Caesar’s Messiah is a 2005 book by Joseph Atwill, later elaborated in a filmed documentary citing other scholars, which argues that the New Testament Gospels were written as wartime propaganda by scholars connected to the Roman imperial court of the Flavian emperors: Vespasian, Titus and Domitian. According to Atwill, their primary purpose in creating the religion was to control the spread of Judaism and moderate its political virulence. The Jewish nationalist Zealots had been defeated in the First Jewish–Roman War of 70 AD, but Judaism remained an influential movement throughout the Mediterranean region. Atwill argues that the biblical character Jesus Christ is a typological representation of the Roman Emperor Titus.
Atwill's theory contradicts the mainstream historical view, which is that while the Gospels include many mythical or legendary elements, these are religious elaborations added to the biography of a historical Jesus who did live in 1st-century Roman Judea, was baptized by John the Baptist and was crucified by the order of the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate.
1st century Flavian Christians
Some sources hold that the Flavian family took a very early interest in Christianity. Several of them were said to have converted to the religion, including Vespasian's nephew Titus Flavius Clemens and his wife Flavia Domitilla. According to the legendary sixth-century Acts of Saints Nereus and Achilleus, Pope Clement I was the son of Titus Flavius Sabinus, consul 82. In the First Epistle of Clement, Clement's epistle to the Christians of Corinth, Atwill argued, Pope Clement describes himself as being like a Roman prefect, giving orders to his soldiers which he expects to be obeyed (1 Clem. 37:2-3). Atwill speculates that Saint Veronica may be the same person as Berenice, mistress of Emperor Titus, but Gary Carson said that the earliest evidence of the Veronica cult dates to the 4th century AD.
On the basis of the assumption that at least some if not all this information linking the Flavians to early Christianity is correct, Atwill points out that these early connections are very difficult to explain if Christianity was a struggling grassroots movement originating in Judea. He said that the sacraments of the early Christian church, its College of Bishops, and the title of its leader (the Pontiff) were all based on Roman, rather than Judaic traditions. Acharya S, in a review of Atwill's work, said that these Flavians were Chrestians, not Christians; and that the Chrestians were only one of several sects that were incorporated into later Roman Christianity.
Typological representation of the Emperor Titus in the Gospels
Old Testament stories are often found to be echoed in the New Testament, in a relationship in which the Old Testament model is called the "type" and the New Testament reprise is called the "antitype". The study of these types and antitypes is called typology. Atwill claims that similar typological relationships knit together the Gospels and the works of Flavius Josephus.
Atwill notes that according to the Preterist school of biblical interpretation, the prophecies of Jesus and Daniel were fulfilled by the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. He suggests that this is evidence that the Gospels (including the prophecies of the coming of the Son of man) were actually written after the Jewish war, and that the Gospels can then be interpreted ironically as predicting that Titus is the anticipated 'Son of Man'.
Furthermore, he argues that Jesus' mission foreshadows the military campaign of Titus in Judea. According to Atwill, this indicates that the Gospel authors wanted to signal that the character Jesus Christ, as the fulfillment of the messianic prophecies of the Hebrew scriptures, was a representation of Titus Flavius.
The Zealots and Sicarii were also expecting a messiah, but they expected that their hero would defeat the Romans. Instead, as depicted in the Gospels, Jesus was highly critical of the Jewish priesthood, and the Jews were blamed for killing this Messiah, according to the Gospel texts. Furthermore, Atwill says that Josephus' narrative in The Jewish War is built around the idea that Daniel’s prophecy was fulfilled by Titus' conquest of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple. Atwill sees this as an ironic juxtaposition of events, as Titus Flavius destroyed the Temple and conquered Jerusalem, and turned it over to the Romans.
The mythicist Biblical scholar Robert M. Price said that Atwill's view that Titus's conquest was the fulfillment of Jesus' prediction of the fall of Jerusalem, was "one of Atwill's most attractive suggestions". He agreed that the Gospels were based on Josephus, but said that the 'Son of Man' referred to mankind in general.
Josephus’ satirical view of Christianity
Scholarly debate over Josephus’ knowledge of Christianity has centered on two explicit passages in the Antiquities of the Jews: the “Testimonium Flavianum” (Ant. 18.3) and a passage that mentions James as the brother of Jesus (Ant. 20.9). Atwill argues that in addition to those brief passages, Josephus wrote several vicious satires of the Gospel narrative and Christian faith, indicating that he was highly familiar with its tenets, but also disdainful.
The first occurs at The Jewish War 3.10, where Josephus describes an attack by Titus against Jewish rebels (led by a man named Jesus) at the lake of Gennesareth, in which the rebels are drowned and speared like fish. The Sea of Galilee (another term for the lake of Gennesaret) is the lake where Jesus told his disciples that they would become "fishers of men" in Luke 3:21. Josephus enigmatically describes the lake of Gennesereth as ‘a vein of the Nile’ where 'Coracin fish' grow. "Chorazain" was a Galilean rebel town, cursed by Jesus at Matthew 11:21. Atwill argues that the two events, both built on the "fishers of men" trope, must be read together to understand the satirical meaning of the authors.
In Wars 4.7, the rebel leader John is described as suffering a sort of inflammation or distemper. His party meets Vespasian at Gadara, where the rebels are driven into the River Jordan. The passage contains dense verbal parallels to the Gospel description of Jesus meeting the demoniac at the land of Gadarenes, who contains a legion of unclean spirits that enter into herd of swine and then drown themselves in the sea. According to Josephus, the Romans captured a ‘mighty prey’ of livestock, but no swine. Atwill conjectures that there were no swine captured because they had all run into the river.
The Gospel narratives of Luke 10:38-42 and John 12:2-3 describe a dinner just after Lazarus has been raised from the dead. "They made him a supper", John says, and "Mary has chosen the good portion." Atwill sees this as a macabre cannibalistic double entendre, and a parallel to Wars 6.3, in which Josephus describes a woman named Mary who is pierced by famine. She roasts her baby son as if he was a Passover lamb, eating half of him while saving "a very fine portion" to be eaten later. "Come, eat of this food", she says, in words which (Atwill argues) are reminiscent of the Catholic eucharist.
Wars 6.5 describes the fate of a certain Jesus, the son of Ananus. This Jesus cries "A voice from the east, a voice from the west, a voice from the four winds, a voice against Jerusalem and the holy house, a voice against the bridegrooms and the brides, and a voice against this whole people!" No matter how severely whipped, this Jesus simply repeats again and again, "Woe, woe to Jerusalem." Finally he says, "woe to myself also", and he is killed by a stone from the Roman artillery. In these passages, Atwill sees a parody of Jesus' sayings in Matt. 23:13-33, 24:27-25:1 and Luke 11:43-52.
Atwill claims to have discovered another sprawling satire in the Gospels and Josephus, which he calls the "New Root and Branch." Atwill wrote: "The purpose of this particular satire is to document that the 'root' and 'branch' of the Judaic messianic lineage has been destroyed and that a Roman lineage has been 'grafted on' in its place."
The mythicist Richard Carrier analyzed all of these alleged parallels, and stated that they can be explained as either coincidences, mistranslations, or references to Old Testament sources or tropes.
The Testimonium Flavianum and the Decius Mundus puzzle
Atwill argues (contrary to many scholars) that the Testimonium Flavianum (Ant. 18.3) is genuine because he sees it as the introduction to a literary triptych. Immediately following the Testimonium Flavianum is the story of Decius Mundus, who pretends to be the god Anubis, to trick a woman named Paulina into having sex. Atwill sees Decius' name as a pun on Publius Decius Mus, a sacrificial hero of the Roman Republic. As the story continues, Paulina's husband Saturninus agrees that it would be no sin for Paulina to have sex with a god. So Paulina and Decius Mundus sleep together, but Mundus returns on the third day to boast that he is not a god. Atwill argues that Mundus' return is a parody of Jesus' resurrection, and that his worshippers Paulina and Saturninus have obviously been swindled.
Albert Bell, in his paper "Josephus the Satirist?", speculated that the satirical nature of the Decius Mundus story was understood in the 4th century. According to Bell, the author of pseudo-Hegesippus may have elaborated on the joke by making Paulina become possibly pregnant by Anubis, thus making her parody of the Virgin Mary.
As a youth, Joseph Atwill studied Greek, Latin and the Bible at St. Mary's Military Academy, a Jesuit-run school in Japan. In college he studied computer science, and was co-founder of a series of software companies including Ferguson Tool Company and ASNA. After 1995, he returned to Biblical studies. Working with Robert Eisenman, he authored a paper on radiocarbon dating of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In 2014, Atwill self-published another book, Shakespeare's Secret Messiah.
Publishing and marketing
In 2006, Caesar's Messiah was published by Ulysses Press. The book carried an endorsement from Robert Eisenman, who wrote: "Challenging and provocative... If what Joseph Atwill is saying is only partially true, we are looking into the abyss". The work was also endorsed by Rod Blackhirst and Jan Koster. In a review of Atwill's thesis at The Village Voice, Eisenman explained to reporter Edmund Newton that he has long believed that the Gospel texts were "over-written" to give them a pro-Roman slant. With his discoveries, "Atwill may have carried it a step forward." In 2008, the book was published in German as Das Messias Raetsel, which received several reviews in mainstream German publications. In 2012, the book was used as a basis for a film by director Fritz Heede and producer Nijole Sparkis, with interviews with Atwill, Eisenman, Kenneth Humphreys, Timothy Freke and Dorothy Murdock.
In 2013, the conference "Covert Messiah" was organized in London to discuss the film and the book's thesis. The conference attracted significant interest, but also a critique from Richard Carrier. Atwill posted a response to Carrier at his website.
Atwill's 2014 book Shakespeare's Secret Messiah expanded the thesis of Roman authorship of the New Testament, to suggest that the Pauline epistles and Revelation were written during or after the reign of Domitian.
The mythicist Biblical scholar Robert M. Price said that Atwill "gives himself license to indulge in the most outrageous display of parallelomania ever seen." Price acknowledges that the New Testament has "persistent pro-Roman tendencies", but says this was done "for apologetical reasons, to avoid persecution." The mythicist Richard Carrier similarly stated that all of Atwill's alleged parallels can be explained as either coincidences, mistranslations, or references to Old Testament sources or tropes. However, Carrier also agreed that the New Testament has pro-Roman aspects. According to Carrier, "Christianity was probably constructed to 'divert Jewish hostility and aggressiveness into a pacifist religion, supportive of–and subservient to–Roman rule,' but not by Romans, but exasperated Jews like Paul."
All three "mythicist" scholars advance a narrative that Jesus was historical, but as a real human being could not have performed miracles nor been of divine origin. None of these later commented on more moderate claims made in the documentary, nor the other scholars who reinforced all of Atwill's observations of the political environment, the standing or motives of Josephus, Pliny or Tacitus, that two other religions were sponsored by the Flavians (their own Imperial cult and Rabbinical Judaism) and that Titus' cult called him "Son of Man" claiming him Messiah.
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Atwill’s critics -- and there are plenty of them -- say it’s Atwill who is the fake...the question of whether Jesus was an actual person is not hotly debated among historians
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