Is Christianity a fairytale? Can we take seriously stories involving a roving miracle worker who died and came back from the dead? At first glance, Jesus may seem mythical, but we must not rest with our first glance. Some seem to think that any story that is beautiful and transcendent must be made up. But many events that happen in history are beautiful and have transcendent meaning. The way to truth is through patiently investigating the facts. Let’s examine the facts about Christianity and see if it pans out that Jesus was in fact a fairy tale.
1.The documents were well preserved
Could the Gospels, the life stories of Jesus, have been changed later in history to make Jesus look more like a superhero? The answer is: no. The Gospels are well preserved, astoundingly so. There are over 5000 manuscripts of parts of the New Testament that go all the way back to the 2nd century. No other ancient document has that many copies and goes back that far to the original writing. Consequently, ideas of Jesus cannot be said to have changed and made more mythical after the Gospels were written.
The Gospels are well preserved, astoundingly so.
2. The Gospels are not the genre of fairy tale
What about the Gospels’ genre? They fall under the category of ancient biography. This genre does not insist on strict chronological order and tells the most important events in a historical figure’s life, especially his death. An ancient biography is very different than a legend. C.S. Lewis, an expert on mythology, once wrote about the Gospels: “I have been reading poems, romances, vision literature, legends and myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this.” The Gospels do not fit into the category of legend, fable, or fairy tale.
An ancient biography is very different than a legend.
3.The Gospels were written too early to be fairy tales
Most people seem to assume the gospels are unreliable because they were written at such a late time after Jesus. Scholars debate the precise dating of the gospels, whether that be as early as the forties in Mark’s case or whether they may have been later after the 70’s. But whichever dating you go for, the gospels are too early for Jesus’ to become substantially legendary. The historian A.N. Sherwin White wrote an intriguing book, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, where he touches on this subject. He uses the writings of Herodotus to argue that it takes a minimum of two generations, or 70 years, for historical figures to become so legendary that the core historical facts about them are overshadowed. Thus the fairy tale thesis faces another setback.
Whichever dating you go for, the gospels are too early for Jesus’ to become substantially legendary.
4. The Miracles of Jesus do not Mean he is a fairy tale
Viggo Mortensen’s character in the movie Captain Fantastic refers to Jesus as a “magic fairy elf.” Instead of celebrating Christmas, the characters ridiculously venerate Noam Chomsky, the socialist intellectual. So do the miracles of Jesus make him make-believe? The line of reasoning appears to be that everyone knows miracles are made up. The philosopher David Hume circularly argued this long ago. But not so fast. You cannot just assert this idea with no evidence. You have to give good reasons for why miracles cannot or likely did not happen. But Jesus’ miracles do not come out of the blue. They fit the historical context in that there were other Jewish healers around. His miracles are also attested in all four gospels; there are no accounts of a non-miraculous Jesus. Even the Talmud, compiled at a later time period by non-Jesus-friendly Rabbis, admit that he did miracles. Similarly, prolific New Testament scholar, Craig Keener in his book Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Account examines the New Testament miracles along with historical and contemporary evidence for miracles from around the world. He concludes that the miracles of Jesus are credible and best explained as acts of God. Even if you explain them some other way, Jesus’ miracles are one of the best attested things about him.
You have to give good reasons for why miracles cannot or likely did not happen.
5. Do fairy tales have eye-witnesses?
Nobody has ever heard of an eye-witness reporting the story of Hansel and Gretel or the Three Wicked Step-Sisters. But the accounts about Jesus are full of eyewitness testimony. First, there is the evidence of the early church fathers who lived a generation after the Apostles many of whom name Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as the authors of the four Gospels. For example, the Bishop Papias who lived from 75-140 AD explained that Mark wrote his gospel with the help of Peter. The gospel writers were all men who were either eye-witnesses or closely associated with them. Second, the documents themselves show evidence of eye-witnesses within their own narratives. For example, Mark has more information about Peter, who helped him write it, than the other Gospels. All the gospels cite the women as the first to discover the empty tomb. Considering the status of women at the time, this claim would make no sense as a fabrication since their testimony would not hold up in a court of law. Paul also referred to eyewitnesses of the resurrection who numbered around 500 (1 Corinthians 15:6). This would be pointless to argue unless there were indeed eyewitnesses whom his audience could interview. Check out the book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham and Jesus in an Age of Controversy by Douglas Groothuis for more on this.
Considering the status of women at the time, this claim would make no sense as a fabrication since their testimony would not hold up in a court of law.
6. The witnesses did not die for what they believed but what they claimed to have seen.
Most of the Apostles, Jesus’ chosen representatives and leaders of the early church, died for their claims about Jesus being the risen Messiah. It is not uncommon to die for one’s beliefs. Suicide bombers do it, believing that it is right to detonate themselves in the name of Allah. But it is extremely rare to die for a lie or fabrication. The Apostles didn’t die for their beliefs, actually. They died for what they claimed to have seen. Further, men like Peter, James, and Paul frankly do not behave like ones under mass delusion. They do not have the marks of the kind of narcissism, selfishness, and other character flaws that normally accompany insanity. Nothing that we know about them leads us to conclude that they were deceivers. These were people who endured tremendous persecution for their claim that Jesus had risen (Acts 3-4). They preached a message of an executed criminal who rose from the dead, something not relished by the culture of their day. In fact, the Apostles’ claims about the crucified and risen Jesus were foolishness and weakness to 1st century Jewish and Greco-Roman society (1 Corinthians 2). That the early disciples died for what they claimed to see is powerful evidence for the truth of Jesus.
They preached a message of an executed criminal who rose from the dead, something not relished by the culture of their day.
These points are incompatible with the notion that Jesus is a fairy tale. The documents were transmitted accurately. They were written very early and in a historical genre. The miracles of Jesus, far from discounting him, provide evidence for him. And, the witnesses were not only early and credible, but many of them died for their claims that they saw the risen Jesus. The “Christianity is a fairytale” claim is more generalization and distortion than fact. It is ironically much like a fairy tale.