Serampore College: Theology Department
Authenticity of the Sayings of Jesus
By Mr.sanda aung
26th November 2007
INTRODUCTON: In contrast to the more traditional way of definding”authentic”as being actually and exactly what the thing in question is said to be, so that an authentic saying of Jesus would mean an actual saying of the historical Jesus in synoptic Gospel but A.T Roberson said,” some of the more important reported saying of Jesus are given which are not found in the gospels or acts; whether true words of the master or not, it is not known”. It is evident from even a cursory reading of literature that scholarly attitudes toward the historicity of the gospel materials very drastically. On the one side we have those scholars who possess positive attitude toward gospels materials and on the other side we have possess an equally negative toward the materials.
1. THE PROCESS BY WHICH THE GOSPELS WERE WRITTEN: To understand and appreciate the criteria that scholars use to determine the authenticity of various sayings in the Gospel tradition, we must remind ourselves of the process whereby the Gospels came to be written. As far as we know, Jesus himself did not put down any of his teachings in writing. Also, there is no evidence that any attempt was made during his lifetime to record what he said and did. Indeed, all the evidence suggests that it is only in the light of Resurrection, Ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit at the Pentecost, that the early church began to put together the various pieces that eventually contributed to its understanding of who Jesus was.
These individual “pieces”, or “pericopae”, or “units of tradition” were originally used in the preaching and teaching of the early church. This is the period, reckoned to be around 30 years that scholars refer to as the “Oral tradition” period. Gradually, however, it appears that collections of these units were made, linking together teaching on the same topic, or incidents that had something in common, for example the healing narratives.
2. ARGUMENTS IN SUPPORT OF THE AUTHENTICITY OF THE GOSPELS’ ACCOUNT OF THE SAYINGS OF JEUS:
Various arguments are frequently raised in support of the authenticity of the Gospel accounts. Some of these are as follows:
(1) The existence of the eyewitnesses during this period would have had the effect of seeing that those traditions would be faithfully preserved and that non-historical traditions would not be added.
(2) The existence of a centre of leadership (the Church at Jerusalem) would have caused the traditions to be passed down carefully and accurately.
(3) The high view of traditions. In several texts in the New Testament- for example, Rom. 6: 17, I Cor. 7:10, 12- we find a very high regard for the tradition of Jesus. This is particularly true in Paul’s arguments in I Cor. 7 where he carefully distinguishes between points that he makes that have the support of a dominical saying and other points that do not have such support.
(4) The view that much of the Gospel; material was simply created by the early Church to meet its religious needs and solve various religious problems is difficult to accept in the light of the fact that several of the major problems that the early church encountered never show up in the Gospel materials. Since the first and the most important issue that the early church faced was the question of whether the Gentile Christians had to be circumcised, one would expect to find some saying of Jesus that dealt with this issue, if the church were creating material to solve certain problems.
(5) The faithfulness of the early church in preserving difficult sayings of Jesus. Another line of evidence that generates confidence in the reliability of the tradition is the presence of difficult sayings in the Gospels. In the light of the Gentile mission, Jesus deliberate restriction of himself and his disciples to ministering to Israel could very easily have become an embarrassment to the early church. The presence of a saying, therefore, as that in Matt. 10: 5-6 supports the position that the tradition was not altered to avoid inconvenience or embarrassment. Similarly the preservation of a saying like that contained in Mk. 9:1, which can be misunderstood as implying that Jesus was not infallible in his predictions, points in the same direction of reliability of the tradition.
(6) We must also not forget that the ability to remember the traditions and pass them on faithfully is not limited by our present day inability to do this or to conceive of this. The introduction of cheap writing materials into the world has had a negative impact in that it has paralyzed our abilities to memorize and to use the mind, rather than notebooks and files, as a data bank.
3. CRITERIA USED TO DETERMINE THE AUTHENTICITY OF JESUS’ SAYINGS: In spite of all that has been said, many scholars would begin from a position of skepticism and assume that all we have in the Gospels are creations of the early church unless there are strong indications towards authenticity. In determining the authenticity of Jesus’ sayings, the scholars have used different criteria. Some of the commonly used are:
3.1. The Criterion of Dissimilarity or Discontinuity: This criterion states that any teaching or action of Jesus which distinguishes him both from the Judaism of his day and from the early Christian Church may be accepted as authentic. For example, according to this criterion the Sabbath controversies ( Mk. 2:28), can be considered as authentic since, as far as we know, there were no disputes neither in Judaism nor in the early Palestinian Church regarding Sabbath observance.. Another example is the use of the word “Abba” by Jesus in addressing God. “Abba was a family word, the tender address of the father -a secular word. Jews never dare to address God in this manner.
According to Robert H. Stein, the criterion of dissimilarity is sufficiently functional as to place a heavy burden of proof upon anyone denying the authenticity of any saying which meets its standard.
i) The dissimilarity criterion can demonstrate only what is distinctive about Jesus; what he shared with his contemporaries will by definition fail the test. It is quite possible that men and women in the early church were influenced by the teachings of Jesus and repeated it and adapted it to fresh situations. Similarly it may be possible that Jesus did not differ from his contemporaries.
ii) Another objection is that this criterion eliminates the great majority of gospel materials because most of these materials do not conflict with both the Judaism of Jesus’ day and theology of the early church.
iii) A more substantial criticism of this criterion is that it presumes that we possess a sufficient knowledge of the Judaism of Jesus’ day and primitive Christian community to determine if a particular Gospel tradition could not have arisen out of this environment.
3.2. The Criterion of Multiple Attestations: There are four independent lines of transmission of materials that have been identified behind the Synoptic Gospels tradition:
(i) The material that is found in Mark, Matthew and Luke (designated as Mk).
(ii) The material that is common to both Matthew and Luke (designated as Q).
(iii) The material that is peculiar to Matthew (designated as M).
(iv) The material that is peculiar to Luke (designated as L).
It means that the greater the number of independent lines of transmission a saying or incident is attested by, the greater the confidence we can have in its authenticity. For example, in Mark’s Gospel, we have three predictions of the coming sufferings of the Son of Man (8:31-33; 9:30-31; 10:32-34). However they all belong to this one line of transmission. By this criterion, however, the case for authenticity is strong because we have a prediction in Lk. 17: 25 as well, a passage which is certainly non Markan.
This criterion may be used most effectively to establish motifs rather than individual sayings or deeds of Jesus. And it is also useful when the motif is found in more than one form. For example, using this criterion we can safely conclude that the tradition that Jesus spent a lot of effort in reaching out to religious and social outcasts and often had table fellowship with them is authentic. This is because this tradition not only appears in several of the sources (cf. Mk. 2: 15, 17; Q: Mt. 11: 18-19; L: Lk. 15: 1-2; M: Mt. 21: 28-32), but also in several forms- sayings, pericopes, parables and so on.
The criterion of multiple attestations does increase the confidence one can place in a tradition, but singly attested material may also prove equally genuine.
3.3. The Criterion of Semetism: We are fairly certain that that the mother tongue of Jesus was Aramaic, and in particular a Galilean dialect of Aramaic. It follows that the presence of Aramaic linguistic characteristics in our Greek Gospel materials could be taken as a sound indication of a tradition that goes back right to Jesus. An obvious example is Jesus’ cry on the cross (Mk. 15: 34 and Mt. 27: 46).This criterion was used by Joachim Jeremias, who points to traces of Aramaic vocabulary, grammar, syntax, rhythm, in the Greek version of saying of Jesus as signs of authentic sayings.Another way in which this tool is used is to note the presence of certain puns which are only puns in Aramaic but not in Greek. An example of a pun which is a pun only in Aramaic is Matt. 23:23-24. In the Greek New Testament, this does not appear as a pun but when retranslated back into Aramaic, the pun is evident because the term for gnat is galma and for camel is gamla. Thus we have this pun: ‘you blind guides, staining out a galma and swallowing a gamla.’ The possibility that this saying arose in a Greek environment and by chance is converted into a pun in Aramaic is minimal. It seems quite reasonable to conclude that Matt. 23:23-24 arose in an Aramaic-speaking environment.
A number of criticisms have been raised, however, against this criterion. It has been objected that the presence of such Aramaic linguistic phenomena in a tradition establishes only that the tradition arose in an Aramaic- speaking context, but the context could be the Aramaic speaking church rather than the historical Jesus. Another criticism is that the presence of Aramaisms in the Gospel materials may be due to Septuagintal influence on the part of the Greek Church or the gospel writers. Meier states that this criterion has serious problems because many of the Christian Jews also spoke and wrote in Aramaic.
The intermingling of Semitic and Hellenistic (see Hellenism) cultures in the first century makes the third criterion very difficult to apply; it is hard to maintain that a Semitic form or style could not have been created in early Christianity or that Jesus could not have utilized Greco-Roman concepts and forms of speech.
3.4. The Criterion of Divergent Tradition: When an author preserves traditions that do not especially serve his purpose, they may well be taken as testimony to the authenticity of that material.The inclusion by the evangelist of material that does not fit his theological scheme serves as a non-intentional witness to the antiquity and authenticity of such material. A good example is found in Matt. 11:13 ‘For all the prophets and laws prophesied until John…’ This seems to contradict with Matthew’s heavy emphasis on the permanent validity of the Law found elsewhere in his Gospel (e.g. Mt. 3:15; 5:17-20; 7:12; 12:5).So according to this criterion, Mt.11:13 are authentic.
3.5. The Criterion of Modification by Jewish Christianity: This particular criterion is frequently associated with the criterion of dissimilarity. One example frequently given of how Jewish Christianity allegedly modified the original teachings of Jesus in order to fit better with its own situation is the famous “Exception clause” found in Matthew 5:32 & 19: 9. in contrast to Markan parallel in Mark 10:11-12 which reads, whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her: and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery and the “Q” parallel in Luke 16:18 which reads, everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who maries a woman divorced from husband, commits adultery. Matthew had in both of these sayings the exception ‘except on the ground of unchastity’ (Matt. 5:32) or except for unchastity (Matt. 19:9). In the light of these two-fold agreement in Mark and “Q” as well as the parallel in I Cor. 7:10-11 which also lacks an exception clause, it seems reasonable to conclude that ipsissima verba (very own words) of Jesus lacked this exception. According to Robert H. Stein, the criterion on one hand witnesses negatively to the authenticity of a material but on the other witnesses positively to its authenticity. The fact that the early church modified such a tradition witnesses to the possibility that the tradition had such an authority and ancient pedigree that the Church or the evangelists could not ignore the tradition but had to deal with it in the only possible way – by modifying it to suit the present context.
Weakness: This criterion is not applicable to singly attested materials.
3.6. The Criterion of Contradiction with Authentic Sayings: According to this criterion, a saying is unauthentic if it contradicts a recognized authentic saying.
Weaknesses: According to Calvert, this criterion is very limited in its application, for there are few instances when one can say with certainty that two sayings are contradictory. For instance, is the command “Judge not, that you be not judged (Mt. 7:1) in contradiction with “Do not give dog what is holy; and do not throw your pearls before swine…”(Mt. 7:6) which demands that one ‘judge” between “swine’ and “non-swine” and “dog” and “non-dogs?” We must therefore exercise extreme care before we conclude that a real contradiction exists between an authentic saying of Jesus and the saying that is being compared with it. At the same time, can we assume with certainty that what we consider contradictory could not have been seen by Jesus as standing in a certain harmonious relationship?
3.7. The Criterion of Embarrassment or Contradiction: According to Meier those traditions that that would have created difficulty or embarrassment for the early Church can be considered as authentic. An example is the Baptism of a sinless and superior Jesus by John.
3. 8. The Criterion of Coherence: According to Perrin, a material may be accepted as authentic if it can be shown to cohere or be fully consistent with materials established as authentic by means of other criteria. In other words, this criterion can not be used by itself, but together with the other criteria. It is the last tool that should be applied in the quest for authentic sayings of Jesus.
Weakness: The criterion of coherence can not serve as an absolute proof of authenticity, for the early Church could have created materials that cohere with Jesus’ authentic teachings.
EVALUATION AND CONCLUSION: Although some criterions are stronger than others in establishing the probability of authenticity of a saying, it would appear that taken alone no single criterion can prove that a saying in the Gospels is authentic. A saying can be claimed with reasonable certainty to be authentic only if it meets most (or ideally all) of the positive criteria mentioned above.
Even if we can not be certain that a particular saying goes back to Jesus in the precise form in which we now have it, that does not necessarily make it inauthentic. There may well be a difference between what is “authentic” and what is “proved to be authentic”- that is, just because a method can not prove a report to be authentic does not mean that this does not in fact correspond to, or cohere with, what happened, for the criteria developed may not be effective enough to detect the truth about a saying uttered 2000 years back in a quite different context. The correctness of a criterion depends on the measure of validity of the presuppositions associated with it.
Wintle,Brian. Synoptic Studies: A Primer, vol. 1. Bangalore: Theological Book Trust, 1998.
Blomberg,C.L. “Form Criticism” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, edited by Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight and I. Howard Marshall .Leicester: Intervarsity Press, 1992.243-249
Stein,Robert H. “The ‘Criteria” for Authenticity” in Gospel Perspectives: Studies of History and Tradition in the Four Gospels. Vol. I Edited by R.T. France and David Wenham .Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1983. 225-253
 Brian Wintle, Synoptic Studies: A Primer, vol. 1 (Bangalore: Theological Book Trust, 1998), 33.
 Robert H. Stein “The ‘Criteria” for Authenticity” in Gospel Perspectives: Studies of History and Tradition in the Four Gospels. Vol. I Edited by R.T. France and David Wenham (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1983), 225-253
 Brian Wintle,op.cit.,34.
 Robert H. Stein,op.cit.,
C.L. Blomberg, “Form Criticism” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, edited by Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight and I. Howard Marshall (Leicester: Intervarsity Press, 1992) 243-249
 Brian Wintle.,op.cit.,35.
 Robert H. Stein.,op.cit.,252.
 C.L. Blomberg.,op.cit.,
 Robert H. Stein,op.cit.,243.
 Brian Wintle.,op.cit.,36.
 Robert H. Stein,op.cit.,
 Brian Wintle.,op.cit.,37.
 Robert H. Stein,op.cit.,233.
 Brian Wintle.,op.cit.,234.
 C.L. Blomberg.,op.cit.,
 Brian Wintle.,op.cit.,237.
 Robert H. Stein,op.cit., 247.
 Robert H. Stein,op.cit.,251.