Some people challenge Christianity with thoughtful arguments and evidence. Then there are times like this where an absurd claim gets circulated through Twitter. Some claim that the Romans invented Christianity to help them subjugate their slaves. Objections and theories about Romans creating or influencing Christianity are nothing new, but this adds an extra layer of motivation. Did the Romans create Christianity to justify slavery?
If you ever see someone claim this, start by asking for some sources. How did you come to that conclusion? I can guarantee you it wasn’t from careful historical examination. There are people, even educated people, who believe this. However, the view is not popular or respected among even non-Christian scholars.
Why Would the Romans Justify Slavery?
The claim is strange for many other reasons. The Romans did use psychological warfare, but usually in the form of intimidation. If slaves stepped out of line, they died, often horrifically. Is inventing a religion as some form of reverse psychology really in character? Who would they need to justify it to?
One could read this less as Rome needing to justify and more to pacify. Some, like Joseph Atwill, claim that Rome was tired of uprisings and tried invented Christianity to control the Jews. First, there is no evidence for this. Second, Judea was a small corner of the empire and hardly worth this kind of effort. The Romans sieged Jerusalem and destroyed the temple in the first century. Is inventing a religion really a necessary step?
What Would Creating Christianity Require?
Let’s play this out hypothetically. What would the Romans have had to do? They would need to invent Jesus, someone who the vast majority of scholars believe was a real person, whether divine or not. The gospels would need to be written and copied countless times throughout the empire. Large amounts of people would need to be persuaded of its historical and theological validity. Oh, and you need to do this quickly without letting anyone reveal the dark secret. At what point can we say people will believe any story but the one in the Bible?
Slavery is Not the Point
Regardless of the historical evidence or impossibility, the claim does not make sense of what the Bible says. Did the Romans create Christianity to justify slavery? If they did, why write verses like “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28 ESV). Why bother with all the salvation, kingdom of Heaven, and baptism fluff? Wouldn’t it make more sense to put verses about slaves obeying their masters at the forefront? Nobody who has actually read the Bible would come to this conclusion.
Even the Mythicists Think this is Silly
Let me end with this. Joseph Atwill is one of the proponents of this or a very similar theory. Bart Ehrman, an agnostic New Testament scholar, said this about Atwill’s work, “I know sophomores in college who could rip this … to shreds.” Ehrman also famously said that people who claim that Jesus never existed just look foolish. One of the most famous Jesus mythicists of our time is Richard Carrier, and even he thought that this was too far. If you are one of the people taking this claim seriously and sharing it around social media because you think it’s true, it might be time to hit the books again.