Charlemagne Never Existed


A statue of Charlemagne

I’m not sure if you are aware of this, but the emperor Charlemagne never actually existed … at least, that’s what the German historian Heribert Illig would like you to believe.  In a theory known as the Phantom Time Hypothesis, he suggests that all of the events between 614AD and 911AD never actually happened.  They were fabricated by the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III and Pope Sylvester II in order to alter the calendar such that their lives would intersect with the noteworthy year 1000 AD – the millennium. 

Unfortunately for Mr. Illig, it’s not an easy hypothesis to defend.  In order to believe it, you’d have to dismiss all of world history between those dates, not just the history written by Europeans.  The prophet Mohammed and the rise of Islam, for example, would also have to be western fabrications (Mohammed began dictating the Koran after 614 AD), and to maintain that thesis you would have to disregard all non-European (for example, Asian) contact with Islam during those years.

There’s a reason you’ve never likely heard of the hypothesis before today: it’s silly.  The amount of effort required to seamlessly invent 300 years of detailed history that would be studied and taught by generations of scholars without question?  Inconceivable. 

Just as inconceivable?  The notion that pops up in social media feeds from time to time that Jesus of Nazareth never existed.  If you haven’t seen it yet, you will: it makes the rounds with some regularity, sometimes with the names of purported experts and scholars attached.  They call themselves “mythicists.”  Some suggest that the gospels are nothing but a retelling of ancient Egyptian mythology.  Some say that Jesus didn’t exist at all.  One of the more recent attacks on the historicity of Christ was Joseph Atwill’s assertion that the story of Jesus was invented by Roman aristocrats in order to manipulate and control the poor.  

Like other attempts to dismiss Jesus, it didn’t gain much traction. Why? Because like the missing years in Heribert Illig’s theory, it’s just silly.  Even Bart Ehrman, a renowned skeptical scholar who regularly challenges the reliability of the New Testament, finds the claim that Jesus didn’t exist absurd:

“One may well choose to resonate with the concerns of our modern and post-modern cultural despisers of established religion (or not). But surely the best way to promote any such agenda is not to deny what virtually every sane historian on the planet — Christian, Jewish, Muslim, pagan, agnostic, atheist, what have you — has come to conclude based on a range of compelling historical evidence.

Whether we like it or not, Jesus certainly existed.”  

On this, Ehrman is right.  As Lawrence Mykytiuk points out in the current edition of the Biblical Archeaological Review, the evidence for Jesus is conclusive.   

The real question, as far as I’m concerned is why someone wouldn’t want Jesus to be real.  The Phantom Time Hypothesis doesn’t have many defenders; you certainly don’t hear from them on Facebook or Twitter. Why? There’s a lot less at stake. Whether Charlemagne was real or not doesn’t have the same immediate impact for the individual as the reality of Christ.  Charlemagne doesn’t make demands on me.  He doesn’t require me to examine his claims or repent of my sins.  He doesn’t point out the incredible gap between the sinner and God, and he doesn’t require humble repentance and a change of direction. 

Jesus, on the other hand, requires everything.  If He is real (and He is), it means everything.  “And I,” Jesus said, “if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.”  (John 12:32)  When Jesus asked Peter, “but who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15) the question wasn’t just for Peter; it was for the entire human race.  It was for you.  

It’s curious how every new religious system, every new cult, feels the need to fit Jesus into the equation.  Even people who claim to make contact with space aliens eventually come around to squeezing Jesus into the story.  Why?  Because He demands examination; the claims of Jesus are not easily dismissed.   

Jesus leaves His audience with only a few choices.  We can (1) deal with who He is, what He said about Himself, and what He taught, or (2) we can rewrite the story to make it fit an alternate set of beliefs, or (3) pretend that He didn’t exist.  Few people choose the third option; it’s just too absurd.  The second option? It seems like a foolish risk, asking God to fit our fabricated belief system instead of the other way around.

The first option?  It certainly seems like the wisest course of action.


One Response to “Charlemagne Never Existed”

  1. John Miller September 11, 2015 at 3:43 am #

    Hello. I have just seen this article.

    I believe you misunderstand what Phantom Time actually states.

    Nobody ever said that ‘the years between 614 and 911 are all fiction’.

    Rather, the BC/AD calendar was only introduced in the “990’s AD”. prior to then, there had been a wide variety of very different calendars(including different people using different length years). Most people were illiterate, and only knew their own age.

    So, in what we today call the “late 10th century”, the Church decided it would be a good idea to implement a single calendar, sued throughout Europe/Christendom, in which the year of Jesus’ birth was designated “1 AD”.

    They came to the conclusion that they were thus living in the Year “999 AD”. And over the next years, the Church backdated everything from “1 AD” through to “999 AD”.

    What Phantom Time states is that the chronology implemented in the “999 AD” is inaccurate. Rather than the nearly 1000 years that had elapsed since Christ’s birth, it had more accurately been approximately 700 years. But there was no single gap where a single false history was inserted.

    Rather, two actual events that occurred(and can be proved to have happened) were backdated to “614 AD” and “911 AD”. However, the actual date between these two events was nothing like 297 years.

    Other methods included stretching out people’s lives(so according to the Standard Chronology Attila the Hun lived to be 124 years old, and was still an active campaigner when he died), people who were contemporaries are said to have lived decades apart, reigns of Emperors are stretched out etc.

    The other way is by repeating events, using different names. So that “Avar” and “Magyar” were two different names for the same people, yet standard chronology has them as two separate peoples, who entered Hungary centuries apart. Or that certain TITLES are used as Regnal names, such as Charles, Childeric etc.. ‘Charlmagne’ means ‘The Great Waror’ and was never a proper Christian name. It’s like saying there have been two separate US presidents this century called “George W. Bush” and “Dubya”.

    lastly, which Illig actually misses, is that the most widespread calendar in use at the time was the Alexandrian calendar, which sued “Year 1” as the death of alexander the Great…in 323 BC. Many of these dates were as ingrained into Eastern Church people as much as “1776” would be part of the fabric of many modern Americans. And so, it’s likely that many Alexandrian dates were simply sued as Christian ones, thereby extending the calendar approximately 300 years.

    But the main issues are that a)Nobody states that “everything between 614 and 911 never happened” and b)the modern BC/AD calendar was only implemented in “999 AD”, and everything from 1AD(the year of Christ’s birth) and “999 AD” was retroactively backdated.

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