In my book Jesus Before the Gospels, I discuss how “memories” of a famous person based on eyewitness testimony can be easily distorted. Among other examples I use, is a famous miracle-working holy-person from outside the Christian tradition that is in many ways strikingly similar to the situation with Jesus (there are obviously big differences as well). Here is what I say about it in my book:
To sum up the situation, consider the words of one of the world’s leading experts on false memory, Daniel Schacter: “Numerous experiments have demonstrated ways in which imagining events can lead to the development of false memories for those events.”
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 did say and do 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”). Such a person was a “master”of the name because he knew how to use it to perform miracles. Even though the designation was given to others, “the” Baal Shem Tov refers to a Jewish teacher named Israel ben Eliezer (ca. 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.”
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 a charismatic figure adored by his followers to whom he taught his own distinctive version of the Jewish faith; he was said to have had direct encounters with God; he was allegedly able to heal the sick, cast out demons, control the weather, predict the future, and even raise the dead. He was also assigned other miracle working powers not normally associated with Jesus: he could become invisible, fly through the air, and provide protection against the spells of sorcerers. As was the case with Jesus, the miraculous deeds and persuasive teachings of the Besht were written down a generation after his death, and these accounts were alleged to have been based on the accurate reports of eyewitnesses.
Their messages were not particularly similar. The Besht was a proponent of pious ecstasy and insisted that God was present in all things. His goal in life, and the goal to which he urged his followers, was to attain a kind of unity with God through intense concentration and by abandoning all thought of oneself. He was personally highly enthusiastic; his devotion was especially intent. But it is very difficult to know the specifics of what he taught. The problem is that his two chief disciples recorded very different accounts of his words. As one of the most recent and complete studies, by Jewish historian Moshe Rosman, has indicated, “If we understand that each man regarded the Besht’s teaching as raw material to be selected, shaped, and utilized in the service of his own vision, then the differences between them cease to confound. But then we must also admit that their transmission of the Besht’s sayings are not simply that.” In fact, he concludes, “It seems impossible to move beyond what tradition made of the Besht’s teaching to arrive at an articulate and nuanced explication of what that teaching was.” Yes indeed. Many have argued something similar with respect to the Christian accounts of Jesus.
Our principal source of information about the Besht comes in a series of anecdotes about his life written 54 years after his death, entitled In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov (in the Hebrew: Shivhei ha-Besht). The book was published in 1814 in Poland. Its author was Rabbi Dov Ber, who, as it turns out, was the son-in-law of a man who had been the personal scribe and secretary for the Besht, a rabbi called Alexander the Shohet (= butcher). The book contains 251 short tales about the Besht. Fifteen of these are said to have come directly from Alexander; the rest come from other sources, including the rabbi of the author’s own community who had heard them from his own teacher.
Throughout the tales the Besht heals the sick, exorcises dybbuks (restless souls of the dead who possess other people), and helps barren women conceive. He can ascend to heaven and miraculously shorten a journey. He is often shown to be superior to others he encounters: rabbinic scholars, medical doctors, and sorcerers. While those outside the Hasidic tradition might consider these stories simply to be pious fictions, legendary accounts based on hearsay, started by gullible devotees, the author Dov Ber himself claims they are rooted in reliable sources and relate historical realities. As he himself reflects, “I was careful to write down all the awesome things that I heard from truthful people. In each case I wrote down from whom I heard it. Thank God, who endowed me with memory, I neither added nor omitted anything. Every word is true and I did not change a word.”
Judge for yourself. Here are summaries of seven of the stories.
- Story 31. Dov Ber claims he heard this directly from his father-in-law (the Besht’s personal scribe). A scholar named Rabbi David came and stayed in the house of the Besht. In the middle of the night the rabbi awoke and to his horror saw a bright light underneath the oven. He thought that there was a fire. When he went to put it out with the contents of his chamber pot, he saw that it was the Besht, apparently in a trancelike state. Above him was a bright light shining like a rainbow. Rabbi David fainted. The next day he insisted and the Besht “revealed himself” to him, that is, he revealed his true nature.
- Story 98. This one also came from Dov Ber’s father-in-law. The Besht was living in the inn of a village that was experiencing a drought because a spell had been cast on it by a witch. The Besht prayed, and the rains came. The demon who empowered the witch told her what had happened. The witch sent the demon to attack the Besht, but the demon could not get within four steps of him. The Besht ordered the demon to attack instead a gentile woman sitting in a nearby house, and then the Besht imprisoned the demon in the forest. Later the Besht was walking by the forest and went in to see the demon sitting in its prison there. The Besht laughed and told his companions the story.
- Story 106. This one is told by another Rabbi. The Besht and another rabbi and their servants were traveling in the dead of winter and realized that they wouldn’t be able to make it home before they froze to death. The Besht ordered a stop. He then touched a tree with his finger and the tree caught fire. They warmed themselves sufficiently and went on their way.
- Story 220. The Besht was having a meal with some of his followers when suddenly he raised his arms and moved them as if he were swimming, saying, “Fool! Do this and you will be saved.” An hour later a man came to the door and told them that he had just fallen into a river but didn’t know how to swim. But then the thought came to him to try to move his arms in a certain way, and he swam to safety.
- Story 223. At the birth of a boy the Besht began to weep. He told the child’s father that when the boy had his bar mitzvah he would be drawn into the river. Sure enough, years later, on the special day, after the bar mitzvah ceremony, everyone went to the river to cool down from the hot summer sun. The boy was kept at home, but he sneaked off to enjoy some fun. When his father found out he grabbed the boy, took him back, and locked him in his room. Then a creature with a head and two hands came up out of the river, slapped his hands on the water, and declared in disgust that “The one who is mine is not here.”
- Story 237. One of Dov Ber’s teachers had a strong desire “to learn the language of the animals, birds, and palm trees. The Besht “revealed to him the essential profundity of the secrets of this knowledge,” so that he could hear the Besht with one ear and understand the conversations of the birds, animals, and other beasts with the other.
- Story 244. The Besht promised a certain man that he would have children, but none was forthcoming. When the man had become old, he continued to ask the Besht, and miraculously the man’s wife bore a son. But the boy died in a matter of days. The man complained to the Besht that he promised him progeny, but now the boy was dead. The Besht told him that the boy would come back to life. But it didn’t happen. After the customary number of days, the Besht instructed the man to prepare for the ritual of circumcision. He acquired the services of those who could perform the rite, and took the dead child to the synagogue. They cut his foreskin. Nothing happened. But then when the Besht said a blessing over him, the boy’s breath returned to him and blood gushed out of the incision.
There are many, many tales such as these throughout the account. And what is my point? Do I think the Besht actually had supernatural powers to do these things, to be transformed into a divine, glowing presence, to cast out and imprison demons, to ignite trees with his finger, to raise the dead, and all the rest? No, personally, I don’t believe it. But are the stories based ultimately on eyewitness reports? Writing some 55 years after the events the author claims they were indeed based on eyewitness testimony. Does that make them reliable? Even if devoted followers of the Besht say yes, virtually everyone else realizes that these allegedly eyewitness reports are anything but historical.
What then about the Gospels of the New Testament? If they are based on eyewitnesses are they necessarily accurate? Do they in every instance represent accurate memories? Given what we have seen in this chapter, I think the answer has to be no. They are not necessarily reliable. And, of course, they are not necessarily unreliable either! All of them have to be examined historically to see whether and how far they preserve accurate memories of Jesus and distorted memories.
 Daniel L. Schacter, “Constructive Memory,” p. 10.
 See, for example, Haya Bar-Izhak, “Modes of Characterization in Religious Narrative: Jewish Folk Legends about Miracle Worker Rabbis,” Journal of Folklore Research 27 (1990) 205-30; Moshe Rosman, Founder of Hasidism: A Quest for the Historical Ba’al Shem Tov. (Portland: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2013); and the Introduction to Dan Ben-Amos and Jerome R. Mintz, eds., In Praise of The Baal Shem Tov [Shivhei ha-Besht]. (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1993).
 Founder of Hasidism, p. 141.
 Dan Ben-Amos and Jerome R. Mintz, eds., In Praise of The Baal Shem Tov [Shivhei ha-Besth]. (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1993), the introductory “Writer’s Preface.”
Share Bart’s Post on These Platforms