Creating Christ Book Review

By | June 16, 2023

Creating Christ: How Roman Emperors Invented Christianity is a book written by James S. Valliant and Warren Fahy. The title will no doubt alarm many. But I want to look at what they have to say before dismissing them. This is because their knowledge may well be worth gleaning from even if one doesn’t agree with their conclusion.

The authors claim to have been working on their hypothesis for three decades. It was toward the end of this time which they discovered evidence which they had predicted should exist if their hypothesis were true. (I’ll explain what this was later.) This was no doubt thrilling and seemed like the “smoking gun” to the pair. Apparently they were so thrilled by this that they start the book off discussing this evidence. However, I think it might have been more effective to take the reader on a similar journey to the one the authors took in their lives which culminated in their triumphant discovery.

One minor complaint I have with the book is that it felt a bit disorganized. There are two sections divided into a total of seven chapters, however it felt to me like they talked about everything all the time. For me at least, it made this material a bit more difficult to digest. In fact, I went back over the book after finishing reading it the first time, adding section headers in order to try and get a better grasp on the various arguments made in the book.

Now, let me finally get to their ideas. Consider the following facts.

  • The books of the New Testament are believed to be written mostly in the few decades after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE though some of Paul’s letters are believed to be as early as the late 40s CE.
  • Rome controlled Israel during the first century and wanted to maintain order and control.
  • At this point in history, not only did Jews live in Judea but there was a significant “diaspora” elsewhere in Roman controlled lands.
  • There was significant anti-Roman sentiment in Judea, and several groups such as the Zealots and Sicarii specifically tried to resist Roman rule. Though political, these movements were also closely intertwined with and inspired by strict Judaism.
  • Along with this, inspired by the Maccabees, there were occasional messianic movements in which a leader gathered a following and sought to become the new Jewish king. (I believe it is fairly well known among Christians that this was the expectation of a messiah.)
  • There is a common impression that Rome persecuted Christians until emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the forth century. However, most all of the persecution recorded in the New Testament actually came from Jews. They are also blamed for the death of Jesus even though he was executed by Rome. Furthermore, Paul is generally shown favor by Roman officials (even when under arrest) and he teaches obedience to Roman authorities.
  • The gospels indicate that the kingdom of God will come soon, within the life of some hearers.

All of this is the foundation for the postulation made in this book. Rome had a keen interest in discouraging the rebellious fervor which was significantly inspired by the Jewish religion. And the Romans certainly wouldn’t want this rebellious sentiment to spread to Jews living elsewhere in the empire. Yes, Rome used force to achieve these ends, but how much better if they could dissuade rebellion through propaganda?

Nero was emperor during the first Jewish revolt. He sent Vespasian to put down the revolt. Before this task was completed, Nero died, Vespasian became emperor in his place, and the latter left his son Titus (who would later become emperor himself) to finish bringing Judea back under control.

The authors argue that it is these two Flavian emperors who sponsored Christianity as imperial propaganda. The idea is that they wanted to convince Jews that the true messiah was not a rebel king, but was instead a “prince of peace”—a spiritual savior whose teachings were of the sort which would make its adherents excellent, compliant citizens of the empire.

Again, I believe that it is fairly well known among Christians what a radical departure Jesus and Christianity is from Judaism and their messianic expectations. The traditional Christian understanding of this is that the Jews didn’t really understand God’s ways and that Jesus’ message was truly that radical. However, if someone created a story to counter Jewish messianism, what we have in the Bible would also fit.

But is there any support or evidence for this hypothesis or is it just a hair-brained idea? Well, this is where things get interesting. Jesus purportedly died around 30 CE. 40 years later—within a lifetime—Titus destroyed the temple in Jerusalem. Jewish historian Josephus claimed that God had gone over to the Romans and that Vespasian was actually the anticipated messiah!

Essentially, the authors argue that the Flavian emperors had a motive for promoting a Roman friendly, Jewish-like religion to the conquered Jews. The notion of imperial propaganda and worship was normal at this time and the Flavians engaged in this. It’s only a small step from this to suggest they co-opted Christianity for these ends.

In the later part of the book, the authors outline a number of possible if not probable personal connections between Christian leaders and the Flavian court. Vespasian’s nephew and Titus’ cousin was (likely) St. Clement of Rome, one of the first popes. Clement’s wife and Titus’ niece was Domitilla, a Christians whose tomb provides the first archeological evidence of Christianity. An Epaphroditus is mentioned by Paul in Bible as well as Josephus and Suetonius. These could be three different people but also quite plausibly one and the same as Valliant and Fahy hold. Beyond this, Paul sends greetings from those in Caesar’s household in Philippians.

So what was the “smoking gun” which Valliant and Fahy discovered at the culmination of their research? The earliest and most common Christian symbol prior to Constantine was an anchor and dolphin/fish. This symbol is found in the first physical artifact of Christianity, the catacombs of St. Domitilla previously mentioned, who was the granddaughter/niece of the Flavian emperors. The authors predicted and discovered the existence of coins which Vespasian and Titus minted which use virtually the exact same fish-anchor symbol.

It’s worth mentioning that even the authors acknowledge that Paul wrote before the Flavians and therefore was already developing a version of Christianity before they came along. Valliant and Fahy’s argument is that the Flavians took this, claimed themselves to be Jewish messiahs, expanded upon the extant Christian writings, and promoted the Pauline version of Christianity—that in which the Torah law is no longer important and in which its adherents are instructed to respect the (Roman) authorities and live at peace.

Another minor complaint I have with the book is how the authors claim that this effectively proves Roman involvement in Christianity. They also say their explanation is the most straight forward in which the evidence is taking at face value. I’m not entirely sure that I would agree with this.

I think the biggest hurdle this hypothesis has to overcome is the suggestion it makes that the canonical gospels were all written by one person or closely associated group. Beyond this hypothesis, I believe it is essentially universally believed that different people wrote each gospel with different motivations. After all, if there was one unified agenda behind writing the gospels, why write four? Wouldn’t those behind this proposed agenda only have written one “correct” version? Beyond this, it’s tough to believe that there is no surviving knowledge (in terms of writing) in which someone states that the Flavians were behind Christianity. However, with the very limited amount we have from the first century combined with the idea that this was intended as a subtle hijacking of Judaism, the lack of written evidence isn’t as surprising as one might think. Nevertheless, if the Flavians were behind Christianity, would so many have bought into it and believed it as truth so early on?

Beyond these things, the book makes a strong case for a friendly and even close relationship between early Pauline Christianity and the Roman emperors. I like this book because it provides certain facts which need to be explained by any narrative regarding the formation of Christianity. Having physical evidence which still exists and which shows a connection, at least in symbolism, between Christianity and the Flavians is difficult to deny. Additionally, I am thankful to this book for pointing out the potential interest Rome would have had in Judaism and how this may have affected early Christianity.

Coming to agree with Valliant and Fahy on the Flavians having created/sponsored Christianity isn’t the important thing about this book. Rather the value is those new perspectives and information which I have just mentioned.

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