Joseph Atwill has not proven that Jesus was made up by the Romans.

A lot of people are sending me this article talking about Joseph Atwill’s upcoming presentation of his claim that Rome invented Jesus:

American Biblical scholar Joseph Atwill will be appearing before the British public for the first time in London on the 19th of October to present a controversial new discovery: ancient confessions recently uncovered now prove, according to Atwill, that the New Testament was written by first-century Roman aristocrats and that they fabricated the entire story of Jesus Christ. His presentation will be part of a one-day symposium entitled “Covert Messiah” at Conway Hall in Holborn.

This sounds groundbreaking, so I double checked it with some historians I know.  The first to get back to me was David Fitzgerald who lamented that work like Atwill’s makes his job so much harder.  To quote Fitzgerald, Atwill gets the right conclusion (Jesus was never a real person), but for all the wrong reasons.  He linked me to a piece by historian Thomas Verenna who breaks down why Atwill is pretty much the historical equivalent of VenomFangX:

This is a serious flaw in Atwill’s work. He makes claims but doesn’t seem to realize how ridiculous they actually are; it is that scholars find his work “outlandish”. It is just plain wrong. I mean it is still crazy talk, but it is more that his whole premise is wrong.

For example, like all sensationalist crap-dealers, Mr, Atwill claims to have discovered the secret, super-dooper, hidden code in the text. Amazing! I self-proclaimed “Biblical scholar”, with no formal training in the material, has used his magic decoder ring and stumbled upon a code! How clever of him. He states:

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.”

First, and let me be clear, are there striking similarities between Josephus and the Gospel of Luke? Yes, there are. Steven Mason, a real scholar, has published an entire volume on the subject called Josephus and the New TestamentRichard Carrier has also written on the subject of the parallels between Josephus and Luke-Acts. Joel Watts, an actual student of Biblical Studies who has done graduate work in the field (unlike Mr. Atwill), has written an academically-published book on someinteresting mimetic elements between Mark and Josephus.

The difference between what these scholars have written and what Mr. Atwill have written is threefold: (a) all of them have academic training in Greek, (b) all of them published through an academic press (Carrier is the exception, but he has published academically and is qualified on the subject), (c) None of them make the illogical leap that similarities between Josephus (a Jew) and the Gospels (written by Jewish authors) mean that the Romans did it. In fact it is the same misguided leap that some evangelicals make about God. “We don’t know, ergo ‘God did it’.” Instead, all of these scholars agree that the most rational reason for these similarities is that the Gospel authors had copies of Josephus, or Josephus had copies of the Gospels. This sort of interplay of texts is not new in the ancient world.

Second, what is utterly absurd is the notion that the Jews were ‘a constant source of violent insurrection.” No, they weren’t. In fact, with the exception of two wars–one that started in 69 and ended in 73 and another that started in 132 and ended in 136–there were barely any disruptions in Judaea. In fact, the Romans and the Jews got along fine for over 100 years prior to the first revolt and again for almost another 60 years following the destruction of the Temple and the end of the first revolt.

Notwithstanding this damning evidence against him, Atwill’s premise is quite narrowed and simplistic, demonstrating a critical lack of understanding of the cultural dynamics of Judea in the first century.

"Crap...why didn't we just use psychological warfare against these guys?"

“Crap…why didn’t we just use psychological warfare against these guys?”

There exist over 30 Jewish sects that we know of from the first century, and have some basic understanding of their belief structures. There are some dozens more we just know by name. On top of that, we have to conclude there are perhaps dozens, if not hundreds, more Jewish sects of which we simply have no record. What is so interesting is how incredibly different each sect is from each other.

Despite Atwill’s unlearned claim that the Jewish people were expecting a ‘Warrior messiah’, in truth there is no universal version of a messiah. Even among the same sect, over time, the concept of their messiah would change. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, which Mr. Atwill seems to think he knows so well, the language of the messiah and his purpose changes (in fact at one point, we see two distinct messiahs at once–one a priestly messiah and another a kingly messiah). Some sects did not even expect a messiah at all. Any of the numerous works on messianic expectations published in the last two decades utterly annihilates any claim that Atwill is making about some uniformity in Jewish thought and ritual.

Even logically, his analysis is flawed. If this tactic was used against the Jews, why didn’t the Romans use it against an even greater threat: the Gauls?! The Jewish people were never as serious a threat to the Empire as much as the Gauls were–who sacked Rome twice and destroyed Legions. Atwill never seems to consider how basically incompetent his thesis is in this regard. If the Romans had such success against the Jews using this “psychological warfare” (anachronism alert!! Danger! Danger!), why don’t we see this happening against all of their enemies? It is just so beyond absurd. It really is.

Here is the thing; it may be that Mr. Atwill is completely clueless about this. Maybe he isn’t just trying to scam everyone and sell a bunch of books to a group of gullible people. Maybe he legitimately hasn’t read anything relevant on this subject or any recent scholarship on it.

"What?  'The Romans Invented Jesus'?  What a rip off!"

“What? ‘The Romans Invented Jesus’? What a rip off!”

But that is troubling–would you want to read a science book written by a layperson who hasn’t read a single relevant scientific study? Would you pick up a book on engineering written by someone with a background in computer science, and trust that book enough to build a house based upon its designs? I hope not. I sincerely hope that no one would agree to trust either of these books.

This is the issue with Mr. Atwill. He may sincerely believe he has discovered the secret code off a cereal box with his 3-D glasses he found inside; that doesn’t make him an expert in the subject, it doesn’t make him knowledgeable enough to give lectures on it. It certainly does not make him credible.

Mr. Atwill is just like all the other amateur-Scholar-wannabes who refuse to put in the time and effort to earn a degree in the field, who want to advance their pet theories to sell books and dupe you over. He relies on popular media and the ignorance of the layperson to score points rather than publishing in a credible academic journal or publishing academically. He knows he can’t do that, because he has no clue how academics work, how they think, or what they actually argue on the subject. He might as well claim that Jesus lived on Atlantis, which came from Mars. That theory is about as ridiculous as the notion that Rome invented Jesus.

Richard Carrier has also gone to town on Atwill:

There are at least eight general problems with his thesis, which do not refute it but establish that it has a very low prior probability, and therefore requires exceptionally good evidence to be at all credible:

(1) The Roman aristocracy was nowhere near as clever as Atwill’s theory requires. They certainly were not so masterfully educated in the Jewish scriptures and theology that they could compose hundreds of pages of elegant passages based on it. And it is very unlikely they would ever conceive of a scheme like this, much less think they could succeed at it (even less, actually do so).

(2) We know there were over forty Gospels, yet the four chosen for the canon were not selected until well into the 2nd century, and not by anyone in the Roman aristocracy. Likewise which Epistles were selected.

(3) The Gospels and the Epistles all contradict each other far too much to have been composed with a systematic aim in mind. Indeed, they contradict each other in ways that often demonstrate they are deliberately arguing with each other. From the ways Matthew changes Mark; to the way the forged 2 Thessalonians actually tries to argue 1 Thessalonians is the forgery; to how the resurrections depicted in Luke and John are deliberate attempts to refute the doctrine of resurrection defended originally by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 and 2 Corinthians 5; to how some Epistles insist on Torah observance while others insist it can be discarded; to how Luke’s nativity contradicts Matthew’s on almost every single particular (and not just in placing the event in completely different periods ten years apart); to how Acts blatantly contradicts Paul’s own account of his conversion and travels; to how John invents a real Lazarus to refute a point Luke tried to make with a fictional Lazarus; and so on. (I discuss some of these, and more, in my forthcoming book On the Historicity of Jesus.)

(4) The Gospels and the Epistles differ far too much in style to have come from the same hand, and many show signs of later doctoring that would problematize attempts to confirm any theory like Atwill’s. For example, Mark 16:9-20, John 20 vs. 21, the hash job made of the epistle to the Romans, etc. Even the fact of how the canon was selected creates a problem for Atwill’s research requirements–for instance, the actual first letter to the Corinthians is completely missing, yet Paul refers to its existence in “our” 1 Corinthians.

(5) Christianity was probably constructed to “divert Jewish hostility and aggressiveness into a pacifist religion, supportive of–and subservient to–Roman rule,” but not by Romans, but exasperated Jews like Paul, who saw Jewish militarism as unacceptably disastrous in contrast with the obvious advantages of retooling their messianic expectations to produce the peaceful moral reform of society. The precedents were all there already in pre-Christian Jewish ideology and society (in Philo’s philosophy, in Essene and Qumranic efforts to solve the same problems, and so on) so we don’t have to posit super-genius Aryans helping the poor little angry Jews to calm down.

(6) Pacifying Jews would not have been possible with a cult that eliminated Jewish law and accepted Gentiles as equals, and in actual fact Christianity was pretty much a failure in Palestine. Its success was achieved mainly in the Diaspora, where the Romans rarely had any major problems with the Jews. The Jewish War was only fought in Palestine, and not even against all the Jews there (many sided with Rome). How would inventing a religion that would have no chance of succeeding in the heart of Palestine but instead was tailor made to succeed outside Palestine, ever help the Romans with anything they considered important?

(7) If the Roman elite’s aim was to “pacify” Palestinian Jews by inventing new scriptures, they were certainly smart and informed enough to know that that wouldn’t succeed by using the language the Judean elite despised as foreign (Greek).

(8) The Romans knew one thing well: War. Social ideology they were never very good at. That’s why Rome always had such problems keeping its empire together, and why social discontent and other malfunctions continued to escalate until the empire started dissolving. Rome expected to solve every problem militarily instead–and up until the 3rd century Rome did so quite well. The Jewish War was effectively over in just four years (any siege war was expected to take at least three, and Vespasian was actually busy conquering Rome in the fourth year of that War). So why would they think they needed any other solution?

With all that counting against Atwill, he has a very high burden to meet. And he just doesn’t. He actually has no evidence at all for his thesis, except “Bible Code”-style readings of coincidences among texts, which he seems only to read in English and not the original Greek, all the while relying on egregious fallacies in probabilistic reasoning.

So thanks for the article, but for the time being all the experts seem to think it’s bullshit to the power of bullshit.  :(

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About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.