Caesar's Messiah : The Roman Conspiracy to Invent Jesus
by Joseph Atwill. 256 pages Ulysses Press (April 15, 2005),
The last few years have seen the publication of three books arguing that the Jesus story is really the story of a Roman Emperor. These include Jesus was Caesar: On the Julian origin of Christianity, an Investigative Report, by Francesco Carotta, and Gary Courtney's Et tu, Judas? Then Fall Jesus!, both of which argue that that the Jesus story is based on the story of Julius Caesar, and Joseph Atwill's Caesar's Messiah, which makes the case that the Jesus story is the story of Titus. Of these, Caesar's Messiah is by far the best. While Carotta's work virtually ignores modern New Testament scholarship, Atwill is cognizant of it, though he does not locate his narrative within the scholarly paradigms. Caesar’s Messiah reads the texts closely, has a fresh perspective, and many original insights. The result is a book that is informative and challenging, and will repay even those readers who reject his main thesis.
Atwill's main thesis is actually a combination of several ideas. First, he argues that the stories of Jesus in the New Testament are actually stories of Titus' campaign through Galilee and the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. In this reading, the Gospels are clever satires created by the Flavian Emperors and their supporters. They thus function on the surface as religious tales, but the underlying story is actually a huge in-joke. Second, he argues that Josephus and the New Testament are essentially two sides of the same coin, one written in intimate relationship to the other. For example, discussing the sequence with the demoniac in Gadara/Gergasa, Atwill writes:
"The reason that the New Testament’s demoniac of Gadara can be seen as a satire on Josephus’ “tyrant” John and the battle at Gadara is simply because the two stories follow the same plot outline. In other words, the characters and events that can be seen as parallel occur in the same sequence. And it all occurs near Gadara. The satirical version in the New Testament tells the same story that Josephus does but, as is often the case with satire, the characters have different names."(p65)
In addition to the idea of satire and the close relationship between the NT and Josephus, this passage highlights another important theme of Atwill's: the importance of name switching among these texts. Discussing the famous passage about Jesus in Josephus, Atwill writes, citing Josephus himself:
"To solve the puzzle the reader must simply do as Decius Mundus recommends in the following chapter and 'value not this business of names.'"(p217)
The importance of this work lies in the originality of its reading of Josephus against the New Testament. Here Atwill's work resembles that of Cliff Carrington and other exegetes who have come to the conclusion that there is something highly suspicious about the way the two bodies of work are related. Atwill's strength is that not only has he pushed this line of insight farther than anyone else, he has constructed a full-fledged model to explain why this relationship exists. Hence, a good alternate title for this work might well have been There's Something Funky about the New Testament and Josephus.
After reviewing the history of the day, and exploring the links between the Flavians and early Christianity, Atwill lays out his thesis at the end of Chapter 2:
"The Gospels were designed to become apparent as satire as soon as they were read in conjunction with War of the Jews. In fact, the four Gospels and War of the Jews were created as a unified piece of literature whose characters and stories interact. Their interaction gives many of Jesus’ sayings a comical meaning and also creates a series of puzzles whose solutions reveal the real identities of the New Testament’s characters. Understanding the New Testament’s comic level reveals, for example, that the Apostles Simon and John were cruel lampoons of Simon and John, the leaders of the Jewish rebellion."(p36)
Atwill concludes this chapter with a discussion of Mark 1 and Mark 5 and parallels to Titus’ first battle on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
Chapter 3 gives us Atwill’s discussion of the strange tale of Cannibal Mary. For readers who have read Josephus many times, Atwill’s claim that she represents a parody of Christianity will come as a shock. Yet it is hard to see a woman named Mary who kills and eats her son in the manner of a Passover sacrifice as anything but a satire on the tale of Jesus as told in the Gospels. Atwill observes that the words in her mouth were placed there by Josephus, and if read as a satire on Christianity, they take on a new and portentous meaning:
“As to the war with the Romans, if they preserve our lives, we must be slaves. This famine also will destroy us, even before that slavery comes upon us. Yet are these seditious rogues more terrible than both the other. Come on; be thou my food, and be thou a fury to these seditious varlets, and a by-word to the world, which is all that is now wanting to complete the calamities of us Jews.”(Whiston translation, cited on p46)
Why should anyone roasting and eating their own child expect it to be a “by-word to the world” and a fury to the “seditious varlets,” the Jewish rebels? As Atwill points out, if this scene were in a piece of modern literature, it would instantly be seen by everyone as a parody of Christianity. Nor is Atwill the first scholar to have had this insight into the passage, for Honora H. Chapman noted parallels between the 'Cannibal Mary passage' in Josephus and the symbolic Passover Lamb of the Gospels in her SBL seminar paper 'A Myth for the World', Early Christian Reception of Infanticide and Cannibalism in Josephus' Bellum Judaicum' (2000).
Over the next few chapters Atwill then attempts to sort out the problem of who Jesus really was and solve the problem of the Empty Tomb. His thesis is that the Gospels were essentially written together, and thus, must be read together. Hence, he reads the Empty Tomb tale as four versions of the same tale, in parts, distributed across the various gospels:
“My analysis revealed that these four versions were intended to be read as a single story. This combined story is divided into two halves. One half consists of the visits to the tomb described in the Gospel of John. The other consists of the visits to the tomb described in the other three Gospels. In the combined story the individuals described in the Gospel of John meet the individuals described in the other three Gospels and, in their emotional state, the different groups mistake one another for angels. This comedy of errors causes the visitors to the empty tomb to mistakenly believe that their Messiah has risen from the dead.”(p129)
The next few chapters cover the authors of the New Testament and how the tale was constructed. Then comes perhaps the most fascinating chapter in the work, his discussion of the Testamonium Flavianum (TF). Atwill’s reading of this and its surrounding passages as a complex satire is perhaps the most revolutionary insight in the work. Unlike his allegorical reading of the New Testament, which is easy for the reader to swat away, Atwill’s analysis of the TF and its companion passages will be impossible to ignore. Not only does his reading make sense of this section of the work, it is supported by strong linguistic and thematic links that will be difficult to refute. This chapter alone makes the book worth the price of admission.
But if a fresh and compelling look at the TF were not enough, Atwill offers in Chapter 13 a very interesting argument that Josephus has adjusted the dates of important events in his works to make them conform to the prophecies in Daniel.
Caesar’s Messiah closes with a discussion of the Apostles and the Maccabees, and other parallels between the New Testament and events in Titus’ campaign in Palestine prior to the destruction of Jerusalem. The coincidence of dates and names has also been noted by other authors, most recently in Jay Raskin’s piece in the Journal of Higher Criticism on the Maccabees and early Christianity.
Atwill’s prose is spare, even grim, and the book is refreshingly free of the silly attacks on New Testament scholars for being fools and scoundrels that tend to populate works of authors with out-of-the-mainstream ideas. Atwill usually is able to strike a sturdy posture that enables him to explain why no one has made all the connections he has (though a surprising amount of scholars have stumbled across pieces of the puzzle) without sounding triumphalist. My own view is that this work, intended for a lay audience, would have been even better had it presented some of the scholarly support for Atwill’s specific claims (a companion volume aimed at scholars due out soon). There are some regrettable moments, such as the statistical analysis of the parallels on p224 that reads like something out of Erich Von Daniken, and the mistaken attribution of a quote on p296 to Jesus rather than to John the Baptist. Overall, the work is clearly structured and very accessible.
I doubt that the central thesis of Caesar’s Messiah will find many takers; nor, ultimately, was this reader convinced. But many of the book’s insights commend themselves to thoughtful reconstruction and deconstruction. Well worth the price of admission, both lay readers and scholars will be able to find something in Caesar’s Messiah to challenge, to entertain, or simply to get the old gray matter back to pumping iron.