Did Jesus rise from the dead?
The Gospels say He did, but lately I have bumped into more than one skeptic who claims that I should classify “the Bible” as “legendary.”
Generally, he (and it almost always a he) will cite a book like the Iliad as an example of legendary material.
“We know ancients produced legendary books. The Bible is just one of them.” Frequently, there is a list (almost always the same) of old books, apparently drawn from the Penguin catalog, that are cited as cases “just like the Bible.” When I hear this claim, I oft wonder if the speaker is very familiar with any of the books named except as sticks to beat Christian dogs.
Even if I assume that Jesus did not rise from the dead, the comparison of the Bible to the Iliad doesn’t help my case. Why not?
First, actually reading “the Bible” will lead to an obvious conclusion: the Bible is a collection of many books (in some Christian traditions sixty-six, in most more), not simply “a book.” Some books are poetry, some are court history, some are dramatic. One book does not even mention the name of God in its Hebrew form.
When we compare “the Bible” to any other single book (such as the Iliad), a reader must ask: “Which book? Which is like the Iliad?”*
Second, if one is speaking of the Christian Bible, then there is a clear division between the collection of books written before Jesus (the Old Testament) and those written after Jesus (the New Testament). This is not a distinction made up to please critics, but central to Christianity. After Jesus, if Christianity is true, the relationship between God and people changed forever.
Third, Jesus coming back from the dead is a central claim of the Gospels and some of the letters of the apostles (early followers of Jesus). There are four different gospels and each is distinct with different goals. One of them, John, has very different goals, and perhaps different sources, from the other Gospels.
So when I am told to that “the Bible” is like the Iliad when it comes to stories about Jesus, I have to ask: “Do you mean the Gospels claims? If so, then which one? If not, which letter?” How much in common does the Bible book and the other have?”
Most skeptics glory in the fact that Iliad is older than the Gospels, but that only means that the Gospels were written in a very different philosophical and theological climate. Was 800 B.C. very much like 50 A.D.? Are Jews in a Greco-Roman world very much like (intellectually) the pre-philosophical “Greeks” who composed the Iliad?
Plainly not. Paul lived in a world that knew Stoic philosophy, with its criticism of classical Homeric religion, and we know (Acts 17) that Paul was familiar with Stoic writings. Claiming a “miracle” in Paul’s day meant something different and would have been received differently than in Homer’s day.
Surely, the skeptic is not so simple minded that he or she means by legend: “any old story with miracle claims.” This flirts with being viciously circular and assumes what we do not know: are the claims of all these ancient books about miracles false? Are they false in the same ways? Is the Iliad really very much like the so-called Epic of Gilgamesh. (Hint: read both. They are very different in style and theological claims.)
How did the authors read their own texts? Are all the “supernatural” claims equally plausible? Are they claimed as “historical” or are they descriptions (rather like Lord of the Rings) truths nobody considered historical? Is the skeptic importing categories (“historically true”) that would have even occurred to the minds of the audience or author?
“Here is a test,” the skeptic says, “a test you did not mean to pass Homer and you failed it.” This is unfair and bizarre: polemics masquerading as scholarship.
It is an even odder idea to say the Iliad is itself a “legend” exactly in the same sense of works very different from the Iliad like the Epic of Gilgamesh. Unless the critic is using the term in a very loose sense to mean “stories we now know are false about gods,” then I am not sure how the Iliad could be legendary like the “Gospels” or the Epic since all these documents have so little in common literarily. The Iliad: a long poem meant for performance about events the author thought historical may not be literally true, but many scholars think it is based on a folk tradition of an actual event. “Troy” apparently exists as do many of the cities mentioned in the Iliad.
Did a Greek coalition destroy Troy? Maybe. Was it over “Hellen?” Maybe not, but then who knows. Why not?
I think the real complaint is the picture of the gods in the Iliad, but even that is complicated. Sometimes the gods serve as “comic relief” (as in the laughs at the expense of the disabled god: Hephaestus) or as characters in the action (Aphrodite, goddess of beauty fights!). Other times Zeus, the chief god, is associated with a divine will greater (it seems) than the actions of the character named Zeus in the story.
Some actions happen to fulfill the “wish” or “plan” of Zeus. Two types of theology are lurking in the Iliad, stories about the gods that seem to have mere literary function, but another set of claims about the god may hint at monotheism.
What of the gods? Do we know they do or did not exist?
We know all the details about them are not literally true, but Christians certainly are not sure they do not exist. The “gods” of the Iliad are not the same kind of being as the “god” of the New Testament: sharing an English word tricks many a good hearted atheist. The “gods” of the Iliad are not essentially different than humanity, though they have qualities we do not. They are more like super heroes, than “gods.”
The God of the New Testament is omnipotent, omniscient, and is essential “other than” His creation. We can debate whether such a being can exist (and philosophers of religion do), but if He does exist, then He is not just Zeus on steroids. Zeus (as pictured in most of the Iliad) is like humanity in having a beginning, a potential “end” (at least as chief of the gods), and is comprehensible. We might fear Zeus, but He is not worthy of worship.
Early Greek philosophers understood this distinction quickly: there might be a “god” (in a philosophical sense) and “gods” (in the most common Homeric sense), but they were not alike.
What function did the story of the gods serve, therefore, in the Iliad? Did even Homer, assuming one author, believe them “literarily” or were they “literary?” That is so complicated a question (far beyond my ability and I have read the Iliad every year for decades).
In any case, go read the story of the gods in the Iliad and then read Paul’s letters. Read Luke (one of the Gospels). Does his beginning strike you as being (at all) literarily similar to the Iliad? Neither Paul’s writings or Luke’s gospels are mostly poetical. Jesus, as a character, has little in common with Zeus as a character. Structurally, as an author Luke has more in common with Thucydides than with Homer.
Now the question is: are all modern stories of miracles debunked. Obviously very sophisticated thinkers believe some miracles may exist ranging from C.S. Lewis to the contemporary theologians in the Catholic Church. Skeptics of miracles may adduce other arguments (like those of Hume or pure probability claims) to debunk all miracles, but until this is done . . . one cannot toss all books with miracles claims into the pile called “legend.”
In fact, for a careful reader work must be done. Books that contain supernatural events must be read carefully and examined in their historical context and for the claims they intended to make. Some claims we will dismiss. Others we might provisionally accept, but facile comparisons of books that have almost nothing in common (the Iliad and Luke’s gospel) are unhelpful.
There are miracle claims in the ancient world that are very dubious. There are such claims in the modern world. There are miracle claims that (if we decide miracles are plausible) are possible and some few that are even plausible. Many, even from the most robust Christian perspective, may contain a kernel of truth. We must take care and read with charity.
On the other side are those blessed with certainty: the fundamentalist Christian knows all miracle claims outside the Bible are false and the fundamentalist atheist knows all historical claims of miracles are false.
For the rest of us is the hard work of reason and reading.
*A similar error is when I read people talking about the Iliad and the Odyssey as if they were one simple book by (for sure!) one author.