The Great Hippopotamus Invasion of 1840

20 Nov

Who Wrote the Gospels, and Why?


I was inspired to write this post by a brief exchange on Twitter. As a platform it can be very positive and funny, and it’s stuffed full of writers encouraging and commiserating with each other, but it’s not always like that. There are also people (or bots) who are angry, nasty or crazy. But enough about Donald Trump…

Apropos of the Greggs sausage roll controversy, there was a wee discussion of the historicity of Jesus, and someone commented that he isn’t mentioned in any Roman sources. That’s not true, of course, so, thinking I would simply be offering an interesting bit of factual knowledge, I pointed out a couple of Roman sources that do mention Jesus. The reply came back that these sources (one of them the major source for early imperial Rome) were obviously “fakes”.

There’s no point in trying to have a rational discussion about ancient history with someone who thinks ancient history is falsified, so I just let that one drop. But what surprises me is the number of non-conspiracy theorists who don’t believe that Jesus existed. We have four biographies (that’s the Gospels, to you) ostensibly written by eyewitnesses or based on eyewitness testimony, lots of mentions in letters by Christians from the mid-first century onwards, plus a smattering of mentions in Roman sources.

Of course, you could argue that these are all fakes, that they were either written much later and presented as contemporary sources, or that extra bits were slipped into Roman sources by naughty medieval scribes. I’m not going to get into the historiographical arguments about whether the sources are reliable or contemporary, or this post would end up being the length of a book, and plenty of good books have already been written on the subject. (You could try The Case for Christ, for example. The author has a bit of an obsession with what his interview subjects are wearing, but otherwise it’s pretty good.)

No, what I want to rant (sorry, write) about is the logical side of things. During my degree in Ancient History I also studied a lot of Philosophy, which means that I tend to find myself questioning whether arguments are sound, and the argument that the Gospels were forged centuries later strikes me as very circular.

The theory goes that Christians forged these “eyewitness” documents in (let’s say) the third century AD. (You can’t really push it any later than that without running into far too many references to Christianity, including the Roman Emperor becoming a Christian.) Gullible people believed them, and a religion was born, despite the fact that Jesus may never have lived. The question is, why would someone make up not only hugely detailed stories about a shadowy figure they knew nothing about, and be prepared to be punished for following their new religion, but also claim that there were thousands of other followers of this brand spanking new religion all around the Mediterranean, where their forgeries would be read? What possible motive could they have to do something so rash?

The answer is “because they were Christians, of course”. But that doesn’t help. If Christians are people who believe that Jesus Christ is God, and died to save mankind from their sins, then these forgers are, by definition, not Christians. They are the opposite – people who know for a fact that the claims of Christianity are not true, because they made them up.

So why would they do it? For the fame? Hardly; if the Gospels weren’t written by the people whose names were on them, then we still don’t know who wrote them. For the money? Nope – these documents were spread around like the common cold, not sold to the highest bidder. For larks? Well only if your larks include living a strict moral life and potentially being thrown to the lions (or at least duping other people into doing those things).

Let’s make up an analogous fictional situation. In philosophy this is called a thought experiment. It’s less exciting than a scientific experiment, but it’s also cheaper, and there’s a lower risk of explosion.

Let’s say that I set out today to fake eyewitness accounts of the Great Hippopotamus Invasion of 1840. I’ve decided to fabricate eyewitness accounts of the time that 5,000 talking hippoptami invaded Birmingham and denuded the city’s ponds of all their carp. The king was summoned from London and managed to save the city by promising an offering of carp every week to the hippo overlords.* I’m going to say that thousands of people now observe the weekly carp-sacrificing ceremony. I’d probably have to get a couple of friends on board too, to write other “eyewitness” accounts, unless I was extremely skilled at mimicking different writing styles.

But I’m not going to do that, am I? Because that would be daft. I have no reason to invent the Great Hippo Invasion, and, once the RSPCA and Birmingham City Council get involved, plenty of reason not to. I don’t think I could persuade any of my friends to join in either – maybe if it was a fun hoax and there would be a big reveal, but not in order to get generations of people to devote their lives to appeasing talking river horses by killing ornamental fish. And no one would believe it. I mean, do you believe it?**

According to the theory about the faked Gospels, my motive would be that I and my friends are hippoptamists, these deluded fools who go around sacrificing carp. But there aren’t any hippopotamists. Have you ever met one? No, because I just made them up. But that’s presented as a real motive for why Christians would want to invent accounts of Jesus’ life.

Now, if you still wanted to stick to the line that the Gospels were faked, you could argue that the (let’s say) third century authors who wrote them were Christians, and were trying to provide (fake) written evidence for things they’d only heard orally, but believed. That makes more sense, but then you’re accepting that there was a surviving oral tradition about the life of Jesus passed down in an existing Christian community – which still constitutes historical evidence for Jesus. And then you’re back to the same basic problem – how do fake (oral) accounts about Jesus arise without a Jesus for them to be based on? – just pushed back a bit closer to the time, so it would be even harder for false stories to be believed, even if anyone had a motive to make them up, which they didn’t.

I’m not presenting Anselm’s Proof here, and I’m not even going to go into the question of the miracles and Jesus’ divinity (again, that would turn into a book). I’m just trying to show that dismissing the existence of a well-attested historical figure on the basis of the argument:

Christians invented Christianity because they were Christians

is silly. So please don’t.


*Yes, it was a queen and not a king on the throne in 1840. But why bother about historical accuracy when you’re inventing 5,000 talking hippos?

** If I set up a Wikipedia page about it I suppose a few people might believe it. But then, some people believe that Finland is a Japanese conspiracy, apparently.


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