Now, although most scholars accept that Jesus was a real person, a small minority argue he didn’t exist at all, but that Christianity began as a belief in some entirely heavenly being, and that Jesus the man was invented later.
The idea goes something like this: The early Church existed as a small Jewish sect that believed in some kind of Heavenly Christ, a heavenly being who somehow provided salvation from our sins. Paul claimed he encountered the Heavenly Christ, and he spread this belief far and wide. In the early stages of the movement, none of the believers had any concept of a human Christ. The numerous references to or suggestions of an earthly Christ in Paul’s letters are metaphorical, or alterations made by later Christians.
Then, probably some time after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD, one of those believers, let’s call him Mark for the sake of argument, invented the gospel of Jesus. Its purpose was to honor the Heavenly Christ. It wasn’t meant to be taken literally, but it drew on Old Testament figures such as Elijah and Elisha as models, and also ideas from the prophets, such as the Suffering Servant in Isaiah. Jesus’ teachings were actually based on those of Paul as found in his letters. Mark’s gospel was later taken literally by some Christians, and once the idea of a human Christ had taken root in a certain faction of the Church, other derivative works such as Matthew, Luke and John quickly followed. The Church we know today is the one where this version of the Christ story won out.
I will call this the “Heavenly Christ Conspiracy” hypothesis. Part of the reason why this is a minority view among scholars, is because there is no direct evidence for it, and in some instances it even contradicts the evidence we have. For example, there is no evidence Paul’s letters were initially only about a Heavenly Christ, and that later Christians changed them. Nevertheless, it is common for people who dislike or disagree with Paul to assert that the parts they don’t like must have been later edits or insertions, even if there is no actual evidence for this.
On the other hand, it is certainly true that some of Jesus’ miracles, and the stories behind them, are similar to those reportedly done by the prophets Elijah and Elisha. According to the stories in the Old Testament, Elijah was supplied food by God, and Jesus claimed he had a secret food source. Elijah went on a journey for 40 days and 40 nights, and Jesus also spent 40 days in the wilderness. Elijah resurrected a child, and so did Jesus. Elijah declared a famine which lasted for three and a half years, and Jesus’ ministry lasted about as long. Elijah was persecuted by Jezebel the queen, who wanted to put him to death. Jesus was persecuted by the rulers in his day, who according to the gospels, actually did have him put to death. Elijah was taken up into the sky in a whirlwind, and Jesus went up in a cloud. Elisha also did miracles similar to Jesus, such as feeding 100 men from 20 loaves, with leftovers.
But there are also substantial differences between the lives of Elijah and Elisha, and the life of Jesus. To the Christian, the similarities are meant to demonstrate that Jesus was a prophet at least as powerful as Elijah and Elisha, and under similar hostile circumstances. However, to the skeptic who believes in the Heavenly Christ idea, the stories of Jesus are fictional, but they aren’t random. They are based on the earlier Biblical stories and prophecies as a template. This is how the Suffering Servant “prophecy” of Isaiah and all the other “prophecies” can be fulfilled – Mark wrote their fulfillment into the very fabric of his story!
Now, let’s consider how plausible this Heavenly Christ idea is. For the sake of argument, let’s assume there was a sect of Judaism that believed in a Heavenly Christ but not a human one, and that Paul became part of it and also taught this idea. We will focus our attention primarily on the claim that Mark, some time after the downfall of Jerusalem in 70AD, created his fictional gospel as a way of honoring the Heavenly Christ.
It’s curious that Mark, writing allegorically about a Heavenly Christ, would model this being after human figures such as Elijah and Elisha. Even the Suffering Servant of Isaiah is portrayed as a man who poured out his soul to death, and was given a tomb with the wicked, even though he did no wrong. This doesn’t sound like a Heavenly Christ. How can an entity in heaven be given a tomb?
If the early Church really did believe that Christ was exclusively a heavenly being, then Mark’s gospel would have been heresy of the highest order. Even if Mark had good intentions, and even supposing he meant it to be read as an allegory, he had converted their divine being into a mere man, and had modeled him on human prophets. How could this not be considered a form of blasphemy to them?
Besides, how is the reader supposed to take his gospel as an allegory? It presents Jesus as a man who walked along the Sea of Galilee, gathered specifically named human apostles, preached in the synagogues on the Sabbath, went into Capernaum, and his mother and brothers came to see him; and this is just in the first few chapters of Mark’s gospel, well before we get to Jesus’ trial and execution.
Even if Mark’s inner circle somehow understood that it was meant as an allegory or fiction intended somehow to honor their Heavenly Christ, Mark clearly presented Jesus as a man, and this would have been utterly blasphemous and heretical to the supposed Heavenly Christ believers.
If the hypothesis is correct, and Paul’s letters, in their original form, taught only a Heavenly Christ, then the Church would have surely expelled Mark for presenting their divine being as human. Even if Mark had good intentions, once his gospel began to be circulated, the Church would surely have opposed it; and given how vocal later Christians were against heretical ideas, surely there would be some evidence for such opposition.
Instead, according to the Heavenly Christ hypothesis, within a generation or so, Mark’s story went from being a fictional account and a blasphemous heresy, to literally being gospel, with Matthew, Luke and John adding to the fiction, and their gospels also being blindly accepted, and Paul’s letters having been successfully rewritten to reflect this new reality.
Indeed, Luke, who in this hypothesis would have depended entirely on Mark’s gospel, must have added new fictional stories to his own gospel, because if Mark’s account was fiction, then Luke couldn’t possibly have spoken to any eyewitnesses – there were none! Therefore, he must have made them up, and his statement that he “followed all things accurately from the start” is a blatant lie, because there was nothing to follow other than Mark’s fiction. Luke must have also fabricated many of the stories in the book of Acts, and the speeches of the apostles that clearly teach Jesus as having been a man.
Similarly, parts of Matthew and a large part of John must also have been made up. Even John’s insistence that he was an eyewitness to many of those things must have been the product of a lying mind.
Yet within a generation, the Church supposedly went from believing in a Heavenly Christ, to accepting almost universally the gospels of these liars and deceivers – for that is what they are, if the proposed hypothesis is true – with almost no questions asked. Within the same time frame, the conspirators must have also succeeded in completely rewriting Paul’s words, leaving no trace of the original letters, and with not a word of opposition to any of this.
Now, in Mark’s alleged fiction, who are the twelve apostles? Who are characters such as Mary Magdalene, Salome, and Mary the mother of James? Are they also fictional, or are they meant to be flattering portrayals of leaders and prominent figures in the early Church? Maybe they were Mark’s friends!
Either way, the twelve apostles certainly need some explaining, because they are recurring characters in the gospels, the book of Acts, the letters of Paul, the letters of Peter, James, John and Jude, and in later Church writings and tradition.
If the apostles are pure fiction, then the early Church would have no evidence of their existence; and yet, within a generation, the authority of these fictional characters would be unquestionably accepted. Furthermore, traditions about the manner of their life and death would also have to be invented, and Gnostic groups were creating their own gospels using the names of these fictional men.
But perhaps some of the apostles, such as Peter, were real leaders of the early Church that believed in a Heavenly Christ, and Mark wrote them into his story of the human Jesus. Peter’s real name was Cephas. We can only speculate about what Cephas might have thought about his “Peter” character denying Jesus three times, or showing such a lack of understanding at times.
If some of the real leaders of the Church were written into the gospel stories, then almost certainly the leaders that succeeded them would have known the gospels were fabrications, and would have either condemned them as blasphemous heresies, or else they would have been accomplices in the conspiracy to create a coherent fiction about their Heavenly Christ somehow becoming a man.
Indeed, I believe the word “conspiracy” is even more suited to this particular hypothesis than to the previous ones. Even if we accept the idea, which is a weak premise anyway, that Mark didn’t intend to deceive, but merely wanted to write an allegory of the Heavenly Christ which he didn’t expect anyone to take literally, what excuse do Matthew and Luke have, when they give Jesus a human chronology, or when Luke claims to have followed all things accurately from the start, or when John claims to have been an eyewitness to many of the things he wrote about?
Besides, the gospels often draw attention to something Jesus said or did, or something that happened to him, which the writer claims was the fulfillment of a prophecy. But how can it be a fulfillment of anything, if the human Jesus didn’t even exist, but was a fictional character that came out of Mark’s head? In this case, it is not sufficient to say the writers were merely deluded. They were intentionally deceiving their readers.
If the Heavenly Christ hypothesis is true, at least three of the four gospel writers must be liars, and I would suggest they likely worked together, to ensure the gospels were harmonious enough to fool the average believer. Furthermore, they must have worked in a conspiracy with the leaders of the Church, to rewrite the letters of Paul, and to make sure the book of Acts told their version of the Christian story.
Some of the supposed changes to Paul’s letters would also need to be blatant lies. For example, take the simple creed we find in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, that said Jesus died, was buried, rose on the third day, appeared to Cephas and the apostles, and then to more than five hundred brothers at one time, some of whom were still alive.
This would have to be a drastic edit, since Paul wouldn’t have said this if he only believed in a Heavenly Christ. Indeed, the whole fifteenth chapter of his letter would have to be substantially rewritten, because it concerns the resurrection of the dead, of which, according to Paul, Christ’s resurrection was the foremost.
But what would members of the Christian congregations think about the sudden, dramatic change in the wording of these letters, of whole new chapters suddenly appearing, or the sudden appearance of gospels saying that their Heavenly Christ had actually been a man, had died and been raised again, and that he had twelve apostles who were eyewitnesses of those things, even though nobody had ever heard of them a generation before? At best, it would surely have created a deep division, and more likely a complete split. After all, Paul’s letters must have been held in high enough regard that the leaders of this alleged conspiracy felt the need to substantially revise them in the first place.
And what about other Christian traditions? For example, in the same letter to the Corinthians, Paul makes reference to the tradition of eating bread and drinking wine meaning Christ’s body and blood. This concept is also found in the gospels.
If this was an invention of Mark, and then later added to Paul’s letter and copied into the other gospels, at what point would the Church have suddenly taken up this tradition? After all, they wouldn’t have needed it if they believed Jesus was a heavenly being, so how could the conspirators claim it was a tradition, if no Christians did it until the updated letters of Paul appeared? It would be an obvious lie!
It is highly implausible that all of these dramatic changes would have been accepted by Christians without a major contest. But where is the evidence of this battle in history? We know that the phrase “history is written by the winners” is generally true. Even so, the losers usually leave some trace of their defeat in the pages of history. Even if the winners attempt to erase the evidence altogether, some traces usually remain in unexpected places.
The real Church often preserved the evidence and teachings of its opponents, in the many words early Christians wrote against them to defend their orthodox position. Yet we have nothing like this in the alleged switch from believing in a purely divine Christ, to one where he came as a man in the flesh.
Now, there is plenty of evidence to suggest rival groups emerged later on, that believed some parts of the Christian story but included their own ideas. For example, Marcion is quite a well-known figure in Christian history, who lived within a few generations of Jesus and the apostles. He believed that the God of the Old Testament could not have been the loving Heavenly Father that Jesus talked about.
As a result, just over a century after Jesus’ death, Marcion created the first “canon” or list of accepted writings – at least, accepted by him. He made a version of Luke’s gospel that agreed with his own views. His canon also included some of Paul’s letters, but edited to remove any references to the God of the Old Testament.
Even though “history is written by the winners,” and clearly Marcion’s view didn’t prevail, his part in history was hardly written out by the Church. Although he was expelled from it, early Christians wrote so many words about him, usually in defense of their own orthodox views, that we probably know more about Marcion than we do about the apostle Peter!
Yet the Heavenly Christ hypothesis asks us to accept that, when the Christian Church supposedly went from believing in a Heavenly Christ to a man who walked in Judea, it was completely silent, with no evidence that the change even happened.
However, perhaps one of the strongest lines of evidence against this hypothesis is the position of Judaism and Jewish rabbis regarding the Christian story as it became widespread.
Let’s suppose early Christians merely believed in some kind of Heavenly Christ. This may have seemed odd to religious Jews, since there was no real basis for such a being from their scriptures. At the same time, they might not have opposed it vigorously, since it was just another obscure idea in a world filled with strange ideas and beliefs. After all, the sect of the Pharisees believed in angels, but the Sadducees did not, and yet both groups managed to get along reasonably well, or at least to tolerate one another.
However, once Mark had created his fictional Jesus, and somehow Christians, who had previously believed only in a Heavenly Christ, now accepted Mark’s fiction as gospel, things would have been very different for Jewish leaders.
Mark portrays Jesus as being the fulfillment of Jewish prophecies relating to their anointed one, and also the Son of God. In other words, if the Heavenly Christ hypothesis is true, not only would Mark’s gospel be heretical to the early Christians, it would also be grossly misleading to Jews, and blasphemous to the Jewish religious leaders, which the gospel goes out of its way to antagonize, because according to Mark’s story, it was the religious leaders who handed Jesus over to the Romans for claiming to be the Son of God.
Clearly then, once Mark’s story became widely believed by Christians, this new form of Christianity would be a direct threat to Judaism, since it was teaching that their Messiah had come, and was Jesus, even though he was a fictional character!
But if the human Jesus was merely the product of Mark’s imagination, there would be no evidence of Jesus’ birth, death, ministry or miracles. There would be no mother of Jesus, and no women ministering to him. There would have been no empty tomb, no women claiming to have seen angels, and no apostles to insist they were eyewitnesses of his resurrection. There was no outpouring of Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, not many days after Jesus was allegedly resurrected, and the 3,000 who were baptized on that day, based on Peter’s speech about Jesus’ resurrection, probably didn’t exist, especially if Peter was also a product of Mark’s imagination.
In that case, Jewish opponents of this newly emerging brand of Christian belief would have a simple and powerful weapon to defeat it. They could just point out that it was all a fiction! Again, this is completely different from skeptics a few thousand years later questioning the events.
Jewish opponents could have pointed to the lack of evidence for Jesus’ existence, or the existence of other characters in Mark’s fiction, such as the mother of Jesus or the twelve apostles. They could have pointed out the obvious switch of beliefs from a Heavenly Christ to the fictional Jesus. They could have brought forth Paul’s original letters, and pointed out what Christians had done with them.
Yet none of these arguments were made by Jewish opponents, who would have been in the best position to witness the transformation of Christian belief from a Heavenly Christ to a human Jesus based on a fiction written by Mark.
Perhaps Judaism at the time was in no state to make these arguments after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD, because they were more concerned about preserving their own teachings and beliefs than about what Christians were doing.
This is a strong possibility. However, the Christian faith that emerged based on Mark’s fiction, if the Heavenly Christ hypothesis is true, would have been a direct threat to Judaism, since it was teaching a false Messiah; and so it is highly improbable that none of the Jewish leaders who were around to witness this emerging form of Christianity, made any of the obvious arguments I have suggested, if the human Jesus was simply a fiction.
Instead, Jewish rabbis closer to the time accepted the premise that Jesus had been a real man. Of course, according to Judaism, Jesus was not their Messiah, but neither was he a figment of Mark’s imagination.
In other words, I would suggest that the Heavenly Christ hypothesis is even more implausible than the previous ones. It assumes a Christian Church existed that believed only in some kind of Heavenly Christ, and that Mark invented his gospel as an allegory for this Heavenly Christ while basing it entirely on humans, but not expecting people to take it literally; and yet Christians entirely accepted it as real within one generation.
Not only that, but Matthew, Luke and John created further fictions based on it, and those were also accepted blindly within a generation, and with no evidence of any opposition. Furthermore, the leaders of this conspiracy felt it necessary to change Paul’s letters to reflect this new human Christ, even though there is no evidence for this, and once again, everybody accepted the revised letters as if the old versions had never even existed.
And despite Jewish leaders being heavily criticized and under threat by this fictional new version of Christianity, and despite Mark portraying his fictional character as the Jewish Messiah, Jewish leaders and rabbis used not a single argument that would have demonstrated this new Jesus character was a fiction. Instead, they argued Jesus was perhaps a sorcerer, or a false prophet, or some other type of man, all the while accepting the premise that he was indeed a man. Of course, they couldn’t argue he was a fictional character, if they knew he had been a real man.
The Heavenly Christ hypothesis is, I would suggest, even more fictional than the alleged fictional nature of Jesus. It relies on assertions for which there is no evidence whatsoever, such as the idea that Mark made up his gospel, and that later Christians changed Paul’s letters.
Furthermore, it requires a massive conspiracy on the part of the gospel writers and Church leaders, in order to completely switch the Church from believing in a Heavenly Christ, to believing in a fictional human Jesus, complete with apostles, their mothers, and alleged eyewitnesses who never actually existed, all within a generation or so, and all based on Mark’s supposed allegory that, by its very nature, would have been considered heretical to the same Church, and grossly misleading to the Jews, if the hypothesis is true.
And what was it all for? To preach and die for a Jesus the leaders of the conspiracy must have known never even existed?
Now, there is one final possibility I need to look at, which might explain the story of Jesus, and particularly the accounts of his resurrection. What if some or even all of it was made up by the established Church, particularly from the time of Roman emperor Constantine, about three hundred years after Christ was supposed to have lived? This is the final conspiracy I will consider.