That a few simple men should in one generation have invented so powerful and appealing a personality, so lofty an ethic, and so inspiring a vision of human brotherhood, would be a miracle far more incredible than any recorded in the Gospels. After two centuries of Higher Criticism the outlines of life, character, and teaching of Christ remain reasonably clear, and constitute the most fascinating feature in the history of Western man.
I think one of the proofs of the Faith is that if the Gospels are fictitious, it is the most remarkable of fiction. Out of a rather brutal and coarse culture comes a story so sensitive, with such an insight into human nature, with so many allusions and interwoven symbols, with such drama and such lucid dialogue and surprising character development that there’s no explanation for it.
Even as fiction the Gospels are miraculous.
We don’t have fiction this complex and developed before the Gospels, and we don’t get anything close to them until Shakespeare, 1600 years later – and the atmosphere of his writing is directly inspired by these same Gospels. The Gospels make even the Old Testament look amateurish by comparison, as well as by comparison the modern “realistic” novels and problem plays seem hollow and fake.
So there is an argument for the truth of the Faith that is purely one of literary criticism, and it is a very strong argument.
As a literary historian, I am perfectly convinced that whatever else the Gospels are they are not legends. I have read a great deal of legend and I am quite clear that they are not the same sort of thing. They are not artistic enough to be legends. From an imaginative point of view they are clumsy, they don’t work up to things properly. Most of the life of Jesus is totally unknown to us, as is the life of anyone else who lived at that time, and no people building up a legend would allow that to be so.
Can the person whose history the Gospels relate be himself a man? What affecting goodness in his instructions! What sublimity in his maxims! What profound wisdom in his discourses! What presence of mind, what ingenuity of justice in his replies! Yes, if the life and death of Socrates are those of a philosopher, the life and death of Jesus are those of a God.
–Jean-Jacques Rousseau, French philosopher (1712-1778)