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Very few critics have attempted to deal with the issues surrounding the reliability of oral tradition and eyewitness testimony, relative to the content of the Gospels. We may see why this is so by taking a look at the counter-arguments attempted by Robert Price in his book, Beyond Born Again (BBA). The fact is that here is very little that CAN be offered in response - and one must go quite far afield, and propose some rather irrelevant comparisons, in order to even attempt a refutation.
One word as a preface: Reading the notes page of BBA, and looking at the cites of Christian apologists, is rather like entering a time warp. Price's book was published in 1993. By my rough estimate, between 95-97 percent of his cites are from before 1980, mostly from the 1970s, and ALL of his cites from apologists are from the 70s.
We are constrained to ask: Why publish such an outdated critique? Where are the references to the great apologists, scholars and writers of today, such as William Lane Craig, J. P. Moreland, Craig Blomberg, Greg Boyd, etc.? Price seems to be completely unaware of conservative apologetic advances over the past 20 years, even those before 1993, and in our information age, that is quite a long way to be outdated.
Price first moves against arguments concerning the available time for legends to have built and be incorporated into the Gospels. He says:
I begin with a representative statement by Josh McDowell:
One of the major criticisms against the form critics' idea of the oral tradition is that the period of oral tradition (as defined by the critics) is not long enough to have allowed the alterations in the tradition that the radical critics have alleged.
Similarly, John Warwick Montgomery confidently asserts: "With the small time interval between Jesus' life and the Gospel records, the Church did not create a "Christ of faith.'..."
To this, Price replies:
This "small time interval" would be about thirty or forty years! Some conservatives protest that this is not really a long period at all. McNeile in his New Testament introduction, a favorite of Montgomery's, states that "It is not unusual for men even of slight intellectual ability to recall and relate clearly important events occurring thirty-five years previously." But surely this is not the real point. Form critics suggest not so much that eyewitnesses forgot the details of what they saw. Their idea is that other people spun out legendary material during the same period, or that as Strauss suggested, people who witnessed only a little of Jesus' activity formed legendary "remembrances" to fill in the gaps in their knowledge.
As a minor point of contention, I do not see where either McDowell or Montgomery are suggesting that FORM CRITICS are suggesting forgetfulness - Price is perhaps mixing together two separate arguments by apologists. (It was actually A. N. Sherwin-White who has argued in this area, saying that "Herodotus enables us to test the tempo of myth-making, and the tests suggest that even two generations are too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historic core of the oral tradition."
This is the testimony of a classical historian, not an apologist, and it is he and the historians who agree with him whom Price should address - not McDowell and Montgomery.
At any rate, the key is, indeed, the matter of created material, as far as the form critics and the apologists' counter-arguments are concerned.
A larger point of contention, though, is that the "small time interval" is actually less than 20 years - most of Paul's letters were written in the 50s AD, and his source material goes back even further than that.
Price, however, goes on:
But weren't the gospel events too well know for any "creative community" to plausibly get away with alteration? F. F. Bruce, alluding to remarks by C. H. Dodd, draws the analogy of how easily World War II was remembered twenty to thirty years afterward. If someone suggested some seriously distorted version of the events of those days, no one would be fooled. Buell and Hyder invoke the example of Richard Nixon's resignation:
Suppose that, thirty years after Nixon's presidency ended, a nonfiction bestseller portrayed a thoroughly consistent picture of Nixon having left office before his second term expired for reasons of personal health while at the height of popularity.... Although most of us did not know Nixon personally, we would certainly know enough to contribute to the rebuttal.
To this, Price writes:
Apart from the will-to-believe already present among their Evangelical readers, how can the apologists hope to get away with analogies like these? In both cases we are dealing with events of immediate national and world impact that were continually impressed on the senses of whole populations through massive disturbances in lifestyle and by the mass media. Thus World War II and Watergate were known and remembered in detail by most of the world. The public ministry of Jesus is hardly a comparable case! Had Jesus, like Billy Graham, had the benefit of William Randolph Hearst's journalistic machine, perhaps we would have a parallel here. But as it is, we are dealing with an itinerant preacher in first-century Palestine. To quote a line from "Jesus Christ Superstar": "If you'd come today, you'd have reached a whole nation / Israel in 4 B. C. had no mass communication." Besides, many of the important words and deeds of Jesus in the gospels are depicted as occurring in the presence of rather small or private groups, e.g., the disciples. (Also see the numerous admonitions to secrecy in Mark 5:43; 8:26, 30; 9:9; etc.) Apologists seem to think they can secure their arguments with the mere citation (I am not exaggerating) of Acts 26:26: "This thing was not done in a corner." Does no one notice that Paul is here referring not to Jesus' career or resurrection, but to his own conversion and the attendant uproar which brought him before Agrippa? Does context matter so little?
Let's analyze this matter a bit at a time -
In both cases we are dealing with events of immediate national and world impact that were continually impressed on the senses of whole populations through massive disturbances in lifestyle and by the mass media. Thus World War II and Watergate were known and remembered in detail by most of the world. The public ministry of Jesus is hardly a comparable case! Had Jesus, like Billy Graham, had the benefit of William Randolph Hearst's journalistic machine, perhaps we would have a parallel here. But as it is, we are dealing with an itinerant peracher in first-century Palestine.
Is that ALL that we are really dealing with? True, Jesus was a "Marginal Jew" for the greater part of His ministry, but remember that for the disciples and many of those around Jerusalem and Judea (read: national impact), events surrounding Him DID have immediate and incredible impact - so much so that many priests and thousands living in that region became Christians within only a few months. Continual impression on the senses? The words and deeds of Jesus were quite continually impressed upon the disciples. Massive disturbances? An earthquake, a darkness at mid-day, the temple curtain torn in two, an execution at Passover (with the attendant crowds), and people falling out of a house speaking in tongues at Pentecost - these sound like some pretty disturbing events.
These were EXACTLY the sort of events that would be impressed upon people, talked about, and checked out - especially once certain folks started saying that that fellow who was executed had been raised from the dead, thus making a challenging claim of honor that would never have been readily accepted in an agonistic setting.
No, there was no Hearst machine to publicize things; but there WERE enthusiastic missionaries making exciting claims, and preaching to Diaspora Jews throughout the Roman Empire, many of whom took regular trips to Jerusalem; there was also a collectivist society highly interested in and very willing to control deviant groups. The fact that Suetonius indicates the presence of Christians in Rome less than 20 years after the Crucifixion is testimony to the zeal with which the Gospel was spread.
It is also worth pointing out that a "Hearst machine," or a 60 Minutes investigative team, or whatever you prefer, was not necessary for Jerusalem. It was a relatively small city; every leader and every major figure certainly knew about Jesus; and then there is the evidence of the mutual fear between the crowds and the leaders, the constant interaction among the crowds as to his identity, and so on.
In short, there was more than adequate publicity for this to work; and, with the previous messianic claimants and failures, ANYONE could have been quickly lime-lighted - especially one of those troublesome Galileans.
Besides, many of the important words and deeds of Jesus in the gospels are depicted as occuring in the presence of rather small or private groups, e.g., the disciples. (Also see the numerous admonitions to secrecy in Mark 5:43; 8:26, 30; 9:9; etc.)
I wish Price had offered some cites for the first claim, so we could analyze them directly. As it is, we have no way of knowing which words and deeds he refers to, so we can then ask the question as to whether COMPARABLE words/deeds were spoken/performed in public.
Even so, the size of the group is not a significant issue; the constituency of the group is far more important. If the group is large and/OR confrontational enough, you can still have a considerable feedback/failsafe mechanism.
As for secrecy - sure, see the many admonitions to secrecy; see also the many times that those admonitions were ignored: Mark 7:36, regarding healing of a deaf-mute, says of the admonitions of silence: "The more (Jesus) did so, the more they kept talking about it," and elsewhere are many instances where the subject of a healing went and blabbed in spite of instructions to the contrary. We also have healings performed in very public places before crowds - cf. the woman with an issue of blood, the blind men of Jericho - and a man born blind whose healing was investigated by the authorities.
Now most of the quotes directly cited by Price above are admonitions not to tell anyone that Jesus was the Christ - but even this "Messianic secret" did not stay secret for very long. Once Jesus rode into town on a donkey, that pretty well announced His intentions for all to see. And even beyond that, we run into questions of WHY the disciples would invent such a claim for Jesus - which is not even dealt with by Price here. Given the impact on the Jewish state and their lives and careers, why in the world would these folks MAKE UP miracles, stories, messianic claims, etc.?
Apologists seem to think they can secure their arguments with the mere citation (I am not exaggerating) of Acts 26:26: "This thing was not done in a corner." Does no one notice that Paul is here referring not to Jesus' career or resurrection, but to his own conversion and the attendant uproar which brought him before Agrippa? Does context matter so little?
If it does not matter little, we wonder why Price did not carefully consider the context of this citation. A reading of Acts 26 shows that Paul is clearly NOT referring to his own conversion and the attendant uproar. Let us read the material in question, with verse 26 in bold:
Acts 26:12-29 "On one of these journeys I was going to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. About noon, O king, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, 'Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.' "Then I asked, 'Who are you, Lord?' "'I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,' the Lord replied. 'Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you. I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.' "So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven. First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds. That is why the Jews seized me in the temple courts and tried to kill me. But I have had God's help to this very day, and so I stand here and testify to small and great alike. I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen-- that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles." At this point Festus interrupted Paul's defense. "You are out of your mind, Paul!" he shouted. "Your great learning is driving you insane." "I am not insane, most excellent Festus," Paul replied. "What I am saying is true and reasonable. The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do." Then Agrippa said to Paul, "Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?" Paul replied, "Short time or long--I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains."
Paul's "corner" remark is a response to Agrippa's outburst, which was in itself a response to Paul's assertion that what was said by Moses and the prophets was fulfilled in Christ. And, the "corner" remark is followed by Paul asking if Agrippa believes the prophets, which again references the fulfillments. In fact, the very sentence in which the "corner" stands, suggests that "these things" are NOT Paul's conversion story: Festus is presumed to be ALREADY "familiar with" whatever was not done "in a corner."
The chances that Festus was "familiar" with the gospel proclamation and Jesus' public ministry and execution are MUCH GREATER than the chances that he was "familiar" with the details of Paul's conversion experience details. How Price can read this passage as referring to Paul's conversion experience and the resultant "uproar" is beyond me.
But now to a different turn in the strategy. Seeking to blunt the appeal to the large amount of time needed to attach legends to a personage, Price seeks a parallel in history, to wit:
Gershom Scholem's study of the seventeenth century messianic pretender Sabbatai Sevi provides a productive parallel here. Sevi was able to arouse apocalyptic fervor among Jews all over the Mediterranean during the 1660s. The movement suffered a serious setback when the messiah apostasized to Islam! But still it did not die away.
Even initially, we may see that the story of Sevi may actually not serve as productively as Price would like: Most obviously, the fact that Sevi apostatized makes comparisons to Jesus difficult, since, although the primary point here is the creation of legends, Sevi's apostasy could very well have changed the tenor and process of any legends attached to him, as compared to what would have happened if he had remained a Jew.
Moreover, Price fails to tell us WHY Sevi was able to arouse apocalyptic fervor (it was due to persecution of Jews by Gentiles) and what the full history of the movement was following the apostasy. A far better parallel would be found in the present "Counterfeit Revival" movement...but we won't get into that now.
Here, too, according to the apologists, legends should have waited at least a couple of generations till they reared their heads. But Gershom Scholem speaks of "the sudden and almost explosive surge of miracle stories" concerning Sabbatai Sevi within weeks or even days of his public appearances!
Here is where we reach the crux of the matter: Price fundamentally misunderstands the apologetic arguments being presented. Apologists do NOT simply say that ANY legends should have "waited" a certain amount of time before forming; what is being said is that it takes time for legends to be able to "stick" and earn the status of gospel truth, thus replacing or supplementing what was really true.
The argument, then, allows that legends could arise, but would then be countered by the hard facts, and die within a short period - UNLESS they were put together so late that it was impossible to check their validity by normal means. The point of the apologetic arguments is that the "legends" (as the Skeptics like to call them) of Christianity (divinity claims, resurrection, etc.) were "invented" (again, as the Skeptics say) so early that they would still be in the squashable stage at their most critical period - and that they were NOT squashed is testimony that they are NOT legends. In other words, they were NOT legends, and they were NOT invented - they actually happened.
And this, indeed, is another place where Price's parallel using Sevi fails. Since Sevi apostatized within a short time after declaring himself to be the Messiah, there wasn't time (nor, perhaps, the interest) for the legends to be sufficiently, critically analyzed. Time to verify, yes; time to embellish in the short-term, yes; but to embellish and stick in the long-term, holding up under investigation and spreading as would have had to have happened if Skeptics are right about Christianity - no chance.
If I may be so bold, let me suggest that we may observe three basic stages in the progress of the movements based on legends that Price will cite as examples. This is by no means an attempt to present a uniform view of such movements, and no doubt we would wish to explore further the psychology and sociology of such situations and add all kinds of details; but since Price himself does not go into great detail in this regard either, I will be bold, as I say, and make a general venture here.
The three stages are:
1) Initial acceptance. This is where everyone gets excited and picks up on the new movement, for whatever reason. In this stage, the movement thrives and grows.
2) Critical analysis. AKA Disillusionment, Crash and Burn, etc. Call this the place where things get rough. It is where folks discover that the movement is based on false premises, and it all goes downhill from there.
3) Alteration for survival. In order to survive, the movement must change dramatically. This usually leads to a slow death and possibly total extermination. It is also the stage (very late) when legends are produced that cannot be contramanded by accessible methods of verification, precisely because they have been developed so late.
Price hereafter provides a number of anecdotal references to this or that movement that produced legendary elements of belief in a short period of time. We will not take the time to examine ALL of these - the pattern is fairly the same in each case, and we will therefore content ourselves with looking at what is manifestly Price's "best example" (the Sabbatean movement), along with representative samples of the others.
We shall discover that the key difference between the movements that Price cites and Christianity is that Christianity SURVIVED Stage 2 above - in spite of the fact that its most basic claim, the Resurrection, could have been easily countermanded. All that had to be done was wheel the body of Jesus through the streets of Jerusalem, or take some other assertive action against the Apostles. As it is, the best that could apparently be done was say that the disciples stole the body, and that did not work. (I have now developed the thesis of Christianity's survival in depth here.)
And what of Sabbatai Sevi's movement? As we have noted, it never quite made it to a relevant "crash and burn" stage, because of Sevi's apostasy. But we can guess that it would have met a hard end anyway: It was being predicted that Sevi would run roughshod over his military foes, "take the dominion from the Turkish king without war," and then cause all nations to submit to his rule! [GS.MM, 272] That's practically inviting a crash and burn.
However, the movement did follow a rather unsurprising pattern of decline, with only a minor variation. Scholem, recognizing such a pattern, writes (ibid., 687):
The shock of the messiah's apostasy should normally have been sufficient to shatter completely the structure of faith and hope that had been erected on the tidings announced by (Nathan), and the Sabbatean episode would have passed like a nightmare, and would have left no noticeable mark on the life and consciousness of the people. Other messianic movements had collapsed in the past without causing serious consequences.
The difference, Scholem notes, is the particularly strong and well-defined emotional investment that many had in the movement, which kept it alive longer than might be expected - which again offers a parallel to today's "Counterfeit Revival," and NOT to historic Christianity. This is not to deny that the Apostles, for example, had investments of their own; however, without delving too deeply into a tangent here, let it only be said that the Sabbatean movement does NOT provide a suitable parallel - the emotions of the adherents were connected to the movement in an entirely different fashion, and for entirely different, historical reasons: persecution.
Nevertheless, as we shall see, Sabbateanism was never the same after a few years. We will look at how the Sabbatean movement altered itself to survive, following Sevi's apostasy, later on.
Let's take a look now at one of Price's modern examples of legendary accretion:
Faith-healer William Marrion Branham was held in exaggerated esteem by legions of his followers, many of whom believed him to be Jesus Christ returned or even a new incarnation of God. He, however, did not teach such notions. In fact, once on a visit to such a group of devotees in Latin America he explicitly denied any such wild claims made for him, but his followers reasoned that he was just testing their faith! Many believed in Branham's virgin birth despite his published recollections of his alcoholic mother.
This hardly tells the entire story - there is much more that should be told, and it casts rather a different light on Branham [HH.CR, 134-7].
Branham made rather outrageous claims for himself, saying that "vibrations" in his right hand enabled him to detect and diagnose diseases; supposedly, his hand would turn red and swollen when disease was detected. He attracted crowds, all right, but by 1959 - some 13 years after he had allegedly received an angelic vision calling him to ministry - the crowds started dwindling (crash and burn, Stage 2) and he was forced to make changes and make even more outrageous claims (Stage 3): identifying himself as the prophesied angel to the church of Laodecia; endorsing odd doctrines like saying that Cain was the product of sexual intercourse between Eve and the serpent, and predicting that by 1977, all denominations would be consumed by the World Council of Churches under the control of Catholicism, and the world would be destroyed.
Branham died in a car crash in 1965. Many of his friends who held to his "virgin-born" status also believed that he would rise from the dead. It did not happen, and today, he is but a footnote to history.
Where are his "legions" of followers now? They are gone - as the car hit Branham's car head-on, so, eventually, did the truth hit Branham's followers, and he is now little more than a footnote, with a few of his teachings living on in the works of modern teachers of questionable doctrines, like Kenneth Hagin.
So it is: "Branhamism" died because of the cold facts. Christianity, Price must say, refused to die, and in fact grew, in spite of the facts - and we must therefore conclude that the case of Branham provides no significant parallel to historic Christianity.
Here is another, even more recent (but also even less relevant) example:
Researcher Ed Sanders encountered a number of legends about Charlie Manson during the writing of his book The Family. On one particular bus trip in Death Valley, "several miracles were alleged to have been performed by Charles Manson." One story relates that "Charlie levitated the bus over a creek crag."
But once again, the same thing happens: Cold truth knocks out legends, hands down. Manson's story is countered by the fact that Manson is now in prison - and is not levitating himself and his followers over the barbed wire (Stage 2). Because Manson is locked up, there is NO CHANCE that this story or the others about Manson's powers will attain the general status of truth, NO CHANCE that Manson will gain a following like that of Jesus. Manson's movement is a different movement now (Stage 3). The attempted comparison here to Jesus simply fails.
So it seems that an interval of thirty or forty years could indeed accomodate the intrusion of legendary materials into the gospel tradition. (Whether or not this actually occured is a different question.)
Indeed, that is the point! None of these comparisons is suitable, for they fail to take into account the many differences from the Gospel accounts and in the history of Christianity. Price has badly misunderstood the point of the apologetic argument. Among the most notable factors of the true argument is the presence and role of eyewitnesses, friendly AND hostile...and that is the topic of our next section! But, let us repeat for emphasis: The issue is "dominance," not "origination" of legends - if we want to see Christianity "doing" legends, we look at the NT apocrypha; but the NT reports do NOT fit in this category at all.
But Evangelical apologists do not restrict their arguments to matters of dating and time intervals. They also appeal with great relish to the role of eyewitnesses in the gospel tradition.
Price begins by briefly noting arguments relative to source and form criticism, relative to authorship and dates of the Gospels, which we have covered here. We will move past the generalities offered and refer instead to specifics:
A kindred appeal to eyewitnesses technically does not depend on the direct eyewitness-authorship of the finished gospels. Here apologists are content to argue that the gospels represent the end product of a process of oral tradition. Some, like F. F. Bruce, actually seem to accept this idea; others, like Montgomery, seem only to be accepting this premise for the sake of argument. But in either case the objective is to show that the formation of any such oral or communal tradition was firmly under the control of eyewitnesses all the way, and thus did not admit of legendary embellishment. For example, F. F. Bruce writes:
... it can have been by no means so easy as some writers seem to think to invent words and deeds of Jesus in those early years, when so many of his disciples were about, who could remember what had and had not happened.
The idea is that the apostles and other eyewitnesses would have seen to it that the rank-and-file believers did not let their fancy run wild in creating stories about Jesus. It seems to me that this argument rests on a rather anachronistic picture of the apostle's activity. They are imagined to be sort of a squad of ethnographer-detectives, ranging over Palestine, sniffing out legends and clamping the lid on any they discover. If the apostles declined to leave their preaching to wait on tables, I doubt if they had time for this sort of thing either!
Didn't they? According to the NT, sniffing out false data and practices (Galatians, the Timothy letters, Simon Magus, the Epistles of John, etc.) or updating and correcting those in need of it (Apollos, the Thessalonians and the parousia, the disciples of John the Baptist who knew nothing of the Holy Spirit, etc.) was one of the MAIN objects of the apostles' preaching.
For further information on this, we refer the reader to the work of Glenn Miller, who has demonstrated how this "feedback loop" was in action in the apostolic church. To whiz on over, just click the link!
Again the story of Sabbatai Sevi offers an illuminating parallel to the situation envisioned here. In this case we know that the chief apostle of the movement, Nathan of Gaza (a contemporary of Sevi), did repreatedly warn the faithful that the messiah would have to merit their belief without doing miracles. But, as we have seen, miracle stories gushed forth without abatement! So in a very analogous case, the efforts of the chief apostle could do nothing to curb the legend-mongering enthusiasm of the faithful.
Again, since Sabbateanism did not get time to be critically analyzed before folding, the comparison is really not relevant; but there is an additional point here that dulls the comparison. Nathan was not just the "chief apostle"; he was really the ONLY one. Scholem observes [GS.MM, 207]:
In vain have historians tried to discover Sabbatai's early followers. They never existed. Even his old friends and disciples were converted to faith in his messiahship only by Nathan's gospel.
Thus, Scholem designates Nathan both the John the Baptist and the Paul of the Sabbatean movement - and that is where a significant difference arises. All of the control was in the hands of one man, Nathan - even Sevi himself mostly stood in the background. There was no control, and no feedback loop, no effective way of controlling the spread of legends as there was with early Christianity.
The legends of Sevi, according to Scholem, originated with individual followers - NOT with the leadership! This is the opposite of what we see in Christianity - where the leadership set the truth [what the Skeptics say are the "legends"] down, and took an active role in squashing false information; whereas, Nathan would hardly have time to travel all over Europe and the Mideast by himself teaching people to keep the creativity down. And beyond that are social reasons for the spread of the Sabbatean movement which we are not even touching upon.
In this next quote, we find another citation:
It is wise to keep in mind the caution of Bollandist scholar Hippolyte Belehaye. In discussing the sources and historicity of saints' legends, he remarks:
The intellectual capacity of the multitude reveals itself on all sides as exceedingly limited, and it would be a mistake to assume that it usually submits itself to the influence of superior minds. On the contrary, the latter necessarily suffer loss from contact with the former, and it would be quite illogical to attribute a special value to a popular tradition because it had its origin amin surroundings in which persons of solid merit [in our case, the apostles] were to be met with.
Unfortunately, Belehaye's book has nothing to do with the NT situation, and in fact, does not even refer to the NT events! It has to do with exactly the sort of "late legends" that I have referred to earlier - those made tens or even hundreds of years after the fact, when it became way too late to offer any convincing contradiction.
In point of fact, Belehaye indirectly provides SUPPORT for the veracity of the NT accounts [HD.LGS, 13-4]. He notes, first of all, that in serious circumstances (like being witness to a murder at a trial) we are LESS likely to add exciting and legendary elements to a story - and as salvation was thought to be at stake, there is every reason to say the Apostles and early Christians took their testimony seriously.
Second, Belehaye notes the common-sense view that the more hands a story passes through, the more likely it is that embellishment will occur. But of course, there were almost NO intermediaries for the transmission of the NT - it was eyewitnesses and their disciples who passed on the information. And beyond that are matters related to memory and oral transmission which is beyond Belehaye's scope, but which we do deal with elsewhere. And, we should add that the sort of legends that Belehaye refers to ALWAYS end up with outrageous flairs of the sort that are distinctly lacking in the Gospels.
As an extra aside - if we want to talk about "superior minds," let us remember that the rabbis, Pharisees, and scribes had a great deal of power and influence - not just greater intellect. Excommunication and ostracization, as a member of a decidedly minority group, for example, would tend to be a powerful disincentive to legendizing a fellow Jew into God - or even into a simple Messiah.
Price then moves to the opposite end of the issue, the matter of hostile witnesses. He writes:
Bruce and Montgomery go on to add a negative version of the eyewitness argument: what about non-Christian eyewitnesses who could have called the Christians' bluff? "Had there been any tendency to depart from the facts in any material respect, the possible presence of hostile witnesseses in the audience would have served as a further corrective." Would it? Evidence indicates this to be pretty doubtful.
And once again, he appeals to Sabbatai:
Bruce is not reckoning with the contagious fervor of apocalyptic movements; one hears what one wants to hear. In the case of Sabbatai Sevi, we know that "hostile witnesses" tried to keep things under control but to no avail. The rabbis of Constantinople announced that during Sevi's stay there "... we have not beheld a single miracle or sign... only the noise of rumors and testimonies at second hand." No one seemed to listen.
Again, as we have noted, there wasn't really enough time for the Sabbatean movement to be critically analyzed before Sevi apostatized - so whether anyone "listened" or not is actually irrelevant. Also, note that we HAVE "hostile witnesses" in the case of Sevi, but they were ineffective. We don't even HAVE such a contra-testimony in the case of Jesus; not a single dissenter who was a contemporary.
Further, it is worth pointing out that (1) the Jesus movement was rather of a non-apocalyptic nature; and (2) unlike Sabbateanism, Christianity was still a "book/cognitive based movement" -- NOT a mystical movement like Sevi's. Appeals to Scripture were the modus operandi for Jewish sects of the day.
But now let's take into consideration a few things about the Sabbatean movement that Price does not tell us about.
What happened to the movement after the apostasy? It underwent a classic "Stage 3" execution - for all intents and purposes, the movement died. There were still a few people who believed that Sevi was faking his apostasy, though, and they stuck around in some force until 1850 as a half-Muslim, half-Jewish group called the Donmeh. [BM.HJD, 166] Its adherents were persecuted by the Jewish community; its literature was destroyed, and it devolved into a thoroughly mystical sect looking for Sabbatai to return as Messiah at a later date [see GS.JM, 287-324].
The movement slowly dwindled, until, in 1989, the Encyclopedia of Judaism was able to report, there was nothing left but a small community of the faithful in Istanbul.
And this, again, is what we would expect from a movement based on legends: Even after a crash and burn, there is always a "core" of followers, as in any apocalyptic movement (again, whether we can truly say Christianity was such is in itself debatable), who will never desert their leader; BUT, there are always those who "come to their senses" and leave (as the overwhelming majority of Jews did in the case of Sabbatai), and there are ALWAYS those on the outside who will maintain a perspective on the group in question - i.e., the rabbis of Constantinople, as well as other critics of the movement - and act as counters from the very beginning.
Indications are that various countering measures were TRIED with Christianity (rumors of the body being stolen; persecution of the Apostles and early Christians, including martyrdoms) - but to no avail. The movement grew in spite of these actions - which leads us to believe that the Apostles had the truth on their side.
What happened to the Sabbatean movement itself is a splendid example of the outline above. Scholem [GS.MM, 718] observes that after Sevi's apostasy, Nathan became a fugitive and a vagabond, first being relentlessly persecuted, and then ignored, until his death in 1680. The movement itself was suppressed throughout Europe and Asia, until, as we have seen, it mutated into not much more than something equivalent to a Masonic lodge. Obviously this does not parallel the development of Christianity.
Price then moves on to some modern examples for his case; we will look at all three:
Readers may recall the brief flurry of interest, during the great "cult" hysteria of the 70s and early 80s, over the young divinity Guru Maharaj Ji. He was a rotund little Buddha of a man, a boy really, who had a notorious preference for Baskin-Robbins ice cream. As it happened, he also had a preference for his secretary and married her, much against the Old-World wishes of his mother. She promptly booted the young godling off the throne of the universe and replaced him with his charisma-less older brother. What, one might ask, was the reaction of the Premies, as the disciples were called, to this train of events? On a visit to Berkeley a year or so later, I saw them still handing out literature featuring the boy-god's grinning visage. I asked how this was still possible and was told that the Premies simply refused to beleive the whole debacle had happened! All was the same as far as they were concerned.
All this provides is yet another example of a classic Stage 2 crash and burn, followed by Stage 3 - changes made to survive. But are those pamphlets doing any good? Is the movement growing, gaining new converts? Price's anecdote, while rather entertaining in its own way, speaks of nothing relevant to Christian history. Nor, in fact, does this comparison:
Or take the Rastafarians of Jamaica. They venerated Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie as God incarnate, despite his own puzzled reaction to this news once when he visited the island. What became of their faith when the deposed emperor died? On a "Sixty Minutes" broadcast an intelligent-looking Jamaican journalist with allegiance to the religion matter-of-factly said he believed Haile Selassie was still alive, his supposed death a "premature report" (Mark Twain) engendered by the unbelieving Western media!
I am not sure that a movement that emphasizes the use of a mind-altering substance like marijuana qualifies as a good parallel to Christianity - unless John Allegro happens to be correct about "Jesus" being a code word for a mushroom!
Even so, the parallel is again a failure. Did this movement spread beyond Jamaica and the Rastafarians? No, as a whole it has not, and it was not likely to, between the reaction by Selassie and his untimely death (both prime elements for a stage 2 crash, verifiable by common sources - and that the journalist in question LOOKED intelligent is hardly an indication as to whether he actually WAS intelligent).
So, we see what happened: A classic Stage 3 response, an invented conspiracy formulated to keep the movement alive. And indeed, now, we have in Rastafarianism a quite fractured movement -- see here for details -- with much less focus on Selassie. Again, nothing here is relevant to Christian history.
Now our final example, which has some relevance - but only because of the subject matter:
Or who can forget the remarkable case of religious talk-show host and con-man Jim Bakker? Even after his conviction on the basis of a veritable mountain of evidence, the faith of a stubborn group of his followers remained unshaken. They formed the "Bring back the Bakkers Club"!
Again - where is the "Bring Back the Bakkers" bunch now? Is the movement growing, like Christianity did? Jim has renounced his former life, and now preaches on a much smaller scale; Tammy became fodder for the tabloids, before hear death in 2007 - Stage 2, the nail in the coffin. I have not even seen an attempt at recovery that fits with Stage 3, but because of Jim Bakker's new view on things, any recovery that does occur is also likely to be an entirely new movement. Thus, the parallel again fails.
Having thus presumed his case proven, Price proceeds to what amounts to psychoanalysis:
In all such cases what we have is "cognitive dissonance reduction." More about that later on, but for now suffice it to say that when one has so much at stake in a belief being true ("Lo, we have left everything to follow you..." Mark 10:28), one simply cannot, psychologically speaking, afford to admit one was mistaken. Any fact may be denied or rationalized to avoid such an admission. Finally one is impervious to the evidential barrages of "hostile witnesses."
First of all, Price's use of Mark 10:28 is rather misleading. The disciples had a "stake" in Jesus' ministry at the time, but NO stake in a belief in the Resurrection - which had yet to occur, and which they were not even aware would happen.
Second, remember John 6: "From that time on, many turned back..." -- and the "alternative" that the disciples were dealing with was "You have the words of eternal life, to whom shall we go?" It was not an issue of not having any PRACTICAL option, for they manifestly had practical options (i.e., taking up fishing again!). The "we have left all" passage, in context, is about "rewards" -- NOT about being "trapped" in a movement that one has committed all of their psychological resources to.
Even so, as we have seen, this long-distance psychoanalysis of the reaction of the early Christians hardly does justice to the truth or to history. Not one of the parallels used by Price fits the schema of early Christianity; there is no evidence of a "crash and burn," nor of a "denial" or "rationalization" in ANY of the NT materials or in that of contemporary foes of Christianity; there is no evidence that the disciples were a singular group impervious to hostile testimony - indeed, the opposite is indicated, because Christianity GREW phenomenally, crossing a variety of cultural barriers, gaining new adherents, in spite of hostile counter-influences. This is NOT comparable to movements that stagnated and died, wafted away on the winds of history like Sevi's Messianic tour de force.
Price next moves to address the validity of eyewitness testimony itself.
The eyewitness argument is dubious in yet another respect. Evidence shows that the proximity of eyewitnesses to the events does not even guarantee the factuality of their own enthusiastic reports. Turning again to the Sabbatean movement, we note Scholem's description:
The transition from history to legend took place with extraordinary rapidity in what are practically eyewitness accounts. Already the earliest documents confuse dates and chronologies, and abound in legendary accounts of miracles.
True enough: But again, Sevi's movement never reached the point where a critical analysis could be performed. Would these legends and movements have significantly survived repeated assaults of reality and grown into a world religion? Based on the prophecies referenced above that Sevi would take over the world, I think it is safe to speculate that the legends would not have survived and fed into a growing movement.
One also needs to also question how "practically eyewitness" an account could be that made errors in dates and chronology. This is NOT the mark of eyewitness accounts, but of 2nd or 3rd generation stuff, which by itself should warn us to be leery of those accounts.
Here are some more modern attempts at a parallel:
William Peter Blatty's novel (and the subsequent movies) The Exorcism was loudly trumpeted as having been based on an actual case of exorcism. Henry Ansgar Kelly, himself a Roman Catholic priest, set out to determine just how closely The Exorcist had been based on fact. He interviewed the priest who had conducted the rite, who freely confessed that all the supernatural effects had been added by rumormongers and scriptwriters. More important for our purposes is that the exorcist, himself obviously no Bultmannian skeptic, given his profession(!), admitted that "he recognized a strong myth-making tendency even in himself. If he did not record the events of each session of exorcism as soon as possible after it occured, he declared, he found the details changing in his mind, becoming more 'impressive.'"
Obviously, if a movie was going to be made out of this, there HAD to be some supernatural effects added. But here again, the attempted parallel fails. We have here a SINGLE priest recording details, a priest untrained in the practices of Oriental memory and Jewish oral tradition; we have a single incident, privately held, vs. multiple public incidences; plus, on the opposite side, every indication that the words and deeds of Jesus were able to be accurately remembered, and much to commend the idea that they were written down during his lifetime.
See link above, and Glenn Miller's analysis of the relevance of the work of Elizabeth Loftus - Price also appeals to her work. Miller shows that far from working against the NT, Loftus' work actually provides incredible support for the validity of NT eyewitness testimony.
One final comparison is made, this one not too far removed in time from us:
We find eyewitness attestation of numerous wonders in the battles of the Sudanese Mahdi in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. Here, we are told, fire licked out from the wounds of enemy soldiers to finish them off. The corpses of the unbelievers miraculously piled up into a huge mound within an hour of the battle, untouched by human hands. Are we to believe these stories on the strength of eyewitness testimony?
What of counter-testimony by the enemy? Did any of the Sudanese die for the validity of these tales? Did the witnesses in question have a known reputation for truth-telling? In all of these cases, we answer positively for the Apostles, and negatively or "don't know" for the Sudanese. There is more to the apologetic argument than bare eyewitness testimony, and Price should certainly be aware of this.
Just as relevant, however, is what else Price does NOT tell us, which is that in the account in question, NONE of the alleged eyewitnesses are named, nor are we told how many there were - we are simply told that eyewitnesses saw the events in question, so the events should not be doubted. (HS.SM, 61) This is a far cry from the Apostles being specifically named, while still alive, as eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus.
Unlike the Sudanese author, the NT writers made detailed assertions that invited inspection and interrogation, and did so in the context of a collectivist, behavior-controlling society which would have been eager to suppress deviant claims. We are also told, by the way, that eyewitnesses saw the image of the Mahdi leader engraved on eggs, tree leaves, and stones by the power of "Eternal Omnipotence" - why, I wonder, has Price failed to tell us about THAT particular testimony?
The net of this is: Price's attempts at comparison fail. His arguments are the result of an oversimplified view of the nature of reliance on eyewitness testimony in the NT.
Here is a rather short section, on the matter of the care that would have been taken in recording Jesus' words. We have already shown that there would have been a concern for accurate transmission and preservation; let us see what Price has to say in this regard:
Form critics suggest that sayings were created by the early Christians by the prophetic inspiration of the Spirit, and then were ascribed to Jesus. The idea is that it mattered ltitle to them whether the saying came from the earthly or the exalted Lord. Conservatives reject this suggestion. F. F. Bruce is typical here:
Indeed, the evidence is that the early Christians were careful to distinguish between sayings of Jesus and their own inferences or judgements. Paul, for example, when discussing the vexed questions of marriage and divorce in I Corinthians vii, is careful to make this distinction between his own advice on the subject and the Lord's decisive ruling: "I, not the Lord," and again, "Not I, but the Lord."
Price then comments:
But surely one text (and the same one is invariably quoted when apologists argue this point) is not enough to indicate what the general practice was. Elsewhere Bruce himself recognizes the very ambiguity stressed by the form critics. Citing I Thessalonians 4:14-18, Bruce says "We cannot be sure whether Paul is quoting a verbum Christ which had come down to him in the tradition... or one which was communicated by the risen Lord through a prophet." Who knows if prophetic sayings were in fact later credited to the earthly Jesus; my only point is that the evidence is not so clear as to rule out this possibility.
The above is rather ironic coming from someone who elsewhere thought that 2 or 3 cites was sufficient to establish that adoptionism was "rife" in the early church, in spite of the number of citations that could be produced to the contrary.
Actually, though, in the case referenced above, one text IS enough IF there is nothing either in the NT or in history indicating ANY practice to the contrary. As we have noted, there is absolutely NO evidence that Christian prophets issued sayings from the "Risen Jesus" that were thereafter attributed to the earthly Jesus. This is simply a gossamer speculation and nothing more - and the evidence is QUITE clear in the matter.
The "ambiguity" in the Thessalonians cite has NOTHING to do with possible attribution of "prophetic risen Jesus" statements to the "earthly Jesus" - it has to do with not knowing which type of statement it is in the first place. There is no indication that Paul is claiming words received by revelation to be words of Jesus on earth - although we may note that there ARE allusions to material found in the Gospel of Matthew in that cite. Oral Tradition
Price finally addresses the matter of oral tradition. We have mentioned in our item linked above the works of Gerhardsson and Riesenfeld (whom Price makes note of) as well as of those who followed them (whom Price seems here unaware of). On this issue he writes first, very agreeably:
This argument still does not go as far as the apologists would have their readers believe. The work of Riesenfeld and Gerhardsson would effectively refute those radical theories which hold that community-tradition was so creative and freewheeling that "the disciples must have been translated to heaven immediately after the resurrection." According to such critical theories, the primary transmission of Jesus-material was a popular and essentially creative one, fabricating countless new sayings and letting the authentic teaching disappear. This extreme view is probably something of a caricature. But it is properly refuted by Riesenfeld and Gerhardsson. Those scholars make it plausible that there was a careful, custodial transmission of Jesus-material by people authorized to do this.
As we have noted, even more recent research has increased the plausibility of such a mechanism of transmission. However, Price goes on to object:
The problem is that Evangelical apologists use Riesenfeld and Gerhadsson as an excuse to jump from one extreme to the other. They assume that we can now be sure that there was only such custodial transmission, with no creative folk-tradition alongside it. But the work of Riesenfeld and Gerhardsson certainly does not allow us to assume this. Nor does it allow us to assume that the gospels contain only the carefully-preserved, authentic traditions stemming from Jesus' circle of disciples and not also some of the other (creative popular) tradition. Basically, the problem is this: whatever the practice of the "college of apostles,"it does not necessarily have unmediated connection with the finished gospels, which seem to contain material popularly transmitted outside this original circle of disciples.
Now we may ask, does Price offer any grounds for intrusion of "popular" material into the oral tradition of the Gospels?
Riesenfeld and Gerhardsson applied rabbinic methods of tradition-transmission to the early Christian situation. But this is not the only possible analogy in the history of middle-eastern religion. Early Muslims were concerned to hand down the hadith, or oral traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. How did they accomplish this? R. D. Smith has this to say:
... regarding the character of the transmitters of the traditions, especially during that vulnerable century when they were transmitted only by word of mouth and memory, two ancient Moslem authorities agree that "a holy man is nowhere more inclined to lie than in the matter of traditions." There are many venerated Moslems who actually are known to have succumbed to this temptation, some of them explicitly admitting that they did so. It is important to note, moreover, that in spite of the fact that these men were known as forgers, they were nevertheless revered as holy men because their lies were considered to be completely unobjectionable. It was a quasi-universal conviction that it was licit in the interest of encouraging virtue and submisssion to the law, to concoct and put into circulation sayings of the Prophet.
Jan Vansina, in his Oral Tradition as History, comments:
Historical truth is also a notion that is culture specific.... When G. Gossen reports that the Chamuleros (Maya Chiapas) believe that any coherent account about an event which has been retold several times is true the historian does not feel satisfied.... In many cultures truth is what is being faithfully repeated as content and has been certified as true by the ancestors. But sometimes truth does not include the notion that x and y really happened.... One cannot just assume that truth means faithful transmission of the content of a message. The historian must be on his guard; he cannot assume anything on this score, but must elucidate it for the culture he studies.
Thus, by ancient middle-eastern standards, it is not at all certain that faithful "ministers of the word" would never dare let a "phoney" saying slip in. This might be the very thing they should do!
How Price conceives that Muslim freedom with oral tradition casts doubt on Jewish fidelity in oral tradition, in first-century Palestine, is beyond me. (We have already discussed the matter of "historical truth," with reference to the work of Glenn Miller.) If Price were to give us evidence that Jewish oral tradition were subject to such freedom, that would be another matter, but this is NOT what is done.
Merely appealing to "the existence of such a possible parallel in this milieu" accomplishes nothing - especially when the "milieu" in question is 500 years in the future and of an entirely different cultural atmosphere.
Price's arguments against the apologetic arguments we have examined have failed. In brief:
- His arguments are all either out-of-date or irrelevant to the matter of the transmission of the Gospels;
- He has, in several cases, badly misread Biblical texts, and rested arguments upon a misreading; and,
- He has offered incomplete information on the subjects that he has used for parallels.
- HD.LGS - Delehaye, Hippolyte. The Legends of the Saints. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1961.
- HH.CR - Hanegraaff, Hank. Counterfeit Revival. Dallas: Word Publishing, 1997.
- BM.HJD - Martin, Bernard. A History of Judaism. New York: Basic Books, 1924.
- GS.JM - Scholem, Gershom. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. New York: Schocken Books, 1941.
- GS.MM - Scholem, Gershom. Sabbatai Sevi, the Mystical Messiah. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973.
- HS.SM - Shaked, Haim. The Life of the Sudanese Mahdi. New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1978.