“Nobody knows who the four evangelists were, but they almost certainly never met Jesus personally. Much of what they wrote was in no sense an honest attempt at history. . . . The gospels are ancient fiction.” – Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

If Dawkins is correct, one might imagine the following conversation . . .

Luke: Let’s have another round of drinks. I’ve an idea I want to run past you.

John: Sure. What’s on your mind?

Luke: You probably heard about the Nazarene named Jesus who was crucified yesterday. I think he could be the perfect candidate for our fake Messiah project.

Mark: One tiny problem: he’s dead!

Luke: Yes, but that means we’ll control the narrative. We’ll be in charge of his reputation.

Matthew: Who would follow a dead Messiah?

Luke: Nobody, so we’ll begin with a resurrection myth. We’ll hire some thugs to fight off the soldiers guarding his tomb so we can get rid of the corpse.

John: But a missing corpse isn’t the same as a resurrection.

Luke: You’re right, so we’ll have to persuade Jesus’s friends to spend the next 30 years telling everyone he’s risen from the dead, even if sticking to that story means they’ll be imprisoned or killed.

Mark: Okay, then what?

Luke: Well, to make a conspiracy credible you need precise details. So we’ll invent stories where Jesus interacts with people in specific locations.

Matthew: Won’t people just disprove the stories by visiting those places and asking around?

Luke: There’s no need to worry about that. We could invent a story about a synagogue ruler’s terminally ill daughter being healed, give the synagogue ruler a name, set it all in a particular place, and still no one—absolutely no one, not even the people living in that place—would trouble to fact-check. Everyone would simply swallow the story whole!

Mark: It sounds like we’re on safe ground there. But if we want people to follow Jesus, he’ll need a message. People have been waiting for the Messiah for centuries. He’s got to be worth listening to when he finally appears.

John: Good point. I’ll cook up some deep quotes.

Luke: Thanks, John. Mark’s right: you’ll need to put profound wisdom on Jesus’s lips that theological scholars can happily study for their entire careers.

John: Not a problem.

Luke: Guys, it will take us a while to put these documents together. We need to get communities of people worshiping Jesus in the meantime so that when our books come out they’ll get a good reception.

Mark: There’s a guy I know called Saul, he could help with that.

Luke: Saul the Pharisee? I can’t imagine him getting involved with this kind of thing.

Mark: Trust me, he’s our man. I see him leaving behind everything he’s been trained to do and planting congregations of Jesus worshipers throughout the Roman Empire, whatever it costs him personally—beatings, shipwrecks, and the like.

Matthew: Awesome. But Luke, can you just remind me, what’s the point of all this? I mean, what exactly do we get out of this?

Luke: Come on, Matt, it will be so much fun. We’ll watch people being brutally martyred, and we’ll know they’ve been deceived by our dishonest fiction! What’s not to like about that?

John: I agree with Luke. This is definitely worth years of effort on our part. Count me in.

Mark: Me too.

Matthew: I’ll do it if my name comes first in all the promotional material.

Luke: Deal. Let’s get to work.