‘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.
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.