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Did the Romans invent Jesus?

October 10, 2013

This morning I stumbled across an article where scholar Joseph Atwill claims that the whole story of Jesus was fabricated. He claims that the “New Testament was written by first-century Roman aristocrats and that they fabricated the entire story of Jesus Christ.”

This is a fascinating claim and I noticed many atheists and atheist groups sharing this online (because this claim obviously strengthens the atheist case).

The centre of Atwill’s thesis appears to be that:

Christianity did not really begin as a religion, but a sophisticated government project, a kind of propaganda exercise used to pacify the subjects of the Roman Empire. “Jewish sects in Palestine at the time, who were waiting for a prophesied warrior Messiah, were a constant source of violent insurrection during the first century,” he explains. “When the Romans had exhausted conventional means of quashing rebellion, they switched to psychological warfare. They surmised that the way to stop the spread of zealous Jewish missionary activity was to create a competing belief system. That’s when the ‘peaceful’ Messiah story was invented. Instead of inspiring warfare, this Messiah urged turn-the-other-cheek pacifism and encouraged Jews to ‘give onto Caesar’ and pay their taxes to Rome.”

He came to this conclusion through comparative analysis of other ancient documents, notable Josephus. He concludes, ‘The biography of Jesus is actually constructed, tip to stern, on prior stories, but especially on the biography of a Roman Caesar.”

Yet there are serious problems with Atwill’s thesis. I have some initial observations and obstacles for Atwill to overcome before his thesis can really be convincing.

1. His thesis makes little sense of the earliest New Testament documents – the Pauline epistles. Paul’s epistles refer to real situations with real people (whom he mentions) and he refers to Jesus as a real historical person. It seems difficult to conceive that these have been fabricated. Furthermore Paul even quotes pre-existing tradition which appears to be circulating more widely and earlier than Paul. The best example of this is 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, which certainly seems to refer to a real historical person of Jesus.

Most of Atwill’s thesis seems to focus on the Gospels, the biographies of Jesus’ life, yet these were finalised many years after the Pauline letters. What does Atwill make of the historical Paul? This is a serious obstacle to overcome.

2. Atwill needs to explain how first century Roman aristocrats could have sufficient grasp of Jewish theology (and command of the substantial number of Old Testament references, quotations, allusions and theology in the New Testament) to create such a corpus of writings. Moreover he needs to explain how these people could acquire the intimate knowledge of the geography, customs and language of first century Palestine described in the Gospels.

3. Atwill also needs to explain how Roman aristocrats could convince Jews to usurp their own belief system. How would this ‘program’ be carried out? Who would be the messengers? Why would they use ‘resurrection of an individual’ as the primary message? The Christian conception of Jesus’ resurrection, i.e. resurrection of an individual was contrary to the prevailing Jewish expectation of ‘resurrection’ which would be corporate and would signal the end of the world. Again, another significant obstacle to overcome.

4. Atwill needs to explain who wrote this propaganda project and when. This is problematic because the New Testament was composed over a series of decades – beginning almost immediately after Jesus’ resurrection (again consider 1 Cor 15). It is a remarkable to claim that the Romans over a period of time containing numerous Emperors, governments and officials and who were engaging many other, perhaps more significant, issues than pacifying Jews, could maintain a such a sustained and consistent propaganda project over some 60 years!

5. Another obstacle is the silence of any Roman source on such a ‘project’. The earliest Roman sources commenting on the Jesus tradition e.g. Tacitus seems to assume Jesus was a real historical person and are silent about any such propaganda project. Why has this ‘project’ never been recorded or mentioned in any historical record?

6. The destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD is problematic. If the Romans had “exhausted conventional means of quashing rebellion” and “switched to psychological warfare”, why was Jerusalem destroyed? This is problematic because it is generally accepted that some of the Gospels were written before 70AD (e.g. Mark and probably Matthew) and others after (e.,g. Luke and John).

7. It also does seem odd that Atwill’s thesis appears to replace one type of missionary activity with another! (which funnily enough encountered Roman opposition!)

There are many, many other things which need to be explained and until they do unfortunately Atwill’s thesis reeks more of the Da Vinci code than it does of serious historical Jesus scholarship.

Atwill is correct in identifying that the Gospels have been crafted with knowledge of other sources, yet this doesn’t mean that the Gospels have been fabricated. Indeed the Gospel writers often frame concepts and ideas within existing paradigms to accentuate and highlight their point.

Of course, if Atwill’s thesis is true, then his conclusion is justified and as he says that his work gives “permission to many of those ready to leave the religion to make a clean break’. Yet at this stage Atwill will need to overcome many formidable obstacles to demonstrate conclusively his case that the Romans really did invent Jesus.

From → Bible, Comment, History, News

  1. Keep in mind, the same article calls Ken Humphreys a scholar.

    The term is obviously being applied loosely.

  2. Dan permalink

    Just wanted to point out that the historicity of Jesus has little to no bearing on atheism.

    For one thing, you can’t get from his existence to his divinity from ancient texts. The existence or not of Jesus says nothing about the existence of Yahweh except that the Jews got it right.

    For another thing, Yahweh is just one of 1000s of gods that atheists don’t believe in. Atheists talk about Yahweh a lot because of the dominance of his fan club in global culture but you should never assume that he holds a special place in our disbelief

  3. Robert M Price is a well-known and respected theological scholar who describes himself as a Christian atheist (analogical to secular Jew I guess). Here is a link to his very critical review of Atwill’s work:

  4. Stephen King permalink

    It is very possible that Jesus was a real person, and did a majority of the things that the bible says he did. The issue being that his fulfillment of prophecies was to “prove” that he was the Messiah, so that a peaceful religion was born. I believe it is entirely possible that the Roman government was behind this from the start, but I do not believe it was created out of thin air. Everything that the people saw, “seemed” to be happening, but was really aided, in large, by the roman government.

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