The Criteria of Historical Authenticity

The so-called “minimal facts” are four facts about Jesus and the early Church that are accepted by the vast majority of critical scholars with terminal degrees in a relevant field. As such they form the “explanandum” or “thing to be explained,” in any informed and responsible discussion of what occurred on the first Easter Sunday. The minimal facts are,

Crucifixion and Burial. That after his crucifixion and death under the governorship of Pontius Pilate, Jesus was buried in a tomb by one Joseph of Arimathea.

The Empty Tomb. That days later the tomb was found to be empty by a group of Jesus’ female followers.

The Post Mortem Appearances. That thereafter various individuals and groups, at various times and places, had experiences that completely convinced them that they had seen, touched, spoken to and eaten with the risen Jesus.

A Sincere Belief in the Resurrection. That these experiences completely transformed the disciples, inspired a belief among them that God had raised Jesus from the dead and led to the formation of the Church.

Before weighing up the different hypotheses that have been put forward to account for these four facts, it is important to understand how they have come to enjoy such widespread assent among critical scholars.

Criteria of Historical Authenticity

Anyone can claim anything in writing—a point which applies to modern authors and, a fortiori, ancient authors since in the case of ancient authors we cannot appeal to contemporary eyewitnesses. On what basis, then, can we affirm that one historical claim is more likely to be true (or more likely to be false) than another? It is here that critical scholars apply what are called “critieria of historical authenticity.”

Before listing these it is important to first note that they state sufficient but not necessary conditions of historicity; in other words, that one or n number of criteria apply to p is further reason to regard p as historically authentic but that only one or none of the criteria apply to q is not a reason to regard q as historically inauthentic. It should also be borne in mind that they are not infallible guides to authenticity; rather, we should regard them as “Indicators of Authenticity.” We could summarise all this by just saying that the probability that some saying or event in the New Testament is historical is greater for its satisfying the criteria than it would be if it did not.

Early Multiple Attestation

According to this criterion the historicity of p is more probable if p appears in early, multiple and independent sources near in time and space to the alleged occurrence of p. It applies at many points to the New Testament of which I will give just one example here. The Resurrection appearances are multiply attested in Pauline and Gospel sources and were quickly proclaimed by the first Christians in the very city where Jesus had been crucified and buried. In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul says that the risen Jesus was seen by as many as five hundred witnesses at one time—and adds that many of those witnesses are still alive to be questioned. If Paul made up this claim and then announced it in the place where, within living memory of his audience, it was alleged to have occurred, he would have been exposed as a fraud. This gives us further reason for thinking that it is historically reliable.

Attestation has particular force when it originates in a hostile witness and we see this throughout the New Testament also. To again give just one example: The Sanhedrin, the Jewish court which engineered the crucifixion of Jesus, responded to the Christian claim that he had risen from the dead by accusing the disciples of stealing the body. This is an incidental admission from hostile witnesses of a fact that actually corroborates the Resurrection Hypothesis; namely, since the Sanhedrin would certainly have produced the corpse of Jesus if they could, the accusation strongly suggests that the tomb of Jesus was empty which is precisely what the Christians claimed a group of women had discovered on Easter morning. As Paul Maier notes, “if a source admits a fact that is decidedly not in its favour, the fact is to be presumed genuine.” 

Dissimiliarity

This criterion states that the historicity of p is more probable if p is dissimilar to the prior beliefs of those claiming its occurrence. The death and Resurrection of Jesus satisfy this criterion very clearly: Since first century Jews expected a Messiah who overthrows the Roman occupiers and a general resurrection at the end of history, a Messiah who dies and is individually resurrected in the middle of history represents a very strange and dramatic mutation within the Jewish worldview. N. T. Wright makes this point central to his massive study The Resurrection of the Son of God in which he argues that only the Resurrection itself can satisfactorily account for the emergence of a sincere Jewish belief in a dying and rising Messiah. The historicity of the New Testament claim that Jesus rose from the dead is thus highly probable on the criterion of dissimilarity.

Embarrassment

The criterion of embarrassment states that the historicity of p is more probable if p is problematic for the one who claims the occurrence of p—on the logic that an author fabricating a claim does not fabricate a detail that undermines the credibility of his own claim. It applies to many New Testament claims but to none more obviously than the crucifixion of Jesus. Prior to the Resurrection the Apostles had believed that Jesus was the Messiah prophesied to defeat the foreign occupying power and restore the throne of David in Jerusalem. His ignominious execution by the very foreign power his followers expected him to overthrow was therefore a profound embarrassment: It dashed their hopes of his triumph and appeared to confirm the Sanhedrin claim that Jesus was a false prophet accused by God. On the criterion of embarrassment the historicity of the crucifixion is highly probable.

The Criterion of Embarrassment applies again to the burial of Jesus. To appreciate this it is enough to know that Joseph of Arimathea, the man who both supplied the tomb and buried Jesus in it, was a member of the Sanhedrin; and the Sanhedrin was the Jewish court which had engineered the crucifixion of Jesus. If the Gospel authors wished to fabricate a story about the death and burial of Jesus they would not have given the Sanhedrin the dual role of murdering Jesus and then humanely laying him to rest. According to John A. T. Robinson of Cambridge, the entombment of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea is, “one of the earliest and best attested facts about Jesus.”

It also applies to the discovery of the empty tomb by specifically female followers. And this is because, in first century Jewish culture, the eyewitness testimony of women was held in such low esteem that it was not permitted in a court of law. It is for this reason highly improbable that the Gospel authors would have hung a pivotal event in their story on the testimony of those witnesses least likely to be believed. The criterion of embarrassment suggests that both these inconvenient details—the burial of Jesus by a member of the Sanhedrin and the discovery of the empty tomb by a group of female followers—are truths reluctantly but dutifully recorded.

Historical Congruence

This criterion states that the historicity of p is more probable if p coheres with known historical facts about the context in which p is said to have occurred. This criterion applies at many points of the New Testament of which I will mention just one: The New Testament claims that Joseph of Arimathea requested the body of Jesus from Pilate so that he could bury it before the Sabbath; that Joseph and Nicodemus together bound the body in linen and placed it in a hewn tomb; and, finally, that when the Sabbath was over a group of female followers of Jesus arrived at the tomb with spices to anoint the body. Because all of these details are congruent with our knowledge of Jewish burial customs in the first century the criterion of historical congruence gives us further grounds for affirming their historicity. 

Semitisms

This criterion states that the historicity of a New Testament sentence p is more probable if it contains traces of an Aramaic or Hebraic origin. Since the New Testament was written in Greek and Jesus spoke Aramaic, traces of Aramaic in the Greek of the New Testament argue in favour of a primitive tradition that originates in Jesus. We see this, for example, in Paul’s quotation of a creedal tradition in Corinthians. “I delivered to you,” he reminds the Corinthians, “what I also received,” suggesting the transmission of an oral tradition. Paul then recites a list of eyewitnesses to the risen Jesus which, as Habermas and Licona point out, contains numerous hints of an Aramaic origin that would seem to vouch for its authenticity—including the fourfold use of the Greek term for “that,” hoti, common in Aramaic narration, and the use of the name Cephas (“He appeared to Cephas”) which is the Aramaic for Peter.

 Whatever hypotheses one defends will have to account for the four minimal facts mentioned above. And while I think it can be demonstrated almost beyond dispute that the Resurrection Hypothesis is an inference to the best explanation here, that is a topic for another post.

 

2 replies
  1. Barry
    Barry says:

    Would you point me to the scriptures that support this claim about what the apostles believed? Where does it say that they were embarrassed or how might we infer that they were?

    “Prior to the Resurrection the Apostles had believed that Jesus was the Messiah prophesied to defeat the foreign occupying power and restore the throne of David in Jerusalem. His ignominious execution by the very foreign power his followers expected him to overthrow was therefore a profound embarrassment: It dashed their hopes of his triumph and appeared to confirm the Sanhedrin claim that Jesus was a false prophet accused by God.”

  2. Ben Mines
    Ben Mines says:

    Hello again, Barry. I think you are being a little too literal-minded about the word “embarrassment” here. To be clear: The Criterion of Embarrassment is not applied to historical claims about events in which the persons involved were literally embarrassed. Rather, it is applied to claims which have unwelcome or problematic entailments for the author of those claims. And the increased likelihood of historicity is due to the fact that, if the author were fabricating the claim, he would be unlikely to fabricate a detail problematic to his own claim.

    Let’s re-consider two well-known applications of the criterion.

    The Gospel authors claim that Jesus was laid in a tomb by one Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph of Arimathea was a member of the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin was the Jewish court which had engineered the crucifixion of Jesus. If the Gospel authors wished to fabricate a story about the burial of Jesus they would not have made up a Sanhedrin named Joseph of Arimathea and given him the role of humanely laying Jesus to rest.

    The Gospel authors claim that the empty tomb was found by female followers of Jesus. In first century Jewish culture, the eyewitness testimony of women was held in such low esteem that it was not permitted in a court of law. If the Gospel authors wished to fabricate a credible story about the discovery of the empty tomb, they would not have made women the key witnesses. And in this same connection, and perhaps still more notably, it is Mary Magdalene—and not, say, Peter, the leader of the Church—who is the first witness to the Resurrected Jesus—a fact which is apologetically air-brushed out of Paul’s list of witnesses in the First Epistle to the Corinthians.

    The criterion of embarrassment suggests that all these inconvenient details—the burial of Jesus by a member of the Sanhedrin, the discovery of the empty tomb by women, and the first appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene, a woman, before his appearance to the male leaders of the Church—are all truths reluctantly but dutifully recorded.

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