‘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:
- Mark derived both of these scenes from passages in the Jewish scriptures.
- All three of the other gospel writers derived these scenes from Mark (varying them in different ways).
- 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.