Sunday, February 12, 2006

Historical Jesus Forgotten Criteria I: Accidental Information

I am doing some thinking about the notorious "criteria" for dividing authentic from inauthentic material in Historical Jesus research, brought on because I am in the middle of teaching this at the moment. Having re-read various of the scholarly discussions of criteria, I have been struck by a couple of promising and helpful criteria that are missing in recent literature. The first of these is particularly badly represented in the literature. Indeed, the only person I know who mentions it is Michael Goulder, almost thirty years ago:
Accidental Information. “Paul is trying to tell the Corinthians that Jesus rose from the dead, and he says, ‘He appeared to Cephas’: he tells us by accident that there was a man known as Cephas, and this is therefore dependable. Detection, both criminal and historical, is largely based on this criterion.” (Michael Goulder, “Jesus: The Man of Universal Destiny” in John Hick (ed.), The Myth of God Incarnate (London: SCM, 1977): 48-63, 50).
I need to think about this a little more, but I reckon that this is actually a criterion people are often working with without realizing it. The problem with Goulder's discussion is that it is only a sketch, and he gives few examples of this kind of material, where early Christian writers reveal information en passant, but he also points to "the Twelve" in 1 Cor. 15.5 as another example (Goulder, "Jesus": 54). One might add other information that Paul provides in passing, like the fact that Jesus had brothers who were married (where the point is that people have a right to take a believing wife on mission, 1 Cor. 9.5), or likewise that Cephas was married (also 1 Cor. 9.5). And I reckon the criterion could be applied to some of the Gospel material too, e.g. that Jesus had a house in Capernaum (Mark 2.15)?

Update (14 January, 09.48): thanks for all the comments on the post, several of which show that some more clarity is required in defining this criterion. Goulder's point, as I see it, is that a given author will give away information that is shared by him/herself and his/her audience in the course of constructing an argument about something else. So when Paul says "Have I not got the right to take a believer as wife . . . as do the brothers of the Lord" (1 Cor. 9.5), the information here provided en passant is "Jesus had brothers" and, what's more, "Jesus' brothers were married". His point is not to convey this information; he is not narrating this information, or making it available afresh to readers who previously knew nothing of it. Rather, it is shared information that Paul can take for granted, but which gets conveyed (to us as historians) while he is relating other information as part of an argument. To try to make the point more clearly still, Paul's point in 1 Cor. 9.5 only makes sense if it was reasonably widely known that Jesus had brothers who went on mission. The argument takes for granted that there were such people, and the assumption is necessary for the argument to work. It is not the point of the argument.


crystal said...

I don't know much about this, but once you posted a link to a discussion between three theologions by email, on the nativity (I think) and one of them mentioned info that was "embarrassing" as being trustworthy. Is that a similar criteria as accidental?

Anonymous said...

Dr. Goodacre,
Thanks for bringing this criterion to my attention, i have not heard it before. However, I wonder about the designation of "accidental"- It does not seem to me in the context of ancient manuscript writing that information would accidentally be written (and Paul quickly wished there was such a thing as white-out). It seems that the 1st example given seems more to be periphery information- that is, information that is not essential to his point, contributes little if any to his argument, and makes little or no difference to the text if it wasn't there. I agree that this would be a valid criterion, but I am not sure that accidental is the right description or designation.

Danny Zacharias

Michael said...

Furthering Danny's point, must we not be careful not to sell the authors short in assuming these tidbits were simply 'accidental'. The best authors can lead you down a road without you knowing it. I'd be more comfortable with the notion if there is simply no compelling reason for the information to be included. Might not the mention of Cephas first be part of an ulterior motive?

Mark Goodacre said...

The point is that Paul says "and he appeared to Cephas", which provides us with the information, "There was a person in the early Christian movement of prominence called Cephas". Or when Paul says "Have I not got the right to take a believer as wife . . . as do the brothers of the Lord", the information here provided en passant is "Jesus had brothers" and, what's more, "Jesus' brothers were married". His point is not to convey this information; it gets conveyed in passing while he is relating other information as part of an argument.

Mark Goodacre said...

Crystal: yes, "embarrassment" is often given as one of the chief criteria in Historical Jesus research, e.g. in John P. Meier's survey in his first historical Jesus book. I prefer the term "Against the grain" for this criterion myself, the term used by E. P. Sanders, because I find it difficult to believe that the evangelists were "embarrassed" by any of the material they recounted -- it's an anachronistic way of looking at things. But it does seem to be the case that they sometimes included materials that went "against the grain" of their basic interests.

usarkurt said...

according to the exegesis I have read ( in German especially) ,far from accidentally,paul mentions cephas as a well known and respected figure quite purposefully,in order to establish himself ,i.e. paul,although the lord appeared to him only as the risen one,as the last in the line of the authentic resurrection witnesses.
I am in no way able to make sense out of mr goulders remarks
kurt usar
graz austria

Michael Turton said...

I think this criterion suffers from a number of assumptions that all criteria "positive" suffer from:

1. It assumes that the texts tell history instead of telling stories. No criteria demonstrates that; it is taken as an axiom in NT studies. If the texts are simply making up history, then the criteria is invalid.

2. As the previous poster noted, it assumes that the writers were not aware of the information they were conveying, whereas we know from the extensive forgery and redaction and editing and manuscript alteration in early Christianity that writers and redactors were intensely aware of what even the most minor words could convey.

3. Like other criteria, no method is offered when criteria clash. Paul refers to "the twelve" right there next to the appearance to Cephas -- an "anachronism" that later manuscripts often attempt to correct (a good example of the way the various editors and transmitters were well aware of what words meant). If the appearance to Cephas is history by the "accident" criterion, then so are the twelve. Yet, most exegetes, I suspect, would allow the first but disallow the second. Similarly the example that Mark G gives above in Mark 2 may be read as Jesus having a home in Capernaum, not merely a house. But since that conflicts with the idea of Jesus as being from Nazareth, that will be disallowed.

It's a nice idea, but it looks to me like yet another criteria whose function is largely apologetic in nature, to be used when it doesn't conflict with "established history" but ignored when it does.


Mark Goodacre said...

I enjoyed your response, Michael, but bear in mind that Michael Goulder is the one who brings this up and I can think of few scholars for whom the term "apologetic" is less appropriate. On "the twelve", Goulder in fact does regard that as an example of information Paul gives away en passant, and many would regard the twelve as bedrock, most famously E. P. Sanders in Jesus and Judaism. Moreover, the criterion does not "assume[s] that the writers were not aware of the information they were conveying". Rather, the point is that they give away information in passing when they are in the course of making a point about something else, e.g. Paul does not narrate the story of Jesus' family, but mentions Jesus' brothers while he is discussing mission in 1 Cor. 9. It is a question of what the writer is seen to be assuming as shared information when he is in the course of constructing an argument about something else.

daviv52 said...

One problem with the proposed criteria is that the ancient opponents of Jesus were just as credulous as his supporters. Another problem is that opponents seeking to discredit Jesus might not care if their invective had a factual basis. Your example from the miracle stories illustrates boyh my points. Because the ancients were more likely to believe in miracles than we are does not mean we can find evidence that Jesus performed miracles from the fact that his opponents accused him of being in league with the devil. The same goes for the ancient accusation that Jesus was illegitimate. The fact that opponents turned around the story of the immaculate conception does not provide any support for the proposition that Jesus was nor the legitimate offspring of Joseph and Mary.