History is a science just like any other.* Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection not only predicted the behavior of living things in the future, but also predicted a host of facts about the past. If Darwin’s theory is true, we should expect that the Earth is very old, we should expect to find evidence of now-extinct common ancestors of humans and apes, and so on. Historical events in human history make similar predictions about the past. If Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his army, we should expect writers from that period to have discussed it, we should expect to find artifacts that depict it, we should expect Roman history to progress as if this event happened, etc.
If these predictions are confirmed by evidence, the hypothesis becomes a theory (not “just a theory,” but a theory in the scientific sense). If they aren’t confirmed or contradictory evidence is found, the hypothesis is not accepted. By contrast, conspiracy theories fit any evidence to the original hypothesis by adding in ad hoc explanations for the facts–that is, they use unproven hypotheses to save their original hypothesis from disconfirmation. “George Bush had the Twin Towers bombed on 9/11.” “Why do you think so?” “Because he was in league with Saudi Princes.”
In my last post about Jesus, I argued that Jesus was just an exceptional follower of John the Baptist. Since one implication of this theory is that Jesus would not have claimed to be a messiah or divine, we should expect to see evidence of early Christian attempts to explain that fact ad hoc. The Bible provides just this evidence.
The Apostle Paul’s letters—the earliest Christian writings—never state that Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, only that after his death, this became clear to his followers (I Cor. 15:3-8). Since Paul knew Jesus’ disciples (Gal. 1:18), it is hard to believe he would not have mentioned that Jesus claimed such high status. When Paul says that Jesus was the Messiah, he claims that God “appointed him by his resurrection” (Rm 1:4) to be God’s son and mankind’s savior. According to this verse, God “appointed” Jesus as the Messiah by resurrecting him. Although Paul certainly believed that Jesus knew of his role from birth (Phil. 2:6), there is no hint that Jesus revealed the fact during his life, but that God executed his plan after his death.
Similarly, the earliest three gospels–Mark, Matthew, and Luke–rarely describe Jesus as claiming messianic or divine status (John’s gospel, written decades later corrects this “mistake”). Even when asked directly by his mentor John the Baptist, Jesus refuses to confirm that he is the messiah (Lk7:22), and again, when the Pharisees ask him, he refuses to answer (Mk. 11:28-33). Furthermore, in the earliest gospel, Mark, Jesus actually denies that he is God. “Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked. “No one is good—except God alone” (10:18).
That Jesus didn’t in fact claim to be the messiah cried out for an explanation by those who believed he was, and this is where the conspiracy begins. Mark explains that Jesus actually kept his “true” messianic/divine identity hidden. Jesus heals a leper and orders that he “say nothing to anyone” (1:44). He raises a girl from the dead, but tells everyone that “no one should know this” (5:43). Jesus heals a mute and “commanded the people not to tell anyone” (7:36), and heals a blind man, but “sent him home,” saying, “Don’t go into the village” (8:26). A “demon-possessed” man says, “I know who you are–the Holy one of God!” Yet Jesus tells the spirit “sternly” to “be quiet!” (1:25). Mark’s author writes that whenever anyone told Jesus, “You are the son of God,” Jesus “gave them strict orders not to tell others about him” (3:12).
The one time that Jesus does reveal himself as the divine “Son of God” in Mark, he does it in private at the top of a hill with no one around except three disciples, and he “gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen” (9:2-9). More revealing still, according to the author, the disciples “kept the matter to themselves” (9:10), which raises the question how the author knows this information. This isn’t the only time Mark’s Evangelist leaves the reader wondering about his sources (see: Mark 16:8). Whenever Jesus predicts his death or resurrection in Mark, he also does it away from the crowds with just a few disciples present (9:33; 10:32).** This admission in chapter 8 is similarly private:
Jesus asked [his disciples], “Who do people say I am?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”
Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him. (Mark 8:27-30)
The very fact that there was confusion about who Jesus was indicates that how well he kept his “secret”—in other words, how he never claimed to be the Messiah. Just how embarrassing this was to Christians is confirmed by the author of Matthew who copies the Mark passage word-for-word, but has Peter say, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” and has Jesus confirm this answer: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven” (16:16-17). Obviously, Matthew thought this response more appropriate for a true messiah.
Many point to Jesus’ miracles as proof of his divinity, but as we have already seen, the fact that there was a tradition that had Jesus covering up his miracles (Mk 1:25, 1:44, 3:12, 5:43, 7:36, 8:26) indicates that Jesus probably did not even claim to have performed miracles. Building on this tradition, Mark, Matthew, and Luke have Jesus refuse to do miracles for skeptics (Mk. 8:12, Mt 12:39, 16:4, Lk 11:29). John’s author records a different tradition about Jesus doing his miracles in secret:
When the Jewish Festival of Tabernacles was near, Jesus’ brothers said to him, “Leave Galilee and go to Judea, so that your disciples there may see the works you do. No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.” For even his own brothers did not believe in him. (7:2-5)
This passage confirms the Early Church’s belief that Jesus “hid” his miracles, but it also confirms a tradition also upheld in Mark that “not even Jesus’ brothers believed him.” In Mark, Jesus’s family including his mother come to “take control of him” because they believe “he is out of his mind” (3:21). Obviously, if his own family rejected him, his miraculous powers were far from apparent.
While Jesus is made to imply that he is God or the Messiah throughout the Gospels, that’s to be expected–it furthers the authors’ Christian agenda. What’s not to be expected is that he should repeatedly attempt to hide that fact. There’s just no good explanation for this tradition unless many people knew from early on that Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah, or claimed to be miracle-worker.
The reality is that Jesus wasn’t a miracle-worker, a Messiah, nor a Son of God–nor did he even claim to be. Rather he was convinced by John the Baptist that the end of the world was near–that people must repent to save themselves from the coming judgement. Only someone who has not read the gospels could be confused about Jesus’ message. “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God,” Jesus says in Luke, “because that is why I was sent” (4:43). Even when Jesus commissions his disciples to spread his gospel—his “good news”—what is that gospel? “As you go,” he tells them in Matthew, “preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near’” (10:5-8).
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis famously set up his “Lord, Liar, Lunatic” argument–known as the trilemma. “A man who said the sorts of things Jesus said,” he writes, “would not be a great moral teacher… You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse.” Here, I hope I have presented a fourth way to understand Jesus–namely, that early Christians changed Jesus’ words and message to confirm their belief in his divinity. Jesus was most certainly crazy–believing that the world was about to end–but not because he believed he was divine.
*Update: While every scientific field of study has its unique methods, to claim that history isn’t science requires a very restrictive definition of science. Science can be understood as the systematic study of reality. The fact that history is not repeatable or directly observable doesn’t make it not scientific–it just makes it unique. It doesn’t even make it more tenuous than any other. There are many areas of science–psychology, for example–where conclusions are much more difficult to arrive at.
Update 2: I address the question of Jesus’s death in this post: Why Jesus Didn’t Die for Claiming to Be God.
**Update 3: As Robert Grant notes, “in spite of the fact that the disciples were given secret teaching, they failed to understand the intention of Jesus. They did not understand the parable of the sower (4:13, followed by an allegorical explanation; cf. 7:18); they did not know that Jesus could still a storm (4:40) or walk on the sea (6:49-51). They did not understand about the loaves in the feeding miracles (6:51; 8:14-21). They did not understand the predictions of death and resurrection; indeed, they did not even know what ‘resurrection’ was (9:10). They could not see how the rich could be saved (10:24, 26). Such ignorance was present not only among the disciples in general but also among the inner circle. Peter did not understand the passion prediction (8:32); James and John mistakenly asked for seats at the right and left of Jesus in his ‘glory’ (10:35-7).” Of course, Mark’s author understood what was really going on.
Read my first post about Jesus: Why I Accept Jesus (Just Not Into My Heart)
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