The story of Christ, it seems, is now coming out of the closet. In Creating Christ: How Roman Emperors Invented Christianity, James S. Valliant and C. W. Fahy present new evidence to show that the Roman emperors have played a critical role in the development of Christianity. The Romans and the Jews were the two dominant cultures in the 1st-Century CE. The Romans were the conquerors, but the Jews, not ready to accept defeat, had launched an apocalyptic rebellion.
Valliant and Fahy argue that the “Roman government, in direct response to this bitter clash of cultures, created Christianity.”
The Flavian general Vespasian and his son Titus were the Roman emperors in the era when the key tenets of Christianity were formulated. Both Vespasian and Titus had proclaimed that they were the messiahs of the Jewish prophecy—this was part of their official propaganda and imperial cult. Their strategy seems to have worked because during their reign peace was achieved, and many Jewish leaders of that period accepted Vespasian and Titus as messiahs.
“Was their arrival in power and glory as the princes of peace the advent of Jesus’s prophecy? Or is it possible that Jesus’s prophecy was written while these Flavian emperors ruled in order to prove their messianic pretensions after they had conquered Judea?” Valliant and Fahy ask in the first chapter, “Crux Dissimulata.”
The authors cite several facts: the Gospels have been written during the reign of Flavian emperors, who attained power after crushing a religion inspired rebellion of messianic Jews some 40-years after the alleged death of Jesus — few friends of the Flavian emperors make an appearance in the New Testament — the oldest Christian catacombs were the original burial site of the relatives of the Flavian emperors — the husband of Vespasian’s granddaughter was counted among the first popes of the first Christian church in Rome.
The coins that were being issued in the millions by the Flavian emperor Titus indicate some kind of linkage with early Christianity. These coins bear the symbol of a dolphin wrapped around an anchor which is also the symbol that the Christians used to symbolize Christ for the first three centuries before the Emperor Constantine replaced it with the symbol of the Cross.
By taking all of this evidence into account Valliant and Fahy reach the conclusion “that Christianity is somehow intertwined with imperial Rome.”
In the book’s introduction we are informed that Creating Christ is the result of a 30-years of research. The book is extremely evidence based—it covers a large number of historical and religious texts. It surveys artifacts and coins from that era to find new details. That it covers such a vast expanse of evidence in 383-pages is, in my view, a feat of concision. Here I can only look at some of the major features of the book to give readers a feel of its content and arguments.
Valliant and Fahy reject the popularly believed theory that the Christians were being persecuted by the Roman emperors. “The evidence suggests that the persecution of the Christians was not at all common before the Christian faith started to become the official state religion of the Roman Empire under the Emperor Constantine in the 4th Century.”
The basis of the theory that the Christians were being hunted down and slaughtered by the Roman empire is the famous account of the 2nd-Century historian Tacitus. In his The Annals, Tacitus has suggested that the Roman emperor Nero tried to pin the blame for the Great Fire of Rome in 64 CE on the Christians. But Valliant and Fahy assert that there are many flaws in Tacitus’s account.
In 64 CE, the Gospels had not been written—they would not be written until the Flavian era that followed Nero’s rule. Also, the very few Christians who existed in that period were the “tax-paying citizens who render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and turn the other cheek while walking the extra mile for Romans.” It is unlikely that Nero would vilify and prosecute such people who were essentially the supporters of the empire.
Valliant and Fahy suggest that Tacitus is “confusing one group of devotees of a Jewish messiah with another group who were, indeed, creating very serious trouble for the Roman government and were, in fact, quite active in Rome at that time.” In other words, the Christians that Tacitus is blaming for the Great Fire were the hardcore group of messianic rebels. The historian, Flavius Josephus, a Jew who adopted his Roman name after being captured by Vespasian during the Jewish War, has commented extensively on the messianic rebels.
The view that the book presents of the role that Flavius Josephus has played in Christianity is dramatically different from what is popularly believed. Josephus’s major work, Wars of the Jews, was produced during the reign of Vespasian with official Roman approval. He was also the author of works like Antiquities of the Jews and Against Apion. He believed that the Roman victory over Jews was inevitable and he was remarkably Christian. Understandably, he was regarded as a traitor by his fellow Jews.
It is noteworthy that Josephus’s books were written during the same period when the Gospel was written, and “there are striking similarities between the stories told about Jesus, Josephus, and the Apostle Paul. The most remarkable coincidence between Josephus and Paul, however, is a dramatic event that both of them experienced: a shipwreck on their way from Judea to Rome.” The parallels between the lives of Josephus and Jesus are equally striking. For instance, Josephus has narrated a story where he emerged alive after three days in a tomb.
“So, after spending three days in a cave while presumed dead, Josephus is revealed by a woman to be alive after all. Jesus spent three days in his tomb, as well, which was also a cave, before he was discovered by a woman, Mary Magdalene, according to all of the Gospel accounts.”
The book conducts a detailed survey of the writings of Josephus to draw out the similarities between his ideas and that of Jesus and Paul. The ideas of these three personalities were in complete sync with the official Roman propaganda. Valliant and Fahy make the allusion that Josephus may have had a rather direct role to play in the writing of the Gospels.
“In the works of Josephus, we are surely at the confluence of the same ideological rivers that produced the Gospels. And, while it may never be possible to determine the authorship of the Gospels with certainty, in the circle of semi-observant “Jews” surrounding the Flavian court we have certainly found a number of leading candidates. They were at the same place at the same time and shared the same background, education, agenda, and even the same iconography with the earliest Christians.”
The Flavian Roman Emperors were travelling down a well-trodden path when they encouraged the development of a new religion for legitimizing their rule. The Roman monarchs who preceded them also used foreign religions to establish the legitimacy of their rule over their newly conquered subjects. Julius Caesar, for instance, had claimed descent from Aeneas, a Trojan hero of the Greek epic, The Iliad.
Considering that inventing new gods was the Roman way of maintaining sway over conquered people, it would have been strange if the Flavian emperors had not used a foreign religion to demonstrate their divine favor and legitimacy as rulers. The miracles that Vespasian is said to have performed are similar to the miracles that the Gospels attribute to Jesus. There are striking similarities between Jesus and Titus. “The prophecies of Jesus in the Gospels readily lend themselves to establishing Titus as the Jewish Messiah.”
One of the side-effects of the symbiotic relationship between the Roman Empire and Christianity is the rise of anti-Semitism in the world. “The Gospels systematically, even melodramatically, absolve the Roman Empire of any culpability for the death of Jesus, laying the blame exclusively on the Jewish people with such heavy hand that it inspired centuries of anti-Semitic retribution.”
Creating Christ: How Roman Emperors Invented Christianity is audacious and briskly written. It presents an interesting perspective on how and why the core ideas of Christianity got developed.