Well, I think we can pack up this Christian thing and take the rest of the day off. That’s if what Charles Freeman writes in A New History of Early Christianity can be believed.
Freeman’s book (2009) received only a brief review from First Things. For reasons that escape me entirely, the First Things editors apparently decided that the end of Christianity as we know it wasn’t worth a lengthier review. Had they or, shoot, just anybody else paid more attention to the book I might have deliberately tracked it down sooner instead of simply stumbling over it accidentally at the library. I do so enjoy a good argument against the resurrection of Christ, but this isn’t one of them.
In a peculiar twist on the-body-was-stolen gambit (distinct from Jesus-swooned-and-revived-in-the-tomb-but-died-later gambit), Freeman proposes the new high-priest-Caiaphas-had-the-body-removed gambit. Caiaphas faked the resurrection and, using stand-ins for angels, tried to direct the disciples to Galilee away from Jerusalem. It was all just an elaborate effort to get the residual troublemakers out of town and prevent further bloodshed.
If I understand Freeman, Jesus seriously miscalculated the outcome of his confrontation with the Jewish temple establishment and, as we know, ended up arrested and dead on a trumped-up political charge. That, declares Freeman, wasn’t the plan. The plan, according to his “meticulous historical account” (as someone called it), was for Caiaphas and the temple leadership graciously to step aside so the reign of God could arrive unimpeded. (I may have simplified matters a little.)
Anyway, Caiaphas (being no dummy) understood that even a dead Jesus was capable of creating mischief. His agitated followers required attention. So it is Caiaphas, who engineered the crucifixion, who engineers a “resurrection.”
First, fearing continued disorder, Caiaphas secured a tomb with guards so it wouldn’t become a pilgrimage site. Next, he removed the body, bribing the guards to say the disciples stole it if anybody asked. Then Caiaphas planted a “young man” or “young men” to confront the women or anybody else who came by. Frequently interpreted as an angel, the stranger in the tomb was very likely a junior temple priest, dazzling in the white linen robe junior priests wore. (Why anyone wouldn’t recognize a junior priest by his uniform is unsaid.)
They were to tell the women to tell the disciples that Jesus was raised and he would go ahead of them and meet them in Galilee. From this ruse the disciples—gullible as they were, really just a bunch of Galilean hillbillies—were expected to skedaddle to the hill country seeking their elusive Lord, now gone and soon to be forgotten in Jerusalem.
“Once they were there [in Galilee],” Freeman writes, “it can hardly have mattered to Caiaphas what they believed about Jesus.” Point being, they wouldn’t be in Jerusalem stirring up trouble. Caiaphas’ reputation with the Romans for keeping order would be intact and there would be no need for further brutality. With the disciples schlepping aimlessly all over Galilee, Jerusalem could get back to normal. What in fact happened to the body was irrelevant: stolen or mislaid, it didn’t matter, so long as everyone was looking in Galilee, and not in Jerusalem pestering the good folks at the temple.
Like any number of contemporary academics, Freeman tells us there is actually very little we can know about Jesus because the facts are limited.The facts are limited because the sources are so poor. The gospel accounts, we are told, really aren’t very reliable. They were written late and by then most of the eyewitnesses were dead, and even if some of what an eyewitness saw and heard firsthand did get reported, contemporary studies show that eyewitness testimony is iffy on details under even the best of circumstances and besides, as everyone knows, memory fades over time or conversely, becomes more elaborate than actual history.
Nonetheless, like others, Freeman enthusiastically fabricates a Jesus suited to his tastes. In this case it is a Jesus who must thank Caiaphas for getting himself “resurrected.” Despite his low view of scriptural accuracy, Freeman naturally cherry-picks the scriptural passages he does like (including one or two from the Gnostic Gospel of Peter), sketchy verses that seemingly lend support to his case. Charles Freeman is, in short, a selective biblical literalist.
What about the times the disciples did see the Lord in Jerusalem? We can ignore them. Those encounters weren’t real. They were the result of the disciples’ “complete emotional exhaustion.” Trauma and sleep deprivation can account for their loss of reality—Freeman has studies proving it—and even the experience of hallucinations. Bet Caiaphas didn’t count on that, did he?
Whatever happened, Freeman reluctantly concedes “it can be said with relative confidence that a self-defined community of men and women, many from Galilee, who preserved the memory of Jesus, emerged in Jerusalem.” He says it, but you can tell he doesn’t like it.
Russell E. Saltzman is dean of the Great Plains Mission District of the North American Lutheran Church, assistant pastor of St. Matthew's Church in Riverside, Missouri, and an online homilist for the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary. His book Speaking of the Dead is nearing completion. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.