Is the Story of Jesus a Legend?

Posted: August 14, 2011 in Arguments, Conspiracy Theories, History Related
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Why not? Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy. All legends, folk lore and myths that have some obscure roots in true history, but overtime became seriously embellished to what they are today. As adults we easily pass off these characters as fictitious, but with Jesus how can we not? Why is Jesus Christ, the miracle messiah that resurrected from the dead, believed to be a true character in history by many adults when He could just as easily fit into the same categories as the tooth fairy?

This is an outlook many skeptics have the real person of Jesus. Famous books on the issue is John Dominic Crossan’s The Historical Jesus, Burton Mack’s Who Wrote the New Testament? The Making of the Christian Myth, and then of course there are books by Eliane Pagels, Bart Ehrman and the famous Jesus Seminar. These scholars and authors use the gap in the appearance of the New Testament gospels after the death of Jesus as their leeway. Since the gospels didn’t begin circulating until sometime around 60AD and 70AD, who is to say legend hadn’t completely distorted and taken over real historical events? According to these scholars the accounts of Jesus are not eyewitness testimony but concocted legends and myths.

According to Burton Mack, “The first followers of Jesus were not interested in preserving accurate memoirs of the historical person… Each group created Jesus… in the image appropriate for the founder of the school it had become or wanted to become.”[1] Bart Ehrman claims, “Stories were changed with what we would strike us today as reckless abandon… They were modified, amplified, and embellished. And sometimes they were made up.”[2] According to skeptics, Jesus was just a great speaker or teacher. One that would be exaggerated into legend years after His death.[3] Robert Funk, founder of the Jesus Seminar writes, “We have been betrayed by the Bible. In the half-century just ending [written in 2000], there is belated recognition that biblically based Christianity has espoused causes that no thinking or caring person is any longer willing to endorse… Jesus needs a demotion.”[4] Ouch! Tough words from tough critics.[5]

First what we must ask is, is it true the gospel accounts were written so long after Christ’s death? Yes this is correct. Matthew was written sometime between AD 65-85, by Matthew an eyewitness of Jesus’ life. Mark was written sometime between AD 65-70, by John Mark, a translator for Simon Peter taken from Peter’s eyewitness testimony. Luke was written sometime between AD 65-90, by Paul’s physician Luke. Luke’s writing was based on a collection of eyewitness accounts. Lastly, the gospel of John was written around AD 65-95 by John, an eyewitness of Jesus.[6] But does a time gap alone immediately prove that the story was concocted? After all, they’re basing this entire conspiracy based off the written records we have. There very well could have been written records of Jesus written only a few years after His life that either no longer exist, or have yet to be discovered. After all, Luke did write in the opening of his gospel account that many others have set out to write detailed accounts of Jesus’ ministry. Either way, when one formulates theories from speculation they can be just as easily refuted with additional speculation.

That’s still not good enough though. Lets work with what we have and for the time conclude there were no other accounts recorded prior to the gospels. This time gap is still troubling. As Ehrman asks, “Where did these people get their information from?”[7] The answer is of course, oral tradition. But oral tradition is one aspect of history that many scholars praise and trust, yet other scholars scoff at.

Telephone, the game that never works…

 

Do you remember the game “telephone?” Ya know, the one where you line up with friends and a message starts at one end of the line and then works it way to the other end via whispering in each other’s ears. The point being to see how much the message had changed by the time it got to the other end. And every time the end of the line was reached, the message was completely different. Not just a little off, but completely different. Somehow “Mary had a little lamb,” ended up as “Andy was kissing Maggie in the hallway,” thirty children later.

Well, this is why skeptics doubt oral tradition. They think of lessons we all learned as kids from the game “telephone,” that messages overtime are considerably altered due to being misheard or misunderstood. The further down the line, the worse it gets. Although the lesson from the “telephone” game is true to a certain degree, skeptics of oral tradition are overlooking one minor and one major problem.

The minor problem: The telephone game fails with kids. Mostly because the kids are just being silly kids. They know the point of the game and are clever enough to intentionally alter it. Play the same game with monitored adults in serious situations and the message comes out much more accurate than with children.

The major problem: We often tend to think of oral tradition among people in today’s culture and society. What we have to understand is that people in the first century lived a life vastly different from ours today. Today we live in a written culture where everything can be written down virtually anywhere; computer, phone, notepad, napkin, etc. We’re very literate and have very easy access to writing material. We are so accustomed to being able to save our thoughts on or in physical objects that historian B. Gerhardsson refers to it as “the dethronement of memory.”[8]

The first century by contrast was an oral culture. At best, maybe one-fourth of the population could read. And of those that could read, only a very small percentage could write (scribes).[9] So naturally this oral culture was one in which information and truths were passed down orally. When important events would occur, history shows that communities would rally together and had systems on how to retain the information. There were even separate systems for oral histories and oral traditions.[10] Community members would often recite the information among a large number of their peers, who all would in turn correct the speaker if any errors were heard. Rabbis of the time would try to repeat teachings, sometimes as often as 400 times, in front of their peers to ensure it was correctly etched in their memory.[11] This practice was very common in Jewish tradition. And with Jesus being a Jewish teacher with Jewish disciples, it wouldn’t be outlandish to say the disciples maintained the same discipline in retaining information. One thing we can be sure on is that people in the first century had regimented memory retaining techniques that would surpass the memory capabilities of any lay person today.

The Oral History of Jesus

 

Oral histories of Jesus were circulating in the Roman Empirelong before any written accounts (that we know of) were created. When reading First Corinthians, Paul uses the words paralambano, or “I received,” and paradidomi, or “I passed on” (1 Corinthians 11:23-25, 15:3-7).[12] Testimony that Paul received his education in Jesus orally, since the four gospels as we know them had not been created yet.

 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 1 Corinthians 11:23-25 (NIV)

 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles…” 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 (NIV)

Now if we look at a timeline of when Paul’s ministry began we can determine when it is that he heard these traditions. Acts 9 describes Paul’s encounter with Jesus marking the beginning of his ministry, which is dated to the year AD 33. Acts 9-12 describe Paul’ travels to Damascus, Jerusalemand Tarsuswhere he learned these oral traditions, which are dated to  AD 35-47.[13] So it is possible Paul learned these traditions within a few years from when Jesus died. If Paul learned it within a few years that means the tradition was well known and circulated by that time, meaning the traditions and histories themselves originated within months of Jesus’ death. The circulation of these traditions and histories being amongst the eye-witnesses of Jesus’ life.

 So that huge and massive gap from between when Jesus lived to when the gospels were written is no longer such a daunting thought when one understands the oral traditions of the Jewish people at this point in history. Considering the methods by which these oral histories and traditions were maintained one cannot assume that fairy-tail legends of Jesus became the story of Jesus Christ as recorded in the gospels. Paul’s recital of these histories in Acts which do not contradict the gospels is testimony of this. Scholar A. N. Sherwin-White among other theologians points out that two generations is simply too short of time for any legends to emerge of Jesus anyways.[14] Legends take hundreds upon hundreds of years to become main stream.

“…the oral histories emerged early, they emerged in the context of the eyewitnesses, and they remained relatively unchanged as they spread across the Roman Empire. Eventually, these oral histories made their way into the documents that we know as the Gospels. Perhaps most important of all, this movement from oral history to written history occurred before the end of the first century, while eyewitnesses of the original events were still living.” –Timothy Paul Jones, Theologian.[15]

To answer Ehrman’s earlier question, that is where they got their information from!


[1] Burton Mack, Who Wrote the New Testament? The Making of the Christian Myth, (New York, NY: Harper One 1990) Pg 46

[2] Bart Ehrman, Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene: The followers of Jesus in History and Legend (New York,NY: Oxford University Press, 2006). Pg. 259

[3] Note that prominent skeptics do not doubt Jesus existed. They just doubt the miraculous accounts of his life. No prominent and well educated scholar believes that Jesus never existed.

[4] Robert Funk, Honest to Jesus (New York, NY: Harper San Francisco, 1996) Pg. 306.

[5] Other famous critics that maintain this conspiracy are Thomas Jefferson, David Friedrich Strauss, and James Cameron… yeah the guy who made Titanic and Avitar.

[6] Timothy Paul Jones, Conspiracies of the Cross (Lake Mary,FL: Frontline 2008) Pg. 91

[7] Bart Ehrman, “Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus? A Debate Between William Lane Craig and Bart Ehrman,” March 28, 2006.

[8] B. Gerhardsson, Memory and Manuscripts (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998) Pg. 123

[9] Timothy Paul Jones, Conspiracies of the Cross (Lake Mary,FL: Frontline 2008) Pg. 95

[10] Ken Bailey, “Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels,” Asia Journal of Theology 5 (1991) Pgs. 34-51.

[11] B. Gerhardsson, Memory and Manuscripts (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998) Pg. 135

[12] N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, (Minneapolis,MN: Fortress Press 2003)Pgs 318-319

[13] Timothy Paul Jones, Conspiracies of the Cross (Lake Mary,FL: Frontline 2008)  Pg. 98

[14] A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford, UK; Clarendon, 1963) Pg. 190

[15] Timothy Paul Jones, Conspiracies of the Cross (Lake Mary,FL: Frontline 2008) Pg.99

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Comments
  1. vinnyjh says:

    Scholar A. N. Sherwin-White among other theologians points out that two generations is simply too short of time for any legends to emerge of Jesus anyways.

    Actually, Sherwin-White wrote that “certainly a deal of distortion can affect a story that is given literary form a generation or two after the event.” Sherwin-White thought that two generations was too short a time for the historical facts to be irretrievably lost, but he did not doubt that legendary embellishment could occur within that period of time.

    • matthew2262 says:

      Good morning vinnyjh Thank you for reading my post and commenting. Can I inquire as to which page of Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament your Sherwin-White quote is coming from? Or if it is a different book, can you provide the name of that book please?

      I was basing my statement from the following quote, ““Herodotus enables us to test the tempo of myth-making, and the tests suggest that even two generations are too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historic core of the oral tradition.”

      • vinnyjh says:

        Sorry that I forgot the cite. It’s Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament p. 189.

        The example that Sherwin-White gives from Herodotus concerns the murder of the Athenian tyrant Hipparchus in 514 B.C by two Athenians, Harmodius and Aristogeiton. A myth arose that this led immediately to the establishment of democracy whereas the truth of the matter was that the tyranny continued for another four years until it was overthrown with the help of Sparta. From what I have read elsewhere, the myth arose in order to give credit to Athenians rather than foreigners for the political progress. Writing some sixty years later, Herodotus was able to get the true story from the descendants of those Athenians who had actually been responsible for working with the Spartans to overthrow the tyranny.

        I do not understand Sherwin-White’s point to be that any specific time is required for a myth to arise. Sherwin-White doesn’t say how long it took for the myth about the establishment of the Athenian democracy to arise, but from what I can find, it seems to have been a matter of years. Rather, the point seems to be that even where there is a tendency among some people to embrace a mythical version of events, there can still be other people with an interest in preserving the true version.

      • matthew2262 says:

        Gotcha, thank you for specifying. And thank you for your input, that is very insightful.

  2. Noel says:

    Great post! I read books by Lee Strobel (“The Case for Christ” “The Case for Faith”) which shows similar arguments. By the way, Strobel was an Atheist.

  3. matthew2262 says:

    “I am struck by a certain consistency among otherwise independent witnesses in placing Mary Magdalene both at the cross and at the tomb on the third day. If this is not a historical datum but something that a Christian story teller just made up and then passed along to others, how is it that this specific bit of information has found its way into accounts that otherwise did not make us of one another? Mary’s presence at the cross is found in Mark (and in Matthew and Luke which used Mark) and also in John, which is independent of Mark. More significant still, all of our early Gospels- not just John and Mark (with Matthew and Luke as well) but also the Gospel of Peter, which appears to be independent of all of them- indicate that it was Mary Magdalene who discovered the Jesus’ empty tomb. How did all of these independent accounts happen to name exactly the same person in this role? It seems hard to believe that this just happened by way of a fluke of storytelling. It seems much more likely that, at least with traditions involving the empty tomb, we are dealing with something actually rooted in history.”

    -Ehrman, Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene (Huntington Beach, CA: Oxford University Press, 2006) Pg. 226

  4. matthew2262 says:

    “Christianity had already spread throughout the Roman Empire. How did so many people, spread across so much space, fabricate such a unified ‘legend’?”

    -Timothy Paul Jones, Conspiracies of the Cross (Lake Mary,FL: Frontline 2008) Pg. 249

  5. matthew2262 says:

    “For a mere legend about Christ, in the form of the gospel, to have gained the circulation and to have had the impact it had, without one shred of basis in fact, is incredible. For this to have happened would be as fantastic as for someone in our own time to write a biography of the late John F. Kennedy and in it say he claimed to be God, forgive people’s sins and to have risen from the dead. Such a story is so wild it would never get off the ground because there are still too many people around who knew the man! The legend theory does not hold water in the light of the logic and early date of the Gospel manuscripts.” Paul E. Little

    Little, P.E., (2000) “Know Why You Believe,” 4th Ed., (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press) pp. 41-42.

  6. matthew2262 says:

    “There is no reason to believethat any Gospels were written later than A.D. 70,” -Dr. William F. Albright, Archaeologist.

    As quoted in: Little, P.E., (2000) “Know Why You Believe,” 4th Ed., (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press) pp. 41-42.

  7. Jason W. says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but hasn’t it been shown that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John did not write their Gospels? From what I have read, Mark was not written by Mark, and that 97 percent of Mark was re-written in Matthew and Luke. From what I gather, the stories were oral tradition for 70 years, mostly songs and poems that rhymed so they would be remembered easier, until they were written down many years and decades later. I have also heard that there were several different writers, and not just one author per gospel.

    If oral tradition had been handed down for over 70 years, how can Jesus be quoted, and so emphatically taken as verbatim, when we know that no words were ever recorded or written down as to what he said until decades upon decades later? How can that be held to verbatim?

    • matthew2262 says:

      Hello Jason, thank you for your comment. I wrote a previous article about Gospel authorship that answers many of your concerns you listed here. You may view it at: https://matthew2262.wordpress.com/2011/05/09/how-can-we-know-who-really-wrote-the-gospels/

      To comment on your statements on oral tradition, I’m curious as to where you’re getting the information that the gospel accounts were not recorded for seventy years. Current estimates point to around thirty years as far as I’m aware. Possibly even 10 to 20 years after Christ’s death. To quote archaeologist Dr. William F. Albright, “There is no reason to believe that any Gospels were written later than A.D. 70,” So we have a situation in which eye-witnesses to the events were still alive to ensure the accuracy of what was recorded. Either way, be sure to read my article posted here for more on that.

      Thank you for your comment Jason, and take care.

  8. matthew2262 says:

    “Only when the Apostles began to die off and the return of the Lord did not transpire as expected was the need perceived for a written account… Long before the printed word, the centrality of memory in community cannot be overstated. In such an environment, the events and words of Jesus were replayed and recalled hundreds and thousands of times by those who were present with him, beginning during Jesus lifetime and continuing for decades through countless retellings.

    It has also been noted that Jesus’ instructions were often uttered in rhythmic fashion, making them easier to recall later and memorize. We also cannot discount the probability that the disciples took down notes to record significant events or lessons. It seems quite likely that the collective memory of the early community of followers faithfully and accurately preserved an oral tradition of the activity and teachings of Jesus. The consequence of these cultural and historical factors leads to the only reasonable conclusion—that the written record forms an authentic eyewitness account of the life and times of the founder of the Christian faith.”

    -Dr. Brian Janeway, Old Testament Archaeologist

    http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2013/05/10/Reinventing-Jesus-Book-Review.aspx#Article

  9. matthew2262 says:

    “The interval, then, between the dates of the original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established,” -Sir Frederic Kenyon, Paleographer and Bible Scholar.

    -Kenyon, F., (1959) “The Bible and Archaeology,” as written in F.F. Bruce’s The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans) pp. 12-13.

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