Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Philosophical Issues and Methodology in Jesus Research (Part 5)

(Be sure to read Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4 of this essay.)

2.3. Multiple Attestation
This criterion looks at sayings or actions of Jesus “that are attested in more than one independent literary source (e.g., Mark, Q, Paul, John) and/or in more than on literary form or genre (e.g., parable, dispute story, miracle story, prophecy, aphorism).” In other words, the likelihood of the historical reliability of something increases if it is found in more than one source and even more so if it is found in more than one literary context. For example, the phrase “the kingdom of God” is found in virtually every source and in an overwhelming number of literary context: the parables, the beatitudes, miracle stories, etc.

Not only are general themes found in various places, even some precise sayings are widely attested. Jesus’ words over the bread at the Last Supper are found in the synoptic tradition and Paul (cf. Mark 14:22-25; 1 Cor 11:23-26). Likewise, Jesus’ rejection of divorce is found in Mark, Luke and 1 Corinthians. Still also Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the temple is found in a number of places (Mark 13:2; 14:58; John 2:14-22).[1]

Nonetheless, this criterion’s most famous supporters have to recognize its limitations.[2] For one thing, it cannot exclude the possibility that a Christian belief that was “invented by early on” gained wide acceptance. Conversely, the inability to affirm a text on grounds of multiple attestation does not necessarily mean it is unhistorical, since its authenticity may be confirmed on other grounds.[3]

2.4. Coherence
Coherence refers (for Meier) to the fact that certain sayings and actions may be judged historical if they “fit” well with other passages confirmed by the first three criteria. This criterion is “less probative” than the other criteria given the likelihood that the early Church’s creations often flowed from Jesus authentic teachings and deeds. Passages affirmed by this method, therefore, should be seen as historical inasmuch as they convey the message of Jesus. They should not be seen as authentic “in the technical sense, i.e., coming from Jesus himself.”[4]

Failure to meet this criterion does not necessarily imply that a passage is not authentic. Meier explains that rhetoric in first-century Judaism often allowed for more tension than modern standards, indeed, it often made great use of paradoxical statements. Thus, Jesus could have combined elements from various traditions, such as sapiential material apocalyptic traditions. This criterion therefore can only be used positively and should never be applied negatively to prove a passage is inauthentic.[5]

It should be noted that other scholars have dealt with this criterion differently. While Meier’s approach is more inductive[6] scholars like N. T. Wright and E. P. Sanders begin with a more deductive approach. Instead of looking at each individual saying or deed, Wright tries to make sense of the picture we already have of Jesus in the Gospels.[7] This type of methodological approach views coherence more positively “because it has the potential to draw upon and illuminate an already existing body of authentic Jesus tradition.”[8] In other words, coherence is considered to have greater weight when it has the ability to explain other sayings and deeds.

It could be argued that this criterion is the most subjective criterion. Determining what exactly “corresponds” to Jesus’ message will largely be determined by one’s own presuppositions regarding him. This is not to say that Meier does not recognize the danger here—clearly he does. Meyer writes, “Any errors in the results obtained by the ‘dissimilarity’ principle are liable to be magnified by the principle of ‘coherence.’”[9] The ultimate basis for judgment is therefore not simply the data but the way it is organized by the scholar.

In fact, there appear to be inconsistencies within Meier’s own analysis. Despite his call for objectivity, at points Meier denies the authenticity of various traditions despite recognizing that they meet the standards of his criteria. Dennis Ingolfsland points out a couple of examples.[10] First, Meier states that Matthew has to “strain” to explain how Jesus came to be associated with Nazareth. According to Matthew, Joseph went there because Archelaus, the son of Herod, was ruling Judea. Meier thinks this is a poor explanation since by moving to Nazareth Joseph was relocating to the territory of another son of Herod, Herod Antipas, who killed John the Baptist. Yet, as Ingolfsland points out, what Meier fails to mention is that Herod Antipas had yet to behead John. Moreover, fear of Archelaus was probably justified since Josephus reports that he killed three thousand Jews in Jerusalem after Herod’s death.[11]

Another example of Meier’s bias is his view that the evangelists were working with the agenda of having to “‘make John safe’ for Christianity.”[12] He bases this on the different presentations of John in the Gospels: Mark’s John never realizes Jesus true identity (cf. Mark 1:2-3, 4-8, 9-11); in Matthew he recognizes Jesus’ dignity and superiority (Matt 3:13-15); Luke presents him as bearing witness to Jesus while still in the womb (Luke 1:41-44); in John, his role is presented not as baptizer but as one who bears witness to Jesus (cf. 1:7-8, 9, 23, 34: 3:29-30). Ingolsfand argues Meier reads too much into Elizabeth’s statement that the child had “leaped” in her room. While he acknowledges that these presentations are different, he believes Meier’s description of them as “contradictory” overstates the tension.[13] He concludes, “Meier’s arguments about the Gospels making John ‘safe’ for Christianity are therefore apparently based more on a desire to see John’s relationship to Jesus in a certain way, rather than on Meier’s stated criteria.”[14]

2.5. Rejection and Execution
This principle is unique among the criteria. This criterion recognizes the historical fact of Jesus’ execution and demands an explanation for it. Meier argues that reconstructions of Jesus must sufficiently account for his ultimate demise. That Jesus was executed as a criminal was central to the description of Jesus in non-biblical historical accounts. Attempts to recover the historical Jesus, therefore, must recognize the subversive and controversial element of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus clearly alienated people and was especially disliked (feared?) by those in power.

Existentialist accounts of Jesus’ message will simply not do. The Rationalists and Deists who asserted that Jesus’ message was at heart about an inner experience of God failed to adequately explain why he presented a threat to political leaders. In a sense, this criterion is “Wrightian” inasmuch as it presupposes some aspect of the historical Jesus and attempts to make sense out of it.

2.6. Conclusion
Meier’s method is clearly rooted in the historical-critical tradition, which attempts to define Jesus using “objective” standards alone. However, as we have seen, these standards are not as objective as Meier might like to think. Despite his best efforts, Jesus’ identity is determined in some ways a priori. Most importantly, the historical Jesus must be separated from the later theology of the Church. It seems as though Meier does not adequately explain the relationship between Jesus’ teaching and the proclamation of the Church.

Part 6 continued here...
[1] Meier, A Marginal Jew, 1:175.
[2] Meier, A Marginal Jew, 1:175, referring to Harvey K. McArthur.
[3] Meier, A Marginal Jew, 1:175.
[4] Meier, A Marginal Jew, 1:176..
[5] Meier, A Marginal Jew, 1:176-7.
[6] Wright calls it “pseudo-atomistic work on fragments.” N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (vol. 2 of Christian Origins and the Question of God; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 33.
[7] Powell contrasts the approaches of Meier and Wright, Jesus, 151.
[8] Pitre, The Historical Jesus, 26.
[9] Summarizing the conclusions of M. D. Hooker. Meyer, Critical Realism, 137.
[10] Dennis Ingolsfand, “The Historical Jesus According to John Meier and N. T. Wright,” in Bibliotheca sacra 155 (20) 460-73.
[11] William Whiston, The Works of Josephus (Peabody, Minn.: Hendricksen, 1987), 466.
[12] John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (vol. 2 of The Roots of the Problem and the Person; ABRL; New York: Doubleday, 1994), 21.
[13] Meier, A Marginal Jew, 2:22.
[14] Ingolsfand, “The Historical Jesus,” 466.

No comments: