Did Roman Aristocrats Fabricate the Jesus Story?

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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.

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The Romans were brilliant military strategists who relentlessly beat their enemies into submission. Fabricating worldviews was not in their arsenal…

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?

CONCLUSION

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”

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Joseph Atwill, Caesar’s Messiah: The Roman Conspiracy to Invent Jesus (Berkeley, Cali.: Ulysses Press, 2009).

Associate Contributor: Alan Reynolds (@walanreynolds)

Why Ray Comfort’s “Evolution vs. God” Isn’t Actually That Helpful

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Image / Livingwaters.com

Recently, Ray Comfort released a documentary titled “Evolution vs. God: Shaking the Foundations of Faith.” Comfort, an ardent proponent of young earth creationism (YEC), which promotes biblical literalism concerning Genesis 1–3, created the video in hopes of instilling doubt in the minds of the general public about the trustworthiness of evolution.

Presumably, the hope behind such a documentary would seek to bolster the trustworthiness of scripture for evangelism purposes. Having viewed it a few times, there is no doubt in my mind that Comfort is well-intentioned; however, I believe this video is not actually that helpful to the greater Science v. Faith public dialogue.

To be sure, Evolution vs. God will most likely not turn many heads. A quick scan across the internet reveals that it has already become the laughing stock of the non-theist community – a moot point, of course. Yet it is the other audience viewing the video, the Christians, who may well receive a false hope that Comfort’s documentary is an extremely effective tool for the gospel.

Why? Because Evolution vs. God just isn’t really that helpful whether you’re a YEC, intelligent design proponent, theistic evolutionist, or any other flavor of theistic creationism. It is unhelpful because it is poorly executed and falsely advertised as having accomplished something it has not.

GOTCHA JOURNALISM

So what’s the big deal? Why isn’t this video helpful? Two words: gotcha journalism. Unfortunately, Comfort’s video is a classic example of it.

Throughout the entire video, Comfort interviews students and university professors about their belief in evolution. He repeatedly commits that most notorious of philosophical fallacies, appeal to authority, by supposedly stumping evolutionary experts in their own fields of research.

The unspoken message comes across very clear – since studied evolutionists cannot provide observable evidence for evolution, it must be false. However, it should be observed that the authority Comfort appeals to isn’t the best pool to draw from. Throughout the video, he speaks with 26 students (presumably undergraduates) while only speaking with 4 professional academics. Not to offend, but this may not be the best sample of evolutionists to draw conclusions from.

Not only this, but there were many students who weren’t even biology majors. Some were geology, chemistry, bio-chemistry, environment science, and physics majors. Stumping a geology major in evolution does not disprove the theory, just as stumping a criminal justice major in theology doesn’t disprove the existence of God.

(There was just something cringeworthy about watching Comfort question geology and physics majors about evolution, recording their confused reactions, and heralding it as a victory for creationism.)

Furthermore, when questioning his interviewees about evolution, Comfort devotes a substantially smaller amount of attention to professors or academics compared to students.  Obviously, students will not formulate the same calibre of responses that professors or academics will, and Comfort is well aware of this.

All this leads to a documentary full of gotcha journalism. It comes across as tacky, misleading and, frankly, ineffective. So, after watching a documentary laden with gotcha journalism, as Christians we should honestly ask the question, “How is this helpful for Jesus?”

BACK TO WHAT MATTERS

In my opinion, Comfort needs to get back to what matters – the gospel. Of course, he presents a version at the end of the documentary, but gets to the gospel only after wading through a thicket of loaded questions and, presumably, highly edited responses. (After all, we cannot know for sure the extent or persuasiveness to which the interviewees answered Comfort’s questions.)

What Comfort is doing through Evolution vs. God is mirroring the same boorish tactics used by New Atheists in order to instill doubt in the minds of Christians. We complain about the ornery antagonism from the likes of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, but when it is done in reverse do we cheer? When Comfort corners an undergraduate geology major about the massive implications and issues surrounding evolution, do we not see the correlation of Harris broad stroking Christians are backwards, unthinking fools?

Comfort does apologetics evangelism an injustice with this documentary while heralding it as having shaken the foundations of faith in evolution. The formula we should engage in does not start with “debunking” evolution. What matters in sharing the gospel isn’t trying to “disprove” evolution outright.  Sharing the gospel is about getting straight to the point – starting at Jesus – and working your way outwards from there.

Watch “Evolution vs. God” here.