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.
Good morning Charlie,
You stated that legends are stories about holy people and religious heroes that are read for inspiration, etc. Well every hero has to have a villain, right? What are your thoughts about the legends in the bible that portray religious villains- namely the Pharisees?
1) Has your research ever revealed to you the true source of who made Pharisees evil villains? Was it the authors of the gospels? Or was it the editors of the gospels, i.e.. Eusebius, Iraneus,Ignatius, Justin Martyr?
2) How do you believe Pharisees and Torah observant Jews were portrayed in the gospels?
3) How accurate do you believe this portrayal (of the Pharisees) was?
4) What purpose do you think the insertion of Anti-Jewish legends serves in the gospels?
Thank you as always, Elizabeth
I really liked this article, Charlie. As one who feels legends and metaphors add so much to any literature, I like to think the Bible uses both freely.
I think you might really enjoy Chris Keith's Jesus Against the Scribal Elite: The Origins of the Conflict (Baker Academic, 2014). It addresses all of your questions.
Here's a brief oversimplification. Keith thinks it to be plausible that there was a memory of Jesus as a teacher and that he came into conflict with those who claimed literacy for their authority. In an honor-shame culture, it would be humiliating for a learned person (e.g., a Pharisaic scribe) to be "defeated" in argument by someone who was unlettered. And so tensions in his reputation grew. As time went along, the memory of Jesus was refracted due to his success, and later generations began to describe Jesus as a literate person; e.g. Luke 4:16ff presents Jesus as very knowledgeable about opening a scroll, finding a passage, and reading.
Good Morning Elizabeth,
I don't think that the Pharisees as a social group in the first century were "evil" or even villains. They are cast in the early Christian gospels as the opponents of Jesus in debates on subjects of common interest. These debates are more like family arguments in the sense that Jesus and the Pharisees shared similar religious ideas. As a group they were not self-righteous, sanctimonious, hypocrites, as Luke portrays them in Luke 18:10-13. In spite of their caricature in the New Testament they were recognized as devout observers of the Torah and as its authoritative interpreters (See Hedrick, Parables as Poetic Fictions, 214-15 and Ellis Rivkin, "Pharisees" in the Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible Supplement, 657-63).
I think this covers 1-3 on your list, but for your #4 you must tell me what you regard as "anti-Jewish legends" you think were "inserted in the Gospels."
Charlie, one such insertion would be John 7:53-8:11 and it is the story of the woman caught in adultery and was about to be stoned... When Jesus famously "outwitted" the Pharisees by saying "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone." Scholars generally agree this vignette was added later by an early anti-Jewish church father. I believe it was inserted to exalt Jesus and to cast the Pharisees in the worst possible light. What would be another reason to insert this legend? Whoever inserted it had an intention to condemn the Pharisees. Is that obvious to you? Elizabeth
Good Morning Elizabeth,
John 7:53-8:11 is missing in the early and better manuscripts of the NT. Most copyists apparently thought it would interrupt John's sequence least after 7:52 and added it there. But others added it after John 7:36, or some after 7:44, or after 21:25. Some even added it after Luke 21:38. So it did not enter the textual tradition as an act by one church father.
With respect to why it was added: Many scribes mark it by asterisks or obeli, which indicates that although the scribe included it in the text, they were aware that the narrative lacked satisfactory credentials. Today text critics tend to think that it is an authentic early tradition and hence have included it after John 7:52, where the majority of manuscripts include it, but they mark it with double square brackets to indicate that it was not originally a part of John's gospel. Responsible translations usually mark its suspect status in some way.
In form the narrative is a pronouncement story (describing a brief situation which concludes with a saying of Jesus) and not a legend. The reason for adding it would have to be adduced from the intention of the early scribes. I am not good at reading the intentions of people whom I know well, and would not even begin to guess at nameless scribes. In the main, however, I would suppose they wanted to preserve a story they thought to be a genuine tradition.
Regarding John 7:53-8:11, Keith (p. 64, see above post) suggests that this 2nd to 3rd century (?) insertion would have come from a time when the legend of Jesus being a literate teacher (writing on the ground) was an issue, and this was an attempt to strongly affirm the matter in the literate direction.
Good afternoon Gene,
The pronouncement story that appears in the ancient manuscripts after John 7:52 and elsewhere does not appear in any second century manuscripts. So far as I know there are tiny fragments on only three NT texts dated squarely in the second century: P52 (John), P90 (John), P98 (Revelation) plus a fragment of a non-canonical gospel (the Egerton Gospel). all the rest are 3rd century and later. Only two manuscripts with the insertion are dated before the 9th century. They are D (5th century) and E (6th century). The remaining manuscripts that have the insertion are dated between the 9th and 13th centuries.
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