The Stories We Tell

The discussion over fictitious quotes reminded me of an old Jewish joke about a lawyer summoning a Rabbi to be a character witness:

Before summoning the rabbi to the witness stand, the lawyer, it is reported, approached the judge and said, “Your honor, the rabbi who is about to testify has an impeccable reputation among his fellow Jews. They tell a story that one day he came home and saw a thief rummaging through his living room. The frightened thief climbed out a window and ran off with some of the rabbi’s possessions, and the rabbi ran after him, shouting, ‘I declare all my property ownerless,’ so that the thief would not be guilty of having committed a crime.”

The judge looked at the lawyer skeptically. “Do you believe that story really happened?”

“I don’t know, your honor,” the lawyer answered, “but they don’t tell stories like that about you and me.”
[From Hillel: If Not Now, When?]

In other words, even when we’re pretty sure that the stories about Jesus are not historically accurate, perhaps we can still believe that they attest to his character. We can’t know that he ever said anything ever attributed to him, but we can believe that early Christians heard the saying and thought, “That sounds like something Jesus would have said …”

Of course, the question becomes whether or not we can make that leap. We know that there were proxy battles between different factions within the early movement. Maybe it’s not what Jesus would have said, but it’s what Mark/Matthew/Luke wanted him to have said, or believed that he would have said.

Romance at Mars Hill
Being Agent Scully
Atheists in the Evangelical Mind
Bob Cargill on the Holy Grail
  • Artor

    “Of course, the question becomes whether or not we can make that leap.”

    Of course not. First, there’s no convincing evidence that the man actually lived. Second, attributions of character from people who missed meeting him by decades are not exactly reliable either. Would you credit anything I had to say about the character of Errol Flynn, whom I never met, and who died long before I was born? You know, Hitler was an overflowing cup filled with the very cream of human goodness. In all the time I’ve known him he’s never done anything immoral.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    … or believed that he would have said (if he actually existed).

  • GubbaBumpkin

    People told stories about Paul Bunyan as well. Maybe any particular story was not exactly true, such as Paul Bunyan tames the Whistling River in which we learn that Mr. Bunyan was dedicated, patient and resourceful; but each is intended to convey something about the character of Mr. Bunyan.

  • busterggi

    “Criminals are a superstious cowardly lot so my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night – black, terrible…”

    I believe the Batman would say such a thing therefor it…

  • VinnyJH

    If it is a leap to say “perhaps we can still believe that they attest to his character,” I think it is fair to say that we’ve got squat.

  • Cecil

    I think there’s at least one case where it definately happened, which is the story of ‘the woman caught in adultery’ and how Jesus saved her. That wasn’t in the earliest drafts and appears first at the margins, but then someone copied it into the main gospel ’cause it seemed like something Jesus would do (probably).

    But I’m not really sure why it matters. You could easily say that people told stories about Hercules being brave and strong, or King Arthur being fair and kind. But what does that tell us about reality? I guess it tells us something about what people back then wanted for their lives, but it’s no compelling reason to follow Jesus in particular, instead of, say, Gandhi or the Buddha.

  • Mick

    He that is not with me is against me. Matthew 12:30

    He that believeth not shall be damned. Mark 16:16

    Whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath. Matthew 13:12

    If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. Luke 14:26

    Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. Matthew 10:34