Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Limits of Credulity

I read an article called The Gospel Truth of Jesus by Christian apologist Tom Gilson, that attempts to debunk the idea that Jesus could have been a legendary figure.  This is in response to a common objection to the so-called "Trilemma" of CS Lewis, which says that Jesus must have been either lunatic, liar, or Lord.  The objection that readily comes to mind for anyone who isn't steeped in religious fervor is that Lewis left out another possibility: the idea that the biblical stories of Jesus could be based on legend rater than historical reality.  But Lewis didn't consider that possibility, and Gilson defends Lewis, on the basis that it is not even worthy of consideration.

Of course, we've heard this many times before.  It stems from the uncompromising belief among Christians that the gospels are literally true.  He says that Lewis
delineates the Gospels as true "reportage" rather than fable, and concludes, "The reader who doesn't see this has simply not learned to read."
And by "read", Lewis means "believe".  Because a skeptic can read what the biblical accounts of Jesus actually say, and see contradictions, historical inaccuracy, and tales of fantastic events that never happen in the real world, but for the claims made in these stories.  The Christian must be credulous, and accept on faith that these things are true.  He surely doesn't have any objective evidence, other than the stories themselves.  At the same time, he must assume the role of "skeptic" when it comes to alternative explanations.  In this case, though, being skeptical means that Christians are unwilling to give due consideration to any ideas or evidence that might tip the balance away from their religious beliefs.

To make his point, Gilson asks us to consider what figures of legend or fiction are both powerful and self-sacrificial as Jesus is said to be.  He can't come up with any, other than Jesus himself, particularly due to the unique moral character of Jesus.  And so he concludes that it is unreasonable to think that any such legend could arise.  Never mind the fact that it is quite possible invent a story like that (and that is indeed the basis for claiming a fourth possibility that Lewis dismisses out of hand).  There are certainly legendary figures that have supernatural powers, and that have high moral character.  Gilson's reasoning is based on the unique combination of Jesus' supposed qualities, as if it were impossible for any legend to arise that combines these qualities in the same way.  Of course, legendary figures typically have some unique unnatural quality that is the very basis of their legendary status.  But to combine the same qualities that Jesus has - that's something that is beyond imagination:
either Jesus Christ was a real man, and the Gospel authors painted a consistent picture because they recorded his life faithfully; or he was the stuff of human invention, at least in large part, and all four sources just happened to come up with a character of moral excellence beyond any other in all history or human imagination.
But there is no logical reason to suppose that the unnatural qualities of Jesus could not be legendary.  In fact, it seems to me that this is a clear-cut case of special pleading.

Part of Gilson's argument seems to be based on the idea that the authors of the gospels were the originators of the legend, and that they somehow independently managed to come up with a consistent story, which would be unlikely.  But this ignores the much more plausible idea that they each wrote down the version of the story that was circulating within the Christian community at the time.  Perhaps those authors embellished the story as it existed at the time, or perhaps not.  But there is no question that if you look at the gospels in chronological order of authorship (and considering sections of text that were added later), you can see the development of the legend over time, from the human to the divine - from preacher and faith healer to the all-powerful incarnation of God himself.  This view of Jesus can hardly be seen as consistent, given the disparities from one gospel to the next.  It seems evident to the objective reader that each of the gospels reflected a snapshot in time of the state of the narrative as it progressed over the years within the Christian community.  This fact alone lends support to the whole notion of Jesus as legend.  (In fact, there were other versions of the story that didn't make it into the cannon.)

But that's not the way Gilson sees it.  According to his rather obscure logic (as I understand his explanation), if one assumes a skeptical stance, then the skeptics' definition of "faith" would somehow deny the existence of any community of faith (or Christian community), and this non-community couldn't possibly define a legend that captures the true greatness Jesus.  Or something to that effect.  I must admit that I find it difficult to follow this bizarre line of thinking.  Clearly, there was a Christian community, and they had an oral tradition of the story of Jesus (whether truthful or legendary) before it came to be written down in any form.

The upshot of Gilson's logic is that it's highly unlikely for the gospel stories to be anything but truthful accounts of what happened.  And therefore, the Trilemma of Lewis is thinkable, even if the "lunatic" and "liar" horns of the trilemma fail.  But the possibility of a fourth horn (namely "legend") is not even thinkable.  It stretches credulity too far.  I think most Christians generally agree with this way of thinking.  It seems to me that Christians have to deliberately deny the possibility of what seems reasonably likely to any skeptic (the gradual embellishment of a narrative), and accept without question the reality of what is extremely unlikely (the miraculous and supernatural qualities of Jesus), in order to avoid any disturbance in their religious beliefs.  Virgin birth?  Of course.  Walking on water?  No problem.  A corpse rising from the dead?  Makes sense to them.  The idea that these things are a legend?  Now wait a minute.  That's just too much for any self-respecting Christian to swallow. 

To accept that legend is a reasonable possibility might bring them too close to reality.  And that's something that Christians can't afford.


  1. Nice write up. I thought to make a comment over at DI but I knew that if I tried all I would write would be variations on the words "piffle" and "addlepated".

  2. Bart Erhmann gave short shrift to the L, L, or L nonsense some time ago. But it continues to be a groundless meme omnipresent among the ignoranti.

  3. You'd think that they could come up with a better excuse for rejecting the legend hypothesis. They just insist it's not plausible. No reason needed.

  4. The legend hypothesis makes immenient sense for all those other phony religions but not for their One True Religion (tm).