Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Bart Ehrman's Baal Shem Tov Parallel

In his recent discussion with Tim McGrew about the reliability of the gospels, Bart Ehrman drew a parallel between the gospels and some accounts of Baal Shem Tov. David Marshall has posted a lengthy critique of the parallel. You can read my briefer and more generalized response to Ehrman's argument in the comments section of Marshall's thread here. And since Marshall occasionally refers to skeptical objections to Matthew 27:52-3, here's an article I wrote on the subject several years ago. Another post, here, discusses how the earliest Christian and non-Christian sources interpreted the events in Matthew 27 and their surrounding context.


  1. Having listened to both debates I suspect Ehrman is combining two different issues. One issue is the plausibility of the miracle claims regarding Baal Shem Tov and the other is whether we can trust the historicity of such miraculous claims. If not (argues Ehrman), then we should also not accept the parallel claims of Christ as historical (even if they happened). But Ehrman's attempted refutation by incredulity (disguised as the need for methodological naturalism) works only if supernatural events don't happen and if Christ's stories are equally as implausible as the stories regarding Baal Shem Tov.

    Regarding miracles, as Christians we believe supernatural things do happen even in non-Christian religions. If Baal Shem Tov was an especially pious orthodox Jew, then God in mercy may have answered some of his prayers, despite his non-acceptance of Yeshua. He was a Jew and therefore had some connection with the truth God.

    Yet, as a mystic, it's possible some of the claimed miracles may have been inspired and empowered by the dark side. Also, some of the stories about Baal Shem Tov seem way out there. Really fantastic (in the negative sense). Finally, I don't know if or how many modern followers there are of Baal Shem Tov, but Christ has billions today (at least in name) and there are miracles still being performed in His name all around the world.

    Also, early opponents of Christianity usually didn't deny Christ's miracles. They merely claimed they were demonic and/or cases of sorcery. Are there parallel cases of contemporary or relatively early Christians (or other hostile witnesses) who acknowledged the genuine miracles of Baal Shem Tov?

    Finally, the evidence for Christianity is not limited to the historical. The Christ of 2000 years ago still works miracles among His people to confirm and attest to the truthfulness of His message. Ehrman's fixation on the past and the uncertainty with which anything can confidently be passed down to us through historical means is his way of escaping accountability to God and avoiding the claims of Christ on his life.

    I don't know about anyone else, but whenever I hear Ehrman I get the sense that the most important thing to him is his reputation. He wants respectability. That's why he sticks with mainstream liberal scholarship. It would be ruinous to his ego if he were to side with the "extremes" of fundamentalist Christianity on the one hand or the extremes of atheistic mythicists on the other hand (at the opposite end of the spectrum).

    1. Ehrman's tactic is to try to shame you into agreeing with him. "You're not naïve and gullible enough to believe the kinds of things recorded about Tov are you? No? Then why accept as historical the equally fantastic claims of Jesus?"

      Ehrman expects his opponent to be as proud and egotistical as he is and so try to keep from looking like a gullible hick.

      As supernaturalists we shouldn't be ashamed to admit such things can happen. I'd call Ehrman's bluff and say, "Yeah, because of the numerous stories surrounding Tov, I think some supernatural activity possibly occurred but that much of it is exaggerated, embellished and made up as time went on. Part of the historian's job is to sift the historical chaff from the wheat."