Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Rafael and Crossley on Authenticity

Rafael offers some interesting thoughts about authenticity in historical Jesus studies. I for one did feel pressure during the writing of my thesis to name things in the Gospels which I regard as inauthentic. I don’t like the idea of having to say 10 things about the Gospels I don’t believe before people take me seriously. My way out of it was to state that there’s a tonne of stuff in Thomas which I don’t think is authentic (I got that one from Wright); and also to admit that some actions/logia of Jesus in the canonical Gospels have a better case for authenticity than others.

In view of the Crossley-Rodriguez exchange, let me suggest two things:

First, scholars of a conservative ilk can have a tendency to favour the canonical sources over non-canonical one’s. For instance, Crossan and Reed, (Excavating Jesus, 87-88), compare the miraculous birth stories of Augustine (Seutonius, Lives of the Caeasars, 94.4.) and Jesus in the Gospels (Luke 1-2; Matthew 1-2) and they urge:

“If you take Jesus’ conception story literally, take Augustus’ literary. If you take Jesus’ conception story metaphorically, take Augustus’ metaphorically.”

They have a point! (Regardlessly, the fact that Jesus was regarded as a Mamzer, i.e. of illegitimate birth, is a piece of historical information consistent with the birth stories in the Gospels even if it does not finally prove them).

Second, the idea of authenticity is itself full of problems. The tentative nature of historical arguments means that labels of ‘authentic’ and ‘inauthentic’ are somewhat subjective and artificial (Hooker, ‘Christology and Methodology,’ NTS 1971). At the end of the day one cannot prove, much less disprove, anything that Jesus said or did with positivistic certainty. Moreover, even material that is deemed ‘inauthentic’ can still express and re-present Jesus’ own authentic viewpoint (Meier, Marginal Jew, 3.544; Charlesworth, Jesus within Judaism, 20). In fact, the entire Gospel tradition is ‘inauthentic’ in the sense that the Gospels are in Greek (not Aramaic) and there is very little chance that any authentic sayings have been uninterpreted in the transmission process. We have vox, vox, vox and more vox of Jesus. Perhaps we should prefer scales of probability (see Sanders and Davies, Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels), but then again we must relate to the fact that ‘authenticity’ is simply part of the grammar of historical Jesus research, like it or not! I tend to think that an ‘authentic’ saying or event is one which we have good reason to believe that it is as close to something that Jesus said or did as we could hope for (Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, 357, n. 30). This debate could of course lead on to a discussion about how to use the ‘criteria of authenticity’ in relation to authenticity. Another issue looming on the horizon is where does the burden of proof lie? – authenticity or inauthenticity? Personally, given the nature of the Jesus tradition, I think the onus should be on those who wish to prove inauthenticity; the catch 22 is that I don’t think any of the criteria can prove the inauthenticity of any saying/deed beyond all reasonable doubt, which means that we are again left with varying degrees of probability for authenticity.


James Crossley said...

I agree pretty much with all your let's call them doubts on 'authenticity' and I think Rafael's approach is something that can help answer some of these blurry conceptual issues.

Also, for what it is worth, I prefer canonical (more specifically snynoptic) stuff for reconstructing Jesus. And (you'll like this one) I once got accused of being a conservative evangelical at a conference!

I don't think the onus of proof is on those who want to prove things as inauthentic. Wasn't it Sanders that the onus of proof is on anyone who wants to prove anything? That seems fair to me.

eddie said...

I think the problem is that "proof" is often in the eye of the beholder, it varies from person to person, from epistemology to epistemology. I think that the criteria of authenticity demonstrate an ongoing attempt to establish a common set of 'playing rules' for Historical Jesus studies.

But I dont think we will ever reach a consensus on what counts as sufficient "proof" for authenticity (for anything!) unless for starters we all adopt the same epistemology.

And this may mean that we forget about "proving", and change tact to that of "establishing probability". When it comes to the past, i dont think we can achieve absolute certainty (according to my epistemology), but I think we can run with or against the evidence. Of course, "evidence", is once again a matter of contention.

Rafael Rodriguez said...

aahhhh . . . but isn't this the beauty of Sanders' maxim (cf. James' response)? Anyone who wants to argue something has to argue it well. But this is my problem with the rhetoric of critical historiography (cf. my response to James, to be posted shortly): if a scholar can't name what she thinks is inauthentic, does that make her 'credulous' or 'uncritical'? It seems to me that any scholar who can't cogently and coherently argue a case with respect to a particular traditional unit is uncritical, and it is this that marks them out as such, rather than their faith/unfaith position. (This, BTW, is why I agree with James that NT scholarship benefits when its practioners don't all hail from the same confessional/ideological stomping grounds.)

It seems to me, conversely, that a lot of scholars (and James would agree with this, if I read him right) are uncritical in their scepticism. They are hard-pressed to name what traditions they consider authentic (or why the vast amount of tradition is inauthentic), and their doubt is just as ideologically driven (= uncritical) as can be found in conservative/Evangelical scholarship.

I'm not too sure how crazy I am about the Star Wars analogy (esp. as the last three [first three?] movies were crap). Perhaps any future tagging would be more along the lines of Inigo Montoya and Wesley defeating the cowardly Prince Humperdinck. If you don't get the reference, I'm not sure we can be friends.

eddie said...

"critical" is of course the key quality, but it has come to be correlated with " extremely sceptical".