‘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 Six: Development Of The Other Gospels
Near the beginning of this chapter, Price tells us what he intends to do:
What we will explore in this chapter are explanations for the development of the other Gospels, which show that material in them that is not shared with the Gospel called Mark is best explained as still having been dependent on the Markan narrative or invented by the writers themselves.
And, near the end, he assures us that he’s done it:
I have presented arguments as to why I believe the independent material from the Gospels of Matthew and John was invented by the authors of those works and does not trace back to accounts of the life of any real Jesus. I have presented arguments as to why I believe independent material from the Gospel called Luke was influenced by the Gospel called Matthew and explained that other independent material in Luke was likely influenced by other non-Christian sources who were not writing about Jesus.
So, what parts of the non-Markan material does he actually address in between these two assurances?
- The birth narrative in gMatthew
- The ‘miraculous signs’ narrative in gJohn
- The last chapter of gJohn (thought to be a later addition by a different author).
Now, I have no problem at all with the idea that all of those are fictional. But that still leaves a heck of a lot of non-Markan material unaccounted for. In terms of Karl Popper’s black swan logic argument, all that Price has done is find a few white swans and assure us that this satisfactorily demonstrates the whiteness of swans generally, while ignoring most of the swans. Let’s remember that, as Price admitted himself in Chapter Four, it was normal in that day and age for biographical stories to be embroidered with all sorts of mythology; so it simply isn’t valid to extrapolate from ‘some of this is clearly invented’ to ‘all of it must have been invented’.
So, time to look for black swans. Which non-Markan gospel material seems least likely to have been invented? I’m going to look at two different examples here.
1. The Nazareth question
Both gMatthew and gLuke tell us that Jesus grew up in Nazareth. So do the other two standard gospels, but the reason why I’m calling this out as significant in the case of these two specifically is because these are the two that are also at great pains to tell us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem (In Accordance With The ProphecyTM). Thus, for them, keeping ‘Nazareth’ as part of the story only complicates things; instead of just being able to say that Jesus was born in Bethlehem In Accordance With etc, they each have to invent a whole strained, fictitious story to explain how, in that case, he ended up coming from Nazareth. Why did they bother with putting Nazareth in their stories at all, when it only complicated their plots?
If they were writing about a real person, there’s an obvious explanation; the man of whom they were writing really did come from Nazareth and was well known to have done so. Since they wanted the stories to demonstrate that he came from Bethlehem as per prophecy, they were stuck with explaining away the Nazareth bit in some way. However, If they were writing mythical constructions of a life that never existed, then that doesn’t make sense. They could have written the story in any way they wanted. (Mark does say that Jesus came from Nazareth, but we know that Matthew was willing to change other details in gMark when they were clearly inaccurate, so if Matthew was really making it up from scratch then he had no reason to stick with this detail; he could just have ignored that, written that Jesus came from Bethlehem, and left out any mention of Nazareth at all.)
So, under mythicism we’re left here with a puzzling and unexplained point that would be explained quite easily under historicity. It’s a small thing, and it’s quite possible that some plausible explanation exists that we haven’t yet found, but… so far, as far as I can see that hasn’t yet happened. (Not because mythicists haven’t tried to explain it, but because what they’ve come up with isn’t particularly plausible.)
So, let’s see what Price has to say:
Here the author of Matthew is simply building on the Markan precedent and explicitly linking passages about “nazirites” to the idea that Jesus comes from “Nazareth”. The passage being referred to in verse 23 comes from Judges 13, where we are told that Samson will be raised as a nazirite.
This is, from what I’ve seen, the typical mythicist explanation for the whole Nazareth question. The problem is, this just raises a further question; why would Matthew be so keen to use this particular out-of-context reference that he’d write the whole complicated ‘Nazareth’ detail into his story?
Again, under historicity it makes sense; Matthew is already stuck with writing ‘Nazareth’ into his story because it’s well known that Jesus came from Nazareth, he’s working from the assumption that there must be some biblically prophecied reason for this, and so this mention in Judges 13 jumps out at him and he takes it to be a prophecy. But, under a mythicist theory, what reason would Matthew have to seize on that particular mention and include it?
One possibility, of course, might be that Matthew admires the story of Samson, or sees something in it that he finds particularly relevant to Jesus’s story, and so he wants to make the link for that reason. But that doesn’t work; apart from that one indirect mention, Matthew doesn’t link Jesus to Samson’s story in any other way. Similarly, it could be that Matthew wants to make a link with Nazirites generally, rather than Samson specifically; this would be quite a feasible thing for a gospel author to want, since Nazirites were people who had taken particular vows of purity (described in detail in Numbers 6:1 – 21; in short, this involved eschewing grape products, haircuts, and dead bodies for the duration of the vow). But, again, the problem with this is that Matthew doesn’t make any direct mention of Jesus being a Nazirite or taking such vows (in fact, Matthew repeats Mark’s scene of Jesus taking the hand of a dead child in order to resurrect her, which would contradict the idea of him being a Nazirite), so it doesn’t seem that this is Matthew’s concern either. So, under mythicist theory, why would Matthew be so keen to give us this single out-of-context reference that he has to make up a whole extra part of his story in order to put it in?
We get even less explanation for Luke’s inclusion of Nazareth:
[…] the similarities found in Luke are due to the fact that the author of Luke had heard versions of “Matthew’s” birth story, though he did not have a written copy of it.
What version of ‘Jesus’s family came from Bethlehem, but had to flee from there and settle in Nazareth due to mass infanticide by King Herod’ would lead Luke to come up with ‘Jesus’s family came from Nazareth, but ended up in Bethlehem for Jesus’s birth due to an event specifically dated to something that only happened ten years after King Herod’s death’?
Once again, under a historicist theory it’s easy to see how Matthew and Luke could have come up with these wildly clashing stories; if they were both working from the basic constraints of ‘The prophecy says the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem’ and ‘Jesus, whom we believe to be the Messiah, is known to have come from Nazareth’, then that would explain why their stories agree on ‘born in Bethlehem’ and ‘grew up in Nazareth’ while disagreeing on all the other fundamental details. But, under Price’s mythicist theory, Luke would have somehow had to have heard Matthew’s story and vaguely retained only the ‘came from Nazareth’ and ‘born in Bethlehem’ details, completely forgetting all the rest and showing no inclination even to go and check. Again, something that’s explained well by historicity isn’t properly explained by Price’s theory.
At this point, someone will typically argue that this is a detail and doesn’t prove anything. And, yes, of course on its own it doesn’t; it’s always possible that there’s a good explanation for this detail that we just don’t know about. If everything else in the story pointed strongly towards mythicism, I’d be quite happy to disregard this detail and go with mythicism. However, at this point nothing else is pointing towards mythicism. All that Price seems to have given us on the pro-mythicism side, other than his misunderstanding of Docetism, is that Mark used a lot of literary references in his work… and he’s also told us that that was normal for people in this society writing about actual historical characters, so that doesn’t do anything to point us towards mythicism rather than historicity.
Anyway, that aside… Price’s specific claim at the start of this chapter was that all the non-Markan gospel material is best explained by mythicism. Unless he has an explanation for this point that’s better than the historicity explanation, then this particular point isn’t ‘best’ explained by mythicism, and he should change his claim.
2. The retconned rabbi
Many years ago, I discovered the author Hyam Maccoby, a Talmudic scholar who has written several books analysing the New Testament accounts in light of his knowledge of rabbinical/Pharisaic Judaism of the time. One of his main findings was that the gospel stories of Jesus described someone speaking and behaving like a typical Pharisaic rabbi. In particular, Jesus’s famous Sabbath teachings were exactly in line with what Pharisees taught about the Sabbath; that not only was healing not forbidden on the Sabbath, but, if there was even the least chance that it was necessary to save someone’s life or their eyesight, it was positively meritorious. Two of the famous sayings attributed to Jesus – “The Sabbath is created for man, not man for the Sabbath” and the John 7:23 saying pointing to the precedent of circumcision on the Sabbath – are very similar to rabbinical sayings found in the Talmud. For this and other reasons, the descriptions of Jesus seem to be descriptions of a typical Pharisee.
This wouldn’t in itself automatically be a strange thing in a fictional story of the time – perhaps the gospel authors admired the Pharisees’ teachings and wanted to portray their protagonist as coming out with those words of wisdom – except, of course, that the gospels have a virulently anti-Pharisee message. Reading what the gospel authors have to say about the Pharisees (and, for that matter, what John has to say about the Jews generally), it’s extremely difficult to see why they would have wanted to invent a protagonist whose teachings were Pharisee-based.
Maccoby’s theory about all this was that Jesus was a Pharisaic rabbi and that the stories of him uttering Pharisaic teachings or beliefs are thus stories of things Jesus actually did. This does of course leave us with the opposite problem of wondering why, in that case, the gospel authors were so anti-Pharisee, but Maccoby does come up with a plausible explanation for that; they were writing for largely gentile communities, and the Pharisees were known to be strongly anti-Roman and were thus politically unpopular there. Meanwhile, the Sadducees were more pro-Roman and also clashed with the Pharisees on their teachings. Maccoby’s theory is therefore that in the original stories Jesus was a Pharisee arguing with Sadducees, but that detail was changed in order to portray him as a member of the more politically acceptable party. (As Maccoby points out, this might well not even have been a calculated change; if someone passing on the story already thought of the Sadducees as the ‘good guys’ and the Pharisees as the ‘bad guys’, the statement that Jesus’s Sabbath arguments were with Sadducees could have been simply assumed to be a mistake and ‘corrected’.) Jesus the Pharisee was thus retconned into being a Pharisee-denouncer. It’s conjecture, but it’s plausible as an explanation for what we’ve got.
But, under mythicism, we still seem to be left with a conundrum. Matthew, Luke and John, all strongly anti-Pharisee as shown by their writings, are inventing stories about Jesus from scratch, for a predominantly gentile community… in which they portray him as coming out with Pharisee teachings and sayings. That’s harder to explain. I look forward to seeing how Price does so.
All that was (to switch metaphors) a very close-up examination of a couple of trees in which we didn’t really look at the wood. In the next post, I want to look at the bigger picture of explaining non-Markan gospels in a mythicist theory.
It really helps one’s prophesying when you do it in hindsight…
Amazing what you can predict when its already happened..
Also when you can just make stuff up and get fools to believe you ..
Far too easy if horribly unethical..
Pierce R. Butler says
… why, in that case, the gospel authors were so anti-Pharisee…
Consider the context of the “gospel”-writing years: Romans had torn down the big temple in Jerusalem and with it the center of Sadducee power, leaving a vacuum in which the scripture-based Pharisees and various Christian sects (among others) scrambled to gain adherents within the traumatized Jewish population (and other residents of Palestine). How could they not end up badmouthing each other?
Also, in the early (pre-Revolt) days when Christianism was basically just a sect within the divided Jewish community, it probably drew much of its membership from the Pharisees (the Sadducees, holding power and tradition, had much less incentive to break away; and the Essenes stayed within their rural retreats and kept out of the urban sects’ squabbling). Just as the Lutherans fiercely denounced the Catholic Church in their formative centuries and the Greens and Libertarians vocally reject the Democrats and Republicans respectively now, the processes of schism always lead to maximum harshness between the formerly united factions.
Dr Sarah says
@StevoR, #1 & 2: I think people like Matthew et al typically convince themselves of what they’re seeing; Matthew believed Jesus was the Messiah, so he interpreted everything through that mental lens. Prophecy says the Messiah was going to be born in Bethlehem? Jesus must have been born in Bethlehem, and besides it’s important to convince people of the ‘fact’ that he’s the Messiah, so let’s write a story about how he was born in Bethlehem; it’s in line with a deeper truth, and that’s what counts! Scriptures have a mention of something that sounds vaguely like something from Jesus’s life? Clearly a prophecy proving that Jesus really is the Messiah! I guess confirmation bias would be the term for the latter.
I do prefer not to use terms like ‘Buy-Bull’; they sound sneerier than I like.
@Pierce R. Butler,, #3: I did in fact provide that explanation in the rest of the sentence you partially quoted, so the question was rhetorical.
Pierce R. Butler says
Dr Sarah @ # 4: … Maccoby does come up with a plausible explanation …
OP: … that detail was changed …
Hardly a detail to the gospel-authors’ Greek/Aramaic/etc sources. Surely scholars have had at this for centuries – do the Jesus stories correlate with Pharasaical doctrines, vocabulary, etc? How many sects operated under that name? How many texts would have to have swapped how many instances of “Sadducee” & “Pharisee”?
[innocent editing error]
Aw c’mon. That’s two leaps so far.
It’s conjecture, but it’s plausible …
“Could be” /= “Must be” (“Must be considered”, maybe.)
Matthew, Luke and John, all strongly anti-Pharisee as shown by their writings, are inventing stories about Jesus from scratch, for a predominantly gentile community…
Much of the “gentile community” (which hardly ever thought of itself that way) seems to have been up for grabs in an imperial mishmash of beliefs. Apparently they craved a sacrificial-martyr myth with a twist – he’s one of those people. (Kind of like J’s story of one of those despised Samaritans, come to think…) Several preachers/congregations kept it going, new iterations every decade or so; Jesus stories as chain fanfic at a first-century pace, followed by the pseudo-epistles fad and that fanboi who spent the summers without a hat for too long at Patmos.
Hey, that’s almost plausible.
Dr Sarah says
@Pierce R. Butler:
[hypothetical Pharisee/Sadducee swap]
Why? ‘Specifics of the different sects within religion X’ is a (fairly uninteresting) detail to most people who aren’t of religion X.
That subject is, in fact, not something scholars have spent ‘centuries’ on due to the ‘never the twain shall meet’ nature of Christian and Jewish studies during much of that time. NT scholars during this time were typically Christians who took what the NT said about the Pharisees at face value, and Talmudic scholars were typically Jews who lived in an antisemitic world and wanted as little as possible to do with the scriptures of a religion that had been responsible for centuries of persecution of their people. As far as I know, it’s only really been in the twentieth century that academics have been considering the NT within the concept of what Judaism actually seems to have taught at the time.
Since this was happening in the early days, it could well just have been a one-off, or (more likely, thinking about it) it could have been something that happened in the oral transmission stage.
Are you objecting because you disagree with the hypotheses or because you disagree with the general concept of coming up with hypotheses to explain the information we have?
That would indeed be why I pointed out that it was conjecture. Your point?
Agreed, but irrelevant to the point I was making. The gospels contain both strongly anti-Pharisee sentiments and sayings/teachings attributed to Jesus that are strongly in line with Pharisee teachings. What might be the explanation for that contradiction? Under historicity, we can hypothesise that Jesus actually did say these things, the stories got passed down to the point of being documented in the official accounts, but, for reasons that you and I have both already documented in a previous post/comment section, the Pharisees were politically unpopular with Rome, and so gospel authors were doing a bit of a (probably unintentional) retcon job. So, that’s a potential explanation. Under mythicism, what explanation do we have? The gospel writers would have been inventing these stories from scratch, not working from existing stories of something a real Jesus did; why would they invent him saying things that just happen to coincide closely with the beliefs of the very people whom they’re trying to portray him as opposing and denouncing?
It’s one of many points for which Price needs to provide at least a hypothetical explanation if he’s to back up his claim that mythicism better explains the observed facts. I’m quite open to considering such explanations, but he hasn’t yet provided any.