It is that time of year again, when skeptics begin leveling their claims that Christianity is just a re-packaged bit of borrowed paganism and [insert your conspiracy theory here]. For the sake of this post, let’s merely concede that there are similarities to ancient myths and train our minds on the critical distinction: none of them are set against a historical backdrop as fleshed out as Christianity. In other words, it may be absolutely true that Christianity is ‘borrowed’ but the fact that the resurrection actually happened, nonetheless, only means looking with less skeptical eyes on the ‘ancient myths.’ For example, we might ask ourselves if the ancient myths were foreshadows. A standard literary device. I’m sure most have heard of it: including God.
Depending on which mutually contradictory conspiracy theory we are working from, the basic contention is that perhaps something happened around 30 AD, but it was just a kernel which was inflamed into something more by later generations. For example, we see the same thing today with Gandhi. Ghandi died in 1948 and already people are running around saying that he was God, that he isn’t buried but ascended into heaven, etc. 60 years has passed, so it makes perfect sense that people could come to believe anything, see? Ah, you’re right. The Hindu religion has high disdain for introducing new gods and so are unlikely to engage in such a deification process… [This is sarcasm. No one claims that Gandhi claimed to be God, or that he rose from the dead, and the Hindu religion, in contrast to Judaism, welcomes new deities with welcome arms.]
One of the purposes of this post is to offer a hard cap on such conspiracy-mongering. I want to focus mainly on the Gospel of Matthew although some of this applies in other contexts as well.
The emphasis on showing how Jesus fulfilled various aspects of the Old Testament is clearly discernible. The constant refrain of “this happened to fulfill…” makes that clear. For many skeptics, that puts the author of Matthew beyond trustworthiness, because after all, everyone knows that if a person is trying to persuade someone to a position nothing he says can be true. In this case, Matthew’s target audience is clearly the Jewish community and his repeated citations of fulfilled prophecy (go through and count them, if you like) build the case that Matthew felt that fulfilled prophecies are significant and that he perceived that they would be significant to the Jews he was talking to.
Now, if showing that Jesus fulfilled the OT prophecies was high on Matthew’s agenda then it would seem self-evident that if Jesus himself uttered a prophecy, and it came true, Matthew would be quick to point that out. His evangelism program strongly suggests it.
When we turn to Matthew 24:1-2 we read:
“Jesus left the temple [in Jerusalem] and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. ‘Do you see these things?’ he asked. ‘I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; everyone one will be thrown down.'”
What is profoundly interesting is that verse 3 does not read, “And this came to pass…”
In fact, there is no hint at all that the author of Matthew knows anything about Jerusalem and its temple having been destroyed. So this is remarkable: here we have an author who is telling us like clockwork how Jesus fulfilled prophecies and then when Jesus himself makes a prophecy, the author is silent. It was a golden opportunity to ‘seal the deal’ so to speak and establish Jesus’ credentials beyond dispute. He had every reason to reference the fall of Jerusalem.
Perhaps the reason he did not was because it hadn’t happened yet.
The Fall of Jerusalem
The fall of Jerusalem was brought about by the Romans c. 70AD. Jesus is alleged to have existed and to have died and rose c. 30,33 AD. This is just 35-40 years later. 20 years less time then Gandhi has had to account for the mythical accretions that have blown up around him.
The fall of Jerusalem would have been for the Jews as Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be to the Japanese. Imagine how unlikely it would be to find a history of Japan written after the atomic attacks that did not at some point make reference to the atomic attacks, and you will begin to fathom how astounding it is that this event is not merely ignored at exactly this point in Matthew 24, but also that it doesn’t permeate the entire NT… assuming the NT was composed and edited after 70 AD, that is.
That is exactly what is argued by liberal scholars, with occasional exceptions. Certainly it is contended that all of the Gospels were written well after 70 AD (not so much the epistles). This is what fuels the ‘legend’ hypothesis, because the suggestion is that with so much time between the events and the written account, anything should have been put in there. If, however, the Gospels were written prior to 70 AD, time begins to get tight for such contentions.
Now, there is a hard cap on the authorship of Matthew (if it wasn’t written by Matthew himself) and that is Tatian’s Diatessaron. This harmonizing of the four Gospels was assembled c. 160-175 AD. Tatian’s Diatessaron became famous and widespread in Syria (get out your map). Syria’s distance from Rome and the developing western church allowed a whole separate and independent textual lineage to develop.
This independence allows us to take the silence of Matthew on this point to confront another class of conspiracies.
The Deceiving Church Misses an Opportunity to Deceive
If the author of Matthew would have had compelling reason to mention the fulfilled prophecy about the fall of Jerusalem on the pattern of OT fulfillment, it is clear that the growing Christian church would have wanted to point out this fulfillment as well. Again, depending on which conspiracy canvas we are working from, those dastardly Christians were not above making any change to the text that suited their fancy and that damned Constantine and the violent exertion of the ‘orthodox’ church to stamp out dissenters, so by about 300 AD it should have been nothing for our wicked and bloodthirsty church fathers to see the obvious apologetic appeal of adding to Matthew 24 a little line that said something like… “and so it came to pass…”
AHA! But of course the early church fathers (or inquisitors, if you like) knew that this would have great apologetical appeal, so they didn’t add the line in order to give it apologetical appeal! It is sometimes argued that Matthew’s citation of the guard at the tomb was a late insertion invented for pure apologetical purposes. You can impute anything to those old people, you know. There wasn’t anything they were above doing, ala Ehrman’s “Misquoting Jesus.”
But the Diatessaron throws cold water on such speculations.
Arguing from the Diatessaron Re: Matthew 24.
Recall, Constantine and his Religious Fanatics didn’t bring about Christianity as the state religion until after 300 AD, organized primarily though not exclusively in Rome. The Diatessaron was composed c. 170 AD, long before Christians were in a position to round up heretics and burn them and their documents in heaps. Also, the Diatessaron was prominent far away from the areas where the western church (when itself was not being persecuted) had any influence. (that there were any persecutions at all, of course, is probably a lately inserted point for apologetical purposes). As such, we can check the Diatessaron against the texts of the western traditions to see if it appears that the Gospels have been altered at this point.
Here is a link to the text of the Diatessaron itself: diatessaron.html Look for yourself. You want section XLI, verse 27. There is no hint in the text of Jesus prophecy having been fulfilled. If the author was writing after the fall of Jerusalem, and especially if the author was like the ‘lying Christians’ that many skeptics allege ran the scene, there would have been every incentive to have pointed to this fall of Jerusalem.
Despite this, Tatian creates a harmony about 160-175 AD of the four Gospels which is silent on that point. There seems to be no sign of tampering.
Pre-70 AD authorship of Matthew and the whole NT
It begins to come clear that the best explanation for this silence in the face of what should have been overwhelming pressure to make mention is that, in fact, the Gospel of Matthew was composed prior to 70 AD. We even begin seeing the outlines of the argument that it follows then that Matthew was probably written exactly by whom has been traditionally ascribed as writing it- Matthew. And the outline takes shape, then, that there is good reason to suppose that it was written by an eyewitness, after all.
Above all, the legend hypothesis suffers a huge blow if it has only thirty years in which to spin its wheels. Maybe there are ‘pagan parallels’ in Christianity, but if in fact the historical evidence is that the Christian account actually happened, the significance of those parallels changes dramatically. At the least we can say with reasonable confidence that these parallels were not wrapped into a package over the course of 400 years but in fact emerged from the fiercely monotheistic- violently so- Jewish community… the community that really was the least likely to entertain the notion that a man could be God and that God could die… and rise again.
(incidentally, none of the New Testament documents reference the fall of Jerusalem. Matthew had the best reason to mention it, followed by the author of Acts. This is a compelling reason to date the entirety of the NT to pre-70 AD).
This Easter, don’t let the multitude of conspiracy theories accepted uncritically by skeptics everywhere take away the significance of the fact that Christianity is rooted in a historical context. It rises and falls on whether the resurrection is an actual event in history- not a mere article of faith, mind you- an actual event in history. There are in fact good reasons to believe it actually happened. As I hope this essay has made clear, one of the primary attacks on the historicity of the resurrection, the ‘legend’ or ‘myth’ arguments, require a fair bit of time to develop to be plausible. The Diatessaron itself allows no more than a hundred and fifty years or so, which in itself is pushing it. But if in fact there is only 30ish years, it is completely untenable. It is to you to decide.