I love good conspiracy theories! I don’t necessarily buy what many of these conspiracy theorists are selling, but some are quite compelling. Living so close to Roswell, I want to believe that aliens crash landed in New Mexico in 1947. Much more interesting than a stray weather balloon from Holloman Air Force Base that floated eastward over the Sacramento Mountains. And, who wouldn’t want to pin the blame on JFK’s assassination on Lyndon Johnson or Fidel Castro or the Russians. Lee Harvey Oswald and the single gunman theory is so boring.
Well, it turns out that new conspiracy theories are not just relegated to the world of aliens and politics. Religious conspiracy theories in general, and ones dealing with Jesus Christ in particular, are becoming more popular in our modern culture. I was recently informed of one such conspiracy theory last week when one of my Facebook friends and Phi Sigma Kappa Fraternity brothers sent me a link to an article about the “Covert Messiah” symposium to be held at Conway Hall in London on Saturday, October 19.
Before addressing this latest attempt to debunk the existence of the historical Jesus, I want to say a quick word about my appreciation for friends, particularly on Facebook, who ask my opinion about religious issues. From fraternity brothers to childhood friends to relatives to members of the congregations I have served (past and present), there are many folks who I interact with on social media who do not share my religious and/or political ideology. I am thankful for the interaction and dialogue that I can have with people with opposing views. Not only does it allow me to share my own views on certain issues, but it also helps me to refine my own opinions and, in rare instances, change my position or at least change how I look at an issue. I also enjoy it when some of my friends ask me what I think about articles that they have read. It gives me inspiration for some of the posts that I have written. For this one, I say a well-deserved “Thank You” to my fraternity brother and friend, Bernie. **** glad to have met him!
Now, on to American Biblical scholar Joseph Atwill’s
conspiracy theory discovery. According to Atwill, it seems that the Roman government, in the 1st Century, invented Jesus as a way of curbing the zealous missionary activity taking place throughout the Roman Empire:
ancient confessions recently uncovered now prove, according to Atwill, that the New Testament was written by first-century Roman aristocrats and that they fabricated the entire story of Jesus Christ. . . . Atwill asserts that Christianity did not really begin as a religion, but a sophisticated government project, a kind of propaganda exercise used to pacify the subjects of the Roman Empire. “Jewish sects in Palestine at the time, who were waiting for a prophesied warrior Messiah, were a constant source of violent insurrection during the first century,” he explains. “When the Romans had exhausted conventional means of quashing rebellion, they switched to psychological warfare. They surmised that the way to stop the spread of zealous Jewish missionary activity was to create a competing belief system. That’s when the ‘peaceful’ Messiah story was invented. Instead of inspiring warfare, this Messiah urged turn-the-other-cheek pacifism and encouraged Jews to ‘give onto Caesar’ and pay their taxes to Rome.” . . . How could this go unnoticed in the most scrutinised books of all time? “Many of the parallels are conceptual or poetic, so they aren’t all immediately obvious. After all, the authors did not want the average believer to see what they were doing, but they did want the alert reader to see it. An educated Roman in the ruling class would probably have recognised the literary game being played.” Atwill maintains he can demonstrate that “the Roman Caesars left us a kind of puzzle literature that was meant to be solved by future generations, and the solution to that puzzle is ‘We invented Jesus Christ, and we’re proud of it.'” (Ancient Confession Found: “We Invented Jesus Christ)
Like most conspiracy theories, Atwill’s is one that relies heavily on “secret” meanings that can only be decoded by special people. He believes that Jesus was part of a cleverly designed puzzle that only “alert readers” will understand. In a twist of irony, the “We Invented Jesus” conspiracy theory has become its own self-fulfilling prophecy. “Alert readers” — the really smart and astute people who agree with Atwill — will figure out the puzzle and come to the conclusion that Jesus was, in fact, a literary character invented by the Roman government. Of course, if you don’t buy what Atwill is selling (and this is, at its heart, about money and fame), then you are, by definition, not an “alert reader.” In other words, you are as dumb as a stump. Like most conspiracy theories, Atwill’s falls short on the believability scale. This must be some conspiracy theory. Not only has the historical Jesus lasted the test of time (over 2,000 years), but His followers have increased exponentially since His time on earth. If Jesus was not who He claimed to be or was the invention of a despotic Roman regime, then the words of Gamaliel would have certainly come true by now:
So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; 39 but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!”(Acts 5:38-39, ESV)
In order to keep their conspiracy theory alive for two millennia, those Romans must have been really shrewd. Not only did they invent the “peaceful Messiah story” for “alert readers” in the 1st Century, they also were able to insert a prophecy about a “peaceful Messiah” in the Old Testament book of Isaiah, written between 740-680 B.C. Nearly seven centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ, the prophet Isaiah wrote:
But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:5-7, ESV)
Isaiah’s passage gets to the heart of the matter about why I don’t put much stock, if any, into the various discoveries that have been made and will continue to be made that supposedly prove that Jesus Christ either didn’t exist or was not the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. For some who read this passage in Isaiah, this may or may not point to the coming Messiah, but, for them, it does not specifically point to Jesus of Nazareth. For others, like me, I believe that what Isaiah wrote 700 years before the birth of Jesus was actually a prophecy that was fulfilled in the man from Galilee. Can I prove it? Yes and no. If you want me to quantify it with discoveries outside the 5,000+ New Testament manuscripts — I simply don’t have to. Faith is not about what can be seen. If it was, then it wouldn’t be faith. Although scientific and archaeological discoveries can confirm what we believe, faith is ultimately about what cannot be seen with our physical eyes. The writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews defines this kind of faith:
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1, NKJV)
With each new discovery by the Joseph Atwills of the world, Christians will be confronted with a choice — question our faith based on new things that are seen OR strengthen our faith based upon the evidence of things that are not seen. Either way, we will be witnesses to a watching and, largely doubting, world. What kind of witness will we be? Hopefully, the kind who is “always ready to answer anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” (1 Peter 3:15) As to the “We Invented Jesus” conspiracy theory, at least that’s my answer. And, I’m sticking to it!