C. S. Lewis made the claim that Jesus had to be a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord, though he overlooked the obvious category, a legend. Let’s continue the list of twelve possible Christian rebuttals to the legend hypothesis.
9. 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. (More on the fallibility of memory here and here.)
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?
10. 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.
11. 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 the Jesus story is pretty 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.
12. 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.
Men … think in herds;
it will be seen that they go mad in herds,
while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.
— Charles Mackay,
Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841)
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 12/1/12.)
Image credit: Wonderlane, flickr, CC