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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 50, 2002

S. E. Porter, The Criteria for Authenticity in Historical-Jesus Research: Previous Discussions and New Proposals (JSNTSup 191; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), Pp. 299.

In this contribution to historical Jesus research, Stanley Porter confines himself to the so-called ‘criteria of authenticity’ to which scholars appeal when attempting verify what the historical Jesus said and did. The book is divided into two distinct sections. The first deals with the traditional criteria developed by scholars in the last century, while the second introduces three new criteria proposed by Porter himself. In the first section (chapters 1–3), Porter documents the rise and development of the major traditional criteria of authenticity — (double) dissimilarity, least distinctiveness, coherence, multiple attestation, semitic language, embarrassment, rejection and execution, and historical plausibility — and provides a critique of these particular methods.

Porter’s dissatisfaction with the current criteria leads him in the second section to advance a way forward in historical Jesus research. He contends that three new criteria can and should be used in reconstructing the teaching of the historical Jesus. Fundamental to these criteria is Porter’s prior claim that Jesus was probably multilingual, speaking Aramaic as his first language and Greek and perhaps Hebrew as acquired languages. On the basis of this premise he then suggests a new criterion of authenticity, the criterion of Greek language and its context. This means that in certain Gospel passages the conversations Jesus had with others suggests that Greek would have been the language of communication. Examples here include his dialogues with the Herodians (Mk 12:13–17), the centurion of Capernaum (Mt 8:1–10), Pilate (Mk 15:2–5), the Syrophoenician woman (Mk 7:26–30) and the Samaritan woman (Jn 4:4–26). Porter notes that in these passages the words of Jesus are short and to the point, a consistent pattern that points to their authenticity. He claims as well that some of the other traditional criteria lend support to this conclusion.

Porter’s second criterion is that of Greek textual variance. This criterion is applicable to independent traditions with similar wording. The more removed from the common source, the greater the level of variation, while lesser variation indicates more stability in the tradition and closer proximity to the authentic teaching of Jesus. Here Porton discusses some of the pericopes authenticated by his first criterion — the Syrophoenician women, the dispute with the Herodians, the conversation with the disciples at Caesarea Philippi and the trial before Pilate — and uses this principle to authenticate certain words of Jesus. The third criterion is that of discourse features. In simple terms this involves isolating the language of any given evangelist and comparing it with the words attributed to Jesus. Porter illustrates the use of this method by analysing Mark 13, and concludes that this discourse is decidedly different from the remainder of the Gospel and may perhaps derive from Jesus.

The first half of Porter’s book is far better than the second. His critique of historical Jesus research and the traditional criteria for authenticity are in many cases justified. These criteria are problematic in one way or another, and none of them provides the sure results proclaimed by their advocates. But Porter’s three new criteria fare even worse. These criteria work on the premise that Jesus knew and used Greek during his mission. While this is certainly possible and should not be excluded out of hand, Porter’s evidence is mostly circumstantial rather than definitive. Against this proposal is the early evidence of Acts that the primitive church was divided along linguistic and cultural lines. On one side were the Hebrews, including the family and disciples of Jesus, who seemingly spoke Aramaic, and on the other were the Greek-speaking Hellenists. If the kin and closest associates of Jesus were defined by their inability to speak Greek, then it follows that Jesus himself was probably more monolingual than Porter allows. But even if we concede that Jesus knew Greek, Porter’s new criteria do not establish the conclusions he desires.

The first of his criteria involves a rather large leap in the argument. If Jesus spoke Greek, then we can accept as authentic those Gospel passages that present Jesus in a conversation that presumes the use of Greek. This argument is dubious in the extreme. We know Jesus spoke Aramaic, but no-one accepts as historical a particular tradition simply because it presupposes the use of that language. Historicity needs to be established on other grounds. Many of the passages cited by Porter are, in my opinion, of questionable authenticity. The most this argument demonstrates is that Jesus may have spoken Greek, because it is multiply attested in a number sources, but it proves nothing in terms of their individual claims to reliability. Porter’s second criterion falls with the first, but it is worth noting that all his examples of independent traditions would not be accepted as such by most scholars; in the four cases in question, we are dealing with the later evangelists using Mark. But again, even if we accept this argument, it only demonstrates what the earliest tradition was like; it does not by itself point to authentic Jesus tradition. The same can be said of his third criterion, which demonstrates nothing more than the established point that the evangelists used earlier source material. Whether this material traces back to Jesus remains to be established.

Porter is to be congratulated for revealing the deficiencies in the traditional criteria for authenticity and for trying to take the discussion in new directions, but his new criteria are even less successful than those he criticises. Even on the assumption that Jesus taught in Greek, we should be less confident than is Porter that this material simply ended up in the Gospels. There is a whole process of church creation and emendation to consider, but which Porter’s three criteria largely ignore.

Review by
Dr. David C. Sim
Australian Catholic University