Every culture has legends. Readers will recall the legends about Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe, John Henry the railroad pile-driving man, the headless horseman of Sleepy Hollow, and George Washington's cherry tree, among others. A current dictionary definition of a legend is: a story coming down from the past, especially one popularly regarded as historical, although its historicity cannot be verified.
Biblical scholars find that certain narratives in the Bible are also legends—a story popularly regarded as historical but whose historicity cannot be verified. In his magisterial work on the Old Testament Otto Eissfeldt, for example, identifies the story of David's victory over Goliath (1 Samuel 17:40-50) as a legend.* According to Eissfeldt a biblical legend is a poetic narrative "intended to give pleasure and entertain, and not really to adhere to the recalling of what has happened, nor to instruct."** In this legend the force of the story is not really on the man David, but rather on the divine power that controls him (1 Samuel 17:47).
Here is another definition of legend: Legends are stories about holy people and religious heroes that are read for inspiration, religious instruction, and spiritual benefit.*** By this definition the story of Jesus besting the Devil in a debate (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13) is a legend.
Generally people want to know if a historical event actually happened much like its legendary description. The answer is, no. Legends are not history. In form the legend is thought to be fictional, although there may be a historical element at the base of it. For example, with regard to the temptation narrative: it is surely plausible that Jesus may have experienced an inner personal struggle at some point in his career, like, for example, the much simpler statement in Mark 1:12-13 suggests—but even this brief statement, as it appears, is legendary in character. The details of biblical legends, if dependent on oral tradition, are enhanced in the oral transmission of the stories, and appear at the time of their first inscription. In the case of the temptation narrative the story is enhanced further in Matthew and Luke.
Mark's narrative about Jesus' personal struggle at Gethsemane before the crucifixion (Mark 14:32-42) could be either a pious fiction invented by Mark or possibly a legendary account based on a historical datum that in considering his death Jesus did indeed struggle through his own "dark night of the soul." There is in fact a similar tradition in Hebrews 5:7:
In the days of his flesh Jesus offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his Godly fear.
Even this brief report, however, has a legendary character ("and he was heard for his Godly fear"). Scholars are divided on whether the report in Hebrews is to be related to the more developed narrative account in Mark.**** But in light of the fact that Hebrews shows no obvious influence from the synoptic gospels, this brief description of a personal struggle of Jesus in the face of death may possibly have a basis in historical fact. In the light of the courage of the Johannine Christ in facing his death (John 12:27-33), one is encouraged to see in John a reaction to a tradition about a tortuous personal struggle of Jesus when facing his own death—something less than what is depicted in Hebrews 5:7.
The romanticizing of the traditions about Jesus in the gospels has obscured for the most part the historical details of Jesus' humanity and personal history. The Jesus Seminar in its second report, The Acts of Jesus. The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus found that only 16% of the 176 events they considered in early Christian literature had credibility as an actual historical event (p. 1).
How does it seem to you?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
*The Old Testament. An Introduction (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), 42.
**The Old Testament, 34-35.
***Keith Nickle The Synoptic Gospels. An Introduction (Atlanta: John Knox, 1980), 40.
****Harold Attridge, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989), 148-52, n. 144; W. Robertson Nicholl, The Expositor's Greek Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), 4.288-89.