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.