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What is the Caesar’s Messiah Conspiracy Theory?

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Caesar’s Messiah is a 2006 book written by Joseph Atwill. In it, Atwill argues that the four Gospels of the New Testament were actually written by Roman scholars to combat Judaism by means of introducing a peaceful alternative in Jesus. This perspective places Atwill’s thesis in the genre of mythicism: the opinion that Jesus Christ was completely fictional. As this claim flies in the face of evidence, common sense, and logic, Caesar’s Messiah has been either ignored or castigated by mainstream scholars, as well as by members of the mythicist movement.

Among the more ridiculous conspiracy theories levied against the Christian faith is the suggestion that Jesus never existed—at all. The idea that there was no such person as Jesus is known as the Christ Myth Theory or mythicism. This concept is so contrary to historical records, scholarship, and reason that it is rejected almost entirely, even in the skeptical community. Proponents of mythicism are often criticized for ignoring established research and contrary evidence in order to promote their views. Ironically, even staunch mythicists have criticized the idea that Roman writers concocted Jesus.

Atwill’s process in Caesar’s Messiah involves comparing Roman historical records, such as those of Josephus, to the Gospels. The parallels found in those works, he claims, are evidence that they are all the product of the same general authorship. In this case, Atwill says the real gospel author was the Roman government, which spoofed Jewish religious beliefs in order to create a more palatable religion for the masses.

Even a brief look at historical facts makes the premise of Caesar’s Messiah implausible. Christianity, according to historical records, was not well received by the Roman Empire. In fact, it was brutally persecuted in the decades after the writing of the Gospels and was functionally illegal until three centuries after Christ’s crucifixion. Christians were jailed and executed during that era specifically because their religion contradicted Roman religious requirements. From a practical standpoint, it makes no sense for a government to invent a religion that inspired people to defy that same government.

Historically, the Roman Jesus conspiracy is also weak because it assumes—as does much of mythicism—that Christian belief originated with the writing of the four Gospels. And yet, even secular scholars date fundamental Christian belief and practice to well before the authorship of the Gospels. History does as well—Christians were being politically attacked for their faith decades before the Gospels were written. This is a major weakness of all mythicism: the assumption that all early Christians were either deluded or gullible.

In examining the details of Atwill’s arguments, one finds the comparisons he attempts to make are outrageously overdrawn. The tiniest similarity or vaguely related idea is inflated into proof that these are, in fact, the same story or idea written by the same person. On the other hand, major points of disproof, contrary evidence, and scholarly analysis from other sources are almost completely ignored.

Briefly stated, the evidence indicating that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person, executed by the Romans, and worshiped immediately afterwards by a group of people who believed they had seen Him raised from the dead is beyond dispute. History tells us in no uncertain terms that the Christian faith originated, grew, and spread in direct defiance of the Roman Empire and was in no sense compatible with the Latin worldview or approach to government. Suggestions that Rome concocted an intricate, centuries-long prank in order to mold violent Jews into passive Christians are historically false.

As one might expect, the “logic” leading to Atwill’s conclusion is thin, tortured, and profoundly lacking in support. As is the case with most conspiracy theories, the Caesar’s Messiah claim greatly exaggerates minor coincidences and ignores major instances of disproof. The idea may be attractive to those who are completely ignorant of Christian history or who harbor active angst toward religion. However, there is nothing of substance behind the suggestion that Rome invented Jesus. Even those who reject Jesus as Messiah overwhelmingly agree: He was not Caesar’s Messiah.

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This page last updated: January 27, 2023