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Another Jewish Miracle Worker

One more post dealing with my memory book before moving on to other things.   I thought readers of the blog might be interested in the following passage, where I talk about a famous Jewish teacher who was known, on the basis of eyewitness reports, to heal the sick, cast out demons, and raise the dead.  No, I’m not talking about Jesus.  I’m talking about the an 18th century holy man, who founded Hasidic Judaism.  Here is what I have to say, in the course of my chapter 3.  (The following is a relatively unedited draft: it is not polished yet for style or typos, so don’t worry about those….  The discussion occurs in the middle of a chapter on the value of eyewitness testimony; I include the preceding paragraph to give some context)

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To sum up the situation, consider the words of one of the world’s leading experts on distorted memory, Daniel Schacter, “Numerous experiments have demonstrated ways in which imagining events can lead to the development of false memories for those events.”[1]

But does such research have any bearing on the memories about Jesus, a great teacher and miracle worker, by eyewitnesses or by those who later were told stories by eyewitnesses – or even those told stories by people who were not eyewitnesses?   Can imagining that a great religious leader said and did something make someone remember that he really said or did these things?  It might be interesting to address that question by looking at another famous Jewish teacher.  For my example I have chosen a person from the modern period known as the Baal Shem Tov.   He was the 18th century founder of Hasidic Judaism.

 

Memories of the Baal Shem Tov

The name Baal Shem Tov is Hebrew for “Master of the Good Name.”  It was bestowed on various Jewish holy men who were thought to have special, mystical insight into the nature and reality of God (who was called, reverentially, “the good name”).   Even though the designation was given to others, “the” Baal Shem Tov refers to a Jewish teacher named Israel ben Eliezer (1700-1760 CE) who was known for his compelling teachings and mystical powers.   The designation is often shortened into an acronymn, so sometimes he is simply called “the Besht.”[2]

Even though he was not just like Jesus – very, very far from it! – the Besht was remembered in some intriguingly similar ways.  He was thought to be…

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Tom  May 6, 2015

    Fascinating!

  2. Avatar
    Jason  May 6, 2015

    What do you make of the reports of the Besht miracles in the post-enlightenment world? Does it make any difference for the collective memories of believers or historians that the reports largely were made after Galileo?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 7, 2015

      My sense is that the people telling the stories were not touched by the Enlightenment.

  3. Avatar
    Scott  May 6, 2015

    “… I neither added nor omitted anything. Every word is true and I did not change a word”

    That sounds a great deal like Papias’ account of Mark’s gospel!

  4. Avatar
    avonthalonus  May 6, 2015

    A closer parallel to Jesus and equally well-attested as the Besht by contemporary eyewitnesses (including woodblock portraits) would be Sabbatai Zevi.

    His story also proves that an anti-nomian Messiah turned God-incarnate can arise directly from within orthodox rabbinic Judaism without any need for Gentile misinterpretations.

    • Avatar
      avonthalonus  May 6, 2015

      Actually with Sabbatai, unlike Besht, you’ve got much better biographical info and contemporary reports in print and manuscript from both Jew and Gentile eyewitnesses all over the world recording what they saw as it was happening. Lots of first-hand stories of miracles and mass prophesying of crowds in the streets etc. etc. I think the original writings and letters of his chief “prophet”, Nathan of Gaza, from his own hand, still survive.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 7, 2015

      Yes, that’s a good one too!

  5. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 6, 2015

    Fascinating. I just read about this Jewish Holy Man somewhere and, at the time, thought that he illustrated some of the points that you make in this blog, but I cannot remember where I read about him? Memory?????

  6. Avatar
    Wilusa  May 6, 2015

    Somewhat off-topic: I still don’t understand *how* you’ve become convinced that the things you find “inspiring” in the Gospels were really said by Jesus, not composed and attributed to him by the better-educated writers of the Gospels (including Q). Or am I wrong in thinking you believe he really said them?

    If he didn’t, Jesus may just have been like…a convenient *coat-rack*, that a bunch of people hung their coats on because it was there, handy.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 7, 2015

      I think he didn’t say a lot of things attributed to him. I cover this in the book. For a fuller treatment, see my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.

  7. talitakum
    talitakum  May 6, 2015

    Sorry, I think I miss the point here. The fact that we have many examples of “miracles” accounts (from Jesus to Baal Shem Tov) doesn’t necessarily imply that such signs didn’t or can’t happen. At the opposite, one may argue that many different people in different regions/cultures over history had such experiences. Memory distortion could be at play by exaggerating such signs in quantity and magnitude, also providing discrepant descriptions of the same events from different witnesses.
    If it’s a matter of comparing memories abut Jesus and Baal Shem Tov, then we shouldn’t probably focus on *what* is remembered, but *why* it was remembered. In my opinion the *why* can help us understanding what were the differences between the historical jesus and historical Baal Shem Tov, so that Jesus is considered God by billion of people and Baal Shem Tov with dozen of other “miracle workers” didn’t leave any relevant footprint in history..

    • Bart
      Bart  May 7, 2015

      Yes, whether the miracles happened or not is not necessarily related to whether there are similarities between Jesus and the Besht. But I am not at all inclined to think that Jesus’ are more likely historical simply because 2 billion people think they are. 2 billion people believe all sorts of things. Doesn’t make them true.

      • Avatar
        Xeronimo74  May 8, 2015

        Exactly.

      • talitakum
        talitakum  May 8, 2015

        Sure, neither true nor false. The number of believers only tell us that there are a lot of people that believe in miracles even in post-Enlightenment era. Also, it seems that such diverse miracles’ memories do not always lead people to conclude that someone is God incarnate. However – the number of witnesses to these “miraculous/supernatural” events across space and time, may also tell us that many people could be truly convinced to have experienced/witnessed a “miracle” (being it real or not).

  8. Avatar
    jbjbjbjbjb  May 6, 2015

    It’s an interesting parallel to be sure. Would it also be helpful to point out that this other memory example from the 18th century does not occur in a vacuum. The Jesus of the four gospels, I am assuming, would have been well known by this Jewish Besh fella. Even if as a Jew he might have rejected Jesus’ messiahship, he might have seen in some of Jesus’ works some of the proofs needed to be that special sent one. Correct?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 7, 2015

      Yes, just as the miracles of Jesus’ predecessors would have been known to him.

  9. Avatar
    godspell  May 6, 2015

    Much more recently (he died in 1994), Menachem Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, was acclaimed as Messiah by many of his followers, though there is no evidence he ever encouraged this belief. Which makes me wonder if Jesus did, in fact, tell anyone he was the Messiah.

  10. Avatar
    Adam0685  May 7, 2015

    If remember right, you just passed the three year mark of the blog. How much have you raised total?

  11. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  May 7, 2015

    I’m wondering if this is the most recent person, who we have recorded in history, as someone who was remembered as having miraculous powers?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 8, 2015

      Oh no — there are scores of people still today alleged to be doing miracles.

      • Pattycake1974
        Pattycake1974  May 11, 2015

        I guess I meant as famous as Buddha, Jesus, or Besht. Not like the televangelists that we have today.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 12, 2015

          I’m not sure the Besht was all that famous –not as much, for example, as Oral Roberts!

  12. Avatar
    jpal  May 11, 2015

    I think it was Stevan Davies in, “Jesus the Healer” that describes how the removal of guilt could cause a healing to take place. Guilt could be removed by people accepting the teaching of Jesus. I was wondering if you have heard of this theory and agree with it. It seems like a good explanation of how Jesus came to be able to heal people.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 11, 2015

      Yes, I’m familiar with it. I don’t buy it, but I see the attractiveness of it. (If simply removing someone’s guilt would heal their blindness or paralysis, all of us would be going around forgiving guilt! We wouldn’t need hospitals!)

  13. Avatar
    DennisJensen  December 18, 2018

    I notice I’m a few years late in adding to this discussion but then again, I’m a few years late in finding this web page. Since I found this particular discussion so interesting, I hope no one minds that I add to it now. I also notice you have a 400 word limit but since I had a lot to say, I’ll send these comments in increments.

    PART 1

    Years ago as an undergraduate I remember reading Martin Buber’s The Legend of Baal Shem, a shorter account of some of the more interesting purported events in his life, but no one ever suggested that these tales could actually claim any historical credibility. The legends tell us that Baal Shem cast out oppressive spirits, bound demons, foretold the future, exposed people’s secret sins, saw events in distant locations, ascended to heaven to confer with God and other spiritual beings and the righteous dead, miraculously shortened a long journey, flew through the air, could become invisible, sometimes would be accompanied by the glow of the Shekinah glory of God, healed illnesses (though interestingly, sometime his greatest efforts were powerless), and showed greater power or wisdom than the greatest rabbis, physicians, and sorcerers. He even cast the spirit of the Jewish heretic Shabbeti Tsevi to the lowest hell where Jesus was consigned. (Seventeenth century rabbi Shabbeti claimed to be the Messiah and gained a following but in the end he converted to Islam under threat of death by Ottoman authorities.)

    Rabbi Dov Ber, the son-in-law of Baal Shem’s scribe, first wrote In Praise of Baal Shem Tov 54 years after Baal Shem’s death. The stories were passed on orally until the first publication. But it also sounds as though some of his teachings were passed on in writing earlier (xv, Dan Ben-Amos and Jerome Mintz’ translated edition).

    Ehrman says, “The problem is that his two chief disciples recorded very different accounts of his words.” Now if the different accounts actually contradict each other, then at least one of the contradictory statements cannot be true. If someone claims a contradiction in Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels, this in itself does not show us that there is a contradiction. It must be shown that any claimed resolution of the problem fails. Perhaps some modern followers of Baal Shem would say the same of his received teachings—this I don’t know.

  14. Avatar
    DennisJensen  December 18, 2018

    PART 2

    Possibly Baal Shem’s disciples distorted his teachings and we cannot be sure of what he taught. If this is true, I don’t think we see the same problem in the Gospels. The writers might have colored Jesus’ teachings with their own special emphases and many, possibly even most of the teachings we find in the Synoptics might be equivalent to paraphrases or sometimes even summaries, but in any case we could still have Jesus’ essential teachings. Ehrman’s comparison of the Gospels with the currently accepted teachings of Baal Shem does not give reason to think differently. If it is admitted that Baal Shem’s received teachings are so distorted, we do not have reason to think Jesus’ are until more evidence is given.

    If Q was written in the 50s then we would have much of Jesus’ basic teachings in writing 20 to 30 years after his death. If Jesus’ first disciples and followers were very sure that they had seen him alive after his execution, it seems very likely that they would pass on accounts of his life and particularly his teachings orally until they were written down. Not only would people like Peter be passing on these teachings, “again and again and again” (as Licona puts it), but their audiences would likely include (especially at the beginning) others who had seen the same events and heard the same teachings. These witnesses would correct Peter (and the other teachers) if they made a mistake in their public preaching. With this checking procedure, the stories and teachings would have been solidified before long into fairly definite accounts.

    My own suspicion is that much of the differences in the Synoptics arise from the different writers’ varying emphases and style rather than differences in the oral history. It is also likely that one writer either may not have heard or purposely chose to omit a particular segment of oral history another one recorded if those segments were deemed less important (e.g., Matthew and Luke’s respective omission of some portions of the nativity story the other included).

  15. Avatar
    DennisJensen  December 18, 2018

    PART 3

    I think Mark was more likely written (as I believe most scholars would claim) from Peter’s remembrances; Luke used Mark’s Gospel and other eyewitnesses; and Matthew was an eyewitness himself though he deferred to Peter’s authority and thus used much of Mark’s account. I know that Ehrman will contest almost every one of these points (if not every one), but for now in order to avoid getting too far from the basic topic, I won’t get into these other arguments. All in all, I think we have a pretty good account of Jesus’ teachings. For lack of space, I won’t get into the arguments for the historicity of the Gospel accounts of the events of Jesus’ life. Maybe in another forum.

    Even though we should notice just how close the different Synoptic accounts actually are, we should also keep in mind that if God was guiding the formation of the Gospels, it is very possible that God allowed some historical errors to be included in some Gospels because they simply were not significant enough to be omitted (e.g., Matthew’s claim that Jarius told Jesus his daughter was dead and Mark’s claim that he only said she was ill.) It didn’t matter to God since such errors would have no effect on one’s knowledge of Jesus’ teachings or character or the basic events of his life.

    One final point, Mintz and Ben-Amos comment that Hasidism utilized the use and sharing of such legends for mystical purposes. “Tales, like prayers, had meanings beyond their literal interpretation. This belief was one of the factors which contributed to the development of the rich Hasidic folklore” (In Praise of, 337-8, tale 194). This admission causes one to much more seriously question the historicity of these tales. We don’t have that problem with the Gospels.

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