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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Objections to the Resurrection of Jesus

Don Stewart :: Did the Story about Jesus Become Embellished as It Was Told and Retold?

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Did the Story about Jesus Become Embellished as It Was Told and Retold?

Objections to the Resurrection of Jesus – Question 5

One of the most popular explanations has been to say the stories about Jesus Christ have been embellished. From a simple teacher Jesus’ disciples turned Him into the resurrected Son of God. The story is usually listed in the following way.

Accusation 1: There Was No Resurrection in the Earliest Account of Jesus: Mark

The earliest gospel written, Mark, does not contain the resurrection. He ended his gospel with Jesus still in the tomb. Only the later gospel writers, using Mark as their source, created the legend of the empty tomb and eventually the risen Savior. For example, Matthew records some appearance of Jesus, Luke still more appearances, and John, the last gospel written, has still more. Thus, the evolution of the belief in the resurrection can be clearly seen.

To the early believers, Jesus was still alive, but only in spirit. The story of His physical resurrection was thus created by the church to express Jesus’ spiritual resurrection in a material or physical form. Therefore, the story is a myth.

Accusation 2: After Jerusalem Was Destroyed the Stories about Jesus Arose and Grew into Legends

The dating of the four gospels is also important. Mark, the first gospel written was not composed until either after Jerusalem was destroyed or immediately before it was destroyed. Again, it has no account of the resurrection.

Matthew and Luke were written after the Gospel of Mark, after the city of Jerusalem had been destroyed and the Jewish people slaughtered or taken into captivity. Few, if any, of the original witnesses to the events were still alive. This would allow them to tell the story in such a way that it could not be refuted. When the gospels were finally written, they were composed as actual eyewitness accounts; yet they were only legends that had arisen through the continual telling and retelling of the story. Well-meaning people turned the simple teacher Jesus into the miracle working Son of God who died for the sins of the world and came back from the dead three days later.

Response to the Idea That the Stories Grew into Legends

There are a number of responses that we can make to this idea that the gospels somehow grew to the place where Jesus became a miracle working Savior who rose from the dead. We can summarize our observations as follows.

1. It Is Not Certain Mark Was the First Gospel Written

While many people assume Mark was the first gospel written, this is anything but a certainty. Actually, the unanimous testimony of the early church is that Matthew was the first gospel composed. All agree that Matthew contains the account of the resurrection. Therefore, it is not true that the earliest gospel did not have the story of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

2. The Last Twelve Verses May Have Been Original with Mark

The idea that the last twelve verses were not original with Mark has been disputed. While it is possible these verses, which speak of the resurrection, were not original with Mark, it is also possible that they were. This issue has not been settled.

3. Even without the Last Twelve Verses the Resurrection Is Still Anticipated

Even if someone allows that Mark was the first gospel written, and that the last twelve verses were not in the original, there still is the anticipation of the resurrection in Mark. The angel at the tomb tells the women that Jesus has risen. He also commands them to tell Peter about it:

“Now go and tell his disciples, and especially Peter, that he will go ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you.” (Mark 16:7 CEV)

Here we are told that Jesus will indeed appear to the believers.

The fact that Jesus did appear to Peter is confirmed by two other historical sources. First, we read Paul writing to the Corinthians and acknowledging that Jesus appeared to Peter:

...and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (1 Corinthians 15:5 NRSV)

Paul writes that it was Peter to whom the Lord first appeared.

Luke records that Jesus appeared to Peter on Easter Sunday. The disciples gave the following testimony to the two disciples who walked with Jesus on the way to Emmaus:

That very hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem. They found the Eleven and those with them gathered together, who said, “The Lord has certainly been raised, and has appeared to Simon!” (Luke 24:33, 34 HCSB)

Again, the appearance to Simon Peter is documented.

In addition, the Book of Acts contains Peter’s consistent testimony that he saw the risen Christ. For example, on the Day of Pentecost, fifty days after the events of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, we find Pete saying the following:

“This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.” (Acts 2:32 NRSV)

Therefore, the shorter ending of Mark, without the last twelve verses, is still consistent with a resurrection of Jesus.

4. There Is Good Evidence Matthew And Luke Were Written Before Jerusalem Was Destroyed

Not only was Matthew written before Mark, there is good evidence that the first three gospels were written sometime before Jerusalem was destroyed.

5. The Destruction of Jerusalem Is Not Recorded

None of the gospel writers record the destruction of the city of Jerusalem or of the temple though each of the first three gospels has Jesus predicting this would occur. It makes no sense whatsoever for the writers not to record the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy about the city and the temple if they had been written after these monumental events took place. However, it is understandable that the destruction of the city and temple were not mentioned if the gospels were written before the events transpired.

6. There Was Not Enough Time for Legends to Develop

There are other problems with the legend idea. The main argument against this theory is that there is not enough time for this to happen.

Paul’s Letter to the Thessalonians

Indeed, Paul’s earliest letter, First Thessalonians, refutes the legend hypothesis. The fact that Jesus Christ was killed is stated in First Thessalonians:

For some of the Jews had killed their own prophets, and some even killed the Lord Jesus. Now they have persecuted us and driven us out. They displease God and oppose everyone. (1 Thessalonians 2:15 NLT)

Jesus was killed by the Jewish leaders according to this early letter of Paul.

Paul also wrote to the Thessalonians in this same letter about Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. He said,

We believe that Jesus died and came back to life. We also believe that, through Jesus, God will bring back those who have died. They will come back with Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 4:14 God’s Word)

This letter was written about A.D. 51, less than twenty years after the resurrection. Even if we ignore the testimony of the four gospels, we still have Paul’s writings which come from less than twenty years after the event.

Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians

There is still more evidence from Paul. He wrote to the first letter to the Corinthians between the years A.D. 55-57. The resurrection of Jesus took place in A.D. 33. This is less than twenty-five years after the events. In this letter, he says the following about the resurrection of Jesus:

Now I want to make clear for you, brothers and sisters, the gospel that I preached to you, that you received and on which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I passed on to you as of first importance what I also received—that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as though to one born at the wrong time, he appeared to me also. (1 Corinthians 15:1-8 NET)

There are a number of observations that we should make from this text.

First, it is important to note that Paul had previously told the Corinthians about the truth of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is usually seen as occurring some five years earlier on a previous visit. Thus, we have the belief in the resurrection proclaimed within twenty years of the event. Yet, there is more.

Paul’s Teaching Was Delivered to Him

Paul says what he told them had been delivered over, or passed down to him. This means before he told the Corinthians in A.D. 51 he learned about it at an earlier date. When did this occur?

We are told that Paul was in the city of Jerusalem with the apostles some three years after his conversion. He wrote the following to the Galatians:

It was not until three years later that I finally went to Jerusalem for a visit with Peter and stayed there with him for fifteen days. And the only other apostle I met at that time was James, our Lord’s brother. You must believe what I am saying, for I declare before God that I am not lying. (Galatians 1:18-20 NLT)

It was at that time that he met with Peter and James; two of the men who are on his list as people to whom Christ appeared. It was likely at that time that Paul learned about the appearance of Jesus to them. This would have been about five years after Jesus’ resurrection. Thus, within five years of the Jesus’ death, the story of the resurrection was related to Paul by two of the men to whom Jesus had appeared.

7. The Origin of the Legend Must Be Accounted For

There is something else that must be answered by those who hold the legend hypothesis. How did the legend get started in the first place? Legends may grow and make a story bigger and bigger but this does not account for how the legend originated. It is not enough to say the story of Jesus resurrection grew into a legend. The question must be answered, “Why did it become a legend?” What made the disciples, and the early believers, accept the idea that Jesus had risen?” Why would they place their faith in a leader who did not fulfill their expectations of the Messiah, who was brutally killed by the Romans, and who was initially rejected by even His own family? This issue must be honestly faced and answered by those who claim all that transpired was merely legendary.

8. Legends Take at Least Two Generations to Develop

There is also the historical fact that legends take time to develop. At least two full generations are needed for a story to get to the place where the original story is garbled and a legend substituted in its place. There was just not enough time for legends to develop to the place where the original story was radically changed. We have no other historical example of legends growing and significantly distorting a story in such a short time.

9. The Later Legendary Accounts Sound Legendary

In addition, later legendary accounts, which did arise, sound legendary. Stories arose of Jesus being as tall as the clouds, talking crosses, and other obviously legendary material. In contrast there is no fact of science contradicted by the resurrection of Christ. As Paul told the king, the God of the Bible is certainly able to raise Jesus from the dead:

Why should it be thought a thing incredible with you, that God should raise the dead? (Acts 26:8 KJV)

The God of the Bible, the living God, brought Him back from the dead.

10. Legends Do Not Produce What Followed

Moreover legends do not produce what follows. A legend would not produce an empty tomb. Legends do not produce the changed lives of the disciples of Jesus.

Furthermore, legends do not explain the conversion of Saul of Tarsus or Jesus’ brother James. Something caused them to change their view about Jesus. The legend hypothesis simply does not work.

Summary – Question 5
Did the Story about Jesus Became Embellished as Was Told and Retold?

One of the most popular responses to the claim of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is what we could call the “legend hypothesis.” Basically, it says that the resurrection was not part of the earliest proclamation of the message of Jesus by His first followers. It was only after Jesus’ untimely death, did the disciples try to find some explanation for it. This took time to develop. Mark, the first gospel written, does not contain the story of the resurrection. The later gospels added the resurrection story. Therefore, the legend of the resurrection eventually developed.

There are a number of responses we can make to this legend idea.

The idea that the resurrection of Jesus was somehow legendary does not fit any of the facts. First, there is certainly no reason to believe that Mark was the first gospel written. Arguments for the priority of Mark are not convincing to many people. Since the early church unanimously attributed the first gospel to Matthew, there is every reason to believe their testimony. Matthew does contain the account of Christ resurrection.

We also know that Paul wrote a letter to the Thessalonians less than twenty years after the event happened. In this letter he proclaimed both the death and the resurrection of Jesus. This is certainly not enough time for a legend to occur and then grow.

In addition, when Paul wrote to the Corinthians he made it clear that the story of the resurrection had been delivered over to him at an earlier date. The time this seemed to have occurred was during a visit Paul made to Jerusalem some five short years after the resurrection took place. Consequently, there was no time whatsoever for the legend to develop.

There is also the fact that many eyewitnesses to the events would have been alive at the time of these writings. They would have immediately stopped any talk of Jesus being risen if it had not actually occurred.

In addition, the origin of the legend of Jesus’ resurrection must be accounted for. Something had to happen initially for the disciples to believe that Jesus was brought back from the dead. A legend would certainly not bring about what followed including the conversions of the unbeliever Saul of Tarsus as well as Jesus’ brother James.

In sum, the legend hypothesis does not provide the answer to how the story of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead began to be spread.

Was the Real Story about Jesus Suppressed by Later Church Authorities? ← Prior Section
Was the Story of Jesus' Resurrection Borrowed from Other Ancient Accounts of a Dying and Rising God? Next Section →
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