‘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.


  1. says

    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.

    While I can’t say that you’re wrong about this, not knowing average salaries of the day, the cost of books & paper in classical antiquity is typically dramatically overestimated these days, because in the intervening Middle Ages books were made of parchment, which requires extensive processing to create from animal hide. In Roman times books and other records were primarily inked onto papyrus, a vastly cheaper material (literally made from a common weed) that requires much simpler processing (certainly no more difficult, complex, or expensive than the processing of flax into linen).

    So if your assertion is true, it’s not because paper was prohibitively expensive. No, literacy was far more common in the Roman era than the post-Roman Middle Ages specifically because papyrus was easily accessible in bulk while Rome freely traded with (and even ruled) Egypt. It was only being cut off from Egypt, and thus papyrus, that made books so dramatically expensive.

    Again, I’m not saying slaves were able to afford books, and there were a lot of slaves, so maybe papyrus was beyond the reach of the median salary (or even the mean salary). I can’t directly speak to your comparison, but I can say that your intuition might be leading you astray here. And I can also say that papyrus pages WERE in fact mass produced. It was vellum and parchment that could not be mass produced. Middle class people could certainly afford papyrus pages during those times, and indeed they did, specifically because what you say about mass production isn’t precisely true (though it may be true in some sense, if by “mass production” you really meant “mechanical production” or some such).

    Whether that affects your conclusions in any relevant way is something I leave to you.

  2. Dr Sarah says

    @Crip Dyke: Ah, thanks! Since my source for that point is the well-known ‘vaguely remember reading it somewhere at some point’, it’s highly likely that you’re right.

    However, that still leaves us with the fact that everything had to be handwritten (you could hire someone to do it, but I doubt that came massively cheap). So I think the main point – that you wouldn’t have large numbers of spare copies in general circulation – still stands.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    Usually my part in these posts involves whittling away at the historicist arguments, but here I think Dr. Sarah seems to (I’d have to read Price’s book to form a firmer opinion) have the best of it.

    Sfawk, the earliest Christian texts were all in Greek, and I suspect that more Greek slaves knew how to read than those of other nations/languages – they seem to have been in high demand as tutors for the children of the elite. Most likely, the other Christians (slaves and others) gathered around the literate ones to hear the Jesus stories read aloud (or interpreted into Aramaic and other local tongues), which may have given incentives to the readers to keep that movement going and helped it spread around the urban underclasses of the eastern Mediterranean.

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