Critiques of Criteriology in Historical Jesus Research

13 Jan

It seems as though a lot of the observations that myself and others outside of NT scholarship about the invalidity of criteriology is being addressed by the scholarly community. Here is a blog dedicated to exploring the scholarship behind the gospel of Mark (my personal favorite gospel) writing comments about Mark Goodacre’s own blog post about the upcoming book.

One of the things I’ve tried to express a few times on my own blog is that there’s a difference between the “Historical Jesus” and the “actual” Jesus. From the Euangelion Kata Markon blog:

Finally, to help students from different faith backgrounds come to terms with the study of the HJ, I like to distinguish between Jesus and the HJ. We do not have access to the former, unless we invent a time machine, apart from the memories of his followers. The HJ is a scholarly reconstruction built on arguments about probability and evidence

Here are some of my own observations about the various criteriology that could lead to false positives (not all have been on this blog).

The mistaken assumption behind the criterion of embarrassment:

It seems pretty obvious that any sort of “criterion of embarrassment” is an anachronism. What might have been embarrassing to a Catholic or proto-orthodox late 2nd century Christian – the tradition that seeds all modern Christianity – would not necessarily be embarrassing to whoever wrote the gospel of Mark, whenever he wrote it. It’s anachronistic because it is looking through all of Christian history through the lens of orthodoxy:

“Mark was an orthodox Christian because he is held as canonical by the orthodoxy. Therefore, since orthodoxy was embarrassed by Jesus’ baptism it must follow that Mark was embarrassed by it as well. Since he didn’t remove this embarrassing detail from his gospel, it must have been too well known to take out.”

When looked at like this, the fallacy becomes pretty self-evident.

Thinking that Aramaic sayings must go back to Jesus and critiquing independence:

The token Aramaic words in the NT seem to have been placed for literary purposes. At Mark 10.46, the writer redundantly writes “the son of Timaeus Bartimaeus”. Someone who’s paying attention would note that “bar” would mean “son of”. Later in the narrative at 14.36, Jesus has a redundant prayer where he says “Abba, father, everything is possible for you,….”. Again, someone paying attention and not reading it devotionally would note that “abba” might mean “father” (in both cases, later gospel writers who copied from Mark leave out the redundancies). In the very next chapter, we are introduced to a character called “bar abba” who is about to be crucified. This isn’t a historical narrative that someone is writing down, but more like something that was intended for literature or theology. A false son of the father is about to be crucified when the real son of the father shows up and the Jews have the real son of the father executed while releasing the fake one.

The fact that all gospels we have include this invented character “Barabba” means that none of them were fact-checking or anything and using Mark as their source.

The same thing happens with town names, like Bethphage. [E]arly Christians attempted to find where this town was, but since they didn’t know that it literally means “house of unripe figs”, they didn’t make the connection that this is the town that Jesus is close to when he curses an unripe fig tree. The fig tree being a cipher for the Jewish temple which he clears out the money changers immediately after cursing the fig tree, since it is withered after he does the cleansing. Jesus later “predicts” that the Jewish temple will be “withered” like the fig tree, which actually happens in history in 70 CE during the war between the Jews and Romans. Which probably means that this narrative was crafted sometime during or immediately after the war between the Jews and Romans.

Again, here is the Kata Markon’s apt observation about the criterion of double-dissimilarity:

Double Dissimilarity: this one tries to reach an assured minimum (if it can’t be attributed to other Jews or Christians it must have be the HJ), but I agree it is a bad criterion. The HJ appears in a vacuum neither influencd by his Jewish context or influencing his followers. It assumes we know enough about Second Temple Judaism(s) or Christianities to ever declare something unparalleled and the criterion was born in a German liberal Protestant context which wanted to claim Jesus as unique and superior visa-vie Judaism. Instead, it might be useful looking for something relatively distinctive (e.g., son of man is characteristically on Jesus lips but is rare outside the gospels or for others to refer to Jesus as son of man), but also understandable in both a Jewish context and explains the rise of early Christian views.

This seems to link back to Hector Avalos’ observation that a lot of NT scholars want Jesus to be a unique larger-than-life being with no faults, which if Jesus existed and was a regular human being, he must have had some faults. Avalos writes:

So how is it that most Christian academic biblical scholars never see anything that Jesus does as wrong or evil? The answer, of course, is that most Christian biblical scholars, whether in secular academia or in seminaries, still see Jesus as divine, and not as a human being with faults.

Such scholars are still studying Jesus through the confessional lenses of Nicea or Chalcedon rather than through a historical approach we would use with other human beings [such as Alexander the Great or Augustus Caesar, (where) they note the good and the bad aspects of their actions].

Anyway, it’s good that we are starting to see more critiques of tools that are possibly inherently faulty. Now, if only there were some method of placing all explanations on the table and seeing which one has the highest probability of being correct once we do away with faulty tools…

1 Comment

Posted by on January 13, 2012 in Uncategorized


One response to “Critiques of Criteriology in Historical Jesus Research

  1. Unknown

    January 25, 2012 at 4:08 am

    I had no idea that the name Barabbas may have meant that! wikipedia seems to agree with you, and it also states that there were some other persons named Abba, and it could have just meant son-of-abba. But, given what Jesus claimed to be, and even though the gospels were written in Greek some of the early readers could also speak Aramaic, it's hard to assume that it was just a coincidence that needed no clarification by the gospel writers.

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