I watched a fascinating movie, Caesar’s Messiah, based on the book by Joseph Atwill. Atwill’s thesis is not just that Jesus did not exist, but that he was created as propaganda by writers close to the Roman Emperor Titus Flavius. The author explains his argument here.
I should confess here that not only have I not read Atwill’s book, but I have not read the Bible (though I did once search the Old Testament for the dirty parts). As a lifelong atheist, the Bible has always seemed like a tedious waste of time to read. Since there is no evidence for the existence of God, why read a bunch of lies about this supernatural being?
I laughed at one wag who, when asked if he had read the Bible, said “No, but I saw the movie.” I have used the line a few times myself, but I shouldn’t, because I have not even seen the movie. So the reader can dismiss me as biased and ignorant. Fine. You’re free to leave.
Now that I have admitted my ignorance, let me give you my uninformed opinion. Atwill’s movie convinced me maybe 40%. I have some big objections that I will raise below.
The most interesting part of Atwill’s argument is the parallels between Josephus’s account of The Wars of the Jews and the gospels. Jesus’s life follows Titus’s exploits in Palestine step by step, like a bizarre parody of the general’s war. The parallels are too numerous to be a coincidence.
My problems with Atwill’s argument are first that the Roman creation of Jesus has a dual purpose, satire and propaganda. This is an uneasy coupling. Only a state propagandist of genius could transcend the seriousness and mediocrity that usually come with his profession. A writer would be wise to pick either satire or propaganda, but to combine the two only weakens both.
Second, Atwill contends that the Romans also created Saul/Paul as a fictitious character. It would take further genius to come up with all those letters Paul wrote, and to get into his point of view so thoroughly. I can see how “Render unto Caesar” serves Roman interests, but not some of the other tenets of Christianity, such as Paul’s attacks on reason. Only a sincere, serious mystic could have written what is attributed to Paul. Moreover, Paul’s lack of details about Christ’s life make it seem as if he wrote before the gospels were written, and was ignorant of those fables.
Third, I believe there are mentions of Jesus and the Christians that predate the Flavians.
The Caesar’s Messiah thesis is a fun intellectual game, but I doubt it will persuade the faithful.
UPDATE: I don’t want to end on such a flippant note; the political and philosophic issues involved are profound. If Atwill is right, then Christianity began as a project by a totalitarian state to keep its subjects obedient. This is stunning. As the the 21st century progresses, I believe we will see that religion is still the greatest tool the ruling class has to keep people obedient.