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Please Don’t Pass On Atwill’s Nonsense

My Facebook feed suddenly filled up on Wednesday with links to a press release saying someone named Joseph Atwill is going to reveal evidence that Jesus was invented by the Romans and that they confessed to it. Even Richard Dawkins tweeted in support of it. It’s total bullshit and I’m a bit appalled at how many people who consider themselves skeptics immediately jumped on it, presumably because they wanted to believe it’s true.

Richard Carrier, who actually does believe that Jesus never actually existed (I disagree), shreds Atwill’s argument quite thoroughly. But you don’t even need all that detail to be very, very skeptical. First of all, you don’t do history by press release. And you don’t reveal your evidence at an event to which people must buy a ticket to hear you speak. If you have the evidence, you submit it to a serious historical journal. Secondly, Atwill is not a historian at all. If those things don’t send up huge red flags to you and cause you to be very skeptical, you might want to turn in your rationalist card. Or at least read Richard’s takedown of 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.

Or read Robert Price’s debunking of Atwill’s theory. Joseph Atwill bears all of the hallmarks of a crank.

Comments

  1. says

    Even Richard Dawkins tweeted in support of it.

    It really says a lot about Dawkins that that was the LEAST ridiculous thing he’s recently said. He seems to have gone from someone who wrote a few really helpful books, to a tired old hack saying stupid shit just to piss people off and get as much attention as possible.

    Dawkins isn’t a historian, but he’s a scholar, and he knows fine well how scholarship works. He of all people really ought to know better than to support this sort of crap.

  2. says

    …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…

    Yeah, the Romans created a peaceful messiah who was almost immediately mistaken for the other kind, and had to be crucified by…the Romans. I was tempted to say “What’s COINTELPRO in Latin?” but this conspiracy, if it was at all real, wasn’t really that competent.

    …and also (apparently) as a laughing joke on the Jews…

    Funny, I’m thinking Atwill may have invented this crankery as a laughing joke on atheists.

  3. says

    aaronbaker: wrong about what? All I saw was a lot of argument about the meaning of a few words about the righto eat, drink, and bring spouses along to parties or something. What does that have to do with Atwill’s BS?

  4. paulg says

    I’ll admit I was almost taken in by it, sounded (to a non-expert) like a plausible premise, especially because I heard about it from Dawkins’ tweet. But I went to the website and it brought me up short. Just by appearances alone it looked like I’d stumbled onto one of those pages that’s trying to convince you they have new evidence for when the End Time are really coming. The documentary they’re peddling looks horribly made. And of course there’s the “We have newly discovered, never before seen evidence!” that they don’t just come right out and put up for debate. A shame, but at least when we have our charlatans, we shred them and don’t just turn a blind eye like Christians do because they’re afraid of any criticism whatsoever. I look forward to a retraction from Dawkins. Unlike many others I like the guy.

  5. says

    I will indeed pass on Atwill’s nonsense (in another sense of “pass on”), but is he really saying that not only did Jesus not exist, neither did Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul? If so, wow.

  6. raven says

    neither did Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul? If so, wow.

    Paul probably existed.

    Matthew, Mark, John, and Luke might not have. What we do know is that they almost certainly didn’t write the Gospels. The Gospels are anonymous works and the authors were assigned decades after they were written by people who just made it up.

  7. gingerbaker says

    Even Richard Dawkins tweeted in support of it.

    It really says a lot about Dawkins that that was the LEAST ridiculous thing he’s recently said. He seems to have gone from someone who wrote a few really helpful books, to a tired old hack saying stupid shit just to piss people off and get as much attention as possible.

    Dawkins isn’t a historian, but he’s a scholar, and he knows fine well how scholarship works. He of all people really ought to know better than to support this sort of crap.”

    At least Dawkins knows the difference between a Tweet and the idea of scholarship, as well as the difference between charitable interpretation and character assassination through ironic psychological projection.

  8. says

    It’s total bullshit and I’m a bit appalled at how many people who consider themselves skeptics immediately jumped on it, presumably because they wanted to believe it’s true.

    That’s because they value being antitheist over being skeptics. Rather disappointing, but not entirely surprising, that Richard Dawkins would be taken in by such blatantly obvious BS.

  9. gingerbaker says

    I’m a bit appalled at how many people who consider themselves skeptics immediately jumped on it, presumably because they wanted to believe it’s true.”

    Amazing how many finger-wagging skeptics are quicker to chidingly ascribe advocacy of Atwill’s position to casual commenters (even tweeters!) , then to actually wait to see the (alleged) EVIDENCE itself. One might think that good evidence, used however badly by Atwill, would be something that a true skeptic would want to see before making judgment calls?

  10. dingojack says

    gingerbaker – oh so you think Atwill has actual evidence?
    [points] Bwhahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!!!!
    (Have I got a bridge to sell to you!)
    Dingo

  11. lancifer says

    I have never heard of Atwill or his conspiracy theory but the evidence for the existence of a Jesus of Nazareth is tenuously slim at best.

  12. says

    Why is it that nuts who come up with these theories always think that a hoaxer would leave a “secret code” behind in their writings? If I were going to fake something of this magnitude, I definitely wouldn’t deliberately leave a trail of bread crumbs behind that would give away the entire game.

  13. says

    Evidence hidden in plain sight that every other scholar in history somehow overlooked, check.

    A small cabal of elites plotted widespread conspiracy that was never uncovered or even leaked, check.

    A scheme so sophisticated that it successfully fooled not only the scholars of the time, but tens of thousands of the most learned people in history, including many who were/are skeptical of the Jesus narrative, check.

    Discovery not the work of a large group of scholars working for years to painstakingly pull together scraps of evidence, but by a single man with a story to sell, check.

    If it looks like a conspiracy theory…

  14. says

    As blatantly ridiculous as Atwill’s thesis is, I’m willing to be it will catch on in some circles because it serves a certain agenda. The atheist movement has a vocal, and extremely immature, subset of libertarians, who would love an excuse to deny, not just Christ’s dviinity, but the validity of all of Christ’s teachings about helping the poor and feeding the hungry and generally being decent to one another. Atwill just handed that lot the perfect talking-point: “If you try to get people to act on the teachings of Jesus, you’re actually supporting the agenda of an evil totalitarian empire!”

    (Is it any coincidence that Atwill comes up with this crap at a time when so many corporatarians are desperately trying to equate Obamacare with Hitler, and Christians are starting to say that Obamacare is supported by the teachings of Jesus?)

    Also, there are a LOT of right-wingers — not just libertarian atheists — who have been trying to divorce Christianity from the actual “leftist” teachings of Jesus. Right-wing atheists can use Atwill’s theory to discount Christianity altogether, and right-wing Christians can use it to discount the “leftist” bits they don’t like as Roman propaganda, while calling themselves the TRUE keepers of Christ’s REAL will.

    And finally, the more atheists fall for this BS, the more the Christians can say “Look, this just proves atheists reject morality!”

  15. says

    @4:

    aaronbaker: wrong about what? All I saw was a lot of argument about the meaning of a few words about the right to eat, drink, and bring spouses along to parties or something. What does that have to do with Atwill’s BS?

    It has nothing to do with Atwill’s BS, it has to do with Carrier’s effort to establish that “brother of the Lord” in the NT doesn’t mean an actual, blood-brother of Jesus. It’s the linchpin to Carrirer’s case for the non-existence of Jesus.

    In my post above, I was quasi-imitating Carrier, whose every argument (in the mind of Carrier) is a deductively certain proof of anything and everything that Carrier wants to be true. To be more modest, I knocked several holes in his “brother of the Lord” hypothesis.

  16. gingerbaker says

    gingerbaker – oh so you think Atwill has actual evidence?
    [points] Bwhahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!!!!
    (Have I got a bridge to sell to you!)
    Dingo

    Even a rat can dig up a truffle.

  17. says

    One might think that good evidence, used however badly by Atwill, would be something that a true skeptic would want to see before making judgment calls?

    Yes, and that’s why we’re rejecting Atwill’s theory out of hand: he’s not providing the evidence for peer review like a good scholar would.

    And besides, the specifics of his thesis, and his suspiciously unscholarly behavior as noted above, each fail on grounds of total implausibility, just like Lyndon Larouche’s theory that the Queen controls the entire American drug trade. Sometimes you really don’t need to wait for evidence.

  18. says

    gingerbaker:

    One might think that good evidence, used however badly by Atwill, would be something that a true skeptic would want to see before making judgment calls?

    This “wait and see” position you advocate is exactly what everyone should be doing, rather than re-tweeting and posting on Facebook about it. That’s why those who jump on this as if it were already proven are a bit hasty.

    Given the evidence concerning the evidence, there’s very little chance this “new” evidence is of decent quality. This has all the hallmarks of a scam or a crank. Should the evidence turn out to be earth-shattering, then sure, I’ll change my position. But that doesn’t look very likely.

  19. jd142 says

    I this article to my wife, who is a believer. My comment was that this is the mirror universe Da Vinci code. And it is probably about as well written. It’s like someone read a Dan Brown novel and decided to flip the conspiracy around. Hidden messages, multiple meanings, powerful rulers. And just as much scholarly background.

  20. gingerbaker says

    To be more modest, I knocked several holes in his “brother of the Lord” hypothesis.

    Ha-ha! Modesty is it?

    You might want some Zyprexa to treat that modesty.

  21. matty1 says

    So Josephus wrote one book set in a very specific time and place and another that is supposed to be a general history of the same. And in the second book he pointedly avoided mentioning the central character of the first, apart from a couple of throwaway references that most historians think were added later.

    If he was promoting the Jesus story he didn’t do it very well.

  22. says

    And just as much scholarly background.

    Actually, I suspect that Dan Brown’s thesis is a lot more firmly grounded than Atwill’s. Jesus marrying a woman disciple and having kids is plausible; the Romans conspiring over many generations to invent a whole new religion from nothing is not.

  23. sigurd jorsalfar says

    Why is it that nuts who come up with these theories always think that a hoaxer would leave a “secret code” behind in their writings?

    Because it’s the single best way for a nut to explain why he has evidence for his position, but no one else ever noticed it before.

  24. colnago80 says

    Re Raging Bee @ #16

    Ah, the Fairfax flubber just can’t resist the temptation to take a shot at libertarians with a conspiracy theory worthy of Don Williams.

  25. says

    Why is it that nuts who come up with these theories always think that a hoaxer would leave a “secret code” behind in their writings?

    They may have got that idea from certain other religious nuts, who seem to think the Bible gives us some “secret code” explaining why their hoaxer God left us with no evidence of his existence anywhere else in the Universe.

  26. says

    In my post above, I was quasi-imitating Carrier, whose every argument (in the mind of Carrier) is a deductively certain proof of anything and everything that Carrier wants to be true.

    In other words, you’re locked in some silly pissing contest with Carrier, and you’re bragging about it here. Got it.

  27. says

    @30:

    1) Refuting online bullshit isn’t just a pissing contest; it’s also a public service;

    2) I’m bragging about it and . . . what’s your point exactly?

  28. iangould says

    ” I’m a bit appalled at how many people who consider themselves skeptics immediately jumped on it, presumably because they wanted to believe it’s true.”

    It’s almost as though the atheist movement were made up of extremists who wanted their superiority constantly affirmed and run by a cadre of self-aggrandizing egomaniacs.

    Nah, that’s the other guys

  29. says

    It’s almost as though the atheist movement were made up of extremists who wanted their superiority constantly affirmed and run by a cadre of self-aggrandizing egomaniacs.

    Yeah, I’ve yielded to a a bit of egomania myself, today. Here’s to doing better tomorrow.

  30. Michael Heath says

    Atwill argues [. . .] the entire (?) New Testament was written by “the first-century historian Flavius Josephus” . . .

    That alone demonstrates this yahoo is a moron.

  31. Michael Heath says

    Raging Bee writes:

    And finally, the more atheists fall for this BS, the more the Christians can say “Look, this just proves atheists reject morality!”

    I think the more common exclamation from Christians will be that this “proves” that atheists are no better than Christians when it comes to believing in what’s convenient rather than true. That atheists who fall for this obvious fraud is evidence of religious-like thinking, i.e., faith.

    Such criticism always makes me crack-up because it has Christians who do this ridiculing their own method of making conclusions.

  32. lofgren says

    Such criticism always makes me crack-up because it has Christians who do this ridiculing their own method of making conclusions.

    Most atheists I know recognize “religious-like thinking,” as a human foible. The difference isn’t that we don’t fall for it once in a while. The difference is that we think it should be guarded against and rejected when uncovered, while believers see it as a virtue that should be embraced.

  33. magistramarla says

    This goes against everything that I learned as a student of Latin and Greek.
    The Romans simply didn’t mess with the religions that they ran across.
    They tended to absorb other religions into their pantheon (That’s why there was a temple of Isis in Rome).
    They weren’t at all concerned with what people wanted to believe, as long as they paid their taxes to Rome.
    A conspiracy about inventing a new religion? Doesn’t sound like any Roman that I ever studied.

  34. dingojack says

    gingerbaker “Even a rat can dig up a truffle”.

    [citation required].

    Dingo
    ——–
    Look, when Atwell shows his ‘evidence’, I’ll look at it.
    Until then it’s a piss-poor Dan Brown wannabe conspiracy theory, well within the ‘point and laugh’ zone.

    Which would you prefer Sydney Harbour, Golden Gate or, the classic, Brooklyn?

  35. laurentweppe says

    I’m a bit appalled at how many people who consider themselves skeptics immediately jumped on it, presumably because they wanted to believe it’s true.

    Or maybe they realized that it is bullshit but thought “Hey, it’s going to annoy Christians, so who care if this is bullshit?
    You know, like the truthers and the birthers who for the most part knew that they were spewing bullshit but damn it felt good to call Cheney a murderer and Obama a Commie-Muslim mandchurian candidate.
    So now the remaining question is, “how to call them?” Jesuers? Romaners? Atwillers?

  36. matty1 says

    @38

    The Romans simply didn’t mess with the religions that they ran across.
    They tended to absorb other religions into their pantheon (That’s why there was a temple of Isis in Rome).
    They weren’t at all concerned with what people wanted to believe, as long as they paid their taxes to Rome.
    A conspiracy about inventing a new religion? Doesn’t sound like any Roman that I ever studied.

    I’ve not studied the history formally but my understanding is that while the Romans didn’t care about religions they found already in existence they were suspicious of new ones that formed, especially if they were actively recruiting. The concern was that such movements would cause social disruption and make running the empire and collecting taxes harder and it was this rather than any concern with Christian doctrine that led to Christianity being illegal and the occasional punishments, misremembered by the church as continuous persecution.

  37. says

    jESUS!!

    People; it wasn’t the Romans, per se, it was far more insidious.

    When Obama went back to kill all of the dinosaurs in, like, 4,000 BC, and artificially age their skeletons and shit; he was on his way back, via, the department of vital records in Honolulu but he decided he wanted to hurt the poor KKKristians some more. So, he went to Rome, ca. 24 B.C. and became a slave boy to a roman senator. Eventually he became a GAYladiator and from there he was just a few crushed skulls until he was at the levers of power. He became Senator Barackaurelius Obamaximus and started the PISS*. He sent his agents provocateur** to Jeruslem, Bethlehem and Nazareth where they began an orchestrated disinformation campaign and pulled the sheepskin over the Sanhedrins eyes for, like, 50 years. When they found out that the Messiah was really some kid who’d been doing non-equity work out in the provinces and was promised a CAG*** card if he’d do that little job for Obamaximus–well, there was hell to pay.

    * Praetorian Intelligence Secret Service

    ** They didn’t call them that because that filthy French language hadn’t been invented yet, but I don’t think that gentay rovocateurpay is the right latin translation.

    *** Coliseum Actors’ Guild

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