No, Joe Atwill: Rome Did Not Invent Jesus

Note:   There are some updates below from 10/9 and 10/10–scroll down to see them.

Apparently Joe Atwill has made a “documentary” of his book Caesar’s Messiah.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, ancient Jewish texts discovered in caves in Israel in 1947, give a different picture than the idyllic first century Holy Land of the Gospels. From year one, there were battles and confrontations between the Romans and the Jews, the Scrolls note, and there was no turning of the other cheek by the likes of rebel leader Judah of Galilee. And there was nary a mention in the Scrolls of the peaceable prophet Jesus Christ.

“This is where I came into Christian scholarship,” says Atwill, 63, an investor who lives by the proceeds of a dot-com sell off in the 1990s. “There was supposedly this character, Jesus, wandering around in Galilee. Nobody knew anything about him. Galilee is only 30 miles long. Jesus and other historical figures of the time would have known each other.”

Atwill, an admittedly bookish man, dived in headfirst, digging out whatever historical records he could find, studying the Scrolls, and reading Roman accounts, notably that of a family member of the Flavian dynasty of Caesars named Josephus. He found no historical Jesus in any of those writings. But there were some uncanny connections between the story of Jesus as told in the Gospels and the family of Roman emperors who took power after Nero was forced to commit suicide following a coup d’état.

I mean this is just golden cow scat.  Seriously.  Why?  Because that is what you’re watching.

Let’s start with the blurb itself.  Just the little snippet above should put anyone off from even considering this hypothesis.

  1. The Dead Sea Scrolls were not all written in the first century, but spread out over many.  There are more than 200 years of texts here, from the terminus a quo of the earliest manuscript to the terminus ad quem of the latest (3rd Century CE – 1st Century CE).  So no, Atwill, you’re not going to find a match to the Gospels because these were written after the Dead Sea Scrolls had been hidden away in the caves of Qumran.  In fact the site was probably destroyed by Romans during the First Jewish War–prior to when it is generally believed Mark wrote the first Gospel around 70 CE.
  2. The Gospels follow a pattern of what is called ‘Biblical Rewriting’ which was a common Jewish practice, just as ‘Homeric rewriting’ was common with Greek and Roman writers.  So actually the Gospels fit quite well within the scribal framework of the Jewish community at the time.
  3. Why would the Dead Sea Scrolls mention Jesus when the settlement where these scrolls were probably written is over 130km (80 miles) away from Galilee?  That is the distance between New York City and Philadelphia.  Additionally, the sect at Qumran seems to have kept to themselves, living strict pious lives of obedience to god and to their laws.  I do not believe them to have been Essenes–though probably quite close to them.
  4. Who else would have mentioned him?  We have no  contemporary attestation to anything from the 30′s CE from Galilee beyond archaeological finds (coins, epigraphical evidence, etc…).  But that does not mean to suggest none existed from the region.  Between the Jewish wars, the passing of time, we’re lucky we have anything from the region.  This is a weak argument from silence.
  5. If you’re coming ‘into Christian scholarship’ from this position, you’re doing it wrong.
  6. Your argument that “Nobody knew anything about him” is incredible (Fixed!) since we have Gospels and epistles probably dating to the First Century CE.  These may not have been accounts of what Jesus said and did, but they certainly demonstrate that a figure of Jesus was well-known to at least some people in the First Century.
  7. If you’re claiming to have ‘dived headfirst’ into the sources, does that mean you have a grasp of Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic, Nabataean, and Hebrew?  What about just Greek–since you predominately use Josephus?  I suspect that, given your book only has something like 7 footnotes and almost all of them are from Josephus, you haven’t quite managed to take into account all the sources.

Atwill then suggests the following hypothesis so centric to the thesis of his book:

Sometime in the mid 70s AD, Atwill suggests, Greco-Roman intellectuals wrote the now-well-known stories—in Greek, not the popular Aramaic of the Judaic populace—about the Jewish messiah who defied the Judaic traditions of militancy to preach a sweet, accommodationist message.

I’ll break this down too.  What the hell.

  1. You’re not using ‘Greco-Roman’ correctly. (You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means)
  2. Greek was commonly used by Jews in antiquity–Josephus, Philo, some of the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls, various Jewish pseudepigrapha, the Maccabees (though maybe from a Hebrew original–uncertainty here), Jesus ben Sira (i.e., Sirach), various apocrypha (Tobit, for example–though maybe originally written in Aramaic, more uncertainty here).  It depended upon their education and their level of assimilation which anyone familiar with the socio-cultural period of the Hellenistic-Roman periods would be able to explain easily.  Atwill clearly has no grasp of these concepts, probably because he didn’t bother reading anything related to this despite his self-acclaimed ‘bookish-ness’.
  3. Jesus’ message in the Gospel is not new or anti-Judaic.  In fact, it is quite Jewish (see anything written by James Crossley, for goodness sake).

All in all, Atwill proves he is incapable of taking this subject seriously–his not being a scholar aside, he completely misses the more logical argument to make from the Josephus-Gospel parallelisms, which also happen to be the same arguments made by Steve Mason in his now-famous work on Josephus and the New Testament: that either the Gospel authors or Josephus were using each other as intertextual references (I think it quite obvious that Luke had copies of Josephus, actually–a point Mason glosses over in a paragraph but never admits fully, but also what Richard Carrier argues here).

If you are planning to go see this movie, please, bring a disposable bag so you can properly rid yourself of the dung that undoubtedly will be thrown at you during the presentation.

**UPDATE 10-9-13**

Since this “documentary” first appeared, it seems that Mr. Atwill is again trying to profit off the ignorance of others.  Now, self-styled as an ‘American Biblical scholar”, Mr. Atwill is peddling his book of lies and misleading theories to those in the UK.   This nonsense does not deserve another post; but I will update this one because it can’t go along unopposed.

First, and let me be clear, nothing Joe Atwill has written is ‘conclusive’.  In order for it to be conclusive, it would have to surmount all arguments against it.  Unfortunately for him, he fails to grasp even basic knowledge about the subject.  For example, he makes the rather bizarre claim that:

“In fact he [Jesus - ed.] may be the only fictional character in literature whose entire life story can be traced to other sources. Once those sources are all laid bare, there’s simply nothing left.”

Yet this is simply false.  The Hebrew Bible is full of fictional literary characters whose entire life story can be traced to other sources.  His hyperbole is bizarre.  But even so, is Atwill seriously suggesting that fictional stories cannot be written about historical people or events?  Wonder Woman is a highly fictionalized and heroicized literary figure inspired by an actual person, the creator’s wife, Elizabeth Marston.  Wonder Woman meets Atwill’s classification as a “fictional character in literature whose entire life story can be traced to other sources.”

So it might be argued that maybe he was referring to ancient literature, but even then he is ignorant of basic figures that anyone with a minutiae of Classical education can speak upon.  In ancient literature, the figure and legendary king of Sparta, Lycurgus, is entirely mythicized in literature yet may have been a real person (scholarship is split on this).  The mythological tale of Gilgamesh, who we have no actual historical information on, is considered to be a historical figure and ancient king by most leading Sumerologists and yet his entire life story is one of our earliest extant written sources and one of our earliest written myths period.   The biographies of Plutarch are propagandist fantasies of his about the lives of historical people like Alexander the Great (mixed in with purely fictional figures like Romulus).

This should be enough to make my point; Atwill makes claims that cannot be supported when those with some basic knowledge of the subject explore the claims further.   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!  A 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 Testament.   Richard 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 some interesting 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, 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.

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Image courtesy of Steve Caruso.

*UPDATE 10-10-13*

You’ll want to check out some additional take-downs:

(Shameless plug): For an academically published volume on the historicity of Jesus (which does not contain wild conspiracy theories), consisting of essays from scholars all over the world (the first such book of its kind to my knowledge), consider my co-edited volume ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus (Sheffield: Equinox/Acumen, 2012/2013).

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