Thoughts on Joseph Atwill

Did the Romans invent the Christians? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

There has been much talk lately about Joseph Atwill and his claim that Jesus was invented by the Romans. It’s still bizarre to think the Romans would create a religion that they would go out and persecute. Still, many are claiming that Atwill is a biblical scholar as even the press release about the announcement said.

Reality? He’s not.

Is that the opinion of someone like me, a Christian who believes strongly in the reliability of the NT? No. That’s even the opinion of a Christ myther himself like Richard Carrier. Unfortunately as Carrier points out, news of this has not reached Richard Dawkins. Carrier also adds that Robert Price and Acharya S. disagree with this idea. As Carrier says about these people like Atwill:

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.

If those three, some of the biggest names in Christ-mythicism, say that your theory is bunk, it’s quite likely that it is.

Now it’s rare to find scholarly talk about an idea such as this. Why? Because by and large scholarship ignores crank theories like this. In fact, most people if they really thought they had something would want to take their idea to the scholars first. Larry Hurtado has said that

I haven’t heard of the guy before either (Joseph Atwill), largely because, well, he’s a nobody in the field of biblical studies. No PhD in the subject (or related subject), never held an academic post, never (so far as I can tell) published anything in any reputable journal that’s peer-reviewed, or in any reputable monograph series, or presented at any academic conference where competent people could assess his claims. Instead, per the flimflam drill, he directs his claims to the general public, knowing that they are unable to assess them, and so, by sheer novelty of the claim he hopes to attract a crowd, sales, and publicity. It’s a living, I guess (of sorts).

In saying why he doesn’t bother with it that much, Hurtado says that

It’s not necesssary to engage something so self-evidently unfounded and incompetent. If his press releases at all reflect his stance, it’s not worth the time. We scholars have enough to do engaging work that is by people with some competence. There isn’t time or value in dealing with nonsense. And Atwill and his ilk don’t really want scholarly engagement anyway. Again, let it go.

And when told Atwill would want scholarly engagement Hurtado says

No. He wouldn’t. Otherwise, he wouldn’t avoid the normal scholarly venues to test theories. These people know that they would be shredded by competent scholars.

And yet, it’s making a buzz. Fortunately, even some atheists like P.Z. Myers are condemning it. Myers does not hold back.

I think a few too many atheists are seeing “Scholar Says Jesus Was Fake” and are not thinking any more deeply than that. The whole idea is ridiculous.

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

That many atheists did in fact spread this immediately and treated it seriously shows that there is indeed a great deal of ignorance in the atheistic community. “Well what about your Christian community?!” I’ve been saying for years the church has failed to educate its members and their fear at something like this is a prime example of it. Our tendency to want to protect ourselves more than anything else keeps us from really isolating with these issues going on in the real world. As I told one skeptic recently, I condemn ignorance on all sides.

Here are some of my problems with the whole theory.

First off, it will HAVE to deal with all the counter-evidence. Can he deal with Tacitus? Can he deal with Josephus? (I know his theory claims to rely on Josephus, but will scholars of Josephus support it?) Can he deal with Mara Bar-Serapion? How about a question of the reliability of the NT? Can he deal with claims for that?

Second, what about the Pauline epistles. The earliest epistles come before Josephus wrote. These epistles also include a creed such as in 1 Cor. 15 that comes to within a few years at most of the resurrection event. Can Atwill’s theory deal with this?

Third, can he demonstrate that the gospels in the genre of Greco-Roman biographies would be able to be read in this way? This theory has been tried over and over by so many people and it has never ended well. Why give Atwill any credit?

Fourth, does he have any evidence from the Roman perspective? Does he have some ancient mention of Jesus that we have never found even though scholars have been looking through works of ancient society? What would this say for Christ mythers who say that there is no mention of Jesus? Why mention Jesus if Jesus was not being talked about?

Fifth, can his theory account for the dating of the NT? Would this not presuppose that the gospels were written after the writings of Josephus? Has he made a case for that? If Josephus based his account on the gospels, which he didn’t, then Atwill’s theory is in trouble. Atwill will require a late date. It would also require the writings of Josephus to also be in Jerusalem at the time already and being read, which will be problematic enough even if just Mark dates to before 70 A.D.

Now by all means, let Atwill present his evidence, but keep in mind he’s trying to bypass the scholarly community and go straight to the sensationalist route. That might be a more popular approach, but it’s not the proper approach to academic work of this nature. The reason one seeks to bypass the scholarly community is most likely because one cannot survive scrutiny under that community.

Check the sources always on claims like this. That so many atheists have passed this on shows that there is just as much blind faith and lack of biblical scholarship in the atheistic community as in the Christian community they rail against. That so many Christians get scared of something like this is an important demonstration of why the church needs a good education in basic apologetics.

In Christ,
Nick Peters


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7 Responses to “Thoughts on Joseph Atwill”

  1. labarum Says:

    The problem dealing with people like Atwill is the problem with all conspiracy theorists: their view is not just a set of propositions that can be true or false but an entire hermeneutic that clouds their thinking to the point where they cannot process refutations of their views. If you give a piece of evidence that clearly shows their system is wrong, they reinterpret it within the system and declare the evidence was planted by the conspirators. If you have ever argued with 9/11 truthers or zealous Zeitgeist backers, you would see what I mean.

  2. apologianick Says:

    Yes. I’ve dealt with conspiracy theorists enough times. I tend to just ignore them.

  3. Real Clear Apologetics | Thoughts on Joseph Atwill Says:

    […] This post originally appeared at Deeper Waters. […]

  4. José Santiago Says:

    Reblogged this on Misceláneos de José.

  5. Reflexões sobre Joseph Atwill e sua teoria bizarra - Logos Apologetica Says:

    […] Tradução: Emerson de […]

  6. Craig Hubley Says:

    Why bother arguing with Atwill? You have clear questions to answer on the authenticity of Tacitus, utility of the cult to the Flavians or why it represented such a threat to the Julio-Claudians. The idea that it was a political pawn of the Flavians is quite strongly supported by a Nero persecution and a subsequent Flavian codex that tamed this cult… that is, if one believe that Tacitus wrote that at all…

    Atwill’s thesis is simple enough to investigate without comment on the man at all. Who really cares about the man or his qualifications at all, since he has done nothing but observe the motive, opportunity and means that a Flavian conspiracy would have had to blunt messianic Judaism. I have not seen anyone deny any of those claims.

    Essential to his thesis is that Christianity as we know it could not have existed prior to 73 CE and was a post-war pacification strategy. That is not to say that no cult admiring or elevating a Jesus/Christ figure could have existed in Nero’s time (64 CE or thereabouts).

    So let’s get down to the only question that should matter to anyone:

    The main source that contradicts this late emergence of Christianity (after 75CE or so) is Tacitus. After him we have not much credible until about 110 CE describing Christianity. It’s entirely possible that a Roman-created or -encouraged cult got out of control, it happens all the time in the modern era (for instance consider the USA funding the Afghan Mujahedeen that eventually morphed into Al Qaeda, or giving Saddam chemical weapons) and had to be violently suppressed.

    As I see it the main thing Atwill claims is that the “New Testament” gospels (not necessarily all the Dead Sea Scrolls) were so interwoven with War of the Jews as to suggest a single author, cooperating authors, or post-facto authorship. Let’s focus not on the texts but on the historical timing…

    Some scholars admit that the “New Testament” authors could have written after 73 CE, even if a Christian cult existed a decade earlier.

    Politically this makes even more sense than an invention of a new cult entirely. Taming an already-existing cult would have been a high priority for a new Roman dynasty. Nero, of the Julio-Claudian family, was seen as a failure by many, perhaps Claudius tried other tactics, and after him Flavius? Then we would have evidence of the one that stuck.

    So Atwill’s core thesis is not invalidated by Tacitus even if we accept him as “gospel”, but, it is challenged by the existence of Christian cultists a decade too early.

    We can reconcile Atwill’s thesis with Tacitus essentially by imagining either that Tacitus’ inclusion of this persecution is falsified (quite possible given the way texts were handled and copied in this era) to back the story, or that it was a pre-existing cult the Romans felt threatened enough by to try to tame. Either is quite possible and interesting. Neither actually says there was no original or inspiring character that these post-73CE authors wrote about… Personally I like the “taming an existing cult” thesis, which does not say anything about the authenticity of Jesus at all, but does say much about the authenticity of the Church that for over 1300 years monopolized his name and message. I found the early Popes’ chronology to be especially interesting as there is just no good evidence for the existence of anyone before Clement of the Flavian family. Hmmm…

    So, summarizing the arguments against: The main evidential challenge to Atwill comes almost enitirely from Tacitus’ claims of Nero’s persecution a decade too early. This is being roundly ignored by almost every scholar who writes about this. Those who do, simply say they believe Tacitus absolutely, despite the obvious problems and many opportunities to falsify his text over nearly 2000 years. Second, the Roman taming of an Essene spinoff cult does not invalidate the thesis of Jesus’ historical existence, but it would certainly invalidate the authority of the Christian church traditions, especially the Roman Catholic Church, and the four Gospels that were included in the New Testament which have these suspicious commonalities with War of the Jews.

    There are however other Dead Sea Scrolls to assemble a New New Testament from… if only we could all read them…

    • apologianick Says:

      The only people who are claiming that Tacitus is not genuine are the Christ-mythers themselves. For scholars of Tacitus, there is no question about the genuineness of the account.

      Also, the strongest evidence is that found in NT scholarship such as Dunn’s “Jesus Remembered.” The oral tradition was going around even during the life of Jesus and as Bauckham, Hurtado, and others have shown, especially as recently brought out in “How God Became Jesus” right out of the gates you had Jesus as fully deity. Plus, our evidence for the resurrection comes from the Pauline epistles which are quite early.

      And as for the Dead Sea Scrolls, there’s no conspiracy about that or anything of that sort. I recommend listening to my interview with Craig Evans on the DSS here:

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