by Tim Widowfield
What an odd thing to say!*
Recently, while catching up with the second edition of James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me, I noticed something I had missed earlier while reading the chapter on Christopher Columbus. The first time I read the book, now over a decade ago, the grisly stories of conquest and genocide, along with the subsequent whitewash and heroification took center stage. But this time I was struck by the number of myths that at first glance might seem unflattering to Columbus. People inventing stories uncongenial to the hero? How could this be?
History as practiced by NT scholars places a great deal of faith in what can most accurately be described as a thought experiment. That is, if you can’t imagine why anybody would make up a story, then it is probably true.
As Bart Ehrman in Did Jesus Exist? (DJE) puts it:
It seems unlikely that Jesus’s later followers would make up the claim that his friends were chiefly outcasts and prostitutes, so this may indeed have been his reputation. (DJE, p. 236, Nook ed.)
Since Nazareth was a tiny hamlet riddled with poverty, it is unlikely that anyone would invent the story that the messiah came from there. (DJE, p. 219, Nook ed.)
NT scholars find this line of reasoning very compelling. Quoting Ehrman once again, this time from Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (AP):
“Dissimilar” traditions, that is, those that do not support a clear Christian agenda, or that appear to work against it, are difficult to explain unless they are authentic. They are therefore likely to be historical. (AP, p. 92, Oxford paperback ed.)
But how well does this criterion hold up under scrutiny?
From such humble beginnings
Columbus’s origins are obscure. He may have been from Genoa, as your high school history text told you, or he could have been a recently converted Spanish Jew or a Polish heir to the throne. As Loewen notes:
Many aspects of Columbus’s life remain a mystery. He claimed to be from Genoa, Italy, and there is evidence that he was. There is also evidence that he wasn’t: Columbus didn’t seem to be able to write in Italian, even when writing to people in Genoa. (Loewen, p. 48)
The lack of hard facts did not deter Washington Irving from invention. In A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus he constructs a story of humble beginnings from which our hero rises on his own merits. His is the archetypal Great Man. And herein lies the reason for the myth. Irving’s aim was to provide a legendary example to follow. Americans, from humble origins, could achieve greatness if they would simply “pick themselves up by their bootstraps.”
The humble-origin myth resonates in American history (think of Abe Lincoln as a boy reading by candlelight), but it is also quite common in Biblical legends. Having given up on Saul, God tells Samuel to pick the new anointed king from the sons of Jesse. And so David, the youngest son, a humble shepherd from the village of Bethlehem eventually rises to take the throne.
We have no reason to believe that the origin story of David is true. The early monarchy is shrouded in myth, and given what we know from archaeology, David (if King “Beloved” actually existed) was probably at most a local chieftain. The stories told about the legendary King David demonstrate that people did invent humble origin stories about messiahs. In fact, the humble origin of David serves to prove God’s favor. How else could he have risen so far and so fast unless God was on his side?
Similarly, the gospel stories of Jesus’s birth and youth, as well as the emphasis on the insignificance of Nazareth (recall Nathaniel’s muttered insult in John 1:46) are important in that they stand in stark contrast to the figure of Jesus himself. Everyone is amazed at his teaching. They ask with astonishment, “Is this not the carpenter?” In the written gospels, Jesus must be a supernatural being, endowed by power from heaven, because there is no other explanation. Contra Ehrman, the evangelists would never have invented stories in which Jesus was the son of a prominent priest, grew up in Jerusalem, or took an apprenticeship with a great teacher — not because one story is true and the other is not, but because only one fits the heroic narrative.
For the writers of the gospels, Jesus’s past cannot explain his present. He has no predecessors. He is transcendent. He is unique.
It’s so hard to get good help
Another Columbus myth that seems to “go against the grain” is that story of the motley crew that is imagined to be inches from tossing the great admiral overboard when they suddenly hear cries of “Land!” Alas, this story is a myth. There may have been grumbling among the crewmen, but we shouldn’t be surprised. As more than one chief master sergeant told me back when I was a lieutenant, “A G.I. ain’t happy unless he’s bitchin’ about something.” And so later authors have exaggerated this griping among the crew into a potential mutiny.
But why invent such a story? If Columbus was such a great leader of men, why did they quake in their boots? Why did they lose faith in the great navigator?
Here we once again have an archetypal scene with an idealized heroic character. The great man — the calm, cool, educated man — has to keep his rag-tag, simple-minded crew together. He must use his strong will, his superior character, and his towering intellect to convince them to abandon their childish superstition and wanton fear.
But as Loewen rightly points out:
Such exaggeration is not entirely harmless. Another archetype lurks below the surface: that those who direct social enterprises are more intelligent than those nearer the bottom. (Loewen, p. 53)
Moreover, the dramatic tension induced by the mutinous crew serves to show once again how the hero overcomes adversity. If Columbus had nothing but smooth sailing, how would we know how great he was?
Sometimes the mythical hero must confront adversity of a tragic nature. Who can forget the story of Absalom’s rebellion against David? As I said before, there is no reason to believe that any of the legends of the early monarchy have any basis in historical fact. Instead, we have a story of the king who is betrayed by a close friend or family member. It is a motif that recurs again and again in legends and folk tales.
So while Ehrman says that story of Judas Iscariot story is probably true, we still may have reason to doubt it. He writes:
According to all four canonical Gospels, and perhaps Paul, at the end of Jesus’ life he was betrayed by one of his own followers. Is this a story that a Christian believer would invent? Would Christians want to admit that Jesus was turned in by one of his closest friends and allies? It seems unlikely: surely Jesus would have had a commanding presence over those closest to him. Why, then, do we have the tradition, which is, as I’ve pointed out, independently attested? Perhaps it’s something that really happened. (AP, p. 93, emphasis mine)
Unlikely? Then how do we evaluate the story of Absalom? Is the story true simply because it’s embarrassing? Should we also assume that the story of Sir Lancelot is true because he betrayed his closest friend and beloved king — an unimaginable, unpardonable sin? Of course not.
Legendary heroes must always overcome adversity, including unreliable followers and family members. The Jesus of the gospels plumbed the depths of despair — betrayed, abandoned, beaten, ridiculed, and brutally executed. Yet he rose (literally) above it all, conquering death itself. Yes, the disciples scattered in his hour of need. Yes, Peter denied him when pressed to admit the truth. But all of these terrible, legendary events were necessary and integral to the Messiah story as told by Christians.
An ignominious death
As I recall, my history textbooks in middle school and high school taught that Columbus died penniless, alone, and in obscurity. It’s a fairly common myth. Some texts say he died in prison. Most say that he never realized the magnitude of his discovery. None of these “facts” are true, of course. But surely such myths go against the grain. How could they possibly contribute to the heroification of Columbus? If I can’t imagine why anyone would make them up, doesn’t that mean that they’re probably true?
Loewen’s explanation of the tragic end of Christopher Columbus may be correct:
Even the death of Columbus has been changed to make a better story. Having Columbus come to a tragic end — sick, poor, and ignorant of his great accomplishment — adds melodramatic interest. (Loewen, p. 51)
However, I think there’s more to it than that. Columbus is a hero in the United States, but not in Mexico, even though (as Loewen notes) Mexico has had a greater Spanish influence than the US.
Why not? Because Mexico is also much more Indian than the United States, and Mexicans perceive Columbus as white and European. (Loewen, p. 64)
We Americans identify with Columbus not only as a great European (i.e., a great white man) but also as the first great American. By creating a myth of obscurity, in which the Spanish “forgot” Columbus (while in truth he retained much of his wealth until his death and kept the title “Admiral of the Ocean Sea”), we get to discover him all over again. He becomes our Columbus.
Many Biblical heroes in the OT also faced tragic, if not ignominious deaths. Josiah, the greatest king since David, met a bitter end on the battlefield. Here was the greatest temple-cleanser of them all, the destroyer of the groves, the wrecker of the high places. He was the legendary king under whom Judah converted from henotheism to a predatory monotheistic cult. (By predatory, I mean that it could no longer tolerate any other form of worship, demanding the annihilation of all competitors.)
Josiah’s reforms, according to the OT, were both sudden and sweeping. Having rediscovered the lost book of the law, he took it to heart, and then ruthlessly purged his kingdom of all other gods. He reinstituted the Passover which had not been observed since the time of the Judges. Yet at the peak of his power, he fell in battle, mortally wounded by an arrow. Did it really happen that way, or is this yet another case of a legendary heroic-tragic figure?
We can point to specific transgressions that explain David’s fall from grace. We know why Moses was supposedly forbidden from entering the promised land. But what of Josiah? At long last a descendant of the Davidic line decided not to sin or to cause the people to sin. Josiah did what was right in the eyes of Yahweh. And yet he was cut down. Why?
25. Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses, nor did any like him arise after him.
26. Still the Lord did not turn from the burning of his great wrath, by which his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked him.
27. And the Lord said, “I will remove Judah also out of my sight, as I have removed Israel, and I will cast off this city that I have chosen, Jerusalem, and the house of which I said, My name shall be there.”
(2 Kings 23:25-27, ESV)
The author of 2 Kings is clear. Josiah had to die because Yahweh was still angry about Manasseh. In Josiah we have a story of an anointed King of Judah, a descendant of David, who led the people to repentance, and who cleansed the Temple on a scale that Jesus barely dreamed of. Would anyone invent a story in which such a person dies tragically, and apparently for no good reason?
Well, yes, they would and they have.
Apologists will tell you that God spoke through Pharaoh Neco and told him to turn around and go home. (See the “improved” text of 2 Chronicles 35.) To paraphrase: “This isn’t your fight, little King. Go home.” But Josiah disobeyed the Lord and got himself killed. If you believe this is true, then I’m not sure why you’re reading this blog. Sure, it’s possible that Neco may have warned Josiah to back off, but he wasn’t acting as Yahweh’s prophet.
Even if you think the basic story of Josiah is real history, the ultimate reason for Josiah’s death is, at the very least, a myth. Perhaps the author of 2 Kings so needed a perfect king as a future guide that he dared not invent even the sort of misdemeanor that kept Moses out of Canaan, much less the felonious behavior of David that barred him from building the Temple. “No man is above the law,” such stories teach us, “not even the lawgiver himself.”
Jesus, of course, is no ordinary, mortal man. He is sinless. He fulfills the law. So why did he die?
According to Ehrman, nobody would ever invent a story of a dying Messiah.
The earliest Christians put a good deal of effort into convincing non-Christian Jews that the Messiah had to suffer and die, that in fact Jesus’ crucifixion was according to the divine plan. . . . Christians would not have invented the notion that he was crucified. On the contrary, the Messiah was to be the great and powerful leader who delivered Israel from its oppressive overlords. . . . Where, then, did the tradition come from? It must have actually happened. (AP, p. 93, emphasis mine)
Note that Ehrman at this point abandons all pretexts of probability and careful judgment. He doesn’t hedge his bets with “highly unlikely” or “almost certainly.” No, it really happened, and there’s no point in debating the issue.
Let’s get one point out of the way first. It is illogical to posit the idea of Christians inventing a story in which Jesus refused his punishment, called down the heavenly host, and drove the Romans out of Palestine. If such a story were true, surely everyone would have heard of it. That story would have to be false. But at the same time, the converse — the story that Jesus met his punishment head-on and was executed — does not have to be true. Nothing in ordinary daily life in the Empire would have changed, whether it happened or not.
Doherty, Carrier, Price, Godfrey, and many others have confronted Ehrman’s contention that no Jew would ever expect the Messiah to be crucified. The truth is, in this stage of Judaism, there was so much diversity of opinion on even the most basic beliefs, that it’s hard to imagine that no group had ever entertained the notion of a Messiah who had to suffer for the sins of the nation.
What I would like to focus on instead is the idea of Jews being receptive to the idea of a dying and rising Messiah. Consider again the myth of Columbus’s death. Why did so many people believe it? Surely part of the reason (beyond gullibility and a lack of alternate sources) is the fact that people were receptive to the idea. Some Americans still are. They are willing to believe it, because it fits with their world view.
Suppose you were a Jew in Corinth or Rome in the middle of the first century CE, and someone told you the story of Jesus. Let’s say it pretty much followed the narrative of Mark. He finishes by telling you that Jesus died and rose as a ransom for many, and if you “believe in him” your sins will be forgiven and you will live forever. Would you believe him? Well, many Jews must have believed it, or Christianity would have died out before it even got started.
Some Jews must have heard the story third-hand from second-hand witnesses, decades after the supposed crucifixion, in cities hundreds of miles away. (Recall that Rome is well over 1,400 miles away from Jerusalem.) Their acceptance of the story proves that at least some Jews were receptive to the idea of a dying and rising Messiah. I submit that it is very difficult to argue that some Jews would accept the Jesus story simply on testimony, but that no Jew would ever invent the story. Without an intellectual framework to hang the story on, how does it stick? How does it sound like anything other than gibberish?
Putting the argument the other way around: If no Jew would ever invent the story of a crucified Messiah, then it follows that no Jew would ever accept the story of a crucified Messiah. The second part of that statement is known to be false; hence it is difficult to believe that the first part is necessarily true.
Determining objective truth with a thought experiment
Part of the problem with using criteriology to settle questions of basic historicity is that it places too much faith on what is essentially a thought experiment. The criterion of dissimilarity and its ugly step-sister, the criterion of embarrassment, are disconcertingly reminiscent of Anselm’s Ontological Argument. If I can or cannot imagine X then X or not-X must be true.
Can you imagine a perfect being with ultimate power? If so, then he must exist! Can you think of a reason why anyone would “invent” a story of Judas betraying Jesus? If not, then it must be true!
Folk tales and legends are rife with examples of stories that appear to put beloved heroes in a bad light. Not understanding why such stories arise and become popular is not evidence of truth, but of a lack of imagination and a lack of training in the history of folklore. It’s a sign of someone wanting to believe that certain stories are true, not that they are true.
* “What an odd thing to say!” comes from a section header in Bart Ehrman’s Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenium.