‘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.

Comments

  1. Allison says

    Maybe it’s because I’m not much of an atheist, but I’ve never figured out why anybody goes to so much trouble to “prove” that “Jesus never existed.” What actual difference does the existence or non-existence of a putative Jewish wonder-worker who inspired a sect of Judaism that eventually broke off to become a world religion make?

    It’s not like it has any bearing on whether a God (however you conceive of her) exists, or (assuming she exists) what she is like or what she wants people to do.

    Moreover, Christianity most definitely exists, and its history is for the most part documented beyond reasonable doubt, and I seriously doubt that any “proof” that there was no flesh-and-blood person at the beginning would make much difference to either believers or the non-believers.

    It’s rather like the attempts to prove that Wm. Shakespeare didn’t write the plays and sonnets ascribed to him, but rather someone else did.

    The thing is, if someone ever did come up with a proof that a Jesus did exist — or did not exist — the whole cottage industry of arguments for and against would run the risk of collapsing. (But of course, people can always invent a way around any evidence that inconveniences them, so the debate would rage on in any case.)

    • db says

      Allison says: I’ve never figured out why anybody goes to so much trouble to “prove” that “Jesus never existed.”

      Leading mythicism scholars do not not assert that the historicity of Jesus is a black or white scenario, R. M. Price writes, “I don’t think you can ‘prove’ either that a historical Jesus existed or that he didn’t. What you can do . . . is to construe the same old evidence in a new way that makes more natural, less contrived, sense” [Price, Robert M. (2018). “Foreword” ap. R. G. Price 2018, p. ix.]; and Richard Carrier gives a 1:3 (~33%) chance that Jesus existed.

    • db says

      Per Edward van der Kaaij: “. . . I am trying to prove that the historical Jesus did not exist, because I think that the view that Jesus did exist is harmful to understanding the Bible.” Cf. Godfrey, Neil (12 March 2015). “Mythicism Making Christianity More Meaningful”. Vridar.

      “edward van der kaaij”. De ongemakkelijke waarheid van het christendom (in Dutch).

      Birth of Jesus
      Last week I indicated that there is only one source of the historical Jesus, and that is the Mark Gospel. You will find detailed proof of this in my book. [De ongemakkelijke waarheid van het christendom. de echte Jezus onthuld]
      […]
      I am aware that this is a striking proposition and that many believe that a minister with such an opinion places himself outside the Christian faith. That is why I say with great emphasis: I am a Christian believer, the Bible is for me – and according to the church order – source and norm of the Christian faith. And that is precisely why every believer must agree with me that good Bible interpretation is decisive.

  2. rationalrevolution says

    HI Sarah,

    I think you’ve put the cart before the horse in a few places. What strikes me is that your approach to this topic is very similar to the Creationist approach to evolution. It is common for Creationists to begin their rebuttal to evolution something along the lines of, “But where did life come from? You can’t prove that God didn’t create life. Evolution can’t be true, because you can’t prove how life started, therefor only God could have created life, therefore evolution can’t be true.”

    This seems to be the approach you’ve taken.

    “Any story of Christianity’s origins does need to account for how the early Christians made that leap.”

    Indeed, and I will be addressing just that in my next book, which is actually a history book, while this is really just Biblical analysis. But this question is not actually important to the matter at hand, just as determining how life started is not important for showing that life has developed and is developing through a process of evolution.

    The evidence for evolution is clear and demonstrable, and that may lead us to the further question of how the process got started, but we don’t need to prove how it started in order to demonstrate that it is occurring and has occurred for millions of years.

    As for your second question (which is still putting the cart before horse): “How did knowledge of this group disappear so thoroughly from church history?”

    Chapter 5 is actually dedicated to this very question. Quite simply, and this is not something that I’m just saying, this is actually well established, #1 there was no continuous development of the religion. #2 there were dozens of “heretical” sects by the early 2nd century, many of which believed that Jesus was purely spiritual, some of which believed that he never came into this world at all, while others believed that he made an appearance on earth as a spirit only. These views were in fact discussed in detail by the proto-orthodox Roman Christians and denounced because such views contradicted their reading of the Gospels.

    It is clear, as I show in Chapters 4 and 5, that all knowledge of Jesus the man comes from the Gospels and nowhere else. The Gospels always were the one and only source of information about Jesus. There was no transfer of knowledge about Jesus from any community to founders of Christianity. The founders of Christianity were Romans whose sole knowledge of Jesus came from writings of unknown sources. Indeed every single writing in the New Testament is of unknown origin and was never known even to the earliest commentators on them. These were found writings, for which the Roman interpreters of the writings had no actual context, and indeed the Roman founders of Christianity stated very plainly that the Jews didn’t understand their own writings which was why Jews didn’t accept Jesus, because they couldn’t understand their own scriptures, only Greek and Roman Christians could understand 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.”

    Not true. Nowhere did I state that. This is a twelve chapter book. It takes all twelve chapters, or at least 10, to make the case. I fully agree that merely showing that Mark is ahistorical does not prove that Jesus didn’t exist, and never made such a claim.

    “which gives us solid evidence that JtB actually existed.”

    I wouldn’t say it’s solid, but it’s also irrelevant. We can easily assume that JtB was real. So were Peter, James, John, Pilate, and likely others in the story. The point being made is not that any of the names for the characters in question represented real people, but that the narrative is a concocted one. I can write an entirely fictional narrative about George Washington. The fact that a man named George Washington existed doesn’t make my narrative real.

    The point being demonstrated was showing how the author was using literary references to craft an intricate and allegorical narrative. The point of that, is showing that the narrative was invented by the writer, and that it is not a product of “oral tradition”. That’s the point, showing that the narrative is a product of literary invention and showing how the author made use of symbolism and literary references in the story.

    Most of the rest of your post goes into a digression on Josephus, which is beside the point.

    Here is what I would like to know, in terms of a review of Chapter 1. Did you learn anything from Chapter 1? Did you come away from Chapter 1 with a different perspective on the narrative from Mark? Did you come away with an appreciation for the craftsman ship of the author of the story? Were you impressed with the sophistication of how the author must have crafted these scenes? Did you see why I conclude that the entire narrative must have been invented after the First Jewish-Roman War? Do you understand the role of the War in the narrative and in my analysis?

    By the way, here is a very interesting thread on Deciphering the Gospels on a Dutch Forethought forum: https://www.freethinker.nl/forum/viewtopic.php?f=31&t=17878

    I was very impressed by the caliber of their discussion and it includes critical points, many of which I agree with myself.

    • db says

      rationalrevolution says: “[The point] is showing that the narrative was invented by the writer, and that it is not a product of “oral tradition”.”

      • So one can reject the simpler and demonstrable: “the narrative was invented by the writer” and plump for: oral traditions, that cannot be scrutinized, that changed over time, and that may well have been made up from whole cloth.

      Per Thomas Brodie, “Interjecting an unpredictable chain of communication into a period of less than a lifetime has the effect not of promoting claims to historicity, but of dissipating them.” [“Oral Tradition Is Unnecessary to Explain the Gospels”. Vridar. 26 October 2012.]

  3. db says

    OP: “[W]e 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…”

    IMO the discussion of Josephus’ testimony and other non-Christian sources is a “Red Herring”.

    • Given Arguendo: Josephus’ testimony and other non-Christian sources are all without interpolation and are not forged.

    It is still not possible to prove that Josephus’ testimony and other non-Christian sources are independent of the Gospels (and Gospel-dependent Christian legends and informants). Therefore under standard academic historical methodology, they are not considered as attestation for the historicity of Jesus.

    Per Guignebert, Charles (1933). Jésus (in French). L’Évolution de l’humanité. synthèse collective 29. Paris: La Renaissance du livre. “Let’s admit that all the so-called pagan and Jewish testimonies [to Jesus] do not bring us any useful information on the life of Jesus, that they do not even give us the certainty that he has lived.” [Confessons donc que tous les prétendus témoignages païens et juifs ne nous apportent aucun renseignement utile sur la vie de Jésus, qu’ils ne nous donnent même pas la certitude qu’il ait vécu. —(p. 23)]

    • Secular contemporary scholars (”e.g.” Maurice Casey and Bart Ehrman) who have written a defense for the historicity of Jesus, do not resort to “Non-Christian sources” for attestation of the historicity of Jesus in their works.

    Per Lataster, Raphael (2019). Questioning the Historicity of Jesus: Why a Philosophical Analysis Elucidates the Historical Discourse. Brill-Rodopi. ISBN 978-9004397934.

    Focussing on the non-Christian sources that are available, from within around 100 years after Jesus’ death, Ehrman generally dismisses the few extant non-Christian and non-Jewish testimonies, that of Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, and Tacitus. […] Ehrman quickly discards the disputed and irrelevant Talmudic references to Jesus, which he arguably should not have even mentioned […] Ehrman also adds that “my case for the historicity of Jesus does not depend on the reliability of Josephus’ testimony”. . . . Ehrman has been very bold — though mostly fair — so far. He has effectively ruled out the sources that we objective and secular scholars might place more confidence in… —(pp. 34, 36, 38)

  4. db says

    OP: “Regardless of whether Jesus existed, we can at least conclude that John did.”

    Per Allen, N.P.L. (2015) Clarifying the Scope of Pre-Fifth-Century C.E. Christian Interpolation in Josephus’ Antiquitates Judaicae (c. 94 C.E.). Unpublished Philosophiae Doctor thesis, Potchefstroom: North-West University. available online @ http://dspace.nwu.ac.za/handle/10394/14213

    [N]o reliable extra-biblical/scriptural accounts exist to support the historical existence of, inter alia, Jesus of Nazareth, James the Just or John the Baptist. —(p. ii)
    […]
    5.8 Chapter Five Summary
    The following points, especially when taken collectively, mitigate against the BP [Baptist Passaage] being in any way an authentic Josephan text:
    • If Josephus wrote the BP then it follows that he also:
    01. contradicts the gospels as regards the date of John the Baptist’s activities;
    02. contradicts the gospels as regards the reason for John the Baptist’s arrest;
    03. shows remarkable familiarity and theologically advanced insights into Christian-based baptism rites;
    04. contradicts his statements about the range and scope of Jewish-based cults in the Holy land due to failure to mention any other Jewish sect even remotely connected with a Baptist cult or Christianity 312 ; [This assumes that the TF is an interpolation.]
    05. contradicts his avowed position on the dangers of Jewish religious upstarts;
    06. describes an impossible/contradictory situation at the fortress at Macherus;
    07. contradicts his previously stated reasons for Gods’ divine vengeance against Antipas;
    08. seriously disrupts the literary flow of his narration;
    09. fails to mention John the Baptist in his earlier work and in the same context (i.e. the BJ); and
    10. fails to mention John the Baptist in his table of contents (AJ).
    —(p. 361–362)

    • db says

      Per Doudna, Gregory L. (2019). “Is Josephus’s John the Baptist Passage a Chronologically Dislocated Story of the Death of Hyrcanus II?”. In Pfoh, Emanuel; Niesiolowski-Spanò, Lukasz (ed.). Biblical Narratives, Archaeology and Historicity: Essays In Honour of Thomas L. Thompson. Bloomsbury–T&T Clark. pp. 119–137. ISBN 978-0-567-68657-2.

      This article proposes that Josephus’s ‘John the Baptist’ passage in Antiquities is a chronologically displaced story of the death of Hyrcanus II, the aged former high priest, by Herod the Great in either c. 34 or 30 BCE. As a matter of method the Gospels are set completely to one side and the focus is solely on analysis of the Josephus passage.

      The passage in Antiquities is in Josephus’s language and style, yet at the same time the passage reads as an insertion into pre-existing text, like an ancient excursus or footnote set into a text that would read perfectly smoothly without it (Schwartz 2013: 106–9). This description does not mean the passage is an interpolation by a later Christian scribe. For a number of reasons the passage is unlikely to have come from a later Christian forger, not the least of which is that Josephus’s John the Baptist is not in any way portrayed as Christian. Rather, the insertion of a story into preexisting narrative is a well-known phenomenon in the composition process of Josephus. But this composition process results in precisely the kind of passage that can be subject to Josephus making a chronological mistake, in this case attaching an undated story from a source to the wrong Herod. —(pp. 119–120)

  5. db says

    OP: “It’s perfectly possible to write allegorical stories about a real character.”

    True, but at some point there must be a “Habeas Corpus” for this putative “real character” and the gospel texts are not going to suffice for any scholar using standard academic historical methodologies.

    Per Carrier (30 September 2019). “Did Jesus Exist? Craig Evans’ Post-Debate Analysis“. Richard Carrier Blogs.

    [W]e discount the Gospels as at all reliable on standard historical methodologies that would produce the same result in every other field:
    • They’re late, post-dating any evident witness known to still be alive;
    • and written in a foreign land and language;
    • by unknown authors of unknown credentials;
    • who cite no sources, and give no indication they had any sources;
    • and never critically engage with their material but only credulously (e.g. they never discuss conflicting accounts or reasons to believe their information, unlike rational historians of the era);
    • and about whose texts we have no reactions, critical or otherwise—whatever people were saying about these Gospels when they came out, we never get to hear, not for many more decades, by which time we see those reacting have no other information to judge them by;
    • all the earliest of which texts just copy their predecessors verbatim and change and add a few things;
    • and which contain in every pericope patent implausibilities or wholly unbelievable stories (from a random guy splitting the heavens and battling the devil and wandering out of the desert and converting disciples to instantly abandon their livelihoods after but a few sentences, to mystically murdering thousands of pigs, miraculously feeding thousands of itinerants, curing the blind, calming storms, and walking on water; from having a guy arguing against Pharisees with arguments that actually were the arguments of the Pharisees, to depicting a trial and execution that violates every law and custom of the time; and beyond);
    • which stories have obvious and rather convenient pedagogical uses in later missionary work;
    • and often emulate and “change up” the prior myths of other historically dubious heroes, like Moses and Elijah;
    • and often contain details that can only have been written a lifetime later (like the Sermon on the Mount, which was composed in Greek after the Jewish War; or prophecies of Jerusalem’s destruction, likewise; or Mark’s emulation of the passion of Jesus ben Ananias or Luke’s confused cooption of The Antiquities of Josephus; and so on).
    • and for none which do we have any prior corroboration.
    There is no field of history—absolutely none—where such sources as these would be trusted as history at all.

    Biblical scholars do have a solution for this issue. They just lower the standards by which they measure a source’s reliability!

    Per Lataster, Raphael (2019). Questioning the Historicity of Jesus: Why a Philosophical Analysis Elucidates the Historical Discourse. Brill-Rodopi. ISBN 978-9004397934.

    Historians cannot lower the standards by which they measure a source’s reliability . . . even if this is what Biblical scholars actually do. That would be illogical and inconsistent; and its practice all but proves bias. Scholars could then proclaim any source reliable. —(p. 137)

  6. rationalrevolution says

    Dr Sarah,

    As I alluded to in my prior reply, your error here seems to be in trying to take everything in a single bite. The book is laid out in a methodical way that builds the case piece by piece. You’re looking at the first piece and declaring that the first piece doesn’t prove the case all by itself, therefor its all nonsense. That, of course, is not how any such investigation is done, whether criminal, historical or scientific.

    In addressing chapter one one needs to address the content and conclusions of chapter one. And I do realize that, while I tried to write this book for a general audience, it really does require significant familiarity with the Bible and mainstream biblical scholarship, which is a shortcoming on my part. I should perhaps have given more background. So I think a legitimate criticism of the book is that it doesn’t provide enough background for lay readers, which, BTW, is my target audience, so that’s certainly a significant issue.

    So, having read all of the Gospel of Mark yourself prior to reading this is certainly helpful. Having read several mainstream assessment of the Gospels is also helpful.

    What one should get from chapter one is not that “Jesus didn’t exist”, but rather an understanding that the traditional and mainstream assessment of “what the Gospel of Mark is” doesn’t make sense. It certainly helps to know what mainstream scholars think the Gospel of Mark is, which I admit I don’t do a thorough enough job establishing. (I briefly address it early in the chapter). But certainly mainstream scholars claim that the Gospel of Mark is a record of oral accounts of the life of Jesus, written down by an unsophisticated scribe who was just basically jotting down notes that he was told from a community of Jesus worshipers. Any symbolism in the narrative comes from the community. The writer is almost immaterial, he makes no contribution to the content, he’s really just recording the oral traditions, and these oral traditions were developed by people who knew directly of Jesus and passed down his teachings and actions, all of which took place around the late 20s CE.

    So the purpose of this chapter is to demonstrate why this understanding of Mark cannot possibly be true. The case I put forward is that Mark is a sophisticated writer who was developing a complex allegorical narrative, that must have been developed entirely after the First Jewish-Roman War, and thus did not originate from any community, but rather originated purely from the mind of it’s writer. This can be better illustrated with an example from the book’s website here: http://www.decipheringthegospels.com/examples.html

    Reflecting on those examples can be helpful. There we can see how some of the most well established authorities on this topic assess these scenes. We have Bart Ehrman stating that he’s certain that “something” really happened at the temple. We have J.P. Meier, a conservative Catholic, making essentially the same exact case as Ehrman. That’s the standard approach to understanding this material. How does the approach that I’ve laid out compare to that in your mind?

    What do you think about the fact that the “leading authorities” on this subject, haven’t recognized the fact that this scene is actually derived from literary references? What do you think about the fact that none of the authorities who advocate for the historical reality of this event even acknowledge or address the relationship between the scene and the passage from Hosea 9? Do you think its not relevant? Do you think that the fact that the leading scholars who advocate for the historical truth of this passage are unaware of, or fail to acknowledge, the relationship between this scene and Hosea 9 is material? If it is material, and the leading authorities on the issue fail to address it, what does that tell you about the reliability of their conclusions?

    No individual chapter in this book is intended to make a giant leap. Its about taking steps on a ladder. What do you learn, and what perspective do you gain, if anything, from chapter one?

    • rationalrevolution says

      For a bit more on the temple cleaning scene see: http://www.rationalrevolution.net/blog/?p=40

      Notice there that the analysis of the scene by E.P. Sanders is almost identical word for word to Bart Ehrman’s passage. Note that E. P. Sander’s account was published before Ehrman’s.

      But again, this should really be the focus of assessing chapter one. Not evaluating whether chapter one proves Jesus didn’t exist, which isn’t even a claim being made, but rather does understanding these intertextual relationships provide new insight into how to understand the Gospel of Mark and to evaluate its relationships to historical reality?

    • db says

      rationalrevolution @7 says: “mainstream scholars claim that the Gospel of Mark is a record of oral accounts of the life of Jesus, written down by an unsophisticated scribe who was just basically jotting down notes that he was told from a community of Jesus worshipers. Any symbolism in the narrative comes from the community. The writer is almost immaterial, he makes no contribution to the content, he’s really just recording the oral traditions, and these oral traditions were developed by people who knew directly of Jesus and passed down his teachings and actions, all of which took place around the late 20s CE.”

      • Vorster, Willem S. (1993). “The Production of the Gospel of Mark : An essay on intertextuality”. HTS Teologiese Studies. 49 (3): 385–396. doi:10.4102/hts.v49i3.2499. [NOW BOLDED]

      In this essay I will discuss the importance of the unsolved problem of the production of the Gospel of Mark. To achieve my goal, I will first pay attention to current views on the origin of the material. —(p. 386)
      […]
      One can safely say that there has been little reflection on the role of the person who produced the Gospel, except for the descriptions I have mentioned, namely collector, composer, redactor and author. How one should picture Mark editing tradition in written or oral form by changing a word here and there, adding a sentence or two, rearranging the order of material, putting the traditional material into a narrative frame and joining separate units or episodes — as redaction critics make us believe — is difficult to imagine.

      There is much more to the production of a text than traditional views would allow. As long as the Gospels are perceived mainly from the perspective of their growth, the process of production is blurred. What is needed is serious reflection on the production of texts from the perspective of what happens when other texts, whether oral or written, are included in or absorbed by a new text. The traditional approach is anti-individualistic because the driving force behind the Gospels is the anonymous community. —(p. 389)

      rationalrevolution @7 says: “So the purpose of this chapter is to demonstrate why this understanding of Mark cannot possibly be true. The case I put forward is that Mark is a sophisticated writer who was developing a complex allegorical narrative . . . and thus did not originate from any community, but rather originated purely from the mind of it’s writer.”

      • Vorster ibid.

      I have elsewhere argued that Mark’s use of the Old Testament is totally different from that of Matthew or Mark . . . Allusions to and quotations from the Old Testament are usually absorbed into Mark’s story in such a manner that, except for a few cases where he specifically mentions the origin of the quotation, the allusions and quotations form part of the story stuff. They are so embedded into the story that, if it were not for the references in the margins and a knowledge of the Old Testament, the reader would not have noticed that Mark uses an allusion or a quotation (see Mk 15:24). This is best seen in Mark’s story of the passion of Jesus. —(p. 391)
      […]
      One of the inferences one should make from the use of the Old Testament in the Gospel of Mark is that the author created a new story with the aid of intertextual codes that helped him to communicate his own point of view. The Old Testament quotations and references formed part of the new story that Mark created in order to convince his readers of his point of view concerning Jesus and the implications of Jesus’ life, works and words for the prevailing situation. —(p. 392)

      • db says

        Per the above Vorster quote, Mark’s use of the Old Testament is totally different from that of Matthew or Mark

        • This is a typo in the source and should read: “Mark’s use of the Old Testament is totally different from that of Matthew or Luke”

        See: Vorster, Willem S. (1999) [1981]. “The function of the use of the Old Testament in Mark”. In Botha, J. Eugene (ed.). Speaking of Jesus: Essays on Biblical Language, Gospel Narrative, and the Historical Jesus. BRILL. p. 153. ISBN 90-04-10779-7.

  7. db says

    OP: “Therefore, the protagonist [figure] in gMark – Jesus – is also fictional.”

    This is the mainstream position of scholars who do not hold that gMark was written as a biographical/historical treatise.

    • Thompson, Thomas L. (20 April 2009). “Historicizing the Figure of Jesus, the Messiah”. The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David. Basic Books. p. 3. ISBN 978-0-7867-3911-0.

    Whether the gospels in fact are biographies—narratives about the life of a historical person—is doubtful. Their pedagogical and legendary character reduces their value for historical reconstruction. New Testament scholars commonly hold the opinion that a historical person would be something very different from the Christ (or messiah), with whom, for example, the author of the Gospel of Mark identifies his Jesus (Hebrew: Joshua = savior), opening his book with the statement: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s son.”

    • Godfrey, Neil (26 November 2018). “A Response to Dr Sarah, Geeky Humanist, on the Jesus Question”. Vridar.

    I think most critical NT scholars would not accept that any of our canonical gospels describe a historical Jesus. I have never heard any scholar accept that claim except apologists. The gospels are uniformly said by critical NT scholars to be “mythical” or “christological” narratives that overlay a historical person, and that it is only be peeling back and applying various criteria or other methods that we can somehow find a historical figure.

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