You will sometimes hear Biblical skeptics referring to passages in the Bible as simply recounting myth or legend.
What do they mean when they use the word Legend? I think they mean a past event that cannot be explained purely thru natural processes; an event that has been added to over time. Jesus miracles are sometimes framed this way – particularly his biggest miracle – the Resurrection. Some people even point to Jesus of Nazareth Himself and cry – Myth.
Is it reasonable to refer to Jesus in this way? I don’t think so, and I’ll tell you why I think that.
Let’s look at a very popular British Legend – King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table
King Arthur is a legendary British leader of the 5th century AD who allegedly led the defence of Britain against Saxon invaders. At the risk of going all “history book” on you…here’s an Arthur timeline…
8th century (300 years after he supposedly lived) – King Arthur of the Britons mentioned very briefly in a History of the Britons
12th century (700 years after he supposedly lived) – Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote a pseudo history of Britain mentioning King Arthur and his magical advisor Merlin as living in 5th century
13th century – the Romance tradition of poetry and literature expands on the Arthur stories adding Lancelot and Guinevere
15th century (1000 years after Arthur was meant to have lived) – Thomas Malory brings all the stories together into a single work of literature. And all subsequent retellings of the Legend have been based to some degree on Malory’s work.
20th century – By now there have been many popular re-tellings thru literature and now movies. For example, Disney retold the legend in their classic The Sword and the Stone (1963), Monty Python’s Holy Grail (it counts in 1975), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (touched on the Arthurian Legends in 1989), etc, etc
Did King Arthur really live? Is he a character of history? Its hard for historians to tell. Most believe he probably did exist, but many say he is probably a composite of various individuals alive at that time in the 5th century in Britain.
The first brief mention comes 300 years after he lived. What about the additional stories of Merlin the Magician and the Knights of the Round Table? Over 1000 years passed from Arthur’s first mention in literature – till the time when these characters emerged and the accounts were properly written down. Is it not highly likely that these stories changed and evolved over the centuries? Merlin could be made alot more magical 1000 years after he lived.
This is how legends develop. It takes MANY GENERATIONS for legends to replace historical fact.
What about the stories of Jesus life found in the New Testament? How do they compare to the Arthur Legends?
Mark wrote his account of Jesus’ empty tomb, Mark chapter 16, only 30 years after the crucifixion. He also records that the enemies of Christianity tried to discredit the miracle but could not.
Further – the Apostle Paul’s creed mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 has been dated to between one and three years after the crucifixion – and this creed clearly teaches Christ’s resurrection.
The King Arthur Legends and the Gospel reports of Jesus Christ are in two entirely different classes of literature. Why? First because of the massive difference in time periods involved. Jesus greatest miracle – the resurrection – is reported a mere 3 years after the event itself in a creed used in the liturgy traditions of the fledgling Christian Church. In comparison – It took 700 years for the King Arthur stories to start to appear.
The Gospels can’t be classed as Legend secondly because of the clear and obvious intent of the Author. Luke, who also wrote a Gospel, says and interesting thing from the outset of his account. He says that many people have undertaken to draw up an account of Jesus life. He himself was a Doctor, so he was a learned individual. Its no surprise then to read that he carefully investigated everything and pulled together an orderly account himself. You can read his intent in Luke chapter 1. His Gospel can be dated by historians to around 60AD – less than 30 years after the events of Jesus life, death and resurrection.
The first time the Arthurian Legends emerge, they do so when Geoffrey of Monmouth writes a pseudo history of Britain. In other words – read this with a pinch of salt. The intent of the Gospel writers – and the Arthur Legend scribes – were very different.
Where does this discussion lead us? I believe it takes us to this. The Christian Gospels cannot be credibly and reasonably described as works of myth or legend. Why? Because there was no time for any Legends to develop around the life of Jesus. The eye witnesses were still alive when the Gospel reports were being circulated – and would have discredited the miraculous reports completely. BUT – the reports of Jesus life, his death and his resurrection were not discredited or faded. They have endured for 2000 years.
Some will have difficulty with the Supernatural claims in the Gospels. Yet just because the New Testament Gospels report have a supernatural nature – and his miracles are recorded in a very matter of fact way – this does not automatically put the Gospels in the category of Legend. If we demand they must be legends, we are presuming it…we are enforcing the category of Legend onto the events…even though the conditions around the reports of Jesus life do not bear the hallmarks of Legend. This is unfair and unwarranted. No – the Gospels bear the hallmarks of history.
FOOTNOTE: That’s not to say that Jesus Legends were never written. They were; the Gnostic Gospels are full of fantastical stories. Imagine a cross emerging from the empty tomb and preaching to the world! Completely different in tone to the matter of fact New Testament Gospels. These Gnostic writings are dated by historians to hundreds of years after the original Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) written by people with no physical connection to the events themselves. And so they reasonably fall into the Arthurian Legend category.