Back in the Bronze Age the world was naive. People knew nothing of the sciences of reproduction, decay, entropy, metabolism, genetics–and therefore they didn’t know that babies are never born to virgins, and men who die never rise from the dead. (RS).
One of those naive tribes was the Jews, living under subjugation to Rome, who kept their emotional balance through the crazy conception of a coming Messiah who would lead them in a successful uprising against Rome. Messiahs came and messiahs went. One of them was Jesus. We don’t know much about Jesus, especially whether he ever actually existed. (RS); all we know is that whether he existed or not he founded the movement that has expanded more consistently than any other for 2,000 years.
This Jesus was like all the other messiahs, such as … such as … oh, you can look up their names, but what does it matter? All you need to know is they were all the same. They came, they preached, they gathered a following, they died. (RS). The only difference is that after Jesus died, his followers took his life story a whole different direction. Maybe they were extra bummed when he died.
But wait, excuse me, the proper term is, maybe they were really struggling with the need to reduce their cognitive dissonance over his death (RS). Not only is this terminology more accurate; not only does it support our self-image of being scientifically superior; it also highlights their pathology, for truly they must have been nut jobs.
What this crowd of crazies did was nevertheless brilliant. First they persuaded their most vicious opponent, Saul, to join them in spreading the message of Jesus. What a master-stroke! He had to resolve some personal embarrassment over changing his mind so drastically, but he worked that out by graciously volunteering a story of Jesus (who was already dead) appearing to him on a roadside to persuade him to convert. That settled that! (The great majority of unbelieving scholars agree that at least some of the letters in the NT were written by Paul, who had been Saul.)*
Then they worked on the story. Jesus had disappointed them. He committed the conquering hero’s greatest sin: he got himself executed by the people he had set out to conquer. What to do… what to do? I know! We’ll make up a story that he rose from the dead!
This was no great feat of imagination for his followers. All they had to do was borrow a handy nearby resurrecting-god story. The one they relied most on was Mithras (RS), a mystery religion that conveniently appeared on the scene about a century or two after they borrowed from it. (Just the facts, ma’am.)
Let’s not forget, though, that in order for this Jesus to have risen from the dead, he had to have been God in the flesh, and in order for that to happen he had to have been born “of the Holy Spirit” through a virgin. That was an easy addition: they weren’t very scientific, and they didn’t know that would have taken a miracle (see above).
The big problem they might have faced with that was that, being Jews, the most thoroughly committed monotheists to walk the earth up to that point, they didn’t have much of a literary heritage of any God being born and walking the earth. That proved to be a small obstacle, since their polytheistic neighbors had stories of a sort they could borrow from (RS), and hey, the Jews of that era never had any reason to doubt it was okay to borrow religious ideas from their polytheistic neighbors, right?
Then they let the stories circulate, and circulate they did, all around the Mediterranean basin in a telephone-game process that was certain to corrupt the stories. (RS — p. 147). And boy, were those stories corrupted! They ended up being the tale of a man who was the most powerful person ever imagined to walk the earth. No one like Jesus ever lived; no one with power like his was ever even invented in fiction! They said he created the world! How unscientific.
But that’s not all this multi-continent, multi-culture, multi-language telephone game did to corrupt the story of Jesus. It also produced a character who was consistently and perfectly self-sacrificial and other-centered.
Again we see the influence of borrowing: in creating this amazingly powerful character who never used his extraordinary powers for his own benefit, but only for the good of others, these early telephone-gamers clearly must have been borrowing themes from other literature. How could they have come up with that kind of ethical perfection any other way? Unfortunately for our story of how they did this, the literature they borrowed from has unfortunately never been written. Even now, 20 centuries later, there never has been any other compelling character in all literary history who combined such extraordinary power with such completely self-sacrificial other-centeredness. (Discussion on the previous two or three paragraphs’ topic).
So maybe they just came up with it their own way. Such is the wisdom of the telephone game being played by people who are really bummed out that their messiah died.
Anyway, the stories circulated back to the western Mediterranean where four different authors compiled them, sometimes borrowing from each other, sometimes using other sources, into four accounts that are obviously contradictory because they have different perspectives on how many angels there were at Jesus’ tomb. Never mind that they all agree perfectly, without exception, on Jesus being perfectly powerful and perfectly other-oriented. He may be the only such a character has ever been produced with such perfection in literary history, and he was rendered perfectly that way in all four Gospels, but that’s a minor detail compared to how many angels there were. (Atheists typically suggest there are many contradictions of this sort, but reconciling them is not hard to do.)
They wrote down those four different renditions, and then systematically destroyed all the other written versions so successfully that no trace remain of any of those other first-century gospels, either in textual evidence or in quotations from other first- or second-century writers (RS).
They carried out all this invention, subterfuge, and evidence-destruction just to make sure that they could tell a consistent tale of an ethically perfect leader they thought everyone should follow.
The sad thing is how their followers relaxed on this mission destroying contrary evidence in the second century, so that other, later gospels could be written (RS). These other gospels obviously made things up, which proves that the first-century versions were made up, too.
And now you know where the gospels came from–according to Bart Ehrman and members of the atheist Internet. Let us all give them thanks for explaining it in terms that are so much more believable than the Christian version!