How Do We Know What Jesus Actually Said and Did?

(This is the fourth in a series of brief articles on the historical Jesus. Together the pieces are intended to assist those who wish to “dig deeper” into the scholarly foundations of postmodern faith and to understand the methodology behind the postings on the blog site.)

Last week we considered seven conclusions drawn from the biblical scholarship that has emerged since the “Enlightenment” of the eighteenth century. As far as the Christian Testament is concerned, one of the most important discernments of that scholarship is the difference between the pre-resurrection “Jesus of history” and the post-resurrection “Jesus of faith.” How do scholars tell the difference?  For example, how do participants in “the Jesus Seminar” decide what Jesus actually said as opposed to words put in Jesus’ mouth by the early church? They do so by applying the following half dozen criteria.

a)      Multiple attestation from independent sources: If a saying or event is supported not only by the canonical gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, but also by newly discovered texts like the Gospel of Thomas, or of Mary Magdalene, then the saying or event  probably belongs to the historical Jesus.

b)      Dissimilarity: If words or deeds attributed to Jesus would be embarrassing to the early church, they were probably included because the words were actually said or the deeds performed. An example of such inclusion would be Jesus’ baptism at the hands of John.  This event diverges from the underlying and evident intentions of the Gospel authors. That intent was to present Jesus as the fullest revelation of God (and eventually as God himself). But being baptized by John suggests that Jesus was John’s disciple. It implies John’s superiority to Jesus. So having Jesus baptized by John is counterproductive – or “dissimilar” from the authors’ purposes. The Gospel authors, however, point it out anyway, indicating that the baptism actually took place; that everyone knew about it; and that it had to be explained away. The rationalizing explanations take the form of having John say, “I am not worthy to loose the sandals of this man” (Mk. 1:7). Or “I should be baptized by you. How is it that you come to me for baptism?” (Mt. 3:14). Dissimilarity also applies to the radical nature of Jesus’ teaching. When Jesus is presented as doing or saying something that radically departs from accepted rabbinical teaching (dissimilar to it), that’s probably the historical Jesus surfacing. For instance, when Jesus pardons the woman caught in adultery, and says, “Neither do I condemn you,” that’s probably Jesus’ voice. The immediate addition, “Now go and sin no more,” is probably the voice of the author who is still influenced by conventional rabbinical teaching and is scandalized by Jesus’ “liberalism” (Jn. 8:11).

c)       Semitisms: The Gospels were written in Greek. When Aramaic words (the language of Jesus) are included in the text (and immediately translated by the Gospel author), that’s good reason to believe that the Aramaic words were remembered as actually spoken by Jesus. For instance, in the cure of the daughter of Jairus, Jesus is remembered as saying “Talitha cumi” (Mk. 5:41).

d)      Context reflecting the circumstances of the early church rather than of Jesus: This is a negative criterion. It means that words and/or deeds that reflect the circumstances of the early church [e.g. about church leadership (Mt. 16:13-20); about resolution of disputes within it (Mt. 18:15); about divorce and remarriage (Lk. 16:18)] were probably not spoken by Jesus. Similarly, words and/ or deeds attributed to Jesus that do not accord with his historical context or with the overall thrust of his teaching are to be identified as inauthentic. For example if God is presented as punishing and vengeful, the presentation probably represents the voice of the authors who still could not break away from the traditional way of thinking that Jesus himself revised and rejected.

e)      Vividness of description. Inclusion of vivid details indicates a memory closely associated with Jesus’ actual words and deeds. For instance when Jesus is described as spitting on dirt and making a paste to cure a man’s blindness (Jn. 9:6), that’s probably what happened.

f)       Coherence with acts or statements otherwise identified as authentically attributable to Jesus: Words or deeds that accord with those established as authentic through application of the previously mentioned criteria qualify as probably belonging to the historical Jesus.

Next Week: The Five Stages in the Development of New Testament Tradition

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

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