Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Limits Of Authenticity Criteria And "Recurrent Attestation" (Part 5)

Part 1 is available here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, and Part 4 here.

AP: I will conclude this "disquisition" on recurrent attestation that I have been working through in this series based on an article by Fernando Bermejo. In this post I want to end with the example of Dale C. Allison Jr. (Princeton Theological Seminary), an author highly esteemed especially for his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew and other works on the historical Jesus, including The Historical Christ and The Theological Jesus and Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet. Those two book have been responsible in a large part for the the criterion of recurrent attestation. In Allison's opinion, that which is repeated continuously or in very different places in our sources concerning a particular aspect of the person or works of Jesus lends credence to the view that said aspect is historical. Naturally this idea refers to the general impressions about the person of Jesus.

The more often a detail or aspect appears, the more likely it is historical. The argument put forward to support this assertion is as follows: Studies on collective memory show that it is fixed mainly on the general aspects and less on details, and that these generalities are preserved longer and more faithfully in such collective memory. Allison adds that if we reject this argument, namely to pay historical attention to certain general points about Jesus, we would fall into the utmost skepticism. We would need to abandon all hope of finding something reliable in the Gospels. And this does not seem reasonable, given what we see in them as a whole.

The difficulty quickly arises: If we use recurrent attestation as a model for research and abandon the use of the criteria of authenticity, we will obtain a very superficial, generalistic, and unusable image of Jesus. The answer to this argument is not difficult. First, the use of recurrent attestation does not mean by itself (although some researchers have tried to propose this) the rejection or exclusion of the use of the already traditional criteria of authenticity. For example (and especially), the "criterion of difficulty" is essential because recurrent attestation (e.g., the kingdom of God as the core of Jesus' preaching and its character, namely that it is immediate, future, material, and spiritual) encounters the prevailing theology of second-century Christianity, which does not admit some of these attributes. The difficulty makes that assertion very plausible. Moreover, we do not have to stop using any other criterion such as "multiple attestation." (Note: This criterion is not the same as that of recurrent attestation, since the former only affirms that to be historical possible a passage or a Gospel motif has to be attested in at least two independent sources).

Second, these apparent generalities help a great deal to reconstruct a correct figure of Jesus, since it begins with the pattern of recurrence "Jesus and John the Baptist," which unites the figure of Jesus to the latter and provides a secure framework for the beginning of the activity of Jesus, specifying it of course with other means. In addition, the recurring motif "Jerusalem––causes of Jesus' death" contributes to the end of the character. Both patterns, the beginning and the end, are a good grid for framing the activity and personality of Jesus. There will be time later to specify this basic figure with the help of the usual criteria of authenticity.

These last considerations help us to finally get out of radical skepticism. Not everything is lost in research on the historical Jesus. There are a series of basic and general sets that help us to reconstruct with certainty the basic figure of Jesus. Further critical reconstruction can be helped by other means, but you can know which part of the foundation is sure.

Someone will say that starting from general elemnents to rebuild Jesus is to be content with something too small, minuscule, or unsatisfactory. I answer, along with Bermejo, that something solid is better than nothing. Second, that what you actually end up with is not so small after all: We have mentioned that we can place the beginnings and the end of Jesus quite well, and with great confidence in their historicity. Third, this objection does not mean that the use of recurrent attestation is invalid in itself, but in any case it is basic, initial, and must be supplemented by other tools. The "patterns" are above all safe starting points, not the end of the investigation.

And finally, it is still true that we always have the consensus of researchers over decades and centuries to start from a relatively secure base on Jesus. I explained in the prologue to my book Jesús y las mujeres (Trotta, Madrid, 2nd ed., 2014) that absolute historical truth does not exist and less so in ancient history, where there are so few elements to reconstruct it. But that the consensus of illustrious minds who have investigated from every point of view Jesus for nearly 250 years, scholars from all walks of life and from all social, political, and religious backgrounds, including avowed atheists or agnostics, that consensus I say about certain points of the life, works, and message of Jesus enjoy a certain validity and I believe that is a good starting point to investigate the person of Jesus.

Since Lessing published the work of Hermann Samuel Reimarus in 1768, Concerning the purpose of Jesus and his disciples, more than two hundred years have passed. And a certain consensus has been formed in some points not only between independent investigators, but between confessional and the those investigators. And in general, this consensus is based, even without naming it, on the imprint made on the researcher by the recurrent material of the Gospels. It is a synthesis I think that it is not a bad starting point to investigate Jesus of Nazareth using the method of recurrent attestation.

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