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Beyond Born Again

Section II-- The Evangelical Apologists: Are They Reliable?

Chapter 5: Evidences That Demands A Mistrial

"My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest of man's wisdom, but on God's power."
-- The Apostle Paul, I Corinthians 2:4-5

"The believer, like the lover, has no conclusive proofs to give him complete security. But the believer too, like the lover, can be completely certain of the Other by committing himself entirely to the Other. And this certainty is stronger than all the security established by proofs."
-- Hans Küng, On Being A Christian

"In this respect fundamentalism has demonic traits. It destroys the humble honesty of the search for truth, it splits the conscience of its thoughtful adherents, and it makes them fanatical because they are forced to suppress elements of truth of which they are dimly aware."
-- Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology

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In the first section of this book, I outlined the structures of perception through which Evangelical Christians experience the world. I went on to describe several psychological and social stretegies employed to make the whole works seem self-evidently real. These included various kinds of legitimations of their own views as well as attempts to explain away the views of others. This brings me to the present section on apologetics, the attempts to legitimate faith on intellectual grounds. With a large host of arguments, Evanglicals try to reassure the faithful against the attacks of unbelievers, and to convert unbelievers themselves. Suppose an Evangelical is inviting a friend or classmate to undertake a "personal relationship with Christ" (see Chapter 4, but the potential convert is putting up a fight. How can he be sure there is any Christ to have a relationship with? Can he be expected to accept all this talk about the resurrection and the deity of Christ? Let's have some proof! The Evangelical is only too ready to comply. Apologetics was once the restricted province of scholars and clerics, but with the popularity of works like Paul Little's Know Why You Believe and Josh McDowell's Evidence That Demands A Verdict, many rank-and-file believers are now "ready to give the reason... concerning the hope that is within you" (I Peter 3:15). While no one could deny that it is good to have a reasoned faith, I see some disturbing features in all this.

First, I wonder how appropriate it is to try to "argue someone into the kingdom." Many apologists hotly deny any such charge, but I don't believe the,. The tenor of almost all apologetics literature makes it plain that this is their intent. Just look at the title of McDowell's catalog of apologetics: Evidence That Demands A Verdict. Similarly, Clark Pinnock writes concerning the resurrection that, "Its evidence is sufficiently impressive to demand an answer from every non-Christian." [1] Fans of the Evangelical apologists delight in reciting the stories of former skeptics like John Warwick Montgomery, C. S. Lewis, Lew Wallace, and Frank Morison, who were "dragged kicking and screaming into the Kingdom of God" by the sheer weight of the evidence. It is apparent that such people would just love to drag in others the same way! But how biblical is all this? If one is interested in following the lead of the Apostle Paul at this point, and generally Evangelicals are supposed to be interested in this, one must question these tactics. Doesn't such evangelistic polemicizing amount to resorting to "wise and persuasive words" instead of the "demonstration of the Spirit's power"? Won't a faith established on such apologetical arguments "rest on man's wisdom" instead of "on God's power"? (I Corinthians 2:4-5). And what happens if one day these arguments no longer seem to be so compelling? Good-bye faith!

Second, I suspect that most apologists do not really know whether their arguments are inherently convincing or not, since they themselves came to faith on different grounds entirely. To hear them tell it, some were persuaded by the arguments of, for instance, Montgomery and Morison. But in my experience, apologetic arguments are used for propaganda or legitimation purposes by people

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whose faith comes from a Christian upbringing or a conversion based on existential factors. I doubt that they themselves believe in, e.g., the resurrection of their Savior because of supposedly cogent arguments. I think this implies some subtle but real dishonesty. More importantly, it would help us understand how it is that such bright people can be caught using such a raft of absolutely terrible arguments, as I hope to show.

Third, a qualm about the method of argument used by apologists. I often have the feeling that apologists, whether scholarly or popular, are willing to use any argument no matter how dubious as long as it stands a chance of convincing an unbeliever. Whatever the evidence might suggest in and of itself, the apologist's faith make him subconsciously assume that the truest interpretation of the facts must be the one which bests fits his convictions. However, he proceeds to offer this interpretation as the one which makes the best inductive sense of the facts themselves. This ground-shifting no doubt goes unnoticed by the apologists themselves, who have sincerely good intentions.

In this and the next two chapters, I will be challenging the principal apologetics used by Evangelicals to defend three key beliefs: the historicity of the gospels, the resurrection of Christ, and the deity of Christ. I have no desire or intention to attack these beliefs. I will critique certain lines of reasoning and evidence used (I think illegitimately) to defend these (quite legitimate) beliefs. My point is that these things are not the only things Christians are supposed to believe in. Truth is another one of those things. And I am afraid that Evangelical apologists are often in danger of sacrificing belief in the truth to defend belief in other matters.

Evangelicals repudiate the notion that the gospels contain legendary or fictitious material about Jesus Christ. They want to be able to believe he did and said everything attributed to him there. Since most modern New Testament scholarship concludes that the gospels are at least to some degree legendary, Evangelicals must work extra hard to defend their beliefs. They must fight on two fronts: against skeptics who do not believe period, and against Liberal New Testament scholars who do believe, but not quite what Evangelicals believe. In recent years, Evangelicals have published reams of apologetical material defending the historical reliability of the gospels' story of Jesus. An attentive reading of the many articulate works of Josh McDowell, John Warwick Montgomery, F. F. Bruce, J. N. D. Anderson, Michael Green and others reveals certain stock arguments. These include the importance of the short time span between Jesus and the writing of the gospels, and the centrality of eyewitnesses in the formation of the gospel tradition. Such factors, it is held, make it extremely unlikely if not impossible that the gospels contain fabricated or legendary material. These arguments start from generalized premises as to what is or is not probable in the development of historical records. Such abstract criteria are then applied to the gospel narratives in a blanket fashion.

There is a serious blind spot in this approach. Almost completely deductive, it pays insufficient attention either to specific date in the documents under consideration, or to other documentary data which might cast doubt on the generalized criteria. Will these criteria work on other materials analogous to the gospels?

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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. [2]

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.'..." [3] 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 occuring thirty-five years previously." [4] 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.

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. [5]

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 peracher 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 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.) Apologists seem to think they can secure their arguments

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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?

In any case, if McDowell, Montgomery, Buell and Hyder, et al. are right, biographical records of similar religious figures written within a comparable time span should also be free of lengendary embellishment. What do we find? 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. The history of Sabbatai Sevi is more readily accessible to the modern historian than are the gospel events. Sabbatai Sevi lived much closer to our own era and much documentary evidence of various kinds survives him. 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! Listen to his description:

The... realm of imaginative legend... soon dominated the mental climate in Palestine [during Sevi's residence there]. The sway of imagination was strongly in evidence in the letters sent to Egypt and elsewhere and which, by the autumn of 1665 [the same year] had assumed the character of regular messianic propaganda in which fiction far outweighed the facts: [e.g.] the prophet was "encompassed with a Fiery Cloud" and "the voice of an angel was heard from the cloud." [6]

Letters from December of the same year related that Sabbatai "command a Fire to be made in a publick place, in the presence of many beholders... and entered into the fire twice or thrice, without any hurt to his garments or to a hair on his head." Other letters tell of his raising the dead. He is said to have left his prison through locked and barred doors which opened by themselves after his chains miraculously broke. He kills a group of highwaymen merely with the word of his mouth. Interestingly, the miracle stories often conformed to the patterns of contemporary saints' legends.[7] The spread of such tales recalls the statements by the synoptic evangelists that many of their miracle stories came from popular reportage (cf. Luke 1:65-66; 2:18, 38, 47; 4:14, 37; 5:15, 26; 6:17-18; 7:17, 22; 8:34-39, 47; 9:6-7, 9; 9:43; 12:1; 13:17; 18:43; 19:7, 37, 48).

A similar phenomenon occured with Jehudah the Said (died 1217). In his own lifetime, legends made him a great purveyor of religious magic, though actually Jehudah was a staunch opponent of such things! [8] More recently, African prophet and martyr Simon Kimbangu became another "living legend" despite his own wishes. One group of his followers, the "Ngunzists," spread his fame as the "God of the blacks," even while Kimbangu himself disavowed the role. Legends of Kimbangu's childhood, miracles and prophetic visions began within his own generation.[9] Faith-healer William Marrion

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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.[10] A final example is mroe recent still. 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." [11]

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.) 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. Montgomery, McDowell and some other apologists employ what they call the "external evidence" test, in dependence upon military historian C. Sanders. Montgomery writes that "as to the authors and primary historical value of the Gospel accounts, confirmation comes from independent written sources."[12] He goes on to quote Papias and Irenaeus to the effect that the gospels of Matthew and John were written by the disciples of those names, and that Mark was written in direct dependence on the apostle Peter. It would obviously be strategic for the apologetic task if these texts could be established as the direct testimony of eyewitnesses. This would be even better than being able to say, as F. F. Bruce does, that the oral tradition underlying the gospels stems from eyewitnesses. (We will consider Bruce's approach momentarily.) But this effort by Montgomery and company is dubious. This is something of which we will see several more examples: the adducing of something as unambiguous evidence that is itself a matter of serious debate.

For instance, Montgomery gives no hint of the relevance of source-criticism (of which he seems to be aware)[13] for this whole question. By contrast, the fact that the first gospel makes use of the second almost in its entirety makes F. F. Bruce restrict Matthean authorship to the Q source of sayings, rather than extending it to the whole Greek Gospel of Matthew. Montgomery also ignores the possibility of tendentiousness in ascription. Papias, Irenaeus and others may have attributed the gospels to apostolic individuals for reasons of theological pedigree. Evangelical New Testament scholar Ralph P. Martin doubts for this reason that the Gospel of Mark is dependent on Peter as Papias claims. But Montgomery's readers will suspect nothing of all this.

Edwin M. Yamauchi makes the same error. He assures his readers that

There is some dispute over the identity of the authors [of the gospels], but it is generally held that Matthew, a converted tax-collector, and John, a fisherman, were two of Jesus' apostles. Mark was an eyewitness as Jesus and the apostles met

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in his home, and later he learned more about Jesus from Peter, whom according to Irenaeus, he served as interpreter. [14]

Veteran apologist Wilbur Smith echoes this opinion: "Most scholars believe that the first Gospel, by Matthew, was written by a disciple of Jesus, who was an eyewitness of what he wrote."[15] Is all this "generally held" by "most scholars"? Hardly, yet if Yamauchi's and Smith's readers are not familiar with the relevant literature, they will not know any better. In another article Yamauchi discounts the claim of Philostratus, the third century biographer of the miracle-worker Apollonius of Tyana, to have used the memoirs of Apollonius's eyewitness disciple Damis. The issues here are very similar to those involved in the patristic ascriptions of the gospels to eyewitnesses. Yet here Yamauchi is quite satisfied that the claim for eyewitness sources is false: "Most scholars reject the account of the notebooksof Damis, Apollonius' contemporary, as a fabrication." [16] Actually, as before, (though I happen to agree with him in this instance) scholarly opinion is not so unequivocal as Yamauchi would like us to think. Why does he overgeneralize scholarly opinion in favor of eyewitness sources for Jesus, but against them for a rival miracle-worker? Here we have an example of what Evangelicals constantly decry among Liberals, i.e., the claim that "most scholarship" supports one's own perferences.

Yamauchi comments on the fourth gospel that "Although it has been customary to date John's Gospel approximately A.D. 90, some scholars have recently favored a date in the 70s or 80s." [17] Yamauchi is referring to what John A. T. Robinson has called "a new look on the fourth gospel." Thanks to the work of C. H. Dodd (Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel) and others, several scholars have rethought the dating of this gospel, or at least of the traditions underlying it. Evangelical apologists rejoice in this. It seems to them to support their contention that this gospel was written by (or stems from) an eyewitness, as the book itself claims (19:35; 21:24).

Evangelicals have uniformly opposed the view held since D. F. Strauss, though anticipated as early as Clement of Alexandria (in his remarks on the "spiritual gospel"), that John represents the theological musings of a later theologian, put into the mouth of Jesus. They figure that if the gospel stems from an eyewitness, then the discourses recorded there must represent an accurate transcript of Jesus' words. But this does not follow at all. The assumption is challenged by Plato's later Socratic dialogues. Plato was an "eyewitness disciple" of Socrates whom he portrays in debate. Yet scholars agree that in the later dialogues, Plato merely uses the figure of Socrates as a literary mouthpiece for his own ideas. By analogy, even if the fourth gospel's claim to eyewitness authorship is vindicated, the issue is not settled whether the Johannine discourses really represent Jesus or John. Considerations such as the differences of theology and idiom between John and the synoptics, the heavy stylization of the Johannine discourses, etc., could not be swept under the rug by any confirmation of eyewitness authorship. We would still have to ask whether and to what extent the fourth gospel represents the meditations of the evangelist himself.

A kindred appeal to eyewitnesses technically does not depend on

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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.[18]

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! 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.[19] 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. I have already mentioned the deification of Smion Kimbangu in his own lifetime and despite his own wishes. The additional relevance of this fact in this context is obvious.

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. [20]

 

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." [21] Would it? Evidence indicates this to be pretty doubtful. 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

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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."[22] No one seemed to listen.

In our own day we can find several parallel cases, none of which seem to accord with the apologists' claims about what "would" or "would not have happened." 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.

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!

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"!

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.[23] Finally one is impervious to the evidential barrages of "hostile witnesses."

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 Sabbatian 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.[24]

One may trace the growth of the legends in some cases by comparing different versions of what is known to be the same event. [25]

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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.'"[26]

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.[27] Are we to believe these stories on the strength of eyewitness testimony? One more example of suspicious eyewitness reporting comes from the Roman satirist Lucian. After watching the self-immolation of the charlatan-prophet Peregrinus, Lucian dupes a couple of yokels, telling them he has seen a vulture ascend from the pyre, crying that Peregrinus had been exalted to heaven. The next day he is startled to overhear an old man solemnly testifying that he himself had witnessed this (invented) marvel! [28]

Here I think it is crucial to bring in psychological studies of eyewitnesses and what they can and cannot accurately remember. Ironically the problem is implicit in an analogy apologists often use to rationalize away differences between parallel gospel accounts of the same events, such as the number of angels at the empty tomb, or how many demoniacs were healed by Jesus at Gerasa. Apologists maintain that the situation is like that of several reports of a car accident or a train wreck. Reports of eyewitnesses will naturally vary as each recalls only the aspect he saw or what impressed him most. If we could view a videotape of the event, we might be able to harmonize all the details. Implicit in this very argument is the awareness that eyewitness testimony varies. How much does it vary?

Studies have shown that eyewitness testimony is often remarkably unreliable, most especially when it is testimony of a surprising and remarkable event. The witness will have to reach for some familiar analogy or category (perhaps from myth or science fiction) in order to be able to comprehend the oddity at all. Psychologists have staged unusual events and then immediately interviewed the observers with wildly disparate-- and one might add distinctly unharmonizable-- ersults.

And it may take only half an hour for recollections to begin to blur and metamorphose! After a series of experiments, Hall, McFeaters, and Loftus report that,

Whatever the source, additional information is acquired and is often readily integrated with original memory for the event. Thus, both pre- or post-event information has in fact altered the content of what is recalled or recognize. Once created,

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the new memory can be as real and as vivid to the person as a memory acquired as the result of "genuine" perception. [29]

For "pre-event information" here we might read "prior messianic expectations." For "post-event information" we might read "the early Christian kerygma." In other words, memory altered in the light of the suggestions of faith.

Far from supporting the apologists' position, the dynamics of eyewitness testimony would seem to point rather strongly in the direction of the critical view of gospel-embellishment: the witnesses of Jesus saw a most remarkable man endowed with unusual gifts and proceeded to interpret him in categories drawn from Old Testament miracle tales and from Jewish apocalyptic and Hellistic mythology. Once the gospel of a miracle-working savior began to be preached, it is no surprise if the eager memories of "eyewitnesses" would begin to reflect dogmatic amplifications.

Let us turn now to the related question of the tradition of the sayings of Jesus. Wouldn't special care have been taken to preserve Jesus' authentic sayings and to exclude bogus ones? 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."[30]

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."[31] 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.

Montgomery, Charles Anderson, and I. Howard Marshall have pointed with appreciation to the work of Swedish New Testament scholars Riesenfeld and Gerhardsson. They argue that Jesus and his disciples must have used the strict methods of repetition and transmission used in rabbinic tradition. The rabbis' teaching, as Marshall summarizes the argument,

 

was transmitted with great fidelity, each pupil learning accurately by heart what he heard from his teacher, and then passing it on. There was, on this view, little scope for the wild developments and addition to the tradition which had been envisaged by some scholars [i.e., form critics]. Riesenfeld argued that if the tradition was treated in this sacrosanct

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manner, the explanation must be that it could be traced back to Jesus himself...."[32]

Let us grant for the sake of argument that Jesus and his circle of pupils did operate this way (though many scholars doubt that these rabbinic practices can be traced with certainty back to Jesus' day). 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." [33] 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. 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.

What is the goal of the Evangelical argument at this point? Scholars like Robinson, Jeremias, Gerhardsson, and Riesenfeld suggest that the gospel-tradition contains more authentic Jesus-tradition than critics have been accustomed to think. But Evangelical apologists have a less modest goal in mind. They want essentially to approximate by means of historical-type arguments an estimate of gospel-accuracy held by on the basis of a belief in verbal inspiration. They would ultimately like to see the critic of the gospels embrace verbal inspiration, but it will be almost as good if with historical reasoning the outsider can be convinced that, yes, Jesus did do and say all the things attributed to him. (See the section "If Miracles Are Possible, Are Legends Impossible?" in Chapter 9.)

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

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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. [34]

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. [35]

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! It is only a modern Western distaste for this kind of thing that makes George E. Ladd gratuitously assume that the Spirit's guidance would have kept the gospel tradition "pure" of new sayings. He arbitrarily dogmatizes that the Spirit could not inspire the attribution of new sayings to Jesus.[36] We certainly do not know that ministers of the Jesus-tradition necessarily did follow the same practices as the transmitters of hadith. But the existence of such a possible parallel in this milieu means that the creation of new sayings cannot be deemed a priori contrary to a concern for "faithfulness" in transmission.

Well then, are the gospels in fact filled with lengends, completely fictitious? I have not once addressed this question. I do believe that the major conservative apologetics for the historicity of the gospels are in error at virtually every point. But this conclusion in itself says nothing about gospel historicity. Whether this or that item in the gospels is authentic must be settled case by case, and on the basis of appropriate historiographical criteria. The quest for history in the gospels has been going on now for generations in mainstream New Testament scholarship. One should try one's best to avoid the excesses and abuses into which such research has sometimes fallen. But it is inadmissible to try and short-circuit the whole process as conservative apologists do with bogus arguments like the ones examined here. These arguments would be fine (though not very compelling) if one were to replace their "must haves" with "might haves." That is, it is quite possible that the disciples succeeded in shielding the gospel tradition from legendary accretions. I have merely sought to challenge the apologists' that this must have been the case. Critical study of the gospels is needed if we hope to find out what actually did happen.

[Footnotes For This Chapter] [Table Of Contents]


"Beyond Born Again: Towards Evangelical Maturity" is copyright © 1993 by Robert M. Price. All rights reserved.
The electronic version is copyright © 1997 by Internet Infidels with the written permission of Robert M. Price.

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