The canonical gospels have been shown to contain substantial contradictions and they were written in Greek, 40 to 70 years after the death of Jesus by people culturally, linguistically and geographically far distant from where things had happened.
Many Gospels were written, but only four were admitted to the canon by those who had acquired power. The remainder were discarded or destroyed.
I have written this Gospel myself. I was not present during the events it describes, but neither were the other Gospel writers. Mine is 1,600 years too late, but I am quite sure it would have been consigned to the Apocrypha even if it had been around in time.
The short answer to how Christianity began is that we can never fully know. The canonical gospels have been shown to contain substantial contradictions and they were written in Greek, 40 to 70 years after the death of Jesus by people culturally, linguistically and geographically far distant from where things had happened.
They were sourced from oral traditions, after any direct eye-witnesses were no longer alive. The tradition of careful historical accuracy did not yet exist and ancient writings are usually heavily biased polemics. It would be wrong, however, to regard the gospels as useless. It is beyond reasonable doubt that a person named Jesus existed and that he made an impression during and after his lifetime.
It is, of course, impossible to separate truth from fiction in the Gospels, but the oral stories from which they came are likely to have been enhanced to better promote evangelism as they were told and retold. The supernatural claims are obviously the least probable. We should remember David Hume’s advice that we should only believe a miracle if we can also believe that it would be more miraculous for the report of it to be either false or mistaken.
We can reflect with some certainty on the conditions in Palestine during Jesus’ short career. Most people would have been engaged in agriculture or a few basic trades and long-distance travel would be difficult and unusual. Records in pre-industrial England have shown that most people lived their entire lives without traveling more than 50 km from their birthplace.
It was probably the same in Palestine in those days. Communication was virtually non-existent and most people would hear only sporadic news of what was happening outside their immediate area. There would have been an educated elite, including Temple priests who promoted an Old Testament style of religion which included blood offerings and burnt offerings of animals (rather than humans by this time). Reading and writing skills in the general population would be low.
It is against this background that Jesus emerged as an orator who could attract crowds. He enrolled a team of helpers into his organization and he went on tour promoting the idea of an imminent Kingdom of God, which carried religious and political messages, both welcome to the ears of his listeners.
Imagine what it would have been like to be a member of this group. There would be a great sense of meaning and purpose. They were enlightening the people and were looking forward to a position of privilege when this Kingdom would arrive.
Scripture does not tell us about the finances of the group, but they must have been able to eat, drink and have other necessities. And, if they could raise some funds, they could probably raise a lot. They may well have achieved a better financial position than they had been accustomed to. Maybe Matthew’s tax collecting skills came in handy. The whole business must have seemed much more exciting than the humdrum occupations from which they had come.
After building up an intoxicating level of fame, it was time to take the enterprise to the capital.
We cannot be certain that Jesus entered on a donkey. It was known that there was an Old-Testament prophesy that the Messiah would do so, so Jesus may have done it to fulfill that, or the gospel writers may have inserted the story later for the same reason.
The little band was a relatively unsophisticated group from the country and it seems that they must have been massively naïve. To enter Jerusalem telling large crowds about the imminent Kingdom of God (which would, of course imply the end of Roman rule) was unbelievably rash. And invading the turf of the Temple priests did not make friends. It is not surprising that the Romans, with the acquiescence of the Jewish elite, eliminated Jesus.
Can we imagine what the mood would have been in Jesus’ support group on the morning after the crucifixion? The enterprise that they had built up seemed to be completely destroyed. There was nothing left to do but to avoid detection by the Roman authorities, disperse back to their areas of origin and revert to their old lives. Or was there any possible way to re-establish the formula that had been working so well?
To rationalise a story that showed their situation as other than a total defeat was not easy. But the idea of atonement is likely to have come early. The idea that the whole population was guilty of sin, and that God’s anger needed to be appeased by sacrifice, was already a long-established theme of Jewish religion.
By this time, human sacrifices were history and the victim was more likely to be an unfortunate goat. But what could be more believable than the idea that Jesus had chosen to offer himself as a sacrifice to appease God for the sins of the Jewish people? “He died for you, so you must be grateful and accept what we say!”
In addition to the atonement story, the followers probably realized that direct opposition to the Roman authorities was not a practical goal. Religion rather than politics was the way to go.
By this means, the Nazarene firm was back in business. Those running it would have found that more interesting as well as more profitable than going back to the day jobs. Initially, it was only a Jewish sect; Jesus had died for the Jews just as the regular Temple sacrifices were being made for the Jews. (The names Christ and Christian did not yet exist. That occurred only when these ideas moved into a Greek-speaking population.)
Had matters continued in this way, it is likely that the Nazarenes would have died out because they failed to make progress in the Jewish religious scene. But Paul arrived; he had been a persecutor of Nazarenes, but for some reason, he decided that it would be worthwhile to promote this new religion in the world outside Palestine.
Paul had to first modify the religion to make it more marketable. The Nazarenes insisted that all male converts had to have the foreskin of the penis cut off. It is not surprising that Paul thought that this would lose customers; he got rid of it.
Strict observance of other Jewish requirements was also dropped. Christianity spread rapidly and split into many different versions. It is difficult to know why, but it seems to have out-competed the prevailing polytheistic ideas of Greece and Rome.
For many decades the belief was only an oral tradition and it would be inevitable that the story was “improved” during that time to make evangelism more successful. For a preacher, it was much more satisfying to found a believing and financially contributing community than to be repulsed by an incredulous audience and thrown out of town.
It was probably during this time that most of the supernatural claims were added because they were persuasive selling points. The gospels were written late in the first century CE by unknown educated Greek authors assembling these oral traditions. They certainly had no contact with the Aramaic-speaking country folk who were the followers of Jesus.
Bearing in mind Hume’s view of miracles, we can guess how the supernatural claims became interpolated in the story, but the big one was the resurrection. This is described with much corroborative and sometimes contradictory detail in the gospels. We have no idea when this entered the narrative but, if it is not true, it is a big lie.
Yet it has all the characteristics of a fabrication. Jesus appeared on only a few occasions after which he made a spectacular ascent into the clouds. It is claimed that hundreds saw him, but we learn about that from only a few or perhaps only one. If he had really come back to life, why did he not carry on his speaking tours as before, over the following years?
Of course, we must respect the fact that Jesus’ followers were in a state of emotional distress in the days following the crucifixion and the stories may have had an origin in hallucinations or dreams. Lies are often built on truths rather than being entirely original fiction. In some references, Jesus appeared to people who had known him well, but they did not recognize him; what could that mean? The reports of the resurrection fall a long way short of Hume’s criterion for belief.
The religion grew and continued to evolve spreading over the whole Roman Empire and beyond. It diverged into mutually contradictory versions, most of which were later suppressed. New beliefs were invented like the Trinity in the 300s, purgatory in the 1100s and the Immaculate Conception in the 1500s. The doctrine of very extreme rewards and very extreme punishments during an eternal life were easily believed in a gullible world with no access to contrary evidence.
The church in time became totally powerful, obliterating classical culture and beliefs and suppressing all opposition. Temples were vandalized and statues were toppled and smashed. Classical science and philosophy went on the pyre. Opposition was met with punishment by death, a penalty extensively and ruthlessly carried out. Hundreds of thousands suffered the agony on being burned to death. This grip only slowly began to be loosened from the 1500s and some of its effect remains to this day. But with declining church power, new cults are forming again.
This picture, like any picture of these far-off events, can only be a conjecture, but it fits the evidence better than any other. It is more than possible to understand the information we have today without supernatural assumptions.
Appendix: Can we trust the honesty of testimony?
1. Lying for Jesus
Richard Dawkins in a YouTube video exposes an example of fabrication in a clip entitled “Lying for Jesus”. In a debate with Christian apologist John Lennox in October 2008, Dawkins had said words to the effect that a respectable case could be made for a deist god, one with which he would not agree, but which would be worthy of discussion. In contrast, he believed that Yahweh with his biblical descriptions (the type of God that John Lennox believed in) and Apollo, Zeus and the rest could not be defended.
A few days later, in a speech in Scotland John Lennox announced the “stunning” and “staggering” news that Dawkins had changed his views and now he believed in a deist god. The same thing was repeated in print by Melanie Philips of the Spectator.
Dawkins played the actual recordings of John Lennox’s speech and his own, to the amusement of the audience. And he projected the written words of Ms Philips.
2. Evolution Denial
Creationists keep repeating that the complexity of life could not have arisen through chance, so there must be an intelligent designer. It has been patiently explained to them on many occasions that natural selection is not chance. Selection is the very opposite of chance. But they continue to use the argument because it works with people who have not studied these matters. They lie in the full knowledge that the claim is untrue.
The dying King Arthur has his sword cast into a lake. A hand emerged from the water to catch it. Should we believe this?
We are told that Joshua asked God to make the sun stand still and it did. The writer of this assumed that the earth was fixed and the sun moved, rather than understanding that the Earth rotates. It is obviously a made-up story.
These are clear, but by no means unique cases. Good people with the best intentions are willing to lie, or more often to just “improve” things, when they believe it will promote the worthwhile cause of acceptance of Christianity.
In a world in which there was no science, little literacy, and not much communication between different groups, we can be sure that the Christian story must have evolved by this means during its period of oral transmission in the first century.
Indeed, we know that it did, because it diverged into many differing versions which the surviving mainstream later eradicated as heresies. When written gospels finally became available toward the end of the first century, several which diverged too far from the official line were banned as “apocryphal”.
• Donald Cameron is best known as an aeronautical engineer but also has a long interest in philosophy. He holds degrees from Glasgow and Cornell Universities in addition to a number of honorary degrees. He is Convenor of Philosophy at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution and is a Patron of Humanists UK. His most recent book is Scientific Philosophy published last year.