Any Catholic who spends time reading popular atheist literature will soon encounter the claim that the Gospels are works of myth and legend, devoid of much or any historical fact.
One of my favorite examples of this popular — that is, both non-scholarly and widespread — atheist ignorance comes from a filmmaker, Brian Flemming, who recently produced a documentary titled “The God Who Wasn’t There.” The documentary, he explained, is to show that the “biblical Jesus” is a myth, created whole cloth by superstitious, unlearned early Christians. Asked to summarize the evidence for his stance, Flemming said: “It’s more a matter of demonstrating a positive than a negative, and the positive is that early Christians appeared not to have believed in a historical Jesus. If the very first Christians appear to believe in a mythical Christ, and only later did ‘historical’ details get added bit by bit, that is not consistent with the real man actually existing. … I would say that he is a myth in the same way that many other characters people believed actually existed. Like William Tell is most likely a myth…. Of course, [Jesus] is a very important myth.”
“All I’m saying,” Flemming added, “is that [Jesus] doesn’t exist, and it would be a healthy thing for Christians to look at the Bible as a work of fiction from which they can take inspiration rather than, you know, the authoritative word of God.”
Actually, it would be helpful and healthy if skeptics like Flemming would put in the time and effort demanded by the evidence. As examples of such efforts, I’ll mention just three recent, impressive works: “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony,” by Richard Bauckham (Eerdmans, 2006); “The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach,” by Michael R. Licona (InterVarsity, 2010); and “The Historical Jesus of the Gospels,” by Craig S. Keener (Eerdmans, 2012). These detailed, lengthy works highlight three basic facts.
First, the Gospels were written by men who knew the difference between myth and historical fact. The author of the Second Letter of Peter makes this abundantly clear: “We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty” (1:16). The opening verses of Luke’s Gospel shows that Luke sought “to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us,” so that “you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received” (Lk 1:1-4). Thus the Gospels and other New Testament texts include numerous references to secular rulers (Caesar Augustus, Pontius Pilate, Herod, et al.), as well as Jewish leaders (Caiaphas, Ananias) — names unlikely to be used inaccurately or even show up in a “myth.” As such, the historical content of these works should be judged not against mythologies, but against other first-century works of history.
Second, the Gospels are a combination of biography and history following the structure and approach taken by Greek and Roman authors to the same literary genres. The German historian Martin Hengel wrote that Luke was “a historian and theologian who needs to be taken seriously. His account always remains within the limits of what was considered reliable by the standards of antiquity.” As Keener shows, ancient historians — including the Gospel writers — had high standards for accuracy, even if they didn’t always employ the same techniques as modern historians. For example, ancient historians sometimes changed chronologies, or presented their works in a topical, not chronological, manner.
Third, the uniqueness of the Gospels has less to do with the literary form and much more to do with the radical identity of Jesus Christ. And this, really, is the ultimate point of conflict. Atheists begin with the philosophical assumption that there can be no divine intervention in history. Thus the Gospels must be myth. Christian historians, however, while acknowledging their belief in God, are willing to begin by examining the Gospels as historical texts, and then follow the evidence where it leads. In doing so, they are being truly open-minded.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Ignatius Insight. He and his family live in Eugene, Ore.