J. D. Walters has asked Jason and me to comment on a post of his:
I don’t have any major disagreements with his post. I’ll just add a few comments of my own:
1.I doubt there would have been much opportunity for legends to proliferate in the NT church. And that’s because the Christian movement started small. In a small, close-knit community, there’s less opportunity for a proliferation of wild, conflicting rumors. The small-group dynamic favors a certain commonality of belief. That’s what holds it together in the first place.
Even if a rumor takes hold, it’s the party-line rumor–not a diversity of rumors. And where you have a small-group with some individuals who are close to the source, it’s easy to squelch a groundless rumor.
As time goes on, if the movement enlarges, there is greater opportunity for diverse views and practices to evolve. And, indeed, that’s what happened as we move into the 2C and beyond.
We see this dynamic at work in religious cults. By definition, cults reflect a high-level of groupthink. Cults can also give rise to rivalries, especially in succession battles, but at that point you have splinter-groups. That is not how it starts out.
To take a couple of examples, some cults, like doomsday cults or suicide cults, can spawn conspiratorial rumors. However, it’s the official rumor. It’s not a case in which conflicting rumors proliferate, and it’s not a case in which a later legendary embellishment eradicates the official story.
Where conflicting rumors can proliferate is during succession battles. Due to age and failing health, the founder may gradually withdraw from leadership. Others move in to fill the void, and presume to speak in his name. His illness is shrouded in secrecy, since access is restricted to a favored few. Rumors may abound regarding his true illness (“Was he poisoned?”), or the way he “really” died.
However, when this occurs, the original movement falls apart. It fissions into two (or more) rival factions which both lay claim to be the true custodians of the Master’s legacy. It is not a case in which a later version of events succeeds in erasing all memory of an earlier version of events.
2.There is also the question of how a legendary account would take hold. Sitting down and writing a legendary account would not, of itself, go anywhere. In most cases, the effort would be stillborn.
It requires a constituency, or patronage, to sponsor a particular version of events. To promote and preserve that version of events. It’s not something that an isolated individual can pull off all by himself. To whom or for whom is he writing? Who are the recipients?
Put another way, it’s not coincidental that “sectarian” literature is associated with sectarian groups or movements. This is in-house literature, with a built-in constituency. They have to keep it alive from one generation to the next.
Once again, we can see this dynamic at work in the case of various cults or schismatic groups. We can also see it at work in Medieval Catholicism. The reason that hagiographical legends proliferate is because there’s an institution which sponsors them.
3.Another thing we observe in the history of religious movements and cults is a tenacity of belief or institutional inertia. This doesn’t mean that alternative views can’t arise. Oftentimes they do. But alternative views rarely eradicate preexisting views. You always have a band of diehard traditionalists who cling to the original version of events–at any cost.
If there comes a point where they are outnumbered and lose the turf war, they don’t capitulate. Rather, they form a breakaway movement and continue to hand down their venerable traditions.
So even if legendary accounts did arise at a later date, this doesn’t mean that would uproot the primitive Jesus traditon.
4.I agree with Walters’ third point, which is his central point. And I’d like to briefly elaborate on that point.
i) Why are critics skeptical of the canonical gospels? One reason is the supernatural element. And they frequently tie this to the dating of the Gospels, under the assumption that a miraculous story must represent a later legendary embellishment. But even if you deny the occurrence of miracles or other supernatural events (e.g. possession and exorcism), it’s quite possible to have contemporaneous reports of miraculous events. Indeed, the potential documentation is vast. To take just one example of many, cf. D. Allison, The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus (Eerdmans 2009), 66-78.
ii) And, of course, the skeptics operate from the Humean maxim that miracles are inherently implausible. Hence, any reported miracle must overcome a tremendous presumption against its occurrence. But that simply begs the question.
For the most part, critics are skeptical of miracles because they have no experience of miracles. And their skepticism is self-reinforcing inasmuch as they avoid situations in which they might encounter miracles–or encounter others who encounter miracles. So they inhabit a vicious circle.
iii) In addition, it’s striking to see the role of miracles in the canonical Gospels. Miracles obviously serve an apologetic purpose. And a skeptic might discount them for that very reason.
Yet the Gospel writers record a wide variety of reactions to the miracles of Jesus. But if the Gospel writers were fabricating miracles to make the case for Jesus, then you’d expect the reported witnesses to find these demonstrations utterly convincing. Yet, in numerous cases, the miracles of Jesus don’t have that effect. Hence, the gospel writers record miracles, not simply because they perform an apologetic function–since, in many cases, they fail to achieve that aim, even within the narrative, where the narrator has complete control over the reaction of the characters–but because these events really took place.
iv) I’d also note that John presents a paradox for the theory of legendary embellishment. On the one hand, skeptics regard his gospel as the latest of the canonical gospels. And one reason they date is late is because they regard his high Christology as a legendary embellishment.
On the other hand, John has far fewer miracles than Mark–which skeptics regard as the earliest of the canonical gospels. Yet skeptics treat reported miracles as a telltale sign of legendary embellishment.
v) Skeptics also make the arbitrary assumption that the Jesus tradition must have undergone decades of creative oral manipulation before it was eventually committed to writing. I’ve never found this assumption to be the least bit plausible. If someone could write a gospel in AD 90, he could write a gospel in AD 50. It’s not as if Jews and Christians were all illiterate until they suddenly discovered the art of writing after the fall of Jerusalem.
For more on this issue, cf. A. Millard, Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus (NYU 2000).
iv) Skeptics make the further assumption that if an author believes in what he says, and if he is writing to persuade others, then his writing lacks historical value. But this is yet another artificial and completely implausible assumption. Indeed, it’s self-refuting. Imagine if we applied that principle to the skeptical literature itself?
On a positive note:
v) The conventional solution to the Synoptic Problem supplies an external check on Matthew and Luke. As one scholar notes, “When we make a close scrutiny of Matthew and Luke at work on the text of Mark, we discover them to be careful scribes who do not exaggerate the claims of Jesus in the way they present them…Since at the point where we can check them–namely, in their work on Mark, Matthew and Luke–they prove trustworthy, we are encouraged about their use of other sources at their disposal,” P. Barnett, Is the New Testament Reliable? (IVP 2003), 94.
iv) What about Mark, as an underlying source? Various scholars have done a fine job of documenting the historical character of his gospel. For example:
P. Barnett, Finding the Historical Christ (Eerdmans 2009), chapter 5.
R. Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Eerdmans 2006).
M. Casey, Aramaic sources of Mark’s Gospel (Cambridge 1998).
v) What about John? Here I’d say two things:
a) Once again, various scholars have done a good job of documenting the historical character of his gospel. To take one example:
P. Barnett, Finding the Historical Christ (Eerdmans 2009), chapter 7.
b) In addition, I’m struck by the number of editorial asides we find in the Gospel of John. As one scholar explains, in a useful tabulation of their occurrences, “Note that this literary device enables John to distinguish between his narrative proper and his own clarifying comments while still helping his readers along as he sees fit…By these asides, the evangelist is able to remove ignorance on part of his readers with regard to terminology or topography, to alleviate the possible perception of inconsistency in his presentation of events, and to highlight important theological motifs such as people’s misunderstanding or Jesus’ supernatural foreknowledge of events,” A. Köstenberger, Encountering John (Baker 2003), 250-52.
What’s striking about this literary device is what it presupposes. It presupposes a conscious and conscientious distinction between what was originally said and done, and John’s own narrative. A distinction between the historical event and the subsequent record of the event. A distinction between the time of the event and the time of writing.
But if, as the liberals would have it, John is inventing various speeches and incidents, then there would be no need to draw this awkward distinction–between his words and the words of Jesus; between the voice of Jesus and the voice of the narrator. What we would expect, rather, is a seamless narrative in which authorial interpretation was fully integrated into the narration of events.
5.Finally, let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that all we had at our disposal were tendentious accounts. Even if we had no external check on our sources, could we detect the bias?
For example, I sometimes ask myself what if the NYT was my only source of information about the war on terror. Could I detect the bias?
There are ways in which that can be done. To take two examples:
i) Tendentious accounts are typically hagiographic. Everything is black and white: heroes and villains. Nothing in-between.
But the Gospels record a spectrum of individuals whose reactions to Jesus range along a spectrum. This is even true in how they present the disciples.
ii) Likewise, tendentious accounts lack psychological realism. They impute implausible motives to their characters. No one ever has mixed motives. It’s pure good versus pure evil. No complexity. No hesitation. No vacillation. One side always lies while the other side always seeks to expose their lies. A conspiratorial, Manichean outlook on life.
By contrast, the canonical Gospels depict people acting in ways real people act in a fallen world. And this includes the good guys as well as the bad guys–not to mention the bystanders.