Why you can be reasonably sure that Christianity was not a Roman conspiracy

There’s another Bible conspiracy theory doing the rounds. Each of these is more inane than the last. And each gets media attention from the tabloids. First there was the claim, from a guy named Reza Aslan, that Jesus was a zealot. A political revolutionary. A rebel. Now we have the apparently completely antithetical claim – that Jesus was a pawn of the Roman empire. An invention. Designed to bring the Jews into line and have them adopt pacifism.

Here is this new theory in a nutshell.

‘Jewish sects in Palestine at the time, who were waiting for a prophesied warrior Messiah, were a constant source of violent insurrection during the first century.

‘When the Romans had exhausted conventional means of quashing rebellion, they switched to psychological warfare.

‘They surmised that the way to stop the spread of zealous Jewish missionary activity was to create a competing belief system.

‘That’s when the “peaceful” Messiah story was invented.

‘Instead of inspiring warfare, this Messiah urged turn-the-other-cheek pacifism and encouraged Jews to “give onto Caesar” and pay their taxes to Rome.’

Both claims are odd.

Stupid in fact.

Both claims seem to miss some pretty key elements of the very counter-culture, extremely non-populist, basis of the Christian message, while also relying on the New Testament texts as valid historical documents from which to draw evidence to support their crazy hypothese.

Here’s the thing. According to the New Testament – Jesus died. At the hands of both the Roman Empire, and the Jewish establishment.

He can’t be a pawn for the Roman Empire because the movement claimed another king existed – a king who shared all the titles Caesar had bestowed upon himself. A king who called himself the saviour of the world. A king proclaimed through a gospel – a word used to described the announcement of new emperors. What self-seeking Roman emperor would hatch a plan like this? None. It’s stupid. They were about centralising power, as much as possible, in the hands of the Caesar. Having other kings running around wasn’t good for business.

Jesus saying “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” isn’t even pro-imperial. It’s ambivalent to the empire. He’s making a much bigger claim. Coins might have Caesar’s image on them. People are made in God’s image. Jesus is laying claims to something much bigger than one’s money – he wants their fealty. Their loyalty. Their lives.

In some sense Jesus was a revolutionary – he did come to change the social order – but not in the “rebel without a cause” way Reza Aslan suggests he did. He came to change people’s priorities – Away from Self. Away from success. Away from family. Away from empire. Four pillars of Roman society… So in Matthew 10…

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn

“‘a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’

“Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.

He equally can’t be a tool to unite the Jews in a pacifistic movement – because his first spokespeople condemned the Jewish establishment for killing him, and Jesus spent significant time attacking the Jewish establishment as an expert in the Old Testament – the chances of Rome having the sort of sophisticated understanding of the Old Testament required to construct a significantly complex Messianic claim are fairly slim. And the prospect of the masters of propaganda – and that’s what Imperial Rome was, and needed to be for this new thesis to survive – failing to put forward a compelling messianic figure, and coming up with a messiah that most Jews rejected – is risible.

It’s stupid.

But the stupidest bit is the idea that one would select a crucified king as remotely compelling – either that a Roman would come up with the idea, or that a Jew would buy it.

“Lets crucify this king. That’ll work”

Martyrdom wasn’t a particularly effective tool in Rome – so, for example, Cicero was martyred for his opposition to the Empire. And the Empire moved on. Unworried. Execution was meant to kill seditious claims. It usually did. The chances of it starting them are incredibly remote.

And there’s textual evidence from the time to support just how dumb this idea is… Cicero himself said, of crucifixion:

“Even if death be threatened, we may die free men; but the executioner, and the veiling of the head, and the mere name of the cross, should be far removed, not only from the persons of Roman citizens—from their thoughts, and eyes, and ears. For not only the actual fact and endurance of all these things, but the bare possibility of being exposed to them,—the expectation, the mere mention of them even,—is unworthy of a Roman citizen and of a free man…”

Paul, one of the Christian story’s first storytellers – who’d have to be bought in on the conspiracy (and would have the requisite knowledge of Judaism, it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s part of the theory… the old “Paul invented Christianity” trick) – was aware that crucifixion was an impossible sell to a first century audience – Jew or Greek. If you wanted a messiah claim to stick, this isn’t how you do it…

“Even if death be threatened, we may die free men; but the executioner, and the veiling of the head, and the mere name of the cross, should be far removed, not only from the persons of Roman citizens—from their thoughts, and eyes, and ears. For not only the actual fact and endurance of all these things, but the bare possibility of being exposed to them,—the expectation, the mere mention of them even,—is unworthy of a Roman citizen and of a free man…”

The problem with seeing Paul as the source of this myth is that he completely distanced himself from the Jewish establishment, and Judaism. Read Acts. The Jews are consistently trying to kill him – and he runs from them, into the Roman court system. As a prisoner. He is beaten. He suffers. He eventually dies. Like Cicero. Like Jesus. He’d have to have been pretty bought in to this mission to subjugate his own people, and he doesn’t leave his Judaism behind easily. He was on a skyrocketing career trajectory before he joined team Jesus.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.

Anyway. A crucified messiah just didn’t wash with the Old Testament expectations. It ran counter to them. To be crucified was to be cursed. Which is part of the whole “Jesus taking our curse upon himself” thing that completely defied messianic categories in the first century. Here’s Deuteronomy 21…

“If someone guilty of a capital offense is put to death and their body is exposed on a pole,you must not leave the body hanging on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse. You must not desecrate the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.”

That’s precisely what Paul says in Galatians 3…

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us– for it is written, “cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.”

This wasn’t especially convincing to the Jews of his day. They tried to kill Paul too.

And if Crucifixion was stupid and laughable – the claim of a resurrection after that was even further beyond the pale. And yet that is the central claim of Christianity – taught long before Paul came on the scene – such that he can cite it as a creed when he’s writing one of his earlier letters…

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James,then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

He also seems to keep relying on witnesses. People who aren’t him. If you’re going to use parts of his letters to support your theory, you need to consider the whole. These 500 witnesses who his first readers can speak to – that’s an incredibly large conspiracy theory.

Look. It’s a nice modern sociology theory – because it will sell well. But it doesn’t work in practice. It misses the point of the texts it uses as evidence. It requires on completely deconstructing them – using post-modern literary theory on pre-modern texts. The author was very much alive in these texts – and the idea of writing with a clear communicative purpose was also very much alive.

These claims should be dead. They are woeful scholarship. And covering them with so much attention – even if half the story debunks them – is woeful journalism. This isn’t “objective” reporting of a serious story. This is a stupid story.

2 Comments Why you can be reasonably sure that Christianity was not a Roman conspiracy

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