My spouse and I have been reading out loud together through The Reason for God by Tim Keller. Is it too soon to call this book a classic? I suppose it is, but I think it will be one. I highly recommend it. In a certain way, there is nothing new with his apologetic arguments. He tackles the typical objections to faith. The chapter titles reveal this, such as “How Could a Good God allow Suffering” or “Christianity is a Straightjacket.” Yet, there is something new with this book. He truly has a fresh approach – tackling issues in a way that connects more to the 21st century mind. I found that while he had some of the standard Christian arguments, he would have little insights or additional thoughts that I had never heard before. We’d often pause when reading it to say something like “hmm, I’d never considered that. Good point!”
For this post, I simply wanted to share some of the thoughts he shared on whether the Gospels are true accounts or legends. He shares many reasons that we can trust the Gospels as historical, but I wanted to focus on one. Something I learned in seminary classes is that the Gospels were unique literature for their time. Are they legends? Keller mentions statements by CS Lewis, who was an expert literary critic. CS Lewis read poems, romances, vision literature, legends, and myths. These aren’t just words, as we might casually say something is myth or legend, but real forms of writing with specific styles. Lewis essentially says that if you think the Gospels are legend, then you have obviously never read legend! I’m not a literature expert, and trust his expertise.
Keller elaborates on other unique aspects of the Gospels in this regard. Ancient fiction was nothing like modern fiction. Our modern fiction can be very realistic to life, with details that make it seem like an eyewitness account. But this type of fiction only developed in the last 300 years. In ancient times, legends were more high and remote – details were spare and only included if necessary to drive the plot. The Gospels are clearly not fiction or legend in this regard. Keller points out some of the odd details included in the Gospels: In Mark 4, it says Jesus was asleep on a cushion in the stern of the boat. In John 21, it says Peter and Jesus caught exactly 153 fish. In John 8, Jesus doodles in the sand with his finger. None of these little details were necessary to the plot, and including details like this was not an aspect of fictional ancient writing.
The only explanation for why an ancient writer would mention the cushion, the 153 fish, and the doodling in the dust is because the details had been retained in the eyewitnesses’ memory. (page 107)
Keller gives other good reasons for the Gospels not being legend, but I wanted to share that one. I’ve covered the legend concern in past posts: Jesus legendary? and Can we trust that the Gospels accurately portray Jesus? The second contains a link to a 6 minute talk by scholar Craig Keener. It is difficult in our modern, written culture to grasp the idea of an oral culture where memorization was critical. Disciples were expected to accurately remember what their teacher taught them, unlike today where we just look things up.
Have you read The Reason for God? What did you think of it?
**June 9, 2014. I am giving away a copy of this book. See this post for details.