‘Deciphering The Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed’ review: Chapter Three

‘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.

After taking two and a half years and seven posts to make it to the end of Chapter Two in this book, I’d assumed I’d be doing this until some time into my retirement. Fortunately, it looks as though the next few chapters are going to be significantly quicker to get through (for my highly relative standards of ‘significantly quicker’) and so I’m hoping to be able to get through each chapter with a single post. We might yet make it to the end of this!

Chapter 3: Copies Of Mark, Not Independent Accounts

In this chapter, Price discusses two scenes that appear in all four gospels; the scene with Jesus and the moneylenders in the temple, and the crucifixion scene. His chain of argument is:

  1. Mark derived both of these scenes from passages in the Jewish scriptures.
  2. All three of the other gospel writers derived these scenes from Mark (varying them in different ways).
  3. This gives us good evidence that none of the other gospel writers knew anything about a ‘real Jesus’ either.

I’ll look at each of these in turn.

1. Did Mark derive these scenes from passages in the Jewish scriptures?

Price believes that Mark derived the temple scene from a passage in Hosea. If you’re interested in his theory, you can read about it on his webpage here, and if you’re really interested you can read the lengthy debate he and I had on the topic in one of my previous comment threads here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. (However, I don’t think I’d particularly recommend reading through all those unless you’re someone who really loves following up every little detail.)

The tl;dr version is that Price believes that Mark derived the temple scene entirely from Hosea 9, while I find it more likely that Mark embroidered a real scene with details from the Hosea passage to add symbolism. The truth might, of course, be ‘neither of the above’, and we’ll never know anyway. But the important point is that ‘Mark embroidered a real scene’ is plausible as an explanation, and that means that we can’t take ‘Mark invented the whole scene based on Hosea’ as a premise on which to build further speculations.

As far as the crucifixion scene goes, I’d say ‘as above but with more certainty’. It’s widely accepted – and certainly a claim with which I’d agree – that Mark based details in his description of the crucifixion scene on passages from the Jewish scriptures. However, for reasons I’ve discussed previously, I also believe it’s a lot more likely that Jesus really was sentenced by Pilate and then crucified than that those particular details were inventions about a mythical celestial Jesus-figure. So, again, I think that the explanation here is that Mark reported an actual incident that had been passed down but embroidered the bare-bones details he had with both his imagination and links from the Jewish scriptures.

2. Did all three of the other gospel writers derive their work from Mark?

It’s not news to anyone who knows even the basics of Bible study that Matthew and Luke used Mark as one of their sources; that’s long since been established by New Testament scholars. Whether John used any of the synoptics (the three gospels other than John) as a source is less clear, but Price does raise a good point here; in the crucifixion scene, John includes the details that Mark clearly did derive from the Jewish scriptures. This means that either Mark’s and John’s accounts both come from an even earlier source that did the same thing, or John got his information (directly or indirectly) from one of the synoptics. I think the latter explanation is the more likely, so that means that John probably did get information (though possibly via an indirect route) from at least one of the synoptics.

3. Can we deduce from this that the other authors didn’t know anything about the Jesus story other than what they got from Mark?

This one, however, doesn’t follow. Price argues:

If there was some real temple-cleansing event, then what’s clear is that none of the other Gospel writers had any knowledge of it. If they had had knowledge of a real event where a real Jesus threw merchants out of the temple, then they wouldn’t have simply copied their versions of the story from what is clearly a fictional account. […] [I]t is impossible to believe that anyone who had direct knowledge of a real Jesus person would have written an account of his life in which all of the most important details are borrowed from a single fictional story.

This, like rather a lot of Price’s arguments, left me thinking ‘Huh?’.

If by ‘direct knowledge’ Price means that the gospel writers didn’t personally know Jesus, then I think he’s just reinvented the Biblical criticism wheel. It’s been established for something like a century now that they’re highly unlikely to have known Jesus, given how much gMatthew copies from gMark (a gospel attributed to an author for whom even church tradition only claims second-hand knowledge of Jesus) and how late gJohn is thought to be.

However, if by ‘direct knowledge’ Price is referring to information or sources other than gMark, then of course it’s possible for the authors to have worked from other sources. In fact, the amount of information that’s shared by both Matthew and Luke despite not being in Mark has convinced the majority of New Testament scholars that the two of them both worked from a separate source, since lost, as well as Mark.

It’s important to remember here that, regardless of what we think about gMark, we can’t assume that the other gospel authors would have seen it that way. Price thinks it’s ‘clearly a fictional account’; I think it’s an embroidered and partly fictionalised version of something based in fact; but neither of those viewpoints are relevant, because we’re not the people who wrote the other gospels. The people who did so were believers, not skeptics; they had no reason to reject gMark as a source of information, and the fact that they accepted gMark as such a source in no way excludes the possibility of them having other such sources. Price devotes several pages to his belief that the reliance of the other gospels on gMark is enough for us to conclude that they were entirely fictional, but this claim doesn’t stand up to examination.

Although it’s a side note rather than the main thrust of the chapter, Price makes one more point towards the end that’s worth a comment:

The key argument of the founders of Christianity was that the Gospel accounts had to be true, because they were independently written accounts that corroborated each other. The belief that the Gospels now attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were independently written accounts was absolutely central to all of the arguments made by the founders of Christianity as to the validity of the religion and the truth of the accounts they contained. The argument was that since four separate witnesses all recorded the same basic things, their accounts corroborate each other and therefore must be true.

This flat-out doesn’t make sense. The gospels weren’t even written until decades after Christianity started and weren’t collected together until even later than that, so, unless the founders of Christianity had access to time travel, it would have been physically impossible for them to use this argument.

The only sense I can make of this is that Price didn’t know what the word ‘founders’ means and was actually trying to refer to to a significantly later stage of Christianity in which apologists did use this argument. If so, then it’s possible that he’s correct in that claim; I don’t know of any examples of apologists claiming this, but that proves nothing as I’m not very familiar with early church apologetics. However, Price gives no citations to back it up, so I have no way of knowing whether that claim would be correct or not. Either way, the claim as written is certainly not correct, so at a bare minimum he needs to edit it to drop the ‘founders’ statement.

Two For Joy

This post was initially inspired by a question asked in an open chat comment thread (on the Ask A Manager blog, but it’s in the weekend open thread and hence nothing to do with the blog topic). Briefly: the poster has two children aged 5 and 2, she’s struggling with the decision of whether to have a third child, and she asked working parents on the site for their experiences with the same decision. As it happens, this is a situation that I also experienced many years back, and so I Have Thoughts on the subject. I started writing a comment, but it was getting so long and rambly that I decided I might as well make it a blog post instead.

(Warning: I’m discussing the issue of decisions about childbearing from the very privileged position of having been able to have the children I wanted and not have ones I didn’t want, and I know that there are very many people out there for whom either or both of those isn’t the case. I’ve been extremely lucky, and I know it, and don’t mean to make it sound as though I’m oblivious to my privilege here.)

When I thought about having children, I always planned that I would stop at two. Well, unless I ended up having a child as a single parent, in which case I planned to stop at one, as I wanted to avoid a children-outnumber-parents situation, but the ideal for me was always to get married and have two children. Besides, I grew up in a two-child family, so that felt normal and and right to me (1). When I met my husband-to-be he wanted three, but I decided that I’d be OK with considering a third if he wanted that, and he decided he’d be OK with stopping at two if I wanted that, and we agreed that if we made it as far as the married-with-two stage we’d revisit the issue at that point and see where we were then.

In fact, by the time we made it to the married-with-one-and-a-second-on-the-way stage it was very clear to both of us that we were going to stop at two. My husband had taken a voluntary redundancy option at work some years earlier and stayed off work to be a stay-at-home parent while the children were small, and his window of opportunity for getting back into his field was starting to narrow; he could feasibly stay at home through the upcoming infancy/toddlerhood, but that was going to be his limit (and neither of us was keen on having to find day care for a baby). Plus, stay-at-home parenthood had been harder than he’d anticipated, and he was now quite clear that two was enough for him. As for me, thrilled about my pregnancy but also constantly nauseated and facing the looming prospect of going back to night feeds, I was thoroughly on board with the idea that I was going through all this precisely one more time and then never again. And my opinion remained quite clear on that point once my daughter was born. We were now a two-child family, and that was great.

So I was a bit stymied when, a few years down the line, broodiness crept up on me and walloped me over the head.

Now, if my circumstances had been different, I might very well have decided to indulge that wish and have a third child, and I expect that, had I gone that route, I’d have gained much happiness from it and this post would be about how it all worked out for me. However, one significant difference between the OP’s situation and mine is that I knew perfectly well that this option was not on the table. I knew my husband was not going to be OK with having a third child, and that was that. I didn’t even raise the issue; the mere suggestion would have sent him into a tailspin, and it didn’t seem worth it when I knew perfectly well what the answer would be. So for me, all along, this attack of broodiness was something I just had to deal with and get over.

And that was doable. Because, as much as I might have enjoyed indulging myself on this one, there were a few things I knew all along:

I would be OK without a third child.

I knew that, in the long term, I would be all right with not having a third child in a way that I wouldn’t have been all right without getting to have the first two. Of course, if I’d faced the situation so many people face of not being able to have even those two children then I’d have had to get on with my life even so, but it would always have been a loss. Having a third child felt optional to me.

This is probably a weird metaphor, but I always thought of it in terms of a table. Deciding to go from one child to two had, for me, been like deciding whether to put the last leg on the table you’re putting together; it wasn’t really even a decision, but a no-brainer. Of course you put all the legs on a table. If you don’t, something is missing in a way that fundamentally damages the integrity of the table. (2) Deciding whether to go from two children to three was like deciding whether to put a vase on top of the table after it had been constructed. It would add something extra, something you might love, but equally well you might decide that it worked better not to put a vase on top of this particular table. Either decision would be OK. Either way, I’d have the table I wanted.

It wasn’t really about having three children rather than two; it was about the prospect of having to move on.

I realised that most of what I was feeling was about dealing with the thought of that part of my life – pregnancy, childbirth, babies – being over for good. Since this life stage was not only something that had been fairly all-encompassing over much of the past few years but also something I’d eagerly looked forward to for as long as I could remember, the realisation that it was all finally a dwindling glimpse in the rearview mirror was quite a major one to come to terms with. And to some extent, it was also about the inevitable retrospective wish to have done some things differently with my existing two.

You don’t really want a new baby, I thought to myself. You want the babies you had back again for a do-over. That wasn’t all of it, but there was a lot of truth to it.

Following on from that understanding, of course, was the realisation that…

…having another baby wouldn’t solve the broodiness problem. Well, temporarily it would, but a problem postponed isn’t really a problem solved. Since so much of this was about saying goodbye to the pregnant/new motherhood part of my life, I found it (and still find it) a pretty reasonable assumption that having another baby would just leave me feeling the same way a few years down the line. However many children I had, eventually I’d still have to move on and accept that that part of my life was over.


None of this self-knowledge, of course, made the reproduction cravings magically vanish; I just had to keep reminding myself of all of the above and ride it out like a vastly higher-stakes version of chocolate cravings. The good news is, however, that that actually worked. Eventually, gradually, they faded.

Ten years later, I can happily say that I wouldn’t want another baby now if you paid me, and I’m glad, now, that I didn’t have one at the time. Life with the children I do have has been a lot more difficult and exhausting than I’d originally bargained for, due in large part to the clashes between their needs (they’re both autistic with features of ADHD) and a sometimes problematic school system. It was absolutely worth it, but I’m still glad I didn’t add a third child into the mix.

I did realise, a few years ago, that I like the idea of providing a permanent foster home for an older child. For practical reasons this will unfortunately probably never be possible, but, if it is, then I’ll be a mother of three without ever having to deal with babies again, which will be a lovely outcome. If not… I’ll still be happy with two.

So, at the end of all this, do I have any advice for people in the situation of that commenter? Think about what you actually want. Be realistic about your reasons for considering another. Think about what your partner actually wants. And good luck with whatever you do.



(1) As an interesting side note, my sister had the opposite response to the same family background; she’s written that ‘growing up in a quiet, bookish two-child family’ left her with a firm preference for ‘the slightly anarchic dynamic of three’. I love the fact that we reacted in opposite ways to the same background. People are cool. And by the way, in case you’re wondering, she did get her wish.

(2) The other thing that works for me about that metaphor is the fact that different tables have different numbers of legs anyway. A three-legged table works fine as a table; it isn’t at all the same as a four-legged table with a missing leg. In the same sort of way, my personal feelings about the size of family I wanted had no bearing whatsoever on what size family someone else should have; there are people who do only want one child, or none, or three or four, and those are the ‘tables’ that work for them.