‘Deciphering The Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed’ review: Chapter Five, Part One

‘Deciphering the Gospels’, by R. G. Price, argues the case for Jesus mythicism, which is the view that Jesus never existed on earth in any real form but was an entirely 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 was originally a human being of the 1st century about whom a later mythology grew up. 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.


Chapter 5: All Knowledge Of Jesus Comes From The Gospels

Price’s argument in this chapter can be approximately summarised thus:

  1. There was a major disagreement in the early centuries of the church over whether Jesus actually existed.
  2. If Jesus had existed, the pro-real-Jesus camp in the 2nd – 4th century followers would have been able to find better evidence than scripture to prove it.
  3. Yet his followers from that time only used scripture to prove he existed.
  4. Therefore, his followers must have been unable to find the definitive evidence we’d have expected them to have available if he existed.
  5. Therefore, we must doubt Jesus existed.

Unfortunately both of Price’s premises (points 1 and 2) are wrong, leading him to a fatally flawed conclusion. I’m going to look at the first point in this post, and at the second point in a subsequent post.


1. Was there a major disagreement in the early church over whether Jesus actually existed?

No. Before we go on to discuss why Price thinks there was, it’s worth taking a moment to look at this and think about how little sense it makes.

Price is talking, here, about one of the big disagreements within the movement; in other words, between different groups of believers. So these are people who would, by definition, have all believed in Jesus. They might have believed in a version of Jesus that had little or no resemblance to whatever the reality was, but they still believed that their version of Jesus was real. Anyone who didn’t believe in Jesus would, rather obviously, not be a follower of this group; they’d join a different religious group or none. Why on earth would Jesus’s followers be arguing over whether or not he really existed?

Let’s look back, for a moment, at what Price thinks the earliest group of Jesus-followers originally believed. He told us this back in the introduction:

Some small apocalyptic Jewish cult existed in Jerusalem around the middle of the first century that worshiped a heavenly messiah named Jesus. […] What set the Jesus cult apart was their belief that the kingdom established by the messiah would not be on earth, but rather it would be in heaven. They believed that the material world was hopelessly corrupt and that the “kingdom of God” could never be established on earth. Thus, they believed that an immaterial heavenly messiah would be required to destroy the evil material world and establish a perfect kingdom in heaven.

So, according to Price, this group believed that Jesus was an immaterial heavenly being. From Price’s perspective as an atheist and skeptic, this is, of course, equivalent to saying that Jesus didn’t exist. However, Price is overlooking the obvious here; that Jesus’s followers wouldn’t have seen it that way. Even if Price is correct about the original beliefs of the Jesus-followers, in their minds the heavenly being they followed would have existed, just as people of the time believed that Hercules or Romulus existed.

It therefore makes no sense whatsoever, even in the context of mythicism, to talk about people in the early church debating over whether or not Jesus existed. If the early group had, in fact, moved from believing in a heavenly Jesus to believing in an earthly Jesus, then the debate would have been over whether Jesus was earthly, not over whether he was real.

So why does Price think there was a debate about Jesus’s existence? He’s mainly getting this from misunderstanding the arguments over a doctrine now known to us as Docetism.

A common heretical view in the second and third centuries, known as Docetism, held that Jesus had come to earth as an immaterial spirit being, who only appeared real but was actually illusionary.

In fact, the debate in Docetism wasn’t about whether Jesus was real; it was about whether his flesh was. More generally, it was about whether Jesus did in fact become fully human or merely seemed to be human. The traditional Church view, and the one that prevailed in Church theology, was that Jesus was ‘fully God and fully man’, but there were plenty of people who disagreed with one or the other half of this, refusing to believe that these two opposites could be fully integrated. Some of these people believed that Jesus had in fact only been ‘a mere man’ rather than God in human form, but others went the other way and believed that Jesus, as God, couldn’t possibly have taken on the indignity of becoming a human being made from the same kind of flesh as anyone else. This is the belief now referred to as Docetism.

Price has helpfully included a selection of quotes from Church fathers describing Docetist beliefs about Jesus (the best we can do, as we no longer have any of the writings of Docetists themselves). I’ve picked out the quotes about how Docetists described the Jesus of their beliefs:

[Marcion, Valentinus, and the Gnostics] teach that His appearances to those who saw Him as man were illusory, inasmuch as He did not bear with him true manhood, but was rather a kind of phantom manifestation. (Hippolytus; Discourses)

Saturninus [affirmed] that Christ had not existed in a bodily substance, and had endured a quasi-passion in a phantasmal shape merely[…] Cerdo […] affirms that He was not in the substance of flesh; states Him to have been only in a phantasmal shape[…] Apelles […] says, because He descended from the upper regions, that in the course of His descent He wove together for himself a starry and airy flesh (Tertullian; Against All Heresies)

Others consider Him to have been manifested as a transfigured man […] while others [hold] that He did not assume a human form at all, but that, as a dove, He did descend upon that Jesus who was born from Mary. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies)

Now, if you’re looking through the lens of mythicism, it’s easy to read these references to phantoms and ‘not in the substance of flesh’ as being support for a Jesus who didn’t actually exist. But, if you look at what they’re saying, they are in fact all beliefs that Jesus’s followers saw him in what seemed to be human flesh, even though (according to the beliefs of the people saying these things) it can’t possibly have been actual human flesh because God wouldn’t take on human flesh. Leaving out the theological part of that, what the Docetists were actually saying was that Jesus appeared to be a human on earth. And, since one thing on which I, Price, and most people reading this can probably agree is that Jesus actually wasn’t an immaterial god pretending to be a human, the likely reason why he would appear to be a human on earth is that he was actually a human on earth.

Price does raise the question of whether the issue could have been whether Jesus was physical, rather than whether he was earthly:

I think the original conception of Jesus was as an immaterial heavenly being, and that the theology of early Jesus worship was rooted in the immaterial nature of Jesus.

While that’s possible, it also takes us back to the question of how Jesus’s followers came to believe him to have been crucified. Crucifixion is a very physical punishment, so it would be odd and incongruous for a group who set such high value on their saviour being immaterial to also come up with the idea that this immaterial saviour had been crucified.

Getting back to the point at hand: This theory of Price’s still leaves us with the fact that no-one (or no-one that Price has been able to cite) seems to have taken issue with whether Jesus actually came to earthThe Docetists whose views were described in the quotes Price gives all allude to a Jesus who appeared on earth in some form, even if it was as a ‘manifestation’ rather than in actual flesh. At most, we can say that some of the quotes could be compatible with a belief in a primarily heavenly Jesus who showed up only in visions rather than coming to earth himself. However, there’s no sense from the half of the debate we see that the amount of time Jesus spent on earth was the issue. The theologians quoted are taking issue only with the idea of whether his flesh was really real or just seemed so.

So the best we can say is that some of these quotes (only some) are compatible with either mythicism or historicity, but even those don’t support the idea of mythicism over historicity (the information they give is so brief that it’s hard to draw any conclusions from those isolated quotes). And, of course, the quote about Apelles and the last of the quotes above from Irenaeus still point towards a Jesus who was on earth in some form, thus pointing us at least somewhat more towards historicity than towards mythicism.

On top of this, we still have the question of why Price’s scenario would even have led to the point of this debate between the different camps arising. Price writes:

What we see in later docetist type views was an attempt to merge the Gospel narrative with the pre-Gospel theology of the cult.

Right, because the Church is historically so well known for trying to figure out compromises between existing beliefs and those considered heretical.

Bear in mind, here, that according to Price’s theory the idea of an earthly Jesus only got started because some spare copies of an entirely fictional account started circulating amongst non-Christians and somehow inspired a movement of people who believed in a human Jesus. How on earth, if you’ll excuse the unintentional pun, was that meant to stand up in any way when the new group met the existing group? If the basis of the original theology was that Jesus was immaterial and heavenly only, and along came a group of Johnny-come-latelies claiming he’d had an earthly life, why in blue blazes would the response of the existing and established group be to try to figure out a way to incorporate this into their existing theology rather than simply making it entirely clear that this new group were a bunch of misinformed heretics and had no idea what they were talking about?

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

‘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.

4. Early Christian Understanding Of The Gospels

This chapter focuses mainly on traditional church beliefs about a) the origins of the gospels and b) supposed prophecies of Jesus in the Old Testament, pointing out the significant problems with both. Most of the chapter can be briefly summarised as ‘we now know that the early Church fathers’ claims about who wrote the gospels can’t be true, and we also know that the supposed ‘prophecy fulfilment’ doesn’t stand up’. Since I broadly agree with Price’s general position on these, I don’t see any particular need to discuss this chapter further. However, there are two passages from the chapter on which I do want to comment.

The first one touches on a major issue with his overall argument that he hasn’t yet really addressed; how does his purported scenario explain how we got from ‘Mark invented a human Jesus for purposes of allegory’ to ‘Belief in a human Jesus became so widespread it took over the movement completely’? With that in mind, let’s look at this passage:

I don’t think that belief in a human Jesus happened because of any intentional deception or misrepresentation; I think it simply arose out of confusion and widespread assumptions by people that the story called Mark was literally true. I think that once the Markan story spread in the later part of the first century, there was widespread belief that all of the people and events described in it were real, among both followers of the religion and non-followers.

Think about the practicalities of this for a second.

Price is claiming here that gMark spread sufficiently widely amongst non-Christians for assumptions about it to be ‘widespread’ before any of the other gospels were written, which would require it to spread extensively among non-Christians over a relatively short timescale; a few years, perhaps a few decades at most. From previous chapters, we know that Price is also claiming that Mark’s aim in writing his gospel was to critique the actions of the existing group of Jesus-followers, which would mean that his gospel was aimed specifically at that group. So… how, in that case, is gMark supposed to have become ‘widespread’ amongst non-Christians?

Remember that this was long before the printing press; if you wanted to make copies of your book, you either had to copy the whole thing out by hand, or pay a scribe to do so. Add in the cost of ink and paper (in the days before mass production, these were significantly more expensive relative to the average salary), and you can see that people were typically not running off spare copies of their books just for the sake of it. If Mark was, as Price thinks, writing for Christians, then whatever copies he produced would have been meant to circulate within the Christian community. How would things have got from there to a situation where the book was in widespread circulation among non-Christians, let alone to the point where multiple people were writing expanded versions of the story? Once again, Price is describing a scenario that doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.

The other passage on which I want to comment is noteworthy because, although Price doesn’t seem to have noticed this, it blows his entire theory out of the water. Note particularly the last two sentences here:

Clearly the authors of Matthew and John fabricated story elements themselves, as we shall further explore in later chapters… So, to me, this draws into question whether or not the authors of Matthew and John really thought they were writing factual accounts or not. Generally speaking, it is difficult to understand the mind-set of chroniclers in Hellenistic cuture during that time, not just in relation to the Jesus story but even more broadly. These types of pseudo-historical mythologized accounts of people’s lives and deeds were not at all uncommon during that period, so the modern sense of recording fact-based history is simply something that wasn’t pervasive in that culture. These types of fabricated embellishments of biographies were widespread, so even if the authors of Matthew and John thought they were writing biographies of a real person, embellishing them would have been a common practice.

The keystone of Price’s argument has been that gMark’s habit of basing much of what he says on other sources indicates that gMark must have been inventing a Jesus-figure rather than embellishing an existing one. Yet he’s just made the exact counterpoint I’ve been making: that it’s perfectly possible (and, in fact, common behaviour in that time and culture) for someone to mythologise a biography of a real person by embellishing it with details drawn from other sources. And, since this is the case, we can’t conclude that the obvious embellishments in gMark indicate that it’s fictitious; they’re perfectly compatible with it being an embroidered biography of a real person. In other words, Price has just made a convincing argument against the foundational claim of his entire case.

The Santa Dilemma

Over on From The Ashes Of Faith, Megan has just raised a subject that was a huge dilemma for me in the early years of parenting:

How do you feel about the whole Santa charade? Did you do it with kids in your family? Did you believe in Santa when you were little? How did you feel when you found out he wasn’t real?

To answer the last two questions first: I don’t remember believing in Father Christmas (the term we tend to use more in the UK, although they’re fairly interchangeable for us) at any time during my childhood. Maybe I believed in him at one point, but, if so, I was too young at the time to remember, and I don’t remember any point of ‘but he’s not real!’ revelation. So, if that did happen, I suppose I can’t have been too traumatised by it.

When it came to bringing up my own children, however, I had no idea what the right course of action was. (Which I suppose at least made a change from the more usual parenting experience of smugly knowing exactly what the right course of action was up until the point where I went through that part of parenting and realised that in actual fact things were vastly less simple than the pre-parenting version of me had assumed.) If I brought my children up to believe in Father Christmas, then I was deliberately perpetrating a lie and a fraud. If I didn’t bring them up to believe in Father Christmas, I was depriving them of a delightful and important part of childhood magic, basically becoming Scrooge and the Grinch rolled into one. What was I to do?

The compromise I opted for: I wouldn’t straight-out tell my children Father Christmas wasn’t real, and I wouldn’t say anything revelatory when we saw Father Christmases at children’s parties or in the local garden centre prior to Christmas. But I also wouldn’t do anything specific to perpetrate the myth – no footprints on the fireplace or mince pies set out on Christmas Eve and removed overnight in our household – and, when either of my children did ask straight out about Father Christmas, I’d tell them the truth.

As to the details of what I’d tell them… well, this takes us to Megan’s other main question, which was whether I think it’s fair to compare Santa to Jesus. As regular readers of my blog will know, I believe that Jesus was originally a real person (a Jewish rabbi who was crucified) but that, for reasons too long to go into here, an entire enormous mythology was then woven around him that had very little to do with the actual person. If you want to debate that issue, please go pick one of my many threads on the subject in which to do so; I bring it up here because, in answer to Megan’s question, I think it’s completely fair to compare Santa to Jesus, in that both of them started as ordinary humans before a whole mythology was woven around them.

So, I decided that, when the time came, I’d tell my children that the bits about flying reindeer and visiting all the children in the world with presents were made up, but the story was based on a real person who was kind and good and gave people things and inspired parents to do the same with their children, and people then made the other stuff up to make it more fun. This is probably somewhat stretching the details of how the legend developed, but was reasonably true and felt a lot better than the prospect of effectively telling my children that the grown-ups had lied to them.

Looking back, I would say that – unlike almost everything else I’ve ever planned in parenting – this actually worked well.

I can’t remember how old Jamie was when he asked me whether Father Christmas was real, though I remember it was while I was getting the children ready for bed one night; I told him to come into the bathroom so I could tell him (getting some teeth-brushing done was probably also on my agenda there, but I wanted to get him out of earshot of Katie, as she hadn’t yet asked) and gave him the above spiel, as well as asking him not to tell children who didn’t yet know as it might upset them. Jamie nodded in acceptance and that was that.

I do remember when Katie asked, due to some other stuff going on at the time that enables me to pinpoint it around (probably shortly after) her eight birthday. I was driving her home from school and she was chattering away, mentioning a girl in her class who was scared of Father Christmas. As my heart sank, the way it always did when I was faced with the uneasy business of not knowing whether to speak up or not, she mused “You know, I don’t even know if Father Christmas is real. Maybe he’s just some guy named Jake.” I have no idea to this day where she got ‘Jake’ from, but I still remember mentally cheering that, within minutes, I would be done with the whole Father Christmas dilemma.

I got us both home so that I could tell her face-to-face just in case she did get upset, and asked her whether she wanted to know the answer to her question. This involved reminding her of the subject, since she’d moved onto somewhere completely different in her thoughts in the ten minutes it took us to drive home, but she decided that, yes, she did want to know.

“Well, then,” I started, “the answer is that the bit about someone flying around in a sleigh with reindeer is a myth, but…”

“I knew it! I knew it!” Katie crowed.

“…but the stories are based on…”

“He’s not real! Throw him out the window!” Katie, apparently delighted by this news, swung an arm in an expansive casting-forth gesture.

“…based on a man who was…”

Throw him out the window, one-two-three! Throw him out the window, one-two-three!” Katie had reached the point of putting together a mini song-and-dance act on the theme. “Throw him out the window, one-two-three! Da-da, da-da-da-da!”

I gave up. At least she wasn’t traumatised by the news. I settled for explaining to her that she couldn’t tell other children who didn’t know yet (actually, I can’t even remember if I did remember to tell her that; I hope she didn’t ruin any other family’s Christmas magic in her enthusiasm) and, no, she was definitely not allowed to throw Father Christmas out the window and could she please be slightly less disturbing about it.

So, that’s how the whole thing went down in our household. I look forward to seeing what experiences Megan’s commenters had, though they probably at least did not involve impromptu chants about Santa defenestration.