on which it operates, namely, the assumed creative capacity of the early Church. Specifically, form-critics had postulated that the early Christians accepted the words spoken by Christian prophets as coming from the Risen Lord. Yet, in addition to the fact that there is no real evidence to support this assertion,[6] there is also no reason to assume that such figures could not have spoken in ways dissimilar to Judaism and/or Christianity themselves.[7] Dissimilarity, therefore, offers little assurance of authenticity.

Another protest often raised is that the criteria highlighting Jesus’ discontinuity emphasizes what was distinctive about him at the expense of what was characteristic about his message. Morna Hooker uses the following analogy:

“As an example, we might consider three typical speeches by three political leaders at election time; if we were to eliminate what was common to all three, how much would be left of any one speech? Probably very little! The result might give us what was distinctive of a party in the sense of what its members believe and members of other parties do not, but it would certainly not be representative of the policy of the party.”
Hooker goes on to state:

“This [problem], of course, recovnized by those who use the method, and accepted as a drawback. It is, however, a very serious drawback indeed, for to take the remaining material as the basis of our reconstruction will inevitably lead to serious distortion… to exclude details from our picture of Jesus may lead to distortion as serious as (or worse than) that which comes if we include too much.” [8]
In other words, such an approach may well recognize what was idiosyncratic about Jesus but such elements may very well have only been peripheral to his message.[9] These criteria thus run the risk of producing a seriously flawed portrait of Jesus.[10]

Furthermore, one of the most problems associated with the CDC and the criterion of embarrassment is that they leave no way to account for how Jesus influenced the community that followed him. Steven Bryan writes:

“[I]f double dissimilarity remains useful for its ability to indicate the discontinuities between Jesus and both Judaism and Christianity, it is singularly unhelpful in explaining why Jesus, whatever his own intentions, came to be a transitional figure between Judaism and Christianity. It may be anachronistic to think of Jesus as the ‘founder of Christianity’, but Christianity must in some sense be seen as part of his effective history. The crucial question, then, is how to understand Jesus as one who operated within the ‘constraints’ of Judaism and yet generated a movement which soon could no longer be accommodated within Judaism.” [11]
Likewise, Marianne Meye Thompson writes: “…one should expect to find discernible lines of continuity from Jesus to the church. Indeed, it is strange to have gotten to a place in New Testament studies where such continuity is assumed to be the exception, rather than the norm.”[12]

Thus, such criteria necessarily eliminate elements of the Jesus tradition that would have been important to the early Church―the very elements which the early believers would have been most likely to preserve! Indeed, it is impossible to imagine that the Gospels only preserved material dissimilar or embarrassing to the early Church![13] Thus, such criteria may be less about historical rigor than about codifying a fundamental presupposition carried over from the work of the earlier rationalists, namely, that the Christian Church somehow distorted Jesus’ true message.[14] Moroever, since this criterion defines Jesus only by those aspects of his teachings which were not continued by Christianity, his significance and impact as a historical figure is greatly diminished.

NOTES
[1] The criterion has also been known as “double dissimilarity,” that is, dissimilarity from both Judaism and Christianity. Some, recognizing the importance of Jesus’ Jewishness have argued that the criterion of dissimiliarty should be used only in respect to Christianity. See Ben F. Meyer, Aims of the Jesus, 86: “It has often been observed that Judaism in general is a possible source for the Jesus tradition. What has not been observed, however, is that the requirement of simultaneous discontinuity with Judaism and the post-paschal church errs by excess. That the community should gratuitously adopt from Judaism elements in discontinuity with its own concerns, practices, and tendencies simply does not make sense. Discontinuity with the post-paschal church is sufficient by itself to establish historicity.” More recently the Meyer’s approach has been supported by Dale Allison [Jesus of Nazareth, 52] and Tom Holmén [“Doubts About Double Dissimilarity,” 47-80], who states, “Though masterly argued and substantial in meaning, Meyer’s observation has so far largely escaped the notice of biblical scholarship” (51). In addition, see Pitre, Jesus, the Tribulation, and the End of Exile, 26-27.
[2] See, for example, Hooker, “Christology and Methodology,” 482: “[I]f our knowledge of Judaism is only partial, so, too, is our knowledge of early Christian belief, and here, too, we must tread with caution. The tradition-historian is the first to recognize that the material as we have it today in the New Testament represents only part of the picture; there may have been other beliefs about Jesus and Christological statements which are not now represented in our canonical material. It could be that if we knew the whole truth about Judaism and the early Church, our small quantity of ‘distinctive’ teaching would wither away altogether.” See also Meyer, Critical Realism, 136; E. Earle Ellis, “Gospels Criticism: A Perspective on the State of the Art,” in Das Evangelium und die Evangelien (WUNT 28; ed. P. Stuhlmacher; Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1983), 31.
[3] Of course, this ties into larger form-critical models discussed in previous posts.
[4] Indeed, some see embarrassment as another form of dissimilarity from Christianity. See Brian Han Gregg, The Historical Jesus and the Final Judgment Sayings in Q (WUNT 207; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006), 30; Polklow, “Method and Criteria,” 341; Holmén, “Doubts About Double Dissimilarity,” 76; Porter, Criteria for Authenticy in Historical-Jesus Research, 110; Craig A. Evans, “The New Quest for Jesus and the New Research on the Dead Sea Scrolls,” in Jesus, Mark and Q (ed. M. Labahn and A. Schmidt; London: T & T Clark, 2001), 165.
[5] See Calvert [“An Examination of the Criteria for Distinguishing the Authentic Words of Jesus,” 214] who thinks that this problem is greater in the case of dissimilarity from Christianity: “There is more difficulty attached to this criterion than to [dissimilarity from Judaism]. It is possible to establish the Jewish thought of the time of Jesus more easily than it is possible to build up a picture of the post-Easter thought of the Church.”
[6] See the previous posts on Christian Prophecy and the transmission of the Jesus tradition.
[7] See Hooker, “Using the Wrong Tool,” 576: “The method presupposes that much of the gospel material is due to the creative activity of the early Christian community; inspired prophets spoke to the community in the name of the Risen Lord. But did not those same inspired prohets sometimes utter sayings which have no known parallel in contemporary Judaism and the early Church? If individuals in the Christian community were as creative as is supposed, then presumably some of them at times spoke―as Jesus had done―in ‘distinctive’ ways. So perhaps in the small ‘hard core’ of sayings which this method attributes to Jesus, we may again have included too much!” In addition, see the comments by David Aune, Prophecy in Early Christianity and the Ancient Mediterranean World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983): 241.
[8] See Hooker, “Christology and Methodology,” 481: “Use of the principle of dissimilarity, it is claimed, gives us what is distinctive in the teaching of Jesus. But the Enlgih word ‘distinctive’ can have two sense―it can mean ‘unique’ (what makes it distinct from other things, the German verschieden), or it can mean ‘characteristic’ (the German bezeichnend). In what sense it it being used here? Clearly the method is designed to give us the former―but what we really want is the latter; and the two are by no means necessarily the same.”
[9] Meier writes, “…while the criterion of discontinuity is useful, we must guard against the presupposition that it will automatically give us what was central to or at least fairly representative of Jesus’ teachings. By focusing narrowly upon what may have been Jesus’ ‘idiosyncrasies,’ it is always in danger of highlighting what was striking but possibly peripheral in his message” (A Marginal Jew, 1:173). See also Borg [Conflict, Holiness, and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus, 38] writes, “There is no assurance that that which is most distinctive (which is what the criterion unearths) is also most characteristic (which is what historical inquiry seeks). It may simply be that which is most eccentric.”
[10] See, e.g., Hooker, “Using the Wrong Tool,” 574: “As an example, we might consider three typical speeches by three political leaders at election time; if we were to eliminate what was common to all three, how much would be left of any one speech? Probably very little! The result might give us what was distinctive of a party in the sense of what its members believe and members of other parties do not, but it would certainly not be representative of the policy of the party.” Hooker goes on to state: “This [problem], of course, recovnized by those who use the method, and accepted as a drawback. It is, however, a very serious drawback indeed, for to take the remaining material as the basis of our reconstruction will inetvitably lead to serious distortion… to exclude details from our picture of Jesus may lead to distortion as serious as (or worse than) that which comes if we include too much.” In addition, see Longnecker, “Literary Criteria in Life of Jesus Research,” 223: “The criterion of dissimilarity provides us with what was distinctive in the proclamation of Jesus, but only in the sense of what was ‘unique’ and not at all of what was ‘characteristic’―which, ultimately, is what we really want to know from our historical study and why the various literary criteria were originally formulated.” Furthermore, see Harry W. M. Rietz, “Reflections on Jesus’ Eschatology in Light of Qumran,” in Jesus and Archeology (ed. J. H. Charlesworth; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 188-9; Stein, “The ‘Criteria’ for Authenticity,” 243-4.
[11] See Steven M. Bryan, Jesus and Israel’s Traditions of Judgement and Restoration, 9. “…one should expect to find discernible lines of continuity from Jesus to the church. Indeed, it is strange to have gotten to a place in New Testament studies where such continuity is assumed to be the exception, rather than the norm.” Likewise, see Stuhlmacher, “Gospel Criticism,” 31: “The criterion of dissimilarity is at first blush suggestive, but upon examination it proves to be a weak reed. For it assumes, one the one hand, that a Gospel traditioner or a Christian prophetic oracle could not have used a unique expression, and, on the other hand, that Jesus would not have used the idiom found in his own society or among his own followers.”
[12] Marianne Meye Thompson, The Promise of the Father: Jesus and God in the New Testament (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000) 62. In addition, see Stuhlmacher, “Gospel Criticism,” 31: “The criterion of dissimilarity is at first blush suggestive, but upon examination it proves to be a weak reed. For it assumes, one the one hand, that a Gospel traditioner or a Christian prophetic oracle could not have used a unique expression, and, on the other hand, that Jesus would not have used the idiom found in his own society or among his own followers.”
[13] William P. Alston, “Historical Criticism of the Synoptic Gospels,” in Behind the Text: History and Biblical Interpretation (SHS 4; ed. C. Bartholomew, C. S. Evans, M. Healy, and M. Rae; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 163: “…we must not forget that the Christian church stemmed, and self-consciously so, from the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Hence it would be unreasonable in the extreme to suppose that no emphases, attitudes, beliefs and so on of the early church are to be found in the earthly ministry of Jesus. Indeed, a picture of the historical Jesus from which all such features are excised would, just by that fact, be under suspicion.”
[14] See the discussion in Theissen and Winter, The Plausible Jesus, especially, 40, in which the influence of Reimarus on the development of the approach is discussed. Furthermore, see the comments in Catchpole, “Tradition History,” in 175, who sums up the matter well when he says: “…the gospels themselves belong to the living experience of the communities, and it is highly doubtful whether anything at all within them can fail to represent the standpoint of some one community. As a consequence, the dissimilarity principle should logically produce one and only one result. That is, concerning the historical Jesus we know absolteuty nothing.” In addition, see Evans, “Authenticity Criteria in Life of Jesus Research,” 15; Hooker, “On Using the Wrong Tool,” 579-580.

2 comments:

Ranger said...

"Thus, such criteria may be less about historical rigor than about codifying a fundamental presupposition carried over from the work of the earlier rationalists, namely, that the Christian Church somehow distorted Jesus’ true message."

That's a great point. Though, it does seem that in the last ten years or so this presupposition is softening among scholars.

BTW, I must have missed it when reading these articles, but is this series for an article, paper, book or simply for those of us who read the blog?

ordinand said...

Thanks. I have blogged about CDJ and CDC here, http://ordinand.files.wordpress.com/2008/04/chapter-3-criteria-of-dissimilarity2.pdf