Baker Academic

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Thate on the Criteria of Authenticity Doubters—Chris Keith

In a post yesterday, Michael Halcomb drew attention to Michael Thate's argument that the contributors to Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity are really just forwarding a program that is the criteria of authenticity in drag.  I first saw Thate's study at SBL this past year and was excited to start reading it.  Unfortunately, I was quickly disappointed in his assessment of Demise, and me in particular, because I didn't, and don't, feel that we were accurately represented.  I'm still going to finish Thate's book, which is a social history approach to "memory" in Jesus work.  I'm sure it's important and it seems promising.  He's a very interesting writer, but I'll mention just a few things that led to my disappointment.

Thate employs the Derridean term of "outbidding" to contextualize our opposition to previous historical Jesus methods (13).  I suppose this is true, but I'm not entirely sure what form of critical scholarship that entails disagreement with what-has-gone-before wouldn't qualify as "outbidding."

In a footnote on the same page (13n.86), Thate says regarding "post-criteria historical Jesus research":  "Later Keith attempts to mitigate the mounting suspicion one has while reading his chapter by stating that a 'post-criteria quest for the historical Jesus is not a post-critical quest' (p.205). It is not clear to me how this can possibly be the case given his lack of explication of what this might mean and how 'post-criteria' yet still critical engagements functionally differ from the post-critical convictions of say, Kaehler and McKnight."  He then proceeds to cite two publications of mine, a ZNW article and my monograph, Jesus' Literacy, but no pages for either. 

I have no idea what Thate's "mounting suspicions" might be, but it sure seems that he's insinuating that I'm not being honest when I say that a post-criteria quest is not a post-critical quest.  If this is the case, I can only say two things.  First, I think it's more professional to stick to someone's argument instead of what one suspects his or her motives to be.  Second, I really meant it when I said that a post-criteria quest is still critical, as I have argued both for and against the historicity of aspects of the gospels based on a post-criteria approach, which brings me to my next point. 

I'm particularly confused by his statement that I haven't given an explication of what post-criteria Jesus research might look like in light of the fact that he then cites two of my publications wherein I do precisely that.  One can argue about whether I am convincing, but I don't think it's up for debate whether I at least have made the effort.  Other scholars, at least, have not missed this.  For example, I quote Christopher Skinner's review of Jesus' Literacy:  "In my estimation, the WHAT of this book is not as important as the HOW. Here’s what I mean: Keith’s research topic (viz., did Jesus hold status as a scribal literate teacher?) is likely not as earth-shattering as some other questions we could ask about the historical Jesus (though I do believe he has demonstrated its importance relative to other questions). Rather, the strength of what Keith has done in this book is that he has provided us with a very good model of how to do responsible Jesus research on a specific issue using a social memory approach. Aside from his conclusions (which I think are plausible), I believe that the employment of his method is the greater contribution of the book."  I'll add that Dale Allison's foreword to Jesus' Literacy notes similarly that the book as a whole is an effort to make judgements about the historical Jesus sans criteria of authenticity.  Again, I could be completely wrong in my arguments, but I have at least made an effort to show examples of what post-criteria Jesus research could look like.

I suppose the oddest statement for me is on p.17:  "Though certainly promising on many counts, the purported 'post-criteria' approach adopted here cannot escape the erotics of 'authenticity' or the gaze of the originary.  This is a Quest for the pure genre; the authentic genre; the real genre.  As such, this amounts to little more than the criterion of authenticity in drag."  Hmmm.  Alrighty then.  As to the "erotics" and "drag" comments, I think this is a very strange way to sexualize one's interlocutors and I don't really think I have much more to say about that.  I am confused further, though, that Thate seems to think we have simply redressed the criteria of authenticity.  Speaking for myself, I think that he is discussing a different "authenticity" than I am.  I mean it specifically as the New Questers defined it--bits of the past detached from interpretive frameworks.  I don't think such a thing ever existed; so I certainly have not tried to redress it or apply it at a generic level, and I note that Thate provides no example where I have called upon a criterion of authenticity and cites no example to demonstrate that any of the contributors "cannot escape the erotics of 'authenticity.'"  I guess he means that we're still interested in "authenticity" in some way, but again, for me, I'm dealing with a very specific type of "authenticity" and one that's not possible in my opinion.  And to my knowledge, not a single contributor to Demise ever makes any reference at all to an "authentic genre." 

I'm sure I'm misunderstanding something here and I'm open to correction.  But I can't help the sense that I've been misrepresented, and at least join company with Dale Allison who, as Thate notes on 217n.235, also believes Thate had not understood him.

I should emphasize that I raise these issues mainly out of disappointment in light of the fact that the book shows great promise.  I think Thate's book could be very important, and I use the subjunctive there only because I haven't read it all yet.  Maybe I've misunderstood his misunderstanding, however, and I'd welcome clarification.


  1. Every now and again, I'm reminded that I'm not an academic. But as a lawyer: if something I wrote was described as "Blackstone dressed in drag," I think I'd die a happy man.

  2. One of the best responses to a whacked out critique I've ever seen. Absolutely takes the wind out of its sails. Well done, indeed.

  3. "Though certainly promising on many counts, the purported 'post-criteria' approach adopted here cannot escape the erotics of 'authenticity' or the gaze of the originality."

    Go home, pseudo-Derrida! You're drunk!

    Seriously, this is what happens when theory runs ahead of actually having anything to say.