Originally Published at Touchstone, May/June 2014
“He did not leave us that option: he did not intend to.”
Thus C. S. Lewis closes out his famous argument on the impossibility of Jesus being a great moral teacher and nothing more. It’s beautiful for 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. A man claiming to be God, said Lewis, could hardly be good unless he really were God. If he were not the Lord, then (to borrow Josh McDowell’s alliterative version of the argument), he must either have been a Liar or a Lunatic.
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. Today’s skepticism runs deeper than that. Thus it is perhaps unfortunate that the letter L also initiates the word “Legend;” for the skeptics’ line now is that Jesus probably never claimed to be God at all: in fact, the whole story of Jesus, or at least significant portions of it, was 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. It has been enormously helpful, but one could wish for a more Lewis-like approach to that new L-word, Legend.
Lewis was always more at home looking at the evidence of the Gospels themselves than of the historical circumstances around them. I don’t think that was just because there was less historical data to draw from when he was writing; it was his professional and personal character that led him to think that way. Thus in one classic article (variously titled “Fern-Seed and Elephants”or “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism,”depending on where you find it) he was able to recognize the Gospels as true “reportage”rather than fable, and to conclude, “The reader who doesn’t see this has simply not learned to read.”
The world is, apparently, filled with readers who have not learned to read. But of course Lewis wasn’t thinking of knowing how to decipher words on a page, he was referring to having some understanding of the sweep of literary history in its multiple periods and genres. Such readers are rare indeed.
At any rate, now that the question has shifted to “Legend, one longs for another, more Lewis-like way of recognizing the necessary truthfulness of the Gospels from their internal content alone. And it seems to me there is such a way. It requires little by way of technical knowledge of the Gospel manuscripts, their dating, and so on. It calls instead for something like Lewis’s “learning to read,”especially (as in the original Trilemma) a good working knowledge of the content of the Gospels, specifically the character of Christ as presented in the New Testament; and also a clear understanding of human nature, which is where it begins.
Powerful, For Others
Three or four questions concerning human nature have so caught my attention lately that I’ve taken to asking them of all my friends, and also of groups I’ve taught on this topic. The first is this:who are the most powerful characters you can think of in all of human history and imagination, apart from the Bible?
The scope of the question is intentionally broad. I exclude the Bible for reasons that will become apparent later, but I include everything else: history as it happened, history as it was imagined, and indeed any character who has ever been imagined. It includes literature, mythology, film, TV, even comic books. I define powerin this context as the ability to do and/or obtain what one wants without constraint. The answers I receive range from from Andrew Carnegie to Zeus, and include both genuine and doubtful luminaries such as Genghis Khan, Alexander the great, Napoleon, Stalin, Mao, or occasionally, United States presidents. Superman is often mentioned.
Following that I have another question of similar scope, but with a completely different set of characters in mind: Who in all of human history and imagination, except for the Bible, are the most self-sacrificial, other-oriented, giving and caring persons you can think of?
The most common answers are Mother Teresa and “my mom.” Other suggestions have included Sir Galahad and Prince Myshkin from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. (I must express thanks to the friend who offered that suggestion: I was persuaded by it to read the novel.) The answers offered to this question are typically fewer, alas, than the answers to the previous one.
My next question is, Can you think of any single person—again excluding the Bible—who genuinely belongs on both lists at the same time? Is there any person in all of human history and literature who is at the same time supremely powerful and supremely good?
If the second set of answers was small, this one is minuscule. Some of the best suggestions have been Abraham Lincoln, Superman, and Gandalf. None of them, however, measure up as both supremely powerful and supremely other-oriented. Abraham Lincoln commanded an army, yes: but his army very nearly lost the Civil War. Gandalf, my own preferred candidate, was entirely dependent on a pair of hobbits, far beyond the reach of his power, for his mission’s success. And so far no one has ever included him among the “most self-sacrificial:” his small, weak friends Frodo and Samwise Gamgee claim that honor above him. Superman remains an interesting case, for reasons I will return to in a moment.
So far in all my searching I have found no character in all of human history or imagination, within the scope of the questions I asked, who is supremely powerful while at the same time being supremely self–sacrificial. Abraham Lincoln explained why, as succinctly as anyone has: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
Of course anybody could invent a character who was perfectly good while being perfectly powerful. I can do it in two sentences: Marvin was able to do anything he wanted by his own powers. Marvin did everything for the good of others. Need I say it?—there’s not much there. It illustrates an important point, though, which is that the challenge is not so much in devising a character of massive power and towering goodness, but in making that character interesting or compelling.
Such a character has never lived nor been imagined, within the scope of the questions I have asked so far. Shakespeare never created such a character. Homer didn’t either. Dostoyevski never dreamed of such a person. I do not know whether that is because that level of moral brilliance lies necessarily beyond the reach of all the great poets and authors of all time, or whether the greats have simply never chosen to create such a character. I suspect the former, but I stand in a weak position to make that judgment: nothing less than true literary genius could know where the limits of genius lie. I am no such judge. It seems safe to say, however, that if anyone ever did create such a character, that author would have to be counted among the greats of all time: possibly the greatest moral genius of literary history.
The Surpassing Moral Genius of the Gospels
And if that is true, and if the character of Christ were createdand not rather recordedas an account of his life, then those who created his character were those very geniuses. For when we open up the scope of my question to include the Bible and begin to ask, is there any character in the Bible who is supremely powerful and supremely self-sacrificial?,”the answer comes instantly.
In fact the only difficulty with the question is that the adjective “supremely” is woefully inadequate. Superman can fly through space; Jesus created space. Gandalf can command certain things with a word; Jesus created everything and upholds it by his word. Lincoln was instrumental in saving his country’s unity, Jesus died to save all mankind.
There is likewise no comparison between Jesus’sacrifice and any others’. Superman died and was (in a sense) resurrected in a famous 1993 Doomsday story line. Yes, Abraham Lincoln gave his life in the service of his call as president. But neither of them chose their destinies. Lincoln didn’t go to Ford’s Theatre that night in order to lay himself down for his country. Kal-el, who became Superman, did not raise his baby hand and volunteer to leave Krypton so he could die to save the earth. Gandalf was trying to preserve, not sacrifice, himself when he fell into the chasm in his terrible battle with the Balrog.
Their sacrifices, while real (real in the fictional sense, in two of their cases), pale beside that of Christ, who did it all intentionally from the beginning. The second chapter of Philippians tells it best: from before his birth he laid aside the very glory, form, and prerogatives of Godhood. He humbled himself to the status of being born in the most helpless of human forms. He came among us as an infant, to grow up as a boy, until in his manhood he sacrificed himself for us: and he did it all intentionally: not because it happened to him and he bore it bravely, but because he chose to do it from the start.
Nothing brings the extent of Jesus’ self-sacrificial use of power into such crystal focus as this: When did Jesus ever use his supernatural power to benefit himself?Superman used his heat vision to warm up his coffee. Perhaps Jesus drank of the wine at Cana and ate with the throngs for whom he multiplied food, but there’s no doubt he performed these acts of power for others, not for himself. Three times he refused the devil’s suggestions that he use his power and position to benefit himself. He walked on water for his own transportation, yes; but really, did he need to be on that boat for his own purposes? No, he did it because his disciples needed him there.
Not everyone is fully enamored with the morality of Jesus. Some believe Jesus should have more roundly condemned slavery or sexism, or that he ought to have endorsed gay “marriage.”Hardly anyone, though, would dispute that he at least displayed one virtue to a degree unmatched by any other person, whether real or fictional. And it is not just any virtue. It is unconditional, self-sacrificing love: one of the few forms of moral excellence that most of us can still agree on.
(Some, of Nietzschean persuasion, might consider Jesus’humility and his love for enemies to be small and puny. This article’s argument may have little force with them; so be it.)
“The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve,”he said, “and to give his life as a sacrifice for many” (Mark 10:45). That was the consistent pattern of his life.
In this there is both excellence and perfection. By perfection, I mean that there is no flaw in the consistency of the story line, with respect to Jesus never using his power for his personal benefit.
What’s remarkable about this is that the story was placed in its final form not just once but four times, and each of those four final authors (or authorship groups) got that aspect of Jesus’character perfectly right, without flaw. For the Gospel authors to have produced generally compatible pictures of Jesus is no surprise: no one doubts they worked interdependently, borrowing sources from each other, relying on common tradition, and so on. In the end, though, they all worked independently to at least some degree, and independently they all produced a character of unparalleled power and self-sacrifice, with no mar or imperfection in any manner. The consistent perfection of Jesus’character in the Gospels hints at something about where the accounts came from. We will continue to explore those hints.
He Is That Extraordinary
First, though, let us carefully consider Jesus as a literary character. If there is any truth at all in Lord Acton’s dictum that absolute power corrupts absolutely, then Jesus, the one possessor of absolute power in all literature, is also the one person who has turned the dictum absolutely upside down. I urge you not to let that wash over you too quickly: it is one case where “absolutely”applies, well, absolutely. Jesus’power was (would you forgive me for being repetitive?) absolute. So was his freedom to sacrifice himself or not; a freedom he held even from before his birth. So was his decision to do so.
Has it occurred to you how much weight the character of Jesus must bear? The man portrayed as the eternal Savior of the whole world must necessarily be a towering figure, in literature as much as in history. Jesus Christ is that extraordinary. I would not think ill of you if you set this article aside now to fall on your knees in worship. I am doing the same, I assure you, before I continue writing.
Could It Still Be Legend?
Clearly, then, Jesus Christ is a character displaying moral excellence to a degree unmatched in all history and literature. But does this make his character more likely to be true, or less? The Legend question still looms over Jesus, especially through the work of Bart Ehrman with his several best-selling books on Christ and the Bible, and again more recently through Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, which has owned the religion best-seller lists for weeks now.
When it comes to the Legend question, the two speak with essentially once voice. Ehrman himself assures us that his views are representative of many others’. His views, he assures us, “are not my own idiosyncratic views of the Bible. They are the views that have held sway for many, many years among the majority of serious critical scholars teaching in the universities and seminaries of North America and Europe.”
Along with all other academically credible New Testament-era historians, Ehrman recognizes that Jesus was a real person. The most crucial parts of what we understand as the life of Christ, though, never happened, in his view. In chapter five of Jesus, Interrupted, he takes specific aim at Lewis’s trilemma. “I had come to realize,”he writes, “that Jesus’divinity was part of John’s theology, not a part of Jesus’own teaching…. there were not three options but four: liar, lunatic, Lord, or legend…. What I meant was that the idea that he called himself God was a legend, which I believe it is.”
Legend theories come in other flavors as well. A small number of self-proclaimed scholars believe the entire story of Jesus is false: that there never was such a person as Jesus. The highly skeptical Jesus Seminar finds that as much as 85% of the Gospels are legendary later accretions upon the life of Jesus Christ. Every year, it seems some major newsmagazine comes out with someone’s new “historical Jesus.”
And yet there is one thing that everyone holds to be true, from the fringe Jesus-deniers, to mainstream legend theorists, to conservative Bible-believers: the Gospels came from somewhere. Somebodyput the Gospels in writing, and they got their information from somewhere.
The Gospels came from somewhere. This is a truism everyone can grasp. It may not seem like much, but in a world of intense debate and division, it’s worth holding on even to that much common ground. Its implications, however, may be far more profound than have commonly been recognized. With some exploration we may find out this truism is more fruitful than it seems at first glance—especially when we recognize the uniqueness of the character of Christ. For this character did not come out of nowhere. There seem in fact to be only two live options for its origin: Either Jesus Christ was a man of moral excellence beyond any other in all history or human imagination, and the Gospel authors recorded his life faithfully, or somehow someone else came up with the idea of his character. According to the most skeptical scholarship, this “someone else,”whoever they were (for no one thinks it was just one person), produced his story through processes of legendary development. The question is, who would have been involved in that, and what must have been true of them—and is it likely that they could have accomplished such a feat of moral and literary excellence out of whole cloth? Let’s consider what this legend hypothesis calls on us to accept as true.
Non-Communities of Cognitive Dysfunction
First, the egend hypothesis requires us to believe that the Gospels were produced by first- or second-century “communities of faith.” Reza Aslan put it this way in the opening chapter ofZealot: “The Gospels are not, nor were they ever meant to be, historical documentation of Jesus’life. They are not eyewitness accounts of Jesus’words and deeds, recorded by people who knew him. They are testimonies of faith composed by communities of faith and written many years after the events they describe.”
This language is typical. Virtually every legend theorist believes that the Gospels were composed by “communities of faith.”This by itself raises significant plausibility problems: do we really expect literary moral greatness, on the unique scale of the character of Christ, to bubble up from a fount of that sort? One gets an uncomfortable feeling about it: perhaps it’s not impossible,but is it really likely? Communities produce stories like Till Eulenspiegel, Paul Bunyan, or Pecos Pete. Characters like Jesus are, well, another story altogether.
Yet that only begins to describe the problem, for legend theorists typically go further in describing these communities of faith; and ironically, their additional proposed layers of explanation tend to add to their difficulties rather than alleviate them. I’ll illustrate with several such layers. Not all of these views are held by all legend theorists, but none of them are far from the mainstream.
There is, for example, the “telephone game”version of community-of-faith authorship theory, for example: popular on the Internet, and endorsed by Bart Ehrman. He tells us in Jesus, Interrupted, that the stories of Christ propagated through just that method, likening it to kids at a birthday party, and ending with, “And now it’s a different story. (If it wasn’t a different story the game would be a bit pointless.)”
All of this is fair enough, I suppose: except Ehrman emphasizes that this “game”is happening in multiple languages, multiple contexts, and multiple languages. This is no community: these are dispersed processes of quasi-random serial distortion. By what magic does this loose network earn the description of “community”?
Communities can create good literature. I’ve already mentioned Paul Bunyan: growing up in Michigan I loved reading the folk tales about the great lumberjack and his blue ox Babe. Communities share and build stories among each other, in something at least remotely resembling face-to-face story-building interactions. In such settings stories grow in parallel processes. What Ehrman describes is entirely unlike that. It’s a serial process, not a parallel, personal one. Not only that, but the idea of multiple languages, contexts, and cultures is the very antithesis of community.
Then there is the matter of their being communities of faith. Faith, for many skeptics —especially for New Atheists —is a form of cognitive deficiency. It is “belief without evidence,” or “pretending to know what you don’t know.” It is a “virus of the mind,” an “epistemological illness,” per authors like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Peter Boghossian.
So on this view the authorial source of the Gospels was no “community of faith,” but rather 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.
Deception or Dissonance
And each gathered distortion along the way was another false version of what really happened. Fact and falsehood became inextricably mixed. The fable spread on the power of its fictions, for it was its most spectacular—and most erroneous—aspects that gathered believers into it. Its untruths served the purpose of drawing other people to the same untruths. For all we know, they were intentional deceptions, at least when first inserted into the fable’s creative stream. This, too, seems to mitigate against this “community” being the originators of the character of Christ: deceivers, whether intentional or merely careless in their deceit, are not the stuff of whom moral greatness is made.
Alternatively, there is another theory out there that relieves the Gospel originators from the charge of intentional deception. Going under the rubric of cognitive dissonance theory,it lowers the deception to another, less intentional level: not conscious dishonesty, but rather unconscious dysfunction.
Cognitive dissonance is frequently spoken of, but less commonly well understood. I first encountered it as an undergrad at Michigan State University, where I was taking a course in the psychology of social movements. We studied a book by Leon Festinger and a team of coauthors titled When Prophecy Fails. It’s a fascinating story. It goes back to the middle the 1950s, when a woman, Mrs. Keach (so named in the book; names and places were changed to protect identities), claimed to have received a message from the planet Clarion that on December 21, 1954 the Earth would be destroyed. She gathered a household of followers around her who believed that they would be saved from destruction if they sold everything, quit their jobs, and joined in with the group in her household. Their final instruction was to wait obediently in parked cars, from which they would be whisked away by the aliens from Clarion precisely at midnight the night of December 20. And so they invested all they had and all they were in this belief.
Midnight arrived on that fateful night; nothing happened. Their eagerness turned quickly to anxiety, which deepened through the morning hours, as they were forced to wonder whether what they had believed in had been false all along, and if all that they had given up had been for naught.
At 4:45 AM, however, they were spared from their distress. Mrs. Keach was granted a new message from Clarion: the earth’s destruction had been averted on account of her followers’ sincerity and faithfulness. They had been right all along: indeed, they had saved the world!
Of course it was all utter nonsense, the product of pure rationalization. How could they have swallowed it so? Festinger explained it according to what he called cognitive dissonance reduction theory.
Cognitive dissonance reduction comes into play when persons have made a significant, active investment of identity and resources in a belief that turns out to be undeniably false. The demonstrated falsity of the belief comes into dissonance with their investment of their persons and their lives in the truth of that belief. If just one person is involved, typically that person will give up the false belief. When there is sufficient social support, however, it is not unusual for the group to “discover”—i.e., to invent—some way to believe they had been right all along. And so Mrs. Keach’s group “learned” that they had done the right thing, and that their investment in their belief had been fully justified.
Not surprisingly, this is how some theorists consider the Gospel accounts of the resurrection to have arisen. Kris Komarnitsky puts it this way: “The belief that Jesus died for our sins and was raised from the dead may have been a way for Jesus’followers to reconcile in their minds his death with their previous hope that he was the Messiah.”He also wrote, “their rationalization did not need to be perfect, but it did need to adequately answer what would seem to be the two most natural and pressing questions: why did the Messiah have to die, and how can a dead person be the Messiah?”
What this means is that the superb character of Jesus Christ was produced not only 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; and beyond all this (according to some theorists, at least) it was also the product of cognitive meltdown on the same order as believing an overnight wait in a parked car could mean the salvation of mankind.
Again, not all legend theorists subscribe to all of the above; but also again, the simple “community of faith” is problematic quite enough on its own, and the additional factors described here only make it worse. 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 perfectly absolute power: a character expressing moral excellence like none other in all literary history.
It lacks, if I may say so, the ring of plausibility.
The Other Choice
Is any other option, then, any more plausible? For if the legend theory is false, the Gospels still came from somewhere, and the chief competing theory is that Jesus Christ was himself the moral genius whose life and legacy explains the accounts we have in the Gospels.
Is there a way to assess whether one option is more likely then the other? Both options, I suggest, can be evaluated according to their fit with their own backstory. Each of them stands or falls based on how it fits in the world that it conceives to be the real world.
The Legend hypothesis supposes that the world runs in a more or less uniform fashion. Anomalies may arise, but they are statistical matters: Shakespeare and Goethe were outliers. It seems to me that, in this light, to ascribe the authorship of the Christ character to a non-community of cognitive dysfunction promulgating intentional and/or self-deceived falsehood is to stretch statistical possibility beyond the breaking point. This is simply not where one could reasonably expect soaring moral virtue like that of Jesus to be fictionally produced. It is an unreasonable hypothesis for just that reason.
Meanwhile the backstory behind the other option is consistent with Jesus being the true moral genius he is portrayed to be. This view of reality posits a truly good God, and Jesus as the incarnation of that God. Jesus, the man of perfect moral excellence, fits in a world like that.
And so it seems to me that the Legend extension of Lewis’s trilemma fails, just as the Liar and Lunatic ideas did. I can’t prove it, yet I can’t help wondering whether Lewis’s assessment might apply to the Legend idea as well: “He did not leave us that option: he did not intend to.”
The life of Christ is just too good to be have been produced through legendary processes. It’s too good to be false.