The Historical Jesus: Methodology


One issue that continues to recur in discussions about various portraits of the so-called historical Jesus is that of methodology. That is, how do we go about finding what is and is not “authentically Jesus” in the tradition? There is, conceivably, at least some mix of events which are historically accurate, and some which are inventions of the early church, among our sources.

In many cases, scholars take individual pericopes (individual stories, units, sayings, etc.), and apply various “criteria of authenticity” to determine if that unit is, or is not, historical. This method can also lead to assigning “probabilities of historicity” (i.e. this unit is probably historical, etc.), which tends to muddy the waters. After a scholar has waded through all the gospel (and some non-gospel) material, they generally take the portions of the text which they deem historical, or likely historical, and create their reconstruction of Jesus. Because this method allows scholars to “pick and choose” what they deem to be accurate material, it has led to vastly different pictures of Jesus as a historical figure. In short, contrary to their promise, the criteria of authenticity have not provided a “scientific” and objective way to determine what is historical in the tradition. A common critique is that a given scholar will pick what they like, and “create a Jesus in their own image.”

The criteria of authenticity were briefly discussed in a previous post, but it will be helpful to explore them further here. The criteria are always up for debate, but most commonly they include the criteria of multiple attestation, dissimilarity, embarrassment, and coherence.

Multiple Attestation: The criteria of multiple attestation refers to the idea that the more independent sources a unit appears in, the more likely it is to be historical. The questions immediately arise: What is an “independent source”? and “Which sources should we give the most weight to?”. A related part of this debate is the dating of various sources, which conceivably adds to the discussion about their accuracy (generally a source with an earlier date is seen as more historically accurate). An example of separating and dating independent sources appears in John Dominic Crossan’s The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (notice the variety of canonical and non-canonical sources as well as the “splitting” of sources into smaller units):

First Stratum (30-60 CE):
1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, Romans, Gospel of Thomas I, Egerton Gospel, Papyrus Vindobonensis Greek 2325, Papyrus Oxyrhynchus, Gospel of the Hebrews, “Q”, Miracles Collection, Apocalyptic Scenario, Cross Gospel.

Second Stratum (60-80 CE): Gospel of the Egyptians, Secret Gospel of Mark, Gospel of Mark, Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 840, Gospel of Thomas II, Dialogue Collection, Signs Gospel, Colossians.

Third Stratum (80-120 CE): Gospel of Matthew, Gospel of Luke, Apocalypse of John, 1 Clement, Epistle of Barnabas, Didache, Shepherd of Hermas, James, Gospel of John I, Letter of Ignatius, 1 Peter, Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians 13-14, 1 John.

Fourth Stratum (120-150 CE): Gospel of John II, Acts of the Apostles, Apocryphon of James, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, 2 Peter, Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians 1-12, 2 Clement, Gospel of the Nazoreans, Gospel of the Ebionites, Didache 1:3b-2:1, Gospel of Peter.

This obviously get complex very quickly, especially when a scholar divides even individual sources up into hypothetical smaller units. Even on this strata system, scholars would debate where each document should be placed and/or if a document is even, on surface level, reliable enough to list in the group of sources. An event which is commonly seen as passing the test of multiple attestation would be the Cleansing of the Temple, which occurs in Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.


Dissimilarity: The criterion of dissimilarity (sometimes “double dissimilarity”) states that if a unit is dissimilar from the Judaism of his day and/or dissimilar from the early church, it is more likely to be authentic. An example might be Matthew 19:12: “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.” This saying is conceivably dissimilar from 1st Century Judaism which saw children as a blessing and, in a sense, a command, as well as the early church which did not encourage “becoming a eunuch” in any source we have. With this criterion, the questions arise: Is this dissimilar enough to pass the test? Was “Judaism” or “Early Christianity” unified enough to have something solid to contrast a saying with?, etc.


Embarrassment: The criterion of embarrassment states that if a saying or story is embarrassing to the church but included in the source anyway, it is likely to be historical. An example of an embarrassing element in a gospel source is Mark 6:5 – “So he could not perform any miracles there, except to lay his hands on a few of the sick and heal them.” The author of Matthew alters the language to read “he did not do many miracles there,” relieving the “embarrassment” of Jesus being unable to do something.


Coherence: The criterion of coherence states that an event is more likely to be authentic if it “coheres” with other data which is already deemed to be authentic by means of other criteria. In general terms, “the whole picture needs to fit.”

Debate remains over whether each individual criterion helps, or hurts, the cause of finding authentic historical data, but these are the waters through which historical Jesus scholars typically wade.

A modern alternative (also already briefly discussed in a previous post) is the method demonstrated by Dale Allison in his The Historical Christ and The Theological Jesus. One could fairly call this method “pattern-seeking” – that is, if the tradition as a whole displays a certain pattern about Jesus, it is likely that Jesus acted or spoke in that way. Allison applies this method, for instance, to data from the gospels showing that Jesus made uncommonly difficult demands upon people. He also applies it to Jesus’ eschatological expectations and self-conception. For instance, after cataloguing data implying that Jesus held an apocalyptic eschatology, he concludes:

“I do not contend, because I do not believe, that all this material comes from Jesus, directly or indirectly. Nor do I insist that any of it is word-perfect memory. To repeat what I have said before: the Synoptics are not primarily records of what Jesus actually said and did but collections of impressions. They recount, or rather often recount, the sorts of things that he said and did, or that he could have said and done. As for eschatology in particular, my contention is that either a decent number of the entries in my catalogue fairly characterize what Jesus was about, or the tradition is so full of mnemonic holes and fictional accretions that the quest is a vain aspiration and we should find some other pastime with which to amuse ourselves.”


Allison’s method privileges general impressions over individual sayings/units.

Methodology in general remains a highly debated issue within the field.

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