Baker Academic

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Interview with Mark Goodacre (Part I)

Over the next week, The Jesus Blog will be posting segments of my interview with Mark Goodacre. Our thanks to him for his time and insights.

ACLD: For our upcoming conference on Jesus and "authenticity criteria" in Dayton, you'll be presenting a paper on the limits of the so-called Criterion of Multiple Attestation. You've also podcasted (can this be used as a verb?) a bit about this. As I understand it, you like this criterion in theory, but remain unconvinced of its practical use in Jesus studies. In your mind, is the problem with Multiple Attestation related to the relative lack of independent sources? Or is there a more foundational problem with the idea of itemizing ancient traditions as either "authentic" or "invented" categories?

MG: Thanks for the interesting questions, and renewed thanks for the invitation to participate both in the volume and in the conference. I enjoyed writing the essay because it gave me the chance to articulate some concerns that I have had for some time when teaching the "criteria" in Historical Jesus classes. My podcast on the topic came out of that teaching too, in the Spring 2012 version of the course. (Yes, I use "podcast" as a verb too).

I think everyone, on a general level, ought to like this criterion. After all, who would seriously claim to prefer late, singly attested traditions to early, multiply attested ones? But there are serious difficulties in practice, yes. And there are some fundamental problems too with what scholars are actually saying when they invoke the criterion.

I can perhaps summarize my concerns with the criterion under three basic headings. First, I am baffled by the fact that scholars can argue simultaneously that a given tradition is both "embarrassing" and "multiply attested". This appears self-contradictory and frankly ludicrous to me and it suggests that something is wrong somewhere. Second, many scholars work with an unrealistic idea of the independence of early source material -- you have all these Christian communities in isolation from one another producing their isolated sources from isolated traditions. I don't believe in the model. Third, it seems likely to me that early, reliable traditions are more likely to be singly attested than multiply attested. Did the historical Jesus ever spit? Well, he spits in Mark, one of our earliest sources, but he does not spit in Matthew or Luke (or Q, M, L or Thomas). Here, I think Mark may be right.

To be fair to those who work with the criteria, what many of them do is more nuanced than dividing things into piles labelled either "authentic" or "invented". Even the frequently mocked Jesus Seminar attempt to be more nuanced than that by (literally) pointing to shades of grey -- and pink. But where we do need to be careful is in the kind of drastic oversimplifying that we often do in historical Jesus work, a drastic oversimplifying that leads to all sorts of over-confident statements about historicity and non-historicity of particular traditions.

...more with Mark Goodacre will be published tomorrow...

1 comment:

  1. To be crude, "Même Tintin fait caca". I seems reasonable to assume that Jesus spat, because that's what people do. If all we had to go on was attestation, we'd have to assume that Jesus - like Tintin - never defecated.