Apologists tell us that the gospels were written at a time when many disciples—the eyewitnesses—were still alive. If they heard an inaccurate story, they’d say, “I was there, and that’s not the way it happened!” They’d shut it down. An incorrect version of the story would not have survived. Said another way, that our gospel story did survive means that it avoided the gauntlet of naysayers and must be true.
Let’s consider this alternate history, where the gospel story was false, and those in the inner circle successfully snuffed it out. It quickly falls apart under examination. Here are 13 reasons why I say nay to this Naysayer Hypothesis.
1. There would have been few potential naysayers. The gospel story does report thousands witnessing the miracle of the loaves and fishes, but these wouldn’t be naysayers. A naysayer must have been a close companion of Jesus to witness him not doing every miracle recorded in the Gospels. He would need to know that Jesus didn’t walk on water and didn’t raise Lazarus. A proper naysayer must have been one of Jesus’s close companions during his entire ministry, and there would likely have been just a few dozen.
2. We imagine a handful of naysayers who know that the Jesus story is only a legend, but that was in the year 30. Now the first gospel is written and it’s roughly forty years later—how many are still alive? Conditions were harsh at that time, and people died young.
And consider that the gospels were written after siege of Jerusalem in 70, which Josephus says killed 1.1 million people. More were scattered or enslaved. Few naysayers would’ve remained to critique gospel accounts.
3. A naysayer must be in the right location to complain. Suppose he lived in Jerusalem, and say that the gospel of Mark was written in Alexandria, Egypt, which historians say is one possibility. How will our naysayer correct its errors? Sure, Mark will be copied and spread, but there’s little time before our 60- or 70-year-old witnesses die. Even if we imagine our tiny band dedicating their lives to stamping out this false story, believers are starting brush fires of Christian belief all over the Eastern Mediterranean, from Alexandria to Damascus to Corinth to Rome. How can we expect our naysayers to snuff them all out?
4. The naysayers had no motivation for dedicating their lives to stopping the false Jesus story. So there’s yet another nut who thinks he has it all figured out—who cares? Your Judaism isn’t under threat from this tiny cult (and it was a tiny cult in the early years).
Consider a modern equivalent. Many atheists today spend much time responding to claims of Christianity, but that’s because Christianity is society’s bull in the china shop. It causes harm. In contrast, imagine a Christian who also believes in reincarnation. That’s a weird set of beliefs, but who really cares? No one would devote their life to stamping out that belief.
5. The naysayers wouldn’t know about the problem. Two thousand years ago, you couldn’t walk down to the corner bookstore to find the latest Jesus gospel. How were our naysayers to learn of the story? Written documents at that time were scarce and precious things. And the naysayers would be Jews who didn’t convert to Christianity. They wouldn’t have associated much with the new Christians and so would have been unlikely to come across the Jesus story.
6. There was another gulf between the naysayers and the early Christians: the early church was a Greek institution. The epistles and gospels were written in Greek, not the local language of Aramaic spoken by Jesus and the naysayers. To even learn of the Jesus story in this community, our naysayers must speak Greek, which is hard to imagine among the typical peasant followers of Jesus. How many could have done this? And to influence the Greek-speaking readers of the gospels for us to learn of the problem, a rebuttal would have to have been written in Greek—not a common skill in Palestine.
7. Imagine a naysayer knew the actual Jesus and knew that he was merely a charismatic teacher. Nothing supernatural. Now he hears the story of Jesus the Son of Man, the man of miracles, the healer of lepers and raiser of the dead. Why connect “Son of Man” Jesus with your childhood buddy Jesus? “Jesus” was a common name (actually, Joshua or Yeshua), and supernatural claims were common at the time. His friend Jesus didn’t do anything like this, so the story he heard must be of a different person. So even when confronted with the false teaching, he wouldn’t know to raise an alarm.
8. Consider how hard is it today for a politician, celebrity, or business leader to stop a false rumor, even with the many ways to get the word out. Think about how hard it would have been in first-century Palestine. How many thousands of Christians were out there spreading the word for every naysayer with his finger in the dike? Given the sensational story (“Jesus was a miracle worker who can save you from your sins!”) and the mundane one (“Nah—he’s just a regular guy that I hung around with when I was growing up”), which has more traction?
The Jews of the time of Jesus had far better evidence of his divinity than we could ever hope to have. A tiny handful found it compelling and became his followers, but the vast majority didn’t. If eyewitness testimony is relevant, as today’s Christian apologists claim, we should follow that majority.
Concluded in part 2.
If 50 million people say a foolish thing,
it’s still a foolish thing.
— Anatole France
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 10/26/12.)
Image credit: erokism, flickr, CC