Note that I have divided this article into two parts, the second (titled “Our Long Conversation”) is something you can easily skip (see the intro there for whether reading it will be of any interest to you). So although this post looks extraordinarily long, it’s really that second part that gives it such length. You can just read up to the beginning of that section though. You don’t have to continue beyond that to get the overall point.
Atwill is the one dude I get asked about most often.[*] And now apparently even Dawkins is tweeting about Atwill, thanks to his upcoming venture into England later this month to sell his weird Roman Conspiracy variety of Jesus mythicism. To get the gist you can check out his PR puff piece. Thomas Verenna has already written a deconstruction of that. Notably even Acharya S (D.M. Murdock) doesn’t buy Atwill’s thesis, declaring that she does “not concur with Atwill’s Josephus/Flavian thesis” and that “the Flavians, including Josephus, did not compose the canonical gospels as we have them.” Robert Price has similarly soundly debunked his book, even after strongly wanting to like it.
Atwill is best known as the author of Caesar’s Messiah (subtitle: “The Roman Conspiracy to Invent Jesus,” Roman meaning the Roman imperial family…yeah). In this Atwill argues “Jesus [is] the invention of a Roman emperor” and that the entire (?) New Testament was written by “the first-century historian Flavius Josephus” who left clues to his scheme by littering secret hidden coded “parallels” in his book The Jewish War. Atwill claims to prove “the Romans directed the writing of both” the JW and the NT, in order “to offer a vision of a ‘peaceful Messiah’ who would serve as an alternative to the revolutionary leaders who were rocking first-century Israel and threatening Rome,” and also (apparently) as a laughing joke on the Jews (Atwill variously admits or denies he argues the latter, but it became clear in our correspondence, which I will reproduce below…it’s weird because making fun of the Jews kind of contradicts the supposedly serious aim of persuading the Jews, yet Atwill seems to want the imperial goal to have simultaneously been both).
Notice his theory entails a massive and weirdly erudite conspiracy of truly bizarre scope and pedigree, to achieve a truly Quixotic aim that hardly makes sense coming from any half-intelligent elite of the era (even after adjusting for the Flynn effect), all to posit that the entire Christian religion was created by the Romans (and then immediately opposed by it?), who somehow got hundreds of Jews (?) to abandon their religion and join a cult that simply appeared suddenly without explanation on the Palestinian (?) book market without endorsement.
I honestly shouldn’t have to explain why this is absurd. But I’ll hit some highlights. Then I’ll reveal the reasons why I think 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. And that’s coming from me, someone who believes Jesus didn’t exist.
Historically, Atwill’s thesis is more or less a retooled version of the old Pisonian Conspiracy Theory, by which is not meant the actual Pisonian conspiracy (to assassinate Nero), but a wildly fictitious one in which the Piso family invented Christianity (and fabricated all its documents) through its contacts with the Flavian family, and thence Josephus (who indeed adopted that family’s name when they made him a Roman citizen, after he had tricked his officer corps into committing suicide and then surrendered to the Romans during the War…oh, and conveniently declaring Vespasian the Messiah).
This pseudo-historical nonsense is over a century old by now, first having been proposed (in a somewhat different form) by Bruno Bauer in Christ and the Caesars in 1877 (Christus und Caesaren). It has been revamped a dozen times since. Atwill is simply the latest iteration (or almost–there is a bonkers Rabbi still going around with an evenwilder version). Atwill’s is very much like Bible Code crankery, where he looks for all kinds of multiple comparisons fallacies and sees conspiracies in all of them, rather than the inevitable coincidences (or often outright non-correspondences) that they really are. Everything confirms his thesis, because nothing could ever fail to. Classic nonfalsifiability. He just cherry picks and interprets anything to fit, any way he wants.
Why the Priors Are Dismally Low on This
There are at least eight general problems with his thesis, which do not refute it but establish that it has a very low prior probability, and therefore requires exceptionally good evidence to be at all credible:
(1) The Roman aristocracy was nowhere near as clever as Atwill’s theory requires. They certainly were not so masterfully educated in the Jewish scriptures and theology that they could compose hundreds of pages of elegant passages based on it. And it is very unlikely they would ever conceive of a scheme like this, much less think they could succeed at it (even less, actually do so).
(2) We know there were over forty Gospels, yet the four chosen for the canon were not selected until well into the 2nd century, and not by anyone in the Roman aristocracy. Likewise which Epistles were selected.
(3) The Gospels and the Epistles all contradict each other far too much to have been composed with a systematic aim in mind. Indeed, they contradict each other in ways that often demonstrate they are deliberately arguing with each other. From the ways Matthew changes Mark; to the way the forged 2 Thessalonians actually tries to argue 1 Thessalonians is the forgery; to how the resurrections depicted in Luke and John are deliberate attempts to refute the doctrine of resurrection defended originally by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 and 2 Corinthians 5; to how some Epistles insist on Torah observance while others insist it can be discarded; to how Luke’s nativity contradicts Matthew’s on almost every single particular (and not just in placing the event in completely different periods ten years apart); to how Acts blatantly contradicts Paul’s own account of his conversion and travels; to how John invents a real Lazarus to refute a point Luke tried to make with a fictional Lazarus; and so on. (I discuss some of these, and more, in my forthcoming book On the Historicity of Jesus.)
(4) The Gospels and the Epistles differ far too much in style to have come from the same hand, and many show signs of later doctoring that would problematize attempts to confirm any theory like Atwill’s. For example, Mark 16:9-20, John 20 vs. 21, the hash job made of the epistle to the Romans, etc. Even the fact of how the canon was selected creates a problem for Atwill’s research requirements–for instance, the actual first letter to the Corinthians is completely missing, yet Paul refers to its existence in “our” 1 Corinthians.
(5) Christianity was probably constructed to “divert Jewish hostility and aggressiveness into a pacifist religion, supportive of–and subservient to–Roman rule,” but not by Romans, but exasperated Jews like Paul, who saw Jewish militarism as unacceptably disastrous in contrast with the obvious advantages of retooling their messianic expectations to produce the peaceful moral reform of society. The precedents were all there already in pre-Christian Jewish ideology and society (in Philo’s philosophy, in Essene and Qumranic efforts to solve the same problems, and so on) so we don’t have to posit super-genius Aryans helping the poor little angry Jews to calm down.
(6) Pacifying Jews would not have been possible with a cult that eliminated Jewish law and accepted Gentiles as equals, and in actual fact Christianity was pretty much a failure in Palestine. Its success was achieved mainly in the Diaspora, where the Romans rarely had any major problems with the Jews. The Jewish War was only fought in Palestine, and not even against all the Jews there (many sided with Rome). How would inventing a religion that would have no chance of succeeding in the heart of Palestine but instead was tailor made to succeed outside Palestine, ever help the Romans with anything they considered important?
(7) If the Roman elite’s aim was to “pacify” Palestinian Jews by inventing new scriptures, they were certainly smart and informed enough to know that that wouldn’t succeed by using the language the Judean elite despised as foreign (Greek).[*]
(8) The Romans knew one thing well: War. Social ideology they were never very good at.[*] That’s why Rome always had such problems keeping its empire together, and why social discontent and other malfunctions continued to escalate until the empire started dissolving. Rome expected to solve every problem militarily instead–and up until the 3rd century Rome did so quite well. The Jewish War was effectively over in just four years (any siege war was expected to take at least three, and Vespasian was actually busy conquering Rome in the fourth year of that War). So why would they think they needed any other solution?
With all that counting against Atwill, he has a very high burden to meet. And he just doesn’t. He actually has no evidence at all for his thesis, except “Bible Code”-style readings of coincidences among texts, which he seems only to read in English and not the original Greek, all the while relying on egregious fallacies in probabilistic reasoning.
Evidence? Or Insufferable Slurries of Bullshit and Denial?
I see no value in wasting any more time on his work (you’ll see why in a moment), but if anyone who is sensible nevertheless finds some claim in his book remarkably convincing–something so peculiar it seems like it could have no other explanation–and you are genuinely curious how a real historian would respond to it, then present that case to me in comments. Be fair to Atwill: give the page number(s), and all the evidence he presents, and correctly explain the argument (or ideally quote it directly).
To each sensible such presentation I’ll supply a response. But I won’t waste any further time debating it with anyone who doesn’t take facts and logic seriously. I fully expect this thread to be descended upon by armies of time-wasting cranks, possibly Atwill himself, and I refuse to let this suck away any more of my time and labor, on what I now know will be an inevitable getting of nowhere. So I am stating right now: I am done with arguing this crap. So if you don’t like what I have to say and refuse to listen to me, I will stop posting your comments. Period.
In other words, I will be enforcing my usual comments policy extremely strictly here. So the moment you start just gainsaying me or refusing to acknowledge facts or posting vast word-counts of undigestible rambling, you are done. Keep it one example at a time, concise, clear facts and logic, page number. Anything else in defense of Atwillian claims, and your comment goes straight to trash. The more so if you direct any abuse at anyone here. You can whine all you want elsewhere. Just listen to my little violin.
His Best Evidence Is Just Offal
Here is a sample of what Atwill tried to present to me as his “best” examples of evidence supporting his thesis, and why they demonstrate we need waste no further time with him:
(1) Atwill offers “the mention of a fish called the ‘Coracin’ (JW 3, 10, 8, 520), which can be seen as a pun upon Jesus’ prophecy – ‘Woe to you Chorazain’ (Matt 11:23).” He means the korakinoi (KAPPA-omicron-rho-alpha-KAPPA-iota-nu…), the “the Alexandrian raven fish” (the word “fish” is not in the JW, but the appellation is understood by context).
But there is no parallel in the Greek letters or meaning between that word and the city of Chorazin (CHI-omicron-rho-alpha-ZETA-iota-nu…).None. So how is this a parallel? It isn’t. Besides being an example of evidence that doesn’t exist, this is also one of those instances that suggests Atwill does not know how to read Greek. A terrible failing for someone who is trying to perform complicated statistical literary analyses of linguistic parallels between, you know, Greek texts. (Incidentally, he also had the wrong verse–he meant Mt. 11:21–but I assume that was just a slip)
No one could possibly have imagined a pun being intended between these two words or references–except someone who reads only English, and that of course could not have been anyone back then! Moreover, to get a statistically significant result here you need more than one vaguely similar but completely different word. You need something like multiple exact matches of otherwise unusual words, or a series of otherwise unlikely coincidences of ordered events or concepts, or something along those lines (see Proving History, pp. 192-204, for how to conduct a methodologically sound study of literary parallels).
(2) Atwill says “The Sicarii’s ‘emanating’ from John’s head can also be seen, like the demons who came out of the demoniac in that they are a ‘legion’, as they are described as ‘too small for an army, and too many for a gang of thieves’ (JW 4, 7, 408), in other words, a legion. John is confirmed by Josephus later in the history as a source from which ‘wickedness emanated’ (JW 7, 8 263) – ‘John filled the entire country with ten thousand (legion) instances of wickedness’.”
This makes little sense. The word “legion” nowhere appears in these passages. And why does Atwill think “ten thousand” is somehow equivalent to “legion”? The words are nowhere near the same. And the standard complement in a legion was 6000 men (plus auxiliaries), not 10,000 (and of course legions were rarely at full strength).[*] The Gospels also do not say ten thousand, but “two thousand.” And why does Atwill think a legion is “too small for an army” when a legion was by definition an army? Clearly Atwill is struggling just as hard to invent a link here as a biblical literalist struggles to erase contradictions in the Bible.
Moreover, the swine are all killed, but the allegedly parallel soldiers in Josephus are not all killed. It’s also the wrong place. Atwill struggles against all contemporary scholarship to insist that Gadara was the original reading in the Gospels (because his theory requires it to be) when in fact it almost certainly was not. I’ll explain more on that fact below, since it’s one of the most telling examples of Atwill’s incompetence at a study like this, as well as of his inability to humbly admit being wrong, and his repeated resort to ad hoc attempts to deny or assert facts to save his theory, which only dig him deeper into a hill of bullshit, very much just like pretty much any Christian apologist you might ever have had the displeasure of arguing with. As you’ll see, it’s one of the best demonstrations of what it’s like to argue like a crank.
But back to the present point, contrary to the swine story, Josephus says fifteen thousand men are killed and two thousand and two hundred are captured (JW 4.436). But in the swine story, 2000 are killed, not captured, and the number is again 2000, not 2200. Had the Gospels said 2200, that might have been interesting. But in actual fact, the parallels here are far too imprecise to warrant any credible belief in a link. This kind of fabricated parallel is typical of Atwill’s dubious methodology. It is the rankest of retrofitting. The same fallacy bible code freaks use to make biblical prophecy fit contemporary events.
That’s just two examples of many, all falling to the same kinds of objections.
Even His Only Good Example Proves How Wrong He Is
The only good example Atwill sent me is his analysis of JW 6.201ff. Unfortunately, it is not a good example of his thesis, since it does not involve Jesus being mapped onto Titus (as Atwill’s thesis proposes) and the only distinct connection this story has with Jesus is the name “Mary” as the mother of an eaten child, and its connection to Passover. But “Mary” unfortunately was one of the most common Jewish female names (being, as it was, the name of the sister of Moses…one in four Jewish women had the name…you heard that right…one in four), and Passover is a ubiquitous theme throughout Jewish literature. So to have those two items alone as the link does not bode well.
Instead, what Atwill has found is what is certainly a very good instance of Josephus constructing what Josephus himself calls “a forsaken myth” to symbolize the “plight of the Jews” (JW 6.207-208) by inverting the concept of the Passover in order to represent the inversion of Jewish society among those who remained rebels against Rome. This is thus a case of the kind of symbolic-mythic composition employed in the Gospels, but it is notable for being uncommon for Josephus (a fact he himself is aware of, hence he clues us in by deliberately telling us it’s a “myth”). It is also not arguing for a religious doctrine, but simply making a clever literary point. Which was a standard skill taught in Greek schools.
What Josephus seems to have in mind is to communicate that Jewish society had been turned upside down by rebellion, and he does this by turning the Passover upside down. Hence we have here a Jew’s own poetic inversion of the Passover to make a contextual point about the state of society during the siege of Jerusalem. This does not suggest or require any knowledge of or allusion to Jesus or Christianity.
Had the baby been called Jesus, then Atwill might have had something. Or if the Gospels identified the mother of Jesus as “Mary the daughter of Eleazar” or “from the town of Bethezob,” as the Mary in Josephus is. Or had any Gospel identified any other Mary as being the actual daughter of Lazarus (“Eleazar”), instead of his sister, as only one Gospel actually does (Jn. 11:2). But alas, no such connections are there. Otherwise, Mary is too common a name to be remarkable, as is Eleazar. And the Gospels fail to identify Lazarus as from Bethezob but instead from Bethany. So it’s the wrong Lazarus. And Mary is his sister in John, not his daughter as in Josephus. And even this Mary (in John, the only Mary connected to a Lazarus at all, and by the wrong family relation) is not the mother of Jesus. So it’s also the wrong Mary.
So on every count a parallel is refuted here, not established. You have to change too many things to make a fit. And once you have to start changing the text all over the place to get what you want, on the basis of no evidence whatever, you are in crank land.
If the two authors (Josephus and “John”) were contriving parallels to make a joke or sell any deliberate point, they would have gotten their parallels straight, or at least done a much better job of it. For example, not only must we explain how the family relationship changed, and why Josephus meant to allude to Mary the mother of Jesus yet whoever wrote “John” (also Josephus?) got it wrong and made the corresponding Mary a different Mary not related to Jesus, but also why the names (Lazarus and Eleazar) aren’t even spelled the same, which usually indicates a lack of awareness of one writer by the other, not collusion.
That the Passover is being turned upside down is given by the fact that those who ate the Passover were specifically avoiding the slaying of their own sons, and sacrifices like this were meant to replace a human (like Isaac) with an animal (Lamb), whereas in this story an animal is replaced with a human, and not just any human, but the very son whose death was supposed to be averted by the Passover. Josephus clearly chose the name Mary because this is the name of the sister of Moses, the only prominent woman in the Exodus (hence Passover) narrative, especially given the meaning of her name, as Atwill himself notes: “rebellion.” But this “Mary” (the sister of Moses) is “rebellious” due to the OT legend of Num. 12, not from anything in the NT–where the mother of Jesus is never portrayed as rebellious–whereas the OT Mary is rebellious, and was punished for it: she is the woman whom Aaron begged “Let her not be as one dead, of whom the flesh is half consumed when he cometh out of his mother’s womb” (Num. 12:12).
A rebellious Mary from the days of the Passover, associated with a half-consumed baby. Hmmmm. Might that sound like the source of Josephus’ story to you?
There is no connection to Jesus here. Rather, this is a Jew transvaluing the OT. The Numbers passage in the Septuagint even says katesthiei to hêmisu (“half consumed”) while Josephus uses to hêmisu katesthiei, inverted but otherwise identical wording. Since Josephus already calls his story “a forsaken myth” that would represent the “plight of the Jews” (JW 6.207-208), we need look no further for what Josephus is doing here.
Atwill tries to find many other parallels between this “myth” and the Gospels, but they all suffer from the same distorted interpretations as the others, and amount to the same tactics of forcing a fit employed by defenders of biblical literalism. In contrast, the links between the context of this myth in Josephus and the OT are much clearer and more obvious, and require no knowledge of Jesus or Christianity, much less imply any comment on them.
I suggested Atwill seek publication of this parallel, since though it does not specifically support his thesis, it is still very interesting and well worth publishing to the scholarly community. But Awill seems stuck on his thesis. He can’t get away from it, and thus sees parallels everywhere he looks, even when they don’t really exist. And he would never see reason on this point. I expect he still uses it as a proof of his case, as if I had never shown him the evidence above, even though in fact I did.
In all, I gave him a fair shot. But Atwill never has any defensible examples, rarely knows what he is talking about, gets a lot wrong, makes stuff up, never admits an error, and is generally in my experience a frustrating delusional fanatic. He also has no relevant academic degrees that I am aware of. And he appears to have made no effort to acquire fundamental skills (like a working knowledge of Greek or how to use a biblical textual apparatus). Yet he claims to be an expert. When will audiences get a clue?
Our Long Conversation
The last straw for me was when I realized he doesn’t know what he’s talking about when it comes to studying Greek, or manuscripts, or textual criticism, skills that would be essential for anyone defending any thesis like his. This was exposed in an extended email conversation we had years ago. To show what I mean, I will conclude here by pasting in key portions of the emails I sent him then.
What follows is inordinately long (so if you are bored with Atwill already, you can skip the rest of this post). And yet it’s only a fraction of our entire conversation. So it’s length will give you some idea of how much of my time I gave to him. It also shows my descent from giving him the benefit of a doubt and a serious chance, to getting sick of his bullshit (bullshit that became progressively worse as he got pushed into a corner by increasingly uncomfortable facts and logic), and finally giving up on him.
From: Richard Carrier <[email protected]>