Atwill's Cranked-up Jesus

SUBHEAD: This pseudo-historical nonsense is over a century old by now, first having been proposed by Bruno Bauer in Christ and the Caesars.

By Richard Carrier on 9 October 2013 for FreeThoughtBlogs -

[IB Publisher's note: This article is being posted as a counter argument to the article posted yesterday supporting the thesis of Joseph Atwill that Christ was an invention of Roman propaganda. See Ea O Ka Aina: Romans invented Jesus Christ (]

Image above: Jesus learning the trade of carpentry from Joseph. From (

Joseph Atwill is one of those crank mythers I often get conflated with. Mythicists like him make the job of serious scholars like me so much harder, because people see, hear, or read them and think their nonsense is what mythicism is. They make mythicism look ridiculous. So I have to waste time (oh by the gods, so much time) explaining how I am not arguing anything like their theories or using anything like their terrible methods, and unlike them I actually know what I am talking about, and have an actual Ph.D. in a relevant subject from a real university.

Note that I have divided this article into two parts, the second (titled “Our Long Conversation”) is something you can easily skip (see the intro there for whether reading it will be of any interest to you). So although this post looks extraordinarily long, it’s really that second part that gives it such length. You can just read up to the beginning of that section though. You don’t have to continue beyond that to get the overall point.

Atwill is the one dude I get asked about most often.[*] And now apparently even Dawkins is tweeting about Atwill, thanks to his upcoming venture into England later this month to sell his weird Roman Conspiracy variety of Jesus mythicism. To get the gist you can check out his PR puff piece. Thomas Verenna has already written a deconstruction of that. Notably even Acharya S (D.M. Murdock) doesn’t buy Atwill’s thesis, declaring that she does “not concur with Atwill’s Josephus/Flavian thesis” and that “the Flavians, including Josephus, did not compose the canonical gospels as we have them.” Robert Price has similarly soundly debunked his book, even after strongly wanting to like it.

Atwill is best known as the author of Caesar’s Messiah (subtitle: “The Roman Conspiracy to Invent Jesus,” Roman meaning the Roman imperial family…yeah). In this Atwill argues “Jesus [is] the invention of a Roman emperor” and that the entire (?) New Testament was written by “the first-century historian Flavius Josephus” who left clues to his scheme by littering secret hidden coded “parallels” in his book The Jewish War. Atwill claims to prove “the Romans directed the writing of both” the JW and the NT, in order “to offer a vision of a ‘peaceful Messiah’ who would serve as an alternative to the revolutionary leaders who were rocking first-century Israel and threatening Rome,” and also (apparently) as a laughing joke on the Jews (Atwill variously admits or denies he argues the latter, but it became clear in our correspondence, which I will reproduce below…it’s weird because making fun of the Jews kind of contradicts the supposedly serious aim of persuading the Jews, yet Atwill seems to want the imperial goal to have simultaneously been both).

Notice his theory entails a massive and weirdly erudite conspiracy of truly bizarre scope and pedigree, to achieve a truly Quixotic aim that hardly makes sense coming from any half-intelligent elite of the era (even after adjusting for the Flynn effect), all to posit that the entire Christian religion was created by the Romans (and then immediately opposed by it?), who somehow got hundreds of Jews (?) to abandon their religion and join a cult that simply appeared suddenly without explanation on the Palestinian (?) book market without endorsement.

I honestly shouldn’t have to explain why this is absurd. But I’ll hit some highlights. Then I’ll reveal the reasons why I think Atwill is a total crank, and his work should be ignored, indeed everywhere warned against as among the worst of mythicism, not representative of any serious argument that Jesus didn’t exist. And that’s coming from me, someone who believes Jesus didn’t exist.

Historically, Atwill’s thesis is more or less a retooled version of the old Pisonian Conspiracy Theory, by which is not meant the actual Pisonian conspiracy (to assassinate Nero), but a wildly fictitious one in which the Piso family invented Christianity (and fabricated all its documents) through its contacts with the Flavian family, and thence Josephus (who was indeed adopted into that family after tricking his officer corps into committing suicide and then surrendering to the Romans during the War…oh, and conveniently declaring Vespasian the Messiah).

This pseudo-historical nonsense is over a century old by now, first having been proposed (so far as I know) by Bruno Bauer in Christ and the Caesars in 1877 (Christus und Caesaren). It has been revamped a dozen times since. Atwill is simply the latest iteration (or almost–there is a bonkers Rabbi still going around with an even wilder version). Atwill’s is very much like Bible Code crankery, where he looks for all kinds of multiple comparisons fallacies and sees conspiracies in all of them, rather than the inevitable coincidences (or often outright non-correspondences) that they really are. Everything confirms his thesis, because nothing could ever fail to. Classic nonfalsifiability. He just cherry picks and interprets anything to fit, any way he wants. 

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.

For the rest of this article see (


No comments :

Post a Comment