The Historical Jesus

This is an edited transcript of a talk which I gave at the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students conference in Ulverstone, Tasmania in July 2011


Today, I am going to talk on the historical Jesus. First, I am going to look at the historical evidence for Jesus from outside the New Testament. Then I will explain what non-Christian historians think about Jesus and what they mean by the expression “the historical Jesus”.

Historical Evidence for Jesus

There are some people, usually atheists, who claim that Jesus never existed, such as Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion. The idea that Jesus did not exist at all does not strike me as particularly logical. Just because you do not believe in God does not mean that there was also not a person Jesus of Nazareth 2000 years. I am not a Muslim or a Buddhist, but I still believe Mohammed and Buddha existed.

In The God Delusion the only person, which Richard Dawkins cites in support of the non-existence of Jesus, is “Professor G. Wells of the University of London” (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, Bantam, London, 2006, p 97). Dawkins does not tell his readers that Wells is not a professor of history. He is a professor of German. If you wanted to find out if there was really any doubt or controversy about the existence of Jesus, I would think the logical person to ask would be a professor of ancient history and he could tell you his reasons, based on his expertise and his study of the ancient evidence, why he believes Jesus did not exist. The fact, that Dawkins and the other “new atheists” cannot find any appropriately qualified expert, who agrees with them, shows their argument about the non-existence of Jesus are not very rational or intellectual.

There does not appear to be a historian in a university anywhere in the world who believes Jesus did not exist. They do not necessarily believe he was the Son of God who died and rose from the dead, but they still believe there was a person Jesus of Nazareth who founded Christianity and was crucified.

When it comes to the historical evidence for Jesus, we need to realise how little we really know about the ancient Greek and Roman world. 99% of the written records have been lost or destroyed, so historians have very little to work with. For example, the Roman emperor when Jesus was crucified was called Tiberius. Within 150 years of his reign there are only ten surviving written works from the ancient world which mention Tiberius and one of these is Luke in the New Testament (Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, Kregel, Grand Rapids, 2004, p 128).

Most of our knowledge about the emperor Tiberius comes from two Roman historians, Suetonius and Tiberius, who wrote around 110 AD. These books are not all about Tiberius. 40 pages of the Penguin Classics edition of Suetonius is devoted to Tiberius. About half of Tacitus’ Annals in the Penguin Classics is about Tiberius, almost 200 pages. This is actually pretty good compared to what we have for some emperors. But if we compare these 240 pages about Tiberius with everything which has been published about John Howard, which a modern historian could use, it gives you an idea of how little historians of the ancient world have to work with.

Tiberius was the most important person in the world at the time, so we would be surprised to find anything about someone from a village at the edge of the empire. Nevertheless, Jesus is mentioned by non-Christian historians.


Josephus was a Pharisee who died around 100 AD. He wrote four books which have survived, including a detailed account of the Jewish revolt against Rome and the destruction of the temple in 70 AD. In his book Antiquities of the Jews he wrote this about Jesus,

“Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works – a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at tis day.” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 18:3:3)

There is a problem with this passage because Josephus says that Jesus was the Christ. This would make Josephus a Christian which he was not. This has led some historians to conclude that this passage is a forgery which was inserted by a Christian scribe who was copying the manuscript. Most historians think that Jesus did write about Jesus but some overenthusiastic Christian scribe altered it to make it sound more Christian.

There is an Arabic version of the same passage,

“At this time there was a wise man named Jesus. His conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. Many people from among the Jews and other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to crucifixion and death; but those who had become his disciples did not forsake his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive; he was therefore, perhaps, the Messiah concerning whom the prophets had recounted wonderful things.” (F.F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1974, p 41)

This passage does not sound blatantly Christian so many historians believe this could be this could be the original version before it was tampered with.

Josephus also mentioned Jesus when he wrote about the execution of his brother James,

“He [Ananus the high priest] assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 20:9:1)

This says that Jesus was called the Christ, not that he was the Christ, which is more likely to be authentic.

Josephus also mentioned John the Baptist in Antiquities of the Jews 18:5:2. This is the only mention of John the Baptist on a non-Christian source.

Mara bar Serapion

Another early reference to Jesus, which was written some time after 70 AD, is a letter written by Mara bar Serapion to his son,

“What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgment for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise king? It was just after that that their kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea; the Jews, ruined and driven from their land, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates did not die for good; he lived on in the teaching of Plato. Pythagoras did not die for good; he lived on in the statue of Hera. Nor did the wise king die for good; he lived on in the teaching he had given.” (Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament, op cit., p 31)

This does not mention Jesus by name, but the Jews’ wise king, who was executed and whose teachings live on, could only be Jesus.


Tacitus, who was mentioned earlier, also refers to Jesus when he wrote about how the emperor Nero blamed the Christians for the fire at Rome in 64 AD,

“To suppress this rumour, Nero fabricated scapegoats and punished with every refinement the notoriously depraved Christians (As they were popularly called). Their originator, Christ, had been executed in Tiberius’ reign by the governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilate. But, in spite of this temporary setback the deadly superstition had broken out afresh, not only in Judaea (where the mischief started) but even in Rome. All degraded and shameful practices collect and flourish in the capital.” (Tacitus, Annals, 15:44)

This tells us that they knew Christ had been executed by Pilate and this is the only surviving reference to Pilate in pagan Roman literature.


Suetonius also briefly mentions Nero’s persecution of the Christians,

“Punishments were also inflicted on the Christians, a sect professing a new and mischievous belief.” (Suetonius, Nero, 16)

Suetonius also mentioned an incident during the reign of Claudius,

“Because the Jews at Rome caused continuous disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.” (Suetonius, Claudius, 25)

Claudius expelling the Jews from Rome is also mentioned in Acts 18:2.

We cannot be sure but many historians believe that “Chrestus” is a garbled reference to Christ and this is referring to a conflict between Jews and Christians in Rome.

Pliny the Younger

Pliny the younger was a Roman governor in part of what is now Turkey around 110 AD. He wrote a letter to the Roman emperor Trajan to get a ruling about what to do about the local Christians. Part of it says they worshipped Christ as a god,

“[T]hey had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately among themselves in honour of Christ as if to a god.” (Pliny, Letters, 10:96)

In The Da Vinci Code Dan Brown says that Christians did not believe Jesus was God until the fourth century AD, but here we have a letter from a pagan Roman 300 years earlier saying the Christians already believed Jesus was God.


Around 170 AD Lucian of Samostata wrote a satire about someone called Peregrinus who, among other things, tried to pass himself off as the leader of a group of Christians,

“He [Peregrinus] interpreted and explained some of their books and composed many himself, and they considered him like a god, used him as legislator, and noted him as a protector, next after that one whom they still worship – the man crucified in Palestine – because he introduced this new rite to human life……The poor wretches have persuaded themselves that they will be immortal and will live forever, and consequently they despise death and most of them willingly give themselves up. Moreover their first legislator persuaded them that they are all brothers of one another, once they have transgressed by denying the Greek gods, by worshipping that crucified sophist himself, and by living according to his laws.” (Lucian, Peregrinus, 2)

Lucian did not mention Jesus by name but he said the founder of Christianity was crucified in Palestine and that the Christians worshipped him as a god.


A Christian writer Julius Africanus, who died around 240, mentioned the crucifixion of Jesus and said that an earlier writer Thallus mentioned the darkness when Jesus died, but he does not say that Thallus mentioned Jesus,

“On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness, Thallus, in the third book of his History, calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun.” (Georgius Syncellus, Chronicle, 322 )

The reason it could not have been an eclipse is that Jesus was crucified at the Passover which took place at a full moon when the moon could not have been between the earth and the sun for an eclipse.

The Talmud

The Jewish holy book the Talmud mentioned Jesus in a passage which was probably written in the late second century,

“On the Sabbath of the Passover Jesus the Nazarene was hanged. For forty days before execution took place, a herald went forth and cried: ‘Here is Jesus the Nazarene, who is going forth to be stoned because he practised sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Anyone who can say anything in his favour, let him come forth and plead on his behalf.’ But since nothing was brought forth in his favour, he was hanged on the eve of the Passover.” (Talmud (baraitha Sanhedrin 43a))

This agrees that Jesus was executed during the Passover. Where it says that Jesus practised sorcery, this probably refers to his miracles. The Talmud does not deny that Jesus performed miracles. They just questioned the source of his miracles.

Other early pagan references to Christians which do not mention Jesus or Christ

Other pagan references to Christians in the 150 years after Jesus, death, but do not mention Jesus, are:

Epictetus (90-100) in Arrian, Discourses of Epictetus 4:76

Trajan (110) in Pliny, Letters, 10:97

Hadrian (122) in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 4:9

Cornelius Fronto (140) in Minicius Felix, Octavius 9:8

Lucian (160), Alexander, 25,38

Galen (170) in R. Walzer, Galen on Jews and Christians, Oxford University Press, 1949

Marcus Aurelius (170), Meditations, 11:3

That is every definite mention of Jesus and Christians in non-Christian sources in the 150 years after Jesus’ death.

The New Testament as Historical Evidence

There is also the early Christian evidence for Jesus – the New Testament and the writings of the Church Fathers. Some people object to the idea of relying on the New Testament as historical evidence for the existence of Jesus because it is not independent.

However, if I am studying someone from Greek history like Alexander the Great, I am going to use Greek sources. If I am studying Roman history, I will use Roman sources. If I tried to write a history of Rome without using anything written by the Romans, it would be a very short book.

There is nothing inappropriate to an objective historian in using Christian sources to prove the existence of Jesus. Michael Grant has written several books on Roman history and translated Tacitus. He is also an atheist, but unlike the “new atheists”, he is more objective and does not doubt the existence;

“[I]f we apply to the New Testament, as we should, the same sort of criteria, as we should to other ancient writings, we can no more reject Jesus’ existence than we can reject the existence of a mass of pagan personages whose reality as historical figures is never questioned.” (Michael Grant, Jesus, An Historian’s Review of the Gospels, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1977, p 199-200)

Historians and Jesus

The good news is that historians believe there was a Jesus of Nazareth. No historian denies that. The bad news is that they do not believe Jesus was the Christ and the Son of God who died for our sins and rise from the dead, unless they are already Christians. Many do not even believe that Jesus said he was the Messiah.

When historians talk about the “historical Jesus”, they usually mean they believe the historical Jesus was different from the portrayed in the Gospels. They will often talk about the “Jesus of history”, that is the real Jesus of Nazareth, and the “Christ of faith”, what the early Christians believed about Jesus Christ and wrote in the New Testament. They do not believe they are the same.

Historians also talk about the search or quest for the historical Jesus. This is the search for the real Jesus behind what the early church wrote about him in the Gospels.

I will explain why this approach is flawed.

The First Quest for the Historical Jesus

The search for the historical Jesus can be divided into three periods.

The First Quest began in the eighteenth century. It grew out of the rationalism of the Enlightenment which denied the supernatural. Historians started to write lives of the “historical Jesus” which were stripped of anything supernatural, such as Jesus being the Son of God, performing miracles and rising from the dead. They usually portrayed Jesus as just a moral teacher or a political revolutionary.

It is important to understand that these “historical” portraits of Jesus were not the result of some breakthrough in historical research where they studied the evidence and concluded there was nothing supernatural about Jesus. They started with the presupposition that there is no such thing as the supernatural and then rewrote Jesus so he would fit their presuppositions. This is still a problem with a lot of historical writing about Jesus today.

In 1906 Albert Schweitzer published The Quest of the Historical Jesus. Schweitzer believed that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who believed the world was about to end.

He was also very critical of the previous studies of the historical Jesus. He showed they were basically projecting their own rationalist Enlightenment values onto Jesus and coming up with a Jesus who was pretty much like themselves.

Again, this is still a problem among some historians today.

The No Quest Period

Albert Schweitzer became a medical missionary in Africa and eventually won the Nobel Peace Prize.

His book basically killed off research into the historical Jesus for nearly 50 years. It was assumed that the early church had made up sayings and actions of Jesus to suit their own situation, what was going on in the early church at the time, and put them in the Gospels, so it was impossible to know who the real historical Jesus was. This is sometimes called the No Quest Period.

There is an obvious problem with their assumption that the early church made up things about Jesus and put them in the Gospels to suit their own situation.

In Acts and Galatians there was a major controversy in the early church about whether Gentile believers should be circumcised and obey the Law of Moses. If the original Christians really were in the habit of inventing sayings of Jesus, you would expect them to have made something up where Jesus said whether or not they sould be circumcised. Jesus did not say this or deal with other issues for the church like spiritual gifts or church leadership. This suggests this assumption underlying the search for the supposed historical Jesus is groundless.

The Second Quest

The Second Quest or New Quest began in the 1950s. Like the First Quest, these historians usually denied the supernatural and assumed the early church had invented things about Jesus and the Christ of faith, which Christians believed in, was different from the Jesus of history who actually existed.

However, they now believed it was possible to find out what the supposed historical Jesus was like. They developed criteria of authenticity to judge or determine whether or not what is recorded about Jesus is authentic.

One of these criteria is called dissimilarity or uniqueness. Because they assumed the early church invented things about Jesus, this means that if Jesus said something which is not part of the beliefs of the early church, it is unique, then the early Christians would not have made it up so it is likely to be authentic. In the Gospels Jesus calls himself the “Son of Man”, but this expression does not appear elsewhere in the New Testament. Likewise, Jesus talked a lot about the “kingdom of God”. This expression does appear in Acts and Paul’s epistles, but nowhere near as much as Jesus used it. This would suggest that the expressions “Son of Man” and “kingdom of God” were part of Jesus’ original teachings and were not made up by the church.

This criterion has its limits in that it can only be used in a positive way and argue that because the dissimilarity or uniqueness exists, a passage must be authentic. It is illogical to use it negatively and argue that because there is no dissimilarity and Jesus said something, which is part of the beliefs of the early church, it is not authentic.

Jesus was the founder of Christianity. He must have had some influence on what Christians believed. There must be some connection between what he said and what the early Christians believed.

The Third Quest

The Third Quest began around 1980. This was an improvement on the earlier quests in that historians sought to put Jesus into his historical context. They emphasized Jesus’ Jewishness and his Jewish background and culture, while in the first two quests they often did not portray Jesus as particularly Jewish.

Recognizing Jesus’ Jewish context can make the Jesus of the Gospels more historically believable. In the Gospels Jesus has disciples and he is sometimes called a rabbi or teacher. In rabbinical schools the students or disciples of the rabbi were expected to memorize the teachings and sayings of their master, the rabbi, so they could be passed on perfectly.

Now, the supposed search for the historical Jesus tends to assume there was no real effort by Jesus’ disciples to pass on what he actually said. It was supposedly haphazard and the early Christians added things. But, if Jesus and his disciples behaved like a Jewish rabbi and his disciples would have, not like modern historians assume they would have behaved, then Jesus would have ensured his disciples memorized what he said. After all, the whole point of having disciples would have been to pass on his teachings. He would have ensured it was done properly.

In this case, the more we understand Jesus as a Jew, the more likely it appears the Gospels’ account of his teaching is historically accurate.

The Gospels as Biographies

Another improvement is that historians have now come to regard the Gospels as biographies of Jesus. Until recently there had been no agreement about what genre, what type of literature the Gospels were. It used to be widely assumed that the Gospel writers had basically invented a new genre.

There are different genres or types of writing in the Bible and you cannot read or interpret them in the same way. There are historical books which were intended to describe things which actually happened and are meant to be taken literally. At the other end there is apocalyptic literature which contains a lot of symbolism and is not meant to be understood literally. For example, if you take Revelation 3:12 literally, it says that if you are a good Christian, God will turn you into a pillar in the Temple.

Evangelical Christians say the Gospels are meant to be historical. They are describing what the writer believes happened and they are meant to be taken literally. Some more liberal Christians would say the Gospels were never meant to be historical. They were basically works of fiction, stories which contained moral or spiritual truths for us to learn from, a bit like fairy tales with a moral message, but they did not actually happen.

This all changed in 1992 when What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography by Richard Burridge was published. Burridge compared the structure of the Gospels to biographies from the ancient world. Ancient biographies contained little or nothing about the subject’s childhood. They tended to focus on their careers which were usually made up of anecdotes or accounts of events and speeches. There is a lot of attention given to how the person died. Burridge concluded that the Gospels were ancient biographies. Since then most historians have accepted this and they regard the Gospels as biographies of Jesus.

This has obvious implications for how the Gospels are to be read and understood. They are not stories with a message about things which did not happen. They were intended to be biographies, accounts of Jesus” life. They were intended to describe what he said and did and they were meant to be taken literally, like we would take literally a biography of Alexander the Great. This is now the consensus among modern historians. They have come around to what evangelical Christians have been saying the whole time.

More Criteria of Authenticity

Another characteristic of the Third Quest is the use of more criteria of authenticity. One of these is the criterion of embarrassment which means that if Jesus did something which was embarrassing or difficult for the early church, then the early church was not likely to have made it up so it is authentic. A good example of this is when John the Baptist baptised Jesus. John baptised people for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4, Luke 3:3). Then Jesus, who is perfect and sinless, comes along and is also baptised. Now you can lie awake at night wondering why the sinless Jesus was baptised for the forgiveness of sins, but you can be pretty sure that it must have happened because the early church would never have made something like that up.

There is also the criterion of multiple attestation which means that if the same event is recorded in multiple sources, more than one ancient writer says it happened, a historian is more likely to believe it happened than something which is only mentioned once.

The criterion of coherence says that if Jesus said or did something which is coherent or consistent with something elsewhere, like when he used different parables with the same themes or underlying ideas, they are likely to be authentic.

Criterion of Aramaic Language

If you think about it, some of these criteria do not just apply to Jesus. You could apply them to any historical writing to determine if they are authentic. However, some apply only to Jesus, such as the criterion of Aramaic language.

Jesus spoke Aramaic. The New Testament was written in Greek which was the international language of the eastern half of the Roman Empire. If the early Christians, who speak Greek and lived outside Judea and Galilee, were to make up something Jesus supposedly said and put it in the Gospels, they would have said it in Greek. They probably could not speak Aramaic.

This means that any Aramaic words in the New Testament or Greek, which is clearly a translation of Aramaic, most likely go back to the Aramaic-speaking Jesus. For example, in Mark 5:41 when Jesus brings a dead girl back to life, it says, “He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means “Little girl, get up”.” “Talitha cum” is Aramaic. Mark has recorded Jesus’ original words in Aramaic and then translated them for his Greek readers.

If you were to translate Jesus’ words in the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, which were recorded in Greek, back into Aramaic, as much as 80% of it is poetic or rhythmic, which would have made it easier to memorize. They were spoken by Jesus in Aramaic and them translated into Greek (Craig Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, p 158).

Criteria of Authenticity and the Resurrection of Jesus

These are some of the criteria which historians have developed. They do not agree on them and sometimes they apply them differently, but you can use them to show that most of what Jesus said and did is historically credible and reliable.

Now, I am going to apply these criteria to the resurrection of Jesus and show that it meets the criteria for a historical event.

Multiple Attestations to the Resurrection

When it comes to multiple attestations, there are five accounts of the resurrection in the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and 1 Corinthians 15:3-9. One of the problems with the criterion of multiple attestations is that when the same thing appears in the three Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, historians do not necessarily assume this is a case of multiple attestations from three independent sources. They assume that Matthew and Luke copied Mark, so there is really only one source. This is not the case when it comes to the resurrection because the accounts in the Gospels are different. They were clearly not copying each other.

When it comes to who went to the tomb on Sunday and when-

Matthew says that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to the tomb when the day was dawning (Matthew 28:1).

Mark says that Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome went to the tomb very early when the sun had risen (Mark 16:2).

Luke says Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and the other women went to the tomb at early dawn (Luke 24:1, 10).

John says Mary Magdalene went to the tomb while it was still dark (John 20:1).

I do not think these are contradictions which discredit the Bible. People can say different things and they can all still be true. Consider the following statements-

Bob and John went to church.

Bob, John and Harry went to church.

Bob, John and Fred went to church.

Harry and Fred went to church.

These statements are not the same but they can all be true. In fact they could have gone to church at different times and these statements could still be true. This is probably what happened at the resurrection. The women did not all go at the same time. This would explain why John specifically says that Mary Magdalene went to the tomb while it was still dark because she went there first, while the others went late when the sun was coming up.

These differences show that there was not one source for the resurrection of Jesus which the others copied, but there were multiple sources. If you have five different sources for one event, a historian would believe it must have happened if it were not for the Jesus rising from the dead bit.


The fact that the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection were all women is an example of the criterion of embarrassment because women were not regarded as credible witnesses in the ancient world. The Jewish historian Josephus wrote,

“But let not the testimony of women be admitted on account of the levity and boldness of their sex.” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 4:8:15)

So if the original Christians were going to make up a story about Jesus rising from the dead, they would not have said the first witnesses were women because no one would take that seriously. They would have said they were men without even thinking about it. The fact that they said they women suggests it really must have happened that way.


When it comes to the criterion of dissimilarity or uniqueness, the resurrection was very important to the early church but it is dissimilar or unique from a Jewish perspective because it was something they were not expecting. The Jews were not expecting the Messiah to be resurrected because they were not expecting the Messiah to be killed in the first place. They were expecting a victorious Messiah who would liberate them from the Romans and usher in the Kingdom of God. So they would not have made up the idea of the Messiah being resurrected. Something must have happened.


An example of the criterion of Aramaic is the earliest account of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. This was written by Paul in the 50s, 20 to 25 years afterwards. It mentions appearances of Jesus which the Gospels do not, so the Gospels were not copying this earlier account.

Most historians agree that this account was told to Paul by Jesus’ disciples in the 30s when he first came to Jerusalem only a few years after the event. The wording suggests that it was spoken in Aramaic and then translated literally by Paul into Greek. It looks like an early church creed. So, only a few years after Jesus, death his disciples were saying in Aramaic that he had risen from the dead and had been seen by lots of people. Because this was so soon, there was little or no chance for any legends or embellishments to develop.

Attempts to Explain the Resurrection

Several theories have been put forward to explain the resurrection, such as the disciples were hallucinating or they stole the body, which was first suggested in Matthew 28:11-15. The obvious problem with the stolen body explanation is that the disciples were very different people after the resurrection. They were no longer the cowards who ran away at the first sign of trouble. They were preaching boldly and were now prepared to die for what they believed, which most of them did.

The fact that they were prepared to die for their beliefs does not prove they were true. A Moslem suicide bomber is prepared for his beliefs but he is still wrong. It only proves that he really believes it is true. So the fact that the disciples were prepared to die for their beliefs that Jesus was the Christ and rose from the dead shows they really believed it. They were not lying and knew the body was really somewhere else. You would expect at least one of them to crack under persecution and admit it never happened.

Another explanation is that the resurrection appearances were hallucinations. Now it might be possible that a few of Jesus’ disciples were excitable and impressionable and convinced themselves they had seen Jesus come back from the dead. But Jesus was seen by many people over 40 forty days, including 500 at one time in 1 Corinthians 15. I do not think there is any evidence this kind of long-term mass hallucination is possible.

Not everyone who saw Jesus was an impressionable believer. In the Gospels Jesus’ brother James was clearly not a believer. Then 1 Corinthians 15 says Jesus appeared to James. In Acts James becomes the leader of the church in Jerusalem. He was a non-believer. He was not expecting Jesus to rise from the dead. He was not a candidate for a potential hallucination. Then he saw the risen Jesus and this experience changed him into a believer.

Even if everyone was hallucinating, Jesus’ body would still be in the tomb in Jerusalem. If anyone wanted to check out the disciples’ claim that Jesus had risen from the dead, all they had to do was go and see if there was still a body in the tomb.

There are two parts to the resurrection of Jesus. There is the empty tomb and there are the resurrection appearances. Any attempt to explain the resurrection can only account for one of these parts. If the disciples were hallucinating, the tomb would not be empty. And if someone stole the body, that would not explain why people saw the risen Jesus.

In fact, if the disciples had found the tomb empty on Sunday morning, they probably would not assume that Jesus had risen from the dead. If you went to visit a relative’s grave and you found the grave opened and the coffin empty, you probably would not assume they had risen from the dead. You would think that someone had stolen the body. Clearly, something must have happened to make them believe Jesus had risen from the dead.

It is safe to say that most historians realise that attempts to explain the resurrection do not work if you think about them. They accept that Jesus’ tomb was empty and the disciples believed they had seen Jesus alive. Shimon Gibson, who is Jewish so he is not biased in favour of Christianity, wrote in a recent book, The Final Days of Jesus,

“Various strange and outlandish theories have been out forward to explain away the empty tomb, but they are all based on nonsense. … The reality is that there is no historical explanation for the empty tomb, other than if we adopt a theological one, i.e. the resurrection. I will leave it up to the reader to make up his own mind.” (Shimon Gibson, The Final days of Jesus, Harper Collins, New York, 2009, p 165)

I have come across similar statements from other historians. They agree they cannot disprove the resurrection, but they are not prepared to accept that it happened. The problem is not with the evidence, but with their worldviews which is not open to the possibility of the supernatural in spite of the evidence which supports it.

It is the same problem with the First and Second Quests. They let their worldview dictate what they will believe about the evidence, rather than basing their worldview on the evidence.

No Consensus about the Historical Jesus

Another weakness with the Third Quest is that there is still no consensus about who the real historical Jesus supposedly was. Probably most non-Christian historians still believe Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who believed the world was going to end, like Albert Schweitzer did. Others believe he was a rabbi, a Jewish holy man or mystic, a bit like the Jewish version of Ghandi, a wisdom teacher or sage, or a social reformer.

Some more radical historians believe Jesus was a Jewish Cynic philosopher. Cynics were a bit like ancient hippies who sued to travel around teaching and doing socially unacceptable things in public. The problem with this is that Cynics were Gentile pagans. There is no evidence there ever was such a thing as a Jewish Cynic philosopher, let alone that Jesus was one.

In the Third Quest there are also Christian historians who believe that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God.

There is some truth to some of these historical Jesus’. Jesus was a rabbi. He was a holy man. He was a wisdom teacher. He was a prophet and the world, as they knew it, did end with his death and resurrection.

Jesus was a prophet. He was also a holy man, a rabbi and a wisdom teacher. He was not a Jewish Cynic philosopher. He was also more, the Christ and the Son of God.

Most non-Christian historians are not even open to the idea that Jesus believed he was the Messiah, even if they do not believe he was. They still believe this was made up by his followers after his death. I do not think this is particularly logical. Even if they do not believe Jesus was the Christ who died for our sins and rose from the dead, I assume they would think that Jesus was just another Jew who claimed to be the Messiah and came to a nasty end. Instead, they come up theories like he was a wisdom teacher or a Cynic philosopher.

Over 40 people have claimed to be the Jewish Messiah. The most famous, other than Jesus, would be Bar Kochba who led a revolt against Rome around 130 AD. No historian would suggest that any of these Messianic pretenders did not really claim to be the Messiah and his followers made it up after his death. There is no quest for the historical Bar Kochba. So, even if they do not believe he was the Messiah, it does not seem logical that non-Christians do not think that Jesus was just another person who claimed to be the Messiah. Instead, they say he was a prophet, a wisdom teacher, a rabbi, a philosopher.

Why was Jesus Crucified?

One obvious problem with all these explanations is that all historians agree Jesus was crucified. The Romans did not crucify people for saying nice things like “Blessed are the meek”.

If Jesus was only a prophet or a philosopher or a wisdom teacher, he would not have been crucified. He must have done something to get crucified, like saying he was the Messiah. At that time the Jews were expecting a political Messiah who would overthrow the Romans. That would have got Jesus crucified. But if the Romans really believed that Jesus was a political threat, they would not have just crucified Jesus. They would have also crucified his followers, like they did with other political revolutionaries.

So, the way Jesus’ death is portrayed in the Gospels makes sense. The Jewish leaders pressured Pilate to crucify Jesus because he had offended them and they regarded him as a threat, but Pilate did not go after his disciples, which he would have done if he believed Jesus had been a political threat to Rome.

Also, if it was true that Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah and the Son of God, this begs the question, why did the early church come to believe that he was?

Lots of Jewish prophets came to nasty ends, such as John the Baptist. But if Jesus was just another prophet, why did his followers come to believe he was the Messiah and the Son of God, but not the followers of John the Baptist or any other Jewish prophet who was martyred over the previous 1000 years?

Jesus must have done something to encourage this belief among his disciples, which no other prophet did. It must have been pretty impressive to convince monotheistic Jews that he was the Son of God, like saying he was the Christ and Son of God, performing miracles, saying he was going to die and rise from the dead and then do it.

Instead, many historians claim Jesus never said he was the Messiah, but his disciples came to believe he was, which is basically the plot of Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

The Date of the Gospels

One final point where I think modern historians have got it wrong is that they date the writing of the Gospels too late. Jesus was crucified in 30 or 33 AD. Most historians believe the first Gospel, Mark was written after 70 AD. This is because in Mark Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple which happened in 70. They do not believe in the possibility of the supernatural so they do not believe Jesus could have supernaturally predicted this. They believe the prophecy must have been made up after it happened. Because they believe Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source, they believe Matthew and Luke must have been written late in the 80s or 90s.

The later something was written after the event, the less accurate it is likely to be because things can be forgotten and embellished. However, when you read Acts, the sequel to Luke, it seems likely that Luke must have been written before 70 AD, probably around 60. The last half of Acts covers the ministry of Paul, his arrest, imprisonment and journey to Rome. You think it is building up to Paul’s big martyr scene. Then it ends with Paul living and preaching in Rome.

If you read a biography of someone and it ends with them still alive, you can be sure this is because it was written while they were still alive. It could not have been written 30 years after their death, like many historians think Acts was.

Paul was executed by Nero around 64 AD. Acts ends around 61 or 62 AD when it was probably written. Since Acts is a sequel to Luke, Luke must have been written even earlier around 60 or even in the 50s. Since historians believe Luke use Mark as a source, this means Mark would have been written in the 50s, rather than after 70. This would make the Gospels more reliable from a historian’s perspective.

Even evangelicals usually believe John was written in the 90s, but this still means there are four biographies of Jesus written within 60 to 65 years of his death, which must be unique for any figure in the ancient world.


In many ways the Third Quest is an improvement on the earlier quests. There is a greater emphasis on putting Jesus in his first century Jewish context. Historians accept that the Gospels were intended to be biographies of Jesus. There is more emphasis on using historical methods to work out what Jesus said and did. There are some exceptions and these exceptions may often get more publicity, but overall historians now tend to be more conservative and less sceptical than previous generations. A lot of modern historical research actually supports and affirms the evangelical view of Jesus as being historically reliable.

When they say that Jesus did not do supernatural things or he believed he was someone other than the Christ, this is based not so much on a study of the historical evidence. It is based on their assumptions which exclude the supernatural and which assume there has to be a distinction between the original historical Jesus and what the early church believed about him, even though what the early church believed about Jesus must have come from Jesus himself.


Were Jesus and Mary Magdalene Married?


According to Family Search I am a descendant of Jesus and Mary Magdalene through the Merovingian kings of France, however I have heard that Internet family tree sites are not that reliable.

In 1982 the book The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln claimed that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and their descendants became the Merovingian kings  and that there was a secret society, the Priory of Sion, which preserved the nowledge of this marriage and their descendants.

Dan Brown’s 2003 novel, The Da Vinci Code, popularised this belief. It claimed to be based on fact and drew heavily on The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. The name of the character Leigh Teabing was derived from the authors Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh.

I have addressed the claims of The Da Vinci Code in

The Da Vinci Code Deception Part One

The Da Vinci Code Deception Part Two

The Da Vinci Code Deception Part Three

I wrote those posts in 2004. This post summarizes what they said about the supposed marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene and also includes some recent developments.

For a start, there is no ancient secret society, the Priory of Sion, which believes they know the truth about Jesus, Mary Magdalene and the Merovingians. The Priory of Sion was founded in 1956 by Pierre Plantard and three others. It was originally a tenants’ association and ran a business transporting children to schools and nurseries until Plantard was arrested for the abuse of a minor and the Priory was disbanded.

In the early 1960s Plantard reformed the Priory of Sion which he now claimed had been founded in Jerusalem in 1099. It supposedly preserved the knowledge of the descendants of the Merovingian kings of Dark age France which included Plantard.

In 1993 Plantard admitted in a French court that he made the whole thing up.

Pierre Plantard

A good website on the real story of the Priory of Sion can be found here.

Moreover, Plantard only claimed to be a descendant of the Merovingians, not Jesus and Mary Magdalene.  Baigent, Lincoln and Leigh came along and said that the Merovingians were the descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. I have read The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail several times and I cannot see how they came to this conclusion. There is no historical evidence. They appear to have just made it up. They admit,

“Of course we couldn’t ‘prove’ our conclusions. As we repeatedly stressed in the book itself, we were simply posing a hypothesis. Had we been able to prove it, it wouldn’t have been a hypothesis, but a fact, and there would have been no controversy.” (Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, Arrow, London, 1996, p 8)

Plantard claimed to have been a descendant of the Merovingians. Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln turned him into a descendant of Jesus Christ.

Plantard died in 2000. Even before The Da Vinci Code was published, it was clear that the supposed facts, which it was based on, were a hoax.

The earliest evidence for Mary Magdalene is the New Testament Gospels. Mary Magdalene was one of the female followers of Jesus during his ministry and supported him financially (Luke 8:1-3, Mark 15:40). Jesus cast seven demons out of her (Luke 8:2, Mark 19:9). She was one of the women who was present at Jesus’ crucifixion (Matthew 27:56, Mark 15:40, John 19:25). She saw Jesus’ body being put into the tomb (Matthew 27:61, Mark 15:47). She was one of the women who discovered that Jesus’ tomb was empty (Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1, Luke 24:1,9, John 20:1). She told the disciples the tomb was empty (Mark 16:10, Luke 24:11, John 20:2). The resurrected Jesus appeared to her (Matthew 28:9, Mark 16:9, John 20:11-18).

That is all that the earliest evidence says about Mary Magdalene. It does not say she and Jesus were married. It also does not say she was a prostitute as is often suggested.

The Appearance of Christ to Mary Magdalene by Alexander Ivanov, 1835

Mary Magdalene is sometimes identified with the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-12), the sinful woman who washed Jesus’ feet (Luke 7:37-50) and Lazarus’ sister, Mary of Bethany (John 11:1-2, 12:1-3). The New Testament does not say any of this. Mary Magdalene could not have been Mary of Bethany. Bethany was near Jerusalem, while Mary Magdalene’s name suggests she came from the village of Magdala in Galilee.

The fact, that Mary Magdalene was identified by where she came from, suggests she was not married to Jesus or anyone else. Ben Witherington writes,

“In a culture where there were no last names, a geographical designation was one of the ways to distinguish people with the same first name, and it appears that the geographical designation was regularly used of those who never married, especially women who could not use the patronymic (“son of..”; as in Simon bar-Jonah, which means”Simon, the son of John”). In the Greek New Testament, for example, in Luke 8:1-13 Joanna is identified by the phrase “of Chuza”, which surely means “wife of Chuza’, but in the same list Mary is said to be “of Magdala”. Had Mary of Magdala been married to Jesus, she would have been identified in the same way as Joanna, not with the geographical designation.” (Ben Witherington, The Gospel Code, InterVarsity Press, Illinois, 2004, p 17)

Other New Testament figures, Paul and John the Baptist, also do not appear to have been married. There were first century jewish groups, the Essenes and the Egyptian Therapeute, which practised celibacy. It may not have been the norm, but it was not implausible that Jesus was not married.

It is only in the writings of the Gnostics that Dan Brown and others can find “evidence” of a relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. The Gnostics were  heretical groups which believed that the Creator God of the Jewish Bible was a false god and that Jesus had come from the true hidden God to bring knowledge (gnosis in Greek), rather than forgiveness and salvation from sin.

The Gnostics had their own “Gospels”. Dan Brown claims they were the “earliest Christian records” (Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code, Corgi Books, London, 2004, p 331). This is simply not true. Even the most liberal unbelieving New Testament scholars agree the New Testament Gospels were written in the first century AD, while the Gnostic Gospels were written in the second century and later. As a rule, historians believe that the earlier a historical document is – the closer to the events its describes – the more historically accurate it is. The New Testament is the earliest and most reliable evidence for information about Jesus and Mary Magdalene. The later Gnostic Gospels should be considered as less accurate and reliable.

I have argued here that the Gnostic Gospels are not really Gospels at all. The New Testament Gospels were ancient biographies of Jesus. The Gnostic Gospels were not biographies. They consist of Jesus teaching Gnostic beliefs which were not the sort of thing a Jew would say.

Even modern-day academic supporters of Gnosticism agree that the Gnostics were not intending to write history. They were putting their Gnostic beliefs into the mouths of Jesus and others. Elaine Pagels has written,

“Gnostic authors, in the same way, attributed their teachings to various disciples. Like those who wrote the New Testament gospels, they may have received some of their material from early traditions. But in other  cases, the accusation that the gnostics invented what they wrote contains some truth: certain gnostics openly acknowledged that they derived their gnosis from their own experience.

How, for example, could a Christian living in the second century write the Secret Book of John? We could imagine that the author in the situation attributes to John at the opening of the book: troubled by doubts, he begins to ponder the meaning of Jesus’ mission and destiny. In the process of such internal questioning, answers may occur spontaneously to the mind; changing patterns of images may appear. The person who understands this process not in terms of modern psychology, as the activity of the imagination or unconscious, could experience these as forms of spiritual communication with Christ. Seeing his own communion with Christ as a continuation of what the disciples enjoyed, the author, when he casts the ‘dialogue’ into literary form, could well give to them the role of questioners. Few among his contemporaries – except the orthodox, whom he considers ‘literal-minded’ – would accuse him of forgery; rather, the titles of these works indicate that they were written ‘in the spirit’ of John, Mary Magdalene, Philip or Peter.” (Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, Penguin, London, 1990, p 47)

Dan Brown and his supporters do not seem to get this and treat the Gnostic Gospels as though they are historical accounts. He quotes the Gospel of Philip,

“And the companion of the Saviour is Mary Magdalene. Christ loved her more than all the disciples and used to kiss her on the mouth. The rest of the disciples were deeply offended by this and expressed disapproval. They said to him, “Why do you love her more than all of us?” ” (The Da Vinci Code, p 331)

This may sound like there was a romantic relationship between them. However, the  manuscript of the Gospel of Philip is badly damaged. It actually says,

“And the companion of the […] Mary Magdalene. The […] her more than […]the disciples […] kiss her on her […] often than the rest of the […] They said to him, “Why do you love her more than all of us?” ” (Bentley Layton (translator), The Gnostic Scriptures, Doubleday, New York, 1995, p 339)

The damaged page of the Gospel of Philip

We cannot tell where Jesus is supposed to have kissed Mary Magdalene. It could have been on her cheek. Where Jesus is said to have kissed her is irrelevant because the author of the Gospel of Philip was not intending to portray what actually happened. Their Gospels were not meant to be taken literally. The kiss symbolized passing on spiritual knowledge or gnosis (Bart Ehrman, Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006, p 216)

In Gnostic writings, such as the Gospel of Philip, Pistis Sophia and the Dialogue of the Savior, Mary Magdalene is portrayed as wiser than and in conflict with the twelve disciples. She appears to symbolize the Gnostics while the twelve disciples represent the orthodox church. When Jesus kissed and loved Mary Magdalene more than the disciples, it refers to the Gnostic claim that Jesus had passed his true teachings on to the Gnostics, not orthodox Christians. It does not mean there was a romantic or sexual relationship between them. The Gnostic Gospels do not say they were married.

Dan Brown claims that because the Gospel of Philip says Mary was Jesus’ companion, this means she was his wife, “As any Aramaic scholar will tell you, the word companion in those days literally meant spouse.” (The Da Vinci Code, p 331)

Actually, any Aramaic scholar will tell you that the Gospel of Philip was written in Coptic, not Aramaic, and was a translation of an earlier Greek text. The word for “companion” is a loan word from the Greek “koinonos’ which appears in the new Testament  and clearly does not mean “wife”, i.e. Luke 5:10, 2 Corinthians 8:23, Philemon 17.

In the 370s AD Ephiphanius of Salamis wrote that a Gnostic sect the Phibionites had a book,  Greater Questions of Mary, which said that Jesus took Mary Magdalene up a mountain, produced another woman out of her side, had sex with her and ate his semen (Ephpiphanius, Panorion 26:8:2). Eeewww! Again, this is not something historical and meant to be taken literally.

Our main source for the Merovingian kings is History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours (538-594). Gregory said nothing about Mary Magdalene coming to France and becoming the ancestor of the Merovingians. In fact, in another work, The Glory of the Martyrs, Gregory recorded that Mary Magdalene had been buried in Ephesus in modern Turkey (Gregory of Tours, The Glory of the Martyrs, Liverpool University Press, Liverpool, 1988, p 47)

In the 11th century the Cathars or Albigensians appeared in southern France. They had similar beliefs to the Gnostics. Around 1212-1218 Peter of les Vaux-de-Cernay wrote that the Cathars believed “the Christ who was born in the earthly and visible Bethlehem and crucified in Jerusalem was evil; and that Mary Magdalene was his concubine.” (Peter of les Vaux-de-Cernay, Historia Albigenesis 10-11)

As I have said, the earlier a historical text is to the events it describes, the more accurate it is considered to be. It is only over 1000 years after Jesus and Mary Magdalene lived that we find a reference to a belief that they had an actual sexual relationship. Since the Cathars drew on ancient Gnostic beliefs, perhaps they, like Dan Brown and others, took the reference to Jesus kissing Mary Magdalene literally and built on it.

In the 12th century legends appeared that Mary Magdalene had travelled to the south of France. Dan Brown claims she gave birth to a daughter Sarah who was the ancestor of the Merovingians (The Da Vinci Code, p 342). The medieval legends about Mary Magdalene do not say this.

There were other legends about Mary Jacobi and Mary Salome who travelled to France separately and landed at another location. They had a black servant Sarah the Egyptian who became the patron saint of the Gypsies. Brown appears to have confused these two legends and merged them (Dan Burstein (editor), Secrets of the Code, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2004, p 36-37).

The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife fragment

In 2012 Professor Karen King of the Harvard Divinity School announced she had come across a papyrus fragment which came to be known as the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. This was apparently a fourth century Coptic translation of a second century  […]Greek text which said,

“The disciples said to Jesus […] deny. Mary is [not] worthy of it. Jesus said to them , My wife. She is able to be my disciple […]”

It does not say which Mary, but it appears to mean that Jesus called Mary Magdalene his wife.

Karen King received another papyrus fragment from the same source, a fragment of the Gnostic Gospel of John in Coptic. Christian Askeland, who had written his PhD on the Gnostic Gospel of John, compared King’s fragment with another manuscript of the Gnostic Gospel of John called the Codex Qau. Hershel Shanks writes,

“What Askeland found was astounding. The text of CGJ replicated every other (every second) line from a leaf of the Codex Qau, which was discovered in 1923 in an ancient Egyptian grave and is therefore universally recognized as authentic. Moreover, for 17 lines the breaks in the lines of the fragment of CGJ in King’s possession were identical to the breaks in the lines of the fragment of CGJ in the Codex Qau. Whoever had penned the fragment of CGJ in KIng’s possession had obviously copied the text of CGJ from the Codex Qau. He or she simply copied the beginning of every other line from the Codex Qau. The forger even copied a typo in the online edition from which he copied. It therefore seems almost certain that the fragment of GCJ in King’s possession is a modern forgery.

So what does this have to do with the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife”? Answer: “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” is written in the same hand and with the same writing instrument as the fragment of CGJ. It came to King with the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife”. Moreover, both fragments are written in Lycopolitan, a relatively late dialect of Coptic. In short, whoever penned the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” also copied the fragment of CGJ. If one is a forgery, the other is a forgery.” (Hershel Shanks, “The Saga of ‘The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’ “. Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2015, p 58)

In an article “The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus’s Wife” in The Atlantic in 2016 Ariel Sabar showed that the forger of the fragment was Walter Fritz who had studied Egyptology at the Free University of Berlin. He had also managed several internet porn sites featuring his wife and other men. Karen King agreed that the fragment was most likely a forgery.

In 2014  The Lost Gospel by Simcha Jacobovici and Barrie Wilson was published. They claim to have decoded a sixth century Jewish manuscript  Joseph and Aseneth about the Old Testament Joseph and his Egyptian wife Aseneth and it is really about the marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene before his public ministry . They basically swapped the names of Joseph and Aseneth with Jesus and Mary Magdalene because  … because that way they get to write a book saying Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married.  They think  it is acceptable to find an ancient text about a married couple, change the names and say they have proved it is about the marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. In a review Robert Cargill, Assistant Professor of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Iowa, commented,

“By the same allegorical logic, you could swap the names of Samson and Delilah and claim that Mary Magdalene cut Jesus’ hair. Or swap out Adam and Eve and conclude that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were the primordial couple. Or read David and Bathsheba allegorically and end up with Jesus having a son named Solomon, who is guarded by the Priory of Sion, and … well, you get the idea.”

Jacobovici and Wilson also claimed that the song “Until the End of the World” by U2 “refers to Jesus and Mary Magdalene as a bride and groom.” Actually, the song is about Jesus and Judas Iscariot. This only shows that believers can make anything about Jesus and Mary Magdalene.




Conspiracy Theories and the Lordship of Christ


Most critiques of conspiracy theories assume there is no truth to them. I disagree. Much of it consists of little more than wishful thinking and speculation, but I still believe some of it could be true. The real problem with conspiracy theories is not whether or not they are true, but the way they can become an obsession for those, who believe them, often with destructive consequences. As the title suggest, I am particularly concerned with Christians who believe in conspiracy theories. I am not suggesting that belief in conspiracy theories, in itself, is wrong or sinful. The belief becomes sin when Christians make their belief in conspiracy theories into an idol which is more important to them than their relationship with God and their responsibilities as Christians, leading them to disobey the Bible’s commandments.


One of the characteristics of a cult is, “Any religious movement which claims the backing of Christ or the Bible, but distorts the central message of Christianity by 1) an additional revelation, and 2) by displacing a fundamental tenet of the faith with a secondary matter”. This definition applies to many Christians who promote conspiracy theories which, even if they are true, are a “secondary matter.

As Christians, we are supposed to preach the Gospel and make disciples (Matthew 28:19-20, Mark 16:15), grow in the knowledge of God (Colossians 1:9-12, Philippians 1:3-11), live godly and moral lives (Romans 12:1-21, Colossians 3:12-17, Ephesians 5:1-7), love other Christians (John 15:9-17, I John 3:23). Christians, who believe in conspiracy theories, tend to be fundamentalists, in that they believe in the literal truth of the Bible and they know they must obey its commands and preach the Gospel. They usually pay lip service to the Gospel. However, in practice, many of them become more interested in telling people about the Bad News of Conspiracy Theories than the Good News of Jesus Christ. Their belief in conspiracy theories is basically “another gospel”, about which Paul said;

“But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.” (Galatians 1:8-9)

Jesus said that the truth would set us free (John 8:32). Belief in conspiracy theories often has the opposite effect and enslaves its adherents, distracting them from what is really important, causing them to break the Bible’s commands, and becoming obsessed and ruining their lives. Conspiracy theories become their religion.

Like members of a cult, conspiracy theorists often become paranoid and isolated from the rest of society which they believe is under the control of the conspiracy. People, who believe in conspiracy theories, usually lack the organisation, structure and control of a cult. (An exception is the Lyndon LaRouche network which operates as the Citizens Electoral Council in Australia and has been described as a cult.) Nevertheless, those, who promote conspiracy theories, often behave like cult gurus. They believe that they have the “truth”. Anyone, who disagrees with them, usually gets accused of being part of the conspiracy.

Knowledge can make us proud (1 Corinthians 8:1). Many conspiracy theorists, like cultists, believe their supposed knowledge makes part of an elite, separate from ordinary people. They think they know how the world really works. Gary North has compared this attitude to the ancient Gnostic heresy;

“The ancient gnostics believed that man is saved by secret knowledge. They believed that man needs to be liberated from this world of matter and elevated, through secret initiation and certain ascetic techniques, into the realm of the spirit. Certain groups of contemporary “New Age” humanist hold a very similar viewpoint. Unfortunately, there are a lot of Christians and far too many “we must reveal the truth” fanatics who have adopted a variation of this ancient heresy. Their “secret initiation” into knowledge about their enemies, whether the enemy is the devil (in the case of Christian investigators) or the conspiracy (in the case of radical conservatives or leftists) serves them as a psychological justification for doing nothing. They think that just knowing more and more about “the conspiracy” relieves them from doing anything about it. Their endless studying is an excuse for their inactivity. They send their time with other similarly minded people, enjoying the impotent luxury of exchanging secret phrases and knowledge of secret things. They have imitated their enemies; they have created their won inner ring – a secret ring which knows all about their enemy’s secret ring. They became hypnotized with “circles within circles”. Their great spiritual enemy thereby removes them from the real fight.” (Gary North, Conspiracy: A Biblical View, Crossway Books, Illinois, 1986, p 137-138)

And no, I am not a reconstructionist just because I quote Gary North.

In a similar that the original Gnostics looked down on the early Christians, Christian conspiracy theorists see themselves as superior to ordinary Christians who are only concerned with evangelism, worship, prayer and discipleship, not conspiracy theories. Like the Gnostics, they are proud of their special knowledge.

Pride and failing to preach the Gospel are not the only sins of conspiracy theorists. I do not know of any Christian conspiracy theorist who attends church regularly in violation of Hebrews 10:25.

Their belief usually results in the believers being afraid of the all-powerful conspiracy which controls everything. Paul Coughlin writes,

“During one New World Order seminar in southern Oregon, attendees stared straight ahead like deer caught in the headlights. Says one observer, “People just sat there with eyes glued on the information they were given, they were stuck in their seats” – stuck there by fear.” (Paul Coughlin, Secret Plots and Hidden Agendas, IVP, Illinois, 1999, p 148)

In contrast, the Bible commands us not to be afraid of any conspiracy,

“Do not say, ‘A conspiracy,’ concerning all that this people call a conspiracy, nor be afraid of their threats, nor be troubled. The Lord of hosts, Him you shall hallow; Let Him be your fear, and let Him be your dread.” (Isaiah 8:12-13)

God, not a human conspiracy, is in control of everything. The conspiracy can do nothing if God does not allow it (Psalms 2:1-9). Even the Antichrist can only act with God’s permission (Revelation 13:5-7). We are supposed to trust God, not be afraid or anxious (Philippians 4:6-7).

The Bible tells us that all governments are appointed by God and we must obey their laws, except when those laws conflict with God’s commands (Acts 5:29). Paul writes;

“Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God, therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist bring judgement on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due; taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honour to whom honour.” (Romans 13:1-7)

Peter made similar statements in 1 Peter 2:13-17.

Many conspiracy theorists refuse to obey these commands. They believe that government is evil and part of the conspiracy. Even if it is, God knows this and still commands us to obey. Paul and Peter were executed by the Roman government, but they still told us to obey the government. Some do not obey the Bible’s command to pay taxes, such as Kent Hovind, an American creation scientist and conspiracy theorist, who was sentenced to 10 years for 58 tax offences in 2007.

fritz springmeier

Another Christian conspiracy theorist, whose beliefs led to disobedience and its consequences, was Fritz Springmeier, author of Bloodlines of the Illuminati and The Illuminati Formula Used to Create an Undetectable Total Mind Control Slave. During 1993-1995 Springmeier was counselling a woman, Cisco Wheeler (a.k.a. Linda Johnson and Linda Anderson) who was supposed to have been a victim of Illuminati mind control. In 1995 while he was still married to someone else, Springmeier attended a mind control symposium and introduced Cisco as Mrs Springmeier. In 1997 Springmeier was involved in an armed robbery of a bank in Damascus, Oregon. In March 2001 police raided the house of Springmeier and his third wife and found 50 marijuana plants, weapons and material from a militia group called the Army of God. He was convicted in February 2003.

Springmeier was an extreme case. Not every Christian, who gets involved with conspiracy theories, becomes a bank robber. Nevertheless, he is an example of what happens when Christians’ beliefs in conspiracy theories causes them to lose focus, become obsessed with an idol and think their special knowledge makes them think they are exempt from having to obey the Bible.

The Bible commands us “to speak evil of no one” (Titus 3:2). Many Christian conspiracy theorists ignore this command, as evident in these quotes from Texe Marrs which Richard Abanes compiled;

“Hilary and Bill [Clinton] have surrounded themselves with the most wicked and demon-possessed people imaginable.”

“[Clinton is] a heartless New Age occultist – an occultist who has relentlessly used the full resources of the White House to slander, defame, persecute, and kill true Christians and American patriots.”

“Is President Bill Clinton a practicing Satan worshipper? … [Are the Clintons] demonically charged to perform hideous and barbaric acts unimaginable to decent and trusting Americans? What are the true religious beliefs of Bill and Hilary Clinton? Are they lovers of the Father of Lies – Lucifer himself? Order this exclusive Special Report … [Y]ou may just conclude that Bill and Hilary Clinton are the most wicked witchcraft-evil couple ever to reside at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue!”

“Arrogant and anti-Christian lesbian, homosexuals and paedophile advocates now hold the reigns of political power, and the ‘D.C.’ in Washington D.C. has become the ‘District of Corruption.'” (Richard Abanes, American  Militias, IVP, Illinois, 1996, p 206)

Even if any of this were true, so what? The Bible does not say we are allowed to speak evil of others if it is true.

We are commanded to “test all things” (I Thess. 5:21). Although I believe there is some truth to conspiracy theories, much of it is speculation and wishful thinking. A conspiracy is, by definition, secret. We should not know about it. If the evidence for a conspiracy is easily available and anyone can read about it in books or on the Internet, then it is not really a conspiracy. Many conspiracy theories are not so much based on evidence, which should not be there, but on wishful thinking, what the conspiracy theorist believes the conspiracy is doing.

For example, within a few hours of the death of Princess Diana in 1997, conspiracy theories were appearing on the Internet about how she was really murdered. Even if they were true, the people, who wrote them, had not had time to have done any research. They were simply writing what they wanted to believe had happened. This is not the same thing as evidence.

This problem is further apparent in the way that different conspiracy theorists with different agendas look at the same events, talk about the same organisations, such as the Council on Foreign Relations and the Bilderbergers, but then they that a different group, which just happens to be the one they do not like, is behind the event, such as the Jews, the British Royal Family, the New Agers, the Roman Catholic Church or human-alien hybrids.

It looks like which group people end up blaming for the conspiracy depends largely upon which conspiracy theory they came across first. They decide that this particular conspiracy theory is right and all the others are wrong. Worse, they can come to believe that those, who promote alternative conspiracy theories, are disinformation agents of the conspiracy, distracting people from the “truth”.

Conspiracy theories are based on the assumption that “nothing happens by accident”. Therefore, everything must be part of the conspiracy and have some sinister purpose. Assuming there is a conspiracy, it cannot control everything. If it did, it would control what is published in books and on the Internet or spoken on talk-back radio. We would know that it existed. The fact the conspiracy theories exist proves that the conspiracy does not control everything. Some things must still happen by accident.

Instead, because they assume that nothing happens by accident, but every significant event is part of the conspiracy’s plans, then some of the events, which they assume are part of the conspiracy, must be nothing of the sort. They are genuine historical accidents with no sinister purpose.

There is a sense of hopelessness. They cannot change or reform anything because the conspiracy is too powerful and controls everything. If something good does happen, they assume it is part of the conspiracy and there must be some evil purpose behind it.

Conspiracy theories are not completely lacking in evidence. Unfortunately, some of it is fabricated. The most famous example is the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion which was first published in 1905. It is supposed to be the minutes of a meeting of Jews outlining their plans for world domination. However, as early as 1921 it was proved that parts of these proceedings were copied from an anti-Napoleon III pamphlet, Dialogue in Hell Between Montesquieu and Machiavelli, written by Maurice Joly in 1864. Nevertheless, anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists, even Christian ones, such as Kent Hovind, still believe the Protocols are authentic .

protocols elders zion

Anti-Semitism is the dark side of the conspiracy theory movement. Some critics like to portray everyone, who believes in conspiracy theories, as rabidly anti-Semitic. This is not true. Gary Allen, author of one of the most influential conspiracy theory books, None Dare Call It Conspiracy, has written,

“One major reason for the historical blackout on the role of international bankers in political history is that the Rothschilds were Jewish. Anti-Semites have played into the hands of the conspiracy by trying to portray the entire conspiracy as Jewish. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The traditionally Anglo-Saxon J.P. Morgan and Rockefeller international banking institutions have played a key role in the conspiracy. But there is no denying the importance of the Rothschilds and their satellites. However, it is just as unreasonable and immoral to blame all Jews for the crimes of the Rothschilds as it is to hold all Baptists accountable for the crimes of the Rockefellers.” (Gary Allen, None Dare Call It Conspiracy, Concord Press, California, 1971, p 39)

none dare call conspiracy

There is even a Jewish conspiracy theorist, Barry Chamish, who believes the Jews are victims of the conspiracy, rather than being behind it.

Nevertheless, the conspiracy theory subculture is filled with anti-Semites. Anybody, who becomes interested in conspiracy theories, will soon come across claims that the “evil” Jews are behind everything. I have seen people, who start out with legitimate concerns about globalisation, banks or what really happened on September 11, 2001. The mainstream media and major political parties will not address these issues, so they turn to conspiracy theories which purport to have the truth. They end up getting involved with anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.

Another hoax is the Report from Iron Mountain which is supposed to be a secret American think-tank report from 1966. Among other things, it suggests faking an alien invasion in order to unite the world. In 1972 Leonard Lewin, who had been the editor of a political satire magazine Monocle, admitted he had written the whole thing. Just like the Protocols, many conspiracy theorists ignore the facts and still believe the Report from Iron Mountain is authentic.

I have mentioned two conspiracy hoaxes in other articles here and here. The UFO conspiracy theories about MJ-12, Area 51, secret treaties with aliens and an underground base at Dulce, New Mexico, were invented by the Air force Office of Special Investigations and the National Security Agency to distract UFO researchers who were getting too close to classified military projects.

Likewise, books such as The Da Vinci Code and The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail claimed there is a 900 year old secret society, the Priory of Sion, which believes the Merovingian kings were descendants of Jesus Christ.

davinci code

davinci code_0001

The Priory of Sion has been exposed as a modern hoax. Moreover, those, who created the hoax, never claimed the Merovingians were descendants of Jesus. This was simply made up by the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. However, some Christian conspiracy theorists would rather believe in a conspiracy than the truth and accept the claims of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail at face value, such as J. R. Church and Fritz Springmeier who have written that the Priory of Sion is a real secret society. I once read an article which claimed that Prince Charles is the Antichrist because he believes he is a descendant of Jesus and Mary Magdalene through the Merovingians.

The Merovingians never claimed to be descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. This was made up by the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail in 1982. These Christian conspiracy theorists would rather believe in a conspiracy than in the truth and are just uncritically accepting these claims and building on them.

One way of knowing the truth about the Illuminati would be if a former member were to come forward and reveal their plans. John Todd, Doc Marquis and Bill Schnoebelen have claimed that they were Illuminati members who became Christians. The trouble is anyone can claim to have been a member of the Illuminati or some other secret society. I could say I was a member of the Illuminati. They are not going to issue a press release denying it. Moreover, the claims of Todd, Marquis and Schnoebelen are very dubious.

During the 1970s John Todd claimed to have been a Satanic high priest and Illuminati member. Todd claimed to have been a Satanist during the 1960s until he became a Christian in 1972, however he was part of a Pentecostal church in Oregon in 1968. In 1969-1970 he was in the army. He claimed to have been a Green Beret when he was only a clerk. Todd’s army medical records say that he suffered from “emotional instability with pseudologia phantastica” (compulsive lying) and he “finds it difficult to tell reality from fantasy.” They recommended his discharge.

john todd

In 1973 while he was working in a Christian coffee house, Todd was caught trying to recruit teenage girls to join a witches’ coven. He started telling Pentecostal churches about his involvement in the Illuminati and claimed that John F. Kennedy was still alive and that he was his personal warlock. He left Pentecostal circles when he was accused of mixing witchcraft and Christianity and seducing teenage girls.

In 1974 Todd was operating an occult store in Dayton, where he was again accused of seducing teenage girls.

In 1978 Todd, who was now part of an independent Baptist church, began touring the United States talking about his involvement in the Illuminati and their plans. He said they were going to take over the world in 1979 and that Jimmy carter was the Antichrist. He accused many Christian leaders, especially those who challenged his claims, of being part of the Illuminati.

Around 1980 Todd dropped out of sight. In fact, in 1982 someone told me he had been killed. In 1987 he was arrested for the rape of several college students in South Carolina and sentenced to 30 years in prison. Of course, he claimed the Illuminati had framed him. He died in prison in 2007. However Fritz Springmeier wrote that he was released from prison and picked up by a helicopter and killed in 1994.

Like Todd, Doc Marquis also claimed that he joined the army, which the Illuminati was infiltrating, in order to set up covens. He appears to be copying Todd’s claims. My only direct knowledge of Doc Marquis comes from a DVD, Arrival of the Antichrist, a lecture recorded at the Prophecy Club.

doc marquis

Instead of revealing some insider information about the Illuminati, which a real member would know, Marquis relied on already published material, such as Nesta Webster’s books and books on Freemasonry like Pike’s Morals and Dogmas. Then, for about 1½ hours he quoted passages from the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, which he claimed was “a coded Illuminati document” to show how the Antichrist would supposedly come to power. A real member of the Illuminati, or whatever they call themselves, would know that the Protocols are a forgery.

There used to be a good article on Wikipedia exposing Bill Schnoebelen, but it has disappeared. The biggest problem with Schnoebelen’s credibility is that he has claimed to have been so many things. He says that he has studied to be a Catholic priest, completed two Masters degrees, been a Wiccan priest, a Spiritualist minister, a Druid high priest, an Old Roman Catholic Church priest, an Illuminati member, a Freemason, a Satanist, a Knights Templar, a voodoo high priest, a Gnostic priest, a Naturopathic doctor, a Mormon and a vampire. It is hard to see how he could have found the time.


In a DVD, The Sons of God and the Antichrist, filmed at a Prophecy Club meeting, Schnoebelen says he is also a UFO expert. He claims that during his occult phase, he was taken by a UFO to one of the moons of Saturn, where his “third eye” was marked by Satan, and returned to Earth.

I am a bit of a UFO expert and some of his claims in this talk suggest that he does not really know much about UFOs. He claims the Grey aliens, who supposedly carry out UFO abductions, started showing up in the 1960s, when the typical Grey with its all-black eyes did not appear in UFO reports until the 1980s. Other Christian UFO researchers have concluded that UFO abductions are not physically real. Abductees are not taken aboard UFOs. Their experiences are implanted and there are no credible reports of a witness seeing someone being taken aboard a UFO. However, Schnoebelen claims to know of a case where a Baptist minister witnessed a member of his congregation being taken out of their house up into a UFO. A UFO abduction, which was witnessed by a minister, would be one of the most important UFO abduction cases ever, but Schnoeleblen is the only person who has heard of it.

While even New Age UFO researcher John Mack acknowledges that there is no physical evidence for the human-alien hybrids which are supposedly produced from UFO abductions and doubted they were real, Schnoebelen says he has met “several young people” who are the offspring of humans and fallen angels masquerading as aliens. Again, I do know of any other UFO researcher who knows this.

This means that Schnoebelen is the greatest UFO researcher ever and has uncovered things which no one else has, or he is making it up. If he were the greatest UFO researcher ever, he would know that the stories about an underground base at Dulce, New Mexico, populated by aliens, secret treaties and battles with aliens, which are popular on the Internet, were disinformation which was made up by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations in the 1980s. Instead, he believes it is true.

In this DVD Schnoebeln also claims to have summoned up Cthulu out of Lake Michigan. Cthulu was a fictional monster made up by the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft.

Sorry, I don't know how this got in
Sorry, I don’t know how this got in

As far as I could tell, his supposedly Christian audience just sat there and uncritically believed everything he said about having been a vampire, calling up fictional monsters and meeting children of fallen angels. There was no discernment and the Bible’s command to “test all things” (1 Thessalonians 5:21) was ignored. Christian conspiracy theorists are usually fundamentalists and are rightly concerned with heresy and false teaching in the church, but they show little concern about false teachers and deceivers in their own circles. Someone just has to say, “It’s a conspiracy” and they get a free pass. Their claims are uncritically accepted.

Although “it is shameful even to speak of those things which are done by them in secret” (Ephesians 5:12), the Christian audience at the Prophecy Club meetings sat there listening to Marquis and Schnoebelen talk about occult symbolism and rituals, vampirism and other sordid details. In contrast, the Bible says, “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy – mediate on these things.” (Philippians 4:8)

Something is wrong here. It is a fascination with evil, which could be described as “conspiracy porn”.

Like porn, conspiracy theories seem to be becoming more extreme. A simple conspiracy theory no longer satisfies. This is evident in the 2012 Sandy Hook shootings and the 2013 Boston Bombing. A few years earlier conspiracy theorists would have said that the perpetrators were framed and some secret hit team really carried out the crimes. Now, conspiracy theorists are not simply saying someone else carried out the crimes. They are saying the crimes never even happened. They are hoaxes. It is like they need something more extreme to satisfy their addictive beliefs.

There have been other cases of Christians fabricating stories of their past involvement with Satanism. Mike Warnke is a Christian comedian and author of The Satan Seller who claimed to have been a former Satanist until he was exposed as a fraud in 1992.

mike warnke

Lauren Wilson was born in the United States in 1941. She wrote three books as Lauren Stratford, claiming to have been a victim of Satanic ritual abuse before she became a Christian. After she was exposed as a fraud, she changed her name to Laura Grabowski and said she was a Polish Jew who had been a child inmate in Auschwitz, where she was experimented in by Joseph Mengele. She even claimed to remember Binjamin Wilkomirski, author of Fragments. He also claimed to have been a child in Auschwitz until he was exposed as a fraud.

satans underground

These people say the right things about Jesus and salvation, but what they say about their experiences with the Illuminati and Satanism is clearly not true. They may be deliberate deceivers (Matthew 24:24). However, when I described them to a Christian psychologist, he suggested they were delusional.

After writing this, I came across a series of posts on Swallowing the Camel which covered these apparent imposters and more in much more detail.

I used to like those little evangelistic tracts Chick Comics. Although they were simplistic, I admired Jack Chick’s forthright proclamation of the Gospel with its emphasis on repentance which is often lacking in modern evangelism. Chick has also published the claims of Alberto Rivera, John Todd, Bill Schnoebelen and Rebecca Brown. They have all made claims of involvement in conspiracies or Satanism and they are all believed to be frauds. Chick clearly has a heart for truth, but his desire to believe in conspiracy theories has led him astray into promoting falsehood.

I believe that many people are attracted to conspiracy theories with good intentions. They are looking for meaning and explanation and want to know what is really going on in the world. However, belief in conspiracy theories does not give Christians an exemption from having to obey the Bible’s commands. As Christians, we are supposed to bring all aspects of our lives under the Lordship of Christ. This includes our conspiracy theories and the attitudes and actions which result from them.