You are in the first century and you are part of a conspiracy trying to produce tracts persuading people that a certain man was God’s Messiah (Anointed One, or Christ). Here’s a few tips to make it authentic:
- Avoid putting in anything other than an ordinary birth narrative. Remember, your audience is just not going to go in for any claims of Messiahship from someone whose circumstances of birth might be shrouded in controversy.
- At all costs avoid writing about him having contact with people who were at the time considered ceremonially unclean, such as lepers, and those that were considered lowlifes, such as publicans and prostitutes. Remember your audience.
- Remember, Judea is expecting the arrival of Messiah, since the “weeks” of Daniel’s prophesy of the coming of Messiah have finished. But remember that the fulfilment of this prophesy comes at a time when Judea is fully under the Roman yoke, and so the expectation is that Messiah will – to put it in modern parlance – come and kick Roman butt and establish Judea as the top nation. Therefore, he must be a warrior, and so you should avoid having him go around healing people from illnesses, as this is unlikely to persuade too many people that he is the man.
- With the expectation that he is to come and throw off the Roman yoke, it would be foolish to have your Messiah put to death on the orders of the Roman proconsul. If anything is likely to persuade your audience that your man isn’t the Messiah, this would be it.
- Claiming that he was then raised from death is a definite no-go. Although first century Jews believe in the resurrection of the dead at the end of time (see John 11:24, for instance), not one of them has the slightest notion of anyone being raised in the middle of history. Adding this detail to your narrative is unlikely to help your cause.
But of course the Gospel writers went and broke all these rules. Their candidate had a birth that was shrouded in controversy, so much so that his adversaries implied that he was “born of fornication” (John 8:41). Their candidate dined regularly with the lowlifes of his day. Their candidate fought physically with no-one, and far from teaching his disciples to overthrow the Romans, he taught them to go the extra mile (a reference to the Roman practice of compelling Jews to carry their heavy equipment for a Roman mile). Their candidate died at the hands of his Jewish contemporaries, and on the authority of the Roman proconsul. Their candidate rose again on the third day – something that no Jew in the first century had any notion of whatsoever, hence the disciples repeatedly failing to understand what Jesus is getting at whenever he told them that he would be raised.
Which is why the modern idea that the Gospels are a fraudulent attempt by a bunch of conspirators is so laughable. If they were written by conspirators, they did an insanely bad job. If this was a fraudulent attempt to deceive, it was the work of amateurs. For they got everything wrong. For first century Jews, Messiah must have an impeccable lineage, with no questions about his birth. Messiah must separate himself from the unclean and have nothing to do with “sinners”. Messiah must call men to arms to overthrow the Romans. Messiah must not die before he has established Israel as the chief among all nations. Messiah cannot rise again in the middle of history, since for first century Jews the resurrection is something that only occurs at the end of time.
Those who maintain that the Gospels are fraudulent miss the point that any fraudster worth his salt in the first century would never have written the things they wrote. They would have written within the paradigm of what first century Judaism expected of Messiah, yet they didn’t. Jesus breaks every “rule” of what was expected of the Messiah at the time. And it is this that makes them so utterly compelling, and so unmistakably authentic.
We see this most clearly in his death. What did the law say? It said, “Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree” (Deuteronomy 21:23). Could Messiah hang from a tree? Could one who was killed by crucifixion be seen as the Christ? In first century Judea, such an idea was utterly unthinkable. And yet this is exactly what the Gospel writers attempted to persuade their audience.
It’s all so utterly counter-intuitive that any attempt to write the Gospels off as the works of men, or the works of fraudsters is snagged up in a logical tangle. Had they wanted to hoodwink people, they would have written within the paradigm. The fact that they didn’t means there is compelling reason to take them at their word. And if we take them at their word, then it’s true that Jesus did indeed die nailed to a tree, and he was indeed raised from the Earth. And if we take them at their word, He died for our transgressions. And if we take them at their word, he is indeed the Saviour of the World. That is why Good Friday is so Good.