When historians look at different documents that claim to be historical records, one of their tasks is deciding whether or not a particular text, or a section of that text, is historically authentic. That is, the document is recording actual events, not man made insertions to the text or perhaps even a whole legend, myth or hoax.
In order to sift through the good, the bad, and the ugly – as it were – of ancient documents, historians have developed certain criteria that, when applied to a text, will increase the probability of whether a text or section is authentic or not.
One example of these is called The Criterion Of Embarrassment. The logic behind this criteria is that someone who is making up a story or “history” will tend to create elements that make the author or the group he belongs to appear in a positive light. On the other hand, even for someone who is trying to tell real history they still might tend to use mostly elements that do the same.
So if we find embarrassing elements in a text that make the author or a party affiliated with the author appear in a negative or awkward way – or would especially potentially harm the interests or purposes of the group or even the purpose of the text itself, then the best explanation for that awkward or potentially harmful element is simply that it was what indeed actually happened.
An Example From The Biblical Text
Let me give an example of how this criterion is used, in order to make this a bit clearer. In the gospels (the ancient biographies of Jesus of Nazareth) we find that after Jesus’ death by crucifixion it is recorded that women followers of Jesus are the first to discover the empty tomb. (see Luke chapter 24 for an example).
There’s something we need to understand about first century Jewish culture. Women were regarded as second class citizens. Aside from very rare circumstances, women were not allowed to present legal testimony in court. This attitude was also present in every day affairs as well, and can be seen in first century Jewish historian Josephus’ writing:
“Let not the witness of women be accepted because of the lightheadedness and insolence of their kind.”1
The reason why many historians who study biblical literature accept that women followers of Jesus really did in fact discover Jesus’ empty tomb is because this isn’t the kind of thing that someone from that culture would make-up. Why create a story whereby the central event of the entire story is founded upon the testimony of those who aren’t even allowed to testify in court and are generally not regarded as trustworthy on important matters anyways? The best explanation, historians say, is that this is simply the way it happened – as counter-productive and embarrassing as it may be for the author’s cause.
So here’s the main thesis and method of this piece:
The central core teachings, events and themes of Christianity are such that they do not represent the kind of doctrines and events that would be created as legend, myth or hoax. In other words, these primary events, teachings and themes, in some way, pass the criterion of embarrassment. Thus, since all these central elements fit this criterion, when taken as a whole this gives us some evidence that Christianity is itself authentic and true.
I do want to mention that I’m not going to be making an exhaustive examination for each point. I just don’t have the time to do so, and the points that I draw are typically points that are either well known in scholarly works or are easy to discover by the reader’s (you) own research.
Some Of The Central Elements Of Christianity Examined
1. The most central claim of Christianity is that their leader rose from the dead – physically.
Remember, Jesus was Jewish. Christianity was originally a Jewish sect. In order to understand early Christianity within it’s proper context, we need to examine it in light of what it actually was: a first century Jewish sect.
So, what was the Jewish belief concerning the resurrection of the dead? Well, in first century Judaism there were two basic groups that occupied the landscape: Sadducees and Pharisees (we’ll leave out the Essenes today). Sadducees didn’t believe in any resurrection at all. So, obviously, this central claim about a resurrection is not an easy sell to them. We can see this idea play out in Acts 23:6-7,
“Then when Paul noticed that part of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, he shouted out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead!” When he said this, an argument began between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided.”
Pharisees did believe in a resurrection of the dead. But here’s the catch: it would only occur at the end of the world. So, if we were Jewish and trying to create a new sect of Judaism whereby our leader was the Messiah, what would we do? We would certainly not claim that he had already resurrected! Perhaps we would claim that, although he had died, his death was in such a way that he died for the sins of Israel. Either way, we would claim that he will be risen during the general resurrection at the end of the world, because that would be an easy sell. Claiming that there already was a resurrection just didn’t make sense in this culture.
Here’s the last point. Christianity quickly spread out to the Greek and Roman world. If we were Jewish and wanted to make a sect of Judaism that would appeal to these cultures, what would we do? A physical resurrection? Well, the Greek and Roman culture mostly believed in what is called Platonism. This is the view that accepts the teachings of the great philosopher Plato. Plato’s views on the body and soul were basically the norm for first century Greek culture.
Here’s the view: the body is temporary, weak, and not really valuable. The soul is eternal, strong and ultimately valuable. Once a person dies, their body decomposes – never to return – and the soul continues to exist forevermore.
For a Greek to hear about a physical resurrection of any kind would be disgusting. The body is supposed to die and stay dead! (According to the Greek view). This is not the kind of thing that you would want to claim. The more appealing claim would be that Jesus died, and has no body, but has appeared to his followers in his spirit form (and this could perhaps apply to the Jewish culture too). But, that’s not what the early Christian church taught – and it’s not what Jesus Himself taught, as seen in John 2:19, 20,
“Jesus replied, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it [the same body] up again.” Then the Jewish leaders said to him, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and are you going to raise it up in three days?” But Jesus was speaking about the temple of his body.”
Here’s what biblical historian N.T. Wright has to say concerning this issue:
“Christianity was born into a world where its central claim was known to be false. Many believed that the dead were non-existent; outside Judaism, nobody believed in resurrection.” 2
Another similar point to make is that during the resurrection narratives the angels that appear to the women at the tomb are bright and sparkling, but the resurrected Jesus is just plain old non-angelic in appearance. Wouldn’t we want the resurrected Jesus to be the most bright and dazzling character – especially if He’s the main character and just rose from the dead! Also, (see point # 5), we would want Jesus to be convincing to his disciples.
2. Jesus was crucified – crucifixion was the most despised and torturous form of capital punishment which was only given to the worst criminals.
Crucifixion in the first century was the worst form of punishment that anyone could ever endure. Fortunately, for Romans at least, it was so painful and degrading that Roman citizens were exempt from this punishment (which is perhaps why the traditional story of Saint Paul’s death includes the fact that he wasn’t crucified).
Only the worst criminals would be put to death by this punishment. In other words, anyone who received this death was automatically branded as a criminal and a loser.
So, if we were creating our own religion – or sect of Judaism – what kind of death would we want our leader to experience? Most probably it would be some heroic death. Even if the authors of the gospels wanted to have Jesus experience some other type of death, it certainly wouldn’t be crucifixion.
Such a death would automatically brand Jesus as a criminal and sinner – all things that wouldn’t help the cause of propagating Christianity. To proudly proclaim, “Christ as crucified” would be, as Paul says in his own words, “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”
3. Jesus called Himself and was called by others as “King” – during an age where calling someone other than the governing ruler (emperor – Caesar in this case) was treason.
Although the phrase “kingdom of God” was a common Jewish idiom during the first century, the early Christians went around claiming a much more specific and dangerous phrase: that Jesus’ kingdom was at hand (See Matthew 12:28, which indicates the kingdom has arrived, and Ephesians 5:5, 2nd Timothy 4:1 and 2nd Peter 1:11 for examples that call the kingdom “Christ’s kingdom”). This implies that Jesus is a king! In Acts 17:7 the accusation was brought against the Christians that they were declaring Jesus as king, so this wasn’t a hidden thing. Jesus agrees with Pontius Pilate that He is a king. In 1st Timothy 6:13 Paul says that Jesus’ confession to Pontius Pilate was true.
Although this may not be an explicit claim to Jesus replacing Caesar, this is not the route one would want to take if making a religion in the first century Roman Empire! This is treading very close to treason. Not a safe road, and definitely not the road one would want to take if wanting to make a religion which would appeal to people. Capital punishment is usually not very appealing.
4. The gospels many times record Jesus’ disciples as idiots.
For those who have read the Gospels, they recognize that the people who will later become the pillars of the movement are not portrayed as heroic, courageous and intelligent people – which is the way someone would probably want to portray the leaders of their movement. Many times, the disciples have no idea what Jesus was talking about, even though it was clear (Matthew 6:7-8; John 13:21,27-28; etc.). The disciples just do things that are not favorable, and are portrayed that way (Matthew 8:26; Matthew 14:21; Matthew 17:4; Matthew 17:14-20; Matthew 19:14-15; Luke 22:57; etc.).
So if we were to record the life about our founding leader and how he chose and taught a certain group of people, who would later become the principle leaders of the organization and carry on his (the leader’s) legacy, we wouldn’t want to make them look like idiots who usually don’t know what’s going on and do things that are obviously unfavorable. This doesn’t advanced the cause.
On the other hand, perhaps these awkward and counter-productive narratives are included simply because they are what actually happened.
5. One of the main themes during the recorded appearances of Jesus after his resurrection is doubt.
Even if the gospel authors recorded that Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples (see point #1), why would they make most of the characters in the narrative – including the “pillars” of the early church – doubt Jesus’ appearances?
Wouldn’t one want to make this the climax event whereby the appearance of Jesus convinces everyone that He is in fact risen? Wouldn’t we want to make the disciples look intelligent and reasonable? That’s not at all what happens. The follow are quotes taken from the appearance narratives:
Luke 24:11 – “But these words seemed like pure nonsense to them, and they did not believe them.” (Remember, a woman’s testimony is not worth much in this culture!)
Luke 24:37 – “But they were startled and terrified, thinking they saw a ghost.”
Matthew 28:16,17 – “So the eleven disciples went to Galilee to the mountain Jesus had designated. When they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted.”
John 20:24,25 – “Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he replied, “Unless I see the wounds from the nails in his hands, and put my finger into the wounds from the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will never believe it!”
Mark 16:11 – “And when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they did not believe.”
Mark 16:13 – “They went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them.”
Another similar point to make is that the gospel of John, among other places in the New Testament, records that Jesus’ own family didn’t believe Him! Again, this is not very productive to the cause of getting people to accept Jesus as Messiah. As John 7:2-5 says,
“So Jesus’ brothers advised him, “Leave here and go to Judea so your disciples may see your miracles that you are performing. For no one who seeks to make a reputation for himself does anything in secret. If you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.” (For not even his own brothers believed in him.)”
6. Jesus claimed and was claimed to be the Jewish God.
First, let’s quickly address the issue of whether the early Christians believed that Jesus was God. Many object that the idea of Jesus as God was a late development or evolution of Christianity. The earliest forms of Christianity, they claim, didn’t hold this belief.
The ancient Roman historian Tacitus, his Annals, records that in the year A.D. 64 there was a massive population of Christians in Rome. Pliny the Younger (ancient Roman governor) records (Letters 10.96) that true Christians would not worship any other god than their own (implicit is that this is because they are a Jewish sect, which only believe in one God). But, then he goes on to say that the Christians worshiped Christ (Jesus) as God! Pliny also records that there were so many people becoming Christians in his area (Turkey) that the Greek temples were emptied and the economic state was declining because statues of the gods weren’t being purchased anymore!
So, we can gather a few points from Tacitus and Pliny:
1. By 30 years after Jesus’ death, Christianity had already spread to Rome, and many many people were professing Christians.
2. The early Christians worshiped Jesus as the one and only God of the Jews.
3. By around 50-60 years after Jesus’ death, Christianity had reached Turkey such that so many people were becoming Christians that it was affecting the economic state to the point where Pliny had to contact Emperor Trajan to find out how to deal with this (by killing professing Christians).
Also, many of Paul and Peter’s epistles explicitly call Jesus God. See Col. 1:15-20 and 2nd Peter 1:1. John 1:1 makes it clear that Jesus was at least thought to have been God. In John 20:28 Thomas calls Jesus God and isn’t rebuked.
If early Christians didn’t believe Jesus was God, how could one get Christians to change their minds when by A.D. 64 Christianity had already reached most of the Roman empire? How do you change the minds of all these people? There simply isn’t enough time because of Christianity’s quick growth. But, we also have attestation that early Christians did in fact hold to this view.
So, here’s where our main point needs to be made. Jews only believed in one God. Calling Jesus God would immediately constitute (apparent) blasphemy. This is exactly why Jesus died, because He claimed to be God (see Luke 22:69-71 and Matthew 26:63-68).
Claiming that your religious leader was the Messiah was enough – but to call Him the one and only God? That’s not the best way to convince unitarian monotheistic Jews to come on board!! It’s actually the worst possible change to Judaism that could be made (from the first century Jewish perspective).
7. The central Christian claim could be easily investigated and confirmed.
The central claim of Christianity is that Jesus’ tomb was empty (after He died) because he was resurrected. So there’s two elements here: (1) If you want to create a religion whereby your leader is raised from the dead then you do not want to say that His tomb is empty. Why not? First, see point #1. Secondly, it’s much easier to get people to believe in a spiritually risen figure because it’s unfalsifiable, and saves you the trouble of the empty tomb. To claim that your leader rose from the dead physically means that the tomb, somehow, has to be empty – or else no one will believe you. The early Christian claim was that Jesus’ tomb – which was right in Jerusalem, the capitol of Israel, and which was a well known tomb since it belonged to a member of the Sanhedrin – was empty. This is a very easy thing for anyone living in the area to confirm.
The second element is that of the resurrection itself. An empty tomb isn’t necessarily enough to convince someone that Jesus rose from the dead. However, in 1st Corinthians chapter 15, we find an early creedal tradition that Paul quotes from. The majority of scholars who deal with first century Jewish traditions and biblical scholars of all stripes agree that this creedal tradition dates back to within just a few years (the average date is around 5-7 years) after Jesus’ death. So we’ve got very early confirmation of the core Christian teaching (read 1st Cor. 15:3-8).
However, part of this creedal tradition includes a list of those who had actually seen Jesus risen from the dead. Why would Paul name all these people? One of the clear purposes of this creedal tradition is to provide names for people to be able to go and confirm this stuff out. Paul mentions a group of 500 people seeing Jesus’ during one event, and says “many of whom are still alive.” In other words, “Hey, all these people saw and interacted with the risen Christ. If you don’t believe me, here are their names so you can go and ask them yourself!”
If one was creating a religion based upon falsehoods, this isn’t the kind of stuff that you would be expected to do.
There we have it. While this may be not enough to convince someone that Christianity is not man made, and therefore represents the truth of reality, I hope that it peaks your interest. I think these points do demonstrate that Christianity is not the kind of thing that can be easily explained by the hypothesis that Christians themselves created a new religion on their own. There are more points that could have been added, and many many more evidences and arguments to be made for the conclusions that God exists, Jesus is God, Jesus was raised from the dead, etc. So keep reading and honestly seeking the truth!
Any thoughts or comments are welcome and encouraged!
1Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 4.8.15
2N.T. Wright, Resurrection of the Son of God, p. 35