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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- If you’re coming ‘into Christian scholarship’ from this position, you’re doing it wrong.
- Your argument that “Nobody knew anything about him” is incredulous 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.
- 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.
- You’re not using ‘Greco-Roman’ correctly. (You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means)
- 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’.
- 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.