If you haven’t read Creating Christ: How Roman Emperors Invented Christianity, all you need to know is this: James S. Valliant and Warren Fahy correctly identify the Flavian court as an important locus of early Christianity. However, they incorrectly believe that a cabal of elite Judeans and sympathizers at the court wrote the four canonical gospels and Acts. The purpose of their Flavian masters was to create a pro-Roman religion to pacify the ‘fervently messianic’ Jewish population (refugees, slaves, etc.), in the aftermath of the Jewish War.
Let’s skip over the questionable assumption of widespread messianism. I was astonished to find that V&F never discuss how the con (they use the term “psy-op”) was pulled off. They don’t discuss at all the process of writing those texts (individually? by committee? who wrote what?), or the implied creation of Christian synagogues (where, what evidence is there?). As writers themselves, who have devoted 30 years each to resarching the book (it shows), V&F are stunningly oblivious to the amount of Judaic knowledge and religious commitment to the Jesus belief system that was necessary for the gospel authors to have created texts that have inspired and intrigued people for 2000 years. V&F seem to believe they can wave a magic wand—they simply state that these books were written—and presto, they were written!
The reader may be interested in a relevant anecdote. Some years ago, I belonged to a Shakespeare reading group. We met monthly at a restaurant. Each month we were assigned a play to prepare. At the restaurant, we chose slips for parts, such as “Act II – Desdemona.” After dinner we read our parts. As I was interested in the Shakespeare Authorship Question, I persuaded the group to one day read a play by Christopher Marlowe, to experience whether his style was similar to the works of Shakespeare that we had been marinating in. We were only a little into Act I when I was certain that Marlowe was a hack and not the author of the Shakespeare plays. Why a hack? If I recall correctly, Marlowe’s language was much simpler. It wasn’t ornamented. Marlowe was much less educated, less intelligent. He was writing a functional play. That was his trade. Shakespeare was writing for the ages.
In short, hack writers, even if they knew the Septuagint well, could not have written the Gospel of Mark, with its mosaicization of Scripture. I must assume that V&F think that the most Jewishly educated members of the cabal—the Judean-born, Romanized general Tiberius Alexander or Josephus himself—wrote the Gospel of Mark. Or are we to think the busy imperial functionary Epaphroditus, Princess Berenice or Herod Agrippa II—none of them known as writers—wrote it? Or Pliny the Elder (yes, V&F think he’s one of the cabal). Or perhaps some employee of theirs—or a Jewishly educated slave??
It’s clear why V&F don’t look closely at the gospels. Their entire theory collapses on contact with the gospels’ reality as crafted pieces of literature. The real explanation of the existence of the four gospels and Acts, of course, is a bottom-up, organic evolution of Judean thought from before the writers of Daniel and Enoch, through Hebrews and Philo to Mark’s masterful dramatic story, and then its revisions, sequels and spin-offs in the second century, responding to circumstances and incorporating additional stores of Judean and Gentile thought. (Paul, I think, was an entirely separate entity until Acts was written to bring ‘him’ into the orthodox tent.)
Having read the entire very long book, I recommend a detailed review that addresses the accuracy of much of V&F’s case, by Sławomir Poloczek, [Journal of Higher Criticism 16.1 (2021), pp. 185-227].
Random comments on Creating Christ
I don’t want to spend much time on Creating Christ, which I don’t recommend. I have other blog posts and books to write. These are some random thoughts as I read through this very long book:
I do want to acknowledge V&F for doing their homework on the Flavian environment. I have spent several years immersed in researching my own version of the Roman Provenance Theory—in my case, that Mark wrote his gospel as a play, produced by Flavia Domitilla, niece of Domitian and Titus, then Mark revised his text into the narrative we have now. V&F know that historical terrain, though they interpret it differently than I do.
V&F repeatedly assert that the gospels are consistently pro-Roman, for example, the centurion as a man of greater faith than any Jew, Jesus’s statement “render unto Caesar,” Pilate’s neutrality, and so on. For me, these elements can be explained individually: I wrote a blog post on the centurion. Mark addresses the issue of whether his Gentile co-congregants should pay the Jewish tax in the “decide for yourself” statement of “render unto Caesar.” Pilate is a neutral outsider to the central intra-Judean conflict of Mark’s play. A conspiracy from above is not required.
The thing that bothered me most about Creating Christ was, as I said above, the authors’ termination of the book just when they had identified the cabal, and the question became salient of how the cabal wrote the gospels and Acts. Before then, what bothered me most was V&F’s inconsistent treatment of the historical data about ‘Jesus,’ ‘Paul,’ Acts, and the texts of the four gospels. They repeat that they take the (received) texts at face value. The parallels they continually draw are based on the texts at face value. Yet at other times they acknowledge that these texts have been edited, and that Acts may not be reliable history. It looks to me like they argue with evidence that is convenient for their theory.
V&F make much of Titus’s use of the dolphin and anchor symbols on his coins, and the existence of those symbols in the Catacombs of Domitilla. They see the symbols as evidence that Christians buried there acknowledged the Flavian founders of their religion. I have a different explanation. I must mention that there were no Christians as we understand them during the Flavian era. There were only proto-Christians, consisting (in this case) of people of the Judean ethnicity, and sympathetic Gentiles. We should not project the full set of, say, 4th century Christian beliefs onto the catacomb burials of 95 CE, and wonder how these people reconciled their views with the Flavian symbol. My explanation of the presence of these symbols (which were NOT common in the catacombs, pace V&F): The catacombs served more than just the members of Mark’s congregation. They were also Flavia Domitilla’s family catacombs. The freedmen of her house, and their families, and perhaps slaves as well, were also buried there. Most of them were Gentiles and had nothing to do with Mark’s congregation. Naturally some of these people would have acknowledged their personal histories by putting a symbol associated with Titus on their niche in the catacombs.
Creating Christ is difficult to read because of the way it is argued. It should have more chapter subheadings. (I read the electronic version.) V&F throw a lot of mud (parallels between Titus and Jesus, or Josephus and Jesus, or Paul and Josephus, or whatever) against the wall, but they rarely evaluate the value of these parallels in supporting the argument they are trying to make. Indeed, I often forgot what arguments they were making. This is because they don’t provide road maps at the beginnings of chapters or sections. And they don’t repeat their points. Instead, they hit you with data, then hit you some more, then float a theory or explanation. This may be because Valliant was a prosecutor. That method may come from court, where the lawyer wants to control the pace and sequence of information given to the jury and is only concerned with the final verdict. It’s not ideal for a history.
It seems to me that we historians project our own milieus onto our historical subjects, because they are what we know best. It is natural for believers to assume the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, for Jewish scholars to write about the Jewish Jesus, and for me, a well-educated (Jewishly and academically) Jew, to see Mark’s congregation as similar to 19th-century German Reform congregations. V&F are Objectivists (adherents of the philosophy of Ayn Rand). I can’t help thinking that the cabal of Übermenschen at the Flavian Court is a historical projection of the camp of Übermenschen holed up at Galt’s Gulch. V&F, I think, are to some degree projecting the good guys of Atlas Shrugged onto the Flavian Court and the bad guys onto a straw man of uncontrollably emotional, fiercely messianic Jews who were too dumb to realize they were being manipulated into worshiping a god who was really–the emperor.