As someone raised in a Christian country, I learned that there was a historical Jesus. Now historical analysis cannot find clear evidence that Jesus existed. If not, Christianity was fabricated, just like Mormonism and other religions. Why would people choose to believe?
Given the depth of religious tradition in Christian countries, where the “Christian era” calendar is based upon the life of Jesus, it would be astonishing if there was no evidence of a historical Jesus. After all, in an era when there were scores of messianic prophets, why would anyone go to the trouble of making one up?
In History, Jesus Was a No Show
Various historical scholars attempted to authenticate Jesus in the historical record, particularly in the work of Jesus-era writers. Michael Paulkovich revived this project as summarized in the current issue of Free Inquiry.
Paulkovich found an astonishing absence of evidence for the existence of Jesus in history. “Historian Flavius Josephus published his Jewish Wars circa 95 CE. He had lived in Japhia, one mile from Nazareth—yet Josephus seems unaware of both Nazareth and Jesus.” He is at pains to discredit interpolations in this work that “made him appear to write of Jesus when he did not.” Most religious historians take a more nuanced view agreeing that Christian scholars added their own pieces much later but maintaining that the historical reference to Jesus was present in the original. Yet, a fudged text is not compelling evidence for anything.
Paulkovich consulted no fewer than 126 historians (including Josephus) who lived in the period and ought to have been aware of Jesus if he had existed and performed the miracles that supposedly drew a great deal of popular attention. Of the 126 writers who should have written about Jesus, not a single one did so (if one accepts Paulkovich's view that the Jesus references in Josephus are interpolated).
"When I consider those 126 writers, all of whom should have heard of Jesus but did not—and Paul and Marcion and Athenagoras and Matthew with a tetralogy of opposing Christs, the silence from Qumram and Nazareth and Bethlehem, conflicting Bible stories, and so many other mysteries and omissions—I must conclude that Christ is a mythical character."
He also considers striking similarities of Jesus to other God-sons such as Mithra, Sandan, Attis, and Horus. Christianity has its own imitator. Mormonism was heavily influenced by the Bible from which founder Joseph Smith borrowed liberally.
Mormonism Fabricated in Plain Sight
We may not know for sure what happened two millennia ago but Mormonism was fabricated in plain sight by a convicted conman. According to Christopher Hitchens (1):
"In March, 1826, a court in Bainbridge, New York, convicted a 21-year-old man of being a “disorderly person and an impostor.” That ought to have been all we ever heard of Joseph Smith, who at trial admitted to defrauding citizens by organizing mad gold-digging expeditions and also to claiming to possess dark or 'necromantic' powers."
Hitchens writes: “Quite recent scholarship has exposed every single other Mormon “document” as at best a scrawny compromise and at worst a pitiful fake…"
Smith’s legacy was cleaned up via subsequent “divine revelations” that rejected first polygamy and then racism at convenient historical turning points. So the historical development from fakery to respectable religion is well-documented.
There is no reason to believe that the genesis of any major religion was substantially different. This raises the question of why so many intelligent people choose to believe religious fictions.
The most plausible explanation is that they cannot easily distinguish between organized religion and confidence rackets.
Starting a Fake Religion
Religious people may find that hard to swallow, so it is interesting to see what happens when someone sets out to found a fake religion. Would this work, or would members see through the deception and promptly leave?
American Indian film director Vikram Gandhi studied yogis and their followers in India. He concluded that these holy men were confidence tricksters, scores of whom plied their trade throughout India in the manner of the Jesus story.
The filmmaker wondered whether he could pass himself off as a guru here in the U.S. He cultivated a fake Indian accent, grew out his hair and beard and reinvented himself as Sri Kumare, a mystic hailing from a fictitious Indian village.
In the film, Kumare (2011) the director founds his cult in Arizona where he unloads his bogus mysticism upon the unsuspecting public and soon draws a group of devoted followers who seek his counsel on their life problems and become frighteningly dependent upon his new-age advice.
The underlying psychology may be fairly simple. Common confidence tricksters work their magic by telling victims what they want to hear. The same is true of successful prophets who offer pie in the sky bye and bye (2). The only reason that Jesus does not fit in this category is that he probably never existed.
1. Hitchens, C. (2007). God is not great: How religion poisons everything. New York: Twelve.
2. Barber, N. (2012). Why atheism will replace religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky. E-book, available at: Atheism-Will-Replace-Religion