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Jesus a Legend: A Dozen Reasons (Part 2)

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. (You may want to read the introductory post and part 1 of this list.)

Let’s conclude the list of twelve possible Christian rebuttals to the legend hypothesis.

Just how skeptical are you? If you doubt the Jesus story, why imagine you can trust the stories of other figures from ancient history—Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great, for example? If you dismiss the Jesus story for insufficient evidence, the same logic discards most of our knowledge of history.

The big difference between the gospel story and historical account of the great leaders of antiquity is that the gospel story makes miracle claims, and any such claims in historical accounts have been scrubbed out. I discuss this in depth here.

The game of Telephone is a poor analogy. There is no chance for participants to verify what they heard; they must simply repeat as best as they can a message that is deliberately convoluted. Not only could hearers of the gospel story ask for clarification, they could search out the source and verify it with him.

I agree that the game of Telephone is an incomplete analogy, in particular because of the huge time difference. A story passed from person to person over the course of 10 minutes can’t go through half a dozen people without significant change, and for the gospels we’re talking 30 to 60 years!

When you tell me a story, you’re right that I have the chance to make sure that I got it right, but why would I take advantage of that? I could easily have gotten it wrong but wouldn’t know. When I pass it on, particularly a story as long as the gospel, I will (inadvertently) add my errors. And so on as the story is retold from person to person—no maliciousness and no central authority directing things, just fallible people doing their fallible best.

The Christian position seems to imagine a web of authorities, quick to correct any error in each telling of the story. But it’s unreasonable to imagine these authorities everywhere, eavesdropping on each conversation like Big Brother. And when someone said, “Hold on—that’s not how I heard the Jesus story,” which person was right? There was no written authority to consult before the gospels. Oral history isn’t self-correcting; errors are likelier to accumulate with time.

Could eyewitnesses have been the final authority? That’s implausible given that eyewitness were likely far away. The gospels were written in cities all over the eastern Mediterranean, decades after the events. We can have no certainty that the handful of disciples of Jesus still alive at the time would be in Alexandria and Corinth and Damascus and Rome (or wherever the various gospels were written), ready to rein in incorrect stories.

The gospels were written by (or perhaps were one step removed) from eyewitnesses. And don’t you think that the sight of something as remarkable as the risen Christ would be seared almost flawlessly into someone’s memory? That memory wouldn’t fade in a few decades.

This is a poor analogy. In the first place, we start with the fact that we have the gospel story and work backwards to find the most plausible explanation; we don’t start with the assumption that Jesus rose from the dead and sift facts to support it.

We have no good reason to imagine that the gospels were written by eyewitnesses. The legends behind this claim are flimsy.

As for the accuracy of memory, I might give you an enthusiastic and detailed account of my wedding day and then my wife might give you a different account (“No, it was your Uncle Jim, not my Uncle Ralph, who spilled the punch”). There’s a big difference between confidence and accuracy. We’ve probably all been embarrassed after confidently stating a recollection only to discover later that we were wrong.

Besides, you will declare any supernatural event in my wedding story to be a false recollection! (“No, really—we ran out of wine but some guy made some out of water and saved the day.”) Why give a pass to a story from 2000 years ago that you would reject if it happened yesterday?

You underestimate the memory skills of the ancients. They were trained for this. Think of Homer and other poets who flawlessly retold the Iliad from memory.

Was flawless repeatability even the goal for these poets or would they adapt the tale to the audience? (I’ve written more on that here.)

More importantly, there’s no evidence that early Christians were cautioned to avoid repeating the gospel until they could repeat the entire thing perfectly. If the point of the Jesus story is that the Messiah has come, who cares about the details? For passing along the gospel story in the early decades before it was written, the gossip fence is a better analogy than Homer.

If Jesus rose from the dead and the apostles witnessed and faithfully passed on the story, they did the best that they could. What more could you expect? It was preserved in short order with writing, the most advanced technology they had. Don’t criticize first-century Christians for not having cameras.

Let’s accept that the documentation we have of Jesus’ life is pretty darn good, considering. How does that help provide adequate evidence to support Christianity’s enormous claim? I care nothing for the fact that providing adequate evidence is really hard—without it, the atheist isn’t justified in accepting the claim. In fact, neither is the Christian.

No Christian lets the believer from another religion get away with insufficient evidence, and rightly so. Christianity must meet the same burden.

You’re biased against the supernatural.

And you’re not? If you heard of miracles attributed to Ganesh (a Hindu god) or Hachiman (Shinto) or Sumatinatha (Jain), would you accept that as readily as who won Sunday’s football game?

The facts that we start with are the text of the gospels and the historians’ evaluation of the quality of that evidence. We must find the best explanation for this. We don’t start with a Christian presupposition. That the gospels are legend is quite plausible given how we see stories evolve in our own experience.

What’s the likelihood that Odysseus met a Cyclops, Beowulf killed Grendel, or Jesus returned from the dead? Pretty much zero. The gospel story is as absurd as the moon being made of green cheese.

There are lots of nice things you can do with sand,
but do not try building a house on it.
— C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

About Bob Seidensticker
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  • Richard S. Russell

    Given the choices — liar, lunatic, lord, or legend — I always find myself wondering why people skip so quickly over “lunatic”. It seems like a perfectly plausible choice, entirely consistent with the evidence (such as it is). Is it just that we’re supposed to be polite and not point and comment out loud on the crazy person? I’m not! Jim Jones was nuts. David Koresh was nuts. William Miller was nuts. Joseph Smith was a con man (IE, liar). Jury’s still out on Mary Baker Eddy, but it doesn’t look good for “divinely inspired”.
     
    So, since we’ve had 1st-hand experience with lunatics (charismatic ones, to be sure, but crazy nonetheless) inspiring cult-like followings, why not rank that as the #1 explanation for the success of the Jesus myth?

    • J-Rex

      That’s a great point. In the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis repeats this logic to determine whether Lucy is telling the truth about finding Narnia. He says something like, “You only need to look her in the eyes to see that she isn’t crazy.” This is a very simplistic view of crazy. If you’ve ever been around compulsive liars, you get first hand experience of how someone can be completely crazy but seem completely sane.
      I think when they say “lunatic” they’re assuming that it’s some obviously crazy person that no one else would ever follow. They forget that there have been many other undeniably crazy people throughout history that still managed to convince many people to follow them.

      • Bob Seidensticker

        C.S. Lewis said: “That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed. If I 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. So let us leave behind all these boys’ philosophies—these over-simple answers.”

        So he knows it’s true because he just has sort of a sixth sense about it. Or something.

      • smrnda

        The idea that you can tell someone ‘isn’t crazy’ from the look in their eyes just demonstrates that the person who wrote that sentence had no understanding of mental health issues, period.

        As far as over-simple answers, religions tend to go wholesale into that department.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Richard:

      Dude, where’s your decorum?! You can’t just call liars “liars” and nutjobs “nutjobs.” It just ain’t polite.

    • Andrew G.

      Good post on the “Lunatic” arm of the tri/tetralemma from Yvain, who is in the dealing-with-mad-people trade:

      http://squid314.livejournal.com/343999.html

  • J-Rex

    I like the first point a lot. If I found out that Julius Caesar never existed, my response would be, “Huh. Interesting.” But it would not affect my life in any way. I have no reason to question it partly because there are no supernatural claims surrounding him that anyone buys into and partly because it doesn’t affect me.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Gotthold Lessing wrote about his “broad, ugly ditch”–the ditch that he needed evidence (not faith) to cross. If the belief didn’t matter much, who really cares? Did Julius Caesar get murdered on the Ides of March? Doesn’t much matter, so believe it or reject it or get mired in the historical debate. But religious claims are of a different sort.

      He said: “We all believe that an Alexander [the Great] lived who in a short time conquered almost all Asia. But who, on the basis of this belief, would risk anything of great permanent worth, the loss of which would be irreparable? Who, in consequence of this belief, would forswear forever all knowledge that conflicted with this belief? Certainly not I.”

  • arkenaten

    “And you’re not? If you heard of miracles attributed to Ganesh (a Hindu god) or Hachiman (Shinto) or Sumatinatha (Jain), would you accept that as readily as who won Sunday’s football game?”

    And yet, they just can’t fathom the logic in this approach.
    I have yet to work out how such a ridiculous tale managed to embed itself in human culture deeper than an “Alabama tick”.
    One is forced to ponder that maybe it wasn’t Jesus who was insane (as he still may turn out to be a myth) but rather those that have followed the ridiculous notion that he climbed out of a tomb, dusted himself off, said a few words then chuffed off to heaven.

    Excellent post as usual.

    • Blessed Jim

      You just reminded me of Monty Python’s life of Brian. No matter what Brian did his crazy fan club proclaimed him the messiah.

      • arkenaten

        “Well I say you are, Lord, and I’ve seen a few”
        “What sort of chance does that give me? Okay, I AM the Messiah”

        “There’s no Messiah in here. There’s a mess alright, but no Messiah.”

        One of the all time classic comedies. Think I might well dig out the DVD this evening!
        :)

  • smrnda

    I know I’ve mentioned research on the reliability of memory before (Elizabeth Loftus has done some great work there) and how eyewitness accounts aren’t that reliable, flashbulb memories aren’t that reliable (memories of momentous events – ‘where were you when you heard Kenned was shot? or 9/11?’) Also, the idea that having a group of people together prevents distortions in recollection and retelling isn’t backed by evidence either.

    If people are impressed that ancient people had accurate memories, it’s only because ancient people couldn’t get called out for being wrong – if I see a movie and remember the plot incorrectly, we can replay the movie. If a guy gave a speech and it was recorded and I recall it incorrectly, we can check the recording. But if I heard a speech that wasn’t recorded, and I feel pretty confident I’m right, people will just accept (based on m confidence, which is NO Indication of reliability) that I remember it right.

    The other issue is that people kind of feel life has underlying themes which affect how you tell a story , and can end up distorting the whole account. It’s kind of how if a person wants to explain how they overcame adversity, they can end up exaggerating, and in time ,their own ability to remember what really happened and what was embellished can be damaged.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Great point. Confidence in and accuracy of memories are two very different things.

  • SparklingMoon

    If Jesus rose from the dead and the apostles witnessed and faithfully passed on the story, they did the best that they could. What more could you expect?
    ———————————————————————————————-
    Gospels in the New Testament possess sayings of Jesus that he uttered himself and his own words are very helpful find truth about his person. Jesus was not died on cross according to the writings of the Gospel. It is a reality that apostles or the writer had faithfully passed on the story what they had witnessed or heard by others . There are evidences in the Gospels about the life of Jesus, after Cross, with his same physical body that was brought on the Cross.
    In the Gospel of Luke 24:37–43 when Jesus met his companion after Cross and they startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost then Jesus said to them:

    “He said to them, ‘Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.’ When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, ‘Do you have anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.” (Luke 24:37–43)

    These verses of Gospel show clearly that Jesus was the same person in the same human body with the wounds of Cross and second also in need of food for his survival like a common human beings.

    Mirza Tahir Ahmad writes in his book: Christianity: A Journey from Facts to Fiction:
    “The Christian believe that after having been taken down from the cross as dead, his soul returned to his body after three days or so and then he was seen climbing into the clouds and disappearing into the unknown recesses of heaven, only to reach ultimately the throne of his Father and to sit on his right hand eternally from then on.
    The question is, if he had been given a new and eternal life after his first death, and was not to suffer another, why was he hiding from the eyes of his enemies; that is both the government agencies and the public? He should have appeared to the Jews and the representatives of the Roman Empire and said: ‘Here I am, with an eternal life, try and kill me again if you may, you will never be able to.’ But he preferred to remain hidden.
    Jesus also had told his people that the sheep of the house of Israel who dwelt in and around Judea were not the only sheep, and that he was sent by God not only to them but also to the other sheep of the same flock.
    “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” (John 10:16)

    He meant by the lost sheep were the ten tribes of Israel, who had earlier migrated from Judea and had gone to remote eastern lands. His promise, therefore, was that he would not be killed on the cross but would be given a long life to pursue his mission and that he was a prophet not just for the two Israeli tribes living around him but for all the Israelites. “

    • Kodie

      If Jesus rose from the dead and the apostles witnessed and faithfully passed on the story, they did the best that they could. What more could you expect?

      That’s not really the question. I would expect people who saw or thought they saw something happen to talk about it. Nobody is saying they didn’t do the best they could. They are saying that is not really worth much when the whole of mankind depends on what they saw to be true, when you know well it can’t be.

      • Bob Seidensticker

        Nobody is saying they didn’t do the best they could.

        But what they are saying is that this should be enough. It’s not.

        If people really saw the real son of God 2000 years ago and all that they have to show is just what the gospels say, then it’s simply not possible for them to convey that story to us today. The story is too similar to the myriad bogus supernatural claims for us to tell them apart.

        If Jesus really did come, then he did a poor job of equipping his followers to differentiate their religion from legends, myths, and superstitions.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Moon:

      These verses of Gospel show clearly that Jesus was the same person in the same human body with the wounds of Cross and second also in need of food for his survival like a common human beings.

      Uh, yeah–it’s a story. You say it’s actually history? You can’t simply assert that; you must provide the necessary evidence.

    • Richard S. Russell

      SparklingMoon, you have been lured in by the wiles of the Great Deceiver, Yahweh. Turn from him to the True Path:

      Kush 1:1: This sacred book was revealed by Kush to his prophet, Rocko S. Fitch, who wrote it down word for word and added the punctuation later.
      (2) This book is absolutely 100% completely true, and if you fail to believe any part of it, you will be cursed forever by an itchy spot in the middle of your back right where you can’t scratch.

      Kush 4:1: Kush points out that all the stuff you hear about this so-called supreme being, God (alias Yahweh, Elohim, Allah, Ahura Mazda, etc.), is simply a fraud perpetrated by people who ought to know better.
      (2) Don’t believe a word of it.
      (3) Kush is the one and only original supreme being.

  • Bob Jase

    We can always add a fifth L to the list – liar, lunatic, lord, legend or lizard. I think David Ickes has already proposed that.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Is this the theory that lizard aliens are masquerading as humans here on earth?

      Y’know how I can tell when someone is actually a lizard? I just ask them. If they deny it, then I know they’re lying, because lizards always lie.

  • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

    You don’t deal with the most serious problem. The problem of when and who and why. Who is the oldest honest, intelligent believer in historical Christianity? Ignatius? Polycarp? Clement? Were they made up too. OK, go forward a generation. Ireneaus? Justin Martyr? Where does your fantasy connect with reality? When you try and tie the two together you get a mess. You need to have somebody somewhere make stuff up. Yet there is no evidence of it. There is not motive for it. There is no small group of people who has the ability to make it stick.

    You also have to deal with the fact that Christianity impressed people. It made a negative impression on many causing it to become illegal and persecuted. It made a positive impression on many causing many to risk persecution and death to join. You need to explain why this completely unremarkable story about some nice guy doing not very much in some obscure corner of the empire would have this kind of impact.

    It is easy for someone to just reject historical documents. Just declare them all to be untrustworthy. Why? Because I don’t like what they say. To actually come up with a coherent history that explains Christianity is quite another thing. You just use the word legend a lot.

    Like somehow people in the first century were really, really stupid and didn’t know the difference between fact and fiction. But can stupid people make up the sermon on the mount. So they have to be brilliant and stupid. Again, you are nowhere near a plausible explanation for the origin of Christianity. It is like a creationist telling you he does not need to explain where dinosaur fossils came from. It is about as credible.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      Randy:

      Who is the oldest honest, intelligent believer in historical Christianity?

      That’s odd criteria. The 9/11 hijackers were honest and intelligent believers, but they were wrong.

      Ignatius? Polycarp? Clement? Were they made up too.

      Why are these ancients different from the Muslim who lives in your town? The Muslim was told the story, and he believes. Same for Ignatius.

      You need to have somebody somewhere make stuff up.

      I tell you a story, and you repeat it to someone else in my hearing. But you made a mistake! Can I call you a liar? Did you deliberately make up that wrong feature of the story?

      Probably not. It was probably just an honest mistake.

      Welcome to oral history. Mistakes happen.

      You need to explain why this completely unremarkable story about some nice guy doing not very much in some obscure corner of the empire would have this kind of impact.

      Where’s the puzzle? Explain other religions starting up, and you’ll have a good handle on how Christianity started.

      To actually come up with a coherent history that explains Christianity is quite another thing. You just use the word legend a lot.

      Yeah. ‘Cause that’s my coherent explanation of why Christianity is the way it is.

      Like somehow people in the first century were really, really stupid and didn’t know the difference between fact and fiction.

      Did you think that Iraq had WMDs? Well, guess what, pal–they didn’t. If you got sucked in, does that make you stupid? Not in my book–you were told a story from an authority, you believed it, and it turns out that the story was wrong. It happens.

      But can stupid people make up the sermon on the mount.

      Huh? The authors of the gospels recorded the oral history that was going around within their community. They could’ve been just scribes, or they could’ve embellished the story. They were believers, and if they added a few things, what’s the harm if it’s all for the glory of the story you feel certain is true?

      • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

        That’s odd criteria. The 9/11 hijackers were honest and intelligent believers, but they were wrong.

        I know they are wrong. They got their wrongness from the previous generation of wrongness. Where is the beginning? Mohammad. I want to know your beginning for the wrongness. You don’t have one. What you say about the origins of Christianity does not connect with real Christians. You have the gap where something strange and unexplained occurs that you avoid talking about.

        Why are these ancients different from the Muslim who lives in your town? The Muslim was told the story, and he believes. Same for Ignatius.

        Ignatius studied at the feet of the apostle John. What did John tell him? That he saw the resurrect Jesus? If John didn’t say that then Ignatius had a very strange faith given what he wrote. Polycarp studied under John as well. Clement under Peter. What were they told? How did this legend theory really happen? Can you see that as soon as you get specific about what happened you end up with a ton of unanswerable questions. That is why liberal bible scholars never go there.

        I tell you a story, and you repeat it to someone else in my hearing. But you made a mistake! Can I call you a liar? Did you deliberately make up that wrong feature of the story?

        Probably not. It was probably just an honest mistake.

        Welcome to oral history. Mistakes happen.

        Complete nonsense. We are not talking about one telling of a story. We are talking about years of formation. That is how apostolic succession happened. They lived with their mentor for a few years and asked every question they could think of and then asked them again and again. But there was not just one successor. There were many. Formed the way Jesus formed His disciples with a multi-year live-together formation.

        So one man getting one detail wrong is not what we are talking about. We are talking about hugely changing the fundamentals of the story. There is no chance that could happen accidentally.

        Where’s the puzzle? Explain other religions starting up, and you’ll have a good handle on how Christianity started.

        Islam started with Mohammad claiming a divine vision. It was a false claim. Mormonism. Same thing with Joseph Smith. None of them claimed to have done miracles in public with many witnesses. None of them claimed to have apostles that were witnesses and were willing to stake their lives on the claim. Not that they believed but that they SAW.

        Did you think that Iraq had WMDs? Well, guess what, pal–they didn’t. If you got sucked in, does that make you stupid? Not in my book–you were told a story from an authority, you believed it, and it turns out that the story was wrong. It happens.

        So Bush lied. Fine. I want you to tell me who lied to create Christianity. You keep saying legend like that is somehow a theory.

        Huh? The authors of the gospels recorded the oral history that was going around within their community. They could’ve been just scribes, or they could’ve embellished the story. They were believers, and if they added a few things, what’s the harm if it’s all for the glory of the story you feel certain is true?

        Actually that makes no sense. Christianity was a historical religion from the beginning. People understood it was based on the real event of God becoming man. So the embellishers could not have been believers in any sense of the word.

        If that had happened you would have a ton of different versions of the story around. You would not have one that the successors of the apostles (aka the bishops) agreed was the correct one. Remember they are all over the world and have poor communications with each other.

        You also need to remember that the church had Jewish roots. The Jews knew how to preserve a faith. Their scriptures did not change every few decades. They used oral tradition but also liturgy to make sure it was passed on in tact. Here is a link that shows some evidence that the early church used liturgy that way too.

        http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2012/12/three-frameworks-for-interpreting-the-church-fathers/

        • Bob Seidensticker

          I want to know your beginning for the wrongness. You don’t have one.

          You mean like, “It was Simon, son of Jacob, who was the first in the oral history chain to pass along a significant error”? Can’t do that.

          But so what? We understand how oral history works. That’s the null hypothesis here. If the Jesus story was different that the ordinary chain of oral history, the burden of proof is yours to show us.

          Ignatius studied at the feet of the apostle John.

          So we hear. Color me unconvinced.

          How did this legend theory really happen?

          Why was it any different for Ignatius or Polycarp than it was for you? One difference is that you don’t claim to have been taught by an eyewitness, but I find that a small matter.

          Can you see that as soon as you get specific about what happened you end up with a ton of unanswerable questions.

          Nope. If you’re demanding to have a specific alternative explanation with names and dates, I don’t have one, but that doesn’t change the fact that fallible oral history is the starting point.

          Complete nonsense. We are not talking about one telling of a story. We are talking about years of formation.

          So your point is that it’s far worse than just one person telling another? Yes, I agree. Years of one person telling another as well as the translation of a Jewish/Aramaic tradition into a Greek culture.

          They lived with their mentor for a few years and asked every question they could think of and then asked them again and again.

          You’ve got it backwards. We don’t start with a Christian presupposition and figure out what would support that; we start with the books of the Bible and other supporting documents plus our knowledge of how legends form and see what explains these facts best.

          There is no chance that could happen accidentally.

          Seems trivial to me. I’m missing your point. What is the anchor that keeps a story accurate during 40 years of oral history?

          Islam started with Mohammad claiming a divine vision. … Same thing with Joseph Smith.

          Joseph Smith had witnesses who vouched for the existence of the golden plates. He wrote in modern English in American culture, less than 200 years ago. We have newspaper accounts written the day after important events in the history of the Mormon church. The historical aspects of Mormonism spank those of Christianity. The only (paradoxical!) advantage Christianity has is that its beginnings are so clouded that people seem to imagine that to be a positive.

          You keep saying legend like that is somehow a theory.

          I keep saying legend like that is the default hypothesis. ’Cause it is.

          Christianity was a historical religion from the beginning.

          Just ’cause? Or are there reasons to believe that this one, unlike all the others, is the real deal? Or by “historical,” are you simply putting it in the same categories as Islam and Mormonism?

          So the embellishers could not have been believers in any sense of the word.

          When you play telephone and the story gets distorted, no one is lying.

          If that had happened you would have a ton of different versions of the story around.

          And we have snapshots of four of those versions in the 4 gospels.

          The Jews knew how to preserve a faith. Their scriptures did not change every few decades.

          Yeah, and we’re not talking about Judaism. Early Christianity was very dynamic (Ebionites, Gnostics, Marcionites, noncanonical gospels, and so on).

        • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

          Why was it any different for Ignatius or Polycarp than it was for you? One difference is that you don’t claim to have been taught by an eyewitness, but I find that a small matter.

          I guess there are two points of disagreement here. This is one. I think that difference is huge. If either John lied or Polycarp lied then you have the liar, lord, lunatic trilemma back again. You have a choice of two liars or lunatics. OK, more than two because there are more apostles and more bishops in Polycarp’s generation. But you have to posit that either the apostles acted in bad faith or their immediate successors did. If you read what we have from these guys you don’t see much evidence for it. They seem very conservative. So you are making an evidence-free assertion based on your religion. That is OK. Just be aware you are doing that.

          You’ve got it backwards. We don’t start with a Christian presupposition and figure out what would support that; we start with the books of the Bible and other supporting documents plus our knowledge of how legends form and see what explains these facts best.

          This is the other point of disagreement. You say you know how legends form. You don’t seem to. If you did and actually thought about whether that assertion fit any facts here you would notice huge problems. That is why I claim you just keep saying legend. I don’t think you have done any literary analysis and I don’t think you argument would stand up if you did. How many legends are theological and sacramental like the NEw Testament? How many legends start with real characters and a real religion, not a dominant religion but an obscure one, then they inject some supernatural stories but they have a lot of people still disbelieving. Then there is the climax where Jesus kills the emperor or at least the chief priests. O wait. That does not happen. He dies. He rises but the disciples remain a persecuted fringe group. The end. If it is a legend it is the worst legend ever. A random story about the healing of a blind man named Bartimaus. Our hero tells a story about scattering seeds. Then we have Paul writing book after book about church politics. What kind of legend is it?

        • Bob Seidensticker

          Randy:

          If either John lied or Polycarp lied

          If the choices are: some people are liars vs. Jesus is a god, which one do you think I’ll find more likely?

          And what is the evidence behind the claim that Polycarp was a disciple of John, and that John was an eyewitness? It’s far more complicated, with room for scholarly “improvements” along the way, than just that, I think. You seem to picture yourself looking over the shoulder of Polycarp as he penned his claim, but it’s a lot more tenuous than that.

          I don’t think you have done any literary analysis and I don’t think you argument would stand up if you did.

          Again: the NT records legendary accretions or Jesus is a god. Which is likelier?

          How many legends start with real characters …

          A legend is grounded in a time and place. By contrast, a myth starts “once upon a time” or “long ago and far away.” Legends: John Henry, King Arthur, William Tell. Myths: Zeus.

          Are you saying that the Jesus story isn’t true but you’re quibbling about whether “Legend” is the right bin? If so, then give us the right one.

          then they inject some supernatural stories

          You mean deliberately? Like there’s a smoky back room where this is all planned and controlled? No, no one imagines it that way.

          When you tell me an hour-long story and I retell it with embellishments, that’s just how oral history works. It’s inherently flawed; I don’t (necessarily) intentionally add the embellishments.

          O wait. That does not happen. He dies.

          “If you strike me down now I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine,” like Obi Wan Kenobi? Jesus rose from the grave and those bad guys will get theirs! Sounds like about the most triumphal story (given the constraints of history) that you could imagine.

          If it is a legend it is the worst legend ever.

          A legend is grounded in a time and place. It would’ve been great if Jesus had kicked some butt, but it didn’t happen. The story had to adapt to the reality (somewhat), and no one’s going to say, “Oh, yeah, Jesus expelled the Romans” when that obviously didn’t happen.

    • Richard S. Russell

      “Can stupid people make up the sermon on the mount”?

      Sure. We see something like it happening all the time these days on the internet. Perhaps you’re familiar with one of the most entertaining urban legends of all time: the JATO car story. It’s been around long enuf, and has been examined in sufficient detail by ethnologists (and urban-legend historians like Jan Harold Brunvand) that we’ve got a real good idea of how it mutated over time. Basically what happens is that a dozen people will pass it on essentially the same as the way they heard it, but the 13th person in the chain will brush it up or spice it up a little. Over time, the story improves in the telling due to a bunch of tiny little incremental changes, each making it more entertaining and thus more likely to be propagated. (It’s the literary version of biological evolution.) At no point anywhere along the line do you need a single genius on the order of William Shakespeare or Victor Hugo to make it a compelling tale. Crowdsourcing does the work for you. As we learned in teamwork training, all of together are smarter than any one of us individually.

      This is the way oral history works! What reason do we have to believe that the Bible was any exception to it?

      • Bob Seidensticker

        The JATO story is an urban legend? Dang!

        I feel like I felt when I first realized who Santa was.

  • PWF

    Of course, the reason Lewis didn’t include the ‘Legend’ option was because he was a Professor of literature, and so knew that it was implausible.
    Legends are not just ‘stories which aren’t true’. They are a very particular genre of world literature. The fact is that ‘genres’, rather than original story lines, were what writers worked with when writing fiction, any time before the 18th-Centrury-ish (cf writings of literary historians such as Jorge Luis Borges – I recommend his Hardvard lectures of ‘verse’). This means that a writer took a basic ‘legend’ storyline, and adapted it, or retold it in a new way, to make a point or entertain in a new way.
    The accounts of Jesus; life were not written in this way. They are written as history, and the writers and original readers could not have understood them as anything else. The true stories could not have become myth (or vise verse) in such a short amount of time, either – especially as we have so many manuscripts so early, suggesting an early and authoritative source. Indeed, the accounts includes innecessary levels of detail about (for them) recent history. Again, this would make them unique among ‘legends’.
    Imagine you were asked to write an article for a newspaper about the new Pope. If you started ‘Once upon a time, in a land far away, an old man was hailed a new spiritual leader…and they all lived happily ever after.’ – people would think you were joking, becase everyone knows that this style is utterly innappropriate for anything other than children’s fairytales. And this is in a day where genre is far less important. There can be no question of the accounts of Jesus’ life being written in myth.
    It is worth saying that, if it is a myth, its a uniquely bland one – no dragons, no flying carpets, no mythical beasts, no princesses to rescue. There aren’t many myths about a man who taught for three years and then died! Neither the style, nor the content, could possibly fit with this ‘legend’ theory.

    This is the reason that a literature professor from Oxford (as Lewis was) would never dream of suggesting that Jesus could be a myth. It is a theory which (while I enjoyed reading it) finds no support in reality or fact.

    • Richard S. Russell

      I believe you have misread C. S. Lewis’s motives.
      He wasn’t operating out of a sense of intellectual honesty or scholarly integrity.
      He was engaging in propaganda, pure and simple.
      You are right that, as a professor of literature, he had every reason to be damn good at it.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      PWF:

      The accounts of Jesus; life were not written in this way. They are written as history, and the writers and original readers could not have understood them as anything else.

      They were written as ancient biography (which is quite a different genre than biography), but I do agree that the original readers would not have understood them as anything else.

      The true stories could not have become myth (or vise verse) in such a short amount of time, either

      By “short amount of time,” you mean the 40 years of oral history? You have proof that supernatural elements can’t attach themselves to a story in this amount of time? That’s a tall order.

      we have so many manuscripts so early

      You have to go to the complete manuscripts in the 4th century to find most of the New Testament. Who knows what happened during that blackout period? Ouch.

      You seem to have a very low bar of evidence to believe supernatural tales. Are you consistent? Or do you have a different requirement for the other guy’s religious claims?

      if it is a myth, its a uniquely bland one

      I argue that it’s a legend, not a myth, though I realize that there is a lot of overlap (which is the Iliad, for example?). As for bland, I’m not sure raising from the dead is bland. As for flying carpets, etc., I think you’re confusing fiction with myth/legend.

      • PWF

        Thanks – helpful response.
        I’m not arguing about whether they’re true or not – merely whether the writers wrote them as legend or factual account. 40 years is a short time for a legend to develop – all other legends have taken far, far longer. It is also a short enough time for eyewitnesses to still be alive, so the would be stories verifiable. The first full account may be 4th C, but we have consistent fragments from earlier, and all archaeology (taking into account the short lifetime of papyrus and similar materials) agrees on the consistency of the accounts and that the evidence is heavily and positively points to the consistency in these with the originals (to within a negligible margin of error, anyway) (as does the history of Christianity, and historians’ accounts from the first centuries).
        As for bland – I think we’ll have to agree to differ regarding fiction and myth/legend. I stick to my point that it is uniquely bland for a legend(/myth). I cannot think of another example within centuries of them which looks anywhere near so like everyday. Yes – there are miracles, but even these are told in a mundane way, rather than them being huge signs of supernatural power. The resurrection, of course, is the exception – but even this is told in a relatively matter-of-fact way.
        Cheers.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          PWF:

          I’m not arguing about whether they’re true or not – merely whether the writers wrote them as legend or factual account

          … or ancient biography. Since there were many other books of this time in this genre and the gospels fit nicely, I think our search is over.

          40 years is a short time for a legend to develop

          Let’s just say that I’m unconvinced. We see in our own day urban legends. We see errors in newspaper accounts written by professionals, from events of the previous day. We see supernatural elements that surrounded the stories of other great men of the time (Julius Caesar, Alexander).

          I need much more than your evidence-less assertion.

          all other legends have taken far, far longer

          Like the 9/11 conspiracy theories? How long did that take to develop?

          It is also a short enough time for eyewitnesses to still be alive, so the would be stories verifiable.

          I eviscerate that argument here.

          The first full account may be 4th C, but we have consistent fragments from earlier

          If this were the account of a battle or the life of a figure in history, what the heck? I’d have no problem with your claim. But since this flimsy evidence is supposed to support the biggest claim imaginable (the universe was created by a supernatural something-or-other who came to earth and walked with us and left evidence), I need much more.

          I stick to my point that it is uniquely bland for a legend(/myth)

          Jesus was raised from the dead by the Creator of the Universe? You have an odd sense of “bland.” Yeah, I understand that you’re very familiar with the story–this is the central story from your religion. Don’t pretend that it’s remarkable.

          Here’s another example: Merlin could shape shift. That’s a legend. Raised from the dead vs. shape shift? The former sounds pretty remarkable to me.

          The resurrection, of course, is the exception – but even this is told in a relatively matter-of-fact way.

          This is evidence?

          (Action item: write a bland and matter-of-fact story that the creator of the universe says that PWF must give me all his money.)

        • PWF

          Yeah – call it call it ancient biography if you want. Whatever. My point is to do with it being written as a factual account by the writers, not as some legend.
          As for the points you make about it developing as a myth – I’m afraid you’re doing what you accused me of: confusing legend and fiction. ‘Legend’ is a specific literary genre, developed in all cultures throughout the world, with a rich literary canon. ‘Conspiracy theory’ is not.
          You make the same error when it comes to my ‘bland’ claim. Again – a legend is not merely something which is highly unlikely – it involves supernatural events told in a certain way, towards a certain end (often nationhood).
          I don’t have time to respond to your ‘naysayers’ post – but suffice to say that I think most (tho not all) of the points make the mistake of thinking that the written accounts were the only way the disciples’ story of Jesus was circulated; other points (esp 10) are just speculation based on air.
          And, as I said before, I’m not making any claims about the truth of the accounts (that’s a whole different debate) – my point (as I think was clear?) was that the accounts are written as factual accounts.

        • Bob Seidensticker

          PWF:

          call it call it ancient biography if you want. Whatever.

          Well, not really “whatever.” That’s the genre that the historians put it in.

          My point is to do with it being written as a factual account by the writers, not as some legend.

          You’re not responding to my point. At that time, people wrote ancient biographies. Literary people would’ve been familiar with the genre, and, no, they wouldn’t think that they were journalism.

          ‘Conspiracy theory’ is not.

          So then you agree with me that crazy tales can crop up overnight? That was my point about 9/11 Truthers.

          most (tho not all) of the points make the mistake of thinking that the written accounts were the only way the disciples’ story of Jesus was circulated

          Do I? I don’t see where. You’ve got decades of oral history, and once the gospels are written, that will rein in much of the change (like a dictionary will rein in spelling variations) for that particular church, but sure, oral history can still happen.

          other points (esp 10) are just speculation based on air.

          And I’m missing that as well. If there had been written accounts saying that the gospels were a fraud, why would we expect them to be to be preserved to the present day? Coulda happened, but it would seem much likelier that they would be like most ancient documents that are lost to history.

          my point (as I think was clear?) was that the accounts are written as factual accounts.

          I got it, though that’s a helpful reminder. And the existence of the genre ancient biography is the fact that you’re not working in to your point.

          Unfortunately Wikipedia doesn’t have a summary of that topic. I learned about it through What is a Gospel? The Genre of the Canonical Gospels by Charles H. Talbert.

        • Richard S. Russell

          I believe that, absent all the religious associations and baggage that the New Testament brings with it, a responsible librarian would categorize it as “magical realism” and file it with the rest of the fiction, probably right next to the collected works of Carlos Castaneda.

  • PWF

    Thanks – those are some helpful clarifications. Regarding genre, I’m still talking about authorial intent, and ancient biography- well, it’s a whole other discussion, but it can include much factually-written stuff. Whether that stuff is reliable as fact then needs further investigation. Still, my point is about how the Gospels (etc) were written. The (earlier) letters of the NT also help.
    I don’t really want to get into a debate about the other blog too. It was a good post – I was just saying why I didn’t find it persuasive.
    As for magic realism: having written a certain amount of the nature and history of magic realism, I can state categorically that the written accounts of Jesus’ life contain NOT ONE of the definitional traits of magic realism. Again, as I was pointing out earlier, we mustn’t conflate various genres of literature which contain remarkable/supernatural events.

    Thanks for the interesting discussion Bob. I’ve enjoyed it. Think we both have stated our points articulately (or I hope I have too!). Not sure further back-and-forth will get us anywhere on this.
    So thanks for the book recommendation – I will look it up.
    Apart from recommending anything generally on the history and creation of ‘legend’ literature, I would highly recommend Richard Bauckham’s ‘Jesus and the Eyewitnesses’, which is the top, recent scholarship on the above discussion.
    You also asked about evidence and the resurrection (in passing). I’d highly recommend N T Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God (just as academic as Bauckham, but also more readable!)
    Anyway – thanks for the fruitful discussion.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      PWF:

      Sure, ancient biography can contain facts, but since the agenda of the author is not the same as that of a journalist, we mustn’t treat it as such.

      As for the epistles, what could be called the Gospel of Paul says very little. The story grew with time.

      the written accounts of Jesus’ life contain NOT ONE of the definitional traits of magic realism.

      OK. I don’t think I made this claim.

      we mustn’t conflate various genres of literature which contain remarkable/supernatural events.

      And I hope it’s been obvious that getting the genre correct is precisely the point I’ve been making.

      So thanks for the book recommendation – I will look it up.

      If I can recommend another, there’s my book. Not the same topic, but it explores apologetics and counter-apologetics in a fiction format.

      I would highly recommend Richard Bauckham’s ‘Jesus and the Eyewitnesses’, which is the top, recent scholarship on the above discussion.

      Someone else, I think Karl, recommended this book as well. Do you think it provides new arguments? I fear that it will be a rehash (though probably with more backup) of arguments with which I’m familiar.

      • Richard S. Russell

        The “magical realism” observation was from me.

        Water into wine isn’t magical realism? I think PWF is envisioning high concrete barriers between genres and not allowing for quantum tunneling. That’s placing way too much importance on what are mushy and largely arbitrary distinctions of literary form.

        • PWF

          Correct – water into wine isn’t magic realism. It’s supernatural. They’re different words, which mean different things.

        • Richard S. Russell

          Yes, I understand it’s important to use the words available to us to make significant distinctions, but this is what Wikipedia has to say about what they call “magic realism” (which I believe is properly called “magical realism”, but that’s just a quibble):
          The term is broadly descriptive rather than critically rigorous: Professor Matthew Strecher defines magic realism as “what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe.”[2] This critical perspective towards magical realism stems from the Western reader’s disassociation with mythology, a root of magical realism more easily understood by non-Western cultures.[3] Western confusion regarding magical realism is due to the “conception of the real” created in a magical realist text: rather than explain reality using natural or physical laws, as in typical Western texts, magical realist texts create a reality “in which the relation between incidents, characters, and setting could not be based upon or justified by their status within the physical world or their normal acceptance by bourgeois mentality.”[4] Many writers are categorized as “magical realist,” which confuses what the term really means and how wide its definition is.

          By that definition, it sure seems to me that water into wine qualifies as something that couldn’t be explained by its “status within the physical world”. Perhaps we’d be better served if you’d quote your own definitions for the terms in question and pointed out where water into wine serves to meet one criterion but fall short of the other, rather than just asserting that it’s not true.

      • PWF

        Bob. Yeah – I was making a different point about ancient biography. Re that and the development theory, Bauckham is helpfully thorough.
        As for the letters – the key is whether such early documents back up a ‘Gospel/Acts-based’ view of the historical Jesus.
        Dunnno what you’ve read, but I’d recommend Bauckham and Wright, as they’ both come out of the writers’ own recent academic research (they’re both pretty high-flying), and so aren’t just pop-academic rehashes of previous work.

        Anyway – I’m off on holiday. Cheers, all.

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