So somebody named Joseph Atwill, a self-proclaimed "Bible scholar" has spent 8 years (at least) peddling his theory that Jesus never existed and was invented by some complicated Roman cabal to pacify Jews (or something).
It’s another Latest Real Jesus. Anybody with a keyboard can claim to be a “Bible scholar”. If there is any proposition in the history of the world that is doomed, it is the proposition that Jesus never existed. Every Latest Real Jesus is a reflection of the culture that concocts him. A while back Jesus existed and was the first Communist. Then he was gay. Then he was married to Mary Magdalen. Then he had a brother. And, of course, the Eeeeevil Church was hiding all these absolutely incompatible Real Jesuses from us with the Official Story. Ours is a historically illiterate culture that will believe in any conspiracy theory. And conspiracy theories are, as one wag memorably put it, “history for stupid people.”
Conspiracies do happen. The murder of Caesar was a conspiracy. So was the murder of Jesus. And Lincoln. The Holocaust was a conspiracy. 9/11 was a conspiracy–but not one involving Bush or Mossad. So, for a little while, was Watergate.
But here’s the thing: we know all about them. Why? Because conspiracies to commit big crimes are inherently unstable. They unravel and the whole thing gets exposed. Bad people are mainly about Looking Out for Numero Uno. When things go sour, they run to their lawyers, head for the border or get caught in complicated lies. What we never see is massive conspiracies which, of necessity, have to involve hundreds or even thousands of co-conspirators, lasting for years and years and years with nobody being the wiser.
The sort of person who insists Jesus never existed is somebody who simply does not know what they are talking about, like believers in moon landing hoaxes, or the NASA plot to cover up geocentrism, or Holocaust Deniers. Simply put, nobody in antiquity, including especially Jesus' worst enemies, argues he never existed. They accuse him of being a deceiver, a magician, a false prophet, and some sort of nuisance who was put to death by Pilate. They say the disciples faked his resurrection (a charge the disciples are at pains to refute in Matthew). But it never even occurs to the bitterest enemies of the early Church to say there was no such person as Jesus. Only a modern TV-fed suburbanite could buy that.
By the canons of such skeptical reading of ancient sources, we can also "prove" that Hannibal never existed:
To ask whether or not the great Carthaginian general Hannibal ever actually existed might seem rather pointless. It might be an exercise for a student learning about the nature of historical evidence, but not something any serious scholar would waste time on. But maybe we should not be too hasty in acquiescing with the opinion of establishment historians.
In fact, although there is plenty of writing about Hannibal, none of it is contemporary and there is no archaeological evidence for him at all. Furthermore he is not mentioned in any Carthaginian sources, which is incredible, given he was supposed to be their greatest leader! We find when we actually try to pin him down he tends to recede further into the mists of time. His exploits, such as leading elephants over the Alps, are clearly legendary and it is not hard to find a motive for the creation of this colorful character by Roman writers.
Rome and Carthage were great trading rivals in the Western Mediterranean and it did not take them long to come to blows. Rome signed a peace treaty but, under the leadership of the elder Cato, desperately wanted to rid itself permanently of the competition. The Romans needed an excuse and the idea they developed was brilliant. Like many ancient civilizations, the Romans rewrote history as it suited them to exhibit their own prowess. Consequently we should not be surprised to find that they invented a great enemy from Carthage to demonstrate the threat still existed and justify a further war to wipe them out.
The author of the fiction was Cato himself, as Cato wrote the earliest Roman History. But it was intended simply as a justification for a further war with Carthage. It contained the details of Hannibal's alleged campaigns against the Romans, including his victories on Italian soil. Cato brilliantly combined the truth with his own anti-Carthaginian propaganda with the intention of goading Rome into another wholly unjustified war with the old enemy. Once the war was over and Carthage was razed to the ground, the Romans were able to ensure that only their version of history survived.
Therefore the myth of the great Carthaginian war leader became an accepted fact. Later Roman historians like the notoriously unreliable Livy simply assumed Cato's fabrications were true.
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Notes on Technique: How to Debunk History
(also by James Hannam, though with some additions by [Michael Flynn].)
establishment historians. Imply that there's a plot by "establishment" academics stifling debate.
no archaeological evidence. Make it sound unsupported; but don't mention that the Romans razed the Carthage to the ground and there simply is no archeological evidence of any sort.
not mentioned in any Carthaginian sources. Make it sound as if there actually are Carthaginian sources, but they make no mention of Hannibal.
clearly legendary. Use proof by bald assertion. "Clearly" is a nice touch. Pretend to be incredulous even while peddling the notion.
motive for the creation. If you can invent a motive for fabrication, you can thereafter assume that it is a fabrication.
rid itself of the competition. It helps to throw in a few true statements. Not only does this help conceal the moment when you slip into fantasy, but it gives you a fallback to defend the remainder of your assertions.
Romans rewrote history. Use exaggerated generalizations whenever possible. If there is an eyewitness account, point out that eyewitnesses have been proven "in peer-reviewed literature" to be unreliable.
author was Cato. Designate a villain. Don't worry about proving this; just assert it. Slide over seemlessly from the background material to the theorizing.
wrote the earliest Roman History. Another true statement to bolster the appearance of research.
Cato's history contained... Since Cato's history has not survived, you can make bland assertions about what it contained.
brilliantly combined truth with propaganda. You can appear judicious by giving Cato chops for his brilliance. Since the text has not survived, you need not worry about being contradicted on what it "combined."
ensure only their version survived. This enables you to dismiss all corroborating sources as forgeries or propaganda.
notoriously unreliable Livy. The Attack of the Gratuitous Adjective. Denigrate contrary sources. Not just unreliable, but notoriously unreliable.
assumed Cato's fabrications were true. Imply that Livy and others were stupid and did not think of doing any independent research.
A few other pointers would include amplifying on the conspiracy to maintain the myth of Hannibal, et al. and wallowing in self-congratulation on your own bravery in rising to expose the myth.
For those interested in treating the gospels as serious scholars treat all the rest of ancient historical sources, I highly recommend Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony by (actual real New Testament scholar) Richard Bauckham. Not infallible, of course (FWIW, I disagree with some of his conclusions). But a solid contribution to New Testament studies that firmly situates the gospels in the tradition of ancient historiography, not myth, and shows how these "passion narratives with long introductions" are clearly rooted in eyewitness testimony.