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Was Jesus a legend? Part II

In the previous post “Was Jesus Jesus a legend? Part I” I looked at the principle weakness of the trilemma argument “Lunatic, Liar, Lord?” This was that there is another explanatory option available to the sceptic; that Jesus was a Legend. That the story of Jesus’ deity grew in the telling, so that Jesus became God in the early church’s estimation only, but in reality was nothing of the sort. Critics land here because they presuppose a hermeneutic of suspicion, which is that if some feature of the historical Jesus could not be proved to be authentic, then we should regard it as inauthentic. In response I gave some good reason to trust that the gospels are generally reliable and the biblical authors got it right when it comes to Jesus.

In this post I will look at the commonly accepted tools and rules historians and biblical critics use to decide on whether any historical saying or event is authentic or not. You will also see why historians who use them do not talk with certainty about anything, but always in terms of probability. They might say, “It is likely this thing happened,” never “This happened.”

The positive criteria

  • Historical fit: it fits in with known historical facts of the time and place.
  • Independent, early sources: it is related in multiple sources, which are near to the time when the incident is said to have occurred and which don’t rely on each other or on common source.
  • Embarrassment: it is awkward or counterproductive for the early Christian church.
  • Dissimilarity: it is unlike earlier Jewish ideas and/or unlike later Christian church.
  • Semitisms: Traces of Hebrew or Aramaic language (spoken by Jesus’ countrymen) appear in the story.
  • Coherence: The incident fits in with facts already established about Jesus
  • Frequency: the saying is repeated multiple times.

These criteria have the role of uncovering authentic kernels of historical information. This means that in order to defend events like the burial of Jesus are authentic, you don’t need to defend other events like the birth of Jesus. Being positive criteria they establish rather than deny the sayings or incidences as authentic. This means in order to defend a particular radical claim Jesus makes about himself, you don’t need to pay mind to other claims a sceptic might think are inauthentic.

In point of fact “criteria” is a misnomer. A better way to describe them might be Signs of Authenticity, for they are sufficient and not necessary conditions. Each signify a type of evidence or argument used by historical researchers.

Where S is some saying or event, E is evidence of a certain type, and B is the background information, all things being equal, Pr(S | E&B) > Pr(S | B). To translate what looks like a mathematical equation, read the PRobability of a Sayinggiven the Evidence for it and everything else we know in the Background is greater than the PRobability of that same Saying on the Background alone without said evidence.

When S satisfies multiple examples of evidence types, the cumulative probability escalates, such that Pr(S | E1&E2&B) > Pr(S | B). Some criteria are more highly regarded than others, such that Pr(S | E1&B) > Pr(S | E2&B). For instance, the criterion of Dissimilarity is regarded as coming close to rendering S unquestionably authentic. However, this criterion doesn’t apply to many cases, so it has limited usefulness.

The negative criteria

  • Contradiction of authentic sayings
  • Environmental contradiction
  • Tendencies of the developing tradition

These seek to establish an event or sayings inauthenticity, such that Pr (S | E&B) < Pr (S | B).

Use of the negative criteria is not commonly used, because in general they suffer from dubious assumptions. For example, with the criterion of Contradiction of authentic sayings to demonstrate S1 as inauthentic, one must presuppose (a) S2 is authentic, and that (b) Jesus never contradicted himself. This proves difficult in that one must also recognise Jesus’ use of hyperbole, proverbs, parables and poetry, etc. Again, the criterion of Tendencies of the developing traditionmust presuppose (a) certain “laws” of development, (b) the four source theory, (c) the extent of change in the transfer of oral to written tradition remains unchanged, and (d) a long period of oral transmission up until the earliest writing. The criterion of Environmental contradiction is uncontroversial, but has limited opportunity for application.

It will be recalled that James Robinson (1924-2016) advocated the presupposition that the burden of proof belonged to the one who ascribes some attribute to Jesus. While these criteria do not convey certainty, they do serve to shift the burden of proof onto the denier. Moreover, if a sufficient amount of the gospel’s material can be shown to be authentic, we may conclude inductively the traditions general overall reliability.

This approach means a lot of historical spade-work will need to be done to uncover which of the traditions about Jesus can be shown to be authentic. The historian A. N. Shermin-White has done something of an end-run around such spade-work when he answered Robinson. By emphasising in his study that theology and history are not mutually exclusive categories and the extraordinary external confirmation of the Gospels and Acts have, their trustworthiness should be presumed. Nevertheless, for apologetic purposes one may wish to adopt the critical frame-of-mind and dig like the higher critics. In future posts I will be presenting the evidence using the above tools and rules for historical investigation.


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