Atwill and the Roman Conspiracy

Nowadays, whenever someone discusses the connections between the New Testament and the works of Josephus, many people immediately think of Joseph Atwill.  Actually, Atwill was not the first, many biblical scholars have studied the similarities between the two sets of works and concluded that the Gospels, all written in Greek around the end of the first and beginning of the second centuries, especially the books of Luke and Acts, borrow from the works of Josephus:

  • Steve Mason, “Josephus and Luke-Acts,” Josephus and the New Testament (1992)
  • Max Krenkel, “Josephus und Lukas” (1894)
  • Heinz Schreckenberg, “Flavius Josephus und die lukanischen Schriften,” (1980)
  • Gregory Sterling, “Historiography and Self-Definition: Josephos, Luke-Acts and Apologetic Historiography” (1992)

You can find a long list of parallels between Josephus and Luke/Acts with those references above here.  Even has an article analysing “Josephus’ Contribution to New Testament Backgrounds“.

These textual dependencies were not new, but Atwill made these connections popular by turning it into a conspiracy theory, “The Roman Conspiracy to Invent Jesus”.  He analysed a string of 34 parallels between the Gospels and The Wars of the Jews and showed very significant matching of themes, events, locations and chronology, showing almost the same stories taking place in the same order between the two books.  What he showed (most of it was already known) is far too much to be coincidence and does in fact show a textual dependence between the two.  But Atwill made the very disappointing mistake of calling this string of parallels the “Flavian Signature” and claimed, without supporting evidence, that this set of parallels means the Gospels and The Wars of the Jews must have been written by the same person or small group of collaborators.  Specifically, he wanted to believe that Josephus and his adoptive family, the Flavians (Vespasian, Titus and Domitian), conspired to invent Jesus.  It is an embarrassing logical fallacy to assume that if two texts share significantly they must have been written by the same person and Atwill seems to never have heard of plagiarism.  The string of parallels he analysed does prove textual dependence, one of the two plagiarised the other, but it tells us nothing of who specifically wrote the anonymous Gospels.  Atwill, through his unsupported, illogical conspiracy theories, has managed to soil the topic of New Testament/Josephus parallels and textual comparisons, although he did demonstrate textual dependence and managed to popularise the subject, mainly among conspiracy theorists.

But worse than just peddling a conspiracy theory that is entirely unsupported by his analysis, Flavian authorship, whether Josephus or his adoptive family, to invent a religion to replace/combat Judaism, is plain ridiculous for many reasons.  First, there were many Gospels written at various times, in various places with different linguistic/stylistic characteristics, and are mostly believed to have been written by different authors between 80-110 AD, i.e. after Vespasian died (79 AD) or just after his son Titus died (81 AD).  They must have been written during and after the reign of Vespasian’s second biological son Domitian (81-96 AD).  But there were significant changes being made to the Gospels well into the second century under the emperors Nerva and Trajan (98-117 AD), i.e. after the fall of the of the Flavian dynasty.  If there was a Roman conspiracy to invent Jesus under the Flavians, why is there no evidence of this or of any efforts to spread or even introduce Christianity before the last of the Flavians died in 96?  Instead, the first evidence of a Roman push for Christianity doesn’t come until the return of the Flavian dynasty 200 years later under emperor Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus in 306 AD.  Constantine turned Christianity into a valid, accepted religion and employed Eusebius “a Greek historian of Christianity, exegete, and Christian polemicist” who plainly and openly admitted to inventing a history for the Gospels and Christianity:

“We shall introduce into this history in general only those events which may be useful first to ourselves and afterwards to posterity.”

– Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 8, Chapter 2

“How it may be Lawful and Fitting to use Falsehood as a Medicine, and for the Benefit of those who Want to be Deceived.”

– Eusebius, 12th Book of Evangelical Preparation, Chapter 32

Eusebius left behind tons of evidence of their conspiracy to forge a history for Christianity, the way that real conspiracies often do.  Eusebius, together with the early Christian history inventors, committed what we now refer to as “pious fraud” and “Christian insertion” or “interpolation”, i.e. inserting bits of information into copies of historical documents in order to create a historical Jesus.  One of the best known examples is from Josephus’ “Antiquities of the Jews”, in Book 18, Chapter 3:3, also known as the “Testimonium Flavianum”.  This Testimonium is one of only two short mentions of Jesus or anything Christian at all, both in Antiquities.  Which is very odd, considering Josephus was born in Jerusalem within a only few years of the supposed time of Jesus’ crucifixion, so you would have thought the events describing his resurrection would have been common knowledge.  But in seven long books of the Wars of the Jews covering a 200 year history leading up to the war with the Romans but he never mentions anything about Jesus or Christians or John the Baptist.  He mentions Herod about 400 times in Wars of the Jews and Pilate 7 times, but not one single mention of Jesus, or his apostles or followers?  Only in the Antiquities of the Jews written some 20 years later do we have this passage, which is almost universally believed to be a Christian interpolation, because an early version read by Origen (~184 – 254 AD) did not contain that Testimonium:

“About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.”

– Antiquities of the Jews”, in Book 18, Chapter 3:3

He was “restored to life” and “won over many Jews and Greeks” but there is no mention of “the Christ” or his followers 20 years earlier in the Wars of the Jews?  He does mention someone named Jesus in The Life of Flavius Josephus who was “the leader of a seditious tumult of mariners and poor people” but forgets to mention the Jesus who he considered to be the Christ?  In fact, in Wars of the Jews, Josephus gives a detailed description of the main “sects” or “factions” (he doesn’t use the word “tribe”), including the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes (never mentioned in the New Testament) and the Zealots. This “Testimonium” above is practically quoting from the Gospels which were written at least five or ten years after the Wars of the Jews and is totally uncharacteristic of Josephus.  But it was not in the version that Origen read and this must, therefore, have been inserted by Christian apologists closer to the time of Eusebius.

The Roman conspiracy under Flavian guide to invent a religion that Atwill so badly wants to find happened under Constantine and Eusebius in the fourth century and is already well known.  But the problem is that this cannot account for the emergence of the Gospels, mostly believed to have been written around 80-110 AD, it only accounts for an attempt to make the Gospels look historical and valid theology and there is zero evidence for a Vespasian/Titus/Josephus conspiracy, not even a hint.  If Josephus were involved in this conspiracy, he could have included the Testimonium Flavianum in his original Antiquities published around the end of the first century, instead of relying on Christian interpolation hundreds of years later.

Finally, Atwill acknowledges the link between the Mary described in the Wars of the Jews who ate her son in the famine during the siege of Jerusalem (or “Cannibal Mary”) and the Mary from the Gospels whose son was found “in a feeding trough” and whose son we are supposed to eat in remembrance of him.  This reference to Cannibal Mary appears many times in the Gospels, another example is in Luke, “The Shepherds and Angels“, or “Jesus Anointed by Mary“.  Then you also have parallels between “The Last Supper” and an event in the Wars of the Jews where thousands of Jews starve to death in the “upper rooms” next to a statue of a “man with a pitcher of water”, which mass starvation was prepared by the rebel leaders Simon and John.  There is no good way to explain references in all of the four Gospels to cannibalism and genocide if they were written to be actual theology.  If the author’s intent was to create a religion, why would you include references to such horrors?  It cannot be, therefore, as Atwill suggests that they were written with the intent of combating Judaism.  Anyway, the Romans had no good reason to want to combat the spread of Judaism after they had just levelled Israel and committed the largest genocide in recorded history until that time.  The Vespasian and Titus rather seemed to feel a bit sorry for the Jews and even set up a Jewish institute to reestablish Judaism.  It was not until much later, after the authorship of the Gospels, that Judaism started to make a resurgence which could have concerned the Romans.

Atwill, by making his entirely unsupported and impossible assertion of Flavian authorship of the Gospels, based only on the fact that he called his string of parallels the “Flavian Signature”, turned the whole subject of Josephus/New Testament parallels into a joke and undermined all the scholarly studies of this topic since long before his time in doing so, although he did manage to popularise the textual relations with his invented sexy scandal.  But it is clear that Flavian authorship is ridiculous, since they were mostly dead, and the motivation of creating a religion cannot explain the morbid references.  To understand the origin of the Gospels and the very many morbid references or “imitations” of such horrific events, we first need to understand their nature, what they are, which cannot have originally been to invent a religion.  We should discuss what it was that the various anonymous authors actually wrote, and find an explanation for why they would contain caricatures of genocide before we try to guess who the authors specifically were.

NEXT: Continue with “A Greek Tragedy“.

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