Thoughts on Atwill’s Theory of the NT

Atwill book Caesar's MessiahJoseph Atwill, an American atheist, is promoting the claim in his book Caesar’s Messiah (Ulysses Press, 2005) that the Roman government invented a fictional and pacifistic Messiah figure (Yeshua) in order to squelch Jewish rebellions. It seems that Atwill has overlooked a few passages which present the Messiah as decidedly un-pacifistic (Matt 10:34-36; Luke 12:51-52).

If Yeshua were such a pacifistic figure, it is problematic that the literature Atwill claims to be Roman political propaganda presents data that conflicts with a peaceful Messiah his premise demands.  Besides the passages alluded to above, which quote the Messiah as stating He came not to bring peace, but the sword, we also find in the canonical literature a description of his arrest which does not correlate with the Atwill theory.  Would it take an armed multitude to arrest a pacifist?  But, see Mark 14:43…

While Yeshua was still speaking, Y’hudah (one of the Twelve!) came, and with him a crowd carrying swords and clubs….

The verse in Jerome’s Vulgate (Latin translation) replaces “crowd” with the word “cohortem” (a military technical term indicating a regiment of 480 soldiers) – quite a large number if the object of the arrest were a pacifist with only a small following, who would also be pacifistic (as a follower in that era would emulate his Teacher in every detail). This pericope finds a parallel in Yochanan (John) 18:2-3 as well.

I wonder how Atwill would justify his theory against Luke 19:27, which quotes the Messiah calling for the death of his (probably royal Roman) enemies:

However, as for these enemies of Mine who did not want Me to be their king, bring them here and execute them in My presence.

Atwill has employed a selective approach to Scripture, cherry-picking it for the small handful of verses which can be twisted, divorced of their context, to fit his presuppositions.

Atwill bases his incredulous theory on the obvious similarity between the geographical path Yeshua’s ministry takes and the path of Rome’s military campaigns (cf. Josephus’ Wars of the Jews).  Examining his claims, I encountered his baseline argument:

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.

What Atwill perceives as “clear evidence,” however, is anything but.  What is clear from Scripture is a Messiah who fulfills prophesies which predate Him by no less than four centuries and whose earthly life ends at the hands of the Romans.

Atwill’s claim that the Bible’s New Testament was Roman propaganda written by political agents in order to control Jews is tenuous and even laughable.  Would Roman propaganda portray Roman officials (Pilate and Herod) as an instruments in the Messiah’s death (Matt 27:11-26; Mark 15:2-15; Luke 23:2-25)?  Governments of that era were anything but self-deprecating in their portrayal of their officials to the masses.

What we know of the Roman Caesars of the First Century CE presents a cast of political players which would be inept for the task of composing a work like the New Testament as the principal piece of the elaborate scheme Atwill imagines.  Atwill asserts that Emperor Titus is the covert founder of Christianity, creating the supposedly-fictitious Messiah of the New Testament in his own image and employing Josephus to give his pseudepigraphal “fictitious writings” credibility.

While the observation that the paths of the two figures – Yeshua and Titus Flavius – correlate is significant, I disagree with Atwill’s analysis of that correlation.  I see a Messiah-Healer who follows the path of devastation and destruction wrought by Rome and brings healing (spiritual, physical, sociological) where it is needed most… in the aftermath of a vile political force which has a deleterious impact on its people at every turn.

Finally, would the Roman government produce a text which advocates arming a segment of the populus which was already staging uprisings against Rome?  Consider Luke 22:36…

“But now,” He said, “if you have a wallet or a pack, take it; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your robe to buy one.”

Yeshua’s ministry may have undercut some potential conflicts between His talmidim and Roman officials, but overall, He was countercultural and caused Rome far more turmoil than tranquility.  Yeshua certainly teach some things that moved people to more peaceful conduct when the conditions warranted such, i.e. Biblical morality, but he also advocated a Biblical justice which mandated His followers to be a voice for the voiceless and to stand against any oppressor, which would include the tyrranical Roman government.

As a professor, I would call Atwill’s treatise imaginative but unconvincing and his premise untenable.   The fact that he has failed to address the few passages I have presented here demonstrates a lack of critical thinking in that he has dismissed all portions of the text which challenge his premise, and a lack of honest engagement of the source text.

Grade: D/F.


About Prof. Brian Tice, B.Sci., M.Sci.

Brian Tice is currently a Hebraica research scholar and education facilitator with Manuscript Research Group in Michigan and a Jewish Studies and Ancient Languages professor with MJR Yeshiva. He received his rabbinical semikha in 2000. His formal education includes studies in Music and Modern Languages (Kalamazoo Valley Community College); Bible, Youth Ministry, and Ancient Languages (Cornerstone University); Divinity and Practical Ministry (Grand Rapids Theological Seminary); Higher Education and Classical Hebrew Andragogy (Purdue University Global/Kaplan); and Jewish Studies (Tel Aviv University/Coursera)... culminating in B.Sci. and M.Sci. degrees. Professor Tice has been an avid volunteer with Little Mary's Hospitality House critically-ill children's camp, Habitat for Humanity, Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Kalamazoo, several schools, and several homeless outreach ministries. In 2001, he was awarded a Governor's Commendation for service to the community and extraordinary academic contributions. View all posts by Prof. Brian Tice, B.Sci., M.Sci.

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