We have come to our penultimate objection in our positive case for Christ. We began by establishing three facts of history. They are:
1. Jesus of Nazareth died when he was Crucified.
2. There were witnesses who claimed to see Jesus alive after the crucifixion. These witness included those who were friendly to Jesus (such as the twelve), as well as those who were unfriendly to the cause of His messiahship (such as Paul).
3. The tomb was empty after the resurrection appearances.
These conclusions are derived by treating the Scriptures as being historically reliable, something that we have demonstrated in our early articles. After establishing the data we have been addressing the major objections to the positive case for Christ. Our next objection is that the body of Jesus was stolen by the disciples and that the whole resurrection was a fake.
The various claims of grave robbery have gone back to the earliest days of the Church. The Jewish leaders, according to the gospel of Matthew, bribed the Roman guards to say that the body had been stolen. Modern proponents have suggested that the body may have been stolen before the guards arrived (as in the documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus see our E-Pamphlet on this topic), or that the presence of the guards is a later level of tradition. The argument that is then leveled is that Christianity was an intentional hoax from the beginning, as was common in religious movements in the ancient world.
This claim, however, suffers from the usual issues faced by the conspiracy theories. The first is that the claim flies in the face of what the apostles would later be like. The apostles did not deny the resurrection, even on pain of death. Acts tells us that Peter and John were threatened by the Sanhedrin in an attempt prevent them from preaching on Temple grounds, but they refused. James the brother of John, an influential apostle in the early Church, was killed very early in the Church’s history by Herod Agrippa I. Yet, they refused to bow to the pressure. Early accounts from the gospels indicate a level of cowardice that was unbecoming of the apostles (and thus less likely to be faked by a later revisionist). The question then remains, if the gospel was a hoax, then how did the apostles “grow a spine?” Some have argued (as has Simon Jacobovich, of the Lost Tomb of Jesus documentary) that this was because the resurrection was a cover for Jesus brand of Jewish nationalism. Yet, if the core of Jesus message was Jewish nationalism, it is hard to conceive that the Pharisees would be so opposed to Jesus, or supporting his death (it would be far more likely that they would oppose him if they thought he was a Roman collaborator rather than a Jewish nationalist). Nor do the gospels provide support for this supposition, unless one cherry picks the evidence.
Real world conspiracies likewise suffer from the problem of defections. The more conspirators there are, the more likely one will defect when pressure is placed on them – pressure such as being stoned, dragged to prison by men like Saul of Tarshish, or later, persecution by the Roman authorities. As many conspirators as would be necessary to make this case, the lack of defections is a critical failure for the hoax theory.
A second issue also involves the presence of eyewitnesses, as well. There were eyewitnesses that were disinclined to accept Jesus Messiahship. These include James, the brother of Jesus and Paul. The question of the brothers of Jesus is an interesting one, some have argued that they must have been among the early followers of Jesus, and the gospel accounts changed their story later. However, this is unlikely because of the criteria of embarrassment. If someone was making propaganda, they would be unlikely to make up a story that the brothers of Jesus, who grew up with him and knew him for his entire life, would doubt His divinity; someone who was creating a hoax (or perhaps a later historian less concerned with accuracy) would avoid (or gloss over) such details. Therefore, it is unreasonble to assume this is some kind of later insertion; something must have happened to convince James and the brothers of Jesus to overcome their disbelief. If the gospel is initially a hoax, then there is no basis for their conversion.
Additionally, there is the conversion of Paul. As a self-proclaimed persecutor of the Church, Paul would again need to have a reason to believe. His anti-Christian sentiments were so great that he was involved with having Christians executed for their faith, it would be the equivelent of Lenin advocating capitalism. While some have argued that Paul had a hallucination, this would only account for his life to a certain degree (certainly not to the lifetime obsession that Paul had with the gospel). The basis of this claim is that Paul had a deepseated guilt over his actions in persecuting the Church. However, Paul’s own testimony on the point does not corroborate the idea that he felt guilty at the time when he was persecuting the Church.
Additionally, as noted last time, Paul’s sholarship is a fly in the ointment for the reasons noted in our last piece. Paul had some contact with the other apostles throughout his life, and seems to have been aware of the physical evidence; as a trained scholar, he was not critical.
Finally, from the chapter that launched this entire discussion (1 Corinthians 15) there were a few “mass” appearances including one to over 500 people at one time. This would be hard to account for. Paul spent time in Jerusalem, and would certainly have known those who were present if many were still living when he wrote 1 Corinthians. Therefore, either Paul was a part of the hoax (which is unlikely when you consider his history) or he had spoken with these witnesses. It is difficult to account for a hoax of this magnitude without someone telling the governmental powers about the hoax. In short, the theory that the gospel is a hoax fails to carry its own weight.
Conspiracy theoies make exciting fiction, but they are a poor means of understanding history.