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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Accusations Against Jesus Answered

Don Stewart :: Is It Possible That the Claims of Jesus Christ Were Legendary?

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Is It Possible That the Claims of Jesus Christ Were Legendary?

The Life and Ministry of Jesus Christ – Question 18

For modern humanity, the favorite way of dealing with the claims of the New Testament regarding Jesus Christ is simply to believe that He never made them. It is asserted that His followers made the claims after many years of their teaching and preaching about Him. Jesus, they argue, was a simple man who had a tremendous impact on His followers.

The Accusation: The Stories Were Told and Retold

After His death, stories about Him were told and retold. By the time these stories had been committed to writing, Jesus was transformed from a simple Galilean teacher into a miracle worker, the Son of God, and the Savior of the world.

Those who believe Jesus never claimed any of these things assert that His well-meaning disciples got caught up in all the excitement around His character and exaggerated His claims and deeds.

However, the accusation that Jesus never made the claims about Himself that are recorded in the New Testament, does not square with the facts for the following reasons.

1. There Was Not Enough Time for Legends to Arise

To begin with, we are not dealing with generations but rather with a short period of time between the actual occurrence of the events and their recording. There is strong evidence that three of the four gospels were written within twenty years of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

In addition, the earliest letter of the Apostle Paul, First Thessalonians, was also written within twenty years of the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. This is far too short of a time for the claims about Jesus to have been exaggerated to the point where they did not accurately reflect what He actually said and did.

Legends take time to develop; at least two full generations. There is no other historical example of a legend springing up and growing to such a degree that it significantly distorts the story in such a short period of time. None. Yet, it is claimed this is what happened with the story of Jesus.

2. The New Testament Writers Understood the Importance of Eyewitness Testimony

The importance of eyewitness testimony was not lost on the New Testament writers who repeatedly appealed to first-hand evidence to substantiate their assertions. For example, one of Jesus’ disciples, John, wrote,

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us... (1 John 1:1-2 NRSV)

They testified to what they knew was true. Indeed, they were there!

It must also be emphasized that not all of the eyewitnesses to the events in the life of Jesus Christ were believers. If the disciples tended to distort the facts about what He said or did, the unbelieving eyewitnesses would have immediately objected to their distortion. Yet we find no such objections.

3. The Number of Eyewitnesses Was Sufficient

Not only do we have eyewitnesses, the number of eyewitnesses to the events in the life of Jesus Christ also argues for their truthfulness. The Apostle Paul said that the resurrection of Christ was witnessed by over five hundred people at one time. He wrote this in his first letter to the Corinthians:

After that, he was seen by more than five hundred of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died by now. (1 Corinthians 15:6 NLT)

Multitudes of people witnessed the miracles of Jesus, as well as heard His teachings. They were not isolated events seen only by a select few.

4. They Lived in a Memory Culture

In addition, the people in the first century relied more upon memory than we do today. The memorization of Jesus’ teachings, as well as His mighty deeds, would be expected from His audience. They were used to committing to memory the important sayings and deeds of famous teachers.

5. Jesus Made a Lasting Impression

The extraordinary events of the life of Jesus Christ would have made a lasting impression on all of the people who witnessed them. Miracles were not something they were used to seeing. After Jesus healed a paralyzed man, the Bible records the reaction of the people:

The man got right up. He picked up his mat and went out while everyone watched in amazement. They praised God and said, “We have never seen anything like this!” (Mark 2:12 CEV)

We note that they had never seen anything like this event. This miracle of Jesus astounded them. Such a deed would not be soon forgotten.

6. The Writers Had a Biographical Interest in Christ’s Life

It is also evident that the early church had a biographical interest in the life of Jesus Christ. The gospel accounts are filled with specific historical details or allusions to events in Jesus’ ministry.

Matthew, for example, records Jesus’ genealogy or family line (chapter 1), the visit of the Magi to Herod and the slaughter of the innocents (chapter 2). He also gives the events associated with the trial and death of Jesus (chapters 26-27).

In the writings of Luke, we also find many historical references. Among other things, he wrote the following:

For fifteen years Emperor Tiberius had ruled that part of the world. Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was the ruler of Galilee. Herod’s brother, Philip, was the ruler in the countries of Iturea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was the ruler of Abilene. Annas and Caiaphas were the Jewish high priests. At that time God spoke to Zechariah’s son John, who was living in the desert. (Luke 3:1, 2 CEV)

In this passage seven different people, and their governmental positions, are listed in order to indicate the time that God’s Word came to John the Baptist.

These examples, to which many others could be added, testify that the gospel writers were interested in the biographical and historical details of the life of Jesus Christ.

7. They Had a Consistent Testimony

Furthermore, the testimony of the various gospel writers is consistent. They do not disagree among themselves on the fact that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. Their testimony remained consistent throughout their lives.

If their testimony could have been challenged, it would have been. However, they were never accused of lying concerning what they said about Jesus.

8. They Were Martyred for Their Beliefs

The final evidence of the truthfulness of the disciples’ testimony is that they were martyred for their beliefs. The disciples signed their testimony in their own blood. Certainly, a person might lie for someone else, but will not die for a person or a cause if they believe it to be false. The disciples obviously believed Jesus’ story to be true.

These reasons refute the idea that the disciples exaggerated Jesus’ claims. The New Testament was composed in such a short time after the events occurred that it would be folly to assume that the writers’ memories were so faulty that neither they, nor the unbelievers, could remember the actual events of the life of Christ; especially because of the miraculous nature of the deeds.

Thus, the claims of Jesus Christ, as recorded in the New Testament, must be dealt with.

Summary – Question 18
Is It Possible That the Claims of Jesus Christ Were Legendary?

Many people would like to ignore the claims which the New Testament says that Jesus Christ made. One of their favorites of doing this is saying that He never made them. In other words, what we have in the New Testament are not the claims that Jesus Christ made during His public ministry but rather the words of His disciples who wrote many years after His death. If this is the case then nobody has to face the claims which Jesus made.

However, there is no evidence that Jesus’ claims were legendary. A number of points need to be made about this.

First of all, there was not enough time for any legends about Jesus Christ to occur. Those who wrote the New Testament were either eyewitnesses of Jesus’ deeds or people who recorded eyewitness testimony. They were there.

Furthermore, unfriendly eyewitnesses to the life of Christ would have corrected any exaggeration on the part of the New Testament writers. Yet we find that there was nothing to correct.

In addition, the number of eyewitnesses was sufficient to establish Jesus’ claims. Indeed, Paul wrote that over five hundred people at one time saw Jesus after His resurrection from the dead. It is not logical to assume that all of them were mistaken.

There is also the fact that theirs was a memory culture. They were used to memorizing the sayings of important teachers. Jesus, with His powerful words and deeds, would have made a lasting impression on everyone. They would not likely have been quickly forgotten.

An examination of the New Testament shows that the writers were interested in specific details of His life. This is inconsistent with someone making up a legendary story.

Indeed, those who are writings legends do not give specific details that can be investigated.

Add to this the consistent testimony of the gospels with respect to Jesus’ claims. The four gospel writer all told the same story yet with they told them with different details. This is exactly what we would expect of four writers who were telling the truth.

Finally, history tells us they were all martyred for their faith; with the possible exception of John. One does not become a martyr unless they believe their cause to be true.

All of these facts demonstrate that the New Testament account is not in the realm of legend.

What Are the Different Ways in Which Jesus' Claims Can Be Viewed? ← Prior Section
Is It Possible That Jesus Lied About Who He Was? Next Section →
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