Monday, 10 November 2014

No, I don't use the criteria of authenticity (or, on how I know what I am doing)

As a follow-up to my previous post on the criteria of authenticity I would like to address an issue raised in response via Facebook. The issue can be phrased as question: are you not employing the criteria of multiplicity and of coherence in your own example? The answer, simply, is “No.” Yes, I note a multiplicity of similar data; yes, I note that from this data one can infer a coherent narrative. It does not follow that I am using criteria of authenticity. In fact I’m not, for a very good reason: authenticity is not my question.

Authenticity, in this particular connexion, refers to whether or not one can state that a given account in the gospels, a given pericope (or “cut out,” to invoke the Greek etymology), describes events that, in that perennially mischievous phrase, “go back to Jesus.” In other words, “Did this really happen?” That is not my question. My question is “What happened?” Those are in fact quite different questions. The latter question does not necessarily depend upon answering the former. This is indicated by that equally perennially equivocation, “something like this,” as in the phrases: “Jesus said something like this,” “Jesus said something like this.” The “something like this” is an explicit concession that Jesus did not do or say this, for “like” is not “is,” which is to say that similarity is not identity. Thus the answer “Jesus did something like this” is in fact an answer to the question “What happened?”, not to “Did this really happen?”, for the latter question can only admit of two answers: “Yes or no.” I suppose one could then modify the question to read “Did something like this really happen?”, but that is again to concede that an affirmative answer is possible only if one has already given a negative answer to the initial question, “Did this really happen?” Moreover, it raises that delightfully sticky question, “How ‘like’ must ‘something like this’ be in order to actually qualify as ‘something like this’?”

Thus in the example of the Bethany/Bethphage complex, given in my initial post, I argue that the data is sufficient to judge that Jesus did indeed have followers in and around Bethany/Bethphage. I do not state that any given account is “authentic,” or “happened.” Such a statement is what the criteria are calculated to allow; it is not what I aim to do. Therefore I am not using the criteria of authenticity because I am not making judgments of authenticity. Put otherwise, the genitival “of” in “criteria of authenticity” means something, such that not just any invocation of heuristic insights regarding multiplicity of data or coherence of narratives will be instances of the criteria of authenticity.

Note further that in fact I am not using the criteria of multiple attestation or coherence, as they are commonly articulated. The criterion of multiple attestation is fully the criterion of multiple independent attestation. It states that if two witnesses, independently of each other, both report much the same thing on a given matter then we can suppose that something much like those reports occurred (note that pernicious “something like” again). I am not using the criterion of multiple independent attestation because independence is irrelevant to my argument. Put more precisely, I do not think that there is such a thing as genuinely independent attestation in the gospel tradition. “Independence” in this connexion has always implicitly, sometimes explicitly, meant “literary independence.” But the stuff of history is not textual relations but human relations, and first-century Christianity is much too small to realistically think that the evangelists did not receive knowledge via media other than writing. In other words, oral interference interferes with the criterion of multiple attestation. When I speak of a multiplicity of data I mean precisely and only that: the Bethany/Bethphage complex recurs sufficiently in the tradition that whether it has come to these sources independently or not (a matter that we probably cannot establish) is quite beside the point. Come to think of it Mark Goodacre said much the same in his chapter on the criterion of multiple attestation in Keith and Le Donne’s Demise of Authenticity.

Nor do I use the criterion of coherence. The test of coherence that I employ is not whether the data coheres with that which is already affirmed as authentic, which is what the criterion of coherence tests. It cannot be, as I am not interested in affirming anything as authentic. So if there are no judgments of authenticity regarding the data to what can further data cohere? Coherence is a perfectly good test, especially when directed at the coherence of my hypothesis. Is it coherent? Is it logically valid? Does it make good internal sense? Even better is correspondence, defined as finding adequate warrant for my hypotheses in the data. Put negatively, and to borrow a phrase from Schröter, does the data "veto" my hypothesis? Is my hypothesis rendered unlikely given what we find in the extant data? That is the question. And among those hypotheses that survive that acid test, which account for the greatest amount of relevant data with the fewest number of suppositions?
To sum up. I am not employing criteria of authenticity because I am not concerned with questions about authenticity. And not every instance of advert to multiplicity or coherence in Jesus studies constitutes use of the criteria of authenticity, and certainly will not when authenticity isn't the question. And whilst surely there are criteria of judgment they are precisely that: criteria of judgment. They ask: by what do I judge a hypothesis to be reasonable or unreasonable. Is the hypothesis adequately parsimonious? Does render the data unintelligible? Etc. They are, in short, what puts the "critical" in "critical realism."

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