Criteria of Authenticity

John S. Kloppenborg / University of Toronto

I. Preliminary Criteria

Sayings and stories or elements of these units coincide too strongly with the editorial interests of the evangelists and with the interests of earlier Christian communities should be bracketed. As Sanders has put it, whatever is “too much with the grain” should be suspect.[1]

E.g., Aland §289: Mark 13:10 (predicting a Gentile mission). This is so congenial with Mark’s own interests that it cannot easily be ascribed to Jesus.

But: Aland §151: Mark 7:27 (Jesus’ saying about feeding the children before the dogs), depicts Jesus as hesitant in dealings with Gentiles (‘children first’), and depicts Jesus as changing his mind, neither very congenial with Mark’s view of Jesus. Since this ‘goes against the grain’ of Mark’s intention it might be treated as authentic, or at least pre-Markan.[2] (Note that Luke omits the saying entirely; Matt strengthens the anti-Gentile saying [15:24] but then has Matt 28:16-20, which also authorizes a Gentile mission, but in a post-Easter setting.).

II. Primary Criteria

1.      Criterion of Dissimilarity ([N. Perrin], or Discontinuity or Distinctiveness [R.H. Fuller] or Difference [G. Theissen] or Uniqueness [E.P. Sanders])

Norman Perrin: “Sayings and parables may be accepted as authentic if they can be shown to be dissimilar to characteristic emphases of both ancient Judaism and early Christianity.”[3]

E.P. Sanders: “[M]aterial can be safely attributed to Jesus if it agrees neither with the early church nor with the Judaism contemporary with Jesus.”[4]

E.g., Q 9:60 (Luke 9:60/Matt 8:22): “Let the dead bury the dead.” In the context of Mediterranean culture, including Jewish culture, with their high regard for the necessity of pious disposition of the dead, this saying would doubtless be regarded as an instance of shocking disregard for an important custom and cultural value. On the other hand, there is no evidence that the early followers of Jesus ever emulated the attitude conveyed by Q 9:60; on the contrary, they too were concerned with the appropriate disposal of the dead. Thus this saying stands out sharply against its Galilean Jewish environment, and contrasts with early Christian attitudes towards death.

Problems: As Perrin points out, this criterion misses material in which Jesus reflected his heritage as a Galilean Jew, and where the early Church adopted his beliefs, practices, and world-view. Nevertheless, the criterion yields a small amount of highly distinctive material.

A second problem is the fact that we are not very well informed about the nature of Second Temple Judaism, and hence it is difficult to judge just where Jesus might be dissimilar from the characteristic emphases of Judaism.

2        Criterion of Embarrassment

“The criterion of ‘embarrassment’… or ‘contradiction’… focuses on actions or sayings of Jesus that would have embarrassed or created difficulty for the early Church. The point of the criterion is that the early Church would hardly have gone out of its way to create material that only embarrassed its creator or weakened its position in arguments with opponents.”[5]

E.g., the Baptism of Jesus by a repentance preacher (Mark 1:9-11). Matthew, Luke, John, and the GNaz 2 each attempt to explain how this could happen, or deny it altogether. The discomfort the evangelists feel with the baptism of Jesus is an indication that it is not an invention of Jesus' followers, but rests on historical tradition. (This of course does not mean that all aspects of the baptismal account are historical; the theophany and voice from heaven are likely early interpretive elements. Note that Mark, the earliest account, represents them [oddly] as things that only Jesus saw and heard).

Aland §44, Mark 2:13-17: Jesus eating with sinners & tax collectors. Note that Luke added ‘to repentance’ to the final Markan saying, apparently worried that Jesus might be thought to have kept the company of too disreputable persons. Moreover, nothing in the literature from the later Jesus movement (Paul’s letters, etc.) encourages the view that early churches advertised or promoted the view that their ranks included ‘sinners’ and ‘tax collectors.’


3. Criterion of Multiple Attestation

There are two ways of formulating this criterion:

(1) “A passage [i.e., a saying or story] is more likely to go back to Jesus if it has been preserved in two or more sources which are independent of each other.”[6]

(2) Motifs or phrases that appear in more than one form of discourse (e.g., parable, chria, aphorism).[7]

(1) Sayings, Stories: E.g.,  ‘Children and the kingdom’ appears multiples sources: in Mark (10:13-16), special Matthaean material (18:3), the GThom 22 and in John 3:3, 5.


The Parable of the Mustard seed appears in Q (13:18-19), Mark (4:30-32) and the GThom (20).

Jesus’ saying on divorce is attested in Mark (10:11-12), Q (16:18), and 1 Cor 7:10-11.

N.B. The sources must be independent: e.g., Mark; Q; GThom; Paul; John; POxy 1224. But a saying that appears in Mark and Matthew does not represent two independent attestations, since Matthew normally depends on Mark. An exception would be if the Matthaean (or Lukan) occurrence does not obviously depend on Mark, as is the case with Matt 18:3, which is not directly dependent on Mark 10:15  (Matt has a parallel to Mark 10:13-16 at Matt 19:13-15).

(2) Motifs/themes  The “reign of God” appears not only in several independent sources, but in a variety of discursive forms: beatitudes (Q 6:20b; GThom. 54); admonitions (Q 10:9; 12:31), aphorisms (Q 7:28; Matt 18:3), parables (Mark 4:30; Matt 13:44, 47), a prayer (Q 11:2), prophetic sayings (Mark 9:1; Q 13:28-29), and chriae (Luke 17:20-21).

Jesus’ association with toll collectors is found in call stories (Mark 2:14), controversy chriae (Mark 2:16-17/POxy 1224), aphorisms (Q 7:34), parables (Luke 18:10-13) and anecdotes (Luke 19:1-11).

Crossan adds a nuance to the criterion, combining it with a stratigraphy of sources[8]: Layer 1: Q; Thomas (1); Paul; PEgerton 2; POxy 1224; GHeb; Didache 16; Layer 2: GEgy; Longer Gospel of Mark; Mark; POxy 840; Thomas (2); SG; Layer 3: Matt, Luke, Apoc, 1 Clem, Barn; Didache 1:1-3, 2:2-16:2; Hermas; James; Hermas; Ignatuius, 1 Peter; Polycarp to the Philippians 13-14; 1 John; Layer 4: John, ApJas, 1-2 Tim, 2 Pet, Polycarp to the Philippians 1-12; 2 Clem; GNaz; GEbi; Didache 1:3--2:1; GPeter

Sayings/stories that appear in early strata and which are multiply attested are more likely to be authentic. The value of this approach is obvious: it implicitly weeds out sayings and stories that are common only in later strata of tradition (because they proved serviceable to early Christian interests). The potential problem with this approach lies with the somewhat arbitrary way the strata are delimited: if Mark were included in Layer 1, the tally of early-independent attestations would increase for some sayings, and if GThom were relegated (for example) to Layer 3 or 4, the attestation of some sayings would decrease.



The mere fact that a particular motif is multiply attested does not mean every occurrence of that motif is authentic.

Multiple attestation of a story or saying does not imply that there are not elements in those units that are redactional or secondary.  

4. Criterion of Coherence

Sayings that are not obviously dissimilar or multiply attested, but which nevertheless cohere with the core Jesus tradition might be considered authentic.[9]

Coherence is normally understood as pertaining to content: sayings or stories that are materially consistent with sayings otherwise judged to be authentic can also be included within the corpus of historical Jesus materials.


Robert Funk has in effect proposed a criterion of stylistic or rhetorical coherence, identifying as authentic sayings that are characterized by exaggeration, typification, caricature or reversal, or which are antithetic couplets, parodies, or paradoxes.[10]


E.g., Lukan story of the Pharisee and the toll collector (18:10-14a) exhibits both caricature — Pharisees are not in fact especially hypocritical and toll collectors are not that humble — and reversal.



The criterion is highly subjective: critics will inevitably differ on whether a particular saying is coherent enough, either materially or rhetorically, with other Jesus tradition to be included.


5. Criterion of Historical Plausibility

Theissen, dissatisfied with dissimilarity, seeks to replace it with ‘Historical Plausibility’: “which reckons with influences of Jesus on early Christianity and his involvement in a Jewish context. Whatever helps to explain the influence of Jesus and at the same time can only have come into being in a Jewish context is historical in its sources”[11]


The criterion is two-sided: Whatever is attributed to Jesus must fit in some manner with a first-century Palestinian environment, and must account for later developments in the primitive Jesus communities.:

Negatively: a saying that, if authentic, would render unintelligible certain historical developments. E.g. Mark 7:15 as an explicit abrogation of kashrut would render Acts 15/Gal 2 unintelligible.

Positively: whatever accounts for the development of tradition (e.g., that Jesus was baptized, or spoke negatively of family), whatever appears in several sources, and types of discourse, and whatever forms a coherent picture:

Note that Theissen is in fact combining versions of dissimilarity, multiple attestation and coherence, though giving them a positive interpretation.


III. Secondary Criteria

6. Criterion of Palestinian Environmental Phenomena or Aramaism

Some critics argued that the appearance in the Jesus traditions of Aramaisms (‘Abba’, ‘Amen’) are a sign of authentic tradition. But since Jesus earliest followers were also from Palestine and (presumably) spoke Aramaic, this criterion is not very effective.

This criterion works better in the negative: sayings and stories that presuppose non-Palestinian cultural facts, or cannot be rendered into Aramaic cannot derive from Jesus, at least in their current form.

7. Stylistic Criterion

Like the previous criterion, this asserts that sayings and stories that have features such as the use of the “divine passive” and semitic style — parallelism, rhythm and rhyme — may be authentic.[12] But all this shows, technically, is that such sayings and stories were produced in an environment influenced by Aramaic and Hebrew linguistic patterns or Biblical style. But since the Bible was available outside of Palestine in the form of the Septuagint, this criterion is particularly weak.

8. Plausible Tradition History

This is the contribution of M. Eugene Boring, who proposes two interrelated criteria, “plausible tradition history” and “hermeneutical potential.”[13] Both begin with diversity — the diversity of forms of sayings, and the diversity of interpretations of Jesus generated by the tradition.

Just as in text criticism where the best reading accounts for all others, these two criteria in effect attempt to identify the earliest forms and versions of sayings by reconstructing a stemma that arranges all versions of a saying or motif in such a way as to derive less original forms from more original forms, and to suggest the basis on which hermeneutical diversity originated.[14]


Concluding Comments


The criteria of authenticity do not always pull in the same direction, and much depends on which criterion is privileged. Sayings that are highly distinctive (e.g., Q 9:60) are often not multiply attested. Some multiply attested sayings are not especially dissimilar. Dissimilarity produces a highly distinctive, ‘unique’ Jesus; but there is relatively little material that qualifies. To use multiple attestation, as Crossan does, begins with the most commonly attested early material; but one might reply that this use of multiple attestation merely uses sayings that were popular in early Christian circles. As indicated above, coherence is a weak and highly subjective criterion.

[1]. E. P. Sanders and Margaret Davies, Studying the Synoptic Gospels (London; Philadelphia: SCM Press; Trinity Press International, 1989), 304–15.

[2]. According to the Jesus Seminar, Mark 7:27 is non-authentic because of its lack of independent attestation and because the saying is not separable from the surrounding narrative. See Robert W. Funk and Roy W. Hoover, The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 70; similarly John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1991), 444 and John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Volume II: Mentor, Message, and Miracles, Anchor Bible Reference Library (New York; London; Toronto: Doubleday, 1994), 659–61, arguing that the entire story is “so shot through with Christian missionary theology and concern that creation by first-generation Christians is the more likely conclusion.”

[3] Norman Perrin, The New Testament: An Introduction: Proclamation and Parenesis, Myth and History (First edition; New York and Chicago: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974), 281.

[4] Sanders and Davies, Studying the Synoptic Gospels, 316.

[5] John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Volume I: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Anchor Bible Reference Library (New York; London; Toronto: Doubleday, 1991), 168.

[6] Sanders and Davies, Studying the Synoptic Gospels, 323.

[7] Polkow, “Method and Criteria for Historical Jesus Research,” 350–51; Meier, Marginal Jew I, 174–75; Sanders and Davies, Studying, 323–30.

[8] John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1991), 427-434.

[9]. Charles E. Carlston, “A Positive Criterion of Authenticity,” BR 7 (1962): 33–44; Dennis Polkow, “Method and Criteria for Historical Jesus Research,” in Society of Biblical Literature 1987 Seminar Papers, edited by Kent H. Richards, SBLSP, vol. 26 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1987), 350; Meier, Marginal Jew I, 174–75; Robert W. Funk, Honest to Jesus: Jesus for a New Millennium (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 138; Sanders and Davies, Studying, do not treat this as a separate criterion.

[10]. Funk, Honest to Jesus, 149–58.

[11]. Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz, The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide, translated by John Bowden (London; Minneapolis: SCM Press; Fortress Press, 1998), 116.

[12]. C.F. Burney, The Poetry of Our Lord (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1925); Joachim Jeremias, New Testament Theology: The Proclamation of Jesus, translated by John Bowden (London; New York: SCM Press; Charles Scribner’s Son, 1971), 9–29.

[13]. Compare John Dominic Crossan, “Materials and Methods in Historical Jesus Research,” Forum 4, no. 4 (1988): esp. 11, who describes a “criterion of adequacy”: “that is original which best explains the multiplicity engendered in the tradition.”

[14]. M. Eugene Boring, “The Historical-Critical Method’s ‘Criteria of Authenticity’: The Beatitudes in Q and Thomas as a Test Case,” in The Historical Jesus and the Rejected Gospels, Semeia, vol. 44 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988), 23–24 .