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Paul Rhodes Eddy and Greg Boyd, The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition. Baker Academic, 2007.

Reviewed by Robert M. Price.


What is the task of biblical criticism? It is to advance the understanding of the Bible by applying new methods to the study of the text. One hopes to learn more and new things abut the text. By contrast, what is the task of Christian apologetics? It is essentially one of retrenchment. It wants to turn the clock back on criticism and in effect to learn less about the Bible, to undo all that critics consider progress. The apologist makes minimal concessions to critical method, using it opportunistically to try to vindicate the Bible as the kind of prop he needs it to be for the sake of his faith. The apologist who pretends to be a biblical critic is like the medical missionary headed for the wilds of Africa or Amazonia: he is sacrificing his time and comfort for the gospel’s sake when he would, given his druthers, be doing something else. One senses on every page that the Christian apologist wishes that the Higher Criticism of scripture had never been invented (by Satan) to confuse matters. Just as the TV repairman would ideally rather be sitting home watching TV than out fixing it, the apologist does what he thinks he has to do (as a secret agent behind enemy lines), though he would much rather be simply preaching the gospel. But then again, that is what he is really doing anyway. And that much would be perfectly clear even if every single critic-vs.-apologist debate (and even the book under review here) did not end with a bald-faced evangelistic invitation.

It is dangerous to introduce a damning quote that the nasty reviewer may turn back upon the quoters. Here is one such: “this methodology exhibits a tendency ‘to press toward conclusions that seem to be established a priori, either on theoretical grounds or because the data may prove uncongenial.’” (Snyder on Hezser on Harris) (p. 242). This book takes, in the traditional style of historical apologetics, a completely deductive a priori approach, trying to nibble away at critical methods and conclusions with quibbling and caviling objections that are often beside the point. The authors appropriate the rhetoric of post-colonial critics to make it look like only Dead White Males would scruple to accept miracle claims. Like “Womanist” “theologians,” Eddy and Boyd have claimed the laurel wreath of “victim” for fundamentalism so as to dignify credulity as a method. It would be a Eurocentist, ethno-biased slur to “people’s religion” the world over if we did not broaden the analogy of present-day experience (with which to judge past event claims) to include that of various Pentecostals, Third World shamans, and New Agers. The viewpoint of such a “confederacy of dunces” the authors dub a “democratized epistemology.” That is just the sleight-of-hand that Intelligent Design Creationists employ to get their quack science included in public school curricula. In fact, the approach of Eddy and Boyd is reminiscent of Intelligent Design propaganda at a number of revealing points, as we shall see.

Our apologists, though certainly more widely read in many relevant fields than any predecessor (certainly more than the pompous N.T. Wright), manage to have learned nothing important from it. For one thing, and it is perhaps the main thing, Eddy and Boyd simply cannot bring themselves to grasp the difference between methodological and metaphysical naturalism. They insist that the only reason critics refuse to acknowledge any miracle stories as probably true is that said critics are a stuck-up elite with an anachronistic commitment to a quaint creed of naturalism and/or Deism. They brand me personally as a naturalist, though I have repeatedly rejected this label (even in public debates with Greg Boyd). I regard it as the height of arrogant foolishness for mere mortals to pontificate on the nature and workings of a largely unknown universe. Naturalism as a philosophy has absolutely nothing to do with my historical methodology. Nor, I am convinced, does it affect, much less vitiate, the work of critics like Bultmann—or even David Hume. Boyd and Eddy manage to find various quotes from Bultmann, Robert W. Funk, and others in which they confess (or seem to) a personal belief in metaphysical naturalism, and here the apologists think to have found the smoking gun. But such beliefs have nothing to do with methodological naturalism (AKA methodological atheism AKA the surprise-free method). Let’s give it one more try. Greg? Paul? Are you listening? Troeltsch’s “principle of connection” does not say we know or believe that all events happen according to unbroken, immanent cause-and-effect. We weren’t there; we don’t know. That is why we have to try to devise methods like this to tell us what most probably happened. All we can do is to assume a cause-and effect nexus, just like the TV weatherman. We use the only guide we have. And experience tells us that whenever a scientist or historian has stopped short, shrugging and saying, “Well, I can’t explain it! I guess it must be a miracle!” he has later regretted it. Someone else was not willing to give up, and, like a detective on a Cold Case Files show on TV, he or she did manage to find the neglected clue. Willard Scott does not pretend to know for a fact that a sovereign God will not reach down and stop the lightning bolt from starting a forest fire tomorrow. He does not know that the nostrils of El Shaddai or Jupiter Pluvius will not stir up a Tsunami next week. He can do no more than extrapolate from current, known trends what is probably going to happen. Big news: we can trace only factors that we can trace, though for all we know there may be others.

Likewise, with the “principle of analogy.” There is no claim here (nor in poor, much-maligned Hume) that nothing out of the ordinary happens or ever can happen. (“What? You mean a politician told the truth last night?”) There is no dogma, no certitude, that miracles do not and never can occur. We don’t have a time machine; we don’t know what did or didn’t happen. Again, that’s why we have to fashion these conceptual instruments, crude though they may be, to try to surmise what probably happened, which is all we can ever “know.” And analogy forbids us to deem “probable” any event without reliable corroboration by analogy with present-day experience. I am a good historian when I get home, plop down in front of the TV, switch it on and see an image of a giant creature smashing Tokyo, and I do not infer, “Oh! I must be watching CNN!” Is it because I know darn well that monsters do not and cannot exist? I know no such thing! Cryptozoology tells us we may yet discover lingering dinosaurs hidden away here and there (though none is likely to be this big). All I know is that I have seen the like of this big boy in a number of Toho Studios flicks over the years, and that this is probably Gojira or Baragon, and that I am probably watching the Sci-Fi Channel, not CNN. Analogy impels me toward the matching genre. Thus, if Buddhist devotional lore provides a close analogy to the Matthean tale of Peter walking on the water, sinking as he becomes distracted, but no experience of today, not even in the Indonesia Revival of the 70s, shows me such things occurring—what am I to conclude?  Should I not, especially in view of the obvious homiletical motif of both stories, conclude that Matthew’s story is probably another legend? Why tar me with the brush of unbelieving naturalism? (Please note by the way, that in The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, I never invoke the mere presence of miracles in the narrative as a reason to reject a gospel story as historically improbable.)

Nothing in Hume or Troeltsch or Bultmann, that I can see, bids us reject miracle claims without weighing the evidence. It is just that, given the limitations imposed upon us (until we invent the time machine, that is), we cannot detect “probable miracles” even if they happened! Historical inquiry cannot touch them, even if time travel would show them to have been real! I believe this was the position of Karl Barth. Barth knew that faith and historiography entailed very different epistemologies. Faith claims to be able to do an end-run around the data and to obtain certainty about an ostensible miracle via some other way. But what way is that? It is, I think, nothing more than the will to believe. Listen to the parting words of Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy: “Our historiographical conclusions, of course, do not yet come close to the surrendered, trusting relationship to the living Christ that lies at the heart of the Christian faith. But no amount of strictly historical reasoning or evidence can take one to that point. At best, historical reasoning can point in a more or less probable direction. To speak now as Christian theologians: the Holy Spirit, personal commitment, and covenant trust must carry one the rest of the way” (p. 454). But they have been speaking as Christian theologians all along. In all their determination to build into the historical-critical method a “recognition” of miracles as probable, they have been trying to smuggle in a decision to believe. They imagine themselves to have maintained a strict separation between a supposedly “historical” acceptance of miracles as probable events of the past, as distinct from religious belief about those events. They aver that the historian, as historian, should accept that Jesus rose from the dead. But, they say, it would take a hat-switch to the theologian’s role to decide that this miracle held salvific significance. But I would suggest that, by urging that a “resurrection” be accepted as a “supernatural” (not just an anomalous) event, Boyd and Eddy have already smuggled in soteriology, much as in that scene in Animal House when the Food King cashier catches hapless freshman Pinto trying to sneak past her with his sweater and pants stuffed grotesquely with roasts, hams, and packages of ground meat.

Why can they not see that to come to a point of feeling stumped and then throwing up one’s hands and exclaiming, “God did it!” has the exact same value as saying, “God only knows!” In other words, it is to say we just don’t have the explanation, not that we do, and that it is one that defies explanation just as much as that puzzle we are invoking it to explain! To jump the gun and say “God did it!” is to wave one’s theological wand to transform agnosticism into fideism. In the last analysis, Boyd and Eddy are biblicists whose “historical” judgments are simply a matter of the Holy Ghost-inspired (they think) will to believe. They know that would never pass for historical method, so they engage in what Freud call projection. While the fault is their own, vitiating the probabilistic method of historians via “the obedience of faith,” they project the fault onto the genuine critic, urging that if he would only accept the bare possibility of the miraculous, he could start being honest with the text. But, beneath their shameful shell game, our authors are exalting faith and calling it historical judgment.

The phoniness of their enterprise is evident from the way they have to misrepresent Hume and Bultmann. Hume held the door open for precisely the “out” Boyd and Eddy ask us to entertain: Hume already allows us to accept a miracle report provided any naturalistic explanation would sound even more far-fetched than a supernatural one. In appealing to the universal facts of human experience, Hume is being neither deductive nor circular. He is merely appealing to what everyone knows: the frequent reports of the extraordinary we hear from UFO abductees, Loss Ness Monster fans, people who see ghosts or claim psychic powers always seem to turn out to be bunk upon examination. Ask Joe Nickell. Ask James Randi. Ask the evangelical stage magician Andre Kole, who exposed Filipino “psychic surgeons.” So someone reports to you that he has seen his uncle Mel alive again after his cremation. Are you going to believe him? Even if you believe Jesus rose from the dead, I think you will not be quick to conclude that Uncle Mel did, too. What would you say are the chances your friend is mistaken? Probably pretty high. If your friend introduced you to the living Uncle Mel, I bet you would immediately doubt whether it was really he who was cremated, if it was all some kind of joke. Everybody would think you were pretty silly if you took to the streets proclaiming that Uncle Mel had risen from the dead.

This notion of granting that a miracle happened, or that the supernatural intervened, when we can find no adequate naturalistic explanation—do you see where this is headed? Pretty soon any miracles the Bible says happened will fall into the same bag. Elijah called down fire from the sky to roast hundreds of Samaritan soldiers? Well, no naturalistic explanation’s going to be able to account for that, but we’re still entitled to believe it anyway. Why? Because there’s compelling reason to say it happened. And what is that reason? I suppose, Socrates, it is simply that the Bible says it happened! What other reason can there be if the normal pointers to historical probability are absent? We see in the long run that Boyd and Eddy just want us to believe what the Bible says, and when we don’t, they flog us with the wet noodle of “naturalistic presuppositions.”

Here we see a twin to Michael Behe’s fraudulent “irreducible complexity” argument against evolution. He points to transitional features required as stations on the way toward a creature evolving toward something with survival value. But the transitional version does not yet possess the “envisioned” survival value. Half an eye has no utility. The creature has to make it the next step, and the next, until finally it reached greater eyesight with its survival value. What gets it there? Evolution must have proceeded according to the plan of a “Designer.” (Behe does not admit being on chummy enough terms to call him by his name, God.) In the same way, Eddy and Boyd will not, they say, presume to read Christian theology into what they claim is a mere research result: yes, the supernatural must have intervened to work this miracle, but that hardly implies it is a marvelous work and a wonder wrought by Jehovah. Oh no: that would be a further step, a step of faith.

Eddy and Boyd would no doubt protest that they are not calling for belief in God, as if “the supernatural” were not merely a transparent mask like Behe’s “Intelligent Designer.” But it is clear they are. Here’s why. Recall their endless lambasting of Bultmann and his ilk for refusing to accept gospel events that are parallel to the experiences of Third World peoples. This is very puzzling since Bultmann freely admits that Jesus did what he and his contemporaries regarded as miracles, both of healing and of exorcism. Whatever you may want to make of them, Bultmann said, you have to admit they might have happened because such things, such scenes, occur today. Isn’t this what Boyd and Eddy demand? You see, here is the nub of the matter: it is apparently not good enough to admit that anomalous events occurred. No, Bultmann’s unforgivable sin is that he will not jump from this diving board and confess, as a historian, that Jesus did miracles by the power of Jehovah God.  

I call Behe’s “irreducible complexity” argument fraudulent because it was refuted long before he made it. George Gaylord Simpson addressed the same claim in his The Meaning of Evolution (1949), supplying a page full of examples of extant living creatures with every conceivable degree of light sensitivity, together with an explanation of how each tiny increment of light sensitivity has increased survival value. No mystery there. Nor is there any case of New Testament miracle stories which cannot most readily be explained, a la Occam’s Razor, naturalistically (as an overblown retelling or an outright fiction). And this is most especially true of the resurrection stories. (Boyd and Eddy certainly do nothing to make a historical resurrection seem impossible to deny.) Now Barth may have been right: maybe God did raise Jesus from the dead in space-time-history, but the fact is irrecoverable by historical method. Fine, whatever. But don’t dress up the will to believe as some fancy epistemology, much less the “open historical-critical method.” Nor is this gambit anything new: Gerhard Maier (The End of the Historical-Critical Method? 1977) called the same shall game the “historical-biblical method.”

Boyd and Eddy pull another fast one when they attack and deride the post-modern doctrine of “incommensurability” in order, as they imagine, to pull it out from under Van A. Harvey, who had the goods on them and their approach forty years ago (The Historian and the Believer, 1967). Harvey says that the historian cannot simply jump out of his historical skin to allow himself to embrace the beliefs possible to the ancients and their very different raft of assumptions. Here and elsewhere, Boyd and Eddy speak of biblical critics as an insular group of snobs who abdicate all responsibility for their beliefs, merely acquiescing to the suppositions of the momentary Zeitgeist. No one can give Van Harvey a fair reading and come out thinking he means this. His book, in fact, is filled with reasons he and his critical colleagues in the modern age have abandoned ancient credulity in favor of fine-tuned historical method. But if Harvey can be caricatured as a poster boy for passive subjectivity (“we can’t help being the mouthpieces of our age”), then Boyd and Eddy have exempted themselves from having to take his actual arguments seriously.

But then our apologists pivot to wrap themselves in the post-colonial outrage against the Dead White Males of Western academia. How dare the higher critics exclude the beliefs and experiences of the Third World and the miracle-mongering ancients? We must instead construct an Affirmative Action epistemology that will include their beliefs, too. What hypocrisy all this is! For Boyd and Eddy will go on to argue in a later chapter that the ancients were not particularly credulous, were indeed just as skeptical of claimed miracles as moderns are! They need to argue this way long enough to promote the idea that the early Christians must have had good reasons to believe in the resurrection, etc., rather than just believing any old rumor someone told them. It is a way of pretending that the ancients were critical historians and would never have believed in Jesus’ miracles if they weren’t forced to by the Humean caveat that miracle belief is preferable to far-fetched naturalistic rationalizations. So what were they? Critical moderns before their time (so we can accept their “analyses” of miracles we ourselves cannot witness)? Or were they easy believers in demons and spirits and wonders (which would forbid our being skeptical about them since we must embrace “democratized epistemology”)?

Another egregious case of Janus apologetics, facing both ways at once, is Boyd’s and Eddy’s argument that the resurrection of Jesus cannot have been borrowed from polytheistic mythemes. Their first step is to circumscribe a magic zone from about 165 BCE to 70 CE when there was no Jewish inclination, but rather the reverse, to accept Hellenistic influence. They figure that the Hasmonean victory over the Seleucid Hellenizers put an end once and for all to the temptation to Hellenize. Hellenization began to rear its ugly head again only after the Roman victory over Jews. This strikes me as a gratuitous assumption. Indeed, the fact that there is during their magic period much evidence of Jewish anti-Hellenistic Zealotry surely means the “danger” of influence continued. You don’t strengthen the fortifications when there is no enemy at the door. And no evidence of Hellenization? What about the astrology of the Dead Sea Scrolls? Ah, er, it’s not what it looks like! The presence of horoscopes at Qumran doesn’t mean the sectarians actually used or believed in them, say the apologists. Perish the thought! It was probably because they needed them to write scholarly refutations of them! And second- to third-century synagogues with mosaics of Hercules, Dionysus and the Zodiac? Purely decorative, that’s all. Come on! Obviously, you don’t decorate your house of worship with images of gods you find abhorrent! And this was just at the time Yavneh Judaism was getting stronger and stronger! Judaism just was not a solid monolith even at this time, much less in Jesus’ time.

Our authors find it necessary to misrepresent Margaret Barker, too. She argues very powerfully (in The Older Testament and The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God) that popular Judaism had not embraced the monotheism of the Exilic prophets yet, even in spite of priestly indoctrination and interdiction. She ventures that Jesus as the resurrected Son of God was a direct survival of Israelite polytheism. Boyd and Eddy cannot seem to get through their learned heads that Barker is not talking about a Jewish embrace of pagan mythemes. Her point is that mythemes the rabbis later reinterpreted (explained away) as pagan were always indigenously Israelite, shared with Canaanite neighbors, not borrowed from them. Thus there is no need to posit some repulsive borrowing from hated paganism to account for easy Jewish familiarity with dying and rising gods. Ezekiel knew the daughters of Jerusalem were engaged in ritual mourning of the slain god Tammuz even in the days of the Exile. Baal and Osiris were well known in Israel, too.

Boyd and Eddy indulge in overkill when it comes to the dying and rising gods, summarizing Jonathan Z. Smith’s failed case for dismantling this ideal type with not even a footnote referring to, much less rebutting, my detailed refutation of Smith in Deconstructing Jesus. They follow Bruce Metzger, Edwin Yamauchi and other apologists in arguing, absurdly, that the Mystery Religions borrowed the dying and rising god mytheme from Christianity—even though early Christian apologists like Tertullian, Firmicus Maternus, and Justin Martyr admit the pagan versions were earlier (the devil fabricated the gospel events long before they happened with Jesus)!

So there was no need to go to paganism for the resurrection doctrine/myth. It was home-grown in earlier Israelite polytheism. One need not throw up one’s hands in mock bafflement that the Christian resurrection faith could not have come from paganism so it must have been ignited by a real resurrection! This is like saying space aliens must have built the pyramids. It’s a ridiculous argument, but the apologists see how ridiculous it is only once they have to refute someone else’s use of it against them! What about the worship of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, believed by most of his followers during his lifetime to be the Messiah, though he never said so? He died, and immediately his fans predicted his soon return in glory and began hailing him as God incarnate! Now where did they get such a notion, which non-Lubavitcher Jews, needless to say, do not exactly welcome? If it sprang spontaneously from messianic adoration, and overnight after the Rebbe’s death, there would seem to be no miracle required to explain how Jewish disciples soon ascribed incarnate divinity to Jesus, right? Oh no! The cases are not similar at all, Boyd and Eddy tell us. The Lubavitchers must have—borrowed it from Christianity! Yeah, that’s real likely. Hasidic Jews borrowing myths from the religion they hated most! If Jesus’ disciples wouldn’t have stooped to borrowing theology from pagans, there is even less likelihood Hasidic Jews would have cribbed from Christianity.

We are treated to another fine display of nimble apologetical pirouetting when Boyd and Eddy discuss the question of ancient Palestinian Jewish literacy. They make a good enough case for widespread literacy. I never doubted it. Why are they interested? Because this fact enables them to speculate (or to borrow the old speculation of Edgar J. Goodspeed) that the gospels are not dependent exclusively upon oral transmission. Matthew might have taken notes (p. 252). One must infer that Boyd and Eddy would feel uncomfortable with merely word-of-mouth connections between Jesus and the gospels. No, written sources would be a more secure link, so by all means let’s posit them. (Myself, I cannot help thinking of the scene in Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ when Jesus picks up such a sheaf of notes Matthew has been making, and he rebukes him for writing lies about him! Just as George Washington’s friend and biographer admitted fabricating stories and sayings that he felt would communicate “the real Washington” better than any known facts.)

But then it’s a hundred eighty degrees around to exploit recent theories of oral transmission of epics, poems, and sagas. Though we just heard how literate first-century CE Jewish culture was, now we learn that it was instead a largely oral culture, like the various African tribes, Balkan shepherd communities, and Pacific islanders on whom the whole cottage industry of orality studies, stemming from Albert Lord (The Singer of Tales) and Millman Parry, base their theories. The point of trying to subsume the gospels under this rubric is to maximize the reliability of the underlying oral tradition. Apologists like to make a great deal of the fact that local history and lore may be transmitted faithfully for generations within such a closed framework, under the watchful supervision of both lore-masters who sing or chant the traditions and their audiences who are like children with a bed time story, refusing to countenance any significant  variations. So far this sounds like a folkloristic vindication of the Vincent Taylor/F.F. Bruce dictum that gospel reliability is guaranteed by the “retentive mind of the oriental.” Except that closer examination disappoints. The crown jewel of the “controlled local oral tradition” approach, the work of Kenneth Bailey (Poet and Peasant, etc.), has been thoroughly debunked by Theodore J. Weeden. Boyd and Eddy admit this, but it doesn’t matter to them, since they say it was a crummy example anyway. They’re just throwing Bailey to the wolves and asking you to accept his conclusions anyway.

Based on these studies, they insist that oral balladeers were like Johanon ben-Zakkai’s disciple who was like unto a plastered cistern that loseth not a drop. But then it turns out that these performers care little for specific wording, focusing only on the general gist. Uh-oh. Then it turns out that the order of pericopes varies almost at random with the whim of the balladeer. We are starting to get very close to form criticism here, though Boyd and Eddy, who hate form-criticism (for understandable reasons) do not seem to see it. We must not, they urge, impose twenty-first century standards of accuracy onto ancient oral texts. Yes: exactly the point of the form critics, no? The only difference is another parallel to Intelligent Design Creationist arguments: Boyd and Eddy will allow only differences in wording within a recognizable story or saying. They will not countenance changes big enough to make one saying into a new one with a different point, to retell one story so much that it becomes another (say, stilling the storm becoming walking on the water in order to still the storm). This is exactly like the Creationist willingness to admit the occurrence of “micro-evolution” within “kinds” of animals so long as one does not posit “macro-evolution” from one “kind” to another. Boyd’s and Eddy’s fear of “macro-evolution” in the Jesus tradition is the dread of having to admit that a saying or story no longer truly represents what Jesus actually did or said. As they urge critics to do, perhaps Eddy and Boyd ought to be a bit more critical of the agendas underlying their scholarly methods.

They sneer at the form-critical axiom that particular forms in which the sayings or stories meet us in any way reflect the Sitz-im-Leben of their use. They fear, rightly, that to admit this would be half-way to admitting the materials have been designed to serve their purpose and are thus tendentious fictions. But then they do not mind at all following Joanna Dewey and Christopher Bryan in taking certain formal features as implying the public performance of the Gospel of Mark (p. 358) for evangelistic purposes. Isn’t that inference from formal features to Sitz-im-Leben? Maybe it’s not so perverse an approach after all.

Form critic Dennis E. Nineham long ago pointed out how the gospel pericopes, short and sweet and streamlined as they are, just do not read like eye-witness testimony. For that we would expect the kind of “table talk” we get in, say the Acts of John: “Once I said to Jesus…, and he said to me…” Our gospel pericopes sound like they have been rubbed smooth by the currents of constant repetition. Boyd and Eddy are happy to point to ethnographic studies that show even actual eyewitness recollections may, the first time out, be put into traditional forms for transmission, verbal time capsules, and that in this manner vivid details and distinctive features may be sacrificed from the very beginning. Similarly, they aver, the dynamics of oral tradition dictate that what is actually stated, preserved in explicit wording, presupposes an informational background outsiders are unlikely to know, with the result that even good, on-the-spot recollections may not sound like it. Well, that helps a lot! Boyd and Eddy obviously imagine they have given themselves permission to read the clipped and stereotyped mini-narratives of the gospels as eyewitness testimony despite appearances. But all they have actually shown is that, even if there should chance to be real eyewitness testimony in the Jesus tradition, we can no longer recognize it as such! Formal considerations will have obliterated any evidence of eye-witness origin.

Another case of transforming agnosticism into fideism concerns the Mythic Hero Archetype to which the life of Jesus in the gospels conforms in its entirety, with no incidental, “secular,” or genuine biographical detail left over. Boyd and Eddy point out the obvious: that sometimes known historical figures actually live up to the Archetype. Of course: that is why Joseph Campbell and others have made so much of it. The problem is that, the more completely someone’s life story conforms to the mythic-literary form, the less likely it becomes that their story is genuinely historical. At such a point they risk becoming lost behind the stained glass curtain, unless they have left a trail of historical “bread crumbs.” Augustus Caesar did; Jesus did not. It is especially ironic that Boyd’s favorite example of a real-live archetypal hero is the Scot William Wallace, whose exploits came to the screen in the film Braveheart. Boyd likes to make Wallace a real-life Jesus, implying that the gospel Jesus could have been just as real. It does not occur to Boyd that we have no better information about Wallace than about Jesus! All we have is the ballad "The Acts and Deeds of Sir William Wallace, Knight of Elderslie,” written around 1470 by someone called Blind Harry. He based it on oral tradition describing events 170 years earlier. Yikes.

Boyd and Eddy are relieved at last not to have to trouble themselves with the destructive intricacies of redaction criticism. Again, they defend the right of oral singers and tradition-transmitters to vary details in the telling as they prefer, and they do not see that this is no different from redaction criticism. They suggest that some of the differences of which Conzelmann and Marxsen and Bornkamm made so much are not changes made by writers at their desks, but rather the slavish recording of whole oral performances in which the oral tridents had made ad hoc variations. Uh, what’s the difference? Why could you not trace a redactional agenda in an oral performance?

But Boyd and Eddy skip past that. Their main point is that oral tradents could and would not have expected their audience to notice tiny differences in details. Lacking the opportunity of the modern TV viewer who can pause and rewind even a live TV show to catch what was said a moment ago, the listener of a live oral performance in the ancient world simply would not have been able to keep up with and catalogue the sorts of changes redaction critics think they discern comparing Mark to Luke and Matthew, etc. So far, this is a point well taken. But it seems to prove too much: it implies that such oral performance variations could never have survived into written transcripts, since who could have remembered them? I don’t think this has occurred to Boyd and Eddy. Their point is rather that all the tendential patterns of redaction Conzelmann and company think they have found must be sheer illusion, completely accidental. Slips of the balladeer’s tongue. I find it difficult to credit that anyone familiar with the work of the redaction critics can believe that. But I find it quite easy to believe that apologists who do not want to know what the redaction critics have to tell them would take the easy way out, embracing a pious know-nothingism. This is a prime example of what I mean when I charge that evangelical apologists want to know less about the Bible, not more, to turn back the clock on criticism, to re-enter the Sunday School Toyland of fundamentalism. “It was long ago and it was far away, and it was so much better than it is today.”

So if we do not dismiss the findings of the redaction critics as so much hallucination, we begin to realize that the “orality studies” approach is inappropriate. We begin to realize that Boyd and Eddy are just shopping for a paradigm congenial to apologetics. Here oral tradition has become anal tradition. Heilsgeschichte has turned into Bullgeschichte. If the gospels are in practice so readily understood and profitably studied as written works, amenable to the methods of reading and analyzing such works, then I think it is safe to forget about the politically correct “noble savage” paradigm of African tribal lore-masters and Eskimo chanters. The gospels seem to be true literary works, so let’s treat them that way. That is what Burton L. Mack and Vernon K. Robinson are doing when they point out the similarity of the gospel pronouncement stories to the Hellenistic chreia so common in Greco-Roman classrooms, where students demonstrated they understood the gist of a Socrates or a Diogenes by fabricating a pronouncement story appropriate to each man’s reputation. I’m afraid that’s bad news for apologists, for it provides a natural paradigm accounting for the gospel materials independent of any access at all to supposed eyewitnesses.

Does that rule out any possible oral-traditional basis to the written gospels? I don’t mean to discount that, just to point out that the possible parallels Boyd and Eddy insist on are not the only ones, or even the best ones available. They seem so sure that oral cultures would not allow for a mass fabrication of traditional units that would serve only to legitimize this practice or that belief of some faction of the community. But it was field studies of the Trobriand Islanders that led Bronislaw Malinowski to formulate his categories of myths, including legitimization myths. Closer to home, there is the well-known mass production of spurious tendential hadith falsely ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad. The early guardians of hadith felt it was their job to shepherd the growing tradition into the directions they thought best by making up opinions and deeds of the Prophet. We do not know if early Christian tradents engaged in such activities, but neither do we know that they behaved like Serbian shepherds or African lore-masters! Given the choice, the Islamic paradigm would seem a lot more likely, if only because it is closer to home historically and religiously. At any rate, the wholesale hadith-forging industry is at least as attractive an option for understanding the developing Jesus tradition. It is based on a well-known oral-traditional matrix and matches perfectly the model adopted by Bultmann and the form critics. If oral tradition “really” worked as Boyd and Eddy say it must, we cannot explain the phenomena of the hadith.

Or of the Nag Hammadi gospels! They simply would not exist, or else we must accept them as historical, too. They, too, claim to stem from eye-witnesses. They, too, offer us many sayings ascribed to Jesus. If we admit they are historically spurious, we admit that it was nothing for early Christians to ascribe their own best thoughts and revelations to their Lord. How typically contrived and double-tongued for our apologists to begin by quoting the old “not I but the Lord” text as the rule for all early Christians (even though they know it may not even intend quotes from a historical Jesus) as attesting the universal early Christian tendency to segregate Christian intuitions from dominical sayings—and then to isolate the prophecies of the Risen Christ through John on Patmos as some aberration unrepresentative of early Christians generally! For if the latter were even possibly typical of early Christian practice, then Bultmann would be justified in chalking up some Jesus-attributed sayings to Christian prophecy. And then Pandora’s Box is open.

Boyd and Eddy gleefully point out what so many other retrenchers before them have: if the needs of the church dictated what Jesus would be made retroactively to say, why do we not find so many of the “hot” issues of early Christianity discussed by Jesus? Why, for instance, was he not made to mouth someone’s opinion on the issue of Gentile conversion and circumcision? But he was: that must be the point of Mark 7:14-19, where we find a rationalist repudiation of the idea that nonkosher food renders one unclean. That must be the point of Thomas 53: “His disciples say to him, ‘Is circumcision worthwhile or not?’ He says to them, ‘If it were, men would be born that way automatically. But the true circumcision in spirit has become completely worthwhile.’” Would not Jesus be made to address the issue at stake in the Cornelius story of Acts 10-11, missionaries eating Gentile food? But he does address it in Luke 10:7, where the seventy, in contrast to the twelve (in other words, future missionaries to the Gentiles), are told to “eat and drink what they set before you.” The Gentile Mission as a whole? What do you think the Great Commissions, not to mention the distance-healings of the children of Gentiles, are all about? Table fellowship with Gentiles, as in Antioch? That’s the point of Jesus being shown eating with “sinners.” Eating meat offered previously to idols? Someone must have realized that Jesus could not plausibly be pictured addressing this in Jewish Palestine, so they left this one in the form of a post-Easter prophecy (Revelation 2:20), a concern for verisimilitude not often observed. The role of women in the community? That is the point of Luke 10:38-42, where, depending on how one understands it, the issue is either women serving the Eucharist (Martha) or women embracing the stipended, celibate life as “widows” and “virgins” (Mary). Speaking in tongues? Matthew 6:7 (“When you pray, do not say ‘batta” as the heathen do.”) is against it; the late Mark 16:17 (“they will speak with new tongues.”) is for it.

By contrast, Boyd and Eddy utterly fail to meet the challenge of G.A. Wells: if Paul had our fund of Jesus sayings available in oral tradition, why does he not settle issues at once with a dominical saying, e.g., on payment of taxes to Caesar, on celibacy, on fasting? And when Boyd and Eddy follow James D.G. Dunn and others in the bluff that all the parallels between epistolary maxims and gospel sayings are unattributed allusions to the gospels by the epistle writers, it is just pathetic. If the point is to win obedience to the teaching of Jesus, who in his right mind would not pull rank by explicitly proof-texting Jesus?

Boyd and Eddy continue their march into yesteryear with an appeal to take with renewed seriousness Papias’ authorial ascriptions of the gospels of Matthew and Mark. He was in a good position to get the facts from the eyewitness apostles, was he not? Well, then, I ask, must we also accept what Papias says about Matthean priority? About Judas Iscariot swelling up bigger than an oxcart and pissing live worms? The sole surviving example of Papias’ collection of Jesus traditions supposedly derived from “the Elders” sounds like a garbled quote from the Syriac Apocalypse of Baruch.

I suppose the clearest, most outrageous example of Boyd and Eddy advocating old-time fundamentalism and calling it criticism is their defense of harmonization, indeed, their attempt to elevate it to an axiom of criticism! They proudly point to a pair of reports about the hanging of two men; according to one report, they were strung up from trees, but according to another, they depended from a bridge. A contradiction, no? What do you know? News photos demonstrated that both were true! For some unknown reason, the bodies were displayed first in one circumstance, then the other! Strange but true. And so it would it turn out, if we had the photos, in every case of gospel contradictions. Oh, would it? It seems to me that Eddy and Boyd are trying to persuade us to make the exception into the rule. Do they really think every secular, non-biblical “apparent contradiction” can be resolved in such a way? If not, what’s the point of invoking this example? We are henceforth to baptize the improbable into the probable. But as F.C. Baur said long ago, the true critic admits that anything is possible but asks “What is probable?”

Finally, let me venture to agree with Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy on one major methodological point. Though they quote me out of context on the question, my approach is to assume the burden of proof in challenging the historical accuracy of any and every bit of gospel material I analyze. I believe it is best and only natural not to dismiss any of the gospel sayings or stories unless there seems to be some problem, e.g., an anachronism, a contradiction. And never do I count against a story that it involves ostensible supernaturalism. I do not want to beg the question. See my gospel analyses Deconstructing Jesus and The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, and you will see my approach. What Boyd and Eddy do not like is the results I have come to in this manner. Naturally they would prefer to be able to rule them out of court a priori by accusing me of sweeping away all the material on the basis of a naturalistic bias, which in fact I do not hold.

One may render the following verdict on the case the authors have made on rehabilitating the historical reliability of the Synoptic Gospels: nice try.


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