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.

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