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.

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