Jesus a Legend: A Dozen Reasons

C.S. Lewis is famous for his Liar, Lunatic, or Lord trilemma—Jesus must be a liar (he knew that his claims of deity were false), a lunatic (he was crazy, which explains his nutty claims), or he was who he said he was, the Lord. But, of course, this ignores the bin into which we put similar claims—Legend. (For more background, read the introductory post.)

Let’s consider possible Christian rebuttals to the legend hypothesis.

“Legend” isn’t the consensus view among scholars. You lampoon Creationists for rejecting the scientific consensus, but you’re guilty of the same error here.

Who are these scholars? Are they Christian theologians as well? If so, could they be (dare I say it?) biased? Historians filter supernatural explanations out of history, labeling supernatural claims myth or legend.

Consider the consensus response of Muslim scholars to the gospel story. They reject it, and yet they have no bias against supernatural explanations and they’re experienced with ancient documents. If Christian scholars accept the gospel story but Muslim scholars don’t, then it looks like religious scholars can shoehorn data to fit their religious worldview. My conclusion: the consensus of religious scholars is quite different from a scientific consensus.

Jesus claimed to be God. The tomb was empty. The disciples believed they’d met the risen Lord. These facts can’t be simply dismissed.

The story says that Jesus claimed to be God. The story says that the tomb was empty. The story says that Merlin could change his shape. The story says that Grendel was a big, scary monster. We must go beyond the stories to figure out the actual history.

The empty tomb, the risen Jesus, the martyred disciples, and so on are part of the story. The entire story is suspect—the New Testament isn’t even internally consistent on whether Jesus remained on earth for one day or forty days—so Christians can’t use one part of the story (crucifixion plus empty tomb) to support another (resurrection).

And beyond the earliest days of the religion, early Christians were believers because they’d been converted, not because they were witnesses to supernatural events, just like today. The 9/11 hijackers believed in Paradise for martyrs, but that doesn’t mean that that’s true. We have no good reason to imagine that eyewitnesses wrote the gospels rather than someone simply documenting the Jesus story as it had developed within their church community.

Arguments explaining away the resurrection have all failed. These claim that Jesus “swooned” and wasn’t killed by the crucifixion, the women mistakenly went to the wrong tomb, the disciples stole the body, and the “risen Jesus” was just a hallucination. These are universally rejected by scholars.

Christians love these arguments because they’re easily knocked down, but I don’t use them and I don’t know of any modern atheist who uses them either. These arguments assume that the empty tomb is history; I say that it’s just a story.

The Jesus story is corroborated by non-Christian historians.

Josephus (born about 7 years after the death of Jesus), Pliny (31 years), Suetonius (39 years), and the others said little more than “there are people called Christians who worship a man called Jesus,” and sometimes a lot less than this. These are natural claims and do nothing to support the Bible’s supernatural claims. It’s not like we have an objective article from the Jerusalem Times written immediately after the each miracle.

You don’t think much of the evidence of the gospel story, but you must admit that it’s something. It’s more evidence than you have. You have no case without positive evidence of your own. For a scientific issue, you provide a scientific argument, but you’re in the domain of history now, and you must play by its rules. You have an alternate explanation of the gospel story? Then provide your historical evidence.

I don’t have contemporary evidence that refutes the claim that George Washington could fly. Must I provide evidence of contemporaries reporting Washington not flying before you’ll reject that claim? Couldn’t I simply refute such a claim by pointing to likelier explanations of the facts?

We will never have documentation by someone who saw Jesus not walk on water. Never. (And how compelling would that be anyway?) So what does that mean—that the gospels are historically accurate? No—the plausible natural explanation always trumps the supernatural.

The Christian claim is: Nothing explains the facts better than an all-powerful, all-knowing, omnipresent god creating the universe and sending Jesus to spread his message. This is about as remarkable a claim as could be stated, and yet it is tossed out lightly. Christians seem to imagine that “God did it” is as plausible as the natural explanation that stories grow with the retelling.

The Christian has the burden of proof, and it’s an enormous burden given this enormous claim.

The disciples died martyr’s deaths. Who would go do their death defending a lie?

I don’t argue that it’s a lie; I argue that it’s a legend. Both are false, but the error in a legend isn’t deliberate. (I’ve already responded to the argument “Who would die for a lie?”)

I don’t imagine a sinister mastermind behind the creation of Christianity, just like there is no reason to imagine one behind Zoroastrianism or Mithraism, and there is none behind the corruption of a message in the game of Telephone. It’s just a story—a legend that grew over time.

I admit that I don’t know that the gospel story is false, and I don’t know that the supernatural elements were added during the decades of oral history. What I’m saying is that this is the null hypothesis; this is where we start. Only with extraordinary evidence (which doesn’t exist) can a supernatural explanation replace this.

The gospel story, the story of the George Washington of Galilee, the savior who was going to come back any day now to save the Jews’ bacon but who still hasn’t returned after 2000 years, evolved during 40 years of oral transmission. It was finally written down during a time when supernatural explanations were accepted and, indeed, were often the most plausible explanation people had. It came from Palestine, the crossroads between Greek, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian cultures, each of which brought their own competing god claims.

Given our own experience with stories quickly getting out of hand (consider celebrities’ lives, for example), the Jesus story being a legend seems exceedingly plausible. The Christian position has the burden of proof, a burden that has yet to be met.

This list of Christian arguments is concluded in the next post.

If [Christianity] offered us just the kind of universe we had always expected,
I should feel we were making it up.
But, in fact, it is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up.
It has just that queer twist about it that real things have.
— C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Photo credit: Liliane Polak

Is Life Absurd Without God? A Reply to WLC’s Influential Article (2 of 3).
Is Life Absurd Without God? A Reply to WLC’s Influential Article (3 of 3).
The Future of Christianity and Atheism
Is Life Absurd Without God? A Reply to WLC’s Influential Article.
About Bob Seidensticker

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