A historical scholar claims to have found evidence proving that the story of Jesus as described in the New Testament is a fiction, and that historical claims about Jesus were actually created by Roman aristocrats to control the poor.
According to a news story in The Independent:
"Joseph Atwill, who is the author of a book entitled ‘Caesar's Messiah: The Roman Conspiracy to Invent Jesus', asserts that Christianity did not begin as a religion, but was actually a sophisticated government propaganda exercise used to pacify the subjects of the Roman Empire."
Atwill's take on Jesus is of course not new. In 1844 Karl Marx famously declared religion as the opiate of the masses. History is filled with skeptics, freethinkers, atheists, agnostics and other doubters who have questioned religious doctrine and dogma.
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Atwill's claims are based on what he described as important and revealing parallels between a first-person account of first-century Judea (an ancient Roman province now part of Israel and Palestine) and the New Testament.
"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 (Emperor) Titus Flavius as described by Josephus," Atwill wrote in a blog on his web site.
Atwill believes that the story of Jesus was actually copied and created from the biography of the Roman emperor.
Evidence for a Historical Jesus?
While Atwill's thesis is intriguing, there are reasons to be skeptical.
"The reality is we are unlikely ever to know the ‘facts' about Jesus," says Ronald A. Lindsay, a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Inquiry, a non-profit educational organization. Lindsay authored an essay on the evidence for Jesus in the book "Sources of the Jesus Tradition."
"There are too many different stories about him, all of which have some serious credibility problems and which are inconsistent with one another," Lindsay told Discovery News. "For the objective historian, he will always remain a shadowy figure, with little substantive biographical content. On the one hand, we have many who will take things on faith, accepting some subset of the stories as unquestionably true. On the other hand, there are those who insist that Jesus is an invented figure, a myth or a hoax. I think both of these extremes are almost equally implausible."
Biblical scholars, as well as lay Christians, have long sought hard evidence of events and miracles described in the Bible, ranging from Noah's Ark to the Shroud of Turin, with little success. New claims about proof of Jesus surface every few years.
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For example, in 2003 a relics dealer claimed to have discovered a limestone mortuary box that held the remains of Jesus' brother. The inscription read, "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus."
The find made international news and spawned several documentaries, including one titled "The Lost Tomb of Jesus," which aired on the Discovery Channel. Further investigation by the Israeli Antiquities Authority concluded that though the ossuary box was authentic, the inscription on it had been faked.
And just last year an historian at Harvard Divinity School claimed to have found documentary evidence in the form of a fragment of Coptic writing on papyrus that Jesus was married; a later analysis by Biblical scholars suggested the writing was hoaxed.
Over and over, these "discoveries" typically turn out to be far more hype than fact and are trotted out as teasers to promote a new book, TV series or film. And, of course, Dan Brown made millions from his own fictional, conspiracy-laden versions of Jesus' story - though his premise is claimed by a few writers to be based on fact.
Though Atwill's claims have yet to be verified by other historians, whatever their consensus it will certainly not resolve the matter. The likelihood that any sort of real, definitive proof about Jesus will suddenly be discovered two millennia after he died (assuming, of course, that he existed) is vanishingly remote. Then again, that's why religions are based on faith.