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The Roman Aristocracy is the Least Likely Source for the Gospels

October 14, 2013

            Over the past few days I’ve seen a lot of people circulating Joseph Atwill’s claim that the gospels were invented by Roman aristocrats.  Some people seem to be circulating this claim to make fun of it but some seem to take it seriously.  On the off chance that this claim actually sounds mildly plausible to you (and because the claim involves some very interesting flavors of bad thinking) I will spend this article demonstrating why even before Atwill presents the main body of his evidence (which he is supposed to do on October 19th) we can be sure that it is nonsense.  I’m going to go through the issues in what I believe is a worst-issue to least-worst-issue order and use some subheaders to hold things together.

It’s a conspiracy theory.  Atwill is not claiming to have any new archaeological evidence to support his claim.  Instead, he claims to have a new reading of Josephus’ “Wars of the Jews”.  As the article I linked to above notes, Josephus’ works are the only known contemporary accounts of first-century Judea and Galilee aside from the New Testament.  This makes these works extremely popular.  (For example, while most works of ancient literature are rather hard to find in English translation, appears to have twenty different ways to buy some copy of “Wars of the Jews” in English.)  Pretty much everyone who has called themselves a New Testament scholar for several centuries at least has read “Wars of the Jews”.  None of them has ever made the claim that Atwill makes about a huge set of parallels between “Wars of the Jews” and the Gospels.  Now, if Atwill brought new information to the table (new archeology that revealed new information about first-century Jewish society, for instance) it might be possible that this new information would illuminate the texts in a new way.  However, Atwill appears to be claiming that all he needed was five books that have been read together for centuries.  If Atwill is right he must be much, much better at understanding both the Gospels and Josephus than anyone else who has ever read these books.

Compounding this already egregiously-arrogant claim is Atwill’s claim that his reading of Josephus is supposed to be accessible to educated Roman aristocrats.  Atwill is not merely claiming a new and radical reading of a very well-known text but he is also claiming that his new reading is supposed to be there for the alert reader to see – except that for centuries no one except Atwill (apparently) has seen it.  This is a classic conspiracy theory: the truth is there but everyone else is too blind or biased to see it.

The evidence is poor.  Atwill is careful not to directly claim that his reading is too obvious (although I think his claim about Roman aristocrats understanding the “code” indirectly says exactly that).  He says, “Many of the parallels are conceptual or poetic, so they aren’t all immediately obvious.”  This is a reasonable explanation in some ways – if I refer to something indirectly enough most readers will miss the fact that I referred to it at all.  However, that’s also the problem.  Imagine that I wish to reference leprechauns in a text (who knows why) but I want to make it hard to notice so I make one of the character’s cars green (for Ireland) and gold (for the pot of gold leprechauns are supposed to have).  That would be impossible to catch unless I told you to go looking for leprechaun symbolism in the text.  In fact, it would be so hard to catch that a later reader would have no idea what part of the description of that car was supposed to reference something.  Cars have wheels – perhaps the Hindu notion of endless rebirth is being referenced?  Cars go places and stop working when they are left to sit too long.  Perhaps the car symbolizes the nomadic lifestyle?  Obviously, once someone drills down to this level they can make the car symbolize anything they want.  And that’s the problem: Atwill’s “poetic” and “conceptual” parallels are either easy to see (returning us to the first issue) or they are so open to interpretation that they aren’t evidence.

It lacks explanatory power.  A good theory makes sense of things that did not make sense before.  Atwill’s theory actually makes a number of previously-clear things messier.  Why are there four gospels?  Because at least four people wrote down the stories about Jesus for their contemporaries to read.  Except that Atwill claims that the gospels are constructs coming from the pens of Roman aristocrats and so making four gospels that don’t quite match makes less sense.  The only way to reasonably get to four gospels given Atwill’s scenario is for us to have lost the Roman originals and be left only with partial re-tellings of that work (which must have been considerably longer to include all the material found in every gospel).  At this point it becomes very odd that these partial re-tellings managed to retain all of the clues that Atwill supposedly used to determine that the original source of all of these books was somehow “Wars of the Jews”.

Why are the gospels so Jewish?  Because they were written by Jews.  Except that Atwill thinks they weren’t – they were supposed to be written by Romans who even Josephus (a Jewish traitor who writes his books while being funded by the Roman Emperor) frequently depicts as being hopelessly confused by Jewish customs and thought.

Why are the Romans the bad guys in the gospels who crucify Jesus?  Because the Romans were terrible oppressive rulers who crucified people including Jesus.  But Atwill’s history insists that Roman aristocrats wrote a story in which the Roman governor of the province is spineless, the Roman guards mock and brutalize the Son of God, and some of the Roman legionaries are paid off when they don’t do their job right.

Perhaps more pressing is this: what about all that other history?  Where does Atwill think all these church traditions about non-canonical material come from that show up so early?  And why, really why, did the Roman Empire persecute Christians if the Roman Empire started Christianity to pacify the population?  Atwill claims that an educated Roman aristocrat would have recognized that the New Testament was Roman propaganda but apparently a large number of Roman governors decided that it was enemy propaganda instead (and there’s no evidence that any of them ever had a smarter friend explain to them that they had it backwards).

There isn’t a single thing that Atwill’s theory clears up.  When Copernicus describes the orbits of the planets the motion of planets as seen from earth makes more sense than it did before.  When scientists discovered how genetic material actually works the odd inheritance patterns described by Gregor Mendel made perfect sense.  When Atwill describes his “revolutionary” theory nothing comes into clearer focus but many things stop making sense.

The gospels are well written.  Argue this as long as you want but the gospels sit at the core of the largest religion on earth.  If your genre is “material to spread a new religion” you really can’t do better than that.  If I invent a car then I can probably make a good car.  If I invent a car but secretly need it to be able to turn into a roadblock on command then I probably won’t make a very good car.  Christianity’s success as a religion makes it rather unlikely that its core documents were written as political propaganda first and as religious texts second.

Correlation is not causation.  It’s the kind of thing I say a lot in teaching basic science classes, but correlation just isn’t causation.  Let’s assume that the close connections Atwill sees between Jesus and Titus Flavius are real.  So who copied from whom?  Josephus is thought by some scholars to be pushing the idea that Vespasian, Titus’ father and the founder of the Flavian dynasty, was the Messiah (or at least the one who fulfilled many of the Messianic prophecies).  If Josephus is doing anything like this (even merely alluding to Messianic themes to make Titus more palatable to a Jewish audience) it’s perfectly possible that he is borrowing material from the set of Messianic stories about Jesus or that there are a sufficient number of Messianic themes that any first-century Jew would reach for that both the evangelists and Josephus stress similar material without ever reading one another.  Only Atwill’s assertions seem to push us to conclude that the gospels copy Josephus and not one of the other possibilities

The war is over.  Josephus writes his history of the Jewish Wars after the war ends (obviously).  If Christianity actually originates after this it spreads extremely quickly and so it must originate very soon after Josephus finishes writing.  (This is not a problem if one merely asserts that the gospels were written down after Josephus but Atwill claims that there was no Jesus and that the gospels, not oral stories spread by missionaries, started Christianity.)  However, when the first Roman-Jewish war ends the Jewish rebels have lost extremely badly.  Jerusalem is razed to the ground, thousands of Jews are dead or enslaved, and the second Roman-Jewish war (a much less serious affair from the Roman perspective) is not in sight.  But supposedly Roman aristocrats decide to create a religion aimed at pacifying the Jews after those same Jews have been hammered into bloody pulp by the might of Rome.  The problem Roman aristocrats are supposed to be solving isn’t a problem at the time Atwill has them solving it.

In short, Atwill’s theory doesn’t make sense.  It requires us to believe that Atwill is the only person since the Roman era to notice an obvious link between two texts that are frequently read together, it requires us to accept that this link must run from Josephus to the gospels and not the other way around on the power of Atwill’s assertion, it explains nothing and confuses many things, and the entire motive for this truly epic feat of narrative creation makes little sense in the first place.  Atwill’s theory does not grow from the ground of facts upwards but from Atwill’s attitude towards Christianity despite the facts.  When Atwill lays forth his entire case on October 19th it will be unimpressive.  Count on it.

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