We were recently sent another question from listener:
Lewis’ argument is that he states about Jesus: “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the devil of hell.” I love the quote. However, what if Jesus were simply misunderstood or mis-quoted? The Gospels were written long after his death and we know that there are at least a few historical in accuracies in the story. Isn’t it at least plausible that he didn’t say the things that he was quoted as saying? If so, does Lewis or any other Christian writer addressed this?
People often raise this objection, but reviewing the text carefully we see that Lewis isn't trying to offer an all-encompassing argument for Jesus' existence, claims, and divinity. Rather, Lewis is speaking to those who take the New Testament documents at face-value, but then somehow misunderstand it and conclude that Jesus was "just a moral teacher". Lewis' argument in this section is that if we take the text at face-value, we absolutely cannot reach that conclusion.
Lewis had thought a lot about the veracity of the New Testament documents. In his spiritual autobiography, Surprised By Joy, he wrote the following:
Early in 1926 the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew sat in my room on the other side of the fire and remarked that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was really surprisingly good. "Rum thing," he went on. "All that stuff of Frazer's about the Dying God. Rum thing. It almost looks as if it had really happened once." To understand the shattering impact of it, you would need to know the man (who has certainly never since shown any interest in Christianity). If he, the cynic of cynics, the toughest of the toughs, were not--as I would still have put it--"safe", where could I turn? Was there then no escape?
Regarding the points you raise, I have two thoughts...
Firstly, I think it's hard to argue that the greatest moral teacher in history was ALSO a terrible teacher, so much so that those who lived with Him for at least three years ACCIDENTALLY thought he was God. That's quite a misapprehension for a monotheistic Jew to make!
Secondly, the Gospels aren't actually written long after Jesus' death. They're still well within living memory. There would have been plenty of opportunity for the Church's enemies to argue that Jesus never even made such claims.
It's important to note that the Gospels make clear use of eye-witness testimony. Folks today can write really good biographies of folks who are long dead, such as Abraham Lincoln, if they have good sources.
It's also worth remembering that Christianity didn't begin when the Gospels were first written, but at the oral preaching of the Apostles, which began right after Christ's death. Not only that, long before we have the writing of the Gospels we have the epistles of Apostles, and in several epistles of Paul he quotes creeds and songs which date from within only a handful of years after the Ascension.
Plenty of other apologists have added a fourth option to Lewis' Trilemma which ultimately calls into question the veracity of the New Testament testimony and they then give reasons why we should trust the New Testament. Former guest of the show, Matt Nelson wrote a great response to this objection. For those who would like to dive more deeply into this issue, a guest of the show, Fr. Brian McGreevy, recommends Can We Trust The Gospels? by Peter Williams.