Conspiracy theories about Christianity: #1: Did Jesus exist in history?

When we speak or write about Jesus, Christians frequently are confronted by statements intended to disprove Christianity. Often these statements come from sincere unbelievers, although sometimes they are deliberate distortions of the truth. While we are unlikely to convert anyone to Christianity by reason alone—faith is a gift of God that dwells in the heart, not a set of propositions that dwell in the head—it is helpful to have an answer to those who question what we believe. It is particularly helpful for believers to be assured that many of the challenges to our faith come from misunderstandings and distortions. Therefore, this week I plan to address seven objections to Christianity that could be described as conspiracy theories about the Church and its teachings.

Today’s conspiracy theory is the challenge that Jesus of Nazareth never existed—that he is an invention of the Church. Few people actually believe that Jesus never existed, and almost none of the people who make that claim are professional historians. But rather than argue from the basis of majority opinion, it helps to have additional proof of the historical existence of Jesus.

The few who say that Jesus never existed support their belief by saying that there is no written account of Jesus from the first century other than those written by Christians. The idea that the written accounts of Christians cannot be trusted to tell the truth about Jesus is unsound—it would be as if citizens of the United States were disqualified to write biographies of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. The collection of writings by Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, James, and Jude is in fact very strong evidence of the existence of the man they describe, Jesus of Nazareth, whom they call the Christ.

A Jewish historian who lived and wrote in the first century knew about Christians and was not a Christian. Flavius Josephus mentions Jesus in his history of Judaism. Some people believe that the surviving copies of Josephus’ work were edited by Christians to include favorable mention of Jesus. Such forgery cannot be disproved, but the demonstration becomes a circular argument: there are no nonChristian references to Jesus from the first century; Josephus wrote in the first century and mentioned Jesus; therefore Josephus’ book must have been altered by Christians. Roman historian Tacitus also makes a passing reference to the Christ worshiped by Christians, and the Mishnah—part of the Jewish Talmud, definitely not a Christian writing—also speaks of Jesus as a historical figure, one it seeks to undermine rather than support, but one that certainly is considered to have existed. Pliny, another Roman historian of the early second century, briefly describes Christians and Christ in a letter to the Emperor Trajan, asking what he should do about them. Trajan’s response was essentially, “Don’t ask; don’t tell”—in other words, don’t go looking for Christians, but if they make their presence known they must be punished for denying the other gods.

The strongest evidence of the existence of Jesus is not written evidence per se but is instead the very existence of the Church. True, the Romans were fascinated by exotic religions, and Christ could be compared to the Persian god Mithra or the Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris in being adopted by the Romans. But there are important differences. First, Christianity emerged out of Judaism, a religion most Romans ignored or mocked because of its firm monotheism. Second, Romans added Mithra and the others to the pantheon of gods without denying any of the other gods, something Christians refused to do. Third, Christ Jesus is firmly tied to historical figures such as Caesar Augustus, Pontius Pilate, and the high priest Caiaphas, rather than being pictured as part of the distant and shadowy past. Fourth, the details of what happened to Jesus should have been highly embarrassing to Christians—that he was rejected by the religious leaders of his own people and was crucified by the Roman authorities. Likewise, his first followers are far from heroic, as in the legends of most religions. Peter, Paul, and the others are fallible humans who often fall short and are not to be imitated as paragons of virtue.

The willingness of the first generation of Christians to face martyrdom for their teachings is unthinkable if Jesus never existed. The willingness of thousands of people to join his movement in such a short time could have been countered if the authorities were able to demonstrate that no Jesus of Nazareth was ever sentenced to be crucified in Jerusalem. The dramatic change that the teachings about Christ produced in first century people from Spain to India strongly supports a historic Jesus rather than a legend. And the fact that hundreds of millions of people still know him today, while unconvincing to a skeptic, must surely reassure believers that the Jesus they know must be the historic Jesus of Nazareth. J.

12 thoughts on “Conspiracy theories about Christianity: #1: Did Jesus exist in history?

  1. “faith is a gift of God that dwells in the heart, not a set of propositions that dwell in the head.”

    The faithful of all the world’s religions echo exactly the same sentiments.

    Jesus as a man will have existed however as the man depicted in the Bible it is only mythical. It cannot be possible that the Biblical account is accurate when it was written decades after the so called events. Myths and stories were the dominant entertainment of the day, the children would pass on the stories for years into adulthood that were handed down from many sources, some stories may have been written at some time or another if ever a rarely educated person was either commissioned or decided to do so, however they could only go on what they were told.

    Many examples of historic figures are inaccurate and developed by mixing speculation, mythical events and possibly some facts but quite often written well after the events have supposed to have taken place, such as Robin Hood, Dick Whittington, King Arthur, Joan of Arc, Pythagoras, Lycurgus and even Billy the Kid etc. Some of them existed before Jesus and many well after Jesus.

    What started as facts are handed down through generations and become diluted facts and this leads to elements of imagination because this is what ancient people did, it is what they were good at, these stories may have been news, their entertainment and maybe added to a pitcher of wine their excitement was rolled into one, and one thing for sure if you read the news this generation of humans are still at it.

    If the characters were hyped into persons of amazing or magical abilities that was only a natural outcome considering the many stories from historic origins that involve various imaginative creatures. Where do you think dragons, trolls, leprechauns, fairies, the Griffin, the Blemmyae who were headless men, a talking snake and donkey and hundreds of other creatures came from?

    The fact that the Bible is always embroiled in controversy, interpretation, fraud and understanding is enough to make one’s eyes roll; therefore anyone can believe whatever they like about Jesus, just as all the other heroes and deities that have been written about over many centuries because there literally is no real evidence for any of them.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent words my friend.
    And you are so right…most folk’s hearts will not be changed by mere deduction— for the change of heart must come from a much deeper place.

    I am reminded of a time when I was in high school.
    I liked a boy who was a senior at the time when I was a junior.
    He was a nice looking young man and very very smart.
    I liked him a great deal and our friendship was budding so I invited him to attend Young Life with me. Young life being a nondenominational Christian youth group scattered across the country.
    I loved our Young Life chapter and I thought this young man would tagging along with me–little did I realize my friend was a non-believer.
    He was so smart and was set to attend Harvard on scholarship the following year yet it never dawned on me he didn’t believe. Being young I just figured all my friends who were not Jewish were Believers…ode to my youthful naivete.
    He claimed the existence of Jesus was something that could not exactly be proven and the Bible was a book of fables.

    But when he went to our weekly bible study, he was challenged by our youth leader.
    An equally smart man.

    I can remember my friend then tackling the challenge like one would a term paper.
    He wrote note cards, he created outlines, he studied, he poured over books and he pondered, deeply.

    But in the end, he actually did came to know Jesus—yet it was not because of studying, arguing or analyzing…it was because like Paul—God provided my friend with his road to Damascus moment. A moment that so many of us hard-headed humans must have in order to fall on our knees.

    Thank you for jarring my memory 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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