An article has been floating around the internet about Joseph Atwill's upcoming event "Covert Messiah" taking place in London this week. Atwill maintains a theory that the Flavian dynasty (a Roman aristocratic family) fabricated the Jesus narrative as an attempt to quell Jewish rebellion in Palestine during Rome's occupation of the land in the first centuries. Instead of continuing a costly military campaign, the Roman government decided to wage "psychological warfare" in the form of inventing Christianity.
The event this week will most likely follow the same flow of thought found in Atwill's work "Caesar's Messiah: The Roman Conspiracy to Invent Jesus." In it, Atwill, a self-proclaimed "successful businessman" and "long-time student of Christianity", lays out a lengthy argument that the Flavian aristocrats "created [Christianity] to serve as a theological barrier to prevent messianic Judaism from again erupting against the empire (Atwill, 333.)" Additionally, he argues that the Gospels were created as a satire of Titus' military campaign throughout Judea.
So, does he have a point? Did Roman aristocrats fabricate the Jesus story in order to pacify the rebellious Jews? There are some major assumptions in Atwill's work that must hold true in order for his theory to work. Let's look just six of them.
1. The Entire New Testament Was Fabricated in Support of the Jesus Myth
In order for Atwill's theory to be correct, the Flavian intellectuals would have needed to fabricate four different Gospel accounts (not including the pseudepigrapha) along with the Epistles, one history book, and a prophetic vision of the future.
This seems highly unlikely. The New Testament is a library of an array of voices, literary types, writing styles, and intellectual expressions. It is apparent that they were written by different authors at different times with different messages in mind. A consistent and fabricated theme is simply not found in the New Testament.
2. A Handful of Parallels Out of Dozens of Narratives Are Sufficient Evidence for Fabrication
Atwill gives a handful of parallels out of dozens of narratives found in the New Testament as proof of a Jesus–Titus parallel connection.
One would expect many parallels between Jesus and Titus to exist in order for Atwill to make such an astonishing claim. However, that's not the case. In fact, when you get into his book there are only seven major parallels (as far as his conclusion is concerned – Atwill, 336-337). Seven parallels out of dozens of episodes in Jesus' life. That does not seem like enough evidence to warrant the conclusion that the entire New Testament was fabricated in support of the Jesus myth.
3. The Pacification of the Jews Was Accomplished Through The Demolition of Their Religion
The Flavian aristocrats must have believed that changing the Jewish religion to Christianity would help pacify them.
This seems highly unlikely. Many foreign cultures attempted to stamp out the Jewish religion, which they saw as a source of rebellion. As history shows, that never worked. The Greeks attempted to replace Jewish culture with their own (Hellenism), but that failed. The Romans attempted to replace Jewish government with their own government, but that also failed (until well after Jesus' life).
Furthermore, we see in the Book of Acts that the early Christian church caused all sorts of problems with the Jewish community. How was this supposed to quell Jewish rebellion?
4. The Romans Traded Warfare for Philosophy
The Romans, who were incredible military strategists, would have cast aside what they were good at for something they weren't.
If there was one thing Rome did well it was warfare. Philosophy, on the other hand, didn't come naturally. They borrowed much of their thinking from Greek culture and expounded on it. It seems unlikely that the Romans, after decades of trying to suppress the Jews, would give up militarily and give "psychological warfare" a try.
5. Atwill Is the First Guy to Make This Discovery in 2,000 Years
No one in 2,000 years has made a Jesus–Titus connection until Joseph Atwill.
Atwill is claiming that he discovered something that thousands and thousands of scholars have over looked for the past 2,000 years. Well... if anything, at least his hubris is in check.
Also, Atwill is not in good company. Jesus mythicists have not found many friends in the academic community. Even New Testament critics such as Bart Ehrman believe Jesus was real person.
6. The Romans Fabricated A Story, Then Persecuted People for Believing It
Roman persecution plagued the early church for believing in something the Romans made up.
This makes no sense at all. Why would the Roman government fabricate a religion, trick everyone into believing it, and then punish them for believing it?
Atwill sees parallels where parallels don't exist. He gathers a small pile of questionable evidence and heralds it as a mountain of condemnation for Christianity. He does this alone, having been the only person in 2,000 years to make such connections, but rarely questions why he's the only one who came to the conclusions that he has.
Unfortunately, many people will buy what this self-described "successful businessman" is selling them, which is a convenient lie to disbelieve in the savior who loves them. And by selling I mean literally selling. The cost to hear Atwill share his rocky logic is $40.00 (£25) a ticket. The market is demanding reasons to disbelieve Jesus and Atwill is willing to supply that demand.
Perhaps he should change his seminar's title to "Covert Me$$iah"
Kyle Beshears (@kylebeshears) is a pastor at the People of Mars Hill in Mobile, Alabama. He is the author of Robot Jesus and Three Other Jesuses You Never Knew and blogs at Dear Ephesus on church issues and apologetics.
Associate Contributor: Alan Reynolds (@walanreynolds)
Joseph Atwill, Caesar's Messiah: The Roman Conspiracy to Invent Jesus (Berkeley, Cali.: Ulysses Press, 2009).