‘Deciphering the Gospels’, by R. G. Price*, argues the case for Jesus mythicism (i.e. the position that Jesus never existed.) As an atheist who believes Jesus did exist (as an entirely non-divine human being), I’m reviewing the arguments in this book in order to explain why I disagree.
The first post in the series, with a little more background, is here; all other posts will be linked back to the end of that post as they’re written. R.G. Price has been joining in with the discussion in comments, so, if you have questions for him, there’s a fair chance he’ll be available to answer them.
Price used the NRSV translation of the NT; any Bible quotes are therefore from that version unless stated otherwise.
*Note that R.G. Price is not the same person as Jesus mythicist Robert Price.
One thing about which I assumed I would agree with Price was his list of how he believes Mark to have derived each of his stories. This was the cornerstone of Price’s theory, the result of over a year of detailed research that he had put into the subject. His claim – that Mark had derived his main points from sources such as scripture or Paul’s letters – sounded plausible to me; while I believed (and still do) that there were one or two points in gMark that couldn’t be explained in this way, I did already believe that at least some of the Markan stories were derived from such sources, and I was entirely open to being convinced that this was the case for other stories as well. I expected to find Price’s arguments compelling, or at the very least plausible. In fact, when I first read his book I skimmed over all those parts of the first two chapters, seeing little reason to pick apart parts of his argument with which I would surely agree.
The reality, when I did look more closely, didn’t live up to expectations. I did indeed agree with some of Price’s claims; for example, the derivation of details of the crucifixion scene from existing scripture (which I’d known about) and the derivation of the crowd-feeding scenes from 2 Kings 4:42 – 44 (which I hadn’t known about, but agreed with as soon as Price quoted the passage). There were others that I thought were at least plausible (for example, Price believes that the obscure mention of a naked man in Mark 14:51 was meant as a reference to Amos 2:16, and I suppose that could be the case). But there were other examples for which Price’s reasoning seemed much weaker.
In this post, I’m going to look at two examples that particularly struck me as poorly evidenced. Since drafting this, I’ve also discussed a third example in the comments on an earlier post, which I think also illustrates the point.
Fishing and hunting
R.G. Price looks here at two lines in Chapter 1 of gMark. The first is from the calling of Jesus’s first two apostles; they are, according to the story, both fishermen, and hence Jesus tells them ‘I will make you fish for people’ (v17). (This is the line that the less accurate but more poetic KJV famously translates as ‘I will make you fishers of men’.) The second line is from a scene where Jesus goes off by himself in the early morning to pray; v36 tells us ‘And Simon and his companions hunted for him’.
Price believes these lines to be based on Jeremiah 16:16 – 17: ‘” But now I will send for many fishermen,” declares the Lord, “and they will catch them. After that I will send for many hunters, and they will hunt them down on every mountain and hill and from the crevices of the rocks.”‘ He believes that this is intended as a reference to the threatened destruction of Israel (which Mark would, according to Price’s theory, have recently seen for himself in the Jewish-Roman war). More specifically, he believes that Mark is here trying to make a statement about Peter, James, and John:
We see in this literary allusion that the author is identifying these three individuals as agents of destruction – as harbingers of the coming war.
This interpretation, if correct, would mean that the Church has been interpreting the ‘fishers of men’ quote completely backwards for the past two thousand years; instead of indicating that the apostles were to catch people to save their souls, Mark would in fact have been indicating that they were to catch people to dispatch them to punishment and destruction. That’s such a radical reversal of the usual interpretation that I really wanted it to turn out to be correct; just think of all the priests and apologists using that line during the last two millennia without realising that they were, in fact, labelling themselves as agents of destruction. Truth in advertising…
Sadly, however, this interpretation did not stand up to examination. Five chapters further on in Mark we get the apostles being sent out to preach to others as well as to perform the helpful acts of healing the sick and driving out demons, which are hardly the acts of agents of destruction. Given that context, I think it fair to say that the ‘fishers of men’ line was meant the way it’s normally read; it’s intended to mean that Jesus is sending them out to catch people for positive purposes.
That detail aside… does Price’s belief about the derivation of these verses stand up otherwise? Well, his arguments for believing that these verses were derived from the Jeremian passage seem to boil down to:
- The Jeremian passage talks, metaphorically, about fishing and hunting for people.
- The chapter in Mark talks metaphorically about fishing for people and also mentions hunting for Jesus.
The trouble is, nothing else fits. In Jeremiah, the two things are mentioned together as two parts of the same message (searching people out); in Mark, the two mentions are nineteen verses apart, with several unrelated stories between them. In Jeremiah, the theme is of God searching people out in order to punish them justly for their sins; in Mark, the ‘fishers’ mention refers to the apostles searching people out in order to bring them salvation, and the ‘hunt’ mention refers to them looking for Jesus (surely not a potential target for punishment?) because so many people want to speak to him. The very superficial similarities in the mentions of ‘fish’ and ‘hunt’ don’t extend any further.
Given all that, was the Jeremian passage Mark’s inspiration here? I think about the best we can say is that it’s possible. It can’t be entirely ruled out. But it certainly doesn’t seem like a good fit, and a far more likely explanation would be simply that, because the Jewish scriptures were a huge body of writing that covered a great many themes, it’s possible to find all sorts of coincidental superficial similarities in them, with proximal mentions of ‘fish’ and ‘hunt’ being well within the likely bounds of coincidence.
Of course, absolutely none of that means that the incidents described in either of those verses really happened. Maybe Jesus did say the ‘fishers of men’ line when calling the fishermen; maybe he thought of it later; maybe someone else thought of it at a later stage of relating the stories as it sounded so good. Maybe the incident with the disciples looking for Jesus after he went out to pray really happened, or maybe it was invented later for some reason we don’t know about. We can’t tell. But we also can’t conclude from such a tenuous similarity that the verses must have been derived from Jeremiah as part of an allegory. Price’s logical deductions here are simply too shaky to hold up.
Walking on water
There is, of course, a very obvious reason to suspect that this infamous scene is fictional; it’s about a man miraculously walking on the water. In a culture with high levels of superstition and credulity for such things. Passed on by word of mouth until decades after the supposed event, giving plenty of time for miracle stories to be added to the original narrative. I’m all in favour of being open-minded, but I really don’t think I’m being overly sceptical in coming to the conclusion that this particular story was one of the ones invented and added to the narrative only later.
So, in a way it feels rather odd that I’m debating Price’s position on this one. I’m certainly not claiming that this specific story really happened as written, and I even agree with Price’s explanation of the message Mark is trying to put across in this scene (namely, that the disciples are supposed to recognise Jesus’s role as a saviour/messiah but fail to do so). But Price’s argument has so little substance to it that I think it bears examination, not because it contributes anything to the question of whether this passage is fictional or not, but because it does indicate a lack of rigour in his arguments.
The walking on water appears to be a reference to Isaiah 43.
The purpose of this scene in Mark, and the literary allusion, is to emphasize the fact that the disciples are supposed to recognize Jesus as the Savior of Israel, yet they do not. The passage in Mark says that upon seeing Jesus, they don’t recognise him, thinking that he is a ghost, and that after he comes to them, their hearts are hardened. Isaiah 43 again emphasizes this theme, with verse 10 saying, “you are my witnesses, you are supposed to be the ones who understand me,” yet of course they do not.
Isaiah 43:22 says, “you didn’t call on me, you are weary of me,” which is reflected in the scene from Mark by the fact that they needed help in the boat but did not call on Jesus for help, and their hearts were hardened.
So, again… what are Price’s reasons for believing that this Markan passage is derived from Isaiah 43? No matter how many times I’ve read this section looking for something I might have missed, the list still seems to come down to:
- Both mention miracles that have some connection with water
- Both touch on a theme of people not recognising/understanding/calling on an important being they should be recognising/understanding/calling on (God in the Isaian passage, Jesus in the Markan passage).
And… that’s it. Nothing else about the passages matches, including the details of the above points. The water-related miracles mentioned in the Isaian passage have nothing to do with walking on water; they’re references to the parting of the Red Sea (‘the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters’), and to God giving water to the Jews in the desert (‘for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people’). The verses about the Jews not understanding/calling on God are a short rebuke in the context of a passage that, overall, strongly emphasises the Jews’ continued importance to God and his promise to rescue and forgive them. And there are multiple other details in the Isaian passage (protection against passing through fire, mention of several different countries, and more) that aren’t echoed at all in the Markan passage. Once again, Price is making a claim based on minor, out-of-context similarities between two passages while ignoring the significant differences.
As I say, these are only a couple of the examples that Price gave, and he does have others for which the evidence is much sounder. But remember that Price’s claim is that we can account not just for some of the main stories in Mark in this way, but for all of them. And this doesn’t hold up. While his list of stories that Mark supposedly derived from elsewhere is, indeed, impressively long at first glance, it turns out that the only reason it’s as long as this is because he is willing to set the bar very low. There are several cases where his categorisation of a Markan story as being clearly derived from another story turns out to in fact be based only on a few flimsy similarities that seem well within the bounds of coincidence. Price’s claim to have demonstrated that all of gMark is clearly a fictional allegory does not stand up well to examination.