A Short Response to the “Covert Messiah” Thesis

A friend recently pointed this article and the source to me. My response is below.


Response to Article and Atwill’s Thesis

First, they are completely lacking any real hard evidence. They constantly boast documentation, but never deliver. The closest they come to documentary evidence for their thesis is parallelism in Philo and Josephus. There are also massive issues of competing worldviews never checked, explained, compared, contrasted or “laid bare” as they say.

Faulty Historical Methodology. They make constant appeal to emotion, and the-need-for-the-truth-to-get-out-rhetoric (though they never really deliver). They also obviously have an agenda, since they say so. An agenda makes for poor archeological conclusions, especially when the world of archaeology and all the evidence is to the contrary.

They constantly overstate their case. Like, “In fact he [Jesus] may be the only fictional character in literature whose entire life story can be traced to other sources. Once those sources are all laid bare, there’s simply nothing left.” What does he mean laid bare? If he means to have the evidence “speak for itself” he has a big problem for his thesis, since the contents of the Gospels militate against Philo, Josephus, the mystery religions, and the policy of Rome upon which he basis his thesis s co-conspirators and sources of information.

It also does not make any sense of actual documentary evidence. E.g.  Pliny’s explanations of his persecution to Emperor Trajan in his Letters 10.96-96. Here is the letter at length:

Pliny to the Emperor Trajan

“It is my practice, my lord, to refer to you all matters concerning which I am in doubt. For who can better give guidance to my hesitation or inform my ignorance? I have never participated in trials of Christians. I therefore do not know what offenses it is the practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent. And I have been not a little hesitant as to whether there should be any distinction on account of age or no difference between the very young and the more mature; whether pardon is to be granted for repentance, or, if a man has once been a Christian, it does him no good to have ceased to be one; whether the name itself, even without offenses, or only the offenses associated with the name are to be punished.

Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished. There were others possessed of the same folly; but because they were Roman citizens, I signed an order for them to be transferred to Rome.

Soon accusations spread, as usually happens, because of the proceedings going on, and several incidents occurred. An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ–none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do–these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.

They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food–but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.

I therefore postponed the investigation and hastened to consult you. For the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found. Hence it is easy to imagine what a multitude of people can be reformed if an opportunity for repentance is afforded.

Trajan to Pliny

You observed proper procedure, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those who had been denounced to you as Christians. For it is not possible to lay down any general rule to serve as a kind of fixed standard. They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it–that is, by worshiping our gods–even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance. But anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any prosecution. For this is both a dangerous kind of precedent and out of keeping with the spirit of our age.”

This document alone would explode their whole thesis. What was happening at the time was that Judaism had a privileged place in Roman society. Jews were allowed to not pay homage to Caesar. After a.d., 90 when the Synogogues of Asia Minor (note its only Asia minor at this time) officially excluded the Christians from even being a sect of Judaism, and implemented what was called the “Christian curse.” Pliny was persecuting Christians on the basis of the law. They were not Jews, thus they were not allowed to take exception to paying homage to Caesar. This was the ground of Domitian’s persecutions, and made precedence for Trajan and other Caesars’ persecutions.

To make their thesis work: First, Atwill and others have to show that the intention of Pliny’s writing was dubiously trying to implant tin the minds of their political enemies a belief system that militates against Judaism. And then they have to explain why Rome was killing Christians (the group of their own making) for not being Jews.

Further, they claim Christianity to be the invention of Roman Julio-Flavian Emperors. The problem is that these and nearly every other Roman Emperor until Constantine (c. 4th century) persecuted Christianity (including Constantine until his conversion).

They have to deal with the absolutely massive amount of actual documentary evidence demonstrating a holistic organically developing Christian church in the 1st through 4th centuries which spoke against Rome, and against Judaism, the mystery religions, the ancient pagan myths, etc.. Here is a list of where to start. They catalogue all early Christian writings, writings about Christianity, writings against, and many others.  www.ccel.org, or www.newadvent.org

The basis of their “evidence” is psychological archetypes and geographical parallels between the campaign of Titus and the ministry of Jesus. First off, the method of applying archtypes to ancient sources as a model to interpretation is passé because it’s the same thing as allegorizing them. If anyone still believes this they deserve to be catapulted into the sea as a trial by ordeal as according to their  Mesopotamian common law they probably still adhere to from their school days.

The end result is they impute conspiracy to every document concerning Christianity ever written in the ancient world, and ignorance of this to those who were not conspirators (including those not in favor of Christianity such as the Jews and Romans). Let me state this again. They literally have to argue that every document about Christianity (Roman, Jewish, Christian, et al.) are in concerted conspiracy since they all claim the same basic narrative of what happened. Let me make this clearer. If you have three people watching the same event each may have a different view of why something happened, but all three can agree on the facts of what did happen. That’s what we find in the ancient world concerning Jesus Christ. Atwill and his companions would have to demonstrate that.

The whole thing dies the death of a thousand qualifications. They’d never be able to sustain this thesis in real academic circles (by which I mean those who’ve read the documents). Their common fallacies are anachronism, implying collusion between mutually exclusive belief systems and groups, and several issues with their understanding of geography and society at the time. It’s hard to believe these men have a firm grasp on even what the contents of the documents are in the ancient Greco-Roman world (who wrote them, when and why), let alone their beliefs, claims, and present interpretations according to current schools of thought (Christian and secular).