The Jesus Story: Myth or History?

John ArmstrongApologetics

Ever since the first century non-Christians have insisted that the Jesus story was myth. The fact that they have a huge platform upon which to say the same thing in our day is the only real difference, at least from where I sit. And since I teach apologetics I think a great deal about this subject.

Authors Greg Boyd and Paul Rhodes Eddy wrote an impressive and large book several years ago titled: The Jesus Legend. They laid out the case for the historical reliability of the New Testament and subjected it to what they believe are the "industry standards" criteria for serious historians. They concluded that the Jesus Story is not legend. They have now released a condensed, or popularized, version of the same book: Lord or Legend? (Baker, 169 pages, $14.99). Boyd and Eddy do a very good job of using recent scholarly studies to show how traditions and stories are transmitted in oral cultures and then show why this is a good reason the New Testament can be trusted. I agree with their conclusions completely.

The question for me, as always, is rather simple: "How much does this kind of argument help us in presenting the gospel?" The standard argument says that these arguments do not convert but they prepare the minds of unbelievers to "hear" the good news. (A kind of pre-evangelism approach.)I do not doubt that this does happen in some instances. I know people who credibly claim this point about their own conversion accounts;  e.g., the famous apologist and Lutheran theologian John Warwick Montgomery who read a defense of the resurrection and then came to faith while a student at Harvard.

My question is not so much "Does this argumentation do any good?" I think that it does at times. My question is the emphasis we are now placing on this approach since we believe the modern world  demands that we do this before we can preach the gospel. I am not a full-blown fideist (someone who rejects the idea that reason contributes to faith in any meaningful way) but I do think very few people actually come close to the kingdom through this method.  There is a sense in which this approach, which attacks bad rational  arguments with better rational arguments, is like a bombing assault from the air. I rather think we also need to use approaches that act like submarines, coming from underneath bad arguments showing how the foundations of unbelievers are built on faith, and in this case on a faith that will not sustain a consistent and proper way of living in a meaningful universe.

One of the problems with the Boyd and Eddy approach is that they do not acknowledge all the literary and historical problems that do arise from a serious study of the New Testament. One does not have to agree with the silly critics, like Bart Ehrman for example (who is the child of a fundamentalist/evangelical education if there ever was one), to admit that there are some problems in the New Testament text. I just do not think this admission destroys the credibility or storyline of the gospel in any sense at all. We can admit problems without buying into naturalism, atheism or skepticism. What we need to give to this generation is an apologetic of community, love and truly living faith which I think is much more than an apologetic of rational argumentation. At the end of the day it is still true that "faith seeks understanding."

I think Boy and Eddy may help young Christians more than they actually help bring non-Christians into "the faith once for all delivered to the saints." That’s my own approach but I am still thinking about this each day. I am open to more information and argumentation. A good argument should never be rejected because I already have embraced a weaker one that I like much better. One thing I know about apologetics: Fierce debates among Christians about apologetical systems are not useful to actually reaching non-believers.