Caesar’s Messiah presents a tissue of preposterous theories. 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 .
To summarize, Titus and his assistant Josephus invented a new religion to seduce the Jewish masses into quiescence, and give up their real-world messianism. Price writes, “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.”
This summary reveals the fatal flaw in Atwill’s scenario: his inability to recognize the truth that the four canonical gospels were written by Scripturally educated people. Atwill’s antipathy to religion causes him to think that Christian religious texts must be deliberate deceptions of the sheeple or insider jokes for the cognoscenti. That is not the objective approach of a historian.
Atwill rejects the much simpler, conventional view of chronological development, in which the gospel story was updated for different audiences, through most of the 2nd century. Atwill does not offer any scenarios for the composition of the four gospels: the order in which they were written, the sources (e.g., sayings) they used, the people who wrote each text, the texts’ relationship to later texts with similar theologies, etc. In addition, Atwill never acknowledges that the received New Testament texts have been edited. The fact that he does not offer scenarios of how the texts actually were written is a huge red flag that the task has become too difficult. Police officers do not arrest a person who has motivation for a crime unless they can lay out how that motivation translated into action. Atwill must do the same if he is to be taken seriously.
Here i address three things that Atwill gets right, but misinterprets.
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.
The apparent pro-Roman slant of the gospels originated as Mark’s pro-Gentile flattery of his patron.
I accept that the canonical gospel writers probably knew the works of Flavius Josephus, but I deny any significance to their knowledge.
The Flavian Contribution
I completely reject Atwill’s theory of a Flavian conspiracy to compose the gospels. Instead, here I present what I think is the real Flavian connection.
The strongest historical fact that links the Flavian family (emperors Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian, 69-96 CE) to proto-Christianity is the Roman Catholic church’s traditional name of the pope at the time. The name “Pope Clement” (88-98) evokes the name of Titus Flavius Clemens. Clemens and his wife, Flavia Domitilla, were known Judean sympathizers/patrons of the Roman congregation. The catacombs that Flavia gave to that congregation initially 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. I infer that the congregation was the home of the popes/orthodoxy.
Flavia was a niece of Titus and Domitian. Given that status, the only role she could have had within a Roman congregation was its patron. 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 her congregation. That is how Mark entered the scene.
During the play, the Jesus actor declared that the anointing woman at Bethany will have “eternal fame.” (This extravagant praise was incongruous within the play, but appropriate for a patron.) Mark then rewrote his play as a narrative text. That text remained in the congregational library for decades until Luke rewrote it.
Flavia’s patronage of Mark’s congregation had repercussions and long-lasting effects. First, of course, the congregation now had dedicated catacombs: a material advantage in attracting members. 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 Flavia had been their patron. 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.
In my opinion, Flavia’s patronage of the home of the popes, and its memory of that patronage, are the extent of the “Flavian” influence on the New Testament. A single act generated a skillfully written story that just happened to be in the right place at the right time to be preserved and to serve as the nucleus of the biography of a new savior-come-to-earth. Only two other New Testament texts seem likely to me to have originated in Rome: the Letter of Clement and perhaps 1 Peter.
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 for the Flavian family. Of course the play was going to be slanted in favor of Jesus’s ecumenism. We cannot assume that any theological views expressed in the play are an x-ray of the mainstream of the congregation’s beliefs. All we can say is that they were acceptable, within an entertainment, during a single performance honoring the patron.
Later, this knowledge was lost. So were some elements of Markan irony that were obscured by later editing of his narrative. The apparent pro-Roman slant was now taken literally.
Another possible source of a pro-Roman slant in the 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 were created with input from the Roman Catholic headquarters in Rome. These ‘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 a not-flattering portrayal of Flavius Josephus. (Why not flattering? The character handles a dead body; Josephus was a priest who would have been made impure by the body). 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 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.
In short, there is no reason to listen to Atwill and grant any significance to correspondences between the canonical gospels and the works of Flavius Josephus. We can assume that both the writers and editors of the four canonical gospels knew Josephus’s works; it would not be surprising if sometimes editors (who thought they were telling true history about Jesus of Nazareth) adjusted the stories to be more historically valid. We see such an adjustment, for example, in the editorial additions that reference events of the Jewish War in the Olivet Discourse in the Gospel of Mark.
Flavia Domitilla and Titus Flavius Clemens, members of the Flavian family, were present at the creation of the Gospel of Mark, and 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 pro-Gentile Jesus whose rejection of Pharisaism flattered Mark’s Gentile Roman patrons. Editing of the great uncial codices prior to their publication also created a pro-Roman slant. 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 will have a better acquaintance 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 book, I can heartily recommend.
revised November 28, 2021