Let’s say we want to reform a religion in a new direction. We look for a founder who we can claim fits the kind of profile everyone is expecting. This leader, this messiah, is most likely to be a successful warrior, a general who wins battles of God’s own side. We can’t find one, so we invent a purely imaginary figure instead. Then we explain how he was a total disaster, unable to raise an army, deserted by his followers, and executed by the enemy.
Now, having invented this Jesus guy out of whole cloth, let’s make him related to someone who’s quite well known and respected in our day. Let’s identify this man known to be a faithful and observant Jew as the brother of our messiah. Of course he won’t complain that we’re using his invented messiah brother to justify not observing the law. Even better, let’s tell stories about how this Jesus was at odds with his family while he was alive, but they’ve all come round to be his supporters now. They’ll never dare contradict that.
OK, next let’s root all our stories about him in the recent past, when there are plenty of other people around now who were still around then. People have such poor memories, they’ll all believe they met him anyway.
And of course, we all want to be trusted as the keepers of the flame, this new and super-truthful religion. Let’s portray ourselves as useless, imbecilic cowards who never ever got the point. 15 years ago he was a great teacher who couldn’t even teach his longest standing pupils to understand him. 15 years ago he trained us in his leadership skills so well that we ran away and he got killed. What, you were there and you don’t remember him? What a poor memory you’ve got. Oh you admit it! Good, I thought for a minute you were going to call me a liar.
If we portray ourselves as unlettered fishermen, and pretend to speak with thick Galilean accents, then no-one will guess that we’ve done loads of research on ancient myths of dying and rising gods, and decided to borrow the best bits for our invented superhero. That way we can get ourselves out of the hole we’ve dug by creating a failed messiah as our leader, a defeated warrior as our hero and an executed criminal as our moral exemplar.
Then let’s all die horribly without letting the cat out of the bag. I know that’s a pretty drastic way to persuade people we haven’t made it all up, but a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.
That’s what I call a cunning plan. And I bet you no-one will spot that’s what we actually did for nearly 2,000 years. And then people will point and laugh and sneer at them and call them mythicists, ‘cos we are just so historically plausible.