Historical Jesus

Jesus Research, Historical Methodology, and the Temple Conflicts in Acts: A Note from Eyal Regev’s New Book

One of the major shifts in historical Jesus research in the last decade has been an emerging skepticism over the use of the so-called “criteria of authenticity.” Perhaps most significantly, scholars joined voices in the collection of essays edited by Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne, entitled, Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity (London: T & T Clark, 2012) to raise questions about the viability of the conventional use of these tools. Though not all the scholars in the book argued that the criteria should be totally abandoned, many did and the book significantly undermined confidence in their use.

Not all, however, have welcomed this development. For some, jettisoning the traditional criteria equals abandoning a historical rationale. I do not think that is a fair critique. One can employ a critical, rigorous historical approach without them. In fact, conversely, many authors have employed these tools in a decidedly “uncritical” way.

Suffice it to say, I do not think one has to use the standard criteria in order to be a critical scholar. Among other things, consider this: historians in other fields are able to proceed without the criteria of authenticity used in Jesus research.

This last point occurred to me as I read Eyal Regev’s treatment of the book of Acts in his new monograph, The Temple and Early Christianity: Experiencing the Sacred, AYBRL (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019). Regev argues that the temple conflicts described in Acts seem historical for the following reasons:

(1) Luke’s extraordinary appreciation of the Temple runs counter to Temple conflicts described in his narrative in which Stephen and Paul are accused of holding an anti-Temple stance. Since Luke’s narrative aims to defy these accusations, it is virtually impossible that they are figments of his imagination. (2) The pattern of Christian attendance in the Temple leading to an arrest, trial, and punishment is repeated too many times–both in Acts and in later traditions about James–to be regarded as merely a literary device. Indeed, even if certain episodes are reproduced or exaggerated, it is nonetheless reasonable to conclude that they are based on older traditions that emerge from historical experience. (3) These conflicts cohere with the Jewish perception of Jesus and his followers as enemies of the Temple. (4) The Sadducean sensitivity to possible threats to the sacrificial cult explains the chief priests’ persecutions of the early Christian leaders.

Regev, The Temple in Early Christianity, p. 193.

Let us break down his analysis.

First, Regev makes the simple point that Luke could have easily dispensed with the stories about conflict between the early followers of Jesus and the temple had he so wanted. Indeed, in other places Luke seems to go to great lengths to highlight the fact that the apostles were not anti-temple (e.g., Peter and John go up to pray at the hour the Tamid is offered in Acts 3; Paul’s reverence for and participation in cultic purification rites in Acts 21). At first glance, this might seem like an argument from “embarrassment.” Yet Regev never cites this “criterion.” Rather, the point does not depend on supposed ideas about what would have been embarrassing to the early church. Instead, his argument is rooted in a careful analysis of the narrative in Acts itself. Rather than embarrassment, this might be better described as “reading against the grain of a source.” It is more about an observation of the narrative of Luke rather rather than a speculative explanation or an argument from silence.

Second, Regev’s next point sounds very much like Allison’s argument from “recurrent attestation.” For Allison, the historian ought to begin with the broadly attested themes about Jesus in our sources, for example, the eschatological nature of his preaching. The point is not that the historian need filter out the “authentic” from the “inauthentic.” For Allison, even if a story is deemed unhistorical, it is still important. In his article in Jesus, Criteria, and the Demise of Authenticity, Allison says, “fiction need not be pure fiction … fiction can indeed preserve the past…” (p. 191). The core observation here is that the historian ought to be able to explain the general shape of early memory.

Third, Regev’s appeals to the way Acts describes the attitudes of the opponents of Jesus’ followers. Here, again, Regev appeals not so much to speculation about what was embarrassing to the early church. Again, his point is simply that the historian should take into account how opposition to the the early church might be explained.

Fourth, Regev seeks to explain the Sadducees opposition to the early believers. Here Regev aims at contextualizing Acts’ portrait within what we know about the first-century Jewish world.

I plan on developing this in print soon. For now, I just wanted to throw this out there for consideration.

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