Were the Miracles of Jesus invented by the Disciples/Evangelists?
13. Even if we grant that these miracle stories are meant to be understood literally, and that these accounts derive ultimately from eyewitness accounts, doesn't the pervasive gullibility of the ancient world reduce the credibility of these accounts to virtually nil? The countless 'eyewitness testimonies' to things like centaurs, live births from males, miraculous healings at temples, teleportation and metamorphoses should render the evidential value of the gospel 'eyewitness accounts' similarly zero.
A published version of this can be seen from Evan Fales [Philsophia Christi, Series 2, Volume 2, Number 1, 2001, p. 22):
"Perhaps most surprisingly, he [David Clark] fails to see the evidential force of the concessions he makes in considering alternative explanations for miracle stories. It is a truism that the fact that some miracle stories are fabricated is logically consistent with the possibility that some are true. The issue is evidential: given that so many are fabricated, what reason do we have to believe those of the home religion?"
Fales referred in the preceding paragraph to Richard Carrier's piece on Kooks and Quacks of the Roman Empire (https://infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/kooks.html).
Carrier will say there:
"If the people of that time were so gullible or credulous or superstitious, then we have to be very cautious when assessing the reliability of witnesses of Jesus. As Thomas Jefferson believed when we composed his own version of the gospels, Jesus may have been an entirely different person than the gospels tell us, since the supernatural and other facts about him, even some of his parables or moral sayings, could easily have been added or exaggerated by unreliable witnesses. Thus, this essay is not about whether Jesus was real or how much of what we are told about him is true. It is not even about Jesus. Rather, this essay is a warning and a standard, by which we can assess how likely or easily what we are told about Jesus may be false or exaggerated, and how little we can trust anyone who claims to be a witness of what he said and did. For if all of these stories below could be told and believed, even by Christians themselves, it follows that the gospels, being of entirely the same kind, can all too easily be inaccurate, tainted by the gullibility, credulity, or fondness for the spectacular which characterized virtually everyone of the time."
Now, much of modern scholarship would already disagree with this position, as can be seen from a couple of authors:
And above all, Ramsay MacMullen would argue that the trend began around 100 AD or so, and yet that even during this time of increasing 'credulity', Richard's 'virtually all' would be quite in error:
"Plutarch tells the story (the explanation does not concern us), calling it an instance of superstition. He uses the word to express his disagreement with those who would take a perfectly ordinary event, as he saw it, and ascribe divine dimensions to it. The more a person saw the gods at work in the material world--moving things around, for instance--and the less a person explained in terms of natural causes, the clearer was the presence of superstition…Over the course of the centuries chosen for examination here [100-300], superstition with this meaning certainly increased. This fact is best sensed (to say 'measured' would imply a degree of accuracy beyond our reach) in the greater prominence of magic; for magic, after all, is most shortly defined as the art that brings about the intervention of superhuman powers in the material world--'moving things around, for instance." Proof of the practice of the art grows more abundant, most obviously in recipes and handbooks written on papyrus. It is to be found in every province, for example, in leaden curse tablets. And people who should have known better come to credit invocations with an efficacy that, in some previous century, would never have been believed. It means nothing that a late orator attributed an ineffectual speech to hexing by jealous detractors; an early orator, consul in Cicero's day, offer the same excuse; but when the very emperor resorted to wizards to aid him in his wars, times had changed. Perhaps no new ideas are to be discovered, but old ones are found in circles previously immune to them…" [HI:PTRE:70]
"That was the test: ridicule. Fully to sense the meaning of Constantine's preposterous pontification, he must be imagined speaking at Plutarch's table. There, his views would have produced delighted grins; likewise, no doubt, in the company of Lucian or Apuleius. Lucian knew of opinionated ignoramuses in very high places indeed, followers of the pious fraud Alexander. They were the equal in gullibility of the population of Abonuteichus where Alexander set up shop. Lucian expects his readers to laugh at them, as Apuleius could hope (a little anxiously, in a small town like Oea) to raise a laugh at yokel accusations of magic. He practiced no magic, he insisted in his defense, but scientific experiment in the tradition of Aristotle. Who but a clod could misinterpret that? With his trial, we have passed the mid-second century. We still feel a difference--the difference between "religion" and "superstition" --separating the literate few of Athens, Rome, or Carthage from the people of remote centers like Oea in Tripolitania or Abonuteichus in Pontus. Another hundred years pass, and gullibility is no longer a target for ridicule. In the most educated circles that the Empire has to show, enchantments, trances, and wonder-working raise no laugh; rather, fear and awe. It is rationalism, as we would call it, that now must defend itself; and it is easily put to rout by Constantine. Most of his listeners--not all, for such large changes come about very gradually--no doubt shared his views." [HI:PTRE:72]
"We must remind ourselves, of course, of the spectrum of temperament and the degrees of exposure to a diversity of ideas, already emphasized. It was not a world in which absolutely everyone trembled on the edge of believing absolutely anything." [CRE:17]
Note that Fales and Carrier are not arguing that any of the scriptural miracle narratives are actually untrue, but only that our grounds for believing them (e.g. eyewitnesses) to be true might be entirely faulty, and indeed, the "extra evidential weight" normally assigned to eyewitness testimony might need to be completely removed--given the 'virtually universal' gullibility of the period.
One might also note at the outset that:
There are several issues here that need to be considered:
A. Some initial remarks about terminology.
There are actually three separate "events" under discussion here:
1. Creation: Initial fabrication of an embellishment (of an existing story), or creation of a de novo miraculous story (e.g., deliberate deceit, error of memory, literary motive, overactive imagination, psychoactive bagel)
2. Reception: Hearing such a 'tall tale' and believing it (i.e., credulity, gullibility, suggestibility)
3. Relay: Hearing such a 'tall tale' and (believing it or not) transmitting it to others (re-telling) with or without further embellishment (i.e. "Creation").
Given these distinctions, one must note that Fales' position is only about "Creation". He is not arguing anything about 'gullibility' but about 'fabrication' (e.g., deceit). This is not actually an issue of gullibility (or at most only obliquely--as a 'market' for increasing fabrications). His argument is that 'given so many deceitful claims, why believe formally-analogous claims from even comrades?'
Carrier's article seems to be somewhat more focused on Reception and Relay, since he often combines terms like 'ready to believe or exaggerate'. Creation of bogus elements does enter for Richard, of course, in the Relay Step.
These distinctions may be relevant for us, since when we try to assess 'gullibility' in the period, we are dealing with Reception (and to some extent , Relay--although many times 'tall tales' were told mostly for entertainment, as we have noted earlier in the genre of paradoxography and in the remarks on the "ghost" in the letter of Pliny). On the other hand, when we try to assess Fales' argument, we have to focus largely on the 'relative quantity' of fabrications (and the relevance of those fabrications to the situation of the gospel stories, of course).
So, with this in mind, let's turn to Richard's examples…
Richard divides his evidence into two categories: (1) Minor and (2) Major.
He gives as his minor evidence (of widespread gullibility and 'fondness for the spectacular') the following bits:
1. The ascription to Paul of divinity in Acts 28.6
2. The ascription to Paul and Barnabas of divinity in Acts 14.8-18
3. Some of the messianic claimants discussed in Josephus (i.e., The Egyptian, Jonathan the Sicarius, Theudas)
4. Simon Magus in Acts 8.9-11
5. The speaking of the statue of Tyche--Plutarch
6. Vespasian's healing (from Suetonius/Tacitus)
7. Statues at which healing occurred (Lucian, Pausanias…Athenagoras)
He gives as major evidence the stories of Apollonius, Peregrinus, and Alexander.
Let's take a quick look at each of these:
· The ascription to Paul of divinity in Acts 28.6 and to Paul and Barnabas in Acts 14.9ff:
The text of Acts 28.6 here reads thus:
After we had reached safety, we then learned that the island was called Malta. 2 The natives showed us unusual kindness. Since it had begun to rain and was cold, they kindled a fire and welcomed all of us around it. 3 Paul had gathered a bundle of brushwood and was putting it on the fire, when a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. 4 When the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “This man must be a murderer; though he has escaped from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live.” 5 He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. 6 They were expecting him to swell up or drop dead, but after they had waited a long time and saw that nothing unusual had happened to him, they changed their minds and began to say that he was a god.
Richard comments: "Even in Acts, we get an idea of just how gullible people could be. Surviving a snake bite was evidently enough for the inhabitants of Malta to believe that Paul himself was a god…"
A couple of observations about the passage:
This is not a case of fabricating a miracle story at all--its only about
their interpretation of 'extraordinary evidence'. All
their past experience led them to believe that Paul should have suffered and/or
died, and when their cumulative experience of natural law was extraordinarily
violated--not just 'surviving a snake bite' but showing NO
EFFECTS of a fatally poisonous snakebite whatsoever!--it was perfectly reasonable
from them to come up with some extra-ordinary explanation.
call Paul a G-R 'god' wasn’t really saying much in those days--the concept was
so watered down that it could be 'voted upon' any rich donor to a city (see the
discussion in mq2.html).
3. The interesting thing is that they seemed genuinely surprised at the outcome. They were NOT, therefore, accustomed to seeing or believing miracles stories at all. This was not in any sense 'gullibility' at believing a 'tall tale' told to them (a la Reception). Their interpretation of the miracle might be faulty, but their belief in the experienced miracle was not 'gullible' in the least.
The text of Acts 14.8ff:
In Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet and had never walked, for he had been crippled from birth. 9 He listened to Paul as he was speaking. And Paul, looking at him intently and seeing that he had faith to be healed, 10 said in a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” And the man sprang up and began to walk. 11 When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” 12 Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. 13 The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates; he and the crowds wanted to offer sacrifice. 14 When the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting, 15 “Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. 16 In past generations he allowed all the nations to follow their own ways; 17 yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good—giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy.” 18 Even with these words, they scarcely restrained the crowds from offering sacrifice to them.
Richard comments: "And Paul and his comrade Barnabas had to go to some lengths to convince the Lycaonians of Lystra that they were not deities -- for the locals immediately sought to sacrifice to them as manifestations of Hermes and Zeus, simply because a man with bad feet stood up (14:8-18). These stories show how ready people were to believe that gods can take on human form and walk among them, and that a simple show was sufficient to convince them that mere men were such divine beings. And this evidence is in the bible itself."
observations about this passage:
This is not about somebody simply with 'bad feet' (!), but someone
either with a congenital birth defect or having experienced an accident in
infancy (cf. Mephibosheth in the OT). This is an instantaneous healing, which
was rightly interpreted as 'extraordinary evidence'. They were amazed to the
point of having to interpret such an extraordinary experience.
2. And, again, the "error" is in the interpretation of the miracle, not in the admission of its reality. It is entirely reasonable to use para-normal, supra-normal categories to attempt to describe this.
But this narrative data doesn’t really support or undermine Richard's thesis--its just irrelevant to his point. But the literary data in the these passages actually carries some 'bad news' for Richard's thesis. Compare the comments of commentators on these:
· "It is not difficult to detect Luke's quiet humor in his account of their [Acts 28] sudden change of mind. We may compare and contrast his description of the change of mind among the native populace of Lystra, who first greeted Paul and Barnabas as gods, and then stoned Paul nearly to death (14:11-19). Luke probably implies that only uncultured people like the Lystrans and the Maltese---"barbarians", as he calls them--would think of Paul as a divine being." (Bruce, Acts, NICNT)
· "Whenever similar stories were told, those who survived bites from poisonous snakes or lizards were considered holy men (e.g., the pious Jewish holy man Hanina ben Dosa); Greco-Roman paganism often considered such holy men to be divine or semidivine. The change of mind on the part of Paul’s viewers could strike the ancient reader as humorous, as in some similar accounts in antiquity where a human was mistaken for a particular divinity." [BBC, at Acts 28] and "Like most early Jewish and Christian writers (cf. also Is 46:5–7), Luke is not above making fun of paganism’s stupidity." [BBC, at Acts 14]
· "The reactions of the local people reflect superstitions of the day, and are treated by Luke with an ironic humor." [Hemer, [NT:BASHH:153]]
Interesting…Luke here is actually 'making fun of' their 'interpretive credulity'! It seems that Luke may be agreeing to a certain extent with Richard, about the pagan response to miracle.
But this creates a rather serious problem for Richard's position--for Luke is a Christian writer, and even a writer of one of the Gospels (with the miracle narratives about Jesus). This would mean that Luke has a self-conscious distance between his 'belief' and the 'credulity' of the pagan-world-at-large (as described by Richard). Luke is accordingly 'sensitive to' the issue of gullibility, and indeed, is positioned against it (as being in itself 'ludicrous'). This is a major argument against Richard's identification of Christian acceptance of miracle with Pagan credulity/gullibility. In fact, since Luke wrote a gospel, this also strikes a major blow against the position that the gospels are 'entirely the same stuff' as the pagan miracle stories.
But there's more…This literary observation can now be extended to Luke's readership, for (as BBC noted above) his ancient readers would have found the pagan response similarly comical. How would Luke know that his readership would find these ascriptions of divinity as comical as he did? By his knowledge of literary educational praxis…
We have noticed several times earlier in this series that G-R education (above basic reading skills) involved 'debunking' of G-R myth. The students would practice 'debunking opposing legal counsel' by working over and discrediting stories told in G-R myth. Anyone who could write above 'merchant level' (and many/most who wrote only at that level) would have had practice in 'skeptical' thinking, and almost anyone who could read (above that level) would have too. Luke could, therefore, presume upon his readership the knowledge that such 'credulity' was laughable.
But notice that Luke does not portray the miracle itself as ludicrous, but rather as something 'matter of fact'. Paul shakes the snake off and gets back to work building the fire--there is no 'speech' or 'oracle' or 'divine manifestation' at the time. There are no amulets or magical rites. It was just a protective act of Paul's God, with no fanfare or spectacular adornment. Luke does the same at 14.8--the miracle event is rather straightforward, without omens, portents, thunder and lightening, incantations, sacrifices, etc…just a matter-of-fact act of God in helping someone…And Paul himself does the de-bunking for the populace, explaining to them that although something extraordinary did happen among them, their elaborate mythological interpretation of it was simply wrong.
There are miraculous elements throughout Acts, of course, but none of these have the 'trappings' of G-R myth, which would have tipped the reader off that debunking and discounting were necessary.
So, oddly enough, these first two examples actually do not provide any support for Richard's thesis of "universal gullibility" (since the people in the stories were not recipients of miracle stories), and indeed provide evidence against his assumption that Christian praxis was no different from pagan (at least at the time/level of NT authorship, I might add). We have positive literary data that suggests that (some) Christian authors were sensitive to and opposed to pagan credulity (at least at the interpretive step).
We will come back to this issue later, too…
· Some of the messianic claimants discussed in Josephus (i.e., The Egyptian, Jonathan the Sicarius, Theudas)
The main problem with this data is chronological--they are all after the NT gospel traditions are 'established'. As we discussed in mq7.html, these figures are too late to the party…
When we discussed several of the alleged parallels to Jesus, we noted that the period immediately before Jesus was a devoid of any major or patterned miracle claims. None of the Messianic claimants of the pre-Jesus period made claims to miracles. There are no literary 'heroes' of the immediate period doing wonderful works. All the supernatural events of the period are basically oracular/prophetic. We noted that Theissen had called this one of the most skeptical periods in Ancient History.
However, as soon as the gospel stories of Jesus get circulated--then miracles by others start popping up all over! Apollonius gets 'rehabilitated' as a wonderworker (although it doesn’t actually look like it was intended to be a factual account--see mq5.html). And these Jewish messianic claimants all start offering 'a sign' as proof of their messianic status…
These post-Jesus messianic claimants are pre-Destruction (70ad) and therefore are of the generation that witnessed Jesus' many miracles. Why wouldn't they be open to the miraculous after that Larger-than-Life Love? As we noted earlier, there is a high probability (argued by Theissen and others) that the miracle stories of Jesus--widely and early circulated and argued by Christians with pagans--created a 'miraculous expectation' that led to an increase in 'actual credulity' of Late Antiquity.
We should also note the 'scale' of this phenomenon, relative to population size--to see to what extent it might be reflective of 'virtually everyone' (smile)…
If we use Gray's list of Messianic figures in Josephus which offered some kind of sign (not all did, and none of the pre-Jesus ones did, as noted above), we can get a quick overview [HI:PFLST, chapter 4]:
Type of figure
# of Followers
Type of sign
Small (overcome easily by 500 cavalry)
Promise of parting the Jordan
We don't know which direction he approached the Jordan from, so we don’t really know where the followers were from
The Egyptian (Jew)
Prophet (like Joshua)
Palestine, "countryside" and around Jerusalem
War: 30,000, most killed or taken prisoner;
Antiq: "masses", but only 600 killed or taken prisoner;
[Acts 21.38: 4,000]
Promised the walls of Jerusalem would fall down at his command
(but I wonder if this is figurative, since War said he intended to 'break through by force'?)
Contradictions in the accounts (source, size of following)
Unnamed figures under Felix
Less than the Egyptian
'signs of (political) freedom'
Unnamed prophet of 70 CE
Jerusalem-only (during the battle!)
6000 women and children (the men were fighting in the battle)
Promised delivery from the Romans that day
Not sure how much 'conviction' versus 'desperation' was involved here--taking refuge in the Temple, during the middle of the battle, may have been the ONLY 'reasonable' thing to do!
Jonathan the Sicarius
In the 70's, after the Destruction
Signs and apparitions
Cyrene was the Roman Capital of the province there. Very large city--220k were said to have been killed in the Jewish uprising in 115AD, implying a population much, much larger.
Unnamed figure under Festus
'salvation and rest from troubles'
(not enough data to study, but the description 'looks like' a sign-prophet
Now, given that the Jewish*.* population of Syria-Palestine at this time is somewhere in the 1-2M range, even the huge number for the Egyptian (30k) represents only 1.5-3.0 % …and if the number is actually closer to the number in acts (i.e., 4k), it doesn't even register…The Cyrene case is down in the sub-one percentage category also…
I really don’t feel comfortable at all extrapolating from these tiny numbers to something like 'virtually everyone'. I can find greater percentages than these in every modern society of the world. [The recent (2002) legal action in the USA against the psychic hotline of Miss Cleo involved 6 million callers, out of an adult population base around 200m--3%.] These ancient examples simply cannot be used to support the quantitative-aspect claims of Richard's position.
(I personally tend to discount the qualitative aspect as well, since I do not believe that 'acts of desperation' are in any way representative of 'acts of conviction'…The modern medical practitioner, whose daughter develops a disease not treatable by 'scientific' medicine, and who in desperation turns to 'alternative' solutions, does not do so because he has become convinced the cure will work, but does so in desperation--in grasping at straws however flimsy…it would be a misnomer to call this 'faith'…and many of the cases above--in the years before the Destruction (especially during the very battle!) , may well be such 'non-faith' acts of despair… more on this later…)
We should also note that 'hopefulness' is not the same as 'credulity'. These Sign Prophets are not said to have actually performed any signs, but only to have promised them--compare Meier's comment:
"It cannot be stressed too much that when Josephus polemicizes against "false prophets" and "charlatans" like Theudas (Ant. 20.5.1 §97-98) or the unnamed Egyptian (Ant. 20.8.6 § 160-70; cf. J. W. 2.13.5 §261-62), he presents them as promising the people signs of deliverance. Shortly before the final storming of Jerusalem a "false prophet" promises "signs of deliverance" and persuades many desperate Jews to flee to the temple (J. W. 6.5.2 §285). Josephus likewise speaks in more general terms of "deceivers," who enticed people into rebellion by promising them that if they followed them into the wilderness, there God would show them "the signs of deliverance" (J W. 2.13.4 §259; cf. Ant. 20.8.6 §167-68). In A.D. 73 a weaver called Jonathan persuaded the Jews of Cyrene to follow him into the wilderness, so that there he could show them "signs and apparitions" (J.W. 7.9.1 §437-42). All of these popular leaders, whatever their precise agenda, are sometimes referred to by scholars as "sign prophets." In one sense that is correct, since they all promise "signs" or the equivalent thereof. But the phrase "sign prophets" can easily lead the unwary reader astray. Josephus never says that any of these "deceivers" actually performed miracles. Strictly speaking, they do not belong under the rubric of "miracle-worker...Thus, Jesus of Nazareth stands out as a relative exception in The Antiquities in that he is a named figure in 1st-century Jewish Palestine to whom Josephus is willing to attribute a number of miraculous deeds (Ant. 18.3.3 §63). " [MJ:2:592]
So at least this data deals with post-Jesus 'credulity' at best, and certainly doesn't support Richard's claims to ubiquity.
· Simon Magus in Acts 8.9-11
Acts 8 reads as follows (NRSV):
Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word. 5 Philip went down to the ("a") city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. 6 The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did, 7 for unclean spirits, crying with loud shrieks, came out of many who were possessed; and many others who were paralyzed or lame were cured. 8 So there was great joy in that city. 9 Now a certain man named Simon had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he was someone great. 10 All of them, from the least to the greatest, listened to him eagerly, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.” 11 And they listened eagerly to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. 12 But when they believed Philip, who was proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. 13 Even Simon himself believed. After being baptized, he stayed constantly with Philip and was amazed when he saw the signs and great miracles that took place.
We don’t know where this 'city' is, but we know where it is NOT. It is not
the capital Sebaste, since that is a Greek city (not Samaritan), and it is not
Neapolis (built near their holy site Mt. Gerizim) which wasn’t founded until 72
ad. It MIGHT be Sychar (of John 4 fame), but we don’t know, and the encounter
in John 4 didn’t manifest any 'magical tendencies' in that part of Samaria
(suggesting that our case here is not necessarily representative of 'all
Samaritans' by any means). In any event, there are no 'large cities left' after
these two--in Samaria, and so the 'population base' for this incident is very,
Whatever he did to 'amaze' the populace was obviously dwarfed by
the healing and exorcisms done by Philip. This introduces an interesting
dimension to this story. If Simon is impressed
by the relative difference between the miracles of Philip and his own
(low-grade versus high-grade miracles), then the people of this city have
been 'amazed' at low-grade miracles. BUT THIS MEANS that they were
obviously not 'anesthetized by familiarity' to low-grade miracles. In other words,
low-grade miracles were rare enough in their experience to bear evidential force.
This needs to be seen clearly. If the world of the time was literally filled
with (a) events seen as miracles; and (b) claims about miracles being believed
wholesale; then the low-grade miracles of Simon should have been very un-amazing…This
argues the opposite of Richard's position here, obviously.
3. Notice that it never actually says that Simon did anything miraculous. It only says that they were "amazed" at him, because of his magic practice. If you remember from our discussion of magic in mq6.html: "Of the 540-odd tablets listed in the Greek Magical Papyri ([NT:GMPIT]), a mere 68 (12.6%) of them have any relationship to healing-type miracles. And of these 68, a full 40 deal with headache, fever, stings and bites, coughs, and eye problems. Most spells are largely of the 'attack/counter-attack/preclude attack' types (apart from the 'coerced love' spells, of course)." I should point out that 'amazement' can be generated as easily by showmanship as by results--as the clever architectural designs of some of the Mithraic worship-centers [HI:PTRE:126] (and even Medieval church buildings) illustrate.
At any rate, the data is once again unsupportive of massive gullibility, and indeed suggests that miracle claims were not even remotely 'a dime a dozen' in this period.
· The speaking of the statue of Tyche--Plutarch.
Richard makes a factual error in introducing this case, with his "Miracles were also a dime a dozen in this era." We noted at the beginning of this article (and the reader is encouraged to also see the historical data in mq6.html) that miracle claims were exceptionally rare in this period (with the major exception of divination--only partially miraculous, and not on a par with the kinds of miracles under discussion). This is a serious weakness in Richard's position, unfortunately, since his position would predict quite the opposite. We should see reams and reams of literature debunking (or endorsing) these paranormal events --but we don’t until after Jesus' miracles are widely known. We do get the occasional treatise against magical medicine (a la Galen and Pliny), but nothing against really 'big' miracle claims. And, needless to say, Richard cannot argue from this single example of Plutarch to some kind of 'dime a dozen' scope of conclusion!…But on to Plutarch…
Unfortunately, Plutarch is another bad example. Not only is he post-Jesus (writing after 96AD), but he is also part of the 'growing credulity' trend. [One of our opening quotes pointed this out, although the quote mentioned that it was somewhat restrained in his writings.]. In fact, in this passage, after explaining that many non-verbal 'signs' can be given by gods through statues, Plutarch goes on to argue that God could still communicate supra-sensually (miraculously) to communicate messages to the faithful, and he never actually "explains away" the speaking statue (contra the implication of Richard), but refers it to the direct action of a god upon the mind of the faithful. Look at the text:
"The senate, much commending their public spirit, caused the temple to be built and a statue set up in it at the public charge; they, however, made up a sum among themselves for a second image of Fortune, which the Romans say uttered, as it was putting up, words to this effect, "Blessed of the gods, O women, is your gift."
"These words, they profess, were repeated a second time, expecting our belief of what seems pretty nearly an impossibility. It may be possible enough that statues may seem to sweat, and to run with tears, and to stand with certain dewy drops of a sanguine colour; for timber and stones are frequently known to contract a kind of scurf and rottenness, productive of moisture; and various tints may form on the surfaces, both from within and from the action of the air outside; and by these signs it is not absurd to imagine that the deity may forewarn us. It may happen, also, that images and statues may sometimes make a noise not unlike that of a moan or groan, through a rupture or violent internal separation of the parts; but that an articulate voice, and such express words, and language so clear and exact and elaborate, should proceed from inanimate things is, in my judgment, a thing utterly out of possibility. For it was never known that either the soul of man, or the deity himself, uttered vocal sounds and language, alone, without an organized body and members fitted for speech. But where history seems in a manner to force our assent by the concurrence of numerous and credible witnesses, we are to conclude that an impression distinct from sensation affects the imaginative part of our nature, and then carries away the judgment, so as to believe it to be a sensation; just as in sleep we fancy we see and hear, without really doing either. Persons, however, whose strong feelings of reverence to the deity, and tenderness for religion, will not allow them to deny or invalidate anything of this kind, have certainly a strong argument for their faith, in the wonderful and transcendent character of the divine power; which admits no manner of comparison with ours, either in its nature or its action, the modes or the strength of its operations. It is no contradiction to reason that it should do things that we cannot do, and effect what for us is impracticable: differing from us in all respects, in its acts yet more than in other points we may well believe it to be unlike us and remote from us. Knowledge of divine things for the most part, as Heraclitus says, is lost to us by incredulity."
Regardless of the understanding of this passage, though, there is no way to extrapolate from this to some 'dime a dozen' hypothesis, since Plutarch does not indicate in any way how widespread the 'speaking statue' incident reports are, nor does his argumentation in the passage require it to be large at all. In other words, a single notable example would be adequate cause for such a passage--there is no way of knowing whether he is responding to a claim of extraordinary quality or a claim representative of extraordinary quantity. Richard will need to look elsewhere to back up his claim.
· Vespasian's healing (from Suetonius/Tacitus)
We have already discussed this case in mq2.html, along with the general theme of 'divine leaders'. Even if it were "true", it was so unique of a situation that it could hardly be used to support a "Miraculous healings were also commonplace" conclusion.
· Statues at which healing occurred (Lucian, Pausanias…Athenagoras)
Now, when we come to the healing statues, Richard is certainly on better 'quantitative' grounds. We do have mentions of shrines and temples and statues at which healing was supposed to have occurred. MacMullen can say:
"Those particular shrines (Asclepieia) were very numerous and, if all other places of resort for healing were counted in as well, drew to themselves more supplicants than any competing category of belief. What could be found there? Dreams and health. The chief business of religion, it might then be said, was to make the sick well." [HI:PTRE:49]
But we now have the problem of the qualitative aspect--did those who sought healing at a statue or shrine really 'believe' anything? Remember, "credulity" is about "belief"--not 'experimental behavior'. We noted in mq6.html that a healing transaction was a 'quid pro quo' transaction (Kee's phrase), and that the sick would try one deity, then another, then another (i.e., Aelius Aristides) --until they got results, ran out of resources, gave up, or perished. There was generally no 'belief' required, and no post-healing 'commitment'. MacMullen can express this, and still hold up cases of 'sincerity':
"More proof of this sincerity (of prayers to deities) appears in plague times, when city senates tried to enlist the direct help, or at least the advice, of some god in their salvation. Again, we ourselves may be skeptical. In desperation, any measure might be tried, however little credited. Yet some of our inscriptions, to say nothing of Aristides' report on his private efforts, declare after the event that salvation (healing) had been really won by prayer: plagues or earthquakes had been ended, unspecified benefits bestowed, the Goths scatter. That partnership, mutually respectful, between the powers above and the leadership below, was seen actually to work." [HI:PTRE:59]
But the examples of 'sincerity' he gives are almost without exception post-NT…
The data about religious commitment in paganism of the period is just too contradictory to assume that belief was a core element. For example:
"…the same ardent Romans who burnt the 'atheist' Justin should, in Juvenal's day, have laughed at anyone professing faith in an altar or temple." [HI:PTRE:62]
The inscriptions describing the healing were written by the paid priests in the temple, who also published the various stellae and inscriptions proclaiming the wonders of their patron deity. However, it did not involve belief (as would be assumed under the topic of 'credulity'):
"But such activity (stellae) represented no system of beliefs; it sought to change no one's life; and it quite took for granted, and assumed that listeners likewise took for granted, the true divinity of the god advertised. It focused rather on the attractions to be had at the shrine: healing, foreknowledge, or a feast." [HI:PTRE:98]
In the cases mentioned by Richard, we do not have any indication of how many healing stories were 'recorded' there, but unless they were significantly more successful than Asclepius (below), there could not have been many.
But the reference to Athenagorus is really interesting, for here again we have a Christian discounting credulity! One can see it in the word choices in the passage:
"The one has statues of Neryllinus, a man of our own times; and Parium of Alexander and Proteus: both the sepulchre and the statue of Alexander are still in the forum. The other statues of Neryllinus, then, are a public ornament, if indeed a city can be adorned by such objects as these; but one of them is supposed to utter oracles and to heal the sick, and on this account the people of the Troad offer sacrifices to this statue, and overlay it with gold, and hang chaplets upon it. But of the statues of Alexander and Proteus (the latter, you are aware, threw himself into the fire near Olympia), that of Proteus is likewise said to utter oracles; and to that of Alexander…sacrifices are offered and festivals are held at the public cost, as to a god who can hear. Is it, then, Neryllinus, and Proteus, and Alexander who exert these energies in connection with the statues, or is it the nature of the matter itself? But the matter is brass. And what can brass do of itself, which may be made again into a different form, as Amasis treated the footpan, as told by Herodotus? And Neryllinus, and Proteus, and Alexander, what good are they to the sick? For what the image is said now to effect, it effected when Neryllinus was alive and sick."
This, again, suggests that whatever level of gullibility we assign to the pagan world on the basis of Richard's data, that level does NOT apply to the Christian group. And accordingly, no discounting of reliability of the Christian testimony is warranted on the basis of Richard's data (even if taken at face value).
MacMullen offers interesting confirmation of this. He has this passage in [CRE:8]:
"What is likely first to attract notice are the blunt words of contempt and disapproval with which the lettered aristocracy, in talking about religious views, belabor the simple, unthinking, ordinary folk, the unlearned."
But when he footnotes this 'disapproval of common credulity', his ancient sources are Tertullian, Ireneaus, Minicus Felix, Lucian, Athenagorus, Eusebius, and Porphyry. More than half of these are Christian…
Asclepius is called the 'above all' by Richard, and used to support his argument that healing tales were 'not remarkable at all'.
Now, I have discussed Asclepius at length in mq6.html, but let me point out how 'small' the scope is even here:
"The Epidaurian Temple Record is a list of cures, and of miracles going further than cures, which took place there…Most of the recorded cures are no more than cures, which might be put down to natural causes, or to skilful treatment by the priest. Others, such as the disappearance of the spear-point and the transfer of Pandarus's mark, at least seem miraculous, and the latter has a moral as well. The record shows that the miracles were few, and even the simple cures were not numerous. There were enough to sustain hope and faith, and to attract funds for maintenance. But obviously, if the priest had been able to improve Asclepius's score themselves, or even pretend to have done so in the past, the number claimed would have been greater. It was clearly understood--too clearly to leave room for major deception--that beyond a certain point, human agency had no power in the matter. If Asclepius chose to work a miracle, then he would, but it was the god's doing and he did not often choose." [Miracles, Geoffrey Ashe, RoutledgeKeganPaul:1978, p.18,19]
I might also make a comment about the 'more reliable evidence than anything we have for the miracles of Jesus' remark: it's just not true (smile). From a historiography standpoint, multiple textual witnesses (especially non-collusive ones), of much longer length than epigraphic mini-texts, without clearly defined literary exemplars and social 'pressures' (i.e., temples had 'template' documents and expectations--like many modern day 'healing' events), and written/transmitted by a original checks-and-balances group (as opposed to a 'testimony' written by a priest after the cured had left…e.g., we KNOW of forged testimonies in such temples) is a much more reliable base to work from…
So, at the end of the minor evidence section, we don't really have any scope-data: we cannot tell how pervasive these beliefs are, nor can we be very sure they really ARE 'beliefs', nor do most/many of them even fall into the pre-NT-writing period. At best, they witness to a pan-cultural belief in the supernatural, and some of the data (e.g. Acts/Luke, Athenagorus) actually differentiates the credulity of the lower-level pagans from the Christian position anyway…This data would actually support the view that the NT authors did not 'follow cunningly devised fables' in the writing of the canonical NT documents.
On to the Major evidence…
In this section, Richard describes certain aspects of the traditions about Apollonius, Peregrinus, and Alexander. This piece is dated in 1997, and I strongly suspect that Richard would have written this differently had it been more recent.
Several observations are in order about this material:
"A more difficult question than the dating is that of Peregrinus' history and personality. For most of his career the only witness is Lucian, who is obviously not concerned to give a sober account." (p.120)
"Though evidence from elsewhere can be used to correct, confirm or supplement Lucian, particularly in what he says of Glycon, for an account of Alexander's career he is the inescapable, if heavily biased, source." (p.134)
"The belief in curative statues flourished as vigorously in the second century as the belief in magic." (Jones, p.49)
"It was in this period that Platonists and Pythagoreans began to import into philosophy the demonology and the oriental lore that were so strongly to color later Greek thought." (Jones, p.51)
"Another Platonist of the same epoch is Apuleius of Madaura, who was accused of using the black arts himself, and whose Metamorphoses contain incidents of magic and the supernatural that often recall Lucian. Apuleius leaves his reader uncertain whether to understand his story as fantasy or autobiography, and it is likely that other philosophers were similarly evasive." (Jones, p.51)
"Just as Lucian's ostensible date has been suspected [On Writing History], so also have his depictions of contemporary historians, the accusation being that their errors or absurdities are so gross that they seem more like caricatures than real people. Lucian claims to take his examples from recitations which he had attended personally and solemnly assures the reader of his veracity. But though he avoids invention, he is free to choose the most grotesque targets that he could find, while modern readers are used to works that have survived the sifting of ancient and medieval critics. In some instances, moreover, history helps to verify his claim to truth [about his grotesque targets]." (Jones, p.60f)
"Many of these charges [in Mistaken Critic] are familiar, and Lucian may not have intended them all to be believed. " (p.111)
"The statue there was believed to give oracles and to heal the sick, and this confirms another of Lucian's predictions: that Peregrinus would be supposed to cure his devotees of quartan fever . All this is well within the bounds of ordinary belief. Statues were thought to be invested with all kinds of numinous power, but particularly with the cure of fevers, a belief mocked by Lucian elsewhere ." (Jones, p.130)
"Peregrinus and his followers seem to have been far less successful than other religious innovators like Alexander, and though his memory lived on for centuries the cult is only mentioned within a few years of his death. This hybrid of Cynicism and popular religions was perhaps too monstrous to survive." (Jones, p.130)
"The connection with Apollonios and with Pythagoreanism brought Alexander's oracle directly into the philosophic debates of the day, in which the reputations of Apollonios and Pythagoras, and the reliability or oracles, were hotly contested, and Lucian's essay can be understood partly as a volley in such an intellectual battle." (Jones, p.135)
"The question whether Alexander was "really" fraudulent or sincere is unanswerable, and perhaps beside the point . Nature had given him charismatic qualities and set him in an age thirsting for oracles and cures. But it was also an age of intense controversy, which could produce a Lucian no less than an Alexander. It is clear that Lucian's pamphlet would have been seen as an example of a familiar type, the literature of exposure." (Jones, p.148; note, 'intense controversy' not 'intense credulity')
Let's summarize some of these points about Richard's article (and the implications of the data we have found):
Overall, what this means is that the conclusion in the article is unwarranted. The data briefly given by Richard does NOT warrant some mass-suggestibility attribution to the pre-Jesus world at large, and indeed, offers a good deal of support against such a view. (We will come back to some of these themes as we get into the next section of this article.)
C. Methodological issues involved in assessing ancient gullibility
One. One of the first problems concerns the target group. We have noted that pagan and Christian writers BOTH accused the common folk of 'rampant credulity'--at least in the post Jesus period--but is this "common folk" the relevant group for our question? Since Richard (for example) and our own series here is focused on the New Testament authors, originators, and leaders, gullibility of other groups not represented by the NT authors is completely irrelevant to the issue.
For example, to argue from the gullibility of children to the gullibility of university professors is absurd. To argue from the supposed gullibility of a majority of an uneducated, illiterate group to the supposed gullibility of an educated, literary group (and even a group that differentiates itself explicitly from these 'hoi polloi'!) is equally mistaken.
So, our real task should be to identify the salient 'gullibility indications' of the social group in which the NT authors (and/or Jesus tradition transmitters) were situated. All discussion of the credulity of other groups is irrelevant to our question. [It is of great significance, though, to discussions of the growth and profile of the post-NT church, but this is not our question here.]
Two. We have a challenge in even defining 'gullibility', 'credulity', and 'suggestibility' in these contexts.
Consider some of the problems in interpreting evidence as evidence of 'belief', 'credulity', and 'other':
2.1 Many actions might be indicative of something other than belief:
Belief versus amazement. I personally can be 'amazed' and 'mystified' at the feats of skilled performing magicians today, but this doesn't mean I believe the supernatural had anything to do with it. In the ancient world, this phenomena is visible in 'simple flash sorcery' and in the built-for-awe-effects of Mithraic temples and grottos.
Belief versus desperation. We noticed this might have been the case in the ancient healing-seekers frequently, and certainly shows up in today's alternative medicine praxis.
Belief versus hopefulness. This was likely present in some of the messianic movements (Jewish and non-Jewish). Some would have followed the messiahs into the wilderness (or into battle, in non-Jewish movements) without actually believing in the 'miraculous promise' of the founder. Just because they agreed with the figure enough to follow/support/endorse them, does not necessarily entail a belief in ALL their claims. No doubt some of them planned to 'return to real life' if the promised sign did not actually materialize…"Calculated belief…"?
Belief versus 'hedging bets'. Many of the Roman elite were accorded priesthoods in some local religion, and often these individuals would also adopt additional priesthood 'status' with other deities. Although much of this would be ceremonial and titular only (and not representative of belief structures), in some cases it might easily fall into the category of 'hedging bets'--adopting more than one patron deity, 'just in case' one or more of the deities were inadequate for some given task or need.
Belief versus social praxis. The social world of the populace at large revolved around the religious festivals and events. These constituted the 'cultural calendar' and everybody participated in them--whether they believed in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny or not…Festivals were simply 'there' and what religion might be associated with that celebration at any given moment was almost immaterial to the popular practice. So, when Christianity came to power and had to 'convert' the entire culture (!), the festivals were sometimes simply 'renamed' and the statues 'renamed' and all went on as it had before…There was no real 'belief' attached to these by the populace necessarily.
Belief versus asserting psychological control. In the case of magic, this is a very real issue, for the modern understanding of magic ritual now includes the socio-psychological effects of 'sense of control'. Consider two statements by scholars in the field:
"Did They Work? Until recently, the very idea of asking such a question would have seemed absurd. Of course this stuff doesn't work! Indeed, from the time of Sir James Frazer to the present, the ruling assumption has been that spells, charms, and amulets cannot work--by definition. Once again, the initial assumption sets the agenda for the ensuing discussion and interpretation: because the beliefs are assumed to be false and because the practices are taken to be ineffective, how are we to explain the persistent irrationality of those who pursued them through so many centuries…What would happen, however, if we changed our initial assumption and began with the idea that these beliefs and practices must have worked in some sense; if we indicated that we can no longer accept the notion that those who hold to them are irrational; and if we recovered our sense of poetic language and expressive ritual as fundamental constituents of all human experience? … Roger Tomlin's introduction to the Bath tablets may be taken as a measure of a new climate regarding the treatment of the effectiveness of ancient spells and curses. "Did the Bath tablets work?" he asks. And answers, "the practice of inscribing them for two centuries ... implies that they did work. Or rather that they were believed to work; and perhaps, that this belief was justified."' Of course, we need not assume that they worked in the same way that the participants themselves believed. But neither are we justified in imposing simplistic or literalistic preconceptions on these participants and their beliefs. Tomlin offers several useful insights as to how the tablets might have worked. The process "removed intolerable tensions." It "allowed a transfer of emotion." More pragmatically, he continues, "to inscribe a curse tablet and throw it into the sacred pool relieved the injured party's feelings; something at least had been done." [HI:CTBSAW:22f]
"Despite all these changes, there has always been an unbroken tradition of magic. Why is magic so irrepressible and ineradicable, if it is also true that its claims and promises never come true? Or do they? Do people never check up on the efficiency of magicians?…The answer appears to be that, in general, people are not interested in whether or not magicians' promises come true. People want to believe, so they simply ignore their suspicions that magic may all be deception and fraud. The enormous role deception plays in human life and society is well known to us." In many crucial areas and in many critical situations of life, deception is the only method that really works. As the Roman aphorism sums It up, "Mundus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur" ("The world wishes to be deceived, and so it may be deceived"). To an immeasurable extent, people's lives carry on by what they decide they want to believe rather than by what they should believe or even know, by what appears to be real rather than by what is really real, by props and by fads, and by gobbledygook of this kind today and that kind tomorrow…Magicians are those who have long ago explored these dimensions of the human mind. Rather than decrying the facts, they have exploited them. Magicians have known all along that people's religious need and expectations provide the greatest opportunity for the most effective of all deceptions. But instead of turning against religion, as the skeptics among the Greek and Roman philosophers did, the magicians made use of it. After all, magic is nothing but the art of making people believe that something is being done about those things in life about which we all know that we ourselves can do nothing…Magic is the art that makes people who practice it feel better rather than worse, that provides the illusion of security to the insecure, the feeling of help to the helpless, and the comfort of hope to the hopeless…Of course, it is all deception. But who can endure naked reality, especially when there is a way to avoid it? This is why magic has worked and continues to work, no matter what the evidence may be. Those whose lives depend on deception and delusion and those who provide them have formed a truly indissoluble symbiosis. Magic makes an unmanageable life manageable for those who believe in it, and a profession profitable for those who practice the art." [NT:GMPIT:xlviii]
What this means is that many 'believers of magic' may have been 'deliberately credulous' instead of merely 'credulously credulous' (smile). If I deceive myself into believing a 'juicy rationalization' to get through the week, is that the same thing as when someone truly convinces me that these "fat-coating" diet pills will truly remove the fat from the double-cheeseburger I just ate? The mere fact that I "know better" but avoid the truth is a completely different case that when I do not "know better". How much of ancient magic was the latter and how much the former is indeterminable from our sources. [Others point out that magic was attractive to the non-elites because it was illicit--it was a form of taking action without being dependent on the state or elite-sanctioned 'methods'.] This point might indeed render most/all magic to be cases of 'non-credulity' (as in 'the suspension of true belief'), and therefore outside of our question.
2.2 We might also differentiate between belief in a given supernatural event and belief in supernatural realities.
Plutarch, for example, illustrates that one can be skeptical about 'odd events' and yet still believe in gods and supernatural intervention (e.g., through impressions formed on the minds of devotees). And many of the ancient skeptics will show the same 'range of belief', more or less.
In modern settings, one might note that many western medical practitioners are Theists, but also that they tend to 'suspect' claims of miraculous intervention in practice. Similarly, we might note the growing 'openness' by field anthropologists toward the spiritual 'worlds' of their subjects (discussed in eyesopen.html).
2.3 There is a huge difference between belief (as an attitude) and belief (as internalized, behavioral goals).
In the recent research on automaticity, I noted that the difference between a 'professor' and a 'possessor' of a deep-belief could be detected/revealed via psychological testing. Gollwitzer, for example, differentiated between egalitarian 'attitude-espousers' and those with 'chronic egalitarian goals' by the absence or presence of post-inconsistency 'over-correction'. When a goal-holder ('true believer') was forced/manipulated into violating that belief, subsequent 'trials' resulted in over-correction. When a 'weak professor' was forced/manipulated into violating that belief, subsequent 'trials' show no evidence of 'over-correction'.
This might apply in our case to those under pressure to adopt or abandon a true-belief. How many succumbed to the pressure to 'convert' and then later overcorrected, for example?
2.4 There is clearly a distinction between belief in miracles and belief in the absurd (in our period).
We have noted earlier that the educational process of the period facilitated 'rejection' of the absurd, and we also noted that the presence of the literary genre of paradoxography (as the tabloids of the past) revealed that people 'enjoyed' the absurd, but didn’t take it too seriously…
2.5 We should also note the difference between unconsciously acquired beliefs and consciously adopted beliefs.
One of the functions of culture is to create a set of unconsciously-agreed-upon assumptions among residents. The belief system of a culture works on the basis of assumptions, not articulations.
"Once thoroughly embedded in a culture, belief systems tend for the most part to reside at the level of assumptions and presuppositions rather than at the level of constructed explanations. This is one of their most salient characteristics…Churches often illustrate this pattern. While theological experts may know the specific dogmas and doctrines that justify and validate rites, ceremonies, moral requirements, and ascetical practices, the laity in general can participate fully and meaningfully in the religion without being able to produce satisfactory explanations for many of their religions actions." [NS:ECA:1, p.125]
"Belief systems are rarely articulated systematically by the majority of informants because such systems thrive at the level of assumption." [NS:ECA:1, p.127]
Examples of 'unexamined assumptions' in the Western worldview can be readily adduced:
"Underlying every culture are basic assumptions about the nature of things. Someone who questions worldview assumptions is seen, not as wrong, but as foolish. For example, in the West if we were to argue that freedom is not inherently good for a society, people would not take us seriously. These assumptions are the lenses through which we view the world. " [WR:ARMI:218]
"Repugnance divulges the violation of a somatic taboo or the desecration of the sacred. An American, for instance, might not be able to explain why superfluous stray domestic cats are not fed to the poor in soup kitchens, but facial expressions at such a suggestion offer incontrovertible evidence that such a practice would be well beyond the pale." [NS:ECA:1,128]
Consciously-adopted beliefs, on the other hand, often/generally requires explicit argumentation and explanation. A 'change of belief system' often is simply the adoption of a 'conscious' belief--over the "top of" a set of assumptions--rather than the outcome of a 'duel' between rival, competing, explicit belief systems. Cognitive psychology often points out that it takes much more/better data to cause 'conversion' than to strengthen the existing belief structure. Corrigibility of belief is not 'natural'--it requires 'extraordinary' evidence (or at least strong 'other reasons'--needs for acceptance, self-credibility, etc.).
In other words, conversion from the "house religion" may not be conversion from a 'true belief system' at all. The abandoned belief might be a simple unconsciously-acquired one, and the new belief system be a consciously-adopted one.
If first-century pagans did some ritual due to the 'default' worldview, it would be methodologically tenuous to assume they believed anything--at the level we are speaking here in this discussion of 'credulity'.
2.6 We also have the problem of how seriously/literally magical language was meant to be taken? Since magical-talk is the closest thing we have to a candidate for 'ubiquity', how the curse-formulas were understood is a major issue. Did they really, really indicate a belief in magic by their users? Consider this point by Gager, and the telling anecdote at the end:
"But how are we to take these "wishes" [for death, sickness, etc] and who is the real audience of the invocations? Once again, the tendency among interpreters has been to read them literally. Here we might begin with our own forms of cursing. What do we mean when we blurt out, "Screw you!"? Is this an expression of our desire for sexual intercourse? When we hear teammates or sports fans shout, "Kill the bum!", do we load our rifles? Two considerations seem in order here. First, the audience may not be exclusively, or even primarily, "out there." As Tambiah, among others, has argued, spells are directed primarily to the human participants in all ritual action. Second, the function of verbal speech-forms represents a unique feature of human language, namely, its ability to communicate and give form to the expressive and metaphorical aspects of human experience. We take this treatment of language for granted when we read poetry or novels. Perhaps we should apply it to the language of spells and curses. One is reminded of an anecdote told by Mary Douglas: "Once when a band of !Xung Bushmen had performed their rain rituals, a small cloud appeared on the horizon, grew and darkened. Then rain fell. But the anthropologists who asked if the Bushmen reckoned the rite had produced the rain, were laughed out of court.... How naive can we get about the beliefs of others?'" [HI:CTBSAW:22]
2.7 If 2.6 was about the language of the users, this point is about the language of the abusers: it is difficult sometimes to determine if accusations of 'magic' are indeed accusations of 'sorcery-type' behavior. In some cases, it may simply be accusations of 'foreign wisdom' (unsanctioned by the elite).
Pagans, Jews, and post-NT Christians all accused one another of 'credulity' and 'superstition'. But it is not always clear how well-informed the ascriptions are. For example, Janowitz can point out that "Christian and Greco-Roman writers denounced as magic Jewish practices of fasting, food restrictions and Sabbath observance…Jews and Christians condemned 'pagan' rituals as magic." [HI:MRW:16f]. These would hardly fall into the category of 'miraculous events'! Accordingly, denunciations of some group as 'doing magical things' cannot be assumed to refer to the performance of NT-class miracles!
2.8 There also seems to be no inherent relationship between a general belief in paranormal realities and credulity toward individual testamentary claims. In other words, just because someone might believe in magic, is not in anyway correlated with their acceptance of magical claims by an alleged practitioner. They might believe in all types of supernatural entities yet not believe the claims of someone alleging to have seen/experienced such supernatural entities. Belief in a supernatural 'realm' does not imply credulity toward individual messages and/or messengers about that 'realm'.
This can be seen from field studies in anthropology. Evans-Pritchard, for example, studied the widespread belief in witchcraft among the Azande tribe. But he was surprised at the skepticism concerning individual 'supernatural claimants':
"I was surprised to find a considerable body of skeptical opinion in many departments of Zande culture, and especially in regard to their witch-doctors. Some men are less credulous than others and more critical in their acceptance of statements made by witch-doctors…Many people say that the great majority of witch-doctors are liars whose sole concern is to acquire wealth. I found that it was quite a normal belief among Azande that many of the practitioners are charlatans who make up any reply which they think will please their questioner, and whose sole inspiration is love of gain." [cited at [HI:MRE:17]]
This skepticism about specific claims, however, is not matched by a general skepticism about the phenomena:
"Evans-Pritchard, for instance, emphasized that although many Azande suspect individual witchdoctors of being frauds, there is no skepticism about witchdoctorhood in general: 'I particularly do not wish to give the impression that there is any one who disbelieves in witch-doctorhood. Most of my acquaintances believed that there are a few entirely reliable practitioners, but that the majority are quacks.' He observed that 'faith and skepticism are alike traditional. Skepticism explains failures of witch-doctors, and being directed towards particular witch-doctors even tends to support faith in others.'" [HI:MRE:18]
What this would suggest--especially given the context of a 'superstitious culture'--is that the gospel claims of miracles by Jesus would not have been believed simply because people had a general belief in the miraculous. [This, of course, would make Richard's argument irrelevant to the discussion--he could not successfully argue from 'general credulity' to 'specific credulity'.] Thus, acceptance of the gospel stories could not be 'passed off' as being due to some generalized 'credulity' about some supernatural worldview. The two items--(1) belief that miracles could occur and (2) the belief that the specific claims by the evangelists that Jesus performed miracles--cannot be assumed to be causally related.
And oddly, this might suggest the opposite/inverse relationship: the wider the belief in the paranormal, the more extensive the skepticism concerning individual paranormal claims. After all, all those among the Azande believed in witchcraft, and (hence?) there were many claimants, but "even these" pre-literates disbelieved the majority of the claimants.
Now, when we look at the data of the period through the lenses of the above, much of our 'miracle evidence' evaporates.
In 2.1, most of the 'data' for 'ubiquitous credulity' disappears at this step. The two main categories of 'odd-events' in our pre-NT period are magic and healings-at-shrines (Remember, exorcism was not a widespread/central pagan concept in pre-NT times [the first use of the term occurs in 2nd-century AD Lucian!], and 'oracles' are not the subject of our series.).
"Pliny distinguishes between two ways of healing--medicina, true medicine, and magia, the false and arrogant medicine…it is characteristic for Pliny that in other parts of his work he recommends magorum remedia, in case all other remedies should fail." [HI:MIAW:50]
"Finally, among physicians, even the most empirical found themselves unable, or unwilling, to break entirely with a system that seemed to work. The noted physician Galen, for instance, prescribed the use of amulets, even while denying traditional explanations for their success." [HI:CTBSAW:221]
For 2.2, we can note that the vast skeptical literature of the day (well known by Richard) shows that belief in the supernatural 'dimension' was NOT the same as 'credulity concerning the absurd'. Examples such as Plutarch, Galen, Pliny, Pausanias, Porphyry, and even Celsus reminds us that skepticism concerning specific "outlandish" events need not imply harsh materialistic atheism. And we noted that accusations of 'credulity' are exceptionally relative--what counts as superstition to a pagan, a Jew, a Christian might be a 'rationally considered' opinion by the holder.
For 2.3, we have some possibly analogous data--the case of the early martyrs. The 'stubbornness' of the early believers is reflective of a depth of conviction and tenacity of belief. They died instead of recanting. This can be contrasted with the 'mass conversion' of the Roman populace after the conversion of Constantine. Apart from the protestations of the wealthy elite (who stood to lose prestige/power in the deal), there doesn’t seem to be any major, large-scale 'pushback' on the part of the pagan populace. This would suggest that the original beliefs were 'loosely held' (including any concomitant beliefs about miracles and supernatural elements within each local mini-religion). This would generate a differential in belief-strength between the Christian (and Jews, also) and the general G-R pagan.
For 2.4, we have already noted (a) the existence of paradoxography; (b) the debunking process in education (which, btw, had filtered down to all secondary education by the middle of the first century BC--see [HEA, p.161]); (c) the cults which failed because they were too 'absurdly monstrous'; and (d) the widespread attempts at rationalizing their belief on the part of pagan wrtiers.
Another important element here at 2.4 is the implicit 'canon' of the possible and the impossible. Consider the statements by Remus [X04:PCCM, 3, 7,8]:
· "The fact that one of the first Christian apologists, writing early in the second century, is a pains to defend certain acts of Jesus--healings and resurrections--implies an awareness of them as out of the ordinary and as needing defense (Quadratus, in Eusebius, H.E. 4.3.2). Later in the same century, the same kinds of unusual phenomena figure in Celsus' attack on Christianity."
· "The self-conscious use by poets of a literary device known as 'the impossible' (adynaton) depends for its effect on widely held canons of the possible and the impossible, the ordinary and the extraordinary. Some such canons are implicit in the works, current in the Greco-Roman period, consisting simply of accounts of extraordinary phenomena. Labeled paradoxography by modern scholars…Aulus Gellius [mid 2nd century AD] characterizes the phenomena reports as 'unheard of' and 'incredible,' contained in books 'full of marvels and fictions.'" [note: if they were 'unheard of', then they were not that commonly reported or claimed, right?]
· "The familiar, everyday world is the background against which such phenomena stand out as unexpected, rare, extraordinary. That world may vary from people to people, so that what one considers ordinary another will experience as rare and impressive…there were canons of the ordinary among both pagans and Christians, learned and unlearned…"
(It might also be noted that history writers knew of this 'boundary', too. They knew when they had to appeal to eyewitness testimony for marvels, excessive splendor, or unexpected numbers. They knew where the line was…[HI:ATAH:82-3])
In other words, there were 'ubiquitous limits to credulity'…(smile). In addition, this raises another interesting point: a belief that some low-level 'magical' event could occur (i.e., fell on the 'possible' side of the canon-line) DOES NOT IMPLY that the same person would 'automatically' be able to believe in a miracle which would fall on the 'impossible' side. In other words, just because someone believed a magical love spell would work (i.e., was 'possible'), does NOT AT ALL imply that that person would/could believe that a thirty year-old Jewish carpenter could raise the dead, feed thousands of people miraculously, or walk on the top of water! This canon notion actually makes extrapolating from widespread 'belief' in low-level magic, to anysize-spread belief in high-level miracles of Jesus-size dubious, and something needing more data/argument.
For 2.5, we already noted that some of the evidence of pagan 'belief' (e.g., ritual attendance, votives, participation in events) could easily have been the simple 'default' and not at all indicative of an actual consciously-adopted belief system. This might actually also include the magical and healing worlds, in some cases (e.g., priesthoods, magic-dependent trades --amulet makers, silversmiths, etc). The widespread use of amulets as 'antidotes' for curse-spells may also fall into this category. Everybody 'feared' magical attacks (according to the ancients), but how indicative this was of 'true gullibility' is not immediately transparent.
For 2.6, I tend to take their statements more literally than Gager would be comfortable with--simply because of the testimonies of those who accused others of being (in legal proceedings) spell-casters. In other words, in the few legal cases we have--of reputedly malicious magic--it seems that the spells/curses were assumed to have produced those negative effects. This, of course, does not mean that everyone (or even anyone) 'meant that much damage', and I personally believe most magic 'attempts' fell into the 'desperation, instead of belief' category. [One might also note, though, that some of these magical recipes for cures (although not many exist of these, as we noted) and for love potions, could have been understood by the ancients in ways similar to our notions of herbal remedies and aphrodisiacs/pheromones!]
For 2.7, the accusations of 'wholesale magic' in polemical/rhetorical exchanges seems contraindicated by the actual data. The pagans, for example, can accuse the Jews of being the most 'magical' of the races, but actual pagan-Jewish interactions do not seem to manifest this 'literary position':
"It is a mistake, however, to ignore the distinct settings and types of texts in which these claims [e.g., Jews as addicted to magic] were made. It is not clear that the daily interactions between Jews and non-Jews, especially early in our period of interest [0-300 ad], were dominated by visions of magical Jews. The literary stereotypes do not outweigh the extensive evidence that Jewish communities throughout the Mediterranean thrived during this period. Those instances where there was conflict centered on other issues." [HI:MRW, 26]
But not only are the polemical accusations of 'ethnically-ubiquitous credulity' undermined by the historical data, but they are offset by statements of 'ubiquitous naturalism' in some cases! Compare Philo of Alexandria:
"The view, for instance, is widely current, that all things in the world run along automatically, independently of anyone to guide them, and that the human mind by itself established arts, professions, laws, customs and rules of right treatment both of men and animals on the part of the state and in our conduct whether as individuals or as members of communities (de. Leg. All., 3 30 Loeb)."
For 2.8, we can see this operative at two levels. (1) the 'elite' repudiation of 'most' of the magicians as fraudulent (as in the pre-literate Azande culture); and (2) the failure of any of the magicians of the day to be 'known' and/or 'accepted'. We do not have a single accepted magician, nor do we have more than 1-2 known and unaccepted magicians. In other words, almost all would-be magicians were unable to 'convince' large enough groups, as to insure some trace in the literary record (including elite, merchant, and even magical literature). This shows that the disconnect between general credulity and specific credulity was also operative in G-R culture, as it was in the Azande case.
The net effect of this is that most of our evidence for 'ubiquitous credulity' vanishes, or at least is rendered impotent to support such a position. And some of the information (e.g., canons of the possible, evidence of polemical overstatement) militates against that position.
Other data and considerations:
Outside of the NT, we might note a couple of additional considerations:
· We might note that when the pagans attacked the miracles of the gospels, they did not do so by arguing that pagan miracles were 'better' either quantitatively or qualitatively. They attempted to discredit the miracle stories of the Christians. Had miracles (or 'believed, but fraudulent miracle claims') been so prevalent in the pagan world, this is NOT would we would have expected. When the pagans DID 'retort to miracle', it was (a) to either exceptionally ancient ones or (b) to the statistically insignificant ones of the healing shrines (as noted earlier in this series).
· We might note that G-R accusations against the Jews assumed a 'lower level of magical activity' among the pagans:
"What distinguished Jewish magic, at least in the minds of many people in the ancient world, was that Jewish magicians were more successful." [Robert Wilkin, cited in [HI:MRW,p25]
· This is almost a theme--real magicians lived elsewhere. In other words, "we don’t have much of that around here"--arguing that actual personal experience of magical 'results' were very, very limited. Besides the obvious localization of magic in Egypt, Janowitz notes a few other locales:
"Thrace was considered to be the home of many magicians, as was Thessaly, which was notorious for its witches. The Marsi were known as 'snake-charmers' with special cures for snakebites…" [HI:MRW, p.13; note that this is not a very 'ubiquitous' list. The very mention of a couple of locales as 'witch-places' exempts the rest of the world from a high-level of 'witch production', obviously]
Inside the NT, the world portrayed in the narrative looks very much like this 'limited credulity' world. It's a world filled with those 'so slow to believe the prophets'--the problem in the NT is not credulity, but thick-headedness in the face of extraordinary evidence!
Let's note just a few indications of that world from the gospels/Acts (some noted earlier in the series on Jewish miracle working figures et al.):
1. Miracles were expected only of non-regular persons: angels, resurrected people [Mark 6.14].
2. The masses were 'dull'--NOT 'suggestible'! (Mark 8.17).
3. Herod hoped to see a miracle--apparently they were not all that common (smile)--[Lk 23.8ff].
4. The apostles "didn't believe the tales of the women" [Lk 24.10]
5. "Why do doubts arise in your hearts?" said the post-resurrection, bodily Jesus! [Lk 24.35]
6. "They still did not believe…" [John 9 ]
7. The (Jewish) Sadducees believed neither in spirits or angels or resurrection [Acts 23.8]
The miracles of Jesus were met with constant amazement, even by His followers. This alone would argue for the 'uncommonness' of such experiences (and hence, the dubiousness of claims to such by others).
This last point deserves repeating. The principle is: the fewer the number, and the less the clarity of actual, experienced miraculous events, the greater the shock value of an actual miracle (especially high-level ones like those of Jesus).
Again, the data within the narratives of the NT seem to bear witness to a 'mixed credulity' world, one NOT characterized by naďve gullibility, rampant suggestibility, and rabid credulity. Real people--in the real world, earning real livings, and living in real families and communities--cannot 'afford' too much credulity. Charms and amulets cost money, as did medical quacks, as did travel to healing shrines, as did offerings to the varied local and international deities. The common family simply couldn’t afford to be 'too superstitious'--and the possible ubiquity of the charlatan (in our sources) was likely met with a corresponding decrease in 'credulity' (when it had an economic cost!)…
If a freedman banker, for example, was approached by a traveling magician and was asked by the magician to loan him a huge sum of money--claiming that he was about to travel to Spain to force a spirit to reveal the whereabouts of a huge cache of money, with which the banker would be repaid with interest in a year or two--credulity could be very, very expensive…
The merchant class was likely to be the most 'jaundiced' against bogus miracle/magical claims, and it is in this class of people in which the NT was written, transmitted, and read.
[It is interesting to note that Gager organizes the data on the Curse Tablets and Binding spells into the follow categories: Competition in Theater and Circus; Sex, Love, and Marriage; Legal and Political Disputes; Businesses, Shops, and Taverns; Pleas for Justice and Revenge. Most of these are matters of the wealthy, but the merchant-type issues ("Businesses, Shops, and Taverns") are not reflected in the evidence of our period/geography. Gager notes: "Here it is worth noting that all of these tablets [merchant-issues] stem from Greece and the Greek colonies in Sicily and that their dates fall exclusively in the classical and Hellenistic periods." [HI:CTBSAW:152] Perhaps the majority of merchants were too money-smart to literally 'buy into' this praxis...]
When we focus this data on the NT miracle stories, several conclusions stand out:
"As he often does, Galen resembles Lucian both in tone and description. Inveighing against the quack doctors who gain advancement while the genuine are neglected, Galen blames 'this great and populous city,' in which such charlatans can conceal their vices, and contrasts it with the small ones of the Greek world, in which everyone knows all about his neighbor's culture, possessions, and character. The wealthy of Rome honor the learned only to the extent that they can use them; unable to bear true experts or real philosophers, they are flattered by 'poor and uncultured' impostors who in turn are enticed by the prospect of large profits." (Culture and Society in Lucian, C. P. Jones, p.82f)
Pushback: "your comment just now about the credibility of witnesses reminded me--when are you gonna get around to the evidential argument of Fales? It certainly seems intuitively true to me…"
Pushy, pushy, pushy…"in your patience possess ye your soul"…
I hate to disappoint you, but its not really that big of a deal…
Here is his statement:
"The issue is evidential: given that so many are fabricated, what reason do we have to believe those of the home religion?"
If we work "backward" through it, we can see the simplicity of the counter-argument.
First, the apodosis (smile): "what reason do we have to believe those [claims to miracle] of the home religion?"
The answer is surprisingly simple: the same reason we have to believe ANY miracle report--the credibility of the 'reporter'.
If I had grown up with Simon Peter, and been a partner in his commercial fishing venture, I would have a fair assessment of any propensity on his part to "irresponsibly embrace the absurd"…I would want, of course, to hear and see him tell the story HIMSELF, to judge his non-verbals etc., but his credibility with me is a function of his history with me. It is not a function of my history with other people making similar or analogous claims. The two cases are altogether unrelated.
If, on the other hand, my friend Simon Peter had consistently brought me stories which later consistently turned out to be bogus, then Fales is entirely correct in his insinuation--I wouldn't have any good reasons to accept the latest-and-greatest 'fish story' from Peter.
But if Simon seems to be the 'same old Simon', and the story is told simply and with his own amazement at the difficulty of the subject, then I would likely trust him (assuming a long history of trust, of course, and no indications of recent 'negative' changes on his part).
This credibility might also actually be enhanced if the event Simon narrates to me as an eyewitness/participant is altogether unlike any of the bogus low-level magical claims I hear every time I go grocery shopping in the market. Every week when I go to the marketplace, there seems to be a new traveling quack, selling "love spells" and/or ways to "sink the competitors' boats" or spells to locate lost articles. These types don't do very well in our little town, since they are not known and trusted. These low-level and sometimes petty (and often malicious) effects they promise are so radically different from the beneficial and/or exalted miracles of which Simon Peter speaks, that I am not likely to even connect the two, or to put them in the same category of 'wonders'.
So, the reason for accepting a report is largely dependent on the credibility of the reporter (especially in relation to the hearer). This is a one-on-one function, and is not affected by environmental variables, so to speak.
Next, the protasis: "given that so many are fabricated…"
We can already see how this is going to be irrelevant to our decision (in this context).
As long as the 'fabricated many' are not fabricated by the 'home reporter' (i.e., Simon), then the lies of the many cannot change my estimate of my trusted friend Simon.
And, as noted above, if the 'so many' are not even instances of the same types of claim (e.g., 'promises to perform love spells' versus eyewitness report of multiplication of the loaves and fishes to feed a crowd), this is additionally irrelevant to my assessment of Simon's story. (Remember, we haven’t had any "Jesus-size" miracle claims for at least 400 years before His life in Palestine.)
There just is no direct connection between the false testimony of others and the testimony of my trusted friend Simon.
Strictly speaking, we should also note that the principle of "the more liars there are, the less we should believe anyone" is not technically true. The principle would actually need to be refined to something more like "the more liars there are, the more we should qualify our witness before we believe him/her" (a basic juridical/evidential principle). Once I have 'qualified' Simon Peter through a lifetime of credibility-building interactions, I am 'free' to believe him as much as I want…or until he changes (for the worse).
So, I don't find the evidential problem to be a real one…once you look at how credibility of reports generally work, it seems to magically disappear (smile)…
Therefore, I don't see adequate reason to reduce the evidential value of the gospel miracles stories, due to some alleged 'ubiquitous credulity' of the ancient world.
Dec 5, 2002