‘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.
In Price’s first two chapters, he focuses on making the case for his claim that the gospel of Mark is entirely a work of fiction (which Price believes to have been based on Paul’s letters and Jewish scriptures, and intended by Mark as an allegory about a mythical Jesus). What I want to look at in this post is whether this theory does indeed account for all of the key points in gMark, or whether there are any points that can’t readily be explained in this way. This is a question that particularly interests me, because my primary reason for believing in the historical Jesus has always been the fact that there are some points in the gospels – not many, but some – that I don’t feel can be accounted for under mythicist theories. I was therefore looking forward, on reading Price’s work, to seeing whether his theory would succeed where others had failed.
Price does, of course, have an explanation as to why gMark was written in the first place – as we’ve already covered – so that’s an excellent start. That still doesn’t explain why the other gospels were written (a question Price and I already discussed to some extent in comments on the introduction) but that’s probably better discussed when I get to the chapter about the other gospels. A couple of the other points that I had relate to material in the other gospels, so I’ll also leave those till then. That leaves us, as far as I can see, with one big question that’s relevant to gMark:
Why did Mark give the Romans in general, and Pilate in particular, the role he gave them in his gospel?
In gMark (as in the other three canonical gospels), the Romans are the people who ultimately put Jesus to death, with Pilate – an important, powerful historical figure – playing the key role of pronouncing sentence on him. And Mark clearly isn’t happy with having to portray them that way. He plays it down, plays up the role of the Jews, writes it to show the Jews insisting on the death sentence and Pilate/the other Romans reluctantly going along with this. It’s not at all surprising that he’d feel this way about minimising the role of the Romans in Jesus’s death; they were the powerful ruling class, so it’s understandable that Mark wouldn’t have liked the idea of casting them as the bad guys who killed his protagonist.
So… why has he put them in that role at all?
If Jesus was a real person who was condemned by Pilate and executed by the Romans working under Pilate, then this approach makes complete sense. If this was the case, Mark wouldn’t have been inventing his story from scratch; he would have been working with existing traditions that had been handed down from people who remembered the real Jesus and his life, and that had become widely known among Jesus’s followers. While these traditions would probably be horribly inaccurate on many points by then, they would also have contained at least a few actual facts about Jesus… such as the detail of who put him to death. The simple and obvious reason why Mark would write that Jesus was condemned by Pilate and executed by the Romans would be that Jesus actually had been condemned by Pilate and executed by the Romans.
But, according to Price’s theory, Mark was making up this story as an allegory about someone who had never lived on Earth at all, and thus never been executed by real flesh-and-blood people. If that was the case, then the story about Pilate and the other Romans being the ones who ultimately put Jesus to death wouldn’t have existed. So… why would Mark bring them into the execution narrative at all? Why would he want to invent, in however downplayed a form, the idea that the Romans were the people who ordered carried out the execution? And take that as far as naming a specific and powerful character as having passed the execution order?
While portraying the Romans as helpless followers of the demands of others isn’t as damning as portraying them as instigators, it’s still hardly a good look for them. If Mark was writing the crucifixion story simply in order to make the points he wanted, why do we get this conflict between Mark’s apparent wish to portray the Romans as well as possible, and his actual portrayal of them as playing such a major role in Jesus’s execution? If he were writing a totally fictional story in which he wished to blame the Jews for Jesus’s death, why would he not take the obvious route of having the Jews in his story actually execute Jesus?
I looked with interest, therefore, to see whether Price had provided an explanation for this point. Sadly, he hasn’t. Price theorises about details of the trial and execution being derived from OT scriptures (I’d agree with him about that, by the way), but I couldn’t find anywhere, either in the book or in his online essay, where he’d commented on this particular issue.
In short, what we have here is a major point that doesn’t seem explicable under the Mark-as-fictional-allegory theory. Without an explanation, Price’s cornerstone claim – that every significant point in Mark can be explained in ways that don’t involve a historical Jesus – doesn’t hold up. And that leaves a gaping hole in his theory.