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Was Jesus a legend? Part I

In this post I look at a fourth explanatory option to remedy the Lunatic, Liar, Lord argument, explain modern scholarship’s hermeneutic of suspicion, and show why the gospels can be trusted when it comes to Jesus.

In the previous post, “Liar, Lunatic, Lord?” I looked at the trilemma for the deity of Jesus, made famous by C. S. Lewis. It goes like this.

  1. Either Jesus was a liar, a lunatic, or is Lord.
  2. Jesus is not a Liar.
  3. Jesus is not a Lunatic.
  4. Therefore, Jesus is Lord.

As there are multiple good reasons to think that premises 2 and 3 are true, if one is going to avoid the conclusion in 4, the question will be is the first premise true, or does premise 1 exhaust all the possible explanatory options? This is the principle weakness of the trilemma argument.

However, the failing of the trilemma argument is easily remedied with a small adjustment.

1`. Either Jesus was a liar, a lunatic, is Lord, or a legend.

This additional option not to say that a person called Jesus never actually existed, but rather that the stories about Jesus life and ministry were, in their transmission, distorted over time, so that the miracle-working Jesus presented in the New Testament bares little resemblance to the actual historical person, Jesus of Nazareth. The internationally respected theologian John Hick explains:

Now it used to be assumed—and in some Christian circles is still assumed—that this Jesus, who lived in Palestine in the first third of the first century AD, was conscious of being God incarnate, so that you must either believe him or reject him as a deceiver or a megalomaniac. “Mad, bad, or God” went the argument. And of course if Jesus did indeed claim to be God incarnate, then this dilemma, or trilemma, does arise. But did he claim this? The assumption that he did is largely based on the Fourth Gospel, for it is here that Jesus makes precisely such claims. He says “I and the Father are one,” “No one comes to the Father, but by me” and “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” But it is no secret today, after more than a hundred years of scholarly study of the scriptures, that very few New Testament experts now hold that the Jesus who actually lived ever spoke those words, or their Aramaic equivalents. They are much more probably words put into his mouth by a Christian writer who is expressing the view of Christ which had been arrived at in his part of the church, probably two or three generations after Jesus’ death. And it is likewise doubted whether the few sayings of the same kind in the other gospels are authentic words of Jesus. How, then, did this Christian deification of Jesus—which began within the first decades after his death and was essentially completed by the end of the first century—take place? Such a development is not as hard to understand in the ancient world as it would be today.[1]

When Hick wrote this is was 1977. Since then there has been something of a revolution in historical Jesus studies, so that the tide of scholarly opinion has turned back towards the faith taught throughout the millennia. Many scholars now recognise that Jesus’s claims about himself and the way he conducted his ministry, both implicitly and explicitly show that he believed himself to be acting in God’s place, with a unique sense of authority that belonged solely to God. I will gradually unfold the reasons for this in future posts.

Regardless, Hick had a good point. It’s not enough to show the early church believed Christ was divine; you needed to also show that Jesus himself actually claimed to be divine. Do legendary elements of the life of Jesus slowly accrue over time, as in the game of Chinese Whispers (or Telephone, as the game is known elsewhere), so that the message becomes more and more fantastic as its passed from one person to the next?

Confronting this issue one has to contend with the central question facing modern biblical criticism. Should we assume the that gospels are reliable unless they are proven to be unreliable? Or should we assume that the gospels are unreliable unless they are proven to be reliable? That is, are they innocent until proven guilty, or guilty until proven innocent? Most sceptical critics adopt a hermeneutic of suspicion, which is to say they assume the gospels are unreliable as a source of historical information.

James Robinson (1924-2016) believed the presence of theology in the gospels place the burden of proof on the one who would ascribe some attribute to Jesus, and not the one who denied it. Thus if some feature of the historical Jesus could not be proved to be authentic, we should regard it as inauthentic. This presumption has been sharply criticised but lies behind much of New Testament scholarship today. There are good reasons to think that approach is a wrong way of going about things.

  1. There was insufficient time for legendary influences to erase the core historical facts. Some people argue that we can’t trust documents written 2000 years ago, however, the time that matters for the historian is the time between the events and the time the events were recorded in the sources we have. Not the age of the sources themselves.
  2. The gospels are not analogous to folk tales or contemporary “urban legends” The gospels are unlike folk tales and urbane legends because they are about real people who actually lived, real events that actually happened, and real places that actually existed. Josephus, for instance, talks about John the Baptist, Pontius Pilate, and the high priest Caiaphas.
  3. The Jewish transmission of sacred traditions was highly developed and reliable People compare the transmission of the gospels to the game of Chinese whispers. But in an oral culture like that of first-century Israel, the ability to memorise and retain large tracts of oral tradition was a highly prized and highly developed skill.
  4. There were significant restraints on the embellishment of traditions about Jesus, such as the presence of eyewitnesses and the apostles’ supervision. The original apostles were custodians of the authentic history and were still on the scene when it was being written down, as well as many eye witnesses. Paul, for instance, entreats his readers to enquire of those who saw the resurrection first hand.
  5. The gospel writers have a proven track record of historical reliability. More on this could be said. Suffice to say now that, where the gospels can be checked for their historical reliability, discrepancies are the exception and not the norm.

On the basis of these five points it is reasonable to assume the historical reliability of what the gospels say about Jesus unless they are proven wrong. But for apologetic reasons, should we wish to adopt a position of neutrality or scepticism, then we have to establish some sort of criteria with which we can judge things to be authentically historical or not. For this we can use the common and accepted tools and rules for historical investigation. I will also look at in a future post, as well as what they reveal when they are applied to the gospels.

Footnote:

  1. John Hick, The Centre of Christianity (City: Harper & Row, 1978), 27-28.
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