This past week I was browsing the Internet and came across this headline: “Self-Professed ‘Bible Scholar’ Makes Explosive Allegation About Jesus That He Believes Could Rock the Christian Faith to Its Core.” The headline is in reference to a symposium that will take place in England this Saturday where “self-professed” Bible scholar Joseph Atwill will present his radical theory for the origins of Christianity—namely, that the rulers of the Roman Empire invented the figure of Jesus of Nazareth.
According to Atwill, Christianity was invented by Emperor Titus sometime after the Jewish revolt that took place between A.D. 66 and 73. Jesus was invented in order to promote a “pro-Roman,” peaceful messiah who would suppress further revolts against Rome. In order to accomplish this goal, the Romans had Flavius Josephus, a former Jewish freedom fighter who defected and became an advisor to Titus, create what we now know as the New Testament.
Atwill’s argument isn’t new, and he’s been peddling it since the publication of his 2005 book Caesar’s Messiah: The Roman Conspiracy to Invent Jesus. While I’m always on the lookout for a fresh insight into historical Jesus studies, I bet that if you are like me, your inner “unfounded conspiracy theory” alarm bells are probably ringing like crazy.
What is Atwill’s evidence for his theory? Well, Josephus wrote two other works that, unlike the New Testament, bear his name and are accepted by modern historians as being Josephus’s works. These include a history of the Jewish people called the Antiquities of the Jews and a history of the revolt against Rome called The Jewish War.
According to Atwill, “I started to notice a sequence of parallels between the two texts. . . . What seems to have eluded many scholars is that the sequence of events and locations of Jesus' ministry are more or less the same as the sequence of events and locations of the military campaign of [Emperor] Titus Flavius as described by Josephus. This is clear evidence of a deliberately constructed pattern.”
How did modern scholars miss this? Atwill says, “Many of the parallels are conceptual or poetic, so they aren't all immediately obvious. After all, the authors did not want the average believer to see what they were doing, but they did want the alert reader to see it. An educated Roman in the ruling class would probably have recognised the literary game being played . . . the Roman Caesars left us a kind of puzzle literature that was meant to be solved by future generations, and the solution to that puzzle is 'We invented Jesus Christ, and we're proud of it.'"
There are so many problems with Atwill’s theory that I hardly know where to begin. First, the alleged parallels are anything but parallel. For example, Atwill says that when Jesus calls the disciples to be “fishers of men” this is a secret code related to a scene in the Jewish War. Specifically, a scene describing how Emperor Titus’s troops would kill Jews who had escaped them in the Sea of Galilee by cutting off their hands or heads and shooting them with darts. Atwill says Jesus’ call to become a “fisher of men” is a reference to when the Romans “caught Jews like fish” in the battle of Lake Tiberias (Caesar’s Messiah, 39). Atwill’s book is full of these “parallels” that exist only if you already believe Atwill’s argument, which makes them poor evidence for his theory.
Second, if Atwill’s thesis is right, then not only did Jesus never exist, neither did Peter, James, or Paul. In fact, there would have been no Christians at all before the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70. But we know this isn’t true because the Roman historian Tacitus records in his Annals (Book 15, 44) that Emperor Nero blames the Great Fire in Rome, which took place three years before the Jewish revolt, on a group called Christians.
Even if Tacitus were in on the act, how could the Romans have fabricated the existence of churches such as those in Ephesus or Thessalonica that were supposed to have existed, according to the book of Acts, for decades before the Jewish revolt? Wouldn’t the first Jews who joined the Christian church realize something was not quite right about this movement that sprang up overnight?
Even More Problems
Moreover, nearly all scholars, including non-Christian scholars, agree that the New Testament documents represent a diverse writing style that cannot be attributed to a single author. Just a quick read of the four Gospels or a comparison of the Gospels to Paul’s letters makes this abundantly clear. Even if these documents were written by one person in order to pacify the Judean Jews (which has almost a zero percent chance of being true), then that person did an amazingly bad job at creating a fake messiah for the Jewish elite to embrace.
The author of First Corinthians admits that the cross, or a dying messiah, represented a “stumbling block for Jews” (1:23). Now Paul, the real author of First Corinthians, just had to accept that fact and preach it, since Jesus’ crucifixion really happened. However, if the entire story was made up, then why create a fake messiah who would be rejected by the Jewish elite and instead be primarily embraced by Gentiles, who weren’t even a part of the plan to begin with? Why also create lots of other contradictory apocryphal Gospels, like the Gospel of Thomas, that compete with your fake religion that you hope the future Church will not deem canonical?
Finally, how would the Romans get enough Jews who were willing to commit apostasy, blasphemy, and die as martyrs for the Empire in order to preach this new “gospel” to an illiterate world?
I could go on with even more objections, but I think the biggest sign that Atwill’s theory is not worth the digital pixels with which it’s projected is that even authors who embrace the fringe view that Jesus never existed, a group called mythicists, reject Atwill’s theory.
D. M. Murdock (a.k.a. Acharya S.), who believes that Jesus was just a rip-off of the Egyptian God Horus, writes, [T]here is no scientific evidence that the canonical gospels were written by any Flavians, whether Josephus or otherwise.” Robert Price, one of the only scholars in the world with a doctorate in New Testament studies who denies Jesus existed, is sympathetic to Atwill but writes, “One hates to be so severe in the analysis of the work of an innovative thinker who gives us the gift of a fresh reading of familiar texts, but in the present case it is hard to euphemize. The reading given here is just ludicrous.”
Finally, Richard Carrier, who is set to publish in 2014 an academic defense of the claim that, in all likelihood, Jesus never existed, writes,
I gave him a fair shot. But Atwill never has any defensible examples, rarely knows what he is talking about, gets a lot wrong, makes stuff up, never admits an error, and is generally in my experience a frustrating delusional fanatic. He also has no relevant academic degrees that I am aware of. And he appears to have made no effort to acquire fundamental skills (like a working knowledge of Greek or how to use a biblical textual apparatus). Yet he claims to be an expert. When will audiences get a clue?
When even the fringe rejects your view, where else can your argument go?