‘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.

Comments

  1. Daniel Keys says

    Presumably, if he thinks there was no historical Jesus, he also thinks that pre-Gospel “Christianity” had rather different premises and was arguably a different religion entirely.

    More importantly, this should be a discussion about probabilities. Nobody should be talking about mathematical certainty. For example, absence of true evidence is always evidence of absence, in probability. If an event (e.g. God healing amputees) could change the numbers in one direction, then the absence of that event must change the numbers in the opposite direction – though crucially, the magnitude can be very different. (This is much like the way one might have a rational expectation of a stock price going up slightly, but still assign an expected value of the price tomorrow equal to the price today; a small chance of a steep drop can balance out the large probability of slight ticks upward. Our expectations for future certainty about theories, in a real scholarly field, should have the same property. Otherwise – if you expect to adjust your beliefs in a predictable direction – you should just assign a different probability today.) I assume you’d agree that influence of Mark on the other Gospels is probabilistic evidence against their having independent sources, since complete ignorance of Mark by the writers would suggest the opposite?

  2. Allison says

    My understanding was that biblical scholars believe that all the gospels were drawn from a body of oral stories about Jesus that had been around a while. Stories grow in the telling, since each person remembers each story as it “must have been.” Thus, it isn’t necessary to suppose that these parallels were consciously inserted by the compiler of each gospel.

    Exception: the same scholars believe that Matthew was targeted at an (observant) Jewish audience, and a lot of the references to the old testament were put in to bolster the claim that Jesus was the Messiah (i.e., the new King David.) Thus, for instance, the geneology at the beginning, to show that he was the heir to King David.

    Actually, the whole idea that one can prove from the details of arrangements of oral history the existence or non-existence of a single individual on whom the stories are based seems to me to be dubious at best. One would need contemporaneous written records, which exist, but AFAIK don’t have anything which could provide much evidence one way or the other.

    IMHO, the strongest evidence that there was someone who inspired what became Christianity is the emergence of Christianity itself. All the other religions I can think of that arise rather suddenly (in historical terms), as opposed to having “always existed,” have identifiable figures who started them.

  3. anat says

    Allison @1:

    All the other religions I can think of that arise rather suddenly (in historical terms), as opposed to having “always existed,” have identifiable figures who started them.

    Whether religions and religious factions/movements within existing religions rise suddenly or ‘have always existed’ depends on knowledge and beliefs about said knowledge. A naive reading of the Bible may lead to a belief that some form of Judaism rose ‘suddenly’ in the times of Moses, or Abraham. A somewhat less naive reading may lead to a conclusion that it rose ‘suddenly’ in the days of Josiah or Ezra. Russel Gmirkin believes it rose ‘suddenly’ around 270 BCE. Of all the alleged founders only Josiah can be shown to have existed. (Gmirkin’s founders are unnamed. All he can say about them is that they were Hebrew-speakers from Palestine who learned Greek in adulthood and became familiar with many Greek canonical works including Homer, Herodotus, and Plato.) All not-completely naive versions argue for the possibility of starting a religion whose claimed heroes are invented characters in the distant past. The only question is how far in the past such characters need to be in order for the populace to accept them as real without wondering too much about ‘that’s not the way things happened’.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    Or, 4. – Mark & Co. combined different stories of various events (some already exaggerated by routine grapevine processes) about various “saviors” (the literal meaning of Yeshua/Jesus) who elaborated on Jewish teachings and traditions, defied the Romans/Sanhedrin/authority figures in general, and/or suffered punishment/persecution/derogation, into a narrative to fill Judean cultural needs in the aftermath of a theologically-framed but horribly failed rebellion.

    We don’t have enough evidence to conclusively accept or reject any of several plausible scenarios – but the context and content of the “Gospel” versions leaves them with a credibility handicap from the get-go.

  5. Dr Sarah says

    @Daniel Keys, #1:

    Hi and welcome to the blog!

    Presumably, if he thinks there was no historical Jesus, he also thinks that pre-Gospel “Christianity” had rather different premises and was arguably a different religion entirely.

    Pretty much, yes; he thinks Christianity originally started as a belief in an immaterial heavenly messiah who would create a heavenly kingdom.

    More importantly, this should be a discussion about probabilities. Nobody should be talking about mathematical certainty.

    If you mean that all we can do is consider the likeliest explanation for the available data rather than having definite proof for one answer or another, I agree. If you mean that we should be trying to assign specific percentages to probabilities, I disagree, on the grounds that that suggests a higher level of exactness than we can realistically manage.

    I assume you’d agree that influence of Mark on the other Gospels is probabilistic evidence against their having independent sources, since complete ignorance of Mark by the writers would suggest the opposite?

    I think it’s a mistake to position this as an either-or, since that excludes the possibility that the other gospel authors used gMark plus other sources independent of gMark. I don’t think the fact that at least two of them used gMark influences the probability of them having used other sources. (This was, in fact, the main point I was trying to make in the post.)

  6. Dr Sarah says

    @Allison, #2:

    My understanding was that biblical scholars believe that all the gospels were drawn from a body of oral stories about Jesus that had been around a while.

    Yes, either directly or indirectly. (It’s thought that at least some of the gospels also had written sources to work from; in particular, Matthew and Luke definitely worked from gMark and probably also had at least one more source that they both worked from. However, these sources themselves were almost certainly based on oral stories, so one way or another the evidence we have goes back to oral traditions passed on over an unknown length of time.)

    Stories grow in the telling, since each person remembers each story as it “must have been.” Thus, it isn’t necessary to suppose that these parallels were consciously inserted by the compiler of each gospel.

    Agree completely with your first point. However, the gospels do contain some fairly detailed parallels with parts of the Jewish scriptures, to the point where ‘the authors inserted these unconsciously’ doesn’t really cut it as plausible; they seem to have deliberately put those details in. (This is likely to have been a literary attempt to link Jesus with scriptural passages rather than some sort of deliberate attempt to con anyone.)

    Depends on what you mean by ‘prove’. I don’t think we can prove Jesus existed, but attempts to explain how else we ended up with multiple people within the next century writing about him as though he lived an earthly life usually end up being a lot more complicated than just going with the hypothesis that he existed.

    One would need contemporaneous written records, which exist, but AFAIK don’t have anything which could provide much evidence one way or the other.

    There’s nothing that’s strictly contemporaneous (as in, surviving records written about Jesus in his time), but there are a couple of passing mentions by historians around the end of the 1st century CE/beginning of the 2nd.

    IMHO, the strongest evidence that there was someone who inspired what became Christianity is the emergence of Christianity itself. All the other religions I can think of that arise rather suddenly (in historical terms), as opposed to having “always existed,” have identifiable figures who started them.

    I think that’s a fair point.

  7. Dr Sarah says

    @anat, #3:

    Whether religions and religious factions/movements within existing religions rise suddenly or ‘have always existed’ depends on knowledge and beliefs about said knowledge. A naive reading of the Bible may lead to a belief that some form of Judaism rose ‘suddenly’ in the times of Moses, or Abraham. A somewhat less naive reading may lead to a conclusion that it rose ‘suddenly’ in the days of Josiah or Ezra.

    True, but that’s because the earliest records we have date from centuries later. In the case of Christianity, we’ve got records from subsequent decades that refer to Jesus as though he were an actual person born and living on earth with others. Either they really were talking about an actual person, or we’ve got people setting a fictitious founder at an unprecedentedly short time in the past. The latter isn’t impossible, but it’s less likely.

  8. Dr Sarah says

    @Pierce R. Butler, #4:

    Or, 4. – Mark & Co. combined different stories of various events (some already exaggerated by routine grapevine processes) about various “saviors” (the literal meaning of Yeshua/Jesus)

    It actually means ‘God saves’, or ‘God is salvation’.

    who elaborated on Jewish teachings and traditions, defied the Romans/Sanhedrin/authority figures in general, and/or suffered punishment/persecution/derogation, into a narrative to fill Judean cultural needs in the aftermath of a theologically-framed but horribly failed rebellion.

    Well, we know the stories of a figure referred to in Greek as Jesus predated the gospels, because Paul talks about Jesus and about the existing church, so there was clearly some sort of pre-gospel movement going on at the time. As Allison points out, movements like this are typically inspired by a charismatic figure. So the most obvious explanation is that this movement was in fact inspired by a rabbi called Yeshua (Iesus in Latin/Greek). Otherwise, we get into more complicated scenarios (a movement that arose in a short space of time without any one specific figure, or a movement inspired by a figure who faded in importance extremely fast to be replaced in people’s accounts by a fictitious figure).

    We don’t have enough evidence to conclusively accept or reject any of several plausible scenarios – but the context and content of the “Gospel” versions leaves them with a credibility handicap from the get-go.

    Agreed. However, they do have more in common with embroidered stories of a real person than with stories of an entirely mythical person.

  9. JM says

    @2 Allison

    IMHO, the strongest evidence that there was someone who inspired what became Christianity is the emergence of Christianity itself. All the other religions I can think of that arise rather suddenly (in historical terms), as opposed to having “always existed,” have identifiable figures who started them.

    I understand the idea and agree in general. It doesn’t work well with Christianity because a good case can be made that the historical figures most responsible for Christianity are Paul and Constantine. Neither directly associated with Jesus or his direct followers.

    Personally I’m Jesus agnostic. There are a lot of possibilities and the early records of Christianity have bee manipulated for religious and political reasons to the point that trying to filter out what actually happened seems futile.

  10. Pierce R. Butler says

    Dr Sarah @ # 5: It actually means ‘God saves’, or ‘God is salvation’.

    I thought it was a (slight) variation on “Joshua”, a “savior” who (if real) was probably not born with that name but earned or invented it.

    … Paul talks about Jesus and about the existing church, so there was clearly some sort of pre-gospel movement going on at the time. As Allison points out, movements like this are typically inspired by a charismatic figure.

    One can make a fairly good case that Saul/Paul was that charismatic figure, himself “inspired” by visions/hallucinations.

    … embroidered stories of a real person than with stories of an entirely mythical person.

    Or, as I hypothesized (following that other R. Price & others), a compounding of more than one real person.

  11. anat says

    Pierce Buttler: Jesus is Joshua. And the ‘Jo’ part of Joshua is a reference to Yahweh’s name.

    Joshua was a rather common name at the time, and even some of the candidates for people on which the stories in the Gospels may have been based on were named Joshua. See here.

  12. Dr Sarah says

    @JM, #9:

    a good case can be made that the historical figures most responsible for Christianity are Paul and Constantine.

    That seems like the answer to a slightly different question: who are the historical figures most responsible for Christianity mutating from a small local cult to an international phenomenon? I’d absolutely agree that those two fit the bill. And I believe Paul was the person responsible for the basic salvation theology on which Christianity came to be based.

    However, we know from Paul’s letters that there was a pre-existing church of Jesus followers, with whom he had some contact and that he believed Jesus to have had a human existence on earth (he refers to him being born of a woman/being in David’s line, compares him to Adam, etc.), and Paul also refers to Jesus’s brothers, at least one of whom he mentions meeting. So, there seems to have been an actual Jesus there.

  13. Dr Sarah says

    @Pierce R. Butler, #11:

    I thought it was a (slight) variation on “Joshua”, a “savior” who (if real) was probably not born with that name but earned or invented it.

    ‘Joshua’ is the later, anglicised form of the name. It seems to have originated as ‘Yehoshua’ in early OT days and been modified to ‘Yeshua’ in later centuries. Apparently the ‘shua’ bit comes from the Hebrew verb for being saved, but the ‘Ye’ comes from ‘Yahweh’. So, the name doesn’t refer to the person themselves being a saviour, but to the belief that Yahweh saves.

    One can make a fairly good case that Saul/Paul was that charismatic figure, himself “inspired” by visions/hallucinations.

    I think Paul was almost certainly the person responsible for starting Christianity in the sense of the salvation-theology-based religion we now know, and without him it would have been just another Jewish messianic cult that petered out (pun not intended) at a relatively early stage. However, we know from his letters that the cult itself predates Paul (as per my comment #13 above).

    Or, as I hypothesized (following that other R. Price & others), a compounding of more than one real person.

    Depends on what you count as ‘compounding’. I think it’s perfectly plausible that some of the stories attributed to Jesus could actually have originated as things that other rabbis of the time said/did; we see that sort of thing today, where people argue about which historical figure originally said such-and-such a saying that’s since passed into popular knowledge. However, the ‘composite Jesus’ theory seems to drift into the idea that there wasn’t any one specific figure who inspired the original movement and that the stories of such a figure come entirely from a kind of vague mishmash of a lot of different people. Trouble with that is, then you have a movement that… started itself? You can get stories evolving that way, but I’m dubious that you could get an actual movement with the belief in a particular founder who supposedly lived fairly recently.

  14. JM says

    However, we know from Paul’s letters that there was a pre-existing church of Jesus followers, with whom he had some contact and that he believed Jesus to have had a human existence on earth (he refers to him being born of a woman/being in David’s line, compares him to Adam, etc.), and Paul also refers to Jesus’s brothers, at least one of whom he mentions meeting. So, there seems to have been an actual Jesus there.

    Right but now we are one step more removed. We are judging if Jesus existed based on Paul’s writings about the group of followers of Jesus in Israel. Further complicated because Paul had some arguments with that group and what is incorporated in the bible is Paul’s side.

  15. Pierce R. Butler says

    Dr Sarah @ # 14: … the name doesn’t refer to the person themselves being a saviour, but to the belief that Yahweh saves.

    I suspect we should ask, “What did ‘Yeshua’ mean to 1st-generation Christians and their contemporaries?” A mostly-Aramaic-speaking culture may not have had more of a clue about such a name than do most modern USAians – or it might have resonated in their ears like “George Washington” in ours.

    … Paul was almost certainly the person responsible for starting Christianity …

    Agreed. Yet this also yanks much ground from under the “charismatic original founder” argument.

    … the ‘composite Jesus’ theory seems to drift into the idea that there wasn’t any one specific figure …

    But it moves the assumption that things-attributed-to-Jesus can be assigned to the same individual from default to conjecture. From brother-named-Jim to one-liners to government-assisted martyrdom operation – what, if anything, connects any two pieces of the J puzzle? If you posit a central individual, how do you separate the accretions from the original? Who could deny that somebody added some decorations to one or more unfactcheckable urban legends?

  16. says

    Or, 4. – Mark & Co. combined different stories of various events (some already exaggerated by routine grapevine processes) about various “saviors” (the literal meaning of Yeshua/Jesus)

    It actually means ‘God saves’, or ‘God is salvation’.

    One shouldn’t confuse etymology with literal meaning. “Butterfly” does not literally mean, “Dairy product that moves through the air without touching the ground”. It is etymologically derived from “butter” and “fly”, but that doesn’t require that the literal meaning of the word incorporates the original meanings of those words.

    Joshua/Yshu/Jesus had been used as a name for hundreds of years. Whatever the etymological origin, there was plenty of time for the name to come to mean something else. I’ve heard seemingly respected scholars say that it meant “savior” and have not enough knowledge to confirm or contest that, but I do know that etymology is not the same as literal meaning, so that’s at least enough to caution you on making that “real meaning is ‘god saves'” assertion.

  17. says

    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden@17,

    I agree with your general point about etymology. In this specific case, “Jesus” means a specific person who lived in the early 1st century. I’m sure it was popular in no small part due to the name being identified with Moses’ successor. The etymology of a name can only tell us of the inspiration for it’s use, not it’s meaning.

    Perhaps you would make an argument that a culture with so many traditional names that used “jah”/”jo” was not aware of the significance of that syllable in the name, but it would need to be a pretty strongly evidenced one.

  18. StevoR says

    Very tangential and short notice, sorry but this doco of potential relevance her eis being broadcast in SouthAustralia (& presumably other Aussie states) very shortly :

    ***

    Expedition Unknown
    Friday, 3 Dec
    8:30 PM – 9:28 PM [58 mins] pg

    Josh travels to the Holy Land to investigate a mystery of biblical proportions: where was Jesus actually born? The investigation leads to explosive revelations that may change our understanding of Jesus’ origin story.

    On channel 96 9Rush Adelaide.

    There’s also a, well, looks like a full episode on youtube here :

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4T17TOmGzko

    too. Haven’t yet seen it so dunno if any good or not..

  19. StevoR says

    PS. Its 7.53 pm here in Adeladie now ( Perth and Western Oz are acoupelof hours behind) so unlikely people reading here will see the above in time – but just on the off chance here..

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