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

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About Bob Seidensticker