The little-known, but much revered Christian savior

Christians desperately wish they had more information about Jesus. For instance, there is no good physical description of him in the Gospels. Almost nothing is known about his childhood, and absolutely nothing was mentioned about his whereabouts from age 12 to 30. The New Testament mentions almost nothing about his individual disciples other than Peter and Judas. His mother and father are almost complete unknowns other than making a few cameo appearances. And Jesus is unknown or barely known in any first-century non-Christian literature. Basically, everything we know about Jesus came from the four New Testament Gospels.

The biblical Gospels themselves might even be unreliable in their portrayal of Jesus. After all, they were written from two to four generations after his crucifixion and were most likely based predominantly on oral tradition which tends to change over time.

The New Testament, as said, doesn’t offer much. There are some stories about Jesus that tie him to Old Testament prophesies. The Gospels include many parables, many wise sayings, and stories of the miracles he performed. That’s not enough to satisfy most of his followers. They want to know as much as they can about the superhuman being to whom they’ve entrusted their lives. I imagine they would also be very interested in what he’s been doing for the last two thousand years while they’ve waited for his return.

Opening the door for writers of fantasy

The whole Jesus saga is full of voids. It’s only natural that his admirers would concoct entertaining stories to fill those gaps. They formed the library of Christian fantasy. No one knows for certain what motivated those writers, but many people came up with tales to satisfy those thirsting for that missing information. Maybe they wanted the satisfaction of writing a best-seller. Or maybe they just wanted to entertain, or to gain converts to their religion.

The transcript

Reverend William D. Mahan was a nineteenth-century Missouri minister. In 1879, he published the pamphlet, A Correct Transcription of Pilate’s Court. This was a previously unknown transcription of the court proceeding against Jesus of Nazareth when he stood before Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judaea. Mahan traced the writing back to a Latin version found in the Vatican. From there it had supposedly been translated into German, and then English. Somehow, Mahan was able to obtain the document and presented it for the first time to the general public about twenty years later. It was so popular that it was reprinted four times within a year.

The Archko Volume

Five years later, Mahan published the Archko Volume, or Archko Library. The proper name for the collection must have established a world-record for the longest title ever. It was originally named, Archaeological Writings of the Sanhedrin and Talmuds of the Jews, Taken from the Ancient Parchments and Scrolls at Constantinople and the Vatican at Rome, Being the Record Made by the Enemies of Jesus of Nazareth in His Day: The Most Interesting History Ever Read by Man.

Among other writings, the Archko Volume contained an extended version of the previously mentioned, A Correct Transcription of Pilate’s Court. He said he obtained the additional writings from the ancient library at the Hagia Sophia Church in Constantinople and had them translated into English at the Vatican. News of those writing must have made biblical scholars salivate with anticipation.

The other writings in the Volume included an interview with the shepherds who witnessed the birth of Jesus; an interview of Mary and Joseph by Gamaliel, (the mentor of Paul of Tarsus); a report from the High Priest Caiaphas to the Sanhedrin court of Israel regarding the resurrection of Jesus; the shepherd Eli’s Story of the Magi; King Herod’s defense of the “murder of the innocents”. Those were the male babies he supposedly killed in his attempt to eliminate the baby Jesus.

Mahan also included a letter from Constantine the Great requesting fifty copies of the Bible. These were all stories that astonished the Christian world by their existence and discovery. How lucky could they be!

The evidence

Scholars were suspicious of Mahan’s first publication, but with the second one, they decided to do a more thorough investigation. The New Lebanon Presbytery found enough evidence to try Mahan on the charges of lying and plagiarism. They found him guilty and suspended him from his ministry for one year, which was a very lenient sentence. The tribunal also made Mahan agree to remove his book from publication.

There were many bits of evidence that convicted him. The first was that no one ever found evidence that he’d been to Constantinople or Rome to obtain the documents and have them translated. There was also no evidence of that his translators and facilitators ever existed. The Pilate’s Court transcripts were found to be an almost exact duplication of an 1837 story written in France. To add to the list of blunders, he misquoted the Jewish historian Josephus and filled his writing with many historical inaccuracies. All in all, the complete works of the Archko Volume except for the letter from Constantine seemed to be a complete hoax.

One interesting aspect of all of this was that the story of the magi that he included was taken directly from Lew Wallace’s 1880 book, Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ. The irony is that at the time of Mahan’s trial, Lew Wallace was the US minister to the Ottoman Empire. He was the one who said there was no knowledge of Mahan ever visiting Constantinople.

Mahan’s defense

Mahan’s justification for the volume was basically that he was making a heck of a lot of money from its sales. He said, “you are bound to admit that the items in the book can’t do any harm, even if it were false, but will cause many to read and reflect that otherwise would not. So the balance of good is in its favor.” This was the exact same reasoning that the fourth-century Christian historian Eusebius of Caesarea used to justifying lying to Christians in his era. If lying brought them to Christ, then it was justified.

The Aftermath

Although Mahan promised to take his book off the market, he published several new editions.  After that, the Presbytery suspended him indefinitely until he complied with their mandates. There is no indication that he ever did. The most amazing part of this entire saga is that even though the writings were proven to be a hoax, the book has still resurfaced at times, and is still available today.  There have been six editions published in the US in the last decade alone. It’s available through all major booksellers. It’s not only available, but in this age of misinformation, most of its readers believe the stories are true. I was stunned to read some of the five-star reviews written by those who think it is really historical.

Too many people are too easily fooled

With each piece of historical fiction, I guess there will always be a percentage of readers who want it to be true so badly that they accept it as truth. They don’t seem to know the meaning of the words “skepticism” or “verification”. In the past it was difficult to verify the authenticity of writings, but now it’s not so hard to do. Those blindly dedicated to Jesus always want to find more information about him. And they should. The search for information and the furnishing of it is nothing new. There were a lot of early Christian gospels and epistles that weren’t accepted into the New Testament because they didn’t meet the vague criteria of being “authoritative”. A book had to be believed to have been written by one of Jesus’s disciples or Paul of Tarsus in order to be selected.

The influence of unknown writers

The Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene were two of those rejected. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas related previously unknown miraculous stories of Jesus’s childhood. The Gospel of Nicodemus, also known as the Acts of Pilate, contained writings from Pontius Pilate to Emperor Claudius. Even called the Gospel of Nicodemus a “late, fictional narrative”. The Acts of the Apostles portrayed how Jesus’s twelve apostles all died as martyrs. The Acts of Peter introduced Peter’s family, the miracles he performed, and his competition with his archenemy Simon Magus, who some think was really the apostle Paul. In the Protoevangelium of James, we learned the biographies of Mary and Joseph and about Mary’s elderly parents, Joachim and Anna.

Then there was the more modern, Unknown Life of Jesus Christ by Nicholas Notovitch, written in 1894. It told of Jesus going to India and studying under gurus during his “lost years”. That work of fiction spawned a whole new trope of Jesus-in-India tales.  Apparently many people also believed what was in the book and movie, The DaVinci CodeNow scholars consider all of these either fantasy, fiction or outright fraud. I guess it all depends on the author’s intent. Where the writings intended to entertain or deceive?

Christian cultures

There will always be a culture war within Christianity between those who believe without evidence and those, like Doubting Thomas, who need evidence to believe fantastic stories. The only thing that would lessen the intensity of those disputes is for more children to be taught how to think critically and discern what is truly Christian fantasy versus actual history. To learn how to resist blindly trusting what might sound good, but is really erroneous information. The trouble is that if someone wants to believe something strongly enough, they will shut out all conflicting evidence and opinions and believe it. That seems to be the default human nature unless people are taught otherwise.


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