‘Deciphering The Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed’ review: Intro/Chapter One

‘Deciphering the Gospels’ argues the case for Jesus mythicism, which is the view that Jesus never really existed on earth but was a mythical figure in the same way as Hercules or Dionysus. (The author, R. G. Price, is not the same person as Robert Price, also a Jesus mythicist author.) I’m an atheist who holds the opposing (and more mainstream) view that Jesus did exist, as a normal, non-divine, human being. I’m therefore reviewing Price’s book to discuss his arguments and my reasons for disagreeing.

The first post in this book review is here. All subsequent posts will be linked at the end of that post as they go up.

 

Introduction

I gave a brief summary of the introduction in my first post in the review and had planned to leave it at that, but I’ve realised that there are a couple of key points here that do need further examination; the questions of where this idea of a mythical crucified Messiah came from and where it went.

Price explains, in the introduction, how he believes the cult arose:

What set the Jesus cult apart was their belief that the kingdom established by the messiah would not be on earth, but rather it would be in heaven. They believed that the material world was hopelessly corrupt and that the “kingdom of God” could never be established on earth. Thus, they believed that an immaterial heavenly messiah would be required to destroy the evil material world and establish a perfect kingdom in heaven. The creation of an immaterial heavenly kingdom required an immaterial heavenly messiah.

So far, so good. While this would have been a very fringe belief among Jews of the time, not to mention flat-out ignoring the plain meaning of some prophecies, those are hardly factors that rule out this possibility; there are people in any time and place who are happy to adopt very fringe beliefs and to ignore evidence (as their society would have regarded prophecies) to the contrary. So, it is at least plausible that a group at the time could have adopted such a belief. Here, however, are two major questions to which we still need answers:

1. How would such a group have developed the belief that their messiah had been crucified in heaven?

The Jewish idea of the Messiah (a word which literally means ‘anointed’ and was also used more generally for any ruling figure) came originally from scriptural passages prophesying a wondrous future in which the Jews, freed from all oppression, would live in peace and plenty under the rule of a descendant of King David. It bore absolutely no relationship to the later Christian concept of the Messiah being an uber-sacrifice for humanity’s sins. While the Messiah’s job description was vague enough that it allowed for all sorts of interpretations, and technically didn’t exclude the possibility of him being crucified and resurrected on the way to the glorious future in which he ruled over Israel, that’s still a heck of a tangent for someone to have come up with. Any story of Christianity’s origins does need to account for how the early Christians made that leap.

Under a historical-Jesus theory, this is fairly straightforward to explain. If Christianity started with a real man who was crucified, leaving his adoring followers trying to reconcile the cognitive dissonance between their fervent Messianic hopes and the dismal reality facing them, then it’s perfectly plausible that they could have come up with explanations that wove the inescapable brutal fact of their leader’s crucifixion into their theology as part of their God’s grand plan. But, minus an actual crucifixion happening to an actual Messianic claimant, why would a group of Messianic believers spontaneously come up with the idea of their Messiah being crucified? How likely is it that one group would come up with two completely different radical departures from usual concepts of the Messiah (heavenly Messiah and crucified Messiah)? And, even if some Jews somehow came up with the unprecedented idea of their Messiah needing to be a sin sacrifice like the goats and sheep that were taken to the Temple altar, why in the world would they conclude that this sacrifice must take place via a loathed and stigmatised method of execution rather than via known, familiar, accepted methods of animal sacrifice?

2. How did knowledge of this group disappear so thoroughly from church history?

According to Price, the stories about a historical Jesus got started because Mark wrote an allegory which was mistaken for an actual book of prophecies, the other evangelists built on and embroidered the story, and people who’d read these works and mistaken them for accounts of real events somehow formed a religion based on them. So… how in the world, if you’ll forgive the unintentional pun, did it play out when they met the existing groups of Jesus-followers and realised that they taught that he’d never been on earth at all? Even if enough of the new believers clung to their version and managed to start a new cult that overtook the old, we’d still surely expect some records of the previous belief, even if only in the form of teachings from the new cult of why the old one was heretical and mistaken.

 

I don’t believe Price covers either of these two questions in the book. To be fair, it’s some months since I read it and I was rather skimming through on my initial read, so perhaps I’ve missed something; I’ll keep an eye out as I continue the review, and also, of course, look for Price’s thoughts in the comments. Meanwhile, I think that does complete the questions regarding the introduction, so on to Chapter One.

 

Chapter One: Deciphering the Gospel Called Mark

Price devotes the first two chapters of this book to the cornerstone of his theory; his belief that all of the gospel of Mark (apart from some filler) can be shown to have been based on other sources. He believes that from this we can deduce that the gospel of Mark (for which I’ll henceforth use the standard abbreviation gMark, for convenience) is entirely a fictional allegory. This chapter lists multiple examples of Markan stories that Price believes to have been derived from Jewish scriptures (or Jewish culture, in the case of the twelve apostles supposedly symbolising the twelve tribes), and Chapter Two does the same with examples of stories that Price believes to have been derived from Paul’s letters. For those interested in checking this out in more detail, he also has a chronologically ordered, and more comprehensive, list of all his examples online in his essay The Gospel of Mark as Reaction and Allegory, in which he goes through gMark explaining how each part of it in turn fits with his theory.

As I drafted out the comments I wanted to make about Chapter One, I found my reply fell into four parts. The first part looks at the logic underlying Price’s argument, the second at his claim that all the important points of gMark can be shown to have been derived from elsewhere, the third at a couple of Price’s specific examples, and the fourth at his theories about Mark’s motivation for writing. I’ll leave the last three of those for subsequent posts, and cover the first part here.

Price’s argument, as I understand it, can be summarised thusly:

  • All of gMark consists of symbolic or allegorical stories derived from other sources.
  • Therefore, all of gMark is fictional rather than factual.
  • Therefore, the protagonist in gMark – Jesus – is also fictional.

(He then goes on to argue, in subsequent chapters, that as the other gospels are derived from gMark this means that those are also entirely fictional evidence. I’ll discuss that when we get there.)

This chapter and the next one are both devoted to proving the first point on the list, by means of illustrating it with multiple examples. He has, overall, put an impressive amount of detailed and dedicated work into demonstrating the first part of his argument. Unfortunately, he seems to have assumed the subsequent parts of the argument rather than demonstrating them; his assumption seems to be that, if the stories in gMark are all allegorical fiction, then it must automatically follow that the protagonist is fictional. I can’t see that that follows.

Let’s suppose for a moment that Price is absolutely right about his main claim; that Mark did indeed mean his gospel entirely as a work of allegory and that he derived every single story he wrote from another source for this purpose. Why would this automatically mean that the character on which he based his story must also be fictional? It’s perfectly possible to write allegorical stories about a real character.

In fact, even according to Price’s own theory, this would have been precisely what Mark believed he was doing. Price believes Mark to have been a member of the early church (the Pauline branch), which would mean, according to Price’s theory, that Mark believed in Jesus as a spiritual being whose existence was entirely in heaven rather than on earth. While such a Jesus would obviously be fictional from our perspective, it’s important to remember that the people holding such a belief would see Jesus as real. If that had been Mark’s belief, then from his perspective he would have been writing about a being who – while existing in what was effectively another dimension – was nonetheless every bit as real as people on earth. If we’re assuming Mark was writing an allegory about a real (from his perspective) heavenly being, why should we assume he wouldn’t write an allegory about a real earthly being?

Ironically, when I started looking at Price’s examples in detail, I realised that the first example in this chapter perfectly demonstrates that Mark’s apparently symbolic stories can still refer to a real person:

I’d like to first focus on one simple element of the story to demonstrate that this is a fictional story, crafted by the author with the intent that readers use the literary allusions to understand the story. In the Gospel called Mark, John the Baptist represents Elijah. Knowing this is important for understanding the story. How are readers supposed to know that John the Baptist represents Elijah in the story? Readers are told this at the very beginning of the story through the use of literary allusion. In fact, readers are clued in to the fact that the story will parallel much of 1 and 2 Kings right from the beginning.

John the Baptist is, I agree, linked with Elijah in Mark’s account, in a way that could be symbolic. John the Baptist is also discussed in some detail by the well-known Roman historian Flavius Josephus, as a lengthy aside in Josephus’s account of the destruction of Herod Antipas’s army… which gives us solid evidence that JtB actually existed.

Of course, it’s worth examining other possible explanations for that Josephan passage. After all, we know that a different volume of the same work contains at least some lines about Jesus that clearly weren’t written by Josephus, and are now universally accepted as having been interpolated by a later (unknown) Christian who wanted to get their own beliefs about Jesus in there(1). So it’s possible that a Christian scribe might also have wanted to interpolate a passage about John the Baptist. Could this have been what happened here?

It’s certainly plausible that a Christian scribe might have wanted to insert passages that espoused his beliefs. What doesn’t make sense, however, is the theory that a Christian scribe would have inserted this particular passage. Not only is it different enough from the gospel accounts of JtB that it clearly wasn’t just drawn from them, it’s also included in the text specifically to make the point that some of the Jews blamed Herod’s loss of this battle on his unjust killing of John. I think we can safely say that a Christian scribe interpolating their faith-based opinions about Herod Antipas would have focused rather more on Herod’s rejection of Jesus, who doesn’t even get a mention in this passage. I think it therefore reasonable to rule out the theory that this passage was a Christian interpolation.

Of course, a scribe might have had some motivation other than religious belief to interpolate comments, and it is just about possible that someone could have had some motivation of which we’re unaware for interpolating a long passage about a relatively minor historical figure whose death, by that point, would have been many decades previously. (I know of no serious historians who believe this to have been the case, but I’m trying to be as open-minded as possible here.) However, even that outside possibility makes no sense unless John the Baptist at least existed in the first place. If he was only a minor fictional character in a rather obscure religious work, why on earth would anyone believe that the Jews were blaming Herod’s defeat on the murder of this non-existent character, much less write a long passage claiming this to be the case and inventing details that weren’t in the original story?

In short, the existence of this passage in our works of Josephus is good enough evidence to believe in John the Baptist’s existence. (For anyone interested in reading a much more detailed discussion of the interpolation theory – which also concludes that this passage is genuine – Peter Kirby has written a detailed post on the subject.) Regardless of whether Jesus existed, we can at least conclude that John did.

This, of course, tells us nothing whatsoever about Jesus’s existence. However, it does give us a clear example of a story of Mark’s that appears to be (and might well have been intended as) an allegory… but is nevertheless demonstrably about a real person. And as such, it blows a major hole through any theory that ‘allegory’ automatically equates to ‘fictional protagonist’. Which means that, right out of the gate, there is a fundamental problem with Price’s entire theory.

 

(1) The interpolation in Josephus is a fiercely controversial subject, so I shall take a second to clarify: No, we do not know whether or not all of the Testimonium Flavium is interpolated. It might be, it might not be; there is significant legitimate difference of opinion on that point even among experts, and I lack the knowledge or the interest to launch into that particular discussion in any detail. The point is, no-one seriously doubts that at least some of it was, and that, as such, it’s an excellent example of the fact that scribes could, potentially, interpolate bits of information into texts to satisfy their own agendas.

‘Walking Disaster’ review: Chapter Eleven

This is a chapter-by-chapter review of problematic romance novel ‘Walking Disaster’ by Jamie McGuire. Posts in the series will all be linked back to the initial post, here.

‘Walking Disaster’ is a companion novel to ‘Beautiful Disaster’, which is currently being snark-reviewed by the magnificent Jenny Trout. Links to that review and other reviews of Jenny’s can be found here.

 

Chapter Eleven: Cold Bitch

Well, there’s a title with ominous connotations.

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‘Walking Disaster’ review: Chapter Ten, Part Two

This is a chapter-by-chapter review of problematic romance novel ‘Walking Disaster’ by Jamie McGuire. Posts in the series will all be linked back to the initial post, here.

‘Walking Disaster’ is a companion novel to ‘Beautiful Disaster’, which is currently being snark-reviewed by the magnificent Jenny Trout. Links to that review and other reviews of Jenny’s can be found here.

Jenny Trout has her next ‘Beautiful Disaster’ post up! Check it out! For those wanting to read the two reviews in parallel, the plot covered in that chapter of ‘Beautiful’ is the same as that covered in the end of Chapter Eight, Chapter Nine, and the first part of Chapter Ten of ‘Walking’, because of how badly the books are synced up.

And, yes… I did find it cool to read her review after having done the parallel chapters in ‘Walking’, so now I’d like to cover enough of ‘Walking’ to get through the equivalent of Chapter Five in ‘Beautiful’ before Jenny reviews that chapter. But, again, we’ll see how it goes. (And I do have my other book review to work on as well.)

Back to Chapter Ten of ‘Walking’, guys!

Content warning

Red flag levels of possessive jealousy.

 

Chapter Ten: Broken (Oddly appropriate chapter title, since I broke the chapter review. Ba-dum, shh. OK, OK, moving on.)

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‘Deciphering the Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed’ review: Preface and Introduction.

Hey, guys, anyone up for a bit more Jesus mythicism debate? Yes… it’s time for me to start reviewing R.G. Price’s book!

A bit of background, for those who don’t know it: A few months back, I wrote a post here about why I’ve always found it more likely that Jesus did exist as some kind of real-life figure, rather than being a completely mythical figure as many non-Christians believe. (That post isn’t a comprehensive list of reasons for believing in Jesus’s historicity, by the way; just the reasons why I thought Jesus likely to be historical even before I started reading up properly on the debate and learning more about it.)

Anyway, the post sparked off some pretty major discussion, and Jesus mythicist R.G. Price came to join in. (This might, by the way, be a good moment to clarify that R.G. Price is not the same person as Robert M. Price, who is also a Jesus mythicist.) We had some further discussion, and he very kindly offered to send me a free copy of his book. I offered in turn to review it for him, and here we are.

This one, unlike some of the other stuff I’ve written, is not going to be snark. I’m up for a serious discussion about R.G. Price’s arguments and the reasons why I disagree with them (which I still do; I’ve read the whole book already). If that’s not for you, no worries, hope to see you on another review.

This book has both a preface and an introduction; I’ll try to cover them both in this post. As with previous reviews, I’ll then link all other chapter reviews back to the original post to keep everything in one place.

Here we go, folks!

Preface

R.G. Price’s first sentence is ‘By conventional standards, I am not qualified to write this book.’ This amused me; by the same conventional standards, I’m not qualified to debate it, so we’ll just bumble along together in happy amateurism. (If anyone out there who does have relevant qualifications spots any howling errors in anything I write or anything I quote from R.G. Price, do feel free to step in and set us straight.)

R.G. Price goes on to give us a quick outline of his background:

  • He’s a software engineer/data analysis, with a BSc in biology. (That’s interesting; I’m curious as to how he got from the latter to the former? Not that it’s relevant; I’m just interested.)
  • He grew up in a ‘nominally Christian’ family but was skeptical about Christianity from an early age. However, he was always fascinated by religion in general, and read the Bible several times while he was growing up. (He’s got more sticking power than me. I tried to read it several times, but invariably bogged down somewhere around the Chronicles. Although the part I did read was certainly… informative.) When he read the Bible’s accounts of supernatural phenomena, he would try to think of possible natural causes for the things described.
  • He first found out about Jesus mythicism in the late ’90s, because Internet. (Yes, me too.) He was very skeptical about it at first, and in fact spent quite a bit of time over the next few years debunking some of the more improbable mythicist theories. However, in the process of researching these claims, he found some of the things he was coming across were starting to change his mind on the subject.

At this point, R.G. Price gives us an example; He often saw mythicists claiming that the twelve disciples were actually symbolic of the twelve signs of the zodiac. (Good grief; people were claiming this often? The internet is a worrying place.) R.G. Price pointed out that a much more likely source of the story was a Jewish tradition of heroes or prophets appointing helpers from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. However, having come up with this explanation, he found himself believing that this was indeed the source of the story; that the disciples were ‘a symbolic literary intervention’.

Now, this is interesting. If I understand this correctly, R.G. Price seems to have moved from ‘This is a possible explanation for this part of the story’ to ‘This is a likely explanation for this part of the story’. And I can’t quite see how he got there. I mean, certainly the story of twelve disciples could have been invented for that reason, but it’s also perfectly plausible that a real-life Jewish preacher of that era would deliberately choose a group of that size for that reason. So, as far as I can see, that particular part of the story could fit with either a historical or a mythical Jesus.

(In fact, once you take into account that two out of the three leaders of the original Jerusalem church supposedly started out as part of Jesus’s group, the probability seems to swing at least a little more towards the historical. It’s plausible that an author writing a symbolic story about a mythical Jesus might decide to include all the existing church leaders as members of his inner circle, or, even more likely, none of them… but it seems a bit odd that they’d include two out of three and have a different backstory for the third. Not impossible, but odd enough to seem on the unlikely side.)

Anyway, by now R.G. Price had read about how some scenes in the gospels seem to be literary allusions to the Hebrew scriptures (for example, many details in the crucifixion scene seem to be based on Psalm 22) and he formed a hypothesis; that this was true of almost all the gospel stories. Or at least, almost all the stories in Mark, the earliest gospel. So he set out to test this by – and I love this – spending a year going through gMark line by line, searching the OT in various translations to find related passages on which each story could have been based. A year. R.G. Price, my man, you may proudly take your place amongst the Fellowship of Obsessive Geeks, which I totally just invented but absolutely should exist. Welcome to our ranks. <extends hand>

His conclusion, at the end of all this, was that all of the stories in gMark could be attributed either to literary allusions to OT stories, or to points that ‘Mark’ had found in Paul’s epistles. From this, and other parts of the Jesus story that he’d been looking into, he found himself coming round to the mythicism side of the argument.

At this point, he still felt he needed a theory explaining how the Jesus story originated. He feels he’s managed to come up with such a theory, and is writing this book in order to present it. He concludes ‘The case I am putting forward essentially shows that belief in a real human Jesus arose out of confusion and a misunderstanding of how the Gospels were written.’

Introduction

In the introduction, R.G. Price outlines his theory. Put together chronologically, it goes like this:

  1. Christianity originated as a small apocalyptic Jewish cult that believed that the material world was hopelessly corrupt and thus the kingdom of God would need to be established in heaven rather than, as was more traditionally believed, on earth. As such, they developed the belief that the Messiah – eagerly awaited by Jews – would be an immaterial heavenly being rather than an earthly human.
  2. Paul became an apostle of this cult. He preached reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles, believing that the expected kingdom of God would be open to anyone who had faith in God.
  3. Along came the First Jewish-Roman War, the sacking of Jerusalem, and the destruction of the Temple. One of the members of the Pauline-founded sects came to the belief that these events were God’s punishment on the Jews for not having heeded the message of harmony between Jews and Gentiles. He expressed this belief in a fictional, allegorical account, in which he made Jesus the protagonist. This story was the one we now call the Gospel of Mark.
  4. The other gospel writers, misunderstanding Mark’s gospel and believing it to be a real story of a real person, wrote more detailed stories based on it. (At least, that seems to be what R.G. Price thinks happened here; his theory seems a little vague at this point.)

Some of this, of course, gets discussed in more detail through the book, and I’ll discuss it then. The last part, however, doesn’t really seem to get addressed further (unless I’ve missed something) so I’m going to take a minute to look at it here; how is this supposed to have happened? We’re talking here not just about people mistaking a fictional story for a true one (which I can well believe someone, somewhere, would manage to do) but about multiple people getting so caught up in this that they write more detailed versions of the fictional story, adding in new points!

How likely would this be to happen? Why should we consider it a more likely explanation for the existence of the gospels than the more usual explanation that they’re based on stories about a real person that were passed down (albeit in embroidered form) over the years?

Anyway, that’s about it for the introduction. In the next chapter, we’re going to get more detail about the theory of Mark’s gospel as an allegory.

Links to other chapters

(Each link will be followed by a quick summary of the points covered in that post)

More on the intro/first thoughts on Chapter 1

  • How would a cult following a mythical heavenly Jesus have developed a belief in a crucified Messiah?
  • How could a cult following a heavenly Jesus be so thoroughly supplanted by a cult believing in an earthly Jesus that we’re left with no mention or trace of the former?
  • Why we can’t assume that ‘allegorical story’ = ‘fictional protagonist’

‘Walking Disaster’ review: Chapter Ten, Part One

This is a chapter-by-chapter review of problematic romance novel ‘Walking Disaster’ by Jamie McGuire. Posts in the series will all be linked back to the initial post, here. ‘Walking Disaster’ is a companion novel to ‘Beautiful Disaster’, which is currently being snark-reviewed by the magnificent Jenny Trout. Links to that review and other reviews of Jenny’s can be found here.

 

Content warning:

  • Alcohol (mis)used as a coping mechanism
  • Swearing (mine and the book’s)

 

Chapter Ten: Broken

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‘Walking Disaster’ review: Chapter Nine

This is a chapter-by-chapter review of problematic romance novel ‘Walking Disaster’ by Jamie McGuire. Posts in the series will all be linked back to the initial post, here. ‘Walking Disaster’ is a companion novel to ‘Beautiful Disaster’, which is being snark-reviewed by the magnificent Jenny Trout.

You might well at this point be wondering how long I’m going to keep on with this particular novel without taking a break to do something else (such as, for example, the other review project I promised I’d work on). If so… well, good question.

What I like the idea of doing, you see, is snarking a section of ‘Walking’ and then reading Jenny’s snark of the equivalent section in ‘Beautiful’; I think that would be fun. So, my initial ambition was to try to get a chapter ahead of Jenny before taking a break. What I hadn’t realised was how far out of sync the chapters are. I mean, this is Chapter Nine, but the story in ‘Beautiful’ is still only part way through Chapter Four. So I’d like to get to whatever point equates to the end of Chapter Four in ‘Beautiful’, but Potato only knows where that’s going to end up being in ‘Walking’. Anyway, my plan at the moment is to keep going with this one until I either get there or lose it completely and run screaming into the night.

Content warnings

  • Pathological possessiveness
  • Anger problems

 

Chapter Nine: Crushed

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The Transphobic Comments Of Dr Jacob Edward Les

Siobhan, a blogger on this site, has posted an article on one Dr Les of Calgary, titled Calgary Physician Calls Transgender People “Demented, Distorted”. She quotes, with links, multiple examples of frighteningly transphobic comments Dr Les has made on his blog or Twitter account.

In the post at the first link Shiv gives, for example, Dr Les dismisses gender identity as a belief that’s ‘soft-headed’, ‘blithering idiocy’, and ‘dangerous bunk’. He also describes the AAP guidelines on care for transgender youth as recommending that transgender children be ‘ushered post-haste down the injurious road to sex reassignment’, which is, quite frankly, a bare-faced lie. (And a very dangerous lie for transgender children whose parents make the mistake of trusting Dr Les to be honest with them on this point and don’t check the guidelines out for themselves to see that this doesn’t remotely represent the advice they give. This dishonest scaremongering could put people off seeking the help their children need.)

This is really bad behaviour from someone who, as a doctor, has a responsibility to show the public a better side. It’s horrifying that he feels it appropriate not only to hold these kinds of bigoted, simplistic beliefs without finding out more, but also to express them in such insulting terms.

You can read more in Shiv’s article; she’s read more of his work than I’d be able to stomach.

‘Walking Disaster’ review: Chapter Eight

This is a chapter-by-chapter review of problematic romance novel ‘Walking Disaster’ by Jamie McGuire. Posts in the series will all be linked back to the initial post, here. ‘Walking Disaster’ is a companion novel to ‘Beautiful Disaster’, which is being snark-reviewed by the magnificent Jenny Trout.

Content warnings:

  • Ablist term (but not used to insult anyone else)
  • Carelessness about prospective animal ownership

 

Chapter Eight: Oz

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‘Walking Disaster’ review: Chapter Seven

This is a chapter-by-chapter review of problematic romance novel ‘Walking Disaster’ by Jamie McGuire. Posts in the series will all be linked back to the initial post, here. ‘Walking Disaster’ is a companion novel to ‘Beautiful Disaster’, which is being snark-reviewed by the magnificent Jenny Trout.

Content warnings:

  • Aggressive behaviour
  • Swearing (mine and the book’s)
  • Rape culture
  • Misogyny
  • Heavy drinking

 

Chapter Seven: Seeing Red

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‘Walking Disaster’ review: Chapter Six

This is a chapter-by-chapter review of problematic romance novel ‘Walking Disaster’ by Jamie McGuire. Posts in the series will all be linked back to the initial post, here. ‘Walking Disaster’ is a companion novel to ‘Beautiful Disaster’, which is being snark-reviewed by the magnificent Jenny Trout.

Content warnings:

  • Misogynistic insult
  • Drunk driving being treated casually, careful driving being treated negatively

 

Chapter Six: Shots

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