Why it kinda sorta matters that early Christian leaders could have been frauds

I say the topic of my post only kinda sorta matters, because anyone’s obligated too much to worry about what exactly happened with the origins of Christianity. Anyone who knows their Biblical scholarship 101 should realize that the available evidence is extremely sketchy to the point that it’s obviously ludicrous to try, as some Christian apologists do, to spin our information about early Christianity into “proof” that Christianity is true. The apologists are in no business to demand that non-Christians either explain exactly what happened, or else convert. This should be easy even for Christians to see, if they imagine a member of some other religion trying to play the same game with equally weak evidence.

But last night I got into a Twitter argument with another atheist who was saying that the issue of the disciples lying about Jesus’ resurrection was a “red herring,” and that a lie “sucks” as an explanation for the evidence. I disagree, and want to explain why.

Let me tell a story: Carl Sagan’s excellent book A Demon Haunted World spends a lot of time discussing various crazy beliefs people have held throughout history, up to and including people who believe, apparently sincerely if deludedly, that they’ve been abducted by aliens. He compares these modern beliefs with past accounts of people’s supposed encounters with fairies and demons, implying that in the past some people probably sincerely believed they had encountered such things. And among the accounts is the story of George Adamski, a man who, in the 50s before the “alien abduction” myth had quite reached its present form, claimed to have been in contact with benevolent space men.

When I read Sagan’s book, I assumed Adamski was sincere, like the more recent abductees. However, as I did more reading on the contactee/abductee phenomenon, I came to the conclusion that while a lot of people who claim to have been abducted by aliens are simply deluded, Adamski was a fraud. He’d been caught faking UFO photographs. The lesson I drew from this it’s that it’s very hard to tell, based on limited information, whether someone making wild and implausible claims is sincere or not. The fact that they seem a lot like other sincere, deluded folks doesn’t rule out their being a fraud. You need quite a bit of information to be confident of that sort of thing, and I don’t think we have the needed information in regards to Jesus’ followers.

And this matters—at least if you care about atheist/Christian arguments—because the insistence that Jesus’ disciples could not have been liars is one of the flimsiest parts of the standard conservative apologetic for Christianity. The “liars make poor martyrs” slogan ignores both cases like Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, and the fact that we don’t know how Jesus’ disciples died. It can literally be given decisive refutation five minutes, tops. Sure, there’s reason to think Jesus’ followers might have been sincere but deluded, but that takes longer to explain, because most people aren’t as familiar with the wilder cases of religious delusions as they are with lies.

Since my interlocutor on Twitter insisted on a Bayesian analysis, here’s mine: given fraud, the probability of vague or hearsay accounts seeming more consistent with delusion, in absence of better information, isn’t that low. If you’re convinced it is low, I’m convinced you’re just succumbing to the human tendency towards overconfidence. It’s still reasonably to lean one way or another as to what probably happened. But to say fraud “sucks” as an explanation is wrong, and plays into the hands of Christian apologists.

This also matters—insofar as you care about such things—because it reveals some of the weaknesses in even the more liberal side of mainstream Biblical scholarship. More skeptical Biblical scholars have worked hard to come up with with polite ways to say the disciples were probably deluded. Not that conservatives are buying this attempt at politeness. As can be seen in e.g. this exchange involving Bart Ehrman, conservatives tend to see that sort of thing as liberals disingenuously hiding their true anti-Christian agenda. Even so, I think it reveals some of the biases that affect even the better Biblical scholars. Even people who don’t believe in the supernatural fail to really treat Christianity like they would any other movement, and take seriously the possibility that early leaders of the movement could have been frauds.

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  • ncovington89

    Yet another possibility is that some people genuinely believed and yet told lies to convince other people. Erich Von Daniken (alien enthusiast, author of “Chariots of the Gods”) once fabricated a story about something, by his own admission, to get others to believe in aliens. It could well be that Paul or his source of information embellished the number of people who had allegedly seen the risen Jesus.

    • Pofarmer

      Paul is basically preaching an apocalyptic mystery religion based on Ancient Astronomy. Read Bruce Malina’s take on revelations to get the blueprint. He thinks he’s getting messages long hidden in scripture, and Jesus is coming back to earth any day now. Somewhat later, the Gospel authors Ehumerized Jesus, which was a grand old Greek tradition, and it was off to the races.

      • ncovington89

        Hi pofarmer,

        What’s the name of Malina’s book?

        • Pofarmer

          Ya know, I don’t remember. Most of what I read of his was at vridar.org. You can go there and I am pretty sure Malina and Revelation are in the categories.

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

    It seems to me to be a sort of “fat tails” problem. The probability of a stock market crash may be small on any given day but the effect of a crash has such huge implications for investment returns that the possibility cannot be ignored.

    I’m not sure how to assess the probability that Paul was a fraud, but the implications for what we think we know about Christian origins are huge. Every NT scholar I know bases his reconstruction of pre-Pauline Christianity on the assumption that Paul is honest and sincere when it comes to his own experiences and those of his Christian contemporaries. If they were to allow for the possibility that Paul was a fraud–which I think they should–they would need to seriously reconsider the degree of certainty they express about their conclusions.

    • josh

      I’ve had similar thoughts. Most of us aren’t used to dealing with truly audacious liars, which often makes us poorly prepared when we do encounter them, and they could certainly have an outsized effect on history.

  • Søren Kongstad

    There is a Danish historian of religion – Mikael Rothstein – who has researched the rise of the UFO myth.
    He sees it as a modern religion – and as an excellent way of studying just how a religion forms. In the case of UFO’s you can almost exactly date the start – and follow the growth and adaptation of the religion.

    It is quite fun to compare it to the start of other religions