THE BLOG
10/11/2013 05:10 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Was Jesus a Roman Invention?

Joseph Atwill, a computer scientist, has taken to calling himself a 'bible scholar' complete with startling revelations threatening to undo Christianity. It appears anyone can now call him or herself a bible scholar, and their production scholarship, without anyone questioning their credentials.

With a few hundred dollars, an individual can buy fame (or awards, but that too is another matter) these days. How? You just buy a press release from companies like PRWeb. Tired of republishing his self-published book every few years, Atwill is now hitting the lecture circuit in what looks to be a hall available for rent. What does he have to sell? His less-than-novel idea of a Roman creation of Jesus. But it goes further. According to him, Romans not only invented Jesus but now Josephus, the New Testament, and perhaps even the Dead Sea Scrolls. They did this, per Atwill, to fool and ridicule the Jews.

As you can imagine, this idea has caught on like wildfire. I'll get to the "why" in just a bit.

I have recently covered some of the reasons Atwill's thesis is bogus. Atwill and others of his ward fail to take any real New Testament scholarship seriously. They must rely on conspiracy theories while disdaining fact. For them, all of history, religion, and culture are one giant conspiracy. Thus, their starting point is filled with logical fallacies.

For Atwill, Christianity was created wholesale in the late 70s. He believes Christianity was invented as a way to calm the Jews and to focus their attention on Titus as Messiah.

Atwill proposes a complete fabrication of the life of Jesus based on Josephus's account of the Jewish Revolt, which incidentally was also fabricated by the Romans. This is ludicrous. While there are some passages that bear a resemblance to passages in Josephus, it is Josephus who is more than likely looking at the story of Elijah-Elisha to use for some of the details in his works. This is why Mark 6-8 reflects the Elijah-Elisha narratives and Josephus. After all, Josephus pictured himself as the Elijah-spirit to Vespasian's Governor of the World/Messiah. While I do believe Mark is writing against Rome (Vespasian) and even fellow Jews (Simon bar Giora) by using familiar stories, he is doing so based on a historical figure and a pre-existing outline. This provided for an easy acceptance for the group of Jesus followers existing before the destruction of the Temple while turning the message of Jesus into one of preservation against the new reality following 70 CE.

In his press release Atwill insists on a single biography of Jesus, but there is no single biography of the historical Jesus. There are many bios and other writings in other genres written about the theological figure of Jesus. However, Atwill in his 2005 version of Caesar's Messiah says the Jesus in John's Gospel is different than the Jesuses in the Synoptics. That's right. There are four different Jesuses, maybe a fifth. His engagement with primary sources seems to be limited to Josephus and the four canonical gospels, a detrimental mistake to any thesis on the historical Jesus.

Atwill believes -- contrary to everything in history -- Titus thought himself to be the true Jewish messiah. Thus, Jesus becomes the 'Malachi' (Atwill's allegoricalizing of the entire Old Testament book is worth noting). This ignores the actual sayings of the Gospels about John the Baptizer and what Josephus says of himself in relation to Vespasian. There is no nuance with Atwill -- everything is read to confirm what he believes.

Adam Winn, a true biblical school, has written on Vespasian's use of Jewish messianism. He used Egyptian religious expectations as well, but once he was solidly enthroned, he discarded these. This is why Josephus was ignored and forgotten. By the time Titus arrives, there is no need for propaganda beyond the usual. Atwill, however, has no need for any real scholars.

Other scholars such as Tom Verenna, an academically published amateur historian and classics student at Rutgers University, and classicist Richard Carrier (PhD, Columbia University) are finding it easy to tear into Atwill's hypothesis. Both have demonstrated the faultiness of Atwill's idea with facts and admirable skill.

Why has this taken some corners of the world by storm? First, I have to think it has something to do with how information travels. Simply put, it is Dawkins' Meme Theory. (Oddly enough, Dawkins tweeted about Atwill's propaganda piece.) Atwill purchased the press release, pushing it out to bloggers, newswires, and even reporters. The Daily Mail (UK) and the Raw Story simply reprinted the press release with only a little commentary on their respective websites. Only the Daily Mail bothered to check with a real bible scholar, James Crossley, a lecturer at Sheffield University. So now it appears to have some legitimacy. And some people are happy.

This is simply confirmation bias on grand scale.

Those who desire nothing more than to have Christianity proved false have no need to research what Atwill is writing before believing it or pass it on. This is the same mindset of those who take Scripture at face value. Both groups want so desperately to believe, they will believe in whatever confirms their presuppositions.

Perhaps this is why we are in the political and religious mess we are in. There are people who will only accept information confirming what they already believe to be true. This is why you must critically engage what you read and hear before you hit the share button. This goes for the layperson, scholar, and reporter alike.