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The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Tradition

jesusPaul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd, The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Tradition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 479 pages, ISBN 9780801031144.

Paul Rhodes Eddy (Ph.D. Marquette University) is professor of biblical and theological studies at Bethel University, and Gregory A. Boyd (Ph.D. Princeton Theological Seminary) is the senior pastor at Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. These two scholars have set forth to analyze the plausibility of conceptualizing the story of Jesus of Nazareth as mere legend.

Debates about the historical reliability of the gospels are not new. However, Eddy and Boyd here look at the issue from a new perspective. In fact, they take a particular approach of investigating whether the synoptic gospels can be judged as actual history on the one hand, or fictional legend on the other. In so doing, they analyze eight commonly held contentions of those who hold to a form of the legendary Jesus hypothesis. I will elucidate these eight contentions momentarily, but first it would be helpful to elaborate on the legendary Jesus hypothesis. There are three general groups of scholars that maintain, in some form, the idea that the Jesus of faith was some sort of legend. For example, some scholars (e.g. Bauer, Drews, and Wells) maintain that the Jesus (or Christ) of faith is entirely fictional, and that there is no historical basis of belief in him, either as a person or the son of God. A second group of scholars, typified by Bultmann, hold that while a historical person named Jesus in fact lived, the reports of him are saturated with legend and myth, insomuch as we have very little accurate historical information regarding him. Third, there are numerous scholars (Funk and Crossan, e.g.) who argue that while the present form of the gospels may contain myth and/or legend, there is a historical ‘core’ of truth to them.

These various groups of scholars contend that the naturalism of the present era excludes the plausibility—and even the possibility—of the supernatural occurrences reported in the gospels. Moreover, they posit that the Hellenistic Judaism of the era in which the Jesus-legend arose was conducive to the type of fabricated myths that one finds in the gospels. Third, they note that the parallels of Jesus-like (i.e. miracle workers, etc.) people in the surrounding areas in the same time frame, undercuts the validity of the reports of Jesus of Nazareth. They also contend that the relative silence in non-biblical literature and the relative silence in the epistles of Paul of the historical (not the risen Jesus, i.e.) Jesus, make the case for the gospels’ historical reliability tall indeed. Sixth, they point out that the oral nature of the first transmission of the gospels was inherently free-form and unstable, thus possibly allowing error and myth to creep in to them. Moreover, they question whether the writers of the gospels themselves intentioned their writings to be viewed as historical. And finally, these Jesus-legend advocates generally hold that those who view the gospels as historically accurate hold the burden of proof to prove it.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Fall 2008, Pneuma Review

About the Author: Bradford L. McCall, B.S. in Biology (Georgia Southwestern St. University, 2000), M.Div. (Asbury Theological Seminary, 2005), grew up on a cotton farm in south Georgia. A graduate student at Holy Apostles College and Seminary, Bradford has particular interest in teleology, causation and early modern philosophy.

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