Given recent buzz about a book that first appeared eight (yes, eight!) years ago, alleging the fourfold Gospel was a fabrication carried out by Rome as a psy-op (psychological operation) to control the masses (no, seriously), I thought I would offer a few thoughts.
Where did the buzz come from, anyway? Was there a big publisher or organization behind the book? Nope. It’s self published with Create Space (an earlier version was published by Ulysses Press, and according to Atwill’s blog, it “became the best selling work of religious history in the US in 2007, and its German translation “Das Messias Ratsel”, Ulstein 2008, achieved #1 Best Seller status.” If this were true, one would imagine a publisher would jump at the chance at publishing a new version!). So far as I can tell, the buzz began when a few online news sites picked up a press release from a free service, PR Web. The release came on Tues. Oct. 8, and it was picked up the next day. (It didn’t hurt that Richard Dawkins tweeted about it.)
Online, some biblical scholars began to chime in, generally saying the thesis sounds ludicrous. More substantial engagements include that of Richard Carrier and James Crossley (note an early critique from 2005 by Robert M. Price). Nevertheless, Atwill’s book soared to #307 on Amazon.com (as of Friday October 11), though sales have fallen off over the weekend.
Most have noted that Atwill lacks credentials, which is for the most part true. He did contribute to a peer-reviewed article in 2004 (“Redating the Radiocarbon Dating of the Dead Sea Scrolls” Dead Sea Discoveries 11.2, freely available here) with Steve Braunheim and Robert Eisenman. Eisenman writes a blurb for Atwill’s book and also participated in the related documentary, Covert Messiah, along with Timothy Freke and John Hudson. (Hudson, who is listed under the organization name for the main url for Atwill’s book, has employed a similar hermeneutic to the works of Shakespeare.) In any case, Atwill is apparently really good at chess which must add credibility, right? His site says,
“I am an avid chess player and proud to state that I have more than 100 victories over Grandmasters and International Masters. I hold an ICC Masters rating of 2358.” It is this form of strategic thinking that enabled Atwill to uncover the strategy behind the Romans’ invention of the Gospels.
Atwill’s lack of formal training in a relevant discipline is not what sinks the thesis, however. It is his hermeneutic of conspiracy, an approach to ancient texts (and past events) which assumes the involvement of a nefarious elite, often manifesting as psychological operations intended to maintain and grow the power of an aristocracy. This assumption causes Atwill to grossly misread the ancient evidence (cf. critiques linked above). It should be noted that this hermeneutic shares much in common with that of modern “conspiracy theorists,” and in fact, Atwill spends time in these circles. I bring this up not to disparage such theories or theorists, but only to point out that Atwill’s hermenuetic owes something to this sort of thinking, which comes in good, bad, and ugly.
So what of Paul? You’ll have to wait for Atwill’s next book, The Single Strand, to be released. The same kind of hermeneutic is employed. He gives us a summary:
My upcoming work The Single Strand explains the mysterious NT character ‘Paul’. The first mystery concerning Paul is why did the author of Acts change his name from ‘Saul’ to ‘Paul’, a word that means ‘tiny’. The truth behind Saul’s nickname is viscous humor that makes fun of the fact that Paul was not merely circumcised but castrated. The story of Paul’s castration is black comedy and is given in Acts 13 1-9.
Prior to the scene in Acts 13 Saul/Paul had attacked a member of the ‘way’ – Stephan – who has been preaching for ‘Jesus’, in other words, Stephan had been preaching for the Flavian Christ. Following this event Saul shows up in Antioch with a group that includes a ‘stepbrother’ of Herod. Then the ‘Holy Spirit’, for some reason, orders Saul ‘separated’ – the Greek word used can also mean ‘severed’ – and the group then “placed their hands on him” – the word used for “placed” can also mean ‘attack’. Following the event Saul becomes ‘Paul’, a word that means ‘tiny’. In other words, Paul has been ‘severed’ – or castrated – by the group led by Herod’s ‘stepbrother’ as revenge for his participation in the attack on a member of the ‘Way’ – the Caesars’ version of Judaism. This was how Saul became ‘Tiny’.
To digress, this analysis shows not only the reason why the Romans named the character ‘Paul’, but why they gave him his original name of ‘Saul’. Saul was the Jewish king that had demanded David obtain ‘a hundred Gentile foreskins’ and the Romans named their character ‘Saul’ to imply that his ‘circumcision’ involved – like the one ordered by his OT ‘forerunner’ – more than a single foreskin. The author of Acts ‘clarifies’ the relationship by actually mentioning the OT Saul in the passage where ‘Saul’ becomes ‘Tiny’ – Acts 13:21. The author also notes that the OT Saul’s reign had the space of forty years. This ‘foresees’ the forty years between the beginning of Paul’s ‘ministry’ at approximately 40 CE and the start of Domitian’s reign in 81 CE – a roughly forty year cycle parallel to the one which linked Jesus to Titus.
(Palm to forehead).
Palm to forehead indeed
Once again I find a review of Atwill’s book by someone who appears not to have read it and who then attacks the book with statements that the idea is “ludicrous” (of course no details on why), a critique of Atwill’s credentials (which actually are not too shoddy if you are honest), and the statement that any suggestion of “conspiracy” invalidates an argument. I find it shocking that educated people have been brainwashed to the extent that they can no longer see or understand the reality of political and other conspiracies… But I digress.
If you read Atwill book, verify the evidence that he provides in the works of Josephus, and consider with an open mind the actual historical facts surrounding the times when the NT was written, you may well come to the conclusion, as I did, that what he has to say provides the most rational and parsimonious explanation for the origin of the Christian religion to date. I have looked long and hard for an explanation that fits the actual evidence. While there are many details left to uncover, Atwill has pointed us in the right direction.
Mary, this isn’t a review of Atwill’s book, per se, but of his his general method. Also, so far as I know, I am the only critic to note the peer reviewed journal publication to which Atwill contributed. Additionally, I note that others have called it ludicrous. Finally, I am surprised you find his interpretation of the ancient evidence convincing, especially in light of competing scholarly explanations of Christian origins which seems to better account for all the evidence. I assume you’ve read the work of other scholars and disagree?
OK. But I found your piece to read like a review and a bad review at that. It is to your credit that you mention his peer reviewed publication, but for the rest you are disparaging of his work without actually relating any of his method that you say you are criticizing. It does not appear to me that you have actually read his book.
I am a lay person with many years of interest in the origin of Christianity. I have listened to endless hours of explanation by Christians and non-Christians, and read books, blogs and Bible tracts by all and sundry. Atwill’s theory makes more sense than all of the others put together, even with the many gaps remaining to be solved.
The Roman aristocracy of the Flavian emperors had the means, motive and method for creating the Christian religion. The thesis provides an answer to many mysteries of Christian doctrine. Read the book. Get it through the library if you don’t want to pass on your money to the author.
Most of the above post simply traces recent discussion of his book, how the book gained attention, what credible scholars are saying about it, what Atwill has done to date. I stand by it completely. Yes, I poke fun at how his website suggests that his chess skills somehow betray his critical thinking skills. (Chess, by the way, has nothing to do with interpreting ancient evidence, even if both require some critical thinking). Anyway, my main contribution to the discussion, I think, is captured in the paragraph where I say:
“Atwill’s lack of formal training in a relevant discipline is not what sinks the thesis, however. It is his hermeneutic of conspiracy, an approach to ancient texts (and past events) which assumes the involvement of a nefarious elite, often manifesting as psychological operations intended to maintain and grow the power of an aristocracy. This assumption causes Atwill to grossly misread the ancient evidence (cf. critiques linked above).”
If you haven’t already, I suggest you read the three critiques I link to above, if only to see what credible scholars are saying about specific points in the book. It sounds to me like you are not familiar with some of the problems of Atwill’s argument.
For my part, I can say that my own research in the New Testament and early Christianity suggests that these early Christian writings could not have been fabricated in the way Atwill suggests. It is terribly implausible. While I am not a lay person (I am an early-career scholar), I also want to encourage lay people to engage the evidence. So I’m glad that you have an interest in an important topic and have done some of your own research. I would only encourage you to also consider the work of those who are expert in the field of early Christianity and Judaism. You won’t find much of this on television, blog posts, or in tracts. I’ll follow this up with a couple of suggestions for further reading in case you’re interested.
What gave you any idea that most of the public actually THINK? Thank God I went to a school that taught logic and reasoning as a REQUIRED study. If this woman (and others) can’t see the fallacious “reasoning,” the leaps over actual logic in this book, then, maybe she needs to go take some classes at my old HS!!!
One gets so TIRED of these kinds of books showing up and feeding some weird need to see everything we believe in as a “conspiracy” and only a “chosen few” have noticed and shared it with us, to confirm our worst fears. I always have felt that it is the modern version of “incubus” and “succubus” and the other “demons and witches” popular with the masses in other times. (OOPS, I forgot, some of those far-out religious groups still believe in THOSE, TOO.)
But, but, but …
You’ re assuming he “assumes the involvement of a nefarious elite”
You don’t know it.
“often manifesting as psychological operations intended to maintain and grow the power of an aristocracy”
You mean Atwill assumes, all else being equal, that people and classes of people tend to act in their own best interests, sometimes manipulating others? Why, he’s either crazy or, or, … stating the obvious (if you’re assuming rightly about what he’s saying).
“This assumption causes Atwill to grossly misread the ancient evidence”
According to Carrier et al, according to you. But according to Carrier himself (who says he’s an atheist, i.e., is proud to have an unproven and unprovable belief in the non-existence of God) he hasn’t read Atwill’s book and won’t.
I have my own reasons for doubting Atwill’s thesis that I won’t go into here. But they’re better reasons than yours.
Nick, I stand by my critique above which is focused on Atwill’s approach to the evidence. I call it a hermeneutic of conspiracy and I think it falls woefully short of any reasonable explanation of the evidence. Yes, Atwill has misread the evidence, and grossly so.
About Carrier: I’m not sure what relevance his atheism has to his critique of Atwill. Perhaps you want to expand on that point?
On a more general note: When scholars study their specific subjects, they (as any of us) have a quite limited number of resources with which to study, none more limited than time. With ancient matters, a scholar obviously must deal well with the primary evidence. This takes time. But one must also be acquainted with contemporary scholarly research on the matter. This takes even more time. One could never read all scholarly publications on a subject as large as early Christian origins. Thus one must be selective. So what secondary literature will one read? The best. The most important. Peer-reviewed publications (certainly not self-published books by those with few relevant credentials). That is why Atwill is ignored by most scholars, and it would seem, most publishers.
By surfing chance I happened across this blog post four years after I’d commented here. I’m happy for once to stand by comments after all these years and I’m still baffled at Joshua Mann’s defiant stupidity.
Nick, Do you care to expand on your most recent comment and your claim that I am defiantly stupid–or ask a substantial question about the topic of the post or my previous comment?
Now, I do not wish to take away from your happiness about your comment after all these years, but let me offer a response to your original comment, point by point. Now, I’ll set smug sarcasm aside and I would appreciate if you do the same:
In the line you’ve quoted, I’m describing a certain approach to texts that I call a hermeneutic of conspiracy. I think this method typifies Atwill. I offered the following support: (1) this book itself, which claims the Flavian’s invented Christianity as a psy-op; (2) his involvement in conspiracy theory circles which similarly share a presupposition that powerful elites behave in this manner; (3) his forthcoming project on the Apostle Paul, which if you read the blurb above, follows this same line of thinking. I also mention his colleague who takes a similar approach to the works of Shakespeare to illustrate this hermeneutical approach.
By suggesting Atwill might be stating the obvious, you have severely understated his claims. Sure, we can all agree that all kinds of people, including the elite, will manipulate others to maintain power. But in the line you quote from my blog post, I describe something much more extreme, the use of psy-ops on a mass scale, which is what Atwill claims happened.
Yes, according to scholars of early Christianity, including me. (Btw, I never defended Carrier’s response and in fact I find his work on Jesus/the Gospels deeply flawed. What is so significant about his rejection of Atwill is that Carrier is a mythicist—rejecting that Jesus was a historical figure—and yet strongly objects to Atwill’s thesis).
Why not share one or two of your reasons? Have you read the book? Which claims of Atwill do you find convincing? Which are the most problematic?
The purpose of my short blog post was simply to address the press release and raise a few important points that I hadn’t seen raised elsewhere. One was actually to point out that Atwill does(!) have a peer-reviewed publication, and the other was to point out what I continue to believe is the interpretive approach that underlies Atwill’s work.
Someone who hasn’t and won’t read a book has nothing to say of any value about it. Has he at least responded to the issue of timing, and whether he accepts Tacitus’ account of persecution of Christians a decade early?
Craig, are you addressing this question to me?
I came across the Flavian thesis nearly 10 years ago. This whole time I have been withholding my final judgment, pending sincere scholarly debate. I guess that will never happen. The absurdity of Atwills,” Debunkers “, is astounding. Richard Carrier list his reasons for not reading Atwills theory and then promptly critiques the theory he just finished telling us he did not read. He is not required to give reasons explaining what he doesn’t want to read. However most of his reasons are in fact idiotic. The fact he didn’t read the work in question, one would think, disqualifies him from having much of a relevant opinion on the matter. Reading Carrier’s shrill defensive tone is acutely embarrassing. He just raves and raves, attacking his misrepresentations of Atwill and somehow through force of sheer arrogance seems to feel this powerful victory. Any person having read Atwills book can see plainly that he is not addressing the Caesar’s Messiah thesis, even remotely. This is expected when one is critiquing a theory one hasn’t read. It is as if Carrier is sacrificing his professional integrity, in order to promote Atwill by offering up extremely weak counter arguments,( hows that for conspiracy?). Atwills response to Carrier is fairly strong. Anyway, Atwills debunkers get more and more embarrassing on down the line. I did like Prices piece dealing with Caesar’s Messiah. It seemed considerate.
Sean, perhaps we agree that the time it appears Carrier invested in his back-and-forth with Atwill, his blog post, and his engagement in the comments could have been better used in actually reading the book and posting a response. I wonder if Carrier wishes he’d never engaged Atwill at all.
As far as scholarly debate goes, I am afraid Atwill has done himself no favors by self-publishing, especially considering he has few scholarly credentials. If he wants to be taken seriously, he must build credibility that is recognized by other scholars. He can do this by publishing a related article or two in double blind peer review journals, for example (where his name and lack of a terminal degree will not be taken into account). Or he could pursue a degree relevant to the field. These are the rules of scholarship, so to speak, whether we like them or not. One cannot just show up and declare they be taken seriously by others.
Carrier has literally nothing to say of value on the topic.
His eight points are beyond ridiculous and demonstrate total lack of comprehension of Atwill’s claims. For instance he claims that the Roman aristocracy *in general* didn’t have the skills to invent religions based on Judaic myth or prophecy, without of course answering whether this particular family (the Flavians) might have had experts (Flavius Josephus) and prisoners (John “the zealot”) who might have. Having created several religions already…
Just proves it is not worth reading an author who doesn’t read what he is commenting on.
I agree with what you’re saying. This must have been a long headache for Carrier. It seems he has wasted much more time on this than he intended. In adopting the hard line response, I think he provoked people to rain down comments. It is true, most of those comments are not overly insightful. However, Carriers tone, combined with the fact he didn’t grasp the work ( at least in it’s final draft ) was something the would be scholars just couldn’t resist. I confess that I found it a little bit funny. I think Price did it right. His socratic granting of certain points left no doubt that he understood Atwills thesis. Some of Prices points are very insightful. I thought it seemed a good starting point for discussion. It just never caught on. Likely because Price wisely closed down the comment board. Now that Atwill is conflating the Flavian thesis with Shakespeare conspiracy, i am sure it will all be off the radar for good. Parts of his work were interesting, at least to me. Oh well.
I find it amusing that few scholars bother to actually refute the central thesis, and focus on the (obviously speculative) motives of the conspirators.
You have ignored the central thesis Atwill puts forward, and who really cares about the man or his qualifications at all, since he has done nothing but observe the motive, opportunity and means that a Flavian conspiracy would have had to blunt messianic Judaism.
Essential to his thesis is that Christianity as we know it could not have existed prior to 73 CE and was a post-war pacification strategy. That is not to say that no cult admiring or elevating a Jesus/Christ figure could not have existed in Nero’s time (64 CE or thereabouts).
The main source that contradicts this is Tacitus. After him we have not much credible until about 110 CE describing Christianity. It’s entirely possible that a Roman-created or -encouraged cult got out of control, it happens all the time in the modern era (for instance consider the USA funding the Afghan Mujahedeen that eventually morphed into Al Qaeda, or giving Saddam chemical weapons) and had to be violently suppressed.
As I see it all Atwill claims is that the “New Testament” gospels (not necessarily all the Dead Sea Scrolls) were so interwoven with War of the Jews as to suggest a single author, cooperating authors, or post-facto authorship. Some scholars admit that the “New Testament” authors could have written after 73 CE, even if a Christian cult existed a decade earlier. Taming an already-existing cult would have been a high priority for a new Roman dynasty. Nero, of the Judeo-Claudian family, was seen as a failure by many, perhaps Claudius tried other tactics, and after him Flavius? Then we would have evidence of the one that stuck.
So Atwill’s thesis is not invalidated by Tacitus even if we accept him as “gospel”, but, it is challenged by the existence of Christian cultists a decade too early. That suggests either that Tacitus’ inclusion of this persecution is falsified (quite possible given the way texts were handled and copied in this era) to back the story, or that it was a pre-existing cult the Romans felt threatened enough by to try to tame. Either is quite possible and interesting. Neither actually says there was no original or inspiring character that these post-73CE authors wrote about…
But it’s interesting that the evidential challenge to Atwill comes almost enitirely from Tacitus’ claim about Nero’s persecution a decade too early, and this is being roundly ignored by almost every scholar who writes about this. Those who do, simply say they believe Tacitus absolutely, despite the obvious problems and many opportunities to falsify his text over nearly 2000 years.
Just to clarify, others may have questioned Atwill’s motives but I did not in the above post. My main critique was this: “Atwill’s lack of formal training in a relevant discipline is not what sinks the thesis [note I say *not*, and I am the only one I know of that also pointed out Atwill’s co-authorship of a peer-reviewed journal article], however. It is his hermeneutic of conspiracy…”, which I describe briefly above. Atwill comes to the evidence with a scenario already in mind and rereads everything in light of it. I’m all for some ingenious interpretation to help challenge assumptions, but at the end of the day one has to ask, “Does this interpretation best explain the data?” No. Atwill’s thesis is terribly implausible.
There are several closely related theses to Atwill’s that are perhaps more plausible, and peer review would have probably listed them:
1. A group of related messianic cults around a crucified Jewish rebel from Judea with a Greek designation “Christ”, of who knows what philosophy, “tamed” into a cult the Flavians could control by means of a central mythic story that has both credible insurgency and credible submission elements… each to be invoked when the Flavians are out of power versus in power.
Tacitus then could have been describing any of these as having been blamed and persecuted by Nero in 64AD.
In this possibility the Flavians hijack rather than create a cult, and there are probably earlier accounts (or “Gospels”) prior to the Epistles, that are being extended and satirized in the four official Gospels, without of course reference to War of the Jews.
2. No cult at all, but a completely false account in Tacitus inserted by the Flavians to bolster the claims that the cult they controlled was (a) much feared by Nero (b) blamed by Nero for crimes he committed (c) extremely prevalent and would have been more so if not for persecution (d) horrifically suppressed. A mob of believers that expected this treatment at the hands of Julio-Claudians would be quite likely to defend the Flavians to the death.
Whether this is credible depends on the sources Tacitus used and how corruptible he or the copying process after him was…
3. A deliberate falsification of War of the Jews in order to make Jesus look more prophetic and echo Gospel wording. This seems the least likely, because Flavius Josephus was a member of the Imperial family and would have had the power to ensure his work remained as he wrote it.
However it is a valid way to explain the many similarities of language that Atwill notes.
It seems to me that any of these scenarios also require one to use the same hermeneutic I describe above, which must assume the involvement of a nefarious elite. I don’t buy that presupposition. (I also don’t think the diverse documents that comprise the New Testament could plausibly be fabricated centrally). The evidence must lend itself to that reading, and I don’t think it does. Instead, I think Atwill bends the evidence to that reading.