top of page

The Gospels: Legend or History?

Stained Glass Window Depicting Christ's Birth

Summary: Until just decades ago, the majority of New Testament scholars held that the life of Jesus was historically inscrutable. But a recent sea change has revolutionized the way today's scholars are treating the biblical gospels. What does it all mean? Find out here. Click here to subscribe to future blog posts.


Inventing Jesus

In 1926, skeptical Bible scholar, Rudolf Bultmann, wrote the following statement: “I do indeed think that we can now know almost nothing about the life and personality of Jesus…” [1]

Rudolph Bultmann was a biblical scholar of the highest order, widely regarded. He was famous for his controversial approach of “de-mythologizing” the Gospels texts. Throughout his life, he continued to make one troubling claim after another, asserting that the gospels are only merely “legendary,” and are therefore not worthy of any serious consideration. [2]

More recently, Peter Jennings, before his death, directed a prime-time documentary containing roughly the same view. In his scintillating special, “Searching For Jesus,” Jennings portrayed Christ in a very poor light. “We suspected that reliable sources would be hard to come by and sometimes they were…” Jennings noted. [3] He then went on to paint a picture of Jesus wholly incompatible with any known Christian view today.

The person of Jesus is thus now held in infamy. There are as many different pictures of him as there are people who paint them. At the time of this writing, there are numerous articles and books written by liberal scholars about Jesus of Nazareth. [4] Many of them have been influenced by the writings of Bultmann who taught that non-romanticized historical accounts about Christ “do not exist.” [5] Therefore, as recent as 1971, Leander Keck, held that the search for Jesus is a “dead end street.”

[6] So then who was Jesus of Nazareth? Who was he really? Was he some kind of a cynic philosopher? Was he a sort of Jewish sage? With such a proliferation of differing opinions, many have concluded that the question has no answer. Popular culture has therefore despaired of the project, consigning the search for the historical Jesus to perpetual uncertainty. Whatever the actual Jesus may have looked like, he certainly bore no resemblance to the biblical icon.

But are such ideas truly justifiable? Is it right to say that we can know “nothing” about the Jesus of history? Though the fundamentalist Christian would certainly beg to disagree, in the eyes of most people—Jesus is an enigma.

The Judas Jesus

Some time ago, I encountered this problem personally. I struck up a conversation with an older couple in a coffee shop. I had only momentarily begun to refer to the New Testament when suddenly, the elderly gentleman broke in declaring: “What about the other gospels?”

It was obvious that the man had been influenced by recent discoveries. He had, for example, heard about the so-called “Gospel of Judas.” The document had turned up lately in Cairo Egypt after being sold twice and stolen once. According to Irish journalist, Andrew Cockburn, the text practically “…vanished into the netherworld of antiquities traders…” [7] Upon it’s unlikely public debut, skeptic scholar, Marvin Meyer, told National Geographic that this new rogue gospel was written at a time when Christianity was “…trying to find its style.” [8]

But did the Judas Gospel preserve an early authentic tradition? The evidence seemed to defy the very possibility. For example, one scholar who worked closely on the project commented, “We all feel comfortable putting this copy in the fourth century.” [9] Such a late date places the only surviving copy of “Judas” far too distant from the crucifixion to have been written by the man himself. Moreover, the earliest mention of a “gospel” written by Judas Iscariot only occurs a 150 years after the death of Jesus Christ. [10]

For this reason, I urged the elderly gentleman to rethink his views. I attempted to turn his attention back to the genuine record of scripture. For when most historians face the task of reconstructing history, they normally rely heavily upon early eyewitness accounts. In the case of the life of Jesus, these would be the biblical gospels, commonly known to us as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Of their historical trustworthiness, moderate scholar, R.T. France wrote, “…we have good reason to treat the Gospels seriously as a source [for]…the life…of Jesus.” [11]

Unfortunately, this point is normally lost to skeptic people. (And the man who stood before me was certainly no exception!) For how, many have argued, could the gospels be a source of reliable historical reminiscence about Jesus? Wasn’t the primitive church supposed to be responsible for fiddling with the facts? As late German theologian, Albert Schweitzer once thought, the early church “[abolished] the [real] Jesus…[to remain] consistent in it’s [views].” [12]

But do such fantastic indictments truly fit the picture? Could the notion that Jesus was a Jewish cynic truly replace his biblical identity? Even skeptical scholars are apprehensive on this point. For many have wondered how a social-liberal Jesus could wind up crucified. The idea is clearly a far-fetched theory. Only a minority of scholars take it seriously today. For who was Jesus of Nazareth if he was not the Jesus of the Bible? Returning to Leander Keck, himself an avowed skeptic: “The idea that this Jewish cynic (and his dozen hippies) with his demeanor and aphorisms was a serious threat to society sounds more like a conceit of alienated academics than sound historical judgment.” [13]

For this reason, many skeptics today are reassessing the gospels. A new level of interest towards them is steadily rising in our time. The results of the study have caused many skeptics to conclude that we can now know as much about Jesus as about any figure in ancient history. [14] Such confidence signals a radical new shift following the claim previously made by Rudolph Bultmann that we can “know nothing” about the Jesus of history. [15] That the four gospels could somehow aid us in the recovery of the real Jesus is a belief now shared by many leading scholars in the world today.

The Non-Legendary Jesus

I therefore made plain to the man my confidence on this point. I spoke to him of the importance I place in minding the biblical texts daily. For the idea that the gospels could be corrupted by later legendary fiction now stands within academia as an utterly failed hypothesis. Greco-Roman historian, A.N. Sherwin-White, for example, has noted that the time between the life of Jesus and the authoring of the gospels is very rapid. [16] Legend could therefore not have reconstrued the true Jesus and left us with a false impression of him today.

In urging the man to see this, however, I could see that he was very uncomfortable. Both he and the woman next to him had clearly crossed the line. They had drunk in the news from the liberal media rants which have undermined the believability of the Bible in our time. In reality, such claims cannot bear the light of day. Under careful scrutiny, they quickly crumble and fall away. They now only serve as sign posts to show that it is impossible for the gospels to be the result of later legendary fiction.

On this point, however, it is important to note a critical distinction—namely, the difference between the rise of legends and the obliteration of history. For no Christian scholar today seriously claims that legends cannot arise about a person within his or her own lifetime. Indeed such things do occur often. They are, in fact, very common place. As popular children’s book author, Stephen Kellogg has noted: “The legends that grew around…Johnny Appleseed, began during his lifetime…” [17]

The point, however, is that such legends do not replace genuine history. Returning to Professor Sherwin-White, this was in fact his main thesis. Using the science of historiography, White showed that at least two generations are needed to supplant genuine historical memory. [18] Through the writings of the ancient Greek historian, Herodotus, Prof. White established a critical test case to make his point. Today, his work demonstrates the absurdity of the idea that the contrivance of legends could somehow destroy our ability to know the historical Jesus.

Therefore, reaching for my Bible, I brought my argument to it's conclusion. Turning to the last page, I set my Bible in his lap. “Would you mind starting here?” I asked him pointing to the text. The man cleared his throat, peered over his glasses, and began reading out loud: “I warn everyone who hears the prophecy of this book, if anyone adds to them God will add to him the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes away from them, God will take his share in the tree of life and the holy city which are described in this book.” (Rev 22:18-19; ESV)

Upon reading the passage, the man looked up at me glibly. The color had completely drained from his face. Seeing that the penny had dropped, I therefore asked the question that had been burning in my heart for the past twenty minutes. I said, “Now, in light of what you have just read, do you think it is safe to give any thought to those ‘other gospels’ you mentioned a moment ago?” The expression on the man's face clearly told me the answer to my question. No further argument really needed to be raised.

The Gospel Truth

In closing then, no one can deny that the Jesus of history behaved as he did. The power of this point simply cannot be overstated. Even radial skeptic scholar, Rudolph Bultmann, as a scholar and historian, ultimately had to admit that the gospel reports were, in fact, history. He commented: “Most of the miracle stories contained in the gospels are legendary or at least are dressed up with legends. But there can be no doubt that Jesus did such deeds, which were, in his and his contemporaries’ understanding, miracles, that is, deeds that were the result of supernatural, divine causality. Doubtless he healed the sick and cast out demons.” [19]

Therefore, since arguably the most skeptical scholar of the 20th century ultimately failed to debunk the historical case for the biblical Jesus, on what phony grounds do critics of today attempt to issue the very same argument? Since Jesus surely lived and wrought the very things the Bible reports, perhaps skeptics in our time should pause to give the gospels a second read. For as Luke T. Johnson of Emery University writes: “Even the most critical historian can confidently assert that a Jew named Jesus worked as a teacher and wonder-worker in Palestine during the reign of Tiberius…” [20] Isn’t it therefore high time for an unbelieving world to acknowledge this evident fact of history?

You answer the question. ❐


End Notes:

[1]. The Historical Jesus (Critical Concepts in Religious Study); Edited by Craig A. Evans; Vol 1: 2004, Rutledge Press: pg. 124.

[2]. ibid.

[3]. see:

[4]. Barnette, Paul. Jesus and the Logic of History (GrandRapids, Eerdmans; 1997), pg. 15.

[5]. The Historical Jesus (Critical Concepts in Religious Study); Edited by Craig A. Evans; Vol 1: 2004, Rutledge Press: pg. 124.

[6]. L. E. Keck, A Future for the Historical Jesus (Nashville, Abingdon, 1971), p. 9.

[7]. Andrew Cockburn, The Judas Gospel, National Geographic (May, 2006).

[8]. ibid.

[9]. ibid.

[10]. Irenaeus; Adversus Haereses (i.e. Against Heresies); Book 1, Chapter 31. [A.D. 180]

[11]. R. T. France, “The Gospels as Historical Sources for Jesus, the Founder of Christianity,” Truth 1 (1985): 86

[12]. The Quest For The Historical Jesus; Albert Schweitzer; (Dover Publications, Mineral New York, 2005). need page number.

[13]. Leander Keck, “The Second Coming of the Liberal Jesus?” Christian Century (August, 1994), p. 786.

[14]. M. Borg, Jesus-A New Vision (Harper and Row; San Francisco, 1988) p. 15.

[15]. The Historical Jesus (Critical Concepts in Religious Study); Edited by Craig A. Evans; Vol 1: 2004, Rutledge Press: pg. 124.

[16]. A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), pp. 188-91.

[17]. Steven Kellogg, Johnny Appleseed (Scholastic Inc., New York, 1988).[18]. A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), pp. 188-91.

[19]. Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus (Berlin: Deutsche Bibliothek, 1926), p. 159.

[20]. Luke Timothy Johnson, The Real Jesus (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1996), p. 123.u can edit posts and also add a brand new post in a breeze.

bottom of page