The media just love a good Christian tear-down. One of the most recent efforts being promoted right now is by a self-styled “biblical scholar” named Joseph Atwill, who will be presenting at a conference this weekend.
Atwill, who has no formal theological training and who declines to call himself an atheist, nonetheless claims that Jesus never existed but was invented as a form of psychological warfare by the Romans against the Jews.
Atwill claims that the stories of Jesus’ ministry were concocted (he doesn’t specify by whom) as what he calls a “prefigurement” of the military campaign of Emperor Titus Flavius.
The whole conspiracy theory would be easy to dismiss except that, like Dan Brown’s “DaVinci Code” years before it, it has caught the imaginations of the atheists in the media.
Atwill says he uncovered the coverup while reading Josephus’ “Wars of the Jews,” an account of first-century Judea, alongside the Gospels and saw parallels in the locations of Jesus’ ministry activities and Flavius’ war against the Jews as described by Josephus.
In a press release, Atwill said, “Although it’s been recognized 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.”
Atwill goes on to suggest that the Son of Man is actually Flavius and the “made-up” character of Jesus drops hints that Flavius is coming.
According to Atwill, Romans created this convoluted scenario because the Jews were troublemakers and the Romans realized that the Jewish expectation of a Messiah was a psychological weakness they could exploit.
In his theory, the Romans intended Christianity to be a tool for anti-Semitism.
Josephus himself may have spurred theories like Atwill’s because when Josephus was captured by Vespasian, Titus Flavius’ father, Josephus’ life was spared after he said that some of the Jews’ Messianic prophecies referred to Vespasian, who was destined to become the Roman emperor.
Within about two years, Josephus’ prediction came true and he was freed, taking Vespasian’s family name, Flavius.
After Vespasian’s son Titus Flavius brought about the fall of Jerusalem, Flavius Josephus moved to Rome and was commissioned by Vespasian to write a history of the war. He also went on to write other works including a general history of the Jews. His “The Jewish War,” sometimes translated as “Wars of the Jews,” was published around 78 A.D., approximately eight years after the fall of Jerusalem, by which time most of the Jewish people had already been scattered around the Mediterranean and Middle East.
The four Gospels and the Book of Acts, on the other hand, all seem to have been written well before the fall of Jerusalem since none of them mentions that significant historical fact. Based on contextual evidence and events mentioned in the Gospels themselves, Luke appears to have been written after 55 A.D. but before 64. Acts, which is essentially part two of Luke, also would have been completed within or shortly after that time frame. Mark is often considered to have been the earliest Gospel, though the early Christians insisted it was Matthew, which may have been written as early as 50 A.D.
So like most of the efforts to disprove the traditional timeline of the Gospels, Atwill’s work falls apart in the details.