In the next round of implausible Jesus reconstructions, it is time to turn from Bill O’Reilly to Joseph Atwill. The latter is not a professional Bible scholar, but another independent figure who has had a fair bit of time on his hands to compare the Gospel stories of Jesus and one of the important sources for 1st century Palestine, Flavius Josephus.
What his basic claim is that the figure of Jesus was invented by a Roman conspiracy to fool the warring Jews after the revolt of the 60s and 70s into worshiping Titus Caesar. In particular, the Gospels are models on the historical writing of Josephus (who was adopted into the Flavian family of emperors Vespasian and Titus), and the whole story was made up by lackey Josephus. All of these things were claimed back in his book Caesar’s Messiah about a decade ago.
So why is it news right now? Apparently this idea was turned into a documentary, and that is allowing it to catch waves. At least in places like The Daily Mail, but it has also gotten a boost by a tweet by Richard Dawkins (though he claims he does not endorse the thesis), and over 800 retweets of that is helping spread the word.
However, the hypothesis of Atwill has already been ripped to shreds even by those who are sympathetic to the Jesus-myth hypothesis. For example, Bob Price wrote a scathing review of the book a while back (and had a frustrating debate with Atwill on The Infidel Guy radio show). A year ago, Tom Verenna had gotten wind of this film project and showed why he thought it would be a pile of dung.
But this was all in the past. Now Joe is adding even more to his hypothesis, including his understanding of the Dead Sea Scrolls and their messiah. Apparently he thinks that these were all written in the first century and in Galilee, which is utterly wrong. Atwill also fails to realize the last 20+ years of research in the messiah concept and that there wasn’t a common, static idea of the messiah (or messiahs!) in 2nd Temple Judaism. While he claims to be bookish, Atwill fails to show any knowledge of any research worth noting. His book is similarly lacking in references.
But the key thing that was supposed to make the idea have any power are the supposedly uncanny resemblances between Josephus’s history of the Jewish War (and the activities of Titus during them) and the Gospel stories (and let’s just ignore Paul’s letters, I guess). But as Joel Watts notes, and based on his own research of the Gospel of Mark, the similarities can be just as explicable if the Gospels used Josephus as a source or Josephus was basing his own story-telling on a common source as the Gospel authors–the Old Testament. Joel notes how Mark 6-8 is similar to passages in Josephus, but that is because they are both remaking the Elija-Elisha narrative of 1-2 Kings. This is why Josephus isn’t the greatest of historians (he made up a story about Alexander the Great coming to Jerusalem and reading the Book of Daniel which hadn’t been written yet), and why Atwill’s hypothesis already has a better, simpler explanation than what the Roman elite conspiracy would allow.
But even this is being generous because some of the parallels that Atwill identifies are just bonkers. The worst example that comes to mind is one noted by Bob Price where Atwill claims to see a connection between fleeing rebels being speared down in the water and Jesus’s calling Peter a fisher of men.
When Jesus offers to make his disciples fishers of men, the line is supposed to sardonically anticipate a wartime episode in which the Romans picked off fleeing Jewish rebels swimming in the Lake of Galilee. Thinking his method justified by comparison to the ancient practice of scriptural typology, Atwill gives himself license to indulge in the most outrageous display of “parallelomania” ever seen.
There are also other weak links, such as Titus (who is really Jesus) being chased without his armor and the naked boy from the Gospel of Mark who flees from the Garden of Gethsemane (a boy who is NOT Jesus).
So, any parallels between Josephus and the Gospels has a far better explanations (the authors had a common fictional source and/or the Gospel writers used Josephus), and many of the parallels Atwill finds are nothing more than what is expected from a fevered imagination.
There is also an issue of logic to be dealt with as well. Even if Atwill proves that the Gospels are completely made up, that doesn’t mean the character at its center is necessarily fictional. It would mean that the historical figure of Jesus is lost to us, but not that he never was. There were fictions written of historical people, including of the Flavians by Josephus no less, but these folks undoubtedly existed. I don’t see Atwill arguing that Titus was a fiction; at least I hope not because I can only face-palm so many times in one day. It’s also a point made by mythicist Richard Carrier–if our sources are garbage related to a historical figure does not mean there was no figure in the first place. Tom gives the example of Wonder Woman, who is obviously fictional, but is based on the comic book creator’s wife, Elizabeth Marston. Another example could be Tom Sawyer who in many ways is a fictionalized version of its creator, Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens. And you wouldn’t claim that because The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is fiction that there were no steam boats on the Mississippi River, would you?
So in facts, method, and logic, Atwill’s hypothesis is bunk. I hope others will not give any more cash to support this stuff. But then again, I’m still getting fans of Ralph Ellis around my blog.
Update: Richard Carrier weighs in. And it’s brutal.