Those of you who are part of Christian communities on Facebook have probably heard of a conference presented by Joseph Atwill (a self-professed Bible scholar) to be held October 19th, 2013 in London, England. Atwill claims to have discovered some Roman documents that claim that Jesus Christ was a Roman invention and not a real historical person. It is admitted that most Bible scholars would not accept Atwill’s claims…which is suspect if there is any value to Atwill’s claims. Atwill thinks that the Flavians, a royal Roman family, sought to promote the Christian message in order to control the populace by psychological warfare. If you are like me, you were probably rolling your eyes as I was when I first read the claim. Even if Atwill’s discovery has any substance (which is doubtful), it does not necessitate that the claims were true. People have been lying since humanity has been on the earth. Nonetheless, the claims must be dealt with and that is what will be done here. There are nine problems regardless of what Atwill’s discovery may be that are presented with Roman involvement in Jesus’ historicity and with the Christian movement.
1. Why did Christianity begin among faithful Jews in Israel?
If the Roman imperial family wanted to create a movement, they could have paid off a group of Jews. As a matter of fact, there were many Jews who were paid off. They consisted of the Sadducees who were part of the Sanhedrin. But, the Jews that make up the first Christians were faithful Jewish men and women unassociated with the Sadducees. Jesus and the early church stood against the Sanhedrin…an oddity if Christianity was a Roman movement. Odder still, one of the disciples was a revolutionary…one who wanted to overthrow the Roman government.
There are documents and ossuaries (burial boxes) that demonstrate the historicity of Jesus and of the early church well before 70 AD (the destruction of the Temple by the Romans). These evidences promote a very Jewish understanding of Jesus. Even the Gospel of John, perceived to be the most Hellenized of all the Gospels, has been seen to fit right in line with Jewish thought since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. So, if Christ were simply a Roman invention, one would expect to find more Roman ideology in Christianity. This simply is not the case. Christianity is fully and thoroughly Jewish in its scope. This can only be understood if it came from a certified historical Jewish person and a certified historical Jewish movement. That certified historical person is Jesus; that certified historical movement is Christianity. If the movement was only designated to appease the Jews, it did not work. More problematic is that the movement continued after the fall of the Temple.
Within the New Testament there are multiple early creeds and confessions which date prior to the writing of the document. There is a hymn that is preserved in the book of Philippians. This hymn dates to within 5 years of the crucifixion and resurrection of the historical Jesus of Nazareth. The hymn states, “Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:6-11). According to scholars, this hymn could date to within months of Jesus’ resurrection which would make this hymn extremely early.
A very important formulation is found in 1 Corinthians 15. This creed dates no later than 5 years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. As a matter of fact, many scholars believe that it dates to within months of Jesus’ crucifixion. The formulation states, “Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles” (1 Corinthians 15:3-7). The fact that these formulations, creeds, and hymns developed so early shows the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth. This was too close to the time that Jesus is purported to have lived to have been a legendary development. It would be like someone claiming that their dad was the President of the United States two years ago. Only two children could claim that accurately. The rest of us could not. Simply put, it would be close enough to check. Likewise, the early nature of these multiple creeds, hymns, and formulations show the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth and demerits any claim to the likewise.
3. Why the Christian persecution?
This is one question that casts serious doubt on Atwill’s claims. If Christ were simply a Roman invention, then why did the Romans persecute the ones who were trying to promote the very “psychological warfare” that they were promoting? The Roman persecution of Christians is well-documented as opposed to the supposed evidence that Atwill and his associates hold. Furthermore, if this testimonial was known among early Romans, then why were these findings not publicized much earlier? Say for instance, why were the papers not publicized when Rome was trying to rid itself of Christianity. This turns the tide back on Atwill and his claims.
If Jesus were a Roman invention, then why would Jesus have been presented as dying on a cross? The cross was a Roman used form of execution. Jews could not crucify people. They could have people stoned, but not crucified. If one were going to make up a story for the purposes of furthering the Roman cause, one would not have the supposed Jewish Messiah die on a Roman cross. The Jewish authorities, not the Jewish people, were charged in the handing over of Jesus to the Roman authorities. This in fact hinders a Roman movement, too. The Sadducees were Roman supporters. So, why create a Jewish Messiah to purport a psychological Roman movement, charged by Roman supporters, condemned by a Roman procurator, abused by Roman soldiers, and executed by the Roman government, on a Roman cross, in an exclusively first-century Roman style of death? One could say, “Well, it was to show the people what would happen if they stood up against the Roman government.” But the problem is found in the resurrection. The resurrection gives power to the believer. It showed that the ultimate power was not found in government…a very odd thing to promote if Christ were merely a Roman invention.
5. Why the early anti-Roman propaganda?
We will see this in the next point. But, it must be noted that Rome was not held in the highest esteem within the pages of the New Testament. Peter uses the term “Babylon” as descriptive of Rome. Many scholars hold that the number “666” in Revelation could be a numerical reference to Emperor Nero. As you will notice in the next section, the New Testament did not hold the Roman ways of life in high esteem. Paul, a Christian and one who employed many of the teachings of Jesus in his message, confronts the problems of the very Romanized Corinthian church. This is bizarre if Christianity was simply a method of Roman propaganda.
Women did not hold the status that they enjoy today in most modern nations. That being said, women were elevated to a higher status in Jewish culture than in the Greco-Roman culture. In Greco-Roman cultures, women were seen as slightly above cattle. Women enjoyed an even higher status in Christianity. It was unspeakable for a rabbi to speak publicly to a woman. Jesus not only spoke to women. He made them His disciples. The Gospels record that women were the first to see Jesus risen from the dead. Not only this, the Gospel of Matthew records that the Roman soldiers (government employees) and the Sanhedrin (consisting of Roman supporters) were part of a manipulative bribe…an absurd thing for a movement trying to control a people to do what Rome wanted. Matthew records, “The women ran quickly from the tomb. They were very frightened but also filled with great joy, and they rushed to give the disciples the angel’s message. And as they went, Jesus met them and greeted them. And they ran to him, grasped his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t be afraid! Go tell my brothers to leave for Galilee, and they will see me there.” As the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and told the leading priests what had happened. A meeting with the elders was called, and they decided to give the soldiers a large bribe. They told the soldiers, “You must say, ‘Jesus’ disciples came during the night while we were sleeping, and they stole his body.’ If the governor hears about it, we’ll stand up for you so you won’t get in trouble.” So the guards accepted the bribe and said what they were told to say. Their story spread widely among the Jews, and they still tell it today” (Matthew 28:8-15).
7. If Christ was a Roman invention, then why did the Romans not publicize Him better?
Do not get me wrong, there is good New Testament attestation. However, if Jesus was a Roman invention, one would expect for this message to have been promoted without restriction throughout the Roman empire. It doesn’t add up. Why would the Romans seek to persecute the ones promoting their own agenda? If the Christian message was promoted throughout Rome with no restrictions, no persecutions, and the Roman stamp of approval, then one might think that Rome concocted this movement.
8. Even if Rome was trying to promote a Jewish Messiah, it would have required a historical person to base such an attempt on. How does this demerit Jesus’ historicity?
Even if Rome desired to promote a psychological movement, it does not demerit Jesus of Nazareth’s historicity. As a matter of fact, it would seem that a historical person would still be necessary to add value to the agenda. This does not affect the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth, only His motives. Obviously, Jesus of Nazareth was not one who could be bought. Jesus only had one agenda…the agenda of the Father. Jesus was concerned about one government…the government of the kingdom of God.
Where is the evidence behind Atwill’s assumptions? Atwill may reveal this supposed evidence at the conference he is promoting. But, one would think that this evidence would be evaluated by a team instead of just a person. Even among Atwill’s faithful, it is admitted that most Bible scholars will not accept his evidence. Why? It probably is due to the fact that whatever this “evidence” is, it is probably not very reliable. Even if some Roman officials were to claim that Jesus Christ was their invention, this does not automatically necessitate that the official(s) was/were telling the truth. Rome tried to squash Christianity at every turn. The early Roman persecution of Christianity is well-documented. So even if this supposed evidence turned out to be legitimate, that does not automatically that it is true. People have been lying since the beginning of time. What one must do is evaluate the evidence for the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth. One will find more than enough evidence for the historicity of Jesus. In fact, the majority of Bible scholars accept Jesus of Nazareth as a historical person.
As one can tell, Atwill’s claims are unfounded. His claims are suspect at best. Roman authorities did write about Christians. Tacitus wrote about his dealings with Christians and was not very positive. Suetonius wrote about Christians and Christ. He was not supportive. These are oddities if Christ was a Roman invention. The case for the historicity of Jesus, despite the skeptics claims, is very strong. Gary Habermas, of Liberty University, states that there are 12 minimal facts accepted by the majority of reputable scholars. Habermas writes,
“Because of the testimony of these early Christian creeds, as well as other data, even contemporary critical scholars recognize a certain amount of historical facts surrounding the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. In other words, even treating the New Testament as nothing more than a book of ancient literature, critics have deduced more than a book of facts concerning Jesus’ life. In particular 1 Corinthians 15:3ff. has played a significant part in this reconstruction.
There are a minimum number of facts agreed upon by practically all critical scholars, whatever their school of thought. At least twelve separate facts are considered to be knowable history.
(1) Jesus died by crucifixion and (2) was buried. (3) Jesus’ death caused the disciples to despair and lose hope, believing that his life was ended. (4) Although not as widely accepted, many scholars hold that the tomb in which Jesus was buried was discovered to be empty just a few days later.
Critical scholars further agree that (5) the disciples had experiences which they believed were literal appearances of the risen Jesus. Because of these experiences, (6) the disciples were transformed from doubters who were afraid to identify themselves with Jesus to bold proclaimers of his death and resurrection. (7) This message was the center of preaching in the early church and (8) was especially proclaimed in Jerusalem, where Jesus died and was buried shortly before.
As a result of this preaching, (9) the church was born and grew, (10) with Sunday as the primary day of worship. (11) James, who had been a skeptic, was converted to the faith when he also believed that he saw the resurrected Jesus. (12) A few years later, Paul was converted by an experience which he, likewise, believed to be an appearance of the risen Jesus” (Habermas 1996, 158).
Therefore, in this writer’s opinion, the only covert operation going on is Atwill and company’s covert mission to fool the masses of the historical Christ’s reality.
(Note: Upon further research, Atwill holds no credentials to back up his claim to be a Bible scholar. According to his blog, he studied religion while in Japan in a Jesuit run military academy. His credentials can be found at: http://caesarsmessiah.com/blog/about/. If he holds any additional training in biblical studies, it is unknown at the time of this article. If Atwill’s claims have any substance, an additional article concerning his claims may be added. After reviewing his website, it would be surprising if it is anything different than what Atwill has already been promoting. This conference has given him the publicity that he has desired. In the case of publicity, he has already succeeded. As far as the substance behind his claims, that has yet to be seen.)
All Scripture, unless otherwise noted, comes from New Living Translation, 3rd ed. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2007.
Habermas, Gary R. The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ. Joplin, MO: College Press, 1996.