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.