The first hypothesis I will consider is this: The origin of the Resurrection Story was the apostles and early disciples, by deception, delusion or exaggeration, or some combination of these. In this hypothesis I will assume Jesus existed, and that he had apostles and disciples in the first place.
Now, we know the names of the original twelve apostles whom Jesus chose. They are listed in three of the four gospels. With the exception of Judas, who betrayed Jesus and then committed suicide, they claimed to be eyewitnesses of Jesus after he was raised from the dead. Furthermore, in the Resurrection Story, several women are also named as eyewitnesses, including Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Joanna the wife of Chuza who was Herod’s steward, and Salome.
If they were making up the story, they would need to stick with it throughout their entire life, because the religious leaders would no doubt have paid good money for any of them to later admit their fabrication. Judas had betrayed Jesus for a mere thirty pieces of silver. Once the Christian message took off, the apostles and the women who claimed to be eyewitnesses could have asked for a much higher price to expose the real truth behind the Resurrection Story.
Now, an alternative story is actually reported on in the gospel of Matthew. According to this gospel, the version put out by the religious leaders was that Jesus’ disciples had stolen his body in the night; and this story came to be spread among the Jews.1
If this is what really happened, deception would clearly be involved on the part of at least some disciples, and it would fit nicely with my first hypothesis. Of course, skeptics will hopefully also be skeptical of the claim by the religious authorities, and ask, “where’s your proof?” There doesn’t actually seem to be any. But for now, let’s assume the claim is true – because why else would the tomb be open and Jesus’ body be missing, on the very day Jesus was supposed to have been raised from the dead?
Roman soldiers had been posted to guard the tomb. They might have been asleep, but the penalty for falling asleep on the job was death. Besides, the disciples needed to roll away the stone and take out Jesus’ body while leaving the linen cloths that had covered it. I suppose they might have done this without waking the guards, but I doubt it. Then again, maybe the guards were drunk, but this would no doubt have carried a high penalty too.
More likely, if we are going to buy into the version told by the religious authorities, the disciples must have somehow overpowered the soldiers and then taken away Jesus’ body, or maybe the guards were bribed to look the other way.
Whatever the case, in order for Jesus to appear to have been raised, the soldiers would have to stop guarding the tomb for some reason, the stone would have to be taken away from the entrance, and Jesus’ body would have to be removed and never found again. After all, if his body was still lying in the tomb, the Resurrection Story could not have even got started, at least in the time of the disciples and apostles, which is the hypothesis we are investigating at the moment.
The thieves left the cloths Jesus was wrapped in lying on the floor. I presume these would be useful to confirm it was the tomb of Jesus, and also to add an element of credibility to the idea that he had been raised. In other words, this wasn’t a random theft. It was a deliberate deception. For now I will assume the disciples of Jesus did this, or at least a subset of them.
According to the story, certain women from Galilee, also disciples of Jesus, were said to have visited the tomb on the morning of the third day, found that his body had gone, and claimed they had seen angels telling them Jesus was alive. Of course, if Jesus’ body had secretly been taken away by other disciples, then these women were either deluded, deceived somehow by the thieves of Jesus’ body, or part of the conspiracy. If they were fellow conspirators, they would need to be paid well, as I said earlier, because they would no doubt be questioned about these things for the rest of their lives, both by believers and skeptics. If ever any of them admitted their story was false, the Resurrection Story would break down. And if they were delusions, they would have to maintain the conviction that they had seen the risen Christ, for the rest of their lives.
The apostles were also said to have seen Jesus appear to them in a locked room, along with further appearances over a period of forty days, during which he supposedly taught them about the Kingdom of God. Again, if certain disciples had secretly taken Jesus’ body away, then the apostles were clearly either deceived or deluded as well, or they were part of the conspiracy.
Whatever the case, the apostles were the leaders of the early Christian movement. If we accept the basic reality of Jesus and the apostles, they had been specially selected by Jesus. Therefore, if my first hypothesis is true, that the apostles and early disciples were the source of the Resurrection Story through some combination of deception, delusion and exaggeration, they would be the ones to spread the story far and wide.
If they were deluded, it’s highly unlikely that all of their delusions would have perfectly corroborated one another, so some sort of collusion would have been necessary in order to ensure the stories were consistent, assuming the apostles themselves weren’t aware that Jesus’ body had actually been stolen. If they knew about it, this plainly makes them co-conspirators.
In other words, assuming my first hypothesis is true, an official Resurrection Story must have been agreed upon almost from the beginning, and the apostles must have sanctioned it, in order for it to have any plausibility in winning converts. Once the story reached the ears of the wider public, if one disciple was saying one thing and another was saying something else, opponents could quickly seize upon this as proof that Christians were deluded or making it up as they went along. This is why I call it the “Apostle Conspiracy.” If true, the apostles were the ringleaders and must have conspired to make the story palatable to the outside world.
Furthermore, the conspiracy must have been quite large, because according to the book of Acts, 120 people were present as they cast lots over a replacement for Judas Iscariot. The qualification was that the new apostle needed to be an eyewitness to both Jesus’ ministry and his resurrection. But if the Resurrection Story was some kind of conspiracy, then the new apostle, and likely many of those who were present to elect him, must have been co-conspirators in some way.
Jesus had taught his disciples that their words were of supreme importance: “The good man, out of the good treasure of the heart, brings forth good things; and the wicked man, out of the wicked treasure, brings forth wicked things. But I say to you that every idle declaration that men speak, they will render an account about it in the day of judgment. For out of your words you will be declared righteous, and out of your words you will be condemned.” 2
If the apostles knew their story was false or substantially embellished, then their purpose in life became to spread a deceptive message to the entire world, and to die for it, while considering themselves to be apostles and disciples of a man who taught them to be perfect, to avoid hypocrisy, to let their yes mean yes and their no mean no, and that by their words they would be judged. In other words, they were apostles of a man who would be utterly against such deceit.
But “ah!” says the skeptic. “Perhaps they also fabricated their holy man’s holiness. That would certainly make their conspiracy harder to detect. The more perfect their Master appeared to be, the less likely his disciples and apostles could possibly lie, at least in the eyes of those being fooled by their deception.”
Yes, it is sadly true that some people seem to be capable of going to great lengths to deceive their fellow men and women, and even themselves. And people do indeed die for causes they passionately believe in, even if they themselves are deluded. But even so, who would die for a teacher whose teachings they themselves had knowingly altered, and whose resurrection they themselves had fabricated?
After all, if Jesus didn’t tell them beforehand that he would die and rise again on the third day, the disciples would have to invent those sayings to reflect their story. And not only the apostles, but all the accompanying women and other disciples, and the mother of Jesus, would have to go along with the deception, since many of them had accompanied Jesus from Galilee. And if Jesus did actually foretell his own death and resurrection on the third day, but the apostles and disciples fabricated the Resurrection Story, they would be knowingly preaching about and dying for a Jesus who could only come back from the grave by the invention of a lie.
This is why, if the Apostle Conspiracy hypothesis is true, it is arguably more plausible to think that the apostles were fooled by the stolen body. Furthermore, according to the Resurrection Story we have today, it wasn’t merely the disappearance of Jesus’ body from the tomb that moved the apostles and disciples to boldly preach the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus is reported to have appeared to them multiple times, and proved his identity to them.
According to the accounts, these were no mere fleeting apparitions or occasional voices. Luke begins his second book, the Acts of Apostles, in this way: “The first account, O Theophilus, I made, about all of the things Jesus began both to do and to teach, until the day he was taken up, directing the apostles whom he had chosen through the Holy Spirit, and to whom he presented himself alive through many signs, after he had suffered. During forty days he was seen by them, and speaking the things about the kingdom of God. And being gathered with them, he charged them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to ‘wait for the promise of the Father, which you have heard from me. For John indeed baptized with water, but you will be baptized in Holy Spirit not many days after this.’” 3
The apostles were even having theological conversations with the resurrected Jesus, based on their understanding at the time. For example, they asked him whether he was restoring the kingdom to Israel at that time, which kingdom had been taken away by the Romans who appointed their kings.
Jesus is reported to have replied: “It is not for you to know the times or seasons, which the Father has placed in his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be witnesses of me both in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 4 In other words, it seems Jesus was telling them that God’s time for restoring the kingdom of Israel was none of their business. His disciples had a more important job to focus on.
Finally, Jesus was lifted up from the Mount of Olives, and a cloud caught him up from their sight. Luke writes that there were already 120 disciples in those early days. A little later, on the day of Pentecost, they were together in the same place, when the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they began speaking in the native tongues of people from all across the Earth who were staying in Jerusalem. According to the account, on that day about 3,000 people were baptized, and signs and wonders began to occur through the apostles.5
Now, nobody today can prove these things happened. I will address Luke’s reliability later on. But if they were simply made up, it would surely be easy for early opponents of the Christian message to point out these fabrications, especially once the stories were committed to writing. On the other hand, if events happened as Luke said they did, this would explain the explosive growth of the Christian faith, and why its early opponents couldn’t have the same skepticism that skeptics have a few thousand years later.
Luke’s second book, the Acts of Apostles, is full of characters that could either corroborate or refute his version of events. For example, the story of the first conversion of Gentiles is quite elaborate and detailed. It involved the friends and family of a centurion in Caesarea named Cornelius, as well as the apostle Peter and his associates.
According to the story, Cornelius was instructed by an angel to send for Peter who was in Joppa at the time; and Peter was instructed by the Holy Spirit to go with the three men Cornelius had sent. Cornelius gathered his relatives and friends to hear Peter, and some of the disciples from Joppa went with Peter. After Cornelius explained what had happened to him, Peter said: “Truthfully I perceive that God is not partial, but in every nation the one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
While he was talking about Jesus’ resurrection to Cornelius and his family, the Holy Spirit came upon the hearers, and they began speaking in tongues and praising God. Those who came with Peter were amazed, because Gentiles had received the Holy Spirit as well.6
Now, if these things were embellished by either Luke or Peter, any of the people involved could have spoken out, to provide testimony against Christians. Alternatively, both Cornelius and his family and friends, and Peter and his associates, would need to be in on the conspiracy to fabricate the continuing story of Jesus.
But maybe these stories were made up much later by the writer of Acts, so none of these characters were around to answer back. I will discuss the dating of the Acts of Apostles a little later. However, some kind of Gentile conversion story needed to have been fabricated early in Christian history, to support the widespread conversion of Gentiles to the Christian faith. Without such a story, it would have been much harder preaching about the Jewish man Jesus to people who weren’t circumcised. And if Cornelius and his family didn’t exist, or the event didn’t happen as the story said it did, this would be yet more ammunition for early opponents.
Now, let me summarize what I have deduced so far. My first hypothesis is called the Apostle Conspiracy, which says that the apostles and early disciples were the source of the Resurrection Story, through some combination of deception, delusion and exaggeration.
If this is true, some of the disciples would have probably needed to bribe or overpower the soldiers, in order to roll the stone from the tomb and steal Jesus’ body, leaving the linen cloths that covered his body to create the impression that Jesus was resurrected. This would be deception, plain and simple. The big question is whether the apostles, the leaders of the early Christian movement and therefore the spearhead of the Resurrection Story, were part of this conspiracy. If they were, this would make them outright liars and deceivers.
But if they didn’t know other disciples had stolen Jesus’ body, they would still need to have ensured their own delusions about Jesus appearing to them, and the delusions, deceptions or exaggerations about angels appearing to the women, all harmonized enough to become a consistent Resurrection Story believable to outsiders.
Furthermore, if Luke’s account in Acts is accurate, 120 disciples of Jesus were present to vote on a replacement for Judas Iscariot, with the requirement that the new apostle become a witness to Jesus’ ministry and resurrection, suggesting quite a large number of disciples had already bought into the Resurrection Story or may have been co-conspirators in fabricating it.
I will return to this first hypothesis later on, to see how it holds up in the face of further evidence such as the reliability of Luke. However, the majority of scholars and skeptics think the Resurrection Story was a later embellishment anyway – so for the moment, I will leave my investigation of this first hypothesis open, and move on to consider the second hypothesis. Could the apostle Paul and his associates be the real culprits?
1 Matthew 28:11-15. 2 Matthew 12:35-37. 3 Acts 1:1-5. 4 Acts 1:7,8. 5 Acts 1:9-11; 2:1-43. 6 The conversion of Cornelius is told in Acts chapter 10.
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