New College, University of Edinburgh
Authenticity Criteria

Authenticity Criteria

(Helen Bond) Many thanks to Chris Keith (a former student of Edinburgh) and Anthony LeDonne for organising this excellent conference, and to UTS in Dayton, Ohio for hosting it. A group of us watched it all through the day on Friday – right to the end (which was starting to get quite late over here). All the speakers were excellent, and the format of short papers, responses and questions worked really well. I’ve never really used ‘criteria’ much in my research, possibly beause people whose books I most admire (EP Sanders, Dale Allison) seem to have got by quite happily without being unduly worried by them.

What the conference showed was that all the standard criteria have their flaws, and that a heavy-handed (and lazy) reliance on them can be misguided. They can give historical reconstruction the air of a pseudo-science, when in reality it is anything but ‘scientific’. I found the discussion of embarrassment particularly interesting – for example, I’d always simply assumed that early Christians were embarassed about Jesus’ baptism by John from the start, but I now realise that they may have had good reasons for wanting to stress the connections with the popular preacher initially, and perhaps only felt awkward about baptism ‘for the remission of sins’ later.

At the same time, though, it was clear that in moderation the critera can have their place. And while some at the conference would happily ditch them altogether, I’d be with those who think that a limited appeal to them is still in order. Researching the past requires a huge amount of skills – not least a logical and sensible approach to sources, imagination, and a self-critical approach to our own biases. As long as the standard criteria are simply tools in our box, I don’t have a problem with their limited use.

There was lots on memory at the conference too – it will be interesting to see how social/collective memory studies help us, both with understanding the sources and the historical realities behind them, as this interesting new angle is explored.

Once again, thanks to all who put on this valuable conference. You certainly gave a group of Edinburgh people something to talk about in the pub!

  • Andrew Kelley,
  • 7th October 2012

Comments

  • Ron Price, 14th October 2012 at 10:28 am | Reply

    Surely the point about Jesus’ baptism by John is that the *author of Mark’s gospel* showed no sign of embarrassment. What is more, the story made a very convenient introduction to the ministry of Jesus and also provided the narrative setting for an early declaration that Jesus was God’s Son. Thus the story had a crucial narrative function, and so the possibility of its creation by the author of Mark’s gospel should be taken seriously. If Mark lacked reliable information about the start of Jesus’ ministry, he would have had a clear motive to invent such a story.

  • mathstutorwirral, 1st November 2012 at 9:49 am | Reply

    ‘As long as the standard criteria are simply tools in our box, I don’t have a problem with their limited use.’

    Is the general feeling that these standard criteria don’t work, so they should only be used sparingly?

    ‘ I’ve never really used ‘criteria’ much in my research, possibly beause people whose books I most admire (EP Sanders, Dale Allison) seem to have got by quite happily without being unduly worried by them.’

    So what does Sanders use to decide that Jesus really did have 12 disciples, who went around with him, for reasons which seem a little unclear to me? (Who needs a fixed number of disciples? What did they do all day long?)

    What criteria does Sanders use, if he doesn’t use the standard ones, and why did nobody call him out on his using ‘non-standard’ methodology?

    • cscoedinburgh, 3rd December 2012 at 8:59 pm | Reply

      Hi, by ‘criteria’ I’m meaning the likes of ‘criterion of dissimilarity,’ ‘criterion of embarrassment’ etc (the kind of thing that was much in vogue in the ‘new quest’ of the 1950s-70s). Its a heavy handed use of these pseudo-scientific methods that the conference was critiquing. In actual fact, I don’t think many people really do use them all that heavy-handedly (apart from the Jesus Seminar and J. P. Meyer, to some extent – though again they are much too astute to depend on them alone). Sanders et al just use the standard tools of all historians – ie he might look at which traditions are well established in the sources, but he wouldn’t necessarily label it ‘the criterion of multiple attestation’. So I’d say Sanders’ methodology is very much mainstream, especially as its practiced by other ancient historians.
      Hope this helps!
      Helen

      • mathstutorwirral, 3rd December 2012 at 10:11 pm | Reply

        So Sanders doesn’t use these criterion at all, or if he does, he wouldn’t necessarily label it so people would know which criterion he was using?

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