Bart Ehrman says ‘If you want to make up a story about the Messiah, will you make up the story that he got squashed by the enemy and got crucified, the lowest form of execution in the empire? No! If you’re going to make up a story about the Messiah, you’d make up that he actually overthrew the Romans and he’s the King in Jerusalem now…Why didn’t [early Christians] make up that story? Because everybody knew Jesus was crucified…this is why Christians had the hardest time convincing people that Jesus was the Messiah.’
It must be true because nobody would make it up….. (Cited from a recent Carr comment)
What pathetic drivel is capable of coming from the pens of some biblical scholars! This is a rhetorical question that is advanced as a substitute for an argument. There is no argument. The evidence actually belies the very assumptions upon which the rhetorical question is grounded. Philosopher Daniel Dennett’s advice for his own students needs to be fed into the screen savers and wallpapers of the computers of every biblical scholar inclined to avoid intellectual rigour and honesty by regurgitating this specious challenge fit only for childish ‘gotcha’ word games. The level of reasoning is what one would expect from the grab-bag of tract-FAQs handed out by door-to-door preachers. Dennett wrote of argument by means of rhetorical question:
I advise my philosophy students to develop hypersensitivity for rhetorical questions in philosophy. They paper over whatever cracks there are in the arguments.
Of course the scholars who advance this rhetorical question — presumably because they are at some level attempting to hide or deny to themselves the fact that they have no substantial evidence at all on which to base their entire historical Jesus inquiries — know very well all about the popularity of paradoxes, ironic reversals, the overturning of expectations in the philosophical, religious and popular literary thought of the day.
Even in Jewish Second Temple thought there were those who believed that the blood of a mortal martyr could atone for the sins of the Jewish nation, that God could and did work victory through weakness and worldly loss.
But the rhetorical question also completely mis-states the nature of the Gospel story. The Gospel story is NOT about a loser-messiah as the question implies. It is about a classic victory of even greater magnitude than is visible to most onlookers. It is the victory imagined by the losers — ah hah — they really won but in secret. In heaven. Spiritually. And though the world does not yet see that Satan has been defeated, the fact that this demon world has been conquered in some sense will be demonstrated in a future apocalyptic day of vengeance, or simply when they all burn in hell.
To suggest that such a messiah concept was somehow supposed to be incomprehensible and impossible to imagine mythically is to walk intellectually naked while pretending to be garlanded with roses of rationality.
I would turn the rhetorical question around and say:
If you want to make up a story about the Messiah, will you make up the story that he smashed the Romans even though in real life everyone knew it was the Romans who smashed them? No! If you’re going to make up a story about the Messiah, you’d make up that he actually overthrew the heavenly powers greater than the Romans, and by extension the Romans in the day of judgment to come. You’d draw on the common wisdom of the day that the real conquerors, those greater than worldly conquerors, are those who conquer themselves by denying their fleshly impulses and vain thought. You’d make your messiah greater than the earthly kingdom-conquering Davidic messiah.… Why did early Christians make up that story? Because many knew it was a story that a defeated and conquered people could relate to, and feel defiantly proud of. Many others saw it for what it was: a cop-out for losers. But over time and for reasons well understood and in the record, it became the dominant narrative.
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