‘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.
“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.”
Yes, and remember that in Mark 8 we get the following: “But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said.”
So yes indeed, this is exactly what I’m saying. I’ll follow-up with more later.
As for the walking on water, you left out the most important part of the reference:
2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
3 For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
15 I am the Lord, your Holy One,
the Creator of Israel, your King.
16 Thus says the Lord,
who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
There are also other parts of Isaiah 43 that relate to the Markan narrative as well, such as the talk about accusations and going to trial. This is something we see in Mark, where passages are referred to multiple times. So, while I don’t go over the relationship between Isaiah 43 and the trial, I do mention it in the section on walking on water. As I said, I was just picking a few examples, I wasn’t going into detail on each and every case. But I think the use of Isaiah 43 in the trail also adds support to this passage having been used here as well.
26 Accuse me, let us go to trial;
set forth your case, so that you may be proved right.
27 Your first ancestor sinned,
and your interpreters transgressed against me.
28 Therefore I profaned the princes of the sanctuary,
I delivered Jacob to utter destruction,
and Israel to reviling.
Again this comes back to the common theme of God delivering punishment upon Israel.
“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 emphasizes the Jews’ continued importance to God and his promise to rescue and forgive them.”
I think you’re not recognizing how these references are used. Of course none of these references really mean the same thing in their original context that the author of Mark uses them to mean in his context. That’s equally true of Psalm 22 and any other example.
For one thing is was common practice for Jews at this time, and Greek and Romans for that matter, to reinterpret ancient writings in entirely new contexts, particularity as it pertained to prophetic writings. This was true of the Jewish scriptures, of which we see countless examples in the writings from Qumran, etc. We see examples of this in the writings of Philo, etc. We see it among Greeks in Romans in the use of the Sibylline oracles, etc. They take an old scripture or prophecy and then re-interpret it in a present context, entirely changing the original meaning.
A good book on this topic is Miller’s Helping Jesus Fulfill Prophecy: https://www.amazon.com/Helping-Fulfill-Prophecy-Robert-Miller/dp/1498228968
But for another thing, what’s really going on here is the writer is drawing attention to passages about God punishing the Jews. He’s using word correlations to highlight passages that are about God sending destruction upon Israel. That’s what so many of these passages have in common, and that’s the point of the thesis. I’ve made no claim that the meaning of the referenced passage matches the meaning of the Markan passage.
The case that Miller makes, which I disagree with, in his book is that these cases of so-called prophecy fulfillment aren’t legitimate exactly because the meaning of the referenced passages doesn’t actually apply to the context in the Gospel narratives. My point is that they were not intended to, at least not by Mark. That isn’t what Mark was trying to do. But what happened was the writers of the other Gospels noticed some of these correlations between the Markan narrative and the Jewish scriptures and they interpreted them as cases of prophecy fulfillment and then tried to promote them as such. Then it became part of Christian lore than Jesus fulfilled hundreds of prophecies. But what really happened was that Mark wrote an allegory in which he used these scriptural references, not for the purpose of indicating prophecy fulfillment, but for the purpose of things like foreshadowing, identifying secret identities, and adding additional meaning with references to passages about God destroying the Jews, etc. Those literary references were then misinterpreted as “prophecy fulfillment”, but that we never the intention to begin with.
It may be helpful here to clarify how I think the Gospel of Mark was written. Based on the intertextual evidence, it seems that the process must have been something along these lines:
The writer had a collection of Paul’s letters, along with the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures) in hand. He probably knew these works well and had read them multiple times. He pieced together his narrative by working from the scriptures, primarily centered the story of Elijah and Elisha. He laid out passages from that story in the sequence that he wanted his narrative to flow.
Then he added in passages that were about God punishing the Jews. He identified passages from the books of the prophets and the Psalms that were about punishment, war, destruction, identification of the messiah, etc. He laid all of that stuff out. Then he took the letters of Paul and laid out the dialog.
Then he went through and wrote the scenes based on the passages, crafting whatever narrative he could from the scriptures and letters of Paul that he had selected and laid out. It may not have been exactly like that, but the point is, I think he started with the scripture in hand that he wanted to use, then he crafted a narrative around the scripture. All of the elements of the narrative are totally made up in the mind of the writer based on the material he was working from.
We can also look at how this scene compares to the other comparable scene from the story, the Stilling of the Storm. A feature of Mark is that many elements of the story are repeated multiple times. This is often a part of the chiastic structures that the writer is creating.
In this case, the Stilling of the Storm and the Walking on Water are complementary scenes that share many elements in common.
The Stilling of the Storm is based on Psalm 107.
35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
23 Some went out on the sea in ships;
they were merchants on the mighty waters.
24 They saw the works of the Lord,
his wonderful deeds in the deep.
25 For he spoke and stirred up a tempest
that lifted high the waves.
26 They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths;
in their peril their courage melted away.
27 They reeled and staggered like drunkards;
they were at their wits’ end.
28 Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,
and he brought them out of their distress.
29 He stilled the storm to a whisper;
the waves of the sea were hushed.
30 They were glad when it grew calm,
and he guided them to their desired haven.
31 Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for mankind.
What we have in both cases are identification themes. In both cases, the passages that are being referenced are used to identify Jesus as the Lord. And the usage here is interesting.
Why does Mark say that Jesus is asleep on the cushion? Because he wants to follow the Psalm where it says, “Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out of their distress.”
“A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion.”
That he was asleep in the stern (back of the boat) on a cushion explains why he wasn’t “aware” of the storm, and thus needed to be called on. Mark wanted Jesus to be out of the action so that there would be a need for the disciples to cry out to him for him to bring them out of their distress.
But certainly we can also agree that there are differences between the meaning of Psalm 107 in its own context and the way that the writer of Mark used it. Yes, the writer of Psalm 107 is talking about something completely different from what the writer of Mark is taking about.
there are differences between the meaning of Psalm 107 in its own context and the way that the writer of Mark used it. Yes, the writer of Psalm 107 is talking about something completely different from what the writer of Mark is taking about.
• “Gospel of Mark (intertextuality) §. Mark had no respect for the original OT context”. Wikipedia.
We know how ancient authors, Greco-Roman as well as Jewish, played with intertextuality and how they often “transvalued” something in their source text. We also know from other passages in the Gospel of Mark that its author knew and drew upon the Book of Jeremiah (Mk 8:18 and 11:17 from Jer 5:21 and 7:11), so it is not unlikely that he knew the “fishing for men” passage in Jeremiah, too. But of course in Jeremiah it has the opposite meaning from Mark’s use (I know, I’m veering away from r.g.price here). But that’s exactly how the typical practice of transvaluation worked (the most famous collection of such intertextual reversals is Vergil’s Aeneid and its many reversals of Homer’s two epics) and what we find elsewhere in the way Mark uses his sources. If Jesus’ call of the fishermen to be his disciples is based on Elijah’s call of Elisha (and there are numerous textual and thematic echoes to make a very strong case that it is) then we see even there a reversal amidst the common threads: Elisha is called to execute any who escape the vengeance of the swords of Hazael and Jehu. Similar reversals are found in Mark’s depiction of the healing of the man with the withered hand on the sabbath — another scene with several indications of having been drawn from the God cursing the hand of Uzziah. There are others. If we agree with those scholars who have presented arguments that these scenes in Mark are woven intertextually from the Jewish Scriptures then we see the common ancient literary practice of transvaluation at work. Jesus is made to replace the time of cursing with blessings and eternal life.
Ditto for Ezekiel 47:10 where we find another fishing image. This image is benign and some commentaries also link it with Jesus’ call of the disciples in Mark, especially given its additional matching detail of nets along the shore. We know from other passages that Mark likewise knew and used Ezekiel elsewhere, too.
When we factor in what we know of the ancient practice of intertextuality and the wider evidence that makes it very likely the author of the gospel knew the texts of Jeremiah and Ezekiel then we have a reasonable case that Jeremiah 16 did in some way influence the dialogue in the call of the disciples.