Sunday, May 07, 2006

Philosophical Issues and Methodology in Jesus Research (Part 4)

(Be sure to read previous parts of this essay: 1, 2, 3.)

2.2. The Criterion of Discontinuity
This criterion is closely connected with the criterion of embarrassment. Meier describes this criterion as dealing with “words or deeds of Jesus that cannot be derived either from Judaism at the time of Jesus or from the early Church after him.”[1] This criterion was originally lauded by Norman Perrin: “Sayings and parables may be accepted as authentic if they can be shown to be dissimilar to characteristic emphases of both ancient Judaism and early Christianity.”[2] An example of a passage authenticated on these grounds is Jesus’ rejection of oaths (Mark 2:18-22). However, Meier is quick to mention the many problems with this standard.

First of all, it assumes a complete knowledge of first-century Judaism, which, clearly, we do not possess.[3] Against this line of attack Meier argues that while our knowledge of the Second Temple period is incomplete, much is known. Since it is impossible to ever claim an entirely comprehensive view, the best recourse is for scholarship to forge ahead, recognizing that future adjustments may eventually be required.[4]

Another protest that is often raised is that by emphasizing Jesus’ discontinuity, Jesus is divorced from the “Judaism that influenced him and from the Church that he influenced.”[5] If Jesus were so radically different from his Jewish historical and cultural context he would have been completely unintelligible. Meier concludes that while this method is indeed useful, one must be careful not to think that it will necessarily reveal the central themes are the characteristic aspects of Jesus’ teaching. Balancing the use of this criterion with the other principles of authentication is especially necessary.[6]

Finally, Meier states that one should not describe the results of this approach as providing “unique” elements of Jesus’ teaching and ministry. This is partly due to our limited knowledge of first-century Judaism.[7] The use of this method should therefore be described in a more modest way, as highlighting what was “strikingly characteristic” or “unusual” about Jesus.[8] Instead of asserting that any particular story of Jesus reveals precisely what Jesus did, we should more carefully state that the Gospels reveal “the sort of things Jesus did.”[9]

It is interesting to note that Meier never returns to address the concern that this criterion neglects the way in which Jesus “influences” the Church. Moreover, it would seem that the use of this criterion involves a certain amount of subjectivity, especially since secondary criteria involve locating Jesus within his Jewish context (“The criterion of Palestinian Environment”)![10] A number of scholars have rejected the use of double dissimilarity, arguing dissimilarity from Christianity is sufficient to establish historicity.[11]

Part 5 continued here...

[1] Meier, A Marginal Jew, 1:171.
[2] Norman Perrin, The New Testament: An Introduction: Proclamation and Parenesis, Myth and History (First edition; New York and Chicago: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974), 281.
[3] This point is argued by Hooker and Meyer. Hooker, “Christology and Methodology,” 480-7; “On Using the Wrong Tool,” 570-81; Meyer, Critical Realism, 136. Also see 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.
[4] Meier, A Marginal Jew, 1:171.
[5] Meier, A Marginal Jew, 1:172.
[6] Meier, A Marginal Jew, 1:172-3.
[7] Meier, A Marginal Jew, 1:174: “Since we are not terribly well informed about popular Jewish-Aramaic religious practices and vocabulary in early 1st-century Galilee, modesty in advancing claims is adviseable.”
[8] Meier, A Marginal Jew, 1:174.
[9] Meier, A Marginal Jew, 1:174.
[10] Meier, A Marginal Jew, 1:180.
[11] Ben. F. Meyer, The Aims of Jesus (London: SCM, 1979) 86: ““The requirement of simultaneous discontinuity with Judaism and the post-paschal church error 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.” Also see Dale Allison, Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 52-3; Brant James Pitre, The Historical Jesus, The Great Tribulation and the End of Exile: Restoration Eschatology and the Origin of the Atonement (Dissertation; Indiana, Notre Dame University, 2004), 26.

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