You are likely familiar with the “trilemma” popularized by CS Lewis and others after him – that Jesus was a liar, lunatic, or Lord. Lord seems the clearest option! Case closed. Right? Yet…
There is a fourth “L” option – Jesus became a legend. I think it is important that Christians have a basic familiarity with this 4th possibility. Since the time of CS Lewis, the legend option has expanded, propagated by the likes of Bart Ehrman. You could be caught off-guard or be made to look rather uninformed when you have no idea what a skeptic or questioning/doubting Christian is talking about. It concerns me that I continue to come in contact with Christians who are unfamiliar with the legend idea. Therefore, I decided to re-blog a past post. Let us jump into it:
If you do much reading on this issue, you’ll start coming across the terms “the historical Jesus” and “the Christ of Faith.” As believers, we see these two terms as the same thing – the historical Jesus is the Christ of faith. But skeptics separate them.
The term historical Jesus is used to refer to the actual Jesus that walked on this earth. Almost everyone (even liberal scholars or skeptics) believe that there was a first century Jewish rabbi Jesus. The question is rather: WHO was this Jesus, just a rabbi or God incarnate? Some believe that the early church exaggerated or embellished this Jesus, elevating him to God status, thus creating the legendary “Christ of faith.” So…the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith are two different things. The deity of Christ is only a legend.
Perhaps re-read the last several sentences to make sure you properly understand the idea of Jesus as legend. It means Jesus existed and was an admirable figure, but his followers embellished him, thus creating a different Jesus. Jesus was not a liar. Jesus was not a lunatic. Jesus was not Lord either. Rather his followers ended up turning him into Lord. Jesus was legendized.
Here are a few reasons to believe that the historical Jesus and Christ of faith are one and the same:
- Historians and scholars who study such things state that it takes a minimum of 2 or 3 generations for legends to develop. That means, at minimum, the actual eyewitnesses must die and then the following generation who knew the eyewitness must also die. This puts us around the turn of the century or early first century. The Gospels (and other New Testament books that reference the life of Christ and the early church) were penned before these generations passed off the scene. While the dating of New Testament books isn’t an exact science, even most liberal scholars don’t date any of the Gospels later than about 85-95 AD, with more moderate or conservative scholars arguing for some significantly earlier dates. It is very unlikely that legend would have already developed at the time the Gospels were penned.
- While the early (first century) church argued or debated about some things, like the place of Gentiles in the church or the place of the Law in the Christian life (and made no effort to hide these disputes) – there is no controversy about the deity of Christ. Macleod states: “…The early church believed Jesus Christ to be divine. It applied to him the highest conceivable designations (Son of God, Son of Man, Lord, God); it saw him as possessing the full range of divine attributes, performing the full range of divine functions and enjoying the full range of divine prerogatives; it worshiped him and prayed to him and broke out in doxology at the mere mention of his name. These early Christians did not simply catch the faith of Jesus, they had faith in Jesus.” (page 110 in The Person of Christ)
- It is critical to remember that the majority of the earliest Christians were Jewish. If you know anything about their Old Testament and inter-testament history, nothing was more basic to their beliefs than a horror of idolatry and polytheism. They were fiercely monotheistic. In a previous post, I reference how the religious leaders were angered by how Jesus made himself equal with God. It was blasphemous to them. For the Jewish apostles and early Jewish Christians to suddenly decide to elevate Jesus to God status…is inexplicable. It would be completely against their Jewish instincts. Apparently, they were deeply convinced that Jesus was the promised Jewish Messiah and God incarnate!
- If the early Christians were trying to aggrandize their Master and create the “Christ of faith” – then some of the content of the Gospels does not make sense. It does not fit with the so-called intention of creating a God-legend. There is material that detracts from the greatness of Jesus, such as those things that emphasize his humanity. As well as the fact that more space is devoted to the passion, than the Resurrection. God being submitted to the horror of crucifixion is scandalous to various first century worldviews, not just Jewish. Not to mention the rather scathing portrait of the disciples in the Gospels: men with little comprehension who failed to “get it”, lacking faith, earning Christ’s rebuke, fleeing Jesus in his hour of need, and receiving the news of Christ’s resurrection with doubt. A crucified God whose disciples were pathetic? Why would such material be invented? This does not seem a good plan to create a legend and start a new religion.
It seems that “something” changed everything – and that would be the Resurrection of Christ. Christ’s miraculous coming back to life and conquering of death proved his deity and forever changed the disciples and other eyewitness. They went on to preach with power, spread the faith, and were willing to die rather than deny their Lord.
If the Jesus of history was not also the Christ of faith, then many things are inexplicable.
In one post I’ve tried to summarize a few points that defend the deity of Christ being historical reality rather than legendary. Much more could be said as entire books have been written on this issue. I’m not even close to an expert, and of course, there are arguments on the other side too.
Ultimately, faith must come into the picture. Christianity is a faith based religion and there is no way around that. While there are rational reasons to believe, Christian belief is never a matter of pure reason. God became a man? Died a humiliating death? Came back to life? Whether you lived in the first century or the 21st century this is difficult to believe and requires faith…
*Some of my thoughts in this post come from this book: The Person of Christ by Donald Macleod, and from a class I took with Dr. Darrell Bock.