The Criteria of Authenticity are different methods of demonstrating the historical plausibility and probability of an event. When it comes to the study of the historical Jesus, if a saying of Jesus or event in the Gospels meets one or more of these criteria, it boosts the credibility of the event in question. We will explore and define each of these in more detail, but consider three of the criteria below:
The criterion of multiple attestation. If a saying or event is recorded in several different independent sources, it increases the likelihood that it occurred.
The criterion of dissimilarity (or double dissimilarity). If a saying or event of Jesus is different from the Judaism before him and also the early Christians after him, then it is more likely that Jesus himself originated this particular saying.
The criterion of embarrassment. If a saying or event is potentially unflattering or even embarrassing to Jesus or the Christian movement, then it is unlikely that it would be invented. Thus this raises the historical plausibility of the event in question.
Hopefully you get the idea. These criteria are internal tests that can support the historicity of an event. Indeed, if we see enough of these sort of criteria, it boosts our confidence in the historical document overall.
If a saying or event doesn’t meet the criteria of authenticity, does lower the historical probability or even mean it never happened?
Not at all. In fact, this is a common misunderstanding in the application of these historical criteria: “These criteria should not be used to deny what Jesus might have said, but only to confirm it.” In other words, these only work positively to support a saying or event—not negatively as evidence against it. Intuitively, this sounds like special pleading, where we stack the deck in our favor. But think about it: The vast majority of events in history were never even recorded—let alone do they meet these criteria.
How many criteria are there?
It’s hard to say. Some have counted as many as 25 different criteria, but we will focus on just three of the most common used in historical Jesus studies.
Criterion of Dissimilarity (or Double Dissimilarity)
Ernst Käsemann usually gets credit for developing this criterion, and he considered it the strongest of the criteria of authenticity. Käsemann defined it as “when there are no grounds either for deriving a tradition from Judaism or for ascribing it to primitive Christianity.” Others have explained this criterion in this way:
If a saying attributed to Jesus differed from the teachings of the Judaism of his day and from what the early church later taught, then the saying must be authentic. The reason for this is easy to understand: If such a saying cannot be found in Judaism prior to Jesus, then there is good reason to think that it really goes back to him and not earlier. And if the early church did not pick up on it, then obviously they did not invent the saying and put it on Jesus’ lips.
Since scholars of various stripes have now concluded that Jesus should be understood in a thoroughly Jewish context, some argue that we simply need a single dissimilarity with the early church. This is why a “number of scholars have endorsed the single dissimilarity criterion of difference from developments in the early Church.”
Amen, amen. On 75 occasions in the Gospels, Jesus introduces his teaching with the two-fold “Truly, truly…” or more literally “Amen, amen…” This was unknown in ancient Judaism. Indeed, “Jesus seems to be the only person in ancient Judaism to have placed an ‘amen’ at the beginning of his own statements.” Moreover, the early Christians didn’t follow this practice either.
God is Father (Abba). Jesus referred to God as his personal Father, and even used the Aramaic word Abba (“Father”) to address God (Mk. 14:36). The Hebrew Bible describes God as a “Father” to the nation of Israel—similar to how we might refer to the Founding Fathers (see Ps. 103:13; Isa. 43:6-7; Mal. 1:6; 2:10; Isa. 64:8; Ex. 4:22; Hos. 11:1). However, we don’t see “any individual Jew address God directly as ‘my Father.’” Gerhard Kittel writes:
[Abba] is almost never used, however, in relation to God.
The use of Abba in religious speech is attested only in few and later passages, and even so it is always accompanied by an addition which emphasizes the distance of man, namely, ‘who is in heaven.’
In so doing [Jesus] applies to God a term which must have sounded familiar and disrespectful to His contemporaries because used in the everyday life of the family. In other words, He uses the simple ‘speech of the child to its father.’
Jewish usage shows how this Father-child relationship to God far surpasses any possibilities of intimacy assumed in Judaism, introducing indeed something which is wholly new.
Joachim Jeremias wrote, “No Jew would have dared to address God in this manner. Late Judaism never addressed God as abba—Jesus did it always.” Paul later picks up on this concept in his letters (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6). As a Pharisee, it’s most likely that Paul gained his influence from Jesus himself.
Criterion of Multiple Attestation
A multitude of independent witnesses increase the likelihood that an event occurred. Likewise, if a saying occurs in different forms or genres of speech, this also applies to multiple attestation. These would include “aphorisms, parables, poetical sayings, dialogues, miracle stories, etc.” The idea is that these accounts were “preserved and passed down through different channels,” and it “came from a broad section of the early church and was deeply embedded in the earliest church traditions.”
To be clear, these sources need to be truly independent of one another. Since Matthew and Luke likely both copied some material from Mark (see “The Synoptic Problem”), we cannot count material in Mark, Matthew, and Luke as three sources—only one.
Jesus taught that he was inaugurating the kingdom of God. This appears in independent material in four Gospels (Mt. 5:17; 9:37-38; 13:16-17; Mk. 2:18-20; 4:26-29; Lk. 11:14-22; Jn. 4:35).
Jesus taught on divorce. This appears in three independent sources: (1) Mark 10:2-12 = Matthew 19:3-12; (2) the so-called “Q” source that Matthew 5:32 and Luke 16:18 share in common; (3) 1 Corinthians 7.10-11.
Jesus befriended notoriously sinful people. We find in this in material that is unique to Mark (Mk. 2:15-17), Matthew (Mt. 21:28-32), Luke (Lk. 15:1-2), and Q (Mt 11:18-19).
Criterion of Embarrassment
If a saying or event is embarrassing, it seems reasonable to think that it is authentic. After all, why would the authors of the Gospels purposefully include embarrassing material about Jesus or the leaders of the early church? Thus, this criterion refers to any material “that would have embarrassed or created some difficulty for the early Church, but that has been left in at the risk of embarrassment.”
Mark records that Jesus’ family thought that he lost his mind. Mark states, “[Jesus’ family] went out to restrain him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind’” (Mk. 3:21 NET). The word(s) “out of his mind” (exeste) means “to cause to be in a state in which things seem to make little or no sense” or “be out of one’s normal state of mind” or “lose one’s mind” (BDAG). Mark must have been so confident in Jesus’ sanity that it didn’t bother him to include this (cf. Jn. 7:5; 10:20). Clearly, this statement is embarrassing. Indeed, it is so embarrassing that some of the early scribes removed this passage.
Matthew records that Jesus didn’t know the date of his return. Regarding his Second Coming, Jesus said, “Of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone” (Mt. 24:36). This statement was so embarrassing that early scribes edited out Jesus’ name in this verse. R.T. France writes, “[The title for Jesus and] its omission from many MSS and early versions of the text is probably due to doctrinal embarrassment at the attribution of ignorance to Jesus.” This shows that Matthew had more integrity than the later scribes! Indeed, Jesus surely said this because we find the same words in Mark 13:32, which was transmitted without any textual tampering.
John the Baptist baptized Jesus
This is multiply attested. It is mentioned in all four Gospels (Mk. 1:9; Mt. 3:13-17; Lk. 3:21-22; Jn. 1:31-34).
This passes the criterion of embarrassment. The idea that John would baptize Jesus gave “obvious difficulties” to the early church, and “it is highly improbable that the story was invented.” In first century Judaism, the “rabbis used baptism to induct [Gentile] proselytes but never Jews.” Thus, it is unlikely that the early church would’ve invented this.
Jesus believed he was inaugurating the Kingdom of God in himself
This is multiply attested. It appears in Mark, Q, M, L, and John—not to mention various literary forms (e.g. predictions, prayers, beatitudes, etc.). Jesus said, “If I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Mt. 12:28; cf. Lk. 11:20). He told John the Baptist that he was fulfilling predictions about the coming Messiah (Mt. 11:4-5).
This passes the criterion of embarrassment and dissimilarity. We see a number of cases where Jesus broke from contemporary Jewish teaching regarding the kingdom of God in a dissimilar and potentially embarrassing way.
Children enter the kingdom. Children were not seen as important or significant in first-century Jewish culture. However, Jesus used children as a model for those who would enter the kingdom of God! He said, “Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Mk. 10:14; cf. Lk. 18:16-17).
The wealthy have a hard time entering the kingdom. In first-century Judaism, wealth “was regarded as a sign of God’s blessing.” Yet Jesus said, “How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mk. 10:23; cf. Lk. 6:20)
Tax collectors and prostitutes enter the kingdom. Tax collectors and prostitutes were despised in first-century Judaism (see “Tax Collectors in Jesus’ Day”). Yet Jesus said, “Truly I say to you that the tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the kingdom of God before you” (Mt. 21:31).
Each of these examples give historical credibility to Jesus’ statements because they were dissimilar to his contemporary, religious setting and were embarrassing in this setting.
Jesus died for claiming to be the King of the Jews
This is multiply attested. Above Jesus on the Cross, the inscription said, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” (Mt. 27:37; Mk. 15:26; Lk. 23:38; Jn. 19:19). This appears in all four Gospels—though it appears in different forms—and it was written in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek (e.g. rex, melek, basileus) for all to read.
This passes the criterion of dissimilarity. Christians never referred to Jesus as “the King of the Jews” outside of the four Gospels.
Jesus referred to himself as the Son of Man
This is multiply attested. Jesus’ favorite self-designation was “the Son of Man.” He used it 79 times out of the total 84 occurrences in the four Gospels.
This passes the criterion of dissimilarity. The use of the expression “Son of Man” was not used of the Messiah before Jesus (see only 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra), and it only appears on the lips of Stephen (Acts 7:56) and John (Rev. 1:13). This meets the “criterion of dissimilarity,” because “early Jews before or during Jesus’ day seem not to have envisioned a coming of the Son of Man.” Likewise, outside of the Gospels, we don’t read about the coming of the Son of Man to Earth. Ben Witherington writes, “It has long been the consensus of most scholars that if there are two things Jesus certainly spoke about they are the Son of Man and the kingdom of God.” He adds, “It is surely significant that the only place in the Hebrew Bible where the motifs of Son of Man and kingdom of God appear together is in Daniel 7, and these are the two most frequent and important phrases.”
Jesus was believed to be a miracle worker
This is multiply attested. Jesus’ miracles appear in various independent sources and forms (e.g. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts 2:22; 1 Corinthians 15:3ff).
This passes the criterion of embarrassment. Mark records, “The teachers of religious law who had arrived from Jerusalem said, ‘He’s possessed by Satan, the prince of demons. That’s where he gets the power to cast out demons’” (Mk. 3:22 NLT; cf. Mt. 12:27; Lk. 11:19). Three Gospels include this accusation.
This passes the criterion of dissimilarity. The way Jesus healed people was unique to him. Craig Keener writes, “Pagan magicians typically sought to coerce deities or spirits by incantations; Jesus simply commanded as God’s authoritative agent… Whereas the Gospel tradition provides many miracles stories, none involve incantations.” Furthermore, the Gospels record that Jesus performed an abundant amount of miracles, while virtually all other so-called miracle-workers would only perform one or two.
Jesus accurately predicted his own death and resurrection
This is multiply attested. Jesus predicts his death and resurrection in Mark (8:31; 9:9, 31; 10:33-34; 14:28), Matthew (12:38-40; 16:21-23), Luke (9:22; 22:15-20), and John (2:18-22). Matthew and Luke record this teaching in different contexts (Mt. 16:21-23; Lk. 9:22), and Matthew’s version even uses a Semitism for Peter that implies that he is an independent source (e.g. “Simon Barjona”).
This passes the criterion of dissimilarity. In some of the predictions, Jesus refers to himself as “the Son of Man” (Mk. 8:31), which was not used before him or after him in the early church.
This passes the criterion of embarrassment. For one, the Gospels depict the disciples as dull and dense, not being able to understand such a basic teaching (Mk 8:31-33; 9:31-32; 14:27-31; Lk 24:11, 21). Second, Peter shamefully rebukes Jesus for predicting his death and resurrection (Mk. 8:32), and Jesus calls Peter Satan! (Mk. 8:33)
Jesus died by crucifixion
This is multiply attested. Of course, it appears in all four Gospels, and details in each demonstrate that these include independent content.
This passes the criterion of embarrassment. Crucifixion was a horrific was to die. A most cruel and disgusting punishment… To bind a Roman citizen is a crime, to flog him is an abomination, to kill him is almost an act of murder: to crucify him is—What? There is no fitting word that can possibly describe so horrible a deed.
After witnessing crucifixion firsthand, Josephus referred to it as “the most wretched of deaths.” In fact, our modern word excruciate gets its roots from the original Latin, which means “out of the Cross.” What would motivate Jesus to self-fulfill a death like this? (see “The Crucifixion of Christ”). Paul admits, “We preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block [skandalon] and to Gentiles foolishness [mōria]” (1 Cor. 1:23).
This passes the criterion of dissimilarity. Crucifixion was antithetical to Jewish concepts of the Messiah. Witherington writes that the idea of a crucified Christ “would have been seen as an oxymoron.” Indeed, he writes, “In early Judaism there was no expectation of a crucified messiah; in fact, one who was crucified was assumed not to be the Anointed One of God, because crucifixion meant to be cursed by God.” Martin Hengel writes, “A crucified messiah, son of God or God must have seemed a contradiction in terms to anyone, Jew, Greek, Roman or barbarian, asked to believe such a claim, and it will certainly have been thought offensive and foolish.”
Jesus’ tomb was found empty after his death
This is multiply attested. We discover this in all four Gospels (Mt. 28:1-10; Mk. 16:1-8; Lk. 24:1-11; Jn. 20:1-14). Furthermore, Paul writes, “He was buried… He was raised” (1 Cor. 15:4). To a Jewish Pharisee (like Paul), this directly implies a bodily resurrection, and thus an empty tomb.
This passes the criterion of embarrassment. For one, the first witnesses of the empty tomb are women. Yet, this culture treated women like second-class citizens. The Talmud states, “Any evidence which a woman [gives] is not valid (to offer)” (Rosh Hashana, 1.8c). Josephus states that the testimony of women shouldn’t be allowed into a court of law. Luke even paints the disciples in a poor light when he states that they called the women’s testimony of the empty tomb “nonsense” (Lk. 24:11). Indeed, it is odd that only two out of the four Gospels include male witnesses at all (Lk. 24:12; Jn. 20:3-9).
Second, the Gospels record that Jesus was buried in the tomb of a Jewish Sanhedrist (Mt. 27:57ff; Mk. 15:43ff; Lk. 23:50; Jn. 3:1; 19:38-40). However, the “whole Council” of the Sanhedrin voted to put Jesus to death (Mk. 14:55, 64; 15:1). This would be similar to a survivor of the Holocaust claiming that a Nazi general paid for the funeral of her family. Who would write a story that made their enemies look this good?
Jesus’ closest disciples had experiences that they believed were the risen Jesus
This is multiply attested. Multiple sources mention Jesus appearing to Peter (1 Cor. 15:5; Mk. 16:7; Lk. 24:34), the Twelve (1 Cor. 15:5; Lk. 24:36; Jn. 20:19), Paul (Acts 9, 22, 26; 1 Cor. 9:1; 15:8), and groups of people (1 Cor. 15:6; Mt. 28:16-20).
This passes the criterion of dissimilarity. First-century Judaism simply had no concept for a dying and rising Messiah. According to the extrabiblical literature, the Jewish people were not expecting this at all.
The Jewish people did have a concept for an individual being “translated” directly into heaven. Several biblical and extrabiblical texts support this concept (Gen. 5:24; 2 Kings 2:11; Heb. 11:5; Testament of Job 40). So, if they found that a body went missing, they might’ve thought it was a translation into heaven, but not a resurrection on Earth.
The Jewish people also had a concept for physical “resuscitation.” We see examples of this in the life of Elijah when he revived the young boy (1 Kings 17:21-23; cf. 2 Kings 13:21). But it was clear that these people still had a mortal body—doomed for death. Mortal resuscitation was different than immortal resurrection.
The Jewish people also had a concept for the general resurrection of the dead at the end of human history. Several Old and New Testament texts support this widespread Jewish belief (Dan. 12:2; Isa. 26:19; Jn. 11:24; Mk. 9:9-13). But here is the point: they had no concept for an individual resurrection before that time.
Even if a person was individually resurrected, the Jewish people had no concept for that person being the Messiah. After all, the Messiah came to judge Israel’s enemies—not be judged by them. The thought of a dying and rising Messiah was somewhat of an oxymoron to Jewish people at the time.
This passes the criterion of embarrassment. Matthew records that Jesus appeared to a group of disciples in his resurrected state, and yet, he records that “some were doubtful” (Mt. 28:17). This is quite embarrassing to record at the climax of the Gospel—especially when it is never resolved! Furthermore, the coward Peter, the killer Paul, and the skeptic James all come to faith—yet they are depicted in a negative light.
What does this show us about Jesus?
John the Baptist baptized Jesus. Jesus inaugurated the Kingdom of God, claimed to be “the Son of Man,” and died for claiming to be the King of the Jews. Jesus was a miracle worker. Jesus died by crucifixion. Jesus’ disciples believed he appeared.
Stanley E. Porter, The Criteria for Authenticity in Historical-Jesus Research (England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000).
Robert H. Stein, “The ‘Criteria’ for Authenticity,” R.T. France & David Wenham, eds., Gospel Perspectives, Vol. 1, Studies of History and Tradition in the Four Gospels. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1980. pp.225-263.
 Emphasis mine. J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2006), p.40.
 D. Polkow, ‘Method and Criteria for Historical Jesus Research’, in K.H. Richards (ed.), Society of Biblical Literature 1987 Seminar Papers (SBLSP, 26; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1987), 338, 342.
 For further reading, see Robert H. Stein, “The ‘Criteria’ for Authenticity,” R.T. France & David Wenham, eds., Gospel Perspectives, Vol. 1, Studies of History and Tradition in the Four Gospels. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1980. pp.240-245. Stanley E. Porter, The Criteria for Authenticity in Historical-Jesus Research (England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), pp.71-76.
 Ernst Käsemann, “Das Problem des historischen Jesus,” ZTK 51 (1954), pp.125-153.
 J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2006), p.39.
 Stanley E. Porter, The Criteria for Authenticity in Historical-Jesus Research (England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), p.75.
 J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2006), p.41.
 James Boice, Romans: Volume 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1992), 841.
 Gerhard Kittel, Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 1, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), 5-6.
 This may be overstated by Dr. Jeremias, but his point still stands that the concept was inaugurated by Jesus and exceedingly rare in Judaism. Joachim Jeremias, “The Lord’s Prayer in Modern Research,” in New Testament Issues, edited by Richard Batey (Harper & Row, 1970), p. 95.
 For further reading, see Robert H. Stein, “The ‘Criteria’ for Authenticity,” R.T. France & David Wenham, eds., Gospel Perspectives, Vol. 1, Studies of History and Tradition in the Four Gospels. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1980. pp.229-232. Stanley E. Porter, The Criteria for Authenticity in Historical-Jesus Research (England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), pp.82-89.
 Stanley E. Porter, The Criteria for Authenticity in Historical-Jesus Research (England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), pp.85.
 Robert H. Stein, “The ‘Criteria’ for Authenticity,” R.T. France & David Wenham, eds., Gospel Perspectives, Vol. 1, Studies of History and Tradition in the Four Gospels. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1980. p.233.
 For further reading, see Robert H. Stein, “The ‘Criteria’ for Authenticity,” R.T. France & David Wenham, eds., Gospel Perspectives, Vol. 1, Studies of History and Tradition in the Four Gospels. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1980. pp.229-232. Stanley E. Porter, The Criteria for Authenticity in Historical-Jesus Research (England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), pp.106-110.
 Stanley E. Porter, The Criteria for Authenticity in Historical-Jesus Research (England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), pp.109.
 Lane writes, “Codex D W it read ‘when the scribes and the rest heard concerning them,’ thus removing all possible reference to Jesus’ family. The reason for seizing Jesus in D it is that ‘he escaped from them.’ Similarly in Codex W and 28 all reference to insanity is removed: ‘Because they said that they were adherents of his’ or ‘dependent on him.’” See footnote. William Lane, The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974), pp.138-139.
 Craig Evans, Authenticating the Activities of Jesus (Eiden: Brill Publishers, 1999), p.6.
 Carson, D. A. (1984). Matthew. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, Mark, Luke (Vol. 8, p. 103). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.
 John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew (New York: Doubleday, 1994), p.349.
 For instance, m. ‘Abot 3:10 reads, “Morning sleep, mid-day wine, chattering with children and tarrying in places where men of common people assemble, destroy a man.” See Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 391.
 R.T. France, Matthew (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), p.287.
 Craig Evans, Authenticating the Activities of Jesus (Eiden: Brill Publishers, 1999), p.24.
 Ben Witherington III, The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth (2nd Ed. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), p.94.
 Ben Witherington III, The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth (2nd Ed. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), p.55.
 Ben Witherington III, The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth (2nd Ed. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), p.95.
 Craig Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Vol. 2, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2011), p.70.
 Cicero, Against Verres II.v.64. paragraph 165; II.v.66, paragraph 170.
 Josephus Jewish War. 7.203.
 Ben Witherington III, New Testament History: A Narrative Account (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), p.140.
 Ben Witherington III, New Testament History: A Narrative Account (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), p.155.
 Martin Hengel, Crucifixion (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1997), p.10.
 Josephus writes, “Let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex, nor let servants be admitted to give testimony on account of the ignobility of their soul; since it is probable that they may not speak truth, either out of hope of gain, or fear of punishment.” Josephus, Antiquities, 4.8.15.
 In this extrabiblical account, two Jewish children die when a house caves in. When the observers cannot find the bodies of the children, they teach that the children were taken directly into heaven.