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Lord or Legend?: Wrestling with the Jesus Dilemma

Lord or Legend?: Wrestling with the Jesus Dilemma

by Gregory A. Boyd, Paul R. Eddy

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Can we trust the Jesus narratives in the Gospels? Boyd and Eddy, who hold doctoral degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary and Marquette University, respectively, affirm that we can. Both have written widely on biblical and theological subjects. Their experience shows in this marvelous study of the historicity of the gospels and the reliability of the biblical narrative. At times this book reads like a good detective story: it lays out the clues and the methods of evaluating those clues, and then draws conclusions based on the best evidence. From the most ancient witnesses, like Josephus and Irenaeus, to contemporary critics like Burton Mack, the authors ably rebut the critics' claims to inconsistency and historical error. They further explore the value of the fantasy works of popular writers like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Although the authors are certainly capable of turning out an academic text, this book is intended for the general reader, the average churchgoer who may be struggling with difficult questions about the Jesus story. It's a fascinating and valuable work that merits a wide readership. (Sept.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

In a condensed, popularized form of their more academic The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition, Boyd (senior pastor, Woodland Hills Church, St. Paul, MN) and Eddy (theology, Bethel Coll., St. Paul, MN) tackle the thorny questions of the historicity of Jesus and the reliability of the Gospel narratives to challenge the assertion in some modern scholarship that the scriptural depiction of Jesus in the New Testament is more legend than fact. In Part 1, they examine the influence of the early Roman Imperial period (e.g., its pagan religious thoughts and practices) on the portrait of Jesus. In Part 2, they apply ten tests of historicity (e.g., textual analysis, plausibility) to evaluate the truth of the Gospels. And in Part 3, they reflect on how mythical allusions may have accrued to the historical Jesus. Craig A. Evans's recent Fabricating Jesusmore critically addresses specific methodological problems created by modern pseudobiblical scholarship, while Boyd and Eddy's book focuses more on the historical context of Jesus's time and offers a close textual analysis of the Gospel texts. Intended for a broad general audience seriously interested in the historical questions surrounding Jesus of Nazareth; recommended.
—Pius Charles

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Read an Excerpt

Lord or Legend

By Gregory A. Boyd

Baker Publishing Group

Copyright © 2007 Gregory A. Boyd
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8010-6505-7

Chapter One

Miraculous Claims and the Critical Mind

Can Intelligent People Still Believe in the Supernatural?

The Gospels present Jesus as making divine claims, performing incredible miracles, and rising from the dead. According to the New Testament, this is what convinced the earliest Jewish disciples that he was the Son of God. But this is also the most fundamental reason many contemporary New Testament scholars, as well as others, find it hard to accept that the Gospels are historically reliable. We in the Western world have all been influenced by the naturalistic worldview that arose out of the scientific revolution and the intellectual Enlightenment that followed. The naturalistic worldview holds that everything that happens can in principle be explained by appealing to laws of nature. Miracles, therefore, are ruled out of court. To the extent that we've been influenced by this worldview, we intuitively find it difficult to accept as factual reports that contain miracles. We're inclined to dismiss them as legends.

A good percentage of New Testament scholars today accept this naturalistic worldview, which is why so much of contemporary New Testament scholarship is spent trying to explain in naturalistic terms how the portrait of Jesus as a supernatural figure found in the Gospels came into being. Burton Mack expresses the firm conviction of many when he writes, "The emergence of Christianity and its literature can be understood without recourse or caveats with regard to miracles, resurrections, divine appearances, presences, or unusual charismatic phenomena." So too, Robert Funk, the founder of the famous (or infamous) Jesus Seminar, argues that "the notion that God interferes with the order of nature ... is no longer credible.... Miracles ... contradict the regularity of the order of the physical universe.... God does not interfere with the laws of nature." Given this assumption, he has no choice but to contend that "the resurrection of Jesus did not involve the resuscitation of a corpse. Jesus did not rise from the dead, except perhaps in some metaphorical sense."

John Dominic Crossan agrees when he concludes his discussion of the biblical account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead by saying, "I do not think this event ever did or could happen.... I do not think that anyone, anywhere, at any time brings dead people back to life." In short, these aspects of the Jesus story may be mythologically true-that is, true in the sense that they express longings and intuitions of the human heart-but they cannot be accepted as historically true. The assumption of naturalism rules this option out, and it lies at the heart of the -legendary-Jesus hypothesis.

As we shall see throughout this book, providing a plausible naturalistic explanation for how some of the specific supernatural aspects of the portrait of Jesus found in the Gospels came into being is no easy endeavor. But before we examine these attempts, we need to critically assess the assumption of naturalism that drives them. There are at least five objections that can be raised against this assumption.

An Unwarranted Assumption

First, while every modern person of course grants that the world generally runs in accordance with natural laws, on what basis can anyone argue that it does so exhaustively-that is, without there ever being exceptions to these so-called laws? The absolute rejection of miracles isn't really a conclusion that is based on evidence or on reason-for neither evidence nor reason could warrant such an absolute conclusion. It is, rather, an assumption-a presupposition of the naturalistic worldview-pure and simple.

Holding to this or any other assumption in an uncritical, dogmatic manner doesn't coincide well with a critical, open-minded enterprise. As the great philosopher of history R. G. Collingwood argued, to the extent that one's research and findings are rooted in a priori dogmatic assumptions, such research can't be considered critical (or, in his terms, "scientific") scholarship. More specifically, the goal of scholarly historical-critical research is to draw probabilistic conclusions on the basis of evidence, not assume certain conclusions (such as, "everything can be explained in natural terms") prior to an open investigation of the evidence.

Of course, since we all agree that events generally happen in accordance with natural laws, it makes sense to prefer naturalistic explanations over supernatural ones, all other things being equal. But this is quite different from assuming at the outset that all events must be explained in naturalistic terms. A more open-minded, scholarly approach would be to hold that, if all available natural explanations become implausible, we should consider explanations that go beyond the known natural laws that describe how the world generally operates.

The "Laws" of Nature

Second, as we saw above, naturalism holds that everything can be explained by appealing to natural laws. Framing the issue in terms of "laws" has given some the impression that they are rules nature must obey-which is in part why many scholars conclude that miracles are impossible. Our second objection to this naturalistic perspective, however, is that this understanding of the laws of nature goes beyond anything science can determine. A natural law is a description of what we generally find in the world, not a prescription for what we must find in the world. Hence, while a supernatural event is an exception to the regular operations of nature, it does not violate an inviolable law of nature, as some maintain.

This point is especially relevant in light of twentieth-century scientific advances, for throughout the last century we have discovered that the supposed laws of nature are generally probabilistic. For example, quantum physics has taught us that there is an element of randomness pervading everything at a subatomic level. We can describe the behavior of quantum particles (or waves) in general terms, according to Schrödinger's equation. But, as a matter of principle, we cannot predict exactly how any given particle will behave.

Among other things, this means that the solidity of the things we experience every day (e.g., the book you're reading, the chair you're sitting on, the hand that holds up the book) is probabilistic. As a matter of fact, the book, chair, and hand are actually losing and acquiring particles every moment. It's just that our sensory faculties can't detect this subatomic activity. If the majority of quantum particles of the book, chair, or hand randomly acted at the extremity of their possible behavior-that is, their least probable but still possible behavior-the book, chair, or hand would completely disintegrate. Fortunately, while the behavior of single particles embodies an element of randomness, the behavior of large groups of particles is very predictable. And so, you needn't worry about anything spontaneously disintegrating.

Our point is that we now know the world runs on probability. What we call "laws of nature" are simply descriptions of maximally probable behavior. And in this light we can see how unwarranted it is to claim that the laws of nature rule out the possibility of extraordinary events-including miracles.

The Principle of Analogy

The naturalistic approach to history has been buttressed in academic circles by what has come to be known as "the principle of analogy." The basic idea is that all understanding-whether it be of people's behavior or of natural events-is rooted in analogies drawn from our own experience. What bears no analogy with our own experience is utterly incomprehensible to us. So, the reasoning goes, our understanding of the past must be by analogy with our experience of the present. And since (it has been assumed) we have no experience of the supernatural in the present, we must of necessity try to understand all aspects of history without appealing to the supernatural. Our third objection to the anti-supernaturalism of the naturalistic worldview is that the argument against the possibility of miracles on the basis of the principle of analogy is seriously flawed. Consider two arguments.

1. Even if, for the moment, we grant that modern people never experience miracles, it doesn't at all follow that we can't analogically understand what a miracle would be like. Among other things, a miracle is an event that has a nonphysical cause. What's so difficult about analogically understanding this?

Indeed, far from having no analogy in our present experience, it could be argued that we experience events with nonphysical causes every time we make a free decision. Some materialists may believe all free decisions are nothing more than physical effects of previous physical causes, but this is not how they-or any of us-experience our own free decisions. We experience our decisions as free precisely because we don't experience them as exhaustively determined by previous physical causes. We experience ourselves as free to the extent that we experience possibilities as being up to us-not antecedent physical causes-to resolve.

Regardless of what one believes about freedom, this experience of freedom provides an analogy for understanding what a miracle would be like, even if a person hasn't personally experienced one. And if we can analogically understand what a miracle would be like, we can conceivably confront evidence that would make it reasonable to conclude that one has in fact taken place.

2. If the principle of analogy were applied consistently the way it is applied when certain historians rule out the possibility of miracles, we'd have to conclude that people who rule out the possibility of anything sufficiently beyond their own experience are thinking reasonably. But this is clearly wrong. To illustrate, just because people who have lived for centuries in tropical rainforests have never experienced anything like snow, it doesn't follow that we should conclude they're thinking rationally (let alone critically and scientifically) if they concluded on this basis that snow doesn't exist!

Here again science provides an excellent illustration. No one has ever experienced anything that has both particle and wavelike properties. We can't picture such an entity. And yet, since the early twentieth century, physicists have had to accept-on the basis of evidence-that light has just these properties. Anyone today who would dismiss such claims because he or she has no analogy for such a thing in his or her own experience would not be regarded as thinking rationally. The point is, we must follow the evidence, even if it leads us to postulate things for which we have no clear analogy in our experience. Perhaps it's time we applied some of this insight to the way we think historically.

The Experience of the Supernatural Today

A fourth fundamental problem with the modern rejection of the possibility of miracles is that, while certain Western scholars may not experience miracles, many people in the West and around the globe do! Hence, while these scholars may (mistakenly) believe they have nothing in their experience to help them analogically understand a supernatural occurrence in the past, they cannot justify their claim that modern people in general have no analogy by which to understand supernatural occurrences. Step outside one slice of academic Western culture and you find that the world is full of reported experiences of the miraculous!

For example, throughout history and even today the phenomenon of demon possession and exorcism is quite common. We find eyewitness reports of people levitating, things flying through the air on their own, bodies contorting in ways seemingly impossible to explain in natural terms, and the like. So too, throughout history and even today people have encountered (or at least are convinced they have encountered) angelic or demonic presences as well as healings and "coincidences" they believe to be supernaturally caused.

In this light, it is clear that the claim that modern people don't experience the supernatural is simply wrong. What these scholars mean when they make such claims is that no one experiences anything these scholars would grant is supernatural. It is on this basis that they then argue that modern scholars can't admit the supernatural into their understanding of the past. But this is a clear case of circular reasoning. ("Circular reasoning" is where a conclusion is used as a premise to justify the conclusion.) These scholars assume that supernatural occurrences don't happen. On this basis they dismiss all present and past reports of supernatural occurrences. And from this they conclude that the world always operates according to natural laws. But notice, they only conclude this because they presupposed it at the start. If one doesn't presuppose supernatural events never occur, and if one therefore takes reports of supernatural occurrences seriously, one will find there is plenty of evidence both in the present and from the past that supernatural events do in fact occur.

An Example of Ethnocentrism

Finally, the rejection of the possibility of miracles is not only circular, it's ethnocentric. That is, it is rooted in an assumption that a certain ethnic perspective-namely, the modern, European, academic, naturalistic perspective-is superior to all others. A Western scholar could not as a matter of principle dismiss the experience of the supernatural throughout history and in most cultures even today unless he or she assumed at the start the superiority of his or her own modern, naturalistic view of the world.

Interestingly enough, an increasing number of Western scholars in a variety of fields are beginning to see the ethnocentric prejudice of this dogmatic, naturalistic stance. Especially in the area of ethnography (the study of ethnic groups), Western scholars are increasingly acknowledging that their own naturalistic worldview has no right to claim superiority over the worldviews of the people groups they're studying-almost all of which allow for, and experience, supernatural occurrences.

Along these same lines, many ethnographers are now realizing that one can only truly understand the worldview of a people group by viewing it, and experiencing it, from the inside. So, for example, while Western ethno-graphers in the past have typically dismissed accounts of the supernatural found in other cultures as being the result of their "primitive," unscientific imagination, these scholars are now saying that Western scholars have to take these accounts seriously and as potential challenges to their own naturalistic assumptions.

The results of this paradigm shift have been quite startling. Ethnographers are discovering that non-Western ways of looking at and experiencing the world often disclose aspects of reality missed by the naturalistic, Western worldview. Most significantly, a number of these specialists are discovering for themselves that the supernatural is real!

It seems to us that those critical scholars who reject the possibility of miracles carte blanche need to learn from these contemporary ethnographers and realize how ethnocentric their dogmatic anti-supernaturalistic stance is. While many modern Western people may have trouble accepting the possibility of miracles, a truly critical scholarly approach should lead us humbly to concede that this difficulty may be nothing more than a liability and limitation of our own culturally shaped worldview. Rather than assume the superiority of our worldview, we should, when the evidence calls for it, allow the experience of other people in other cultures and at other times to call the absoluteness of our own worldview into question.


As noted above, we grant that, whether one is researching a past or a present occurrence, if it is possible to plausibly explain it in naturalistic terms, it should be explained in naturalistic terms. After all, the world does generally operate according to certain regular principles. What we deny, however, is that we should be dogmatically committed to naturalistic explanations, regardless of how implausible they become. If we remain aware that the laws of nature are descriptive and probabilistic and that the naturalistic worldview is as socially constructed as anyone else's, we may at some point encounter evidence that leads us to consider the possibility that something has occurred that can only be explained by appealing to supernatural forces.

Throughout the remainder of this book, we shall contend that the evidence surrounding the Jesus tradition is just such an instance. We shall argue that the purely naturalistic explanations given by certain scholars for the rise of this story are less plausible than the explanation the Gospel authors themselves provide-the supernatural elements included. If one remains genuinely open to the possibility that the Jesus story is generally rooted in history, we contend that they will discover the Jesus story is most probably rooted in history.


Excerpted from Lord or Legend by Gregory A. Boyd Copyright © 2007 by Gregory A. Boyd. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Gregory A. Boyd (Yale University Divinity School; PhD Princeton Theological Seminary) is the Senior Pastor of Woodland Hills Church in Maplewood, Minnesota, and President of Christus Victor Ministries (www.gregboyd.org). He has authored and co-authored twenty books, including The Myth of a Christian Nation and The Jesus Legend (with Paul Eddy).

Paul R. Eddy is a professor of biblical and theological studies at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the coauthor (with Boyd) of The Jesus Legend.

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