Eddy and Boyd’s defense of the historicity of the Synoptic tradition is essentially a dialogue with a group of scholars who hold to what Eddy and Boyd call the “Jesus legend” thesis. They group in this definition any scholar who holds that the Jesus of the gospels is a “fictional legend” to any degree (13). They argue that most of these scholars come to the gospels with their own presuppositions and allow their presuppositions to rule their decisions. Eddy and Boyd admit their own presuppositions up front, they are largely within the evangelical camp. But they argue that if we follow their model which they call an “open historical-critical model” we will be able to conclude that “the Synoptic portrait of Jesus is quite historically plausible–in fact, that it is the most historically probable representation of the actual Jesus of history” (14).
Eddy and Boyd begin by defending their methodology which they refer to as an “open historical-critical” method. This is their way of reacting against the extreme skepticism that has dominated much of NT studies. They argue that the extreme skepticism of ‘miracles’ or supernatural events is actually a worldview that is limited to Western academia. for, they argue, “present human experience on a global scale is saturated with reported experiences of the supernatural” (67). The extreme critical view which unquestionably denies any possibility of the supernatural has “not been critical enough” (78) for it is not critical of its own presuppositions. Once we move beyond this extreme skepticism, and allow for the possibility of the supernatural we are at a much more appropriate place to study the NT.
In the second chapter the authors examine the often held claim that the high christology of the NT only develops as the early church “syncretistically mixed with Hellenistic philosophical and/or religious ideas” (92). After surveying the options both for and against, Eddy and Boyd find that “there is no compelling reason to suppose that first-century Jews as a whole–including Gallilean Jews–were open to a revision of their basic religious convictions via pagan ideas” (131). They thus conclude that for these changes to have taken place an event would have to occurred that could account for a massive paradigm shift. The authors find the reasons that the NT gives, namely the resurrection of Jesus, the most compelling reason for this shift.
The third chapter examines the phenomenon of parallels to the Jesus story, and asks if these parallels suggest that the Jesus story is “just one among many similar mythological accounts found in the ancient world” (133). The authors survey parallel stories from ancient Near Eastern mythology to the mystery religions to Simon Kimbangu, a twentieth century healer. The authors appeal to C.S. Lewis’ contention that Jesus’ story fulfills the pagan myths.
The next two chapters deal with the other witnesses to Jesus. These are arranged by ch. 4, non-Christian sources, and ch. 5 Jesus material in Paul. In both cases the authors conclude that the sources are not as silent as one thinks, and furthermore, given the given the relative obscurity of the original Jesus movement, the fact that Jesus is known at all from other stories is very telling.
The next section deals with the problem of the Jesus tradition, i.e., the process from the historical events of Jesus life to the written Gospels we possess today. Ch. 6 looks at the levels of literacy in the ancient world and at oral tradition. The authors argue that the Jewish people were relatively unique in the ancient world in their obsession with their writings, thus literacy levels amongst the Jewish population was probably significantly higher than the rest of the world. They then discuss the early oral models of those like Bultmann, and argue that longer oral stories could be accurately transmitted than an older generation of scholars allowed. They then make a case for ‘oral history’ arguing that just because a transmission stage was largely oral does not mean that it was not also largely concerned with history.
Eddy and Boyd then turn to an examination of memory and eyewitness testimony in the oral period of the Jesus tradition. They draw on the work of Byskog, Bauckham and Dunn, among others to show that not only would the early church have had access to the original eyewitnesses, but the gospel consist of the type of events that would have been remembered. Furthermore, they argue, these oral communities would have been very averse to novel additions to their oral tradition, and that this tradition would have been relatively controlled.
The final part of the book now turns to an assessment of the Gospels themselves as historically accurate documents. The first part, ch. 8, asks the question of genre and whether or not the Gospels even mean to be historically accurate. They analyze the various proposals for the genre of the Gospels, and though in the end they argue that they are in some sense s unique genre of “Gospel,” the Gospel writers make use of ancient categories such as biography and historiography and do intend to be reckoned as historical works. In the final chapter, the authors pull together their findings and conclude that the Gospels are historically accurate presentation. They state that, the probability that the Jesus of history is essentially the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels is “Greater than the probability of any competing hypothesis, which leads us, at minimum, to the conclusion that the a posteriori burden of proof should be born by those who claim the Synoptic Gospels are unreliable vis-a-vis their essential representations of Jesus” (453).
While The Jesus Legend is unlikely to convince those who are skeptical in the first place it is a first rate presentation of the historical reliability of the Gospels. They are certainly asking the right questions. For those who want answers to the difficult questions of the skeptics of the Gospels this book provides them. It is a great resource for anyone either concerned about the historicity of the Gospels or curious about the conservative position. For myself I find many of their arguments convincing and they certainly prove that the skeptics should not be so sure in their “consensus” as many of them claim. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the historical Jesus.