Doctrine of Christ (Part 33)

October 05, 2017     Time: 30:38

Conspiracy and Apparent Death Theories

Last time we looked at the initial interpretation of the biblical data concerning the resurrection of Jesus. We saw that the church fathers held that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead was a literal event. This understanding of Jesus' resurrection persisted for over a millennium and a half until the dawning of the age of modernity in seventeenth century Europe with the so-called Enlightenment. The Enlightenment refers to this political and intellectual movement within European culture in the seventeenth and eighteenth century in which the Old Order (what one called the Ancien Regime) was thrown off in the name of human autonomy and human reason.

There were two constituent institutions of the Ancien Regime in particular that were thrown over with modernity. The first was the monarchy. With the Enlightenment you have the development of modern democratic states. Certainly the most successful of these Enlightenment political projects was the United States of America which is a product of the throwing off of the shackles of the monarchy in the favor of democratic systems of government. Even in those institutions that continue to have a monarch, the monarch was basically stripped of all significant power and became a mere figurehead of the government. The other institution which was closely associated with the monarchy in the Ancien Regime was the church. The church and the monarchy oppressed people, stifled human autonomy and human reason in the name of authority. So both the monarchy and the church were cast off in the Enlightenment.

You see this most poignantly represented in the French Revolution. During the French Revolution in which the nobility were sent to the guillotine, there was a parade held in Paris in which an actress was paraded through the streets of the city as representative of Reason – Lady Reason. She was escorted to the cathedral of Notre Dame, and there enthroned on the altar of the cathedral of Notre Dame representing the, as it were, deification of human reason in the place of God.

With the Enlightenment came skepticism about the truth of Christianity and in particular with respect to the resurrection of Jesus. The Enlightenment theorists were not atheists for the most part. Rather, they were what is called deists. They held to deism. Deism believed in the God of natural theology – a Creator and Designer of the universe, a source of moral values and moral obligations for human society. But the deists denied that this Creator God of nature revealed himself in any special way to human beings. So there was no special revelation of this God of the universe who could be known only through human reason. There were no special inspired scriptures, no miracles, no prophesies, no dreams that would allow us to have a special knowledge of this Creator of the universe.

A seminal figure in the rise of skepticism concerning the resurrection of Jesus was Hermann Samuel Reimarus who was a professor of oriental languages in Hamburg, Germany. Reimarus struggled privately with gnawing doubts about the truth of the biblical revelation.[1] From around 1730-1768 he wrote down these thoughts, and eventually his musings evolved into a massive 4,000-page critique of the Bible. Reimarus accepted a deistic natural religion and denied miracles. He never published his opinions but he only showed this manuscript to a few close friends and to two of his children. After Reimarus died, his daughter gave a copy of the manuscript to Gotthold Lessing, who was the librarian at a little German town called Wolfenbüttel. In 1774 Lessing began to publish excerpts of this manuscript of Reimarus. He passed them off as fragments of an anonymous author which he had found in the archives of the library. In 1777 he published Reimarus’ attack on the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. This threw German orthodoxy into an uproar.

According to Reimarus, Jesus claimed only to have been an earthly Messiah. He was just another messianic pretender. Since he failed to establish his messianic reign, he was executed by the Romans. But the disciples stole Jesus’ corpse and spread the story that he had been risen from the dead. They touted him as a spiritual Messiah, not an earthly Messiah, so that they could continue the easy life of preaching that they had enjoyed with Jesus during his lifetime. Reimarus realized that in order to maintain this theory (which I call the conspiracy theory) he had to refute the evidence for the historicity of the resurrection. In Reimarus' thinking, the evidence for the resurrection consisted of basically three facts. Number one: the witness of the guard at the tomb in Matthew's Gospel. Number two was the witness of the apostles themselves. They said that Jesus was risen from the dead and they had seen him alive. Thirdly, the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies – Jesus' resurrection fulfilled the prophesies in the Old Testament that he would be raised from the dead. Reimarus rejected all three of these.

Against the testimony of the guard, Reimarus argued that the story told by Matthew is improbable in itself, and beside that it is full of contradictions and so cannot be historical. He held it to be a story that Matthew invented. Matthew basically made up the story of the guard at the tomb, and the other evangelists rejected this fiction and that is why it is not included in the other Gospels. As for the testimony of the apostles, Reimarus capitalizes on the inconsistencies and contradictions in the resurrection narratives. If this were not enough, there is moreover the overriding problem of the privacy of Jesus’ resurrection appearances. The apostles’ testimony, he said, is suspect because they are the only ones who saw Jesus risen from the dead, and therefore this makes it likely they are just making this up. Finally, as to the Old Testament prophesies, he says the Old Testament passages in question are so ambiguous that it is strained to interpret them to be prophesies of Jesus' resurrection. In any case, the whole procedure of the proof from prophecy begs the question because it assumes Jesus was in fact raised from the dead and so did fulfill the prophecies, and this Reimarus denies. So Reimarus concludes by summarizing his case in this way[2];

(l) the guard story is very doubtful and unconfirmed, and it is very probable the disciples came by night, stole the corpse, and said afterward Jesus had arisen; (2) the disciples’ testimony is both inconsistent and contradictory; and (3) the prophecies appealed to are irrelevant, falsely interpreted, and question-begging.[3]

In Reimarus' view Christianity is quite simply a fraud. It is a lie perpetrated by these original disciples in order for them to continue the life they had enjoyed with Jesus.

I'm sure that immediately objections are popping into your minds to Reimarus' conspiracy theory, but I don't want to take those yet. What I want to ask is if there is any comprehension-type question. We haven't yet come to the point of critique or assessment. Before we do that we simply want to survey the history of various hypotheses about the resurrection of Jesus, and the conspiracy hypothesis is the first that would deny the literal nature of Jesus' resurrection.


Student: On the conspiracy theory, what was the basis for that? Was it higher criticism? What basis is he using?

Dr. Craig: Reimarus is genuinely regarded as one of the forerunners of higher biblical criticism that eventually grew into German critical studies of the Old and New Testament. Reimarus is still a pretty unsophisticated interpreter of Scripture, but you can see his critical faculties at work – for example, in his treatment of the guard story in Matthew saying that it is found only in Matthew, it is probably a legend or an invention or a fiction made up by Matthew, and that it is full of contradictions. So this is the kind of incipient biblical criticism that during the following century would become very, very forceful in Germany.

Student: Was Reimarus really the first to bring forth this kind of conspiracy theory or did he just kind of perfect it?

Dr. Craig: So far as I know, he is the first to develop this in modern times. It, of course, harks back to the original Jewish response to the disciples' proclamation “He is risen from the dead.” You'll remember Matthew says that at the time of his writing this story has been spread among Jews “to this day” - namely the disciples came by night and stole him away.[4] So this conspiracy theory was actually the very first that Matthew himself had to confront. But then it was eclipsed until the late eighteenth century when Reimarus revived it.

Student: It seems to me almost more surprising that it took almost 1700 years for someone to really lay this out versus just the kind of rumors that are dealt with in the Gospels.

Dr. Craig: I think this is the product of the Enlightenment. When you think that prior to the Enlightenment what the church and the state taught was authoritative. People took that at face value. But then beginning with the Enlightenment this critical faculty was awakened and they began to question this authority.


A second theory that followed Reimarus' conspiracy theory was what is called the apparent death theory. Here I need to say an explanatory word about the so-called The Life of Jesus movement. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, post-Enlightenment European theology embarked upon what has been called a “quest for the historical Jesus” in order to try to excavate the historical person behind the mythical, legendary image of Jesus that is portrayed in the Gospels. The chief effort of this quest was to write a Life of Jesus as it supposedly really happened without the supernatural accretions that are found in the Gospels.[5] One after another these various Lives of Jesus appeared during these centuries, each author thinking to have finally uncovered the true historical Jesus behind the mask of the Jesus in the Gospels. It has been rightly said by contemporary scholars that each of these authors looked down the long well of history and saw his own face reflected at the bottom. These historical Jesuses tended to be mirror images of the authors themselves as they attempted to write a biography of Jesus. Much of the early Life of Jesus movement was spent trying to provide natural explanations for Jesus’ miracles and resurrection. Since miracles are impossible, there must be some way to explain these events that take place in the Gospels in a non-miraculous way. The high watermark of this natural explanation school came with the work of Heinrich Paulus in his book Das Leben Jesu (The Life of Jesus) in 1828. In this biography, Paulus develops all sorts of ingenious and creative ways of explaining away the Gospel miracles while still accepting the fundamental historicity of the accounts. For example, the feeding of the five thousand is explained by saying that there was a cave near to where Jesus was standing in which there was a cache of bread preserved by the disciples and they would hand the bread out to Jesus as he distributed it to the crowds so that everybody could be fed. Again, Jesus walking on the water on the Sea of Galilee was explained by there being a wooden platform floating just below the surface of the water so that as Jesus walked on the platform he appeared to walk on the water itself.

When it came to the resurrection of Jesus, Paulus defended the view that Jesus was not in fact completely dead when he was taken down from the cross. Rather, he was taken down alive, laid in the tomb where he revived, and then escaped to convince the disciples that he had risen from the dead. Reimarus' conspiracy theory was rejected as an explanation for the resurrection in light of the obvious sincerity of the disciples. It is clear that the disciples obviously believed in Jesus' resurrection from the dead, and therefore a conspiracy theory was simply implausible. Instead he adopted the apparent death theory in order to explain how the disciples might sincerely have believed Jesus was risen from the dead even though this was a purely natural event. This apparent death theory enjoyed great popularity among the so-called Rationalists in early eighteenth-century Germany. Even Friedrich Schleiermacher, whom we've mentioned before, the so-called father of modern theology, adopted this explanation of the resurrection – a fact that I find so sobering that the father of modern theology should have believed in this apparent death theory with respect to the resurrection of Jesus.


Student: I'll ask it because it goes back to the last issue you raised, which is the Roman guards at the tomb. It seems to me anybody who knows anything about the Romans knows they didn't take lightly the fact that a Roman soldier didn't do what he was told to do. If they were told to guard that tomb and it was sealed by the Roman government, there should have been a few dead guards around, and there weren't.

Dr. Craig: You are raising criticisms which I had asked not to do; to defer to later. But the point is helpful because, you see, this would be an argument that Reimarus would use. Far from supporting the historicity of the guard, this is an argument against the guard's historicity.[6] Roman guards would never agree to spread a story for which they could be executed. They would be derelict in their duty. This, and many others, would be precisely the sort of argument that Reimarus would appeal to to say there never was a Roman guard. This is made up by Matthew. If there were a Roman guard, they would never do what this story says they agreed to do. So this illustrates I think nicely precisely the sort of arguments that Reimarus advanced against the guard story.

Student: Is there historical accounts of the guards being placed?

Dr. Craig: All we have is Matthew. Remember our biblical survey. We saw that only Matthew relates the story of the guard at the tomb. I did point out significantly that in John's Gospel there is a Roman guard involved in the arrest of Jesus, which I think is highly significant. There were apparently Roman soldiers that had been secunded to the Jewish authorities, and they were involved in the arrest at the Garden of Gethsemane. But apart from that, there isn't any reference to the guard until you get to the Gospel of Peter, which is an apocryphal gospel one hundred and fifty years or more later than Christ in which you have the guard story also told but that Gospel of Peter looks to be just an amalgam of the four Gospels. The Gospel of Peter knows the four Gospels and so this doesn't appear to be an independent source for the historicity of the guard.

Student: It seems these guys are handpicking what they decide to believe from the Gospel stories and what they don't. In general I was curious, their view of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, whatever – do they find them generally reliable but then they just don't believe certain parts of it but they do find them generally historically reliable? More specifically, does Paulus believe in the spear in the side rather than breaking of the legs because obviously they speared him in the side because he was already dead therefore they didn't crush his legs. Does he believe in that historical event from the Gospels?

Dr. Craig: As we saw, people like Paulus and this natural explanation school tended to believe in the historicity of the Gospels. They would grant that these events actually happened. But they would provide natural explanations to explain them away. I think with regard to the spear thrust, as I recall, Paulus or other advocates of the apparent death theory will say this wasn't a plunging to the heart; it was just a little probe or prick to see if he would twitch to see if he was still alive and therefore this wouldn't have been a fatal wound to Jesus. He could still be alive even after the spear probe. That is the funny thing about these early biblical critics. As we'll see when we get to Strauss, later authors will just deny the historicity of these things. They will just say they never happened. But at this point in this early biblical criticism, there is a tendency to grant the historicity of the narratives but to denude them of any supernatural or miraculous quality.

Student: Are you saying Paulus' belief was that Jesus was just a human and he fooled the disciples? Or is he saying the disciples kind of went with what you said – walking on the water, the board being placed under the water? Are you saying this is something the disciples tried actively to help out to go along with Jesus and to make this grand charade?

Dr. Craig: That would seem to be implied. In that sense it still suffers from the implausibility of the conspiracy theory. It turns Jesus into a charlatan and a liar and a fake, which is surely incompatible with what we know about his moral character and teaching. So you do have a rather sinister or cynical view of Jesus and the disciples even in the apparent death theory as well as in Reimarus' conspiracy theory. In fact, some of these apparent death theories (not Paulus', but some of them) were actually versions of the conspiracy theory. They would say things like this.[7] There was a secret society that included people like Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. They conspired with Luke, the physician, to administer to Jesus a potion that would make him look dead until they could revive him in the tomb and bring him back to life. The whole thing was really this elaborate conspiracy that involved all of these different biblical figures. The imagination just ran wild with some of these theorists.

Student: You mentioned that Jesus' miracles were explained away (or tried to be explained away). I am assuming that at that time they probably tried to tap sciences at that time and explain it through naturalistic causes. With the advancement of science today, and especially in the area of forensics and microbiology they didn't have knowledge at that particular time, do they still try to explain through these naturalistic causes the miracles that Jesus created? Or, on the other hand, have they actually proved that they existed?

Dr. Craig: This is actually a very good question. What you are asking me to do now is leap two hundred years forward to the contemporary scene. What you might be surprised to learn is that it is genuinely acknowledged today that the miracle accounts of Jesus are historical – that Jesus was a faith-healer and an exorcist and that these accounts are reliable. The miracle stories occupy such a broad range of sources in the Gospels that they can't just be dismissed as legendary accretions. But whether they were miraculous or not would be a judgment that the secular historian would say he cannot make – he is not in a position to say that these were genuine miracles or not. So there still tends to be this sort of deistic or naturalistic approach to the narratives even though contemporary scholarship has become much more sympathetic to the miracles of Jesus than, say, twentieth century scholarship was.

Student: You mentioned that possible theory that someone gave Jesus a potion that made him appear dead. What was their actual evidence for that? Did something even exist back then in the first century?

Dr. Craig: There isn't any evidence for any of this stuff! That is what is so funny about it. It is totally ad hoc, that is to say it is just hypotheses that are made up without any evidence for them. As I say, Luke was a physician – he was a doctor. He must have known about potions and things of that sort. So Luke the physician was the one who administered this potion. Joseph of Arimathea was on the Sanhedrin – he was a council figure and responsible for the burial. So he must have been in on the plot, too. They drag in the Essenes as well. They say the Essenes were actually involved in this. It is imagination run wild when you get to these theories, and that is probably why none of these Lives of Jesus carried conviction. As I say one after another appeared in succession, each author claiming to have discovered the real Jesus of history.


That brings us to the mythology theory of David Friedrich Strauss. Strauss wrote a book called Das Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet in 1835 – The Life of Jesus Critically Examined. This book sounded the death knell for the natural explanation school of Paulus and others. What Strauss saw clearly was that neither the conspiracy theory nor the apparent death theory was plausible, and so he sought a third alternative in mythological explanations. According to this view, the miraculous events of the Gospels never happened, and the Gospel accounts of them are the result of a long process of legendary accretion and religious imagination. That will be the theory that we will examine when we meet next time.[8]


[1]          5:05

[2]          10:00

[3]          Hermann Samuel Reimarus, Fragments, trans. R. S. Fraser, ed. C. H. Talbert, Lives of Jesus Series (London: SCM, 1971), p. 104.

[4]          c.f. Matthew 28:11-15

[5]          15:02

[6]          20:00

[7]          25:00

[8]          Total Running Time: 30:43 (Copyright © 2017 William Lane Craig)