Claims of a “confession” to “inventing Jesus” are almost certainly bull

Oh my historical scholarship, the things that go viral… so I just saw a bunch of people in my Facebook/Twitter feeds, including Richard Dawkins of all people, sharing an article titled, “Ancient Confession Found: ‘We Invented Jesus Christ.’” The instant I saw the headline, I could tell that it was almost certainly bullshit.

If I had to spell out the basis for my snap-second judgement, it would go something like this: Jesus probably existed. Biblical scholars probably aren’t the most unbiased folk in academia, but even among non-believing scholars like Bart Ehrman it’s generally agreed that Jesus existed. And even among people who doubt this, the saner ones don’t think there was a conspiracy, per se, not of the kind that would allow that headline to make any sense.

Finally, even if there was a conspiracy, the odds that the conspirators produced a written confession and the confession survived until the present day (when few manuscripts from that period have) and has only just now been discovered… multiply all the improbabilities out, and a Secret Mark-style forgery is more likely.

But scratching the surface of the story, it doesn’t look like there’s any forgery, just crackpottery:

Atwill’s most intriguing discovery came to him while he was studying “Wars of the Jews” by Josephus [the only surviving first-person historical account of first-century Judea] alongside the New Testament. “I started to notice a sequence of parallels between the two texts,” he recounts. “Although it’s been recognised by Christian scholars for centuries that the prophesies of Jesus appear to be fulfilled by what Josephus wrote about in the First Jewish-Roman war, I was seeing dozens more. 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. The biography of Jesus is actually constructed, tip to stern, on prior stories, but especially on the biography of a Roman Caesar.”

How could this go unnoticed in the most scrutinised books of all time? “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.” Atwill maintains he can demonstrate that “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.’”

In other words, he’s not claiming to have discovered any new documents to support his claims, just that by looking at old documents he’s discovered a secret code only he can see. The same way some people think they see secret codes “proving” Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare, or heck, the codes some people think they see in the Bible.

In fact, a little more digging and it turns the article is misleading in that Atwill’s claims aren’t even new. He’s been making them for years, and they’ve already been torn apart by Robert M. Price, himself an agnostic on whether there was a historical Jesus. My friends on Twitter and Facebook have been taken in by a slick PR stunt – only it isn’t all that slick if you know how to evaluate these kinds of stories. We, as atheists, should be better than this.

  • Colin Rosenthal

    The sad part is this followup tweet from RD: which reads like something a climate denier would post. “Hey, I’m just sayin’ there’s a controversy, that’s all, so how’s an average Joe supposed to know what to believe?”

  • BillYeager

    I don’t think it matters either way. We know that there would have been a multitude of people claiming to be God, of God, related to God, or Bezzie mates with God, as there are today. ‘Life of Brian’ was pretty accurate in that regards.

  • Pofarmer

    Eh. Randal Helms “gospel Fictions” covers much of this ground. He covers how muchthat’s in the synoptics is either recycled old testament miracles( elijah, elizah, daniel), mimeosis( cophing other Greek literature such as the wild man and herd of hogs into the sea vs the chclops and odhsseus men clinging to sheep to get back to the sea) or authors mining scripture for prophesies, ljne Isaih and Psalms which realkh aren’t applicable. There’s so much made up, that it’s nearly impossible to tell what a historical Jesus might have been. In fact, Ehrman argues in a blog post yesterday that biblical scholars have always imputed to Jesus the charachteristics they admired, which very much argues for mythicism. Oh, wnd Richard Carrier and others argue that Acts was ripped off from Josephus, so there is at least a kernel of truth to Atwoods claims.

  • R Bonwell parker

    I’m worried that Dawkins has jumped the shark recently. He seems to have said everything he has to say about atheism and has moved on to salacious gossip and petty bickering.

  • LonesomeDove

    Have a look at the book “Caesar’s Messiah” by Atwill before passing any judgement on it – it raises some interesting points and questions about how this could have possibly come about -

  • Johnny Sleeze

    Interesting that the default is that there *was* a historical Jesus, and that there is such a need to show one’s reasonable atheism/agnosticism by saying so. What evidence, outside of the four gospels and the letters of Paul, is there? None of these documents are contemporary, and I know of no outside source (Roman) that makes mention of Jesus. How strange, for such a supposedly important figure.

    • Ace_of_Sevens

      Does there need to be more evidence? If the existence of an actual Jesus is a more likely explanation for the books being written than a forgery, that would be good enough.

      • Thinkyhead

        Those aren’t the only two options! The Gospels may simply have been written as an adjunct to existing tales, to give shape to the philosophy of its authors, as a kind of political treatise. Certainly the supernatural elements are meant to impress but also illustrate ideas by analogy. It has a certain formula to it, does it not? It has a complete arc, as well, and there are no “partial drafts” to be found, although there are the Apocrypha, which add more disparity but also lean more towards an Eastern philosophy, almost Zen really.

      • Pofarmer

        Did an actual Hercules exist? An actual Romulus? An Actual Odysseus?

      • Johnny Sleeze

        I suppose that would mean that the most likely explanation for Scientology is that it is true? Because why would it have been written were it not? Since there is no evidence of an *absence* of Moroni from the book of Mormon, than that, too, must be true?

        • Pofarmer

          That’s actually very Aristotlean(I think it was Aristotle) who argued that “If it weren’t true, we couldn’t imagine it.” Which is obviously crazy, but Christians still try to argue it.

  • steveo42

    What do you mean “the person Jesus existed”?!? Why do you internalize the biases of biblical scholars? What does that accomplish? It is speculation about nonsense. The opiate-like effects of religion are quite tangible on the other hand. This is a “spiderman might have been real” argument.

  • f_galton

    The same secret society that invented Jesus also invented Shakespeare.

  • Pofarmer

    This is kind of an aside. I was reading some about St. Jerome last night. He’s one who championed the perpetial virginity of Mary. This would have been about 380 AD. Anyway, he was arguing with another guy, and the only evidence they ever cite is scripture. It’s like no other evidence exisred, even then.

  • Ace_of_Sevens

    It’s interesting you cite Ehrman, but call secret Mark a forgery. Doesn’t Ehrman think Secret Mark is likely genuine?

  • Roger Lambert

    “If I had to spell out the basis for my snap-second judgement, it would go something like this: Jesus probably existed.”

    And that’s where you went off the rails.

  • Steven Carr

    ‘The biography of Jesus is actually constructed, tip to stern, on prior stories, but especially on the biography of a Roman Caesar.’

    Presumably the Romans decided to put all the contradictions into the Gospels to make it look like different people were at work.

    What does Atwill mean by *the* biography?

    There are at least 4, and they contradict each other.

  • Mike De Fleuriot

    One could read his book and show exactly why he is wrong using what he actually wrote in his book. Of course that would be the long way of debunking his work…

  • Chris Hallquist

    There are plenty of atheists who reject the miracle claims in the gospels but accept Jesus was a historical person. Atwill is claiming a lot more than that.