(The Lake of Galilee)
Some time ago I was dialoguing about the historical Jesus on our city newspaper’s chat area. My dialogue partner wrote the following:
“I do not believe Jesus was a real person. I believe the Jesus of the Bible is a mish-mash of previous “Sons of God” or “Sun Gods” such as Osiris, Mithras or Dionysus, all were born of virgins, all were martyred. All were resurrected. It’s just a re-telling of the old tales into a new tale. Take Saul (Paul). When he was talking about Jesus, he didn’t even know if a physical Jesus existed. He was talking about the spiritual entity. He didn’t even know he was supposedly Crucified or the “Christmas” story.”
OK. Not the most scholarly thing to write. But, thanks to the internet, there are some people who buy into this kind of thing. To the idea that the Jesus-story is “just a re-telling of an old tale” I would say things like the following, a lot of which is directly taken from two books by Greg Boyd and George : 1) The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition; and 2) Lord or Legend: Wrestling With the Jesus Dilemma. I have also used material from N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God.
#1 – The similarities between the Jesus-story and existing legends are superficial at most.
Some of the legends sound like the Jesus story. There are, for example, legends of others being born of a virgin. And, there are legends of others that were said to have risen from the dead. But if you examine these parallels in detail, you find that most of the commonalities are superficial.
For example, one of the legends frequently cited by legendary-Jesus theorists “concerns a second-century itinerant teacher and wonder-worker named Apollonius of Tyana.” (Boyd & Eddy, Lord or Legend?, 56) This legend says that Apollonius rose from the dead. This is written by Philostratus, who’s writing 150 years after Appolonius lived. The supposed resurrection comes down to this: There’s a lady who had a dream. Appolonius appeared to her in a dream.
But that’s not a resurrection. It is, perhaps, a post-mortem vision. But this has nothing in common with the Gospel stories, which has Jesus hanging out with people for 40 days, having breakfast with his disciples, and letting someone feel his side.
There are legends about others having a virgin birth, like Plato supposedly had a virgin birth. The virgin-birth legends all happen after Christianity has spread into the world. People saw Christians claiming that Jesus had a virgin birth, so they begin to claim that their hero had a virgin birth to compete with Christianity. (See N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God)
Re. so-called “similar” myths, Boyd, Eddy, and Wright all argue that when you get down to the details there’s very little in common.
#2 – Legends usually take a lot of time to develop. (See Boyd & Eddy, both references) A story gets told and told and retold, like a fish story that grows over time. Typically, that’s what happens with legends. They take decades and even centuries to evolve, even a millennium. For example, the legends about Buddha are all more than 500 years after his life. The same is true of Plato, Alexander the Great, and others. But when it comes to Jesus, you don’t have a millennium. In fact, you don’t even have decades. You don’t have enough time for a legend to develop.
The first person to write about Jesus is the apostle Paul. Paul is writing two decades after Jesus lived. He is writing when people still are alive and who remember Jesus. So, there are real, historical figures involved, such as Caiaphas the high priest, and Joseph of Arimathea, who was a member of the Sanhedrin. These and others are people who lived and were contemporary with people who were still alive when Paul wrote. The question then becomes: How could you have a legend evolve about a man if He’s just a normal carpenter, and in just 10-15 years he is now the “Son of God?” How do you explain that… when his brother James is still alive? In fact, how do you explain it when you have people laying down their lives for this story? (See Lord or Legend?, 43)
Boyd and Eddy contend that the legend-hypothesis does not work because you don’t have enough time for Jesus to become “legendary.”
Reason #3 – You also have the wrong culture.
Boyd and Eddy say that, when it comes to being receptive to legends, not all cultures are equal. For example our culture, on the whole, is quite resistant to legends. Most people don’t believe most of the legends that go around. Other cultures are more receptive to legends. First-century Judaism, however, was resistant to legends. They had the Torah. It was the pagans who told the stories and the legends.
Usually, when legends evolve, there’s a sociological need that’s being met. Legends evolve to support traditional beliefs. The legend reinforces what they already believe. The story of Jesus doesn’t fit any of the cultural beliefs very well. In fact, Jesus flies in the face of established beliefs in first-century Judaism. He is conflicting with many of these beliefs. For example, the Jews believed God was God and humans were humans, and never the twain shall meet. The idea that God would become man is off-the-charts blasphemous. This, claim Boyd and Eddy, is not the stuff of “legends.”
Legends confirm traditional beliefs; they do not confront traditional beliefs. The Jews believed in military Messiah. Instead, Jesus gets crucified. It would be hard to make a story more implausible than this. The Jesus story is not about Jewish “heroes.” In fact, the disciples look positively ignorant.
In this regard C.S. Lewis, whose area of scholarship was mythology, said, basically (to paraphrase): “I know mythology. If there’s one thing the 4 Gospels are not, it’s mythology.” So, it seems that the legendary hypothesis does not work for a number of reasons.
N.T. Wright comments, in depth, on the “dying and rising God” myth. It’s false. Here’s why. But first note: If you want to read much more see N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God, Ch. 2, “Shadows, Souls, and Where They Go: Life Beyond Death in Ancient Paganism.” Wright combines excellent scholarship with clear writing to show that the idea that, e.g., Osiris, Mithras, and Dionysus et. al. “were [mythically] resurrected” is false because a misunderstanding of the meaning of ‘resurrection.’ In the ancient world in which Judeo-Christianity was situated “’resurrection’ was not an option.” (Wright, 60)
“Resurrection,” in the Judeo-Christian sense, means: “a new embodied life which would follow whatever ‘life after death’ might be.” (Wright, 83) The Greco-Roman world assumed that such a thing was impossible.
The Isis, Osiris, and Dionysus myths are affiliated with fertility rites and “productivity of the soil.” (Ib., 80) These gods “died and rose” every year. “The new life they might thereby experience was not a return to the life of the present world.” Nobody actually expected the mummies to get up, walk about and resume normal living: nobody in that world would have wanted such a thing, either.” (Ib., 80-81)
“When the Christians spoke of the resurrection of Jesus they did not suppose it was something that happened every year, with the sowing of seed and the harvesting of crops. They could use the image of sowing and harvesting to talk about it; they could celebrate Jesus’ death by breaking bread; but to confuse this with the world of the dying and rising gods would be a serious mistake… When Paul preached in Athens, nobody said, ‘Ah, yes, a new version of Osiris and such like. The Homeric assumption remained in force. Whatever the gods – or the crops – might do, humans did not rise again from the dead.” (Ib., 81)
The two greatest influences on the Greco-Roman worldview were Plato and Homer. For Plato ‘resurrection’ was a detestable thought; for Homer an impossible thing. The Christian idea of resurrection is antithetical to Platonic thinking because the human body, for Plato, is a “prison” and no one would want to inhabit it again after death. For Homer the dead are “shades,” “ghosts,” “phantoms.” “They are in no way fully human beings, though they may look like them; the appearance is deceptive, since one cannot grasp them physically.” (Ib., 43)
The Egyptian Osiris myth has no concept of “resurrection” in it as Christians understood it. Egyptian mummification assumes the person is “still ‘alive’ in some bodily sense, despite appearances.” “’Resurrection’ is an inappropriate word for Egyptian belief.” (Ib., 47).
There is a lot of reasoning and many cited resources in Wright’s chapter. He concludes with three things.
1. “When the early Christians spoke of Jesus being raised from the dead, the natural meaning of that statement, throughout the ancient world, was the claim that something had happened to Jesus which had happened to nobody else. A great many things supposedly happened to the dead, but resurrection did not.” (Ib., 83)
2. “The early Christian belief that Jesus was in some sense divine cannot have been the cause of the belief in his resurrection…. Divinization did not require resurrection; it regularly happened without it. It involved the soul, not the body.” (Ib.)
3. The ancient non-Judeo-Christian world took the Judeo-Christian term ‘resurrection,’ which referred to something hardly anyone believed in, “and used it to denote something a great many people believed in”; viz., non-bodily life after death.
Wright writes: This “was a variation that attempted to retain Christian language about Jesus, and about the future destiny of Christians, whole filling it with non-Christian, and for that matter non-Jewish, content. If this mutation had been the norm, and belief in bodily resurrection the odd variant, why would anyone have invented the latter? And why would not Celsus have pointed this all out?” (Ib., 84)
Did Jesus of Nazareth actually exist? Craig Evans writes: “No serious historian of any religious or nonreligious stripe doubts that Jesus of Nazareth really lived in the first century and was executed under the authority of Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea and Samaria. Though this may be common knowledge among scholars, the public may well not be aware of this.” (Craig Evans and N.T. Wright, Jesus, The Final Days: What Really Happened, 3)
Finally, a truly thorough presentation of the historicity of the Gospel accounts must include Richard Bauckham’s masterpiece Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels and Eyewitness Testimony, which argues that “the Gospels embody eyewitness testimony.” (114)