Vocab’s Opening Statement
1A: It’s Good Friday today, a suitably meaningful day to be debating the death and resurrection of Jesus. Incidentally, it’s also April Fool’s day today. There is something interesting to learn about April Fool’s day. Even in 2010, in an age of almost unlimited source material and fact-checking capabilities, millions upon millions of people are taken in by phony news reports, even if they read them on the internet where a new tab in Firefox would allow them to fact-check.
I am going to make a larger claim that people are not critical creatures by default. We are wired to believe what we hear (ask any parent of a young child and they’ll tell you!) Very rarely do we dive into the pool of primary evidence. It saves time, sure, to believe what we are told – but it leaves us open to false beliefs.
Vocab, you ask me “why were the faithful the faithful in the first place?” My answer will center around evidence for natural human credulity. (This term has a negative charge, but it is meant in its neutral sense here).
In our time, we have studied the formation of beliefs in the human mind to some extent. We have shown that authority figures can form strong beliefs in the minds of their followers, even though those beliefs are self-destructive (see Eric Hoffer, “The True Believer” (2002)) Other studies on political and religious beliefs show that we tend to echo the culture of our surroundings (see, for instance, Andrew Gelman et. al (2008) “Red State, Blue State” and Michael Argyle “The Psychology of Religious Belief, Behavior, and Experience” (1997). Margaret Gilbert and Emile Durkheim have written about “collective belief” as a sort of shared credulity which, in the minds of the sharers, become solidified as fact. This phenomenon seems endemic to all cultures, and attests to our collective method of fact-sharing and fact-gathering.
Finally, work by cognitive psychologists such as Daniel Simons have taught us that we are very unaware of the imperfections of our sensory perceptions of the world, often overlooking, misconstruing or filling in the gaps of our imperfect memory record of events to provide a narrative. This happens more or less automatically.
So, the question “why are the faithful faithful?” seems to find its answer not in fact-finding but in natural human credulity.
We must always be wary of projecting modern ideas onto ancient times, however. Can we find evidence of this form of credulous behaviour in the ancient world? Indeed we can. I can start in the Bible itself, in Acts 14:8-18. Regardless of whether you believe that the man was healed or not, what this story tells us is that the Lystraians immediately process this experience within their own Hellenistic religious framework, and they are clearly very difficult to convince otherwise. Another example from Acts is 28:6, where the Maltese need no more proof that Paul is a God than the fact that he doesn’t swell up after being bitten by a snake.
Acts 21:38 has Paul mistaken for an Egyptian who is also mentioned in Josephus (JW,2.261-2) who has 30,000 followers who believe he can perform miracles until the Romans kill most of them. Jewish Antiquities 20:97 mentions Theudas, another man who claimed divine powers and whose followers maintained he could part rivers. Plutarch decribes (and derides) in “The Life of Coriolanus” flocks of worshipping a crying statue in Tyche (sound familar?).
First and foremost, we have myriad written accounts from believers in the divine powers of Asclepius. They were healed at his temples and inscribed their testimony over a period of almost 800 years, all over the Roman Empire and beginning in the 4th century BC. (See Edelstein and Edelstein, “Asclepius: A Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies”) Clearly, belief in healing saviour God-men was possible and ubiquitous in the ancient world.
Why were the faithful faithful? The answer lies in psychology and not in evidence.
1B: The criterion of embarrassment is an interesting one, as far as I am aware only used by biblical theologians to justify the veracity of the Gospels (correct me if I’m wrong). Since I spent a lot of time on the nature of belief, I will address this in shorthand:
i) The story of the death of Jesus is a story, from start to finish, of poignant abandonment and, ultimately, in victory against all odds. The theme is one of role reversal. The Jews do not recognize Jesus, whereas Pilate and the Centurion do; He wrote of Jewish religious leaders accusing Jesus of being the Messiah, whereas his disciples were the ones betraying him to the executioner. After all is lost, and his parents do not even tend to Jesus’ corpse (even though conveniently-named Joseph and Mary are there instead), what better role reversal could you expect from Mark than having the disciples hiding away and the lowly women discover the empty tomb? Given that Early Christianity found its followers almost exclusively in the down-trodden, poor castes, including women, such a conclusion to the tale would not be an embarrassment to them. (In the Gospel of Thomas, young Jesus kills a playmate among other nasty things. According to the criterion, we should accept this story as being more reliable? It certainly is embarrassing to modern Christians, if not to Thomas it seems.)
ii) This criterion works both ways. If statements detrimental to the author’s point can be deemed more reliable, then surely statements furthering the author’s point should be deemed less reliable. Applying the flip side like this, the least reliable parts of the Bible would be the parts which cement Jesus’ status as the Messiah – in particular, the resurrection itself.
1C: Luke is not a historian. He tells us that he is, but he is not. He never once cites sources or uses any sort of historical method. Lest you think that no ancient historian did these things, I present as one contemporary example among many: Suetonius, regarded by most as an unreliable reteller of rumours, and yet even he manages to mention his sources and compare and assess them when he has more than one (http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/suetonius-caligula.html). Luke shows absolutely no interest, in his Gospel or in Acts, to present the reader with any sort of fact-checking possibility. He does say that he his sources must be “handed down from the beginning” bue he never tells us which criteria he uses to determine if his sources are indeed handed down from the beginning. We have no evidence that he used any sort of reliable critical method.
2: I’m going to turn this one around on Vocab. He claims that it is faulty to assume strong Hellenistic influence on the Gospels and that they must only be seen as Jewish texts. Why? In order for this claim to have value, you need to argue that the Jews at the time were not influenced by these thoughts. I know Witherington’s book which Vocab cites, but since Witherington seems quite convinced of the historicity of the Gospels from the outset, it is circular to draw him into a debate about the veracity of the Gospels themselves. In any case, the claim rests with Vocab who needs to provide historical justification that the Jews were not inside, or were immune to, the general mythical landscape of the Mediterranean of the time.
The Greeks, by the way, did not shun bodily resurrection at all. Some did – the Platonists indeed – but not all Greeks were Platonists. Indeed, as we see in the myth of Castor and Pollux, the twins who were resurrected (bodily) several times and were hugely popular as saviour Gods and are mentioned in quasi-historical myths, taking part in battles etc. This shows that bolidy resurrection was very much within the Hellenistic mindset, and, crucially, there are signs that Mark deliberately employed the Castor/Pollux typology in his Gospel (Dennis McDonald, “The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark”, 2000). Herodotus mentions Zalmoxis who resurrects bodily. Looking back even further, we find the ancient mesopotamian goddess Inanna who descends to the underworld after death (by crucifixion, incidentally) and is bodily resurrected.
This, by the way, is also a solidly dated precursor to the concept of a God-person dying and being brought back to life. I hope it’s ancient enough for you (at least 2000BC). Vocab goes on to make a long and rather startling list of demands for evidence before he will accept the rather simple idea that “the Gospels were not the first people to ever talk about a God-man dying and being bodily resurrected”. I feel no need to bow to those demands. I will agree entirely with Vocab that it is fruitless to search for an older carbon copy of Christianity (although you will find, on the internet, a long list of comparisons with Mithras. The list has little basis in historical record and can be safely ignored here). You won’t find a carbon copy because all religions are different. Attis, a God-man from around the 7th century BC, died and was resurrected by Cybele. But he died by castration, not crucifixion (indeed, the Cybele priests ritually castrated themselves because of this belief). Does that mean that there is no overlap between the two beliefs? Of course not. The general idea “God-man dies and resurrects” is found in countless religious stories, including Christianity. The details differ between them all. It doesn’t matter.It’s like saying Star Wars and Star Trek have absolutely nothing in common, not even the sharing of basic ideas.
3: I have almost no room left to address Vocab’s third point, so I will just point out an inaccuracy: the early Christians were almost exclusively poor and downtrodden Gentiles and Hellenistic Jews, not established Jews. (Eusebius, “History of the Church”, John Polhill, “Acts: The New American Commentary”, (1992), Richard Rohrbaugh, “The Jesus Tradition” (2000)) In an age where religious shopping around was much more widespread than it is now (and my opening remarks about the nature of belief), this proves nothing about the truthfulness of the resurrection.