Tom Gilson adds "Legend" to Jesus as "Lord, Liar or Lunatic"
A terrific article from Tom Gilson in Touchstone...
Gilson revisits the famous C.S. Lewis argument (using the popular Josh McDowell alliteration) on Jesus as "Lord, Liar, or Lunatic"-- to add "Legend".
Gilson opens by recounting the close of Lewis' "Trilemma": "He did not leave us that option: he did not intend to." Lewis argues that it is impossible to consider Jesus as merely a great moral teacher. As Gilson notes: "The argument is beautiful in its simplicity: it calls for no deep familiarity with New Testament theology or history, only knowledge of the Gospels themselves, and some understanding of human nature." From there, Gilson motivates his interest in the question:
"The questions have changed since Lewis wrote that, though, and it's less common these days to hear Jesus honored as a great moral teacher by those who doubt his deity...The skeptics' line now is that...the whole story of Jesus, or at least significant portions of it, is nothing more than legend.
Christian apologists have responded with arguments hinging on the correct dates for the composition of the Gospels, the identities of their authors, external corroborating evidence, and the like. All this has been enormously helpful, but one could wish for a more Lewis-like approach to that new l-word, legend—that is, for a way of recognizing the necessary truthfulness of the Gospels from their internal content alone."
Gilson ably spells that out that approach, by asking three questions:
1.) Who are the most powerful characters you can think of in all of human history and imagination, apart from those in the Bible?
2.) Who in all of human history and imagination, outside of the Bible, are the most self-sacrificial, other-oriented, giving, and caring persons you can think of?
3.) Can you think of any single person—again, outside of the Bible—who genuinely belongs on both lists at the same time? Is there any person in all of human history and imagination who is at the same time supremely powerful and supremely good?
There are very few candidates for #3. The best suggestions Gilson has heard: Abraham Lincoln, Superman, and Gandalf. "Yet none of these characters really measures up as both supremely powerful and supremely other-oriented."
Of course, anyone can just invent a character who is both supremely powerful and supremely self-sacrificial...The challenge is not simply to invent a character and impute to him massive power and towering goodness, but to flesh that character out, to make him interesting and compelling—in short, to make him believable.
Shakespeare never created such a character. Homer didn't either. Dostoevsky never dreamed of such a person. In fact, none of the great poets and writers of any age created a figure who would satisfy question three. I don't know whether that's because they were unable to do so, or because they simply chose not to. But it seems safe to say that, if anyone ever did create such a character and make him believable, that author would have to be counted among the greats, if not as the greatest moral and literary genius of all time.
And if that is true, and if the character of Christ were created and not rather recorded in the Gospels, then those who created it were those very geniuses. For when we open up the scope of my third question to include biblical characters, the answer comes instantly. Jesus Christ is the one character we can name who is both supremely powerful and supremely self-sacrificial...
From there, Gilman moves to whether the legend hypothesis makes more sense than an historical reality. What is one required to embrace, by faith, to hold the legend hypothesis as likely. Gilman makes three other points:
1.) It "requires us to believe that the Gospels were produced by first- or second-century 'communities of faith'." But it is unlikely that a community could come up with a creation of such genius.
2.) The "telephone game" version of this story (apparently a Bart Ehrman favorite), happening in multiple languages and multiple contexts, could create a work of such genius.
3.) The legends are said to developed out of faith-- what skeptics view as "a form of cognitive deficiency". As Gilman argues, "On this view, the authorial source of the Gospels would better be described as a non-community of cognitive deficiency, developing its fables through a 'telephone-game' process of ever-multiplying distortion. It seems an unlikely provenance for moral genius in literature."
Gilman's conclusion on the negative side of this:
"What these theories add up to is that the surpassingly good and powerful character of Jesus Christ was produced by a community that was no community, expressing the cognitive deficiency called faith through the heavily distorting process of the "telephone game," for the morally dubious purpose of dragging others along into their false belief...This, or something like it, is supposed to be the description of the authorial source of the one character in all human literature who was perfectly other-centered in spite of holding absolute power: a character expressing moral excellence like no other in all history. It lacks, if I may say so, the ring of plausibility."