I am often asked “well what if it was all just a big conspiracy?” “What if there was a conspiracy to put the canon together?” “Did that happen in the 5th century?” “What if there was a conspiracy to alter the texts of the New Testament – to misrepresent what Jesus said?” It is an interesting question, but I think it entirely misunderstands the nature of what Christianity was like in the first three centuries. Maybe it makes for a decent novel, and a great movie, but it doesn’t make for very good history.
The very thing that many of my students find disturbing – there are 1,000’s of manuscripts of the New Testament, there is manuscript disagreement, there are Gospel-discrepancies – those are the things that I have found coming along to actually be quite encouraging, because they all openly defy the idea of a conspiracy. Just as a textual matter, if there was a conspiracy to collude or to misrepresent Jesus, the gospels did a very bad job of it. They did not get their stories straight enough to convince even all of the critics.
I also hear scholars who will say “well Jesus was the divine Son of God in John, but he wasn’t the divine Son of God in Mark – there is a different picture of Jesus in Mark.” Right there you have defied your own conspiracy theory. Because if there really was this church-wide global conspiracy to misrepresent who Jesus really was, you think they would have done a better job of it.
A conspiracy theory also misrepresents the political situation. The ‘Da Vinci Code’ and similar things look back to the first years of the church and try to read back into them a medieval kind of Catholic Church with political power – but that is just not the case. Christians spent most of their time preaching the Gospel and trying not to get executed. Until the de-criminalization, then legalization, and then nationalization of Christianity, you do not have church counsels because of some conspiracy; rather you do not have church counsels because it was not safe.
As soon as it became safe to get together and have these church counsels, Christians started having them. They did not decide the canon in the 5th century, but that is when you first see the church get together and discussing these things – and they have a tremendous amount of agreement on them. The same is true in the fact that we have manuscripts from North Africa, from Byzantium, from Sassaria, and from the West; and they are being translated into Latin and into all these languages, so the kind of conspiracy that would be required to do something like that seems sort of tacitly impossible to pull-off by outlaw Christians in the 1st or 2nd century – and that is when it would have had to have taken place to fool us, because we have the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th century manuscripts.