The Jesus Legend

Written by Jordan Peacock : May 15, 2008

Review: The Jesus Legend: A Case For The Historical Reliability Of The Synoptic Jesus Tradition
by Paul Rhodes Eddy & Gregory A. Boyd

I have been reading a variety of works and perspectives on Biblical authenticity and reliability, and some of my questions in this arena had been answered with pointers to this book. After reading just the back cover and the introduction, I knew why.

I’ll cover the contents shortly, but these two concepts were huge for me, so humour me. First and foremost, on the back cover it reads:

I am gratified that my friends and colleagues Paul Eddy and Greg Boyd have taken my work as seriously as they have in this comprehensively researched book. I urge any reader of my books to read this one alongside them!–Robert M. Price, Center for Inquiry Institute and fellow of the Jesus Seminar

Price is a humanist, argues against Biblical literalism and against the concept of Jesus as a historical figure. This is the polar opposite perspective of that which Eddy & Boyd admit to holding. Boyd has debated Price several times regarding the historicity of Christ. Therefore to see the mutual respect and appreciation captured by this quote certainly had me intrigued. It was far away from the all-too-common character assassination and denigrations that are hurled by opposing sides of such a dogmatic concept.

Secondly, in the introduction Eddy & Boyd lay their cards on the table. Yes, they are born again Christians, believing Jesus to be the Christ on Earth, in history, as put forth by the gospels. But establishing this is not the purpose of the book. Rather, taking a historian approach, their purpose is merely to put forward the concept that, given their methodology, it is more probable to conclude that the events transcribed in the Synoptic Gospels happened largely as they were written, than not.

What is that methodology? They call it an ‘open’ historio-critical method, distinguishing it from what is commonly know as the historio-critical method, and making explicit the idea that ANY worldview coming to look at history must be aware of it’s biases, and this includes the naturalist/humanist worldview that dominates and is often assumed in practioners of the historio-critical method as it stands. In short, let us not rush to conclude that miracles occur or that the supernatural is real, but let us not discount it outright either.

They then begin making their case, and I appreciated the means with which they did so. First, the concept was introduced (parallel myths, pagan influences in Judaism, whatever) and the typical arguments for those advocating a more distrustful view of the Gospels were stated and, when necessary, unpacked. The voluminous footnotes make any digging deeper into any of the concepts presented very simple and accessible, although the copious amount scattered throughout this volume may be daunting to the casual reader (there is a different edition of the book that is far less academic for those so inclined).

Each argument is then addressed, and sometimes countered. Many of the Gospel-specific issues are addressed in detail, such as the allegations that Paul does not refer to a historical Christ-figure, or that the Jesus legend came out of parallel mystery religions.

A recurring theme of the book and one of it’s strongest points is the introduction of many of the newest studies in orality and oral cultures, be they African, Scandinavian, Serbian, Malay, or first-century Jewish. The strict literary analysis of the bulk of New Testament study is undergoing a seismic shift as many of the core assumptions governing the field are caving underneath the weight of the realities being discovered by anthropologists, philologists, historians, and the like. Concepts such as oral history vs. oral tradition, the relationships between tradents and their communities, and the flexibility of oral narratives (and written works, such as the Gospels, intended to supplement and aid oral narratives) are contrasted with their modernist, literary counterparts. The analogy of ‘camels at the trough’ was a favorite of mine in dealing with ‘chronology problems’. The analogy goes thus; unlike traditional, modern histories and biographies which generally treat their subjects chronologically, the oral historian has a wealth of stories to choose from, any number of which occupy his or her mind at a given time. Sometimes the order in which they are remembered are not necessarily ‘in order’ but they are linked in such a way as to make sense of the person or the event.

The book closes with a closer look at the 9 criteria generally used when evaluating the historicity of ancient documents. They are:

1. Did the author write with the intent of recording historical reality?
2. Was the author in the appropriate time and place to reliably report history?
3. To what extent does the author’s bias taint the work and affect it’s reliability?
4. Does the document including self-damaging details?
5. Does the document include casual or incidental details surrounding it’s topics?
6. Is the document generally consistent in style, structure, etc?
7. Does the document record inherently improbable events?
8. Does external literary evidence corroborate what is found in the work?
9. Does external archaeological evidence corroborate what is found in the work?

While this section generally maintains the standard of quality, criteria 7 & 9 are unfortunately dealt with far too quickly and with (to my mind) meager evidences. Nevertheless, the weight of the rest of the work is up to achieving their task; the scales in my mind have most certainly tilted from a concept of a historically improbable Jesus to a historically probable one.

What happens from there is no longer in the realms of history.

***** A must read. Not for the faint of heart [very academic] but the book ‘Lord Or Legend’ by the same two deals with the same general issues in about 1/3 the space and in must easier to read language, and may be better suited to some purposes.

Author Bio:: Jordan Peacock lives and works in Minnesota with his beautiful wife and daughter. When not playing with technology or music, heâ??s writing comic books and wrapping up a university education.

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