Liar, Lunatic, or Legend

I first began my quest to understand the origins of Christianity under the inspiration of the popular 20th-century Oxford scholar and radio apologist C. S. Lewis more than 30 years ago. I must admit, I was altogether taken with his bold certitude and quasi-rational approach to questions regarding the veracity of the fundamental claims of the religion. He, like no other, had convinced me that Christianity would ultimately withstand and indeed triumph over any honest and thorough academic scrutiny.

I recall first considering his most famous apologetic argument, his “trilemma,” namely that all who evaluate the claims of Jesus in the New Testament Gospels are left with but three viable options: Jesus is either a liar, a lunatic, or he is Lord (meaning that he is the monotheistic being who created the cosmos). I recall merrily heading off to graduate study in New Testament, fully confident that any careful study of the evidence would, of course, bear out option #3. At the time Lewis first popularized this argument, in the mid-20th century Western English-speaking world, society would consider anyone a crackpot who might dare regard the highest moral figure of Western civilization, namely, Jesus of Nazareth, a damned liar or a madman. His argument, in the popular milieu, seemed quite compelling.

At the same time, arguably the most noteworthy Gospels scholar of the 20th century—Clive Lewis was never a New Testament scholar, by the way—the German professor Rudolf Karl Bultmann (Universit├Ąt Marburg) had published his then disruptive Neues Testament und Mythologie (1941), wherein Bultmann proposed that any reading of the Gospels that took them as historically reliable accounts was unjustified and pointless. Bultmann, bearing the grand legacy of 19th-century Gospels critic David F. Strauss, persuasively described the origins of Christianity as a social project of sacred myth-making. My own work now, as a 21st-century New Testament critic, advances this same legacy, that began under the pioneering work of Strauss and Bultmann, namely in deconstructing the primitive roots of the early Christian mytho-system. Following the best, most modern practices of academic method, we conclude that Lewis had left out a fourth alternative, the correct answer: the earliest Christian authors textualized Jesus in the Gospels as a literary vehicle, the legendary founding emblem of earliest Christian cult and philosophy.

In the literary context of classical antiquity, the etiological tales of the movement(s) that found their way into the New Testament anthology, that is, the Gospels and Acts, were neither originally written nor read as histories. A broader look at early Christian narrative production illuminates the matter beyond dispute. Here, I shall leave you to consider a quote from my own published study (Resurrection and Reception in Early Christianity, 133):
Much like the lavish incongruities observed in the apocalyptic genre, the panoply of early Christian gospel texts appears more or less disinterested in conforming to any particular narrative of Christian origins and instead exhibits an all-but-whimsical freedom, an astonishing prose creativity in depiction and variance in the telling and ordering of scenes. Of the hundreds of Christian works that survive from the first three centuries of the Common Era, no reliable histories exist aside perhaps from fragments of the five books of Papias. Of these hundreds, setting aside the various epistles and apologies, thus focusing on the narratives, we find a single unifying feature: the early Christian narratives were all fictive in modality. Whether one considers the collection of early Christian gospels, the various apostolic acts, the assortment of apocalypses, or the burgeoning stock of hagiographa, until Eusebius’s fourth-century Historia Ecclesiastica, itself a myth of Christian origins, though intended to be read as a history, one encounters nothing deserving of the genus “historiography”; one finds only legends, myths, folktales, and novelistic fictions. Albeit, considering the characteristic gravitas of these texts, one would be mistaken to dismiss them merely as works of aesthetic entertainment. As all of these works exclude the requisite signals distinguishing ancient works of historiography, that is, no visible weighing of sources, no apology for the all-too-common occurrence of the supernatural, no endeavor to distinguish such accounts and conventions from analogous fictive narratives in classical literature (including the frequent mimetic use of Homer, Euripides, and other canonized fictions of classical antiquity), no transparent sense of authorship (or even readership) or origin, the ecclesiastical distinction endeavored by Irenaeus of Lyons et alii to segregate and signify some such works as canonical, reliable histories appears wholly political and arbitrary.