Caesar’s Messiah presents a tissue of preposterous theories. It does not deserve your time. Robert M. Price uses the words “mad,” “ludicrous,” and “perverse and gratuitous interpretations of the text” in his review of Caesar’s Messiah (the 2005 edition). Curious, I read the entire Caesar’s Messiah (2011 revised edition, the only one available as an e-book). Here, I endorse Price’s review. I recommend it to those who want a more detailed critique than I offer here.
Atwill’s theory in summary: The emperor Titus and his assistant Josephus invented a new religion to seduce the Jewish masses into quiescence, and give up their real-world messianism. Price describes Atwill’s theory, “The four canonical gospels and Josephus’ The Jewish War were designed and composed to be read together and so to reveal to the cognoscenti this secret origin and rationale for the Christian religion. Further, this Flavian Pentateuch, read thus intertextually, should disclose a series of cruel jokes and parodies of the very faith it presented for the consumption of the masses who read them literally.”
Atwill’s theory appeals to modern readers who think that because they are too smart to ‘fall’ for Christianity, the original audience for the gospels were stupid sheeple. But in fact, the four canonical gospels were written by Scripturally educated people, for Scripturally educated people. They are complex texts. The Gospel of Mark is pervaded with irony. It is structured in multiple chiasms. A hack writer, or even less likely, a committee of hack writers, could not have created such a text.
Atwill overlooks the fact that the original Jesus concept was an angel–a divine intermediary already established in Judean thought as Wisdom/Logos. The Christian story of today is the harmonization of the four canonical gospels during the 2nd century. The fully human/fully divine Jesus of Nazareth was a 2nd century accommodation to the literal-mindedness of the illiterate. The Christian story we know today is far too complex and internally contradictory to have been created all at once, deliberately. And too immersed in Judean thought and texts to have been written by people who did not believe what they were writing!
Atwill offers no evidence for his theory of hack committee composition. Motivation is not enough. Police officers do not arrest a person who has motivation for a crime unless they can propose a plausible scenario in which that person took action.
Atwill includes no scenarios for the composition of the four gospels. Who wrote what? What education did they have that prepared them for the work? How did they set up synagogues that immediately used these new texts? Nothing. It is unfair to the reader to claim a conspiracy existed, but never explain how it was actually carried out. I must reject Atwill’s theory in its entirety.
Correct But Misinterpreted
- Atwill is correct to identify the Flavian period in Rome as integral to the early development of Christianity. But he’s wrong about what happened. I lay out my Flavian Provenance Theory below.
- The Gospel of Mark does have a pro-Roman slant. I explain this slant as Mark’s flattery of his Gentile patron. (Mark wrote in Rome for a Roman audience and a Roman patron.) A conspiracy of imperial functionaries is not required.
- I am willing to believe that the canonical gospel writers knew the works of Flavius Josephus. Traces of parallels in the gospel stories does not mean that Josephus wrote the stories. It just means that the gospel writers–or their editors–borrowed story elements from Josephus’s work. If you look at 2nd century Christian literature, copying and repurposing story elements was the rule, not the exception. Everyone did it.
The Correct Flavian Provenance Theory
I completely reject Atwill’s theory of a Flavian conspiracy to compose the gospels. The following is my Flavian Provenance Theory. We begin with Mark’s social context.
Here I offer two pieces of evidence that link the Flavian family (emperors Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian, 69-96 CE) to proto-Christianity.
- The Roman Catholic church’s designation of “Pope Clement” for the period 88-98. “Clement” can only refer to the name of Titus Flavius Clemens, father of future emperors with his wife Flavia Domitilla, neice of Titus and Domitian.
- Flavia Domitilla gave the use of catacombs to a congregation that began as Judean and continued as Christian. Initially, the catacombs were decorated with only Old Testament imagery; in the 2nd century Christian imagery began to appear, showing that they were used as the first Christian catacombs in Rome. However, she did not ‘convert.’
In my book, The Two Gospels of Mark: Performance and Text, I propose that Flavia sponsored the writing of the (play behind the) Gospel of Mark as an entertainment for Mark’s congregation. This occurred in the early 90s CE, probably 95. That is how Mark and his story entered history.
Flavia’s patronage of Mark’s congregation of well-to-do, Hellenized Judeans in Rome, had long-lasting effects. First, the congregation had access to catacombs that they could offer to members. (Flavia’s family were wiped out withiin a decade; the catacombs seem to have transferred to the congregation.) Second, the congregation had received an unforgettable seal of approval from an imperial family. The congregation now had permanent prestige—also attractive to new members. Undoubtedly the congregation’s leaders for centuries to come never let anyone forget that they had been patronized by the imperial family. Third, Gentile members of Flavia’s entourage (slaves and freedpeople) may have joined the congregation. This may have been a new source of Gentile members. Fourth, I believe that congregation members ‘protected’ Mark’s narrative in the congregation’s library for decades as evidence of Flavia’s benefaction, even if it was unused in their readings/services. (A few decades ito the 2nd century, Luke (I believe, rather than Matthew) obtained a copy of Mark’s story, which Luke then revised for his own use. Now released into the wild, Mark’s story generated spinoffs, prequels and sequels.)
In my opinion, the above is the sum total of “Flavian” influence on the New Testament. A single act of patronage produced a skillfully written, pro-Roman story that just happened to be in the right place at the right time to be preserved and to serve as the nucleus of a new religion.
The apparent pro-Roman slant of the Gospel of Mark
The apparent pro-Roman slant of the Gospel of Mark can be explained without resorting to Atwill’s conspiracy theory. Mark wrote the play under the patronage of the Flavian family. Of course the play portrayed Jesus as ecumenical (welcoming all). We cannot assume that any theological views expressed in the play are an x-ray of the mainstream of the congregation’s religious beliefs. All we can say is that they were acceptable, within an entertainment, during a single performance honoring the Gentile patron of the congregation. Later, this knowledge was lost and Mark’s text was taken at face value.
Another possible source of a pro-Roman slant in today’s gospels is an artifact of the Roman legitimation of Christianity. The earliest full manuscripts of the New Testament extant are from the fourth century. We can assume that the great uncial codices–on which modern bibles are based–were created with input from the headquarters of orthodoxy, in Rome. These codices–‘official’ copies of the New Testament– would have been as pro-Roman as possible.
Flavius Josephus and the canonical gospel writers
In my book, I propose that in the Gospel of Mark, Joseph of Arimathea is an unflattering portrayal of Flavius Josephus. (Why unflattering? The character handles a dead body; Josephus was a priest who would have been made impure by that contact.) I did not speculate on why Mark insulted Josephus. I have a couple of theories, neither really convincing.
I am sure that the educated members of Mark’s congregation in the 90s had read Josephus’s The Jewish War. (And possibly other accounts of the War.) Mark would have read it, if only to understand the background of the ascent of the Flavians to power. The question here is, did Mark use The Jewish War when writing his gospel, and if so, how?
I think it is possible that Mark used the trial of Jesus ben-Ananias as a model for the Passion story. But not the only model. The overall story of the Passion is standard for tragedy: the arrest and trial of a nonconforming individual by the authorities.
Mark had to use some sequence for the scenes in the play. And so did his editors. It is possible that in some cases the original sequence of scenes in the Gospel of Mark was parallel to scenes in The Jewish War. We cannot reconstruct Mark’s original sequence of scenes from underneath the extensive editing. In the absence of Mark’s original sequence, I cannot speculate on his motive for possibly imitating a sequence of scenes in Josephus’s work.
I see no significance in correspondences between the canonical gospels and the works of Flavius Josephus. They are trivial within the stories as wholes. We can assume that both the writers and editors of the four canonical gospels knew Josephus’s works; it would not be surprising if editors borrowed details from Josephus.
Flavia Domitilla and Titus Flavius Clemens, members of the Flavian family, were present at the creation of the Gospel of Mark. Their patronage, prestige, and donation of catacombs contributed to the long-term survival of the Gospel of Mark and Mark’s Roman congregation. But there was no Flavian conspiracy to create Christianity. The apparent pro-Roman bias of the canonical gospels is largely an artifact of Mark’s flattery of his Gentile Roman patrons, and secondarily of a literal misreading of Markan irony. The great uncial codices–products of Rome–create a pro-Roman slant in our earliest genuine NT texts. Yes, it is very likely that the canonical gospel writers knew the works of Flavius Josephus. And maybe they or their editors ‘adjusted’ their texts (once the gospels were treated as true history) in small ways to conform to Josephus’s work. But that is the extent of the significance of Josephus’s work for the creators of the New Testament.
I cannot recommend Caesar’s Messiah for any reason, even for background on proto-Christianity.
At most, the reader of Caesar’s Messiah will become more acquainted with Josephus’s The Jewish War. But if you want to read that complex work, read it on its own, preferably accompanied with A History of the Jewish War, A.D. 66-74 by Steve Mason. That work, I can heartily recommend.
revised November 28, 2021, December 21, 2022, June 2, 2023