Those were trying times for Rome. Nero, the last of the Julio-Claudian Caesars and a big spender with a reputedly homicidal temper, was on the throne. Stories abound of how he attempted to poison his mother, kicked one of his wives to death, and personally ordered the upside-down crucifixion of St. Peter. Lies and half-truths, most of those tales, but stuff like that sticks. More important, Nero's Roman Empire was going broke.
While Rome simmered, Palestine cooked. The Jews loathed the Romans. They didn't want statues of Roman emperors in their temples, didn't want to pay taxes to prop up the empire, and, most of all, didn't want Caesar's emissaries making claims on their promised land. And they were recklessly brave in battle. Hot rebellion was in the air.
Through all that, a loose cannon of a prophet was reportedly roaming through the Judean war zone, preaching pacifism and spouting profundities like, "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's."
That's the situation, more or less, that Joseph Atwill describes at the beginning of Caesar's Messiah: The Roman Conspiracy to Invent Jesus, the new documentary movie based on Atwill's book of the same name. (The film is available for sale at Atwill's website, caesarsmessiah.com.)
The wandering prophet was, of course, Jesus Christ. Atwill, a self-taught biblical scholar, contends that not only was there no historical figure of that name, but also the legends that accumulated around him were actually created by the Romans as a way of pacifying the Jews. The evidence is overwhelming, he says.
The Dead Sea Scrolls, ancient Jewish texts discovered in caves in Israel in 1947, give a different picture than the idyllic first century Holy Land of the Gospels. From year one, there were battles and confrontations between the Romans and the Jews, the Scrolls note, and there was no turning of the other cheek by the likes of rebel leader Judah of Galilee. And there was nary a mention in the Scrolls of the peaceable prophet Jesus Christ.
"This is where I came into Christian scholarship," says Atwill, 63, an investor who lives by the proceeds of a dot-com sell off in the 1990s. "There was supposedly this character, Jesus, wandering around in Galilee. Nobody knew anything about him. Galilee is only 30 miles long. Jesus and other historical figures of the time would have known each other."
Atwill, an admittedly bookish man, dived in headfirst, digging out whatever historical records he could find, studying the Scrolls, and reading Roman accounts, notably that of a family member of the Flavian dynasty of Caesars named Josephus. He found no historical Jesus in any of those writings. But there were some uncanny connections between the story of Jesus as told in the Gospels and the family of Roman emperors who took power after Nero was forced to commit suicide following a coup d'état.
The movie spells out an intriguing scenario of creative deception by the Romans: Sometime in the mid 70s AD, Atwill suggests, Greco-Roman intellectuals wrote the now-well-known stories — in Greek, not the popular Aramaic of the Judaic populace — about the Jewish messiah who defied the Judaic traditions of militancy to preach a sweet, accommodationist message. The legends began to take hold in the decades that followed. The illiterate peasants of the time couldn't read them, of course. But preachers preached it — preachers who were given the red-carpet treatment by Roman authorities.
What about all those Christians being fed to the lions in the colosseum? True enough, Atwill says. Only the victims weren't followers of Jesus but militant Jews who, as believers in a messiah, or christos in Greek, qualified as "Christians" and earned the ire of the Caesars.
Atwill and other scholars maintain that the Romans were ingenious in pulling off the pacifist hoax, so useful to the ruthless men who administered the Roman empire. They were able to "create a type of Judaism that was benign," says one commentator.
The Romans even got in a plug for the godlike qualities of the bloody Roman general and soon-to-be Caesar Flavius Titus. It was Titus who led the Romans against the Jews in the war of 66 to 73, crushing the towns of Galilee, laying siege to Jerusalem, and ultimately razing the Jewish temple there. Encoded in the Gospels, Atwill contends, are multiple references to Titus, establishing a direct connection between the emperor and Jesus. Reading the Gospels along with Josephus's Wars of the Jews, the parallels are striking. There are dual encounters, addresses to followers, random incidents, "all these little weird parallels," Atwill says. They all took place in the same locations, often using the same words, but 40 years apart. Thus, Jesus recruits two fishermen on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and says, "I will make you fishers of men." At the same spot 40 years later, Josephus describes the Romans in a sea battle, catching rebels from a capsized boat with their spears, like fishermen hooking fish.
Atwill says the writers of the Gospels used a literary device called "typology" — "a genre of literature that the ancient Hebrews used" — employing parallels to elicit hidden messages and to suggest the circularity of history and the value of prophecy. But the Romans did it as a joke on the Jews, Atwill says. Introducing themes from Titus's life into the Gospels, leaving an indelible imprint, like watermarks on paper, was the Romans' way of leaving their signature, he says.
What motivated them? "They were the vainest people who ever lived," Atwill says. "They wanted to make sure that posterity knew they had subdued the Jews through a fake religion.
Some of this has been explored by other scholars. Robert Eisenman, professor of religion at California State University, Long Beach, one of the participants in the movie, says he was long familiar with the practice of "overwriting" texts, "people taking texts and writing over them." He himself suggested, in his 1997 book, James the Brother of Jesus, that the Gospels had been written over to give them a "pro-Roman slant."
In uncovering the Titus connection, "Atwill may have carried it a step farther," Eisenman says.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.