Our understanding of Jewish and Christian history has changed dramatically with the publication of Caesar’s Messiah by Joseph Atwill (Ulysses Press).
According to Atwill, the Gospels are not accounts of the ministry of a historical Jewish Jesus compiled by his followers sixty years after his death. They are texts deliberately created to trick Messianic Jews into worshipping the Roman Emperor ‘in disguise’.
The essence of Atwill’s discovery is that the majority of the key events in the life of Jesus are in fact satirical: each is an elegant literary play on a military battle in which the Jewish armies had been defeated by the Romans. This is an extraordinary claim-but supported by all the necessary evidence.
Why would the Romans go to the trouble of writing and disseminating such a text?
The Jewish War, culminating in the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, had devastated the Mediterranean economy, and the Romans were anxious to prevent another messianic outbreak. In order to make any reconstruction of the country lasting, the Romans needed to offer the Jews alternative stories that would distract them from the messianic messages inherent in the Torah, and persuade them to accept Roman values.
According to Atwill, the Romans’ solution to these problems was to create a special kind of post-war propaganda. They called it in Greek evangelion, a technical term meaning “good news of military victory.” In English, it is translated as “gospel.” The name is in fact ironic humor: the Romans were amusing themselves with the notion of making the Jews accept, as the actions of the Messiah Jesus, what were in fact literary echoes of the very battles in which the Romans had defeated the Jews’ armies.
A further joke was buried in unmistakable parallels between the life of Jesus and that of Titus: in worshiping Jesus, the Jews who adopted Christianity, as it came to be called, were in fact hailing the Emperor of their conquerors as god.
To replace the Torah, then, the Romans created a literary equivalent, the gospel of Matthew (and shortly thereafter the Hellenistic and Roman versions known as Luke and Mark). The central literary character, called Jesus (or Joshua) inhabits a plot with various peculiar features: he begins his efforts by the Lake of Galilee; sends a legion of devils out of a demon-possessed man and into pigs; offers his flesh to be eaten; mentions signs of the destruction of Jerusalem; in Gethsemane a naked man escapes; Jesus is captured at Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives; Simon denies knowing him; he is crucified with two other men and only he survives; he is taken down from the cross by a man called Joseph of Arimathea; his disciple John survives but his disciple Simon is sent off to die in Rome; after his death his disciple Judas dies by eviscerating himself.
Each of these peculiar events has a parallel in the writings of Josephus, our main record of the military encounter between the Judeans and their Roman conquerors-even to the unusual crucifixion in which three men are crucified, and a man named Joseph takes one, who survives, down. To give a flavor of the humor buried in this grand Roman joke, we see that where, in Josephus, the crucifixions take place at Thecoe, which translates as the “Village of the Inquiring Mind,” the gospel’s satiric version takes place at Golgotha, or the “Hill of the Empty Skull.”
Events at the Lake of Galilee launch the Judean careers of both Titus and Jesus. There Jesus called his disciples to be ‘fishers of men’. There the Roman battle took place in which Titus attacked a band of Jewish rebels led by a leader named Jesus. The rebels fell into the water and those who were not killed by darts “attempted to swim to their enemies, the Romans cut off either their heads or their hands” (Jewish War III, 10). Men were indeed pulled out of the water like fish.
As for the episode of the Gadarene swine-in which demons leave a Gadara demoniac at Jesus’ bidding and then enter into a herd of 2,000 swine, which rush wildly into the lake and drown-Josephus recounts the Roman campaign in which Vespasian marched against Gadara. In the same way that the demons were concentrated in one demoniac, Josephus describes the faults of all the rebels being concentrated in the one head of the rebel leader John. Then, rushing about “like the wildest of wild beasts,” the 2000 rebels rushed over the cliff and drowned.
To take a third example, Josephus describes how Titus Flavius went out without his armor (and therefore to a soldier metaphorically naked) in the garden of Gethsemane, was nearly caught and had to flee. The parallel in the gospel of Mark is a naked young man who appears from nowhere in the Garden of Gethsemane and flees.
So far over dozen of these parallels have been identified many of which had already been discovered by other scholars. But Atwill is the first researcher to have identified that they happen in the exact same sequence. The events occur in Josephus in exactly the same order as their counterpart events in the Gospels.
Since it is impossible to imagine that the Romans would have invented accounts of battles taking place in locations marked 50 years earlier by the ministry of Jesus, we need an alternative explanation, of which there is really only one, and it is Atwill’s in Caesar’s Messiah. The Gospels were written in the late 70s and 80s CE, about the same time as Josephus’ The Jewish War. Key events in the life of Jesus were written as literary satires of the Roman battles, ambushes, crucifixions, cannibalisms, etc., in the military campaign of Titus Caesar, as recounted in Josephus. Rather than four different communities separated in time and space writing the NT Gospels (the traditional understanding), they were written together as a single literary undertaking-possibly at the Imperial Court. The Jews who ended up following the false Messianic literary character ‘Jesus’ would, unbeknownst to them, really be worshipping the Emperor Titus.
Perhaps the most important new evidence for the ahistoricity of Jesus is the reading that Caesar’s Messiah provides of a critical passage in Josephus’ other major work, Jewish Antiquities. This is the famous ‘Testimonium’ passage in which is supposedly the major independent textual source for the historical existence of Jesus. Atwill demonstrates that this text is genuinely by Josephus. However, when read in context with the surrounding passages, it amounts to a confession admitting that the Flavian emperors invented the character of Jesus to deceive the Jews into worshipping a false messiah. The reader merely has to read the text as it was originally composed, using a well-known Hebrew compositional technique found in the Book of Leviticus, and known as ‘pedimental composition’. This technique gives emphasis to the central passage of text by framing it with mirrored passages either side. (Thus, Leviticus 19, which concerns righteous dealing, is framed by two chapters about prohibitions).
Applied to Jewish Antiquities, the Testimonium passage about Jesus is evidently the left hand side of a triptych. The right hand side passage is about Paul, and the figure in the central panel , who is a composite of all three Flavian Emperors, wears the mask of a false god to have sex with a woman he could not persuade with gifts and money. The central focus of the triptych is that the Roman Emperors did not care about ‘this business of names’ but were willing to pretend to be a false god in order to be worshipped by the Jews. Patterns of word parallelisms link across the three panels of the triptych, to reveal the true story. (For example, the word hedone used for the Emperor’s sexual enjoyment is also used-quite inappropriately-for the way that Christ’s followers worship him, thereby linking the two stories).
Professor Robert Eisenman of California State University describes Atwill’s research as rendering contemporary Christian scholarship so challenged that it is now “looking into the abyss”. It is worth noting, in this regard, that the general scholarly consensus that there was a historical, Jewish Jesus is itself largely a recent historical idea, traceable to Abraham Geiger in the 1860′s. He persuaded scholars that the Gospels were an account of a historical Jewish Jesus, a typical Pharisee of his day. Since then this view, and with it the notion of Christianity as a development of Judaism, has become the dominant paradigm in Christianity. However, as the new discoveries in Caesar’s Messiah make clear, this is not just misleading, but a dangerous concession to a false system of belief. The Romans created this new religion deliberately to humiliate the Jews and to keep them in submission. For contemporary Jewish scholars to collude with this Roman literary invention, and to even pretend that this fictional character had historic reality, is the height of irony.
In the past, evidence had been put forward to suggest that the NT gospels are literary accounts containing mythological accretions. However, Christians have been able to dismiss that evidence on the grounds that underneath it all there ‘must’ be a Historical Jesus. Atwill’s discovery changes all that. There was no historical Jesus and the Gospels were Roman imitations of Jewish sacred texts created by the Flavian Emperors as ironical ‘good news’ to deceive the Jews. It is one thing for Christians to use works of literature as their sacred documents. It is quite another for them to continue using what have now been discovered to be deliberate Roman fakes about a non existent Messiah.