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Beware the ‘Criteria of Dissimilarity’

Jesus was a carpenter. So says the New Testament. The professor concurs that he probably was. He does not concur because the Bible writer says it was so. He mistrusts the writers to convey historical truth accurately—they are too busy changing the story to fit their own “theologies,” he maintains. Everything they say is suspect and must be verified by critical analysis.

As it turns out, Jesus being a carpenter passes the “criteria of dissimilarity” and for that reason the professor accepts it as probably valid. Nobody is going to lie about Jesus being a carpenter because that does not paint him in a flattering light. A liar would have made Jesus a lawyer, a noble, an esteemed teacher such as the professor himself—something more respectable. But he identifies Jesus as a carpenter and thus fesses up to something “dissimilar” to his own interests of making Jesus look good. It is a fine example of passing the “criteria of dissimilarity.”

I’m not sure how much of this wisdom I can stand. Professor Ehrman here reveals why he will misconstrue most everything of importance about Jesus. So much higher criticism reflects classism—one class looking down on the other. ‘Jesus followers would never own up to his being a carpenter unless he really was one because it is an embarrassment to be a carpenter’ is the operating assumption. Well, maybe it isn’t. Maybe the pecking order of society that the professor has internalized is not the grand ranking scheme of the cosmos. Maybe God thinks a carpenter is not such a loser for failure to climb to loftier heights in life. Maybe it is those lofty heights themselves that he disdains.

It is a little like when Mike Bloomberg says: "I could teach anybody—even people in this room so no offense intended—to be a farmer. It's a process. You dig a hole, you put a seed in, you put dirt on top, add water, up comes the corn.” Does he really seek to mitigate the “offense” he might cause by suggesting farming to his educated audience? Does the remark reveal something about farmers, or does it reveal something about Bloomberg? The little people were not happy to hear that the former mayor could teach any orangutan their job. It’s a four-year-old quote and arguably taken out of context—or does the actual insult extent to lathe operators, and indeed all who work with their hands?

I’ll bet also that Jesus being born in a stable would knock the “criteria of dissimilarity” ball right out of the park—you just know it would. It is so humiliating, supposes the higher critic—plainly any Bible writer worth his salt would love to say Jesus was born in the Jerusalem Hyatt—in the Presidential suite!—so if he embarrassingly lets slip that the stable was the place of birth, it is undoubtedly so.

In fact, if there is one guiding star of the Bible writers, it is that the pretentions of humans do not cut much ice with God. He shoves away the finest things of humankind just to show what he thinks of them. The stable is a fine place for the Savior to be born, for in the stable will be more of the people he favors: “Though Jehovah is high, he takes note of the humble, But the haughty he knows only from a distance,” says Psalm 138:6. That being the case, it is well to hang out where the humble are in preference to where haughty are, because the quality rubs off. The stable will do just fine.

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