On October 19th, the “Covert Messiah” Conference took place at Conway Hall in London to present a new controversial discovery that Jesus Christ “may be the only fictional character in literature whose entire life story can be traced to other sources.” According to Joseph Atwill, author of Caesar’s Messiah, the New Testament was written by first-century Roman aristocrats who fabricated the entire story of Jesus Christ. Atwill says:
I present my work with some ambivalence, as I do not want to directly cause Christians any harm, but this is important for our culture. Alert citizens need to know the truth about our past so we can understand how and why governments create false histories and false gods. They often do it to obtain a social order that is against the best interests of the common people. (source)
Sound familiar? Atwill’s conspiracy theory is reminiscent of Peter Joseph’s Zeitgeist propaganda film which HBP has debunked in the film Zeitgeist Refuted. In fact, appearing in the film about Atwill’s “discoveries” are the fringe “scholars” Acharya S (aka D.M Murdock) and Timothy Freke who assert that Jesus is the sun-god-turned-Jewish-man and that Christianity is actually paganism in disguise. It was largely based upon their research that Zeitgeist the movie was produced.
Also in the film Caesar’s Messiah is Kenneth Humphreys, author of Jesus Never Existed, another fringe position in biblical scholarship that even non-Christian scholars have refuted as being an argument against the historical data. For example, see a question and answer dialogue between New Testament scholar Ben Witherington and skeptic scholar Bart Ehrman.
Concerning Joseph Atwill and his Roman conspiracy to invent Jesus, the New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado responds:
Where does this stuff come from? I just got an email asking about a guy self-described as a “biblical scholar” with a new (to me) notion: Jesus, Christianity & the NT were all invented by the Roman government for the purpose of quieting the Jews from their interest in militant messianism. He calls it “Covert Christianity.”
And, no, I haven’t heard of the guy before either (Joseph Atwill), largely because, well, he’s a nobody in the field of biblical studies. No PhD in the subject (or related subject), never held an academic post, never (so far as I can tell) published anything in any reputable journal that’s peer-reviewed, or in any reputable monograph series, or presented at any academic conference where competent people could assess his claims. Instead, per the flimflam drill, he directs his claims to the general public, knowing that they are unable to assess them, and so, by sheer novelty of the claim he hopes to attract a crowd, sales, and publicity. It’s a living, I guess (of sorts).
So, again, for those who care, it’s wise to consider who is making the claims when you hear them made. Atwill knows he can’t get to first base on his crazy claims with anyone competent in the field. So, he “goes public”, i.e., dodges the scholarly process by which ideas are tested and challenged before being accepted. But he’ll probably get a TV programme out of it. It seems actually to help to propose something kind of weird like this. And when asked why scholars don’t accept it, you respond (yup, you guessed it) “It’s an academic conspiracy to keep these things from the public.” Sigh!
(Oh well, as a colleague noted, if Jesus was invented by the Romans, then, obviously, he couldn’t have been married to Mary Magdalene! I love when the weirdo-theories people cancel each other out (source).
Even the non-Christian, skeptic author Richard Carrier said of Atwill in his very thorough refutation of Atwill’s work:
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? (source)
Atwill says Jesus was not even a real person from history. Apparently, his “most intriguing discovery” came to him when he was reading Wars of the Jews by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. He says:
I started to notice a sequence of parallels between the two texts. Although it’s been recognised by Christian scholars for centuries that the prophesies of Jesus appear to be fulfilled by what Josephus wrote about in the First Jewish-Roman war, I was seeing dozens more. What seems to have eluded many scholars is that the sequence of events and locations of Jesus ministry are more or less the same as the sequence of events and locations of the military campaign of [Emperor] Titus Flavius as described by Josephus. This is clear evidence of a deliberately constructed pattern. The biography of Jesus is actually constructed, tip to stern, on prior stories, but especially on the biography of a Roman Caesar. (source)
Are you kidding? And nobody has figured this out before Atwill? Atwill is serious when he says, “the Roman Caesars left us a kind of puzzle literature that was meant to be solved by future generations, and the solution to that puzzle is ‘We invented Jesus Christ, and we’re proud of it.‘”
Apart from the Josephus references to Jesus, we have another reference to Jesus from Tacitus, the Roman historian and senator. Though Tacitus was writing in about AD 116, the context of his passage on Christ surrounds the Great Fire of Rome that burned much of the city in AD 64 during the reign of Roman Emperor Nero. The passage says:
To suppress therefore the common rumour, Nero procured others to be accused, and inflicted exquisite punishments upon those people, who were in abhorrence for their crimes, and were commonly known as Christians. They had their denomination from Christus [Christ], who in the reign of Tiberius was put to death as a criminal by the procurator Pontius Pilate. This pernicious superstition, though checked for a while, broke out again, and spread, not only over Judea, the source of this evil, but reached the city [Rome] also. (Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome, 15.44)
It is firmly established that Tactitus gives us non-Christian confirmation that Jesus actually existed and was crucified just as the Gospels record. This passage also suggests that the origin of the Jesus tradition was much earlier than AD 64 in order for it to develop a large following and rapidly spread in Judea where it started before reaching Rome. This account reports events which are far from representing the social order that Atwill’s conspiracy of Christianity suggests. There are several more antagonists to the Christian faith who confirm many of the details recorded in the Gospels as well as the fact that early Christians were turning the Roman world upside down with their bold preaching of the Kingdom of God. Once again, Christianity could not have been an invention of the Romans to govern the masses because the Christians were declaring Jesus as Lord, not Caesar, and were fed to the lions because of their continual disturbances in proclaiming the Gospel.
In J.P Holding’s critique of Atwill’s book, he also notes the Tacitus passage in addition to other Roman writers whom Atwill ignores. Holding wrote,
more problematic for Atwill is what is said by Roman writers whose works he ignores. Tacitus’ comment in Annals 15.44 places the origins of Christianity, and Roman reaction to it, nearly a decade before Titus’ final victory. Atwill says nothing at all about this critical passage; nor does he mention Pliny’s letter to Trajan asking what to do about Christians.
Atwill wishes to posit convenient forgetfulness as the cause of the loss of knowledge about Christian origins; and how credible is it that Hadrian and Pliny “forgot” this, or did not know about it? How credible is it that Domitian (himself a Flavian) persecuted Christianity and forgot that his own relatives had created it in the first place? Why would some of those relatives actually become Christians?
Atwill makes no effort to explain how Christianity spread; he offers a single paragraph on this saying that “wicked priests” introduced the religion to the masses (Jewish?); but then, “The first people to hear the story of Jesus would most likely have been slaves (Gentiles???) whose patrons simply ordered them to attend services. After a while some began to believe, then many.”  End of explanation. (source)
Additionally, the context of the Tacitus passage is during Nero’s reign from AD 54-68. Also, Suetonius, a Roman historian, court official under Hadrian and annalist of the imperial house, stated in his Life of Claudius that, “He [Claudius] banished the Jews from Rome, who were continually making disturbances, Chrestus being their leader.” (Suetonius. Life of Claudius, 25.4). This corresponds to the book of Acts in the New Testament in which Luke recorded the same event of AD 49 (Acts 18:2) which coincides with Emperor Claudius’ reign in AD 41 to 54. In another work of Suetonius, he wrote about the fire that swept through Rome in AD 64 under the reign of Nero. He said, “punishment by Nero was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new mischievous superstition” (Suetonius. Life of the Caesars. 26.2). Pliny the Younger was governor of the Roman provinces of Pontus and Bithynia in AD 101 to 110. In a letter to the emperor Trajan, Pliny the Younger requested specific instructions about the interrogations of Christians whom he was persecuting. He said he “made them curse Christ, which a genuine Christian cannot be induced to do.” Pliny also notes that Christians worshipped Jesus “as if” He were a god (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 10.96). All of these historical quotes document how Christians were in existence in Rome very early on, at least as early as AD 49 during the reign of Claudius. All of this evidence destroys Atwill’s conspiracy theory that the Falvians created Christianity during the Flavian dynasty from AD 69 to 96. Atwill writes:
This imperial family, the Flavians, created Christianity, and, even more incredibly, they incorporated a skillful satire of the Jews in the Gospels and War of the Jews to inform posterity of this fact.
The Flavian dynasty lasted from 69 to 96 C.E., the period when most scholars believe the Gospels were written. It consisted of three Caesars: Vespasian and his two sons, Titus and Domitian. Flavius Josephus, the adopted member of the family who wrote War of the Jews, was their official historian.” (Joseph Atwill, Caesar’s Messiah, Berkley, CA: Ulysses Press, 2005, p. 2)
This is absolute nonsense! Christianity could not have been created by the Flavians because it was already in existence as the earlier non-Christian sources demonstrated.
The website is www.covertmessiah.com and below are some links which more throughly debunk these claims, at least two of which are from non-Christian skeptics:
Joseph Atwill’s Caesar’s Messiah: A Critique – James Patrick Holding
The Agenda of Covert Messiah – Fighting For the Faith
Ceasar’s Messiah Conspiracy Theory is Easily Refuted – Cris Putnam
No, Joe Atwill: Rome Did Not Invent Jesus – Tom Verenna
Atwill’s Cranked-up Jesus – Richard Carrier