A Critique of Joseph Atwill’s “Caesar’s Messiah”

By James M. Rochford

We hesitate to write a critique of Joseph Atwill’s recent claim that Jesus never existed, arguing that the Romans invented the entire life, ministry, and teaching of Jesus (A recent online headline reads, “Ancient Confession Found: ‘We Invented Jesus’”). We hesitate to write this critique only because we worry that this will give backhanded merit to Atwill’s claims. It’s kind of like writing an argument for why Santa Claus doesn’t exist: even engaging in the debate almost gives the illusion that there is a debate. After all, even atheistic critics like Bart Ehrman have written, “The view that Jesus existed is held by virtually every expert on the planet.”[1] Why should we even engage conspiracy theorists like this at all?

But unfortunately, many people in Western culture are so ignorant of historical, NT studies that they are in some cases bothered by Atwill’s theory. For this reason, we feel a brief critique is in order.

Atwill’s Theory

In his book Caesar’s Messiah,[2] Joseph Atwill argues that Jesus of Nazareth was the invention of the Roman Empire, and Josephus wrote the entire NT after AD 70. He claims this was due to supposed parallels between the NT and Josephus’ Jewish War. Their motive? Atwill argues that the Romans invented Jesus to pacify the Jewish people, having them believe in a suffering messiah, rather than a conquering one.

There are at least five reasons why we feel that Atwill’s theory stretches our credulity beyond the breaking point:

REASON #1: Atheistic criticism

Even radical atheistic skeptics are intensely critical of Atwill. For instance, atheist Richard Carrier (of infidels.org) writes,

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… his theory entails a massive and weirdly erudite conspiracy of truly bizarre scope and pedigree… 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.

Likewise, radical NT skeptic Robert Price writes,

According to Atwill, the reader needs to comprehend perhaps the most complex literary satire ever written. But Atwill’s envisioned satire seems so complex as to be incoherent.

Atheist P.Z. Myers writes,

If you’re one of the many atheists who gleefully forwarded this to me or credulously mentioned it on twitter… I see you’ve already met the good friend of so many half-baked wackos in the world, Confirmation Bias.

Even fellow skeptics have disowned Atwill’s theory. This should be our first red flag that Atwill’s theory is suspect.

REASON #2: Historical criticism

Atwill claims that Christianity didn’t exist before the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. But even the Roman historian Tacitus places Christian persecution under Emperor Nero in AD 64—well before the destruction of Jerusalem. Tacitus even calls the Christian movement an “immense multitude.” He writes,

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome… Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination when daylight had expired. [3]

If Christianity was a Roman conspiracy, then why would Tacitus—a Roman historian—claim that Christianity existed in AD 64? And, more importantly, why would the Roman emperor Nero persecute Christians in this way, if Rome was actually trying to support Christianity?

Tacitus isn’t the only Roman to mention Christianity. In AD 110, the Roman governor Pliny writes to the Roman Emperor Trajan about the Christian movement in Bithynia. Here Trajan tells Pliny that Christians should be killed, unless they abandon their faith. Trajan writes,

If indeed [Christians] should be brought before you, and the crime is proved, they must be punished; with the restriction, however, that where the party denies he is a Christian, and shall make it evident that he is not, by invoking our gods, let him (notwithstanding any former suspicion) be pardoned upon his repentance.[4]

From this excerpt, it is very clear that Trajan was trying to stop Christianity—not support it. Why would the Romans invent a religion that they would later persecute like this? Moreover, if Rome invented Christianity, then why execute Peter and Paul?[5] Instead of crucifying these two central leaders of the early Christian movement, they should have had them on their payroll.

Finally, the Romans weren’t the only ones to mention Jesus (see Part Four of Evidence Unseen). Other Greek and Jewish sources also mention Jesus of Nazareth. Were these hostile sources also part of this “Roman conspiracy”?

REASON #3: Worldview criticism

The NT affirms that Jesus has “all authority on heaven and Earth” (Mt. 28:18), and he is called the “king of kings and lord of lords” (Rev. 19:16). This is why, in the book of Acts, the disciples twice disobey the government in order to obey Christ (Acts 4:19; 5:29). Why would the Romans invent a messiah that would take away their authority, rather than garner it?

Moreover, the NT affirms the exclusivity of Christ—not permitting the worship of false gods (Jn. 14:6; Acts 4:12; 1 Tim. 2:5). If the Romans were trying to create a deity that would be friendly to emperor worship, why invent one that demands worship of Jesus—not Pagan emperors? The Christian faith spread quickly to Pagan countries in the Roman Empire, and it caused many of the “good Roman citizens” to rebel against emperor worship. But why convert Gentiles who were already good Roman citizens? Furthermore, if the NT was supposed to convert Jews, then why write it in Greek—rather than Hebrew or the dialect of Aramaic?

REASON #4: Literary criticism

The gospels and epistles contain different language, themes, and grammatical styles from one another. This reflects multiple authorship—not single authorship. In fact, this is utterly inconsistent with the notion that Josephus was the single author of all 27 NT books (Besides, isn’t it a touch of overkill to write 27 books? Why not just write one book?).

REASON #5: Motivational criticism

Atwill states that the Romans were motivated to invent Christianity to create a more passive Jewish community in Israel. However, the Romans had just destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple. They weren’t trying to rehabilitate Judaism; they were trying to force it into submission. The Romans had no problem utterly destroying the Zealots in Israel—either under those in the Jewish War in AD 66 or later under Bar Kokhba in AD 132.

Moreover, most Jewish traditions were non-violent. There were four veins of Judaism in the first century: (1) Pharisees, (2) Sadducees, (3) Essenes, and (4) Zealots. After Jannaeus crucified 800 Pharisees, the Pharisees became apolitical. Likewise, the Sadducees were largely secular, working alongside the Romans, and the Essenes lived far from Jerusalem at Qumran. Therefore, the only remaining group was the Zealot party, which was militaristic. The Pharisees waited for God’s overthrow of Rome, the Sadducees became wealthy off of Rome, the Essenes withdrew from Rome, and the Zealots wanted to war with Rome. Thus if the Romans wanted to “invent” a passive, Jewish theology, they had three out of four groups to choose from. Why invent a new one, which would be unfamiliar to traditional Jews?

Conclusion

We should point out that Joseph Atwill is not a NT scholar or a historian; he is a dotcom businessman. Therefore, he has no educational prowess on this subject—anymore than the average person with a business degree could offer. This is, no doubt, why his work has suffered from such harsh critique in the scholarly world. By the way, the price is $40 a ticket (or 25 British pounds) for Atwill’s “Covert Messiah” conference in London, England this weekend. We would be naïve to think that a business man like Atwill has purely academic motives in throwing this conference.

For these reasons, we won’t be attending Atwill’s conference this Saturday.

 


[1] Ehrman, Bart D. Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York: HarperOne, 2012. 4.

[2] Atwill, Joseph. Caesar’s Messiah: The Roman Conspiracy to Invent Jesus. Berkeley, CA: Ulysses, 2005.

[3] Cornelius Tacitus Annals 15:44.

[4] Pliny’s Letters (10.97).

[5] Even secular scholars will date Paul’s epistles long before Josephus ever wrote. Atwill’s theory would have to utterly redate all of NT chronology.