Criteria of ‘Multiple Attestation’
The criterion of multiple attestation is a major player in the ‘Historical Jesus’ world and is used, amongst others, by Sanders, Meier, Ludemann and Crossan1 as a method which helps to discern the authenticity of a passage.
‘A passage is more likely to go back to Jesus if it has been preserved in two or more sources which are independent of each other.’2 Sanders & Davies
‘The criterion of multiple attestation focuses on those saying or deeds of Jesus that are attested in more than one independent literary source and/or in more than one literary form or genre. The force of this criterion is increased if a given motif or theme is found in both literary sources and different literary forms.’3 Meier
‘Plural Attestation in the first stratum pushes the trajectory back as far as it can go with a at least formal objectivity.’4 Crossan
The criterion of multiple attestation (CMA), as with the CDD, is a criterion which contains two different criteria. As the above quote by Meier illustrates the CMA has to do with whether a saying or action is attested in multiple sources (CMS) and/or whether it is found in multiple forms (CMF). The higher number of attestations the more likely the the saying/action of Jesus is authentic.
Criteria of Multiple Sources (CMS)
CMS, based upon a two source solution to the synoptic problem, was developed by F.C Burkitt5
We need, therefore, a kind of starting point for the consideration of our Lord’s doctrine, some external test that will give us a general assurance that the Saying we have before us is really from Him, and not the half-conscious product of one school of His followers. Where shall we find such a test? It appeared to me that the starting point we require may be found in those Sayings which have a real double attestation. The main documents out of which the Synoptic Gospels are compiled are (1)the Gospel of Mark, and (2) the lost common origin of the non-Marcan portions of Matthew and Luke, ie. The source called Q. Where Mark and Q appear to report the same Saying, we have the nearest approach that we can hope to get to the common tradition of the earliest Christian society about our Lord’s words. What we glean in this way will indicate the general impression His teaching made upon his disciples.6
Using Mark and Q as separate sources Burkitt identified 31 sayings of Jesus that were attested in both sources. This multiplicity in witnesses, that is Mark and Q, can increase the confidence, so Burkitt argued, in the saying stemming from authentic Jesus tradition.
As synoptic studies developed a four source hypothesis, using special Matthew and Special Luke as independent traditions, has increased the number of sources . In recent years some scholars have been restricted the sources to that of the synoptic gospels but include Gospel of John, Agrapha, Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Peter, etc. This inclusion of apocryphal gospels was discussed in an analysis of the methodology of Dominic Crossan.
Critique of CMS
1) Meier accepts that this ‘criterion cannot be used mechanically and in isolation’7. Meier does not accept the objectivity of this criteria as ‘In an individual case it is not a priori impossible that a saying invented early on by a Christian community or prophet met the needs of the church so perfectly that it rapidly entered into a number of strands of the tradition’8 , or as Stein puts it,
Another criticism of this criterion is that all that one ultimately can be sure of is that, if a tradition is found in all or most of the various sources laying behind our Gospels, that tradition is deeply embedded in the earliest traditions of the early church. Multiple attestation does not prove absolutely that the tradition is authentic! On the other hand the criterion of multiple attestation can, if we are able to establish the existence of various sources lying behind the Gospels, establish the probability that. such a motif is authentic.9
CMS, taking on board Stein’s comment, is a useful tool in uncovering material which is present in the Jesus tradition prior to the source which is being studied. However, to state that a periciope/saying is present in earlier tradition is not he same as saying it authentic. An early date does not of itself guarantee authenticity.
2) CMS does not allow for a study of the authenticity and the trustworthiness of the sources themselves. In a court of law it would not matter if their were multiple witnesses to a crime if all the witnesses were untrustworthy, or if all witnesses were basing their testimony on an earlier inaccurate witness. Likewise one trustworthy witness would be sufficient to bring conviction. This raises the basic question ’Are the synoptic gospels trustworthy? Are the apocryphal gospels trustworthy? In a court of law a trustworthy witness could be someone who has access to the data, someone who had no motive to change the tradition, and a witness whose credibility could be challenged by others if they strayed from other peoples memory of the events.
[A] Plurality of independent sources attesting a particular tradition is no guarantee of the authenticity of a tradition (no matter how numerous such sources may be), but only the authenticity of its age.10
2) The CMS is dependant on a particular solution to the synoptic problem. Usually this has taken the form of Markan priority. Markan priority, although having scholarly consensus, is not without its detractors.11 The objectivity of CMS is removed once it is seen that it is itself based on a highly contested hypothesis. Any change to the priority of Mark and the existence of Q would drastically change the results achievable by the CMS. CMS is used, by, amongst others, Meier, Sanders and Crossan, as part of a classical foundationalist epistemology. Can a criteria which is itself based on Markan priority, which is at best highly probably, provide a sufficient foundation for developing a reconstruction of Jesus.
3) The criteria, at times, is used in a negative way, in that a pericope/saying which is only singularly attested can not be used to form a part of the bedrock of Jesus tradition. This in my opinion, as with Stein, is an inappropriate use of this methodology for ‘to assume the inauthenticity of such a witness is to assume that anyone who testifies to any event without collaborating evidence is to be assumed a false witness.’12
Burkitt himself concedes this point,
Now I am not going to claim that the list of sayings [those that have multiple attestion] which I have read to you are the deepest or the most original of the recorded Sayings of our Lord. It may be very well be that some of the most profound of the sayings of His that have survived at all are recorded only by a single evangelist.13
4) A complete abandonment of the CMS is not needed as, with a recognition of its subjective nature due to its building upon on at best a probable solution to the synoptic problem, it can be used as testimony and corrective against contrasting portraits, as Burkitt affirms
At least it will be useful to us a corrective: any other Portrait of the Lord which we may draw must not be inconsistent with the portrait attested by the mouth of our two witnesses [Mark and Q]
Singly attested sources, if adopting a piecemeal approach to the gospels, can be judged as more likely to be authentic if they do not contradict the multiple attested sources. As with Moule ‘I see no reason to reject a tradition merely because it appears in only one stream, provided it is not intrinsically improbable or contradicted by the other’14. However in the light of point 2 above no claim to objectivity can be made.
5) M. Eugine Boring sought in 1988 to see an expansion of the CMS to include that of the extracanonical sources.
While not so objective as it first appears, this criterion does seem to have some usefulness, but independent extracanonical forms of the sayings must be considered among the witnesses examined. These were all but ignored in the earlier period. The recent resurgence of interest in the extracanonical gospels in general and the Gospel of Thomas in particular, stimulated especially by Helmut Koester and his students, has increased the usefulness of this criterion.15
In theory this may seem like a perfectly appropriate idea but unless it the source is itself trustworthy it is, like criticism two above, of little use.
The Criteria of Multiple Forms
The second and related form of CMA , CMS, was developed by Dodd and sought to affirm the historicity of a part of Jesus ministry by noticing that it is attested in number of forms.16 The example below shows how this criteria is used.
Eg. Did Jesus welcome outcasts and outsiders?17
Dodd answers, in History and the Gospel, this question by appealing to both CMS and CMF. The gospels are understood as being, not only a collection of multiple sources, but also a collection of multiple forms. The gospel pericopes are placed, as with form criticism, in various groupings such as parables, poetical sayings, pronouncement stories. These pericopes are analysed to see how widespread the view of is of ‘Jesus’ welcome of outsider‘ . After analysis Dodd finds the ‘welcome of outsiders’ present across the forms and sources.
This aspect of Jesus’ teaching is found in a ‘great variety of traditional ‘forms’-aphorisms, parables, poetical sayings, dialogues, stories of various kinds [CMF] -taken from all four strata of the synoptic gospels (Mark, Q, Matthew’s Special Source, Luke’s special source)[CMS]18
This method allows Dodd to provide an answer to the above question.
‘We may say surely say, on strictly critical grounds, that we have here [Jesus welcome of outsiders] a well attested historical fact.’19
It is interesting to note that this does not, in Dodd’s opinion, guarantee the authenticity of any of the individual pericopes, but does allow us to speak authoritively on the broad message behind the text for ‘this fact [Jesus welcome of outsiders] stands independently of the historical status’ of the stories used.’20
Critique of CMF
A) CMF proceeds by a form critical method which seeks to place the gospel materials into different form critical categories (parables, pronouncement stories). The use of forms within the gospels is not in itself a hard science, as within form-critical scholarship ‘[N]o universally agreed-upon list of forms exists.21 and even when these categories are in place ‘[M]any passages, however, do not easily fall into one of the primary form-critical categories. Many seem to mix together several forms22. This debate over classification will thus impact the level at which a passage is judged authentic by CMF. Therefore, CMF is not simply a method which givens universally agreed results, the results will be as diverse as that of form criticism.
B) CMF, as with CMS, does not guarantee the authenticity of a ’theme’ and cannot be a criteria in which a passage is judged objective. However, CMF is useful in placing a given theme of Jesus (embrace of the outcast, kingdom of God) into a point earlier than the gospel composition. As with Stein,
The appearance of this motif in multiple literary forms of the materials does not “prove” conclusively its authenticity, but at least ‘the criterion has some value in distinguishing comparatively early from comparatively late traditions, ’23
C) CMF shows that a theme is earlier in the tradition than the date of gospel composition, but it does not, as Dodd noted, allow us to speak any more authoritatively on the historicity of any given pericope. The CMF does not take us back to the ‘voice of Jesus’ but to the overarching themes of Jesus life and ministry.
1 Crossans use of this criteria is discussed elsewhere in this paper
2 Sanders, Ed Parish ; Davies, Margaret: Studying the Synoptic Gospels 323
3 Meier, John P.: A Marginal Jew : Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Vol. 1 The Roots of the Problem and the Person. New York : Doubleday, 1991 175
4 Crossan The Historical Jesus xxxiii
5 Burkitt, F. Crawford: The Gospel History and Its Transmission. 2nd ed. Edinburgh : T&T Clark, 1907
6 Burkitt The Gospel History and Its Transmission 147
7 Meier, John P.: A Marginal Jew : Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Vol. 1 The Roots of the Problem and the Person 175
8 ibid 175 See also G Petzke Die historiische Frage nach den Wundertatun Jesus NTS 22:1975-1976) 180-204, ‘There is no reason to think that something is more reliable historically because it is reported a number of time’ (Mehrfact). Trans by Meier
9 Robert H. Stein, “The ‘Criteria’ for Authenticity,” R.T. France & David Wenham, eds., Gospel Perspectives, Vol. 1, Studies of History and Tradition in the Four Gospels. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1980. pp.225-263. 222 Also Porter, Stanley E.: The Criteria for Authenticity in Historical-Jesus Research : Previous Discussion and New Proposals 86 ‘the point has been raised that multiply attested tradition points to an earlier stage in the tradition, but it does not necessarily indicate authenticity, which must be determined through other criteria.’
10 Theissen and Winter The Quest for the Plauible Jesus 14
11 In support of the Two Source (Greisbach) Hypothesis , Farmer, William R., The Synoptic Problem (Dilsboro, N.C.: Western North Carolina Press, 1964) (2d ed. 1976), McNicol, Allan J., et al. eds., Beyond the Q Impasse — Luke’s Use of Matthew: A Demonstration by the Research Team of the International Institute for Gospel Studies (Valley Forge, Pa.: Trinity Press Int’l, 1996)Orchard, Bernard J. & Riley, Harold, The Order of the Synoptics: Why Three Synoptic Gospels? (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1987) also The Case Against Q Studies in Markan Priority and the Synoptic Problem Mark Goodacre Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2002 which seeks to defend Markan priority whilst critiquing and dispensing with Q
12 Stein 232
13 Burkitt The Gospel History and Its transmission 167-168 see also ‘
14 Moule The Phenonomeon of the New Testament 71
15 Charles W. Hedrick, ed ; Charles W. Hedrick, ed ; Society of Biblical Literature: Semeia. Semeia 44. Atlanta, GA : Society of Biblical Literature, 1988 (Semeia 44), S. 13
16 Dodd, C. H.: The Parables of the Kingdom. 1st. ed. London : Nisbet, 1935 26-29 but more fully developed in Dodd, C. H.: History and the Gospel in which Dodd guides us through six examples.
17 The example of the Kingdom of God is given by Stein The Criteria of Authenticity An example of the use of this criterion might be to see if Jesus’ teaching that the kingdom of God was realized in his ministry meets the criterion of multiple forms. Thus we shall see how broadly based such a teaching was in the gospel traditions. In this instance it is evident that this motif is found in: pronouncement stories (Mark 2:18-20; Luke 11:14-22); miracle stories (Luke 5:36-39); and sayings (Matt. 5:17; 13: 16-17).Robert H. Stein, “The ‘Criteria’ for Authenticity,” 233
18 Dodd History and the Gospel 93
19 Dodd History and the Gospel 94
20 Dodd History and the Gospel 94
21 Green, Joel B. ; McKnight, Scot ; Marshall, I. Howard: Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers Grove, Ill. : InterVarsity Press, 1992, S. 243
22 Green, Joel B. ; McKnight, Scot ; Marshall, I. Howard: Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers Grove, Ill. : InterVarsity Press, 1992, S. 245
23 Robert H. Stein, “The ‘Criteria’ for Authenticity,” 233