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Raymond Brown on the Jesus Criteria

January 25, 2013
Raymond Brown

I have been thinking about the Jesus criteria quite a bit lately. After having my seemingly unsophisticated views demolished by the likes of Keith, LeDonne and company, I picked up Helen Bond’s recent book on the historical Jesus, in which she seems a little more optimistic about the continued use of the criteria. (By the way, Nijay Gupta has recently reviewed this book on his blog.) Well, today while grocery shopping in anticipation of the “massive snowstorm” about to hit eastern NC (read: less than one inch), I was listening to a series of audio lectures on my iPod given by the late Ray Brown. The lectures were given shortly before Brown’s death in the late 1990s. When discussing the formation of the Gospels and the historical Jesus he introduces the criteria (about which he was skeptical for reasons other than recent arguments) and comments:

The criteria will haunt us in this sense, that they were trying–and this is very important–they’re trying to say, ‘What evidence is absolutely, scientifically sure?’ Nothing else can be allowed. And they excluded certain things. Suppose he [viz., Jesus] quotes the Old Testament. You can’t allow it because the apostles quoted the Old Testament. It might come from them rather than him. Suppose he speaks with certain Jewish ideas. You can’t allow that as evidence because the apostles also had Jewish ideas and it might have come from them. Suppose there are words preserved in Aramaic. They [viz., the apostles] spoke Aramaic as well so you can’t allow that. So you have this very narrow basis of material that they would allow in court to discuss this Jesus.

From here he goes on to compare this approach to the two different approaches taken in the O.J. Simpson criminal and civil trials (favoring, of course, the approach taken in the civil trial in that it allowed for more evidence to be considered). Brown’s distaste for the criteria is evident here and it seems clear that this is largely related to fact that they had a narrowing effect on what could be known about the historical Jesus.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. January 26, 2013 12:25 am

    As I was reading this (and thank you, BTW), the thought that came to my mind was, “Our desire for objectivity was not just futile (= we were never going to be dispassionately objective); it was distorting.” The criteria of authenticity are not just unhelpful; they are fraudulent.

    • January 26, 2013 1:10 am

      Rafael, it’s funny because I talk endlessly with my students about presuppositions and about how we all have our lenses, but I guess I never really applied this thinking critically to the criteria until recently. Thanks for weighing in! I think “fraudulent” is a very good descriptor.

  2. January 28, 2013 5:42 pm

    Fr. Brown was a wonderful scholar and an even more wonderful person. A regular fixture at CBA every year until he fell ill. He’s still sorely missed by many of us for so many reasons.

    • January 28, 2013 5:46 pm

      His brilliant work is still relevant today. The same cannot be said for so many scholars of that generation.

  3. January 28, 2013 5:43 pm

    Reblogged this on Zwinglius Redivivus and commented:
    A fitting reminder of Fr. Brown’s really awesome work.

  4. May 28, 2013 4:03 pm

    Can anyone tell me how to get hold of the lectures you mention, I’d love to listen them.

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