just like the prestigious British-trained critical scholars do?

Imitation is the greatest form of flattery!

Above:  The leader of the Third Search for the “historical” Jesus, the Right Reverend NT Wright–with a wee bit of ale!  Is this perhaps why Third Searchers can’t find Jesus?

(P.S.–the writer of this blog came from a British “Johnny Bull” ancestry–but his ancestors were thrown out of jolly ol’ England in the 19th century and are still wanted by the Crowne today)




  • Recent surveys say that 9/10 critical German and British influenced scholars highly recommend them
  • These are also known  as “dialing for Jesus” criteria


Your own personal Jesus is available to you! . . .

brought by critical scholarship through the invention of criteria of authenticity

Johnny Cash-”Your own personal Jesus”–Cue song below  Click here for the song!

Lyrics: “Your own personal Jesus Someone to hear your prayers Someone who cares Your own personal Jesus Someone to hear your prayers Someone who’s there Feeling unknown And you’re all alone Flesh and bone By the telephone Lift up the receiver I’ll make you a believer Take second best Put me to the test Things on your chest You need to confess”


  • These criteria are the tools that German, British trained critical scholars use (borrowed from Spinoza) to find a Jesus that they have already decided on in order to determine how they think He must really, truly be–one they  find acceptable to them.
  • These authenticity criteria tools are the “solvent” that allows critical scholars to dissolve the canonical Gospels and the information therein in order to find a Jesus that they prefer.

Remember, no good critical scholar worth his/her academic reputation would ever accept the canonical gospels.

Only ”knee-jerk” fundamentalists do that!


    • no two critical scholars agree on the same list of criteria
  • After an arbitrary a priori decision is made on a preconceived concept of Jesus, criteria of authenticity, stemming from tradition criticism, can be applied to the Gospels and that concept of Jesus affirmed.
  • Since the criteria are subjective and conflicting, other criteria can be invented and applied to ensure the outcome desired.
  • The critical weakness, as well as subjectivity, of these criteria lies in the fact that the same criteria can be applied or countered with different criteria to ensure whatever view has already been assumed
  • If the critical scholar does not like current criteria of authenticity, just change or invent new ones to guarantee the outcome desired.
Excursus on  criteria of authenticity

Tradition Criticism/History[i]

An Overview of Tradition Criticism

Tradition criticism (traditionsgeschichte) is related closely to form criticism in that its principles were developed in conjunction with form criticism yet is now considered a separate discipline.[ii]  For many modern critics, especially those who advocate some hermeneutical role for form and redaction criticism, the most important task is to assess the authenticity of the units of Gospel tradition.  Much of the effort centers in discovering the earliest form of the tradition unit through peeling away the layers of the narrative that allegedly accrued over time caused by the alleged Sitz im Leben of the church (or, Christian community) during the oral period.  The application of these tradition criteria to the text are also considered a valid means for determining the relative antiquity and historical veracity of the Gospel units.  The goal is to recover the “original” core of teaching in each Gospel pericope, i.e., the authentic teaching of Jesus versus what is non-authentic. In light of this, tradition criticism becomes the study of the origin, history, and development of a given saying especially in the Gospels but also throughout the New Testament.

Therefore, analysis and criticism of the traditions contained in the Gospels for the form critic takes essentially two tactics: The first is recovery of the earliest and most authentic forms of the tradition by the application of certain laws of tradition. The second is to make critical judgments on the historicity of the saying by establishing certain “criteria of authenticity” whereby the origin of these traditions may be attributed directly to Jesus (“authentic”) or be the creation or fabrication of the Christian communities (Palestinian, Hellenistic or Gentile).[iii]  In this latter area, tradition criticism finds its most prominent expression.

The Presuppositional Basis of Tradition Criticism

Importantly, these tradition criteria arose from the same virulent antisupernatural presuppositional foundation that gave rise to form criticism.  At the heart of the method are negative historical presuppositions that are rooted in the radical skepticism of Enlightenment.  In discussing form-critical analysis of tradition material, Doty remarks, “The basic presuppositions for the modern historical-critical approach to the NT writings were set in the last part of the eighteenth century under the influence of deism and rationalism.”[iv]  Moreover, for any conservative evangelical to treat tradition-critical principles in isolation from their negative presuppositional foundations carelessly overlooks their true nature, and, as a result, fails to consider properly their highly doubtful hermeneutical validity.  If the history of modern interpretive methods demonstrates anything (see Chapter 2 on Presuppositions), it is that interpretive methods cannot be studied in isolation from historical, presuppositional, and intellectual developments without inviting disaster in hermeneutical methodologies.  A hermeneutical method cannot be more valid than the validity of the foundation upon which it lies.

Taking a radically negative view of the historicity of the gospels sayings, Bultmann and his theological descendants (e.g., Käsemann, Conzelmann, Perrin) are responsible for the propagation of much of the criteria of authenticity, e.g., the principle of discontinuity (dissimilarity), multiple attestation and consistency of content (coherence).[v] They predicate the entire undertaking on the assumption that the Gospel traditions are inherently suspect unless good reasons can be advanced for accepting them. Tradition criticism places the onus probandi (“burden of proof”) on the Gospels’ claims to be authentic.

As expected, the inventors of these “criteria of authenticity” reflect this presupposition.  In the History of The Synoptic Tradition, Bultmann himself accepted only about forty sayings as genuine and merely the event of Jesus life and death on the cross.  The post-Bultmannian, Norman Perrin argues, “the nature of the synoptic tradition is such that the burden of proof will be upon the claim to authenticity.”[vi]  The instigator of the “New Quest” for the historical Jesus, Ernst Käsemann echoes a similar thought,

Historical criticism has shattered this good faith [in the historical reliability of the gospels] as far as we ourselves are concerned.  We can no longer assume the general reliability of the Synoptic tradition about Jesus . . . . our questioning has sharpened and widened until the obligation now laid upon us is to investigate and make credible not the possible unauthenticity of the individual unit of material but, on the contrary, its genuineness.”[vii]


As discussed, a primary task of tradition criticism is to apply laws of tradition to the material in order to discover an alleged “original” or earlier form of the tradition.  Bultmann argued:

[W]e may accurately observe how the Marcan material is altered and revised by Matthew an Luke, and how Matthew and Luke have presumably edited the text of Q (the Sayings-document).  If we are able to deduce a certain regularity in this procedure, then we may certainly assume that the same laws held good even earlier, and we may draw conclusions as to the state of the tradition prior to Mark and Q.[viii]


Bultmann, Dibelius, and other form critics also argued that the gospel traditions fell into the category of “folk tradition” (“characteristics of folk-tales,” “folk-song,” folk-anecdote,” and “simple fairy-tales”) and observations about how folk-lore traditions functioned would reveal the same rules or laws that the gospel traditions followed in their development.[ix]  Assumed parallels of development with German folklore, Greek literature, rabbinic literature, and the apocryphal gospels served as guides in the development of these laws as applied to the gospel material.[x]

However, as already demonstrated, the gospel material is qualitatively different than any assumed folklore parallels.  In addition, not enough time would exist in any hypothesized “oral period.”  Folklore preservation takes many hundreds of years.

Another presuppositional basis that heavily influenced the development of the laws of tradition was the acceptance and predominance of the idea that Matthew and Luke used Mark and the hypothesized Q (“Quelle”) source.  By observing how Matthew and Luke allegedly used Mark and Q, form critics also extrapolated that Mark used the oral traditions available to him in a similar fashion.[xi]  However, such an assumption is based upon another highly speculative hypothesis of the Two- and Four-Source approach (which itself was profoundly affected by the evolutionary Zeitgeist of the times).  Since this highly questionable synoptic approach is coming under increasing suspicion and outright rejection, this emphasizes the tenuous nature and fallacious bases of such extrapolations.[xii]

In dealing with tradition criticism, the form critic also inherently accepts an evolutionary viewpoint to the development of the tradition.  This article already has discussed the profound influence that evolutionary concepts had upon the thinking of theologians such as Bultmann, Dibelius and others in the formulation, development and expression of form-critical principles during the latter half of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century.  Both Bultmann’s methodological analysis of the alleged “accretions” to the   tradition and the resultant rules utilized to remove these accretions in order to uncover the “earliest” and most “authentic” core are replete with highly questionable evolutionary philosophical precepts.  Only a mind thoroughly preconditioned by the virulent negative presuppositions of the age or Zeitgeist in which form criticism developed (“Spirit of the times”) would give validity to such assumptions.

In accordance with these presuppositional axioms, form critics argued that the gospel narratives (i.e. in Mark) originally were single pictures in simple language, “the original tradition was made up almost entirely of brief single units (sayings and short narratives), and that almost all references to time and place which serve to connect up the single sections into a larger context are the editorial work of the evangelists.”[xiii]  In a chapter entitled, “The Laws Governing Popular Narrative and Tradition,” Bultmann maintains,

“narrators do not give us long unified accounts but rather small single pictures, individual scenes narrated with the utmost simplicity.  These always occupy but a brief space of time; apart from the Passion Narrative no event or proceeding is narrated which covered more than two days.  As a rule only two speaking characters appear in these scenes, or at the most three; involved proceedings are beyond the powers of the simple story teller.  Where groups or crowds are present, they are treated as a unity.  As such narratives pass from mouth to mouth, or when one writer takes them over from another, their fundamental character remains the same, but the detail are subject to the control of fancy and are usually made more explicit and definite.[xiv]


Thus, as time went on, for example, details were added.  For example, while Mark used unnamed persons in his pericopes, the other synoptics tended to identify these (“the tendency to characterize more definitely the dim figures in the tradition”).  Thus, in Mark 14:13 unnamed disciples are sent to prepare for the last supper, while in Luke 22:8, their names are given as Peter and John; in Mark 7:17, “the disciples” are seen as posing the question to Jesus in general, while in Matthew 15:15, Peter asks the question of Jesus.  Not only were figures identified by “later” tradition, but in Mark or Q while Jesus’s opponents are unidentified, in Matthew and Luke the opposition “are almost invariably the scribes and Pharisees.”

Bultmann also concludes that while some polemical words of Jesus addressed to scribes and Pharisees may be historical (e.g. Mark 12:38-40; and most of Matt. 23:1-31), “the schematic representation according to which the Pharisees and scribe are from the outset the sworn enemies of Jesus is certainly unhistorical.”[xv]

According to form critics like Dibelius, the length and ensuing “worldiness” of the narrative is a guide to the date, for “the fortune of primitive Christianity is reflected in the history of the Gospel-Form.”  Dibelius argues, “at the beginning of the history of primitive Christian literature, there stood a tradition of an unliterary nature, consisting of short narratives and striking sayings, which were repeated for practical purposes.”[xvi]  Then after time, “the mythological element take charge of the entire material of evangelical history.”  To him, paradigms, being the simplest and shortest are “the earliest formal constructions.”  The distinct lack of miraculous elements, for Dibelius, also indicates their primitive historicity and, as a consequence, “trustworthiness.” Also, Dibelius asserts that the paradigms narration in a “true, human, simple, and artless manner” indicates its primitive historicity. [xvii]

After that, “pleasure in the narrative for its own sake arose and seized upon literary devices.”  As a consequence, worldly elements that gave “a fully secular character” to the form were added as the Christian community began to imitate the surrounding techniques of the world’s manner of story-telling.  Thus, a lengthier form arose known as the “Tale” or “Wonder story” arose.  Reflecting Greek and Oriental conceptions, these represented Jesus as a miracle worker.  Thus, these foreign or miraculous elements in Tales indicate that “Tales are only to be used with great caution as historical sources” especially since “they were open to the invasion of foreign motives” and “by the pleasure of narrating the Tale.”[xviii]

Next, legends or stories about Jesus and His associates developed as even more time passed.  As a result, legends would be less trustworthy and, consequently, of a later date than paradigms or tales, i.e. legends were on the “periphery of the tradition.”  In Legends, “One told of these persons in the same way as similar narratives from the surrounding world spoke of other holy men.”  Through such legends, a complete “accommodation to the world and harmony with its relationships” predominated.[xix]

According to form critics, observing distinctions between direct and indirect discourse is indicative of the original form. Thus, as time went on, indirect discourse became direct discourse, i.e. words were placed directly on the lips of gospel characters.  For example, in Mark 8:32, when Jesus announced his impending crucifixion, the text states in general terms that Peter rebuked him, while in Matthew 16:22, the words that Peter used are reported (cf. Mark 14:23 vs. Matt. 26:27); the inarticulate cry from the cross in Mark 15:37 becomes specified in Luke 23:46.

According to form critics like Bultmann, Dibelus, and Taylor,[xx] the presence of Semitisms, in distinction to Hellenistic elements, is often an indication of a tradition that is very early or even authentic.  Two contemporary advocates for Semitisms as test for antiquity are Joachim Jeremias and Matthew Black.[xxi] Bultmann typically argued, “since our gospels arose out of Greek Christianity, the distinction provides us with a criterion which frequently enables us to determine whether this or that feature belongs to the older tradition or was composed later.”[xxii]

Yet, the argument that formal Semitisms may establish the antiquity of the Gospels is tenuous for significant reasons.  First, by the time period of the New Testament, Judaism and Hellenism had already experienced considerable interpenetration.  This intepenetration is evidenced even in the terminology of the New Testament.  For instance, the characteristic Palestinian institution of the Sanhedrin derived its name from the Greek word sunevdrion indicates the deep influence that Greek had even in the very heart of Palestinian Judaism.[xxiii] The Talmud also indicates this penetration:  Tosephta Sota XV 322.6 relates: “Permission was given to the House of Rabban Gamaliel to teach their children Greek owing to their relation with the (Roman) government.”  The Babylonian Talmud Sota 49b states that Rabbi Simeon related: “There were a thousand young men in my father’s house, five hundred of whom studied the Law, while the other five hundred studied Greek wisdom.”   Lieberman has demonstrated that Rabbis quoted not only from Jewish sources for their teachings but also from Greek sources (e.g. Greek proverbs).[xxiv]

Second, studies indicate that Jesus’s language environment was not exclusively Aramaic but also may have included considerable knowledge and use of Greek from the very start.[xxv]  Gundry argued, “we can be sure that the tradition about Jesus was expressed from the very first in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek . . . . We cannot naively work on the assumption that everything was originally in Aramaic, that we should seek Aramaic equivalents wherever possible, and that wherever Aramaic equivalents cannot be traced we must reject authenticity.”[xxvi]  Jesus, living in the city of Nazareth in the region of Galilee that was dominated by Gentiles who spoke Greek (e.g. “Galilee of the Gentiles”—Matt. 4:15), would most likely have been familiar with Greek his whole life.  Peter, Andrew, James and John would also probably have known Greek if they were to sell their fish in Gentile markets of Galilee.  This factor, coupled with the missionary emphasis of the Gospel (cf. Matt. 28:19; Acts 1:8; 6:1) would ensure that the message occurred both orally and in writing from the very beginning in the lingua franca (i.e. Greek) of the civilized world as well as Aramaic.  As Argyle notes, “If Jesus and his disciples were as familiar with Greek as with Aramaic, the transition from the oral Aramaic stage to the Greek literary stage would have been natural and easy.”[xxvii]

Third, using the form critic’s same logic, indications exist that Mark may be later rather than ”earlier.” For example, Mark’s Latinisms  (e.g. kenturivwn, xevsth”, spekoulavtwr, iJkano;n poiei’n)[xxviii] and his translation of Aramaic expressions (e.g. Mark 5:41; 15:22, 34) for the sake of those who did not know Aramaic may indicate that Mark was later rather than earlier as suggested by form critics.

To form critics, the writing style of the evangelist also is another indication of the earliness and trustworthiness of the tradition.  Bultmann related, “While with Mark the art of the evangelist appears to be quite undeveloped, Luke displays a fine editorial artistry.  Even the casual reader may note the difference if he will observe the quite distinct manners in which Matthew and Luke introduce material from the Sayings-document into Mark” [in the composition of their own gospels].[xxix]  Yet, as Redlich apply notes, “The stylistic methods of writers are no evidence of laws of tradition; they are indications of the standard of scholarship of the writers.”[xxx]

Since the gospels were written by the apostles whose names they bear and who witnessed the events that they wrote concerning, then no substantial credibility exists to such laws. The most credible case, supported by consistent and unconvoluted testimony of church history, is that the gospels reflect either direct apostolic testimony (Matthew, John) or are based on eyewitness accounts (Mark (Peter), Luke [1:1-4]). The key to this is that only Bultmann’s and Dibelius’s (and any form critic’s) presuppositions prevent the acceptance of this latter assertion. Instead of indicating any “development” of tradition or secondary elements, any comparison of individual gospel pericopes in Matthew, Mark, and Luke merely reveal selectivity in what the eyewitnesses chose to convey and also reflect the individual style of the writers.

Furthermore, forms critics, in their development of these “laws of tradition,” are guilty of being selective in argumentation rather than thorough.  They chose examples that only appeared to support their position, while ignoring other tendencies and factors that convolute their hypotheses. Sanders, after examining these form-critical laws of tradition, concludes that the tradition does not follow assertions of simple to complex,

There are no hard and fast laws of the development of the Synoptic tradition.  On all accounts the tradition developed in opposite directions.  It became both longer and shorter, both more and less detailed, and both more and less Semitic.  Even the tendency to use direct discourse for indirect . . . was not uniform in the Synoptics themselves.  For this reason, dogmatic statements that a certain characteristic proves a certain passage to be earlier than another are never justified.[xxxi]


Caird concurs with this assessment.  He cites, for example, in the triple tradition of the feeding of the five thousand that the “green grass” in Mark 6:39 disappears in Luke 9:14 which is the exact opposite of what one should expect if these laws of tradition were true.  Caird concludes, “a law which tells us that tradition may either amplify or abbreviate, may either add details or omit them, is very little help in determining which of two accounts is the more original.”[xxxii]

Strategically, if central presuppositions of form criticism be rejected, such as antisupernaturalism, evolution, the Two-Document (or, Four-Document) Hypothesis, then these laws of tradition have no substantial basis for they operate on the tacit assumption of these presuppositions.  If the gospels are accepted as eyewitness accounts (Matthew, John) or based on eyewitness accounts (Mark, Luke) as the unbroken testimony of early church history affirms, form critical assertions melt completely away.  The specificity or lack of specificity merely reflects the personal choices of the eyewitness as to what they chose to include in the recounting of their stories.  As a result, the tradition contained in the gospels is inherently stable.


Criteria of Authenticity for the Words of Jesus

The area of “authenticating” the sayings of Jesus consumes most of the effort in tradition criticism.  Because form critics postulate that the gospels reflect the creative Christian community rather than preserving the actual words of Jesus, they inevitably became involved in attempting to identify ”genuine” sayings of Jesus from those that were products of the Christian community.  As a result, form critics developed “criteria of authenticity” to make such determinations.  Such criteria inherently impugn the gospel record, placing the onus of proof on the gospels to demonstrate authenticity.  Often, as will be seen, these principles are mutually contradictory and eliminate the vast majority of the sayings of Jesus as authentic.

The recent work by Funk, Hoover, and others of the so-called “Jesus Seminar” entitled, The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, represent the most recent pronouncement that uses the historical-critical method of tradition criticism to negate the authenticity of the Gospels.[xxxiii]  Like Bultmann at the turn of the century, [xxxiv] who barely accepted approximately forty sayings as attributable to Jesus, the Jesus Seminar rejects 82% sayings of Jesus (analyzing more than 1500 sayings in their total inventory) with the remaining 18% as doubtfully authentic. Yet, the Seminar demonstrates its highly radical and prejudiced nature when it labels Bultmann as “neo-orthodox.” [xxxv]

The “Jesus Seminar” credits their analysis of the sayings of Jesus on the so-called “Seven Pillars of Scholarly Wisdom that serve as their basic presuppositional foundation: 1) a distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, 2) a distinction in historical value between the Synoptic Gospels (containing some reflection of the historical Jesus) and the Gospel of John (containing only a “spiritual” Jesus and little historical value), 3) the priority of Mark, 4) recognition of a hypothetical “Q” (German, Quelle or “source”) as the explanation for material common to Matthew and Luke but not found in Mark, 5) a distinction between Schweitzer’s eschatological Jesus (the kingdom is entirely future and cataclysmic) and the Seminar’s assertion of a non-eschatological view of Jesus’s teaching (the kingdom is already here, i.e. “God’s imperial rule”), 6) a fundamental contrast between Jesus’s predominately oral culture and today’s written culture, 7)  the investigator’s operating axiom for which no further demonstration is necessary is that the burden of proof for historical validity rests upon the Gospel’s historical record.  As a result, the investigator has “no final guarantees” as to what Jesus claimed and taught.  The Seminar labels these axioms as “safeguards offered by the historical methodologies practiced by all responsible scholars.”[xxxvi] As Carson relates, “The criteria by which so much gospel material ascribed to Jesus is dismissed as inauthentic are not much more than restatements of old fashioned form and redaction criticism.”[xxxvii]  Their final presupposition or “test” is “beware of finding a Jesus entirely congenial to you.”  Such an assertion, however, applies especially to the Jesus Seminar who a priori determine the outcome of the “historical Jesus” by adopting such presuppositions that are far from neutral.  Their Jesus of history is already decided before any examination of evidence.[xxxviii]

Claiming to be more “scientific” because the Seminar views the life of Jesus from “the new lens of historical reason and research rather than through the perspective of theology and traditional creedal formulations” the Jesus Seminar group is far from objectivity in its analysis. [xxxix]  Indeed, it cannot have the slightest hope of “scientific” objectivity since the Seminar admittedly anchors its research upon the same negative presuppositional foundation upon which historical criticism rests.  The Seminar admits that, as a result, their underlying assumption is “the gospels are now assumed to be narratives in which the memory of Jesus is embellished by mythic elements that express the church’s faith in him, and by plausible fictions that enhance the telling of the gospel story for first-century listeners who knew about divine men and miracle workers firsthand.”[xl]

Barbour, in his work Traditio-Historical Criticism of the Gospels, divides tradition-critical axioms into two broad categories: formal and material criteria.  Formal criteria deal with the form in which the material was allegedly handed down or from the place which it occupies in the gospel tradition (e.g. multiple attestation, Aramaisms, poetic form and parallelism).  Material criteria deal with the actual content of the material itself (dissimilarity, coherence).  Barbour terms this two-fold distinction a “rough-and-ready one” but says that “it has its usefulness.”[xli]  Space for this article limits the discussion to only the most key criteria of these broad categories.

In analyzing these criteria, their methodological bankruptcy clearly is evident, i.e. they are neither valid nor capable of producing what they allege nor do they have any hope of being “objective” or “scientific” in approach.  The Criterion of Multiple Attestation is one of the earliest formulated, being advocated by F. C. Burkitt.[xlii]  Anchored upon the priority of Mark and the Two-Document Hypothesis as the solution to the synoptic “problem,” this criterion suggests that when a saying or activity of Jesus appears in more than one of these sources the more likely that the saying would be authentic.  British-trained tradition critics have tended to rely even more heavily on this principle than do Bultmannian-influenced tradition critics since it eventually centered upon the solution to the Synoptic Problem that the British, due to Streeter’s influence (The Four Gospels—1924), heavily prefer (i.e. the Four-Source hypothesis—Mark, Q, M, L). [xliii]   McArthur terms this criteria “the most objective of the proposed criteria.”[xliv]  This latter statement reveals the hopelessly subjective and biased nature of tradition criticism, for if this is the most “objective” criterion, then acute problems exist with the whole system.

Strategic flaws render this criterion as highly dubious: 1) The entire basis of the criterion centers in a highly questionable synoptic hypothesis.  As a result, such a criterion automatically has a built-in bias.  If, and it is very likely, that the Two- or Four-Source hypothesis is invalid, then this criterion proves nothing.  Therefore, merely because several alleged “layers of tradition” contain the saying or activity confirm nothing regarding authenticity.  2) No valid reason exists to deny the authenticity of a saying simply because it is found in only one alleged “source.”  This criterion is inherently negative since it implies that one witness is not sufficient.  The Bible only has to record a saying or activity once for it to have been actually spoken or performed by Jesus.

Related to the Criterion of Multiple Attestation is the Criterion of Multiple Forms.  C. H. Dodd was the first to suggest this principle as a tool for authenticity.  Heavily influenced by form criticism, this principle suggests that a gospel motif may be authentic if it appears in multiple forms, i.e. in different form-critical categories (e.g. pronouncement and miracle stories).[xlv]

In reply, similar counter-arguments apply to this category as to the Criterion of Multiple Attestation.  One witness is entirely sufficient to confirm what Jesus said or did.  The acute subjectivity of form-critical categories (as noted in this chapter) also reveals the highly speculative nature of this criterion.

The Criterion of Aramaic Linguistic Phenomena asserts that the presence of Aramaisms in the gospel material suggests the “primitiveness” of a particular tradition and, hence indicates the increased likelihood that the tradition actually comes from Jesus.  While Dalman, Burney, and Torrey were the earliest advocates of this hypothesis, Black and Jeremias have done the most extensive work.[xlvi]  Fuller goes so far as to say that “any saying of Jesus, if it is authentic, should exhibit Aramaic features, and if it has the structure of Aramaic poetry this increases the presumption that the saying is authentic.”[xlvii]  Jeremias argues that the presence of Aramaisms ”is of great significance for the question of the reliability of the gospel tradition,” while Turner asserts, “the closer the approximation of a passage in the Gospels to the style and idiom of contemporary Aramaic, the greater the presumption of authenticity.”[xlviii]

In reply, some strategic considerations militate strongly against its validity: 1) This chapter has already demonstrated that the mere presence of Aramaisms are no real indication of primitiveness or earliness.  On the contrary, Greek and Hellenism in general, as well as Aramaic, exercised a profound influence on the New Testament Palestinian environment, especially in terms of language and culture.  Jesus and many of the disciples, being raised in Galilee or having contact with Gentiles, would also have spoken and taught in Greek as well as Aramaic.  Jesus’s use of uJpokrithv” in Matthew 6:2, 5, 16 is a case in point, for it retains the classical Greek meaning of “play actor,” a meaning that is found in the papyri.  As Argyle relates, “It is probable . . . that Jesus was really speaking Greek not only in his use of uJpokrithv” but in the other words of his teaching when doing so in Galilee of the Gentiles.”[xlix]    Therefore, something cannot be ruled out merely because it does not reflect a alleged Aramaic source.  2)  The principle is hermeneutically misguided.  Inerrancy and the grammatico-historical hermeneutic dictate that inspiration is grounded in the autographs and not in any hypothesized sources that allegedly lay behind them.

The Criterion of Palestinian Environmental Phenomena contends that if a tradition evidences Palestinian social, domestic, agricultural, religious or other customs, then the tradition originated in a Palestinian environment rather than being a creation of a Greek or non-Palestinian church. The assumption here is that if a tradition betrays the time and environment of Jesus, the higher the likelihood that the tradition is authentic.  Jeremias argues that if the “pictoral element” of the tradition betrays Palestinian conditions, then a greater likelihood exists for the genuineness of the tradition.[l]

In reply, not all of Jesus teachings or incidents are exclusively Palestinian, especially since Jesus said things that indicate a Greek environmental influence also.  For example, physicians served as models for sententious sayings in many cultures, and some serve as striking parallels to Jesus’s words (Mark 2:17 cf. Meander, Fragment 591 K).[li]  Traditions, therefore, should not be doubted merely because they do not indicate an exclusively Palestinian background.

In addition to these “formal criteria,” two highly strategic “material criteria” exist: the Criteria of Dissimilarity and Coherence.  Although its origin is uncertain, the Criterion of Dissimilarity (or, Distinctiveness) is among the most strategic tradition-critical factors used by its advocates and heralded as the most-useful.  France comments, “This is the essential criterion, around which all others revolve” and “All others [i.e. criteria] are extensions of it, or are used only to check and confirm its findings.”[lii]  It is deeply rooted in the form-critical approach of Dibelius, Schmidt, and Bultmann.  Bultmann constantly subjected the gospel material to this criterion in his History of the Synoptic Tradition.[liii]  Käsemann describes it in the following terms, “In only one case do we have more or less safe ground under our feet [in determining authentic material]; when there are no grounds either for deriving a tradition from Judaism or for ascribing it to primitive Christianity.”[liv]

This criterion has come to its most fervent expression in the work of Perrin and Fuller.  Fuller argues, “As regards the sayings of Jesus, traditio-historical criticism eliminates from the authentic sayings of Jesus those which are paralleled in the Jewish tradition on one hand (apocalyptic and Rabbinic) and those which reflect the faith, practice and situations of the post-Easter church as we know them from outside the gospels.”[lv]   Perrin goes so far as to assert, “the criterion of dissimilarity . . . must be regarded as the basis for all contemporary attempts to reconstruct the teaching of Jesus.”[lvi]  The essence of this Criterion is that authenticity of a tradition about Jesus is established only when it does not fit within either the Christian community that transmitted it or the Jewish world in which Jesus lived and taught.

Several serious flaws render this Criterion tenuous.  First, this criterion blatantly assumes the inauthenticity of the traditions as its operating principle.  It automatically condemns the tradition to suspicion and unreliability (“guilty until declared innocent approach”).  Second, by its very formulation, it eliminates the great majority of the gospel material, especially since most does not conflict with Judaism or the early church.  Third, this tool is based on an argument from silence.  Our knowledge of Judaism during Jesus day and of the early church is limited.  To eliminate material based on our limited knowledge of these periods is precarious.  Fourth, acute subjectivity reigns in the application of this principle.  Scholars constantly differ as to whether a particular item is more “natural” against the background of primitive Christianity or against the background of Jesus ministry.[lvii]  Fifth, this principle erroneously presupposes no connection between Jesus and contemporary Judaism to which he belonged, and especially also assumes no connection between Jesus and the Old Testament.  A continuity would naturally have existed between Jesus and his contemporaries.  To exclude such agreement would lead only to distortion of what Jesus taught and result in a minimalistic Jesus or what is euphemistically termed “a critically assured minimum.”[lviii]  Fifth, this method directly conflicts with the Criterion of Palestinian Environmental Phenomena and Aramaic Criterion that an “authentic” saying of Jesus should reflect first century Palestine.  The tradition critic eliminates material if it can be paralleled in contemporary Judaism and also if it has a background that cannot be positively shown to be consistent with Palestinian Judaism of the first century.  At the outset, the critic has eliminates most, if not all, material.

The Criterion of Coherence functions as a buttressing corollary to that of Dissimilarity.  Moreover, its essential validity is dependent upon the validity of the other principles discussed.  If those principles are wrong or invalid, then any data accepted through coherence is also wrong and invalid.  Although he not explicitly formulate this principle, Bultmann used this type of criterion in the course of his form-critical work on the synoptic tradition.  Commenting on Matthew 12:28, he argues that the verse “can, in my view, claim the highest degree of authenticity which we can make for any saying of Jesus: it is full of that feeling of eschatological power which must have characterized the activity of Jesus.”[lix]

Perrin defines Coherence as follows, “material from the earliest strata of the tradition may be accepted as authentic if it can be shown to cohere with material established as authentic by means of the criterion of dissimilarity” and “once characteristics of Jesus teachings are established in this way [by the Criterion of Dissimilarity], these characteristics can be used to validate sayings which themselves would not meet the requirements of the criterion of dissimilarity.”[lx]  Thus, this principle contends that what is coherent with the material accepted as genuine by means of the Criterion of Dissimilarity can also be accepted as genuine.

Some strategic arguments also render this Criterion tenuous.  First, and perhaps most obvious, since this principle depends so heavily upon the criterion of dissimilarity, it automatically inherits the same problems.  Errors in results derived by the application of dissimilarity will be magnified by the application of coherence.  Second, acute subjectivity reigns in its formulation.  What standards judge coherence?  What may seem coherent to modern scholars may not have seemed coherent to a Jew or Christian in the first century.  This is capriciousness at its most brazen form.

In sum, tradition critics have carefully chosen these criteria to ensure results.  Minds already closed to the legitimacy of the tradition have devised principles designed to reinforce their preconceptions (perhaps better, misconceptions). Tradition critics never designed these principles to confirm, only to underscore their negativity about the reliability of tradition as a whole.  At best, they conceive of only a bare minimum of credibility to the tradition, and they predetermined the results to confirm this a prioriassumption by intentional design of criteria.  It is circular reasoning in its most malignant form.  They have guaranteed the results as meager.  These tradition-critical principles betray a philosophically preconceived agenda buttressing the contention that a preconceived hostility to the text exists in tradition criticism that eliminates any hope of objectivity. Perhaps more significantly, these so-called tradition criteria are devoid of any concept of inspiration in regards to the biblical text.  Their historical development stands as a salient testimony to this assertion.  Critics formulated these principles entirely apart from such considerations, and, to a large degree, from a virulent hostility to such concepts.

[i] Catchpole prefers to translate the term traditionsgeschichte as “tradition history” instead of “tradition criticism” since the German word Geschichte better designates “meaningful process” or “changeful movement” rather than its usually translated meaning of “history”: “the term ‘tradition criticism’ would be better abandoned and replaced by the term ‘tradition history’, interpreted in the sense of an on-going process of development in the form and/or meaning of concepts or words or sayings or blacks of material.” Catchpole, “Tradition History,” in New Testament Interpretation, 165.

[ii] Guthrie, Catchpole and Osborne place tradition criticism (or, history) more closely in association with redaction criticism, while Blomberg includes the discussion of tradition criticism (“criteria of authenticity”) under form criticism.  Catchpole describes redaction criticism as a special case of tradition criticism.  Stein closely associates form and tradition criticism but notes that the terms “technically . . . are not synonymous but in practice they essentially are.” See Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 243-247; David Catchpole, “Tradition History,” in New Testament Interpretation, 165-180; Grant R. Osborne, “The Method of Redaction Criticism,” in New Testament Criticism and Interpretation, 204-207; Blomberg, “Form Criticism,” in The Dictionary of the Gospels and Jesus, 248-249; Robert H. Stein, “The ‘Criteria’ for Authenticity,” in Gospel Perspectives.  Edited by R. T. France and David Wenham (Sheffield: JSOT, 1980), 226, 254.  Historically, since Bultmann and his followers provided the impetus for tradition criticism in seeking to determine allegedly authentic from inauthentic sayings of Jesus, the present article associates tradition principles here with form criticism.

[iii] For further information on the nature of tradition criticism, consult R. S. Barbour, Traditio-Historical Criticism of the Gospels (London: SPCK, 1972).

[iv] William G. Doty, “The Discipline and Literature of New Testament Form Criticism,” Anglican Theological Review (October 1969), 286.

[v] For example, see Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition, 205; Ernst Käsemann, Essays on New Testament Themes (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1964), 34-37; Norman Perrin, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus (New York: Harper and Row, 1976), 39-43.

[vi] Perrin, Rediscovering the Teaching’s of Jesus, 39.  Perrin also assumes that the early church placed words into the mouth of Jesus, so that “we must look for indications that the saying does not come from the Church, but from the historical Jesus.”

[vii] Käsemann, Essays on New Testament Themes, 34.  While the “New Quest” for the historical Jesus is touted as an attempt to get away from the complete skepticism reflected in the Old Quest of Bultmann and others, it has faired little better in distancing itself from the radical skepticism anchored in the Enlightenment.  For a survey of the New Quest, consult James M. Robinson, The New Quest of the Historical Jesus (London: SCM, 1959), 9-25.

[viii] Bultmann, Form Criticism, Two Essays on New Testament Research, 29.

[ix] Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition, 67; Form Criticism, Two Essays on New Testament Research Dibelius, From Tradition to Gospel, 287-295.

[x] For example, in Bultmann’s discussion of the feeding of the five thousand, he finds the Finnish fairy tale of a young girl feeding an army on three barley corns as a parallel to the feeding of the five thousand.  See Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition, 236.  Dibelius also cited analogies from rabbinical sources, and Greek and patristic literature.  See Dibelius, From Tradition to Gospel, 133-177.

[xi] Bultmann argues, “For the most part the history of the tradition is obscure, thought there is one small part which we can observe in our sources, how Marcan material is treated as it is adapted by Matthew and Luke.”  He goes on to note, “If we are able to detect any such laws, we may assume that they were operative on the traditional material even before it was given its form in Mark and Q, and in this way we can infer back to an earlier stage of the tradition than appears in our sources.”  Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition, 6.

[xii] For an salient example of tenuous nature of the Marcan hypothesis, see Hans-Herbert Stoldt, History and Criticism of the Marcan Hypothesis (Macon, GA.: Mercer, 1980).

[xiii] Bultmann, Form Criticism, Two Essays on New Testament Research, 25.

[xiv] Bultmann, Form Criticism, Two Essays on New Testament Research, 32.

[xv] Bultmann, Form Criticism, Two Essays on New Testament Research, 33, 35.

[xvi] Dibelius, From Tradition to Gospel, 287.

[xvii] Dibelius, From Tradition to Gospel, 288, 289-90.

[xviii] Dibelius, From Tradition to Gospel, 287, 291-292.

[xix] Dibelius, From Tradition to Gospel, 287, 292-293.

[xx] For further information, see Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition, 48, 55;  Dibelius, From Tradition to Gospel, 34-35; Vincent Taylor, The Gospel According to St. Mark, 65.

[xxi] Jeremias was himself a major opponent of the History-of-Religions School in Germany.  Yet, he too argued for the antiquity or genuineness of the saying based on the presence of Semitisms.  See Joachim Jeremias, ” The Parables of Jesus. Second Revised Edition (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972),  15.  Matthew Black also supports the idea that Semitisms indicates antiquity.  See Matthew Black, An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts.  Third Edition (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1967), 271; “The Problem of the Aramaic Element in the Gospels, Expository Times LIX(1947-48), 171-176.

[xxii] Bultmann, Form Criticism, Two Essays on New Testament Research, 18.

[xxiii] For additional examples, consult Franz E. Meyer, “Einige Bermerkungen zur Bedeutung des Terminus ‘Sanhedrion’ in den Schriften des Neuen Testaments, New Testament Studies 14 (1967-68): 545-551.

[xxiv] Saul Lieberman, Greek In Jewish Palestine.  Second Edition (New York: Philipp Feldheim, 1965), 38-40.

[xxv] For a more detailed treatment of these points, consult Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, “The Languages Spoken by Jesus,” in New Dimensions in New Testament Study. Edited by Richard N. Longenecker and Merrill C. Tenney (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974), 127-143.

[xxvi] Robert H. Gundry, “The Language Milieu of First-Century Palestine,” Journal of Biblical Literature 83 (1964): 408.

[xxvii] Argyle notes: “Any Jewish tradesman who wished his business to prosper would be eager to make his range of customers as large as possible and so would welcome Greek-speaking Gentile customers as well as Jews.  This would apply especially in Galilee of the Gentiles where the majority of the population was Gentile and Greek-speaking . . . . If Joseph and Jesus wanted their carpentry business to prosper, they would be happy to welcome Gentile as well as Jewish customers.  They would therefore need to speak Greek as well as Aramaic if they were to converse with all their customers.  Similarly Simon and Andrew, James and John would need to know Greek if they were to sell their fish in Gentile Markets.  So would Levi, the inland revenue officer, the civil servant, engaged in government employ.”  A. W. Argyle, “Greek among the Jews of Palestine in New Testament Times,” New Testament Studies 20 (1973), 88, 89.

[xxviii] While additional Latin words appear in the other gospels (dhnavrion, kh’nso”, kodravnth”, kravbatto”, legiwvn), the words listed here are exclusive to Mark. (vincent, Mark, 45.)

[xxix] Bultmann, Form Criticism, Two Essays on New Testament Research, 26

[xxx] Redlich, Form Criticism, 75.

[xxxi] E. P. Sanders, The Tendencies of the Synoptic Tradition (Cambridge: At the University, 1969), 272.  However, even Sanders is the product of the spirit of the time for supports the Four-Document Hypothesis typical of British scholarship.

[xxxii] Caird, “The Study of the Gospels: II. Form Criticism,” 140.

[xxxiii] The “Jesus Seminar” includes the Gospel of Thomas in this count as a quasi-canonical Gospel as the number in the title of their work reflects.   See Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels, What Did Jesus Really Say? (New York: Macmillan, 1993).  The Seminar consists of 74 scholars, many of whom are listed in the back of the work in a section entitled, “Roster of the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar” (pp. 533-537).  The exact selection process of the members of this “Seminar” is unknown.

[xxxiv] Funk attempts to distance himself from Bultmann.  Funk prefers to echo the sentiments of the post-Bultmannian ”New Quest for the historical Jesus” (inaugurated by Käsemann in 1953) that something can be known of the historical Jesus.  However, the results of Funk’s and the Seminar are essentially the same as that of Bultmann, i.e. little, if anything, is known of the “historical Jesus.”  See Charlotte Allen, “Away with the Manger,” Lingua Franca 5 (Jan./Feb. 1995): 26.

[xxxv]  See The Five Gospels, 3, 5.  For a succinct, critical analysis of the “Jesus Seminar,” see D. A. Carson, “Five Gospels, No Christ,” Christianity Today, April 25, 1994, 30-33.

[xxxvi] The Five Gospels, 3-5.

[xxxvii] Carson, “Five Gospels, No Christ,” 32.

[xxxviii] The Five Gospels, 5.

[xxxix] The Five Gospels, 2.

[xl] The Five Gospels, 4-5.

[xli] R. S. Barbour, Traditio-Historical Criticism of the Gospels (London: SPCK, 1972), 3.

[xlii] F. C. Burkitt was one of the earliest advocates of this principle.  See F. C. Burkitt, The Gospel History and Its Transmission (Edinburg: T & T Clark, 1911), 147-148.

[xliii] Harvey K. McArthur, “Basic Issues, A Survey of Recent Gospel Research,” Interpretation 18 (1964): 48.  Streeter labeled the Four-Source hypothesis “The Fundamental Solution.” See B. H. Streeter, The Four Gospels (London: Macmillan, 1953), 151-200.

[xliv] McArthur relates, “Bultmannians do not display any great interest in this multiple-attestation criterion, apparently preferring more esoteric guides.  Having indicated some scepticism of British tendencies in Gospel research I should comment that, in my judgment, their regular and faithful use of this criterion is to be commended.”  McArthur, “Basic Issues,” 48.

[xlv] C. H. Dodd, History and the Gospel (London: Nisbet, 1938), 91-103.

[xlvi]Gustav Dalman, Jesus-Jeshua, Studies in the Gospels (New York: KTAV, 1971[first published in 1929]), 1-30; C. F. Burney, The Poetry of Our Lord (Clarendon, 1925), 5-11; C. C. Torrey, Our Translated Gospels (New York and London: Harper, 1936), ix-lx; Black, An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts, 1-49; Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus. Second Revised Edition (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972), 25-27.

[xlvii] Reginald H. Fuller, The New Testament in Current Study (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1962), 33.

[xlviii]Joachim Jeremias, New Testament Theology (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971),  8; Henry E. W. Turner, Historicity and the Gospel (London: A. R. Mowbray, 1963), 77-78.

[xlix] Argyle, “Greek Among Palestinian Jews in New Testament Times,” 89.   See also, Argyle, “‘Hypocrites’ and the Aramaic Theory, Expository Times LXXV(1963-64), 113-114 where he argues that “It is difficult to see how there can have been an Aramaic equivalent for this; for theatre was forbidden among the Jews” (p. 113).

[l] Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, 11-12.

[li] Also, see Matt. 7:2 // Luke 6:37-38 // Mark 4:24 cf. Hesiod Works and Days, 349-350; Publilius Syrus, Sentences [A] 2.  Taken from carlston 99.

[lii] R. T. France, “The Authenticity of the Sayings of Jesus,” in History, Criticism and Faith.  Edited by Colin Brown (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1976), 108-109.

[liii] For example, Bultmann argues, “We can only count on possessing a genuine similitude of Jesus where, on the one hand, expression is given to the contrast between Jewish morality and piety and the distinctive eschatological temper which characterized the preaching of Jesus; and where on the other hand we find no specifically Christian features.” See Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition, 205 (also 101, 104-105).  The radical Schmiedel used this type of criterion even before Bultmann, see Paul W. Schmiedel, “Gospels,” in Encyclopaedia Biblica.  Edited by T. K. Cheyne and J. Sutherland Black (New York: Macmillan,1903), col. 1881-1883.

[liv] Käsemann continues, “especially when Jewish Christianity has mitigated or modified the received tradition, as having found it too bold for its task.”  Käsemann, Essays on New Testament Themes, 37.

[lv] Reginald H. Fuller, The Foundations of New Testament Christology (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1965), 18.

[lvi] Norman Perrin, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), 43.

[lvii] The word “Abba” enforces this point.  The word is Aramaic in form but no exact parallel is found in Judaism.  It, however, was used by the early church (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6).  By strict application of Dissimilarity, it should be eliminated, but tradition critics seem to accept it almost universally.  See Hooker, “On Using the Wrong Tool,” Theology 75 (1972): 577.  Perrin demonstrates his inconsistency when he comments on Mark 14:36 and Luke 11:2, “since . . . abba is . . . found in Rom. 8:15 and Gal. 4:6, it could be argued that the Jesus tradition is not here dissimilar to that of the early Church.  But these may not be regarded as representing early Christian tradition as such.  They are the only examples of it, and the Lord’s Prayer is universally known with its Matthaean form of address . . . The most reasonable explanation is that it is characteristic of Jesus rather than the early Church . . . . All in all, therefore, we may regard it as established, on the basis of the criterion of dissimilarity, that Jesus addressed God as abba.”  Perrin, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus, 41.

[lviii] Nils A. Dahl, “The Problem of the Historical Jesus,” in Kerygma and History.  Edited by Carl E. Braaten and Roy A. Harrisville (New York and Nashville: Abingdon, 1962), 156.  See Barbour p. 50 footnote 11.

[lix] Bultmann established the “feeling of eschatological power” as authentic through the Criterion of Dissimilarity.  Bultmann subjectively deems authentic “such sayings as arise from the exaltation of an eschatological mood,” “sayings which are the product of an energetic summons to repentance,” or “sayings which demand a new disposition of mind.”  He accepts them because they “contain something characteristic, new, reaching out beyond popular wisdom and piety and yet are in no sense scribal or rabbinic nor yet Jewish apocalyptic.”  Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition, 162; 105 cf. also p. 205

[lx] Perrin, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus, 43.


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