The criterion of multiple attestation
or independent attestation
is a tool used by some Biblical scholars
to help determine whether certain actions or sayings by Jesus
in the New Testament
are from Jesus or from the Church that followed. John P. Meier
(1991, p. 174) describes the purpose behind this criterion :
- The criterion of multiple attestation (or "the cross section") focuses on those sayings or deeds of Jesus that are attested in more than one independent literary source (e.g., Mark, Q, Paul, John) and/or in more than one literary form or genre (e.g., parable, dispute story, miracle story, prophecy, aphorism). The force of this criterion is increased if a given motif or theme is found in both different literary sources and different literary forms.
Multiple attestation has a certain kind of objectivity. Given the independence of the sources, satisfaction of the criterion makes it harder to maintain that it was an invention of the Church. Still, this criterion, however useful, is typically one of a number of criteria, such as the criterion of discontinuity and the criterion of embarrassment, along with the historical method.
Examples of its use
According to one source, the "kingdom of God
appears in "Mark, Q, special Matthean tradition, special Lucan tradition, and John, with echoes in Paul, despite the fact that 'kingdom of God' is not Paul's preferred way of speaking." It appears in an array of literary genres.
attributed to Jesus on the bread and wine during the Last Supper
(found in Mark
, the Didache
and arguably in John
) and on divorce (found in Mark and Paul) are examples of sayings that are multiply attested.
An example of an event
that is multiply attested is Jesus's meeting with John the Baptist
(found in Mark and John).
An example of a relation is Jesus having one or more brothers, found in Mark and John (Meier, 1991, p. 317) and Josephus.
This criterion cannot be used for sources that are not independent. For example, a saying that occurs in all three Synoptic Gospels
may only represent one source. Under the two-source hypothesis
, both the authors of the Gospel of Matthew
and the Gospel of Luke
used the Gospel of Mark in their writings; therefore, triple-tradition material represents only a single source, Mark. (The Augustinian hypothesis
posits that Mark and Luke used Matthew, so once again triple-tradition material would have originated in a single source). Another limitation is that some sayings or deeds attributed to Jesus could have originated in the first Christian communities early enough in the tradition to be attested to by a number of independent sources, thus not representing the historical Jesus
. Finally, there are some sayings or deeds of Jesus that only appear in one form or source that scholars still consider historically probable. Multiple attestation is not always a requisite for historicity, nor is it enough to determine accuracy by itself.
The criterion is one of a number of factors that have been developed by scholars to assess whether a tradition is likely to be historical; the widely-recognized criteria were distinguished by Stanley E. Porter as dissimilarity, coherence, multiple attestation, least distinctiveness and Aramaic linguistic background. Porter suggests three new criteria in the search for the words of the historical Jesus (Porter 2000), which have not yet found broad acceptance: a criterion of Greek language, of Greek textual variance and of "discourse features" at varioance with the text's usual style. Of the criterion of multiple attestations, Porter makes the point, which has been expressed before, that multiple attestations identify common motifs rather than absolute wording, and speak only to the independence of documents and not their reliability (Porter 2000:86).
- Ehrman, Bart D., Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. Oxford, 1999, pp. 90-91.
- Meier, John P., A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Doubleday, 1991, v. 1, pp. 174-175, 317.
- Porter, Stanley E. The Criteria for Authenticity in Historical-Jesus Research: Previous Discussion and New Proposals ((sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press) 2000.
- Thiessen, Gerd and Dagmar Winter. The Quest for the Plausible Jesus: The Question of Criteria 2002. (M. Eugene Boring, tr.)