Alternate Theories To The Resurrection – The Legend Theory

This post is part of the the resurrection series (click to view the other posts in this series).

So far we've looked at the belief in, theology of, witnesses to, and alternate “dead end” theories for the resurrection. This post will tackle the most common argument against the resurrection of Jesus Christ that is heard today.

The Legend (Myth) Theory

The Legend (or Myth) Theory states that the biblical account of Jesus' resurrection is a legend that grew over time. It admits that Jesus was a historical figure and some things in the Bible really happened, but the more unbelievable events are embellishments or legendary accounts that were later additions replacing the actual truth. This theory encapsulates a wide swath of variation in belief, and some who believe the legend theory also hold to parts of the hallucination or conspiracy theories.

Surprisingly, this theory was first proposed by a theologian and not a historian. D. F. Strauss, a German theologian from the 19th century, is credited with originating the claim. Strauss, influenced by the post-Enlightenment rationalism that permeated his era, couldn't reconcile the prevailing ideas of his time with the miracles described in the Bible. This led to his denial of the Biblical version of Jesus' life and directed him in his search for the true “historical Jesus.” Out of this came his belief that the various miracles in the Bible were just myths created to convince people that Jesus was the Messiah.

Strauss' legend theory then grew in popularity parallel to the rise of naturalism and materialism, supported by the common link of the denial of anything supernatural. Since these theories are complimentary, the atheist has no problem adopting both, but also the deist, because of his belief that God doesn't intervene in the world's affairs, tends to accept them as well. Therefore, the proponents of the legend theory range from both ends of the religious spectrum – from the strict atheist to those that claim to be Christian (e.g., Strauss, Rudolf Bultmann, the Jesus Seminar).

As we walk through the arguments against the legend theory, one important thing to remember is this: legendary accounts are not deliberate lies. Legendary accounts occur because of many reasons (e.g., embellishment, hyperbole, limitations of oral history), but they are not outright lies. As soon as we get into a claim that a NT author is deliberately falsifying their testimony, then it is no longer the legend theory, it is the conspiracy theory and should be treated as such.

On to the arguments.

1) There was not enough time for a legend to develop. Ever since D. F. Strauss first proposed the legend theory, it has been met with intense criticism. One of the most significant critiques of the legend theory is that the time between the actual events and the subsequent documentation of those events is too short to allow any kind of substantial legend to be established. Julius Müller, a contemporary of Strauss, stated:

Most decidedly must a considerable interval of time be required for such a complete transformation of a whole history by popular tradition, when the series of legends are formed in the same territory where the heroes actually lived and wrought. Here one cannot imagine how such a series of legends could arise in an historical age, obtain universal respect, and supplant the historical recollection of the true character and connexion of their heroes' lives in the minds of the community, if eyewitnesses were still at hand, who could be questioned respecting the truth of the recorded marvels. Hence, legendary fiction, as it likes not the clear present time, but prefers the mysterious gloom of grey antiquity, is wont to seek a remoteness of age, along with that of space, and to remove its boldest and more rare and wonderful creations into a very remote and unknown land.

This critique has never been answered.

So, how long does it take for a significant legendary account to be established? Other ancient Greek and Roman writings, such as those of the Greek historian Herodotus, enable us to test the rate at which legend accumulates. In these cases, “even the span of two generations is too short to allow legendary tendencies to wipe out the hard core of historical fact” (The Son Rises: The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus, William Lane Craig). This minimum timespan for the accrual of legendary accounts plants us, at the earliest, firmly in the mid-2nd century, well after the NT documents were written, yet, interestingly enough, exactly within the correct timeframe for the apocryphal gospels. In other words, if you want a legendary account then look no further than the apocryphal gospels.

2) The living eyewitnesses would have been a controlling factor preventing significant legendary development. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul mentions that over 500 people witnessed the resurrected Christ. In addition to that, there were eyewitnesses to his death, burial, and to the empty tomb. So, when the gospel accounts were formed, most of these eyewitnesses were still alive and could attest to their truthfulness. These people would have been a controlling factor in verifying what did and didn't happen, keeping in check any myths that might arise.

3) The disciples would have been an authoritative factor preventing significant legendary development. The book of Acts makes it clear that the disciples primary role was to be witnesses to the truth of the resurrection. Therefore, it was their mission to prevent any legendary addition to the account of what really happened. Given their authoritative office and role in the early Christian fellowship, their influence and purpose provides them the means and motive to guard the historical account. (Remember, any claim that the disciples intentionally misconstrued their account does not fall under the legend theory, but under the conspiracy theory.)

4) The stories themselves do not show signs of significant legendary development. In general, the NT accounts of the death, burial, and post-burial appearances show reserve and lack embellishment that comes with the mythologizing of a text. Instead, we see simple, straightforward factual statements.

The clearest example of this is the early Christian creed Paul includes in his first book to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 15:3-7), but we also see it in certain gospel accounts of the events, such as Mark's description of Jesus' burial (Mark 15:42-47). Yet when we look at the accounts in the apocryphal gospels, we see what a legendary account would look like. The so-called Gospel of Peter describes a resurrection where Jesus is being helped out of the tomb by two men whose heads are “reaching to heaven” and where “a cross [is] following them.” Another apocryphal writing, The Ascension of Isaiah, has Jesus coming out of the tomb sitting on the shoulders of the angels Michael and Gabriel. In these apocryphal stories, there are symbolic and theological slants that have tainted the accounts. Again we should take note that these apocryphal gospels were not (and could not have been) written until after all the apostles had died, and even then they were all rejected by the early church.

In addition, legendary development begins in the details and slowly morphs into bigger things over time. However, the resurrection of Jesus is not a mere detail, but is the core fact of the NT documents. Therefore, it is the least likely historical claim that would be susceptible to legendary development, especially within the necessary timeframe and locale.

5) The lack of a “non-legendary” account. We have at least seven accounts of the resurrection whose sources are eyewitnesses and all of them agree to the historicity of the event (the four gospels, Acts, Peter's letters, and Paul's letters). On the other hand, not one single account exists from anyone of that time that refutes the narrative of the NT documents.

Besides the lack of an extra-biblical refutation, some claim that the events described within the NT agree because the New Testament documents were harmonized by the early church. However, “variations in the resurrection narratives tend to support, rather than undermine, their authenticity” (In the Fullness of Time, Paul L. Maier). It demonstrates that each narrative wasn't copied from the others. Further, it shows that the early church resisted the temptation to edit out or harmonize the variations and that there wasn't a conspiratorially agreed upon “official” version.

6) It would have been impossible for the disciples to proclaim the resurrection in Jerusalem if the tomb had not been empty and Jesus' post-burial appearances had not happened. If the resurrection were a myth, there is no possible chance that any of the sermons or events that happened in Jerusalem (as described in Acts and other NT letters) could have happened. Not only would the Jewish authorities have marched down to the tomb, opened it up, and crushed Christianity from the very beginning, but no one would have believed them anyway. They would have been lunatics. Yet Christianity's seed was planted and began growing right in Jerusalem. This means that the people of Jerusalem received the disciples' preaching and witness to the resurrection as truth.

7) The origin of Christianity hinges on the belief of the early disciples that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. If the resurrection of Jesus is a legendary fabrication, then how could Christianity have been established at all? The very fact that Christianity exists attests to the earliest followers of Christ believing in the resurrection and not that it was a later addition to the Christian faith. Why else would they live and die the way they did? Why else would anyone believe them? How else would it have spread so early and so quickly if their primary belief, the resurrection of Jesus, wasn't true?


With such strong arguments against the legend theory, why does anyone hold to it? I believe it is simply because there is no better alternative for the non-believer. Yet, as hard as it may be to believe, the simplest, most comprehensive, and most coherent theory that can account for all of the evidence is that Jesus was really resurrected from the dead. There is no other alternative.

So, for the non-believer, the naturalist, the materialist: is there even a chance of belief? Yes, most certainly! But it won't be from a simple acceptance of the supernatural. Accepting miracles doesn't necessitate the acceptance of the reason behind those miracles. It will be because of God-given faith that they will come to believe. A faith that reveals the reality of the supernatural. A faith that resides in the one who is the power behind the supernatural. A faith that is founded upon the historical events of the resurrection.

Some will say, perhaps, that [Ayosha's features] are quite compatible with both fanaticism and mysticism, but it seems to me that Alyosha was even more of a realist than the rest of us. Oh, of course, in the monastery he believed absolutely in miracles, but in my opinion miracles will never confound a realist. It is not miracles that bring a realist to faith. A true realist, if he is not a believer, will always find in himself the strength and ability not to believe in miracles as well, and if a miracle stands before him as an irrefutable fact, he will sooner doubt his own senses than admit the fact. And even if he does admit it, he will admit it as a fact of nature that was previously unknown to him. In the realist, faith is not born from miracles, but miracles from faith. Once the realist comes to believe, then, precisely because of his realism, he must also allow for miracles. The Apostle Thomas declared that he would not believe until he saw, and when he saw, he said: “My Lord and my God!” Was it the miracle that made him believe? Most likely not, but he believed first and foremost because he wished to believe, and maybe already fully believed in his secret heart even as he was saying: “I will not believe until I see.” - The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky

* There are many solid critiques of Strauss, Bultmann, the Jesus Seminar, and the legend theory. Here is a list of just a few contemporary works:

This post is part of the the resurrection series (click to view the other posts in this series).