Independent Online recycles “stunning claims” from 2013 claiming Jesus Christ was ‘fabricated’ as Roman propaganda

Four-year-old, irrelevant article is rehashed to churn up advertising revenue

Independent Online recycles article from 2013

Yesterday (10th November) the Independent Online re-publicized “stunning claims” on Facebook that the “story of Jesus Christ was ‘fabricated to pacify the poor’, [according to] controversial Biblical scholar” — only to point to a news story which was printed in October 2013 and is now of no relevance.

Even I had to read the story twice before realizing this was from 10th October 2013, not 10th November 2017.

Independent Online Story of Jesus Christ was 'fabricated to pacify the poor'
The article recently promoted by the Independent Online dates from October 2013

The article pointed out the first appearance in London of a controversial American biblical scholar, Joseph Atwill, at the ‘Covert Messiah’ conference to “present his theory that the New Testament was written by first-century Roman aristocrats and that they entirely fabricated the story of Jesus Christ.”

“I had to read this story twice before realizing this was from 10th October 2013, not 10th November 2017!”

The article did at least have the decency to distance itself from the claims, with the headline including the words, “claims controversial Biblical scholar.” Further, the body of the article referred to a tweet by Richard Dawkins linking to the press release advertising the event — only to point out also, that he later distanced himself from the claims in a subsequent tweet, saying, “RT doesn’t imply endorsement. I’m not qualified to judge Atwill’s thesis.”

This ‘objective reporting’, if I may so call it, is unlike some more recent articles published by the Independent Online where the headline has either wholly endorsed the conspiracy theory in question — or has simply pontificated that the Bible is factually wrong. Both articles have been widely discredited — see, respectively, my comments here and here.

Therefore I have no issue to take with the 2013 article itself — although one does wonder whether the Independent Online would have bothered to take note of a more serious, but less scandalous, theory, scholar or conference rocking up on the streets of London.

“[It] begs the question — why is the Independent Online re-publicizing [this article] on Facebook four years after the event?”

But the conference in question — and Joseph Atwill’s appearance thereat — came and went around 19th October 2013. Which begs the question — why is the Independent Online re-publicizing it on Facebook four years after the event?

The answer will of course be obvious to anyone who regularly sees the Independent Online’s other “stunning claims,” take action “immediately” posts and other clickbait served up on social media.

“If one were to accept every crackpot theory about Christianity publicized and re-publicized by the Independent Online, […] then one would have to hold simultaneously together a lot of very contradictory conspiracy stories about how the beginnings of the Christian faith came about.”

These social media posts always generate plenty of comments, shares, and impassioned (if often ill-informed) discussion. And frankly, re-posting a four-year-old article which is guaranteed to generate thousands of clicks is a bit of free work for somebody at the Independent Online.

Of course, if one were to accept every crackpot theory about Christianity publicized and re-publicized by the Independent Online — and enough commenters on social media seem willing to — then one would have to hold simultaneously together a lot of very contradictory conspiracy stories about how the beginnings of the Christian faith came about.

The fact that none of these “controversial Biblical scholars” can seem to agree with each other about how Christianity started, ought to be a clear indicator that maybe — just maybe — the New Testament really can be taken at face value, and Jesus Christ really is the Son of God, raised from the dead.

Why is the story of Jesus Christ not ‘fabricated to pacify the poor’?

I will briefly give some reasons why Joseph Atwill’s theory is a crackpot theory and doesn’t stand up to any kind of historical scrutiny.

The Independent Online article summarizes Mr. Atwill’s thesis as follows:—

“Outlining his ideas in a blog posting on his website Mr Atwill writes: ‘Christianity may be considered a religion, but it was actually developed and used as a system of mind control to produce slaves that believed God decreed their slavery.’

“Mr Atwill says that acts of insurrection by Jewish sects, who were awaiting the arrival of a so-called ‘warrior Messiah’ in Palestine, were a perpetual problem for the Roman Empire and that after the Empire had exhausted all traditional means of dealing with the problem they resorted to psychological warfare.

“‘They surmised that the way to stop the spread of zealous Jewish missionary activity was to create a competing belief system,’ Atwill told PRWeb.com

“‘That’s when the “peaceful” Messiah story was invented.

“‘Instead of inspiring warfare, this Messiah urged turn-the-other-cheek pacifism and encouraged Jews to “give [u]nto Caesar” and pay their taxes to Rome.’”

“Mr Atwill continues: ‘Although Christianity can be a comfort to some, it can also be very damaging and repressive, an insidious form of mind control that has led to blind acceptance of serfdom, poverty, and war throughout history.’”

This is not the first time that the theory that Christianity was a Roman political invention has been set forth. A very similar hypothesis was put forth by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh in their 1991 book, ‘The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception’ (see chapter 16, ‘Paul — Roman agent or informer?’[1]). Interestingly, these two writers can’t even consistently seem to agree with themselves.[2]

However, here are three, very simple reasons why Joseph Atwill’s hypothesis cannot possibly be viable:—

1. The Roman Empire was a major persecutor of the Christian faith

“If the Christian faith was an invention of the Roman aristocracy to deal with Jewish insurrection, how comes it that successive Roman emperors and provincial authorities persecuted the Christian believers, even putting many of them to death?”

If the Christian faith was an invention of the Roman aristocracy to deal with Jewish insurrection, how comes it that successive Roman emperors and provincial authorities persecuted the Christian believers, even putting many of them to death?

I won’t even begin to enumerate the number of Christian martyrs from the first two centuries of the Christian faith. Here is just one, authentic example, taken from the book of Revelation, written (it is believed by John the disciple of the Lord) around 95 A.D. In Revelation 2:13 he writes,

“I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.”

We have a letter of Pliny the Younger, the Roman governor of Bithynia and Pontus (now in modern Turkey), to Emperor Trajan around 112 A.D.

“The only way [Pliny’s] report to the emperor [Trajan] makes sense, is as a movement which has either sprouted out of Judea without the approbation of the Roman authorities; or it has sprouted up out of the grassroots population of Bithynia and Pontus. In fact, both of these were true.”

In it, he asks the emperor for advice on how to deal with Christians who were brought to court before him on anonymous accusations. The only crime they appear to be chargeable with, is their refusal to worship the Roman gods.[3]

Trajan’s reply was that if the Christians were found guilty of such a crime, they were to be punished; however, he was not to seek them out.[4]

Now, how could the governor of Bithynia and Pontus not be aware of Christianity as a fabrication of the Roman state, if that were so? And why would the emperor command him to punish any who obstinately refused to worship the Roman gods?

The only way this report to the emperor makes sense, is as a movement which has either sprouted out of Judea without the approbation of the Roman authorities; or it has sprouted up out of the grassroots population of Bithynia and Pontus. In fact, both of these were true.

2. The New Testament is occasionally violently anti-imperial

One of the most famous texts in the Gospels records Jesus saying,

“Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”[5]

However, in spite of this, some texts of the New Testament are violently anti-imperial.

I could turn to many more hostile texts than this, but let us first consider the accusations brought against Jesus when he was handed over, by the Jewish high priests, to the governor Pontius Pilate. John tells us:—

Then they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters. It was early morning. They themselves did not enter the governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover.  So Pilate went outside to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” They answered him, “If this man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered him over to you.” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” The Jews said to him, “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.” This was to fulfil the word that Jesus had spoken to show by what kind of death he was going to die.
John 18:28-32

And a little farther on:—

From then on Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.” So when Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judgement seat at a place called The Stone Pavement, and in Aramaic Gabbatha. Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, “Behold your King!” They cried out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” So he delivered him over to them to be crucified.
John 19:12-16

“Why would the supposed Roman writers of the New Testament have written such a thing as this? Can you imagine anything more likely to inflame Jewish sentiments?”

Apart from one might say about the facts recorded here — e.g., why would Pilate have crucified a man who was the Roman Empire’s own agent? — one might more contend, Why would the supposed Roman writers of the New Testament have written such a thing as this? Can you imagine anything more likely to inflame Jewish sentiments, than the recording of the crucifixion of a righteous man — at the request of the Jewish high priests — in the middle of the Jewish Passover festival?

Whatever else you might say about the ending of John’s Gospel, this much is certain: It cannot be the fabrication of the Roman authorities. Such a text is only ever going to lead to more hostility against the Roman rule, not less.

3. “The meek shall inherit the earth” is an Old Testament doctrine

I suppose one of the New Testament texts which was supposed to ‘pacify the poor’ was Jesus’ statement, in the Sermon on the Mount, that “the meek shall inherit the earth”:—

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
Matthew 5:5

One very serious argument against the New Testament’s having been written as a way of pacifying the Jewish poor, is the fact that Jesus is saying nothing particularly new here.

Jesus here is only re-stating a verse from the Old Testament Psalms — well known to every observant Jew in the first century A.D. — which says,

But the meek shall inherit the land
and delight themselves in abundant peace.
Psalm 37:11

“Jesus here is only re-stating a verse from the Old Testament Psalms — well known to every observant Jew in the first century A.D.”

So much of the New Testament — like this passage — is echoing, and in many cases re-interpreting, the Old Testament scriptures so much beloved and treasured by the Jewish people.

Is it conceivable that the Roman aristocracy could have produced a manifesto for the Jewish poor, at once so thoroughly Jewish, and Old Testamenty, and yet convinced anybody to stop rising up in insurrection?

If I may say, it’s frankly easier to believe that the God of the Jewish people raised Jesus from the dead.

 

 

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Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 


[1] Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception. Corgi Books, 1992. pp.317ff.

[2] A survey of three of their most well-known books (The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982); The Messianic Legacy (1986); The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception (1991)) will reveal hopeless inconsistencies in their ‘version’ of how the Christian faith started.

[3] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pliny_the_Younger_on_Christians.

[4] You can read the text of these letters at http://faculty.georgetown.edu/jod/texts/pliny.html.

[5] Matthew 22:21

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