Thursday, May 07, 2009

The Golden Rule and the problem of Historical Jesus criteria

In an enjoyable post on The Busybody, Loren Rosson asks Did Jesus teach the Golden Rule? with reference to the fourth volume of John Meier's Historical Jesus project.  I haven't read the new Meier yet, but I would like to comment on something that emerges from Loren's post.  His answer is that Jesus did not teach the Golden Rule -- "Meier shows that the Golden Rule doesn't meet any of the criteria of authenticity, least of all discontinuity"; it is only singularly attested and it is "thoroughly inconsistent with Jesus' demands stated elsewhere".

Are these criteria adequate to the task of establishing that Jesus did not teach the Golden Rule? I don't think so. "Discontinuity", more commonly "dissimilarity" is a notoriously problematic criterion. There must have been substantial continuity between Jesus and his Jewish context, and between Jesus and the first Christians. Käsemann's use of the criterion of dissimilarity only served to create a Lutheran Jesus. Single attestation (Matthew or Q) is, of course, problematic if one is a fan of the criterion of multiple attestation, but those of us who are sceptical about the existence of Q, the independence of Thomas or the independence of John have precious few independent sources anyway. And the alleged inconsistency of this saying with Jesus' other ethical teaching presupposes a use of the criterion of coherence that is at variance with the likelihood that Jesus was inconsistent, like other charismatic leaders of new religious movements (Jack T. Sanders).

But even if these criteria were strong, it is in the nature of criteria in historical research that they cannot demonstrate what Jesus did not say. The point of the criteria, as I see it, should be to help us to work out where the strongest evidence can be found, to adjudicate on what material is the securest in our pool. In other words, we might decide to avoid the use of a particular saying in our reconstruction of the Historical Jesus because that saying is not part of what we think we know for sure.  But that is different from saying that Jesus did not say the thing in question.


Jason A. Staples said...

Agreed. It is a misuse of HJ criteria to use them to "rule out" sayings as attributed to Jesus. The criteria as formulated are designed to show what we can be relatively certain traces back to the historical Jesus, not what we can rule out.

They can really only show positive results/conclusions. If Jesus is recorded as saying something that is discontinuous with the apparent practices of the early Church, the criterion of dissimilarity flags that saying as especially likely to trace back to the HJ.

Taken otherwise, That criterion would only rule out everything in continuity with prior Judaism or later Christianity -- the two things most linked with the HJ!

On the question of the "golden rule" itself, are we to really assume that it's more likely that an early Jewish prophetic figure known to have had significant contact with the Pharisees would NOT have taught something along these lines? Both Hillel and Paul attest to the same teaching at around the same time, and we're to think it more likely that Jesus would not?

(Of course, that Paul teaches the same touches on the debates as to how much of Jesus' teaching he actually knew and the tendency of scholarship to ignore Paul as a significant source for multiple attestation, at least in the few places he is similar.)

steph said...

Obviously I'm looking forward to reading Meier's new volume but I found this little titbit very surprising. I agree with you absolutely here.

Jim Deardorff said...

There's also the fact that the Golden Rule is but simple wisdom, and that Jesus was known as a wisdom teacher, both by himself and others in Nazareth. So it could well be that the criterion of dissimilarity or discontinuity applies more to the writer of Matthew than to Jesus. In that case, much of Matthew that we all ignore in terms of advice to live by, because of its impractability, is merely the handiwork of that writer, who was no wisdom teacher.

Loren Rosson III said...

Mark, you write:

"We might decide to avoid the use of a particular saying in our reconstruction of the Historical Jesus because that saying is not part of what we think we know for sure. But that is different from saying that Jesus did not say the thing in question."

Meier does, in the end, admit that "his case against the claim that the Golden Rule was taught by the historical Jesus is not airtight. After all," -- he's anticipating you here -- "in most instances, it's nigh impossible to prove a negative in ancient history. Hence I am willing to live with the position of those who prefer a judgment of non liquet (not clear either way)." (p 557) But his actual case is that "there are no solid grounds for affirming that the Golden Rule was ever uttered by the historical Jesus" (p 552).

I hope to have a full review of Meier up this weekend.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks for all the comments. Thanks, Loren, for that useful additional quotation from Meier. I hope to comment further when I have had a chance to read Meier myself.

steph said...

Thanks Loren. I misunderstood your original blog. Still looking forward to reading his big book though...

steph said...

Jesus was known as a wisdom teacher? That's debatable :-)