Christian belief suffered a serious setback in the first half of the 19th century, when critics like Ludwig Feuerbach and David Friedrich Strauss suggested that the Bible was a story-book like any other – a multi-authored compilation of fact, fiction, folktale and fantasy, a fabrication on a par with the Iliad, the Aeneid or the Niebelungenlied.
In theory the Christians could have turned the challenge back on their assailants: they could have accepted that their holy books were works of myth-making, while affirming that they told the greatest stories in the world. In practice however the case was not so easy to make. You cannot spin much depth of character or narrative suspense from the conviction that Jesus saves and that all manner of things will be well. Even Charles Dickens was baffled. He was a supreme storyteller, and – though he was not much of a Christian – he wanted his children to know “something about the History of Jesus Christ”. In the late 1840s he wrote The Life of Our Lord and recited it to them at Christmas. “No one ever lived,” he began, “who was so good, so kind, so gentle, and so sorry for all people who did wrong.”