Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Typification & Criteria

Stephen Patterson, in his book The God of Jesus: The Historical Jesus and the Search for Meaning offers an interesting idea, borrowed from R. W. Funk, about typifications. Patterson in explaining the problem caused by judging which events or deeds of Jesus are in fact historical, writes:

The best provisional solution to this problem is to say simply that the deeds of Jesus present us with the creative memory of the church. In the Jesus Seminar, it was seldom that we could assert, even tenuously, the historical accuracy of any particular event or occasion as it is depicted in the gospels, or in fact, that such and such an event occurred at all. But we did notice that certain types of events are depicted with great frequency in the Jesus traditions, and across a variety of sources and forms. Things like healings and exorcisms, cavorting with the unclean and the shamed, conflict with his family - such things began to emerge as "typical" of Jesus in the widespread memory of the early church. Such typifications became the basis for a general description of the sort of things Jesus probably did, even though the historicity of any single story in the gospels was always hard to demonstrate.

[Patterson, The God of Jesus, pg. 57]
While I abhor many of the absurd presuppositions that the Jesus Seminar approach the gospels with when doing historical enquiry, this method seems to make much sense. We know for sure that the gospels don't record every single detail of the life of Jesus. Whatever we think of the historical value of John's gospel, his statement that Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book [or any other I might add] appears a priori valid. It seems axiomatic that the gospels are a sampled survey of all the things about Jesus and they are not in an exact diary collection of facts and data.
Could the deeds of Jesus be likened to the position of Darrell Bock who has argued that the sayings of Jesus recorded in the gospels are the "voice" of Jesus, and not the exact literal word for word dictation that many assume? Could we have echoes of the typical deeds of Jesus recorded in the gospels? Patterson notes that "the limits of ancient history are considerable, indeed."
Could this approach fit better with a critical realist epistemology, where certainty on any exact event [with a few notable exceptions such as the temple action, cross & resurrection, and perhaps a few others?] is unknown but the gist and typical features of Jesus' actions in healing, exorcism, interaction with Gentiles and Jews are known? The plausibility of this being the case seems almost certain given what we know about the limits and strengths of oral tradition as well. Maybe the memory of two separate encounters got blurred into one event [would that explain gospel differences better than or as well as editorial emphases?]
Wright notes that there is nothing to suggest that the sermon on the Mount and the sermon on the Plain are the same event. Jesus probably regularly gave a set piece of didactic speeches - Luke and Matt record summaries of them - in different locations because that was typical of Jesus teachings in various locations.
Thoughts? Comments? Criticisms? Are there any published critiques or advocates of this view? In my mind, which is now reeling over the possibilities, this could alter our conception of the criteria of authenticity and exegesis.


David Baird said...

What is the bibliographical reference for your Darrell Bock statement?

David Baird said...

Take a look at Michael F. Bird's article "The Formation of the Gospels in the Setting of Early Christianity: The Jesus Tradition as Corporate Memory" in the Westminster Theological Journal, 67(2005): 113-34.

eddie said...

Yes, I found that article very helpful. Read it Sean! oh, thats right, you probably dont have acces to it in deepest darkest africa :P

eddie said...

If one leaves behind the idea of "the creative memory of the church" behind, it sounds an aweful lot like the criteria of multiple attestation.

But what i think Patterson might be getting at, is that the church remembered these sorts of events (healings, exorcisms, etc.) as typical of Jesus, and then creatively constructed particular stories about him enacting them... maybe?

So he says:
"Such typifications became the basis for a general description of the sort of things Jesus probably did, even though the historicity of any single story in the gospels was always hard to demonstrate."

I take 'general description' here to refer to the individual stories in the gospels. Am I correct?

Sean du Toit said...


1) Reference for Bock's argument is: "The Words of Jesus: Live, Jive or Memorex" in Jesus Under Fire, pg. 73-100

2) If it was typical that Jesus healed people, then maybe there is the creative conflation of healing stories or stories with other happenings that were typical of Jesus' activities. General description would then refer to individual stories.

3) Eddie, how did you get Bird's article? Can you photocopy it for me? I'll come pick it up in Nov!

Michael F. Bird said...

'Creative memory' is Jesus Seminar language par excellence. Funk thinks that the 'faith' of the early church overpowered their memories. (Though I suspect that he has now changed his opinion!)

Typification is basically multiple-attestation, but refers to patterns of behaviour instead of sayings or actions.

David Baird said...

Sean, Thanks for the Block reference.

David Baird said...

I meant "Bock."

sigh, there are days