Shares 142

Interview with Joseph Atwill examines criticisms of his controversial theory about the founding of the Christian church and his book, Caesar’s Messiah.


Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with Joseph Atwill author of, Caesar’s Messiah. During the interview Atwill offers a different explanation for the origins of the gospels:

Alex Tsakiris: So what you’re saying is that if one matches the history we know of with the biblical accounts they only can lead us to one conclusion. And that is that the Bible was written in a way to point towards Titus as being the Messiah.  And the motivation for that obviously would be to get people to believe that the new king is the religious king.

Joseph Atwill: Right, I mean they had a political motivation that includes that and other components but I think the primary motivation was just vanity. The Roman Caesars, this was era of the Imperial cult. And the Caesar claimed to be a living God. There were tatwill-bookemples built to worship him as a God. The Caesars attempted to place statues of themselves as Gods in the Jew’s temple in Jerusalem. The Jews, because of their dictum concerning grave and images couldn’t abide with this and they rebelled. This was the cause of the war. Then at the conclusion of the war Titus attempted to force the Jews to call him Lord by burning them. And even them they refused to call him God or Lord. So being very stubborn the Caesars decided they would create their gospels with this character the Son of Man who was not identified. Jesus doesn’t say, ‘When Titus Flavius comes all these things will happen.’ Because they knew that no one would worship the character so they just left him only identifiable through the typology. The gospels, even though they look like religious literature and they function as it, are actually just a vanity piece. I would suggest your listeners look at photographs on the internet on the Arch of Titus in Rome and there you will see Vespasian and Titus, two of the Flavian Caesars identified as God the Father and the Son of God, and the events of the Jewish war that Jesus predicts that will occur when the Son of Man comes, are just being represented. So really the gospels are just a literary version of the Arch of Titus.


Caesar’s Messiah Website — Joseph Atwill

Click here for YouTube version

Click here for forum discussion

Read It 

Alex Tsakiris: Welcome to Skeptiko, where we explore controversial science with leading researchers, thinkers, and their critics. I’m your host Alex Tsakiris and on this episode we’re going to return to the topic of early Christian history. Now that’s a topic that I know is very sensitive for some folks, challenging one’s beliefs can be tough and with religious beliefs even tougher. And sometimes as you’ll see in this interview – it is one of the things that fascinates me – the folks who are most sensitive are not the ones you would expect. More on that as the story unfolds. The other thing I wanted to mention before we got started is that this interview provided me with one of those great Skeptiko moments that I really treasure. Because going into this interview, first of all I was a little bit apprehensive to do it because I have gotten so much pushback from many of you who are, again, very sensitive to talking about this topic. It’s funny because I can rail about Christianity all day long and how silly some of the dogma is, but dare I suggest that there is some evidence pointing to the idea that a historical Jesus never existence and you have got people coming at you from both sides. As I alluded to, both the Christians and the atheists don’t want to let go of that battle. So when I was going into this interview with Joseph Atwill I was really unsure of where it was going to go. I mean, if you do a search for this guy you will find a lot of really negative opinions on his work. Of course you find it from the Christians but you also find it from some notable atheists. Everyone is disparaging this work yet when I dipped into it I found him very compelling and I found his points to be simply self-evident. But when I finally got the chance to interview Joe I really didn’t know which way it was going to go. And that’s the special moment for me. I had stacked up the pros and the cons. I had his detractors, his Skeptics, as well as some of the information that he had provided that he thought was strong evidence in his favor. And it was that moment when I first hit him with some of those criticisms that I really got the payoff. In this case, as you will hear, I had someone who was able to stand up to his critics and offer a clear, convincing, and I think very compelling argument against him.

Today we welcome Joseph Atwill to Skeptiko. Joe is the author of Caesar’s Messiah, a controversial and to many groundbreaking book that reexamines the relationship between the Roman Empire and the founding of Christianity. Joe, thanks for joining me.

Joseph Atwill: Thank you for having me, Alex.

Alex Tsakiris: I thought, Joe, the best way for me to lead into this interview is to retrace the steps that I have taken a little bit and I have shared with you in email. So first off I want to tell you and as listeners to Skeptiko know, this topic of early Christianity is fascinating to me. Like a lot of folks, I was raised Christian. I later came to question what I had been taught and that led me to asking the ‘how can this be?’ kind of question. And how can we have this dominant cultural force that is Christianity if this stuff isn’t true? I have got to say that ‘how can this be?’ question has really become one of the central questions of this show, not just how it relates to Christianity but how it relates to a lot of topics in science. And I think in a lot of ways that’s the question you seem to be asking in Caesar’s Messiah and in this very well-done movie you have of the same name. So why don’t I stop there and why don’t you tell us what the central thesis of Caesar’s Messiah is?

Joseph Atwill: Well it is that the gospels, the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, were created as a typological prefiguration of a Roman Caesar’s military campaign. The concept of typological prefiguration is one that a lot of your listeners may be unfamiliar with but just in general it is using prior stories to create a relationship between two individuals. The best example of this in fact is the character Jesus Christ himself, where the authors have used all of these characters from the Old Testament to show that the character Jesus Christ was prefigured by the Hebraic scripture.

Alex Tsakiris: Give folks a quick example of some of those parallels because they are rather striking and they will be immediately recognizable to people.

Joseph Atwill: Well the one that I actually spend the most time with in the book and I do so because it is the very system that links forward to the Roman Caesars is the one that begins on the very first page of the New Testament in Matthew and the storyline is easy to follow. Everyone I would imagine has some familiarity with it and in Matthew you have Joseph goes to Egypt, Joseph is a dreamer of dreams and decides he wants to travel to Egypt. He is the patriarch, the father of the character Jesus Christ. And from there the story goes that Herod massacres the boys. In Matthew 2:20 you decide to return. There is a statement that they are dead, which sought the young child’s life. And then you go from Egypt back to Israel and at that point you have a baptism. Jesus passes through water and is baptized and then he goes into the wilderness. He goes in for 40 days and you have these three episodes where he is tempted by bread and the devil is told not to tempt God. Finally he is commanded to worship only God. Well, so these eight events are not history, they are typologic prefiguration. These are the stories that came from the old testament and in Genesis 45 Joseph goes to Egypt. It is not Herod but of course Pharaoh massacres the boys. It is a verbatim quote in Exodus 4, all the men are dead which sought thy life. You have the return from Egypt to Israel. You have the baptism and the Israelites pass through the water. And of course Jesus has been typologically linked to the nation of Israel by the statement that I called him out of Egypt – the description of Jesus which designates him as the nation of Israel symbolically. And then it is the wilderness for 40 years. Notice Jesus’ 40 days – I mean, this is typology. It is not verbatim but it is just enough information that is passing back and forth between the stories so that an older reader would recognize that one is dependent on the other. But there you have the three experiences of Jesus. And in fact it is actually verbatim quotes – tempted by bread, do not tempt God, and worship only God.

So in that prefiguration what they’re doing is they are showing that the Old Testament character Moses prefigured. His life was really deliberately and divinely wired into this character Jesus Christ. Jesus is essentially repeating this pattern of events that Moses went through, not in a verbatim way as they are not exactly the same, but there is obviously enough similarity that an alert reader can see that Moses prefigured Jesus.

Alex Tsakiris: Or even a reader who wasn’t alert could kind of subliminally, subconsciously gain an affinity towards this new character because he is following a path.

Joseph Atwill: Well said, actually. That is sort of what they are trying to do. They just want you to take the character Jesus Christ basically in the same context as you would hold the character Moses. So that is all the typologic prefiguration does, is this. So the character Jesus Christ has this odd prophecy about somebody calls the Son of Man, which is a Messianic title, and he states he is going to come during the Roman war. He says that when this guy comes you are going to have a Jerusalem encircled, the temple complex will be raised, the abomination of desolation will occur. And these events will occur before the generation that Jesus is talking to passes away. Now this is 40 years, that is the length of time of a generation in Hebraic literature. So basically he is saying that before Passover 73 the Son of Man will come and he will do these things. And these are all events from the Roman Jewish war and in 40 years in fact someone comes and does all these things. That is the individual Titus Flavius, he is a historical character. And he was the Roman commander during the siege of Jerusalem. He encircles it with a wall, he raises the temple complex, and he brings about the abomination of desolation. The war that he wages concludes exactly 40 years to the day from the conclusion of Jesus’ ministry. The fall of Masada occurs on Passover 73. So we have this 40-year cycle being fulfilled and so you know that when Jesus predicting the Son of Man that he is talking about this Roman Caesar and there is no one else who could be the individual from the context of history.

Alex Tsakiris: Now hold on Joe, let me interject here. I want to slow that down a little bit so that people can catch it because it is quite a profound set of parallels that you are drawing there in terms of its implication so what you’re saying is that if one traces the history that we know of that period we see the same parallels in the historical accounts to the biblical accounts and they only can lead us to one conclusion. And that is that the Bible was written in a way to point towards Titus as being the Messiah, which is quite controversial and quite revolutionary. The way you get there, again, is through this drawing on the parallels between what we know of the historical accounts and what we know of the Biblical accounts. Again, summarize for people how that theory really stands in terms of Biblical scholarship as we know it. Because it is quite a departure. It is not a complete departure and there are some other folks who have kind of gone down this similar path but you have really taken it to another level, right?

Joseph Atwill: Right, well no one ever asked the very simple question of did the character Jesus Christ, who is obviously a typological or prefigured individual, did the authors who created this character using their typologic prefiguration – did they then use the character to typologically prefigure the Son of Man that he predicted? Now, this may seem like this is sort of a complicated thing to ask but in fact from the perspective of literary criticism it is the very first question that should be asked. Did the authors simply stay in the same genre? We know they are writing typologic prefiguration when they create Jesus Christ so did they use him as typologic prefiguration for this character they also created out in the future.

Alex Tsakiris: And the motivation for that obviously would be to get people to believe that the new king is the religious king as we have seen in political and the relationship between politics and religion. Throughout history we have seen this use of politics and religion to influence, coerce, and subjugate people. So that would have been the obvious motive for writing into the gospels the idea that Titus, the Roman Empire, was really the Messiah that everyone should worship.

Joseph Atwill: Right, I mean they had a political motivation that includes that and other components but I think the primary motivation was just vanity. The Roman Caesars, this was era of the Imperial cult. And the Caesar claimed to be a living God. There were temples built to worship him as a God. The Caesars attempted to place statues of themselves as Gods in the Jew’s temple in Jerusalem. The Jews, because of their dictum concerning grave and images couldn’t abide with this and they rebelled. This was the cause of the war. Then at the conclusion of the war Titus attempted to force the Jews to call him Lord by burning them. And even them they refused to call him God or Lord. So being very stubborn the Caesars decided they would create their gospels with this character the Son of Man who was not identified. Jesus doesn’t say, ‘When Titus Flavius comes all these things will happen.’ Because they knew that no one would worship the character so they just left him only identifiable through the typology. The gospels, even though they look like religious literature and they function as it, are actually just a vanity piece. I would suggest your listeners look at photographs on the internet on the Arch of Titus in Rome and there you will see Vespasian and Titus, two of the Flavian Caesars identified as God the Father and the Son of God, and the events of the Jewish war that Jesus predicts that will occur when the Son of Man comes, are just being represented. So really the gospels are just a literary version of the Arch of Titus.

Alex Tsakiris: So let me, if you will, jump ahead a little bit in the story. You have introduced this other element of it, which I guess I hadn’t fully absorbed as being one of the primary drivers. But I can definitely see that. That makes total sense too from a political power standpoint, it is always about vanity, right? I mean, that is what power is ultimately about. What I liked about what you did in the book and in the movie was if we fast forward to the fourth century and we look at Constantine and the relationship that he has with Christianity and his founding of the Christian church. This relationship between the existing political power structure and the religious beliefs of the population they are trying to control becomes even more clear. So do you want to talk a little bit and share a little bit with people and tell us about Constantine and serfdom maybe? And the parallels between the church that Constantine sets up, and what was already in place?

Joseph Atwill: Right, well Constantine begins the process in around 304 of making Roman Catholicism the state religion and it is a brutal process. They are destroying other temples, they are killing people who won’t convert, and it is this long process that takes around 70 years and quite a few Caesars are engaged in it. Constantine gets this very positive legacy for some reason for having brought this religion into European culture as the Roman state religion because purportedly it takes us out of what is called paganism, whatever one even means by that. But the fact is that Constantine also issued the edicts which began the feudal system. Now the feudal system is a slave system and the word ‘serf’ is just a synonym for slave. And if you look at the hierarchy structure of it, which are often documented in paintings from the era, you have the Pope at the top and then you have the Emperor and then you have the Cardinals and the religious and military individuals that are sort of interspersed. As you go down to the very bottom you have the serf who is literally an animal. So again it is just perplexing to me why historians choose to isolate the edict that creates Christianity from the edicts that create the feudal system. They obviously are part of the same process.

Alex Tsakiris: Because the feudal system that he implements replaces the system that is more democratic, more libertarian than the feudal system that he sets up, by far, right?

Joseph Atwill: Absolutely. There were a whole class of citizens called the coloni who developed ownership rights by essentially cultivating wild land. They would colonize it, that’s actually the basis of the expression colonization. They would then turn wild land into farming land and then they could own the product of the land. Constantine reversed this and he began this series of edicts which stated that you couldn’t own land, you couldn’t own the product of the land. Your children could be sold if the magistrate decided they needed population in some other area. You couldn’t change vocations – you had to have the same vocation as your father. And you were bound to the land, you couldn’t ever leave it. So this was the beginning of the feudal system and if you look at the Roman Catholic Church as it is a component of the feudal system it is very obvious how it functioned. It was the mind control device whereby the serf was given a religious context for slavery. In other words, he was told that the representative of Jesus Christ basically is telling him to accept his plight. There is going to be a worker’s paradise for the individual once he dies, but in the meantime do what the magistrates tell you to do and everything will be fine. So all Christianity was to Constantine was simply a way to create the mind control of the slaves that would think they were doing the work of their God as opposed to following the commands of Caesar. So this was just a way of getting rid of rebellion. And Constantine was well aware of the origins of the Christian religion. He knew that – well, first of all, his actual name was Flavius Constantine so I suspect he was actually a family member of the Caesars who established the religion. If you look at his burial site you will see that what he did was he brought the remains, purportedly, of the 12 disciples. And he encircled his grave with theirs, with these artifacts. So he is clearly making the representation that he is Jesus Christ or the Son of Man just as Titus and Vespasian claimed to be God the Father and the Son of God that is prefigured in the gospels.

Alex Tsakiris: And the same as almost every emperor and ruler throughout time has claimed to be the God of the people.

Joseph Atwill: Right, and so you see it is actually – even though people are attacking me with this idea that this is some kind of wild theory, I have to tell them that this is just completely routine. This pattern just plays itself out over and over and over again. No one should be surprised that at the root of Christianity is a leader trying to create some kind of mind control for his subjects.

Alex Tsakiris: Okay, I think this is a lot of compelling evidence that you lay out with Constantine. This is 302 A.D. and anyone who believes that action speaks louder than words I think will have trouble coming to a different conclusion if you look at what was done. How far back can we push this though, Joe? I think this is where the controversy really kind of rises up. Can we push this back to second century A.D. or first century A.D., as you do, and go all the way and say from the beginning this was a mind control vanity play to create this religion?

Joseph Atwill: Right, well the motivations of Caesars I think is very hard for people who are not psychopaths to have any direct connection to. I mean, these are individuals who could and did execute thousands of people on a whim. They portrayed themselves as Gods. Nero used to enjoy having captives covered with tar and then lit a fire as he would come into a room. This would sort of laminate his spiritual presence. The Caesars used to enjoy a kind of dinner theatre where they would reenact the capturing of some highwaymen or bandits and then actually crucify him on their stage, literally. They would crucify him and have him die. So this mindset is really not with us, at least among common people at this point. So to try to speculate about what exactly are they doing with the religion as they develop it, I certainly think that just the description of it being a vanity piece is an accurate one but to actually try to delineate how this affected them and what they were trying to achieve, fortunately I don’t have that deep of a neurosis. I would just have to guess at it. The religion also had a political purpose too. They wanted to try to slow down the missionary activity. They had a court historian who actually wrote the history that has the episodes that the gospels are describing in their prefiguration. This court historian named Flavius Josephus said that the –

Alex Tsakiris: Can I interrupt you for a second? Go back and tell people who Josephus is because it is a fascinating story that I just wasn’t aware of and I think other people will find it interesting as well.

Joseph Atwill: Well Josephus is the only historian who wrote an existing history of first century Judea, who was actually on the ground. He was born in I think it was 37, or 44, I forget which year. He was alive in the first century. He claimed to have been a member of all three of the Jewish sects, the Essenes, the Sadducees, and the Pharisees. He claimed to be a child prodigy and was dazzling people when he was like 13 years old with his intellectual capacities just like Jesus did. He was a friend of Nero’s wife somehow. Then when the rebellion broke out in 66 he became the leader of the Galilean forces, a general, he claimed to have been a priest and a member of the Hasmonean family. So somehow he became a leader of the rebellion. The Flavians captured him and now here the story just gets completely weird because he claimed that God communicated with him at that point and told him that the covenant that had existed with the Jews and God was broken.

Alex Tsakiris: Well a lot of people still claim that today. They get arrested by the police and they flip on their buddies. They have all sorts of explanations why they flip but that’s what happened. He was on the other side, they captured him, and they flipped him, right?

Joseph Atwill: They flipped him and he said look, the old covenant is dead. There is a new covenant and this of course is the theological foundation of what becomes the New Testament, which is just an expression meaning new covenant. Because the Son of Man in the new covenant is looking forward to the divine Caesars and so Flavius Josephus goes, ‘Okay, the prophecies we had which we thought foresaw a Jew as the messiah were all wrong. They foresee the Roman Caesar, this is really who the prophecies foresee.’ And from this point forward the Flavians who are the generals of the war of Vespasian and his son Titus, they adopt Josephus first simply as a confidant and someone who is helping them wage war against the Jews. But after the war they actually literally adopt him and he takes the name Flavius Josephus. He is given a townhouse in the Imperial court and he then is told to write the official history of the war for the Flavians, so he records their military triumphs. He is completely integral to the history of Christianity. Virtually all of our capacity to date events and any sort of understanding of characters like John the Baptist from the perspective of a historian all come from Josephus.

Alex Tsakiris: Let me just interject – what is most important to your book, Caesar’s Messiah, and your general thesis is that Josephus’ book, his historical account title the War of the Jews is stunning to the extent that it parallels so many of the parts that we have come to know as the gospels. So to anyone who just lays these down side by side it is almost impossible to suggest otherwise, that there aren’t these parallels.

Joseph Atwill: And of course many, many scholars have seen parallels. What has been missed to date is that they occur in the same sequence and the number of them. It is odd in New Testament scholarship one person will write about the fact that there is a story about binding and loosening in the gospels and then there is also a story about binding and loosening in Josephus’ history. They will notice that Jesus predicts Jerusalem will be encircled with a wall and they notice that Josephus records it. They see the [inaudible – 00:27:48] in the gospel and then Josephus recorded it.

Alex Tsakiris: And in the gospels, let’s be clear – these are prophecies, right? These are great visions of what may come in the future and what Josephus is writing is these are not prophecies, this is history. I was there on the ground and this is what happened.

Joseph Atwill: Right. Well too, it was widely understood at one point in Christian theology that Josephus’ work was attached to the gospels because of the position of what is called the prederites who were the dominant Christian theologians for the first 1900 years. It was that the prophecies that Jesus made can be shown as divine because look, the historian recorded all of them. So this relationship, the one that I am showing, this revolutionary idea was actually the dominant Christian theology for 1900 years, they just took the position that what they were looking at was proof of divinity.

Alex Tsakiris: That’s how they were selling it.

Joseph Atwill: They were selling it as proof of divinity as opposed to just saying well no, in fact it just means that the gospels are fiction and they used this history to set up the story of this character Jesus Christ.

Alex Tsakiris: I think that does an awesome job of really kind of encapsulating the most important points that you are trying to advance. As people say, it is a quite a stunning theory and it really sucks you in. It certainly sucked me in. it’s just captivating and you’re to be congratulated for having such an innovative view on a topic that’s been combed over, to say the least, for hundreds and hundreds of year. But we have to turn and look at the critics, the Joseph Atwill Christian messiah critics. And the first person I came across was a gentleman named Chris White. He has a little website called Caesar’s Messiah Debunked. He has also been a former guest on this show. We talked about a totally unrelated topic. We also had on his friend and I think a source for a lot of these ideas, biblical scholar Dr. Michael Heiser. So when I look at Chris White’s site the first thing that I see and I want you to respond to is this – he says one of the biggest problems with Atwill’s theory is the existence of Christianity before 73 A.D. So before the sacking of the temple he is saying that Christianity is shown to have existed in the historical accounts we have and therefore your contention that these gospels were created after 73 A.D. is, as he says, what makes the theory toast.

So first of all, the question I want to ask is if that is accurate? Does your theory hinge on there being no historical evidence for Christianity prior to 73 A.D.?

Joseph Atwill: Well no, in fact there was Christianity prior to 73. It of course depends on how you’re using the term. I would say that the messianic movement that rebelled against Rome was a kind of Christianity. Christ simply means ‘anointed’ in Greek and it is just referring to the relationship between a Jewish leader and God. And so the zealots would certainly have been seen as Christian. In fact, Josephus stated that what most propelled them was their belief in these messianic prophecies. So just from a definitional perspective there were Christianities, not just one, but other forms of this understanding of the Hebraic prophecies before 73. As far as Roman Christianity in the gospels, no there weren’t any of those in existence before the gospels had been written. There are a number of historians that people make references to concerning descriptions of early Christians. I think Chris White refers to Tacitus, others point out Josephus who also has a passage called the Testimonium where the character Jesus Christ is mentioned. Suetonius describes Christians and I believe Dio of course also does too. This is the group you have as sort of the historians who are describing Roman Christianity prior to 73 or perhaps say 80 when the gospels would have been written. But there is one really interesting thing that links all of those historians together – Suetonius, Josephus, Tacitus, and Dio – the people who talk about this character Jesus Christ and about Christians. They are all Flavian court historians, every one. And every one of them also took the position that the Jewish messianic prophecies foresaw not a Jew but the Flavian Caesar. Every one of them recorded that insane and incredible concept. So when you look at the gospels and you look at my work you see that they were definitely produced in the Flavian compound. Somehow this group was able to generate this literature. So the literature just is a false history. It is a fiction about a character living in 30 to 33.

Alex Tsakiris: Let me just take you back because I want to reemphasize the first point that you make and I want to dig into it. I don’t want to say emphasize because I don’t know but you’re quite well-versed in the Dead Sea Scrolls as well. So there is evidence that we have, historical evidence and archeological evidence, of this group of very radical Jewish rebels really who were fighting against the Roman Empire.

Joseph Atwill: Well they were messianic though, that’s the important thing. Their literature shows that they were looking for a messiah that would lead them and this of course is exactly the element that Josephus stated, the thing that most brought about the rebellion. So when the gospels describe a Son of Man that’s going to come with the conclusion of the Roman war, they are essentially taking the Jewish prophecies and trying to morph it onto the Roman Caesar. So now when you look at not just Josephus but the other court historians – Suetonius, Tacitus, and Dio – and they all say the same thing you can see a kind of unification. There is a unification of theology that is perverted because obviously claiming that the Jews prophecy foresaw Caesar is not a strong rational position. But they all held it and it was sort of just the official position of the Flavian court. So getting back to using these historians who make this claim as then the basis for the historicity of Jesus Christ, well, wait a second, let’s just back up. The analysis I show showing the connection between the gospels and Josephus, which incidentally I don’t conjecture. I just lay the text out side by side and I just say look, here is the relationship. Anyone can see this. This voids the purported objective history of these individuals. They just become part of the plot. So now when you have them claiming the messianic prophecies foresee the Flavian Caesar, they are obviously just repeating the theological position that is found in the gospels. They are completely aware of the gospels and the story of Jesus, that is where they get their understanding from. And so then when you read Tacitus or Suetonius making some little comment about Christians, you know what are they doing? They are simply repeating this false history that they are trying to get people take seriously.

Alex Tsakiris: And moreover if we connect those two, they didn’t have to completely invent that story, they just had to tweak that story. So there were rebels in the streets that were being prosecuted or persecuted, depending on how you look at it. There was rebellion. There were probably acts that were being taken and brutalization and all that stuff.

Joseph Atwill: That’s very well stated, very well said. That’s exactly what they did. They knew they couldn’t get rid of Judaism, all they wanted to do was just to bend the messianic prophecies from producing rebellion to just being able to get along with the Roman Empire. So they concocted this character Jesus Christ who is pro-Roman, he is sort of metro sexual, he is turning the other cheek, he is kind of pacifistic. He is just sort of tweaking the religion in the direction that they want so that they will not have to face this constant rebellion coming from these messianic zealots. And it is actually – I look at Christianity if you tell me you want to see it in historical context as just a continuation of what the family of Herod and the Alexander families, who were partially Jewish or completely Jewish, and were the Roman tax collectors of the region of Egypt and of Judea. They had these projects that were trying to tone down the messianic religion. The Herods were trying to breed onto the Maccabian line. They would take Maccabian princesses so that they would then present their sons as legitimate Jewish rulers or Christ, in fact, because this would be the royal lineage and the lineage of the religious leaders that Christ came from. And in the Alexander family, the other tax collectors who were famous Jewish intellectuals, they produced Philo. You look at Philo and you see you have this toned-down, Hellenized Judaism. Judaism that can get along inside the Roman Empire. So this didn’t work and you had this rebellion and so the next step was just to try to focus a little bit more completely to try to get a little more control over the religious activity of the Jews with Christianity where they would then put this religion out – not into Judea that would have been silly, but they were trying to affect the missionary activity of the movement so it couldn’t get to the Jews and to the Gentiles who were susceptible to the religion – throughout the Roman Empire.

Alex Tsakiris: And again the parallels to what we see in modern society and throughout history are all over the place. It’s about doing business and doing what we have to do to continue to do business and to consolidate our power. And why wouldn’t we do it? It’s just an easy way to further advance our position to and to make more money. It’s not that complicated.

Joseph Atwill: It’s still going on today. This is just how rulers mind control their subjects to maintain power. They want to preserve wealth and power and they want the subjects to agree to do things and accept things that are not in their interest so they mind-controlled them with religion. That’s all Christianity was.

Alex Tsakiris: So Joe next in my little journey here I went to Dr. Richard Carrier’s blog and I began posting there. And I engaged in pretty interesting dialogue with him. Now, Carrier is an interesting guy. For folks who don’t know, he’s an Ivy League historian, biblical scholar who is also an atheist and a mythicist. That is he maintains that Jesus Christ as a historical person described in the Bible never existed. Now, as everybody knows atheism and academia is not a rarity but atheism within the academic biblical studies kind of niche certainly is. So we would expect Carrier to be one of your natural allies but he’s not. Can you tell us a little bit about your interaction and exchange of ideas with Dr. Carrier and then we will kind of dive into some of the more contentious points?

Joseph Atwill: Sure, way back when, years ago, I noticed I was sent criticism of my work that he was producing and it was clear that he hadn’t read the book because he was essentially going off and just making up stuff. So I contacted him and I just said, ‘I read your criticism and I indicates you haven’t read the work. Would you mind reading it before you criticize it?’ And so he said, ‘No, I’m not going to read it but what I want you to do is send me your single best example and I will see if I like it. And if I do then maybe we can go forward.’ And I replied, ‘No, this is a typological system. There isn’t any distinctive value that one parallel has over the other.’ He said, ‘No, no. You’ve got to send me something.’ So I sent him not my analysis because he wouldn’t read it but simply the citations, the passages themselves. And so he read the passages without my analysis and then came up with his own understanding of the parallelism.

Alex Tsakiris: Let me hone in on a couple of the points that I had an exchange with him about. I can’t claim to have represented your position very well because I really am just trying to scramble around and get my feet under me in this area. But I will tell you a couple of the points that I brought up in his response. The first thing that I brought up was that hey, what we have just been talking about, it seems obvious that this kind of relationship between rulers and nation states and religion has been going on all the time. So the question is not whether the Romans used Christianity in that way. It is just a question of when. And Carrier’s response to that was a little bit curious. He said, ‘Hey look, if you’re talking about the fourth century, if you’re talking about 302 and Constantine, sure we all know that. But that’s not Atwill’s thesis. Atwill is pushing it back further and he is not supporting enough evidence for how you can push it back.’

Joseph Atwill: I just can’t even understand the grammar of the criticism. Why would the Flavians have different motivations than Constantine in terms of religion?

Alex Tsakiris: Well I think he pushes back on the idea of the Flavian influence in the early Catholic church because my response was to say, ‘Look, I don’t know why your hostile to the Flavian influence. Even if you just do a Wikipedia, or I think I found it in the Catholic encyclopedia, but immediately you start seeing Flavian this and Flavian that and Flavia Domitilla.’ But then he pushes back and says, ‘Wait a minute, you guys are being suckers for Christian apologetics. There isn’t really that connection between the Flavians and this early Christian period. What do you say to that?

Joseph Atwill: Well I mean in fact the traditions that link the Flavians to the early church are in existence and you can fantasize about how they came about but you can’t simply, unless you’re not in the rational context, you can’t claim they don’t exist. There is a whole collection of Flavians that are seen as having been members of the early Roman Christian church. When you look at the origins of Christianity and the different theories you don’t have enough data points to really know just from the history or from the historical data as to what actually occurred. But what you really want to do is try to have theories that fit into the data that we have. And obviously the Flavian Christians, the Roman Catholic church refers to them as the Christian Flavi, where there are so many they have actually coined a term, would be what you would expect that would have emerged from a Flavian origin of the religion.

Alex Tsakiris: And we keep saying Flavian here – really you’re just talking about a family, a clan if you will. They bring in other people like Josephus and they are adopted in but they are just the Bushes, back in.

Joseph Atwill: It is a family that sees power. It’s the family that waged war against the messianic movement in the first century. And it’s the family that fulfilled all of the prophecies, so-called, that Jesus Christ makes. Now, the victors tend to write history. So when you look at Jesus describing military victories of Flavians throughout his prophecies the first think that you should ask yourself is who produced this literature? Who would really want to have their victories commemorated like this? And obviously the Flavians would be a candidate for it.

Alex Tsakiris: I think one of the stumbling blocks for folks in general, and I don’t want to speak for Carrier but my reading between the lines of what he is saying is okay, you’re at let’s say 70 to 80 A.D., now you’re that 302 A.D. – you’re talking about 220 years. Is there really this continuation of this clan, of this dynasty, of this group of influence called the Flavians? Is it unbroken in the way that you’re talking about? That doesn’t seem as impossible to me as it maybe is to other people.

Joseph Atwill: But also I think the logic is screwy. Look, I don’t have to show more history than there are data to be able to reveal. The fact is that the relationship between the gospels and the history that the Flavian family produced is self-evident. It is a different quality of evidence. I am not asking people to accept fantasies about who were Flavius Constantine’s ancestors or what happened to the Roman Catholic church between the year 200 and 304. No one knows these things. There isn’t enough data to definitively state one way or another about these things. We just don’t have the information. What we do have are two books and when you take these books and put them side by side you can see that one is dependent upon the other. From there you can concoct all sorts of historical plausibility but the fact is that they show that the works of the Flavian family were unified, that the gospels and the history of Josephus are dependent literature.

Alex Tsakiris: Just to recap that and to put an exclamation point on that point because it is really a good one – you are saying Josephus, who becomes a Flavian under unusual but extremely relevant and interesting circumstances. He is the guy they are fighting against, they conquer him, the flip him and say, ‘Come on over to our side, you’ll be useful. You know the language, you know the culture, you can help us dominate these people.’ And they like him so much they adopt him into their family and then they say, ‘Okay, go write that history now. Go tell folks what really happened.’ And he writes that history. And as you say if you put that history down side by side with the gospels the parallels are just inescapable. I mean there is no way to get around them.

Joseph Atwill: And I am not, in general, presenting parallels that have never been seen before. Many of these parallels have actually been widely discussed. What they haven’t done is they simply haven’t seen that they were occurring in the same sequence. So in other words, everyone knows that Jesus’ prophecy about the encircling of Jerusalem is based on an event in history. And they know that Josephus recorded that event and he is the only one who did. They also know that the temple was raised and again, they know when Jesus makes the prophecy in the gospels. But what they don’t do is they don’t set up simply the structure of one parallel next to the other in sequence. Because sequence is a very powerful thing. It doesn’t occur accidentally.

Alex Tsakiris: Joe why don’t we follow that up then and tell folks a little bit about the book and also, if you will, about the excellent movie that you produced – very high-quality, well-done film no matter someone might view the thesis or the ideas behind it. It really communicates effectively.

Joseph Atwill: Thank you. I will just say you can buy the book if you go to and it’s available there. The book is without any sort of a promotion budget. I am often amazed at people who think that there is some kind of advertising of Caesar’s Messiah that goes on. I haven’t spent a single dollar promoting the book and I bought the rights back from my publisher back in like 2008. I haven’t spent a penny. I was approached by someone who had read the book to make a documentary, Fritz Heede, and I agreed to do so because I really enjoyed the documentaries that he had worked on before – Secret of the Sphinx and the secret war of Desert Storm. I just happen to think those are two of the best documentaries I have ever seen. And because he had a really deep understanding of the literature, and he really had read it closely, I thought it would be a worthwhile project. The recent event in London that got so much publicity, the covert messiah lectures that I gave in England – again, I had nothing to do with this. I was approached by someone who had read the book, who had a very deep understanding of it, and wanted to bring out a lecture series in Britain and I agreed to go over and I did essentially a seminar in London and then another series in Brighton. I thought it would be interesting and I thought the individuals who were wanting to do the venues were very credible and they had a deep understanding. So I said sure, I would be happy to do it.

Alex Tsakiris: And if your tone sounds a little bit defensive people need to know that has been kind of spun, that whole thing – both the video and the lecture series – as you being sort of a spin doctor trying to resurrect some theory that had been long discounted and disproven.

Joseph Atwill: The people who are making that claim we’re the spin doctors, obviously the Christians were up in arms because I was going to discuss the Flavian confession of having created the character Jesus Christ. And I did, I actually showed the literature that is an actual confession of the invention of the religion. And so they were upset about that and protested. And then oddly the New Testament scholars weighed in. Carrier wrote a piece, a couple other guys made negative comments, but no one had read the book.

Alex Tsakiris: Well Joe, it has been great having you on. Thank you again so much for joining me.

Joseph Atwill: Hey thank you, Alex. It has been fun, and thank you very much for having me.

Alex Tsakiris: Thanks again to Joseph Atwill for joining me today on Skeptiko. A couple of points to followup on, I did invite Dr. Richard Carrier to respond to this interview, to respond to Atwill’s claims, but with the usual amount of bluster we have come to expect from sheltered academics who feel threatened when someone bests them in a debate, he declined. Of course maybe with the publication of this interview he will change his mind, but I really doubt that. Combining biblical studies and atheism seems to be a very volatile combination for some people. And that definitely seems to be the case with carrier. I also thought about inviting Michael Heiser on to offer some scholarly Christian-centered perspective on this but then again I thought I might be pushing the limits to just how much of this topic you could possibly take. Besides, I think Atwill covered a lot of those claims quite well.

So let me move to a couple of questions. The first, an obvious question, is what do you make of the Caesar’s Messiah theory? Is there anything at all to it? And the second question is how the heck does this happen? This is a rather astounding claim by Atwill. Think about this – this guy took two books that historians have known about for hundreds of years. Obviously with the gospels these are the most studied books in history. And if you add Josephus’ historical account, that has been pored over nearly as much. How does a guy take these two books and provide such a fresh new insight to this critical, critical bit of history? In a lot of ways if you can get past what it does to Christianity it is incredibly liberating to think there are still these kind of unsolved, uncovered mysteries out there that one man can discover and that one man basically working by himself can discover such a mystery.

So chew on those questions a little bit and get back to me. Maybe I’ve got this thing all wrong. I am happy to be corrected or enlightened in some way that I have missed but I think this is a fascinating, fascinating bit of history and one that really deserves and needs to be explored. The implications are obviously quite profound, not just for Christianity but for western thought, for the way we do history, and beyond that. At any rate, please let me know what you think about this interview and what you think about those questions. The place to do that is through the Skeptiko forum at From there you can bounce over to our forum and join the conversation or you can directly leave a comment on the website. While you are at the Skeptiko website be sure to check out our over 200 previous shows all available for download for free. Also, subscribe to us on iTunes and like us on Facebook and do all those other things as well.

Well, I have a number of interesting interviews coming up and they are actually piling up again. And I did announce that I am working on this book project and that I would be publishing some of those chapters. I plan on doing that although the chapters are coming along nicely, but some of them I don’t think would make for the best podcast. I don’t think you would be that interested in just hearing a straight rehash of some of the shows we have done so I am going to kind of hold back and just give you the good stuff. But in the meantime I have some good shows coming up so do stay with me for all of that. And until next time take care, and by for now.

  • More From Skeptiko


    Shares 142