I had a chance to pop over to Dayton yesterday to catch the main day of a mini-conference over the traditional criteria for discerning the historical Jesus...
It was connected to a collection of essays edited by Anthony LeDonne and Chris Keith. I went because it was only a couple hours away, I wanted to catch up with the subject, and there were a lot of interesting people and friends involved--former students, former teachers, fellow Dunnites, Fulbright acquaintances, notorious bloggers, acquaintances from United Theological Seminary, etc...
The point of the essays--and the conference--was to capture in one place the problems with the traditional criteria for discerning the historical Jesus among the Gospel materials. Missing from the conference was Scot McKnight, whose essay I took basically to say that any quest by an individual for the historical Jesus simply creates a speculative narrative. So he argues that we should just stick to the biblical narratives.
The other presenters systematically dismantled the traditional criteria:
Semitic original: Loren Stuckenbruck indicated that after a number of years in the past trying to uncover a likely Aramaic original behind the Gospel texts, you just can't identify one with any degree of certainty. The linguistic situation is just too messy. Even the Aramaic in Mark does not prove Mark is earlier in itself. And Matthew seems to "semitize" Mark's Greek sometimes.
Dale Allison gave a fun autobiography on his quest, how he eventually abandoned all the criteria and changed his method several times. His last (or so he says) contribution has incorporated recent studies on how memory works. But the most interesting thing is his sense that we should not be trying to weigh individual sayings or stories but categories of sayings or events. It's not so important that we be able to prove that Jesus said one specific saying or did one specific thing. What is more significant is that we have lots of sayings and events that show Jesus doing something, like helping the poor or getting into conflict with religious leaders. It's a different kind of multiple attestation.
Coherence: Anthony LeDonne showed how Norm Perrin's version of coherence was really a subset of Bultmann's criterion of dissimilarity. After you have determined what is likely by its dissimilarity to Judaism or Christianity, you can consider original sayings that cohere to it. Since dissimilarity is problematic (see below), Perrin's version of coherence was also problematic.
LeDonne had more sympathy for John Meier's version of coherence. If you can determine that some aspect of Jesus in general is likely to be historical, then other similar sayings or events are quite possibly historic as well. But LeDonne makes it clear that memory shapes everything. There's no route around the layers between us and Jesus. We can only try to look through them. Coherence of the sort Allison now practices may point us toward the kinds of things Jesus did but it does not prove an individual saying.
Embarrassment: Rafael Rodriguez talked about this criteria and made it clear that you can always find alternative scenarios in which some saying or event might not have been embarrassing initially. So perhaps the best known example is Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist. When Jesus is the superior, why would someone invent him being baptized by an inferior?
But alternative scenarios are possible. What if, for example, it improved Jesus' status at one point to associate him with John the Baptist and only later his status in the tradition grew so great that his baptism needed to be explained. (For those listening into this conversation, I don't think many question that Jesus was baptized by John. This is a question of historical method.)
Dissimilarity: Dagmar Winter suggested decades ago that it was ridiculous to consider dissimilarity from Judaism and Christianity an appropriate criterion for discerning the historical Jesus. We now talk about double similarity, that Jesus fits exactly between Judaism and Christianity, that the most plausible Jesus is one on in a path between Jesus' historical context and the Jesus movement that resulted. LeDonne suggested that anti-Semitism played a role in this criterion, the distancing of Jesus from his Jewish background.
Multiple Attestation: Mark Goodacre was an appropriate person to speak on this one, given his rejection of Q. Without Q, the supposed layers of independent sources tends to collapse. The bottom line is that when it is quite possible these authors knew of each other's writings, the sources cease to be fully independent.
There was some question of whether the discussion might throw the baby (Jesus) out with the bath water (a Grathianism). I personally think of it more of a correction than a complete abandonment. I will continue to use these sorts of factors in historical discussion. They are just far from foolproof in terms of historical method. And maybe John Byron will get Scot McKnight into some conference on the historical Jesus and Christian theology.