The possible explanation of the gospels that they may represent legend, rather than history, is not new and it is probably the most popular opinion held among non-believers today. It is easy, when in a skeptical and superficial frame of mind, to simply wave one’s hand at the whole affair and believe these stories are just tall tales. Many anti-Christian skeptics like Bart Ehrman have compared the transmission of the narrative about Jesus to the “telephone game”, where the oral tradition is passed from one individual to another and with each telling it grows and morphs into something new. We will now investigate whether this is supported by the facts.
1) Legends take time to develop, as individuals tell the story time and time again and gradually new elements are added and the story is slowly embellished; by the time all of this has occurred, the original eyewitnesses, or those who knew them, are no longer around to correct the false presentation. By contrast, the earlier a testimony can be dated in reference to the events themselves, the less likely it is to represent a legendary development.
2) The New Testament can be traced back to extremely close to the events themselves- well within living memory of the eyewitnesses of Christ. The very earliest Christians already possessed a belief in Jesus as God and that he rose from the dead.**
Result: The gospel accounts are not legends.
** Many lines of supporting evidence can be brought out in defense of 2).
– Internal evidence –
-The New Testament fails to mention at any point the destruction of the Jewish temple and city of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, despite the fact that in many places it would have been highly relevant. Jesus predicted this would happen, and including the fact that it did happen would have confirmed his prediction. In fact, the book of Hebrews even mentions that the sacrifices are “continually offered every year” (10:1), displaying no indication that the temple had been destroyed causing the sacrifices to cease. This fact alone means all or most of the New Testament was likely completed prior to 70 A.D., well within living memory of the eyewitnesses themselves.
-The historian Luke details the lives of Paul and Peter in the book of Acts, yet he never mentions either of their deaths. He also fails to mention the death of James. All of these would have very likely been included in the meticulous catalog of events that Luke pieced together surrounding the early church (which did include other accounts of martyrs for Christ)- unless they had not yet occurred. Paul was killed in A.D. 64, and Peter in 65. James was killed in 62. This means the book of Acts predated all these, and the gospel of Luke, which came before Acts, would have been even earlier still.
-Paul quotes from the gospel of Luke in 1 Corinthians, dated from A.D. 53-57, (“do this in remembrance of me”), meaning that at that time the gospel was already in circulation. This pushes Luke’s gospel back yet closer still to Jesus’ life. Paul also quotes Luke in 1 Timothy, which was dated around A.D. 63-64.
– Luke’s gospel, which Luke himself calls a compilation of previous records, repeatedly quotes Mark and Matthew word-for-word, showing that Mark and Matthew’s gospels were circulating prior to Luke’s. This step in the chain gets us extremely close to the original events, and fails to provide anywhere near enough time for legendary corruption and embellishment.
– At around A.D. 50 in the letter to the Romans, Paul calls Jesus the resurrected “Son of God”, indicating his deity. This is far too early to represent a complete embellishment and corruption of the original message of the apostles, and thus represents accurately what they themselves were teaching. Luke indicates to us in Acts that Paul met with the apostles and was given the “right hand of fellowship”- there was no disagreement between Paul and the disciples of Christ. They taught the same things about Christ.
– Paul’s writing contains evidence of the repetition of even earlier Christian creeds about Christ. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, Paul says “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received…”, echoing the language of Jewish leaders who were transmitting oral traditions. The creed which follows likely represents teaching about Christ which predates even Paul’s own writings. In this creed, Paul affirms the resurrection of Christ and his appearance to the apostles and many others.
– External evidence –
-The disciples of the apostles, sometimes called the Early Church Fathers, who personally knew and learned from the original disciples of Christ, began writing in the late 1st century and early 2nd century. They already had a fully-developed doctrine of Jesus as God and held to his Resurrection. This is strong corroboration of the testimony of the New Testament, since if the New Testament were a later forgery, it would not match the teachings of those men who were closest to the original disciples. Instead, the early church leaders (like Papias, Polycarp, Clement of Rome, The author of the Epistle of Barnabas, and Ignatius) quote extensively from the New Testament, as if it had already been in circulation at that time. What’s more, if the New Testament represented a late corruption of true Christian teaching, we would expect to hear rebuttals from the “true Christians” refuting this new heresy, just as they did with other heresies. We don’t find this. The writings of the “Early Church Fathers” corroborate, rather than contradict, the New Testament.
– Pliny the Younger, a Roman governor in the early 2nd century, wrote a series of letters to Emperor Trajan discussing the issue of Christianity. Even at this comparatively early date, he was able to say this:
“They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food–but ordinary and innocent food.”
The deity of Christ is one of those supernatural elements that liberal critics like to allege was a late corruption of true Christian teaching. Yet here we see at the beginning of the 2nd century AD (only about a generation or two removed from Christ himself) we see external evidence of the actual deification of Christ (“sing … a hymn to Christ as to a god”). If that were a corruption, what in the world happened to the real Christians? How could the true teachings of Christ have been so completely supplanted with corrupted ones so quickly with no evidence of internal opposition coming from the disciples and their students? It’s simply not reasonable, and the idea should be rejected.