1. Legend Theory

Some critics argue that the resurrection was the result of an accumulating legend. After Jesus died, the story of his “resurrection” was exaggerated from person to person. After time went by, the resurrection account was created over time. Is this the case?

First, the early church enunciated the resurrection account almost immediately after Jesus died. As we have argued earlier, the content of 1 Corinthians 15:3b-5 was a very early statement of faith from the earliest Christians—most likely dating to a year or two after the resurrection event. As atheistic critic Gerd Lüdemann affirms, “It was also reported immediately after the appearance of Jesus.”[1] In this statement of faith, Paul recounts the death, burial, resurrection, and appearances of the risen Christ—even mentioning a list of eye-witnesses.

Second, the gospel accounts were not second-century myths; they were first-century historical accounts. As we have argued in our book (Evidence Unseen chapters 9-16), the gospel accounts were written early, and they bear the marks of historical reliability. The notion that these were late, second-century accounts has been dismissed even in critical circles. By contrast, Siddhartha Gautama (563-483 BC) left behind no written sources for his teaching—only oral traditions. Habermas and Licona write, “This leaves plenty of time for legend to creep into the oral tradition, since the earliest writings didn’t appear until approximately four hundred years after the founder’s death.”[2] Moreover, as we have argued elsewhere (Evidence Unseen chapter 10), Jesus had four biographies written within one generation after his death, while other famed ancient leaders like Alexander the Great’s earliest biography was written by Arrian in AD 130—over 450 years after Alexander’s death. By comparison, the historical material about Jesus is more abundant and earlier to the events in question.

Third, in order for a legend to spoil the historical core of story, more time is needed. British historian and professor of Roman history A.N. Sherwin-White writes, “For these stories to be legends, the rate of legendary accumulation would have to be unbelievable; more generations are needed… The span of two generations is too short to allow legendary tendencies to wipe out the hard core of historical fact.”[3] In fact, Sherwin-White demonstrates the legendary accrual in Herodotus to measure the way that legend can distort history. He then compares this to the NT documents and shows that much more time is needed to destroy the core historical account of the four gospels in regards to the resurrection.[4]

Moreover, when a feigned leader was killed by the authorities, the disappointed movement would usually fashion their hope on the dead leader’s brother or closest relative. James, the Lord’s brother, receives not even a mention of such acclaim. Instead, James becomes a radical follower of his crucified brother. Wright explains, “We know… of several other movements where the leader was killed, the one upon whom everyone had pinned their hope; but at no point do we find such movements then suffering from the blessed twentieth-century disease called cognitive dissonance, where they make up stories about something glorious that has happened in order to try to come to terms with their grief. That just doesn’t work as history.”[5]

Normally, when a false messiah was killed, the man was abandoned and ridiculed by his followers. For instance, when Simon bar Kokhba failed to lead a successful messianic revolt in AD 135, his followers scorned him as a false messiah, calling him Simon bar Kozeba (which meant “the son of lies”). We find other examples of false messiahs whose brothers took over after they perished. And yet Jesus’ brother James became a radical follower of Christ, instead. In other words, a legend would never have developed into the resurrection of Jesus. It would have most likely gone any other number of ways.

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[1] Lüdemann, Gerd, and Alf Özen. What Really Happened to Jesus: a Historical Approach to the Resurrection. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1995. 15.

[2] Habermas, Gary R., and Mike Licona. The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2004. 85.

[3] Sherwin-White, A. N. Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament. Oxford: Clarendon, 1963. 190.

[4] Craig writes, “The writings of Herodotus furnish a test case for the rate of legendary accumulation, and the tests show that even two generations is too short a time span to allow legendary tendencies to wipe out the hard core of historical facts. When Professor Sherwin-White turns to the gospels, he states for these to be legends, the rate of legendary accumulation would have to be ‘unbelievable’; more generations are needed. All NT scholars agree that the gospels were written down and circulated within the first generation, during the lifetime of the eyewitnesses.” Craig, William Lane. “Contemporary Scholarship and the Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Truth 1 (1985): 92.

[5] Evans, Craig A., N. T. Wright, and Troy A. Miller. Jesus, the Final Days: What Really Happened. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009. 102.