Joe Atwill, Bill O’Reilly, and Josephus sitting in a tree…

The romanticized woodcut engraving of Flavius ...
The romanticized woodcut engraving of Flavius Josephus appearing in William Whiston’s translation of his works. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tom has an update on Joe Atwill’s latest ‘project.’ But, I wanted to cover just a bit.

In an expensive press release – I checked, it is – Atwill writes:

Atwill’s most intriguing discovery came to him while he was studying “Wars of the Jews” by Josephus alongside the New Testament. “I started to notice a sequence of parallels between the two texts,” he recounts. “Although it’s been recognised by Christian scholars for centuries that the prophesies of Jesus appear to be fulfilled by what Josephus wrote about in the First Jewish-Roman war, I was seeing dozens more. What seems to have eluded many scholars is that the sequence of events and locations of Jesus ministry are more or less the same as the sequence of events and locations of the military campaign of Titus Flavius as described by Josephus. This is clear evidence of a deliberately constructed pattern. The biography of Jesus is actually constructed, tip to stern, on prior stories, but especially on the biography of a Roman Caesar.”

A few months ago, when my book on Mimetic Criticism came out, someone emailed and said they were sending snippets to Atwill because we seem to say the same things.


First, Atwill and others of his ward fail to mention Paul. Second, they must rely on conspiracy theories and not fact. A ‘government project?’

Third, while I do believe Mark is writing against Rome (Vespasian) and even fellow Jews (Simon bar Giora) by using known stories he is doing so based on a historical figure and a pre-existing outline. This is the only way it would work and the only way Mark could appeal to /an/Christians. As far as the ‘tip to stern’ scenario, this is ludicrous. While there are some passages (Mark 6-8) that bear a nice resemblance to passages in Josephus, it is Josephus who is more than likely looking at the story of Elijah-Elisha to draw reflectively some of the details in his works. This is why Mark 6-8 reflects the Elijah-Elisha narratives and Josephus. After all, he pictured himself as the Elijah-spirit to Vespasian’s Governor of the World/Messiah and knows his narratives quite well. It was later recognized by some of Josephus’s peers that he creatively rewrote the history of the Jewish Wars. To be frank, to be challenged in such a way, in such a time, shows easily just how bad Josephus’s history was.

Turning back to Atwill’s propaganda. Scholars generally do not hold to the definition Evangelicals and others assign to ‘prophecy.’ This is why we have terms like postdiction and Vaticinium ex eventu. Further, I would go further and suggest many ancients were not as naive as we would like to make them out to be and understood this form of storytelling. Read Quintillan. This is why Virgil could get away with recreating Augustus’s birth. Poets were enjoyed because the people could know what they were saying.

Going further, Titus wasn’t Emperor during the Jewish Revolt. This is an anachronism, something Bill O’Reilly has never heard of and something Atwill cannot get enough of. Another one is Atwill’s insistence on the biography of Jesus. There is no single biography of the historical Jesus written. There are many bios and other writings in other genres written about the theological figure of Jesus. We have four canonical gospels, but canon generally means more to the Church than to the scholar who should investigate non-canonical sources as well if they are really intent on discovering the historical Jesus. Atwill, by the way (at least in his 2005 version of Caesar’s Messiah) says the Jesus in John’s Gospel is different than the Jesuses in the Synoptics. That’s right. There are four different Jesuses, maybe a fifth. Finally, Titus wasn’t Caesar until 79, dying in 81, although he was awarded the title of Caesar (along with his brother) after the Roman Triumph.

Why Titus? Because Atwill believes — contrary to everything in history — Titus thought himself, or was thought by Josephus, to be the true messiah. Thus, Jesus becomes the ‘Malachi’ (Atwill’s allegoricalizing of the entire OT book is worth noting). Jesus is Elijah. This ignores the actual sayings of the Gospels about John the Baptizer and what Josephus says of himself in relation to Vespasian, as noted above. Not only this, but it ignores how Vespasian and Titus saw themselves later in life.

As we are reminded in Winn’s masterful work, Vespasian needed the Jewish messianism because of his heritage. He used Egyptian religious thoughts as well, but once he was solidly enthroned, he discarded these. This is why Josephus was ignored and forgotten. By the time Titus arrives, there is no need for propaganda beyond the usual. Clearly, Vespasian’s final quip has fallen on ignorant ears with Atwill.

Atwill’s reconstruction of history bears no actual similarity to history. Not only that, Atwill cannot even accurately read Josephus! It wasn’t the Flavians who continued to need Jewish propaganda, but Josephus.

There is so much to write about how idiotic Atwill’s thesis is, but I don’t have the time to correct all the stupidity in the world…

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23 Replies to “Joe Atwill, Bill O’Reilly, and Josephus sitting in a tree…”

  1. No wonder Richard Carrier gets frustrated with mythicists.

    Adam Winn’s work is really nice, it’s just a pity he continually feels the need to step back and say “I know what this seems to imply, but *of course* there’s a real, historcial core to the story.” You did a bit of the same thing as did Michael Peppard. It makes you sound a bit desperate, even if you’re not.

    Anyway, of course Atwill is nuts, but I still think “using known stories he is doing so based on a historical figure and a pre-existing outline. This is the only way it would work and the only way Mark could appeal to /an/Christians.” is overstating the case. Yes, there must have been some preëxisting belief in Jesus the Christ – Christians, if you will – but insisting that these beliefs be based in history sounds like too strong a conclusion. It is enough that Mark and his audience believed there to be a historical basis.

    Shorter me: “Waa, waa, waa – we’re not all like that!”

    1. I don’t think it is desperation at all. I think it is attempting to convey our sense that we know how the unlearned will view such statements. That is why we say, we know how this looks but go further. Consider this.

      Re: historical basis: If we were talking about beliefs and documents written 2000 years later, sure, but given their close proximity and the inclusion of statements in Mark indicating he has seen Jesus as well as Paul who met people who met Jesus, this is a bit different.

      1. Answer this then, why did Emperor Constantine, add Flavius to his name, and just coincidentally, he made Christianity an excepted religion in the Roman Empire, and he put his triumphal arch, right next to the Flavian amphitheatre, (the coliseum) and right around where Domitians statue had once stood, and why does the Flavian family, somehow end up in the Catholic dictionary of the earliest actually known to have lived Christians, and we even have Christian literature, in the pseudo- clementines,.

        Don’t tell me that’s why they are pseudo, where there is smoke there is fire, why would so many Flavians whined up in the legends of early Christianity? Domitila Flavian, a whole list.

  2. As I interpreted your original post, I thought you were referring to the text rather than the movie. I I misread you, I apologize.
    Meanwhile, I am wondering whether Atwill’s thesis would have gained any traction had late 20th century Christianity not become so politicized as to become intolerably polarizing. At the same time, Atwill makes a valid point. No primary sources exist from Jesus. EVERYTHING we know about him comes from secondary sources. This, in turn, becomes fruit for speculation.
    Thus, while being a rather nebulous historical character was once a strong selling point Jesus’ divinity, it has become an apparent weakness of late. Besides, even beyond Atwill, Christianity as we know it is largely a construct of Constantine’s minions.
    It is also quite possible that O’Reilly may be on to something by suggesting that Jesus had to die because he messed with the Temple’s money-making enterprise. There are several parallels to this in late 20th and early 21st century America. Among them are the National Football League’s attempts to kill the credibility of forensic neuropathologist Bennet Omalu after former Pittsburgh coroner’s office employee revealed chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) atter examining “Iron Mike” Webster’s autopsied brain. Then, there is the ongoing Republican political temper tantrum over the Affordable (Health) Care Act (Obamacare) that threatens the profitability of American’s privatized healthcare system.

  3. A cynic could say that Jesus is as product of meme. After all, the historical record is that of some poor guy from the religious backwaters possessed with the notion that he had a divine connection. One could further argue that Christianity is predicated on mysticism with believers trying to connect with God through Jesus. Of course, the concept of the Trinity is an attempt to negate that perspective.
    By, the way, sorry about the typos in my previous post. I would fire the typist, but………..

    1. But, said cynic would then reveal himself not knowing how religions begin. This is the common element of mythicists – those who believe the entire story of Jesus is nothing by a myth with absolutely no historical basis – that they take Scripture the same way fundamentalists do, at face value.

      Mysticism, yes. Mythicism, no.

      I try not to point out typos… that would be the big, giant, blacker than black pot calling the kettle gray.

      1. All too often, the most dangerous lies are predicted on some fact. Even worse, as Hitler pointed out and later proved, those unaccustomed to telling big lies are likely to believe them.
        The true gift of Atwill may be in his dissection of propaganda. His insights might even rival those of Edward Bernays – howbeit from the other side of the fence.

      1. One person’s exaggeration may be another’s fabrication. The devil is always in the details or, at the very least, in the interpretation thereof.

  4. “Atwill’s reconstruction of history bares no actual similarity to history.”

    Bares? Takes all its clothes off?

    Nonsense! It carries – bears – no similarity.

    “”Atwill’s reconstruction of history bears no actual similarity to history.”

  5. Not that I disagree with your overall criticism of Atwill, but I noticed you said “Going further, Titus wasn’t Emperor during the Jewish Revolt…, Titus wasn’t Caesar until 79, dying in 81”

    To keep things clear and avoid straw men — I’ve never seen Atwill mention Titus was Caesar during the revolt — Atwill only says that Titus was THE SON of Caesar (son of Vespasian/god) during his military campaign in Judea against the Jewish Revolt.

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