Monday, July 15, 2013

Dale C. Allison on Marginalizing the Traditional Criteria

Effectively ending what has been a significant moratorium on my reading of books on the historical Jesus (though not ending my conviction that they do nothing but wiggle prejudices and call it historical truth), today I opened up the Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus.  Therein, kicking it off no less, was an absolutely wonderful article by Dale C. Allison Jr., "How to Marginalize the Traditional Criteria of Authenticity."

Allison, after pointing out the reversibility of various criteria (and their mutual exclusion), moves on to list seven reasons he thinks it is time to put the definitive tools of the Third Quest to bed (p9):

  1. that Jesus said X or did Y is of itself no reason to believe that we can show that he said X or did Y; conversely, that he did not say X or do Y is of itself no reason to believe that we can show such to be the case; and the criteria do not contain within themselves any promise of what percentage of the tradition can be traced to its source, and in practice that percentage turns out to be small
  2. our criteria have not led us into the promised land of scholarly consensus, so if they were designed to overcome subjectivity and bring order to our discipline, then they have failed: the hopelessly confusing parade of different Jesuses goes on
  3. the fact that the criteria can be in conflict with themselves, that is, that some criteria can favor the authenticity of a unit while other criteria favor the inauthenticity of the very same unit, demonstrates their unreliability
  4. running units through the gauntlet of the traditional criteria presupposes that there is a clear distinction between what is authentic and what is not, which is a very misleading proposition
  5. most of us have not consistently heeded the criteria we claim to heed anyway
  6. our criteria are not strong enough to resist our wills, which means that we tend to make them do what we want them to do
  7. when we focus on criteria for individual units we can easily lose the more important larger picture, which is the place to start and the place to end.
Mr. Allison, as you can clearly see, is a man after my own heart.  He then moves on to justifying each of these contentions, I quote the first since it struck me particularly.

the gap between what happened and what we can discover to have happened is much larger than we care to imagine. Aristotle seemingly preferred to speak of Pythagoreans in general instead of Pythagoras in particular because he found it too hard to extract the historical philosopher from the apocryphal material assigned to him. 

As Allison observes, we might learn a thing or two from Aristotle.  We all knew he was better at logic, but who knew Aristotle was also better than us at history?

Allison moves on to discuss point 6, and describes how models of the historical Jesus are really made on p.19.  He has us imagine a grad student, who becomes convinced that Schweitzer's Jesus is more or less correct (or incorrect--either conviction will work), because a "revered professor, whose arguments she has not the means to rebut, persuades her of this."

Her paradigm is now in place, and this predicts what she will see next, "like highly prejudicial football fans who always spot more infractions committed by the team they are jeering," we all see what we expect to see.  We can't help it.

But here's the problem.  The next thing she does is collect evidence, echoing her professor's belief, which only builds her certainty that she is correct.  It is Allison's suggestion that only after this has occurred will our student give real reflection to criteria.

Allison's suggestion is, of course, wholly correct.  We can all think of examples where criteria are applied inconsistently, and are clear post hoc rationalizations.  Conveniently, we also usually see them in our opponents (Crossan's inconsistencies have always been obvious to me in a sense that Meier's have not, for example).  The simple reality is that they are always post hoc.  They are applied after the model is conceived, not before.

Allison's appraisal of the value of criteria is quite correct.  They provide a veneer of rigor, but they aren't fooling anyone anymore.  There is no real rigor behind them.  This is increasingly recognized, but never rectified.

It's time to move on.

Since the set runs some 1200 bucks, I can only assume that most readers have no intention of picking up the handbook.  Fortunately, I'm running on the assumption that the site linked in my last post is offering its material with the full knowledge and consent of copyright holders, and lo! there is the first volume of the set.

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