2013-12-08

Atwill responds to Carrier

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by Neil Godfrey

In October I posted So this was “Kick Joe Atwill Week”. I have my own reasons for not accepting Joe Atwill’s thesis or methods of argument but I was shocked to see the way scholars and aspiring scholars who otherwise pride themselves on epitomizing what we should expect of gentlemen and scholars resorting to dirty personal abuse — all with the apparent motive of wanting to distance their own personal reputations (or the reputation of their profession) from what they called “crankery” and excrement. They evidently had no confidence in their trained powers of reason to be sufficient to sway their presumably dim-witted blog-readers.

Since then I have been informed that Joe Atwill and another have responded to Richard Carrier’s criticism of Atwill. Interested readers can find them at:

As time and other priorities allow I may in the future post my own criticism of Atwill’s arguments. Till then, we all have the opportunity to study the arguments, evidence and methods of both sides for ourselves.

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37 thoughts on “Atwill responds to Carrier”

  1. Well I am looking forward to seeing your rebuttal of the Atwill thesis. It will certainly be more civil than Dr. Carrier’s.

    What IS it about certain credentialed mythicist scholars (or just one), that they (he) MUST imitate the unprofessional tone set by the usual historicist suspects?

  2. Neil it would be cool to get your take on the Atwill stuff. I usually find Carrier’s critiques pretty strong but I don’t know. Did you find any of Atwill’s rebuttal persuasive?

    1. I no longer have Atwill’s book with me so it will be some time before I do a full review of his thesis. Till then I can only say I believed there are much simpler and more cogent explanations for the parallels and patterns he sees between Josephus and the Gospels; and I believe his thesis raises more questions than it answers.

    2. Jumping in here I will say that I found most of Atwill’s response VERY good. Keep in mind that I am no NT scholar. I am a very big fan of Carrier, and appreciate his focus on logic (which is sorely needed in NT studies), But sometimes, it appears, Carrier forgets to put his thinking cap on. And sometimes his assumptions (or claims to knowledge) are simply huge. In his critique of Atwill Carrier claimed that (paraphrasing) “the Roman emperors just were not that clever.” So now Carrier claims to KNOW how clever the emperors were or were not? Carrier has convinced me of many arguments, but that is not going to be one of them! Carrier needs to be reminded that almost all of human interaction is NOT based on formal logic. Formal logic has it’s place, and can be very useful, critical even. But you cannot claim to “know” any human motivation based on simple logic.

      Another problem with Carrier is that he is such a good writer, he can easily lead astray fools like me.

      My take is that Atwill has come out the clear winner in this little give and take. I was really surprised how good his response was to Carrier. Of course, Carrier could always respond and change my mind again.

      Anyone interested at all in Atwill’s thesis should read both Carrier’s article and Atwill’s response.

      Carrier really needs to read a book like this before publicly reviews it. It is that simple. So many people bug him about Atwill that he finally had to make his views known. He could have taken the data that a fair number of people out there think Atwill is on to something (even if he isn’t completely correct), and read the book. But nope.

      I look forward to a critique of Atwill on this website.

      And Neil: I hope you are aware of how Atwill lines up the word “seal” between the Pauline letters, Revelation, and Suetonius (not in his book). As a non-expert I think that alone is more convincing than most of what is in Caesar’s Messiah. For whatever reason Atwill just will not publish his next book.

      1. I found the first part of Joe Atwill’s response to Carrier problematic for a couple of reasons. He appears to be acknowledging that one sort-of-but-not-very-strong example of a “typological parallel” will not convince but that a complete set of such parallels should or would be more likely to convince. I don’t follow that. If we have a lot of iffy maybe parallels then that’s all we have and no firm conclusion could be drawn from them. If not even a single one of the parallels is a clear-cut case then how can we justify his overall thesis? I don’t know of any other scholar who examines literary relationships or intertextuality who argues like this. Certainly not Thomas Brodie nor Dennis MacDonald.

        I don’t have any problem with the idea of a “State” imposing a new religion. I believe there is a very good case that Judaism grew out of a leadership succumbing to Persian propaganda just as there is evidence for other peoples being deported or relocated to new places on the pretext that they are there to restore the original or true worship of those regions’ gods. They persuaded the leaders of the subject peoples themselves to acknowledge where their real religious destiny lay.

        But what Atwill appears to be proposing is something quite different. I understand he is saying that the Romans themselves were responsible for composing the Gospels and in doing so they even injected satirical jokes against the Jews or potential followers of the new religion. That’s quite a different thing. And it raises many questions about the different theological agendas and different symbolism of each of the gospels and the way they are in dialogue with one another.

        If the Romans were imposing a new religion on the Jews, is it not odd that they somehow lacked the will or determination to impose it on all of them — most Jews ignored or rejected the new religion and went with rabbinical Judaism after 70 CE. And the religion was more attractive, it appears, to gentiles anyway. The Jews continued with many riotous disturbances between 70 and 135 CE throughout the Near East and North Africa in particular, so it seems as though the Romans went to a lot of trouble for very little reward. Was not the point to pacify the Jews? Is there any evidence that the Romans responded to any of the Jewish riots with attempts to convert them to the new religion?

        The evidence we have for earliest Christianity points to it evolving in “riotous diversity”. This is contrary to what we would expect if it were a single State initiative.

        1. I have just been reminded that Atwill argues that Christ was created from Titus so that rebellious Jews could be tricked into reverencing him (the Caesar) as “Lord”. This strikes me as implausible. How much work and effort went into creating a new religion only to have Jews unknowingly worship Caesar? Why would the Romans want their subjects to worship them in ignorance? What would be the point?

          That’s hardly winning a genuine victory. It’s allowing the rebels to continue to defy Caesar in their own hearts and minds, and we are to think the Roman elite would be satisfied with seeing the Jews fall for a practical joke that they never wake up to? The Romans were more clever at simply crucifying, butchering and enslaving anyone who was recalcitrant. We have no evidence that I am aware of that they or anyone else ever tried to “win” or “conquer” by the means Atwill is suggesting.

          And then when the Christians (Titus worshipers) still rejected Caesar worship it seems the new emperors had not been informed of the joke and treated them as rebels again anyway. Are we to think that only a handful of people knew the joke and it was soon forgotten — despite the numbers that must have been involved to set it all up with the documents etc? This to me is as implausible as suggesting that the moon landing was faked by a tiny handful of secret conspirators.

          1. ATWILL
            Moreover, I never claimed the Caesars’ wrote the Gospels, an absurd notion, but rather that the Jewish intellectuals and employees within their inner circle did so.

            CARR
            I guess if you want a secret conspiracy, there’s always the Jews behind it.

            It’s always the Jews, isn’t it?

            1. To suggest Atwill’s thesis is anti-semitic is absurd and does rational argument no good service. (The logical extension of such an inference is that no one who is Jewish can be guilty of anything untoward — which is itself dehumanization of Jews in reverse.)

              1. I’m not saying it is anti-Semitic.

                I’m just saying that Atwill has, like a lot of other people, found Jews behind a conspiracy theory.

                It is surprising how often that happens.

                I’ll leave it to Atill to explain how Josephus managed to change his normal writing style so much when writing the other Gospels.

          2. ‘I have just been reminded that Atwill argues that Christ was created from Titus….’

            But why? Why did Christ have to be created from Titus before Jews would believe in him?

            And how come no early Christians ever spotted these alleged parallels?

            Why put parallels in that everybody missed? And if everybody who read them, missed them, how could they be convinced by things they never spotted?

  3. I am more ignorant than Carrier and maybe anyone else in this thread about the literature from and regarding Atwill. That doesn’t stop me from having something to say, though (hey, I’m honest). Does this debate sometimes fall into a debunk-me trap? (Perhaps more readily understood as a “negative proof” and/or “argument from assertion.”) This happens a lot with conservative claims — privileging some attractive assertions until disposited — but it can happen elsewhere. It may be happening here, if you think that Atwill’s case is itself gliding on a wink and a nod and that any number of mutually exclusive scenarios could be presented on similar sets of practically non-existent evidence. (Disregard if you think there is a real and substantial case from Atwill–I can only speak from reading the primary material and not at this time from reading Atwill, so it’s very easy to do.) Related to this, there is a psychological phenomenon that as we investigate any conclusion we become more sure the more information (positive, negative, or indifferent — all helps) that we gather in association with it. It’s a fairly inoffensive explanation of what goes wrong sometimes with almost everyone’s reasoning.

  4. The one thing I actually like about Atwill’s theory is the idea that the gospels were created by an intellectual circle surrounding the Flavians (and even Nero, in the case of Paul, considering his reference to saluting all those in his household). This is where Eisenman looks, too, and it seems the most plausible area to me.

    Exactly how and why they would have done this is where Atwill and I part company (I would see it as simply an attempt to Romanize messianic Judaism), but I do think this is the right place to look for gospel production. One example (off the top of my head) of someone capable and positioned to do something like this is Philo’s nephew, Tiberius Alexander.

      1. This is one area where I think Atwill’s theory is a stretch. He has to introduce a terminological equivocation to explain the early persecutions, claiming that these “Christians” were actually just the rebellious jews of the messianic movement that beileved in a militant liberating Christ. This seems to me to be a desperate move to accomodate problematic data into a pet theory. The only possible way it could fit would be to say that the fires of Rome that provoked Nero’s anti-christian ire was caused by just this sort of politically rebellious group of messianic Jews (“Christians”). That might be plausible I suppose. But persecutions under Domitian are not even certain to have happened. And the example that Eusebius mentions of the banishment of Flavia Domitilla doesn’t make sense in Atwill’s terminological scheme because she surely would not have been involved in a violent messianic rebel cult. And this use of the term “Christian” doesn’t work at all when we get to Pliny who describes the practices of Christians that sound nothing like such a militant anti-Roman movement. So I think this is indeed a problematic area for Atwill’s theory.

        1. Blood,

          Well, I don’t see this as an issue. Paul was in touch with people in the household of Nero and was a Hellenized intellectual who shaped Christianity, all while it was illegal (or not tolerated). Yet Paul was pro-Roman (e.g. Rom. 13).

          So I don’t see how Paul, as a type, was any different from any other Hellenized intellectual who came after him (or lived longer than him) who shaped Christianity and had an arguably pro-Roman message in the face of Roman intolerance or oppression.

          I reckon that because messianic Judaism was a sensitive subject, anyone having anything to do with it was suspect, even if they otherwise had a pro-Roman agenda and contacts in the imperial household, like Paul.

        2. Ask Candida Moss? Maybe Christianity wasn’t illegal and Christians weren’t persecuted. Maybe – as Moss suggests – all that supposed martyrdom was invented as a way to help “sell” the new religion?

  5. We need to be clear in our understanding of formal and informal logical fallacies. That means understanding exactly why conspiracy theories re moon landings, 9/11 etc, and astrology, and homeopathy, etc are logically flawed. If we only have a vague idea about the logical misdirections in these how can we be sure we are not falling into the same types of fallacies with Atwill’s arguments? Perhaps this is a slightly “less inoffensive” version of Peter’s alert above.

      1. Yes I have read Atwill’s book. I don’t understand how your comment engages with my point about logical fallacies and the fallacious reasoning that underpins conspiracy theories.

        I certainly don’t deny links between the sections in the NT Gospels and parts of Josephus, but I think there are more plausible explanations for some of these than the one Atwill argues.

        Thanks for the links. They are helpful.

    1. There is a flaw in a logic which states free-fall and gravitational progressive collapse can occur concurrently within the same event.
      How about 0 volume and infinite temperature as described in some big bang models? An illogical dozzie!
      Cosmologists love the term “almost infinite” Sound logical?
      100 ton, almost perfectly smooth, tightly fitted megalithic blocks created by hunter gatherers? Logical?
      Academia offers no guaranty of logical, even within abundant consensus.
      Just saying….

  6. Hi Neil

    Thanks for posting the link to my response to Carrier. I would point out however that your notion that since one “not-very-strong example of a “typological parallel” will not convince, a complete set of such parallels will not either” is incorrect.

    Literary parallels ‘strong’ enough to recognized by a greater than random percentage of readers are unusual and therefore cannot occur in a sequence of any length accidentally. As with DNA evidence an individual parallel is meaningless, but a sequence is not.

    It is self evident that a methodology of isolating a passage from the text that contains it is not one that can determine if the authors created a deliberate sequence.

    Finally, since everyone is no doubt becoming as bored as I am with discussions of my mental condition, I will simply respond to Kirby’s fantasies about it by noting that as deranged as I am, I can still tell the difference between ad hominem and honest analysis.

    Joe Atwill

      1. Hi Steve

        Everyone can and has seen the OT stories that were used to prefigure Jesus. However, sequence does make visible connections that are obvious that would otherwise be missed. For example one of my discoveries is Josephus’s parallel to the ‘three crucified one survives story in the Gospels. I found it simply because I was aware of the parallel sequence and therefore knew where in Josephus’s narration to look for it.

        Please provide another explanation for the fact that NT scholars overlooked the following passage’s connection to Gospels’ crucifixion story than they did not have the predictive power of sequence (I mean really, Steve – ‘Joseph of Arimathea’)

        “Moreover, when the city Jerusalem was taken by force…I was sent by Titus Caesar…to a certain village called Thecoa, in order to know whether it were a place fit for a camp; as I came back, I saw many captives crucified, and remembered three of them as my former acquaintance. I was very sorry at this in my mind, and went with tears in my eyes to Titus, and told him of them; so he immediately commanded them to be taken down, and to have the greatest care taken of them, in order to their recovery; yet two of them died under the physician’s hands, while the third recovered.” (Josephus, Life, 75, 417)

        Moreover, since the authors created Jesus as the most ‘prefigured’ character in literature it would have been illogical for them to have not used his story to ‘prefigure’ the son of man Jesus predicted who would come during the war.

        I am curious as to your opinion, so would you mind giving a reason why NT scholars as a collection never bothered something as natural as trying to determine if Jesus ‘prefigured’ of the ‘son of Man’ he predicted.

        Sorry if I do not respond but am too busy at the moment.

        Joe

        1. Well, that was an example of parallelomania at its worst.

          No wonder people are just not impressed.

          Are you saying Josephus took a story of many people being crucified, found that one survived and so wrote a story of Jesus not surviving a crucifixion?

          And why would any Jew Josephus wanted to convince that Jesus was the Messiah be impressed by a parallel that was not from scripture, and a parallel that he would almost certainly never have spotted in a million years? (Well, 2000 years until you came along to spot it)

          You can’t be persuaded by things you can’t see. And no Jew would have read the Gospels and then looked for parallels in Josephus’s autobiography.

          So why would Josephus bother to base the life of Jesus on details from his own autobiography?

          1. While the idea that Josephus was involved in the writing of any of the gospels contradicts everything we know about Josephus and the Gospels, it is nothing more than an argument from incredulity/ignorance to rhetorically ask why there would be gospel parallels with works outside the Jewish scriptures. An increasing number of scholarly publications have in recent years being showing us that such indeed was the case — that writers competent in Greek had been taught to create new works based on imitations of a range of other works, and we do find in the Gospels traces of Josephus, Homer, Euripides, Thucydides, as well as the OT.

            1. Well, yes, we do find traces of Josephus in Luke/Acts. They are used to produce a back story for Jesus and for events in Acts. The only direct parallel I know is Jesus amazing people as a child prodigy the way that Josephus amazed people as a child prodigy.

              Euripides is also used mainly in Acts, rather than parallels to the life of Jesus.

              There is a big difference between parallels to Homer and parallels to the autobiography of Josephus. One was almost universally known among educated people in antiquity.

              But wasn’t Josephus regarded as virtually a traitor by many Jews? Why would Josephus think Jews would worship Jesus if he modelled the story of Jesus on his own life, making him a child prodigy etc?

              And why produce 4 Gospels, carefully making sure that they contradict each other?

              1. You’ve forgotten the posts I did on Dionysus and the Gospel of John, and also those I did on the very name of Jesus itself with respect to all the canonical Gospels. You’ve also forgotten I do not argue for Atwill’s thesis but am quite opposed to it. Would you like to try to clarify what it is, specifically, you are addressing in the above comment(s)?

              2. Let me summarise my point.

                As works written to try to persuade non-believing Jews, parallels to events in the life of Josephus would not convince Jews that Jesus was the Messiah.

                As works written for people who are already believers, parallels to events in the life of Josephus would not be as likely as parallels to events in much more famous literature which already featured gods and heroes, rather than Jewish traitors.

              3. I should point out that while Atwill is wrong, he is basing his theories on data, even if very weak data.

                This makes him miles ahead of some of the output of Maurice Casey, or Richard Bauckham, who base their theories on their imagination.

                It also makes Atwill ahead of James Crossley’s dating of Mark to the early 40s….

        2. Hi Joe!

          I saw your film.

          But one flaw in your hypothesis that I can pick up is the Joseph ben Matthaias (Life75)/ Joseph of Arimathea (=”Bestdiscipletown”, gMark 15:40-16:8) parallel. Since Josephus’ Life was written about 96 CE, a more compact hypothesis would be that gMark was written after Life came out, and that Mark simply mined it as a source for his gospel. Which means, of course, that gMark was written after 95 CE, not 64-70 CE or even earlier as some would have it.

          Ed-M

          PS Yes, I am assuming Marcan priority.

  7. Interesting especially, Neil, that the traces of Josephus in Acts present an interesting scenario…that they inadvertantly call the only really close thing to a Galilean rabbi starting an entire new stream of Judaism that period of time a LOSER. Acts 5. I know that chapter borrowed a section of Josephus’ work, with whoever did it not noting that Judas the Galilean was before Theudas chronologically. They only copied a section where Theudas was mentioned first in Josephus, failing to read much else on Judas the Galilean.

    There’s also the fact Acts 5 is an anachronism because Theudas came after Gameliel had died.

    For me, recognizing what Josephus wrote about Judas the Galilean trumps anything later proto-Orthodox/proto-Catholic can say. There still cannot be TWO Galilean rabbis starting the SOLE new stream of Judaism in the first century. However, Judas the Galilean founded the zealots and that’s a whole kettle of different fish to the proto-Orthodox “facts.”

  8. I will make a late suggestion that it is my opinion (as a non-expert) that anyone interested in Atwill, either for or against, might be interested in the “Flavian Hypothesis” website of Cliff Carrington, who I think comes to the issue as a historian (not a NT scholar):

    http://carrington-arts.com/cliff/flavian.html

    His key idea (imho) is that “all surviving historians are propagandists.” Makes a good case.

  9. Your own scholars, are noticing, allusions to Vespasian’s claims to be the new son of the Jewish God, and here they are from Eve Evans

    Evans suggests that Mark portrayed Jesus as the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy ‘as a conscious challenge to the rumors circulating in the Roman Empire that Jewish prophecy was fulfilled with the advent of Vespasian as the new emperor and, by virtue of his exalted office, the new “son of God” ’ (86). This slots into a fairly heated scholarly debate about the extent to which the “gospel” in the New Testament was framed in anti-imperial terms. I won’t attempt to summarize the arguments and counter-arguments here, but this interview with Justin Hardin, though typographically untidy, gives an impression of the debate.

    Of course Evans sticks to the scholarly party line, Jesus or Paul responding to empire.

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