Sources of the Jesus Tradition (SJT), edited by Joseph Hoffmann, is an official product of the Jesus Project, a mixed collaboration of scholars and other participants who were supposed to be performing a rational evaluation of the sources for Jesus. The Project (hereafter JP) underwent some embarrassing difficulties in its early stages, and like this book, does not portend a great deal of significant effort. We will not have much to say about most of the material in this book, but we will also use it as a springboard to discuss the broader question of the methods used by some scholars to decide which words of Jesus are authentic.
In one essay, Justin Meggitt offers a case for the contents of the Gospel as containing myth -- or rather, spends most of it explaining how the Greco-Roman world engaged in mythmaking, and then using this as a bludgeon to suggest by association that the Gospel authors did the same. Meggitt's only "offensive" against the Gospels as reliable sources of tradition consists of a mere 2 1/2 pages addressing claims that the Gospels find their sources in structured oral tradition, with one page of that being descriptive. (Let it be recalled that we offered multiple chapters in support of this hypothesis in Trusting the New Testament.) His arguments amount to the following:
- There are no "explicit statements" about controls being set on oral
tradition by community representatives. This is simply a case of Meggitt
raising the bar of evidence arbitrarily high to suit his purposes; and
it is also rather hypocritical, in light of the fact that there are also
no "explicit statements" that the Gospels are myth (there are warnings
against mythmaking in the epistles -- cf. 1 Tim. 1:3-4 for example --
but it would beg the question to directly apply these to the Gospels).
That said, Meggitt does admit that such a process was performed by
"particular individuals" -- and as we showed in TNT, structured oral
tradition would be the norm for a teacher like Jesus; no "explicit
statements" are needed to validate this. In an attempt to denigrate the
value of such individuals, however, Meggitt alludes to (but does not
quote) statements concerning Papias, a leading collector of the oral
...Papias himself not only seems extremely haphazard in his approach, questioning those who just happened to be visiting to his church (Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiae, 3.39.4) but, for all his protestations, seems to have been drawn to sensational paradoxa (marverlous tales; 3.39.8f) as anyone else, and his judgments about the veracity of traditions were disturbing the later Christians. Eusebius complains that the collection of oral traditions that Papias compiled in the five books...contained "strange parables and teachings of the Savior, and some other more mythical things" (Historia Ecclesiae, 3.39.11).
Aside from the fact that indicting Papias for these things hardly condemns all Christian leaders in the early church on the same counts, Meggitt's description of these passages is highly tendentious. The first citation is not as carefree as "those who just happened to be visiting to his church" would imply:
If, then, any one came, who had been a follower of the elders, I questioned him in regard to the words of the elders— what Andrew or what Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the disciples of the Lord, and what things Aristion and the presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, say. For I did not think that what was to be gotten from the books would profit me as much as what came from the living and abiding voice.
For one thing, it is clear that Papias sought authoritative witnesses, not just "those who happened to be visiting." Second, there is nothing "haphazard" about such an approach at all; Meggitt seems to think that appeal to random visitors implies haphazardness, but apart from Papias' stated discretion of seeking those with authority, Meggitt is hardly in a position to designate Papias' own church as a bad place to meet such people. Indeed, it is not clear from Eusebius' quote where exactly Papias met people; but if we assume it was in Papias' own home area, Hierapolis, then he was partway between Rome and Jerusalem, near a major urban center where many people visited, and this is no more "haphazard" than setting up a survey booth along a busy highway where you know at least some of your target subjects are bound to pass. Not only so, as long as Papias lived, and as well connected as he was (to John), he could afford to be stationery and still get what he wanted. Meggitt is manufacturing a "haphazard" scenario out of presumption.
In terms of sensational material, Meggitt is being tendentious again. The word paradoxa is the same used in Josephus of the works of Jesus, and can mean strange, wonderful, or marvellous. Not only so, but there is nothing in what Eusebius says to indicate that Papias "seems to have been drawn" to such things, as though to the exclusion of being sensible:
But it is fitting to subjoin to the words of Papias which have been quoted, other passages from his works in which he relates some other wonderful events which he claims to have received from tradition.
As for the final point about "strange" parables and teachings, Eusebius says this in the context of his own prejudicial assessment of Papias' eschatology, with which he strongly disagreed, and is otherwise lacking in specifics (apart from one small eschatological point) as to what exactly Papias reported that was "strange" or "mythical," and in what contexts, any why. Meggitt is making far too much of lack of data as a way to subvert available data.
Other than this, Meggitt notes John 21:25:
Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.
Meggitt complains of this indicating that the selection of material from the Jesus tradition was "expressly theological" and John "does not show any concern for the authenticity" of the material he does not include. In this, Meggitt commits two broad errors. The first is the begged question that "theological" motive is in some way incompatible with selecting authentic material as opposed to inauthentic material. The second is that Meggitt merely assumes that the body of material John has to choose from has not already been vetted for authenticity, leaving John no reason to express such pedantic concerns to his readers. Meggitt's complaint that John seems "indiscriminate" because he does not express any "doubting" over the authenticity of the material places John at the beginning of a process when he is closer to the end of it -- indeed, as one of the Twelve, would hardly need to engage in any "authentication" of material for which he was a primary eyewitness.
Finally, Meggitt makes vague appeal to the reputed use of Matthew by Mark (begging the question of Markan priority) and the "widespread abbreviation, addition, omission, conflation, elaboration, and reordering of material".  Without specific examples showing the alleged problem, not much can be said, but a significant burden stands in order to move from any of these to "fabrication" or "mythmaking".
Next we would briefly discuss some of the criterion used by some scholars to authenticate the words of Jesus. In an essay that we otherwise would not address, Carrier offers a list of 17 representative criterion; we'll comment on the first few of these.
Dissimilarity: If dissimilar to Judaism or the early church, it is probably true. This criterion is perhaps one of the more absurd, as it deems of lesser qualification any saying of Jesus which is contextually suited to his social and cultural environment. This is an especially absurd dictum inasmuch as teachers were expected to affirm and repeat that which reflected the accepted cultural mores of their society; in other words, much of what Jesus would be expected to say as a teacher would be very much similar to Judaism.
It is just as absurd to apply this criterion with respect to the early church: What movement would not say and do things reflective of its founder?
Embarrassment: If it was embarrassing, it must be true. In the same way, this criterion is useless because it is prima facie likely that Jesus did not go around saying embarrassing things 100% of the time. To lessen the qualification of a saying because it is not embarrassing is also absurd.
Coherence: If it coheres with other confirmed data, it is likely true. The usefulness of this depends on specific applications and what is meant by "confirmed data" and "coheres" and so is too general for further comment.
Multiple Attestation: If attested in more than one source, it is more likely true. Again, a begged question surfaces, that a saying only attested once is of lesser qualification. But why should this be the case? We very seldom have "multiple attestation" for what is said by most figures in historical texts. Moreover, since this was a primarily oral society, the presence of a saying in written sources should hardly be used to determine anything.
Contextual Plausibility: It must be plausible in Judeo-Greco-Roman context. This criterion is the first we would say is of significant value.
Historical Plausibilty: It must cohere with a plausible historical reconstruction. This one is also of value, but has the potential for abuse inasmuch as "plausible" is too frequently defined in terms of a critic's personal incredulity as opposed to actual plausibility.
Natural Probability: It must cohere with natural science. We hardly need say more than that this merely begs the standard question of Hume.
Oral Preservability: It must be capable of surviving oral transmission. This has some value, but can be abused by setting illicit criteria for what can survive. As it stands, nothing recorded in the Gospels -- not even in John -- would not be capable of surviving oral transmission, if not verbatim, then in substance.
Crucifixion: It must explain (or make sense of) why Jesus was crucified. It seems hardly likely that 100% of what Jesus said would have in some way have contributed to him being crucified, so this criterion is useless for disqualifying sayings.
And so on. The point is that while some have indeed concluded that there are no reliable ways to decide what Jesus did or did not say, a more pertinent question is why leeway should be given to those who doubt in the first place. In a later essay in the book, Robert Price raises the spectre of uncriticallly granting authenticity to anything Jesus may have said as recorded in any source, and disdains those who would accuse him and others of "skeptical ax-grinding" and points out that we have examples like the Infancy Gospels where it would typically be granted that sayings of Jesus were invented; thus, by analogy, why not the same for the Gospels of the canon? But that is Price's typical tactic of slipping by with a conclusion before he proves his case. The Infancy Gospels are later products; the canonical Gospels are (despite his attempts to show otherwise) not. The Infancy Gospels and others were produced by Gnostics who claimed divine revelation as the only source for their information; the canonical Gospels -- again, despite Price's vain attempts to argue otherwise -- are credibly scored to witnesses or to those who knew them.
Furthermore, the telling weakness of Price's analogies to legendary accretion in places like the Muslim hadith (which were rather later than Mohammed) is that his system is conveniently non-disprovable and allows for no way that any word of Jesus (or any figure we choose to set our sights on) could be acknowledged as authentic. As such, it is no surprise that Price cannot and does not substantially engage the detailed treatments of oral transmission practices as we do in TNT, and thinks it sufficient to just call such comparisons "apologetics" (as if that decided the veracity of the matter; it still escapes Price that he, too, is an apologist, for his own position) and vaguely accuse of "prejudice" and "bias" those who exclude non-canonical materials, while also vaguely suggesting that the "diversity, anachronism, and tendentiousness" of the Gospels (no specifics offered) makes an analogy involving fabrication much better. Unfortunately, Price's history is one that shows that it is once specifics are engaged that his case becomes most transparently ineffectual.
So what then might we do to evaluate authenticity? Initially, the burden should remain -- as it historically has -- on the doubter to show why some word or deed is inauthentic. It is likely folly to set down many rules in advance, as though anyone's words or deeds can be said to follow any set pattern subject to uniform criterion. Some very few of the ones above -- like contextual plausibility -- have universal value; thus I have used the example that if Tacitus refers to Nero making a microwave burrito, we have valid reason to think Tacitus was not the author. Beyond that -- we are right to place the burden on critics like Price who think their own personal incredulity is sufficient for disqualification.
We might briefly comment on the inclusion of an essay by Frank Zindler in the book. Zindler is allowed to prop for the highest of absurdities here, including the Christ-myth and the Nazareth myth, while remaining oblivious to all contrary arguments. That he is allowed to do so speaks to the JP as a substantially unprofessional project with little interest in accuracy. Finally, we would also comment on an extended essay by Ellens which attempts to deeply psychoanalyze Jesus as a way to explain how he came to believe in his own divinity. Unfortunately, Ellens errs from the start by subjecting Jesus to modern, Western categories of psychology and identity; having Jesus internalize some figure in his own imagination, or from apocalyptic texts, as his "own real self" does not comport with how collectivist persons achieved and acted on their personal senses of identity. His further notion that the Christian message gained acceptance because of its ability to empower others in the face of death is also substantially at odds with what we know of the social world of the first century.
In the end, SJT is a mishmash of sometimes interesting but more often irrelevant and/or misguided material. I have doubts that the Jesus Project, however, will do much better than this.