Roman emperor

Jesus Never Existed

Yes, that Jesus! True, the name Jesus or Yeshua was in common usage at the time of the New Testament, but I am referring specifically to Jesus of Nazareth, also known as the Christ. Let me be clear. I am not saying that Jesus never existed. Rather, that is the claim of Joseph Atwill, a self-proclaimed biblical scholar. He intends to make his allegation public on October 19th. However, before grabbing a notepad or setting your recorder, let’s examine the following.

I suppose the fact that Atwill is a "self-proclaimed" biblical scholar puts everything else in focus. If his credentials had any validity, he would surely say so. His argument, however, does not collapse merely on his own lack of merit. It has no integrity or internal support. His fundamental statement is that the government of ancient Rome invented Jesus as way of discouraging the continual insurrections of the Jews who had grown tired of the Roman occupation.

During the years of Rome’s superiority in the ancient world, the emperor did some strange things. Fiddling was not one of them; claiming to be divine was. Atwill would have us believe that the emperor (a divine one, at that), created a fictional character who represented the Messianic hopes of a conquered people, had that character preach peace in opposition to rebellion, and then executed him thus turning that fictional character into a martyr. Really? That would only have incited more revolution. Bring back Nero, the fiddles, and let Rome burn. It’s a better and more believable story.

Atwill suffers from bigger problems than logic, however. He bases his theory (a generous term, to be sure), on the writings of the first century Jewish commander and historian, Flavius Josephus, specifically his book Wars of the Jews. This is where a little history would benefit Atwill.

The earliest of the New Testament books is the First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians, written in the year 52, approximately 20 years after Jesus died. The first gospel was written by Mark about 30 years after Jesus’ death, and by at least the mid-40s, the Christian faith had already arrived in Rome. But the Roman-Jewish wars did not begin until the year 66. Oops!

Beyond chronology, it would be helpful if Atwill understood a little more about the bible. On this point, sadly, even some Christians are misguided. The bible is not history. It does contain some elements of history, most notably the Books of Chronicles. But at its core, the bible is faith. The belief that Jesus is the promised Messiah was not accepted by all. That he is the Christ is a testament of faith that even the early Christians did not come to accept until after the Crucifixion and and their faith in the Resurrection. Who Jesus was, what he meant to people in the first century, and what he means today is a matter of faith. His existence is not in question. It is indisputable and supported by non-biblical material, including the writings of Josephus.

According to Atwill the creation of a fictional Jesus was the result of Rome’s frustration on the battlefield. He claims, "When the Romans had exhausted conventional means of quashing rebellion, they switched to psychological warfare." In the year 70, the Romans destroyed the Temple, the holiest site. I suggest that this act, combined with the defeat of the Jewish nation was more than "psychological" warfare.

Barring any unexpected catastrophe, like the return of a Roman emperor, October 19, 2013, will be just another Saturday. There is no reason to be concerned. On Sunday, October 20th, Joseph Atwill will be just another easily forgotten “self-proclaimed”--and not very good--biblical scholar.