The Problem With the Criteria of Double Dissimilarity

Bible

One of the criteria that historians use to determine the authentic sayings of Jesus from the Gospels is something called double dissimilarity. Double dissimilarity basically means they look for sayings in the Gospels that don’t look too Jewish or too Christian. If it is dissimilar to both Jewish and Christian teachings, then it probably goes back to the historical Jesus.

For example, take the title of the Son of Man that Jesus uses in the Gospels. The idea of the Son of Man was not a major image in Judaism and it did not become popular within Christianity. Therefore, the self-description of the Son of Man probably goes back to the historical Jesus.

But there are two problems with this.

The first is that Jesus was Jewish. He was raised in a Jewish context, surrounded himself with Jewish disciples and preached to Jewish crowds, often quoting the Jewish scriptures. We would expect that authentic sayings of Jesus would have something in common with Judaism.

The second is that Jesus was the founder of Christianity. The church emerged out of the group of disciples who directly followed Jesus. The sayings of Jesus were the foundation of the Christian faith. We would expect that authentic sayings of Jesus would be picked up by the early Christians.

Is this some sort apologetic defence of Christianity? It could be used in that way, but my observations come from my historical interests.

Let’s look at this in a similar but different context.

The person we know of as the Buddha was originally known as Siddhārtha Gautama. Gautama was raised in a Hindu setting and eventually became the founder of Buddhism. We would expect within the recorded teachings of the Buddha, sayings that overlap with both Hindu and Buddhist teachings. This is exactly what we see.

In the same way, a Jewish Jesus who was the founder of Christianity should have said things that sounded both Jewish and Christian.

I personally do not find the criteria of double dissimilarity to be particularly helpful in studying the historical Jesus.




Did Jesus Exist? by Bart Ehrman – Review

Did Jesus ExistAnything about the Jesus Myth Theory quickly comes up on my radar as it is one of my main areas of research. For that reason, Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? has been on my must-read pile for some time.

In some ways, this is a surprising book for Ehrman to write. Ehrman is a former evangelical who has lost his faith and now identifies as an agnostic (see my article Losing Christianity). Ehrman regularly writes books that are critical of the Bible and Christian theology.

Did Jesus Exist? took two groups off guard. Jesus mythicists (those who deny Jesus existed) are often agnostics and atheists. Ehrman, as a respected New Testament scholar, would be valuable on their side. More than once, Ehrman has surprised mythicists by contradicting their claims about Jesus.

Evangelical Christians, especially those involved in Christian apologetics, have also had to rethink Ehrman. While his other books seem critical of Christianity, at least in its evangelical form, Ehrman provides in this book a helpful resource for refuting the Jesus Myth Theory.

There is much about Did Jesus Exist? that I liked. It must be granted that Ehrman is a gifted writer. Ehrman has done what many scholars cannot do, and that is present technical theories that the average layperson can understand.

I also appreciated Ehrman’s summary of the development of the Jesus Myth Theory. Not only does he he provide the history, he distinguishes between those forms of the theory that deserve a response and those that go beyond the fringe.

Ehrman persuasively argues that the Gospels should be used as historical sources. Mythicists frequently dismiss the Gospels as historical sources because of their status as religious scripture. Ehrman responds:

“The fact that their books later became documents of faith has no bearing on the question of whether the books can still be used for historical purposes. To dismiss the Gospels from the historical record is neither fair nor scholarly.” (p. 73)

While providing a convincing case that Jesus existed, Ehrman also responds to mythicist claims about pagan inspiration. Ehrman clarifies the current scholarly understanding of “dying and rising gods.” While this theme was made popular by James George Frazier (1854-1941), more recent scholarship has been much more skeptical. One scholar who done much to debunk the idea of the dying and rising gods is Jonathan Z. Smith.

One of the things I disagree with Ehrman is his conclusion that the New Testament is “filled with discrepancies and contradictions” (p. 182). My problem with this is not based on clinging to a theological doctrine of inerrancy. Rather, having studied the New Testament and compared them to other ancient writings, I find the New Testament to be rather consistent. There are definitely differences between the Gospels, but they differences are much smaller than even what we get when Josephus records the same event in Antiquities and the Jewish War.

I also disagree with Ehrman’s view that a divine understanding of Jesus was a later invention. Not only do I see evidence of this in Mark’s Gospel, I think it is clear in Paul’s letters, which Ehrman agrees are our earliest Christian writings. I won’t fully respond here, but I will recommend Pauline Christology by Gordon Fee and my podcast episode Jesus: Before the Early Years.

Having said that, I do appreciate this book by Ehrman. I respect him from following the evidence where it leads and not giving in to the mythicist camp, even though they would gladly take him.

Christians will find a number of things in Did Jesus Exist? that they will disagree with. Still, this book provides both a compelling case for the existence of Jesus and a damaging critique of the Jesus Myth Theory.




The Jesus Myth and History

Jesus MythOne of my areas of research is the Jesus Myth Theory. This theory claims that Jesus of Nazareth never existed and the Jesus of the Gospels is based on pagan myths.

I have some major problems with this theory and this is not just because I’m a Christian. Even if I became an atheist, I could never embrace the Jesus Myth Theory.

My problem with the Jesus Myth Theory is not just about what it says about orthodox Christian theology (although I do have major concerns) but how they do history.

I thought that I would share some of the problems with the Jesus Myth Theory. Whether one is religious or not, these are real problems.

  • They do not take chronology seriously when it comes to explaining cause and effect. They will use second to fourth century Gospels as being more original than first century Gospels. They don’t care if our texts about Mithras or Plutarch’s writing about Osiris and Isis are later than the New Testament.
  • They dismiss all texts that contradict their theory. If there is a verse in the New Testament that is evidence against their case, they reject it as a later addition. They do this even if there is no textual evidence for such an addition.
  • They misrepresent the mythological stories. Even if you do not care about the Bible, you should care that they make statements about myths that are simply not true. Most of the claims of the mythicists would not be evident by simply reading the myths for themselves.
  • The standards they use for the historicity of Jesus are not the same standards used by professional historians. Historians accept the existence of other ancient figures with far less evidence. We have a wealth of historical evidence for Jesus.
  • They make an artificial divide between “sacred” and “profane” texts. They reject the New Testament as historical evidence because of its status as Scripture. The truth is that much of ancient writings (including histories) had a religious or philosophical bias. The ancients would never separate religious from secular history. That is a modern construction.

These are just some of the problems with the Jesus Myth Theory.