by Jay Johansen | Jun 3, 2001
Many people believe this because the Bible says so. But how do we know that the people who wrote the Bible were telling the truth? They had a very obvious reason to make up the whole story: to set themselves up as the leaders of a new religion. Then they could become rich and famous, and have hordes of followers who would obey their every command. What if it was all just one big scam? The biggest scam in history maybe?
I've heard that theory a few times. And it's certainly plausible ... except for one little problem.
Let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that after Jesus' death some of his followers made up the whole story about his coming back from the dead and appointing them to carry on his work. (Or maybe there never was such a person as Jesus at all, and they just invented his whole life, or maybe there was a Jesus but he never knew these men. Whatever.) Let's suppose this was all just one big scam so they could become rich and powerful. If so, the scam quickly went bad.
According to secular historians, in AD 44 -- about the same time that the first books of the New Testament were being written -- James Ben-Zebedee, one of the original twelve disciples, was executed by order of the governor. His head was cut off. Within a year two other early leaders were also killed.
Surely if this was all a scam, it would have made the surviving conspirators hesitate. Were they going to get rich and famous after all? Or would they all end up being killed? Well, maybe they figured that James just had bad luck, and anyway now there was one less person to divide the loot.
In AD 54, Philip, another of the disciples, was killed in Heliopolis. He was whipped and crucified.
Surely a very unpleasant way to die. But the remaining disciples apparently stuck to their story.
In AD 60, Matthew, author of the first Gospel, was killed in Ethiopia.
A few years later the authorities in Jerusalem came to James (the other one of the twelve named James, and author of one of the books in the Bible) and asked him to stand up publicly and stop some of these wild rumors that were spreading about this Jesus person. James was a widely respected community leader, and they thought people would listen to him. But when he got up to speak, instead of refuting the stories, he said they were all true. So they had him dragged to the top of a building and thrown off the roof. When they discovered that he was still alive after hitting they ground, they incited a mob to try to kill him by throwing rocks at him. When that didn't work, finally someone bashed his brains out with a club.
When James got up to give his speech he knew that the authorities would not like what he planned to say. Maybe he didn't know that they would kill him, but surely he knew that they could make things unpleasant for him. He could have avoided all of this by simply backing down on his story about Jesus coming back from the dead. They might well have rewarded him for helping to stop this movement. If it was all a con game, why would he stick to the story when it could only result in him getting into serious trouble, and when the authorities gave him an easy out?
Andrew was crucified on an X-shaped cross in Edessa.
Mark, author of the first Gospel to be published, was killed by a mob in Alexandria, dragged to death.
Peter was crucified in Rome. According to one historian, he was crucified upside down at his own request, because, he explained, he didn't think he was worthy to die in the same way that Jesus did.
Jude was crucified in Edessa in AD 72. Bartholomew was beaten to death by a mob in India. Thomas was killed with a spear, also in India. Simon the Zealot was killed in Britain in AD 74.
If this was a con game, these men must have been either incredibly optimistic or incredibly stupid. As one by one they were tortured and killed, they all still stuck to their story. At the beginning it is possible that they thought that this was a route to fame and fortune. But within a few years it became clear that it was more likely a route to a violent death.
Of the original twelve disciples, the Bible says that Judas killed himself, and of the remaining eleven, secular historians tell us that ten died violent deaths. Only one, John, managed to live long enough to die of natural causes, and he had some close escapes from violence along the way. Several were given the opportunity to recant their story before they were killed. As the deaths were spread across about ten years, many of them had plenty of time to think about whether this plan was going well.
I suppose the disciples did become famous, but none of them ever became rich. They had some devoted followers, but these devoted followers didn't treat them to lives of luxury. About the most they could do was help them hide from the authorities when arrest warrants were put out for them. If this was all a con game, it was the most unsuccessful con game in history.
And if this was all a con game, we are asked to believe that, when faced with torture and death, not one of the eleven decided to call it quits. Even the Romans and the Jews, who were trying to stamp out this new religion, never claimed that any of the disciples ever changed his story. Every single one of them stuck to his story right up to the end.
I could certainly believe that a con man would miscalculate, and end up getting himself killed in a scheme that he thought would bring him fame and fortune. I suppose I could believe that one or two men might keep trying to make a scam work when it should have been obvious that this plan was a loser and that any rational person would try chain letters or welfare fraud or starting a dot-com or some other scam that had a better chance of success. But to believe that these eleven men set out to foist a scam on the world, and all eleven stuck to their story as they were threatened and beaten, that they watched their co-conspirators be tortured and killed, and not one ever thought to say, "Hey fellas, only kidding, never mind, just a gag you know, I think I'll be heading out of town now" ... I find that incredibly difficult to believe.
Maybe Jesus didn't really come back from the dead. But these eleven men believed he did. They were so sure, they were willing to be tortured and killed before they would say differently.
© 2001 by Jay Johansen