The Positive Case for Christ: Did Christianity develop as a legend?

In our development of the positive case for Christ, we have come a long way. We began by demonstrating the historical reliability of the New Testament gospels. We did not do this to deny inspiration or infallibility. We take inspiration and infallibility of the Bible by faith. Therefore, inspiration is accepted by believers and not by unbelievers. It is questioned by those in doubt.

Thus, we bring the Bible into a discussion on the level of facts, before we discuss it on the level of faith. While these doctrines are important, we will focus for our purposes on the logically prior step of historical reliability. This allows us to use the Bible in debate and discussion, but focusing on a provable standard that becomes undeniable. We then noted that there were three facts that can be gleaned through historical process from these documents. First, Jesus died on the cross after his crucifixion. Second, he was seen alive after his crucifixion by those who were inclined to accept the resurrection, as well as by those that were disinclined to accept His Messiahship. Finally, that Jesus’ tomb was empty. We have been examining various objections to this idea. In this issue, we discuss the possibility that the gospel accounts developed through the process of legend.

Is the gospel a legend
In recent decades and centuries, we have found a surprising number of legends are actually based in historical fact. Egyptologists have discovered a tomb they believe to be the legendary Scorpion King, the first human pharaoh of Egyptian myth and legend. Likewise, the Illiad contains a surprisingly accurate picture of late bronze age warfare. Since the nineteenth century, the ancient city of Illion (commonly referred to as Troy) has been discovered and excavated and remains of the Trojan war are clearly historical. Some have argued on the basis of the Cargo cults that Christianity is similarly a tradition surrounding some true historical events of Jesus teaching, and that this is sufficient to explain any historically accurate elements in the gospels.

Problem 1: The Problem of Time
Paul’s conversion is the great fly in the ointment for this theory. Paul’s conversion creates two separate problems for the legendary development theory. Time is the first of these. The left has tried valiantly to overcome the problem of time by comparing Christianity to the cargo cults (cults in various parts of the world among primitive peoples, based on legends formed around aircraft landing during the years of World War II). Yet the cargo cults originated in primitive, illiterate cultures, far different than the relatively advanced Hellenistic world. To put it in perspective, the Roman world of the first century was on the verge of the Industrial revolution. Heron of Alexandria, who lived during the time of Christ, had invented the first steam engine. Likewise, Archimedes seems to have discovered the rudiments of calculus before either Newton or Leibnitz. Thus, while the gullible exist in all cultures, in more advanced cultures, there exist those who are trained to think critically (people such as Paul, for example, but we will discuss that later). Thus, the differences in culture seriously weaken the argument of the lefts response on the basis of the cargo cults.

The true problem of time for the legendary development theory is far greater than most understand. Paul’s conversion happened at a time that is far earlier than many imagine. The book of Galatians was probably written in AD 48 to 49, (though some would place it in the middle of the fifties, about AD 55). Within the book, Paul tells the Galatians that his second visit to Jerusalem was fourteen years after his conversion. This dates Paul’s conversion between AD 34 and 35, (or if we take the later date, around AD 40). Jesus was crucified in either AD 30 or in AD 33. This means that the period of time for the legend of Christ to develop is within less than a decade. Within an advanced culture, such as the Hellenistic world, this is far too fast for a legend of the magnitude of the resurrection of Christ to grow.

Problem 2: Paul’s disinclination to accept the Gospel
A second problem for the legendary theory, mentioned in previous issues, is the disinclination of Paul to accept the gospel. This is related to the previous argument, but is distinct in a sense. His previous opposition to the Christian doctrines means that he would be disinclined to believe the evidence of legend. If we discuss this in terms of legend (rather than a hoax) Paul’s credentials as a scholar at such an early period of church history is inexplicable, if the gospels are the result to the slow growth of legend. If Paul had lived later, his conversion could have been related to either poor source material or accepted a theory simply because it had become the status quo in scholarship. Such could not be said in the thirties and forties of the first century. Any theory that attempts to explain the resurrection of Christ must explain the conversion of Paul in a realistic way: A highly educated Pharisee, who was opposed to the early Christian Church, until after the Damascus road experience. At this point, he literally turned his life around to follow Jesus Christ as the first great Christian scholar and apostle to the gentiles.

Problem #3 – Apples and Oranges
A lot of the arguments for the legendary growth theory are apples and oranges comparisons. We have noted already that comparisons to the primitive culture of the cargo cults are ultimately incompatible comparisons, but this is also true of many other arguments from antiquity. The argument that the gospel are similar in development to the Illiad or the legend of the Scorpion King are like comparing apples and oranges; the differences are striking. During the development of the evidence, we discussed the work of William Ramsey, who demonstrated that the book of Acts is correct in identifying precise details. Ramsey’s conclusion was to refer to the author of Acts as a “historian of the first rank.” This is not the same kind of accuracy when scholars discuss the historical accuracy of the Illiad, however. The Illiad’s accuracy is found in the general details. There is evidence of a war between the ancient Greeks and ancient Illion (better known to English speakers as Troy). There is evidence that the invaders (presumably the Greeks) won, and the poem correctly notes many aspects of bronze age battle. However, we do not know whether the details of those battles are correct or not; that is, we do not know about the specific offensives of Hector, or of single combat between Hector and Achilles. Many of the plot points of the Illiad, even the existence of some of the major characters are of unknown value. Some may be true. Many details, likely, are not. The same is true of the Scorpion King. All that can really be stated is that he might have really existed, and might have controlled a significant territory in Egypt. No other details have been proven. Acts has been proven right in the details of the period – it demonstrates accurately who was in what city in what year and accurately depicts titles. This level of confirmed accuracy is a very different thing that what we have in other sources.

The theory of legendary development is relatively weak. If the gospels were written in the middle of the second century, or Paul lived thirty or forty years later, perhaps those with this opinion would have a point. Ultimately, the theory of legendary development is based on assumptions based on a disconnect between periods of time. While investigating the tomb of Jesus Hoax and discussing the matter on the films boards, one woman stated that I had her going until I stated that Paul was in Jerusalem at the time of the Crucifixion.

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