Every now and then a theory comes along which is so implausible it is questionable whether it is worth responding. That has happened again this week with reports in the Daily Mail online and the Telegraph of the thesis of Joseph Atwill that Jesus never existed but was made up by Romans as a last desperate measure to pacify disruptive Jews in Judea. Atwill first published his book in 2005, and it made no impression at all; he has since republished it privately, and it might be that the only slightly less implausible theory of Reza Aslan that Jesus was a revolutionary zealot, but that the NT documents were doctored to hide this.
Atwill is called a ‘scholar’ by the newspapers, which seems odd considering that he appears to have no relevant academic qualifications at all. I do wonder why the media persist in this habit—anyone who has any kind of idea at all is given air-time, as if there were no such thing as the academic community in these areas of study, and there might actually be some good reasons why this is incredible. One person commenting on the Mail Online article claims to have known him as an undergraduate, and comments:
The trouble with Atwill’s observations is that they have been compiled at will according to his own [lack of] beliefs. Indeed, he was known for this type of research in college and which was when he was given the name “at will” Joe .. he eventually made this his official name.
Atwill also appears to be fairly clear on his motivation:
What my work has done is give permission to many of those ready to leave the religion to make a clean break. We’ve got the evidence now to show exactly where the story of Jesus came from. Although Christianity can be a comfort to some, it can also be very damaging and repressive, an insidious form of mind control that has led to blind acceptance of serfdom, poverty, and war throughout history. To this day, especially in the United States, it is used to create support for war in the Middle East.
It is highly unlikely that Atwill will attract any serious academic interest. James Crossley, Professor at the University of Sheffield, compared Atwill’s theory to a Dan Brown fiction book in the Mail article.
These types of theories are very common outside the academic world and are usually reserved for sensationalist literature. They are virtually non-existent in the academic world.People do debate about how much we can know about Jesus, but the idea that Romans invented stories about Jesus is outside of the academic world.
Atwill’s thesis is an example of a persistent feature of Western culture known as the Jesus myth. This in turn is just one kind of conspiracy theory, and like others does not stand up to scrutiny.
[Jesus] certainly existed, as virtually every competent scholar of antiquity, Christian or non-Christian, agrees. (Bart Ehrman, atheist/agnostic who is sceptical about the reliability of the NT)
In recent years, no serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non-historicity of Jesus or at any rate very few, and they have not succeeded in disposing of the much stronger, indeed very abundant, evidence to the contrary. (Michael Grant, respected classicist)
There are those who argue that Jesus is a figment of the Church’s imagination, that there never was a Jesus at all. I have to say that I do not know any respectable critical scholar who says that any more. (Richard Burridge, Professor at King’s College, London).
But it is worth revisiting the question of whether there are sources outside the New Testament which give evidence for Jesus’ existence, the early Christian movement, and its claims. I have compiled below the main ones from non-Jewish sources I have seen cited (though interestingly very few texts seem to cite them all) which are thought to be of relevance. There is some discussion of these at here and here, and both of these sites also explore Jewish texts as well. The other very useful resource is the notes from Mark Meynell’s recent talk about the reliability of the NT which you can download, which covers some other issues and gives a short reading list.
As a final reflection, I wonder how many churches give much attention to this question. My observation is that some do see this ‘objective’ question as important, but others see ‘subjective’ questions about the experience of Christians as much more important. Do we need to be thinking about more about both/and rather than either/or?
Here are the citations. Considering that the Christian movement was very small in the first century, and that we do not have that much writing for the period (by modern standards), the list is quite striking, and gives a significant amount of information, mostly from indifferent or hostile sources.
On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus, in the third book of his History, calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun. (Julius Africanus, Chronography, 18:1) [Thallus was writing in 52 AD and his work is lost to us.]
What benefit did the Athenians obtain by putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as judgment for their crime. Or, the people of Samos for burning Pythagoras? In one moment their country was covered with sand. Or the Jews by murdering their wise king?…After that their kingdom was abolished. God rightly avenged these men…The wise king…Lived on in the teachings he enacted. (Mara Bar-Serapion, 70 AD)
Now around this time lived Jesus, a wise man. For he was a worker of amazing deeds and was a teacher of people who gladly accept the truth. He won over both many Jews and many Greeks. Pilate, when he heard him accused by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, (but) those who had first loved him did not cease (doing so). To this day the tribe of Christians named after him has not disappeared. (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 93 AD. This neutral reconstruction follows closely the one proposed in the latest treatment by John Meier, Marginal Jew 1:61).
They [the Christians] were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food—but food of an ordinary and innocent kind. (Pliny the Younger, Letter to Trajan, 112)
Because the Jews at Rome caused constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus [Christ?], he [Claudius] expelled them from the city [Rome]. (Suetonius, Life of Claudius, 25:4). [The expulsion is thought to have taken place in 49; see Acts 18.2]
Nero inflicted punishment on the Christians [because of the fire in 64], a sect given to a new and mischievous religious belief.” (Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars, 26.2).
Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. (Tacitus, Annals, written in 116).
The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day—the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account….You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws. All this they take quite on faith, with the result that they despise all worldly goods alike, regarding them merely as common property.” (Lucian, The Death of Peregrine. 11-13, mid second century).
Jesus had come from a village in Judea, and was the son of a poor Jewess who gained her living by the work of her own hands. His mother had been turned out of doors by her husband, who was a carpenter by trade, on being convicted of adultery [with a soldier named Panthéra (i.32)]. Being thus driven away by her husband, and wandering about in disgrace, she gave birth to Jesus, a bastard. Jesus, on account of his poverty, was hired out to go to Egypt. While there he acquired certain (magical) powers which Egyptians pride themselves on possessing. He returned home highly elated at possessing these powers, and on the strength of them gave himself out to be a god. (Celsus, writing in 175).