In Rafael’s recent post on the hermeneutics of authenticity, he writes of how the application of the criteria of authenticity to sayings of Jesus in the gospels is dependent upon the given saying already receiving an interpretation:
…when NT scholars judge a particular logion an authentic saying of Jesus (or, more typically, when they reject a saying as inauthentic), they do so on the basis of a particular interpretation of the saying in question.
That is to say, uninterpreted material cannot be judged for authenticity because how can we judge the plausibility/probability of Jesus really having said a particular saying if we have not understood it? This is almost self-evident, and Rafael expresses his disapointment that certain historical Jesus scholars “continue to ignore the hermeneutical assumptions underlying their employment of the criteria.”
In considering this point I wondered whether there is yet another level of complexity in this equation: If (1) sayings of Jesus need to be placed within the context of Jesus ministry as a whole (=actions, sayings, aims, intentions, contexts, etc.) in order to be rightly interpreted, and (2) the purpose of the criteria is to establish historically reliable (to some degree) parts of the tradition in order to employ in constructing the whole, then the application of the criteria already presupposes the historical reliability of a larger swath of the traditions on the basis of which an understanding of Jesus ministry as a whole has been (at least provisionally) established, and as part of which the saying in question has been interpreted. If this is the case, then at this point in my thinking the application of the criteria to a saying (in as much as it depends upon an interpretation of this saying informed by a larger interpretation of Jesus ministry) has not fallen to circularity but to incoherence.
I hope that this is clear enough. I suspect that this equation may appear to have a stronger sting in the abstract than it does when we actually engage the gospel material, but I wonder. Many sayings are clear enough without requiring the interpretive framework provided by an interpretation of Jesus ministry as a whole, and so here the application of the criteria would avoid this incoherence. Thoughts please…