‘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.
The chapter so far: Price is claiming that Docetism, a 2nd – 4th century belief that Jesus merely appeared to be human without taking on human flesh, was actually a belief that Jesus ‘never existed’, which had developed from the beliefs of an original group of followers who believed him to be a heavenly being only. I discussed the problems with this interpretation in my previous post. On to the other significantly flawed premise in Price’s argument in this chapter:
2. Could the anti-Docetists have come up with better evidence to argue their case?
Price’s argument here is that the second-to-fourth century anti-Docetists would have been able to produce better evidence for their case if Jesus had actually existed, and, since they didn’t do so, this omission is evidence against Jesus’s existence. He’s unimpressed by the arguments the anti-Docetists did produce:
Essentially, they just used the Gospels and theological reasoning, as shown below […] This was, literally, the best they could do to “prove” that Jesus really existed. They defended the human existence of Jesus by quoting from the Gospels and Hebrew scriptures, and that was it.
The problem with Price’s reasoning here is that he’s looking at this from the point of view as an atheist and an skeptic for whom ‘The Scriptures say so!’ really is poor evidence, but isn’t taking into account that this was not the perspective of the people actually having the argument.
To the Church fathers, the Hebrew scriptures were the word of the all-knowing God that they worshipped, the ultimate source of wisdom and truth. As for the gospels, they believed two of these to be the accounts of people who had actually lived with Jesus and were thus reporting from first-hand knowledge. (Biblical scholars no longer believe this to have been the case, but it was what the early church believed at the time.)
From that point of view, it makes complete sense that these would be the sources they’d use. To them these writings would indeed have been the best available, and not in the sense of ‘we don’t have anything better so we’re stuck with resorting to these’; the apologists in question believed these to be the literal Word Of God on the matter. This is, therefore, exactly what we’d expect them to use, regardless of whether evidence that might seem better to later atheist skeptics was available or not.
That said, would other evidence for Jesus’s existence have been easily available at that point? Price continues:
Think about what could have been done to prove that Jesus existed in the second through fourth centuries.
Yes, let’s indeed. Even if the question had been whether Jesus existed, how exactly could his followers have proved it that long after events, when they lived nowhere near the places where he had lived and died, in a world with so little in the way of formal records? If you were trying to prove the existence of someone who’d lived a century or more ago, in a country to which you couldn’t easily travel, without directly knowing any of the people who’d known that person, and without using any modern technology or records, how would you do it?
Now think of how much more difficult it would be if the actual question being asked was ‘Did this person have real human flesh or was their body actually a clever counterfeit designed by divine power to look real?’ How would you even begin to determine, that long after and that far away, which of those two was the case?
Well, let’s look at Price’s suggestions:
If Jesus were actually a real person, he would have had to have ultimately been buried somewhere[…] There were also sects who believed that he never ascended bodily to heaven. They could have used his real body to prove it.
This is weirdly reminiscent of Christian apologetics. One common argument that apologists use in attempts to prove the resurrection is that, if Jesus had still been dead, his followers’ opponents would have just used his body to prove it… because obviously the unexplained absence of a body is the only reason someone wouldn’t track down and desecrate a grave to dig up an extensively decomposed corpse. To be fair, I know I went for years without spotting the flaw in that logic. However, most people reading this are probably rather more clued up than I was in my 20s, so I probably don’t need to spell out why this argument doesn’t hold up all that well.
If Jesus were a real person with real followers […] those followers would have venerated his grave, even if his body wasn’t there.
Why? His followers believed he’d been miraculously raised from the dead, and wanted to keep focusing on that belief (since they were finding the alternative too awful to contemplate). That being so, I doubt very much that they wanted to think about realities of his body or grave at all, let alone ‘venerate’ his grave. With no-one trying to keep that memory alive, how likely would anyone be to know where it was more than a generation later? And even if someone remembered where the grave was, how would anyone ever prove that the person buried there was Jesus and not someone completely different? (Or even prove that someone was buried there, since the only way to do so would involve digging up a very dead body?)
Furthermore, if Jesus had been executed by the Jews during the reign of Pilate due to being a seditious rabble rouser, then wouldn’t followers of his that continued worshiping him in the years after his death have been seen by Jewish leaders as criminals or threats? There is no record in Jewish literature of any seditious or problematic group of Jesus followers in Jerusalem from the period following Jesus’s supposed death.
The question of whether Price is correct in claiming that we have no such record is one that is probably better discussed in Chapter 10, where Price goes into his reasons for rejecting the mention in Josephus of the execution of ‘the brother of Jesus called Christ’ as valid. However, that’s a whole separate part of the argument unrelated to what anti-Docetists did or didn’t argue.
The question in the context of this specific argument, as far as I can see, is whether there were records at the time that we’d expect anti-Docetists to have used as part of their case. Were there records at the time condemning this group as potential threats due to their insistence on still following a man who’d been executed as a seditious criminal? Quite possibly. Would we expect second-century apologists to have access to them? Maybe, though that’s very far from a given. Would we expect these apologists to find such records useful evidence in differentiating between ‘Jesus had flesh’ and ‘Jesus only appeared to have flesh’? I can’t see how or why. Would we expect them to want to cite such records as part of their pro-Jesus propaganda? Rather obviously not. So, irrespective of whether such records existed, we wouldn’t expect to find any mention of them in the works of the anti-Docetist apologists.
What about the real tomb and body of Mary? Also never identified.
And nor were the tomb or body of Paul, whom we know to have existed because we have multiple letters by him, so clearly this isn’t a good way to identify ‘person who suspiciously never existed’. I think Price might be confusing ‘never identified’ with ‘it wasn’t until more than a generation later, far from where any of these people would have originally lived or died, that anyone else reached the point of caring enough about this person to want to venerate their grave, and by that point there were no reliable surviving records’.
What about Peter? Also never identified.
Whoa; is Price trying to claim that Peter didn’t exist? We have Paul’s first-hand account of having met Peter and disagreed with him. In historians’ terms, that’s primary source evidence. I’m not sure Price has quite thought his argument out here.
What about any direct contact with anyone who had personally met or seen Jesus?
I’m not sure how speaking to anyone who’d seen Jesus would be useful in refuting a belief that Jesus had the ‘appearance’ of a human body rather than the real thing; by definition, if someone has the ‘appearance’ of a human body then they’re going to look human to people who see them. But, all right… what about people who’d known Jesus well enough to have some kind of direct physical contact? Well, since Price is talking about ‘what could have been done to prove Jesus existed in the second through fourth centuries’, the answer to that one seems fairly self-evident; by the time the anti-Docetist apologists Price has just quoted were writing, everyone who would have known Jesus was long dead.
What Price seems to be doing here, as far as I can tell, is losing track of the fact that he just specified ‘second through fourth centuries’ and going back to a claim he made a few pages earlier; that Docetism was around by the end of the first century. However, even if we accept this particular conclusion (which Price derives by starting from the very shaky premise that Ascension theology in gLuke was ‘no doubt a reaction to questions about where the body of Jesus was’ and then concluding that this dates this belief to the end of the first century even though this contradicts the range of likely dates he gives us for gLuke in the next chapter, so it’s highly doubtful whether we should accept it), it’s hardly a given that anyone who’d known Jesus would be alive even at that point. Seventy years after events, in a time where average lifespans (especially for the poor) were shorter than now? At best we can say that it’s possible that some of Jesus’s associates would still be alive and compos mentis; but Price seems to have confused this with a definite, when in fact it’s highly plausible that none of them were.
Finally, Price thinks anti-Docetists should have been able to
[….] at the very least, find evidence of his supposed real associates, like Peter or John or any of his family members, etc.
I know this is tangential since Price is wrong about this argument even being about Jesus’s existence, but I’m a little amused by the fact that Price apparently assumes this evidence would be argument-clinching evidence for Jesus’s existence despite the fact that his own mythicism clearly shows that it isn’t. As far as evidence for ‘Peter or John or any of [Jesus’s] family members’ is concerned, we have that even to this day; in one of Paul’s surviving letters (to the Galatians), he mentions meeting Peter, John, and Jesus’s brother James. Clearly Price does not, in fact, find ‘evidence of… Peter or John or any of [Jesus’s] family members’ to be particularly convincing evidence for Jesus’s existence.
None of these people were ever identified or talked to.
I’m at a loss as to where Price is getting this from. Paul specifically does tell us that he talked to these people, and the gospel writers tell us nothing either way about whom they did or didn’t speak to, whom they did or didn’t try to find to speak to, or whom they were even in a position to try to find (we don’t know how far away from Jerusalem any of the gospel writers were, since Paul set up some very far-flung churches, and travel in those days wasn’t easy). Price seems to have somehow come up with a mental scenario in which first-century apologists were trying to track down Jesus’s associates yet mysteriously failing (and then… coming up with detailed imaginary stories about them anyway, unfazed by the fact that the people they actually found from the original movement would be giving them completely different information? I’m honestly struggling to figure out what Price is picturing here; I’m not sure he knows himself.)
Why is Price so categorically stating that none of these people were ever identified or talked to? Especially in view of the fact that Paul did talk to some of them? Once again, he’s making claims that crumble to dust on examination.