Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Bart Erhman finds Jesus in Poland (Baal Shem Tov)

The search for a serious parallel to the life, person, teachings, and impact of Jesus intensifies, reaching in some scholarly quarters what appear to be the last stages of desperation.

A few weeks ago, the famous "Jesus sleuth" Bart Erhman, the New Testament scholar who has probably been appealed to on the Historical Jesus more than any other in recent years in America at least, debated the philosopher Tim McGrew on that issue.  All in all, I think McGrew won the debate.  Of course, we're on the same side, and also friends, so I admit to bias.  But McGrew offered what sounded like pretty good arguments, especially instances of what he calls "undesigned coincidences," in which one gospel answers questions raised in another gospel, in such a way that it appears they both have a common, interlocking set of real-world facts in mind.  Ehrman batted back in various ways, but he had not bothered to read Tim's arguments beforehand, and many of his rebuttals were simply irrelevant, or red herrings apparently intended to change the subject to something more familiar.  ("Heh!  Did you notice how the gospels become increasingly anti-Semitic as they go along?")  And most of these red herrings McGrew speared pretty easily.

Erhman did offer one argument, however, that I don't feel that McGrew answered very well.  Understandably.  Ehrman played the same trick that Richard Carrier played when we debated: he pointed to a particularly obscure alleged "parallel" to the gospels, and asked, "So if you believe the gospels when they report miracles, why don't you believe these reports, too?"  Which is hard to respond to, if you haven't recently read the given "parallel gospel," and don't have it fresh in mind -- unlikely, given the text's obscurity. 

But I love those kinds of challenges.  They are not the sort of challenges one can easily respond to on stage, or on the air, even if one has the book in question at one's fingertips.  But they join two fascinating skeptical themes into one, themes which I believe actually furnish powerful arguments -- arguments, in the plural, indeed I believe dozens of good ones -- for, not against, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

The first theme is the epic search for a valid parallel to the life of Jesus and the gospels, which has failed.  The second is a version of the Outsider Test for Faith: the idea that world religions can furnish some sort of weapon against Christianity, if only we can drag believers out of the narrow well in which they sit, like the frog in the Chinese proverb, and take a look at other religious gurus.  But I always find, when I accept that challenge and read those new "gospels," that they only provide fresh reasons to believe uniquely in Jesus.

And I usually enjoy the new books the skeptics introduce immensely.  Indeed, Sunday afternoon I visited the beautiful graduate library at the University of Washington, and read enough of In Praise of Baal Shem Tov to get an initial lie of the land.  (I expect to return later.)  The book turned out to be a collection of stories that were quite readable and deeply amusing, especially in light of Ehrman's argument.  I especially enjoyed the guru's conversation with a 500 year old reincarnated frog who had been a scholar until the devil tricked him up with his sins.  Stories about the mountains that move when the guru takes a walk while meditating, or about how a Catholic priest's disinterest in sex prevents Jewish rabbis from praying, were by turns picturesque and grotesque. 

Ehrman's argument ought, by all rights, to be seen as a kind of skeptical Waterloo.  With the text in hand, the desperation of the skeptical camp becomes even more clear.  After hundreds of years of searching, is this really the best parallel  one of the most eminent Jesus skeptics in the world today can find to the gospels? 

I begin by quoting that portion of the Ehrman-McGrew debate, including the beginning of McGrew's answer.  I then point out some peculiar aspects of Ehrman's argument as stated, what I call "preliminary problems and curiosities."  Third, to give readers a taste for what we're talking about, I'll post a few stories and lines from In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov.  Finally, I compare that book to the gospels, paying particular attention (in a tentative way, as I said, this is my first read, and time was limited) to twenty-seven characteristics that I have long argued render the gospels highly credible historical documents.  (Plus five arguments that other scholars raise.) 

I. The Ehrman-McGrew Debate (Relevant Excerpts, from about the 50 minute point in the second hour) 

Bart Ehrman: "If you want to talk about the kind of evidence in the New Testament, what we have are documents written fifty years later, by people who . . . "

Tim McGrew: "I'd put them a bit earlier."

BE: "By people who are not eyewitnesses."

TM: "I'd disagree there, too."

BE: "OK, so let's say they're written by eye -- by people who have gotten their stories 20 years later from eyewitnesses."  

TM: "Or who were eyewitnesses themselves.  OK."

Justin Brierley: "Let's give the benefit of the doubt, in other words, in this instance.  I have the feeling you're going to say that we still can't get to miracles from there.  But carry on."

BE: "Well, I'm just wondering if you'll agree that if you have other sources of that sort that you're going to say that those miracles also happened."  

TM: "Well, tell me about the quality of that evidence."

BE: "OK.  Do you know about the Baal Shem Tov?"

TM: "Yep."

BE: "OK.  The Baal Shem Tov, we have accounts of his life written by people who were directly connected  with eyewitnesses, who recount miracle after miracle, casting out dem -- the Baal Shem Tov was the founder of the Hasidic Movement if you . . . "

JB: "I need -- I myself am not familiar with . . . "

BE: "17th Century, so he's a modern person.  We have an account of 251 stories written about him, written by a person who was the son-in-law of Baal Shem Tov's personal scribe, his personal secretary.  The accounts go back to eyewitnesses.  And they are detailed accounts of him casting out demons, healing the sick, raising the dead, and doing all sorts of things.  And this author tells us that these are based on eyewitness accounts -- unlike the gospels.  And we know that it was written within close proximity of his life, unlike the gospels.  And yet no one that I know of thinks that these miracles really happened."

JB: "So Bart's accusing you of double standards effectively here, Tim.  You're willing to do it for the gospels but not for -- I can't remember his name.

Someone: "Baal Shem Tov."

TM: "Right.  So here's what I want to know.  Were these stories -- circulated at the time of the events -- were (they) supposed to occur among people who fervently hated the very idea, and who crucified (the person) by the authority of the regional and omnipotent government for putting forth such stories?  Or were they circulated in a community and only in a community where they would be allowed to pass because they fitted in with prevailing expectations?" 

II. Preliminary Problems and Curiosities

1.  Isn't it interesting how far afield skeptics have to go now, to find a "parallel Jesus?"  In the same way, ancient science fiction writers could locate their headless men, levitating villages, or dragons in Ethiopia or India, but nowadays they have to go to "galaxies far away."  (If not posit a "Ministry of Magic" to keep Muggles from noticing.)  Similarly, Bart Ehrman doesn't belabor the silly old Apollonius or Iliad parallels, for which he can expect his opponent to be prepared, and which I, for one, have long since rebutted (Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus.) Instead, he appeals to -- 17th Century Poland?

2.  Actually, I think Bart meant 18th Century.  Baal Shem Tov's years are, apparently, c. 1700-1760.

3. In which environment, of course, the authors of In Praise of Baal Shem Tov would have had every opportunity to hear about Jesus.  Baal even chats up Catholic priests.  And that's not optimal.  If you want to argue that Jesus was a normal human phenomena ("nothing to see here, folks!"), or that the gospels and the miracles they record are quite ordinary, it would be best to appeal to a time or place where the authors of your chosen parallel gospel cannot be suspected of doctoring reports of their own guru to allow him to compete more strongly in the local market of ideas.

4.  Notice that Ehrman  changes his wording in the middle of a sentence: "OK, so let's say they're written by eye -- by people who have gotten their stories 20 years later from eyewitnesses."  

The problem here is that Tim McGrew, following eminent New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham and perhaps others, believes the gospels are in some cases secondary accounts based on the reports of eyewitnesses, in at least one other case (the Gospel of John) written initially by an eyewitness himself.  Ehrman can't really claim so much about In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov.  He remembers that as the word "eyewitness" is coming out of his mouth, and takes a sudden turn. 

5. Even so, he appears to get his dates wrong.  Ehrman claims that In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov "was written in close proximity to his life," in sharp contrast to the gospels.

But in fact, the contrast appears to be the other way around.  The book was printed sixty years after the rabbi's death.  I don't know how long before its printing it was written, and perhaps it was written some time before.  I'll see if I can find further information, but at the moment, Ehrman's claim appears questionable.  Αnd the rabbi was 60 years old, so some of the events in his life would have occurred 100 years or more before the biography was published.  By contrast, the earliest gospel mostly recorded events that occurred some 30-40 years previously, perhaps less. (Jesus was younger, so his even younger disciples would have retained first-hand memories much longer.)

6.  Do the accounts of Baal Shem Tov really "go back to eyewitnesses?"  It does not seem likely, from what I was able to glean, that the book even claims that.  Many sources are cited, in some cases a chain of sources, but whether or not the ultimate source actually witnessed the event for which he is cited, is often or perhaps usually not made clear.  The author often says, "I got this from such-and-such a rabbi," but whether that rabbi actually witnessed the event recorded, is not stated. 

7.  Here's the question I would have liked to have asked Bart Ehrman.  So, Bart, why don't you believe this book?  You say there are multiple eyewitness accounts, very close to the time.  You say an historian doesn't need to dismiss miracles automatically.  So what's holding you back from believing that God did miracles through the first Hasidic Jew?  Or are you holding out on us?  Have you failed to give us the real reasons why "no one I knows" believes the stories in In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov -- while all sorts of people believe the gospels?

We'll read a few sample stories, and see if we can identify any independent reasons to doubt these stories.  Then we'll compare the book to the gospels, and find many additional reasons to trust the stories of Jesus, that do not apply to Baal Shem Tov. 

8.  Of course, Christians are not obliged to dismiss all non-Christian miracles, anyway.  If there's good reason to believe that God once acted outside the Christian tradition, who are we to argue with God?  But Tim's question, "Tell me about the quality of the evidence," while vital, is not the whole story.  One must also ask, "Tell me about the prior probability that these particular stories should be true."  And that raises two more detailed questions: (a) "How intrinsically probably (or improbable) are the particular events described in these books?"  And (b) "How likely is it, given what we know about human history, and the nature of the Creator of Heaven and Earth, that God would choose to do something like this, at this time, through this particular person?

Now let's read a few stories about Baal Shem Tov, and get to know our man. Altogether I'll offer 11 snippets.  Some are from the earliest part of the book, which may have a different source from later portions of the book, but I'll include some of each.  Page numbers are in parentheses, while brackets denote the number of the story.  (Remember, Ehrman said there were 251.)

III.  In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov  (translated Dan Ben-Amos and Jerome Mirth, Indiana University Press, Bloomington / London 1970)

* The rabbi's father is vaguely said to have given advice (indirectly) for some Gentile king.  No one knows it's from a Jew: indeed, in that country (terrible pogroms had recently devastated the Jewish community), Jews were put to death. The king replies:

"This is marvelous advice.  It is not from a human mind, unless it comes from a holy man who had inspiration from gods whose dwelling is not with flesh or from one who had contact with the Evil Spirit."  

But the advice is not named any more than the king.

* His parents were near 100 when Besht (an acronym for Baal Shem Tov, commonly used in the book as a sort of nickname) was born.  As a boy, he kept running away from school to stay in the forest, apparently to meditate, or so seek God.  Here one might cite parallels to Samuel or John the Baptist's births when their respective parents are relatively aged (though the gospels don't say how old John's parents were), or perhaps to Jesus staying in the temple in Jerusalem as a young man. 

* One day Satan transformed into a sorcerer, then into a werewolf who attacked the children who were accompanying the Besht.  The good rabbi grabbed a club (Foe Hammer?) and knocked the werewolf on the head.  The locals came by the next day, and found the body of a "gentile sorcerer" rather than a werewolf.  (This is similar to a story in Apollonius of Tyana about a sorcerer who looked like a person, but turned into a monstrous beast when slain, but of course resembles nothing in the gospels.)

* Rabbi Adam was a minister to the king.  He had a small house.  The king was traveling with his court, including a rabidly anti-Jewish counselor, and in need of lodging, and the house transformed into "great palaces and a large courtyard."  Adam promised a gift to each member of the court traveling with the king, if they would put their hands in their coat pockets.  But the minister who hated Jews put his hand in his pocket, and found nothing but shit.  Adam then warned him: "If you swear never to be a Jew hater it will be all right. If not, your hands will be filthy all your life."  And it got worse: "A Jew must urinate on your hands.  You will wash in it and this will help you."

The Kaiser left, the palaces disappeared - as was reported in the newspapers!  (None of those newspapers was named, however.)

* Robbers see the rabbi walking in the mountains in meditation.  He begins to head towards a cliff.  "He will probably fall to the bottom and break his bones.  God forbid!  When he came near the other mountain moved towards him and the ground became level."  The mountains continued to accommodate the rabbi's personal quiet time, which naturally impressed the robbers.  So they requested that he pray for them "in our chosen path of endeavor, for which we are sacrificing our lives."  "If you swear to me that you will not hurt or rob a Jew, then I will do as you ask." (22)

Here again we see that the moral teaching of the Besht applies to Jews.  For several hundred years, the Jews had enjoyed unusually favorable treatment in Poland.  But in recent years, attacks by the Muslim Cossacks, and Lutheran Swedes had devastated Poland, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews, and even more Catholics.  Such stories may reflect a certain centripetal pull in the Jewish community, a circling of the wagons against increasingly hostile outside forces.

* The Besht meets a frog reincarnated from a scholar 500 years earlier.  The scholar had committed the sin of not washing his hands properly, and the devil asked to punish him.  But the sin was too trivial, so the devil had to catch him in other sins -- which the scholar obliged by committing, until he had committed pretty much every sin.  "Since the cause of the sins was the first one, his neglect to wash his hands, when he died he was transformed into a frog, a creature which lives in water."  "He was also consigned to a region where people did not live, because if a Jew passed by, he might make a blessing, or think some good thought, "he could by that means bring forth the precious out of exile." (24) [12]

* There is an odd passage on page 27 that implies that there was a death penalty for wearing certain clothes on a certain day, which the Besht did not realize, or did not care about.

* The Besht can make himself invisible. (193)

* On Yom Kippur the Besht is having trouble praying, and then meets an old priest.  He argues with the priest: resign your priesthood and get married.  But "a woman of worthy family" wouldn't have him, the priest replies.  What about the daughter of such and such a governor?  She'd agree to marry you, the Besht answers. The priest gets so turned on just thinking about this woman that he has an emission.  The rabbi "immediately" leaves, since this unblocks prayers. (248)

* On the other hand:

"For the last 14 years I refrained from sleeping with my wife," so Baal Shem Tov's son was "born by the wind."  (258) [249]

* One of the Besht's disciples makes friends with a cute dog. The dog jumps into the river and drowns.  Fishermen catch a fish, and the disciple eats some of its meat.  "It's taste is like life itself!" His face glows, he prays wonderful prayers.  It turns out that both dog and fish were his father, reincarnated to give him this "blessing." [250]

So that's a taste of In Praise of Baal Shem Tov.  Very amusing.  It's an entertaining read, all stories, at times verging on the Brothers Grimm.

On first sight, it seems pretty obvious why none of Bart Ehrman's friends believe these stories.  I don't believe them, either -- they're unbelievable.  But critics may claim some gospel stories seem similarly odd, like the raising of the saints at the end of Matthew. So let's objectively analyze the evidence for historicity of these stories, in comparison to the gospels.

IV.  Jesus in Poland? 

As noted above, I find 30 characteristics that mark the gospels as credible historical sources.  (Twenty-five or twenty-six already distributed among 50 overall characteristics that define the gospels, described in Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus.  )

Let's see which of these qualities equally support the historicity of In Praise of Baal Shem Tov.  Bare in mind that my acquaintance with this book is still only partial, so this analysis is still fairly preliminary and may later be amended in some cases.   


1. Does the text claim seriously to be an historical account?
Gospels: Yes.  

In Praise of Baal Shem Tov: Yes.  
2. How close is it in time to the events it purports to record?
Gospels: Within the probable lifetimes of eyewitnesses, and there are signs of dependence on even earlier accounts.  (1.0)
In Praise of Baal Shem Tov:  First printed in Poland in 1814, 54 years after Rev died. Since the rabbi lived to the age of 60, this implies that events of his early life would have occurred up to a century previously. The author claims to rely on numerous sources, though it is unclear in many cases where those sources got the stories: 
"I heard these tales from the rabbi, the famous great light, Rabbi Gedaliah.  God bless his memory, who said that he heard them from the famous Hasid, our teacher Schmersl, God bless his memory, the preacher of the holy community of Zwierzchowka.  According to my opinion if all the signs, the marvels, and the famous miracles and their revelation are beyond a person's comprehension, he should cling to belief alone." (0.5)

3. Is the subject defined ethnically in a realistic and distinctive way?
Gospels: While written either by or to Gentiles, or in a Gentile environment (with the possibly exception of Matthew) describe First Century Jewish sects, customs, ways of thinking, and Scriptures in great detail and with a high degree of realism.  This tends to support their historicity. 
 In Praise of Baal Shem Tov: No.  Describes Gentiles as worshiping "idols."  In general, shows no real interest in, and little knowledge of, the larger culture in which it is set. 
4. Does the author portray natural sites accurately?
Gospels: Yes.

In Praise of Baal Shem Tov: Uncertain. 

5. Does the author portray urban sites accurately? 
Gospels: Yes.  

In Praise of Baal Shem Tov: Uncertain.

Stylistic and Literary Qualities

6.  Does the author tell stories? 

Yes to both. 

7. Does the voice of the subject stand out stylistically from the voices of other chroniclers?  
No to the Besht.  The dominant voice in In Praise of Baal Shem Tov is that of the story-teller.  Most of the Besht's comments are short, and did not seem, on my first and partial reading, to carry any distinctive tone or personality. 

8.  Does the narrator offer concrete non-essential details in his stories?
Unlike the gospels, I did not notice any in In Praise of Baal Shem Tov.

9.  Do the subject’s “audiences” react to his typical actions as people would likely react to such actions?
Unsure. This will require further reading.  

10.  Does the subject frequently offer surprising, non-platitudinous teachings, as Jesus does?

Reasoning: Platitudes, as Chesterton recognized, are the norm, not the exception, in almost all sorts of writing, ancient and modern.  Even Plato is guilty of them, from time to time.  One would expect a lot of platitudes from small-time, anonymous cult followers of an obscure religion who are inventing the stories of their master for a wider audience – witness the Book of Mormon. Even Apollonius of Tyana can be a ponderous bore, for his platitudes. 

Genuinely original teachings that never fall to mere platitude, could in theory be invented by a novel or fiction writer.  But especially if there is more than one source, such teachings strongly tend to indicate a real historical figure.

In Praise of Baal Shem Tov: No.  In fact, as far as I read, I found few real teachings at all, and nothing that stood out much. 

11.  Jesus taught in parables.
In Praise of Baal Shem Tov: No.

12. Jesus, while heroic in character, is realistically criticized by those around him. (Note: This is part of the larger "Criteria of Embarrassment" that Richard Carrier attacks, but most historians accept.  See later discussion, number 27.) 
In Praise of Baal Shem Tov: Apparently not.  

13. The subject’s sermons meet with anger and violent opposition. (This is the point Dr. McGrew brings up.) 

Reasoning: Hagiographical and ahistorical accounts often made crowds respond with rapt amazement at the words of gurus.  Apollonius of Tyana is a good example, also many Gnostic texts about “Jesus,” and many ancient Greek novels.  McGrew's assumption may be that initial hostility means that reports about a teacher will be tested and sifted by such criticism, and that followers are less likely to make claims that don't pass muster, or (perhaps) that outsiders are less likely to convert without strong evidence.
In Praise of Baal Shem Tov: No.

Character Development

14.  The personalities of the subject’s followers are developed in a consistent and recognizable way.
In Praise of Baal Shem Tov majors on story, not character.  Not even the Besht's personality seems very strong, here. 

15.  People exit the story without making improbable reappearances just to tidy up the plot or give curtain calls to popular characters. 
Reasoning: Life is like that. Until Facebook, people walk out of your life and you never see them again.  But novels and other forms of fiction (like The Golden Ass and other ancient Greek novels, Emile, Dickens, etc) tend to reintroduce important characters because they are important, or so readers will know what happened to them.  A story becomes less probable, the more these coincidences occur, and the less likely they are demographically. 

In Praise of Baal Shem Tov: Uncertain.  Will need to read further.

16.  The story is about ordinary people, not royalty or divine superheroes.
Reasoning :Royalty had disproportionate power in the ancient world as today, but are often presented as more important, and far more clever or powerful in ancient fiction than they could have been – Iliad, Epic of Gilgamesh, Odyssey. 

In Praise of Baal Shem Tov: This story is largely about "ordinary people."  However, this characteristic does not support historicity in the modern world, in a Catholic country -- indeed it was one of the weaker indicators even in the ancient world.

17. Historically familiar political figures play roles consistent with their known personalities and authority.
 In Praise of Baal Shem Tov: Apparently not. Gentile rulers are described as "the king" or "the tsar," without mentioning who they are.  And again, story, not personality, is important here.  

Moral Views
18.  The subject praises sometimes, often unlikely people who are generally scorned, but never flatters.
 In Praise of Baal Shem Tov: I haven't found much of either, yet.  Indeed, the Besht does not give many general moral teachings at all.  

19.  The subject reads the powerful the riot act, especially for their obduracy and injustice.
In Praise of Baal Shem Tov: Further reading is required on this criteria, as well.

20.  The subject speaks respectfully to the weak, but without patronizing them, and making strong demands on them.
Reasoning: This is a highly unusual quality in the ancient world.  One might conceive of someone inventing it, but given more than one source, the more likely explanation would be that they are all describing a single remarkable individual.

In Praise of Baal Shem Tov: I didn't notice any of this.  

21.  The teachings of the subject were shocking for their originality and depth in his own culture, and remain equally so today. 
In Praise of Baal Shem Tov: No.  The Besht is shockingly insular in his thinking, with no apparent regard for non-Jews.  Limited by culture and prejudice, nothing transcendent happens here.

Social Qualities

22.  The subject tended to notice individuals rather than classes of people. 
Reasoning: Again, this is a remarkable quality in an important public figure, which is seldom invented for ancient fictional characters, and greatly adds to the realism of those few texts that display it of such a person: Analects, Plato’s Dialogues, the Gospels. 

Baal Shem Tov also notices individuals.  But as with (16), this was originally one of the weaker indicators of historicity, and in the different cultural environment, it probably does nothing to indicate historicity. 

23. The subject is blind to conventional social boundaries: caste, class, gender or age.
 In Praise of Baal Shem Tov: The Besht is certainly not blind to gender (see next), and the categories of "Jew" and "Gentile" are far more pronounced than in the gospels.

24.  He consistently treats women with dignity, compassion, and respect, though often in bracing or challenging ways.
Reasoning: This is far more likely to describe a real person, perhaps a divinely inspired person, than the subject of several different ancient works of legend, ecclesiastical propaganda, or imagination.  Women most often were sexualized in ancient fiction (not just!), or played conventional or outlandish roles.  In The Golden Ass, the most prominent women are witches and / or seductresses. 

In Praise of Baal Shem Tov: No. A twelve-year old girl is given in marriage by her father.  His wife declines making a decision -- since her husband is in the house, let him decide. 
"Is not my husband, thank God, in my house?  Why should I concern myself with it?  He will decide what is best." no. 79

Should the girl wait a year, as is the custom?  No, let her return and get married right now.  When the religious leader who wants to marry her asks that she not wait a year as was usual, the father capitulates and gives her right away.  Marrying at such a tender age was a terrible health hazard for young women, as well as a barrier to further education.  It was a vicious circle: the mother probably also had little opportunity for education, so maybe she really didn't know enough to make many decisions.

25.  While never lapsing into poetry in the formal sense (as heroes in ancient epic sometimes do), Jesus makes use of poetry and hyperbole in his teaching.
 In Praise of Baal Shem Tov: No.  


26. Jesus is presented with great variety, intimacy, grace, and subtlety as the fulfillment of a wide variety of threads of ancient truth within his culture. 
Reasoning: This item is so unusual – the correct word is unique – that it is hard to say whether it should be considered of no relevance to historicity, some sort of objection, or as an absolute proof of historicity. It is almost certainly relevant, and certainly by itself renders the claim that there are any complete parallels to the gospels in the ancient world (as, say, Richard Carrier claimed) untrue, but I am not sure what number to assign it. 

The Besht's father is told:

"Because of the merit of your behavior a son will be born to you who will bring light to Israel, and in him the saying will be fulfilled: Israel in whom I will be glorified." (11)

The promise to the Besht's father does not occur independently, however.  And the prophesy from the Bible is a weak and pale "prophesy" indeed, by comparison to those fulfilled in the gospels.  So no.
27. The miracles worked by Jesus are all or nearly all realistic, purposeful, constructive, respectful, and pious, in the sense of pointing people to God.  Miracles in the NT are for others, not for self.  They are response to a genuine need, not showy or ostentatious.

In Praise of Baal Shem Tov: No.  Skeptics often scoff at the story at the conclusion of Matthew, about the dead saints rising and appearing, "like zombies" around Jerusalem.  Indeed, it sometimes seems to be practically the only miracle they notice in the gospels, along with the parable of the withered fig.  But among the miracles in the gospels (and that one is not even by Jesus), that tale is an outlier.  Imagine with what whoops of delight skeptics would greet conversations with ancient reincarnated frogs, or deferential mountains jumping around while Jesus is in prayer.  But that is the norm, not the exception, for this wonderful text on which Bart Ehrman heaps so much praise.  
What is Ehrman thinking of?  Apparently, his powers of observation have been badly warped by his materialistic ideology: he has apparently read these silly miracle stories, and not even noticed the fundamental and gaping differences between them and the stories of Jesus healing and feeding the hungry in the gospels.
Conventional Criteria
28.  Criteria of Embarrassment. The gospels, as often noticed, frequently report events that would seem to be highly embarrassing to Jesus or to Christian faith.  One frequently-given example is Jesus' cry on the cross, "My God, my God!  Why have you forsaken me?"  I also gave a number of narrower examples earlier, in regard to criticism of Jesus.  But this argument is important and broad enough to merit a bit of repetition.  It is often argued, including by non-Christians, that such sayings and deeds are probably genuine.  Why would anyone invent such embarrassing scenes?  
Indeed, this is a common historical argument, made in many contexts.  I have seen it made in the context of ancient China and Medieval Europe, for examples.  I have also seen Richard Carrier make it more than once, even though he argues that it is almost impossible to use validly, in his Disproving History.  (But see my review on Amazon.) 
This criteria, while I do believe strongly confirming the essential historicity of the gospels,does not seem (at first skim) to apply to In Praise of Baal Shem Tov.  The point there is to praise, not criticize or embarrass.  But one might plausibly suppose that when the book touches on the rabbi's failings, it may indeed be reporting genuinely historical data.  (One does not doubt, for instance, that such a rabbi once lived in Poland, and some of the reality of the man is likely reported here.) 

29. Multiple Attestation.  Perhaps there are other works that affirm some of the miracles of the Besht: we'll see.  But this criteria cannot at least apply to In Praise of Baal Shem Tov on its own, as it does to the gospels.  

30. Undesigned Coincidences.   I don't think Ehrman made a dent in Tim McGrew's argument.  His wife is presently completing a book offering this argument in more detail, and has asked me to take a look.  I will look forward to seeing it developed in more depth.  In any case, it cannot apply to In Praise of Baal Shem Tov, since there is only one text.

31.  Double Similarity, Double Dissimilarity.  This is an argument offered at length by the eminent New Testament scholar N. T. Wright for the historicity of many scenes in the gospels.  I have described it before, and think it does indeed hold great force, where it applies.  The basic idea is that gospel accounts are distinct both from their Jewish matrix, and from the early Christian context in which they were first promulgated -- yet also make sense within, and of, both contexts.

It might be possible to apply this criteria to In Praise of Baal Shem Tov to extract some historical coreThe material doesn't appear too promising, however, and frankly, I don't know Hasidic Judaism, or 18th Century Poland, well enough to try.

32. Prior probability.  A final reason to trust the gospels has to do with their impact upon the world and relation to world history.  The gospels are, I maintain, more credible because God really does appear to have used them, and the person they tell of, as an instrument to bless, if not all  peoples on Earth, probably most people on Earth, as God promised to Abraham.  And also because Jesus fits within a larger, international, redemptive history, making greater sense of human history.

This is a topic I have written extensively on in various books and articles.  Probably the simplest and most relevant explanation would be my popular article on the Prior Probability of the Resurrection.  (Ten thousand page views and counting, also republished in Equipped.) 

Conclusion:  By all means, Bart-man, bring them on!  Scour the planet for plausible parallels to the gospels, to discredit them as mere inventions, or legendary mixtures of a little bit of historical truth and a wallop of disinformation and incredulity, if you like.  It's looking to turn into a hot day in Western Washington.  Bring us your lemons, and we'll make lemonaide.

The latest lemon to appear, as if one untimely born (1700 years late, in fact), the newest "parallel gospel," is a collection of tall tales, Paul Bunyan meets Brothers Grimm meets Jataka Tales, about the founder of Hasidic Judaism.  No one with a clear head and critical eye would think of comparing them to the gospels.  And indeed, when we make use not merely of post hoc cherry-picking (Carrier's method), but critique In Praise of Baal Shem Tov according to 32 pre-determined axis of criteria, we find nothing at all like the gospels here.

The two sets of writing do, indeed, share a few of the weaker criteria.  In Praise consists of stories, which are easier to remember (true or false) than teachings.  It claims historicity.  That does not much improve the odds that it is historical, but denial would make historicity very unlikely.  Unlike ancient authors, but not so unusually I think in its own cultural context, In Praise is often about ordinary people (though roping in some kings in an unlikely and vague way), and its hero notices individuals, not just crowds.

Some of the other characteristics, I need to read further, to be sure of.

But I already notice twenty-four characteristics, most of which are far more important than the few which In Praise shares with the gospels, which strongly support the historicity of the gospels, but not of In Praise of Baal Shem Tov.  The time of writing is closer to the facts.  There is more differentiated ethnic realism in the gospels.  Jesus' words lay in deep stylistic contrast to the words of other characters -- apparently they made an impression.  Crowds react to him realistically.  He offers brilliant, non-platitudinous sayings that it is hard to imagine mere scribes making up.  He gives memorable parables.  Violent opposition arises, as it would in that day, to such a teacher.  The personality of a few, but not all, of his first followers are described, as one would expect in an historical account -- the same is true of Confucius, for instance.  Historically familiar figures prance upon the stage, acting in credible ways.  (That includes Pilate, despite the denials of some writers.)  Jesus praises unlikely people, but never flatters, walking a tightrope of rare and credible grace between the contemptuous and the patronizing.  He is, thus, not only loving, but also demanding, to the poor.  His teachings still shock us for their depth and insight.  He seems blind to conventional social categories, another rare quality which breaths of authenticity, not spin.  He treats women with special dignity, as no mere scribe would invent, and none seems to have done.  He does not do spontaneous poetry recitals, as in Iliad, but is poetic in his sermons, often using a recognizable form of hyperbole.  Jesus fulfills numerous threads of Hebrew tradition.  His miracles are purposeful, realistic, for others not himself as with many gurus, not showy or ostentatious, but constructive, respectful of the nature of things (showing that the Author of Creation is truly at work), and pious, in pointing people to God.

In addition, criteria of Embarrassment, Multiple Attestation, Undesigned Coincidences, Double Similarity, Double Dissimilarity, and Prior Probability, are all marvelously met in the gospels alone.  One would I think be hard-pressed to find any such items in In Praise of Baal Shem Tov.  Each of these is a vastly more powerful instrument of historicity than those few superficial traits that this work really does share in common with the gospels.

So let those who would deny the gospels continue to bring their "parallel Christs" to the altar.  (Note: here's my analysis of Matthew Ferguson's equally-lame attempts.)  Let us see if fire comes from heaven and burns these offerings up -- or just a prophetic Bronx jeer.  "Oh, so the dog ate the real parallels, did he?" 


Tim said...

The FORM of Bart's argument on miracles was quite bizarre.

It seemed to be of the form:-

1. 'Do you believe in the miracles of Baal Shem Tov?'
2. Assumed answer 'no'
3. 'Therefore, because the claims are in some ways similar, you shouldn't believe in the miracles of the gospels.'

If we transpose this argument into a court of law it would look like this:-

1. Judge asks himself, 'Did I convict Tom of murder last week?'
2. Answer 'no'
3. 'Therefore, because Dick stands accused of the same type of murder, with similarity in the types of evidence, and claims he is innocent like Tom did, I shouldn't convict Dick either.'

Of course similarity in the types of evidence might allow the Judge to assess the case in a similar way. But it cannot be used to determine whether Dick is guilty or innocent.

In order for the Judge to use the argument to decide the verdict itself he would have to have a direct equivalence of evidence at every single point. If at ANY crucial point the evidence is dissimilar then, of course, the Judge would have to be open to the whole thing being overturned.

It strikes me as a spectacularly weak method for Bart to attempt to use.

David B Marshall said...

Well-stated. However, if instead (3) is, "therefore, since the evidence for the miracles in the gospels is no better than for Baal Shem Tov," then the argument might gain merit. And I think that is what Ehrman was trying. I show above why it not only doesn't work, but it comes around and smacks the determined scoffer on the nose.

Samuel Ronicker said...

Well done! Very thorough rebuttal. Heard your blog featured on the Unbelievable? radio show (podcast version)! When Justin mentioned you and your blog, I thought, "hey I know that guy!"

David B Marshall said...

Thanks! I'm going to be back on Unbelievable (third time) for a recording in a couple weeks. Don't know when it will be aired this time.

nick said...

Thanks for your work! It was good read. I haven't watched/listened to the debate, but you've answered questions I have had myself. I have been studying Hasadism for a little over 2 years, and this was a great article on comparing both Jesus and an essential character in the modern Jewish community, the Baal Shem Tov. There isn't too many writings with both of these figures! Thanks again!

David B Marshall said...

You're welcome, Nick, and thanks for the kind words. Sounds like interesting study! I included a more thorough analysis of this comparison as one chapter of my new book, Jesus is No Myth: The Fingerprints of God on the Gospels, which you may also find good reading.

Charbel said...

Hi David,

Are the 11 stories you mention close to a random sample of all the stories in the book? If it is close to random (meaning if most of the stories in the book are at this level of legends/myths), then I think the case is closed. The gospels much more modest in their claims.

My thinking is: are there many stories in "In Praise" that resemble the more modest miracle stories of the gospels?


David B Marshall said...

Charbel: Good question. I'd have to look at the text again --it's been several years. But there are no stories in the gospels that resemble many of those in this text. And I don't recall any miracle stories in this text that sounded as historical as even, say, AN Wilson recognizes those in John's Gospel to appear.

Zev said...

Good grief. You should at least finish the book before you attempt a takedown like this. Saying "yes" for one and "unconfirmed" for the other isn't a difference, it's a research failure. As far as "I didn't notice any general moral teachings" in Besht, I am sure dozens could have been pointed out to you if you'd written to a single Hasidic Jew who actually has read this book (or it's many reprints) all the way through and composed any sermons related to it.

You do hit one nail on the head though, not many people would give credence to stories like "Besht moving a mountain". It might surprise you that the majority of people who read that book read it not for bizarre stories but for the "general moral teachings" you claim you couldn't find anywhere in there...

One more bonkers point, you say the book is unrealistic for describing Catholics as "Idol worshippers" -- do you not know the Lutherans were saying the same exact thing at that time? People being mean is no sign of unreality.

I'm not going to bat for Besht, and i'm not Hasidic, and I honestly don't think Ehrman's point is even a good one. But you're talking about a living religious tradition, you should not rudely just read half a book, not talk to any practitioners for clarification, and then pat your hands like "well that takes care of that".

Zev said...

You rightfully castigate any atheist or muslim who would try and dismiss the gospels without reading even a single apologetic work -- you don't dismiss Ehrman without reading his books either -- why are you so comfortable dismissing Hasidics not having read one book by one or talked to a single one. Common courtesy and politeness should have discouraged you from writing this article with such a low level of engagement with the source material. Neither you nor Ehrman should have any business dragging this book in with such low willingness to even finish the surface level research. I doubt Bart read it either. Sad.

David B Marshall said...

Zev: It's interesting to hear from someone who takes that tack. But I find it extremely odd that you criticize me for offering a preliminary criticism of Ehrman here, when I say I don't know the book he is referring to well, but plan to go back to it later. (As I did, for Jesus is No Myth: Fingerprints of God on the Gospels.)

And you badly misquote me. I say the rabbi doesn't offer "many" moral teachings. You take the "m" off, and quote me as saying he didn't offer "any" moral teachings. Big difference!

In my book, I give an example or so of the Besht's moral teachings, which are in fact conventional, tribal, and occasional. Sorry, I have to call them as I see them. I also say he offers more than, say, the Gnostics did. If you have found some transcendent teaching from him of great universal value, please do quote it, and I will make adjustments in a later printing. I couldn't find any, unlike, say, in Isaiah or Amos, or even Lao Zi.

My point was not to "rudely dismiss Hasidics," though, but to analyze an analogy which Bart Ehrman suggested. It seems to me his hope was that no one would read the book as much as I did, because his analogy collapses very quickly when you do. So the comparison is between books, not between apologists for two traditions.

I thought it was a rather interesting book, all in all, and sometimes rather amusing. But no, it was not a strong parallel to the gospels. And that really was the point. I tend to read books from cover to cover, but not all books show that they merit that thoroughness.

David B Marshall said...

And BTW, I challenge you to find many people who have read more primary literature in world religions than I have. But one can't read everything. If my point actually were to attack the Hasidics, of course I'd read more. And even then, I don't expect the attack would be virulent or whole-hearted. I often find much to like in non-Christian religious texts.