Judea and the Cycle of Rebellion against Roman Rule
During the historical period surrounding the alleged life and times of the biblical Jesus, Judea was (in reality) at the epicenter of an epic, violent conflict between the Roman Empire and the adherents of a virulently radical form of messianic Judaism. The roots of the conflict date back earlier, to the age when the zealous Maccabees (also known as Hasmoneans) rebelled against the Seleucids (the remnants of Alexander the Great’s Hellenistic empire) and achieved an uneasy independence in 164 BCE. In 63 BCE, the Romans invaded Judea, and the Maccabees became Roman clients.
A family of foreigners from Edom (in Arabia) eventually usurped the role of the Maccabees as the Romans’ clients and tax farmers in Judea. The rise of this Herodian regime began when Antipater, born as an Edomite nobleman whose family had allegedly converted to Judaism, insinuated himself into Maccabean politics while simultaneously currying favor with the Romans. Antipater was appointed Roman Procurator of Judea under Julius Caesar (47 BCE), and his son Herod became the governor of Galilee, while the Hasmoneans continued to hold the office of high priest.
The Jewish people and their Hasmonean spiritual leaders were deeply hostile to Roman and Herodian rule, and in 40 BCE they revolted under the leadership of Antigonus II Mattathias, who forged an alliance with the Parthians. However, Herod put down the revolt with the help of Roman armies. The Roman senate awarded Herod the title of “King of the Jews”, and Antigonus was sent to Mark Antony for execution in 37 BCE.
It is important to note that at this juncture, the Roman strategy of employing Hasmoneans under their control as high priests had ended in ignominious failure. From that point forward, Herod the Great and his successors appointed the high priests of Jerusalem from among their cronies. There was no way to hide the massive spiritual and nationalistic divide between the people of the Levant and the Herodians, who were hated Roman proxies. It was a problem that cried out for a solution.
Christianity before the Flavians?
The true course of events in Israel and Judaea during the ~100 years between the Roman and Herodian takeover which was completed in 37 BCE, and the end of the Jewish war in ~73 CE, has always been a highly speculative topic, which scholarship is unlikely to resolve. In fact an essential aspect of Atwill’s work is to show that the New Testament and the works of Josephus must both be regarded as Roman propaganda, and that treating these documents as factual reporting can only lead to serious analytical errors. Yet these same documents are viewed as far and away the most comprehensive and most primary sources that we have available for that entire historical epoch. Recovering the history of 1st century Judea is, therefore, a matter of judiciously paring away the layers of propaganda from Josephus and the New Testament, with the assistance of supplementary (sometimes complementary, sometimes contradictory) information provided by archaeology, source criticism, and other ancient sources.
In Caesar’s Messiah, Atwill wrote: “This Imperial family, the Flavians, invented Christianity.” By this he meant that the Flavians (and their court intellectuals) created the religion in the form that we know it, and wrote the Gospels as they have come down to us. However, this does not mean that they invented the religion as an entirely new creation, like Venus emerging from the sea-foam as a fully-grown woman. On the contrary, Flavian Christianity certainly had its precedents. Robert M. Price’s review of Caesar’s Messiah complained that “There is way, way, too much else in any and all of the gospel texts that cannot be dismissed (really, neglected) as mere padding, ballast, which is all it would be if Atwill is right.” However, this was a misunderstanding of Atwill’s position. He accepts the fact that the extant Gospels were written by several individuals in different times and places. And he would certainly agree that the Gospels were written with many earlier sources in mind.
At a philosophical and inspirational level, the sources of the Flavian gospels may have included Philo, Seneca, Pythagoras, other Stoics and Cynics, Homer, Gilgamesh, all the Hellenistic mystery cults of the Mediterranean region, and the astro-theological myths of the ancients. Sorting all of this out is a Herculean task that has consumed many scholarly lifetimes, and no doubt will consume many more. However, none of this analysis can account for the specific historical circumstances and events that caused the Christian religion to take the particular form that it did. Similarly, redaction criticism can identify the common source materials that were used by the four canonical evangelists, but they cannot tell us the entire contents of those sources, much less identify their ideological motivations or biases.
The search for the ‘original sources’ of the gospels, along with the search for the ‘historical Jesus’, is often a spiritually-driven quest: that is, once the seeker is convinced that Christianity has been ‘corrupted’ (whether by Paul, or by Flavian influences, or by the Papacy, or by modernity) the goal becomes to recover the purity of the message that was originally delivered by the revered prophet. In terms of its spiritual value, however, the enthusiasm for this quest may be misplaced, as there is no guarantee that the original message is recoverable, or that the prophet had any unique wisdom to impart in the first place. My interest is more from a historical point of view, to understand the dynamics of religious development, and the interplay of elite and populist forces in this process.
In his book Did Jesus Exist, Bart Ehrman gave the following summary of scholarly opinion about the ‘historical Jesus’:
… there are several points on which virtually all scholars of antiquity agree. Jesus was a Jewish man, known to be a preacher and teacher, who was crucified (a Roman form of execution) in Jerusalem during the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea.[v]
If such a person did exist, he was certainly living within the historical milieu of that time, and interacting with the forces that were prevalent. To understand that environment, I recommend the works of Robert Eisenman, and also the highly readable summary and review of his work written by Andrew Gould, who wrote:
By careful distillation, Eisenman is able to exhume the lost voice of the defeated rebellion, which, while it did leave some traces in the New Testament, now speaks directly and forcefully to us through the Dead Sea Scrolls. …. many scholars recognize that the ideological conflict between James and Paul is the engine that drives the entire New Testament. But Eisenman is able to show that this conflict is identical to the one between Jewish nationalists and the Roman-backed Herodian state, which erupted into the conflagration of the Jewish War over exactly the same issues debated by James and Paul.[vi]
Gould’s review goes on to identify the driving issues behind this ideological conflict, which encompassed not only Judea, but also the entire Mediterranean region, wherever far-flung trading networks controlled by prosperous Jewish merchants and tradesmen of the diaspora competed with their Hellenistic counterparts. On the one side, the Zealots, Sicarii and radical Essenes of the rebellion, rooted in the nationalist tradition of the Maccabees, were concerned about circumcision; the purity of sacrifices and the presence or absence of foreign idols in the Temple; the Hellenistic elite’s practices of niece marriage and sister marriage and intercourse during menstruation, all of which the Zealots viewed as fornication; the purity of dietary practices; the plight of the poor, pitted against the predations of the rich; and the doctrine of salvation by works as well as by faith. On the other side, the Herodians and their allies sought to develop tolerant, cosmopolitan attitudes, in order to facilitate the greatest possible integration with the broader Roman and Hellenistic world.
Eisenman recognized several episodes in the New Testament that appear to be parodies of historical incidents as they were described in Josephus and other sources. From this, he concludes that the Biblical characters of James and Simon Peter are also likely to be parodies of the real leaders of the Jewish rebellion. In Caesar’s Messiah, Atwill reaches a similar conclusion, and also offers the view that another important rebel leader, and possibly a messiah figure to the rebels, was the character Eleazar.
The interpretation of the Dead Sea Scrolls is highly speculative because the scrolls were written as a sort of underground samizdat literature. All references to individuals were done using code words, and allegorical formulations were generally used for political commentary. However, based on a finely woven tapestry of comparisons to other sources, Eisenman argues that the Scrolls are also referring to the events leading up to the Jewish War, and that the colorful depictions of the Righteous Teacher and the Spouter of Lying are referring to James and Paul, respectively.
In some aspects, we might recognize the religion of the Jewish rebels as a sort of embryonic Christianity. The representations of the earliest Christian ‘koinonia’ community in Jerusalem in the book of Acts may very well be a parody of James’s church of rebels. Some of the wildly self-contradictory aspects of the New Testament may reflect the survival of the rebels’ literature, which was too popular and well-known at the time to be denied or suppressed, but could be incorporated into the Flavian version of the Gospels alongside newer materials promoting the Roman viewpoint.
However, it would certainly be a mistake to view the Jewish rebel coalition as a purely populist, spiritually and economically progressive movement. Josephus pointed out that they received substantial leadership and economic and political support from the royalty of ‘Adiabene’, consisting of the family of King Monobazus, Queen Helena, and their son Izates. Eisenman noticed that the realms of ‘Adiabene’ and the land of the ‘Edessenes’ seem to be overlapping, and Ralph Ellis has argued that Monobazus, Helena and Izates should be identified as the royal family of the city of Edessa, who were covertly affiliated with the Parthians. According to Ellis, this Izates (who he identifies as the historical King Manu VI) saw himself not only as a messiah to the Jews, but also as a contender for the throne of Rome. If this is the case, then the Jewish rebels were pawns in a vast dynastic struggle being played out between the Parthians and the Romans; and Izates himself was another of (possibly several) rebel leaders parodied as Jesus in the New Testament.[vii] Ellis argues that Izates was, quite simply, the ‘historical Jesus’; but I would have to disagree, based simply on Ehrman’s criterion that ‘historical Jesus’ should be defined as a Jewish man who was crucified under Pontius Pilate.
Both Ellis[viii] and another self-taught Biblical scholar, Lena Einhorn,[ix] have noticed extensive parallels between Josephus’s narrative of events occurring between the years 44 and 56 CE, and a similar series of events and circumstances in the New Testament narrative covering the years 24 to 36 CE. A central figure in Josephus’s account is the ‘Egyptian prophet’, whose story matches Biblical Jesus in many respects, except that his fate following his arrest at the Mount of Olives is not described by Josephus. Later on, according to Acts (21:38), the Apostle Paul was asked if he was the troublemaking ‘Egyptian’ who stirred up a revolt among the Zealots. Einhorn speculates that the New Testament authors told their story with a 20-year time shift, and that Jesus, Paul and ‘The Egyptian prophet’ may have all been the same individual;[x] or, I would add, perhaps ‘The Egyptian’ was indeed a rebel leader of the Zealots, and was the true (but, contrary to Ehrman, time-transposed) ‘historical Jesus’; and that after his execution, Paul the Herodian stepped into his place and tried to lead his movement in a different direction.
Aside from all this speculation about the Jewish rebel movement, its leaders, and its relation to Christianity: it’s also necessary to consider the possibility that there was an early Roman and Herodian-controlled form of Christianity which was invented well before the time of the Flavians, and which competed with the radical messianic Judaism of the rebels. This would explain the activities of ‘Paul’ in his conflicts with James, as a promoter of this early form of Christianity. As Gould wrote:
Paul, in particular, was a political/intelligence operative for the Herodian kings, not only before his famous “conversion” on the road to Damascus, but after as well.
In its most embryonic form, Paul’s religion could have been developed as an abstraction of the cult of Julius Caesar, the founding deity of the Roman imperial cult of emperor worship.
During his lifetime, Julius Caesar had aligned himself with the far left wing of the Roman political spectrum; that is, he was one of the populares, a supporter of reforms such as land redistribution, wider access to citizenship, and better pay for soldiers and the lower class in general. In this position, Caesar was at odds with the majority of right-wing optimates on the senate, who were determined to maintain the same extreme level of social stratification that prevailed at the time.
In Caesar’s sojourn in Egypt, he experienced the genuine adulation and reverence that the Egyptians felt for his paramour, Cleopatra VII of Egypt, who was not only admired for her statesmanship, but also was worshipped as a Goddess, an embodiment of Isis. Caesar was also a great admirer of Alexander the Great, who was similarly viewed as a sort of deity by the Greeks. As Pontifex Maximus, the head of the Roman priestly college, Caesar was already an honored religious leader of the Roman republic. And as a war hero and an advocate of the people’s human dignity, Caesar was fabulously popular with the general public of Rome.[xi]
In such circumstances, it seems perfectly natural that Caesar may have decided to orchestrate the process of his own deification. His image, carved in ivory, appeared among the assembly of gods at the Roman circus. A day in Caesar’s honor was added to the calendar alongside the days of Jupiter. A temple was built in his honor in Rome.[xii] Caesar was described as the savior of his nation, and was admired for his was willingness to extend forgiveness to his former enemies. He was revered as a liberator, a great giver of freedom to the Roman people. Reportedly, he was especially admired by the Jews, who regarded him as an ally in their struggle for religious freedom and self-determination.
Following Caesar’s death in 44 BC, his apotheosis proceeded apace, driven not only by Caesar’s enormous popularity amongst the rank-and-file people of Rome, but also by the industrious promotion by both of Caesar’s designated successors, his adopted son Octavian and his chief priest Mark Anthony. The Roman senate officially consecrated Caesar’s divinity in 42 BC, and thus Octavian obtained the title of Divi Filius, the Son of God, while Antony was confirmed as Flamine Divus Julius, the priest of the Divine Caesar. The memory of Caesar as a God served both of those men equally, so they both devoted the tremendous resources of the Roman state towards construction and promotion of temples of the Caesar cult, which were erected in Rome, Caesarea, Alexandria, Antioch, Corinth, Ephesus, Phillipi, Thessalonica and Smyrna. These were the same locations that were later named as the earliest centers of the Christian church.
In his book Jesus was Caesar,[xiii] Francesco Carotta postulated that a key ceremony of this Divus Julius cult might have been a re-enactment of Caesar’s funeral and Mark Anthony’s dramatic memorial oration. As it has come down to us in the histories of Suetonius and Appianus, a centerpiece of the memorial service was a tropaeum, which was a pole with horizontal arms that was used to display war trophies. In this case, the tropaeum was used to display an effigy or wax simulcram of Caesar’s body cloaked in his blood-stained robe. In other words, it appeared as if Caesar was hung from a cross at his funeral.
Gary Courtney in Et Tu Judas? Then Fall Jesus also argued that the Biblical story of Jesus’s trial and crucifixion contains many illogical aspects and contradictions, which can be plausibly explained with the realization that the Gospel stories of Jesus’s trial, crucifixion and resurrection are dramatizations of the assassination of Julius Caesar, his funeral, and his apotheosis. Courtney wrote:
This religious play… may have evolved to comprise the following essential elements:
1. A great and just man who astounds his age by instituting a comprehensive policy of forgiveness.
2. On the verge of becoming the king, he is betrayed and murdered by those he had saved — the treachery epitomized by his turncoat friend Brutus.
3. When his tribulation begins, his close friend and religious deputy, sworn to protect him, flees in fear and disguises himself.
4. The murdered man’s ultimate triumph, being resurrected as a god.
5. His betrayer commits suicide.
What better foundation ‘myth’ could a religion hope for? It would be difficult to create a fiction that could lend itself more readily to a theatrical presentation…. Is it not possible that the betrayal and murder of this ancient founder of the Roman Empire, pontifex maximus and common Savior of Mankind, whose name – Caesar, Kaiser, Czar – came to be synonymous with king throughout the Western world, and the shedding of whose blood “pierced the hearts of all mankind”, influenced the development of the Christian religion? Is it merely a coincidence that the five points listed above constitute the heart and soul of the Passion of Christ?[xiv]
If the ceremonies of the hypothetical Julius Caesar cult eventually became the core of the Christians’ Easter commemorations of Jesus Christ, this could have been the result of a gradual progression. The Roman imperial cult typically focused its public adulation on the current emperor and his father, the most recently deified Caesar. However, it is also believed that the imperial cult functioned as a Hellenistic mystery religion,[xv] and my speculation is that Caesar’s funeral may have continued to be secretly re-enacted as a rite of the cult for its more advanced members, while the association of the ritual with Julius Caesar (as a particular human being) was gradually de-emphasized and forgotten. Particularly among Hellenized Jews, a realization might have gradually dawned that Caesar was the messiah that the Jews had been waiting for.
Or it is also conceivable that the Herodians made a deliberate policy decision to adopt this re-enactment of Caesar’s funeral as the core of their own new Hellenistic mystery cult, which would offer the abstracted Caesar to the Jews as the true incarnation of their Messiah. This could have begun at a very early date: Carotta has pointed out that according to tradition, “The Gospel of Mark was written in Latin in Rome 12 years after the ascension of the Lord.”[xvi] If Julius Caesar was indeed the “Lord” being referred to, this would be just 5 years after the ignominious defeat of Antigonus, last of the Maccabees; and the ‘Mark’ who was attributed with responsibility for this first draft of the Roman Gospel would have been Mark Anthony, the Roman overseer of the Judean province at that time. However, although Caesar was undeniably a historical person, Carotta’s claim that he was the ‘historical Jesus’ would obviously be rejected under Ehrman’s criteria on the grounds that he lived at the wrong time and place.
In an ongoing process of religious innovation, the Romans and Herodians may have continued to develop this hybrid of Jewish and Roman spirituality during the 1st century of the common (that is, Christian) era. As I will relate later, I believe that the Gospels and other documents of the early Roman church were most likely maintained as secrets of the inner sanctuary of the cult, which was operated like other Hellenistic mystery religions of the time; which would explain why copies of these materials have not survived, and would also how the Romans were able to evolve the story over time, while redacting earlier versions.
Stephen Huller in The Real Messiah[xvii] proposed that the ‘historical Jesus’ was the leader of a rebellion of the Samaritans during the reign of Pontius Pilate. As Josephus told the story of this event, a certain rebel leader inspired “a multitude” of armed Samaritans to gather with the goal of climbing Mt. Gerizzim to see “sacred vessels” placed there by Moses; but Pilate’s police routed the rebellion, and captured and executed the rebel leader (Josephus, Ant 18.4.85-87).
As a rebel “ordered to be slain” by Pontius Pilate in ~37 CE, this character seems to be an excellent candidate for ‘historical Jesus’ according to Ehrman’s criteria: at least, he is a Jew (although presumably a Samaritan) who lives at the right time and place, and who was a popular preacher — although Josephus does not tell us exactly where or how he was executed.
Huller goes on to argue that this Jesus was portrayed by the Herodians as a forerunner to another Messiah who would come as the political savior of the Jews. In order to fulfill that prophecy, Huller argues, the young Marcus Julius Agrippa (that is, Herod Agrippa II, then age 8) went to Alexandria in 38 CE, where he was crowned as the Messiah and King of the Jews. This coronation was said to be engineered behind the scenes by Philo, Marcus’s mother (or grandmother) Mary Salome, and the new Emperor Caligula.
The centerpiece of Huller’s evidence for his theory is an artifact called the “Throne of St. Mark.” Huller argues that this “Throne” could well date to the 1st century CE, as opposed to the dominant view that it is 5th century hagiographic relic. The throne has an inscription in Hebrew stating “Coronation of Marcus the Evangelist” and in Samaritan stating “Year 1”. It is decorated with 50 stars, which Huller argues is another indication (along with “year 1”) that the throne dates to a Samaritan jubilee year, which fell in 38 CE. On the front, the throne has an image of a ram (or lamb?) standing under a bush, which Huller interprets as an image of the ram that was sacrificed by Abraham in place of his son Isaac, after God released Abraham from the obligation to sacrifice his first-born son. Huller thinks this reflects an early Christology, in which the political Messiah on the throne (that is, Marcus Agrippa) received the benefit of the spiritual Messiah’s sacrifice as the Lamb or Ram of God; in other words, the sacrifice of the rebel leader who was executed by Pilate.
This Herodian form of Christianity would have been based on Philo’s view of the amalgamation of Jewish and Platonic philosophy, and it might very well have incorporated an abstracted form of the cult of Julius Caesar’s funeral re-enactment as well; and the ‘Gospel of Mark Anthony’ (if indeed it ever existed) evolved into the ‘Gospel of Marcus Agrippa’. Aside from the “Throne of St. Mark”, Huller offers a wide variety of tantalizingly suggestive evidence from other sources. However, sadly, the quality of his scholarship is (in my view) spotty at best, and one can only hope that his thesis will attract the attention of other scholars to either confirm or refute the hypothesis.
If indeed this primitive Herodian Christianity did exist, the Romans might well have been promoting it not only in the Levant but also throughout the Jewish Diaspora and indeed throughout the entire Hellenized portion of the planet. And if this is the case, there might well have been an “Apostle Paul” who was evangelizing around the Mediterranean and writing epistles to his churches, and if so, this “Paul” with his Roman and Herodian allegiances would have been seen by rebellious Messianic Jews in Jerusalem as a “Spouter of Lies”, just as Eisenman says.
One of the most predominant criticisms of Caesar’s Messiah is the evidence (however meager or controversial it might be) that Christianity existed much earlier than the time of Vespasian. And if any or all of this speculation is correct, then of course (literally speaking) the Flavians didn’t exactly invent Christianity. But they certainly did re-invent it, while obliterating any conclusive evidence that there had been anything earlier.
The fact is that we don’t have any of the source documents (such as “Q” or “proto-Luke” or the “Hebrew Gospel”) that are postulated by redaction criticism; nor do we have the hypothetical original autographs of the (Julian) Gospel of Mark Anthony, nor the (Herodian) Gospel of Marcus Agrippa, nor the pre-Flavian Pauline epistles. If Atwill’s hypothesis is correct, it certainly follows that any and all earlier sources have been heavily redacted if not completely re-written by the Flavians, and this fact needs to be the basis of any further analysis. While there may be some truth in what the redaction critics and the Julian Origins theorists and Huller are saying, Atwill is simply not interested in participating in this speculation.
The Flavians and the Jewish Rebellion of 66 CE
Regardless of whatever stratagems the Romans and Herodians might have devised during a hundred years of uneasy peace, they assuredly did not succeed in healing the deep wounds stemming from the Roman conquest. A movement organized by Jewish sects known as the Zealots and Sicarii was continually fomenting revolution, and in 66 CE the Jews rose up and drove the Romans and Herodians out of the country. Nero sent his general Vespasian, along with Vespasian’s son Titus, to recover the lost territory.
Vespasian’s family was intimately connected with the Herodians as well as another powerful Jewish family, the Alexanders of Egypt. When Nero was killed in suspicious circumstances, the support of the Alexanders and Herodians was crucial to Vespasian’s effort to gain the throne. This group of families obviously had the means, the motive, and the opportunity to create a new religion for Judea, and indeed for the entire world. Atwill continues:
…it is odd that so many members of the Flavian family were recorded as having been among Christianity’s first members. Why was a Judaic cult that advocated meekness and poverty so attractive to a family that practiced neither? The tradition connecting early Christianity and the Flavian family is based on solid evidence but has received little comment from scholars (38).
The rogue’s gallery of possible Flavian Christians cited in Caesar’s Messiah includes Titus’s mistress Bernice (possibly the same person as St. Veronica), Titus Flavius Sabinus (consul in 82 CE, Vespasian’s nephew), Sabinus’s brother the theologian Titus Flavius Clemens, Sabinus’s wife Flavia Domitilla, and the early Pope known as Clement. The patron Saint of France, St. Petronilla, was another member of what the Catholic Church refers to as the ‘Christian Flavii’. Legend had it that Petronilla was the daughter of St. Peter, but sixteenth-century notices show that she was related to the Flavius Clemens mentioned above, whose great-grandfather was Titus Flavius Petronius.[xviii] The New Testament also records that the Flavians hosted leaders of the early church in their court. While in some cases the sources of this information are late and hagiographic, in other cases multiple and/or possibly primary sources attest to early Flavian involvement in Christianity. These circumstances are extraordinarily difficult to explain if the origins of Christianity are as they are usually depicted: a movement built of humble fishermen, merchants and slaves from Judaea. But, as Atwill noted:
A Roman origin would also explain why so many members of a Roman imperial family, the Flavians, were recorded as being among the first Christians. The Flavians would have been among the first Christians because, having invented the religion, they were, in fact, the first Christians (33).
The great historian of that era, Josephus, soon became part of the Flavian milieu. As the story goes: initially a commander of the rebel forces in the Jewish War, Josephus (who claims to have been born as Josephus bar Matthias, a good Hasmonean name) was captured and delivered to the Romans. Given an audience with Vespasian, the historian predicted that the famous Star Prophecy of Isaiah would be fulfilled with Vespasian’s rise to the throne of the Roman Empire. When the prophecy was fulfilled, the grateful Vespasian adopted ‘Flavius’ Josephus into the royal family, and granted him the patronage necessary to write his extensive works. Therefore, Josephus’s history of the Jewish War, which ended in a tremendous bloodbath and the defeat of the Jewish rebellion in 73 CE, must be read with the understanding that it is a perfect example of the proverb “history is written by the winners.”
The Flavian Origins Theory is Straight-Talking Common Sense.
History tells us that Flavius Constantine the Great, inspired by a vision of a flaming cross of light at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 CE, shifted the vast patronage of the Roman government and its tax revenues to Christianity. The Christian Church was endowed with lands and property, and the entire city of Constantinople was built from the ground up as a Christian city. The Council of Nicea was held to unify the tenets of the religion under Constantine’s direction, and all the diverse sectarian forms of Christianity (aside from Roman Catholicism) became official heresies. Historians debate whether Constantine was truly a descendant of the Flavian dynasty of Vespasian, Titus and Domitian, or whether his genealogy was a fabrication, in which case his family name may have been chosen in homage to the Flavians and their creation of Christianity.
A brief pagan counter-revolution was attempted under Julian the Apostate (who reigned from 361-363 CE), but by 380 CE, the triumvirs Gratian, Valentinian II and Theodosius felt confident enough to issue the Edict of Thessalonica, which pronounced that all pagans and heretics in the entire Roman Empire “will suffer in the first place the chastisement of the divine condemnation and in the second the punishment of our authority which in accordance with the will of Heaven we shall decide to inflict.”[xix]
However, as the saying goes, “Rome was not built in a day.” Constantine’s experience in replacing the existing religions across the Roman Empire should be compared and contrasted with Akhenaten’s experience in his attempt to uproot the old religion of Egypt. Within a single generation, Akhenaten’s Atenite experiment was over, the old Gods and the old priesthood restored, and Akhenaten was all but erased from history (that is, unless he somehow lived on as a type of Moses in Canaan.) Religious beliefs are deeply and tenaciously held, and tend to be passed from generation to generation, so there is tremendous inertia and resistance to change. My view is that Constantine’s success must have been a result of many generations of sustained effort.
Long before Constantine’s time, Christianity (that is, Roman Catholicism) had manifested itself in a style that was clearly destined for Imperial greatness. As early as the epistle of Clement (~95 CE) the Church was already organized in a hierarchical, quasi-military fashion, taking orders from the Bishop of Rome, with a goal of evangelizing the world. Furthermore, as Atwill observed:
When one looks at the form of early Christianity, one sees not Judea, but Rome. The church’s structures of authority, its sacraments, its college of bishops, the title of the head of the religion – the supreme pontiff – were all based on Roman, not Judaic, traditions. Somehow, Judea left little trace on the form of a religion that purportedly originated inside of it (29).
Robert M. Price painted a vivid portrait of the absurdity of the conventional view of Christian origins:
Picture a religious ethic of conspicuous compromise with the occupying authorities, a gospel that tells its believers not to resist any who confiscate their property, but to pay Roman taxes and to carry a legionary’s field pack twice the distance stipulated by Roman law. Imagine a story that blames not just Jews but implicitly nationalistic, messianic Jews for the destruction of their temple. A story that has the messiah predict that the kingdom will be taken from Jews and given to a more worthy nation. Keep in mind how the preacher of this sect befriends Jews who collaborate with Rome and eulogizes a Roman centurion for having faith unparalleled among Jews. He is declared innocent by Roman authorities but nonetheless is done in by Jewish rulers. Then think of how the predictions of the fall of Jerusalem a single generation later correspond so closely to Josephus’ account of the events, and furthermore, how Josephus even mentions Jesus as a righteous man and even as the messiah of prophetic prediction (though he himself had proclaimed Vespasian the proper object of such prophecy). When someone suggests that Christianity may have been a “safe,” denatured, Roman-domesticated, messianic Methadone to replace the real and dangerous messianic heroin of the Zealots, and that Josephus had something to do with it, it does not sound unreasonable on the face of it.
Price, unfortunately, went on to reject the implications of his own analysis, adding:
What about the Roman-tilting anti-Judaism (maybe anti-Semitism) of the gospels? Again, the old explanations are quite natural and adequate: we are reading the documents of Gentile Christianity which viewed itself as superseding Judaism and Jewish Christianity. Why do their authors seem to kiss the Roman posterior? For apologetical reasons, to avoid persecution. Brandon, Eisler, and others saw that long ago.[xx]
Aside from begging the question of how and why these “Gentiles” would adopt a radical Jewish Messianic Christianity only to ultimately “supersede” it, or how any “Christian” sect that would kiss “the Roman posterior” could be considered anything other than a raw instrument of Roman government power: Price’s argument here is also based on a failure to understand the nature and extent of the specific literary evidence for Flavian complicity, which I will explain below.
Literary imitation, typology, and enigma
Regardless of any reader’s intuition about the likelihood of a Roman conspiracy to invent Christianity, Caesar’s Messiah is fundamentally evidence-based and grounded in literary analysis. The basic methodology is the assessment of literary imitation; that is, borrowing or mimesis. By borrowing literary elements from a predecessor, an author betrays his awareness of the precedent material, as well as revealing his viewpoint or analysis of it.
Literary imitation has been a common practice in all ages, and was highly revered among the authors of the Old Testament, who were especially fond of chiastic forms. Chiasm involves a series of literary elements that are placed in order and then referred to in reverse order, unwinding the chiasm: for example, ABCCBA. These structures can be brief, or very extensive: almost the entire Torah from the middle of Exodus to the end of Leviticus is said to be a giant chiasm. New Testament scholars discovered that the Gospel characters and events are often foreshadowed in the Old Testament, in a relationship in which the Old Testament model is called the ‘Type’ and the New Testament embodiment is called the ‘Antetype’. The theological study of ‘Types’ and ‘Antetypes’ is called Typology, and theological practitioners see New Testament events as evidence of Divine intervention in history. Modern secular literary critics, of course, see it as proof only that the New Testament authors studied the Old Testament and invoked its authority and wisdom in their writings.
In Caesar’s Messiah, Atwill focused on a particular variety of typology that involves a series of parallels that are dense, sequential, distinctive, and interpretable.[xxii] When these criteria are met in abundance, they can be considered as sure evidence of literary dependency. ‘Density’ relates to the number of parallels that occur within a brief amount of text; ‘sequence’ relates to the extent that the parallel references occur in the same order; ‘distinctiveness’ relates to the degree that the parallels must relate to unusual and infrequent words, names or concepts; and ‘interpretability’ relates to the extent that we can understand the reasoning behind the choice to use a particular literary reference; the ways in which the reference has been transformed or slavishly copied, as the case may be; and the point that the author is trying to make.
The New Testament makes abundant use of dense, sequential, distinctive and interpretable mimesis of the Old Testament. A good example is Matthew’s story of Jesus’s empty tomb, which draws from the tale of Daniel in the lion’s den.[xxiii] The parallels are highlighted in bold typeface:
Then a stone was brought and laid on the mouth of the den, and the king sealed it… Then the king arose very early in the morning and went in haste to the den of lions. And when he came to the den, he cried out … saying to Daniel, “Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God, whom you serve continually, been able to deliver you from the lions? Then Daniel said to the king, “O king, live forever! My God sent His angel and shut the lions’ mouths, so that they have not hurt me….”… And the king gave the command, and they brought those men who had accused Daniel, and they cast them into the den of lions … and the lions overpowered them, and broke all their bones in pieces … Then King Darius wrote: To all peoples, nations, and languages … I make a decree that in every dominion of my kingdom men must tremble and fear before the God of Daniel. For He is the living God… His dominion shall endure to the end…. And He works signs and wonders in heaven and on earth…
When Joseph had taken the body… he rolled a large stone against the door of the tomb… [Pilate’s guards] went and made the tomb secure, sealing the stone and setting the guard. Now after the Sabbath, as the first day of the week began to dawn, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone … And the guards … became like dead men. But the angel answered and said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for He is risen… Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee… And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations… and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
Parallels include the stone; the seal; the time (early in the morning, or at dawn); the angel sent from God; the guards (accusers) “like dead men” (or, killed); Daniel’s wish for the king to live forever, which foreshadows “Jesus is risen”; and the benediction to all nations in heaven and earth, under God’s dominion (authority) to the end of the age. All these specific parallels occur in two short, dense passages; generally (but not exactly) in sequence; and of course the message is that Daniel is a ‘Type’, that is, a prefiguration of Jesus who is the ‘Antetype’.
Similarly, the Old Testament Joseph (Genesis 45-50) is a type of the New Testament Joseph, and Moses (Exodus 1-32) is a type of Jesus (Matthew 2:13-4:10). As Atwill explains:
Joseph is described as bringing Jesus, who represents the “new Israel,” down to Egypt. … a previous Joseph brought the “old Israel” down to Egypt. … The New Testament Joseph is described, like his counterpart in the Hebrew Bible, as a dreamer of dreams and as having encounters with a star and wise men. Both stories regarding the journey of a Joseph to Egypt are immediately followed by a description of a massacre of innocents. … each massacre of the innocents’ story depicts young children being slaughtered by a fearful tyrant, but the future savior of Israel being saved. The authors of the New Testament then continue mirroring Exodus by having an angel tell Joseph, “They are dead which sought the young child’s life” (Matt. 2:20). This statement is a clear parallel to the statement made to Moses, the first savior of Israel, in Exodus 4:19: “All the men are dead which sought thy life.” The parallels then continue with Jesus receiving a baptism (Matt. 3:13), which mirrors the baptism of the Israelites (passing through water) described in Exodus 14. Next, Jesus spends 40 days in the desert, which parallels the 40 years the Israelites spend in the wilderness. Both sojourns in the desert involve three sets of temptations (16-17).
The first of these temptations involves bread; the second, tempting God; the third, worshiping and serving only God.
This typological mapping is widely acknowledged by scholars, even though the Old Testament half of the typology sprawls across acres and acres of Old Testament territory, and thus the entire argument could easily be criticized on the basis of Multiple Comparisons Fallacy (that is, each New Testament phrase is compared to many passages of the Old Testament, and thus you would expect a certain number of parallelisms to arise purely by random processes.) In other words, this example fails MacDonald’s density criterion. In this case, we certainly agree with the scholarly consensus that each individual parallel is sufficiently powerful to overcome the Multiple Comparisons bias inherent in this typological example as a whole.
It is important to notice that the differences between the ‘type’ and the ‘antetype’ passages, cannot defeat the proof of literary dependence. On the contrary, it is the differences that allow the later author to convey his own unique message. This point may be illustrated graphically with the three images of the Mona Lisa above.[xxiv] We know that the two images to the right are both inspired by the Mona Lisa (at the left) because of the shared theme and also because of the many shared details, even though the differences are also easy to spot, and each image has its own message to convey. Atwill’s position is that common sense is a good guide in determining whether literary mimesis is involved in linking two passages in literature, just as it’s a good guide in imagery.
Also, note that the use of literary mimesis does not (in itself) prove that the incident being described is fictional: a writer might easily decide to begin with a real but relatively mundane historical event, and dress it up with literary spices and delicacies. In our modern world, we would frown on a journalist or news reporter who was caught indulging in this sort of thing. However, no such code of ethics was even conceived of in ancient times; so the line between fact and fiction is not so easy to discern in ancient literature.