Friday, June 03, 2005

Book Review: Atwill, Caesar's Messiah

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.


Ken Scaletta (Dio the Cynic) said...

I don't buy Titus-as-Jesus, nor the idea that the gospels were intended to be read together but it sounds like Jewish Wars may have had more influence on the gospels than it is generally given credit for.

How does Atwill treat the Pauline Corpus?

Joe Atwill said...


If you don't believe that the Gospels were intended to be read together, please read the chapter in Caesar's Messiah entitled "The Puzzle of the Empty Tomb." I think you'll find the evidence convincing. Further, the notion that the Gospels were designed as inter-textual literature should not be dismissed out of hand as the infancy narrative in Matthew shows that the technique was used by at least one of the authors.

Your question regarding Paul can be answered by simply noting that if the Gospels are fiction, it must follow that the Pauline stories are as well.

Ken Scaletta said...

Hello. Joe. Thank you for responding personally. I'm willing to read your book before I comment again on the possibility of the gospels being deliberately inter-textual. I some obvious questions but I'll reserve them until I read the chapter in question.

As to Paul, I agree that the gospels and Acts are fiction but it is commonly accepted that the 7 authentic letters of Paul prededed the gospels, and indeed, preceded the Jewish-Roman War. If Jesus, as a character in the gospels, was a satire on Titus, what was he in Paul's letters?

tc399 said...

I loved the book. The connection with The Jewish Wars is certainly appealing.

Michael Turton said...

As to Paul, I agree that the gospels and Acts are fiction but it is commonly accepted that the 7 authentic letters of Paul preceded the gospels, and indeed, preceded the Jewish-Roman War. If Jesus, as a character in the gospels, was a satire on Titus, what was he in Paul's letters?

(a) either the letters of Paul, authentic or not, postdate 70 or

(b) Titus hijacked an existing heavenly cult. That would explain a lot.

Or Atwill is wrong. Parts of this book are VERY disturbing, though, which strikes me as saying that he's onto something here, especially with the relationship between Josephus and the NT.

Joe Atwill said...

Ken and Mike:

As I see it, the Pauline Letters are seen as having been written pre 66BCE for only two reasons.

First is the assumption that the author was sincerely trying to record real events, and since he dates them as pre 66CE they should be seen as pre 66CE. Second is the fact that, unlike the Gospels, none of the details in the Letters indicate that they were written after the war. (There have been other quasi-paleographic efforts to date the Letters that do not seem to me to have traction - if your curious about my thoughts on this line see the article Robert Eisenman and I wrote - Redating the Dating, published in Dead Sea Discoveries, 2004, Vol II, No. 2 PP 143-157)

I believe the assumption noted above is incorrect, and the fact that the details do not contradict a pre-66 CE does not prove they were writtten before that date. Though I must admit Mike's suggestion that the Letters might reflect some transition Cult between militarisitc messianic Judaism and Roman Christianity is both plausible and fascinating.

Michael Turton said...


Are you familiar with Dave Hindley's reconstruction of the Paulines as authentic letters of God-Fearers/Jewish missionaries in the pre-Xtian era reworked by Christians? That would explain a heck of a lot too.


Joe Atwill said...

No, but I will check it out. Thanks for the heads up

Neil Godfrey said...

Michael, can you provide a link to Dave Hindley's reconsruction?

Joe, I've only just begun reading your book but one thing that keeps coming to mind is the Copenhagen school argument that the OT literature originated as/via Persian state propaganda to assist in new identity creation for transplanted peoples. Apparently creating new religions as part of way to create new and more loyal racial identities was part of routine methods that accompanied mass deportations going back at least to the Assyrians. I've skimmed ahead but don't know if you discuss this as a possible broader context anywhere?

Another question that pops to mind is accounting for subsequent Roman persecution of Christianity. Would you suggest a case of attempting to control what turned out to be something of a Frankenstein monster? Other?

Finally, the weeping woman at the tomb and 'resurrection' passage in Petronius' Satyricon ch.13 is another one of those mysterious set of coincidences - compounded, I wonder, by the Gospel of Peter's naming the centurion guarding the tomb "Petronius" himself? Wonder if this, possibly like Paul's letters, suggests a still yet deeper "plot" behind the whole shebang somewhere??

VIAVENI said...

Hi Joe, I read your earlier work, and am now reading Caesar's Messiah. You write with such clarity that it is a pleasure to dig into detail that would be clumsily presented in the hands of other writers.

One thing I noticed was that you attribute the origin of the Flavian dynasty to a general under Alexander. It was my understanding that the Ptolemy line extended from the son of Alexander's brother, and this made the claim of descent from Philip of Macedon possible. There was much pride associated with a divine ancestry through Alexander, and that would have been impossible if the ancestor was only "a general" to Alexander.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the compliment about my style of writing. I try to be simple and as clear as possible perhaps as a reaction to so many NT critics whose style seems the reverse. What I say in Caesar's Messiah about the Ptolemies is only that the Seleucids seized the region of Judea from them and not that the Flavians descended from the family.


Anonymous said...

I'm reading Caesar's Messiah very carefully, and it is SO OBVIOUS that Titus cleverly cast himself as Jesus. What is amazing is that it took 2000 years to figure this out! Joseph Atwill has the intelligence, memory and intuitive skill that are the qualities Titus and his crew made necessary to understand what they were doing. He passed their intelligence test with flying colors, and we all should be eternally grateful for that. At last we are free of superstition and control by royalty! Well, then there's the Bush Family Evil Empire. Out with the old tyrany and in with the new.


Anonymous said...

I, too, was looking for more enlightenment over how the Pauline epistles fit into the scheme of things as regards Atwill's analysis.

How about this for a possible scenario to tie in the Pauline epistles with the Gospel accounts through a Josephus connection?

Josephus, a Jew, having been adopted by the Flavians, desires to present an offering of appreciation for the amusement of his adoptive family to celebrate Titus’ military success against the rebellious Jewish factions. Having a finger on the pulse of popular trends, he knows that messianic movements are afoot among the Jews. One such popular movement is being propagated by a fellow Jew named Paul, who is spreading word of a mystical Christ (not Jesus) figure.

Josephus is well versed in Jewish tradition. He decides his present to the House of Flavius will be the transformation of his “brother,” Titus, into a deity by fleshing out this Christ figure as a human entity (Jesus) over the framework of Titus’ exploits. This will make Titus’ triumph not only a military victory, but a “spiritual” one as well. Whether it works on the Jews or not, it’ll be good for a laugh.

Please forgive this conjecture if it violates any established historic principles. I'm more-or-less shooting from the hip here.


Anonymous said...

I found this site via links from Joe Atwill's own discussion forum.

Regarding the Pauline letters: author Ralph Ellis raised the possibility that Paul and Josephus were one and the same person, and this idea seems worth considering. He lists a number of similarities in what each tells about his own life, many of which were, I thought rather tenuous, but the most telling one was that both claimed to have been shipwrecked on the way to Rome and both were taken to the same port after being rescued. Another was that both changed sides, tho in opposite directions.

There are at least 4 possibilities here: 1. one of them was real and the other was a pseudonym or nom de plume; 2. both were real but one borrowed from the other's writings; 3. neither was real, that is both were noms de plume for some third (real) person, such as Titus or Tiberius Alexander; 4. there was a real "Paul" but all or much of his writing was psuedepigraphal (sp?).

Evidently Paul's letters first came to light (so to speak) during the controversy between Marcion and the Roman church c. 100 AD. Marcion and his followers cited them to back up their "heresy". Hermann Detering proposes that much of Acts was written to counter the Marcionite Pauline letters by making Paul more "Roman/Jewish" and less Gnostic and that more letters were then "found" by the Marcionites to counter that. Eventually the Roman Church absorbed the Marcionites by adopting and "Romanizing" Paul, just as it has taken over various pagan gods (now saints), holidays, etc. from other religions.


the doog said...

I read the book on a recent trip to Europe and could not put it down! Read it again on the way home! I have read many, many of the theories of Jesus and the Bible's alleged "historicity" over the last 12 years and NOT ONE nails it like this one does. I simply can NOT find grounds to dispute Atwill's contentions! God bless, uh..I mean, THREE CHEERS FOR JOSEPH ATWILL!

karl logan said...

I just noticed that THE Joseph Atwill has several times responded in person to this site, and wanted to thank you, Joe, from the bottom of my formerly-Catholic heart, for your scholarship and incredible acumen in publishing this FABULOUS book! Can you tell me this--what has been the general impact of your stunning conclusions? I know that there are probably many who are even now confirming your contentions, but has anyone tried to mount a convincing rebuttal to your proof of, for instance, the whole "empty tomb" scenario (which I found utterly fascinating!). Has your book been taken seriously in the stodgiest of theological circles?

Anonymous said...

Joe Atwill has now added his analysis of the Pauline corpus at
Copy-and-paste these three lines into the address field of your browser to create the whole URL. (The second half of his write-up is also found there.) Then hold on to your hat.


godfry said...

Ahem...Would not positing that the Gospels are later than usually dated (say first decade of the second century CE) allow them to have used Josephus (both _Wars_ and _Antiquities_) as guides? It seems to me that some exegete has already suggested that Luke (the gross attempt to harmonize all the dross) relied heavily upon Josephus.