One of the earliest Christian books I read was Josh McDowell’s More Than A Carpenter. The book outlines his initial mission to disprove the Bible but it ended up the other way, with him believing and defending it, becoming a preacher and a writer.
Perhaps one of the strongest arguments he uses in that book is the “Lord, Liar or Lunatic” idea (originally from C.S. Lewis) which, in a nutshell, is this: When one looks at the character, deeds and words of Jesus, one cannot simply say that he was a just a great teacher, or a superb human being. Here was a person who heavily implied that he was God — In John 10:30 he says, “I and the Father are one;” In John 8:58 “Before Abraham was born, I am.” — therefore, there are really only three things you can say about him. Either he is who says he is (Lord), he’s not who he says he is (Liar), or that he is deluded or crazy (Lunatic).
McDowell then proceeds to argue that Jesus’ actions and moral uprightness do not show him to be a liar, and that his wisdom in answering arguments do not show him to be crazy. Therefore, one is left with no recourse but to admit that he is Lord.
It took me a long time (around 20 years) to see the flaw in this argument. In hindsight, it was not because it was an airtight argument, although it seems to be, but because I was only too happy to have a logical-sounding argument that reinforced and strengthened my faith.
A few years back, in a discussion board for freethinkers, I advanced the Lord, Liar, Lunatic argument, and someone countered with a simple proposal — a fourth option that I never thought was available — Legend.
Lord, Liar, Lunatic only works IF you take the Gospels as accurate accounts of what Jesus said and did in his lifetime. But once you are open to the idea that not everything in the Gospels can be taken as “gospel truth,” then other options become available especially when one becomes aware of the historical background of that time.
Many pastors and church leaders proclaim the story of Jesus as “unique” and therefore could not have been invented. I swallowed that before but not now that there is overwhelming evidence against it. History is replete with stories and ideas of dying and rising gods — Inanna, Osiris, Zalmoxis, Dionysius, Baal and Marduk, to name a few.
A Sumerian lore called The Descent of Inanna talks about the Queen of Heaven, Inanna, who leaves heaven and descends to the underworld. They believed the underworld or realm of the dead had 7 levels. At each level, she sheds off a piece of her royal vestments so that at the lowest stage, she was naked and no longer recognizable as a goddess.
She was judged before a court and killed and her corpse was “hung on a hook.” But she was resurrected after three days by two “asexual beings” created by another god, Enki. The beings sprinkled her corpse with the “food and water of life” and she was revived.
There are differences, of course, but one can see obvious parallels between this early legend and the story of Jesus, who descends to earth and was not recognized as god. He was tried before a court, the Sanhedrin, and sentenced to die by crucifixion — which is also popularly described as being “hung on a tree.” He was also resurrected after three days and according to the Gospel of Luke (but not the others), there were two angels (who most theologians concur are asexual beings) at the event. The “food and water of life” are also reminiscent of Jesus’ bread and wine — the body and blood of life.
Is it just coincidence that there are similarities in the Inanna story with the Jesus story? I don’t think so, especially since that is not the only story with those kinds of parallels. Many other stories have parallels and we know that people (whether ancient or modern) like to retell and reuse old themes from old stories, giving them a new spin, and so on.
Of course, none of this is conclusive proof that the Jesus story is legend. Probability, after all, does not mean certainty. However, it certainly opens the door a little wider to allow the possibility of it, and I believe there is a strong case to me made for it given the evidence we have.
Originally published in Sunstar Davao.