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

Don Stewart

For modern humankind, 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. 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.

1. There Was Not Enough Time For Legends To Arise

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

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:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life - the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us (1 John 1:1-2).

They testified to what they knew was true - because they were there!

There Were Unfriendly Eyewitnesses Around

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

2. The Number Of Eyewitnesses Was Sufficient

Not only do we have eyewitnesses, the number of eyewitnesses to the events in the life of 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.

After that he was seen by over five hundred people at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep (1 Corinthians 15:6).

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

3. 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.

4. Jesus Made A Lasting Impression

The extraordinary events of the life of 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:

Immediately he arose, took up the bed, and went out in the presence of them all, so that all were amazed and glorified God, saying, "We never saw anything like this!" (Mark 2:12).

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.

The Disciples Made No Exaggerations

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.

5. 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 Christ. The gospel accounts are filled with specific historical details or allusions to events in Jesus' ministry. Matthew, for example, records Jesus' genealogy (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. He wrote:

Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, Annas and Caiaphas being high priests, the word of God came to John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness (Luke 3:1,2).

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. This testifies that the gospel writers were interested in the biographical and historical details of the life of Jesus.

6. 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.

7. 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 he believes it to be false. They obviously believed Jesus' story to be true.

Summary

There is no evidence that Jesus' claims were legendary. First of all, there was not enough time for any legends to occur. Those who were either eyewitnesses of Jesus' deeds or those who recorded eyewitness testimony wrote the New Testament. Unfriendly eyewitnesses to the life of Christ would have corrected any exaggeration on the part of the New Testament writers. In addition, the number of eyewitnesses was sufficient to establish Jesus' claims. 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. Add to this the consistent testimony of the gospels with respect to Jesus' claims - they all told the same story. 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.

CONTENT DISCLAIMER:

The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.

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