Jesus was Propaganda?

First, a big thanks to Mel for sending me this interesting story.

According to American Biblical scholar, Joseph Atwill, he’s convinced that “the New Testament was written by first-century Roman aristocrats and that they fabricated the entire story of Jesus Christ.” He will present his findings in a symposium on October 19th (a mere 10 days!) in London in case you want to hop a plane and catch his talk.

Atwill believes that Christianity was part of a propaganda campaign developed by the Roman government to pacify “the Jewish sects in Palestine at the time, who were waiting for a prophesied warrior Messiah, [and who] were a constant source of violent insurrection during the first century.” The goal was to encourage subjects of the Roman Empire to behave, to turn the other check and just pay their taxes to Rome, damn it.

If it is indeed true that Jesus Christ was a fictional character, I’m wondering if religions will now have to pay royalties, or at the very least, naming rights, to the descendants of those aristocrats.

I must admit the story of Jesus as a political ploy is an intriguing idea, although it seems a bit far-fetched, even to someone who doesn’t believe that he was divine. Of course, I haven’t listened to Atwill’s talk, and I have not read his book, but I just think it would require one helluva coordinated effort for the Aristocrats to make up the story of Jesus & co and sell it to the people. Besides, it makes sense that the New Testament would be based on actual historical events and actual people who viewed the world through a mystical, superstitious lens.

On the other hand, Atwill’s theory also makes sense. Leaders were closely allied with their gods, and in ancient times, kings were god-kings. If people wanted protection from a clan, then they had to be a believer. While modern man has the ability–and the luxury–to read and reason and choose a religion if he desires, ancient people did not.

Perhaps a handful of enterprising aristocrats did decide to write the best-selling story ever as a way to manipulate their subjects. It’s certainly interesting that Jesus came along not only as a reinforcement but also as a one-up to Judaism. Yeah, your Messiah arrived. Now be quiet and follow us in lockstep. And Jesus didn’t refute the Old Testament; he just came to give new instructions on how to live together, how to place nice and how to worship his father, the god-king.

Who knows? What all this does show us is how much we are at the mercy of history and of those who record it. We understand very little in the big picture. And what we think we know–as well as the languages we use to record and understand–are organic, changing. History is mostly hearsay, and certainly, religious texts are proof of this.

What seems to be happening, however, is that we are moving toward a more democratized view of god. To each his own. You don’t need no stinkin’ book or preacher to know Him.  God is whoever you want or need him to be.

For those of us who don’t believe, this story makes no difference one way or the other. Jesus has always been part of religion’s propaganda machine.



37 responses to “Jesus was Propaganda?

  1. Aw, there you go thinking again, Debbie. It was most certainly the Bible that was my final push away from Christianity. I find that interesting because it was what started my skepticism about 20 years prior to begin with. Stories did not match up whatsoever, morality changed with each character in the Bible regardless if their existence was pre ten commandments or not. What began my deconversion was when I found it awfully similar to the Talmud and Koran. Two books I absolutely despised as a Christian, yet, they had much of the same laws and morality as my beloved holy book. Then I began to realize the era in which the King James version came out and its connection to slavery and dominance. Not to mention, the Sinai Bible has almost 15,000 differences than what we read today. It’s like my blogging friend Victoria has told me….Imagine the U S Constitution lost or thrown away, men can no longer copy the original, they just end up copying one man’s version after another and another. That’s what has happened with the Bible. No wonder preachers and teachers of the “word” at Churches and on television go over the same scriptures over and over again. If Christians were to actually read scriptures throughout the Bible, instead of what they’re told (encouraged) to read repeatedly, Christianity would decline rapidly.

    • @Chope I agree with you. People should be encourage to read the Bible (OT and NT) and the Quran so that they can see their religions are all very similar. As an adult reading the Bible, I thought, “How can people believe in this thing??” No telling how many errors were made by the monks copying those transcripts by hand, nor how many changes were made because someone thought it was “better.” Not sure we really even understand today how the bible was used in ancient times. I mean, the common man did not even have access to the bible and couldn’t even read.

  2. This is an interesting point of view. I am familiar with the proposition presented by Joseph Atwill, because he isn’t the first person who has suggested the possibility of Jesus being a propaganda tool for the Roman government. Having said that, I agree with some of the argument that you present in that a lot of the New Testament is based on actual historical events.

    I’m going to take that thought further and state that there is enough evidence to prove that the human “Jesus” actually existed (His name is the Hebrew equivalent for Joshua. There isn’t a good Greek representation for his name). The question I propose has changed. It’s no longer about whether he existed, but that concerning his identity. Is he who he claims to be? Is he the messiah? Is he just human? This is where faith comes into play. If you believe that God exists, then believing that Jesus is authentic, the Messiah, comes much easier.

    • @dqfan2012 “….he isn’t the first person who has suggested the possibility of Jesus being a propaganda tool for the Roman government.”

      Yes, I’ve read several other accounts, too. Atwill is not the first; supposedly he just has something new to say.

      I agree with you, though, that Jesus was probably based on a real person–at least that is what makes sense to me. If you believe God exists, but that Jesus was not the Messiah, then you remained a Jew….or jumped on board with the birth of Islam, which believed that Jesus was a prophet, but not divine.

  3. Bart Ehrman and Bishop John Shelby Spong have both long promoted the idea of the New Testament as created by a handful of people with various intentions. Atwell wasn’t trained to be a religious scholar, but according to his self promo, he seems to have done a lot of research on 1st-century history. I wonder if we are going to see Biblical skepticism go mainstream in the U.S.?

    • I wonder if we are going to see Biblical skepticism go mainstream in the U.S.?

      More than likely, not where I live. I think if it did people would turn bat shit crazy knowing that they believed a man made piece of work as the gospel truth for so many generations.

      • The fact that the US Census has Agnostic/Athiest/None at 20% of our overall population (and only slightly behind the 23% that identify as Catholic) tells me that we already have quite a bit of Biblical skepticism. And we raise our children to question. I would never stop my children from turning to faith if they felt they needed it, but I will forever encourage them to question, question, question. And I think the more that happens, the more that 20% number will grow. Not that it’s a competition, but just a sign of shifting paradigms in thought.

        • I hope so Shanan, I really do. I absolutely agree with your parenting style. My kids are small and they’re already aware of the value of investigating and asking questions.

          Where I live many residents feel that the decline in our society is at the fault of Muslims, gays, Obama and the “world”. I’m sure that others throughout the South and the Midwest, especially those in small towns, can relate.

    • @Patti I don’t think so? There have been a lot of skeptics in the past–they just come up with their own religion. I’ve always liked Ehrman and Spong. I would love to get back to NC and take some classes at Chapel Hill with Ehrman.

  4. Hi Deborah,
    Interesting article. I have heard some ideas thrown around before about Jesus not being a real historical person, but this really seems to take it much further than what I’ve heard previously. Though I am a relatively recent convert to atheism, I never really had strong religious beliefs, but I always believed Jesus was in fact a real person, just not God. I’m going to watch the documentary later today “Caesar’s Messiah” for more insight.

    BTW, love your blog. Don’t ever stop.

  5. Very interesting post. I will be trying to learn more about Atwill’s view.

    To dqfan2012, I wouldn’t go as far as to say that there is real “evidence” of the existence of this man Jesus, but I would say that I am inclined to say he did exist for this reason…

    Up until one or two years ago, because there was no serious evidence of Jesus I thought it was pointless to even argue, but I heard an argument from Christopher Hitchens that finally got me thinking. He pointed out that the mere story that tries to make the case for him being the messiah almost proves the man existed just based on how fabricated the story becomes. They attempt to explain the elaborate census that involved Mary traveling back with Jesus under the laws of a king that actually wasn’t king at the time, yada yada yada. So the mere attempt to make everything fit says something. If the story of Jesus was true complete fabrication, why even the mess of the census technicalities and so on? So it is this attempt to make this man the true messiah that almost proves his existence as a real person.

  6. Historical or not, the metanarrative of the whole argument to me is, “If eternal salvation is based on belief in a god-man who came to earth, shouldn’t this god have provided irrefutable evidence? Faith should not be necessary.”

  7. He will present his findings in a symposium on October 19th (a mere 10 days!) in London in case you want to hop a plane and catch his talk.

    Oh, to be Richard Branson and have the time and money to pursue your fancies. Along those lines, Richard Dawkins is being hosted locally at a $500 per plate dinner that I’d love to attend, but it’s not quite disposable income range for me.

    Regarding the topic, this quote comes to mind —

    “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.” ~ Seneca (Roman philosopher, mid-1st century AD)

  8. From what I’ve researched and read, my opinion (and how can it really be more than that, given that anything we read was copied, translated, retranslated, rewritten and otherwise bastardized who-knows-how-many-times) is that Jesus was probably a prominent figure (even an activist, maybe?) who was appliqued with folklore and fantastic qualities long after his death. Because they had no Internet and most people couldn’t read, and because their leaders were god-kings, they believed. If not for actual belief, but for fear of retribution if they did not. And because it was a message of peace in a time of turbulance, it was probably very favorably accepted by the farmers, shepherd, coopers and cobblers of the day. And those with the bent for war just took it up in a new name.

  9. A couple of thoughts: first, this isn’t going to change the minds of many people, in my opinion. People who are set in their faith are going to dismiss it, and atheists are not going to be surprised at its content. People on the fence might see this as persuasive, but it’s not the first time we’ve seen evidence to suggest the gospels aren’t exactly legitimate. Hell, there’s no proof that the Great Flood or the events of Exodus ever happened, but that hasn’t stopped anyone from carrying on as if they were literally true in every detail.

    Second, I’m not going to question for a moment the idea that the divinity and miracles of a man named Jesus – who may or may not have existed as a living person – was fabricated as a means to an end … but unfortunately Atwill has a not so stellar reputation as a historian (prone to “parallelomania”, as his critics say) and has not been very open to others peer reviewing his material and findings … hence the “Q&A session” for skeptics after the paid event. I found this on the Atheist Experience FB page:

    “This one goes out to everyone sharing this idiotic “Romans invented Jesus Christ!” link that’s making the rounds. Joseph Atwill is an Alex Jones-level conspiracy crank who’s been peddling this crap for some years now. Don’t fall into the common trap of confirmation bias, just because you see something that appears to validate your skepticism of Christianity. The linked review (from 2005) is a wall of text, but it’s by a real expert in the field (not a Christian apologist) who takes Atwill apart brick by brick.

    (Go to the FB page to get the link, since I always get caught by the spam filter when I post them.)

    The takeaway from this, for me, is that if Atwill’s findings are legit, then it does nothing for either my dismissal of Christianity or believers’ acceptance of it. The only thing that will change the game is a strong foundation of critical thought and skepticism taught at an early age.

  10. Hey Deborah, I’m so glad you commented on CHope’s blog about us sharing the same stuff. lol The reason I think it is plausible is because even though they didn’t know anything about neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and oxytocin, it’s apparent that they knew how to manipulate people’s emotions. What better way to do so then to promote surges of dopamine and oxytocin?

    The saying that “love is blind” is becoming more a reality with the neurological studies that are coming out now about how having a deep love for someone, even a god, can disengage circuitry in areas of the brain associated with critical social assessment. This would certainly explain why so many people, Christians, have not been applaud by the atrocities in the Bible. They simply couldn’t see any fault in their god.

    What’s especially intriguing is the fact that Christianity made this a ‘romantic’ thing, which certainly insures the bonding neurotransmitter, well as the reward neurotransmitter, dopamine. Christian’s become the ‘bride’ and Jesus the groom. How romantic, eh? Then, to top it off, the Bible also use analogies about birth, milk, breasts/bosoms, etc. – maternal — all the stuff that releases oxytocin that bonds mother and child. Oh yes, if this theory holds water, then the Roman aristocrats were clever indeed. Here’s one such study about neural circuitry being disengaged in both romantic and maternal love.

    One more note: Neuropharmacological studies have demonstrated that dopaminergic activation as the leading neurochemical feature associated with religious activity.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post. 🙂

    • Interesting perspective, Victoria. Makes sense, too. When I was a kid, I was always struck by the idea of the nuns wearing wedding bands to symbolize marriage to god. That was very odd to me. I guess that’s why god made spontaneous orgasms–to take care of his nuns.

      • LOL Deborah. It’s funny you should mention nuns and the wedding ring. I was having a conversation with another blogger and we were laughing about how we were both raised ‘trained’ – ‘programmed’ – indoctrinated in the Catholic church from the day we were christened.. I shared with her all the rituals I went through when I was a kid. One of them was 1st Holy Communion when I was around 8 or 9. The girls dress up in all white’ kiddie’ wedding dresses, veil and all. The dresses were not full length gowns, but they were definitely wedding dresses. That sounds so perverted now that I look back, but when I was a little girl, I couldn’t wait to get my dress and veil.

        Getting back to Atwill’s theory, I’ve been reading up on it. Richard Carrier has debunked it here:

        I’m still reading it, so haven’t formed an opinion one way or another. I do think that Biblical scholars tend to miss a bigger picture here when it comes to the neurological and psychological aspects of belief such as attachment, bonding, loyalty and reward. Think about it…most mothers bond with their children and will do just about anything for them, even die for them. She is aware that she has to make great sacrifices, insomnia, listening to crying, painful breasts from nursing, poopy diapers, and all the demands of being a parent as they grow.

        After experiencing childbirth once, what woman in her right mind would subject herself to it again knowing the possibility of death, near death and/or injury and repeat the behavior of mating knowing the most likely outcome? According to the WHO at lease one woman dies every 60 to 90 seconds from pregnancy complications, and millions with serious injury — and that’s today. Imagine what it must have been like before modern medicine. Brutal.

        Hello neurotransmitters. Nature is clever, too. 😉

  11. Correction: I meant to say ‘appalled’ rather than ‘applaud’ lol

  12. If you’re inclined to believe that organized religion itself began as a way for the few to control the many, then it’s not such a stretch to believe Jesus might have been a political ploy. Although I think there probably was an influential man named Jesus, it will be interesting to see how strong a case Atwill has.

  13. I believe that religion originally came about out of ignorance of how the world worked, and then was later used to control and manipulate the masses. At any rate, it wouldn’t matter if there was irrefutable proof that Christianity was all a lie….people like the lie and will continue to believe what comforts them. I’m okay with that, as long as they understand that their belief system should not impose on my way of life or the laws of the land. And therein lies the problem.

  14. Since I spent a good amount of time talking with Franciscans and, to a lesser extent, Jesuits, I turned into an amateur biblical scholar over the years. One has to know his or her stuff when discussing and debating with those people/

    Atwell is not a new name to me, but his is not one with whose works I am too familiar. I’ve heard him mentioned around the fringes, but never read any of his stuff. His theory is somewhat plausible, but I remain highly skeptical until I read the evidence. Moreover, his basic premise seems flawed to me for a number of reaons.

    My skepticism is mostly fueled by the fact many “redeemed man,” “resurrected man,” and “mystery” religions existed around 0 CE. There is a lot of evidence Jesus was modeled on these tales with which he shares so much in common, especially with Orpheus. The idea of a man, son of a god, born of a virgin, leader of the people who is betrayed by the people, executed on a cross or a tree, and then returned to life for the redemption of the people was at least 500 years old by the supposed time of Jesus. Even the Jews would know these tales since they were well traveled as a people. They would have been exposed to the story of Osiris, one of the first “resurrected man” tales. Thus, they would have viewed any such retelling as just that: another variant.

    The Jewish synod would never accept a “redeemed man” story as a messianic one since they were expecting a warrior-savior messiah who would fight like Joshua. The Jesus portrayed in the gospels is a pretty much a pacifist and, hence, would be seen as repugnant by the Jews. Any articulate Roman of the era would know this about the Jews and would never conspire to create a story that would further inflame the situation in Judea. Pilate was sent there to crush the constant minor uprising after all.

    Secondly, no decent Roman would start a story with a Roman as a central plot component (i.e. Pontius Pilate) who was that weak or indecisive… unless these were detractors trying to besmirch him. What is known about Pilate is that he was a ruthless military-style prelate who ruled with an iron first for Rome. He never would have deferred to Herod or let a known criminal loose (Barabbus). Furthermore, he would never meet with Jesus as depicted in the stories since it would make him appear weak in the Roman minds. The Pilat in the gospels is no Roman. The authors of such a story would be seen as traitors.

    I am made further skeptical considering the generally agreed upon publishing dates of the primary christian gospel, that being the gospel of Matthew, sometime between 70 – 110 CE. The politics in Judea were extremely volatile at the time. The Jews rose up in armed revolt starting around 68 CE, and this went on until around 74 CE. Thus, the book ascribed to Matthew should be viewed in light of the real happenings of the time. It reads like a political tract showing the brutality of the Romans and giving the Jews another way to rebel. The book of Matthew seems to be a product of its time.

    Despite these four main objections to his theory, I will wait to read what Atwell presents.

    • @Derrick Great insights. Thanks for sharing your knowledge. Interesting perspective of what the Jews were expecting in their Messiah.

      As for Atwill, his ideas made me lift an eyebrow, but he’s not the first to propose Jesus wasn’t real. Even though JC story is similar to other myths, making him a composite of man and myth, how can one prove that the man part actually did not exist? I don’t think that’s even possible.

      • @Debbie Oh, Mrs. Mitchell, for shame. One cannot prove a negative (e.g. prove something did not exist). Rather, it is up to the adherents to prove something (i.e. JC) did exist. So far, I never came across any credible evidence JC did exist. Most of it is speculation and people saying, “He had to exist, or else why write these stories?”

        In this vein, one then has to speculate that Hercules did exist. He was born of a god and a mortal woman. He did miraculous things, and yet most christians would say he is a myth. Well, we could then say to them, “Disprove his existence!”

        Nope, those proposing the theory must advance the evidence and proof. Thus far for JC, there is nada.

        However, if anyone knows of any credible evidence regarding the existence of JC, I would LOVE to see it.

        • I was wondering if you’d ding me for that one. Yes, of course, that’s true.

          However, the Bible is their proof, although it is not ours. The many authors of the Bible were cultural historians. The writers told of hopes, dreams, myths and stories passed down from generation to generation. Along the way, they mixed in events and people from their times. It’s like Hollywood making movies based on actual events or people. I believe there are elements of history in the Bible, but I can’t asked the authors how much of their story really happened. Of course, then we get into the problem of perception. What’s true for one writer may not be true for another.

          How do we know that Plato accurately represented Socrates? We believe on faith.

  15. Saw this on FB this morning and wanted to share with you all. How does one know when god has been displease and greatly grieved?

    Praying for Obama, Day 3:
    “Father, we come to You in the name of Jesus Christ, and we ask that Obama proclaims on national television that Jesus Christ is the only way to Heaven, and that there is no other name by which we can be saved! We also pray, Father, that he then lives up to a life that is dominated by Your Spirit, so that he no longer advocates the murder of unborn babies. Father, with the full power of the executive branch at his disposal, we pray that he takes a stand for You and denounces his former works which he has done, which has been displeasing and greatly grieved Your Holy Spirit.”

    • I apologize in advance for the use of a bible verse, but I cannot ignore the obtuse irony of this prayer. You know what this self-righteous prayer reminds me of?

      Luke 18:9-14:
      “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

      “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

  16. I don’t have time to read all the other comments at the moment, so my apologies if this has already been proposed …

    I believe Jesus was indeed a real person – a freedom fighter. He was a “Messiah” to the Jews in that he was going to lead an uprising and free them from their Roman oppressors. The Romans caught him and crucified him, like they did countless criminals. People needed hope, so stories circulated post-humously, and were exaggerated of course. Many years later followers started writing the stories down in scrolls. The resistance continued, and grew in fact.

    The Romans – specifically Constantine – thought of a brilliant way to control the resistance: Acknowledge Jesus as a religious beacon of hope in order to foster compliance amongst the followers. So Constantine became a Christian (publicly). At the Council of Nicea in 325 AD he and others censored and rewrote what is now know as the New Testament (and probably the old too, I’m not sure). The books were carefully edited to remove references to Jewish resistance, anything indicating Jesus was a common man, and of course encouraged Christians to “turn the other cheek”. Not surprisingly, what was left over after all the editing and re-writing often left stories that conflicted with one another, had large gaps, etc.

    No worries, because the Roman Catholic church would always have a priest who acts as the holy conduit direct to God – and he could interpret the bible for the congregation (who couldn’t read anyway).

    The campaign was very successful. Being a Christian was no longer illegal, so people were free to worship according to the “new rules”. They became passive and paid their taxes. In fact, Roman Catholicism was so successful, it was used to control people from then on throughout history.

    So I agree enthusiastically – Jesus Christ has been the most successful propaganda tool in the history of mankind.

    PS: A fantastic book to give reference is “Rome and Jerusalem” by Martin Goodman. It provides excellent context around what was going on prior to christianity and why everything happened as it did. Particularly why the Romans were so “annoyed” with the Jews.

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