Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Criterion of Multiple Attestation in Historical Jesus Research

In addition to dissimilarity from Judaism and dissimilarity from Christianity, another criterion frequently appealed to is multiple attestation. John P. Meier defines it as a criterion which 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).”[1] 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.

Yet, this criterion is not without its limitations. For one thing, it cannot exclude the possibility that a Christian belief was created early on and gained wide acceptance. Craig Evans writes: “The criterion really only proves that a multiply attested tradition is early and widespread, and not necessarily authentic.”[2]

Furthermore, that some elements are found multiply attested and others not may be little more than historical accident.[3] N. T. Wright explains: “…the number of times a saying happens to turn up in the records is a very haphazard index of its likely historicity or otherwise.”[4] Thus, that something is multiply attested does not therefore make it historical.

Moreover, the criterion is largely dependent on the two-source theory (Mark and Q), [5] to which a growing number of scholars have offered serious challenges. After an exhaustive analysis of the various solutions to the Synoptic Problem, Sanders concludes with Davies.[6] Mark Goodacre, professor of New Testament at Duke Univesity and editor of one of the most presitigious monograph series has leveled one of the most devastating critiques against Q in his The Case Against Q.[7]

[1] Meier, A Marginal Jew, 1:174. Meier here combines what are sometimes seen as two criteria, that of multiple attestation and multiple forms, first suggested by C. H. Dodd, History and the Gospel (New York: Scribner’s, 1937), 91-101; idem., The Parables of the Kingdom, 26-29; Holmén, “Authenticity Criteria,” 49; C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom (London: Nisbet, 1935), 20.
[2] See Evans, “Authenticity Criteria in Life of Jesus Research,” 9. The point is made by many others, e.g., Meier, A Marginal Jew, 1:175; Fredricksen, From Jesus to Christ, 6. Furthermore, see the discussion in Allison, Jesus of Nazareth, 2-10.
[3] On the difficulty of ruling out a priori singularly attested elements, see C.F. D. Moule, The Phenomenon of the New Testament (Naperville: Allenson, 1967), 71; Warren Kelber, “Jesus and Tradition: Words in Time, Words in Space,” Semeia 65 (1995): 147 [139-67].
[4] Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 51.
[5] Likewise, see Ensor, Jesus and His “Works”, 41: “…the usefulness of this criterion is limited by the fact that the Synoptic problem has not yet been finally resolved. No one theory commands universal consent, and it is not always clear from which source a saying may have come.” This weakness is recognized by others, e.g., see Craig A. Evans, The Historical Jesus: Critical Concepts in Religious Studies (New York: Routledge, 2004), 9; Stein, “The ‘Criteria’ for Authenticity,” 230-31; Achtemeier, Green and Thompson, Introducing the New Testament, 60. E. P. Sanders and Margaret Davies, Studying the Synoptic Gospels (London: SCM Press, 1989), 51-119.
[6] E. P. Sanders and Margaret Davies, Studying the Synoptic Gospels (London: SCM Press, 1989), 117 [51-119]. Elsewhere, in an analysis applicable to many contemporary scholars, Sanders has critiqued Bultmann’s method as essentially circular, since the two-source theory is established on “laws of development,” which are in turn derived from the two-source theory. See. E. P. Sanders, Tendencies of the Synoptic Tradition (New York:Cambridge University Press, 1969), 25-26.
[7] Mark Goodacre, The Case Against Q: Studies in Markan Priority and the Synoptic Problem (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press 2002). See also the various contributions in Mark Goodacre and Nicholas Perin, eds, Questioning Q: A Multidimensional Critique (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that interesting post!

The following is a quote from:

In the first Letter of Peter we read, "Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you." Prior to my coming to the monastery almost 21 years ago, I was a parish priest in the Diocese of Chicago. I was a Curate, and my Rector put this discipline to a daily practice. The Rector, Richard Lundberg (who is a member of the Fellowship of Saint John) and I would both be present for the weekday liturgies. Following the reading of the Gospel we would meet in the middle of the sanctuary and reverence the altar. In that split second while we were bowed, he would announce in a whisper which of us would preach that day. There we were, heads lowered, and he would whisper to me something like, “It’s mine” or he would say, “You’re on!” (Sometimes we playfully fought a little for just a second. I would say, “no way am I going to preach that” and he would say something like, “You want a paycheck this week?”) Anyway, that became our practice week-in and week-out. I initially found this incredibly intimidating, to have all of about three seconds to turn around and deliver a homily. But Father Lundberg’s practice was to always be ready to share the good news amidst so much bad news that people face in the course of a day. I would say this is a helpful practice for all of us: to be ready with a testimony to your faith in Jesus Christ, a testimony that would be cogent and credible to someone outside the church tradition… which is most everyone we meet these days on the street. No spiritual gobbledygook. If someone asks you today, in Harvard Square, why you are a follower of Jesus Christ, what’s the word, the authentic word in your heart and upon your lips? What is your testimony in real time? As we read a moment ago from the First Letter of John, "Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts."

- Curtis Almquist, SSJE Monastery

Ergo, to everyone who reads this page, I ask you:

What is your account of the hope that is in you?

(And keep it brief, just like you'd have to while on your feet in Harvard Square!)