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Is Jesus Only a Legend?

by Daryl E. Witmer

The following article is based, in part, on an actual exchange that I had with
a skeptic during the Fall of 2001.

DEW: Well, who was -or is- Jesus of Nazareth to you anyway? Are you suggesting that He was deliberately lying as regards His claims to be God (i.e. John 5:18)? Or are you saying that He was self-deluded, a wacko, who had somehow only come to think of Himself as God?

JB: Neither. I think that the Jesus we see portrayed today is probably the composite of more than one person. I think the story of his life was no doubt embellished to some degree, just the same as may be true for King Arthur or Robin Hood.

DEW: So you’re not suggesting that Jesus was a liar. And you’re not saying that He was a lunatic. You’re really of the opinion that He is, as we know Him today, just a legend?

JB: Essentially, yes. I tend to believe that the supernatural aspects of Jesus’ life are fictional. That’s the scenario that seems most plausible to me.

DEW: Well, I would say that a number of problems come to mind with regard to the idea that Jesus as we know Him today is just a legend.

Let me set them out as follows:

1) None of the most reputable first century historians (Josephus, Tacitus,
et al) or other first century contemporaries of Christ (Biblical or extra-Biblical, e.g. the physician Luke, Roman officials, members of Jesus’ own family) of whom we are aware -excepting the Jewish religious leadership, who clearly had an agenda of their own- ever apparently disputed the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ supernatural claims and feats, although such accounts were all being quite widely circulated during their lifetimes. No one -not even one- ever spoke up and said, “Hey, wait a minute. This is crazy. Jesus never actually walked on water. He never claimed to be God. He never did these miracles. He never came back from the grave.” Such an outcry could have occurred. But it never did.

The argument from silence is often a rather dubious way to proceed. But in this case, the lack of any such uproar against the “falsity” of the Gospel accounts actually becomes a rather convincing piece of evidence.

2) There is solid evidence that Jesus really did claim to be unique among men in His relationship with God the Father, i.e. Divine in essence. Consider even the Christological titles. For instance, Jesus’ favorite self-title was probably “the Son of Man” (note the definite article, e.g. Luke 18:31). Commonly thought to be a reference to His humanity, in light of Daniel 7:13-14 this term is no doubt more accurately regarded as a reference to His Deity. Even such radical ‘scholars’ as those on the Jesus Seminar seem inclined not to dispute Jesus’ use of this term to describe Himself.

3) Can one realistically attribute to mere legend the historic, worldwide, ongoing impact of the life of this one individual – all of which includes the faith-profession of many of the world’s most respected, wise, thinking men and women?

4) Why would Jesus’ disciples have been willing martyrs for what they recognized as mere legend? Some men may be willing to die for what they believe to be true, though it isn’t. But who is, or has, ever been willing to die for the sake of a cause which they clearly know to be a lie?

5) Legends typically require a significant period of time to develop and gain credibility. In this case, within just twenty years of Jesus’ death, Christian doctrine, conviction, churches, creeds, martyrs, and sermons -every one unequivocally confessing Jesus as Lord- can all be handily documented.

6) Even critical scholars concede the historicity of Jesus’ healings and exorcisms, while denying the fact that any of them constituted real true-to-life miracles. Such denials, though, seem clearly based on presuppositions and worldviews. The overwhelming and heretofore unanswered evidence for Jesus’ own physical resurrection provides additional ground for concluding that this figure was truly a worker (and subject) of miracles.

For further reference: The Case for Christ, by Lee Strobel, ©1998 Harper Collins Zondervan; Reasonable Faith, by William Lane Craig, ©1994 Crossway Books; Jesus Under Fire, J. P Moreland & Michael J. Wilkins, ©1995 Zondervan