The Pokey Finger of God

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Atwill vs. Traditional Early Church legends

September 11th, 2014 · No Comments · christianity, history

In the traditional stories, the faith that became Christianity was started by the friends and family of the original apostles, who would meet in each others’ homes and tell stories about the Christ each of them knew. The crowds at these gatherings grew larger each year, and people would travel away to other cities and begin shared faith groups there, sharing letters along with retelling the stories they had been told. Despite official disapproval and periodic persecution from Rome, these groups spread and grew, and folks began writing books (eg: Gospels, Epistles) that would be copied and shared around the Greek and Latin worlds. Then Constantine, convinced of its truth by his mother, embraced the faith of Christ and it became the most powerful faith in the Empire because of the enthusiasm and pride of the early Christians.

In the introduction to Caesar’s Messiah, Joseph Atwill outlines four points describing a new understanding of Christianity based upon his theories. And I quote:

  • Christianity did not originate among the lower classes in Judea. It was a creation of a Roman imperial family, the Flavians.
  • The Gospels were not written by the followers of a Jewish Messiah but by the intellectual circle surrounding the three Flavian emperors: Vespasian and his two sons, Titus and Domitian.
  • The Gospels were written following the 66-73 C.E. war between the Romans and the Jews, and many of the events of the Jesus’ ministry are satirical depictions of events from that war.
  • The purpose of Christianity was supersession. It was designed to replace the nationalistic and militaristic messianic movement in Judea with a religion that was pacifistic and would accept Roman rule.

Later in the book, Atwill indicated the years 70 to 79 CE as the period most probably when the Gospels were written, about events set forty years prior to Titus’ destruction of Jerusalem. According to Atwill, in the Gospels, all of the character names are jokes. Jesus is the Messiah, and the joke is that there were actually quite a few people running around, each claiming to be the Messiah when Titus was there, with their own exclusive gang of followers, mercenaries, and hangers-on. So the character Jesus is actually an amalgam of several different would-be saviors, most of whom would have been born years after the traditional crucifixion date. So the story begins in 73 CE, with the destruction of Jerusalem, and there’s no point in looking for a “real” Jesus, or an “historical” Jesus.

For over a century, folks have been turning the Levant into a giant golf ball, digging for proof of Jesus. Much has been said about some of the tiny effluvia found, but to date, substantive proof of the historical presence of the Jesus from the has never been found outside the Bible. Some schools of archaeology now use the actual results of years of digs to show that the Bible is largely fiction.

However, it should be pretty easy to determine whether Christianity originated as a grass-roots organization, or by imperial decree. It was not unheard of for religions to spread rapidly across the Roman Empire, especially in the 4th Century, but in the 1st Century, there were too many cultural and economic barriers for anyone besides the Emperor to successfully create a faith across the empire.

One of the more persistent issues with the traditional Early Church stories is the authorship of the Gospels has always been in question. Few scholars assume these books were written by their apostolic namesakes, but rather by scribes who copied the stories told to them by the named Apostles, or had been passed down to them from the Apostles. The obvious problem being that laborers and criminals were largely illiterate, so the ability for any of them to create compelling literature is strongly in doubt. Atwill’s book names three people who, in coordination with Josephus, actually had the upper-class education and the imperial motivation to create the Gospels.

Partly due to the problem with illiterate lower class folks being the core of the traditional Early Church stories, the time when the Gospels were actually written is estimated to have occurred anytime between 33 and 300 CE. Using contextual information, some of the Gospels and Epistles have been “sorted” according to when each book was most likely to have been written, but this is not certain or clear, since it is unknown why a group of illiterates would have felt the need to write books they couldn’t read. Instead, Atwill names a specific time and a specific motivation to the creation of the Gospels: directly after the destruction of the Jews, in order to coopt and re-direct the rebellious tendencies of the radical Jews.

The questions of who wrote the Bible, when was it written, and why was it written, are uniformly ignored or bypassed by the traditional Early Church legends. Joseph Atwill’s book, Caesar’s Messiah not only addresses these questions, it provides reasonable, logical answers. Whether or not his answers are correct, Atwill has come further that any apologist or pope into a reasonable explanation that explains not only the big questions, but many of the little ones as well.

The parables of Jesus are often confusing, sometimes redundant, and rarely meaningful, even with explanations provided by Jesus in the same stories. Atwill’s theory provides a consistent template for understanding the parables from the beginning of Matthew to the end of John. They are not metaphors for things that occurred hundreds of years later, but frequently intended to be entirely literal.

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