Is it possible that the disciples made up the story of Jesus? I have heard several claims that the disciples could have just invented a Messiah-like figure based the Old Testament prophecies that predict the Messiah. For example the the prophecy on 30 silver coins (which is explained in Zecharia and not in Jeremiah, Matthew 27:9), and other prophecies such as the birth of the messiah in Nazareth, and the crucifixion. Aside from the eyewitness accounts is there any other source that points towards the gospels not being a fictional made-up story? I’m really not trying to have a cynical tone in anyway. I just want to know if there’s a plausible explanation to this question.
This is a good questions. Critics of Christianity want to create the false impression that the entire biography of Jesus, as well as the theology of the New Testament was a sheer invention of Christians a couple of generations after the fact. The problem with this theory is that it cannot be substantiated by any facts. This is a deceitful and unscholarly opinion which is dressed up in scholarly-sounding rhetoric.
Let me explain why I say this. First of all, there is the fact that the Church was established in Jerusalem, by the eye-witnesses of the ministry of Jesus, in the immediate time frame of the death and resurrection of Jesus. There is a lot of reason to believe this. First of all, there is the personal testimony of the early disciples. The book 1 Thessalonians was written in AD 51. Galatians was probably written in AD 49 or soon thereafter. These books were clearly written to colonies of Christian believers which had been established for several years in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). Therefore we can say with confidence that the Church had spread to Asia Minor by at least AD 45. This only makes sense if the story in Acts is accepted, which is that the Church was established as a principally Jewish group at least in the early 30s in Palestine.
The thesis of these people who want to make the Christian gospel some sort of myth is that these Christians were duped into believing in a Jesus who was not even real. This is within just a couple of years after the actual Jesus was walking around, when tens and perhaps even hundreds of thousands of eye-witnesses to his actual acts and sayings were still alive and for whom all of this was a very fresh memory. The idea that a bunch of scheming liars could invent a Jesus who was not even real and thrust this invention on the people in Palestine and Asia Minor who lived in the same place and time and who knew the person Jesus intimately is really not sustainable.
The reason the gospel writers say that Jesus fulfilled the prophecy that the Messiah would be crucified (Psalms 22:16) is because he, in fact, was crucified. This is a historical fact, attested to by thousands of early Christians, supported by Jewish (Josephus) and Roman (Tacitus and others) historians. The reason the gospel writers say that he was pierced and that he was silent when accused, as prophesied in Isaiah 53 is because he was, in fact, pierced and silent when accused. Such a story could not be invented because it circulated widely in the 30s AD, as we can tell from the evidence of the early Church, when tens of thousands of eye-witnesses were still around to refute such invented claims. Really…. The idea that the apostles would make up the idea that Jesus was from Galilee (fulfilling the prophecy in Isaiah 9:1) or that he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey (Zechariah 9:9), given the thousands who were available to refute the story is not a tenable theory. If these things were recorded 100 years later, such a conspiracy of lies would be possible, but that is not the case. These oral stories were circulated in the 30s and 40s and written down in the 50s. These are the facts. Making the entire gospel message, the resurrection of Jesus, his birth in Bethlehem, his claim to be the Son of God up out of whole cloth, less than ten years after the events is not a believable proposal.
So, these critics are left with certain small examples of fulfilled prophecies which they feel they can pour some doubt on, hoping that the potential believer will miss the big picture, which is that Jesus obviously is the Messiah, based on the undeniable examples of fulfillment. Therefore they throw out the harder examples, such as the ones you mention.
However, even these favorite examples (which do nothing to change the big picture, which is that Jesus fulfilled the messianic expectation) are red herrings. Let me deal with the examples you have seen. For example, you refer to the supposed contradiction in Matthew 2:23 in which Matthew tells us that Jesus fulfilled the prophecy that the Messiah will be called a Nazarene. Where is this prophecy, the critic asks? The answer is that it is several places in the Old Testament. For example in Jeremiah 23:5 and 33:15 it is prophesied that God will send the Branch of Jesse to save Israel. Hebrew for branch is nazer, which, of course is the root of the word Nazarene. So, Jesus was a Nazarene, both the fact he was raised in Nazareth, and because he was the direct descendent, the "branch" of Jesse, the father of David. This "error" of Matthew is, in fact, not an error at all, but a prophecy fulfilled by Jesus.
Then there is Matthew 27:9. This one is a bit harder to deal with. We know that it was prophesied in Zechariah 11:12-13 that God would be "sold" for 30 pieces of silver and that the money would be "thrown to the potter." We know that this is what happened, as reported by the gospel writers. They reported this in the gospels and by oral tradition at a time when the eye-witnesses to the events were still alive to refute the claims if they wanted to. Of course, there is the issue of the fact that Matthew says this prophecy came from Jeremiah. To make an issue of this is to forget the big picture, which is that the prophecy of the 30 pieces of silver and the potter’s field were exactly fulfilled by Jesus, and the prophecies were written over 500 years before the events. The authorship of the prophecy is a relatively minor issue. How are we to explain the fact that Matthew gives credit for this prophecy to Jeremiah? One possibility is that Jeremiah did in fact make this prophecy. Zechariah may even have gotten his information from Jeremiah, as they lived within just a few years of each other (Jeremiah died some time around 570 BC, while Zechariah was probably born at about that time). We simply do not know exactly to what Matthew is referring to. It is entirely possible that he had access to information which we do not have. However, to turn the fact that we are not sure what Matthew is referring to into proof that Jesus did not in fact fulfill the prophecies is to miss the whole point. Even if we could grant that Matthew got the name of the prophet wrong (something I am not at all willing to concede), this really does not change the fact that Jesus did what he did and that he fulfilled all the prophecies of the Messiah, including where he was born, where he was raised, how he was killed, when he was killed, how much he was betrayed for, how he came in to Jerusalem and many more.
In summary, you can rest assured that the gospel description of the events of Jesus and the theology of Jesus is no myth. We have plenty of evidence that he did in fact say what the gospels say he said and that he did in fact fulfill the prophecies. We cannot literally prove every word recorded in the gospels was actually said by Jesus. This would obviously be impossible, but the big picture is clear. The gospel accounts are honest depictions of those who knew Jesus and spent time with him, or of those who had close and continued contact with those who knew Jesus intimately. These are not myths, and those who say so are putting forth a theory which cannot be sustained by the evidence or common sense.