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).