Resurrections have consequences: Why conspiracy theories about Christianity are irresistible – ABC Religion & Ethics

Autor: ABC Religion Ethics

Is the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth one of the greatest hoaxes ever played on humankind? Is it a gigantic fraud perpetrated by church to prop up its institutional power?

At well over 80 million copies sold worldwide, Dan Brown’s 2003 novel The Da Vinci Code is among the ten greatest-selling books in history. It was also turned into a film, directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks. I won’t give a complete plot summary of it, but central to the story was the idea that orthodox Christian beliefs about Jesus were actually the result of a conspiracy by the Catholic Church.

In the gospel according to Dan Brown, here’s what really happened: the Emperor Constantine became a Christian in 321 CE because he wanted to unite the Roman Empire, and he thought the only way pagans would accept Christianity was if it revolved around someone who was a god-man hybrid, like Hercules. So he suppressed and destroyed another version of Christianity, which told the story of a very human Jesus. For Brown, there were eighty other gospels which Constantine censored — allowing only Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, to survive.

In the suppressed version of Christianity, according to Brown, Mary Magdalene and Jesus got married and had a child. After the crucifixion, she moved to the south of France, where they became a dynasty of European royalty. All of this has been covered up by the church because they wanted to suppress the role of women in the church. The belief that Jesus is God, and in his resurrection from the dead, was invented by the church to reinforce its male hierarchy.

Now, let’s be clear: The Da Vince Code did for history what 50 Shades of Grey did for sex — it turned a fantasy with little connection to reality into a best-seller. And in both instances, you should feel a little dirty after you read them.

Fact, fiction, and mere fancy

You might think that Dan Brown would immediately say to his critics, “Look, it’s a fiction; it’s completely made up!” J.K. Rowling doesn’t need to claim that Harry Potter is true in order for the books to be wildly successful. But Brown instead decided to double down on the novel’s purported historical background. So, in 2003, when asked by Matt Lauer of The Today Show, “How much of this is based on reality in terms of things that actually occurred?”, Brown replied, without a trace of irony, “Absolutely all of it.” That’s a surprising claim, since no academic historian, Christian or not, agrees with him. And surely many of his readers were able to enjoy the book purely as fiction.

But the success of The Da Vinci Code points to something else: a widespread cultural suspicion that it is the kind of thing that could be true, even if we are hazy about the details. It plays into a deep-seated contemporary feeling — namely, that big institutions and governments are always plotting to hide or suppress the truth for their own advantage, and to oppress those who disagree with them.

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This scepticism towards institutions has given rise to numerous conspiracy theories: from QAnon’s “shadowy cabal of Democratic paedophiles” and the belief that the terror attacks on 11 September 2001 were carried out by US government operatives, to the older notions that the moon-landings were faked and the CIA were behind the Kennedy assassination. But conspiratorial suspicion can also take more high-minded and intellectualised form — for instance, in the thought of philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Michel Foucault. Foucault, in particular, continues to hold sway over the academic humanities and within contemporary school curricula.

To be sure, big institutions — including governments and the churches — have hardly succeeded in cultivating trust on account of their multiple and egregious failings. But does this mean the resurrection of Jesus is worthy of being tagged as a conspiracy? Is it a hoax based on a pagan fertility myth, with its spring-time festival, concocted to convince Greeks and Romans to accept the patriarchal power of the institutionalised church and of the imperial power of Rome?

If I answer “no” to these claims, I can well imagine someone responding, “Well, you would say that wouldn’t you? You’re a representative of the very institution that benefits from the claim that Jesus is the risen Son of God!” So let me instead hold up a number of counter-claims that might cast the resurrection in a somewhat different light.

Resurrection conspiracies are nothing new

The resurrection was, from the very beginning, the subject of conspiracy theories. Because of this, we can see that the gospel writers were deliberate in the way they laid out evidence for the resurrection. In fact, the gospel of Matthew tells us about one such conspiracy (28:11-15):

[S]ome of the guard went into [Jerusalem] and told the chief priests everything that had happened [at the tomb]. After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, “You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep’ …” So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.

As far as conspiracy theories go, this one is easily debunked on its own terms. There’s the question of how the disciples, who were a barely armed group of fishermen, could have overpowered the Roman guard set over the tomb. There’s the fact that so many of the disciples would die horrible death because they refused to deny Jesus’s resurrection. Would they die to defend what they knew to be a lie?

Then there’s the fact that the authorities could not at any stage find the body of Jesus, which would have proven their theory true. And it is not that easy to hide a body. You might say at that point: the disciples disposed of Jesus’s body by having him eaten by wild animals. But then you must remember that the disciples revered Jesus and would not have treated his dead body with any disrespect, had they stolen it.

An unexpected resurrection

The Christian claim that Jesus was the Son of God and had risen from the dead is not a belief that evolved later — it is one of the earliest proclamations of Christianity. There is simply no evidence of a resurrection-less Christianity. The earliest documents of Christianity start by proclaiming, as Christians throughout the world do on Easter Sunday, “Christ is risen!”

Christians, moreover, were very clear about what this claim meant. They did not speak of Jesus as the Greeks might speak of the hero Hercules or of Persephone the returning spring. The gospel writers are not poets writing mythology; they saw themselves as historians collecting evidence and writing prose. They used the language of testimony and witness. They told the story of sceptics like doubting Thomas. They most certainly did not say that Jesus is simply alive in their hearts — they believed him to be alive and available to the senses.

And they hadn’t quite expected it. There was no pre-existing mythological template that Jesus fit into. Jesus had spoken about rising from the dead during his public life, and there was a Jewish expectation of the resurrection of the righteous at the end of time. But quite clearly, the disciples were convinced that, when Jesus was killed, that was the end of the matter. They had a body to deal with and nothing more. The women who went to the tomb on that first Easter brought with them spices to dress a dead body, not a meal to share with a living one.

The resurrection created the church

The resurrection of Jesus from the dead was not created by the church to bolster its power. It was, evidently, the other way around. Resurrection is a claim, not of the oppressor, but of the oppressed. Before the resurrection disciples were terrified, hiding for fear that they would also be rounded up and killed as heretics, dissidents, and troublemakers. Afterwards, they preached with boldness, at great personal risk and for no personal profit.

Far from being a claim invented to shore up patriarchal power in the church, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead was, from the outset, the testimony of women. Just as Jesus’s mother Mary was the chief witness to the incarnation, so Mary Magdalene is celebrated as the first witness to the resurrection.

And from the beginning, the news of the resurrection of Jesus was a subversive truth that those in power wanted to suppress. Religious institutions and political authorities found the message of Jesus, the risen Son of God, a threat to them. They understood that it was a proclamation that their power was limited and finite, and subject to the judgement of God. If Jesus, the crucified one, has risen from the dead and is now enthroned as Lord of all, then what is Caesar? What is any human power?

We are not suspicious enough

As my friend Rev. Dr Matthew Wilcoxen puts it, resurrections have consequences. Indeed, they do: which why even today people try as hard as they can to deny that Jesus is risen.

You would think that those who believe in “speaking truth to power” would love the idea of the resurrection of Jesus. But ironically, these days it is the hegemony of the individual that the resurrection most threatens. For if Jesus is risen from the dead, and now reigns as Lord, then not only is every institution subject to him, but so is every person. If we are suspicious of institutions but not of ourselves, frankly, we are not suspicious enough.

This Easter, what the resurrection asks of us is not to give up our treasured independence to a human institution — which is every bit as corruptible as we are — but to bow ourselves before the throne of the one who ultimately and wonderfully rules, and whose kingdom shall have no end.

Rev. Dr Michael Jensen is the rector of St. Mark’s Darling Point in Sydney. He holds a doctorate in Moral Theology from the University of Oxford.

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