Saturday, June 02, 2012

The Criterion of Dissimilarity and the Son of Man

The Criterion of Dissimilarity, which is related to the Criterion of Embarrassment, is a test applied by some critical scholars to judge the authenticity of sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels.

It goes something like this: if a particular saying attributed to Jesus is similar to other sayings known to be in circulation at that time in history, then there is no good reason to claim that the particular saying originated with Jesus, it could have been a common Rabbinic saying which someone attributed to Jesus after his time but before the gospels were put into writing. However, if a saying of Jesus is dissimilar to all the other sayings from the time, then this is good evidence that it might have originated from him.

One issue I have with this is that it is common to include the sayings and teachings of the early church as part of the 'sayings of the time' with which Jesus's sayings are compared. In other words it is common to assume that if a saying existed in the life of the early church and it also appears in the mouth of Jesus in the gospel stories, then the criterion of dissimilarity suggests we cannot assert that the saying originated with Jesus.

Eh? So if Jesus said something and his followers were repeating it a few decades later then this criterion immediately casts doubt on it. So any words of Jesus which were put into action by his followers are immediately suspect... Doesn't sound like a very good criterion to me.

The flip side of this is the sayings which the criterion suggests are authentic because they are unique to the gospels and are not mirrored in the life of the early church are more likely to be authentic to Jesus. What? The stuff that Jesus apparently said that the early church ignored is the most authentic stuff? Not convinced there.

The classic instance of this is the  use of "Son of Man" - this phrase appears nowhere in the literature of the early church, nowhere in the epistles, nowhere in things like the Didache, it only appears in the Gospels. Because of this, the criterion of dissimilarity suggests that it is most likely that Jesus used this terminology to speak of himself in the third person. What?

Surely if there was a historical Jesus who taught his followers things, those followers would use the same terminology when they discussed and wrote things later on. They wouldn't ignore the terminology for decades, suddenly use it when they were writing gospels, then suddenly stop using it again. That pattern suggests that those words were unique to the Gospel writers, but didn't originate with the historical Jesus.

So the claim that Jesus was the Son of Man is a claim made about Jesus (some decades later), but is clearly not a claim made by Jesus.

1 comment:

Rev Tony B said...

CK Barrett, in an article in a book called "New Testament Essays", made the point that 'son of man' is very odd Greek, but quite unremarkable Aramaic. Since the Synoptics originated in Greek, it is unlikely that the phrase originated with them. The least that can be said is that it is an Aramaism which therefore reaches back to the first decade or so of the Jesus-movement. What seems most likely is that it was preserved as early tradition (possibly originating with Jesus himself), but as the faith moved into increasingly Hellenistic societies it became an awkward and indeed incomprehensible phrase to explain. A parallel case can made for the gradual replacement of very Hebraic terms such as 'messiah' with more accessible Greek terms such as 'Lord.'

I agree with you about the criterion of dissimilarity - if anything which related to either his Jewish background or his Christian successors is deemed inauthentic, the only Jesus we could be left with is an absolute alien. Gerd Theissen suggests replacing most of John Meier's criteria with a criterion of historical plausibility (the book is called The Quest for the Plausible Jesus). The aim is to demonstrate the plausibility of Jesus within his historical context (contextual plausibility) and as the cause of continuing Jesus-tradition and subsequent events (plausibility of historical effects). Both are necessary. With reference to the son of man sayings, I suggest the scenario I have outlined is a more plausible explanation for their place in the tradition than their being invented by the writers of the synoptics.