Who created Christ? 7

Detective work into the past can be great fun for those who have a calling for it, and if they write up their investigations entertainingly in a book, readers can find it fun too. Creating Christ: How Roman Emperors Invented Christianity * is a book of that sort. The authors convey their excitement as they describe their discoveries and set out their case, which is that the Flavian emperors Vespasian and his son Titus, far from being persecutors of Christians, were their patrons, and – astonishingly – the very progenitors of their religion.

With quotations mainly from Acts of the Apostles, Matthew, and the Epistles, James S. Vallant and Warren Fahy demonstrate how consistently the New Testament praises Rome’s imperial government, its citizens and soldiers. And they are right – the New Testament does show the Romans in the best possible light. It exhorts subjects of the emperor to pay their taxes, and slaves to obey their masters and take a beating without complaint. This, the authors say, shows that Christianity was an officially sanctioned product of the imperial power itself.

But a holy book for Christians did not need the authorship or authorization of the emperors to be a testament to the moral excellence of the Romans. The Christians had a strong incentive to flatter them, and to show by every means they could think of that they were distinct from the Jews. The Romans in Rome thought of them as a Jewish sect, followers of one “Chrestus” who rose in rebellion in the imperial city itself and were crushed by Nero. In Judea, rebels who rose en masse against Roman rule were punished by Vespasian and Titus with enslavement, torture, crucifixion, and dispersion. So the Christians understandably thought it essential that they be recognized by their overlords not only as utterly different from the Jews, but even more than that, as the Jews’ worst enemy. They had to abominate the Jews, anathematize them. Jesus had to be separated from them; to be known as a savior for all mankind except the Jews. To that end, they exculpated the Romans who crucified him, and made the Jews bear the blame instead.

Vallant and Flahy don’t depend only on the New Testament for evidence that Christianity “sprang from 1st Century Flavian propaganda”. They also also cite proofs they found in “coins, iconography, architecture, history, politics”, and from “the personal relationships of the Flavians” – meaning that a few of the emperors’ relations were Christians. They quote historical texts, including a couple of passages from Antiquities of the Jews by Josephus, the Flavians’ official (Jewish-turned-Roman) historian, to prove that Jesus was an historic figure, a living wonder in his own time. They admit, however, that one of the passages is generally considered by scholars to be a forgery. In the other, they rely on a few words which have seemed to most exegetes – and to me – an obvious interpolation, probably by Christians desperately wanting to establish objective proof of Jesus’s existence and importance in his time. Such proof has not been found by anybody, because what didn’t happen cannot be proved to have happened. None of the ancient texts they quote does the job. Piling them up doesn’t do it either. The aggregate of many rumors is still not a fact.

Their excuse for introducing inauthentic and questionable material as evidence of their claims is that many a disputed item, if taken “at face-value”, supports their theory. Their accumulation of proofs is crowned, they say, by a particular coin, excitingly discovered after a long search. They believe it provides conclusive confirmation of their thesis:

“This is it. It is a coin issued in the millions by the Flavian Emperor Titus, the son of Vespasian who conquered Jerusalem and sacked the Temple just as Jesus had prophesied. The symbol it bears, a dolphin wrapped round an anchor, is the very symbol Christians used, they say, to symbolize Christ for the first three centuries before the Emperor Constantine replaced it with the symbol of the Cross.”

A picture of the Roman coin with the device on one side and the head of Titus on the other is shown beside a medallion decorated with a fish wrapped round an anchor and the Greek word for a fish, ixthys. The six letters are also the initials of the words, in Greek: “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior”. That was why a simple outline of a fish was “the most common symbol used by the earliest Christians”.

A fish, yes: but a fish wrapped round  an anchor? Was that a common symbol of the Christian faith? Why would it be? The authors show rings with the dolphin-and-anchor motif which they say are “Christian”. They declare it significant that a daughter of Vespasian, Domitilla, who became Christian and a saint, is buried in a catacomb where the design of two fishes and what may be an anchor is to be seen. In other catacombs where Christians are buried they found decorations with fishes and a trident, which they suggest is virtually the same thing as an anchor.

It is possible that some Christians used the device of a fish-and-anchor as a symbol of their faith, and it does bear a resemblance to the Flavian dolphin-and-anchor. But the dolphin is not a fish, and the Romans knew it. Vallant and Fahy mention that inconvenient fact, but sweep it aside since, they say, lots of those ancient primitive people thought a dolphin was a fish.

Another fact that spoils their case is that the Flavian dynasty began later than the first documents of Christianity were composed. The earliest of them, Paul’s letters, are dated by scholars from the middle of the sixth decade of the 1st. century. The first of the Flavians, Vespasian, became emperor at the end of the seventh decade. The oldest of the Gospels, attributed to Mark, is generally believed to have appeared in 65 or 66 CE, though it could have been in the early 70s. The point is that Christianity was well launched before Vespasian was appointed Emperor by the Roman army under his command.

That happened while he was in Judea putting down the uprising of the Jews. The historian Josephus tried to convince Romans and Jews that Vespasian himself was the Messiah. He wrote that when Vespasian became emperor, the prophecy which had inspired the uprising, that someone from Judea would become “ruler of the world”, came true. The Jews had mistaken the prophecy to mean that the “ruler of the world” would be a Jew, but it really meant that he would be crowned emperor in Judea. Christians too could welcome the revelation, as their Christ had prophesied his second coming would be in the lifetime of those he was speaking to – and lo! here he was!

Josephus is acknowledged to be a good historian, though details in his books – figures in particular – are disputed. He surely did not believe that Vespasian was the Messiah, but he himself had been a leader of the uprising, so when the rebels were frightfully punished it was very much in his interest to convince the victors that he could be of use to them. His flattery succeeded. Vespasian did not object to it at all – he was intending to be made a god anyway (as Roman Emperors often were) – and he not only spared Josephus’s life, he appointed him state historian.

The authors try to make the dating of the Christian documents helpful to their argument by casting doubt on them, but unconvincingly. They have to concede that Paul was preaching Christianity years before Vespasian’s reign began – a fact which should rule out their claim that the Flavians were its inventors. But they stick to it, only going so far as to introduce, as an equally valid alternative theory, the idea that Paul could have been the agent of an earlier Roman government, for which they provide no name or dates. Do they mean Nero (54-68)? Or Claudius (41-54)? Neither of them is a plausible candidate.

But it was Paul, not Vespasian or Titus, who invented Christianity. He is a mysterious, even sinister figure, telling implausible stories about himself to his non-Jewish audiences (such as claiming membership of a tribe of Israel that did not exist in his time); admitting that he had been imprisoned for a sexual crime and blaming the law for it; changing his name at least once and probably twice. He might have been an agent of Rome for some purpose. He might have stolen someone else’s ideas. But what he produced is an amazing thing: the Christian religion. And he spread it with tenacious energy, though gathering too few converts in his lifetime to constitute much of a threat to the Romans, or to be of much use to them. It wasn’t until the 4th. century that the imperial power came to own the religion that Paul had invented and by doing so had set the course of history.


*Creating Christ: How Roman Emperors Invented Christianity by James S. Vallant & Warren Fahy, Crossroad Press, 2018


(By request of our Forum participant Yazmin)


Jillian Becker    September 27, 2021

Posted under Christianity by Jillian Becker on Monday, September 27, 2021

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