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Ear to the Ground

‘This Pseudo-Historical Nonsense Is Over a Century Old’

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Posted on Oct 11, 2013
biblevector (CC BY 2.0)

A link to a press release announcing that a scholar will present evidence showing Jesus Christ to be a deliberate invention by first-century Roman elites drew huge attention when it appeared in the regular Truthdig feature known as “Larry’s List” on Thursday. Historian and atheist Richard Carrier, who also believes Jesus never existed, says O-ha!

Sort-of scholar Joseph Atwill proposes that “the Romans directed the writing” of the New Testament in order “to offer a vision of a ‘peaceful Messiah’ who would serve as an alternative to the revolutionary leaders who were rocking first-century Israel and threatening Rome.” For lovers of the quest for truth, Dan Brown mysteries and atheists alike, it is an exciting hypothesis, but it does not survive a rigorous going over by reason, contends Carrier, who holds a Ph.D. in ancient history from Columbia University.

“Notice [that Atwill’s] theory entails a massive and weirdly erudite conspiracy of truly bizarre scope and pedigree, to achieve a truly Quixotic aim that hardly makes sense coming from any half-intelligent elite of the era. … All to posit that the entire Christian religion was created by the Romans (and then immediately opposed by it?), who somehow got hundreds of Jews … to abandon their religion and join a cult that simply appeared … on the Palestinian … book market without endorsement,” he says.

“Atwill’s is very much like Bible Code crankery,” he continues, “where he looks for all kinds of multiple comparisons fallacies and sees conspiracies in all of them, rather than the inevitable coincidences … that they really are. Everything confirms his thesis, because nothing could ever fail to. Classic nonfalsifiability. He just cherry picks and interprets anything to fit, any way he wants.”

“Multiple comparisons fallacy” occurs when a scholar, investigator or excited conspiracy theorist finds similarities between different bodies of evidence and then concludes, on the basis of a high number of similarities, that their existence supports or proves the hypothesis. “Nonfalsifiability” means that a hypothesis cannot be proven true or false, and is thus no longer a candidate for scientific investigation. On the basis of Atwill’s argument and evidence, then, his proposition can be treated neither as true or false, but either probable or improbable.

“There are at least eight general problems with his thesis, which do not refute it but establish that it has a very low prior probability, and therefore requires exceptionally good evidence to be at all credible,” Carrier continues. See a few of those problems below, then continue to Carrier’s site to read the fascinating rest, including a long exchange between him and Atwill. Additionally, Carrier’s arguments against the existence of a historical Christ can be found on his site as well.

—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

Richard Carrier:

(1) The Roman aristocracy was nowhere near as clever as Atwill’s theory requires. They certainly were not so masterfully educated in the Jewish scriptures and theology that they could compose hundreds of pages of elegant passages based on it. And it is very unlikely they would ever conceive of a scheme like this, much less think they could succeed at it (even less, actually do so).

... (3) The Gospels and the Epistles all contradict each other far too much to have been composed with a systematic aim in mind. Indeed, they contradict each other in ways that often demonstrate they are deliberately arguing with each other. From the ways Matthew changes Mark… to how the resurrections depicted in Luke and John are deliberate attempts to refute the doctrine of resurrection defended originally by Paul… to how some Epistles insist on Torah observance while others insist it can be discarded; to how Luke’s nativity contradicts Matthew’s on almost every single particular… to how Acts blatantly contradicts Paul’s own account of his conversion and travels; to how John invents a real Lazarus to refute a point Luke tried to make with a fictional Lazarus; and so on.

... (5) Christianity was probably constructed to “divert Jewish hostility and aggressiveness into a pacifist religion, supportive of–and subservient to–Roman rule,” but not by Romans, but exasperated Jews like Paul, who saw Jewish militarism as unacceptably disastrous in contrast with the obvious advantages of retooling their messianic expectations to produce the peaceful moral reform of society. The precedents were all there already in pre-Christian Jewish ideology and society (in Philo’s philosophy, in Essene and Qumranic efforts to solve the same problems, and so on) so we don’t have to posit super-genius Aryans helping the poor little angry Jews to calm down.

... (8) The Romans knew one thing well: War. Social ideology they were never very good at.[*] That’s why Rome always had such problems keeping its empire together, and why social discontent and other malfunctions continued to escalate until the empire started dissolving. Rome expected to solve every problem militarily instead–and up until the 3rd century Rome did so quite well. The Jewish War was effectively over in just four years (any siege war was expected to take at least three, and Vespasian was actually busy conquering Rome in the fourth year of that War). So why would they think they needed any other solution?

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