Why Did the Apostles Die?
by Dave Matson
A favorite argument for Jesus’s crucifixion claims that his disciples would not have risked their lives for the cause had they known that the resurrection was a hoax. Christian lore has it that most of Jesus’s disciples were martyred. Accordingly, we should accept his resurrection as the truth. After all, Jesus’s own disciples must have believed it, since they pressed on in the face of persecution. Liars or pranksters would have folded their tents and fled rather than be persecuted for something they didn’t believe in.
As Stephen Sommers noted in his letter, the claim that Jesus’s disciples were martyred is unproven and highly questionable. We have only the word of early Christian writers, many of whom were given over to pious fabrication. At best, early Christian martyrdom was greatly exaggerated. Thus, for all we know, the disciples of Jesus may well have been scoundrels of a sort who thrived in the limelight. It would not have been the first time that a cult stretched the truth for its own glory. After their leader was crucified, they could have simply spread the word that he had arisen on the third day. Mighty Jesus had arisen, and they were his special disciples! Being an inconsequential group, nobody would have bothered to investigate them. Several minor cults were probably making similar claims. Later, as the cult gained in size and became “respectable,” any serious investigation was out of the question. True believers would have assumed positions of authority and filled in Jesus’s history according to their own doctrinal understanding.
The above scenario assumes intentional dishonesty on the part of Jesus’s disciples, an unnecessary assumption from the skeptic’s point of view. Neither is it necessary to challenge the assumed historicity of the martyr stories. Perhaps the disciples initially believed Jesus’s claims and were later too entrenched in their belief to admit that they had been wrong. Psychologically, they may have had too much at stake to simply back out. Perhaps, after a period of initial depression and confusion, they had forced themselves via group reinforcement to believe that Jesus had risen even though none of them had actually witnessed the event. One or more of the group may have mistakenly identified a perfect stranger at a distance as Jesus, only to lose him to a crowd. Perhaps one of them was out fishing and saw Jesus amidst the waves. They might have been seeing Jesus under every tree and behind every bush, only to have their hopes dashed–until a fateful combination of events “confirmed” a sighting. Within a cult group, the flimsiest evidence can easily evolve into proof, so that the group ends up convincing the individual of his own tentative hallucinations or delusions! As absurd as this scenario may seem to the reader, it is wholly consistent with known group psychology. The power of true believers to fool themselves, especially in a cult group, can never be underestimated. Reverend Robert M. Price (Beyond Born Again, 1993) has probed this scenario. By quoting scientific studies and pulling together historical information on messiahs who arose after Jesus, Price has shown just how easily this sort of thing can happen. It has historical parallels. Look at the Jehovah’s Witnesses for a quick example, that of their invisible return of Jesus! (See also pages 34-35 in G. A. Wells’ Who Was Jesus? for a discussion of witness psychology.)
Consider the recent tragedy at Rancho Santa Fe, just north ofSan Diego. There 39 people committed suicide, apparently in the belief that their physical death was a necessary step before being picked up by a spaceship traveling in the tail of comet Hale-Bopp! You might ask how anyone in their right mind could possibly believe such a thing, but is their belief any more absurd than a belief in biblical inerrancy? There is absolutely nothing about the Bible that even remotely justifies it as a divine, inerrant work. Yet, millions of people have been brainwashed into believing that it is the greatest thing that was ever written!
The main difference between the two beliefs is that Bible-belief usually doesn’t prove fatal to the believer. Its damage is chiefly limited to our educational system and to good government (church-state separation). Nor can we dismiss those 39 men and women as retarded idiots, since they were computer programmers. Note the heavy use of small, group environments by both Bible-believers and this UFO cult, which is ideal for restricting contact with the outside world even as it reinforces the group’s beliefs in the individual. Thus, Bible-believers have a lot more in common with those UFO folks than they would care to admit, and, at times, it shows in crazy individual or group actions.
The above two scenarios, of course, assume that we have an eyewitness account that has been passed down to us more or less intact. Perhaps Jesus was originally a teacher with no pretensions of godhood, who taught that the world was coming to an abrupt end. The entire idea of Jesus’s resurrection may have been added to deify him, to put him on par with the popular savior gods of that era–the competition as it were. Such doctrines as the resurrection may have been fixed decades later in distant cities, for the most part, by people who had their own agendas. We tend to forget that our standard view of Jesus today is a product of later centuries. Movies and books have given us a false familiarity with those times; what we actually know about Jesus, if anything, is what has survived the purges of the first few centuries. If we could actually go back in time, we might find that some early Christian communities viewed Jesus only as a teacher, that his crucifixion played no doctrinal role for them.
It is naive to think that the truth would have gotten back from a few elderly disciples to destroy such developments. We know of historical groups where legend developed despite the active protests of the group’s living founder! It is not a matter of memories going bad but rather of enthusiastic supporters, out of touch by way of geography or time, who are only too happy to write their own version. Popular views often persist even in the face of repeated denials by the key players. Thus, Jesus’s few surviving disciples may have actually denied that Jesus was resurrected when the matter came up, their voices a feeble protest amongst the increasing din of popular approval.
Finally, a minority of Bible scholars believe that Jesus never existed. The historical evidence is essentially non-existent as G. A. Wells and others have shown, adding plausibility to this view. We may be dealing with a myth that accumulated historical justification over time. It would not be the first time such a thing has happened. Perhaps the mythical Jesus came into being as a popular savior god 130 years before the time the “historical” Jesus was supposedly born. How odd, that the earliest literature on Jesus, written by Paul, takes a dry, doctrinal view devoid of the glorious miracles that Jesus supposedly did. Perhaps the myth grew “historical legs” as the competition got tougher. The larger the Christian circle became the more contact it would have had with the competing religions. Thus, Jesus’s disciples may have never existed.
The above argument for Jesus’s resurrection has more holes in it than a slab of Swiss cheese. That is to say, we have several plausible scenarios that undermine its supposed proof. The burden of proof is obviously on the Christian apologist. It is he who claims to have a good argument for Jesus’s resurrection. Therefore, the skeptic is not obliged to disprove the Christian argument; he or she need only show that it has no force, that there are other plausible scenarios that could easily circumvent its chain of reasoning. And that is exactly what I have done, to the extent that a letter will allow.
(Dave Matson, P. O. Box 61274, Pasadena, CA 91116; e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org)
Editor’s Note: Because of its length and its relevance to my article “How Did the Apostles Die?” (p. 1), Dave Matson’s letter has been published as an article. The new booklet by The Oak Hill Free Press mentioned in the last issue of TSRThe Bible, Common Sense, and the American Way, 72 pages, is priced at $4.95. It is based on powerful, common-sense observations, which reject the Bible as a divine product. Each of the arguments is fully developed with special emphasis on the usual apologetics. It should prove to be a very handy and devastating booklet, just the type of thing you always wanted to lend your favorite Bible-believer. will soon be available.