Four Reasons the Gospels Could Not Be Legends

November 6, 2013 // Articles

The most popular theory today against the Bible is that the gospels are a bunch of myths and legends. As the theory goes, Jesus was a great guy with some commendable teachings, but the stories we have about him in the four gospels are made-up legends intended to beef up Christianity’s claims.

Entire books have been written on this (and much of the below grows out of Tim Keller’s Reason for God [1], but here are 4 brief reasons the gospels simply could not be fabricated legends:

1. The timing of the writing is too early for gospels to be a legend.

The books of the Bible were written around 30 years after the death of Jesus, with some of the main ones being as early as 20 years after. The latest book in the New Testament—Revelation—was still written only 50–60 years after Jesus’ death. That is just too quick for a full-blown myth to spring up and displace the true story.

People often respond by saying, “Well, maybe parts of the New Testament were written in the first century, but it was different than it is now. The divinity of Jesus and the resurrection were later additions.” The problem here is that the earliest records of Christianity all contain the resurrection teaching. So in 1 Corinthians (written around 54 A.D.), Paul quotes a hymn about Jesus’ death and resurrection. Less than one generation from Jesus’ death, and there are songs circulating popular enough for Paul to reference in one of his letters—songs about the resurrection.

Or think about the fact that the earliest Christians celebrated communion—not as a way of mourning their leader’s death, but as a celebration of victory. You don’t do that if you know that your leader was cut down in his prime. No, these Christians all firmly believed, from Day One, that Jesus really had raised from the dead.

2. The content is far too counterproductive to be a legend.

The gospels especially are full of things that you would not make up if you wanted a legend to beef up your authority. The apostles are constantly portrayed as buffoons. They get theology wrong. They’re mean to little kids. If puppies had been walking by, they’d have kicked them. If you were writing yourself into a legend, would you make yourself look that foolish?

Think of Peter, the leader of the Church. Matthew records a story in which Jesus calls Peter Satan. Yes, the supreme enemy of mankind—Satan. You can be sure that if Jesus called me Satan to my face, I wouldn’t be tweeting about it. But it’s in there because it actually happened.

The gospels record that women were the first ones to see Jesus after his resurrection. A woman’s testimony was not accepted in court during those days, so if you were making up stuff to establish the truthfulness of a claim, you would not have made women your primary witnesses. The gospel writers put women as the first ones to see Jesus because, well, that’s what happened.

3. The literary form of gospels is too detailed to be legend.

This is probably my favorite. The gospels have a lot of random details that wouldn’t be in a legend, since they aren’t part of the moral meaning. So in Mark 4, Mark mentions that Jesus was sitting in a ship and there were a lot of other little ships. The other ships have nothing to do with the plot; they were just there.

Later on, in the midst of a really serious reflection on the Garden of Gethsemane, Mark records a detail about a guy running away naked (Mark 14:51–52). Why? Because it doesn’t matter what story you’re telling: if a naked man runs by, that’s going to end up in it.

These days, people writing fiction add details like this to make a story sound more believable, but that form of writing never occurred before the 18th century. Besides, if the apostles were doing that, that means they were intentionally lying. But did they have a good motive for that? Did their lies keep them out of trouble? Hardly, which leads me to . . .

4. The message was itself too costly to be a legend.

As Blaise Pascal said, “I believe witnesses who have their throats cut.” The message that Jesus was Lord and had risen from the dead didn’t gain the apostles any power or prestige. In fact, it lead to nearly all of them getting killed.

To say that the apostles fabricated these stories means that they decided to invent a religion knowing it would end in their painful, humiliating deaths. Imagine the scene of Peter pitching this and the other disciples saying, “Great idea, Pete! Let’s lose everything for a hoax! I don’t want my money or my property or my life anyway!” I don’t find that a compelling scenario.

Peter would eventually be crucified upside-down, refusing to recant his confession that Jesus was alive. This is the same Peter who denied he even knew Jesus during his trial—to a teenage girl. Where would Peter have gotten the courage to change his mind for a lie? Would Peter, who denied the living Jesus, really have died for a dead one?

I don’t believe in Jesus based on blind faith. I believe in Jesus for the same reason these first believers did: because I am convinced the testimony of the apostles is true, that Jesus really did resurrect from the dead. And if Jesus really is alive, that changes everything.

 

For more, be sure to listen to the entire sermon here. (You may also be interested in my recent post about the apostles’ view of the Old Testament.)


[1] The wording of the first 3 points here are Keller’s, Reason for God, 101–108. C.S. Lewis and Blaise Pascal have also informed my thoughts on this.