Philosophy Magazine

Could Jesus’ Resurrection Have Been a Cunning Lie?

By Stuart_gray @stuartg__uk

Could Jesus’ Resurrection Have Been a Cunning Lie?

Is it possible that the event which launched Christianity in the first century, the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, was actually an elaborate lie staged by one man? A lie that influenced countless people down through the centuries? After Jesus’ crucifixion, did the disciple Peter simply invent a story about seeing the risen Christ? And did this lie result in the fabricated reports of the resurrection that appeared in the writings of Paul (e.g. 1 Corinthians 15) and the later gospels?

That’s the foundational claim of the book “The Christianity Myth,” which seeks to reframe first century Christian history in the light of a simple but highly influential fabrication. The author, Ken Thackery, assumes a fundamental difference exists between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith. Historically, Ken says Jesus existed, but the Christ preached by the church has always been a fabrication. Ken says “obviously this historical Jesus wasn’t resurrected in Jerusalem after his crucifixion…the New Testament evidence is therefore based entirely on Peter’s uncorroborated & unverified claims, the veracity of which has never been independently established.”[1]

This idea cuts to the heart of the matter for the Christian apologist. Often, when someone seeks to prove Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, one of the main lines of evidence are the New Testament writings themselves. Yet Ken says we must throw them all out, because they are clearly infected by this fabricated idea – the resurrection of Jesus.

1 – Some Questions

Clearly, Ken’s ideas raise lots of questions. For example, if the early Christian experiences reported in the New Testament are based on fabrications, why would people believe a lie that Peter allegedly told about Jesus’ resurrection in the first place? Particularly since this resurrection idea would have been alien to ancient Judaism, so why would it have been compelling to Jewish people if there was no evidence for it? Also, why were these lies about Jesus’ supposed resurrection so carefully documented anyway?

Here’s a bigger question.

If Jesus was not raised from the dead, why would Peter put himself in danger by claiming that he was? Jerusalem was not a safe place for the friends of Jesus after his crucifixion. If the authorities had executed their leader, they would pursue any Jesus follower who decided to continue Jesus’ mission. We actually have evidence from the historian Josephus that this happened to other Jewish Messiah candidates. How interesting though, that in the case of Jesus of Nazareth, the executed Messiah’s mission continued and spread despite the danger facing anyone who publicly proclaimed Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. But if Ken is right that Christianity is built on a lie, why would anyone want to put themselves in harm’s way by doing that?

Of course Ken’s answer is, they didn’t. This is all just a story, fabricated to give later Christian converts a plausible grounding for their Christian faith. He says, “converts would eventually want to know more about Jesus’ life before his crucifixion, and it was this growing need to know more about Jesus, that eventually triggered the appearance of many gospels. These gospels, all appearing after the death of all concerned were just local attempts to provide Jesus’ missing biographical details for the benefit of their pagan converts.”[2] Ken would probably go on to say no one in first century Jerusalem believed in Jesus’ resurrection, it was all made up many years later for an eager audience.

Well – then I would ask, what do we do with the first and second century evidence that supports the claim that the disciple Peter did not just put himself in harm’s way after Jesus’ crucifixion, he was willing to suffer and die for his first-hand personal witness of the physically risen Jesus? And – what do we make of the evidence that he was actually martyred in Rome for doing so?

What I’m saying is this. You could understand other people giving their lives for something they only thought was true. But Ken says Peter knew Jesus resurrection was false. If Peter was the only one who genuinely knew that Jesus’ resurrection was a lie, then why would he personally put himself through danger, suffering, and death for his own lie?

Now – Ken doesn’t think Peter was martyred. He says, “The actual facts of the apostles is unknown and Peter’s alleged death in Rome is not backed up by reliable evidence.”[3] If Peter wasn’t martyred, then we can’t point to his willingness to die as confirmation that Jesus was raised from the dead.

But hang on. Is Ken right? Let’s test his claim that we cannot know with certainty that Peter was martyred for his Christian beliefs.

2 – Evidence for the Martyrdom of the Apostle Peter

The traditional understanding of Peter’s fate is that he was martyred in Rome under Nero’s reign in AD 64 – 67. How strong is the evidence for this traditional understanding? It turns out that there are many sources that support this idea from the first and second century. This is important because these sources were written “in living memory” of Peter.

In his doctoral dissertation, Sean McDowell examines the literary evidence from antiquity that supports the martyrdom of Peter.[4]

First – the New Testament itself. In John 21:18-19, Jesus cryptically predicts Peter’s execution, though no details are given. 2 Peter 1:12-15 records Peter writing from Rome in the knowledge that his death is imminent.

Second – 1 Clement 5:1-4. Written in the first century, this is believed to come from the church leader in Rome and written to the church in Corinth. Clement assumes Peter’s martyrdom in Rome around AD60 as common knowledge. “This is Peter, who … bore up under hardships not just once or twice, but many times; and having thus borne his witness he went to the place of glory that he deserved.”[5] Skeptical scholar Bart Ehrman says, “By the end of the first century and into the second it was widely known among Christians that Peter had suffered a martyr’s death. The tradition is alluded to in the book of 1 Clement.”[6] McDowell says, “at the very least, this passage provides evidence that Peter and Paul were considered examples of faithful endurance for the Gospel, even in the midst of suffering, until their deaths.”[7]

Third – the writings of Ignatius, a Christian leader from the second century who was also martyred. Two writings are important:

  • Letter to the Romans 4:3 – Ignatius faces his impending martyrdom, and he seems to assume both Peter and the apostle Paul were also martyred before him.
  • Letter to the Smyrneans 3:1-2 – this letter presupposes the martyrdom of many of the apostles, including Peter.

Fourth – The Apocalypse of Peter. This is a work attributed to Peter, but the real author is unknown (it is a pseudepigraphal work). Yet it is dated to the first half of the second century and is thought to be built around a historical core of data, providing “early attestation for the martyrdom of Peter in Rome under Nero.”[8]

Fifth – The Ascension of Isaiah. Like the Apocalypse of Peter, this is a pseudepigraphal work dated early in the second century. It refers to an apostle who fell into Nero’s hands and, since it was written in living memory of Peter, the readers would know who was being referred to here. While it doesn’t explicitly state Peter was martyred, it implies it happened in Rome.

Sixth – The Acts of Peter. Dated toward the end of the second century, this work contains legendary material, a historical novel. Yet scholars note that the authors did not just make material up. Rather, they were bound by received tradition and memory of events, including the martyrdom of Peter.

Seventh – The Apocryphon of James. This pseudonymous text is dated to before AD314, and it shows that “by the end of the second century at the earliest, the crucifixion of Peter was assumed by both Orthodox and Gnostic circles alike.” [9]

Eighth – Dionysius of Corinth. This was a pastoral letter written around AD170 to encourage the Corinthian church. He mentions the martyrdoms of both Peter and Paul, and the historian Eusebius uses Dionysius’ work as confirmation that both apostles died under the reign of Nero.

Ninth – Irenaeus, Against Heresies. Written at the end of the second century to challenge Gnosticism, he references the deaths of Peter and Paul in Rome. The tradition of their martyrdoms was strong, and so in this text, a reference is clearly being made to it.

Tenth – Tertullian, Scorpiace 15, written in AD208 (early third century). He is confident in Peter’s martyrdom in Rome, and encourages the reader to check the archives of the empire if they doubt this fact.

On top of the surviving texts attesting to Peter’s martyrdom, crucially there is no competing narrative from antiquity that presents a different explanation for Peter’s fate.

3 – Conclusion

There is therefore firm historical support for the Christian martyrdom of the apostle Peter from many different sources. And this makes Peter’s martyrdom as firm an event as any from antiquity. Unless we are to believe that not only is the New Testament fabricated, but all of this historical record as well. But this strains incredulity, I think.

So – the question remains. If Ken is right and Christianity is built on a lie, why would Peter choose to die for his own lie?

Here’s another possible interpretation of the historical record.

Jesus’ resurrection is not a lie. It is an event from history. God did raise Jesus supernaturally from the dead, and this event contributed to the changing of Peter and the other apostles from frightened defeated followers into brave and confident proclaimers of the resurrected Christ. This put them on a direct collision course with the same authorities who executed Jesus. Yet they were willing to put their lives on the line in spite of this danger. They were willing to “suffer and die for their first-hand witness of the risen Jesus – this is of foremost importance. The evidence shows that some really died as martyrs, and that none recanted.”[10]

[1] Ken Thackery, The Christianity Myth,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Sean McDowell, The Fate of the Apostles Examining the Martyrdom Accounts of the Closest Followers of Jesus, (London: Routledge, 2015), 55 – 92.

[5] 1 Clement 5:4.

[6] Ehrman, Peter, Paul and Mary, quoted in McDowell, The Fate of the Apostles.

[7] McDowell, 73.

[8] Ibid., 78.

[9] Ibid., 87.

[10] Ibid., 259.

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