According to best estimates, the first Gospel recording the life of Jesus (Mark) was composed about forty years after his crucifixion and quickly became firmly believed by hundreds if not thousands of people. Surely this is too soon, and its success too stunning, for Mark’s account to be largely fabricated.
Yet, we don’t have to journey back all the way to the time of Jesus to find a counterexample. King Arthur (sixth century), Robin Hood (twelfth century), and William Tell (thirteenth to fourteenth centuries) are well-known examples of English and Swiss popular figures who have tenuous evidential basis. Within a few years of their supposed deaths—and even in their own lifetimes—legends concerning Alexander the Great and Saint Francis of Assisi became current and were later reported as history. Sir William Wallace (1272–1305), the “Hero of Scotland,” was certainly a real historical figure. Yet his life story fell to extreme historical revisionism in the fifteenth century, which was reinforced by Sir Walter Scott in the early nineteenth century and more recently in the Academy Award-winning film Braveheart (1995). In our far more literate and, it is hoped, less superstitious times, how long did it take for “urban legends” to grow up surrounding the “disappearance” of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and of Elvis Presley in 1977, both of whom are widely rumored to have survived their apparent deaths? According to the French author Jules Renard (1864–1910), “The reward of great men is that, long after they are dead, one is not quite sure that they are dead.”
Could the “history” of the life of Jesus suffer from similar reconstruction? Could it be that Jesus stories were in the air ever since his death and with the passing of time began to be enhanced and accepted as fact? At a time and place when the study of mythology and oral tradition had yet to be inaugurated and stories of miracles were widely believed, the Gospel authors may have simply taken what they had heard about Jesus at face value. Dozens of gospels filling in otherwise “missing information” about Jesus, some contradicting the biblical Gospels, were written within 150 years of his death. We also know that many stories surrounding the life of Jesus and his disciples that are pictured in medieval and Renaissance Christian art, referenced in still-popular Christmas carols, and still widely believed have no basis in the New Testament. Consider the line from one carol: “We three kings of Orient are, bearing gifts we traverse from afar….” Wise men and shepherds are mentioned in Matthew (2:1–6) and Luke respectively (2:8–20) but no kings. The song very likely describes a later tradition taken from the three kings bringing gifts in Psalms 72:10–11. Even in a more enlightened era closer to our times, as I now exemplify with the “midnight ride” of Paul Revere, widely believed false legends can take permanent root soon after an event.
In The Atlantic in January 1861, the same month in which South Carolina seceded from the Union, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882) published his most celebrated poem, hoping to rally Americans to arms at a time of renewed national peril. Do you remember the hoofbeat of its stirring lines?
Listen my children, and you shall hear,
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year. . . .
One, if by land, and two, if by sea;
And I [Revere] on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm. . . .
For, borne on the night-wind of the past,
Through all our history to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear,
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.
Grant Wood’s 1931 painting Paul Revere’s Ride shows as from an aerial view a road winding through a soulless New England village, illuminated above by a brilliant moon against a dark background, and a tiny lone horse and rider galloping at great speed. The image of a solitary rider—receiving the signal and riding swiftly through the countryside and towns from Boston, on to Lexington, and then west to Concord, giving the alarm as he rode, shouting “The British are coming!” to a sleeping world—is burned into the national memory from childhood.
Yet it is largely a fabrication, a myth that grew up almost immediately after the ensuing battle at Concord and Lexington. True, forty-year old silversmith Paul Revere (1735–1818) spread the alarm that night, but he was not alone, nor did he make it to Concord as Longfellow claims; after he arrived at Lexington, he was captured by the British. William Dawes Jr. (1745–1799), whose name history has chosen to suppress, also rode that night and also made it to Lexington where he was stopped but eluded capture. Others also spread the alarm and helped Revere along the way. Despite Longfellow, Revere was not waiting on the other side of the Charles River for the signal; rather, he had known about it beforehand and had actually given instruction for the lanterns to be lit. Nor was Revere’s original purpose to arouse the countryside; it was to warn Sam Adams and John Hancock of their impending peril, because they were clear targets of the British regulars. Nor would Revere have shouted “The British are coming!,” because most colonists in 1775 regarded themselves as British!
Romantic side-legends grew up. Revere was supposed to have left home without his spurs, so he sent his faithful dog home with a message, and the dog returned shortly with them. When the two watermen who were to take Revere across river to Charlestown realized they needed to muffle their oars, a woman at a nearby house offered them her undergarments, still warm from her body, which, wrapped around the oars, served to silence their progress across the river. I could go on, but by now you should get the idea.
How could such distortions have arisen in these enlightened times? The historiography of the ride is ably traced in 1994 by David Hackett Fischer in Paul Revere’s Ride. He shows in detail how the legend of Paul Revere was originally formulated and continually remolded through more than two centuries to fit the changing purposes of the times.
Paul Revere was the most well-connected man who spread the alarm; he seems to have known everyone. So it is perhaps only natural that he would be given too much credit. The story as it evolved became too good to discount. Here was a lone man riding to warn a sleeping and unsuspecting country. In fact, elaborate preparations for war had long been underway. Revere’s first, matter-of-fact written account of the night was suppressed. Other participants, who took part in the events, could not resist embellishment here and there. After Revere’s death in 1818, the story grew. But it was not until some forty-three years later—in 1861 when Longfellow’s poem was printed, artfully misrepresenting the facts in the service of patriotism—that Revere became a national legend and a symbolic hero who ranked among the most important of the nation’s founders. As summarized by Fischer: “But the scholars never managed to catch up with Longfellow’s galloping hero. Generations of American schoolchildren were required to memorize Longfellow’s poem…. Whatever the failings of the poem as an historical account … it … elevated Paul Revere into a figure of national prominence, and made the midnight ride an important
event in American history.”
I hesitate to draw the connection: is it not obvious? Have we not seen the elements of this story before: the lone man, the underdog savior of his country, bravely and successfully carrying through to the end; the legends that grow up even during his life, some implicating bit-part actors; the continued embellishments that continue after his death; the suppression of disconfirming evidence; and four decades after his death, the power of the skillful poet, for his own well-intended peculiar ends, to permanently etch the legend onto the stone of our minds?
Lest you should think the story of Paul Revere is an anomaly in Revolutionary history, in his book Founding Myths: Stories that Hide Our Patriotic Past (2004), Ray Raphael runs through a roster of others myths, including those surrounding the creation and signing of the Declaration of Independence, Molly Pitcher (a complete fabrication), Sam Adams, Emerson’s “shot heard ’round the world” at the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the winter spent at Valley Forge by the soldiers of the Revolution, George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware, Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death!,” and so forth. Raphael’s primary thesis is that too much is falsely attributed to too few. If instead we accept the true complexity of U.S. history and make an effort to understand that the United States was created out of a rich tapestry of millions of words and deeds performed by millions of people, we will come to a more accurate—and in fact, far more inspiring—understanding of its democracy.
As seems likely, Jesus too became a magnet that attracted folklore to his swelling legend originally attributed to others. Interestingly, several overlapping and contemporaneous parables found in the Jewish Talmud suggest exactly that.
The process of formation of the American founding myth, 1,700 years after the creation of the Christian foundation myth, is similar in many ways. Let us close with the words of Ray Raphael:
Stories of the American Revolution were first communicated by word of mouth, and these folkloric traditions, infinitely malleable, provided fertile grounds for the invention of history…. After the fighting was done, this same crew [the colonists] downed pint after pint of hard cider while exchanging war stories. For decades, men and women of the early republic told and retold what had happened, augmenting and enriching their skeletal memories of actual events, removing what was too painful to recall, while embellishing what would be seen as heroic. At funerals or Fourth of July celebrations, orators used tales of the Revolution as grist for their rhetoric…. This vibrant oral tradition produced a history that was detailed and unfettered. Divested of any need for documentation, it went freely wherever it wanted.