Legendary history

(Book: On Guard, by William Lane Craig. Chapter 8: “Who Was Jesus?”)

Last week we introduced Craig’s list of five reasons why he thinks we ought to accept New Testament accounts as factual history, despite their clear bias and explicit agenda. The middle three turned out to be smoke and mirrors that he mentioned briefly and then dropped, but he spends a bit more time on the first and last reasons, and that’s what we’re going to look at today. Though his goal is to convince us to believe whatever the New Testament writers tell us, what he actually demonstrates is that his own conclusions need to be taken with a very large grain of salt.

Craig’s first argument is that there isn’t enough time to “erase the core historical facts” concerning the events of the first century. Right off the bat he’s putting a spin on the whole debate. To turn the execution of a common faith healer into a miraculous incarnation, atonement, and resurrection, you don’t need to erase the historical record of his life and death, you merely need to embellish it with the supernatural addenda. The Church will have centuries, later on, to locate and destroy the contrary evidence, leaving the embellishments unchallenged as Craig’s “core historical facts.” So he’s off on the wrong foot just in how he chooses to frame the debate.

Meanwhile, here is how he tries to prove his point.

No modern scholar thinks of the gospels as bald-faced lies, the results of a massive conspiracy. The only places you find such conspiracy theories are on atheist Web sites and in sensationalist books and movies… Rather ever since the nineteenth century, skeptical scholars have explained away the gospels as legends. Like stories of Robin Hood or King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, as the stories about Jesus were passed on over the decades, they got muddled and exaggerated and mythologized until the original facts were all but lost…

One of the major problems with the legend hypothesis, however, which is almost never addressed by skeptical critics, is that the time gap between Jesus’ death and the writing of the gospels is just too short for this to have happened.

Craig goes on to cite Professor A. N. Sherwin-White, a Greco-Roman historian, as claiming that we can measure the rate at which historical fact is gradually supplanted by legend, which he says takes more than two generations. He arrives at this rate by considering how contemporary reporting of Greco-Roman history changes over time. Prof. Sherwin-White thinks “the skepticism of the radical critics to be quite unjustified” with respect to the gospels. “All historians agree that the gospels were written down and circulated during the first generation after the events, while the eyewitnesses were still alive,” says Craig, and since this is allegedly too short a time for legends to accumulate, the accounts must be reliable.

That’s roughly true, but there’s a loophole there big enough to fly a fleet of 747’s through. Professor Sherwin-White is considering the rate at which changes accumulate in records of secular political events with a substantial tangible impact on the lives of entire nations. Alexander the Great wasn’t just some side-show faith healer doing tricks for the faithful, he conquered stuff. His story is interesting because it gives us insights into the kind of qualities and tactics that make someone successful in real-world competition. There’s an advantage, then, in keeping it real, because if you substitute wishful thinking and deus ex machina for the stuff that really works, Alexander’s story isn’t going to do you much good. Its value is mundane and practical, and it’s therefore naturally resistant to the kind of superstitions and supernatural trappings that eventually grow up around it.

Faith-based ministries are a whole different ball game. The “prophet” isn’t out to conquer people physically, by the threat of the sword. He’s there to conquer people mentally and emotionally, by selling them belief in things that cannot be seen. Or in other words, by selling them the legend. To say that it takes more than two generations for a prophet to impart incredible stories to his followers is like saying a general would need that long to achieve corresponding military victories. In some cases, for some generals, that might be true, but it wasn’t true for Alexander, and there’s no reason a spiritual hero couldn’t be just as exceptional in spreading his own legends.

The key difference here is that in the case of the prophet, the amazing supernatural stories are not an afterthought, they’re the primary product of the ministry, and they are spread to (and by) superstitious people who are willing and even eager to believe them. You can’t approach religious history as though it were military history and expect the same constraints to apply. Belief in the supernatural, coupled with an earnest desire to prove that it’s all true and that one’s own religion is The One True Faith, provides a tremendous acceleration to the whole process. In many cases, it can be virtually instantaneous to the events themselves, as witness the many stories we hear from believers today who superstitiously ascribe supernatural causes to ordinary outcomes.

Look at any of the new religions that sprang up in America in the 1800’s: Mormonism, Christian Science, the Seventh-Day Adventists, etc., etc. Look at Scientology, or ministries like Benny Hinn. The time it takes for believers to embellish their beliefs is measured in seconds, not generations. To have years and even decades, in a superstitious and Messiah-crazy culture, would allow plenty of time for the kind of embellishments we find in the New Testament accounts.

Nor, in fact, are the core historical facts entirely erased. In Matthew’s gospel, for example, he records the existence of widespread reports claiming that disciples took Jesus’ body. Matthew tries to discredit the story by claiming the guards were bribed to spread lies, but in the process he does document that the reports existed. And then there’s this:

This point becomes even more devastating for skepticism when we realize that the gospels themselves use sources that go back even closer to events of Jesus’ life. For example, the story of Jesus’ suffering and death, commonly called the passion story, was probably not originally written by Mark. Rather, Mark used a source for this narrative. Mark is the earliest gospel, and his source must be even earlier still. In fact, Rudolf Pesch, a German expert on Mark, says the passion source must go back to at least AD 37. That’s just seven years after Jesus’ death.

The oldest manuscripts of Mark end at verse 8, with an angel who tells the women that Jesus is “risen,” but without any actual, tangible, physically-resurrected Jesus showing up. Later gospels go out of their way to make Jesus actually show up and prove himself in various ways, but the oldest Gospel manuscripts are like the manuscripts of the oldest epistles, which describe the resurrection as the raising of a spiritual body, in contrast with the “earthly” body that was buried. Thus, we can see the story improve with the re-telling, from one gospel to the next, and from the earlier epistles to the later. Even the Gospel of Mark itself was “improved” by the addition of one or two longer endings designed to add a few “real” appearances of a risen Jesus to the story. The oldest accounts were about a Messiah who was simply gone (presumably to heaven), but within a very short time we find additions designed specifically to refute the idea that he went straight to heaven from the tomb.

Craig, thus, is wrong on several counts: he improperly frames the debate as though legends cannot accumulate without erasing historical fact, he vastly underestimates the rate at which believers embrace stories of the supernatural, and he fails to address the historical facts that were not entirely erased, and that cast doubt on the reliability of the “official” Christian accounts. We could go on, but I don’t want to belabor this too much because we still have one more point to cover.

Craig’s last point is the claim that “The gospel writers have a proven track record of historical reliability.” Notice, he does not claim that they have a proven record of objectivity and accuracy when reporting on their own religious claims. He means they have—or at least one of them has—some kind of general, trivial historical reliability. In other words, historians have been able to verify that certain inconsequential details of the book of Acts are really true.

From the sailings of the Alexandrian [grain] fleet to the coastal terrain of the Mediterranean islands to the peculiar titles of local officials, Luke gets it right.

None of which have anything at all to do with Luke being unbiased and accurate in his reporting of the alleged justifications for his personal religious beliefs. Confirming the incidental details of Luke’s report does lend credence to the claim that he was carefully and reliably reporting his own mundane experiences, as opposed to, say, being a fictional character invented centuries later by some monk with no clue about first century conditions. But that’s a far cry from saying that Luke would never try to sell us a religion that wasn’t really true.

This is an important point, and one that apologists like Craig consistently attempt to obscure rather than address. The sailings of the Alexandrian grain fleet aren’t at issue here. The question is, can we trust Luke (a) to objectively and critically evaluate positive claims made about the religion he has dedicated his life to and (b) to record only those reports that are actually historically true? In other words, should we trust that Luke is not just following Keener’s example (so to speak) in recording whatever stories he can find that seem to support his agenda?

I think not, for a few reasons. One, we know on general principle that no one is completely unbiased. As Prof. Sherwin-White reports, even the more-or-less trusted sources for Greco-Roman history “are usually biased,” and this bias has to be taken into account. But cultural bias is nothing compared to religious bias. The fact that Craig, who shares Luke’s bias, wants us to overlook Luke’s bias, ought to make us doubly suspicious.

As an example of Luke’s bias, consider his uncritical acceptance of the story of Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemene.

And He came out and proceeded as was His custom to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples also followed Him. When He arrived at the place, He said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” And He withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and He knelt down and began to pray, saying, “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done.”Now an angel from heaven appeared to Him, strengthening Him. And being in agony He was praying very fervently; and His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground. When He rose from prayer, He came to the disciples and found them sleeping from sorrow, and said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not enter into temptation.”

According to the story, the disciples have not yet understood that Jesus is to be crucified and to rise from the dead, yet they’re already “exhausted from sorrow.” The author’s hindsight, knowing of Jesus’ imminent death, projects his own sorrowful recollection onto the disciples in the story, who did not yet know that this was the “night before the crucifixion” scene. What’s more, at this point in the story, the disciples know that Jesus has made some powerful and violent enemies, and yet none of them jumps up and says, “Jesus, you’re covered in blood, what happened?” Apologists like to use this story as proof of Luke’s historical reliability, since there’s no way he would know about the rare medical phenomenon that causes bloody sweat under extreme stress, but again, the story shows the disciples behaving as though they’ve memorized the script, and know exactly why Jesus is all bloody.

Granted, you could say that the disciples failed to react to Jesus’ bleeding because it was too dark out, so they couldn’t see it. But in that case, whose “eyewitness” testimony is Luke reporting when he claims that Jesus was bleeding in the first place? You can’t be an eyewitness of something if it’s too dark for you to see it. Craig’s claims notwithstanding, we’re not dealing with an unbiased historian documenting factual eyewitness testimony. “Sweat like blood” is an embellishment. The grain fleets of Alexandria don’t matter one way or another; Luke has no reason to seek questionable accounts of how and when they sail. But the “suffering Savior” is an important emotional element of Luke’s agenda, so he reports this story as historical fact despite its obvious anachronisms and inconsistencies.

Bottom line, it’s not that Luke is an unbiased and reliable historian, it’s that Craig shares Luke’s bias, and is therefore unable to perceive it. He finds Luke trustworthy, not because Luke represents an objective and critical cross-examination of the evidence, but simply because he wants Luke to be right. He wants Jesus to be God. And he wants us to put our faith in this man Luke so that we, too, can become convinced that everything Luke says about Jesus is true.

The historical documents we have about Jesus are all biased and credulous, with progressive “improvements” over time. To blindly put our trust in what these men have written is to mistake gullibility for a virtue.

17 Responses to “Legendary history”

  1. Ten Bears Says:

    This modern scholar (Master of Science, thank you very much) thinks the gospels are bald-faced lies.

    Clicked over from Free Thought – nice place you got here, I’ll be back.

    O’owlish Amenheh
    (Ten Bears), Rogue Gnostic

  2. Lord Griggs Says:

    You might rebut some of the swill at Evidence for God about the reliability of the Buy-bull.Note how it rationalizes about who presses David to take that census. Remember errantists and inerrantists both have rationalizations for their fables!Please go after both!

  3. Lord Griggs Says:

    You might rebut some of the swill at Evidence for God about the reliability of the Buy-bull.Note how it rationalizes about who presses David to take that census. Remember errantists and inerrantists both have rationalizations for their fables!Please go after both! http://buy-bull.wordpress.com

  4. Tony Hoffman Says:

    “He finds Luke trustworthy, not because Luke represents an objective and critical cross-examination of the evidence, but simply because he wants Luke to be right.”

    I liken it to seeing a mirage. We see them all the time (driving on the highway, etc.), but they are usually only interpreted as water by someone desperate to find water. Impaired ability to discern + desire to see what one is looking for = mistaken perception that bent light waves are water.

    We come across legends, embellishments, mistakes and lies all the time, regularly recognizing them for what they are. But to someone with an undeveloped critical acumen and methaphysical discomfort, these stories can easily be misinterpreted in the same way that a thirsting person believes a mirage is surface water.

  5. Chris Hallquist Says:

    Thanks for the link. One thing I’d add is that Craig gives a false impression of what Sherwin-White actually did in the work Craig cites. This is something I document in my (now out-of-print) book. Hmmm… I should probably make that chapter available online, it seems to have been a couple people’s favorite.

  6. David Tyler Says:

    When reading Craig’s arguments, we are actually witnessing the very same sort of process that happened with “Luke”. Both of them tell a story and systematically distort the events to fit the needs of an argument to convince the reader that they must be true. Craig is a personification of the “Luke” phenomenon. Read Craig and you see “Luke” in action.

  7. Charles Says:

    You are correct to note that the story of the bible is falsification by addition to (and subtraction from) reality rather than outright lies. Even in the case of Alexander useful legends grew round him even in his (Alexander’s) lifetime – think of the tale of his horse, Bucephalos meaning Ox-head or colloquially Stubborn. Even today we can observe the same processes at work in the mythologising of the lives of actors, politicians as well as religious leaders.

    Examples are easy to find:
    1) Errol Flynn’s amorous “exploits”;
    2) The official life stories of the North Korean despots called Kim Jong, Ronald Reagan’s tax reductions as imagined by right-wing myth makers;
    3) The stories of Joseph Smith (as believed by Mormons) and L Ron Hubbard (as believed by Scientologists).

    In the same vein one easy point against Craig is the simple falsification of the name “Jesus”. Craig knows better than most that the name used by Christians for their Messiah is not one used by any 1st century Jew; it is a poor transliteration from Aramaic into Greek with a Latinate ending. If the rabbinic documents that use the name are correct it was pronounced more as “Yeh-schwa” or possibly “Yee-schwa” and nowadays is transliterated academically as Yeshua and familiarly as Joshua. This “new” name used by the authors of the Bible was a very early addition to actuality.

  8. Conrad Schnakenberg Says:

    what is often not appreciated is the fact that the average age at death at that place and time was 35 to 40. It is true that people in that civilization could live to 70 or more but very very few did and certainly not the lower class citizens in Palestine. This means that even Mark must have his information third hand. All the gospel writers may never have even been in Jerusalem, they were just telling the stories as they understood them. They were trying to make their position obvious and would obviously reject any contrary information.

  9. pboyfloyd Says:

    So there are no historians who noticed that the Romans tended to absorb, not only any technology and culture but were more than happy to absorb any legends, of conquered peoples? They happened to have their own God’s Son, Julius Caesar, right at that time, too. What a political coup if their God’s Son and the Jews’ Messiah just happened to integrate them, just happened to combine these powerful memes. Seems to me that the Romans didn’t mind people being zealots, raging for a cause, just so long as they could get those zealots to see it as the Empire’s cause.

    I think this whole Jesus thing is an attempt by the Romans to either crush them or win the hearts and minds of the locals.

    Can we not imagine a politician or two wondering how to quell these rebelious, Godly people? But how? How about if their God was everyone’s God? How about if God’s Son had come down to Earth and HE happened to be, not some glorius defeater of Rome, but the Prince of Pax Romana itself?

  10. sailor1031 Says:

    Thirty years is about the time it took for Haile Selassie to go from coronation as ruler of (then) Abyssinia in 1930 to incarnated son of doG in 1960s Jamaica. Luke has a good tenmore years on this hence even more myths, fables & legends accreted to the Yeshue story. Also remembering that much that is in Luke or Matthew is of unknown origin but is NOT from Mark. Also not from Q which seems to have been a “sayings” gospel – if it ever existed at all.

    • Lord Griggs Says:

      How about taking on the blog Evidence of God on how it rationalizes the Buy-bull? To thoroughly show the contradictions of that anthology, we need to respond to those very rationalzations such at the one about the tempting of David for te census.
      ” Elvis lives. Rudolph Valentino told me so. So much for the paranormal and- the Resurrection! ‘ Fr.Griggs

    • Charles Says:

      Not a criticism but are you sure you are not confusing Q with Didache? The non-canonical text of Didache is a book of sayings and was definitely used in the composition of the Mathew text. I think there is also some suspicion that the Luke text was a counterblast to the followers of the Mathew text and, presumably, Didache.

      Q, in my understanding, was thought to be a history text but I could well be mistaken.

      • sailor1031 Says:

        According to the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar, the Hypothetical Q was a sayings gospel somewhat like Thomas. I’m prepared to believe that. In their collection of texts “The Complete Gospels” (a book I highly recommend as an antidote to any attempt to ascribe historical reality to any gospels) is a possible reconstruction of Q. As I wrote, it may not have existed at all; but because of the great similarity between non-markian parts of Matt & Luke it seems most likely that something did and was actually a written document.

  11. sailor1031 Says:

    Just to elaborate a little further, there are two main theories about Matt. & Luke. The two source theory which postulates that both used Mark and Q as their sources. The four source theory is that both used Mark and Q and also each had another source of their own, called by scholars M and L respectively presumed to have been oral tradition.

  12. sailor1031 Says:

    for info re the Didache, which probably came after Matt. & Luke see:


  13. pboyfloyd Says:

    A few years ago, the Jehova Witnesses had a bright idea. They reasoned that the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation were so similar in their dreamology(my word, hah) that it had to be that both Daniel and John were divinely inspired. They would hold their thumb at the Book of Daniel and riffle through to the end of the NT saying triumphantly, “Now this(Daniel) and this(Revelation) were written 600 years apart! How could the two writers have described these parallel visions when it is not possible that they met or talked to each other??”

    It popped into my head, “Well John could have read Daniel.”

    The point is not that ‘I’m so smart’, no, it’s that these people so sincerely wish the stories to be true that they became focused on, hypnotized by the incredible number of years.

    • mikespeir Says:

      Oh, it’s not just the JWs doing that. It’s standard Dispensationist eschatological exegesis. And I think you’re right. When Jesus (purportedly) said in Mat 24:15, “When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place,” he was making a reference everyone around understood intuitively. It was part of the air these people breathed, so it’s hardly surprising that “John” would draw on it.

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