Yesterday, while preparing my post on C.S. Lewis’ “liar, lunatic, or Lord” argument, I came across several websites and posts that point out what they believe to be a major flaw in Lewis’ argument and a major oversight on the part of all Christians–namely, a fourth logical possibility. According to them, Jesus need not have been liar, lunatic, or Lord, if he was only a “legend.”
This is not at all a new argument, and it has been adequately responded to many times over. But since it continues to pop up, let’s address it once again. Let’s begin with the question, “What is a legend?” and finish with the question, “Was Jesus of Nazareth nothing more than a figure of legend?”
What Is a Legend?
When skeptics claim that Jesus of Nazareth was a legend, do they actually mean to compare Jesus of Nazareth to
- someone like sports legend Babe Ruth? (the pitcher-turned-longtime-homerun-record-holder, born George Herman Ruth, Jr., on February 6, 1895. People have said and written things about “the Babe” that were not true, but most people today stick fairly closely to what is known from accurate record books, reliable printed and handwritten documents, newsreels, and audio recordings. Babe Ruth died on August 16, 1948. Some people still living today actually met Babe Ruth prior to 1948.)
- someone like Arthur Pendragon of Camelot fame? (an individual who may have existed in Romano-Celtic Britain, but about whom historians have been unable to gather enough solid evidence to be able to affirm with any true certainty the extent or nature of his reign, much less anything the man may have said or accomplished. The earliest extant written reference to King Arthur of Britain dates to a 9th Century Latin text–three or four centuries after he is supposed to have ruled.)
- someone like Robin of Loxley, aka Robin Hood? (an individual who almost certainly never existed, but who was most likely a composite of tales told through popular songs and poems)
- someone like Woden, a “deity” of the Germanic, Anglo-Saxon pantheon? (Nothing is known of any literal human being or composite of pre-Christian human beings on which this “god’ may have been based, but we know of belief in the deity through words such as “Wednesday.”)
G.A. Wells (b. 1926) wrote a series of books in which he argued that if the Lord Jesus Christ of Christian faith was an actual human being at all, any precise person on whom he was based has been lost to history. Wells’ Jesus would fall somewhere between the Robin Hood and Woden examples given above in my spectrum of types of legends. Wells has denied that anyone living today can know anything certain about a Jesus of Nazareth upon whom the Christian notion of Jesus Christ can be based.
Now that’s out there. How do I respond to G.A. Wells? First, Wells built his whole argument on the work of so-called Christian scholars who placed the writing of the Gospels and epistles of the New Testament much later than those documents can easily be shown to have existed. He takes the twenty-seven documents of the New Testament out of the historical order commonly ascribed to them. He creates a four-step development of the deification of a person he believes the apostle Paul knew very little about. He does not recognize the historicity of the records of the Roman historian Tacitus or of the satirist Lucian of Samosata as they comment on the crucifixion of Jesus. Finally, Wells caps off his theory with his own conclusion that Jesus Christ is most likely a composite of other deities and semi-deities of ancient mystery religions.
Was Jesus of Nazareth Nothing More than a Figure of Legend?
G.A. Wells ignores critical facts that do not fit his tidy legend theory. He starts his Jesus theory with the apostle Paul and claims that Paul knew very little about Jesus, since the Jesus who Paul preached had probably lived long before Paul’s time.
That’s not what Paul wrote. Paul wrote that he personally knew and met on multiple occasions with Jesus’s closest earthly associates–the apostle Peter and Jesus’ half-brother James.(Galatians 1:11-18) That’s also not what others who knew Paul wrote about Paul. The New Testament author Luke includes himself in the travels and ministry of Paul. (See Acts 16:10 and following.) Luke records that Paul grew up in Jerusalem during the time of Jesus’ ministry and shortly afterward. (Acts 7:58-8:3)
Wells’ mystery religion theory about Jesus does not work either. The aspects of religions such as Mythraism that seem to correspond to Christianity have been repeatedly shown to date to time periods after the origins of Christianity, not before. Biblical Christianity does not point to death, burial, and resurrection cycles as mystery religions do, but rather to a single, historical death, burial, and resurrection sequence in linear history (1 Peter 3:18) headed toward a future culmination.
Michael Martin is a recent, atheist scholar (a philosopher) who follows Wells’ pattern to a point and then jumps over to his own brand of the same essential theory. The sad thing in Martin’s case is that he cites Christian New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce to support his legend theory when what F.F. Bruce, in fact, wrote contradicts Martin. (Read more on this on p. 44 here.)
A Call to Return to Plain Historical Investigation and to Logic
People have got to quit using one set of historical standards when it comes to studying Caesar, Ptolemy, Muhammad, and Siddhartha Gautama and quite another set of historical standards when it comes to dealing Jesus of Nazareth. It’s not honest. It is manipulative. Plus, wrong premises always yield incorrect conclusions.
Jesus Christ: a Nobody, or a Somebody?
But let me close with one last appeal to logic. Would you give up your family, your livelihood, your community group, your friends, your food, clothes, health, and even your very life for something that you knew to be a legend? Stephen, a follower of Jesus in Jerusalem at the time immediately following Jesus’ crucifixion suffered death rather than deny Jesus. (Acts 7) The apostle James, who spent three years following Jesus around Galilee and Judea had his head cut off rather than deny Jesus. (Acts 12:2). The apostle Paul gave up everything he had in the service of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 3:8)
If Jesus was an ephemeral nobody, that is to say, if Jesus was merely legend, why would anybody at all give up anything at all for him? Christianity was born out of favor with the ruling government. It was an illegal religion in the Roman empire for three centuries. It was born out of favor with the prevailing local religions and out of favor with local business interests (example: Acts 19:24-26). Christianity offered nothing of any worldly benefit to anyone of the first generation of believers.
Christianity was not born in an era of mass communication. The legend could not grow through popular songs on radios or through MP3s. It could not grow through television, through movies, or through hack internet “scholarship.” It could not gain traction through a New York times mass media best seller.
My question is, how would the teachings–whatever they might have been–of a group of nobodies who did not really know anybody (Jesus) reach a critical mass with enough force to flip the Roman Empire on its head without the use of violence or mass media in such a short time? (Acts 17:6)
The answer is, there was a Somebody who did what no other Person has ever done. It was witnessed by multitudes. The Creator God became a man so that He might rescue man from eternal death. Becoming poor, He made us rich. (2 Corinthians 8:9) Dying, He gave us life. (Romans 8:2; 1 Peter 3:18)
“Legend” is an entirely inadequate answer to account for the phenomenon of Jesus Christ.