When I heard that Joseph Atwill, author of Caesar's Messiah, had come out with a second book, I was hoping that he would clarify his original arguments and address the major objections that have been raised about his theory that the Romans invented Christianity. In particular, I wanted to see what he had to say about the documentary evidence that Christianity was already in existence before he says it was created.
Unfortunately, Atwill completely ignores the serious problems with his basic theory. In his new book, Shakespeare's Secret Messiah, he assumes that he already proved his case in his first book and proceeds to develop some new and extremely baffling ideas about Shakespeare, Domitian, the apostle Paul. the Book of Revelations, etc. These ideas are cryptic, to say the least, not to mention fantastically obscure and complex. I tried reading Shakespeare's Secret Messiah, but I couldn't make any sense out of it.
Tacitus and Seutonius directly contradict Atwill's basic theory. If their accounts of the Christians in Rome under Nero are authentic, then it doesn't really matter what other arguments Atwill makes because his fundamental proposition is dead on arrival. I don't see how Atwill can ignore this. If he wants us to believe that the Flavian emperors invented Christianity, then he has to present some kind of evidence that these sections in Tacitus and Suetonius are forgeries or interpolations. Instead, he just sweeps the whole issue under the rug, an odd thing for a scholar to do. Or maybe it isn't so odd. I have to assume from his silence on the issue that he doesn't have an answer.
The introduction to Shakespeare's Secret Messiah, written by Jerry Russell, has a section called Christianity Before The Flavians?, but it never really gets into the Roman sources like Tacitus and Suetonious. Among other things, Russell suggests or at least discusses the possibility that some form of "primitive Herodian Christianity" might have existed before the Flavians came along, but Russell points out that "Atwill is simply not interested in participating in this speculation." The fundamental conflict between Atwill's theory and the evidence from Tacitus and Suetonious is ignored.
Russell's introduction is the best part of the book. It's not particularly convincing, but it's clear, logically organized and well written, which is more than I can say for Shakespeare's Secret Messiah. I tried to follow what Atwill was saying, but I only made it through the first half of his book before giving it up as a lost cause. The writing is so muddled it's almost incomprehensible. For example, Atwill refers to Shakespeare as "she" and "her" long before he gets around to explaining that he thinks Shakespeare was a woman. And it was unclear, at least to me, why he was writing about Shakespeare in the first place. Problems like this make the book very hard to follow.
Atwill's arguments aren't really arguments, but flat declarations and his style is so confusing that I couldn't tell what he was trying to say. He apparently believes that Shakespeare knew about the alleged Roman conspiracy to invent Christianity and was trying to expose the plot in his (her) plays, using the hidden symbolism and obscure parallels that Atwill specializes in decoding. The Roman conspiracy had something to do with demonizing the Jews and using Christianity to establish a behavior control system that laid the groundwork for feudalism. It's all very convoluted and depends entirely on speculative textual interpretation.
Atwill has been accused of parallelomania, "a phenomenon where authors perceive apparent similarities and construct parallels and analogies without historical basis," according to Wikipedia. This may not be fair, but his second book tends to support that diagnosis and the interviews he's done with Gnostic Media and other groups suggest that he's more of a conspiracy theorist than a serious Biblical scholar.
The Caesar's Messiah theory is a nonstarter until Atwill deals with Tacitus and Suetonious. He has to present some kind of evidence that their passages dealing with the Christians under Nero aren't authentic. According to Russell, Atwill is going to cover the Christian martyr stories in a third volume, so maybe he'll get into it there. Until he does, it's impossible to take his arguments seriously.