In two short, high-production videos on one of his YouTube channels, the apologist William Lane Craig offers a summary of the case he’s made in numerous debates with skeptics, for why it’s rational to think Jesus was resurrected from the dead. In Part One I examined those alleged facts and did Craig the favour of further compressing them into the teeny-tiny particles of fluff that are the actual premises of his argument.
In this second part, I’ll go over the second video’s illogic and explain why Craig’s case as a whole is specious.
The Basis of Christian Duplicity
Before I turn to that argument, however, it’s worth reflecting on the nature of the religion Craig means to support by his evidential method of argument. For example, the second video begins by summarizing the findings from the first one and says, “It’s a matter of historical record that Jesus of Nazareth died and his body was placed in a tomb.”
To say something like that, you have to think the Gospels read more like history than like hagiography (aretology), parable (allegorical theology), or Greek tragedy, for instance. Alas, only Acts is meant to be history, since the Gospels are explicit works of religious propaganda in that they share or shore up “the good news.” And Acts is far from being a reliable historical record.
The fact that the Gospels refer to actual people and places doesn’t mean the events described actually happened. On the contrary, many details of the Gospels’ stories are taken from Jewish scriptures and passed off as fulfillments of prophecy. The Gospels even give shoutouts to those “divine inspirations,” by quoting directly from them! To go on to pretend that a Gospel narrative is just an historical record would be like hijacking a plane and afterward boasting that you built the plane and flew it all by yourself.
But that’s not what’s crucial here. My point is that Christianity is strange in the way this religion attempts to find God within concrete things and events. Lots of religions have symbols, totems, and relics that are felt to contain spiritual power, but if you think, say, a certain totem pole is a sacred object in that it stands as an emblem for your tribe, you’re not likely to go on to muddy the water and speak of the totem as a mere cracked and moldy wooden sculpture. To do so would be to dishonour your tribe’s spirit and ruin the symbol’s magic.
However, Christians are infamous for wanting to have it both ways. Jesus was both fully God and fully man, according to the Athanasian Creed; Jesus is “Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead; and inferior to the Father as touching his Manhood” (no snickering, please). This emphasis on paradoxical two-sidedness is found also in the Gospels’ presentation of Jesus as having taught in parable form, since that form conceals a secret, revolutionary truth with mundane symbols (see Mark 4:10–12). Likewise, the Gospel of Mark was written almost as a giant parable itself, with its encoded messages and intercalations or sandwiching of stories and with its funneling of the overall narrative from Galilee to Jerusalem for tragic effect.
It’s also why Docetism, the view that Jesus was primarily a spiritual entity who took on only the illusion of material form was eventually condemned as heretical, because that heresy wasn’t wholly self-contradictory. The two-sidedness of Christianity is implicit also in that V-structure of Jesus’s descent into matter and ascension back to Heaven, which is common to dualistic Gnosticism and which I discussed in Part One (section 1.1).
More to the point, this double-sidedness is evidently why many Christians see nothing wrong with appealing to godless principles to attempt to rationalize their religious faith. They appeal to history, science, and philosophy whenever they think it suits them, even though those disciplines carry us further and further from naïve monotheism. These Christians nevertheless do so because their religion is primarily about an incarnation of God in a particular man. If the preexistent Christ Jesus could sully his divine nature by donning fleshly garb, the saved Christian can dabble in the demonic, hubristic explorations of history and philosophy.
Indeed, this is why wily Evangelicals like William Lane Craig evidently think they have a license to disfigure and bastardize the secular disciplines of history and philosophy. Evangelicals think there’s nothing shameless about resorting to specious reasoning or shallow salesmanship, or to distorting history or lowering intellectual standards, as long as the resulting religious “arguments” and “proofs” point back to the faith-based greater good of how God is somehow presently with us. In this case, though, Christian rationality is more like Docetism than dualism, since the evidential apologist’s appeal to the procedures of historians and philosophers is only superficial and insincere.
By revealing that these Christian arguments are shams, the genuine historian or philosopher isn’t necessarily opposed to every conception of divinity, since in so far as it’s objectively explained, nature seems sufficiently miraculous. What’s most objectionable, rather, is the egregious incoherence and foolishness of the core Christian “doctrines” (the Trinity, Incarnation, and Resurrection), which poison the believer’s mind until the Christian is helpless and pliable and reduced to being a pawn fighting not for any divine good, but just for this or that theocratic empire.
On then to the unmasking!
A False Framing of the Power Dynamic
The second video takes the first one to have established that Jesus was buried in a tomb, that the tomb was found empty, that his followers saw Jesus alive after he was dead, and that they believed as much even when they shouldn’t have been expected to as scared Jews.
Christians explain those facts by positing, of course, that Jesus was miraculously resurrected. According to Craig, it’s up to non-Christians to offer alternative, naturalistic explanations to justify their rejection of the Christian explanation. The question for Craig is which explanation is best.
But two unsettling points emerge from how the video sets up its overall argument. First, the video is dedicated almost entirely to criticizing what it calls the four most popular naturalistic explanations of the three “facts,” the explanations being that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross or that the disciples faked the resurrection, went to the wrong tomb, or hallucinated when they thought they saw a resurrected Jesus. From 0:45 to 5:30 in Craig’s 6:46 minute video, the narrator criticizes those four theories instead of laying out the Christian’s supernatural one.
Second, the video’s narrator speaks of the natural explanations as being offered “down through history,” and of how they’re mostly rejected by today’s New Testament scholars. This is telling, since you wouldn’t bother offering those kinds of alternative explanations unless you gave too much credit to the Christian’s assumption of those “facts” that are supposed to be in evidence.
You’d expect the skeptic to take for granted at least the structure of the Gospel narrative, perhaps centuries after the events supposedly took place, only when the skeptic happens to live in an authoritarian Christian society in which entertaining the preposterousness of that religion is barely even conceivable. Only when theistic religions were no longer the only games in town in the West would you expect the rejection of Christianity to have become more absolute and not so charitable.
In so far as natural explanations of the resurrection have been offered in the last century, well after the lessons of modern science have sunk in, this shouldn’t be taken at face value. Skeptical scholars would offer them not so much because they believe them, but just to make headway in competitive academic circles, by devising a novel twist on an old idea. Alternatively, such theories may be offered purely for entertainment, as in Dan Brown’s conspiratorial fictions. Indeed, as I said in Part One, a skeptic in a secular or non-Christian society might concede the three facts only for the sake of argument, humoring the Christian’s assumptions for some intellectual play.
Thus, if we assume that natural explanations of Craig’s three Christian facts are no longer in vogue, we needn’t be committed to thinking that those alleged facts should be taken as actual facts or that the only other alternative is supernatural Christianity. The real, twenty-first century rejection of Christianity doesn’t proceed as Craig presupposes.
If I as an atheist, a philosophical naturalist, and an ironic pantheist and cosmicist were asked what I think about the Christian’s resurrection story, I wouldn’t dream of taking the New Testament for granted as a set of historical records and acting as a clueless pseudoscientist in presenting naturalistic hypotheses to account for the Gospels’ record of events — as if two thousand years later we had enough evidence one way or the other to test such hypotheses.
The structure of Craig’s argument makes for a sideshow, not for an honest engagement with the postscientific rejection of Christianity. If you asked most nonreligious people today why they don’t worship Jesus, they’d say they hadn’t bothered to think much about it, meaning they don’t care so much about that religion, and the reason they don’t care is because they’ don’t take that religion’s claims seriously.
To get people today in the twenty-first century to take Christianity seriously, the apologist has to sell — that is, betray — her religion. Thus, the Creationist turns Genesis into a science textbook, because science is all the rage; the prosperity televangelist turns the New Testament into a self-help manual, to perpetrate just another American con; and the Evangelical treats the Gospels as historical records, to appeal to the self-centered, humanistic mindset. Real history, after all, is the story of our civilizations and we secular humanists love talking about ourselves because we believe there’s little else that’s important — besides the godless universe which we intend to reduce to raw materials to service our needs.
Does the non-Christian only presume out of arrogance that Christianity shouldn’t be taken seriously and does this critic thus miss out on a wealth of evidence in the religion’s favour? No, the reason for the anti-Christian presumption these days is that monotheism is no longer the only game in town in the West. We now have a natural worldview which competes so well with monotheism that secular institutions have taken almost all the sociopolitical power from the churches. (Consistent with this reversal of fortunes, American conservative Christianity has to operate largely from the shadows to infiltrate the US government.)
We have, then, yet another magician’s trick in the structure of Craig’s argument (see the intro to Part One): Craig’s videos presume the viewer is being forced to reckon with what Christianity brings to the table, namely with the three facts and the failure of the naturalistic accounts of them. Thus, the videos end by asking, “How do you explain them [the three facts]?” and “How do you explain the resurrection?” as though the videos amounted to a challenge.
But by reducing her religion to mere history, as opposed to recognizing the Christian narrative as myth, it’s the Christian literalist who’s a supplicant at the naturalist’s table. By lowering herself to using reason to justify her religious beliefs instead of coming to terms with the existential, nonrational nature of all our deepest convictions, this confused or duplicitous Christian is trying to adopt the philosophical naturalist’s arsenal.
The real challenge, therefore, isn’t for the late-modern secularist to come to grips with any fact reported by the New Testament’s narrative, but for the Christian who lives in the science-powered, free-thinking West to reckon with the degraded form of religion she insists on practicing to avoid offending the nontheistic powers that be.
Artists in certain parts of the world used to have to censor their inspirations to cater to Christian demand, since the Church once ruled. Now it’s the Christian apologist who pretends to care about history, logic, and evidence, to reconcile her fairytale with the world of the spaceship, the smartphone, and the nuclear power plant.
The Emptiness of Theistic Explanations
William Lane Craig’s lack of such reckoning is evident from that first telling fact of the second video’s focus on the natural explanations. Focusing on them allows Craig to avoid dealing with the problem that the supernatural account isn’t even a contender as an explanation or a theory of anything, since those latter terms are defined now by science and philosophy, not by theology or myth.
The video says the four naturalistic theories “fail to explain the historical facts” of the empty tomb and so on. But at least they’re genuine explanations because they’re about the natural world. There’s no such thing as a theory or explanation that appeals explicitly to the supernatural! The notion of such an account would be an oxymoron. If you pay careful attention to the video, you find that Craig or the narrator knows this, too, which is why he spends so little time addressing this glaring weakness of the Christian case for the resurrection.
“Unlike the other theories,” says the video, the disciples’ explanation “makes perfect sense of the empty tomb, the appearances of Jesus alive, and the disciples’ willingness to die for their beliefs.” See how that language means to put supernaturalism on the same level as naturalism, since both are “theories” or “explanations.” Alas, it’s not so.
The video then briefly admits there may be a problem here: “But is this [Christian] explanation even plausible? After all, it requires a miracle, a supernatural act of God.” The end of the first video comes to the argument’s aid, quoting a philosopher as saying, “For a God who is able to create the entire universe, the odd resurrection would be child’s play.”
Of course, that’s correct as far as it goes. Creating a universe would seem harder to carry out than raising someone from the dead. But that’s still only to speak in the language of myth or theological allegory or prose poetry. Saying that God created the universe doesn’t have anything to do with explaining how the universe came to be, since of course God would be inexplicable and far more mysterious than the universe. Likewise, saying that God raised Jesus from the dead doesn’t explain the empty tomb or the appearances, since “miracle” and “supernatural resurrection” are just empty words, not falsifiable hypotheses or descriptions of a mechanism that adds to our understanding of how things work.
All the theistic concepts of “God,” “divine creation,” “miracle,” and “resurrection” do is add confusion or comfort, not clarity about what the world’s really like. These concepts are like black holes in the fabric of the natural account of things. If you think being in a black hole would be just like being on a planet, I invite you to think again. Similarly, saying that God miraculously raised Jesus from the dead isn’t at all like an explanation in physics, astronomy, or cognitive science.
Again, the Christian who stoops to rationalizing her religious faith by proffering these pseudo-explanations should realize that she ought instead to be castigating the diabolical, faith-based presumptions of secular humanism, such as the pragmatism or hubris that drives us to objectify natural processes and posit mechanisms that can be exploited to grow the materialistic societies that feed our narcissism and decadence. This is a dangerous game of pseudo-intellectualism Craig and his ilk are playing — for them and their secularized religion.
The Impossibility of an Incoherent God
So the second video grants that talk of a miracle might be “implausible,” but doesn’t address the deeper problem of the wholesale explanatory emptiness of that talk. In any case, the video’s solution to the problem of a miracle’s implausibility is to gesture towards the ontological argument for God’s existence. “Think about it,” says the video, “if it’s even possible that God exists, then miracles are possible, and this explanation cannot be ruled out. And surely it’s possible that God exists.”
Craig is being cautious in his wording here, since what he actually thinks, given his defenses of the ontological argument, is that because God’s existence is possible, God necessarily exists. In the video, he or his narrator says just that we can’t rule out the possibility of God, which means we need to consider the resurrection story — instead of dismissing it as archaic nonsense, presumably.
I’ve dealt with the fallacious ontological argument elsewhere (here and here). For one thing, the move from possibility to necessity exploits a loophole in modal logic that’s meant to be just a pruning rule that reduces superfluous modal statements like “necessarily necessary p” to just “necessarily p.” But this rule has the counterintuitive implication that if p is possibly necessary, p is just necessary.
By exploiting this pruning rule, the Christian is misunderstanding the nature of rational systems, treating the “laws” of our theories or models as though they were necessary and divinely ordained rather than tentative and fallible, pragmatic or game-like. The naturalist’s humble or tragically-heroic view of reason which underlies modern science and logic is a far cry from the theologian’s grandiose presumption that there’s an absolute correspondence between human thinking and the inhuman facts of the broader world.
Putting aside the ontological argument, the proper response to Craig here is that God’s existence isn’t possible, because the monotheist’s concept of God is incoherent and empty. To say that God’s existence is possible is like saying it’s possible that nothing exists. Only things can exist, and nothing is by definition not a thing. God is equivalent to nothing in so far as “he” is, for example, an eternal mind, since God would have to have mental states that proceed sequentially in time, but he’d also have to be atemporal.
So no, God’s existence isn’t possible and neither is a miracle in the theist’s sense, since those terms are vacuous for explanatory or philosophical purposes. In particular, the monotheist is treating naïve myths, poetry, and prophetic rants as though they could serve responsibly as rational explanations of what’s literally, objectively the case.
On the contrary, authentic religious discourse consists of metaphors and allegories that arrive at what Kierkegaard called subjective, existential truth or at a mystical apprehension of how ultimately all our knowledge is illusory. Those deeper views of religion are meant to instill humility, but if you’re really looking for a miracle, all you have to do is find a humble Evangelical Christian in the age of President Trump.
In his review of an old debate between the atheist Kai Nielson and the apologist JP Moreland, collected in Does God Exist?, Craig responds with incredulity to this criticism that God-talk is meaningless and empty, which Nielson levels against Moreland. Craig says he has ‘a perfectly perspicuous idea of, to use his [Nielson’s] example, “the Maker of heaven and earth.” And analytic philosophy of religion has helped give clear, coherent definitions to divine attributes such as eternity, omniscience, omnipotence, necessity, and moral perfection. Philosophers have made it perfectly clear what they’re talking about.’
As I explain elsewhere, what the philosophers of religion are talking about is the so-called God of the philosophers which bears little relation to the personal gods of folk religions with whom the vast majority of monotheists and polytheists are concerned. The philosopher’s “God” is an abstraction, an absolute, transcendent, incomprehensible and thus impersonal ground of being which subsequently became naturalized by scientists.
The more you stuff abstract attributes into God like so many clowns in a clown car, the more you deprive God of personhood. In so far as the God of the philosophers is the Maker of heaven and earth, that abstract First Cause might as well be just the gravitational singularity at the root of the Big Bang. Once you personalize that abstraction, you end up with self-contradiction.
It’s just that the literalistic Christian is used to harmonizing contradictions and explaining away compromises and catastrophes. First, Rome crucified the savior, then most Jews rejected Christianity, then the Second Coming was delayed, then Rome adopted Christianity, then modern science came along and the historical-critical method made nonsense of the naïve literalist’s readings of the Bible.
All the Evangelical needs, though, are a few handy epicycles, consisting of rhetorical magic tricks, theological gibberish, and appeals to outdated intuitions to show how an infinite, immutable, eternal, logically-necessary ground of all beings can also happen to be a particular, familiar, existent being, namely a patriarchal person who cares about justice and morality and who demands that we worship him or he’ll torture us forever.
Conspiracy in Early Christianity
As I show elsewhere, it should go without saying that any naturalistic explanation, no matter how unlikely or deficient, is orders of magnitude more plausible than any miracle story. The former triumphs by default, because the latter comes to nothing. Thus, I’m not going to waste the reader’s time by defending in any depth the four natural explanations that Craig’s video rejects. To do so would be to fall for Craig’s red herrings.
But I’ll make an exception in the case of the first such explanation, which Craig calls the Conspiracy Theory, since it overlaps with some of what I’ve said in Part One. According to Craig’s representation of this theory, the disciples faked the resurrection and lied about it. Craig’s narrator says there are “overwhelming objections” against this version of events. The first is that the assumption of such a conspiracy would be “hopelessly anachronistic,” since it fails to take into account the expectations of the ancient Jews.
Just imagine, though, the size of the gall bladder in the twenty-first-century Christian who speaks openly and without irony about God’s performance of miracles, but who accuses a critic of being anachronistic! Moreover, the Gospels themselves are full of anachronisms and caricatures, because they were written decades after the events of Jesus’s life would have taken place, when the situations of Judaism and Christianity had drastically changed, after 70 CE; for example, the New Testament scapegoats the Jews and treats the Romans with kid gloves.
According to Craig’s video, the anachronisms of the Conspiracy Theory are that Jews had “no concept” of a messiah who would be executed by his enemies or who would be resurrected. The ancient Jewish view of the resurrection was of a general event and had no connection with the messiah, says the video.
I eviscerated such canards in Part One (sections 3.0, 3.1). There was no such thing as “the Jewish” view of the messiah or of resurrection. Jews in that period were divided on most theological issues and were forced to rethink their identity when Rome destroyed the Jewish homeland and defeated the Jewish rebels in the late-first and early-second centuries CE.
See Isaiah 53 for a Jewish concept of a suffering servant of God. Add a dash of the Jewish scapegoat ritual for the concept of blood sacrifice. And don’t forget about all of ancient Jewish history which led to Jews seeing themselves as righteous servants of God who suffered under oppressors, from the Assyrians and the Babylonians to the Greeks and the Romans. (That moralistic interpretation of their history became prominent in the sixth century BCE after the Jews’ encounter with Zoroastrianism.) Pile onto that the Mystery religions’ concept of the dying-and-rising god, which was in the air in Jesus’s time.
But Craig wants his audience to believe the Christian view of a savior was inconceivable to any first-century Jew. He must think little of Jewish imagination, because as a Christian he’s been so immersed in the New Testament’s anti-Semitism.
The video speaks also of the disciples’ “obvious sincerity” and of how they wouldn’t martyr themselves for what they knew was phony. Again, I address this in Part One (section 3.3). The video here is setting up a strawman, since there are conspiracies in which the participants don’t know they’re engaging in a fraud or a cover-up. This is what pawns are for. (See the sci-fi horror film Cube for a dramatization.)
Of course, the prevailing fraud was the culture of Jewish monotheism itself, as Nietzsche explained, since that ideology gave the Jews courage to outlast tyrannies, but at the cost of their dishonour in existential terms, since the subjugation of Jews was due to the world’s amorality, not to any divine punishment. However, as indicated by the jadedness of Job and Ecclesiastes and by the hard-won pragmatic spirit of Judaism, Jews came around to the existential truth, much to their credit.
One other related conspiracy was the later Church’s assigning of authorship of the New Testament texts to legendary figures from the early Jesus movement. The authors themselves weren’t guilty of fraud, since they were following the Jewish tradition of writing anonymously in the voice of an important figure.
However, when the canon was being established some centuries later, the interest in boosting the Church’s credibility took precedence over any concern with historical truth, to say the least. Thus, those decisions to assign the four Gospels to eye-witnesses, to ascribe all the Pauline letters to Paul himself, and to vouch that the personages of Peter, James, John, and Jude authored the Catholic Epistles constituted a real Christian conspiracy. Even today, two thousand years later, conservative or anti-intellectual Christians use that conspiracy — calling it “Church tradition” — as a cudgel against historians and skeptics.
With respect to the resurrection story, the Christian conspiracy needn’t even have been literal or have featured any moustache-twiddling villain who guided the deception, since it could have been nature’s conspiracy against our best interests that keeps us in the dark. The disciples needn’t have been motivated by Machiavellian cunning; on the contrary, they could have been gullible, desperate, and self-deceived, which could have led them to make fools of themselves and to die for cherished delusions. In short, the disciples could have been just like the dupes of many other cults. (This assumes for the sake of argument that some disciples were martyred, which is contrary to the earliest evidence, as I point out in section 3.3 of Part One.)
Sincerity in holding a belief isn’t any guarantee of the belief’s truth, and only someone who’s been misled by sentimental twaddle or who isn’t herself being sincere would insinuate otherwise. Even if a person dies for her beliefs, it’s possible she’s only a hapless, gullible pawn in some fraud or larger power dynamic.
The Real Foundation of Christianity
Now at last we can set aside William Lane Craig’s pair of propaganda videos. It’s almost a law of marketing that the slicker the message’s packaging, the more fallacious the message’s content; certainly, that’s apparent from associative advertisements. I understand these are just two short videos of Craig’s and that he’s written books on the resurrection and publically debated the matter many times, but the outline of his argument is the same, however much obfuscation, showmanship, and specious reasoning he throws up to gull the audience.
See, for example, his book, The Son Rises: Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus, which is just a longer-form treatment of the argument in the two videos. And the same overall argument unfolds in the third part of Craig’s more scholarly book, Assessing the NT Evidence for the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus.
In The Son Rises, for instance, Craig likewise says Matthew’s representation of how the Jewish critics responded to the resurrection “presupposes the empty tomb.” Moreover, Craig goes as far as to write that Matthew told “exactly what the Jews were saying against the Christians” (my emphasis) — as if silencing your critics by misrepresenting their views were unheard of in the annals of verbal disagreement.
As I said in Part One (1.3), Craig fails to take into account the obvious possibility that the Jewish critics were granting the empty tomb merely for the sake of argument. Supposing this or that to be true is common in the exercise of logic; indeed, notice how in these two articles of mine I’ve sometimes toyed with Craig by accepting one layer of his claptrap only for the instrumental purpose of revealing a deeper layer of his claptrap.
But now that Craig’s behind us, a couple of crucial questions remain: If the four popular natural explanations of the resurrection amount to Craig’s oversimplifications and if Christianity’s miraculous resurrection story must be dismissed as an embarrassment, how did Christianity originate? What propelled the religion’s growth if not some such miracle?
I’ll close by sketching an answer to those questions.
Notice especially that the issue of whether there was an historical Jesus is mooted by the fact that all Jews under Roman occupation would have seen themselves as approximating the New Testament figure of Jesus: all Jews saw themselves as God’s chosen ones who were obsessed with righteous obedience to God but who nonetheless suffered under the Roman Empire that reduced them to nuisances rather than revering them for having the superior religion.
There would have been innumerable Jewish elders and rebels who were slaughtered by Rome because they stirred up resentment against the occupation, by preaching subversive Jewish wisdom, prophesying, healing the sick, and proclaiming themselves champions of otherworldly, anti-Roman ideals. There’s no trouble imagining that one of those Jewish victims, or perhaps a hybrid of several, was the historical basis of the Jesus stories in the New Testament — as long we dismiss the miracle stories and theological elaborations that would have reflected the later followers’ reverence for the presumed founder and their preoccupation with managing their religious movement.
Only the barest outline of that historical figure is plausibly discerned in the NT, since the details, themes, and literary devices are mostly borrowed from other sources, including the Hebrew scriptures, midrash, Mystery religions, Greek tragedies, Hellenistic biographies and romance novels (such as that of Apollonius of Tyana), aretalogies (stories of a hero’s martyrdom), and apocalypses.
As Duling and Perrin conclude in The New Testament: Proclamation and Parenesis, Myth and History (third ed.), “the Markan author used the literary techniques of apocalyptic writers,” but also “combined them with elements of other genres to create something distinctive: the gospel. Thus, it has elements of bios [Hellenistic biography], aretalogy, encomium [hagiography], and prophecy; yet, its heroic element is highly ironic and expresses the tragic, even though its hope can be simply seen; it interprets ancient texts, but is not simply commentary on them; it is parabolic in its mystery and open-endedness, yet mythic in its significance for telling the truth and revealing the future for its readers. It is not an apocalypse, but it is nonetheless very apocalyptic.”
Paul’s theology is closer to Gnosticism and to the Mystery cults, which feature the dying-and-rising savior gods. The exoteric significance of those pagan myths has to do with celebrating nature’s fertility and the cyclical return of favourable seasons, but the Mysteries also had esoteric teachings which the followers were sworn to protect. These inner mysteries derived from the Egyptian cult of Osiris, the Lord of the Underworld who conquered death and offered eternal life to all who ritually bound themselves to him (just as Christians bind themselves to Jesus with the Eucharist or by chanting certain magic formulas).
Before 70 CE, the early Christians were divided especially between the Ebionites or Jewish Christians who saw Christianity as fit only for Jews, and the more Gnostic Pauline Christians who emphasized matters of abstract theology that could serve as the basis of a new, Jewish-pagan hybrid faith.
But that only scratches the surface of the divisions, since the Greco-Roman period as a whole was a time of clashing cultures and frantic syncretism, due to the globalization left by Alexander the Great’s unprecedented imperialism. The problem was a forerunner of what we call “postmodernity,” the dangers of relativism and cynicism caused by a confrontation with many other cultures that all begin to seem equally arbitrary.
In any case, traditional Christians say there would have been no Jesus movements or Christ cults had there been no miracle-working historical Jesus of Nazareth. But as Robert Price points out in Deconstructing Jesus, “even if there was a historical Jesus who actually walked the earth two thousand years ago, there is no historical Jesus any more! The original is irrecoverable,” because the evidence in the NT goes off in too many directions, providing grounds for the many incompatible scholarly portraits of the founder.
Price goes on to say, “The gospels’ Jesuses are each complex syntheses of various other, earlier Jesus characters. Some of these may have been reflections of various messianic prophets and revolutionaries, others the fictive counterparts of itinerant charismatics, and still others historicizations of mythical Corn Kings and Gnostic Aions.”
I’d add, again, that in the first century CE, the Jewish people as a collective stood as a virtual Christ Jesus, figuratively speaking. To come to the point, then, even if there were an historical Jesus, he needn’t have been miraculously raised from the dead for the Christian narrative to have resonated with some Jews and with pagans, too. What triumphed over death wasn’t so much any particular Jew who was executed by the Romans, but the Jewish people together who’d survived multiple subjugations by pagan imperialists, including the destructions of both their original Temple by the Assyrians and the rebuilt one, by the Romans.
Not all Jews were taken with the Christian symbolism, since Jews of the first century were divided on theological issues, and in any case the Jewish interpretation of the Christian message was pointless after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE. Luckily for the incipient Christian movement, the Jews’ experience of their righteous culture’s seemingly-miraculous survival over the centuries fed into the Mystery religions’ idea of the dying-and-rising savior and into the pagan appetite for tragic tales of the persecution of wise men and virtuous heroes.
The core of the Christian narrative replaces the exoteric meanings of the Mystery religions, namely fertility and the agricultural emphasis on the return of favourable seasons, with the upshot of that Jewish experience of their whole recorded history. Again, it’s the memory of Jewish history as a whole, as it was interpreted under the influence of moralistic Zoroastrianism in the sixth century BCE, that propelled the growth of early Christianity, not the clichéd miracles allegedly performed by just one of the many heroic victims of the Roman Empire’s sociopathic efficiency.
Thus, if I’m asked how I explain the evidence of early Christianity while avoiding any frivolous appeal to a man’s miraculous return from death, I say that what enchanted people in early Christianity was that religion’s initial (and later nominal) celebration of the underdog, as symbolized by Jesus who stood for the Jewish people as a whole. By extension, Jesus, the character in the New Testament, represented all underdogs, namely women, slaves, and the downtrodden, which happened to include most inhabitants of the ancient world who were, after all, victims of theocratic megamachines.
Even if there were an historical Jesus buried beneath the NT’s religious propaganda, the rhetorical power of the story of his triumph over death was substantiated not by any supernatural event, but by the historical survival of the Jewish people and by the courage shown by so many victims of the world’s manifest godlessness.