The title question sounds quite unlikely to most historically informed readers but it is answered in the affirmative by those mythicists I have classified as “type twos“. A Vridar reader asked for my views of the arguments presented on a youtube video featuring Joseph Atwill and D.M. Murdock.
1. About 4 minutes in someone says the gospel Jesus was a composite of the many different messianic figures of the time.
That’s the first problem right there. Contrary to what is often assumed there were no “messianic figures” at the time of Jesus (early first century BCE). At least there is no evidence that there were and arguments claiming that they were popping up all over the place have to read words into our sources that are simply not there. Josephus mentions a few maverick leaders in the second half of the first century but at no point does he indicate that they were viewed as “messiahs”, and from everything we know about Josephus he would have loved to have mocked them as “false messiahs” if he felt he could. I have posted the evidence and arguments related to this topic, most recently tangentially in the Questioning apologetics post. (See also earlier posts questioning Carrier’s reading messianic figures into the evidence; also the myth post.)
Jesus in the gospels is certainly a composite figure as many critical scholars have long recognized. He is a bit of Moses at times, other times an Elijah or Elisha figure sometimes a Joshua, sometimes, perhaps, even an Odysseus or Hector.
2. Someone in the video soon afterwards misinforms us that the Dead Sea Scrolls are dated to the time of Jesus.
But that claim is certainly not a fact; it is an argument for which there is only the most tenuous evidence. See earlier posts on the dates of the Dead Sea Scrolls. On might make an argument for dating to the time of Jesus but it will always be an argument and cannot be assumed to be fact.
3. Next, in the video we hear the rhetorical question, “How did Christianity come to exist in Roman dominated area with anti-Roman zealots in it?”
We have no reliable evidence that the early Christian movement consisted of anti-Roman zealots. Someone in a list of disciples is said to be a “zealot” but unless I am badly mistaken critical scholars (as opposed to apologists) consider the institution of the “twelve disciples” to be an invention by evangelists some decades after the time of Jesus. It was a symbolic creation pointing to a “new Israel” in the church. We hear nothing of any “zealot” after the time of Jesus except for Paul who is quoted as saying he was a “zealot for God”.
Perhaps none of that will make any difference to those who are attracted to the point of Zealots being among the earliest Christians. After all, the theory is that Jesus is constructed out of the person and deeds of Titus. Are the authors meant to be persuading other Jewish “zealots” to follow Titus? Perhaps so.
4. About 7 minutes in the question is raised: Why would the Flavians (i.e. the Roman emperors Vespasian, Titus and Domition) be interested in creating a religion?
That’s a good question. I don’t believe I ever came across any indication they did anything other than restore the prestige of older Roman cults. But let’s continue with the video.
5. We are told that the Jews were rebelling against their Roman rulers, that they were angry over taxes and having an emperor (Claudius, before the Flavian emperors) trying to set up his statue in the Temple. We are told that the Jews were more focused on a religion “of the book” than on cultic rituals. And that because they believed their books they believed in a prophecy that a messiah was going to rise up and lead them to victory against their enemies. We are then informed that a series of Jewish messiahs or messianic claimants fought against Rome and that there was a widespread Palestinian messianic movement fueling these anti-Roman rebellions.
By such assertions are viewers misinformed.
- If there were any resistance of bandit movements over taxes then they were over taxes. There is no need to bring in a messianic motivation to these revolts, especially since we have no evidence that there were any messianic pretenders among the various bandits.
- The episode of Claudius hoping to have his statue erected in the Jewish temple was but one incident that was soon resolved in favour of the Judeans. There was no lingering fear after Claudius withdrew.
- Most important and what was not mentioned in the video was that the Roman authorities allowed the Jews to practice their own religion. They were not forced on pain of death to worship Caesar as a god.
- There is no evidence in our sources that Jews in the first century had any general expectation of a coming messiah (see above for links to the evidence). Josephus makes a very opaque remark about a world ruler being prophesied to come out of Judea but gives no indication what books were sourced. He could have been referring to any of the Pseudepigrapha, (perhaps the Sibylline Oracles?) …. But he gives even less evidence for how the Jews supposedly responded to this prophecy. Everything he says about the rebels was that they were more engaged in fighting against other Jews than they were against the Romans, and the reason Rome sought to crush them was because of their role in fomenting a type of civil war in Judea and because they were defiant power-hungry rebels, not because they were anticipating a messiah.
I will be posting something from Steve Mason’s book on the Jewish War that hopefully will knock down a number of popular misunderstandings about the nature of the Jewish War with Rome 66-70 CE.
6. Next we are told that Vespasian came in and destroyed the Jewish towns of Galilee.
But again this is misleading. Most of Galilee submitted to Vespasian immediately and proved their loyalty to him. There was one serious siege and then some mopping up operations afterwards against smaller villages. But for the next couple of years there were no more clashes with the Roman army.
7. We are informed again through the video that there was rebellion after rebellion by the Jews, and that it was the messianic literature that was fueling this rebellion.
There was a horrific riot in Alexandria in 38 CE but that was ignited because of local conditions and was soon over. There was another rebellion in 117 CE in Cyrene, Africa, but that was long after the time of the Flavian emperors so is irrelevant. One will search in vain in the history books or primary sources for any suggestion that any of these rebellions, the one in Alexandria and the one in Cyrene, had a brass razoo to do with messianism. It simply ain’t so.
8. We next hear on the video that the emperors decided to put a stop to these so-called messianic rebellions by first of all seizing the Jewish holy books! They were all seized, it seems, and the only ones that survived were the Dead Sea Scrolls, the supposed only true voice of the messianic movement.
That’s more misinformation, surely. How would seizing the books put an end to messianic hopes if they existed? The people presumably did not need to read their own copies of the prophecies, or have rabbis read them out, to be aware of them or remember them. Memories would not vanish if the books were taken. And we have good evidence that the holy books were not ALL seized but rabbis continued to read and copy them right up till today. And besides, the evidence that the DSS represented a “messianic movement” is pretty slim (again, see the links above.)
9. Next, on the video we hear that the Romans couldn’t destroy the Jewish religion outright so they decided to create a benign type of Judaism — Christianity.
Again, a reminder: The Romans from the beginning gave the Jews the legal right to practice their religion as it was. (And it was not a messianic sect at all. Any belief in a messiah was theological and for a future time in God’s hands.) They never tried to ban it or destroy it.
10. Next, we hear that the Romans therefore wrote the gospels. How? By collaborating with Josephus. Josephus tells us Titus gave him the Jewish scripture.
All of the problems with this assertion are legion. Roman authorities did not “collaborate” with Josephus in his writing of historical works. Josephus wrote from the perspective of a Jew who wanted Romans to admire the good in the Jewish history, culture, character and religion, as well as to demonstrate their loyalty to Rome — except for a few rebels who made a mess of everything and deserved everything they got. Josephus says the Flavian emperors kept the scriptures from the temple in the palace complex for safekeeping, but there is no hint of any attempt to seize all available copies of the scriptures.
11. We hear that Josephus’s histories have always been associated with beginnings of Christianity. Scholars, we are told, have noticed parallels between the gospels and Josephus. Josephus appears to record events that fulfil the prophecies of OT and NT. Early Christians understood this connection.
The only connection is that Josephus tells us something about the Jewish groups we read about in the gospels (e.g. Pharisees) and that the temple was destroyed — as gospels inform us Jesus predicted.
12. Josephus tells us Romans rounded up writers of alternate histories and executed them. Only the official history of Josephus was to survive. All the copies of those alternate histories were destroyed.
This is entirely fiction. There is no evidence for any of these claims, as far as I am aware, and I have read reasonably widely on literature in the time of the Flavian emperors.
That’s enough for now.
Maybe I will continue my responses to the video claims later. The core idea is that the gospels were written by Romans to present a mock Jesus who was somehow a pacificist alter-ego of the Roman general then emperor Titus, the “son of [the] god, [his father Vespasian].” The idea was that when the Jews worshiped Jesus the Romans would sneakily know they are really worshiping Titus (a son of a god) in disguise and so have a bit of a laugh at their expense. I wonder how that was meant to work in practice. Emperor or his representatives enter a town and demand all come out and prove their loyalty by joining in the cult honouring the emperor. Christians stand aside and defy the command, but the Roman authorities wink at them and turn their backs and have a giggle and just ignore them because they are really worshiping Titus….?? But after Titus died, did later emperors say, Hold on, I don’t want those Christians worhiping Titus anymore, I want them worshiping me! Throw them to the lions!
Point: the Romans did not need to go to such lengths. They only had to set up miles of crucified victims to suppress any rebellion to restore the “peace”. They had no problem with the Jewish religion and allowed it to be practiced as per custom. There is no evidence for Jews being inspired by messianic hopes to rebel against Rome. That is entirely concocted within the imaginations of those who read the evidence into the sources that we have.
If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!