The Roman Jesus Propaganda of Joseph Atwill

Left to right: G. Tsoukalos, J. Atwill, S. Jacobovici.
HT Steve Caruso & Tom Verenna

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.


7 thoughts on “The Roman Jesus Propaganda of Joseph Atwill

  1. Pingback: No, Joe Atwill: Rome Did Not Invent Jesus | The Musings of Thomas Verenna

  2. Pingback: UPDATE 10/3/13: No, Joe Atwill: Rome Did Not Invent Jesus | The Musings of Thomas Verenna

  3. “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?”

    No, I wouldn’t say that. But I think it is a fair to say that Tom Sawyer probably never existed. I see the Jesus question to be analogous. Either way, the Jesus of the Bible was fiction. Miracles don’t happen. Whether or not the story was based off of a real person is rather inconsequential in the grand context of things. All the same, given the poor amount of evidence corroborating Christian sources, for now I think that Jesus the man probably never existed.

  4. Atwill is correct about the Roman creation of Christianity. That should actually be obvious to any real scholar simply through an examination of the elements used in its creation and the fact that it was created during a time of war between the Romans and the Jews (Pharisees & Scribes). All of the things that the Romans desired is achieved via Christianity (examples; keeping slavery, placating slaves & the poor, dumbing-down the masses, keeping them ignorant & superstitious, making soldiers believe in an afterlife & reward so that they’d be brave in battle, comfort for the family of the soldiers that died, and so on).

    Where Atwill made a mistake is who he thought ‘Titus’ was. There were two of them; one was the son of emperor Vespasian, and the other was Vespasian’s grand-nephew Arrius Calpurnius Piso. Arrius Piso simply used what was a right of ancient royalty, use of inherited names & titles. He simply disguised himself and his deeds by using his ‘Titus’ name. Only by sorting the two, can we get at the truth. Also, he, Arrius Piso, was a clinical psychopath. This is what they do. Now, knowing that, we cannot examine the texts that he wrote or was a part of in the same way that we would those of a non-psychopath.

    Like I had said to Tom Verenna, there are at least 6 major assumptions that have been made in virtually all previous “scholarship” that all ancient studies have been based upon. Therefore, the conclusions that were made based upon those assumptions must also be incorrect. This, is what people need to be aware of. To learn how to study ancient history, ancient text and religion correctly, I suggest that you read my research papers that can be found at Thank you.

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