The credibility of the Christian story of Jesus comes in part from its character; it was so bracingly weird. Christians made claims about Jesus that were radically different from what developed organically in their culture. They weren’t the sort of claims that anyone would have invented either. They can’t be explained by the sort of mistake that people would have made. They can’t even be explained by exaggeration: people at that time would have been inclined to exaggerate in an entirely different direction.
Consider one of Christianity’s essential declarations: the transcendent God became a particular and entirely human man, Jesus of Nazareth. Not just a man even, but a peasant, and not just a peasant, but a criminal. There are two important things to notice about it. First, it’s something that Christians said and believed early; it was a crucial part of their story about Jesus from Christianity’s beginning. Second, people started saying it when it was certainly unprecedented and very nearly inconceivable, and they continued saying it even though nearly everyone objected (sometimes violently).
It’s sometimes fashionable to try to explain this central claim away as a later distortion, something that developed slowly in retrospect.1 The evidence suggests otherwise, however. Even a conservative reading of early documents indicates that Christianity had spread as a recognizable movement by the middle of the first century and that much of its story of Jesus had taken final shape by the end of that century.3 There’s good evidence for bolder assertions on both points–early spread and consistent teaching back to within a decade of Jesus’ death–but the conservative estimate is actually sufficient to prove the point. If we consider this one claim as a product of the first-century world, its uniqueness becomes obvious, and its uniqueness makes it very difficult to explain away.
Its first extraordinary feature is the involvement of a transcendent deity at all. The Roman Empire and all of its neighbors were thoroughly polytheistic, but a notion of transcendent deity did exist.4 Within the myths and worship of the many gods, there remained often poignant acknowledgment that those gods were inferior to something Other that had come before them.5 The many philosophy cults explored this idea explicitly, postulating various versions of the first, perfect, far-removed thing.6 In every case though, this transcendent reality was inherently unapproachable, inscrutable, and distant; its very perfection implied that it couldn’t interact with anything as radically imperfect as the world.7
With that understanding, it seemed like gibberish to talk about a transcendent God becoming a specific man. There were stories about lesser (non-transcendent) gods becoming human or some sort of animal,8 as well as stories about important humans becoming lesser (non-transcendent) gods,9 but early Christians emphatically rejected any move in either direction even though they recognized that their position was difficult to conceive.10 In fact even after hundreds of years of repetition, it was still natural to assume some sort of intermediary between the transcendent God and the world. The idea of an involved transcendent God was so unexpected and alien that people in the ancient world struggled significantly with it.11
However, even if that part of the Christian claim had been less difficult, the rest of the claim would still have discouraged most people. It’s important to remember that the ancient world had neither the modern belief in basic human value nor the modern willingness to imagine that someone weak and unimportant might be wiser than someone powerful and prominent. According to the conceptions of the ancient world, no god would have become a peasant criminal, especially not a peasant criminal who was arrested, humiliated, and executed. The common belief of the period was that peasants didn’t even have souls,12 much less any sort of significance or personhood.13 Even more striking and obvious though, the entire social order was understood to be part of the divine plan: the inferiority and insignificance of peasants existed by divine decree, and criminals who resisted the state were punished as mortals resisting the gods.14
Again the Christian claim seemed like gibberish. It seemed to require that a god become worthless in order to undermine his own regime: an inconceivable process to accomplish an unintelligible task, at least from a first century perspective. It was also repulsive, suggesting a world of anarchy instead of civilization, chaos instead of peace, and baseness instead of dignity. All of these were contrary to deeply rooted expectations and desires about the world.15
As difficult as the Christian claim was for the surrounding cultures, though, it was neither more obvious nor more attractive to the Jews who were purportedly its original audience. The Jews did have a significantly clearer idea of a transcendent deity, but it inspired a proportionally stronger objection to the suggestion of that deity joining creation.16 Much of Jewish scripture was filled with vehement injunctions against such identification in any form. A human man claiming to be God would either be an idol of the true God, which was forbidden by Jewish commitment to God’s transcendent majesty, or a second and new God, which was forbidden by Jewish commitment to God’s transcendent oneness; neither was acceptable.17
Furthermore, while the Jews had less strident opposition to the significance of peasants in general, Jesus’ arrest and death were still obstacles. The title of “Messiah” carried with it expectations about military victory, triumphant national independence, and the advent of a restored monarchy.18 The term “Messiah,” meaning “annointed,” most commonly referred to a king in fact, harkening back to Jewish stories of their golden age under King David.19 A dead criminal couldn’t fulfill any of these messianic expectations; he certainly wasn’t the sort of king anyone wanted.
Even more emphatically however, the Jews believed that God possessed the power to overcome any opposition.20 Victory, or at the very least protection, was a consistent litmus test for God’s favor.21 It was incongruous and incomprehensible to claim such favor, to claim divinity in fact, and yet to be arrested and executed. Arrest and execution seemed like failure, but neither God nor his Messiah would fail.
The Christian claim about Jesus was as much gibberish to the Jews as it was to the surrounding peoples. In his original setting, the Jesus of Christianity wasn’t just extraordinary, he was outlandish, ridiculous, incomprehensible, and even unlikable. This poses significant problems for any attempt to dismiss the claims made about him.
Consider the suggestion mentioned earlier, that claims about Jesus’ divinity were a later distortion. Even if we ignore the evidence for early adoption of the belief and dismiss the overwhelming testimony about the importance Christians placed on preserving their witness uncorrupted, we still have to explain why anyone would distort a story in ways contrary to their own cultural presuppositions, especially when doing so was dangerous.22 Even if we place the mistake very early as well–perhaps the disciples themselves misunderstood what Jesus meant–we have to explain how they made such an unprecedented mistake and never corrected it despite overwhelming cultural pressure.
Similarly, consider the suggestion sometimes made that the entire story is nothing more than fiction, a myth that people forgot was a myth.23 We would need to explain the source of this entirely unique fiction, the myth without parallel which was opposed to all other myths and mythic assumptions. We would then also need to explain how anyone could mistake that unlikely, unlikable, and frequently dangerous fiction for fact when it also contradicted everything that people believed about reality.
Finally, consider the suggestion that the whole story was deliberate deceit.24 Even if we managed to explain how someone could invent a lie so contrary to the prevailing assumptions, we would still need to explain why he or she would invent a lie for which no audience existed that was likely to appreciate it. This in addition to explaining why anyone would be fooled by a lie so unbelievable. It’s easy for us, in a world so long after Jesus, to forget how surprising Jesus was to the world that met him.
It’s easy for us to imagine that he blends in the natural world, just another normal feature of history, because our entire understanding of history and the natural world has been influenced by him. If he seems normal, it’s only because he has changed the world to better fit himself. To the world that met him though, he arrived like a revolution. He wasn’t normal, wasn’t comfortable, wasn’t expected, didn’t “fit in.”
If you look at the evidence from that time, a startling picture emerges. Something unique happened in the first century in Palestine. Christians started telling a story that was unlike anything else in history, and certainly unlike anything else in the world where they started telling it. The best explanation for that story’s existence is that it’s true.
1 Bart D. Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God (HarperOne, 2014) is a much-publicized recent example of this, although the fashion predates him by three centuries at least.
2 Both Suetonius and Tacitus refer to Christians as a recognizable group in Rome during the reign of Nero (54 – 68 CE). The reference in Tacitus’ Annals is both clearer and more detailed, but Suetonius alludes to Christian presence in the city at least a decade earlier during the reign of Claudius.
3 The letters of Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch bookend the turn of the first century. At the very least, they suggest that, by their time and regardless of setting, Christians espoused a consistent and recognizable testimony about Jesus. Both authors also allude to pre-existing New Testament material and are themselves taken up along side that pre-existing material by later Christians, suggesting (again at the very least) that the Christianity of their period was consistent with what came before it and after it.
4 The role of Fate in Virgil’s Aeneid is telling, for example: there is a reality behind reality. Even the gods submit to it, since they are a part of the universe whereas it is something else, something in a sense more real than the universe’s occupants.
5 We can see this in accounts of the many generations of primordial deities, with each successive step further away from the greatest and most basic original. We can also see it in the contrast between the dignity ascribed to human worship and the frequent baseness of that worship’s object. Consider Homer’s portrayal of the gods in the Iliad, for example. They are fickle, cruel, and petty, but also worshiped because the Divine still warrants reverence even if none of the remaining divinities do.
6 Perhaps the most influential of these in the first century was the Middle Platonist union of Plato’s “Good” with Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover,” a union sometimes attributed to Antiochus of Ascalon, probably referenced by Philo of Alexandria, and clearly explained by Alkinous.
7 Hart, David Bentley, Atheist Delusions, Chapter 15. Somewhat abrasive style notwithstanding, Hart does an excellent job describing the prevailing conception of “a God limited by his own transcendence.”
8 Zues alone became a bull, an eagle, a swan, a snake, and an ant, in addition to disguising himself as the husband of any mortal woman who happened to strike his fancy.
9 Hero cults arose for example as residents in a city would venerate an important founder of that city as one of its patron deities. The cult of the king/emperor, although the Roman version developed only gradually, is another example. (This was more common in Persia, which is the likely origin of the practice in the west through the conquest of Alexander.)
10 The declaration “Jesus is Lord,” attested throughout the New Testament and early epistles, would most likely have been an identification of Jesus with the transcendent God of the Old Testament, relying upon the custom of referring to that God by the polite allusion “Lord” instead of by name. Further evidence saturates the Apostolic Fathers, however. Ignatius of Antioch for example, expressly identifies Jesus with the infinite and invisible creator of everything, rather than some sort of divinity more closely analogous to the gods of the surrounding cultures.
11 This became in no small part the source of the many controversies in later centuries (e.g. the Arians suggested that Jesus was an intermediary; Docetists suggested that Jesus was God but not actually as involved in the material world as he appeared; the Gnostics suggested both that Jesus was an intermediary and that he wasn’t as involved in the material world as he appeared.)
12 The Romans originally imagined that most people were absorbed into the manes upon death, a sort of generalized spirit of all the dead. They did eventually adopt the Greek notion of afterlife, which perhaps provided some token improvement. According to the Greeks, whatever drudgery a peasant might do in life, some faint echo of him continued doing that in the afterlife for all eternity. For the unimportant people, there was no hope of any sort of paradise, or even any sort of rest.
13 It’s telling that the Romans called this class of people the “proletarius,” the “offspring-makers.” Their only significance was in maintaining sufficient population. Disdain for the poor was even considered a sign of cultural refinement. Tacitus dismissed them as “the dirty peasants.” Cicero called them the “filth of the cities.” Examples fill classical literature.
14 While this became explicit in the cult of the emperor after Caesar Augustus, it predates it. Social hierarchies were always seen as reflecting the very nature of the universe: great men ruled lesser men and men ruled their families in the same sort of way that the gods ruled men. It’s also important to remember that our modern notion of progress simply didn’t exist. The common people looked at the contemporary situations as being roughly the same as what had existed forever and what would exist forever. Empires might come and go, but the basics of life were immutable, having been fore-ordained.
15 We can see this in the genuine revulsion expressed by pagan authors toward Christians. Pliny the Younger’s letter to Trajan is relatively mild, only calling Christianity a “depraved, excessive, superstition” and likening it to a plague that threatens society. Tacitus’ description in his Annals is more colorful.
16 The Jewish creation narrative was unique in it’s historical setting because it explicitly placed God outside of the universe. The development of that belief as a clear part of Jewish religion reflects an similarly unique emphasis on avoiding any suggestion that God was part of the universe, an emphasis seen in the rejection of idols, among other practices. The unwillingness of the Jews to compromise about this led to them being labeled as “atheists” by the Romans, who viewed them with a mix of curiosity and confusion for some time.
17 The two scriptural complaints about idolatry dovetail. For example in Deuteronomy 4 the Israelites are cautioned against idolatry because it confuses the transcendent God with creation. In the decalogue of Deuteronomy 5, they’re cautioned against idolatry because of their exclusive relationship with their God. The two are united by the claim that Israel’s exclusive deity is the only transcendent deity. The later prophets rely on both together, criticizing Israel both for unfaithfulness (following other gods) and stupidity (exchanging the one real transcendent God for fake gods they made themselves out of created things).
18 It’s difficult to determine the exact nature of Jewish messianic expectations at the dawn of the common era, although hints abound. For example, Josephus describes the advent of false messiahs around the time of the second temple’s destruction in the latter half of the first century. What evidence those false messiahs provided for their own legitimacy suggests what evidence was expected. The most common feature across all the sources is a “messianic age” of national prominence and success.
19 Consider 1 Samuel 16 and 2 Samuel 5.
20 The scriptural warrants for this belief are too numerous to name, but consider Joshua 1, 1 Kings 18, and 2 Kings 18-19.
21 The scriptural warrants for this belief are also too numerous to name, but consider Numbers 14, Numbers 21, Joshua 7, Joshua 10, Daniel 3, and Daniel 6.
22 It’s significant that much of the early material we have about Christianity involves persecution of them in some way. Both Tacitus and Seutonius mention Christians in the context of their arrest and execution under Nero. Clements’ letter from Rome, which refers to the Neronian persecution while explaining what it means to be Christian, also possibly alludes to persecution of Christians under Emperor Domitian. Pliny the Younger’s letter to Emperor Trajan, as well as Trajan’s reply, discuss the execution of Christians for the crime of being Christian. Ignatius of Antioch’s surviving letters were occasioned by his impending execution. Even if you discount traditional stories of the (frequently horrifying) martyrdom of every Apostle except John, the surviving historical evidence shows that Christians regularly faced hatred and death for their beliefs.
23 This view has enjoyed a slight resurgence in popularity during the last decade, perhaps due to the energetic efforts of Christopher Hitchens, but George Albert Wells, in spite of some subsequent retractions, likely authored it’s clearest defense in Did Jesus Exist? (Prometheus Books, 1975).
24 The most significant champion of this position was likely Friedrich Nietzsche who, particularly in his Genealogy of Morals (1887), decried such deception as a “slave revolt.”