Did Jesus exist or was he an invention of Roman politicians intent on creating a non-violent messiah to calm the rebellious Jews?

UPDATE

We’ve updated this story, first published on October 18, with additional comment received from previous Dreamland guest Robert Feather, author of "The Secret Initiation of Jesus at Qumran" and "The Mystery of the Copper Scroll of Qumran". Robert’s comments can be found at the bottom of the article.

Joseph Atwill, an American Biblical historian and author of the best-selling book, "Caesar’s Messiah", may be in danger of being crucified by religious leaders around the world for making some of the most controversial claims of the 21st century. At the ‘Covert Messiah’ event being held at Conway Hall in London on 19th October, Atwill plans to present evidence of ancient confessions which allege that the New Testament is a fabrication and that the story of Christ is little more than a fairy-tale dreamed up by Roman aristocrats in the first century.

The new testimonies revolve around the theory that the concept of Christianity was actually an elaborate government programme designed to pacify rebellious Palestinian Jewish Sects who were preparing for the arrival of a ‘warrior Messiah’, as foretold by the Old Testament. To combat this belief which encouraged insurgence and revolt , a new pacifistic Messianic archetype was apparently created to placate the Jews and encourage a more rigid and orderly social reform.

Atwill suggests that Jesus "may be the only fictional character in literature whose entire life story can be traced to other sources. Once those sources are all laid bare, there’s simply nothing left."

Though controversial, Atwill’s hypothesis has found some support amongst his contemporaries. Andrew Gough, editor of The Heretic Magazine, and an investigator of historical conundrums, was, in principle, supportive of Atwill’s claims saying that " Jesus may have been a politically motivated invention. Further, there are no contemporary accounts of his life. Everything is written decades if not hundreds of years later. Even Paul, a contemporary of Christ, never mentions a historical Christ. No judge and jury would ever validate this fairytale in a court of law."

Predictably, however, Atwill’s theories have been roundly criticised by those with a more traditional view of Christianity. Michael Lewis, retired Estates Controller of the Church of England and scholar of the Early Christian Church, was vehement in his rebuttal of the new evidence:
"We should not waste our time discussing this utter nonsense, which flies in the face of hard facts" said Lewis. "We know that Jesus was a real person as he was mentioned by Josephus ; his crucifixion was recorded by the Romans and mentioned in all four Gospels, in fact an earthquake, mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew, pinpoints the date of his death to Friday, April 3, 33AD. What we don’t know is how accurate the details of his life were, but we do know that he existed."

Lewis, who is author of the book, "Conclusions of a Parapsychologist: What Paranormal Phenomena Tell Us’, considers himself to be a very broad-minded individual with beliefs outside the normal parameters of the average orthodox Christian, but is incensed by what he sees has sensationalist views which are based on "distorted truths and twisted facts."

Atwill knows that his suppositions are contentious but believes that his evidence undermines all of the ‘facts’, and commented thus: "I present my work with some ambivalence, as I do not want to directly cause Christians any harm but this is important for our culture. Alert citizens need to know the truth about our past so we can understand how and why governments create false histories and false gods. They often do it to obtain a social order that is against the best interests of the common people."

Scholars may continue to debate this issue until the end of time, but the key issue here may not be whether Christ was a real person, but whether these ideas are as new and fresh as Atwill claims, and whether his research is actually sound.

Whilst in support of the premise behind Atwill’s arguments, Gough had this to say about the ‘new’ evidence: "The notion that Jesus Christ never existed is not new. For centuries, scholars have commented on how his story lacks credibility. Most believe it is a composite of pagan archetypes, i.e. the dying and resurrecting savior, born from an immaculate conception, whose birth was anticipated by kings, is a theme that repeats through history."

Atwill maintains that he made this latest and seemingly original discovery whilst comparing the New Testament against the "Wars of the Jews" by Josephus, which is the only first-person historical account of first-century Judea in existence.

"I started to notice a sequence of parallels between the two texts" he says." Although it’s been recognised by Christian scholars for centuries that the prophesies of Jesus appear to be fulfilled by what Josephus wrote about in the First Jewish-Roman war, I was seeing dozens more. 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. The biography of Jesus is actually constructed, tip to stern, on prior stories, but especially on the biography of a Roman Caesar."

One wonders how this parallel could previously have been overlooked by other scholars, but Atwill explains this by saying "Many of the parallels are conceptual or poetic, so they aren’t all immediately obvious. After all, the authors did not want the average believer to see what they were doing, but they did want the alert reader to see it. An educated Roman in the ruling class would probably have recognised the literary game being played."

There is one particular religious historian who believes that he has every reason to concur with Atwill’s findings, but for all the wrong reasons. Robert Eisenman, author of many, many books on related subjects including "The New Testament Code: The Cup of the Lord, the Damascus Covenant, and the Blood of Christ" (2006) and "The Dead Sea Scrolls and the First Christians" (1996), has been left stunned by Atwill’s ‘revelations’ as he claims that they have all been lifted from his book "James the Brother of Jesus: The Key to Unlocking the Secrets of Early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls" (1998).

If anyone can proffer a highly-educated and informed opinion on this subject, it is Robert Eisenman. He is a Professor of Middle East Religions and Archaeology and Islamic Law and the Director of the Institute for the Study of Judeo-Christian Origins at California State University Long Beach and Visiting Senior Member of Linacre College, Oxford. He also holds a B.A. from Cornell University in Philosophy and Engineering Physics (1958), an M.A. from New York University in Near Eastern Studies (1966), a Ph.D from Columbia University in Middle East Languages and Cultures and Islamic Law (1971), was a Senior Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Postgraduate Hebrew Studies and held an American Endowment for the Humanities Fellow-in-Residence at the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were first examined. That is an impressive resume, which certainly adds indisputable credibility to his version of events.

Eisenman describes how he was invited to Atwill’s home in 1999, where he was shown a copy of his own book, "James, the Brother of Jesus", completely marked and/or ear-leafed on almost every page and which, Atwill assured Eisenman, he had read from cover-to-cover countless times.
"Now, I believe him!" Eisenman comments incredulously. "In fact, almost all the ideas he claims to have taken from "Josephus" are to be found in and for the most part obviously taken from that book, particularly pp. 788-801 and the section on "Epaphroditus and his Circle."

Eisenman goes on to say that "Atwill is being a little disingenuous in his comments quoted in this promotion," and that it would be impossible to draw such his conclusions from the "Wars of the Jews" or even the Gospels as "neither they or Josephus affirm or deny that "Jesus" did or did not exist. This difficult question needs a lot of background and is why I focused so much on this "James". Moreover, it is why I have concluded: "once we have found the Historical James, we have found the Historical Jesus". I guess Atwill either missed this or chose to ignore it."

Eisenman alleges that Atwill has missed or purposefully distorted and sensationalized the central points, adding in a few imprecise ones of his own in the process. He is resolute in his condemnation of Atwill’s testimony, which, he says, stretches the truth far beyond its limits. "Yes, the Gospels are "literature" not "history" intent on pacifying this "Jesus" in a largely Pauline manner (who was a Roman citizen, don’t forget), all of this he gets from "James The Brother Of Jesus" but not Josephus!" he exclaims. " Yes, the Gospels do, to some extent follow Josephus, but that’s because being literature and mostly written in Greek (as Josephus was) and this was the only authentic material on Palestine they had (which is probably why Epaphroditus had it originally written); but they neither follow nor deify Titus!"

For those not familiar with Josephus, Eisenman explains that Josephus does not follow Titus’ path, but rather his father, Vespasian, and that Titus only comes into the picture a couple of years later at the siege of Jerusalem. So none of the facts could be learned from Josephus, as Atwill contends, but were taken from Eisenman’s book, and that the rest of the theory is "completely bogus material by an amateur (with few ‘scholarly’ degrees and none in this subject), sensationalizing the main point he has learned from me (not Josephus), that the Gospels are pro-Roman literature intent on pacifying a militant anti-Roman "Messianic" literature like that of the Scrolls and for which "Jesus"-types were crucified."

This controversial theory was always going to prompt a heated debate, but if it is based on uncertain evidence, then it may well burn out, martyr-like, in a bonfire of criticism. Atwill is encouraging any skeptics to challenge him at Conway Hall, where he is expecting a lively Q&A session after the event. If Mr. Eisenman attends, there will be every chance of that.

UPDATED COMMENTS FROM ROBERT FEATHER:
Attacks on the reality of Jesus, as a messiah or even as a real person, seem to surface at regular intervals and this latest one from Joseph Atwill is just another in the latest round started by Freke and Gandy in 1999. Their book was published at the same time as my first book The Copper Scroll Decoded, and I sat on a panel of so-called experts at a Conference in Rome shortly after with these two gentlemen. Their presentation was heavily decried by the largely Christian/ Roman Catholic audience and I pointed out many of the anomalies in their case at the time.

From what I have seen so far there are absolutely no firm facts for the theory and the people who Atwill puts forward to support the idea, John Hudson and Kenneth Humphreys, are committed Jesus deniers. Certainly there is very little hard evidence for the existence of Jesus, but a lot of circumstantial evidence which I set out in my third book The Secret Initiation of Jesus at Qumran. For these anonymous Roman authors to have known the intimate background to the activities of the ‘Essenes’ at Qumran is quite unlikely as much of their material was highly secretive and only came into the public domain in 1947 with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. There is clear evidence that their teachings and practices were imported into the New Testament and there is no way these anonymous roman authors could have known about them.

Perhaps there is more to come but why would they as alleged, write the Gospel of Matthew which modern scholarship has shown was originally written in Hebrew and later retranslated into Greek. For a start Roman authors would have written in Latin and why would they also write all the other gospels? Or didn’t they do that? Virtually all of the earliest versions of Matthew, which by the way, was preceded by the Gospel of St Mark, were discovered in Egypt and not in Italy. There are just too many imponderables for Atwill’s theory.
Yes, it is well known that conquering powers wanted to stabilise their empire by utilising religion as a unifying force. This is no new idea. Whatever he claims about Flavius Josephus as a possible source for the Gospel writings of these un-named Romans, Josephus was always diligent to portray the Jews as a civilised learned moral people and he would not have condoned the insertion in the Christian story of the Jews a being culpable for the idea to kill Jesus. Even less likely that they would write that the Romans ‘killed Jesus’! Why would they do that?
When you look at the evidence put forward for the reality of Jesus and his burial at Qumran it becomes patently clear that he was a member of the Essene community at Qumran and many of their ideas got into the NT from that source – not from Josephus, or some unidentified roman aristocrats. Why would there be different versions of the story in the other three gospels. Did they write those also? The most likely explanation of these disparities is that different authors knew the same story and had differing witness versions. Just as newspapers report on different angles of a current event. My overall conclusion is that Atwill’s theory is flimsy, but I would love to have his publicity agents, who got him such a lot of publicity. With the hard evidence I have produced they would get me on the front page of every newspaper in the world!

Robert Feather

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