The Noble Lie Theory Of Christian Origins – VERSION 2.0
"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 article examines the ancient concept of the “Noble Lie,” and explores whether the early Christians “may” have “creatively invented” the story (found earliest in the Pre Pauline Corinthian Creed, 1 Cor 15:3-5) that they had experienced resurrection appearances of the risen Jesus. This is considered as an alternative to the other secular explanation of the resurrection appearances in 1 Cor 15:3-5: that the first Christians were all hallucinating.
(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)
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 that the followers were martyred).
(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, Seneca famously said “Religion is true to the masses, false to the wise, and useful to the rulers.” 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.
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.” 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 worrying 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.
(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.
(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 reminds me 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 bringimg 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. Supposing Jesus existed, 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 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)? 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!). This theory works equally well under historicism as it does with mythicism, and Dr. Richard Carrier has suggested some of this as a possibility from the point of view of mythicism (although he hasn’t developed the theory to the extent I have).
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. In this regard, Jesus and his followers (supposing Jesus existed) 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?
Even if you think Jesus’ disciples were being honest (which we really have no reason to think), 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?”
(F) 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 somewhat 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).
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?