How Did Christianity Switch to a Historical Jesus?

If Jesus didn’t exist, if he was originally believed to have lived and died in outer space, how did our Christianity come to exist? How could an earthly Jesus just get invented like that, and the original view of him forgotten? That’s the question Jonathan Tweet still keeps going on about. Even though it’s both fully and succinctly answered in On the Historicity of Jesus. Which he is supposed to have read. Yet in our debate, he didn’t seem to be aware of any of it. He still does not, even after being prodded about it repeatedly on Facebook lately.

Last month I addressed his other claim that the “cosmic seed” hypothesis (that Jesus’s body was manufactured directly from the sperm of David) is implausible and therefore, if it is even so much as proposed, it should reduce the probability of any theory of Christian origins. That charge is multiply fallacious (minimal mythicism dosn’t require the cosmic seed hypothesis; the cosmic seed hypothesis is not implausible in context; and proposing it has no effect on the probability of minimal mythicism). But you can get the why for that from last month’s article, The Cosmic Seed of David.

Here, I address the second question:

How did a pseudo-historicist Christianity eclipse the original sect’s beliefs?

Analogy in Resurrection Apologetics

Of course, On the Historicity of Jesus already thoroughly answers the question (see Element 22 in Ch. 4, with Chs. 8.12 and 12.3).

But it helps to look at how exact the analogy is to resurrection apologetics. Christian fundamentalists are just like Jonathan Tweet: after atheists calmly explain what most likely actually happened to launch the false belief that Jesus rose from the dead, the fundamentalist asks, with outraged incredulity, “How did the religion go from internal visions to detailed narratives of physical on-earth encounters in the Gospels then? You can’t explain that!” And when any atheist offers any explanation of how that could have happened, they declare “All your explanations are implausible!” It’s the same silly argument.

We have no record of how the religion shifted from internal visions (which is the only experience Paul talks about anyone ever having of the risen Jesus) to the elaborately historicized appearance narratives in the Gospels. Does that therefore mean the latter are therefore true? No. To the contrary, I suspect Tweet himself would agree they are 100% false. In truth, the first apostles only had personal inner visions of a risen Jesus. The Gospels wholly fabricated all the historical on-earth encounters with the risen Jesus. Yet that then became the solely attested belief thereafter, believers even “reading it back in” to the Epistles of Paul.

So if Tweet accepts that that happened for the resurrection, why can’t it have happened for the rest of the Gospel’s contents? Nothing that would stop that from happening for historicity belief, stopped it happening to resurrection belief. So why would it stop it happening for historicity belief?

All the sects that kept teaching the original version (that Jesus was only seen in inner visions, not touched and handled and eaten with on hills and in homes) were overrun and driven extinct, and all their literature destroyed. Or only stuff they wrote that is suitably ambiguous was preserved—like, for example, the few Epistles of Paul we are allowed now to read. We don’t get to hear anything they had to say about the complete radical change in how the resurrection of Jesus was understood. We don’t get to see how that change came about and overwhelmed the church, eclipsing every other view. Now every source we have insists Jesus was touched and handled and eaten with on hills and in homes, and not simply experienced in inner visions (or else, vaguely doesn’t specify either). Gosh. How could that happen?? It’s so implausible!! Jesus must be risen!! God be praised!!

If you don’t buy that reasoning, neither should you buy Tweet’s.

“You can’t explain how that switch happened” is simply not a logically valid objection to the conclusion that, in fact, it happened. Resurrection belief did in fact radically switch from “inner visions” to “historical-physical encounters, complete with veridical details and whole conversations.” It happened in the exact same time frame. In exactly the same documents. We get to see no one gainsaying it or calling foul. We get to see no evidence of how that change came about or even why; much less of how it drove extinct what the original witnesses were actually preaching, and consumed the entirety of extant Christian literature. And yet that is exactly what happened. And however it happened, is exactly how it would have happened to historicity altogether.

Phenomenologically, the historicity of Jesus, and the historicity of the Gospel resurrection narratives, are exactly the same. Likewise all the public miracles that were made up yet never gainsaid either: the sun going out for three hours, stars hovering over cities, the temple square ravaged, hordes of zombies descending on Jerusalem, hundreds of babies slaughtered, thousands of pigs drowned, thousands of people miraculously fed with Star Trek replicator food. All made up. Never gainsaid. We never get to hear from anyone who was really there, that none of that ever happened. So why should we expect to hear it for anything else? Inventing a mere man, is far easier (OHJ, Ch. 6.7).

In OHJ I provide extensive background knowledge on this, which is identical whether one is speaking of how the transition occurred in resurrection belief, or historicity belief. Origen’s giveaway about the principle of double truth—literal stories are invented to save the ignorant masses, while educated elites know the real truth is within the allegory, and dare not expose this to the rank and file lest they lose faith and become damned—all exactly as Plutarch said how Osiris cult reasoned: Elements 13 and 14 (Ch. 4). All of the records we would need to test and know what happened in the transition period (of about fifty years—an average human lifetime)—literally all those records, every single last one—were destroyed, and are never mentioned, quoted, or referenced by anyone, ever: Element 22 (Ch. 4) and Ch. 8. Whatever the original witnesses and their faithful successors had to say about the newfangled versions of events suddenly appearing, we never get to know: Ch. 6.7. Yet some hints survive of there having been Christians who preached the earthly Jesus was mythical: Chs. 3.1 and 8.12. Yet we aren’t allowed to see how ancient that view was or when or how it started…was it in fact the original view? We have no evidence it wasn’t.

This holds for historicity as firmly and plausibly as it holds for the resurrection. There is nothing implausible about this having happened, or about its matching exactly the evidence we now have. Because all the evidence that would expose it having happened, was destroyed. And that’s not conjecture. We know it for a fact. Christians didn’t just stop writing letters and homilies and polemics for a whole human lifetime. So it had to all have been destroyed. Even whatever they were arguing orally, as they must have been, is totally lost. Also a fact. But the literature is also gone.

The treatises 2 Peter was forged to rebut? Destroyed. The original edition of the Ascension of Isaiah? Destroyed. The original collection and version of Paul’s letters? Destroyed. All the cosmic-Jesus literature Irenaeus says he was attempting to rebutt? Destroyed. All the supposedly “Docetist” treatises of early date we have no good reason to trust anti-Docetist apologists were representing accurately? Destroyed. Everything written by every Christian for a hundred years who would have had even a dogmatic reason (much less a genuinely informed reason) to challenge anything in the Gospels? Destroyed.

And this is why we don’t know how, when, or why resurrection belief shifted from personal inner visions, to physical earthly encounters. And it’s why we don’t know how, when, or why historicity belief shifted from personal inner visions, to physical earthly encounters.

My Brief Summary of What’s Most Likely

Nevertheless, in OHJ I summarized in just a few pages what most likely happened. Tweet has yet to show any sign of ever having read this. But here it is, verbatim (pp. 608-10):

Between the 30s and 70s some Christian congregations gradually mythicize the story of their celestial Jesus Lord, just as other mystery cults had done for their gods, eventually representing him rhetorically and symbolically in overtly historical narratives, during which time much of the more esoteric truth of the matter is reserved in secret for upper levels of initiation (Elements 11-14, 44-48). Right in the middle of this process the Jewish War of 66–70 destroyed the original church in Jerusalem, leaving us with no evidence that any of the original apostles lived beyond it. Before that, persecutions from Jewish authorities and famines throughout the empire (and, if it really happened, the Neronian persecution of 64, which would have devastated the church in Rome) further exacerbated the effect, which was to leave a thirty-year dark age in the history of the church (from the 60s to the 90s), a whole generation in which we have no idea what happened or who was in charge (Element 22). In fact this ecclesial dark age probably spans fifty years (from the 60s to 110s), if 1 Clement was written in the 60s and not the 90s (see Chapter 8, §5), as then we have no record of anything going on until either Ignatius or Papias, both of whom could have written well later than the 110s (Chapter 8, §§6 and 7).

It’s during this dark age that the canonical Gospels most likely came to be written, by persons unknown (Chapter 7, §4), and at least one Christian sect started to believe the myths they contain were real, and thus began to believe (or for convenience claim) that Jesus was a real person, and then preached and embellished this view. Because having a historical founder represented in controlled documents was a significant advantage (Chapter 8, §12; and Chapter 1, §4), this ‘historicizing’ sect gradually gained political and social superiority, declared itself ‘orthodox’ while condemning all others as ‘heretics’ (Chapter 4, §3), and preserved only texts that agreed with its view, and forged and altered countless texts in support. As a result, almost all evidence of the original Christian sects and what they believed has been lost or doctored out of the record; even evidence of what happened during the latter half of the first century to transition from Paul’s Christianity to second-century ‘orthodoxy’ is completely lost and now almost wholly inaccessible to us (Elements 21-22 and 44).

No element of the theory I just outlined is ad hoc.

The letters of Paul corroborate the hypothesis that Christianity began with visions (real or claimed) and novel interpretations of scripture, and this is not a fringe proposal but is actually a view shared by many experts. The idea of a ‘celestial savior’ is corroborated by documents such as the Ascension of Isaiah and has precedents in theologies like the continual death-and-resurrection of Osiris, and is found even in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Euhemerization of god-men by placing them in historical contexts was commonplace in antiquity. That ancient texts could have symbolic and allegorical content is well established in classics and religious studies, has ample support in the sociology of religion and was common practice in ancient mystery cults and Judaism. Christianity did possess the central features of ancient mystery cults. And the fact that such ‘mysteries’ were kept secret and revealed only to initiates, who were then sworn to secrecy, is a well-known fact of ancient religion. Everything else is an undeniable fact: the Epistles do reveal the constant vexation of novel dogmas; the devastating events of the 60s did occur; the history of the church is completely silent from then until the mid-90s or later; a historicist sect did later gain supreme power and did decide which texts to preserve, and it did doctor and meddle with numerous manuscripts and even produced wholesale forgeries to that same end—and not as a result of any organized conspiracy, but simply from independent scribes and authors widely sharing similar assumptions and motives.

The only element of the basic myth theory that is even incredible (at least at first look) is the idea that a transition from a secret cosmic savior to a public historical one happened within two generations, and without a clear record of it occurring. But the unusual circumstances of a major disruption in the church opened the door to rapid developments in its dogmas, and the complete silence of the record in the following period blocks any attempt to argue ‘from silence’ that there was no transition from myth to legend. That this development did not get recorded is because nothing got recorded.

When we consider the prospect of newly evangelized Christians, handed a euhemerized Gospel, but not yet initiated into the full secret, and then being set loose to spread their unfinished beliefs and founding their own churches and developing their own speculations, the idea that a myth could be mistaken as and transformed into ‘history’ in just a few generations is not so implausible as it may seem, particularly given that the geographical distances involved were large, lifespans then were short, and legends often grow with distance in both time and space. There may even have been a ‘transitional’ state of the cult in which the historical narratives were seen as playing out what was simultaneously occurring in the heavens (so one could believe both narratives were true), or in which certain sect leaders chose to downplay or reinterpret the secret doctrines and sell the public ones as the truth instead (as Origen seems to have thought was a good idea). Any number of possibilities present themselves; without any data from that period, we cannot know which happened.

Hence I already dealt with this objection more than adequately in Chapters 6 (§7), 7 (§7), and 8 (§§4 and 12). For comparison, even if we granted historicity, then we do not know how some sects transitioned to a cosmically born Jesus in the Christianities Irenaeus attacks as heresies (Chapter 11, §9) or a cosmically killed Jesus in the Ascension of Isaiah (Chapter 3, §1), or to a Jesus who lived and died a hundred years earlier (Chapter 8, §1). Thus, our ignorance in the matter of how the cult transitioned is not solved by positing historicity. Either way, we’re equally in the dark on how these changes happened.

Now. Find what in all that is implausible. Implausible in context. Good luck. Because none of it is.

We could stop there. That’s my summary in just a few paragraphs. Honestly, nothing more need be said. But if you want more detail, read on.

What Happened Looks Really Suspicious

How did the creed go from this:

I want to remind you … By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of greatest importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,  that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared… [by revelation to a select few: 1 Corinthians 15:1-8]

To this:

Stop your ears when anyone speaks to you at variance with the Jesus Christ who was descended from David, and came through Mary; who really was born and ate and drank; who really was persecuted under Pontius Pilate; who really was crucified and died in the sight of witnesses in heaven, and on earth, and even under the earth; who really was raised from the dead, too, His Father resurrecting Him, in the same way His Father will resurrect those of us, who believe in Him by Jesus Christ, apart from whom we do not truly have life. [Ignatius, Trallians 9, written between 110 and 160 AD (see scholarship summarized in OHJ, Ch. 8.6)]

How did the creed change so radically, into so conspicuous an assertion of historicism, in just 60 years? That’s as weird on historicity as it is on mythicism. Note what’s changed:

Paul said Jesus “came into being from David’s sperm” (genomenou ek spermatos Dauid, Rom. 1:3; see OHJ, Ch. 11.9). Ignatius now insists we have to say Jesus came “from the descendants of David” (ek genous Dauid). Conspicuously, precisely the thing Paul never said.

Paul said Jesus “came into being from a woman,” and his surrounding argument implies that by this he meant from the woman “Hagar…an allegory” (Gal. 4:4; see OHJ, Ch. 11.9). Ignatius now insists we must say Jesus is “from Mary,” not some generic “woman” in an argument about allegorical women. Notably Paul never mentions a Mary. Not in any creed he attests (see OHJ, Ch. 11.4). So why is her name now important to affirm in the creed?

In both places Paul said Jesus was “made” (ginomai) not “born” (gennaô), by choosing the same word Paul uses to signal divine manufacture (of Adam and our future resurrection bodies), and never of human birth, in conspicuous contrast to the word Paul does always use of human birth. Ignatius conspicuously reverses the vocabulary, and insists we now must say “born” (gennaô) not “made” (ginomai). Exactly the same way we know Christian scribes tried doctoring the manuscripts of Paul (in both Rom. 1:3 and Gal. 4:4 at the same time, thus proving they were well aware of the problem I’m pointing out: OHJ, p. 580, n. 91; hence though both words can mean birth, Christians were aware Paul’s usage did not).

Paul said Jesus ate and drank in a vision (1 Cor. 11:23; see OHJ, Ch. 11.7). Ignatius now insists we must say Jesus ate and drank for real. Why is that suddenly important?

Paul said “the archons of this eon crucified” Jesus (1 Cor. 2:8; see OHJ, pp. 47-48, 321-22, 565-66), language evocative of celestial demonic powers (OHJ, Ch. 5, Element 37), while also saying the Roman authorities never would have (Rom. 13; see OHJ, pp. 565-66). Ignatius now insists we must say Pontius Pilate crucified Jesus, and shun anyone who says otherwise as an agent of the Devil. So who was saying otherwise? Why did the name of the crucifier become important to the creed?

Paul essentially says there were no earthly witnesses to Jesus before his resurrection (1 Cor. 15:3-8; Rom. 10:14-16; Rom. 16:25-26; see OHJ, scripture index, pp. 667-68). Ignatius now says we must say there were. Why did that become necessary? Why did that enter the creed? When? How?

Historicists have theories to explain this. But are they correct? Docetism was the threat Ignatius is retooling the creed to combat, they’ll say. But Ignatius never mentions Docetists. And the only texts we have that show anything like Docetism date a century later, and they don’t say anything like what’s in Ignatius (e.g. some of those texts say Jesus switched places with Simon of Cyrene, which is clearly not what Ignatius is talking about or arguing against). So how do we know what those whom Ignatius is responding to were actually teaching? We don’t get to read anything they actually wrote, not even in quotation. Christian apologists were notorious liars and misrepresenters of their opponents, so we can’t trust them. And none of the later documents that survive that are called Docetic reference the doctrines Ignatius is concerned about. Were the folks Ignatius is writing against those later, unrelated Docetists we have some writings from and that later apologists opposed—or actually mythicists? We aren’t told; but it sounds a lot more like mythicists (OHJ, pp. 317-20), the same ones 2 Peter was forged to rebut (OHJ, p. 351). We can’t show otherwise.

What we are left with is a creed (in fact several quoted by Paul) that never references any historical detail placing any of Jesus’ activity on earth, then a blackout of fifty some years, during which the Gospels get written, and suddenly, a lifetime after the Gospels began circulating, the creed has been retooled to include details that only first appear in them—Mary, Pilate, a human birth with Davidic ancestors, dinner parties, earthly witnesses to the Crucifixion. Not only do they suddenly get added to the creed, they become essential to the creed: we are told we must condemn any Christians who reject them. Which means…there were Christians who rejected them. And we don’t get to hear from them.

Plausibility Derives from Context

What makes a theory plausible or implausible is not what we now in the modern age think is normal or weird, but what was normal or weird in the era and region this actually happened in. Tweet seems to be relying on his modernist intuition, balking at all the weird-ass shit the ancients believed—which is exactly ass-backwards. All that weird-ass shit they believed back then was normal. So anything that coheres with it is plausible. That’s how plausibility operates in historical reasoning. Anything else is anachronism.

I wrote in OHJ (p. 53) what I repeated in the Tweet debate:

The manner in which Osiris came to be historicized, moving from being just a cosmic god to being given a whole narrative biography set in Egypt during a specific historical period, complete with collections of wisdom sayings he supposedly uttered, is still an apt model, if not by any means an exact one. Which is to say, it establishes a proof of concept. It is in essence what all mythicists are saying happened to Jesus.

This is the model from which the last two of the five components of the hypothesis of minimal mythicism are derived, as I lay out in OHJ (ibid.):

4. As for many other celestial deities, an allegorical story of this same Jesus was then composed and told within the sacred community, which placed him on earth, in history, as a divine man, with an earthly family, companions, and enemies, complete with deeds and sayings, and an earthly depiction of his ordeals.

Which was typical. All savior deities like Jesus had this happen to them. All of them, so far as we can tell. We know of not a single exception. So it’s not even unusual. To the contrary, Jesus being the lone historical one would be unusual. Likewise for several other myth-classes Jesus belongs to. The largest and most detailed, and thus the most informative, being the Rank-Raglan class. But others as well. In fact, Jesus belongs to more myth-heavy reference classes than any other purportedly historical figure I know (see my discussion here).

And then:

5. Subsequent communities of worshipers believed (or at least taught) that this invented sacred story was real (and either not allegorical or only ‘additionally’ allegorical).

This was likewise the case for all other mystery cult savior deities, all Rank-Raglan heroes, including Moses (and John Frum and Ned Ludd and King Arthur and the Roswell aliens). Again, it’s what typically happened. And what typically happens, is by definition not implausible.

We have a precedent not just in Osiris, but every other mystery religion, all of whose saviors are of dubious historicity yet were placed in history in fake tales or biographies, the functional equivalent of “Gospels” for their respective religions. We also have the precedent of Moses himself. Made up. Complete with history, named siblings and parents, teachings, deeds, birth and death, and so on. We do not need to explain “how” all these people got made up and believed real. We know that’s what happened. So it’s not really all that sensible to demand a specific account of how the same thing happened to yet another Jewish lawgiver and mystery savior. There are a dozen ways it can have happened to Moses, or to Osiris, or to Bacchus, or John Frum, or Ned Ludd. To all of whom it happened. There are likewise a dozen different ways it can have happened to Jesus. And we can’t know which, because all the evidence from the very period in which it happened, was erased. So we don’t get to find out.

This is the basic point that is lost on Tweet. His behavior with respect to Jesus on this point is as irrational as if he used the same argument to insist Osiris and Bacchus and Moses and Frum and Ludd existed. Or, again, that a resurrected Jesus must really have shown his wounds to Thomas and eaten fish with Peter, because it’s “implausible” that the whole religion could transition from inner visions to such detailed narratives without anyone on the extant record noticing or mentioning it. Sorry, but no. That’s simply not even implausible. It is, indeed, obviously what happened.

All the Contributing Factors

In OHJ I discuss numerous factors that could have contributed to the transition. And they are as applicable to how Jesus became historicized, as to how his resurrection did.

I discuss the Noll Thesis: historicizing mythical founders is actually anthropologically normal, and is driven by its polemical advantages (pp. 352-53). We see it in the Cargo Cults (Element 29, Ch. 5), the Mystery Cults (Element 11, Ch. 4; and 31, Ch. 5), the Hadith, Torah, Mishnah, and beyond. A religion that converts its disparate revelations and inspirations into the singular deeds and teachings of a made-up “historical founder” is inherently more successful in the marketplace of ideas, quite likely to drive extinct its less-adapted ancestor. As in fact happened (e.g. the original mystical resurrection teaching was driven extinct by the physical dinner-buddy resurrection teaching).

I discuss Origen’s Confession: that controlling the masses requires feeding them literal stories, because they won’t be moved (and thus won’t be saved) by allegory or esoteric cosmologies (Elements 13 and 14, Ch. 4). And his confession is so detailed and frank, it’s entirely credible to suspect Origen knew or suspected Jesus never walked the earth, but would never admit it for fear of destroying his religion, by causing the illiterate masses to abandon it and thereby fall into the clutches of Satan. There was therefore a strong incentive among the church elite to push historicity.

I also discuss the role of historical accident: the sect that just happened to be positioned to gain Constantine’s ear and thus secure total power on his fortunate coattails was the most fundamentalist and literalist sect of them all, as we can see from the absurdist idiocy of Constantine’s primary advisor (Lactantius) and the infamous dishonesty of his secondary advisor (Eusebius). Had the dice rolled the other way, mythicist Christians may have been the ones suppressing the “heresy” of historicism. But for the very reasons Origen and Noll point out, that may have been causally improbable. The historicist heresy was in fact the most innately adapted for success and dominance. And once it was secure in absolute power, it decided all document survival for a thousand years.

One might object and say, “they didn’t destroy the collection at Nag Hammadi.” But the collection at Nag Hammadi is late; no manuscript in it even dates before Constantine. And even by the most favorable conjectures, none of the texts those manuscripts preserve were composed any earlier than the second century, and most were composed in the third. Useless. If we had a comparable find for first century Christianity, indeed it probably would decide this debate once and for all. But alas, we don’t get to see anything like that. And that’s the problem. Why don’t we get to see anything like that?

The bottom line is, all the sects of Christianity we hear about by the end of the second century, including what became “orthodoxy,” were evolved elaborations that did not match the original teachings of Peter or even Paul. And yet every sect declared the others heresy. But which teachings of which sects were the late aberrations, and which still resembled the original sect? It’s statistically impossible that the sect that won total power “just happened” to be the only one with true beliefs, that no other sects retained true facts of the original sect, that were abandoned by the sect that became politically victorious. So what is actually the heresy? The cosmic Christ doctrines the “orthodoxists” condemned, as we see in Irenaeus and the Ascension of Isaiah? Or are those self-proclaimed orthodoxists the heretics? It’s as likely one as the other. We have no evidence by which to prove either. So we can assume neither.

That leaves us back at square one: we know the Christianity that decided what documents we get to see is nothing like the original, and therefore certainly underwent radical transitions that we have no record of. So we can’t balk at there having been radical transitions that we have no record of. Therefore, balking at that is a non sequitur. It has no logical effect on the probability of any hypothesis. Historicists have as many radical transitions to explain as the mythicists. They simply differ on which details were transitioned.

What We Learn from Pliny the Younger

One factor I don’t mention in OHJ in as much detail as I should is what we discover about Christianity from the one letter about it we find in Pliny the Younger’s government correspondence (pp. 342-430), the first time in history anyone ever noticed Christianity in any known literature (Josephus almost certainly never having mentioned it): Christianity appears to have experienced a first century bottleneck of failure and subsequent revival.

In Pliny’s letter to Trajan, written around 112 A.D., he reveals two interesting facts: he had never been present at any trial of Christians and had no idea what they believed or why it was criminal; and most of those reported as Christians in his province had left the faith, years or decades before he even inquired.

The second fact is telling. The first fact is peculiar. By the time he wrote that letter, Pliny the Younger had been a Roman Senator for 25 years. He had served as the ancient equivalent of the Chief of Police at Rome, the Capitol of the Empire, with a population above a million. After that he had served as the ancient equivalent of the Attorney General for the whole Empire. Then as Consul (akin to being Secretary of State and Interior). Then served as the governor of Bithynia (a portion of what is now Turkey) for two years before any Christians were brought to his attention. And he had also governed that same province a decade before that. So he wasn’t even new to the province or its legal matters.

And yet, somehow, this most legally experienced man in the Empire, had never once ever seen a trial of Christians and knew nothing about them or even why it was illegal to be one. That entails Christianity was recruiting so poorly as to be almost nonexistent—even after eighty years, nearly two average lifetimes, of evangelizing across three continents. That most of those who could be rousted up as Christians had already left the religion, verifies the conclusion: people were losing interest; membership was scarce and dwindling.

Put those two facts together, and we must conclude something alarming: quite possibly, Christianity almost died out. It was so uninfluential, so small, so unsuccessful, that by the end of the first century and dawn of the second, they had never even appeared on Pliny’s radar, anywhere, ever, in several decades of his legal and administrative experience. In fact, it was so unsuccessful, that it was even losing membership. Pliny expressed worry that, all of a sudden, Christians could be found everywhere, but it’s evident this was hyperbolic alarm based on no actual facts or statistics (akin to McCarthy’s fear of Commie Spies infiltrating the government and social elite). Yes, probably a few Christians could be found in many a city or town. But it’s clear from Pliny’s own account that most of those accused were never Christians or had long ceased to be. Only but few maintained their confession of faith. And they were so rare, it was a labor even to find them, and until he was pressed to search, he’d never encountered a single one in all his career.

It’s notable that this apparent failure or downturn in the fortunes of the religion, corresponds exactly with when new missionaries attempted to revive it with new, exciting doctrines and texts: the Gospels. And when is a radical reformation of a cult going to be most successful, but when most old believers had left, its founders were all long dead, and the sect is so small and anemic no power existed to stop or gainsay you—and when anyone of the old guard still around, you could easily dismiss as themselves being the revisionist heretics! One hardly needs any further explanation of how the religion could transition from mystical to historicist doctrines—in the resurrection as much as in the existence of Jesus. Same difficulty. Same opportunity. Same causes and mechanisms of success. If the one happened—and it unquestionably did—the other could have happened, with nothing else having to be posited but the theory itself.


By 100 A.D., even most adults who had read the first edition of Mark would be dead. The original witnesses and founders would have been long dead. In fact, they would likely have been dead before Mark was even written—there is, after all, no evidence of any apostle still being alive after 70 A.D. And Pliny’s report entails Christian converts were a scattered few; most had even abandoned the religion altogether. And this, for a mystery religion with secret doctrines, the easiest to alter without anyone noticing or being able to prove them altered.

So think about it. If someone started selling the Gospels as real histories, who could prove that untrue by then? The witnesses were all long dead. Anyone who knew them, could be gainsaid by liars claiming to have known them, and who could tell the difference? The celestial theory could be claimed the heresy and condemned, and people ordered to shun anyone still advocating it as of the Devil…precisely as we see Ignatius doing.

After all, who by then could prove the celestial doctrine the original even if it was? If it was never written down, if it was a mystery only transmitted by word of mouth to initiates, no evidence would exist that what they were told, and thus what they were teaching, was actually the truth. And if it was written down, who could prove that was not the forgery? Faced with copies of the original text of the Ascension of Isaiah and the Gospel of Matthew, who could prove which was written first? Who could prove which preserved the doctrines predating the War? Anyone who gainsaid the historicists, could be condemned a heretic. And no one would be the wiser. From there on out, it was all just a matter of mere politics which “version” of the church’s history would win out. It was in no way anything anyone could decide with evidence.

And we don’t get to hear any of that debate anyway. Just as it was all erased for the resurrection; so just as easily it would have been erased for historicity. Indeed, it would have been the very same documents and statements being erased.

If anyone who “knew” (despite that being impossible to know) that the religion began with inner visions, and that the absurd narratives in the Gospels of angelically occupied empty tombs and meeting and eating with a risen Jesus were fabrications, how would we know? Anything they said or wrote to call that out, was erased. It is not extant, quoted, cited, or mentioned. And if meeting and eating with a risen Jesus could be fabricated that easily, and never be gainsaid in any extant records, and win over the entirety of the church, why couldn’t the exact same process result in just as easily fabricating meeting and eating with Jesus altogether? What would stop it from never being gainsaid in any extant records and winning over the entirety of the church? Fabricating a dinner with someone after they died is no easier than fabricating a dinner with someone before they died. So if the one succeeded—and it did—then just as easily could the other have.

And that’s why we have nothing left to explain.


  1. Richard Johnson November 9, 2017, 1:42 pm

    Thanks for this! I read OHJ but I had forgotten about some of this.

    My remaining question now is simply whether or not the Vatican currently knows about this history, but we’re not likely to ever know that.

  2. Kenneth R Thomas November 9, 2017, 8:47 pm

    What about Revelation in the chronology? The early chapters contain some interesting information about churches in Anatolia and conflicts they were undergoing at the time. I’ve seen dates from AD 65-96 for Revelation.

    1. Indeed I think most likely it dates to the 90s (OHJ, p. 264). It’s all fake, though (the letters in it are dictated in a vision; there is no evidence they were ever sent; and the vision is obviously made up as well, and so highly allegorical, it’s difficult even to ascertain the meaning of any passage).

      It also doesn’t tell us anything about what stories about Jesus are true, who wrote what, who was leading the church, what factions were arguing, and so on (e.g. notice it condemns churches, but never says for what; it never mentions or cites any Gospel and it’s not even evident it knew any); in fact it is vague even on historicity (it places Jesus’s birth in outer space, for example, and only mentions him being met there; it never mentions his life or death as being on earth; etc.).

  3. Justin Legault November 10, 2017, 10:10 am

    Thank you for the article Richard!

    Had a question regarding Ehrman’s take on the crucifixion narrative. I know he doesn’t believe in an actual empty tomb and if there was one, it would have naturalistic explanations (i.e. body stolen) that would be more plausible.

    Ehrman’s take on the crucifixion is that if Jesus was crucified, he would have been left on the cross to rot and then dumped in a common pit.

    What is your take on the fact that he would have been left on the cross? And not take him down immediately.

    I understand that the trial/crucifixion/burial is not historical (Judea’s treaty with Rome to respect Jewish Burial laws—Which Philo and Josephus confirms that the treaty was still on until at least the Jewish War in the 60’s). He would have to be buried before sundown, not on or day leading up to a holy day, plus held 2 days until trial etc.

    And the parallels you’ve mentioned about Jesus/Barabbas vs Yom Kippur are extremely plausible.

    But when it comes to being left on the cross to rot (Strategy perhaps for the people to see the horror and make them want to obey the law of the land?) How much validity does this have in Judea at the time?

    I believe you mentioned before that if they were put in a tomb (Usually reserved for people who were wealthy, and unlikeliness that a member of the Sanhedrin would let him borrow his tomb temporarily in the first place). The family could retrieve the bones afterwards for a proper burial.

    But, If Jesus was crucified, because he was poor in Judea, would he have been left hanging on the cross to rot and then dumped in a common pit? Or was it different in Judea?



    1. No. Almost certainly not. The treaties in place, attested by Josephus, and the volatile political situation, would have made it extremely unlikely any crucifixion victims were left on crosses after death. They were all buried before sundown. They could be still alive in the night, and taken days to die. The law and treaty only related to treatment of the dead, not the living. But yes, under treaty and law at the time, Jesus would have been ordered buried, and Pilate would have not objected but agreed as a matter of standard procedure. And burial would have been, by law, in the Sanhedrin’s graveyard for the condemned, not a mass pit. Reburial required it (and we have a reburied crucifixion victim, proving this).

      I don’t know if Ehrman still insists on the incorrect narrative (he’s following Crossan who invented it, also in ignorance of the laws and treaties and other evidence), but if he does, he is doing history badly. He is relying on evidence of practices outside Judea, and incorrectly assuming they held in Judea, when in fact we have ample evidence proving they weren’t. There is no evidence (none whatever) that mass burial was ever practiced in Judea by the Romans, nor that any crucifixion victim wasn’t buried by the first sundown after they died. (Until the Jewish War, of course; because that nullified all treaties with Rome.)

      1. Justin Legault November 16, 2017, 9:47 am

        Thank you! Very informative 🙂

        I do like alot of Ehrman’s work, but other things makes me question why he acts like a true historian in some instances, and lacks the historical method in others.

  4. For anyone who doesn’t get what this article has just explained to them:

    It’s simple.

    1. FACT. Many counter-cultural Jewish sects were seeking hidden messages in scripture.
    2. FACT. Cephas (Peter), a member or leader of one of those sects, had “visions” telling him one of those messages was now fulfilled.

    3. FACT. That fellow influenced or inspired others to have or claim supporting visions.

    4. FACT. They all died.

    5. FACT. Then some later folks did what was done for all savior gods: they made up stories about their savior god to promote what was by then a lifetime of the accumulated teachings, dogmas, and beliefs of various movement leaders.

    6. FACT. They all died.

    7. FACT. Then some later folks started promoting those myths as historically true.

    8. FACT. Those who protested that, were denounced as heretics and agents of Satan.

    9. FACT. They all died.

    10. FACT. Those who liked the new invented version of history won total political power and used it to destroy all the literature of those who had ever protested it.

    All ten points are indisputable facts. Not theory. Facts. Documented. Undeniable. Facts.

    At most one might confess uncertainty as to when exactly each generation’s leaders all died. But we have zero evidence, absolutely zero evidence, that any of them survived from one phase into the next (e.g. we don’t know anyone at point 4 who was still alive at point 5, and we don’t know anyone at point 6 who was still alive at point 7; and with scientific certainty, no one at point 9 was alive at point 10). So we cannot appeal to their survival, as an argument against the above sequence of events (not that that would have stopped anything anyway). And everything else, all remaining seven points, is a fact agreed to by every mainstream expert alive (mainstream, meaning, not a fundamentalist Christian).

    And we don’t have to be any more specific. Those ten points are compatible with hundreds of different scenarios, none of which are contradicted by any surviving evidence. For instance, phase 7 could have started with the Gospel of Matthew, Luke, or John; and there may have been overlap from phase to phase (e.g. some of those asserting historicity publicly, denying it in secret as a revealed mystery, just as Osiris cult had been doing for centuries, and just as Plato had recommended all religious leaders do, in the Republic). We don’t have to assert that’s what happened. Or deny that’s what happened. No evidence tells us either way. And both are plausible.

    And yet…

    Note that at no point is the historicity of Jesus even denied in these ten facts, individually or in conjunction. Because all ten can simply be a description of the invention of the historicity of the resurrection alone, not the man.

    And yet these same ten facts fully explain the historicization of either the resurrection or the man. If the one could happen (and it did), so could the other. And we can assert that without positing a single other fact about anything.

    And that’s why all this nonsense about this being implausible, is itself implausible. Indeed wildly implausible. As implausible as fundamentalists’ insistence on the historicity of the resurrection accounts in the Gospels.

    1. Eldon K November 15, 2017, 10:49 am

      Granted, I only read your reply, having followed Facebook to it, and I’m not supporting the “other side,” but “can explain” is not the same as “does explain.”

    2. Ex-pentacostal December 8, 2017, 1:17 am

      Great article, thank you.

      I am a former evangelist and your 10 point facts EXACTLY parallel modern church history. Christian Science, Mormonism, Seventh Day Adventist and probably every other group (I was United Pentecostal) have exhibited the same exact pattern you’ve outlined.

      Each group seeks “hidden messages”. The truly faithful, ie., “initiates” are encouraged to put credence to their “visions”, and even their fulfillment.

      This spreads within the group, encouraging others to contribute their visions. As members die off, their foundational influence becomes codified within the movement(s). The stories/visions become “real”.

      Succeeding generations adopt them as historically true facts and events.

      Other groups (“outsiders” and “heretics”) are denounced for not accepting the “new revelations”.

      Modern church leadership (in all the above named groups and many, many others) are fully vested in these fabricated church histories and stories/visions of the “early pioneers” in their respective movements. These stories/visions become “literal” and are vehemently defended.

      The pure invention of church history continues to this day.

  5. Eldon K November 16, 2017, 8:34 am

    (Can’t figure out how to reply to a comment indented that much, so hope you get this.)

    Don’t worry about it. If I read you wrong, I’m sorry.

  6. I was curious about the concept of “double truth”, which you mentioned as a principle espoused by Origen. From your piece I infer it means something like “a plain reading of a text renders one meaning, but a hidden meaning can be gleaned from a more esoteric reading”. But a cursory consultation of Google, Wikipedia, and the online Catholic Encyclopedia suggests a different understanding of “double truth”. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, it means “a proposition may be false according to reason (and philosophy) and at the same time be true according to faith (and theology), or vice versa. It implies that two propositions, one of which is contrary or contradictory to the other, can be true simultaneously.” George Orwell, or Lewis Carroll, couldn’t have put it better! But what of your usage of “double truth”? Where can I read more about Origen’s advocacy of double-speak?

  7. Dear Dr. Carrier,

    It seems to me that historicists like Ehrman face a similar problem:

    How did an insignificant apocalyptic preacher become a raised angelic being within 10 years after his humiliating death?

    What is the probability p that bereavement hallucinations can cause this?

    If we identify probabilities with relative frequencies, p must be very low because bereavement hallucinations are widespread and yet we know of no other case of people “seeing” their dead friends and then concluding he is a raised angelic being who has always existed.

    So in my opinion, this is a strong Argument against Ehrman’s historicism.

    Do you think I am on to something or did I get off the rails?

    Friendly greetings from France.

    1. That’s a good question.

      But no.

      Because to have come up with that, as you note, requires creative exegesis, to mold how visions are constructed, received, or understood, exactly the same as would be required to inspire the cosmic version (which also is reputed to have come by visions). Mere visions wouldn’t be enough. Any improbability that attaches to the one, equally attaches to the other. So insofar as either is an unexpected outcome, it’s equally unexpected on both theories.

      Which leaves us with a Likelihood Ratio of 1/1. No effect. The probability of neither theory is moved.

    2. A different argument would be, “Wouldn’t they be less likely to ever have thought this of a man they had actually met and lived with, than of a cosmic being they only learn about through inspired readings of scripture and who never went so far as to walk the earth?” And that I’m not so sure of. People have thought similar things of living men. And I’m not very persuaded by any “Jews would never do that” argument, given how diverse Judaism was at the time, and all the wild things they evince actually being willing to entertain. Conversely, it was a commonplace belief that angels walk among men in fake bodies and that celestial beings could possess human bodies; so neither theory can be shown out of character for the time.

  8. Squirrelloid February 1, 2018, 11:46 am

    Regarding the cosmic seed of david in particular, are you familiar with the Jewish tradition of two messiahs? It holds there will be a messiah ben josef who will come to earth and suffer and die, and a messiah ben david who is/will be celestial and conquers, whose comings will be separate events. And indeed, some jewish traditions hold that the spirit of the messiah ben david descends into the messiah ben josef!

    Now, I can’t figure out how old this belief is. (And the truth of the matter is we probably can’t know the actual origin point). It seems to originate from attempts to understand Zechariah’s two descriptions of messiahs which are different, and the contradictions between Isaiah and Daniel in their depiction of the messiah.

    But the content of the theory is very interesting on mythicism, and would seem to preclude development after Christianity became popular (because it would seem to conclude a fundamentally Christian doctrine, which Jewish thought instead was moving away from).

    The following strike me as unusual except under the theory that (at least some) early Christians were aware of the two messiah theory:

    -Jesus ben Josef (that is, the son of Joseph)

    -The “holy spirit” descends to Jesus in the form of a dove. (Allegorically the spiritual cosmic messiah ben david descending into the messiah ben josef)

    -Jesus suffers and dies on earth

    -Jesus acts celestially (redemption of sin)

    -There will be a second coming where Jesus comes as righteous conqueror

    It’s also interesting that the Jewish theory has the messiah ben david as a celestial being, and Paul’s theory of Jesus seems to be as a purely celestial being (ie, the Doherty thesis).

    So, on the one hand, there’s the possibility that Matthew, seeing Paul’s celestial messiah ben David, combines him with the messiah ben Josef (both to explain both Zechariah messiah predictions, and explicitly because he’s aware of the theory, hence making the father Joseph). Now, I can’t say it’s a probability, but the choice of Joseph as father is striking here.

    But on the other hand, we have a definite Jewish tradition of a celestial messiah ben David, which makes all the handwringing about ‘no one would have believed that without Christianity’ false on face, because we have actual Jews who did believe that and (I believe) still believe that today.

    1. I have no opinion on your specific theory. But as to your question “are you familiar with the Jewish tradition of two messiahs?” the answer is yes. I devote an entire section to it, and the sources for it, in On the Historicity of Jesus (it’s in the Talmud, for example; and may have been in the Dead Sea Scrolls, it’s hard to know in their shredded state). I there propose that indeed the Christian sect merged the two messiahs; although we can’t be sure that unification hadn’t already occurred in any Jewish sects preceding or even evolving into the Christian sect. See OHJ, p. 75. Although I am not aware of any sources stating the Messiah ben David is “celestial” specifically.


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