r m p




Joseph Atwill's, Caesar’s Messiah: The Roman Conspiracy to Invent Jesus

Ulysses Press, 2005

Reviewed by Robert M. Price




The controversial thesis of this book is that Christianity began as the opium of the Jewish people, mixed and prescribed for them by the crafty Flavian dynasty. Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian had had their fill of militant Zealotry and Sicariism. They could not bend the Jewish nationalists to their will even after a destructive war that leveled the temple of their God. No amount of torture could make Jewish prisoners deny their faith and call Caesar not only their salad but also their lord. And so Titus Caesar, with the help of his obedient lackey Josephus, devised a master deception whereby Jews should be seduced into worshipping Titus, divine son of the divine Vespasian, without knowing it, under the guise of a fictitious Jesus, divine son of a divine Father. The gospels were composed by Romans (and Roman stooges including defeated Zealot leader John of Gischala AKA John son of Zebedee) to catechize Jews into this new and false Judaism which, if they accepted it, should also lull them into a soporific pacifism convenient for Rome. The four canonical gospels and Josephus’ The Jewish War were designed and composed to be read together and so to reveal to the cognoscenti this secret origin and rationale for the Christian religion. Further, this Flavian Pentateuch, read thus intertextually, should disclose a series of cruel jokes and parodies of the very faith it presented for the consumption of the masses who read them literally. The Flavian aristocrats themselves would have gotten the jokes, especially the rich jest that the fools who fell for their scam religion were worshipping Titus without knowing it. In a cover blurb, Robert Eisenman (a sometime colleague of author Atwill, one hastens to add, on other endeavors) remarks, “If what Joseph Atwill is saying is only partially true, we are looking into the abyss.” And the abyss is looking back at us. But is it even partially true?

            Eisenman’s interest in Atwill’s proposal is understandable. Eisenman, in his monumental work James the Brother of Jesus, was able to show, from an altogether new perspective, how thoroughly pro-Roman is New Testament faith. Compared with the religion of nationalistic Jewish Christianity it must have seemed the foulest betrayal, an overnight devolution of the faith of a messiah who stormed the temple, condemning its Roman lapdog rulers, into a religion advocating obedience to Caesar, paying him his denarius, and accepting Quisling tax collectors as brothers in the faith. And Atwill is attempting to explain how such a Gentile Christianity, seemingly a perverse parody of Jewish messianism, could have come about. But does Eisenman accept Atwill’s theory? His blurb sounds like an exercise in damning with faint praise: he doesn’t even commit himself to Atwill’s being part right. And one hopes he never does, since that would be tying his own raft to a leaden, sinking ship.

             I will return presently to a handful of oddities that Atwill rightly points out, providing tasty food for further thought. But first I want to provide a broad sketch of the sense I think Atwill’s theory would make of New Testament phenomena, which is not to say it is the only theory that might account for these features. Picture a religious ethic of conspicuous compromise with the occupying authorities, a gospel that tells its believers not to resist any who confiscate their property, but to pay Roman taxes and to carry a legionary’s field pack twice the distance stipulated by Roman law. Imagine a story that blames not just Jews but implicitly nationalistic, messianic Jews for the destruction of their temple. A story that has the messiah predict that the kingdom will be taken from Jews and given to a more worthy nation. Keep in mind how the preacher of this sect befriends Jews who collaborate with Rome and eulogizes a Roman centurion for having faith unparalleled among Jews. He is declared innocent by Roman authorities but nonetheless is done in by Jewish rulers. Then think of how the predictions of the fall of Jerusalem a single generation later correspond so closely to Josephus’ account of the events, and furthermore, how Josephus even mentions Jesus as a righteous man and even as the messiah of prophetic prediction (though he himself had proclaimed Vespasian the proper object of such prophecy). When someone suggests that Christianity may have been a “safe,” denatured, Roman-domesticated, messianic Methadone to replace the real and dangerous messianic heroin of the Zealots, and that Josephus had something to do with it, it does not sound unreasonable on the face of it.

Now even this much is highly controversial, debatable, and necessarily so. But if we find this much of the premise beguiling, should we go the rest of the way with Atwill as our guide? After all, somewhat similar theories of a Roman origin of Christianity and of Jesus have been proposed by Abelard Reuchlin (whose notorious 1979 booklet The True Authorship of the New Testament strikingly anticipates Atwill’s at several points), Margaret Morrison (Jesus Augustus), Cliff Carrington (who also ascribes the gospels to the Flavians), and Stephan Hermann Huller (Marcus Agrippa, etc.). We might find that one of these alternative theories of Roman origins explains many of the same things Atwill’s does, and without the disadvantages.

Atwill’s theory does have the advantage of accounting for the persistent pro-Roman tendencies of the New Testament, but consider what else it requires us to accept. First, we are to accept a common, if committee, authorship of Matthew, Mark, Luke John, and Josephus’ The Jewish War. The whole idea seems, well, absurd. There is way, way, too much else in any and all of the gospel texts that cannot be dismissed (really, neglected) as mere padding, ballast, which is all it would be if Atwill is right. (“All of Jesus’ ministry was about the coming war with Rome and was designed to establish Jesus as Titus’ forerunner” p. 260.) Are we to dismiss the diverse, systematic, and subtle theological nuances disclosed by Redaction Criticism? Are all the patterns disclosed by Conzelmann, for instance, to be dismissed as optical illusions in order to justify Atwill?

Similarly, only the most obtuse reader, the most tin-eared, can possibly fail to appreciate the sublime quality of so much of the New Testament (agree or disagree with it), which is necessary to do if one is to dismiss the whole thing as an elaborate joke on the reader. Rather, the joke is on Atwill, whose great learning has apparently driven him mad. Just think of someone advancing the same theory about, say, the Buddhist scriptures. The worst of them are far too tedious and turgid to have been composed to fill out a hoax (who would have gone to the trouble?), while the more readable and winsome (like the Dhammapada) are filled with a wisdom beyond the reach of a worldly-minded scoffer. As to Jesus’ teachings, Atwill declares that “those who see spiritual meaning in his words are being played for a fool” (p. 234). Such a statement is only a damning self-condemnation, revealing the author’s own absolute inability to appreciate what he is reading. This is why one must not throw one’s pearls before swine.

Can we imagine that Josephus wrote consciously intending that his audience should meticulously compare his text with that of the gospels, and vice versa, for either to make sense? Atwill grants the authenticity of the Testimonium Flavianum, which even apologists cannot seem to swallow without trimming away the most obviously Christian gristle. He thinks the only reason scholars have dismissed it as an interpolation is that they think it fails to fit into the context, which, however, it does, according to his esoteric reading.

Atwill claims he has learned to read the esoteric secrets of the gospels, whereby they are seen as black-comedic satires of events in the Jewish War. For instance, when Jesus offers his flesh for consumption at the Last Supper, it is “really” a wink to the reader who is somehow supposed to think of a passage in Josephus set during the Roman siege, when a woman eats the roasted flesh of her own infant. When Jesus offers to make his disciples fishers of men, the line is supposed to sardonically anticipate a wartime episode in which the Romans picked off fleeing Jewish rebels swimming in the Lake of Galilee. Thinking his method justified by comparison to the ancient practice of scriptural typology, Atwill gives himself license to indulge in the most outrageous display of “parallelomania” ever seen. He connects widely separated dots and collects sets of incredibly far-fetched verbal correspondences, from gospel to gospel and between the gospels and Josephus, then uses them to create ostensible parallel accounts. Then he declares himself justified in borrowing names, themes, and intended references from one “parallel” account and reading them into the other, thus supplying “missing” features. Triumphantly, Atwill defies the reader to call it all coincidence, working out the math to show such correspondences could never be the product of chance. Well, of course they are not. They are the product of his own arbitrary gematria in the first place. “That the wicked man in the Fulvia story can be seen as a lampoon of Paul seems difficult to dispute” (p. 247), unless of course one forgot to pick up a pair of 3-D glasses on the way into the theatre. Again, Atwill hammers home the “parallel” between Josephus’ story of a Jewish matron, Paulina, tricked into sleeping with a deceiver, Decius Mundus, claiming to be Anubis incarnate, on the one hand, and that of the supposed deception of disguising Titus as the god Jesus, on the other. What do they have in common? Josephus says Decius came forward to gloat, revealing the hoax three days later, while the adjacent Testimonium Flavianum of Josephus says Jesus was seen alive again three days after his crucifixion. “There is, of course, a difference. Whereas Jesus appears on the third day to show that he is a God, Decius appears on the third day to announce that he is not a god. [But] It is implausible that something as unusual as two ‘third-day divinity declarations’ would wind up next to one another by chance.” (p. 245). But there is no declaration of divinity in either case! As Atwill notes, Decius declares the opposite, while Josephus (or whoever wrote the Testimonium passage) says nothing of Jesus or anyone else declaring him divine as a result of the resurrection. Of such airy bricks is Atwill’s cloudy castle built.

What is the utility of reading the gospels together as pieces of a single puzzle? If each evangelist meant to send the baffled reader in search of other texts with which to harmonize the one he began reading, it might enable us to iron out the contradictions, say, of the Easter stories. First, as per John 20, Mary Magdalene finds an empty tomb. But it is not that of Jesus. Rather she has mistakenly gone to the recently vacated tomb of Lazarus! She informs Simon Peter and the Beloved Disciple that Jesus appears to be missing. The Beloved Disciple plus a third man, simply “Peter,” make their way to the tomb. The Beloved Disciple arrives first but lingers for a moment outside the tomb, nearing the opening. Peter has not reached the tomb yet, but Simon Peter beats him there and walks past the Beloved Disciple, becoming the first to enter the sepulcher, where he spots the grave clothes cast aside when Lazarus left. At this specific moment, less than the duration of a minute, one must suppose, a second Mary Magdalene and her sisters (whose visit is recorded in Matthew 28) approach and see the Beloved Disciple outside the tomb. They think him an angel descended from heaven, and he tells them Jesus has risen. The women depart, and the Beloved Disciple joins Simon Peter inside, whereupon another party of women, including a third Mary Magdalene (this time from Luke 24), approaches and see the two men in the tomb. They take Simon Peter and the Beloved Disciples for angels. They leave, and, moments later, so does Simon Peter. As soon as he vanishes, here comes a fourth Mary Magdalene, this one from Mark, and she spies the Beloved Disciple inside the tomb and thinks he is an angel. He tells her and her companions to relate the news to Peter (who has not yet arrived, remember, only the quite distinct Simon Peter!). The Beloved Disciple returns home, but soon the other (Lukan) Peter (not Simon Peter) approaches, having heard the report of the Lukan Magdalene. He has brought at least one other man with him, a la Luke 24:24. The John 20:12 Mary Magdalene sees these men inside the tomb and thinks they are angels. Then she turns and sees a mysterious figure standing outside the tomb, takes him for the gardener, and asks him about Jesus, then thinks he is Jesus. But in “fact” he is Titus Caesar. The savvy reader (i.e., Atwill) will get the joke: the “Jesus” worshipped by stupid Christians is really Titus. It is all supposed to be “a comedy of errors” a la Plautus.

Atwill hypothesizes that the Flavian jokesters were compiling the gospels-plus-Josephus as a kind of intelligence test, and Atwill implicitly congratulates himself as the only one in history who has ever passed it. “I would note that the satirical system that unites the New Testament and Wars of the Jews can be seen as an exercise in mind expansion, in that to solve the puzzles the reader must learn to think ‘outside the box,’ so to speak. The authors were making the point that the narrow focus the Sicarii Zealots maintained regarding a few scrolls was a limited and inaccurate mode of thought. The authors seem to be suggesting that only by seeing all sides of a problem can the truth be known. Therefore it is possible that they designed the New Testament as a tool to intellectually uplift the messianic rebels” (p. 225). No it isn’t. “It is possible that the authors of the Gospels created them as a sort of educational tool disguised as a narrative about Jesus. The authors may have wished their readers to work through the various contradictions in logic in order to develop their reasoning ability and thus be able to think their way out of religious superstition. They may have wished the Gospels to be seen by posterity as their contribution to the development of reason” (p. 167). Or maybe as a big Jumble puzzle. “The point I think the creators of Christianity were making with their use of comedy is that there are unlimited ways to interpret scripture and it is easy for the uneducated to see symbolic meaning where there is none. They made this point by creating the New Testament as an example” (p. 234). No, it is Atwill himself whose creation demonstrates the limitless possibilities of perverse and gratuitous interpretations of the text.

One hates to be so severe in the analysis of the work of an innovative thinker who gives us the gift of a fresh reading of familiar texts, but in the present case it is hard to euphemize. The reading given here is just ludicrous. There are indeed surprising parallels between Josephus and the gospels that traditional exegesis has never been able to deal with adequately, but surely the more natural theory is the old one, that the gospel writers wrote late enough to have borrowed from Josephus and did so. Thus, as per Edgar J. Goodspeed, Matthew 23:35 probably confuses the biblical prophet Zechariah son of Berechiah with the revolutionary martyr Zechariah son of Baruch whose death Josephus relates. But is this because Josephus and his committee of comedy writers are responsible for both references, meaning for us to read them in tandem, as Atwill avers? Or is it because Mathew read the information in Josephus and mixed it up (as Luke did Josephus’ references to Theudas the Magician and Judas the Galilean in Acts 5:36-37)?

Atwill reasons that Jesus’ prediction of the fall of Jerusalem plainly prefigures Josephus’ account of the actual events, and he infers that both versions (in the future and the past tenses) stem from the same source, Josephus and his Flavian collaborators. Then, he reasons, the Son of Man whose coming was to climax the apocalyptic scenario must be none other than the actual man who did wreak judgment on Jerusalem, Titus. Atwill congratulates the Preterist school of interpreters (like J. Stuart Russell, The Parousia) on recognizing that the Synoptic predictions of the desolation of Jerusalem must have been completely fulfilled in 70 CE, with nothing left over for futurist expectation. Here is one of Atwill’s most attractive suggestions, though he does not put it the way I am about to do. I believe that Bultmann was right that several “son of man” sayings in the gospels referred originally simply to “mankind” in general (e.g., Mark 2:10, 28; Matthew 12:32). In fact, I wonder if they do not retain this non-Christological “Everyman” denotation even in the gospels. Further, I suspect even more of the son of man sayings are intended this way, e.g., Mark 14:21. Perhaps Mark 13:36 (“And then they will see the son of man coming in the clouds with great power and glory.”) is another one. If it were, then maybe what we read there is a reference to Josephus’ account of the end of Jerusalem, heralded, he says, by people beholding in the flame-tinged clouds the forms of battling soldiers and charioteers. After all, the introductory (redactional) question placed in the disciples’ mouths concerns the time of the temple’s destruction.       

Again, Atwill suggests that Mark’s story of Joseph of Arimathea requesting the body of Jesus be taken down and given to him comes from Josephus’ own experience of recognizing three crucifixion victims as former associates of his and securing Roman permission to have them taken down alive and treated, though only one survived. How similar are the names “Joseph of Arimathea” and “Joseph bar-Matthias” (the historian’s full name)! If the gospel story is based on Josephus’ story, that would solve the problem of why Joseph seems to have asked only for Jesus, and what happened to the two other “thieves” crucified alongside him. But to posit such a thing, one hardly need envision a committee writing both stories in the hope that the clever reader would connect them (as if doing so would remotely imply some identity between Jesus and Titus Caesar!).

Unaware of the work of Theodore J. Weeden, Atwill traces out the numerous striking parallels between the Passion story of Jesus Christ and the Josephus story of Jesus ben-Ananias, his interrogation by the Sanhedrin and the Roman procurator, his predictions of Jerusalem’s destruction, and his flogging and eventual death, suggesting the two Jesuses are one and the same. (It is too bad the rest of Atwill’s parallels are not similarly compelling, even plausible.) But surely, as Weeden argues, the explanation is that Mark simply borrowed the story from Josephus.

What about the Roman-tilting anti-Judaism (maybe anti-Semitism) of the gospels? Again, the old explanations are quite natural and adequate: we are reading the documents of Gentile Christianity which viewed itself as superseding Judaism and Jewish Christianity. Why do their authors seem to kiss the Roman posterior? For apologetical reasons, to avoid persecution. Brandon, Eisler, and others saw that long ago. One need hardly posit that the gospels are cynical Roman (not merely pro-Roman) propaganda a la Reuchlin and Atwill. 

According to Atwill, “the reader needs to comprehend perhaps the most complex literary satire ever written” (p. 169). But Atwill’s envisioned satire seems so complex as to be incoherent. “Jesus” stands not only for Tiberius but also for a hypothetical Zealot leader named Eleazar, who also appears in the New Testament as Lazarus. Mary Magdalene stands for several different women, “Mary” being, Atwill guesses, a term for any female Jewish rebel or sympathizer. Simon Peter and Peter are not the same, either. The two gospel genealogies, a la Rudolf Steiner, represent two distinct Jesuses. In Atwill’s hands, everything means everything else. And, in the end, you know what that means.



Copyright©2006 by Robert M Price
Spirit of Carolina Web Design