This post will look critically at the Conspiracy Theory, The Apparent Death (Swoon) Theory,  and The Mythology Theory

Click here if you have not read Part I of this post

When writing history, there are certain “speed bumps” that are taken to help prevent biased history.  In his book, Justifying Historical Descriptions, C. Beham McCullagh identifies those speed bumps.

  1. Method.  Specific methodological procedures keeps a check on less disciplined and poorly supported historical reconstructions.
  2. Submitting ideas to hostile or unsympathetic experts.  I am inclined to find faults in opposing views, but less inclined to find them when the view is my own.  Peer reviewed articles, papers read at conferences, participation in panel discussions, and debates exposes one’s methods and conclusions to public scrutiny.
  3. Account for the relevant historical bedrock.  Some facts are so evident that they are virtually indisputable. This is referred to as our historical bedrock since any legitimate hypothesis must be built upon it. If a hypothesis fails to account for all the historical bedrock, then that hypothesis needs to be dragged back to the drawing board or relegated to the trash bin.
  4. Deliberate and sustained effort of detaching one’s self from personal bias.  Historians must primarily be concerned with finding out what things really happened, not whether their conclusions confirm their own beliefs. Temporarily adopting views that conflict with our own and empathizing with those holding them can go a long way to accomplishing this.

There are six important criteria for weighing historical hypothesis (Method).  These are also taken from C. Beham McCullagh:

  1. Explanatory Scope.   According to this criterion, the best explanation is the one that includes all of the relevant data. Imagine trying to complete a jigsaw puzzle. Each puzzle piece represents a historical fact.
  2. Explanatory power.  According to the criterion, the best explanation accounts for all the known facts without having to force any of them to fit and without leaving much ambiguity. The hypothesis that does this best is to be preferred. The hypothesis with less explanatory power has some pieces of the puzzle that do fit, but you can tell they have been forced (which is what we are trying to avoid).
  3. Less ad-hoc. Sometimes it appears that historians are tempted to salvage their failing hypothesis by appealing to an explanation for which there is no independent evidence. When this occurs, that hypothesis may be said to be “ad-hoc.”  In this solution to the puzzle, not only are some of the pieces stranded, while others are forced, but you can see that there is an outside solution that makes the whole thing quite convoluted and tortuous, and that is what we are trying to avoid.
  4. Plausibility. This has to do with the degree to which accepted knowledge implies the hypothesis.  In this case, “accepted knowledge” means  both the background evidence, as well as the specific evidence for the case at hand. This “accepted knowledge” is compared to the degree in which the data would imply the falsity of the hypothesis. Plausibility means you take all your information and the degree to which it implies the truth of the hypothesis as opposed to implying the falsehood of the hypothesis. Which one is more plausible given the data – that the hypothesis is true or that it is false?
  5. It needs to be disconfirmed by fewer accepted beliefs.   It must be disconfirmed by fewer accepted beliefs than any other competing hypothesis about the same subject;  that is, when conjoined with accepted truths it must imply fewer observation statements and other statements which are believed to be false. If you add the hypothesis to accepted truths, fewer falsehoods will result.
  6. It exceeds its rival hypothesis in meeting criteria 1-5. In order to be the best explanation, the accepted hypothesis must exceed its rival hypotheses in meeting conditions 1-5 to a good degree. This also means there is little chance that future discoveries will show rival hypotheses as meeting the first five criteria better than the accepted hypothesis.

We will now revisit three of  the different hypotheses regarding the resurrection and post-mortem appearances of Jesus of Nazareth. Prior to that however, we need to briefly look at six  facts regarding the death and post-mortem appearances of Jesus of which most historians agree occurred. That is to say, we will be looking at some of the historical bedrock surrounding Jesus’ death and post-mortem appearances. There are some skeptical scholars, like Dr. Bart Ehrman, that combine some of these into one another so there are less than six facts.  Nonetheless, even Dr. Ehrman agrees that all of these facts actually occurred:

  1. Pilate, the Procurator, sentenced Jesus of Nazareth to death by crucifixion (Mark 15:12-15 “and delivered Jesus, when he had scourged Him, to be crucified”, Luke 23:23-24. Luke uses the phrase “gave sentence”).
  2. Jesus dies (Luke 23:46 “gave up the ghost”). In the year 70 A.D. when Titus destroyed Jerusalem, so many of the rebels were crucified that Titus ran out of lumber.
  3. After His crucifixion, Jesus was buried in a tomb by a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin named Joseph of Arimathea (Mark 15:45-47).
  4. Jesus’ body is not in the tomb 3 days later (Luke 24:1-3). Dr. Bart Ehrman points out that this is a disputed fact among some scholars, although he himself holds to it as fact.  The conservative Bible scholar, Mike Lacona, does not include this in his list of facts because of the dispute, although he holds to it as fact as well.
  5. Jesus’ disciples claimed to have seen Jesus after his death and  this completely transformed them (John 20:19-291 Corinthians 15:1-10, Pauline appearance: Acts 9:1-9Acts 22:2-9Acts 26:8-161 Timothy 1:13).
  6. The original disciples believed that Jesus was risen from the dead despite their having every predisposition to the contrary.

Conspiracy Theory

This is the view that the earliest disciples banded together to perpetrate a hoax. They decided to steal His body from the tomb, dispose of it secretly, and then lie and tell people He had risen from the dead. This theory on the face of it is  psychologically implausible. Nobody that reads the pages of the New Testament, can doubt that these people sincerely believed the message they proclaimed. They were willing to die for the message they proclaimed and indeed, some did. One can say, “Well a lot of people die for a lie. David Korish or Jim Jones, etc.”  This is correct, but in every case they thought it was the truth. This view suggests that these folks made up this hoax and then went out and preached this view and were willing to suffer horrible deaths for it. That is just enormously impossible psychologically. There can be no doubt that these people, even if diluted, sincerely believed that Jesus was risen from the dead.

Even more fundamentally however, the Achilles heal of the Conspiracy Theory is that it is anachronistic (ad-hoc interpretation). That is to say, it tries to interpret the disciples’ situation through the rear -view mirror of contemporary Christian theology. It looks back on the disciples and says, “Oh! They wanted to convince people of the resurrection so they stole the body and lied about it.” But that is to look at their situation through the rear-view mirror of a church and culture that already believes in the resurrection of Jesus. You have to go back to 1st century Judaism and put yourself in the disciples’ shoes when no one had heard of such a thing as a resurrection from the dead prior to the end times. For a 1st century Jew, the idea of a Messiah being humiliated by his enemies and then executed as a criminal instead of triumphing over the enemies of Israel was just a contradiction in terms. There was nothing in antecedent Judaism of such a Messiah.

The Messiah was supposed to be the royal Son of David, heir to the throne,who was supposed to establish David’s thrown in Israel, throw off Israel’s enemies and subjugate gentiles around them. Of course in the first century that meant Rome. That meant that the Messiah had to throw off the yoke of Rome and re-establish David’s throne in Jerusalem. The idea that this Jesus of Nazareth, who had been crucified by the Romans  as a common criminal, but was indeed the Messiah after all, is just absurd from a Jewish point of view. More over, there was no connection between being the Messiah and being risen from the dead. Even if the disciples had come to believe that Jesus was a kind of Jewish martyr or something of that sort, the resurrection of the dead was something that occurred only after the end of the world – on judgement day; the so called eschatological resurrection or end times resurrection. There was no belief in a resurrection to glory and immortality within history. There was no belief of a resurrection of one person, isolated from the general resurrection at the end of the world. The idea that the disciples would cook up a scheme to say Jesus had resurrected from the dead is totally anachronistic. Given their [the disciples] first century Jewish thought forms and frame of thought, the disciples would simply have preserved Jesus’ tomb as a shrine where His bones could reside. The bones of the dead were collected in ossuaries to await the final resurrection at the end of history. Jesus’ bones would reside there in the tomb. Perhaps the disciples could make pilgrimages to the tomb on a regular basis and they would look forward with longing to that day when Jesus and they and all the righteous dead of Israel would be reunited in the Kingdom of God in the resurrection of the last day. But to suggest that He was really the Messiah and was risen from the dead is something that is completely anachronistic and is putting later Christianity back on the disciples in a way that is not true to the historical situation in which they found themselves. Therefore, there is almost no contemporary scholar who would hold to the conspiracy theory. This theory has been dead for over 200 years.

What about the “suffering Messiah” passages in Isaiah 53 and other Old Testament prophecies used by Christians to legitimate the death of Jesus? With the Isaiah passages, these are not Messianic prophecies when read from the standpoint of a 1st century Jew. Those are about the suffering servant of Yahweh. There is no suggestion that for a 1st century Jew, this was the Messiah. It is only when you read them in retrospect, later on, that you could then re-interprate them in that light to say, “Ah! Now I see them in the life of Jesus Christ.” But, we are talking about a people in a 1st century situation before any idea of resurrection from the dead or anything of that sort would occur with the Messiah. It appears that they [ first century Jews] did not read these prophecies in that way. So the dominant view of the Messiah was this royal Davidic King of which Jesus just didn’t fit the image.

The Apparent Death Theory (Swoon Theory)

This theory arose out of Germany at the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th century. The Theory held that Jesus wasn’t really dead. He was in an unconscious state when He was taken down from the cross, somehow revived in the tomb, escaped, and presented Himself to the disciples. These disciples mistakenly inferred that Jesus had risen from the dead. This theory is medically absurd. The Roman executioners knew how to insure the death of their victims. They were trained and they were professionals. In any case, even if Jesus had been taken down alive and placed in a tomb, he would have died from exposure without immediate and extensive medical attention.

The first century historian Josephus recounts:  “I saw many captives crucified, and remembered three of them as my former acquaintance. I was very sorry at this in my mind, and went with tears in my eyes to Titus, and told him of them; so he immediately commanded them to be taken down, and to have the greatest care taken of them, in order to their recovery; yet two of them died under the physician’s hands, while the third recovered.”

The idea that Jesus could get out of a sealed tomb and present Himself to the disciples and present Himself in glory is quite laughable. The theory is also explanatorily inadequate (lacks explanatory scope and power) for it fails to account for why the disciples came to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead to glory and immortality rather than He had merely escaped the executioner. This theory is not one found amongst current scholars.

The Mythology Theory

Around 1835, the Mythology Theory replaced the Apparent Death Theory. David Friedrich Strauss was a proponent of this theory. This dominated for about 100 years or so in German theology. This was until, during the course of the 20th century, scholars came to understand that the theory was dealing with The Gospels under the wrong literary type – mythology.  The Gospels are in fact not under the literary type or genre of mythology, but more closely resemble the literary type and  genre of an ancient biography – the lives of famous Greeks and Romans for example. They are ancient biographies, not ancient mythologies (ie. Hercules).

Moreover, as scholars studied these supposed parallels between the resurrection of Jesus and the myths of dying and rising gods, it was realized that the parallels were quite spurious (lacking explanatory power). These dying and rising gods in the ancient near east were simply symbols of the crop cycle (as the vegetation dies and then things come back to life in the rainy season)  and they weren’t relevant to historical individuals. In fact, none of these mythological characters really return to the earthly life in any case. They just live on in the after-life;  they don’t come back to life in this world in the way that the resurrection of Jesus entailed.

Moreover there was no causal connection between these pagan myths and the disciples who followed and knew Jesus. It would be absurd to think that they had come to believe Jesus was literally risen from the dead because they had heard about these myths of dying and rising vegetation deities in Greco-Roman or Persian mythology.

The shortness of the time span is also important. We are not dealing with ancient myths that had been lost in the grey mists of antiquity, rather we are dealing with people who lived with this man [Jesus] and knew him and were still around and came to believe that God had raised Him from the dead and that there was an empty tomb to show for it. In that sense it is utterly unlike mythology. Rather we are talking about oral history; it’s people who are passing on the traditions about Jesus that they were acquainted with first hand. So this mythology theory gets things completely wrong in terms of understanding The Gospels. Therefore, among New Testament scholars today, there are very few who would think that the study of ancient, non-Jewish mythology is even relevant to understanding Jesus of Nazareth. The proper interpretive framework for understanding the historical Jesus is first-century Palestinian Judaism; not near-eastern Greco-Roman mythology.

This Sunday (March 3rd) we will critically examine the Subjective Vision (Hallucination) Theory,  The Objective Vision Theory,  and the Interpretation Theory.


Miguel is a Guatemalan-American Mormon living in the Northwest with his family. He is one of the proprietors of the Rational Faiths blog.

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