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.”
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.