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The Mysterious Disappearance of Jesus and the Origin of Christianity

By: Dr. Ahmad Shafaat



Part II


In Part I, in introducing some important Jesus people, we have already seen some of the earliest traditions about what happened to Jesus and about his religious identity. In this part we look at those traditions in greater detail.

However, before doing that a general outline of the processes that gave rise to the Jesus tradition from its earliest stages to the writing of the gospels is given in Ch. 4. This chapter has no direct connection with any preceding or following chapters. But at the same time, it is relevant for all the chapters of the book, since it explains how Jesus traditions are to be viewed and hence interpreted.

In Ch. 5, important but neglected traditions in which Jesus himself talks about his disappearance, are presented, thus providing some direct evidence for the disappearance. In addition, some further indirect evidence is also introduced there. Ch. 6 deals with the tradition of Jesus' execution, Ch. 7 with that of his ascension. Ch. 8 is concerned with the tradition of Jesus' return. Finally, in Ch. 9 the earliest beliefs about the religious identity of Jesus are discussed. Such beliefs are usually described as christological but since in the beginning not all beliefs about Jesus were related in some way to the concept "Christ" it is better to employ the more general terminology used in the title of Ch. 9.


Chapter 4

Formative Processes of the Jesus Tradition

This chapter is concerned with explaining how traditions about Jesus were formed in the first few years after his departure. The chapter first discusses some existing views on the subject. It goes on to propose a partly new view which is then supported by studies, e.g., of present day no literate societies and of rumors.

Existing views

It is universally recognized that the earliest traditions about Jesus existed in an oral form. There are two main ways in which oral traditions about a religious figure like Jesus could have been formed: 1) Jesus had some disciples who associated with him with some regularity, learnt from him and then passed on to others what he taught or did; 2) Jesus had no regular associates whom he taught; rather some of the things he said or did or happened to him were so remarkable that those who observed or heard about them talked about them afterwards and subsequently their reports spread among other people; that is, the reports about Jesus had a life of their own with no authorized group controlling the transmission. Between these two main possibilities, there is a whole spectrum of others generated by combinations of the two primary possibilities in various degrees. Thus it is possible that Jesus did have some disciples whom he taught but the story of Jesus was so forceful that it took a life of its own with the disciples exercising only a limited influence or control over how it is spread and used.

No matter how the reports about a figure are spread, they are bound to be used as they are transmitted. This use, together with the process of transmission itself, necessarily results in distortions of various type: exaggeration, addition of invented details, omissions. But in case 1, we should expect such distortions to take a longer period of time and the tradition to have a more identifiable core than in case 2.

The gospels give the impression that Jesus had a specially chosen group of disciples, almost from the beginning of his ministry, who were constantly present with him. They are said to be sent by Jesus as apostles during his ministry and then again after his resurrection to take his message to other people. Acts further reinforces this picture and adds the impression that the disciples not only themselves preached the message but that all preaching was done under their guidance. Yet this impression is at odds with other evidence. Thus our sources lack a stable core that one expects in a tradition passed on by the founder to the guidance and authority of twelve specially prepared people who were active after him over a period of about thirty years.

Some scholars consider the impression given by the gospels and Acts as true to history. Thus Harald Risenfeld in The Gospel Tradition and Its Beginnings and Birger Gerhardsson in Tradition and Transmission in Early Christianity suppose that early Christian tradition was transmitted by a process which can be traced within contemporary Judaism: In the manner of rabbis, Jesus made his disciples learn his message, together with his interpretation of some of the events of his life, by heart. After his death and resurrection this message was remembered as a sacred word that determined the preaching of the Christian community and guided it in the organization of its life. Its approved guardians and expositors were the apostles, who thus exercised, and were recognized as exercising, great authority over the life and thought of the church. When, in Acts 6:4, they are described as devoting themselves to the "ministry of the word," this refers not, as has generally been supposed, to preaching, but to the transmission and development of the sacred tradition. In other words, we should imagine a kind of apostolic college situated in Jerusalem, studying the faithfully transmitted tradition, and issuing on its basis authorized interpretations of the Christian beliefs and rules for the government of church life. Gerhardsson recognizes that the church changed the Jesus material, but explains this by drawing attention to the two ways in which the Jews handled their Scripture; one which quoted Scripture freely, often altering it as in the midrashim and the targumim, and the other in which the texts were carefully preserved, as in worship, study and the professional transmission of the text.

Most scholars have rightly rejected the model put forward by Risenfeld and Gerhardsson. The main arguments for this rejection can be summarized in the words of E.P.Sanders and C.K.Barrett. Sanders notes that there are only two clear instances in which we can be certain that, from a very early time, the church preserved texts: the saying on divorce (1 Cor 7:10f, Matthew 5:31f=Luke 16:18 (Q), Mark 10:11f) and words instituting the eucharist (1 Cor 11:23-26, Mark 14:22-25). "It is noteworthy that even here we do not find the concern for precise wording which Gerhardsson several times proposes as having characterized the preservation of the material about Jesus. Not only the wording vary from version to version, but there are also substantial variations. Did Jesus say of the cup, 'this is my blood' (Matthew and Mark) or 'this is the new covenant in my blood' (Paul and Luke)? ... Gerhardsson repeatedly says that the church changed the material: it deleted, added, altered and occasionally created Jesus-material. But once that is granted, and is seen to be true even in the two texts which we know to have existed very early, it seems that the analogy with the text of the Hebrew Scripture should be dropped." (Jesus and Judaism, 14-15). C.K. Barrett (Jesus, pp. 9-10), on whose book our summary of the suggestion by Risenfeld and Gerhardsson is partly based, refers to the different forms in which the sayings occur in the gospels and concludes that "it is difficult to accept the notion of a fixed and authoritative sacred word." But Barrett also adds a second argument: The way in which Paul treated the Jerusalem apostles and yet prospered also points against the proposed model. "Paul energetically discounted the authority of the Jerusalem apostles; he had nothing to learn from the 'Pillars,' and when emissaries from James scared Peter off the right path, Paul had no hesitation in telling the great guarantor of the sacred tradition exactly what he thought of him (Gal 2:6f, 11)."



Gerhardsson developed his view partly in opposition to form criticism, which is based on the assumption that early Jesus communities and not any particular individuals played a decisive part in shaping the traditions that we find in the gospels, especially the synoptic gospels. Characteristics of traditions produced by communities ("popular traditions") are described by Dibelius, one of the leading form critics, as follows: "Many anonymous persons take part in handing down popular tradition. They act, however, not merely as vehicles, but also as creative forces by introducing changes or additions without any single person having a 'literary' intent. In such cases the personal peculiarities of the composer or narrator have little significance; much greater importance attaches to the form in which the tradition is cast by practical necessities, by usage, or by origin. The development goes on steadily and independently, subject all the time to certain definite rules, for no creative mind has worked upon the material and impressed it with his own personality." (From Tradition to Gospel, p. 1). Form criticism "seeks to explain the origin of the tradition about Jesus, and thus to penetrate into a period previous to that in which our Gospels and their written sources were recorded. But it has a further purpose. It seeks to make clear the intention and real interest of the earliest tradition." (From Tradition to Gospel, p. v). To this end, it inquires as to the motives which caused the spreading and creation of traditions, the law governing that spreading and creation and the situation or occasion in the life of the church in which it took place and which gave the traditions meaning. Missionary purpose, according to Dibelius, was the motive while preaching provided the occasions for the transmission and creation of tradition. This preaching included: mission preaching, preaching during worship, and catechumen instruction. The preaching was about the salvation that Jesus Christ offered through his death and resurrection. The "material of tradition gave objectivity to the preaching of salvation; it explained, expanded, and, in accordance therewith, was either introduced into the preaching, or related at its close" (From Tradition to Gospel, p. 15). The tradition used three main forms: paradigms (brief stories focusing on a saying and used as an illustration in a sermon), tales (stories, mostly of miracles, containing more details than a paradigm and told with a certain pleasure in story telling and for the purpose of creating faith in the hero) and legends (which focus on the life and character of the hero and some secondary saintly persons involved in his life).

According to Rudolf Bultmann, another leading proponent of the method, form criticism "begins with the observation that, especially in primitive literature, literary expression (oral or written) makes use of more or less fixed forms, which have their own laws of style. In the Old Testament we have long been accustomed to recognize this and to apply form-historical method. The forms of psalm, prayer, prophetic address, story, and historical narrative have been recognized and their stylistic laws have been described. Is it possible to identify similar literary forms in the Synoptic tradition? If this be the case, one must recognize and reckon with the fact that the tradition possesses a certain solidity, since the form would naturally oppose itself to any serious alterations. On the other hand, it will be possible to determine in the individual sections whether the appropriate form was purely expressed or somewhat revised, and so one should be able to determine the age of the section. This would be the more true if it were possible to recognize not only the appropriate laws of style of a specified literary form but also the laws by which the further development of material takes place, i.e. a certain orderliness in change by which a body of tradition is always controlled in its growth." ("The Study of the Synoptic Gospels," in: Bultmann and Kundsin, Form Criticism: Two Essays in New Testament Research, p. 29). The Jewish tradition and the synoptic gospels themselves provide the means to determine the literary forms used in the Jesus communities: miracle stories, apothegms, roughly corresponding to Dibelius' paradigms, etc; and the laws that governed changes in the tradition: tendency for the traditions to become less 'Semitic', longer, more detailed, more explicit and more definite; for characters and places etc in the traditions to acquire names; for the indirect speech to become a direct quote; and the inclination to impose a schematic idea of the course of Jesus' activity over the earlier traditions. By the laws of style appropriate to various literary forms and the laws of changes in the traditions, the original form of each unit of tradition is recovered.

Form criticism attaches low historical value to the gospel traditions. No doubt Jesus communities possessed some historical reminiscences which were used in formation of the traditions but they also created a large number of traditions and even when they used historical recollections they cast them in ways from which the original historical events or words cannot often be recovered. All we can recover as a rule is the original versions of traditions.

By stressing the importance of forms in interpreting texts, form criticism is generally acknowledged to have made an enduring contribution to the study of Christian documents. However, it has also been subject to two types of objections.

First, form criticism is not as successful in recovering the original versions of traditions as seems to be claimed by its proponents. Such recovery of the original versions depends on determining the pure literary forms lying behind the various traditions and also the laws governing the way the traditions change. However, once it is realized that traditions can change, it becomes difficult to maintain that a tradition necessarily originated in a pure form, for if later transmitters and editors of gospel material could depart from the pure forms, as evidently they did, there is no reason why the originators of traditions could not. Indeed, "pure literary forms" may simply be convenient constructions of the critics which rarely if ever existed in actuality in popular traditions. They are like averages which are useful but which may not correspond to anything in actual existence. Thus it is useful to speak of an "average family" but there may not exist any family that corresponds to this "average". If, for example, the average family has 3.6 members, clearly no family corresponds to such an average.

Moreover, the laws which according to form critics govern changes in traditions do not seem to be strictly valid. The names can be forgotten as they may be added. And during the transmission, a story may become more or less detailed. (See below under EYEWITNESS REPORTS AND THEIR TRANSMISSION).

It should, however, be noted that the above objection, though valid, does not effect the basic form-critical assumption that the gospel traditions were largely created during church activities such as teaching, preaching and debate in order to serve the needs of those activities. The objection only means that the form of a tradition is not so well defined and the changes in traditions do not occur according to such simple laws as to enable us to recover the original version of tradition with confidence. Even this conclusion does not mean that the application of form criticism to recover the original version is totally useless; it only means that, like other criteria and methods, form criticism gives results that are uncertain and that must be checked against the "ultimate criterion" mentioned in the Introduction, according to which our conclusions, however they may be reached, must be shown to be a part of a plausible and comprehensive explanation of the whole available evidence.

Second objection to form criticism looks at the scarcity of the gospel material outside the gospels. In the epistles we only rarely find a reference to gospel traditions. In the extensive letters of Paul there are only three explicit references to Jesus traditions, 1 Cor 11:23-25 (night of arrest and last supper), 1 Cor 7:10 (prohibition of divorce) and 9:14 (Christian missionary's entitlement to compensation). In some passages Paul's teaching resembles Jesus' sayings in the gospels (1 Thess 5:2, 13, 15, 1 Cor 9:4, 13:2, Gal 5:14, Phil 4:6, Rom 12:14, 13:9, 16:19 etc) but it is difficult to say whether Paul is using traditions about Jesus or some Christian, Jewish, and Hellenist ideas which later were attributed to Jesus in the gospels. Elsewhere Paul refers to Christ as an example of humility, meekness, gentleness and thanksgiving (1 Cor 10:31-11:1, 2 Cor 10:1, Phil 2:5, Ephes 4:20, Col 2:6) but he does not illustrate this by any Jesus tradition. In only one case he illustrates Christ's character by a quotation, but this is a quotation not of a Jesus tradition but of a Christian hymn (Phil 2:5ff) which has no counterpart either in content or form in the earlier gospels! One cannot explain these facts by speculating that the gospel material was in use in Paul's churches but he did not refer to it either because he took its knowledge for granted or the occasion did not demand reference to it. For Paul is not loathe to record some traditions of Jesus' death and resurrection (1 Cor 11, 15) despite the fact that his churches were founded on those traditions and therefore they knew them well; he, in fact, explicitly tells us that he had already taught those traditions to his converts. Had other traditions played an important role in the life of his churches, we should expect him at times to refer to them as well, even if they were already well known in his churches. As noted by Wells, "it is hard to believe that [Paul] was acquainted with other biographical facts, that he deliberately make no mention of them but preferred to repeat again and again the sparse traditions he does record" (The Jesus of the Early Christians, p.146). It is also worthy of note that when in 1 Cor 15 Paul reminds his converts about the traditions concerning the death and resurrection of Jesus he mentions only what he received and what he passed on to them; there is no hint that his converts had any direct access, in oral or written form, to other sources of traditions. In the reference in 1 Cor 11 to the night on which Jesus was arrested, Paul does seem to assume knowledge of some traditions about the passion, but we have no indication that those traditions were known in anything like the developed form in which we find them in the gospels. For all we know, by the time 1 Cor 11 was written the only tradition existing about Jesus' arrest might have been that Jesus was arrested during a night without even any specification as to which night it was. For had the tradition early known about the date of the night of arrest, we would probably not have found conflicting dates in John and the synoptic gospels.

In contrast to Paul, the sermons of Peter and Paul in Acts when taken together do contain most of the main outline of the story of Jesus as it came to be formulated before Luke and even before Mark: Jesus' baptism, his exorcist and healing activity, his teaching, especially about the kingdom of God, his execution and resurrection. With one exception the speeches in Acts mention all of these, including some specific details of the passion such as the Barabbas story and the burial of Jesus by the Jews (2:22, 3:14, 10:36-39, 13:25, 28-29). The one exception is Jesus' teaching, including that about the kingdom of God. The references to Jesus' teaching, in fact, are scarce throughout Acts. Apart from the use of the phrase "kingdom of God" in 8:12, 19:8, 20:25, 28:23, 31 we may have a reference to the teaching of Jesus in the statement: "It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God" (14:22, cf. Mark 13:9-13=Matt 24:9-14=Luke 21:12-19). The only quotation of the words of Jesus in Acts is at 20:35 ("It is more blessed to give than to receive") which, however, does not correspond to anything attributed to Jesus in the gospels.

Since our direct information concerning Jesus communities comes from the epistles and Acts, some scholars reject the basic form-critical position on the basis that the use of gospel texts is not found outside the gospels and whatever biographical material is found outside, even in Acts, is almost always in the form of points and not texts. Thus Sanders says: "Of principal importance are two points: outside the Gospels we do not find a substantial body of traditions about Jesus; inside the Gospels we have full texts, not just essential points. When these two points are combined, they effectively refute the basic form-critical position that much of the material was created in 'typical situations' to serve diverse needs of the church" (Jesus and Judaism, p. 14). In this conclusion, Sanders essentially accepts the arguments of Gerhardsson: "I am persuaded by Gerhardsson that the Gospel material was not created and transmitted in the ways proposed by the form critics - i.e., separately according to function in diverse activities of the early church, such as teaching and debate. But we still do not have an analogy from the ancient world which will explain how it was handled. Gerhardsson effectively refutes form criticism's view of how church's creativity was exercised (in typical activities which gave rise to certain forms), but we do not have a persuasive alternative, and the creativity itself is not to be denied. The most certain point is the one ... which Gerhardsson grants: the material was subject to all sorts of alteration, and we have it as it was transmitted by the church" (Jesus and Judaism, p. 15).

In regard to this second objection to form criticism, it should be observed that the scarcity of the gospel texts outside the gospels still needs to be explained regardless of whether or not the form critics are right. For once it is admitted, as Gerhardsson and Sanders do, that we have the gospel "material as it was handed down by the church, and that it has been adopted for use by the church," the scarcity of the gospel texts in the epistles and Acts becomes as problematic as under the form-critical assumption. For if the epistles and Acts could largely ignore the gospel material despite the fact that it was in use in the church, then there remains nothing incomprehensible if the material was ignored despite the fact that it was created for use in the church.


The proposed view

The view proposed here is based on the following explanation of the scarcity of the gospel material in the epistles:

When we talk about the "church" we should not think of a homogeneous group with some common beliefs and common way of operation under a common authority. Rather, from a very early time the "church" consisted of groups that were largely independent and that often had radically different views even on the most fundamental questions. Traditions in the New Testament come from such diverse groups. In particular, most of the epistles come from Gentile churches of the Pauline persuasion, although some of their authors may themselves be Hellenist Jews like Paul himself. These churches were largely based on the belief in Jesus as the dying and rising Lord and Messiah who would soon return to complete his work of redemption which he partly accomplished through his death and resurrection, this belief in the return of Jesus reducing in importance with time. The life in these churches consisted of shared Eucharist meals and of activities directly inspired by the Holy Spirit, with no concern with the earthly Jesus, his teaching and his ministry. Thus the gospel material is scarce in the epistles because the epistles mostly come from churches which for a few decades did not concern themselves with that material. A notable exception is the Epistle of James which comes from a church without any Pauline influence and which does have a much larger proportion of material with parallels in the gospels (see Ch. 2).

From where did then the gospel material come? For the first few decades of the life of the Jesus movement the gospel material was created and/or transmitted in churches that directly linked themselves with Jesus groups in Palestine, identified in the last chapter as the twelve, the relatives of Jesus, the Hellenist seven, the tax collectors/sinners and zealots. From these groups the traditions gradually spread to the Gentile churches where they were adopted and used in a highly selective manner, the use becoming more and more extensive with time.

The presence in the apostolic speeches in Acts of the main outline of the gospel tradition does not call the above view into question. For Luke knew traditions coming from many different sources and wrote Acts reflecting this vast knowledge and did not represent the point of view of the Gentile churches of the Pauline variety only. Acts is not a production of such churches and Luke is not their spokesman. Therefore the presence in it of many allusions to the gospel traditions is not an evidence against the proposal that the gospel material was not in use in these churches during the first few decades. Also, as far as the speeches of Peter are concerned, the proposed view allows the possibility that Peter made some use of the gospel traditions in his preaching. It is only the speeches of Paul that can call the proposed view in question but in regard to them we have the direct evidence from Paul's own authentic letters which raises doubts about whether the speeches in Acts represent Paul's preaching. Thus in his letters Paul frequently refers to the crucifixion of Jesus but in this connection never mentions Pontius Pilate or Romans, whereas in his speech in Acts 13 he very explicitly mentions the scenario, so familiar to us from the gospels, including that of Luke, about who crucified Jesus: The Jews without any just cause for the death penalty asked Pilate to have him crucified. Also, Paul several times refers to Christian baptism and gives it a specific interpretation but never refers to the baptism of Jesus by John or otherwise mentions the Baptist and yet in his speech in Acts he relates the gospel tradition about the testimony of John about Jesus' messiahship. Thus it is probable that Luke has put in the mouth of Paul words that represent to a large measure what he thought Paul might have said rather than what Paul actually said. Indeed, it is probable that Luke did the same for Peter. This is further shown by the fact that the speeches in Acts make an important omission. On the basis of the early Pauline epistles and the gospels it is known that the preaching of the kingdom of God or the parousia of Christ was an important part of the earliest Christian preaching. But in the speeches in Acts this is hardly explicit. If Luke could make an important omission, then he could also make important additions. A writer like Luke writing in the last decade of the first century with a conscious determination to present the church as a united homogeneous entity could easily make the following two assumptions: i) the early Christian preaching must have included some of the gospel material with which he, being himself a gospel writer, was so familiar, and ii) the preaching of Paul was substantially like that of Peter. On the basis of these assumptions, together with the acceptability in the ancient literature of freely composing speeches for historical figures, Luke could have easily added all the references to gospel material in Paul's speeches and made some substantial changes in Peter's preaching.

Likewise the scarcity in Acts of gospel texts is not an indication that the gospel material did not develop during preaching, teaching and debate in some churches. For, a) in summarizing a message in the form of a speech, a writer is not expected to necessarily produce detailed texts. b) Acts is the second volume of Luke's work. In summarizing early Christian preaching, therefore, Luke may be deliberately omitting detailed traditions because he is assuming familiarity on the part of his readers about his first volume and is therefore simply referring to those traditions in main outline. c) Acts does not tell us much about the teaching activity and worship within the church and of the numerous debates in which the Jesus followers engaged, both with each other and with the non-believers, and much of the gospel material might have been created and/or used during these activities. d) The uses for which the gospel traditions were originally created or preserved may not all be known to writers in later decades of the first century C.E. and the uses to which they were put subsequently probably varied widely from church to church and from time to time and therefore did not have a fixed form which a collector of traditions like Luke could represent in his book. At the time Luke wrote his two volumes the gospel traditions existed without their original context and as a rule Christian churches and individuals ignored or used them as they wished. (See Ch. 13 for more discussion on the preaching in Acts).

If the above explanation of the scarcity of the gospel material outside the gospels is accepted, then the form-critical position can still be maintained after the following modification: much of the gospel material was created in 'typical situations' in some non-Pauline churches to serve diverse needs, e.g. preaching, teaching, debate and worship.

We now look in some greater detail the process by which the Jesus traditions were formed. To this end one may start with the self-evident truth that Jesus tradition was formed when people talked about him. This talk about Jesus can be divided into two broad categories: a) talk among the populace at large without any general direction; and b) preaching and teaching by some Jesus groups from some definite point of view and for some definite purpose.



The talk among people generally may be further divided into the following categories according to time or context:

1) During Jesus' ministry some of his deeds or words so impressed some people that reports about them began to spread far and wide. This gained Jesus considerable fame during his ministry, first in Galilee and then, to a lesser degree, in Judea.

2) Because Jesus had acquired some fame, events during his trip to Jerusalem at the Passover time, notably his violent encounter with the temple traders, and his subsequent disappearance under ambiguous circumstances, considerably heightened public interest in him and made him even more of a subject of conversation. In various gatherings in Palestine, in differing degrees, people talked about what happened to him. Some impressed by his miracles said that he was taken to heaven while others with a more mundane outlook said he was executed by this or that authority. In such conversations some reminiscences about Jesus' activities would be mentioned to support or oppose some theory. For example, someone could say: "Jesus was executed by the temple authorities because he criticized them for making money from the temple cult." Another could respond, "How could he have been executed by the temple authorities when he was seen in Galilee? He must have been executed by Herod for Herod thought that he was continuing the work of John the Baptist." Still another could have said, "Pilate killed Jesus because he preached the coming of the kingdom of God and because Pilate thought that Jesus wanted to be the king in that kingdom (understood as political Davidic kingdom)." In other gatherings, especially in parts of Galilee where Jesus spent more time, people talked not about who executed Jesus but what he did before his disappearance. It was, for example, recalled that he was seen by Peter by the sea of Galilee or by some other people on a mountain.

3) Talk about the fate of Jesus would lead to an interest in what Jesus did and taught in his life. Someone may remember what he heard Jesus say, relating for example, that Jesus used to say that the kingdom of God is near. Someone else may refer to his healing work, relating, for example: Once the mother-in-law of Peter was sick with fever and when Jesus came he lifted her by her hand and her fever left her.

4) In conversations about some other subjects the famous story of Jesus was used to reinforce a point. Thus someone complaining about temple priests would reinforce his point by saying that these were the same priests who killed Jesus, a righteous man.



The second way in which people talked about Jesus, that is, preaching and teaching, assumes the existence of some Jesus groups. The question, therefore, that needs to be considered first is, How were these groups formed? The following three processes or some combinations of them seem to be responsible for the formation of Jesus groups:

a) Jesus' own instruction. It is probable that towards the end of his ministry when Jesus had decided to disappear, he encouraged his followers to continue his work by preaching the kingdom of God and healing the sick by the power of faith in God. This naturally started a mission in Galilee.

b) Talk among the public at large. It often happens with a famous story that some people come forward and start to use it to serve some purpose. This also seems to have happened with the Jesus story: some of those who had some association with Jesus came forward and, starting from whatever little they themselves knew together with what the people were saying, began to shape the story of Jesus to serve their purposes.

c) Use by existing Jewish groups. Some Jewish groups, to a degree organized even before Jesus became known, began to use his story for the objectives they were previously pursuing. At first the use was superficial so that one cannot describe these groups as Jesus groups. However, soon some of them began to give Jesus story a central position in their work.

As a result of the above processes, the following different types of missions emerged within a very short period of time (see Chs. 2, 3):

1) Galilean mission (excluding the twelve). This mission, reflected in the earlier traditions behind Q and in the letter of James, in the main consisted of preaching the imminent kingdom of God, healing of the sick and of moral and/or wisdom teaching (see Ch. 2). Jesus was regarded as a prophet of the kingdom of God and a teacher of wisdom who was in exile or hiding and was expected to return to participate in the kingdom when it came. In this mission healings performed by Jesus might have been related to give faith in the missionary's own healing activity and in the proclamation of the kingdom of God. Also, his sayings about the kingdom and some wisdom sayings might have been recalled. The degree to which the words and actions of Jesus were recalled depended on the missionary's individual inclination and knowledge about the ministry of Jesus. James, the brother of Jesus, for example seems not to have spent much time with Jesus during his ministry and consequently he did not refer much in specific terms to what his brother taught or did, although he was well aware of the main character of his work. The people who produced the earlier traditions in Q, on the other hand, seem to have not only recalled some sayings and actions of Jesus but also attributed to him some of the traditions which they themselves created or found in other sources.

A varied form of the above mission regarded Jesus as the Elijah-type forerunner of God. This was connected with the belief that Jesus ascended to heaven alive. (See Ch. 9).

2) The mission of the twelve. This was the same as the other Galilean mission except that it identified the kingdom of God as the kingdom of the Messiah Jesus who was now believed to soon return to establish his kingdom. This identification resulted in the reinterpretation of the sayings and actions of Jesus in messianic terms. Some historical material was seen in the light of prophecy while other material was created to fulfill the prophecy. For example, healings performed by Jesus were understood in terms of such scriptural passages as Isa 35:5-6, 61:1-2 (also understood messianically in the Qumran scrolls (see Ch. 9)); at the same time some healing miracles were created to correspond to the healing miracles mentioned in the prophetic texts. Gradually, sayings attributing to Jesus a claim of messiahship were created.

Among the people who played a leading role in a Galilean mission of type 1 or 2 was Levi the tax collector. His group transmitted and created many of the stories and sayings of Jesus about the tax collectors and sinners (see Ch. 3). The same group at some stage may have given us the tradition of Jesus' execution by Herod (Ch. 24).

3) Stephenite mission in Jerusalem. This mission primarily started with the preaching of Jesus as a prophet speaking against the temple cult. It expected the Son of Man as someone other than Jesus. At some stage it might have included some healing activity. It produced the earliest passion traditions which presented Jesus as an anti-temple prophet and which condemned not only the Jewish authorities who persecuted the Hellenists but also the twelve who sided with them or stayed neutral. (See Ch. 2 and Part V).

4) Zealot-type nationalistic mission. This largely remained underground. Jesus was regarded in this mission a martyred national hero. It contributed parts of the passion narratives and some sayings encouraging zealot activity. (See Ch. 2 and Part V).

A little after the formation of the above four Palestinian missions the following missions emerged.

5) Gentile mission as consolidated and developed by Paul. As a combination of beliefs preached by missions 2) and 3) Jesus came to be preached outside Palestine as the dying and rising Lord, Christ and Son of God who would soon return to complete his work of judgment and salvation. Gentile church came to be formed on the basis of this view together with the practice of Eucharist and baptism, both interpreted in the light of the death of Jesus, and belief in the activity of the Holy Spirit through the believers. This mission existed in Syria before Paul but he was responsible for greatly developing it (see Ch. 10). The concentration on the two events of death and resurrection suited Gentile churches, since neither the preachers who founded such churches nor the Gentile converts as a rule had any knowledge of the earthly ministry of Jesus. It took some time before this knowledge began to be shared in the Gentile churches. Even after the availability of such knowledge the earlier character of the Gentile churches with their concentration on the dying and rising Lord continued for some time.

6) Gnostic missions. These emerged at almost the same time as mission 5 above. They developed under the influence of myths about pre-existent heavenly revealers who descend to redeem the children of God and then ascend to heaven. At first Gnostic missions rejected the crucifixion in favor of the ascension, but soon they began to reconcile the two primitive speculations about the fate of Jesus in their own ways. Some said that Jesus only appeared to be executed. Others said that there was a look alike who was crucified. At some stage most of the Gnostics fully integrated the belief in the crucifixion into their systems. The Gnostic missions endured for centuries but many of its expressions were ultimately rejected by the main-stream Christianity, although some of its ideas were integrated into the main stream through the Gospel of John.

Mission 1 was started by Jesus' own instruction, that is, by process a). Jesus' own instruction may also have played a part in the emergence of mission 2 but this mission emerged when some people came forward to put Jesus' story to a new use by creating the belief in Jesus' messiahship; hence it may be said to be started by a combination of processes a) and b). Missions 3 and 4 were started by process c), that is, by the use of the Jesus story by existing Jewish groups. Missions 5, 6 could be the result of a combination of processes b) and c).

The various Jesus groups defined themselves partly by the traditions they possessed about him. These traditions were either based ultimately on eyewitness reports or on rumors or on the words of the prophets speaking in the name of the "risen" Jesus. As the collection of traditions possessed by various groups came in contact with each other, almost every group was obliged to modify its collection. This modification could consist of a simple addition of received stories/sayings to one's own collection. But when the received tradition conflicted with what a group possessed, which was often the case, the group was obliged to modify it to various degrees.

At first the collections of traditions existed in an oral form. This needs explanation in view of the fact that the culture in which Jesus missions took place was by no means a non-literate culture and also the fact that from the very early stages, the missions had expanded far and wide and therefore to have the traditions in writing would have been very useful for them. The reason that for more than a decade no writing seems to have been done, or no writing from that period has survived, is that the diverse traditions were constantly coming in contact and forcing a very fluid state. Traditions were not written because no group wanted to commit itself to a definite form and collection of them. Or they were written but did not survive either because they were completely absorbed by later collections or because they did not fit with them.

When the writing of traditions did start, they seem to have been at first collected according to their forms: sayings, miracles, parables etc. In time, they were put together in the form of biographical accounts of Jesus' life (gospels) which usually also included accounts of his death and resurrection/ascension, since by this time Jesus' death and resurrection had been accepted by a very large majority of Christians.


The degree of distortion and creativity in the Jesus tradition

Our interpretation of Jesus traditions and reconstruction of history from them is directly dependent on our assessment of the degree of distortion and creativity that existed in the Jesus tradition at different stages of its development. It is therefore important to examine how far distortion and creativity was exercised in the Jesus tradition. In this connection I will first make some comments about traditions generally and then about the Jesus tradition specifically. Subsequently these comments would be illustrated by some existing models.

By way of clarification it needs to be pointed out that the term "creativity" does not necessarily imply a deliberate and conscious fabrication of false stories, of the type that a liar makes up in his lies or a novelist creates in his work of fiction. To a large degree the manifestation of creativity during transmission of reports or traditions takes place as a result of a misunderstanding or speculation or a spontaneous use of imagination or a strong emotion in the subconscious, although deliberate and conscious fabrication also takes place.

Some degree of distortion and creativity in reporting events often starts with the first eyewitnesses and then increases as the reports are transmitted. Soon a set of reports are formed that achieve a wide circulation in a relatively fixed form; such reports may be called "traditions". But even after their formation the distortion of earlier traditions and creation of new unhistorical ones continues.

Both the initial formation of traditions and the subsequent developments involve four processes (cf. Culpepper, John, the Son of Zebedee, pp. 1-2):

Selective use. People select for further transmission only some of the observed facts, reports or traditions, those that serve their purposes. They are often related with some self-serving interpretations. Such a selective use already involves some distortion. Those who hear or read about the transmitted facts, reports or traditions along with their interpretations can already get a very wrong impression of what actually happened. This wrong impression can then lead to further errors and fabrications in the subsequent transmission.

Clarification of new interpretation. Dislocation from context. During the process of using a tradition, a new interpretation is seen in it which results in changing it in order to make that interpretation clearer. Sometimes new interpretation arises not due to a need to serve an interest but simply from the inherent possibilities in the language used in the tradition. Changes in tradition resulting from a new interpretation may consist simply of dislocating from the original context and putting in a new one. Or, it may involve actual changes in the tradition itself.

Collection with harmonization. Varied reports or traditions come together and certain gaps, obscurities and contradictions are noticed. The gaps are filled, obscurities are explained and contradictions are removed with some invented details.

Fabrication. In each society there are imaginative people who think nothing of fabricating stories. On the basis of the faintest of suggestions provided by earlier traditions they create new stories from their imagination to serve their purpose. If the stories are also useful for a large enough number of other people, then they become part of tradition.

The above four processes work for a time in an ongoing, circular fashion, with the processes applied again to the traditions created through their earlier applications. The whole activity begins to gradually taper of. Either the events of interest are forgotten or traditions are collected in some standard works. In the latter case, the four types of creative processes continue, especially the first two, resulting either in new interpretations of the canonical traditions or in the creation of new traditions, without, in general, the created traditions gaining the canonical status.

In case of the Jesus tradition the above processes worked with unusual speed. From a very early stage the Jesus tradition manifested an unusually high degree of creativity and distortion. There are several reasons for this:

1) A view of what happened to Jesus was naturally an important part of almost every group's collection of traditions. However, since there was as a rule no real knowledge about the fate of Jesus, most views of what happened to him were speculative or imaginative. In this way speculative or imaginative element entered the Jesus tradition from the very beginning, so that even when we can reach very early traditions we still fail to reach a reliable report. People instinctively sensed that speculation or imagination played a major part in the Jesus story, even though they were not necessarily conscious of it. This encouraged them to become even less concerned with historicity than they would have been had the earliest traditions been more reliable.

2) Jesus traveled a lot, leaving only very incomplete knowledge about himself in different places, which when came together forced speculative or imaginative explanations of, and links between, the more historical reminiscences.

3) Because of the peculiar belief that Jesus was raised to heaven and that he appears to and communicates with believers, many sayings could be first attributed to the risen Jesus and then to the earthly Jesus.


Some existing models for creativity in the Christian tradition

Most readers of the New Testament find it difficult to imagine the degree of distortion and creativity that went into the formation of the Jesus traditions as they have come down to us through the gospels. This is because when a story is formed and written down and passed on for generations, it seems difficult to imagine that the story was mostly or entirely a fabrication. In the rest of this chapter therefore I shall present some models to show that a very high degree of creativity such as is suggested above was probable in the Jesus tradition.

For the following two reasons I will concentrate on models pertaining to existing phenomena:

1) Objective truth and historicity is more consciously sought in our age than in the age in which Christianity took shape. Hence if we can demonstrate that a great deal of creativity is exercised even now in the formation of reports about important events, it would show that such creativity was highly likely in case of the Jesus tradition, especially in view of the special circumstances mentioned earlier.

2) From a historical point of view the most important stage in the formation of the Jesus tradition was an oral stage. One way to assess the use of creativity in the early Jesus tradition in its crucial oral stage is to look at the extant written records and observe how different documents present the same tradition in different versions. Another is to study in a similar way other written traditions that once existed in oral form. But these approaches, while making useful contributions, suffer from the defect that we cannot examine the oral traditions themselves. This difficulty can be overcome by examining present phenomena which nevertheless are related to the formation and transmission of oral traditions in ancient times.

There do indeed exist such phenomena. They include the following: 1) Certain societies still exist in various parts of the world that function on the basis of oral traditions. These have been studied by some historians and anthropologists. 2) Oral eyewitness reports are also in use in all societies in all times. In our times, they are used, for example, by journalists and in court rooms. One can study the transmission of such reports through direct observation or suitable experiments. 3) Rumors are also like oral traditions. They abound in modern times as they did in ancient times and can be and have been studied. 4) Finally, modern TV, radio and internet advertising also illustrates how in order to convey a message one may tell stories that are not necessarily true.

In what follows I will make some observations about these phenomena. With the help of these observations we can better appreciate the high level of creativity that existed in the oral Jesus tradition and of the changes it underwent during its transmission.



In the Americas, Africa and Asia there existed during our century, and still exist, some non-literate societies that use oral traditions to remember their history and in this way define their identity as groups. This oral tradition can be in a fixed form which is learnt by heart and recited on occasions with great care for accuracy or it may be in a free form which is not learnt by heart and which everyone relates in his own way. It is possible for modern historian to collect both types of traditions and examine them. Some of the oral tradition originated and developed within a period of about half a century, so that one can study how the traditions originated and how they subsequently developed.

According to Vasina, who has extensively studied the oral traditions of existing non-literate societies, the oral traditions go back to eyewitness reports, to rumors or to visions, dreams and hallucinations (Oral Tradition as History, pp. 5-7). Despite the care that non-literate societies as a rule show in preserving tradition, the historian cannot overly rely on it. Not only false traditions can be built on rumors but also failure of memory, explanatory interpolations and influences from the traditions of other peoples can change tradition and make it necessary for the historian to devise a critical approach to its application in reconstructing history.

Vansina also observes that in African societies "historical truth is whatever is accepted by the majority as worthy of belief" or "what has been transmitted by the ancestors as having really happened," although in some cases confirmation by "some trace left in the landscape" is also required.

As a consequence of this attitude towards historical truth, informants will sometimes give several contradictory testimonies, all of which they declare to be 'true'. Thus for a Kuba it does not make sense to compare different traditions in order to find out truth. Another consequence of the attitude is that traditions are seldom, if ever, examined with any kind of critical judgment. The capacity for critical judgment does exist among peoples without writing, but it is not applied to traditions. All that people do is try not to change anything in the traditions handed down by the ancestors. But if changes are inadvertently introduced into a tradition, they in turn become 'true,' for one or two generations at least. It should, however, be noted that this concept of historical truth tends to prevent the distortion of tradition rather than add to it, and it would seem, therefore, to have little effect on the content of a testimony. (Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology, pp. 102-103)

What Vansina calls attitude towards historical truth is actually lack of concern for the historical truth. It is inconceivable that any human society can be incapable of distinguishing between what happened and what is reported to have happened. This distinction is learnt by all human beings in very early childhood when they learn the meaning of "to lie". But all human societies by convention ignore the question of historicity in some cases. People when they hear a joke by a comedian are not concerned with the question, Did it really happen. In case of non-literate societies, oral tradition, as noted above, serves as a way of self-definition and therefore the oral tradition is as much a reflection of how a society wants to see itself as what happened in history. It is clear that concern with historicity of tradition would not allow the society's self-image to play any part in the formation of oral tradition and therefore would not serve its main purpose. By affirming everything in the tradition true, the society merely affirms that the tradition is an acceptable expression of how it wants to see itself at a given time. The concern with accurately preserving the tradition, sometimes by punishment for making mistakes in reciting, arises not from the concern to preserve history but to preserve group identity. This is also the basis for the reluctance on the part of a group to recite traditions of other groups: mixing of traditions may weaken one's own identity. On the other hand, mixing of traditions is acceptable when two groups want to merge together or forge or maintain a close alliance.

Contradictions between traditions can arise, not only due to changes that occur during the transmission of tradition but also due to the fact that different sections of a society have their own image of themselves which may conflict with one another. The first type of contradictory traditions, as noted above in the quotation from Vansina, are often considered as all "true," that is, the difference is not taken seriously. But the second type of contradictory traditions can cause dispute. In this case, either a split takes place or a compromise tradition is created. This compromise tradition then becomes part of the "truth". Vansina gives the following example from the history of the Kuba:

The chief of the Bokila [a tribe of the Kuba] had declared that when the Bokila arrived in the country they were its first inhabitants. During the course of a dispute with another group who also claimed to be the original inhabitants of the district, a declaration was made that the other chief had been the first to occupy the region, but that before his arrival the Bokila had set up a trade station for ivory, so that in a sense they were in effect the first occupants of the country. (Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology, p. 29)

Such a social view of truth is not limited to non-literate societies, as is shown by the following experiment of S. Asch ("Effects of Group Pressure upon the Modification and Distortion of Judgments"): Eight people are shown a slide with one line L on the left and three lines A, B, C on the right. One of the three lines A,B,C is of the same length as L while the other two are clearly either much longer or much shorter. Each of the eight people must say out loud, without any communication with the others, which of the three lines A, B, C is identical to L. Seven of the eight people have received instructions, without any knowledge on the part of the eighth, to choose a line which is obviously not identical to L. In this way the effect of the consensus on an error among the seven is seen on the eighth. In several repetitions of the experiment with different people, it was found that a significant number of the persons in the eighth position went along with the obviously wrong answer of the seven. Even some of those who said what they saw chose the correct answer as a matter of preference, considering the possibility that they could have been completely wrong. In real societies there is rarely such unanimity and the questions have rarely such clear answers, but the experiment does reveal the extent to which many human beings are influenced by what others say in their judgement of what is true and what is false.

The oral Jesus tradition was different from the oral traditions of existing non-literate societies in three ways: 1) cultural difference; 2) many of those who created and/or transmitted Jesus tradition were literate; 3) Jesus tradition was used in a missionary activity, that is, not only in defining Jesus groups but also in increasing their numbers. Still some of the observations made about the oral tradition of non-literate societies throws some light on the nature of the oral Jesus tradition.

Thus the Jesus tradition has the same three sources that other oral traditions do: eyewitness reports, rumors and visions etc. Also, judging by the attitude of the New Testament writers, it seems that the early Jesus tradition developed under a lack of any concern for the historical truth, even though the societies in which it took place did have the concept of historical truth. Matthew and Luke can change the words and actions attributed to Jesus in Mark without showing any concern with what the historical Jesus actually said or did. John also feels free to change received tradition in whatever way he considers fit. These evangelists do seem to think that Christian teaching should be attributed to Jesus in order to have legitimacy. For Paul even that is not necessary. He almost completely ignores what the historical Jesus himself taught or did or what actually happened to him and is content with a few traditions that he found circulating among some earlier Jesus people or with what he himself decides to be the truth. It is difficult to see how this attitude developed unless it was also present at the oral stage of the tradition, at least on the part of a large number of Jesus followers. This lack of concern for the historicity becomes more understandable for us today by the study of existing non-literate societies. From this study we can also understand better the contradictions in the New Testament. These contradictions resulted either from changes that took place in traditions during transmission or represent viewpoints of rival Jesus groups. Some contradictions were ignored, others were recognized and led either to a rejection of some traditions or to a compromising position. Thus we find in the gospels contradictory traditions put side by side without the writers being bothered by the contradictions. At the same time we find in the New Testament fierce attack on certain other Jesus groups who clearly had a radically different viewpoint which they no doubt defined through traditions contradictory to those possessed by the writers of the New Testament. In such cases the writers of the New Testament were bothered by the contradictions. There are also examples of compromise. Thus, for example, some Jesus followers early carried their mission to the Gentiles. This mission was opposed by some who possessed or created a tradition prohibiting mission to the Gentiles (Matt 10:5). In Matthew the compromise position is reached that while Jesus did prohibit the Gentile mission during his life, after his resurrection he told the disciples to preach to all the nations (28:19). This recalls the way two rival claims by two groups of the Kuba about who first settled the land were resolved. The lack of concern with historicity and the resulting willingness to compromise shows that, as proposed in this book, the originally conflicting traditions of Jesus' execution and ascension, defining two different Jesus groups, could have been easily combined in the compromise tradition of death, resurrection and ascension.

Unlike the existing non-literate societies, Jesus groups were not ethnically or linguistically defined. Consequently, they were bound for extinction unless they compromised. It is an indication that Jesus story said something valuable that Jesus groups developed a strong inclination to compromise which led to the writing of the gospels and formation of the New Testament and the catholic church.

It is natural to expect that Jesus groups would be almost as concerned to preserve the traditions possessed by them as the existing noniterate societies. However, the task of preservation was much harder for the Jesus groups. Aggressive mission by rival groups and constant influx of new converts with their own ideas made it necessary for each group to constantly redefine itself by addition of new traditions imported by the converts or modifications of existing ones. This made the Jesus tradition very fluid for a couple of decades.

The genre of the gospels itself can be understood in terms of oral traditions of existing non-literate societies. In these traditions there is found the genre of "pseudo-epics" or heroic tales that can be compared with the gospels. An "epic" is "a narrative couched in poetic language, subject to special linguistic rules of form. Usually epics contain hundreds or thousands of verses and present a complex tale full of wonders and heroism, centered around a main personage." The "wording is totally free, provided the form is kept. ... Great variability exists as different performers string different episodes together or change the order of episodes, and not only because individual passages are expanded, contracted, or altered." An epic is usually woven out of a large number of originally separate traditions. Pseudo-epics are like epics except that they are not couched in a strict poetic form (Vansina, Oral Tradition as History, p. 25). Gospels can be viewed as pseudo-epics in which the main personage is Jesus.



Transmission of stories or reports whether based on fact or fiction or a combination of both continues even today orally. Even though collection of data for such transmission is very difficult, some general conclusions can still be made on the basis of whatever data is available. Also, it is possible to conduct experiments of various types to see what happens to a report as it is repeated by a chain of subjects. Such experiments naturally do not reproduce anything like the exact conditions under which real-life transmission takes place, but when combined with the conclusions drawn from available observations of the real-life transmission and general knowledge of how human memory works, we can arrive at some dependable and useful conclusions.

One such conclusion is that the way a story ends up at the end of even a short chain of transmission is very unpredictable. In case of the transmission of a non-verbal image through successive drawings it is found that an owl can end up as a cat (Allport and Postman, The Psychology of Rumor, p. 59, referring to F.C.Bartlett, Remembering). The results are similar in case of verbal reports. Hence it is possible that final reports in two independent series of transmissions may differ so greatly that they may not be recognized as talking about the same thing. When, however, a story is shared by a community, that is, preserved in social memory, it may undergo a smaller degree of distortion.

In case of a story with many details there is a tendency to reduce the number of details and, in particular, to level certain distinctions, e.g. by grouping a number of distinct objects under some category. Names of places and persons, unless well known, and references to time and figures are often omitted but when they survive they are frequently wrong. Well-known references may be imported. Some names resembling familiar names may be assimilated to them. The reduction in the number of details is steep at first and then it slows down; it stabilizes at about four details. This result, however, may depend to some extent on the cultural background of the narrators. Indian and Chinese subjects are said to be disposed to amplify and embroider a tale more than Anglo-Saxon subjects (Allport and Postman, The Psychology of Rumor, pp. 154-155).

Also, when a report is too brief there is a tendency to supply answers to some of the questions it raises. This is illustrated by the well-known report that church bells were rung when Germany took Antwerp in November, 1914. This simple report got gradually elaborated as it went from one European newspaper to another (see Ch. 6).

The principal theme has a tendency to survive during successive narrations, but sometimes the focus can shift to a detail in such a way as to also shift the principal theme around that detail.

The elimination of some details necessarily emphasizes other details. This emphasis on the surviving details can increase by exaggeration. The number and size of objects can increase or decrease depending on what the emphasis requires.

The selection of details omitted or retained, forgotten or emphasized takes place under certain interests, which may have varying degree of strength. The interest seemingly least likely to distort the story may be to simply organize it into a form which one can understand and remember more easily. The reduction and leveling of details mentioned earlier is sometimes part of this process. Another attempt to "understand" the story is that some principal theme is seen in the story and other details are changed or invented to fit the story according to one's understanding of that theme. A scene with explosives blowing up in the presence of soldiers is labeled as a "war scene" and then many images of war are imported into the scene or existing images are highlighted or changed in order to reinforce the scene as a war scene. A story about riots may become a story about some familiar riots in Detroit or Los Angeles. Other interests that can influence the telling of a story consist of expression of emotions of fear, hope, hostility etc or to prove one's political or religious point of view.

It is noteworthy that eyewitness reports can show all the above-mentioned tendencies, although, of course, generally to a lesser degree.

Experiments conducted by Allport and Postman (The Psychology of Rumor, pp. 65-73) illustrate the above points. They can also be used to illustrate both the strength and weaknesses of the two criteria of historicity mentioned in the Introduction: the criterion of lack of reasonable explanation for fabrication and criterion of being early. For these illustrations I discuss below in some detail one of their experiments.

A person looking at a picture described it to another subject who could not see the picture. After hearing the description this second subject described the picture to a third one who could neither see the picture nor hear the original description by the first eyewitness reporter. In this way the picture was described successively by six or seven subjects who were all told to report as accurately as possible. This experiment, using the same picture was repeated several times, each time using six or seven subjects. The following are seven "terminal reports," that is, reports of the last of the six or seven subjects in seven experiments.

Terminal report 1. This [i.e., the scene in the picture] takes place on a street corner. Something is happening. There is a Negro with a razor, a man with a beard, two women reading newspapers, not particularly interested in what is happening.

Terminal report 2. This is a picture of a typical subway scene. In the picture three people are standing. The subway has the usual characteristics. There are ads, one of them for McGinnis for Congress. Sitting down are a man and a woman. Two other men, one a Negro, are discussing the coming election. The Negro is waving a razor. In another part of the car a woman is standing, holding a baby. You also see that in the subway.

Terminal report 3. Scene is a streetcar or subway. There is a Negro man and a laborer with a razor in his hand. Sitting down are a lady sleeping, an old man with a beard, a priest. There are signs: a camp sign and a sign to vote for somebody.

Terminal report 4. Picture of trolley car with seven people. There is a woman with a baby. There are some colored people. Someone is flashing a razor blade.

Terminal report 5. Trolley car. Tough boy in it. Man in front of him. There's a lady. Plate on it saying where it is going. Mountains outside window.

Terminal report 6. On subway train. Seven people. Two standing, one colored and a lady with a baby in her arms. Two people pointing at something. Two signs -some kind of soap, 99.44% pure.

Terminal report 7. This is subway train in New York headed for Portland Street. There is a Jewish woman and a Negro who has a razor in his hand. The woman had a baby or a dog. The train is going to Deyer Street, and nothing much happened.

Notice that reports 1) and 5) differ so markedly that we cannot tell on their basis that they are talking about the same picture.

However, when we examine all the seven terminal reports, knowing that they are all talking about the same thing, we can recover some remarkably correct information about the original picture by using our two criteria. Note that in our present context instead of a detail being "early" we should speak of it being "original", since all our chains of transmission are independent. And when a detail has multiple attestation it can be considered a feature of the original picture unless we can explain why two independent reports can invent the same detail or make the same mistake. For details attested by only one version, we can employ only the criterion of lack of reasonable explanation for fabrication, other than the explanation that the subject has made a mistake.

Before reading what follows, a reader may find it interesting to do his or her own reconstruction of the original picture that gave rise to the above seven terminal reports.

For the sake of convenience, let us separate the statements in the seven reports according to four topics:

A) The location. 1) This takes place on a street corner. 2) This is a picture of a typical subway scene. 3) Scene is a streetcar or subway. 4) Picture of trolley car. 5) Trolley car. 6) On subway train. 7) This is subway train in New York.

B) The people and their activities. 1) There is a Negro with a razor, a man with a beard, two women reading newspapers. 2) In the picture three people are standing. Sitting down are a man and a woman. Two other men, one a Negro, are discussing the coming election. The Negro is waving a razor. In another part of the car a woman is standing, holding a baby. 3) There is a Negro man and a laborer with a razor in his hand. Sitting down are a lady sleeping, an old man with a beard, a priest. 4) Picture of trolley car with seven people. There is a woman with a baby. There are some colored people. Someone is flashing a razor blade. 5) Tough boy in it. Man in front of him. There's a lady. 6) Seven people. Two standing, one colored and a lady with a baby in her arms. Two people pointing at something. 6) There is a Jewish woman and a Negro who has a razor in his hand. The woman had a baby or a dog.

C) Signs. 2) There are ads, one of them for McGinnis for Congress. 3) There are signs: a camp sign and a sign to vote for somebody. 5) Plate on it saying where it is going. 6) Headed for Portland Street... The train is going to Deyer Street. Two signs -some kind of soap, 99.44% pure.

D) Other observations. 1) Something is happening. Two women reading newspapers, not particularly interested in what is happening. 3) A typical subway scene. The subway has the usual characteristics. ... You also see that in the subway. 4) Mountains outside window. 6) Headed for Portland Street... The train is going to Deyer Street, and nothing much happened.

All except the first report agree that the scene involves some kind of train that runs with electricity, either on the street or in the subway. Two reports say that it is a trolley car, three that it is a subway train and one is uncertain. It is possible that a subway train is in that part of its journey which is above the ground. The detail that there are mountains, found only in one report supports this suggestion.

One report says that the train is in New York, is heading towards Portland Street and is going to Deyer Street. If one knew more about streets in New York one could assess this report better. As it is, we can only use general considerations. It is possible that here some assimilation to a well known subway system is taking place. But since another report also says that there is a plate on the train showing where it is going, it is likely that the picture does contain at least one name. In the absence of any reason to doubt, we can accept that both names are found in the picture, remembering, of course, that names get not only omitted from reports but also reported wrongly.

Two reports say that there were seven people in the picture. There seems to be no explanation of the agreement of two terminal reports on the number of people other than that it comes from the original picture. Of course, both reports may have made the same mistake, but such general explanation must be excluded.

Two of the reports say that at least some people are in the train (reports 2, 5), although they do not place the same people in the train. At the same time, report 1 does not even mention the train and talks about a street corner. This is difficult to explain unless most, if not all, the seven people were on the street. The other reports do not say where the people are. If one hears of people and a train, it is easy to imagine people being in the train, which may explain the agreement in reports 2 and 5 noted earlier.

Four reports say there is a black man, one that there are colored people. Once again the presence of at least one black man is certain. Three reports say that the black man is carrying a razor, but this is contradicted by report 3 while report 4 simply says that "someone" is carrying a razor. Going by the number of reports the razor would seem to be in the hand of the black man. However, note the following two parallel observations in reports 2 and 3:

Two other men, one a Negro, are discussing the coming election. The Negro is waving a razor.

There is a Negro man and a laborer with a razor in his hand.

One report puts the razor in the hand of the black man and the other in the hand of the white man. Since these parallel items are likely to be closer to the original picture, their evidence should be given greater weight. This means really that evidence does not as much favor the view that the razor is in the hand of the black man as may seem from the total number of reports in its favor. In any case, an application of our second criterion, that of a lack of a reasonable explanation for creation enables us to make a decision. If the razor was in the hand of a black man, it is very unlikely that it would pass into that of a white man. On the other hand, if in the original picture the razor was in a white man's hand, it could easily pass into the hand of the black man due to a strong stereotyped image of black men in America. Thus the likelihood is that the original picture does not put the razor in the hand of the black man.

Most reports say that the man has a razor or is holding a razor in his hand. Two reports describe him as waving or flashing a razor mentioned. This may be a case of sharpening a detail.

Some reports say that there are two women while no report says that there is only one woman. Hence there are at least two women. Two reports agree that a man and a woman are sitting. Three reports say that there is a woman who is carrying a baby while one says that what the woman is carrying is either a baby or a dog. Since any detail may be omitted from any terminal report and since no report categorically identifies the object carried by the woman as a dog, it is likely that the picture contains a lady with a baby. One report says that this lady is standing, a statement not contradicted by any other report. This detail may therefore be original. Report 7 talks of "a Jewish woman and a Negro who has a razor in his hand. The woman has a baby or a dog." This does not correspond well to the doubly attested report which associates the man carrying the razor with another man and not with a woman. Note that this report talks of no other people or their activities. Imagination has most certainly played a major role by focusing entirely on a woman presumably threatened by a black man with a razor. The Jewishness of the woman threatened by the black man reflects racial perceptions of some kind and cannot be trusted. One report says that two women are reading newspapers, which, if accepted --and we have no reason not to -- means either that there are more than two women or that no woman is carrying a baby. In view of the strong attestation for a woman carrying a baby we should opt for the first possibility.

Two reports agree that there is a man with a beard. He is described as an old priest and sitting down in one report. Since bearded men in America are not generally old or priests, this description may be accepted.

There are two men pointing at something. According to report 2, two men, one of whom is the black man, are discussing the coming election, which could be an inference by the observer.

One report talks of ads while others mention two signs. Two reports agree that one of the signs is a campaign ad. One report mentions a second sign as an ad for a camp and another report mentions an ad for a soap. Since there is no reasonable explanation why an ad for camp would become an ad for soap or vice versa or why any of the two ads would be invented, it is likely that both ads are present in the picture. Some figure in the ad for soap and a name like McGinnis in the campaign ad are for the same reason original, but the figure of 99.44% or the name may be wrong.

Thus use of our criteria results in the following reconstruction of the picture used in the above experiment.

There is a train, possibly on the ground from where mountains can be seen through the windows. The train is at Deyer Street and going to Portland Street or vice versa. There are seven people, probably on the street. There is one man with a beard, probably an old priest and possibly sitting down. There are at least three women, at least one of whom is sitting with a man. Two women are reading newspapers. One woman is carrying a baby, probably standing up. There is at least one colored man. He is with another man who is carrying a razor. Two men are in some kind of discourse. There are at least three signs, one about camp, one about soap, 99.44% pure, and one about voting McGinnis for Congress.

This picture is remarkably close to the original in main outline. But there are notable discrepancies and many details are missing. In the original picture, there are only two women, none of whom is reading a newspaper; instead a man is reading a newspaper. The woman with the baby is sitting not standing. This is natural since someone with a child is expected to sit down. But our criteria did not allow that conclusion to be drawn. Such a conclusion would have been a case of assimilation on our part to the expected. Also, the names of the street are wrong, but the figure of 99.44% is correct. Mr McGinnis indeed is the candidate in the campaign ad but the ad does not say that he is running for Congress.

The above example illustrates how unpredictable is the way a report would end up after a number of successive narrations.

Most of the distortions take place, not as a result of fanciful invention but as a result of an attempt to make the story meaningful for oneself or due to some accidental mistakes. This latter can be illustrated by an amusing observation made during the experiment described above. In one series of successive observations, in the fifth reproduction signs, vote, camp gave rise to single idea and it was reported: there are campaign signs to vote for somebody. The sixth subject misheard the fifth subject and interpreted what he heard by reporting: There are signs: a camp sign and a sign to vote for somebody. In this way the sixth narration became more accurate than the fifth! Allport and Postman, noting this fact conclude that it is impossible to reconstruct the original version. This assumes a standard of exactness that is too stringent even for exact science much less history. In this way the authors were unable to see the type of use of their experiments for historical reconstruction which has been illustrated above.

The role of imagination in these experiments was limited, no doubt because of the instruction to reproduce the scene as accurately as possible. Most invented details were suggested by the scenes themselves. If the scene shows a sign to vote for somebody, people standing may be imagined as discussing the election or a procession shouting slogans may be imagined. If the scene showed a church, then a narrator could bring in an imaginary chaplain. If people are rioting, then they may be imagined holding clubs. But even such modifications can distort the story beyond recognition. as is shown by the above experiment, in which the terminal report 7 reduces the original scene almost entirely to a Jewish woman under threat from a black man with a razor.

There are important differences between transmission in the experiments referred to above and in the Jesus tradition. Some differences make our two criteria more effective in case of Jesus tradition while others make them less effective:

1) In the Jesus tradition we rarely have seven versions of a tradition whose independence is secure. We are fortunate to have two or three probably independent versions. The above example shows that this number of versions may not lead us to dependable results. Thus if we used only reports 1, 5 and 7 we would not even think that they are talking about the same picture. Even if we had reason to believe that they are talking about the same picture, we would not be able to arrive at any probable reconstruction.

2) In the experimental situation the reporting was done for the sake of reporting and subjects were instructed to be as accurate as possible. It is for this reason that a large number of details with only single attestation are close to the original scene if they are not contradicted by other reports. But in the Jesus tradition there was no conscious attempt to be accurate on the part of most people involved in transmission. Also, in the Jesus tradition and in all natural transmission of reports, each link in the transmission decides to be a link because the message is meaningful for him and he wants to share it with others. He therefore does not simply repeat what he heard; he transmits the message in order to serve an interest. This results in much greater creativity. This means that while in the experiments, omission of details is common and the invention of details is relatively less common, in the Jesus tradition we should expect both to be common.

3) In the experiments the focus was on a single picture. But in the Jesus tradition there were many different stories, some of which influenced the telling of some others, thus making the situation much more complex. In particular, scenes from one picture or story can move to another picture or story. We shall see, for example, that the scenes of one of the disciples of Jesus cutting the ear of the servant of the high priest and of the young man running naked, have moved from their original time and place to the story of arrest (Chs. 21, 30).

4) In all natural transmissions, an exchange takes place at most transmission points: one person does not simply convey a message to another who passively records what he hears in order to repeat it to a third, but there is a conversation between at least two persons. There are reactions to what is said in the forms of comments and questions and this may generate discussion, after which the original reporter may modify his original version, thus effecting subsequent transmission.

5) On many occasions the transmission of traditions involved groups and not just two individuals. Even when one individual conveyed a tradition or message to one person only, he often spoke as a member of a group. This tended to reduce individual creativity.

The first three differences mean that the transmission in the Jesus tradition was less accurate than in the experimental situation, while the last two could mean the opposite. On balance it seems that the transmission in the Jesus tradition was less dependable than in the experimental situation. This means that the controlling use of our "ultimate criterion" requiring an overall comprehensive and plausible explanation of the evidence as a whole is paramount for reaching any dependable results.



Thomas Carlyle once characterized history as "a distillation of rumor". Even if this characterization is not entirely accurate, it underlines the importance of the study of rumors for historians, including historians of Christianity.

Several psychologists, sociologists and historians have studied rumors in this century. The following is a summary of their conclusions, based largely on Allport and Postman (The Psychology of Rumors), Rosnow and Fine (Rumor and Gossip) and Kapferer (Rumors).

The best definition of rumor, given by Kapferer (Rumors, p. 14) is that it is unofficial information. It may be true or false, just as the official information may be true or false. In case of rumor, however, we usually do not know the original source and therefore we are deprived of one means of assessing its reliability: the assessment of the reliability of the original source.

A consequence of this definition is that an eyewitness account, no matter how unreliable, as in the case of those claiming first-hand encounters with the UFO's or extraterrestrial beings, is not a rumor. The eyewitness account is in such cases the official account. It may also be noted by way of clarification that a rumor may be started by the highest official authority in the land. In the first century, for example, emperor Nero is said to be the source of the information that the Christians started the famous fire in Rome. This information, however, was not circulated in the emperor's official capacity and therefore may still be characterized as rumor.

Although our definition does not exclude the possibility that a rumor may be true, studies show that the making and spreading of rumors accompanies little or no desire to ascertain facts. As a result most rumors have no or insufficient basis in facts. Carried by an emotion or motive of some kind one either jumps to a conclusion as to the course of some events or creates a story out of one's mind and then relates it to others to be believed as true. Some of the hearers in turn find the story meaningful enough to tell it to still more people, thus starting a process that with varying speeds spreads the story through some sections of a populace.

Rumors are formed and spread because of ambiguity of information available on a subject of importance to some group of people, usually in the presence of other circumstances that have already created emotional tension or excitement. The ambiguity may be due to the absence or sketchiness of the information, conflicting nature of the information, distrust of the information, or due to some emotional tensions that make the individual unable or unwilling to accept the information or see its gross insufficiency. In wartime rumors abound because these conditions are present optimally. Military secrecy, the natural confusion of a nation on the march, and the unpredictable moves of the enemy, help create profound ambiguity in precisely those matters that are of greatest importance to the people. For similar reasons rumors also abound in other times of crisis.

A rumor may consist of a single statement of the form "A did or is doing or will do B" or "B happened or is happening or will happen to A"; or it may consist of a more detailed story. A rumor may start as a single statement and end up as a story or vice versa.

Some rumors deal with a specific person, class or corporation quite well-know to the group in which the rumor spreads. Others concern an unnamed representative of some class, e.g. a high school girl or a mother. A rumor of the first type may be dissociated from the specific person etc only to be later reattached to someone else whose public image corresponds to the plot.

Some rumors are imaginative interpretations of some real events, while other rumors are completely fictional. Both types of rumors may either arise spontaneously or may be provoked. In the latter case the objectives may vary from deliberate disinformation for the sake of helping or harming a cause to a search for sensationalism.

An example of a rumor closely connected with a real event is provided by the following incident which took place in a rural community Maine, U.S.A., in the summer of 1945, shortly before Japan's surrender in the Second World War.

A Chinese teacher on a solitary vacation drove his car into the community and asked his way to a hilltop from which he could obtain the pleasant view pictured in a tourist guide issued by the Chamber of Commerce in a neighboring town. Someone showed him the way, but within an hour the community was buzzing with the story that a Japanese spy had ascended the hill to take pictures of the region. (Allport and Postman, The Psychology of Rumor, 135).

Rumors consisting of pure fiction are illustrated by the following story of cannibalism current in Berlin in the summer of 1946 during the occupation:

Late one afternoon, a "blind" man wearing black spectacles bumped into a young woman while she was waiting for a traffic light. The man was carrying his cane in one hand and a letter in the other. He apologized for bumping into the woman. She told him that it was nothing and asked if she could assist him in some way. The blind man asked her if she could deliver the letter he was carrying to the address written on the envelope. She gladly agreed to do so. But as she had gone twenty or thirty yards, she looked back and saw the man walking rapidly with his cane under his arms. The woman took the letter to the police, who when they went to the address on the envelope found some people eating meat that was declared after due investigation by a doctor to be human meat. The letter in the envelope contained this one sentence: "This is the last one I am sending you today." (New Yorker, July 20, 1946, pp. 41f). According to New Yorker this "story is pure myth." Yet it was believed by 95% of the Berliners at that time.

The rumors get spread because they serve the purpose of relieving, justifying and explaining to the rumor monger an emotion or need (such as fear, hope, hostility, jealousy, troubling curiosity, sexual desires or a combination thereof) which, if faced directly, is unacceptable to him. Or, to satisfy a bit more intellectual need to make sense of what is happening around himself. The story of the woman and the blind man depicts the fear of hunger and of the hungry that prevailed in Berlin after the war with the gruesome dealings with human bodies in the background. Instead of saying "I am afraid of dying with hunger and also of what I may do to others or others may do to me if the food became extremely scarce," the story enabled its teller to express these fears without having to face them directly. To the extent that these fears were about one's own urges getting out of control, the story projected such urges onto others, thus relieving them without having to act upon them or even to face them. And to the extent the fears were about what others may do to oneself, the story explained and justified them.

In wartime and in times of other fights between groups of people such as elections, racial strifes, competition among businesses, students etc, rumors are also spread in order to create, express or maintain hostility and aggression against the opponents. Totally baseless rumors are more likely to be created during such conflicts than in other situations. This is because of the attitude expressed in the proverb: "everything is fair in war and love".

Since rumors serve a definite need on the part of the rumor monger it is impossible for him to seek its verification. This can be seen in the case of the rumor that made a Chinese tourist into a Japanese spy. Here we see that jump to conclusion which shows little interest in assessing the known facts and ascertaining other relevant facts. The visitor's precise nationality was not inquired about. The fact that he looked oriental was considered sufficient for the conclusion that he was Japanese. No one had seen a camera in his hand. The visitor had allowed himself to be readily identified by people along the way and openly declared his intention to view the scene from the hilltop. No pictures of any military significance could be taken from that particular rural location, for there were no industrial or military installation of any kind visible from that hill. Furthermore, war was known to be in its last stages and spy activity, especially in remote regions was improbable. None of these facts traveled with the rumor for the obvious reason that they would have called the rumor into question and thus negated its purpose of expressing fear, hate and/or suspicion of the Japanese prevalent at the time.

Not only the formation of rumors does not accompany any desire for verification of relevant facts but also even if the contrary facts are presented to the rumor monger it is difficult for him to accept them. Consequently, rumors have a tendency to remain stubbornly persistent even in the face of contrary evidence. Still, the strength of the contrary evidence does have an influence on the lifespan of a rumor and the degree to which it will be believed.

Of course, a rumor is not believed by everyone. Some people are more prone to believe rumors than others. Moreover, the same person may be more prone to accept one rumor while laugh at another, depending not on whether a rumor is inherently plausible or not but on whether it fits with his feelings and ideas or not. Inherent plausibility does not have much to so with how far a rumor is believed, although it is to some extent relevant, which is why rumors are designed to be as plausible as possible without sacrificing the purpose for which they are spread.

A rumor is relayed to seek those who feel and think in a particular way. Or, it is relayed to achieve importance and prestige in a circle or simply to have something to talk about. When a rumor flies it seeks its own and finds home in them. In this way a grouping of people is created or an existing group, if as a group it accepts the rumor, is consolidated. The rumor then becomes the group's voice. The criterion of truth used is a purely social one: what group takes to be true is true.

Rumor often entails a process of collective discussion about an important but ambiguous event both before and after the formation of the rumor. Such a discussion forms the rumor and then subsequently changes it.

It is often very difficult to trace the source and earliest development of a rumor. Often rumors are said to come from a friend of a friend, without going back to any identifiable source. In any case, looking for the source is often meaningless. What "makes a rumor is not its source but the group" (Kapferer, Rumors, p. 36). At every moment, innumerable potential sources send out innumerable signals and messages that have no effect. Now and then, one of such signal or message sets off a rumor process because it takes on meaning for some segments of a population.

Rumors can have a lifespan which can vary from a few weeks to centuries and even millennia. This lifespan depends on the ambiguity of the evidence against and for the rumor as well as on the type of needs it serves. Enduring stories starting as rumors are called legends and form one of two main types of traditions, the other type being traditions based ultimately on eyewitness reports (which can also undergo profound distortion, as seen earlier). A "legend is a rumor that has become part of the verbal heritage of a people" (La Piere and Farnsworth, Social Psychology, as quoted in Allport and Postman, The Psychology of Rumor, p. 163). A myth is a legend that deals with primal forces, cosmology and religious belief.

Rumors, legends and myths are primarily concerned with providing a metaphor or parable. In case of rumors, the metaphor or parable expresses some transitory emotions created by particular crises; in case of legends, it expresses a more permanent and universal states of mind; and in case of myths, it expresses still more permanent and central themes of human existence.

When rumors concern a single person or group, they naturally come together and draw some attention to discrepancies, but just as facts do not bother the rumor mongers, nor do such discrepancies. They only suggest some more rumors.

It is possible for a large number of rumors to be formed about a single central character or group. These may be collected as in the lives of heroes and sagas. In such cases, stories connected with other heroes or groups are pressed into the service of glorification of one's own.

In every rumor, there are found individuals who perform one or more of the following possible roles, some of which may not exist in a particular rumor process:

1) The "instigators" who raise some questions.

2) The "interpreters" who propose coherent and convincing answer to the questions raised by the instigators.

3) The "opinion leaders" whose view determines the group's opinion.

4) The "apostles" who totally identify themselves with the content of the rumor, so that rejecting or doubting the rumor is tantamount to rejecting them. They do not just transmit the rumor; they must convince people of what the rumor is saying.

5) The "profiteers" who are interested in having the rumor spread without necessarily believing it themselves.

6) The "opportunists" who are smaller scale profiteers; they are interested not in the rumor itself but in using it to support some other interest.

7) The "filters" who do not believe the rumor but nevertheless relate it to those around them, enjoying ruffling the feathers of those who believe in it.

8) The "passive-relays" who relay the rumor while doubting and questioning it.

9) The "resisters" who mobilize attack against the rumor.

The rumor can at times be very harmful. In our age, during the two world wars there were special efforts, both by the government and the public, to combat the harmful effects of rumor. The basic idea was to fight rumors with facts. In ancient times, however, rumor could as a rule be combated by more rumors. "The emperors of ancient Rome were plagued by rumor -- so much so that they appointed public rumor wardens (delatores they were called) whose duty it was to mingle with the population and to report what they heard back to the imperial palace. The stories of the day were considered a good barometer of popular feeling. If necessary, the delatores could launch a counteroffensive with rumors of their own." (Allport and Postman, The Psychology of Rumors, p. 159, referring to T. Chadwick, The Influence of Rumour on Human Thought and Action).

Since there is always a lack of trustworthy information on some matters and there are always emotions to be relieved, justified and explained, rumors never cease, although, as noted earlier during wartime and other times of crisis and conflicts their intensity increases.

But although we cannot imagine a world without rumors, in our age, because of instant communication through telephone, TV, internet and because of research activity, greatly increased in quality and quantity, a great deal of reliable information is also available along with rumors. In contrast, most of the information available in earlier centuries was at best mixed with rumor. Some eyewitnesses with very limited means of communication at their disposal, hearsay, the town criers, where they were present, and travelers were the main source of information. None of these were any better reporters than the modern subjects who in the experiments mentioned earlier distorted the reports beyond recognition. Only a privileged few such as kings and some prosperous scholars received, or had access to, written reports, and even such written reports were not necessarily free of rumor.

Because most information was inaccurate, lying somewhere near the borderline between fact and fiction, the world appeared to be a place without any rhyme or reason. The universe seemed like a place where "anything can happen." Moreover, most people did not set high standards of reliability for a piece of information before it was to be accepted, for one tends to make one's expectation commensurate with what is available. As a result there was a general tendency to accept, even in important matters, what we would consider highly unreliable information.

Studies of rumors such as those summarized above are relevant for the study of Jesus tradition. For if it is true, as argued above, that Jesus tradition did not form and was not spread under any controlling authority, then it is very likely that a large number of traditions about Jesus might be based on rumor, like most information possessed by the populace in ancient times. Thus rumors played a major part in the formation and development of the early Jesus tradition. Moreover, if the theory proposed in this book is correct, then rumors lie at the very heart of the Jesus tradition.

When Jesus hid himself in Jerusalem during a Passover week, two conditions for the generation and spread of rumors -- importance of a subject and ambiguity of information about it -- were optimally present. A miracle worker preaching the kingdom of God in the Jewish country ruled by a pagan empire and challenging some of the religious conceptions of his people disappeared under profoundly ambiguous circumstances at a time of great social and political tension. The story was bound to assume importance and generate rumors. Some people with deep suspicion of the authorities concluded that he was executed. The rumor then travelled and was believed by all those who had hatred and/or suspicion of either the temple authorities or the Roman authorities. The facts that he was seen in Galilee after the Passover week or that no one saw him being arrested or stoned or crucified did not matter at all. As we mentioned above, it is a characteristic of rumors that contrary evidence does little to discourage their creation or spread.

Similarly, when Jesus finally disappears from Galilee, some draw the conclusion that the miracle healer had been taken to heaven. The fact that no body saw him going up was not enough to restrain this rumor. In the first-century Palestine such a rumor about a missing prophet was much easier to arise, and be widely accepted than we might think. Thousands of men could accept the claims of Theudas (c. 44-46 C.E.) that the Jordan River would be parted for him and of the Egyptian prophet that the walls of Jerusalem would collapse at his word. Even after the solid and brutal fact of the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, many expected imminent intervention of God (Josephus, War, 6.5,2).

When the two rumors -- Jesus' execution and ascension -- came together, they did not cancel each other but only created a third one: the rumor of Jesus' resurrection. We have something of a modern equivalent of this.

In the late sixties a rumor started that one of the Beatles, Paul McCartney, was killed in a gruesome automobile accident. The origin of the rumor, like that of most rumors, is shrouded in ambiguity and is itself the subject of a rumor. It is said that it was started by a guru-type at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti. It seems to be based on the fact that in early November 1966, Paul McCartney left EMI recording studios tired, sad and dejected and thereafter was not seen in public for sometime, that is, he was perceived to have disappeared. The fact that Paul McCartney participated in the songs produced by the Beatles and was seen in pictures after he was supposed to be dead did not kill the rumor. It simply created the additional detail that a double or look-alike of McCartney was substituted for him. The songs and pictures were in fact used as evidence for the rumor: they were thought to hide clues to the death of the rock singer.

The rumor of McCartney's death and his replacement by a look-alike became public on 12 October 1969 through a Detroit radio station and an article published two days later in the University of Michigan newspaper, The Michigan Daily. Soon afterwards millions of American youth were caught up in it. Life Magazine (November 7, 1969) published a first-hand denial by McCartney but this did not kill the rumor, which, however, died a natural death a few months later.

Rosnow and Fine (Rumor and Gossip, p. 17), in explaining the rumor, comment: "The credibility of Lyndon B. Johnson's presidency, the widely circulated rumors after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, as well as attacks on the leading media sources by the Yippies and Vice-President Spiro Agnew, no doubt help to foster an attitude in which a massive media conspiracy is plausible. A person of world renown can be replaced by another for three years without any of his audience being the wiser."

The replacement of McCartney by a look-alike as an explanation of the fact of his appearances after his "death" is a modern version of the belief in Jesus' resurrection as an explanation of the appearances of Jesus in Galilee after his "crucifixion". Youth of the sixties were more comfortable with an explanation in terms of a world run by massive conspiracy than in terms of miracles. As a matter of fact, Jesus tradition also uses the idea of a double to reconcile the reports of Jesus' "death" and his "subsequent" appearances (see Ch. 12). The inability of McCartney's personal denial to kill the rumor immediately recalls the fact, to be established in Chs. 12, 22, that although Peter denied the crucifixion, this denial by an eyewitness did little to squash the rumor about the crucifixion. Also, the way in which the clues were found in the Beatles' songs and pictures for the "death" of McCartney is comparable to the way early Christians searched the scriptures to find "proofs" for Jesus as the Messiah who died and rose again. In case of Jesus, the actual disappearance of Jesus created much greater ambiguity than in case of McCartney and therefore the rumors of his death and resurrection endured. Had McCartney disappeared soon after the publication of his denial on November 7, 1969, the world would be still talking of his death and replacement by a double. Movies are still being made supporting the rumor that a second gunman was involved in the assassination of President J.F. Kennedy, since there is a greater ambiguity in the evidence against this rumor than that about McCartney.

Also, the McCartney rumor was used mostly for entertainment and excitement (which does not mean that it was not believed or considered for belief by many) while the Jesus story was used for far more serious religious purposes and this also contributed to its endurance. It is in the nature of the need for entertainment and excitement that its fulfillment requires ever new stories, whereas it is in the nature of the religious need that its fulfillment requires something permanent.

The phenomenon of rumor in general and the above example in particular should be enough to dispel an objection to the theory proposed in the present book based on the time factor. Scholars have a tendency to think that traditions start with historically reliable information and only gradually get distorted, taking many years. However, studies of rumors show that an essentially false story can form and spread, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, within a very short period of time. The main elements of the Jesus story were already there within a few weeks or months after the conclusion of his ministry.

Another way in which the study of rumors throws some light on the Jesus tradition is in the understanding of the creation of further stories after the earlier rumors explaining his disappearance. As we noted earlier, during conflict, competition or rivalry between various groups rumors play an important part. Many stories in the gospels are the product of such conflict, competition or rivalry either among Jesus groups themselves or between them and the Jewish groups. (See Chs. 3, 17, 18, 21, 22).

Also, we recall that it is often very difficult to find the source of a rumor and trace its earliest history. Jesus tradition displays a similar characteristic. Its origins are shrouded in mystery.

Yet another important use of the studies of rumors for the understanding of Jesus tradition is that it enables us to understand how the Jesus mission could have started with only minimal initiative on the part of Jesus: It was only necessary for his disappearance to start rumors which could take on meaning for some people. For, we observe that in most rumors there are people who can totally identify with the content of a rumor and start transmitting the rumor in order to convince people. Rumors about Jesus' execution or ascension or some synthesis of them were enough to bring forward some people who began transmitting them in a missionary way. This early transmission of rumors began to accompany some reminiscences about other aspects of Jesus' life and teaching and in this way the Jesus tradition began to take shape.

Finally, recall that a rumor may consist of a single statement or it may consist of a more detailed story and any of these two forms can give rise to the other. In the Jesus tradition we find examples of all these possibilities. We find brief statements ("proclamatory formulas") like "God raised Jesus", "The Jews killed Jesus" or "Jesus died, was buried and then raised on the third". We also have detailed stories. Some proclamatory formulas gave rise to stories and vice versa.



Advertising on wave or electronic media provide another existing model with timeless features that can throw some light on the nature and formation of the Jesus tradition. In such advertising we find the same two basic forms that we find in rumors and in the Jesus tradition. We either have brief statements conveying information about a product or service or the same information is conveyed through telling a little story or both. Beyond this very general similarity of forms there are also several specific similarities between the gospel traditions and advertisements. This is not surprising because mission is like selling a product and hence advertising is like evangelizing. I illustrate the point by the following TV advertisement.

Advertisement for Oil of Olay: A young man sees an equally young-looking woman and says: "Eh! Don't I know you from somewhere. You were in my class". The woman says: "I was your teacher." The man now recognizes his teacher and with some surprise and amazement (at her young looks) says: "Miss ...?" The woman answers the man by telling him his name: "Bugsy Brown." A voice then tells the audience how Oil of Olay keeps skin healthy and young.

If the reader is not familiar with this advertisement he or she will no doubt be able to think of many others that can serve the purpose.

There are many parallels between gospel traditions and TV advertisements:

1) Both use discourse and/or action to deliver a message.

2) In both the message is often clarified by an agent who is not among the characters in the story -- redactor in case of the gospel stories and a voice in case of TV advertisements.

3) Both often use dramatic language or scene, sometimes containing gross exaggeration.

4) Both are often brief. As a rule, both contain only two, or at most three, speaking characters.

5) Both have a great deal of implicit background in culture without which the message cannot be understood and certainly cannot be effective.

6) Some advertisements for the same product keep the same story line but change the characters. For example, in a more recent variation of the advertisement for Oil of Olay the younger man becomes a lawyer and the older female the judge. Similarly in gospels we often encounter the "same" story with some changes of characters etc. For example, the story in which Jesus heals a serious illness on a Sabbath day in face of objections from Jewish legalists occurs in many forms with only the person and the illness changing.

7) Advertisements are often designed with advertisements of competitors in mind and sometimes contain clear allusions to those competing advertisements. The same is true of stories in the Jesus tradition. From the very beginning there were competing groups who produced stories to express their particular point of view and some of these stories were created in response to rival stories.

8) The competition between rival companies is much more fierce than the advertisements show because nasty attacks on others is generally not received well by public and also such attacks by a company will open it to similar attacks by the rivals. Open rivalry comes out in advertisements usually when a great deal is at stake. In the gospel traditions as well the rivalry and conflict between various earliest groups were more serious than it appears from the extant traditions.

But along with such similarities between modern TV advertisements and ancient gospel stories there are some very important differences which are equally instructive to note:

1) In the gospel tradition there came to exist a strong tendency for unification, that is, to produce a unified Jesus story with a common message. There is of course no such tendency in case of commercial advertisements.

It is, however, interesting to note that the unifying trend in the Jesus tradition actually had the opposite effect: further diversifying traditions and their interpretations. This is because of the inherent difficulty of unifying what was diverse and often contradictory. It is like the coming together in nature of particles of opposite electric charge, say protons and electrons under a unifying force only begins a process of forming an incredible variety of new elements and chemicals. The diversity and conflict that was present in the views and stories about Jesus from the very beginning and that only increased at every attempt at unification is now reflected in the mind boggling variety of church denominations, opinions of theologians and historical constructions of modern scholars.

2) In our age we make a much sharper and much more conscious distinction between a fabricated story and a true story while in ancient cultures the distinction was not so sharp and so conscious, so that history and fabricated stories could be confused together much more easily. As the story became older, the distinction between history and fabricated stories became even less clear.

One consequence of the sharper and more conscious distinction between fabricated and true stories in our age is that story telling has now become less effective and therefore less common. There is another reason for this: a story is used to stress a point and to make it more vivid so that it creates a lasting impression. In our age we can depend much more on the force of more easily available factual information and on audio-visual aids to stress a point and make it more vivid. In contrast, in the ancient cultures creation of stories provided the only easily available method of making a point vivid. This is why in mythology even natural objects such as the sun, the wind, the earth, the ocean and vegetation were personified and stories were told about them to make a point or describe a reality.

3) Unlike a story in the advertisement which is told only by the company which puts out the advertisement, the gospel stories traveled and were told and retold by people with various interests resulting in many changes either because of failure of memory -- (if you ever see the advertisement for Oil of Olay, compare it with my version which I have recounted from memory) -- or because of spontaneous use of imagination or a deliberate interest in changing the message it contains. Sometimes a rival story is created to express an opposing view, as, for example, the stories in Mark 8:27b-30 and 31-33 that were discussed in Ch. 2. A rival version can then inspire secondary developments in the original story. An example is provided by the empty tomb story which expresses the view that the crucified Jesus was raised from the dead. Jews accepted the empty tomb but said that it was empty because the disciples or the gardener stole the body, expressing the opposing point of view that there was no actual resurrection. This rival version of the empty tomb story then gave rise to the story of the guards who were posted on the grave to make sure that no body could steal the body.

When the compilation of larger documents started, all the different rival stories and the secondary stories inspired by them were sometimes combined in the interest of unification of the tradition, often creating in the process new details or even stories. When this happens the stories become very complex, as, for example, the story of the anointing in Luke or the story of the empty tomb in John.

An erroneous impression that this "talking in stories" can create is that the earliest story begins to look historical. But, of course, when the story is just a way of conveying a message or making a point, then the most primitive form of a story could be as much a fiction as any later form.


Crossan (Who Killed Jesus) and Brown (The Death of the Messiah), both referring to their impressive credentials, argue whether Jesus was buried properly in a tomb or whether his body was left by his executioners to be eaten by dogs and wild birds. If the thesis presented in this book is correct, then there was no executed body either to be thrown into a mass grave or buried in a tomb with friendly care and the argument between Crossan and Brown is like the argument between the Jews and Christians of the first century about whether the tomb was empty because Jesus rose from the dead or whether it was empty because the disciples stole the body because in fact there was no empty tomb to begin with.

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