Maybe we´re just focusing on different areas, as you suggest, you being more interested in the contributions of specific real-life persons in the weaving of the mythic tapestry while I´m more interested in what earlier mythology, various symbols and arcane teachings have contributed.
I am well aware that myths are not invented arbitrarily. I never said that they are. I just cannot see why "real-life, flesh-and-blood persons" would be the ONLY means to give the myths their substance, as you argued. You then wrote: "The authors could not just invent things arbitrarily. They had to have some basis in real history or real astronomy as they understood it."
Well, why only "in real history or real astronomy"? Why exclude literature, previous mythology, religious legends, mystery cults, arcane teachings, philosophy, etc? None of these things are in any sense "arbitrary". They all represent valid and non-arbitrary patterns upon which to build further mythic cycles. What makes a real-life guy any more valid than the revered personage of a religious legend, for example? And is not the real-life person - for example a "Jesus figure" - in his flesh-and-blood life already entwined in a mythological pattern before being allowed to enter into the aggregate myth that is being created?
If myths aren´t invented arbitrarily - as you argue they aren´t - then also follows that they in themselves are non-arbitrary enough to be used as a basis for additional myth-making.
For example, as Atwill demonstrates in his Introduction, there is a clear parallel between the birth of the legendary Moses (according to the pre-existing Judaic literature and tradition) and the Gospel narrative of the birth of Jesus. No real-life person is needed to "give substance" to the Jesus legend. Moses, the ancient legendary figure of the Judaic faith, does the trick well enough.
Also, as shown by Atwill, the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness by "the devil" is a clear parallel to God, the Lord, being tempted in the wilderness by the "Children of Israel". Still, as you can see, no real historical person is needed here either.
I´m not saying that you´re wrong in your arguing, I just wanted to know why come you so exclusively keep pointing out ONLY real-life historical persons as valid basis for 'sacred history' writing. Aren´t they just one of several ingredients to the mythic soup?
One other thing that I´ve been wondering about after reading "Caesar´s Messiah" is: To what degree did the New Testament conspirators succeed or fail in their attempts to make a final twist to the Judaic tradition? Well, they created Christianity and laid the foundation for the Church that spread its teachings to every corner of the world. But did they stop militant Judaism? Maybe they did, in the long run, despite the Bar Cochba uprising that occurred some time later. But Judaism at large never bought the new Gospel Messiah at all, did it? It may be of some interest to look at the reasons why it dismissed the so well crafted Jesus of the four Gospels:
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