Could Jesus’ Resurrection Have Been a Cunning Lie?

Is it possible that the event which launched Christianity in the first century, the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, was actually an elaborate lie staged by one man? A lie that influenced countless people down through the centuries? After Jesus’ crucifixion, did the disciple Peter simply invent a story about seeing the risen Christ? And did this lie result in the fabricated reports of the resurrection that appeared in the writings of Paul (e.g. 1 Corinthians 15) and the later gospels?

That’s the foundational claim of the book “The Christianity Myth,” which seeks to reframe first century Christian history in the light of a simple but highly influential fabrication. The author, Ken Thackery, assumes a fundamental difference exists between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith. Historically, Ken says Jesus existed, but the Christ preached by the church has always been a fabrication. Ken says “obviously this historical Jesus wasn’t resurrected in Jerusalem after his crucifixion,” and “…the New Testament evidence is therefore based entirely on Peter’s uncorroborated & unverified claims, the veracity of which has never been independently established.”[1]

This idea cuts to the heart of the matter for the Christian apologist. Often, when someone seeks to prove Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, one of the main lines of evidence are the New Testament writings themselves. Yet Ken says we must throw them all out, because they are clearly infected by this fabricated idea – the resurrection of Jesus.

 

1 – Some Questions

Clearly, Ken’s ideas raise lots of questions. For example, if the early Christian experiences reported in the New Testament are based on fabrications, why would people believe a lie that Peter allegedly told about Jesus’ resurrection in the first place? Particularly since this resurrection idea would have been alien to ancient Judaism, so why would it have been compelling to Jewish people if there was no evidence for it? Also, why were these lies about Jesus’ supposed resurrection so carefully documented anyway?

Here’s a bigger question.

If Jesus was not raised from the dead, why would Peter put himself in danger by claiming that he was? Jerusalem was not a safe place for the friends of Jesus after his crucifixion. If the authorities had executed their leader, they would pursue any Jesus follower who decided to continue Jesus’ mission. We actually have evidence from the historian Josephus that this happened to other Jewish Messiah candidates. How interesting though, that in the case of Jesus of Nazareth, the executed Messiah’s mission continued and spread despite the danger facing anyone who publicly proclaimed Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. But if Ken is right that Christianity is built on a lie, why would anyone want to put themselves in harm’s way by doing that?

Of course Ken’s answer is, they didn’t. This is all just a story, fabricated to give later Christian converts a plausible grounding for their Christian faith. He says, “converts would eventually want to know more about Jesus’ life before his crucifixion, and it was this growing need to know more about Jesus, that eventually triggered the appearance of many gospels. These gospels, all appearing after the death of all concerned were just local attempts to provide Jesus’ missing biographical details for the benefit of their pagan converts.”[2] Perhaps Ken would go on to say no one in first century Jerusalem believed in Jesus’ resurrection, it was all made up many years later for an eager audience of later Christian believers?

Well – if that is the case, then I would ask, what do we do with the first and second century evidence that supports the claim that the disciple Peter did not just put himself in harm’s way after Jesus’ crucifixion, he was willing to suffer and die for his first-hand personal witness of the physically risen Jesus? And – what do we make of the evidence that he was actually martyred in Rome for doing so?

What I’m saying is this. You could understand other people giving their lives for something they only thought was true. But Ken says Peter knew Jesus resurrection was false. If Peter was the only one who genuinely knew that Jesus’ resurrection was a lie, then why would he personally put himself through danger, suffering, and death for his own lie?

Now – Ken doesn’t seem to think Peter was martyred. He says, “The actual facts of the apostles is unknown and Peter’s alleged death in Rome is not backed up by reliable evidence.”[3] If Peter wasn’t martyred, then we can’t point to his willingness to die as confirmation that Jesus was raised from the dead.

But hang on. Is Ken right? Let’s test his claim that we cannot know with certainty that Peter was martyred for his Christian beliefs.

 

2 – Evidence for the Martyrdom of the Apostle Peter

The traditional understanding of Peter’s fate is that he was martyred in Rome under Nero’s reign in AD 64 – 67. How strong is the evidence for this traditional understanding? It turns out that there are many sources that support this idea from the first and second century. This is important because these sources were written “in living memory” of Peter.

In his doctoral dissertation, Sean McDowell examines the literary evidence from antiquity that supports the martyrdom of Peter.[4]

First – the New Testament itself. In John 21:18-19, Jesus cryptically predicts Peter’s execution, though no details are given. 2 Peter 1:12-15 records Peter writing from Rome in the knowledge that his death is imminent.

Second – 1 Clement 5:1-4. Written in the first century, this is believed to come from the church leader in Rome and written to the church in Corinth. Clement assumes Peter’s martyrdom in Rome around AD60 as common knowledge. “This is Peter, who … bore up under hardships not just once or twice, but many times; and having thus borne his witness he went to the place of glory that he deserved.”[5] Skeptical scholar Bart Ehrman says, “By the end of the first century and into the second it was widely known among Christians that Peter had suffered a martyr’s death. The tradition is alluded to in the book of 1 Clement.”[6] McDowell says, “at the very least, this passage provides evidence that Peter and Paul were considered examples of faithful endurance for the Gospel, even in the midst of suffering, until their deaths.”[7]

Third – the writings of Ignatius, a Christian leader from the second century who was also martyred. Two writings are important:

  • Letter to the Romans 4:3 – Ignatius faces his impending martyrdom, and he seems to assume both Peter and the apostle Paul were also martyred before him.
  • Letter to the Smyrneans 3:1-2 – this letter presupposes the martyrdom of many of the apostles, including Peter.

Fourth – The Apocalypse of Peter. This is a work attributed to Peter, but the real author is unknown (it is a pseudepigraphal work). Yet it is dated to the first half of the second century and is thought to be built around a historical core of data, providing “early attestation for the martyrdom of Peter in Rome under Nero.”[8]

Fifth – The Ascension of Isaiah. Like the Apocalypse of Peter, this is a pseudepigraphal work dated early in the second century. It refers to an apostle who fell into Nero’s hands and, since it was written in living memory of Peter, the readers would know who was being referred to here. While it doesn’t explicitly state Peter was martyred, it implies it happened in Rome.

Sixth – The Acts of Peter. Dated toward the end of the second century, this work contains legendary material, a historical novel. Yet scholars note that the authors did not just make material up. Rather, they were bound by received tradition and memory of events, including the martyrdom of Peter.

Seventh – The Apocryphon of James. This pseudonymous text is dated to before AD314, and it shows that “by the end of the second century at the earliest, the crucifixion of Peter was assumed by both Orthodox and Gnostic circles alike.” [9]

Eighth – Dionysius of Corinth. This was a pastoral letter written around AD170 to encourage the Corinthian church. He mentions the martyrdoms of both Peter and Paul, and the historian Eusebius uses Dionysius’ work as confirmation that both apostles died under the reign of Nero.

Ninth – Irenaeus, Against Heresies. Written at the end of the second century to challenge Gnosticism, he references the deaths of Peter and Paul in Rome. The tradition of their martyrdoms was strong, and so in this text, a reference is clearly being made to it.

Tenth – Tertullian, Scorpiace 15, written in AD208 (early third century). He is confident in Peter’s martyrdom in Rome, and encourages the reader to check the archives of the empire if they doubt this fact.

On top of the surviving texts attesting to Peter’s martyrdom, crucially there is no competing narrative from antiquity that presents a different explanation for Peter’s fate.

 

3 – Conclusion

There is therefore firm historical support for the Christian martyrdom of the apostle Peter from many different sources. And this makes Peter’s martyrdom as firm an event as any from antiquity. Unless we are to believe that not only is the New Testament fabricated, but all of this historical record as well. But this strains incredulity, I think.

So – the question remains. If Ken is right and Christianity is built on a lie, why would Peter choose to die for his own lie?

Here’s another possible interpretation of the historical record.

Jesus’ resurrection is not a lie. It is an event from history. God did raise Jesus supernaturally from the dead, and this event contributed to the changing of Peter and the other apostles from frightened defeated followers into brave and confident proclaimers of the resurrected Christ. This put them on a direct collision course with the same authorities who executed Jesus. Yet they were willing to put their lives on the line in spite of this danger. They were willing to “suffer and die for their first-hand witness of the risen Jesus – this is of foremost importance. The evidence shows that some really died as martyrs, and that none recanted.”[10]

[1] Ken Thackery, The Christianity Myth, https://keebostick.wordpress.com/2020/02/28/the-revised-christianity-myth/.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Sean McDowell, The Fate of the Apostles Examining the Martyrdom Accounts of the Closest Followers of Jesus, (London: Routledge, 2015), 55 – 92.

[5] 1 Clement 5:4.

[6] Ehrman, Peter, Paul and Mary, quoted in McDowell, The Fate of the Apostles.

[7] McDowell, 73.

[8] Ibid., 78.

[9] Ibid., 87.

[10] Ibid., 259.

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Respond

I live in the UK, I'm married to Janet and I'm passionate about proposing a case for the historic Christian faith. You can find me on Twitter at @stuhgray.

18 thoughts on “Could Jesus’ Resurrection Have Been a Cunning Lie?”

  1. Two things stand out to me. Many a charlatan has died for his self aggrandizement. If dying for your cause gives it validity, then Joseph Smith and Jim Jones were the real deal too? Secondly, something new in the water was introduced —the appeal to faith. I won’t bog down your comment section with the gross implications of how faith equals pride and traps human neurons in a pattern of circuitism that dismisses contradictions for the sake of said belief, but that is evidenced quite well in the studies of belief as a virtue. Paul masterfully plays on a massive foible of human psychology —it is this, not the resurrection that gives Christianity staying power. And this;
    For a mass movement to endure, its doctrine must be vague, if not vague it must be unintelligible. If not vague nor unintelligible, it must be unverifiable —Eric Hoffer. Christianity has all three, and the appeal to faith as a virtue has mankind deadlocked over a belief that takes no discipline to acquire, effectively stunting intellect over groupthink. Faith is like the greatest guru challenge of all time. A barrier to the student he can’t see past. Only by unbelief can one see this is the case.

    1. Well – the blog was aiming to show that peter believed Jesus rose from the dead so completely, that he was willing to put himself at risk, face suffering and a martyrs death. Not much self aggrandisement there – I would say self sacrifice is a better phrase. Sure – Jim Jones believed something too. But compare the mode of deaths and fruit of the beliefs of Peter compared to Jim Jones. Very different!!

      Christianity vague? Not so much. “Christ died for our sins – and he was raised to life just as the Scriptures said.”

      1. Vague? Unintelligible? Unverifiable? 30,000 different Christian sects prove that better than I. Every verse is open to interpretation and context—the fact that ultimate truth needs context is laughable, really. Simply religious handwaving and picking the parts you’re already willing to live with. That is the power of vague

      2. Name me a truly Christian sect who rejects the clear teaching of the New Testament that God raised Jesus from the dead, Jim? That’s what the discussion is about. And that’s what Christianity is also about.

      3. No, not really. That’s what you say it is about but you have all clung to the messenger and have not gotten the message at all. But if you may, put all your hopes in that that was the least likely of any of the doctrine. There is certainly some truth in scripture, but only revealed through someone that has a more complete understanding outside of what Jesus was actually trying to accomplish. “Greater things than these” will you do? What are they, and where did they go?

      4. No – that’s not my opinion Jim. That’s what the apostles wrote and said that Christianity was about. We have their writings in the New Testament. If you are going to make assertions about important topics – like Christianity – it would help if you made some attempt to show they are true. 🙄

      5. The apostles were shocked at the resurrection. Are you sure they believed him, or had been taught the resurrection by Him? They didn’t act like it. (though backtracky addendums to the Bible try to recover it) Jesus’ attempt through vaguery to teach them the mystery of the kingdom was not the resurrection and was not understood by them nor by you. Really it all hinges on a few words the translators of the KJB interpolated that have different meaning in the Greek.

      6. Christianity isn’t vague. It appeals to an event in history and asks you to consider the veracity of that event.

        If the other apostles were simply taught the resurrection by Peter, one wonders why they would believe him. It was not a Jewish understanding of resurrection. And they were defeated following the death of their leader Jesus. More than that – why would some weird, unlikely resurrection teaching change defeated disciples into people willing to put themselves at personal risk by sharing a message to a hostile and violent culture? If you doubt it was hostile, just take a peek at Josephus historical record Jim

    2. Faith has always been about confident trust in the possession of reasonable evidence. That’s what early Christianity traded in. Redefining the word “faith” today to mean blind belief without evidence – just isn’t helpful, Jim. Sorry – I’m very bored of that discussion. 🤓

  2. “If Jesus was not raised from the dead, why would Peter put himself in danger by claiming that he was? Jerusalem was not a safe place for the friends of Jesus after his crucifixion.”

    that’s not true per your bible ” 50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.52 And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God” – Luke 24

    Of course, John 20 contradicts this.

    As for Peter’s martyrdom, every one of your sources is from a Christian who was reporting what their folklore said. No contemporary sources or antagonistic sources mention this martyrdom. The verses from John don’t say anything about a death, and we can see in the bible that a parenthetical bit was added to try to retcon the story.

    People die for their delusions all of the time, as we can witness from suicide bombers, Jonestown, and the current nitwits who are ignoring health professionals in favor of a twit who suggests ingesting disinfectant.

    1. Clearly you know more about these ancient sources than the scholars who study them today. 🤓

      Looks like the subtlety of the suicide bomber (thinks he knows) and Peter (actually knows) went right by you, friend.

      1. Nice attempt to ignore my points. exactly who are these “scholars” and why should they be considered valid?

        Again, evidence for your claims other than the repetition by Christians of what they already believed in?

      2. It sounds like you think “bias” – counts against truthfulness. Now – what does your assumption therefore say about your personal position on Christianity? 😯

      3. Bias does count against truthfulness. We can se that here: https://catalogofbias.org/biases/

        Now, do show where I’ve shown bias. We have you pretending Christians making claims about things they believe in. Belief makes a strong bias to things that have no evidence to support the but are required to maintain religious faith.

        Now, would you believe Islamic writers who made the same claims about Mohammed as these Christians make about Peter? Would you require external evidence from them or would you blindly accept just their claims?

        Again, “respond”:

        Exactly who are these “scholars” and why should they be considered valid?
        Where is evidence for your claims other than the repetition by Christians of what they already believed in?

  3. Hi Stuart.

    You know what they say about publicity – bad publicity is better than no publicity. Whether your critique of The Christianity Myth constitutes bad publicity is for others to decide, but I will say I personally think your presentation of my argument is a little disingenuous. Misconstrued quotes taken out of context often lose their true meaning.

    Your opening paragraph is full of misleading innuendo and it sets the scene for what follows. This either demonstrates deliberate malice on your part [highly unlikely] or it demonstrates a failure to fully assimilate the full gist of my argument [far more likely]. Your comments section is not the place to correct this matter. Anyone interested enough to find out what I really said in The Christianity Myth can read my full argument by clicking on the link in your reference section above. They can then decide for themselves which argument, if any, is more acceptable.

    Regards, Ken Thackerey

    1. Hi Ken –

      I’ve focussed on what I observe to be the foundational idea that you build everything else upon in your book. If the foundation assumptions are suspect then – however interesting the subsequent ideas you introduce – surely their relevance is either lessened or removed from the particular matters being discussed? The birth of Christianity.

      So – I’m keen to hear a counter from you on my response to your book’s foundational idea?

      Agreed Ken – folks should read your book. And – I’d also encourage them to question and test the foundational ideas you present. I wouldn’t expect people to treat my writing any differently.

      Stuart

      1. Hi Stuart-contrary to what you seem to think, my suggestion that Peter lied to Paul about the alleged resurrection in Jerusalem is not the foundational idea of my argument. I’ll prepare my counter response and let you know when it’s available. Ken

      2. Thanks Ken – tho this foundational claim seems pretty clear to me when you say in the “Old Versus the New” section that “1. The assertion that Jesus was resurrected in Jerusalem is based entirely on Peter’s claims … the veracity of which has never been independently established.” And – “4. Peter lied to Paul about the alleged resurrection in Jerusalem.” Look forward to your response Ken.

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