Why I Know the Disciples Didn’t Conspire to Fabricate the Resurrection of Jesus

How do we know the resurrection of Jesus really occurred? Were the gospel authors and disciples telling the truth about this central claim of Christianity, or did they conspire to fabricate the most compelling story of all time? Is the Resurrection simply a lie? In my experience as a detective, I have investigated many conspiracies and multiple suspect crimes. While successful conspiracies are the popular subject of many movies and novels, I’ve come to learn that they are (in reality) very difficult to pull off. Successful conspiracies share a number of common characteristics:

A Small Number of Conspirators
The smaller the number of conspirators, the more likely the conspiracy will be a success. This is easy to understand; lies are difficult to maintain, and the fewer the number of people who have to continue the lie, the better.

Thorough and Immediate Communication
This is key. When conspirators are unable to determine if their partners in crime have already given up the truth, they are far more likely to say something in an effort to save themselves from punishment. Without adequate and immediate communication, coconspirators simply cannot separate lies from the truth; they are easily deceived by investigators who can pit one conspirator against another.

A Short Time Span
Lies are hard enough to tell once; they are even more difficult to repeat consistently over a long period of time. For this reason, the shorter the conspiracy, the better. The ideal conspiracy would involve only two conspirators, and one of the conspirators would kill the other right after the crime. That’s a conspiracy that would be awfully hard to break!

Significant Relational Connections
When all the coconspirators are connected relationally in deep and meaningful ways, it’s much harder to convince one of them to “give up” the other. When all the conspirators are family members, for example, this task is nearly impossible. The greater the relational bond between all the conspirators, the greater the possibility of success.

Little or No Pressure
Few suspects confess to the truth until they recognize the jeopardy of failing to do so. Unless pressured to confess, conspirators will continue lying. Pressure does not have to be physical in nature. When suspects fear incarceration or condemnation from their peers, they often respond in an effort to save face or save their own skin. This is multiplied as the number of coconspirators increases. The greater the pressure on coconspirators, the more likely the conspiracy is to fail.

The number of conspirators required to successfully accomplish the Christian conspiracy would have been staggering. The book of Acts tells us that there were as many as 120 eyewitnesses in the upper room following Jesus’s ascension (Acts 1:15). Let’s assume for a minute that this number is a gross exaggeration; let’s work with a much smaller number to illustrate our point. Let’s limit our discussion to the twelve apostles (adding Matthias as Judas’s replacement). Even with this much smaller number, it’s unreasonable to believe the disciples conspired to lie about the Resurrection for the following reasons:

There would have been too many apostles involved in the conspiracy.

The apostles had little or no effective way to communicate with one another in a quick or thorough manner.

The apostles would have been required to protect their conspiratorial lies for too long a period of time.

While there were certainly pairs of family members in the group of apostolic eyewitnesses, many had no relationship to each other at all.

The apostles were aggressively persecuted as they were scattered from Italy to India.

Don’t get me wrong, successful conspiracies occur every day. But they typically involve a small number of incredibly close-knit participants who are in constant contact with one another for a very short period of time without any outside pressure. That wasn’t the case for the disciples. These men and women were either involved in the greatest conspiracy of all time or were simply eyewitnesses who were telling the truth. The latter is by far the most reasonable conclusion. As I said in my scene in God’s Not Dead 2, “There are several common characteristics of successful conspiracies, and I don’t find any of these attributes were present in the first century for those who claimed to be witnesses of Jesus life, ministry, and resurrection.” This article is an excerpt from my book, Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. For more information, please refer to Chapter 7: Resist Conspiracy Theories.

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, a Christian Case Maker, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity and God’s Crime Scene.

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29 replies
  1. Tom Rafferty says:

    With the length of time between the supposed Jesus and the writings about him, and with all the differences in the accounts, if it wasn’t for your confirmation biases, you would blow the NT off as sloppy fiction.

    Reply
    • Beck says:

      “Supposed Jesus” ,”difference in the accounts”, “confirmation bias”…do you even know what you’re talking about? To me it sounds like you’re just repeating the same garbage you’ve always heard that agrees with what you want to believe in the first place.

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      • David says:

        Beck, you do the same thing and the same garbage you’ve always heard that agrees with what you want to believe is called “apologetics”.

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        • Beck says:

          Unless you’re putting factsbehind what Tom said I have no clue why you’re responding to what I said to allowTom to reflect on his baseless claims.

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          • David says:

            I need facts Beck? Perhaps you could point me to the facts you presented to refute what Tom said. I don’t see any in your post. Is, “do you even know what you’re talking about?” one of the facts you presented? Please refute Tom for us Beck.

          • Beck says:

            I find it odd that you seem so worked up over my comment to someone else, but whatever.
            For the “Supposed Jesus” comment look no further than Bart Ehrman, eve ln he will tell you only the most extreme scholars claim Jesus never existed.
            As for the “confirmation bias” comment that is such an ignorant comment considering his biography.

  2. Howard Pepper says:

    Perhaps the “conspiracy to lie” idea is one that a few people might be concerned about. I read a lot of “higher critical” NT scholars and I can’t recall any contemporary ones that subscribe to it, however.

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say you’re knocking down a straw man argument but the article does sound to me like a perspective that is not from a sophisticated understanding. That is, of either the content of the NT or of more likely explanations of reports of resurrection “appearances”. Some (including my own) take them seriously as experiences but don’t require a forced attempt to take the variety (and conflictual nature) of them all literally.

    Further, even if appearances were literal and “bodily” – to multiple (even many) witnesses, the implications are limited. It does little to solve the many complex questions of earliest Christianity, such as the strong competition and significant criticism my Paul of the Jerusalem leaders and the mystifying final visit of Paul to Jerusalem and how he was dealt with by James and the others there… a major subject in itself. It is one of many “data points” showing that whatever Jesus may have revealed after his death to believers in Jerusalem (or Galilee!) or to Paul a few years later, they didn’t all seem to get the same message!

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    • Joe says:

      Jesus clearly use unlearned men to deliver His message “Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
      ‭‭I Corinthians‬ ‭1:20-25‬ ‭NKJV‬‬ I rather be a fool for Christ any day of the week than over thinking if He is real or even exist. Why don’t you ask Him to make Himself real to you! You got nothing to lose

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    • David says:

      Robert Price is a pretty scholarly person that thinks it is possible that Jesus did not exist. That he could have been just an amalgam of stories, persons, folklore, etc. That doesn’t prove anything but I would bet there are a number of liberal scholars that believe the same. It’s obviously an idea that is not terribly mainstream but most of Christian apologetics isn’t considered mainstream either so why rule it out without consideration?

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      • Kevin Haug says:

        Thank you, David, but not to belabor the point. I asked for an ancient history scholar, not a theologian. I have read many, many theologians who come up with all sorts of fascinating ideas. Dr. Price is in the same vein as Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg. None are historians. Can you please cite an ancient historian?

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        • Andy Ryan says:

          Kevin, doesn’t Richard Carrier himself qualify? He’s perhaps the most famous of the ‘mythicist’ proponents, and he has a doctorate in ancient history from Columbia University.

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          • Kevin Haug says:

            Thanks Andy. I didn’t know about Richard, but from a cursory glance, I do find it interesting that he states that his hypothesis has not yet withstood rigorous peer review–yet. It will be worthwhile to see what comes of that especially since he is an outlier.

      • Ramsin says:

        It is so interesting people like you accept a theory or preposition because so and so said it, yet the Bible with such a clear and astonishing history in comparison to the total length or life time of those pretty scholar of yours seems falling short. 🙂

        The Bible addresses your condition in one verse and that is Jeremiah 5:21

        Reply
  3. David says:

    Mr. Warner, “know” is a pretty strong word to use for an event that supposedly happened almost 2,000 years ago. Wouldn’t it be more honest to say, “why I believe strongly” that the disciplines didn’t conspire to fabricate the resurrection of Jesus? Seems to me the only way to “know” would be for you to have seen the resurrected Christ yourself. Or maybe see a video of the resurrection. You’re not claiming that you have are you? I guess you could, Paul did, to bolster his claim to be an apostle. When you use the word “know” it makes your article seem even more like pure apologetic spin. Doesn’t sound very scholarly. Sounds pretty arrogant to me.

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    • Saro says:

      To know something is the first person account of an experience. You know gravity will hold your feet to the floor, but I know beyond that simple feeling of what I’m experiencing, that The Lord GOD has me in the palm of His hand. The same can be said for everyone who reads this! We are all His children, and should give glory and praise and honor to Him!

      Reply
  4. toby says:

    Suppose you’re a lawyer in a court room hearing about a cold case and you hear this evidence presented:

    Detective: Here is the written eyewitness account of the murder of Woodrow Woodpecker. He was dragged behind a lawnmower, then beaten to death with a fly swatter. Popeye was there and said, “Well swab my deck!” Goofy said, “Gorsh.” Woodrow’s body was never recovered. An additional 120 people witnessed this event.

    Lawyer: May I see that document? (examines it) Detective, this case is 100 years old are any of these people still alive to verify this?

    Detective: No.

    Lawyer: When was this written?

    Detective: Soon after the events.

    Lawyer: Yes, but when?

    Detective: I don’t know.

    Lawyer: Who wrote this?

    Detective: I don’t know.

    Lawyer: Do you have the names of any of these 120 other witnesses?

    Detective: No.

    Lawyer: So you have presented us with a document of indeterminate age, you don’t know who wrote it, you don’t have any physical evidence of Woodrow’s existence or the death described here, you have no direct account from Popeye or Goofy or even know if they existed . . . what evidence do you have?

    Detective: I have a gut feeling.

    Lawyer: You’re a poor detective. Your “evidence” is hearsay junk. Move to dismiss this case.

    Judge: Case dismissed.

    Reply
    • Kevin Haug says:

      Actually, it’s not quite that cut and dried. Please apply this scenario to the life of Alexander the Great as well and see who has better attestation regarding their life–Jesus or Alexander.

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      • Andy Ryan says:

        What if we just concede that perhaps it’s hard to establish hard facts about the life of Alexander the Great? It IS a matter of historical controversy. Where do we stand then? No-one’s claiming that we know enough about Alexander to establish the existence of a deity on the back of it. This doesn’t help is establishing what facts we have, if any, about the life of Jesus.

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        • Kevin Haug says:

          Bingo. You are correct in your assessment that establishing such absolute facts are difficult when it comes to all of ancient history. What must be assessed is the reliability and credibility of the sources. That is where the fun begins. 🙂

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      • TGM says:

        It’s also worth noting that there is very little riding on the existence of Alexander, or, in the facts surrounding his life. Scholars debate his accomplishments, but nobody today is producing legislation or proselytizing based on 2500 year old Macedonian biography.

        We have the Principia, Socratic Method, and the Constitution – we can put these to good use without knowing a thing about their creators. But where is Christianity and the Bible without Jesus?

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        • Kevin Haug says:

          You are very accurate in that statement about where is Christianity without Jesus. It’s nowhere, but pushed even further, you have to ask why in the world Jesus even became important. Why is it that folks even bothered to write about him and tell of him? The only real contribution Jesus made to ethics was to declare one’s neighbor to be all people and not just one’s tribe and the love and care for even enemies. The rest is simply rehashing what was already included in the Torah. The argument Christian apologists have made throughout the centuries–beginning with Paul’s letters is that Christianity hinges upon the resurrection.

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          • TGM says:

            “you have to ask why in the world Jesus even became important. Why is it that folks even bothered to write about him and tell of him?”

            This is a fine academic question, but not one that should in itself imply that there is truth to the claims surrounding him. Quite the contrary, as legend often pursues the famous. Consider the widely believed false myth attached to George Washington that “I cannot tell a lie, I did it with my little hatchet.”

            But to address the question anyway, it is human nature to be attracted to people and ideas, particularly when offered a Utopian promise. Among the many, besides Jesus, who have attracted followers for this reason and have also been written about extensively… Vladmir Lenin, Marshall Applewhite, Muhammad, William Wallace, L. Ron Hubbard, Jim Jones, and many, many, many more. Look no further than the current American political process to watch endless, foolish promises to reclaim the American Utopia – yet those political figures attract millions.

            The problem with each of these examples is that either their stories are embellished, their beliefs false, or both. There is simply nothing unique about Jesus, in light of these other examples. Maybe Jesus had a better PR firm than most on that list, but there are about as many communists or Muslims today as there are Christians. And we know where Lenin and Muhammad were buried.

          • Kevin Haug says:

            In all, I agree with much of what you said, however, there is one major problem that your response entails, and that is the problem of the cross.

            Every other Messianic figure that came out of ancient Judaism had his following vanish once he either died or was put to death. Didn’t happen to Jesus, and it would have, given the historical circumstances.

            The cross also puts a damper on any sort of Utopian vision. The ancient Jews had plenty of utopian visions surrounding the concept of Messiah, but none of them involved the Messiah’s death. All of them involved the restoration of Israel to world prominence. By all accounts, when Jesus didn’t establish all of these things, the movement should have died out. Should have. But it didn’t.

            The movement actually took off after his death. Which is quite surprising. Something must account for that.

      • David says:

        Kevin, do you suppose that the writings of Christian apologists have withstood the rigors of peer review? I guess if you consider Turek reviewing Copan or Habermas reviewing Licona rigorous they have. I find it very refreshing that Carrier would admit that his hypothesis has not yet withstood rigorous peer review. What an honest guy. Never heard J. Warner admit the same. You are mistaken if you don’t view the average Christian apologist as an outlier. And by the way, they are all essentially one and the same. They all basically share the same arguments.

        Reply
        • Kevin Haug says:

          Carrier’s admission is indeed a refreshing bit in a climate full of hubris. Humility tends to be extremely lacking in such discourse–especially from my own tribe of Christianity. The interesting thing about apologetics as a rule is that it is an ever changing field given that it responds to the inquiries of the day. Hence, the apologetics of Thomas Aquinas differ greatly from the apologetics of Pascal which differ greatly from the apologetics of C.S. Lewis which differ greatly from the apologetics of John Lennox (and Copan and Habermas and Licona). There is a common thread which runs through all of these apologists and others, and I would point out the historical staying power of that thread as evidence of rigorous peer review. However, I will admit that there are several things that have stuck around which were given by apologists which should have gone by the wayside among them being the inerrancy of Scripture. That was a foolhardy response to the rise of the Enlightenment; a response no longer needed given what we now know about the nature and philosophy of science and reason.

          Reply
          • David says:

            Kevin, I don’t agree with your conclusions but I like your style. At least you seem to hold your truth propositionally and not dogmatically. A rare trait among believers and skeptics alike. Kudos!

  5. barry jones says:

    You don’t need a conspiracy to explain the resurrection of Jesus. All you need is one of the major witnesses to it (Paul) evincing a desire to lie about his true beliefs merely to gain converts:

    20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law;
    21 to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law.
    (1Co 9:20-21 NAU)

    The ability of first century people to conspire and successfully convince tens of thousands of mostly illiterate Christians to strongly believe false rumors about the apostles, is graphically demonstrated in Acts 21:18-24, where the tens of thousands in James’ congregation (v. 20, Greek: myriad) so strongly believe the false rumor of Paul relaxing circumcision law, that James thinks the only way to dissuade them is for Paul to foot the bill for a few guys doing a Nazirite vow. Acts 21 shoots out of the sky any apologetics argument advanced to justify general trust in the historical accuracy of the NT. I have no comment on whether Acts 21 is historically accurate, I simply show was logically results if you approach it with the spirit of trust that most Christians approach it with.

    First, the fact that the rumor spread like wildfire in the Jerusalem church despite James being the head of that particular faction, is a major blow to apologetics: just because truth was available and perhaps even known to the first century church, does not argue that they surely accepted it.

    Second, somebody may try to get rid of this argument by saying the rumor of Paul relaxing circumcision was true, citing Paul’s unqualified condemnation of circumcision (Galatians 5:1-4) his equation of his own circumcision and other beneficial traits of his Jewish life with garbage (Philippians 3:8, Greek: skubalon; rubbish, waste, garbage) and Paul’s demand that uncircumcised men continue uncircumcised after getting saved (1st Corinthians 7:20) While this theory is likely correct, it is not available to ‘inerrantists’, since James makes very clear his opinion that the rumor is false. See last part of Acts 21:24. In other words, as long as inerrantists are forced to agree with James that the rumor among his “tens of thousands” of Jewish Christians about Paul was false, then the ability of tens of thousands in the first century church to be duped by false rumors about the apostles, remains. That’s not happiness to see me, is it.

    Third, false rumors about the apostles and other such first-century boo-boos ares not limited to Acts 21. By John’s own admission, the “brethren” after Jesus died misunderstood the sense in which Jesus said something to Peter. John 21:23. If you assume Jesus taught contrary to the Judaizer doctrine, then when Peter became a Judaizer (Galatians 2:13), this was a post-resurrection apostle misrepresenting Christ’s teaching. The last half of the book of Acts concerns little more than whole towns being angered at Paul on the basis of false rumors started by Jewish authorities. I don’t believe Acts 15:24 is telling the truth, but if you do, then James is admitting some men from within the Jerusalem faction had falsely accused Paul of heresy. Allegedly, the resurrected Jesus commanded his original disciples to take the gospel to the rest of the world (Matthew 28:19), yet they were so “transformed by the resurrection” that they pawned that Gentile mission responsibility off on Paul and chose to limit their mission field to Jerusalem alone (Galatians 2:9).

    Finally, Paul absurdly cursed even an ‘angel from heaven’ should it preach a gospel contrary to what he himself had been preaching, Galatians 1:8-9, which seems to indicate that Paul and thus the apostles generally were so determined to support their viewpoints that they would not accept correction even if it came from a heavenly source.

    The NT being born from such a dogmatic misrepresentation-prone first century church makes it all but certain it is going to contain false history or one sort or another.
    barryjoneswhat@yahoo.com

    Reply

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