Wednesday, February 21, 2018

                                       Jesus And The Roman Emperors: 
               New Thoughts On The Noble Lie Theory Of Christian Origins


"Paul simply shifted the centre of gravity of that whole life to a place behind this existence in the LIE of the 'risen' Jesus (Nietzsche, Anti Christ, Chapter 42)."

This Blog Post examines the ancient concept of the “Noble Lie,” and explores whether the early Christians “may” have “creatively invented/lied” to create the stories that they had experienced resurrection appearances of the risen Jesus (found earliest in the Pre Pauline Corinthian Creed, 1 Cor 15:3-5).   This reconstruction is considered as an alternative to the other secular explanation of the resurrection appearances in 1 Cor 15:3-5, namely, that the first Christians were all hallucinating.  The accounts of the resurrection appearances to Cephas, the twelve, and Paul may have actually been noble lies told by Cephas, the twelve, and Paul, to lend divine clout to, and carry on, Jesus' message of love of God, neighbor, and enemy after Jesus died.  This portrayal is thought of as the first Christians explicitly inventing and creating an image of Jesus as greater than the Roman emperors (who are also said to have escaped death), analogous to how Matthew invents material to portray Jesus as the new and greater Moses.  In short, perhaps there never were any resurrection appearances to the apostles, but rather these ideas were borrowed from stories about the Caesars escaping death.  Visions/hallucinations may have been present in the early Christian church, but this doesn't mean the founders were having them just because they said so.

(A)   The Noble Lie in Judeo Christian Scriptures

I find instances of “noble lies” or “pious frauds” in the bible fascinating.  For example, the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible points out:

1.  God rewarded the Egyptian midwives for lying to the Pharaoh. (Exodus 1:18-20)
2.  Rahab was “justified” when she lied about Joshua’s spies. (Joshua 2:4-6); (James 2:25)
3.  David lied to Ahimelech when he said he was on the king’s business. (He was King Saul’s enemy at the time.) We know that God approved of this lie, since 1 Kings 15:5 says that God approved of everything David did, with the single exception of the matter of Uriah. (1 Samuel 21:2)
4.  Elisha told King Benhadad that he would recover, even though God told Elisha that the king would die. ( 2 Kings 8:8-10)
5.  In the Deuterocanonical book of Tobit, the angel Raphael lied to Tobias, saying “I am Azarias.” (Tobit 5:16-18)
6.  Jesus lied when he told his family that he wasn’t going to the feast, but later went “in secret.” (John 7:8-10)
7.  Even God lies by putting lying spirits in the mouths of his prophets. (1 Kings 22:21-22)

Considering issues like this, Dr. James McGrath said in a blog post last August that : “I found myself wondering whether Jesus might have been viewed by the Gospel author as, like God, above such ethical matters just as God could be depicted as sending a lying spirit to deceive a king (1 Kings 22:22). I also wonder whether Jesus might be an example of the appropriateness of deception in order to preserve oneself in a context of persecution.” see http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2016/08/snts-third-main-paper-and-simultaneous-short-papers.html

Dr. McGrath’s point sounds right. “Truth” doesn’t just mean honesty and correctness, but also “exemplary,” like when we call someone a “true friend”. Jesus may be depicted in the Gospel of John as an exemplary way to behave when facing persecution – The societal norm of honesty may need to be bracketed for a while.  The author of The Gospel of John calls Jesus “The Truth,” after all.

On the other hand, suspending the rule of honesty when it is needed or inconvenient, opens up a slippery slope. For instance, maybe the original Christians felt God was commanding them to be deceptive to sell Jesus’ message to the masses in order to ultimately realize God’s plan.  It is not out of the realm of possibility to speculate that the miracle/resurrection tales about Jesus started as Noble Lies to assist in selling Jesus’ ethical teaching of “love your enemy and neighbor,” a cause the disciples may have been willing to die for (although we really don’t have good evidence aside from 1 Clement that the followers were martyred). 

The idea of Jesus being resurrected may have been borrowed from the idea of the Roman Emperors escaping death, and may have been specifically employed to show Jesus was greater than these emperors.

In “Mythologizing Jesus (2015, pg. 3),” Dr. Dennis MacDonald writes

“The importance of the Homeric epics in antiquity is undisputed. A contemporary of Mark and Luke praised them as follows: 'From the earliest age, children beginning their studies are nursed on Homer’s teaching. One might say that while we were still in swathing bands we sucked from his epics as from fresh milk. He assists the beginner and later the adult in his prime. In no stage of life, from boyhood to old age, do we ever cease to drink from him (Ps.~Heraclitus, Homeric Questions 1.5-6, cited in MacDonald, Mythologizing Jesus, pg. 3).' ”

Since the Gospel writers and Paul wrote in Greek, one would assume they would be they would be familiar with this. Continuing on, Dr Dennis R MacDonald argues:

Greek education largely involved imitation of the epics, what Greeks called mimesis; Romans called it imitatio. Homeric influence thus appears in many genres of ancient composition: poetry, of course, but also histories, biographies and novels. One must not confuse such imitations with plagiarism, willful misrepresentation, or pitiful gullibility. Rather, by evoking literary antecedents, authors sought to impress the reader with the superiority of the imitation in literary style, philosophical insights, or ethical values. Literary mimesis often promoted a sophisticated rivalry between the esteemed models and their innovating successors (MacDonald, Mythologizing Jesus, pg. 3).

Maybe, in the resurrection appearance claims present in the pre-Pauline Corinthian Creed, the first Christians were inventing these appearance accounts to present Jesus as greater than the Roman emperors. In this regard, Justin Martyr writes:

"What about your dead emperors, whom you always esteem as being rescued from death and set forth someone who swears to have seen the cremated Caesar [Augustus] ascending from the pyre into the sky?" (Justin Martyr, First Apology, 21.3)."

It seems impossible to pull back the veil in front of the pre-Pauline Corinthian Creed to discover whether the resurrection appearance claims therein were Lies, Legendary Accumulation (although they may be too early to be Legendary), Hallucinations, or whether the apostles actually did encounter the risen Jesus?

And there may be good reason to suppose the early Christians were directly concerned with establishing that Jesus was greater than Caesar. Randel Helms points out that: 

The syncretic flavor of Mark is at once evident from his reproduction of a piece of Augustan imperial propaganda and his setting it beside a tailored scripture quote. “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God” closely matches the formula found on a monument erected by the Provincial Assembly in Asia Minor (1st century BCE): “Whereas... Providence... has... brought our life to the peak of perfection in giving us Augustus Caesar... who, being sent to us and to our descendants as a savior..., and whereas... the birthday of the god has been for the whole world the beginning of the gospel (euaggelion) concerning him, let all reckon a new era beginning from the date of his birth.”

Mark 12:17 also seems to establish that only trivial things are to be rendered unto Caesar, whereas the true esteem is to be given to God.  And who can forget Jesus' assault on the Roman loving, corrupt temple cult?  Civil authorities are to be respected (Romans 13 - although perhaps Paul simply didn't want his fledgling churches to be stamped out because they were challenging the political authorities), but Jesus is a spiritual emperor, who  is even greater than a political emperor, and so is to be esteemed and worshiped as even greater than the Caesars.

And we know the Jews of that time engaged in mimesis, just as the Greeks and Romans did, such as the material Matthew invented to portray Jesus as the new and greater Moses.

Perhaps a connection can be made with Jesus' resurrection in Mark, which shows Jesus escaping death and being greater than the Caesars escaping death (with Jesus being resurrected even though Rome's Pilate put him to death), with the portrayal of Jesus in Revelation -  Paul also makes a note that Jesus was crucified by the rulers of this age (1 Corinthians 2:8), and so Christ's resurrection flies in the face of their supposed power.   Craig Koester’s Revelation commentary says:

“The section climaxes by noting that [Jesus] holds seven stars in his right hand (Rev 1:16). This cosmic imagery conveys sovereignty. An analogy appears on a coin from Domitian’s reign that depicts the emperor’s deceased son as young Jupiter, sitting on the globe in a posture of world dominion. The coin’s inscription calls him “divine Caesar, son of the emperor Domitian,” and the imagery shows him extending his hands to seven stars in a display of divinity and power. John has already identified Jesus as the ruler of kings on earth (1:5), and the imagery of the seven stars fits the book’s larger context, which contrasts the reign of Christ with that of imperial Rome. (p. 253).”


Brandon D. Smith comments on Koester’s Revelation commentary here that:

Koester is referring to the coin in the image used in Rome around AD 88-96 during the reign of the brutal Caesar Domitian. Koester’s insights here give us an interesting look at the background of John’s writing during hostile Roman persecution. It also helps us think about the later date of Revelation’s writing (the end of the first century) versus a potential earlier dating (some say it might’ve been written closer to AD 65). This is enough to chew on a little bit... But it offers us more than that. This information helps shed light on the theology of Revelation. First, it shows us that much of Revelation’s imagery (beasts, numbers, etc.) are direct shots at the Roman empire. Many believe (and I could be convinced) that Revelation is written during intense Roman persecution and this letter was first written to encourage the Church during that time. However, as a non-preterist, I believe portions of the letter are speaking of future events—i,e., Jesus hasn’t come back yet; the New Jerusalem isn’t here yet; etc. In any event, this note might help us better understand the anti-imperial leanings of John... Second, it shows us how high John’s Christology was. He’s not merely putting Jesus on par with some exalted or glorified person. Rather, he’s portraying Jesus as divine—specifically pitting Jesus’s true divine sovereignty against the supposed divine sovereignty of the Roman emperorship. Roman caesars liked to pretend to be gods, but John is reminding them and us that there’s only one true God. Jupiter is seated on the world with stars hovering around him? Ha—Jesus created the world and clutches the stars in his hand. As I argue in my thesis, John explicitly and purposely ties Jesus into the divine identity of YHWH, and this little note only adds to the case.

Perhaps Jesus as surpassing Caesar is more pervasive in the NT than originally thought.

(B)     The New Testament and The Greeks as a Noble Lie:

Aside from the presence of the Noble Lie or Pious Fraud in Plato and Euripides,the historian Edward Gibbon explains the Roman understanding of religion and its usefulness at that time in the Roman context:  "The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful. — Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. I, Ch. II." For example, Serapis (Σέραπις, Attic/Ionian Greek) or Sarapis (Σάραπις, Doric Greek), was cleverly instituted as a Graeco-Egyptian god. The Cult of Serapis was strategically introduced during the 3rd century BC on the orders of Ptolemy I of Egypt as a means to unify the Greeks and Egyptians in his realm.  And, as Bart Ehrman has shown, we know ancient Christian writers were doing things like forging epistles, so they must have believed God wanted them to lie (why else would they forge?)  So, the noble lie was part of the culture at the time.  As Marx said, "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people."

Plato presented the Noble Lie (γενναῖον ψεῦδος, gennaion pseudos, literally – “a lie or wrong opinion about origin”) in a fictional tale, wherein Socrates provides the origin of the three social classes who compose the republic proposed by Plato; Socrates speaks of a socially stratified society, wherein the populace are told “a sort of Phoenician tale”

The Stanford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy provides a helpful brief explanation of the Noble Lie in Plato's Republic. We read:

"For Plato we should live according to what reason is able to deduce from what we regard as reliable evidence. This is what real philosophers, like Socrates, do. But the non-philosophers are reluctant to ground their lives on logic and arguments. They have to be persuaded. One means of persuasion is myth. Myth inculcates beliefs. It is efficient in making the less philosophically inclined, as well as children (cf. Republic 377a ff.), believe noble things. In the Republic the Noble Lie is supposed to make the citizens of Callipolis care more for their city. Schofield (2009) argues that, for instance, the guards, having to do philosophy from their youth, may eventually find philosophizing 'more attractive than doing their patriotic duty' (115). Philosophy, claims Schofield, provides the guards with knowledge, not with love and devotion for their city. The Noble Lie is supposed to engender in them devotion for their city and instill in them the belief that they should 'invest their best energies into promoting what they judge to be the city's best interests' (113). The preambles to a number of laws in the Laws that are meant to be taken as exhortations to the laws in question and that contain elements of traditional mythology (see 790c3, 812a2, 841c6) may also be taken as 'noble lies'."

Similarly, in Euripides’ Bacchae, Cadmus says “Even if this man (Dionysus) be no God, as you think, still say that he is.  Be guilty of a splendid fraud, declaring him to be the son of Semele, for this will make it seem she is the mother of a God, and will confer honor on all our race.”  Perhaps this very passage inspired the motivation to portray a Jewish Teacher like Jesus as an Epic Hero.  

People have long suspected that Euripides’ Bacchae influenced the New Testament. Nietzsche even wrote: "Have you understood me?  Dionysus against the Crucified." (Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, Why I am a Destiny).  An interesting recent book in support of this framework is "The Dionysian Gospel: The Fourth Gospel and Euripides (2017)" by Dr. Dennis R MacDonald.  This book, while not picking up the noble lie theme, meticulously maps out the literary relationship between Euripides' Dionysus and Jesus in the Fourth Gospel (other books by Dr. Dennis MacDonald and Dr. Robert M. Price explore the imitation of Euripides’ Bacchae by the Book of Acts).  From the book cover of Dr. Dennis MacDonald’s book we read:

" 'Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.' Dennis R. MacDonald offers a provocative explanation of those scandalous words of Christ from the Fourth Gospel—an explanation that he argues would hardly have surprised some of the Gospel's early readers. John sounds themes that would have instantly been recognized as proper to the Greek god Dionysos (the Roman Bacchus), not least as he was depicted in Euripides' play The Bacchae. A divine figure, the offspring of a divine father and human mother, takes on flesh to live among mortals, but is rejected by his own. He miraculously provides wine and offers it as a sacred gift to his devotees, women prominent among them, dies a violent death—and returns to life. Yet John takes his drama in a dramatically different direction: while Euripides's Dionysos exacts vengeance on the Theban throne, the Johannine Christ offers life to his followers. MacDonald employs mimesis criticism to argue that the earliest Evangelist not only imitated Euripides but expected his readers to recognize Jesus as greater than Dionysos."

We also find striking parallels to ‘The Bacchae’ indicated in Dr.  Robert M. Price’s article “New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash (2004)” published in “The Encyclopedia of Midrash,” ed Jacob Neusner and Alan Avery Peck.

(C)      The Case Of Paul

Paul's conversion experience and vision reports are very suspicious to me.  What could do a better job of attesting to the "truth" of a new religion than having one of its chief persecutors switching sides and start having tons of confirming visions from God?  Too good to be true? 

Paul would have been aware of the power of telling a story about himself of God intervening and changing the mind of someone doing bad things to God's chosen people, such we also find in 2 Maccabees 3’s story of Heliodorus, which, as the great Tübingen critics already saw, is the model for Luke's description of Paul's conversion story in Acts.

Dr. James Tabor has just pointed out in a blog post that Paul's reported ascension to heaven experience was a common reported phenomenon at the time: see https://jamestabor.com/if-i-ascend-to-heaven-pauls-journey-to-paradise/ .It's very suspicious that Paul's visions were types of ones that were common at the time, and hence would have had supreme persuasive and didactic value.  There are too many coincidences here with Paul.

I don’t know if it is as helpful as most people think to turn to the writings of Paul to learn about Jesus.
Paul was quite clear that he was "something like" an accomplished liar, or at least a good chameleon,  modifying his message about Jesus to cast Jesus in the most “sellable” light possible, depending on whether Paul was presenting the message to Jews, or to Gentiles (1 Cor 9:20-21). Since Paul was modifying the message depending on whether it was going to Jews or Gentiles, and he was trying to present the most tempting Christ possible to win the most converts, who knows what he thought about the actual historical Jesus?  

And there is possible reason to suspect that Paul was lying, since he was constantly protesting that he wasn’t lying (a possible sign of guilt). Paul wrote:

1. “I assure you before God that what I am writing to you is no lie (Galatians 1:20)”
2. “I speak the truth in Christ; I am not lying, as confirmed by my conscience in the Holy Spirit (Romans 9:1).”
3. “I call God as my witness that it was in order to spare you that I did not return to Corinth (2 Corinthians 1:23).”
4. ” The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is forever worthy of praise, knows that I am not lying (2 Corinthians 11:31).”

As Shakespeare wrote, methinks Paul “doth protest too much.” Paul seems to present himself as a liar who is sometimes proud of his deceptions, like Odysseus, and sometimes worried about getting caught.  Paul also seemingly “lies” to support his arguments.  For instance, Paul claims the risen Christ appeared to “500 of the brothers AT ONCE (1 Corinthians 15:6).”  That’s ridiculous!  Paul is perhaps making stuff up to persuade his readers that Christ really rose, unless he was just uncritically accepting second hand information to bolster his argument.

Another example of Paul being deceptive is his claim of encountering a man who had made a heavenly ascension, when the truth was this was either Paul's mystical journey, or an invented account of one that never happened. This report would be an effective tool at bringing people to Christ, because the alleged journey would be understood in the light of similar journeys in the Hebrew Scriptures:

There are five figures in the Bible who, according to standard Jewish and Christian interpretation, are reported to have ascended to heaven: Enoch (Gen 5:24); Elijah (2 Kgs 2:1-12); Jesus (Luke 24:51; Acts 1:9); Paul (2 Cor 12:2-4); and John (Rev 4:1). There are also four related accounts in which individuals behold the throne, or heavenly court, of Yahweh: Moses, Aaron, and the elders of Israel (Exod 24:9-11); Micaiah (1 Kgs 22:19-23); Isaiah (Isa 6:1-13); and Ezekiel (Ezk 1, 10). Finally, there is the scene in which an otherwise unidentified “son of man” comes before the throne of God in an apocalyptic vision of Daniel (Dan 7:11-14).

Is there any reason to think Paul was being any less deceptive than Joseph Smith and his claim of finding golden plates from heaven?  Smith actually produced Some witnesses who described the plates as weighing from 30 to 60 pounds (14 to 27 kg), being golden in color and being composed of thin metallic pages engraved on both sides and bound with three D-shaped rings!

Paul preaching the end of the world and what might be implied by that (no need to marry) because that teaching would also be a good conversion tool: "The end of the age is here so you better get right with God and join the winning team and start loving your neighbor and enemy!" Regarding the avoidance of marriage lecture, Paul may simply have wagered that single people without kids to look after would be more able to commit to the cause and go off and win more converts than married people with children and the obligations that entails: "14 For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; 15 and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. (2 Cor 5: 14-21)."

Who knows what was going through Paul's mind? Maybe in his persecuting time he "learned" from one of the inner circle of the Jesus movement that the resurrection stories were lies (it's amazing how honest people can be at the wrong end of a whip) and decided to join up because he thought it would be an effective way of creating a better world. After all, God could be a fan of liars if it suited Him (see 1 Kings 22:21-22)

And finally, Paul clearly said he used deception to sell his gospel: "But be it so, I did not myself burden you; but, being crafty, I caught you with trickery." (2 Corinthians 12:16).  Regarding Paul’s supposed conversion experience, Dr. Barrie Wilson says: “Paul's story is clearly made up, to give himself credibility. What people don't realize is that, if true, it would undermine the whole point of Jesus' mission. If all it took was a vision, why waste time with a 3-yr mentoring process?”



(D)   Taking over the world

 From beginning to end, the purpose of the movement was to sell the new religion to the world:

(A) 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” (Mark 1:17)

(B) The Great Commission
16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:16-20)

(C) Sending out Emissaries
Dr. Robert M. Price points out that: “Just as Moses had chosen twelve spies to reconnoiter the land which stretched “before your face,” sending them through the cities of the land of Canaan, so does Jesus send a second group, after the twelve, a group of seventy, whose number symbolizes the nations of the earth who are to be “conquered,” so to speak, with the gospel in the Acts of the Apostles. He sends them out “before his face” to every city he plans to visit (in Canaan, too, obviously).”

(D) For Paul, Paul was selling the story that Jesus' resurrection is understood as the “first fruits” of the general resurrection, and so this might have been a selling point for the new religion: “The end of the world is at hand, so you better join the winning team!”

Christianity was all about winning converts and spreading the word, so it is no surprise that they succeeded doing just that.  In any case, prior to that, you can perhaps picture Jesus and his followers running around the ancient world threatening and scaring people with the lie that “The World You Knew Is About To End, so you better get right with God and start loving one another, because the kingdom approaches!”  A healthy dose of made-up miracle stories and a resurrection story would have helped to sell the ethical message of loving one another, especially decades after Jesus was gone and it became apparent that the world wasn’t ending any time soon. 

Dr. James McGrath makes the point that: "Jesus, like other famous figures, became more miraculous in the eyes and perception of others over time, including after his death as stories continued to be created, embellished, and exaggerated."  This is absolutely true. However, on the other hand, some say that the miracle story about the resurrection, as described in the pre-Pauline Corinthian Creed (1 Cor 15), is perhaps too early to be the result of "legendary development." It is a possibility that it was a lie. Cephas and the twelve fled to Galilee after Jesus' arrest (possibly explaining why Paul has no narrative details of the crucifixion like we find in Mark), and you can perhaps still picture them, devastated by the loss of their beloved Master Jesus, inventing Jesus resurrection appearance stories in hopes of carrying on, and lending divine authority to, Jesus' ethical mandate of loving your neighbor and enemy - a cause they may been willing to die for.  

The Romans put Jesus to death, but he escaped death with a resurrection that echoed of the way the Roman emperors escaped death, showing that the Romans had no real power over Jesus or the Hebrew God, and that in his resurrection, Jesus was greater than the Roman emperors in their escaping of death.

(E)   The Noble Lie Theory of Christian Origins

The permission of lying under special circumstances doesn’t separate the Hebrew and Christian religious traditions from other ancient spiritualities. It actually puts them all very much in line. The justification of lying hypothesis is very interesting. It resonates with much in spirituality, even shamanism, where the neophyte is taken in with 'magic' to attract their attention and then is taken to the Truth, and the understanding that what they initially through was magic was simply deception, and the recognition of how early they were deceived.  

And Confucius, in the ‘Analects,’ indicates “The Governor of She said to Confucius, 'In our village we have an example of a straight person.  When the father stole a sheep, the son gave evidence against him.' Confucius answered, 'In our village those who are straight are quite different. Fathers cover up for their sons, and sons cover up for their fathers. In such behaviour is straightness to be found as a matter of course.' (13.18)” 

Similarly, most believe, for example, that Joseph Smith lied about finding Golden Plates and interpretation stones from Heaven.  

Also, we see the permission of lying in Islam. In the Pro-Muslim book ‘The Spirit of Islam,’ Afif A. Tabbarah writes, concerning the mandates of Muhammed, “Lying is not always bad, to be sure; there are times when telling a lie is more profitable and better for the general welfare, and for the settlement of conciliation among people, than telling the truth. To this effect, the Prophet says: ‘He is not a false person who (through lies) settles conciliation among people, supports good or says what is good.’"  

This also reminiscent of how one of the great esoteric truths of Scientology is learning about the galactic dictator Xenu. Within the Church of Scientology, the Xenu story is part of the church's secret "Advanced Technology", considered a sacred and esoteric teaching, which is normally only revealed to members who have completed a lengthy sequence of courses costing large amounts of money. In 1988, the cost of learning these secrets from the Church of Scientology was £3,830, or US$6,500. This is in addition to the cost of the prior courses which are necessary to be eligible for OT III, which is often well over US$100,000 (roughly £60,000). Belief in Xenu and body thetans is a requirement for a Scientologist to progress further along the Bridge to Total Freedom. Those who do not experience the benefits of the OT III course are expected to take it and pay for it again. - not exactly lying, but ...

The noble lie theory of Christian origins is certainly one way to make sense of the apocalyptic evidence we have about early Christianity. It seems that the original Christians were an apocalyptic sect (Paul in 1 Cor 15:23 calls Jesus the “first fruits” of the general resurrection of souls at the end of the age), or at least presented themselves as such.  Maybe the apocalyptic message was meant to scare people into falling in line: “The world is about to end, so you better get right with God and start loving one another!”  Perhaps the first Christians thought this noble lie about the imminent apocalypse would help create a moral and just world, and so actually would be a catalyst to bringing about the apocalypse.  

If you ascribe to the atonement theory of Paul’s message (which is disputed by scholars such as Dr. Paula Fredriksen in “Paul: The Pagan’s Apostle,” 2017) it could be the first Christians believed the corrupt, Roman loving temple cult as the centre of Jewish religious life was preventing the end of the world (the end of the age) that they so desperately wanted. So, maybe they concocted a way to negate the need for the temple cult.  The original disciples such as Cephas may have invented the atonement stuff about Jesus after he died (see the pre-Pauline Corinthian creed). One of the climax moments of Jesus' life was the "Jesus vs the Corrupt, Roman Loving Temple Cult"story (Mark 11:15-19). What if the disciples wanted to continue Jesus' quest against the corrupt Roman Loving Temple Cult after he died, and so invented the idea that somehow Jesus' death was such a unique and important blood magic sacrifice that it eliminated the need for the temple cult (as perhaps implied in the pre-Pauline Corinthian Creed, although as I said above Dr. Fredriksen in her recent book on Paul disputes the atonement interpretation, traditionally argued by Dr.  Bart Ehrman and others, of Paul’s message)?  

Or, maybe all the disciples really wanted was a society of brotherly love and moral conduct so that God would decide they were worthy of the end of the age apocalypse. Perhaps they believed that this "Noble Lie" about the elimination of need for the corrupt, Roman loving Temple Cult would ultimately fulfill God's plan of making people righteous, and so would become a catalyst that would finally bring about the end of days. 

Even if Paul didn’t advocate atonement theology, as is generally thought, the followers of Jesus may have simply told a noble lie about seeing him resurrected as a foundation for preaching the lie of the end of the world, luring in converts, and creating a better world (The end is near, so it’s time to love one another and get right with God!).  .

In Mark, it's a clever play on the rags to riches story: An itinerant backwater preacher from a nowhere place like Nazareth and his band of peasants save mankind by reconciling man to God (the tearing of the veil, Mark 15:38) and Jews to gentiles (the words of the gentile soldier – “truly this man is the son of God”).  So, there's no reason to think Jesus' original followers were anything like what we find in Mark, since their traditional portraits simply fit in with this theme.  I don't see any reason to think the historical Jesus didn't have theologically literate members that were part of his group. And there is no reason, for instance, to think some among them were, say, fishermen, just because Mark said so. This might just have been an ironic play on the idea that Jesus promised to make them "fishers of men (Mark 1:17)." 

The most common title for Jesus that other characters call Jesus in Mark is "Teacher," so the disciples could have learned all kinds of innovative theology from Jesus (such as the Noble Lie permission of 1 Kings 22: 21-22)  In this regard, Jesus and his followers may certainly have been theologically literate enough to concoct a “Noble Lie” scheme.  As I said, it needn’t even have been a scheme, simply the pious belief of a group of early Christians that thought God wanted them to lie to make the world a better place.  As I said, even God lies by putting lying spirits in the mouths of his prophets. (1 Kings 22:21-22).

Even Jesus may have willingly given his life at the cross for the noble lie that his disciples were going to tell about his resurrection.  Analogously, weren’t Socrates’ last words in the Phaedo: "Crito, we ought to offer a rooster to Asclepius. See to it, and don't forget," implying the poison he was taking was a “cure” for life and that he was proud to be dying for the ethical cause he believed in?  Just as there is no reason to think Jesus and the disciples were being honest, it is even less likely that Paul was being honest.  Regarding Paul’s supposed conversion experience, Dr. Barrie Wilson says: “Paul's story is clearly made up, to give himself credibility. What people don't realize is that, if true, it would undermine the whole point of Jesus' mission. If all it took was a vision, why waste time with a 3-yr mentoring process?”

It's also interesting to question the historicity of the various elements of Mark's crucifixion narrative. Regarding this, the 2nd edition of "The Jewish Annotated New Testament (text box, pg. 99) " points out:  

"Mark highlights a number of events in such a way as to fulfill passages from Psalms and Isaiah:

Mark 

14.1 Kill by stealth, Ps 10.7-8
14.10-11 Betray him, Isa 53.6, 12
14.18 The one eating with me, Ps 41.9
14.24 Blood poured out for many, Isa 53.12
14.57 False testimony, Ps 27.12; 35.11
14.61;15.5 Silence before accusers, Ps 38.13-14? Isa 53.7?
14.65 Spit, slap, Isa 50.6
15.5, 39 Amazement of nations and kings, Isa 52.15
15.6-15 Criminal saved, righteous killed, Isa 53.6, 12
15.24 Divided his clothes, Ps 22.18
15.29 Derided him and shook their, Ps 22.7; 109.25
15.30-31 Save yourself!, Ps 22.8
15.32 Taunted him, Ps 22.6
15.34 Why have you forsaken me, Ps 22.1
15.36 Gave him sour wine to drink, Ps 69.21

"These connections call into question whether the events Mark depicts actually occurred or whether they were introduced into the narrative to establish that Jesus died in "accordance with the scriptures (1 Cor 15.3-4)."

To these passage identified in the 2nd edition of the "Jewish Annotated New Testament," I would add that some think parts of the actual act of the crucifixion of Jesus itself may be unhistorical, and ultimately derived from scripture:

(1) The implicit piercing of hands and feet (Mark 24) may derive from Psalm 22:16b. The Septuagint Greek reading "dug" in Psalm 22:16b, which The New Testament writers would have been familiar with, might be thought to prefigure the piercing of Jesus' hands and feet in Mark 24.

(2) Paul understanding of the crucifixion as Christ dying "according to the scriptures" is one of Jesus being "hung on a tree" in the sense explained in the Hebrew Scriptures. Paul writes: "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us. For it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree (Galatians 3:13).” This is Paul's interpretation and application of Deuteronomy, which says "His corpse shall not hang all night on the tree, but you shall surely bury him on the same day (for he who is hanged is accursed of God), so that you do not defile your land which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance (Deuteronomy 21:23).".

It seems reasonable to admit skepticism about the historicity of any or all of these elements (not the fact that Jesus was crucified, which is historical bedrock). On the other hand, none of this is relevant to the question of the historicity of Jesus himself, since legendary embellishment is just as much expected on the historical Jesus theory as it is the mythical Jesus theory. And, of course, Paul met Jesus' brother (Galatians 1:19), which on its own invalidates Jesus mythicism.

There is no question, like the impaled, just man of Plato's Republic (Plat. Rep. 2.362a), Jesus was a good man who died by impaling crucifixion. However, because this very crucifixion was (very early) interpreted theologically in terms of Psalm 22:16b (Mark's use of the Septuagint in Mark 24) and Deuteronomy 21:23 (Paul's "Hung on a tree in Galatians 3:13), it is possible that Jesus himself felt it was his theological mission to die of crucifixion to fulfill such scriptures as Deuteronomy and Psalms, just as he probably felt it was his mission to fulfill Zechariah 9:9 with the way he entered into Jerusalem.  So it might have been Jesus' intention all along to die a high profile death and then have his apostles concoct a resurrection story to to really get the Christian movement of love of God, neighbor, and enemy rolling.  Jesus might have thought God wanted him to lie about this all along (cf 1 Kings 22: 21-22).

As I said, Jesus may have thought it was his theological mission from God to die by crucifixion because he had the same interpretation of Deuteronomy 21:23 that Paul had in Galatians 3:13. Jesus may have acted in his life to try to bring about his own crucifixion to fulfill God's mission for him, even though the outcome terrified him (as evidenced by the Gethsemane episode). And, the Septuagint rendering of Psalm 22:16b may have further inspired Jesus along this way (Jesus would not have read the Greek Septuagint, but its rendering rendering of "dug" may have been noted around Jesus' time because of the similarity to the Roman act of hand/feet piercing crucifixion).

N.B. Robert M Price points out a "possible Con" in the Gospel of Mark. Price writes concerning Mark 1:21-28:

Mark's larger goal here is not merely to show how great Jesus was, but, beyond this, to drive home the authority of his teaching, because that is the logically erroneous inference of the synagogue congregation. His authority is verified for them by the fact that he can perform exorcisms. Here is a prime case of what Dostoyevsky warned against: mystery, miracle, and authority. A con job, though perhaps not intentionally. The supposed miracle-worker may draw the same conclusion himself: 'Wow! If I can do this, I must be privy to the truth of God!' But obviously not, right? Would Superman necessarily be infallible ex cathedra? Would his super-strength, invulnerability, super-speed, and X-ray vision verify his opinion, if he had one, about Anselm's Ontological Argument? It's like when Jerry Seinfeld was trying to convince George Costanza that Superman must have a super sense of humor if everything else about him was super. It's like thinking some actor or rock star's political opinions should be taken seriously (Robert M Price, "Holy Fable Volume 2," pg. 29, 2017).

(F) Ancient Sources and Lying

Another point to keep in mind is the dubious nature of ancient sources.  Bart Ehrman, for instance, in "Forged" and "Forgery and Counterforgery" pointed out the widespread lying in creating written works, even though the practice was frowned on.  New Testament historians have had to develop sophisticated criteria and strategies to rescue historical nuggets from generally unreliable texts. 

One of the quotes from Christopher Gill, which seems to relate directly to Mark writing his Gospel (who must have had a background in Greek methods, since he wrote in Greek), is:

“When Phaedrus points out that Socrates has made up the ‘Egyptian’ legend he tells, Socrates replies, tartly, that what matters is not the source of such a story, but the truth or falsity of the idea it conveys (275 b-c). This is, in effect, to concede the falsity of the story as historical narrative, a point also signalled at the start of the story (Gill, “Plato On Falsehood – Not Fiction 58)”.  Seneca said that all historians were liars.

So it was known in antiquity that pious fictions should be promoted as truths if they were beneficial for society.  For instance, there is no reason to think Plato believed his own views about death.  They were useful:

In Book 2 of the “Republic” Socrates reviews what stories the children may hear about gods in the ideal city, and his discussion makes clear that quite a few traditional stories are worth keeping and retelling. Zeus judges the souls of the dead, punishing the wicked and rewarding the just. The great technological inventions that human beings possess were given to them by the gods. Such wholesome tales are to be repeated in earnest, so that the young may grow up with a pious sense of gratitude toward their divine benefactors.  On the other hand, following Xenophanes, Plato in the “Euthyphro” and Book 2 of the “Republic” point out that any stories about the gods’ quarreling with one another, or lying to human beings, or changing shape, or being overwhelmed by lust, or sleeping with one another’s spouses, strike the Socrates we find in Plato’s dialogues as unseemly, and impossible of containing truth. (If the truth in them is something allegorical, they still need to be suppressed, because the typical young listener cannot tell the difference between a symbolic meaning and the superficial narrative.)

I’ve often wondered how we went from the perfectly reasonable and Philosophical view on death from Socrates in the early dialogues as not knowing whether death was a simple nothingness, or rather something more desirable, to the elaborate structure of death we find in later Platonic “Republic (“Myth of Er”)” where in death there is:

-the presence of a conception of “punishment” and “reward” (in other words, punishment for an evil life, and, conversely, reward for living a meritorious life, meted out by a panel of judges in the underworld);
-the possibility of rebirth or reincarnation; and
-an underworld with clearly marked out “good places” and “bad places.”

This vision of Plato would certainly be more socially effective than that of Socrates. It reminds me of this quote from Heraclitus:

The best of men choose to know the One above all else;
It is the famous “Eternal” within mortal men.
But the majority of men are complacent, like well-fed cattle. They revel in mud; like donkeys, they prefer chaff to gold.

(Heraclitus, Fragment 29, 13, 9)

It’s interesting how optimistic Plato’s view of the afterlife is given the pessimistic account given of the afterlife given in Homer in Book 11 of the Odyssey (circa 750 B.C.E.):

The Odyssey conveys quite a pessimistic view of the afterlife. Status, distinction, and honor disappear after death, and all individuals are reduced to lifeless forms inhabiting Erebus, the personification of darkness. In Erebus, it matters not whether one has achieved glory in war or simply lived a quiet, unremarkable life. Death is the great equalizer. Small wonder, therefore, that the Homeric heroes place great stock in achieving a great name for themselves, for only in this figurative sense can they hope for any sort of “life after death.”

I certainly would have been a happier Greek believing Plato’s account rater than Homer’s. I’m reminded of classicist Jacob Burckhardt saying, following an insight he learned from his teacher, the classical philologist at Berlin, Bockh, that “the Hellenes were more unhappy than most people realized.” A young Nietzsche acquired an auditor’s transcript of this lecture by Burckhardt and cherished it as his most prized possession (this is all cited by Philosopher Martin Heidegger in his lecture course on Parmenides).

It's interesting that fake news such as Jesus being born in Bethlehem is present in the gospels, while a Jew from around that time, Josephus, ranted against the excesses and inventions of historians. On this issue, T. P. Wiseman writes:

"Lucian (Hist. conscr. 7) had no inhibitions about describing panegyric in history as a lie (pseudos). Nor, conversely, had Josephus (Jewish Antiquities 20.154-5), in his criticism of historians' malice:

Many have written the history of Nero. Some have been favorable to him, careless of the truth because he benefited them. Others, out of hatred and hostility towards him, have behaved like shameless drunkards in their lies, and deserve condemnation for it. I am not surprised at those who have lied about Nero, since even in their accounts of events before his time they have not preserved the truth of history.


Naturally, Josephus distances himself from such authors. 'Let them write as they like, since that is what gives them pleasure. As for me, I am aiming at the truth' (20.156) - by which he means impartiality. Lucian specified only two things that the truthful historian had to avoid - panegyric and muthoi. The latter category is our second type; for Roman authors, it provided evident proof that the Greeks were liars."

- T. P. Wiseman "Lying Historians: Seven Types of Mendacity" in 
"Lies and Fiction in the Ancient World (1993, ed. Gill and Wiseman)."

We also read that:

"Brief consideration is also needed of Hesiod's other poem to survive intact, Works and Days. Didactic epic of a different sort, it offers much biographical information about Hesiod himself, about his brother Perses, and about their quarrel over their father's land. Much of this may be straightforwardly true or simply a tendentious account. But the apparently conflicting information about Perses and the author's relations with him have raised the question of whether a brother (whether called Perses or not) really existed ... To my mind the evidence points just as strongly to the conclusion Perses is invented ... In a poem communicating apparently sincere views on gods, justice and society, as well as practical, if traditional, information on methods of farming, the didactic poet did not think he would weaken the authority he so clearly arrogates by incorporating biographical detail about his addressee which members of his audience would detect as fictitious."

- E.L.Bowie, "Lies, Fiction and Slander in Early Greek Poetry" in 
"Lies and Fiction in the Ancient World (1993, ed. Gill and Wiseman)."

An interesting essay from a Sociological/Cultural/Anthropological perspective might be how the ancient authors might sometimes have had the "purpose" they were writing for trump the "form" (such as fake news like Jesus being born in Bethlehem trumping the dictates of adherence to facts for the "form" of historical biography). The ancients were clearly struggling with how to understand the place lies/fictions and truth fit in their writings.

For instance, E. L. Bowie points out, regarding the hexameter didactic epic form of ancient Greece, that the Muses who met Hesiod on Helicon, (in a meeting that Hesiod's contemporaries hardly would have regarded as the narrative of an historical event), notoriously claimed to be purveyors of both truth and falsehoods (pseudea) that are 'like what is real' (etumoisin homoia) - just the phrase used by Homer of Odysseus' lies to Penelope at 'Odyssey 19.203' :

"Field-dwelling shepherds, evil disgraces, mere bellies, we know how to say many falsehoods that are like the truth (etumoisin), and we know, when we wish, how to voice what is true (alethea), 'Hesiod, Theogony, 26-8.'

Odyssey 19.203 that I referred to above says "he said [or made] many falsehoods in his tale like what is true."

We also read: "Seneca's ironic assumption that historians are all liars is a response, presumably, not only to their economies or extravagances with the truth but to their very assertions of truthfulness, their claim to be writing history at all"

Michael Wood, "Prologue," in " Lies and fiction in the Ancient World edited by Christopher Gill and Timothy Peter Wiseman, University of Exeter Press, 1993. — pg xv

And The blog Vridar has recently posted this helpful quote from J.L. Moles:

"Do ancient historiographers sometimes say things they know to be factually untrue? Emphatically, yes. The accusation of deliberate fabrication is made repeatedly. Herodotus is dubbed the father, not only of history, but of lies; Polybius castigates historians not only for incompetence, but falsehood; Lucian tells of historians who claimed to be eye-witnesses of things they could not possibly have seen; invention and manipulation of factual material is (I believe) demonstrable in Herodotus and Plutarch, as well as Hellenistic tragic historians. The motives vary: some, of course, crudely political — propaganda, flattery, denigration; literary rivalry (to trump one’s predecessors, of which we have seen examples even in Thucydides); the desire to spin a good yarn (often important in Herodotus and other historians of the exotic); sometimes (surely) historiographical parody; sheer emotional arousal or entertainment; the need to make moral points or bring out broader patterns or causes behind complicated sequences of events. Why then do Herodotus and Plutarch behave in this way? Serious ancient historians (which both Herodotus and Plutarch intermittently are) face the problem of the eternal see-saw of history: the need to generalize from specifics. No serious ancient historian was so tied to specific factual truth that he would not sometimes help general truths along by manipulating, even inventing, ‘facts’. Of course, the requisite manipulation could sometimes be achieved through the medium of ‘what-is-said’ material, to whose historicity the ancient historian did not commit himself."


J.L. Moles, “Truth and Untruth in Herodotus and Thucydides” in Lies and fiction in the Ancient World edited by Christopher Gill and Timothy Peter Wiseman, University of Exeter Press, 1993. — pages 90, 115, 120

The ancients, like we today, believed the future is too important to be left up to chance. The ancients had their noble lies, we have our myths, like the myth of the American Dream (you toil your whole life to achieve it, then toil the rest of your life to protect it); the cult of celebrity worship (the North American equivalent of Royal Worship); the fairy tales of advertisements (you’ll live happily ever after if you buy the product); and our core myth-belief: Love (The great opiate of the masses, our highest aspiration). Regarding Love, by analogy, imagine if you had a friend who insisted on staying over at your house EVERY night. You’d get tired and annoyed with them pretty quickly. But somehow if that friend is a girlfriend or wife, suddenly being burdened with them all the time is very desirable? Culture is saturated with the myths we live by, ones that keep us like well fed cattle.



(G)  Conclusion: The Noble Lie Theory of Christian Origins – Possible versus Probable

It is very difficult to establish that lying has occurred in any particular instance in history, and some examples are easier to assess than other, since some, in an article like this, may just be the result of confirmation bias.  Bart Ehrman does an admirable job of establishing Christians who have forged documents in his books “Forged,” and “Forgery and Counterforgery,” a practice that was frowned upon in ancient times (although we can only conclude that the deceptive Christian forgers believed God approved of the deceptions – since otherwise they wouldn’t have produced them).  The issue of forgery still haunts us in our time, such as with the case of Morton Smith, a professor of ancient history at Columbia University, who was accused of forging The Secret Gospel of Mark (the jury is still out on that one). 

The idea of the miraculous duping people into believing is important because the Gospel of John, and the Hebrew scripture tradition, says miracles are important in causing belief in people. Dr. Price argues:

Water into Wine (John 2:1-11)

Though the central feature of this miracle story, the transformation of one liquid into another, no doubt comes from the lore of Dionysus, the basic outline of the story owes much to the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 17:8-24 LXX (Helms, p. 86). The widow of Zarephath, whose son has just died, upbraids the prophet: “What have I to do with you, O man of God?” (Ti emoi kai soi, 17:18). John has transferred this brusque address to the mouth of Jesus, rebuking his mother (2:4, Ti emoi kai soi, gunai). Jesus and Elijah both tell people in need of provisions to take empty pitchers (udria in 1 Kings 17:12, udriai in John 2:6-7), from which sustenance miraculously emerges. And just as this feat causes the woman to declare her faith in Elijah (“I know that you are a man of God,” v. 24), so does Jesus’ wine miracle cause his disciples to put their faith in him (v. 11).

And Regarding Numa Pompilius, Livy wrote

"And fearing lest relief from anxiety on the score of foreign perils might lead men who had hitherto been held back by fear of their enemies and by military discipline into extravagance and idleness, he (Numa) thought the very first thing to do, as being the most efficacious with a populace which was ignorant and, in those early days, uncivilized, was to imbue them with the fear of Heaven. As he could not instil this into their hearts without inventing some marvellous story, he pretended to have nocturnal meetings with the goddess Egeria, and that hers was the advice which guided him in the establishment of rites most approved by the gods, and in the appointment of special priests for the service of each." (Livy 1 19). 

- Plutarch also suggests that Numa played on superstition to give himself an aura of awe and divine allure, in order to cultivate more gentle behaviours among the warlike early Romans, such as honoring the gods, abiding by law, behaving humanely to enemies, and living proper, respectable lives.  The reference to Plutarch is Plutarch, "The parallel lives, Numa Pompilius, §VIII"

Also, we read: “The sense of history revealed by fakes is sometimes remarkable. As John Taylor notes, the ancient Egyptian forgers of the Shabaka Stone, which located the creation of the world in their home town of Memphis, not only claimed that they were copying an ancient, worm eaten document, but also actually reproduced the layout of just such a document, and introduced archaic spelling and grammatical forms to give it credibility. There could be no better demonstration of the existence of a sophisticated sense of anachronism among the educated elite of Pharaonic Egypt… Each society, each generation, fakes the things it covets most. For the priests of ancient Memphis this was, as we have seen, the promotion of their cult and their city." (“Fake?: The Art of Deception," pp 12-13, ed. Mark Jones, Paul T. Craddock, Nicolas Barker)


Probably, as no where else, Historical Jesus Studies are guilty of the “Possible ergo Probable” fallacy, concluding from the fact that a theoretical model fits the evidence that it therefore is “probably” true.  This line of reasoning has produced an embarrassment of riches of historical Jesus portraits, such as Jesus as apocalyptic prophet, charismatic healer, Cynic philosopher, Jewish Messiah, prophet of social change, Mythical Being, etc.  The models account for the evidence, and explain away any apparently recalcitrant evidence, and so are possible models for interpreting the scant evidence we have for the historical Jesus.  But as Dr. Richard Carrier says in his book “Proving History,” possible doesn’t equal probable.  In this regard, The Noble Lie Theory of Christian Origins is a novel take on a very old and continuing problem: trying to account for Christian origins given scant historical evidence.  But that said, the theory does fit an interesting point about the context of the ancient Christian world: What might have been possible in a world where such things were happening like Christians thinking God approved of them forging epistles, and God in the Hebrew scriptures being depicted as a liar, and as sanctioning lies?

There seemed to be some traditions preserved in the New Testament of some contending Jesus was a glutton and a drunk (Matthew 11:19), and possibly that that the disciples had underhanded motives, stealing Jesus' body, and falsely proclaiming him resurrected (perhaps reflected in Matthew 28:13) Regarding this latter point, and indeed whether there was a missing body or not, we can picture Jesus' disciples, devastated by the death of Jesus, inventing the stories about Jesus' resurrection appearances (encapsulated in the pre Pauline Corinthian creed),so they could continue on his mission and lend apparent divine force to his message of love of God, neighbor and enemy. On the other hand, maybe Cephas and the twelve were hallucinating? Or perhaps they really did encounter the risen Jesus? There is really no way to know.

I imagine that way back then some in power witnessed how devout the Christians were even in the face of persecution, and decided that this kind of crutch would be a wonderful thing for the general population to have.  This would certainly explain Paul's lie about a vision of the risen Jesus and his desire to convert and start winning converts of his own.  This would also explain the later switch of Christianity as a forbidden religion to the official religion of Rome.