‘Deciphering the Gospels’, by R. G. Price, 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 is not the same person as Robert Price, also a Jesus mythicist author.) I’m an atheist who holds the opposing (and 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 Chapter Two, Price continues his discussion of his claim that gMark (the gospel of Mark) was entirely a work of fiction based on other sources. The difference is that, while Chapter One covered passages in gMark that Price believed to have been derived from Jewish scriptures, Chapter Two covers passages that he believes to have been derived from the letters of Paul. My position, as before, is that I agree that at least some of gMark was based on Jewish scriptures/Pauline teachings and thus I agree with at least some of the specific examples Price gives; however, I disagree with several of his examples, and remain completely unconvinced of his claim that gMark is an entirely fictional work. Rather, I believe gMark to be an embroidered, partially mythologised story of a Jesus who was originally a real rabbi.
I’m going to take two posts to cover this chapter. In this one I’ll go through the examples Price gives of passages that he believes Mark derived from Paul, and in the next one (which should, for once, be up fairly quickly, as I already had a lot of it written by the time I realised I was going to have to split the post, and I’ve been working on the two posts concurrently since then) I’ll discuss some general comments Price makes in this chapter, as well as taking stock of the book so far.
Price gives eleven examples in this chapter. I started out by working through them in order, but then decided it would work better to divide them according to whether or not I agreed. There were some I agreed with or at least felt were reasonably likely, some I felt could be argued either way (‘derivation from Paul’ was a plausible explanation, but alternative, equally plausible explanations existed); and some for which I felt his argument didn’t hold up at all. I’ve therefore divided the examples up according to those three categories.
1. Examples with which I agree
Signs: In Mark 8:11 – 13, an exasperated Jesus refuses Pharisean requests for ‘signs’ and tells them this generation won’t be given any signs… despite the fact that, in the story, he’s just been working miracles. Price thinks this story is derived from Paul’s statement that ‘Jews demand signs’ (1 Cor 1.22), and, since it does not make a whole lot of sense otherwise, this does seem reasonable.
Yeast: In Mark 8:18, Jesus rather randomly tells his followers to ‘beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of the Herodians’. This, as Price points out, makes sense if Mark was referencing Paul’s yeast analogy in 1 Cor 5:6 – 8, and is rather hard to make sense out of otherwise. So, again, this seems likely to be derived from the Pauline passage.
Slave of all: Mark 10:44 portrays Jesus as saying this phrase; it’s an unusual phrase that Price believes Mark to have copied from the almost identical phrase ‘slave to all’ in 1 Corinthians 9:19. (It would be interesting to know whether the small difference between the two is just a matter of different translations or whether the difference exists in the original Greek, but the phrases are still similar enough that I find it a reasonable deduction that Mark was inspired by Paul here.)
The Eucharist: Price believes that the story of the Eucharist in Mark was copied from Paul’s version (1 Corinthians 23 – 26). This was already my opinion as well, after reading Hyam Maccoby’s work ‘Paul and Hellenism’, which makes the point that Paul himself says he received this information from Jesus (rather than from the apostles) and has an interesting analysis of how the story evolved across the gospels. (That particular book isn’t much help for Price’s thesis, though, since Maccoby’s analysis also looks at the statements in the gospel Eucharist stories that actually fit with Jesus as would-be apocalyptic prophet alongside the ones that fit with the story of Jesus instituting a new religious rite and concludes that the story’s evolution is due to the gospel authors trying to fuse Paul’s account with what were originally rather different – and historical – accounts.)
Price did make one other point in this passage I need to disagree with, however: he points out that the passage in the English translation ends with ‘you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’, and asks rhetorically ‘If Paul were talking about a real event and a real Jesus who had lived some ten to twenty years prior to the writing of this letter, wouldn’t he be talking about the “return” of Christ, not the “coming” of Christ?’ I checked this verse on greekbible.com; the site does give ‘return’ as a possible translation for the word used. This, therefore, might be a translational difference. I’d welcome any opinions from anyone fluent in Koine Greek who can chime in here, but, based on what I’ve got at this point, I don’t think the evidence backs up that particular point of Price’s. But I do still believe the specifically Eucharistic parts of the Last Supper in Mark and the other gospels go back to Paul’s teaching rather than to things that Jesus actually said.
2. Equivocal examples
Negative view of the apostles: Both Paul and the gospels have a highly negative view of the apostles; Paul writes about his fierce disagreement with Peter over the issue of eating with Gentiles, and the gospels, of course, are notorious for painting the disciples as a bunch of bumbling fools. Price’s theory is, of course, that Mark’s (and consequentially the other gospel authors’) negative view of the apostles is based on Paul’s anti-Peter stance.
This is perfectly plausible, but it leaves us with a question. Did this happen directly and deliberately (by Mark reading the Pauline letters and deciding to base his fictionalised apostles on the picture of the apostles presented there)? Or was Mark’s anti-apostle view more indirectly derived, from spending time in the part of the movement that was originally shaped by Paul? We know that Paul clashed with the Jerusalem apostles to at least some degree over the issue of whether the Jewish law was still binding on Jews and that Paul’s belief on the matter was the one that eventually won the day, and we can surmise that clashing with Jesus’s original followers on key points would have been at least somewhat awkward for the developing Pauline branch of the early church. This means that, regardless of whether or not Jesus existed, Mark had a motive to paint the men who would go on to lead the Jerusalem church as a bunch of fools and renegades. I therefore don’t think this point gets us any closer to deciding whether Mark was writing about a historical Jesus or inventing one.
‘Kingdom of God’: Paul uses this phrase regularly (it was a common Jewish concept at the time, by the way), and it’s also used frequently in gMark and on some occasions in the rest of the gospels, but it isn’t used anywhere else in the NT. Price takes this to mean that Mark got the phrase from Paul and the other gospel writers got it from Mark.
Again, this seems inconclusive. Since the communities founded by Paul would most likely have picked up on and repeated common phrases he used such as this one, it’s perfectly plausible that Mark could have started using it due to it being in common use in the religious group he belonged to, rather than because he’d got it from Paul’s letters specifically.
‘Love your neighbour as yourself’: This well-known commandment, which originally comes from Leviticus, is cited by Paul as being the single commandment that sums up the law (Galatians 5:14 and Romans 13:9 – 10). Mark, of course, attributes a very similar teaching to Jesus; in Mark 12:28 – 31, Jesus teaches that the most important commandment is proclaiming a single god and loving that god, and that the runner-up is ‘love your neighbour as yourself’.
While it is perfectly plausible and indeed very likely that Mark got this from Paul’s teachings (either directly from his letters or indirectly from being part of a community founded by Paul and following his teachings), this theory doesn’t take into account the fact that centering ‘Love your neighbour’ as a key commandment was a well-known rabbinical teaching. (For example, the renowned Rabbi Hillel once famously taught that “Do not do unto your neighbour what is hateful to yourself” was “the whole of the Torah; the rest is commentary”.) Paul claims to have previously been a Pharisee and Jesus, although presented as the enemy of the Pharisees in the fiercely anti-Pharisee NT, has been noted to teach things so in line with known Pharisaic style and teaching that he certainly appears to have had at least some degree of Pharisaic teaching and alignment himself. Therefore, it is also perfectly plausible that both Paul and a historical Jesus absorbed this idea from Phariseeism and therefore that both, independently, taught it to their followers.
I think this section highlights a big problem with Price’s theory that Mark based his Jesus on Paul; Price doesn’t differentiate between the possibility of Mark being generally influenced by Paul’s teachings and that influence showing up in the gospel, and Mark deliberately setting out to write a gospel defending Paul’s teachings.
3. Examples that don’t stand up
Names of the apostles: This one, quite frankly, is odd enough that I’m not sure what to make of it. Price writes:
In the Gospel called Mark, we find that the three main disciples are Peter, James and John[…] It “just so happens” that, according to Paul, the leaders of the Jesus cult in Israel were Peter, James, and John.
Absolutely nobody is trying to claim that it ‘just so happens’ that these were their names. The story is that the Peter and John who are leaders are the Peter and John who were among the main disciples. (The James who became leader was supposedly a different James – Jesus’s brother – but, since James was one of the most common male names in that time and place, that’s hardly extraordinary as coincidences go.) Price is implying, whether deliberately or not, that there is something suspicious about this, and I cannot for the life of me see why, or what point he thinks he’s making, or whether he’s even trying to make a point here.
The list of vices
Price believes that Mark 7:20 – 23 is derived from Galatians 5:16 – 21, stating that ‘the resemblance between the two passages is striking’. Indeed, both passages contain a list of vices, which does give them a superficial resemblance; unfortunately, that resemblance doesn’t stand up to close examination. Of the fifteen vices that Paul lists in the Galatians passage, only three occur on the list that Mark portrays Jesus as giving, and only one of those is in the same position on the list. Price excuses the differences by pointing out that there are ‘multiple versions of some letters with different wording’, but, while this certainly could explain minor differences in the lists, it can’t explain the level of difference that actually exists between the lists. Mark clearly didn’t get this list from Paul.
On top of that, when we look at the rest of each passage it becomes apparent that they are in fact saying almost the opposite of each other. In the Markan passage, Jesus states that the ‘evil thoughts’ he’s listed come ‘from within, from the human heart’. In Galatians, Paul attributes his list of vices to the flesh and contrasts it to the virtues that he believes come from the spirit. While ‘heart’ and ‘spirit’ aren’t the same thing, there’s at least some overlap, and ‘heart’ in the metaphorical sense that Jesus is quoted as using it within this passage is certainly closer in meaning to ‘spirit’ than to ‘flesh’. So, the statement that vices come from the heart is almost the opposite of what Paul’s saying in this passage.
And on top of all of that, there’s the fact that this Markan passage is actually part of a larger anecdote, in which Jesus berates the Pharisees for querying his decision not to partake in ceremonial handwashing before meals. If Mark actually had been basing this passage on Paul here, this would mean he had invented an entire detailed and unrelated anecdote just to repeat a list of vices in a different context, only to come out with an almost completely different list anyway. That makes no sense. This claim of Price’s does not stand up.
Dying for Jesus/the gospel: In Mark 8:34 – 38, Jesus is portrayed as talking about the importance of denying yourself, taking up your cross, losing your life for the sake of the gospel, etc. Price considers this to be based on two passages near the beginning of Philippians; 1:20 – 22 and 2:14 – 16.
The parallels here between the wording in Mark and the writings of Paul are quite striking. In addition, the proximity of these phrases in the letter to the Philippians is telling. It’s not as if these are random correlations with the writings of Paul. Here we have two separate phrases being used together in Mark that are also used together in the writings of Paul.
The parallels between the wording are so very far off ‘striking’ that I spent considerable time squinting at the different passages trying to figure out what on earth the phrases are that Price thinks both Mark and Paul are using; I could not for the life of me see any phrases in these passages of Paul that were repeated in Mark. Eventually, I went back to Price’s online article on gMark in hopes of clarification. That did, at least, show me which phrases Price was talking about, as in this article Price bolded the phrases he believes to be so notably similar. But the fact that, without having the phrases highlighted thus, I couldn’t see which ones were supposed to be strikingly similar even when specifically looking for similarities does stand strongly against Price’s claim that the parallels are ‘striking’.
Anyway, there are two pairs of phrases that Price picked out as supposedly being parallel. Firstly:
Philippians (1:20 – 21): ‘It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.’
Mark 8:35: ‘For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it’.
So, it seems that the ‘striking’ similarity is that Mark and Paul both mention living and dying. And… that’s it. Not only are the phrases not the same, but the messages aren’t the same. When Paul’s quote is read in context, what he’s saying is in essence ‘I can’t decide whether I would rather live or die, because dying means being with Christ but living means I can do more good, so I’ll go on living in order to help bring other people to Christ’. The quote from Mark, by contrast, is declaring that losing your life for Jesus is more important than saving it. These two meanings are not only different, they’re almost completely opposite; Paul’s statement is that living is more important in terms of the work he can do for Jesus (so he’ll continue living even though he’d prefer to be dead and enjoying an afterlife with Jesus).
Philippians 2:15: ‘in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation’
Mark 8:38: ‘this adulterous and sinful generation’.
Again, that’s it. The second supposedly ‘striking’ comparison is that both Paul and Mark described this generation with two negative adjectives – not even the same two negative adjectives – as part of different messages.
Once again, these are not striking similarities. These are very passing and trivial similarities in the context of differences so marked that it’s very clear that this Markan passages were not based on these Pauline passages. Whether or not the Markan passage was fictitious, there is no indication at all of it being based on these Pauline passages.
‘Render to Caesar…’ In Mark 12, Jesus famously responds to a query about the lawfulness of paying taxes by indicating the emperor’s face on a coin and telling his audience to ‘render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’. (I know that isn’t the translation Price is using, by the way. However, despite the KJV’s deficiencies as an accurate translation, one thing it’s damn good at is memorable turns of phrase, so occasionally I like to use quotes from it for sheer literary effect.) Price believes this to have been derived from Romans 13:1 – 7, which is an exhortation to obey the authorities, including a mention of the need to pay taxes.
As it happens, I actually believe that particular passage in Romans to be a later interpolation; it doesn’t fit at all with Paul’s overall message, it doesn’t quite fit with the context, and it’s exactly the sort of thing that a later church leader would have had a motivation to add in. However, let’s set that aside for the moment. If I’m wrong and that passage was original to Paul, how feasible is it that Mark could have derived the ‘Render to Caesar’ story from it?
This interpretation of Price’s misses the point. It’s not just that Jesus is presented as holding a favourable view on paying taxes. It’s that he comes up with a great way of stating this opinion; the memorable, mic-drop idea of pointing out the emperor’s picture on the coin, and using this as the logic behind a simple and well-stated argument. I don’t buy that Mark invented this whole pithy anecdote just to present a pro-payment opinion; all he would have had to do for that, if it was really what he wanted to do, was to put a version of the Romans 13 speech into Jesus’s mouth. The Markan story sounds much more likely to be a real one. It might of course have been a story that was originally about someone other than Jesus and that was then misapplied to Jesus in later tellings, so it’s open to question whether the person who answered the Pharisees in this way actually was also the person who started the movement that would eventually become Christianity; I don’t think this story necessarily gets us closer to believing in a historical Jesus rather than a mythical Jesus. But I also don’t buy Price’s claim that Mark invented the whole thing based purely on the passage in Romans.
Spiritual bodies: In Mark 12: 18 – 27, Jesus answers a practical question from the Sadducees: if a woman marries and is widowed multiple times, which of her former husbands will she be married to after the resurrection? Jesus’s answer is that people brought back to life in the resurrection won’t marry, as they’ll be ‘like angels in heaven’. Price believes this to be based on Paul’s teaching that the resurrection will involve spiritual rather than physical bodies, as expressed in 1 Corinthians 15:35 – 49.
This is, by the way, rather an ironic passage for Price to be citing, as it’s one of several passages in Paul’s letters that indicate that he believed Jesus did live as a human on earth. In v45, Paul writes that ‘the last Adam’ (by which he seems to mean Jesus) ‘became a life-giving spirit’, thus strongly implying that Jesus wasn’t originally a spirit; and the earlier part of this passage (vv12 – 22) consists of Paul using Jesus’s resurrection as evidence for the eventual resurrection of everyone, in a way that would make no sense unless Paul and his readers believed Jesus to have lived a human life. (In particular, see v12 and v21.) It is, of course, open to debate whether this counts as good evidence for Jesus’s historicity; Paul’s beliefs were based on the messages he believed he was getting from a resurrected Jesus rather than on anything he himself learned from anyone on earth, so they can’t necessarily be assumed to coincide with reality. However, the claim that Paul didn’t believe in a historical Jesus is a key one amongst mythicists (including Price, who makes this case in a later chapter); so, as I said, it’s ironic that Price cites this passage here.
More directly to the point: Again, what we have here is a detailed anecdote in which only one point coincides with something from Paul. Yes, Mark might well have wanted to portray Jesus as preaching a spiritual-bodies theology in accordance with Paul; but there seems no reason why he’d write this rather specific question-and-answer exchange just to put across the general idea of post-resurrection bodies being spiritual rather than physical. This story might or might not come from a historical Jesus, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense to assume it was put in solely to portray Paul’s point here.
In summary: I think Price is significantly over-interpreting parts of Mark to fit the paradigm he’s got in mind. While I agree with him that Mark shows signs of Pauline influence, I disagree with him about the extent of this. As with the examples of scenes that Mark based on Jewish scriptures, Price is interpreting even slight similarities between Markan and Pauline writings as indications that Mark derived the scene in question wholesale from Paul, even where a proper examination does not bear this out.