Ebon Muse at Daylight Atheism put up a STORY today of a cult that grew somewhere between the 1950s and 1970s, continuing until, I would imagine, some time around his death in 1990. The story is that of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and is just a fascinating read. Particularly of interest are the lengths his followers went to promote him and bring his teachings, ministry, and following into the political realm.
Anyway, Ebon writes up the story better than I can retell it here, so just get all of the details there.
While pure conjecture, I find it interesting when running into accounts like these (and there are many) to think back to the time of Jesus and wonder if we're really quite too generous with our assumptions. I hear all the time things like, "The gospel writers just don't seem like the types of people who were writing fiction/lies/myth" or "Do you really think people back then were being malicious?" or "Well, what do you think happened to the body then if the tomb was empty? Why would the disciples have any reason to steal it?" Things like that.
While I don't promote a disciple-theft explanation for the empty tomb (if it existed), I do think reading about all the crazy, crazy, crazy things that happened right under our noses in the last 1-200 years if incredibly intriguing and potentially even informative. In general I would guess that we think we're more educated, knowledgeable, informed, and skeptical and less superstitious, gullible, idiotic, and irrational than we were 2000 years ago. Perhaps not. If any of those adjective comparisons apply, however, how much more likely would it have been for followers to get all hyped up about the new amazing man who hits the scene than they already do today?
Followers in far more modern times have spread rumors of miracles for Sabbatai Zevi and Sathya Sai Baba. I've heard this come up in debate, particularly from Robert Price, and most theists just shoot it down as not applicable or simply that no myth could have sprung up from Jesus, since myths need to "cook" and arise later than a generation or so or else they are too easily disproven with recent evidence and eye witnesses.
I guess all I'm really trying to point out is that, while perhaps not convincing to anyone who believes, I find it fairly powerful to consider and ponder the human capacity for being hoodwinked, especially the further back on goes. Heck, a huge number of people today are in love with astrology and other forms of "magic." Why is it that difficult to read the accounts in the gospels with a skeptical eye about their veracity, likelihood, or even pureness-of-intent given the clear and massive amounts of evidence we have suggesting that religiously enthralled followers are not always interested in truth or purity-of-intent?
At the least, I think these types of things should have to be accounted for by those who swear that one reading the gospels should just "fall in love with its truth" or that the gospel writers were obviously wholesome when we have no evidence of who even were. I also think that the further back one goes, the more evidence would be needed to show that non-believers or enemies investigated the claims and could find no evidence to debunk it. To claim that they did this with the assertion, "The Romans or Jews would have produced the body when Christianity arose?", is just as silly as conducting interviews with you and your 10 closest friends and asking what evidence you personally know of against Sathya Sai Baba, Sabbatai Sevi, or Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (though I'm not sure the former claimed to be like the former two, he just had a lot of people revering him and his teaching) and then assuming that if they weren't legit you'd obviously be able to come up with something.
Most likely you and your 10 closest friends (or perhaps an average non-[a]theism-blog-hanging-outer and his 10 closest friends) would not even know who these people were or what their claimed deeds were in order to even go about a debunking. Just as we're not overly concerned with a few thousand followers of Rajneesh, can we be sure the Romans or Jews were concerned with the uprising Christians? On one hand, some bring up the martyrs; on the other hand we have Pliny in the early 2nd century saying they were just a superstition.
Perhaps all I'm saying is that I find the lines brought up in debates, on blogs, and in person regarding the "obviousness" of various beliefs about the gospels, their writers, and the thinking of the time to be far less trustworthy when I hear stuff like this. Regardless of what conclusions are justified from hearing these reports, I nevertheless find them fascinating and wish I could just time travel back and be a fly on the wall for a few hundred years of ancient history.