#676 Shall We Resurrect the Conspiracy Theory?April 05, 2020
Dear Dr Craig,
I am a huge admirer of your work, and I have been for quite a few years. I will always be very grateful to you for all that you do.
For about ten years or so, I was convinced that Jesus had risen from the dead, and that his resurrection wasn't faked. I viewed his resurrection as irrefutable evidence that God does indeed exist in reality, because only God could possibly arrange a resurrection from the dead. I recently purchased and read Professor John Lennox’s book, “Gunning for God,” and I enjoyed it very much. Something extraordinary happened while I was reading the section on Jesus’ resurrection: He was discussing the theory that the disciples may have taken the body from the tomb. Formerly, I had agreed with you that that theory was pretty unlikely, because the disciples were later tortured and crucified, and I thought that it would be very unlikely for disciples who knew that the resurrection was a lie to defend that lie, up to the point of torture and crucifixion. It always seemed to me that, if it were a lie, then they would have admitted to it being a lie, in order to avoid torture and death through crucifixion.
However, in that section of Professor Lennox’s book, he pointed out the fact that grave-robbing was a capital offense in Jerusalem at that time — something that I had not known until I read it in his book. Finding that out was a total game-changer for me, regarding the issue of Jesus’ resurrection. Now, it seemed to me, it was quite possible that the disciples had removed the body from the tomb, and that they had made up the resurrection as a means to cover their crime of grave-robbing. Now, it seemed to me, the motivation to defend a resurrection lie was very strong — from their perspective, it seemed to me that they may have thought that defending that lie could prevent them from being crucified (for the crime of grave-robbing), whereas previously, I had only thought that defending that lie could have caused them to be crucified. The knowledge that grave-robbing was a capital offense in that time and place has taken away my main reason for believing the resurrection testimonies of the disciples! Avoiding crucifixion would be a very strong motive for telling a lie — even one that they knew to be a lie. In fact, it now seems very likely, to me, that the disciples could have taken the body from the tomb, and then made up the idea that Jesus had resurrected, in order to cover their crime, and thereby avoid crucifixion. If it was a lie, then it could have started with very strong motivations, as a means for frightened men to avoid a horrible, torturous death; and then, the lie could have spread for any number of reasons: People who were friends with the disciples could have repeated the same lie in order to help prevent their friends’ crucifixion, for example. Once the rumor got around a bit, then, the desire to feel like part of the special group who had supposedly seen the resurrected Jesus could have been a further motivation for others to join in the lie.
My question is this: Don’t you think that the fact that grave-robbing was a capital offense -- and that if the Roman authorities had found out that they had robbed the grave, that they would be crucified -- constitutes ample motivation for the disciples to make up a lie that Jesus had resurrected from the dead (if they had actually robbed the grave, that is)? This hypothetical turn of events seems to me much more likely to have occurred than an actual resurrection, and I’m wondering how you can reconcile all of this with the fact that grave-robbing was a capital offense. Please forgive my ignorance, and please forgive any offensiveness on my part in this regard; I do not mean to be offensive, but rather, I would really like to understand your perspective on all of this, and if there’s something that I have missed, I would very much like to find out how it is that the resurrection is a real historical event that can be rationally defended after all, as I formerly accepted it. Thank you very much for your time.
Dr. craig’s response
Purusha, my heart sinks every time I get a letter like this. Though you very kindly say that you’ve admired my work for years, you nevertheless—how else can I say it?—reveal that you have little understanding of the historical case for Jesus’ resurrection. Do you mean seriously to suggest that the original disciples stole Jesus’ body from the tomb and then lied to people about the resurrection appearances? Don’t you realize that this old conspiracy theory, which was propounded by Deists in the 17-18th centuries, has been dead for over 200 years, that no contemporary scholar would defend such a view? Even before I respond to your specific question, can I at least get you to sit back and ask yourself, “Why does everybody reject this theory, even though it seems so persuasive to me? What’s the probability that all historical scholars are wrong and I alone am right? Where’s my blind spot?”
Your lack of understanding of the historical case for Jesus’ resurrection is evident in the fact that you seem to think that there is one and only one objection to the conspiracy theory, namely, the improbability of the disciples’ willingness to die for a lie they had made up. If that objection fails, then you seem to think that the conspiracy theory is just fine, no problem. But while I think that that objection does, indeed, reveal a weakness in the conspiracy theory, the theory faces far more, and, I should say, more powerful, objections than that.
There are three facts which any relevant hypothesis must explain: Jesus’ empty tomb, his post-mortem appearances, and origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection. I’m going to reproduce for you here my assessment of the conspiracy theory as an explanation of these facts from my book On Guard, explaining why that theory is universally rejected by contemporary scholars.
Explaining the Evidence
Historians weigh various factors in assessing competing hypotheses. Some of the most important are as follows:
1. The best explanation will have greater explanatory scope than other explanations. That is, it will explain more of the evidence.
2. The best explanation will have greater explanatory power than other explanations. That is, it will make the evidence more probable.
3. The best explanation will be more plausible than other explanations. That is, it will fit better with true background beliefs.
4. The best explanation will be less contrived than other explanations. That is, it won’t require adopting as many new beliefs which have no independent evidence.
5. The best explanation will be disconfirmed by fewer accepted beliefs than other explanations. That is, it won’t conflict with as many accepted beliefs.
6. The best explanation will meet conditions (1)-(5) so much better than the others that there’s little chance that one of the other explanations, after further investigation, will do better in meeting these conditions.
Since a hypothesis may do really well in meeting some conditions but not so well in meeting others, figuring out which hypothesis is the best explanation may often be difficult and requires skill. But if the explanatory scope and power of a hypothesis are very great, so that it does a much better job in explaining a wide variety of facts, then it’s likely to be the true explanation.
So let’s apply these tests to the typical hypotheses which have been offered down through history to explain the empty tomb, post-mortem appearances, and origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection, and let’s see if they do better or as well in explaining these facts as the Resurrection Hypothesis.
According to this hypothesis, the disciples stole the body of Jesus and lied about his appearances, thus faking the resurrection. This was the very first counter-explanation for the empty tomb, as we’ve seen, and it was revived during the eighteenth century by European Deists. Today, however, this explanation has been completely given up by modern scholarship. We can see why when we assess it by the standard criteria for testing historical hypotheses.
1. Explanatory scope. The Conspiracy Hypothesis does seem to cover the full scope of the evidence, for it offers explanations of the empty tomb (the disciples stole the body), the post-mortem appearances (the disciples lied about seeing Jesus), and the origin of the disciples’ (supposed) belief in Jesus’ resurrection (again, they lied).
2. Explanatory power. How probable is the evidence, given the Conspiracy Hypothesis? Here doubts begin to arise about the adequacy of the hypothesis.
First, consider the story of the empty tomb. If the disciples stole Jesus’ corpse, then it would be utterly pointless to fabricate a story about women finding the tomb to be empty. Such a story would not be the sort of tale Jewish men would invent. Moreover, the simplicity of the story is not what one would expect, given the Conspiracy Hypothesis—where are the Scriptural proof-texts, the evidence of fulfilled prophecy? Why isn’t Jesus described as emerging from the tomb, as in later forgeries like the Gospel of Peter? Neither is the dispute with non-believing Jews well-explained. Why isn’t Matthew’s guard already there in Mark’s story? Even in Matthew’s story the guard is set too late: the body could have already been stolen before the guard arrived on Saturday morning, so that they were guarding, unbeknownst to them, an empty tomb! For a failsafe alibi against theft of the body, see again the forged Gospel of Peter, where the guard is set immediately upon interment of the corpse.
As for the appearance stories, similar problems arise. A fabricator would probably describe Jesus’ resurrection appearances in terms of Old Testament visions of God and descriptions of the end-time resurrection (as in Daniel 12.2). But then Jesus should appear to the disciples in dazzling glory. And why not a description of the resurrection itself? Why no appearances to Caiaphas the high priest or to the villains on the Sanhedrin, as Jesus predicted? They could be then branded as the real liars for denying that Jesus did appear to them!
But the explanatory power of the Conspiracy Hypothesis is undoubtedly weakest when it comes to the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection. For the hypothesis is really a denial of that fact; it seeks to explain the mere semblance of belief on the disciples’ part. But as critics have universally recognized, you can’t plausibly deny that the earliest disciples at least sincerely believed that Jesus was risen from the dead. They staked their very lives on that conviction. The transformation in the lives of the disciples is not credibly explained by the hypothesis of a conspiracy. This shortcoming alone has been enough in the minds of most scholars to sink the old Conspiracy Hypothesis forever.
3. Plausibility. The real Achilles’ Heel of the Conspiracy Hypothesis is, however, its implausibility. One might mention here objections to the unbelievable complexity of such a conspiracy or the supposed psychological state of the disciples; but the overriding problem that dwarfs all others is that it is wholly anachronistic to suppose that first century Jews intended to hoax Jesus’ resurrection. The Conspiracy Hypothesis views the disciples’ situation through the rearview mirror of Christian history rather than through the eyes of a first century Jew.
In the first place, there was no expectation in Judaism of a Messiah who, instead of establishing David’s throne and subduing Israel’s enemies, would be shamefully executed by the Gentiles as a criminal. Moreover, the Jewish idea of resurrection was just unconnected with the idea of Messiah and even incompatible with it, since Messiah was not supposed to be killed. As N. T. Wright nicely puts it, if you’re a first century Jew, and your favorite Messiah got himself crucified, then you’ve basically got two choices: either you go home or else you get yourself a new Messiah.
Secondly, the Jewish conception of resurrection of the dead differed in at least two fundamental respects from the resurrection of Jesus.
First, in Jewish thinking the resurrection to glory and immortality always occurred after the end of the world. Jews had no idea of a resurrection within history. That’s why, I think, the disciples had so much trouble understanding Jesus’ predictions of his own resurrection. They thought he was talking about the resurrection at the end of the world. Look at Mark 9:9-11, for example.
And as they were coming down from the mountain, He gave them orders not to relate to anyone what they had seen, until the Son of Man should rise from the dead. And they seized upon that statement, discussing with one another what rising from the dead might mean. And they began questioning Him, saying, “Why is it that the scribes say that first Elijah must come?”
Here Jesus predicts his resurrection, and what do the disciples ask? “Why is it that the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” In first century Judaism it was believed the prophet Elijah would come again before the great and terrible Day of the Lord, the judgment day when the dead would be raised. The disciples could not understand the idea of a resurrection occurring within history prior to the end of the world. Hence, Jesus’ predictions only confused them.
Thus, given the Jewish conception of the resurrection, the disciples after Jesus’ crucifixion would not have come up with the strange idea that he had been already raised. They would in all probability have looked forward to the resurrection at the last day and, in keeping with Jewish custom, perhaps preserved his tomb as a shrine where his bones could rest until the resurrection.
Second, in Jewish thinking the resurrection was always the resurrection of all the righteous dead. Jews had no idea of the resurrection of an isolated individual apart from the general resurrection. Moreover, there was simply no connection between the individual believer’s resurrection and the prior resurrection of the Messiah. That’s why we find no examples of other failed messianic movements claiming that their executed leader was risen from the dead. Wright has been insistent upon this point. “All the followers of those first century messianic movements were fanatically committed to the cause. . . . But in no case right across the century before Jesus and the century after him do we hear of any Jewish group saying that their executed leader had been raised from the dead, and he really was the Messiah after all.”
First century Jews had no idea of the resurrection of an isolated individual, especially of the Messiah, in advance of the general resurrection at the end of the world. So the idea of stealing Jesus’ corpse and saying that God had raised him from the dead is hardly one that would have entered the minds of these Jewish disciples of Jesus nor seemed to them a plausible strategy for evangelizing their fellow Jews!
But what about influences from outside Judaism? A suggestion widespread on the Internet today is that early Christians came up with the idea of Jesus’ resurrection through the influence of pagan mythology. This suggestion is an old one. Back around the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, scholars in comparative religion collected parallels to Christian beliefs in other religious movements, and some even thought to explain Christian beliefs, including the belief in Jesus’ resurrection, as the result of the influence of such myths. The movement soon collapsed, however, principally due to two factors:
First, scholars came to realize that the parallels are false. The ancient world was a virtual fruit basket of myths of various gods and heroes. Comparative studies in religion require sensitivity to their similarities and differences, or distortion and confusion inevitably result. Unfortunately, those who were eager to find parallels to Jesus’ resurrection failed to exercise such sensitivity.
Many of the alleged parallels are actually stories of the assumption of the hero into heaven (Hercules, Romulus). Others are disappearance stories, which claim that the hero has vanished into a higher sphere (Apollonius of Tyana, Empedocles). Still others are seasonal symbols for the crop cycle, as the vegetation dies in the dry season and comes back to life in the rainy season (Tammuz, Osiris, Adonis). Some are political expressions of Emperor worship (Julius Caesar, Caesar Augustus).
None of these ideas is parallel to the Jewish idea of the resurrection of the dead. Indeed, most scholars have come to doubt whether, properly speaking, there really were any myths of dying and rising gods at all. For example, in the myth of Osiris, which was one of the best known symbolic seasonal myths, Osiris doesn’t really come back to life but simply continues to exist in the realm of the dead.
Scholars have come to realize that pagan mythology is simply the wrong interpretive context for understanding Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus and his disciples were first century Israelite Jews, and it is against that background that they must be understood. The collapse of the alleged parallels is just one indication that pagan mythology is the wrong interpretive context for understanding the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection.
Second, there is in any case no causal connection between the pagan myths and the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection. Jews were familiar with the seasonal pagan deities (Ezekiel 8.14-15) and found them abhorrent. That’s why there is no trace of cults of dying and rising gods at all in first century Israel. It’s pretty unlikely that the original disciples would have come up with the idea that Jesus of Nazareth was risen from the dead because they had heard pagan myths about dying and rising seasonal deities. So scholars have universally abandoned this approach. Internet sceptics are over 100 years out of date.
Notice that this criticism undermines not only conspiracy theories, which suppose that the disciples insincerely proclaimed Jesus’ resurrection, but also any theory which suggests that, on the basis of pagan or Jewish influences, they sincerely came to believe in and preached his resurrection.
4. Less contrived. Like all conspiracy theories of history, the Conspiracy Hypothesis is contrived in supposing that what all the evidence seems to point to is, in fact, mere appearance only, to be explained away by hypotheses for which there is no evidence. Specifically, it postulates motives and ideas in the minds of the earliest disciples and actions on their part for which there is not a shred of evidence. It can become even more contrived, as hypotheses have to be multiplied to deal with objections to the theory, for example, how to account for the appearance to the 500 brethren or the women’s role in the empty tomb and appearance stories.
5. Disconfirmed by fewer accepted beliefs. The Conspiracy Hypothesis tends to be disconfirmed by our general knowledge of conspiracies, their instability and tendency to unravel. Moreover, it is disconfirmed by accepted beliefs such as the sincerity of the disciples, the nature of first century Jewish messianic expectations, and so on.
6. Exceeds other hypotheses in fulfilling conditions (1)-(5). This condition is obviously not met, since there are better hypotheses (such as the Hallucination Hypothesis), which don’t dismiss the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection as a blatant lie.
No scholar would defend the Conspiracy Hypothesis today. The only place you read about such things is in the popular, sensationalist press or on the Internet.
Now consider your response in light of this critique, Purusha. Your response is based on the famous so-called Nazareth Inscription declaring tomb desecration to be a capital offense. (For a really nice article on this inscription see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nazareth_Inscription.) As you’ll see from reading the inscription, it does not, as you claim, prescribe crucifixion as the punishment for desecrating a tomb. It simply makes it a capital crime.
So how is your response relevant to my critique of the conspiracy theory? You might claim that your response undermines my criticism of the explanatory power of the conspiracy hypothesis vis à vis the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection because the disciples, having already stolen Jesus’ body, would have good reason to lie about it, lest they be executed. But this is to misunderstand the criticism. My point is that “you can’t plausibly deny that the earliest disciples at least sincerely believed that Jesus was risen from the dead.” No one who reads the pages of the New Testament unprejudicially can deny that these people really believed the truth of what they proclaimed. The question is not: would they have lied if they had stolen the body? The question is, were they in fact lying? Did they sincerely believe what they proclaimed? Scholars of every stripe recognize the evident sincerity of the early apostles when they were transformed into bold proclaimers of Jesus’ resurrection.
You’re just asking the wrong question, Purusha. Letting L = “The disciples were liars” and BS = “The disciples were body snatchers,” you’re asking about the conditional probability Pr (L | BS) rather than the probability Pr (L). The former could be high even though the latter is low. To illustrate: the probability that I wear three shoes given that I have three legs and feet may be quite high, but the probability that I have three legs and feet is absurdly low! You’re being misled because your assessment of the probability of L is conditionalized on BS.
Moreover, part of the reason you regard the ridiculous conspiracy theory as “much more likely to have occurred than an actual resurrection” is because you took Jesus’ “resurrection as irrefutable evidence that God does indeed exist in reality.” In contrast to classic defenders of Jesus’ resurrection, who first established God’s existence via the arguments of natural theology, you were relying wholly on the resurrection itself to bear the full evidential burden for theism. If you had followed the classic procedure, your theism would have already been in place when you come to the evidence of the resurrection, so that a miraculous explanation will be much more probable than it would be on non-theism and also more probable than fanciful naturalistic hypotheses like the conspiracy theory.
So in answer to your (misguided) question: don’t I think that “the fact that grave-robbing was a capital offense. . . constitutes ample motivation for the disciples to make up a lie that Jesus had resurrected from the dead (if they had actually robbed the grave, that is)?” Absolutely not! Why risk your life proclaiming a message for which you could be persecuted or killed? Better to just retire to Galilee and keep your mouth shut! Or blame the body-snatching on someone else, like the disciples of John Baptist! Or why not proclaim, in line with Jewish beliefs, Jesus’ assumption into heaven, which would have offended no one, Jew or Gentile? But the overriding point is, why steal the body in the first place when you knew that such an act was a capital crime? Duh!
So the important point is that you’re asking the wrong question. The right question is whether the disciples were sincere in their belief in and proclamation of the resurrection. Undoubtedly, they were.
 C. Behan McCullagh, Justifying Historical Descriptions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), p. 19.
 N. T. Wright, lecture at Asbury College and Seminary, 1999.
- William Lane Craig