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FlimFlam of the Month: “Covert Christianity”

October 11, 2013

Where does this stuff come from?  I just got an email asking about a guy self-described as a “biblical scholar” with a new (to me) notion:  Jesus, Christianity & the NT were all invented by the Roman government for the purpose of quieting the Jews from their interest in militant messianism.  He calls it “Covert Christianity.”

And, no, I haven’t heard of the guy before either (Joseph Atwill), largely because, well, he’s a nobody in the field of biblical studies.  No PhD in the subject (or related subject), never held an academic post, never (so far as I can tell) published anything in any reputable journal that’s peer-reviewed, or in any reputable monograph series, or presented at any academic conference where competent people could assess his claims.  Instead, per the flimflam drill, he directs his claims to the general public, knowing that they are unable to assess them, and so, by sheer novelty of the claim he hopes to attract a crowd, sales, and publicity.  It’s a living, I guess (of sorts).

So, again, for those who care, it’s wise to consider who is making the claims when you hear them made.  Atwill knows he can’t get to first base on his crazy claims with anyone competent in the field.  So, he “goes public”, i.e., dodges the scholarly process by which ideas are tested and challenged before being accepted.  But he’ll probably get a TV programme out of it.  It seems actually to help to propose something kind of weird like this.  And when asked why scholars don’t accept it, you respond (yup, you guessed it) “It’s an academic conspiracy to keep these things from the public.” Sigh!

(Oh well, as a colleague noted, if Jesus was invented by the Romans, then, obviously, he couldn’t have been married to Mary Magdalene!  I love when the weirdo-theories people cancel each other out.)

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  1. Atwill’s so-called “new discovery” and “conclusive evidence” is not only very old news, but is at best a pathetically far-fetched theory (I shall refrain from calling it “phantasma pathetikon”) lacking any substantial or credible evidence or argument. It is simply Atwill’s “fire at will” against any serious Christian scholarship in the field. Many of us have spent far too much time studying the era and literature of the Early Christian historical period to take this mega-joke seriously. Unfortunately, some people may think it is worth digesting. I think that even Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code was better (in the sense of literature, not of scholarship, of course), because – amidst the fabulous amount of nonsense – at least it had a great detective story which kept you going… So, if you are in London this Saturday, go visit Buckingham Palace or the British Museum – the more so since the latter is free and certainly will offer much less nonsense than these guys at Conway Hall… 🙂

    Sorry for being so blunt, but I am usually annoyed at people like Atwill who may easily compromise an entire field of research and discredit serious scholarship merely by their unscrupulous eagerness to attain an undeserved fame. Some people actually do research meticulously and in a respectable way. Scholarship and showbusiness are not the same, although people like Atwill simply cannot tell the difference.

  2. “He’s a nobody” is not the best way to judge a persons’ work [re: John 1:46; Acts 4:13] –
    I actually think that Atwill’s view of Jesus puts him right up there with those ‘Biblical scholars” who have similarly studied the Dead Sea Scrolls but HAVE obtained their accademic credentials. Let’s consider the effect accademia’s ‘scholarly processes’ had in filtering the views of big ‘Dead Sea Scroll’ names before they were published – John Allegro, Robert Eisenman, Barbara Thiering, Margaret Barker and Geza Vermes. Not a crazy opinion among them?! 🙂

    • Jas: “He’s a nobody” (in the field) is, actually, relevant, the more so when the person in question claims to have discovered something that has eluded the entire body of scholars in the field. Such a big claim should be treated with deeeep suspicion, and the more so coming from someone who has no evidence of expertise or prior contributions to the subject.
      Of those you mention, several (esp. Allegro and Thiering) were never successful in promoting their craxo theories. Allegro did some earlier work that was respected, but then went into his magic-mushroom stuff and became a laughing stock. I’m surprised that you put Vermes in with these. He’s a respected figure in Qumran studies and Jewish studies more widely. His early work on Jesus (drawing similarities to Jewish holy men) was worth considering too. Some of his more tendentious stuff later (including his last book), however, shows that he was writing outside his competence at times.

      • Is there any difference between the published and promoted ‘craxo theories’ of Allegro, Thiering and Atwill? He will become just as much a ‘laughing stock’ as they are. Academia made no difference. Whether an ‘academic’ or a ‘nobody’, they all rightly stand or fall based upon the value of each contribution, not upon their credentials – which was my point.

        As for Vermes and, in my opinion, Barker: They have both been highly praised among academics for their work but both have also raised alarm bells. Both suggested conspiracy theories akin to Atwill’s claims even if on a smaller scale. Vermes claimed parts of Paul’s writings were added at a later date to deify Jesus. Unsurprisingly, it suited his theories to make such claims and cut out what he didn’t like! Barker claims that the Jews edited parts of the Hebrew Scripture to remove pro-Christian wording. So even academia’s heroes are not immune from being a little ‘crazy’ at times! We cannot argue, then, that academia’s ‘scholarly processes’ are sufficiently effective to rid the world of crazy theories like the one being promoted by Atwill. Furthermore, it may be that behind Atwill’s crazy conclusions, he actually makes one or two valuable points regarding the writings of Josephus – or maybe not?! 🙂

      • My point Jas, is not about “credentials” solely. If you read my posting earlier on advice to the general public on how to assess claims of “scholars”, you’ll see several criteria. Among them, a record of recognized contributions to the field, and submitting one’s claims for review by other scholars (e.g., at conferences of scholars, in refereed journals, putting books out for scholarly review, etc.). Yes, major scholars get it wrong sometimes. How do we know this? Because their work is assessed by other scholars competent to judge it. Atwill et al. bypass this process, going for the press, media, general public, precisely because they know their crazy proposals will be decimated by competent scholars. Nothing reported about Atwill’s claims is either really new or persuasive, or demonstrates actual control of the sources, critical methods, languages, etc. Enough of this!

  3. I had never heard of Atwill, either, until last week. I posted a few of my thoughts on my blog, which line up pretty well with the YouTube video posted above (although I didn’t see the video until just now).

    I ended it with this: “I’m sorry, but I do not see how anyone can buy into Atwill’s story here that Jesus Christ was manufactured by the same Romans who had previously already persecuted and killed so many of them – who, according to Atwill, could not have even existed prior to Titus!!”

    • Well, yes, there are serious problems for Atwill’s claims, among them Christian texts that pre-date the Flavians by a few decades (esp. letters of Paul), in which Jesus is already known and pretty central. (But, of course, the next step in this craziness will be to make Paul also an invention of the Flavians! Once you start down the craziness-road, there’s no stopping.)

      • Larry

        So what do you do? Believe everything that you read by Roman ‘historians’! You see Atwill does have a point about Roman historians. They were liars or deceivers. They concocted most of War and all of Life. There was no war in Galilee, there being absolutely no evidence of a Roman presence. See if you can tear that to shreds.

      • Geof: YOu really must learn . . . to learn something. Really! You make this silly, sweeping statements, e.g., Roman historians “were liars or deceivers”. Have you any serious study of the work of people who actually research the area, e.g., Mary Beard, et al?? Who’s the “they” who “concocted most of War and all of Life” (by which I presume you refer to the two major works of Flavius Josephus). Have you any serious study of those who have spent years working on Josephus? Please, please, desist from your unjustifiably cocky (cocksure) sweeping statements. At least on this blog site. Enough!

      • I read the writings attributed to Josephus just about every day, and have spent a very good proportion of the last 25 years doing so. The book is permanently open on my desk. Almost every page is heavily marked up in red ink.

      • Geoff: It’s commendable that you’ve read Josephus so often. My point is that your wild statements (“Roman historians are all liars and deceivers”) and you quasi-endorsement of Atwill as having a basis for his crazy claims, lead me to wonder at the BASIS for your critical opinion. There are oodles of people with well-worn copies of their Bible, but whose critical judgements about this or that biblical text are . . . well, less than authoritative, shall we say. We’ve been around this bush before, Geoff, and I know that you don’t like it; but in scholarship one must acquire a standing for one’s views by putting them into scholarly discourse (journals, conferences, etc.), inviting critical engagement in means adequate for it (and blog comments/postings aren’t). So, Atwill’s refusal to do this makes his extraordinary claims not worth the time it takes to repeat them.

      • Having read through Atwill’s work, literally dozens of questions arose in my mind. This is the very nature of any research process: once you start answering a question, especially when you try to challenge older, and – more or less widely accepted – answers, any “new” answer given by you (in this case by Atwill) itself generates new questions you cannot escape to face and answer again. This is why a proper “testing” within the scholarly environment advocated by Prof. Hurtado is indispensable. I shall not enumerate the valid objections mentioned by R. M. Price, Tom Verenna and many others, but would like to raise only one, which – in my opinion – is quite difficult to settle within the framework of Atwill’s “thesis”:
        At one point in his “Caesar’s Messiah” (Chapter 3, pp. 53-54 in the edition available to me) Atwill says the following:
        “Christianity was designed to promote anti-Semitism – a concept that is at least plausible, historically. A cult that produced anti-Semitism would have both helped Rome prevent the messianic Jews from spreading their rebellion and punished them by poisoning their future. […] The New Testament was designed to promote anti-Semitism.”

        Let us, for argument’s sake, take Atwill’s words at face value. The logical continuation of this would be for the all-time Roman emperors (NB: not just for the Flavians!) to use Christianity against the Jews whenever possible (even regardless of their persecution as Christians). This would mean supporting especially those trends within Christendom, which had strong anti-Jewish tendencies. And lo, we have a very good example in the second century: Jewish Christians did not support the Bar Kochba-revolt (132–136 AD), yet did not enjoy any imperial favour (i.e. from Hadrian, emperor between 117–138 AD) for doing this. Moreover, around 140 AD and the following years, one of the strongest anti-Judaic Christian trend emerged – at first in Rome itself, under the leadership of Marcion, who had been determined to do away with the God of the Old Testament altogether. Although this sect would have indeed helped the Roman policy of “divide et impera” both against the rebellious Jews and within Christianity itself (if, as Atwil claims, spreading anti-Semitism was indeed the goal of the emperors), I am unaware of any record or hint suggesting that Antoninus Pius (138–161 AD) ever attempted to support Marcion and his followers to become the mainstream of Christianity. What a miss! I would have other examples and questions, too, but do not want to lengthen this already lengthy comment. My apologies…

      • Larry

        In saying that Roman historians were liars, I wasn’t referring to modern scholars such as Mary Beard, or for that matter Barbara Levick, Brian W Jones, Martin Goodman, Nikos Kokkinos, and Steve Mason. I have also read their relevant historys (among books by other writers) written by the latter in relation to ‘early christianity’. I meant the Roman writers, such as Suetonius, a servant of Vespasian.

      • Yes, Geoff. I understood your reference. And my point remains that your characterization of ancient Roman historians is simplistic.

      • Larry

        Well why not think of Paul as false? Perhaps you could give me some good reasons to think otherwise?

      • Geoff: I don’t know what you mean “think of Paul as false”. Do you mean querying whether he ever lived? If so, given both the weight of data and of critical opinion, one requires extra strong reason to deny that he lived and worked as “apostle to the gentiles”. And that would have to be done through scholarly processes.
        We’re in danger of getting way off the topic of the posting, Geoff (as often seems to be the case).

      • Geoff Hudson permalink


        So what is your ‘weight of data’ that supports the existence of Paul. He comes from the back of beyond, travels to Rome exactly at the time James appears in Jerusalem, and disappears in Rome, presumably meeting his end around 62, exactly the time James is executed by a real priest, Ananus. Now James seems more real than Paul who one is left to imagine was killed by Nero’s lions. In fact parts of some of Paul’s epistles and Acts look real, in context with the prophetic Judaism of the day, provided they were written from Rome.

      • Geoff: if you ask this question, it’s either a ruse or surprising ignorance on your part. There are shelves of works exploring the bases for treating Paul, his religious thought, his activities, his contributions, and controversies. There are whole volumes on simply trying to establish precise dates. Surely you know these things. Your statement of things is wrong: Paul comes from a known city (Tarsus). He appears in Jerusalem and is active in suppressing the early “ekklesia” there within perhaps a few months of Jesus’ execution. After his religious re-orientation (“Damascus road” experience), he gets back to Jerusalem briefly, where he spends some time with Cephas and meets James (that’s in the early 30s). As to your final sentence, I can’t make any sense of it. But, please, Geoff, if you really either don’t know the data or choose to ignore it and the mass of scholarly work on it, then don’t try to make up for it here. This isn’t the topic under discussion.

    • Yes, thanks. The Goodacre’s comments on the claims about a putative new interpretation of an unidentified manuscript in the British Museum indicate that Jesus continues to make money and garner publicity for various individuals ready to make sensational claims for themselves. Again, notice: No submission of findings for scholarly critique and confirmation. Instead, straight to TV, general-readers (sales!!!), dodging any competent critique until the cash registers have rung.

  4. Reblogged this on Persona and commented:
    There is no end to people trying to make a name for themselves on the cheap, and dishonest, route.

  5. This isn’t a recycling of that Abelard Reuchlin “Jesus was invented by Piso” stuff, is it?

    • James: YOu got me. I don’t know Reuchlin’s work/theory.

      • Professor, James is talking about Abelard Reuchlin’s “The true authorship of the New Testament”. In this small book (about 27 pages) he claimed that Jesus didn’t exist, but invented by Piso, known as Josephus. This is an interesting but more fictitious, in my observation. I really wish to read your comment about this work.

      • Reuchlin’s book is a complete joke (not to him, I presume, which means he was mad). It bears no resemblance to anything held by anyone of competence on Josephus, Jesus, Rome, whatever. It reminds me of the fantastic novel by Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum. It’s all about such crazos and their various secrecy theories. A great sendup.

  6. Ljhooge permalink

    Do you think there will ever be a time when scholarly ideas are put up on a free web site where they can be interacted with by one and all? Perhaps with a section for scholarly interaction and another for ‘amateur’ interaction? Ie., a time when paper journals are no longer needed? A thing of the past? … E.g., I suppose ‘ ‘ is a possible step in that direction. … I’m envisioning a world where ideas are shared quicker and freer – without as many barriers.

    • I think you may be conflating three distinguishable things: (1) The necessity/importance of ideas, theories, interpretations being tested by people qualified to do so; (2) the virtue of this being done both expeditiously as well as adequately; and (3) the opportunity for a wider public to benefit from scholarly work that has been tested (and from the results of that testing).
      No. 1, in my view, must be non-negotiable. Without it, scholarly work as such ceases to have any integrity or particular value. What can be the real value of interaction by people without the necessary competence, until work has been engaged by those competent to do so?
      As to no. 2, yes, it would be good if it could be sped up. I rather doubt that paper journals “are no longer necessary”. In earlier years, I was active in promoting a move to internet-based peer-reviewed journals, and serve on the editorial board of one (TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism). But, whether paper or online, the thing that takes time is scholarly review of pre-publication articles. That should not take more than ca. 30-60 days maximum, but we all know that it can take months . . . and months, largely because scholars have to fit this task (unpaid) into their other duties, such as teaching, and doing their own research. There’s little point in “sharing ideas” unless there is some reason to think that they’re worth considering, solidly founded, etc. And that, unfortunately, takes time, for the practical reasons I’ve mentioned.

  7. Hey Larry,
    Two suggestions for the WordPress Blog (with links to explain):

    (1) Undo the Hierarchy of comments – it ruins chronicity, makes comments hard to find and more

    (2) Stop Comment Moderation: it kills chronicity, it kills real dialogue, it feels weird.

    Just my thoughts

    • Thanks. But this site isn’t primarily intended as a public forum devoted to commenters talking to one another. It’s primarily intended to allow me to provide competence-based input on the NT and Christian origins. Comments/questions welcome, but I moderate them for relevance, and I delete those judged defaming, irrelevant, or simply tedious. No apology. No change.

  8. Larry, you wrote:

    “No PhD in the subject (or related subject), never held an academic post, never (so far as I can tell) published anything in any reputable journal that’s peer-reviewed, or in any reputable monograph series, or presented at any academic conference where competent people could assess his claims. Instead, per the flimflam drill, he directs his claims to the general public, knowing that they are unable to assess them, and so, by sheer novelty of the claim he hopes to attract a crowd, sales, and publicity.”

    The “general public” covers a very wide range experience. I think you underestimate their capabilities, particularly those who would buy Atwill’s book and decide for themselves.

    So just how do you think Atwill would get an academic post in the subject, or an article published in a reputable journal, or present a paper at an academic conference, when due to his lack of qualifications, he would not get a look in. You have stated the obvious. When Eisenman (an academic) wrote of Joseph Atwill’s book: “Challenging and provocative. If what Joseph Atwill is saying is only partially true, we are looking into the abyss”, then academics should be prepared to give it some thought.

    • No Geoff. It’s not necesssary to engage something so self-evidently unfounded and incompetent. If his press releases at all reflect his stance, it’s not worth the time. We scholars have enough to do engaging work that is by people with some competence. There isn’t time or value in dealing with nonsense. And Atwill and his ilk don’t really want scholarly engagement anyway. Again, let it go.

      • Ljhooge permalink

        Actually, my guess would be that Atwill would probably love scholarly engagement – assuming he sincerely believes in his theory.

      • No. He wouldn’t. Otherwise, he wouldn’t avoid the normal scholarly venues to test theories. These people know that they would be shredded by competent scholars.

    • matejcepltest permalink

      > The “general public” covers a very wide range experience. I think you underestimate their capabilities, particularly those who would buy Atwill’s book and decide for themselves.

      I don’t think so. Remember, Da Vinci code was tremendous success. 😦

  9. I really laughed hard when I read the last bracketed note at the end of your post…
    by the way the author DOES hold a degree but it is “slightly” irrelevant .. it is Computer science 😀

    your Egyptian friend

  10. Tom Gorman permalink

    8yrs old, debunked even by other Jesus-is-a-myth scholars like Robert Price.

  11. Interestingly, on the Atheism section of Reddit, links to this news shows 7,273 upvotes and 5,610 down votes. Reddit atheists come in different varieties — some are thinkers and some are just reflexive supporters of their perceived team. Such blatant verification of the confirmation bias is embarrassing.

  12. Jean permalink

    Larry – Now tell us how you really feel. 🙂

  13. You’d think for all these non-Christian theories, if they were true, that they’d be able to get their story straight. They can’t even seem to agree amongst themselves. I’d figure if Christianity was so obviously false that they’d be able to get their story straight…

    • Nick, It isn’t simply or even primarily a question of whether “Christianity is true” (which is a religious/theological judgment), but whether a given assertion is based on proper scholarly expertise and method and has been through the critical testing that scholars are supposed to be committed to.

      • I agree Dr. Hurtado. I just debate a lot of atheists on the internet that keep telling me that if Christianity is so obviously true, surely Christians could get the story straight. It’s funny that that never works the other way.

    • Nick,
      Your logic is highly lacking.
      Would you feel comfortable saying the same about the Loch Ness Monster (Nessi) or Big Foot or …. Just because you can’t get all skeptics to agree about how to debunk a made up story, does not make the made up story right.

  14. Well, Larry, while not at all disagreeing with your assessment here, I do hope that, when my “crazy” doctoral research ideas come out in published form, you’ll remember that we we ate that final lunch together at the BNTS convention in St. Andrews, where I also delivered my paper of “crazy” ideas for peer consideration! 🙂 Some crazy can be good (I pray), ha!

    • Well, James, not having read your thesis, I don’t know if it’s crazy or not. But one thing that should characterize doing a PhD is that one’s crazy ideas get critically tested, and, if really crazy, get shot down. That’s very good discipline!

  15. S Walch permalink

    I guess it doesn’t help any when an actual Newspaper refers to him as a “Biblical Scholar”-

  16. Ali Hussain permalink

    Prof. Hurtado , according to me you should not waste your valuable time in addressing such silly claims .Instead of that you can share your scholarly knowledge with the widely unaware world out there . I have benefited immensely from your blog , my knowledge have increased many fold , i came to know about a lot of scholarly books,publications etc which would have been impossible otherwise.

    Sir , what does Jesus Christ meant when he spoke about the …’kingdom of God’

    • Ali, Let me refer to you a handy reference work: Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, eds.Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, I. Howard Marshall (Downers Grove, IL/Leicester: InteVarsity Press, 1992). On “kingdom of God/heaven,” see, pp. 417-30.
      “Kingdom” (Hebrew, “malkuth”) of God = the rule/reign of God, especially as exercised in the world. So, e.g., in the “Lord’s prayer,” believers are to pray “may your kingdom come,” asking that God will establish divine rule/righteousness over the earth.

  17. Larry,

    Ah, but have you read Atwill’s book?

    His mistake is the same as that as Eisenman’s who comments on the rear cover. They both regard Josephus as a faithful historian.

    • Geoff, Josephus isn’t the problem! It’s a bizarre reading of Josephus that is unrecognizable by any scholar in the field.

      • Larry

        The literal readings (interpretations) of much of the writing attributed to Josephus are bizarre, which is why Atwill and Eisenman have a problem.

      • No. Geoff. The problems of Atwill, et al., are that they don’t know what they’re doing, aren’t competent to deal with the sources and issues, and refuse to submit their work to scholarly critical testing.
        Poor old Josephus, we can’t blame him for the weirdo theories. Let it go.

  18. There’s a sucker born every minute.

    • Yeah, but who’s the sucker? One immediately thinks of those who buy Atwill’s book, or take it seriously. But the really scary thought is that he might himself take it seriously!

  19. blop2008 permalink

    One of the most valuable things we can do in our surroundings is to educate the lay-person how to judge resources and their authors, as you have done with your posts how to detect expertise. The more will all contribute to this, the more the lay-person will be able to discard these flimflams. I am contributing to this in my surroundings to the best of my ability as a student and independent researcher.

    • I read that article.

      While I agree with most of it, I was most struck by Mr. Verenna pointing out that what Atwill says about Jesus could also be said about Wonder Woman

      I was curious about the point of the following from Mr, Verenna’s article.

      ‘But even so, is Atwill seriously suggesting that fictional stories cannot be written about historical people or events? Wonder Woman is a highly fictionalized and heroicized literary figure inspired by an actual person, the creator’s wife, Elizabeth Marston. Wonder Woman meets Atwill’s classification as a “fictional character in literature whose entire life story can be traced to other sources.”

      I don’t understand this at all.

      • Steven, Take that up with Verenna. Not here.

      • Tom Verenna permalink

        Sorry this troubles and confuses you so much, but I think my point is pretty clear given the context of my post.

  20. I don’t understand Awtill’s claim at all.

    How could the Romans expect to make progress among Jews by inventing a man to be worshipped – a man claimed to exist since the beginning of creation and who was given the divine name that Jews could not pronounce?

    Surely any Roman forger who proposed such a thing would have been stoned to death as an idolator before you can say ‘historical anachronism’?

    Still, Atwill’s book is selling well at present, which I guess is all that counts for him.

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