‘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
In this chapter, Price is trying to address how the gospels of Matthew, Luke and John came to be written under his mythicist theory. He’s given a few examples of parts that clearly were invented by the gospel authors for theological reasons, and I gave a couple of counter-examples of things that the authors seem highly unlikely to have invented.
Having looked at those details, let’s step back and ask a bigger question. How, exactly, does Price think we got to the point of having an active group believing Jesus was a real person and producing their own gospels about him?
According to Price, Mark’s gospel was actually a fictional satire, and the original group believed Jesus to be an immaterial heavenly Messiah, required because the material world was hopelessly corrupt. At which point, that’s… just about plausible as a theory. I mean, there are holes in the theory, and significant flaws in the way Price has developed it, and I’m not seeing any active reason why I should believe that rather than a Jesus-historical theory, but it’s still the kind of thing that I can at least picture people maybe doing.
But then we get to the question of what supposedly happened next. Under Price’s theory, proto-Christianity would have had to somehow get from one satirical story deliberately produced as fiction, to a substantial group who believed this story strongly enough to found their own belief system on it, write multiple embroidered accounts of this imaginary man’s life, be undeterred with the existence of the established belief that Jesus lived in the heavens only, and eventually take over the entire nascent belief system so completely that the original belief sank almost without trace. And I’m really not seeing how we got from point A to point Z here.
So, in this post, I’m going to go through the chapter and look at what Price provides by way of explanation. (I’ve slightly rearranged the order of the material as written by Price so as to present it in what would be chronological order of events; this shouldn’t affect the substance of anything in the discussion.)
What I am proposing is that the concept of a human Jesus was introduced around 70 CE with the “publication” of the story we call the Gospel of Mark. My view is that the human Jesus was created in that instant, and that once this story became popular, there was need to flesh out the story and add more detail to the life of Jesus. There would have been little time for some community to have developed strong oral traditions upon which multiple independent accounts could have been based.
Thus, what I think happened is that additional narratives about Jesus were invented by the authors of the new Gospels themselves. The reason that the other Gospels were written was precisely to record these new narratives. The writers had new ideas, and they wrote their versions of the story in order to record their ideas.
Firstly, a point that’s tangential to this chapter’s topic but probably still worth mentioning: While we haven’t got to the chapter about Paul yet and will no doubt argue this out in detail when we do, there are multiple places in Paul’s letters that make it clear that he, also, believed Jesus to have been born and lived on earth as a human. Regardless of whether Jesus actually was a human or not, Mark doesn’t get the credit for being the first one to introduce the idea.
On to the main issue; let’s look at the problems that Price skips over with the blithe statement ‘once this story became popular’.
The interesting thing here is that Mark’s gospel actually wasn’t that popular through much of Christian history. In fact, Price knows this; he actually opens his first chapter with that information. From the section in question:
For most of Christian history, the Gospel of Mark has been the least appreciated Gospel and viewed as the least significant. This is partly because the Gospel of Mark is the shortest Gospel, was not viewed as an eyewitness account, contains the least significant theological constructs, lacks any mention of the birth or origin of Jesus, paints an unflattering image of the disciples, and was believed to have been written after the Gospel of Matthew.
Of course, some of this wouldn’t apply at the time we’re discussing here; when gMark was first written it was the only gospel, so ‘shortest’ or ‘we think it was written after Matthew’ would have been non-issues. However, on the other side of things, in the situation Price is hypothesising there wouldn’t be the main driving force of ‘this is the true story of our Lord and Messiah; we must learn more of his teachings’. Also, there’s the practical question of just who would be passing the story on. All books had to be hand-copied in those days; it’s not as though there would have been an extra-large print run with lots of spares that people might pick up at the local bookshop. How many people would ever even have got hold of a copy? Without church leaders reading the stories out to their congregations to teach them as, literally, gospel truth, and arranging for extra copies to be made, it’s hard to see how it could ever have reached more than a small minority of the congregation.
Bear in mind, here that Price’s theory doesn’t just require some people to have liked/been interested in gMark; it requires it to have been popular enough for readers to be clamouring for more stories about the protagonist, authors to be producing extended versions in response, and the whole thing to be spreading so uncontrollably fast that the church leaders can’t get ahead of the stories to point out that they’re fictional. How, in Price’s scenario, does he think it would ever have reached anything like that level of popularity?
And on top of that, we’re still given no idea as to how this could have gone from known fiction to believed fact despite this being in the context of a nascent church who would (according to Price’s theory) have still been teaching their followers that Jesus was an immaterial heavenly being only. (To add to that problem, Mark himself would almost certainly have still been around, pointing out to people that his book was meant as an illustrative satire rather than as a literal account of Jesus’s life on earth). Of course, there are always some people who can’t distinguish between fiction and fact – the modern-day response to ‘The Da Vinci Code’ strikes me as a good example – but, again, remember that we’re not just talking about a tiny minority of people taking this book in a way it wasn’t intended; we’re talking about a movement strong enough that within less than a century it would have overcome the existing leadership’s completely different teachings. How?
Q material and the development of gMatthew and gLuke
First, a brief explanation of the term ‘Q’ for the benefit of anyone not versed in the basics of NT studies: It’s well recognised that a) gMatthew and gLuke share a lot of their material though not all of it, and b) that shared material can be divided into material also shared with gMark and material that gMatthew and gLuke share that isn’t in gMark. The ‘shared by gMatthew and gLuke but not by gMark’ material is often referred to as the Q material. (The term has nothing to do with James Bond, but comes from a widely accepted theory that Matthew and Luke both worked from gMark and from at least one other source, since lost, that recorded this material; this source is known among scholars as ‘Q’, as the theory was initially written in German and in that language ‘Q’ is the first letter of the word for ‘source’. That, however, is by-the-by; Price is using the term here simply as a shorthand for this category of gospel material.)
Anyway, here’s what Price tells us about this part of the gospels:
Based on my analysis of both the Gospel called Mark and Q, I don’t believe that the Q material could possibly be independent from the Markan narrative. The Q material is clearly dependent upon the narrative from Mark and was either part of an original longer version of Mark or was added later by another author to an expanded version of Mark, from which both the authors of the Gospels called Matthew and Luke copied.
Whether the so-called Q material was originally written by the same author as Mark or was added later by a different author is not of immediate importance. Based on my analysis, I cannot determine if the Q material was original to Mark or added later by someone else, but what is clear is that the authors of both Matthew and Luke copied from a single common source that contained the Q material already integrated with the Markan text. The key understanding here is that the authors of Matthew and Luke were not using a separate, independent source of information about Jesus; they were both still copying from a single source.
I’m dubious about Price’s theory here, but my knowledge of Q isn’t detailed enough to argue it, so let’s put that aside and look at where his theory takes us:
I find it possible that the Q material was written by a different author than the original author of Mark. […] However, it is also possible that the Q material is part of an original longer version of Mark and that what we call the Gospel of Mark today is actually a shortened version of the original.
OK, let’s look at each of those possibilities in turn.
Hypothesis 1: Someone sat down with the original gMark and wrote an expanded version of it with a lot of extra information added. That’s… kind of an odd thing to do with someone else’s fictional story. Why?
Hypothesis 2: Mark originally wrote the Q material himself as part of his original gospel. Setting aside the question of why, in that case, someone would have written a shortened version, Price’s main problem here is that this hypothesis hacks another gaping hole in the cornerstone of his original theory.
The basis of Price’s theory, remember, is his claim that he has gone through all of Mark and found that every substantive bit of it can be traced back to either Paul or the scriptures. While this claim wasn’t standing up well to examination anyway, due to many of the connections Price believed he’d found actually being far too flimsy and far-fetched to be convincing, at least he could come up with some kind of explanation (however poor) for pretty much every part of Mark. However, if we’re now considering the theory that Mark’s gospel originally contained a lot of extra information, then that’s a lot of extra information that Price hasn’t tied back to other sources. (This, also note, would include the “I come to bring not peace but a sword” lines, which seem particularly incongruous with Price’s theory that Mark’s goal was to preach harmony.) Thus, Price’s cornerstone claim would no longer be anywhere near true.
So, as ever, Price has significantly more explaining and clarifying to do if he wants any of this theory to stand up.
The birth stories
What I am proposing is that the birth story found in Matthew was invented purely by the author of Matthew,
Why? What does Price believe to be Matthew’s reason for inventing this?
Again, this is something that has a fairly obvious explanation if Jesus existed; Matthew believed that this person who’d been walking the earth a few decades earlier was the God-sent Messiah, and he wanted to demonstrate this in his story by showing that Jesus fulfilled Messianic prophecies. One such prophecy stated that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem, so Matthew wrote a story of Jesus being born in Bethlehem.
Under Price’s theory, however, Matthew was part of a group who believed in a Messiah who’d never been born or lived a human life, reading a fiction about this Messiah living a human life. Matthew was then copying out large parts of this fictional story to expand on it and add extra details, which is odd enough in the first place. Why would he have added a birth story if he already knew, from his church’s teachings, that Jesus had never been born? For that matter, why would someone who was clearly very invested in the idea of Jesus fulfilling Messianic prophecy (which we know, from gMatthew, to have been the case for its author) even be part of a group that taught such a very different conception of the Messiah that clearly wasn’t in line with any of those prophecies?
and 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.
So, by this time we’re supposedly looking at a situation where oral stories of this earthly Jesus have spread even further among the early church than the written stories. Again, how? Under historicist theory, the stories spread because the leaders of the early church groups were actively teaching them to their congregations and passing them on, and once the gospels were written they were circulated (and probably read aloud to the congregations) as inspired teachings. Under mythicist theory, none of this would have been the case; gMark would simply have spread the way any book did at the time, by word of mouth among people who cared enough to tell their friends and family about the story they’d read, with potentially the occasional person being interested enough to have an extra copy made. We’d get some spread that way, of course; but how are the stories supposed to have spread to the extent we’d need for Price’s theory?
Also, of course, let’s reiterate the point I made in the last chapter; if Luke was getting his birth story from imperfect memories of Matthew’s birth story, how did he end up with something that so completely contradicted Matthew’s story? It would be natural to forget minor details, or add minor details, or misunderstand/misremember details, because all of that is what happens when a story gets passed on by word of mouth. But Luke manages to change ‘Jesus’s family moved from Bethlehem to Nazareth’ to ‘Jesus’s family made a temporary trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem’, come up with a census that wasn’t in Matthew’s story, and completely forget the dramatic story of Jesus’s family fleeing for his life while Herod slaughtered infants en masse; forget it so completely, in fact, that he forgets Herod was in the story at all, and sets his story at a time (the beginning of Quirinius’s rule) when Herod would already have been dead for years. Those are major changes. How does that fit with Price’s theory?
More about Luke
[…] The Gospel of Luke does appear to be a bit different than the Gospel of Matthew in terms of style and purpose. I don’t believe that the writer of Luke used invention the way that the writers of Matthew and John did. Rather, it appears that the writer of Luke was attempting to create a valid historical account. […] It appears that whoever wrote [Luke and Acts] was conducting “research” and was actually working from multiple sources, trying to fit the Jesus narrative into a real historical context. The author of Luke was probably using sources such as Josephus, the letters of Paul, and likely more to try to create a coherent account that fit into the timeline of real history. It is very likely that the author of Luke and Acts believed that Jesus was a real person himself. […] What is also clear about the writings from Luke is that they were intended to be a self-contained and complete account of early Christian history, covering the time from Jesus’s birth through the early ministry of Paul.
Agreed. Luke was writing highly biased history, but he was, in his way, trying to write history when he wrote Acts. That’s agreed among scholars. So, once again… how did he not notice, in the course of this research, that he was writing about a fictional character?
Did the church leaders he spoke to have no records, even oral, of the actual beliefs of the church? What about Mark, who might or might not have still been alive when Luke wrote but whom we can assume probably did not vanish off the edge of the earth without trace on finishing his work; was there no-one around who’d known him and remembered that he was actually trying to write fiction and not biography? In the last chapter, Price claimed that people who knew the original Church fathers would still have been around and that we would have expected authors of this time to be able to get hold of them if need be; if so, would that not apply when Luke was attempting to do research? Price has just told us that he believes Luke had heard the birth story in gMatthew and based his own on what he remembered of it; if that was really the case, would Luke the would-be historian not have at least tracked down the story and tried to get it right?
How did Luke, in the course of doing as much of all this as he feasibly could, not notice that this had not been an earthly person? How likely is it that he would have completely overlooked that problem with his research? Does Price think he would simply have shrugged his shoulders and gone on trying to write this as a history despite all evidence to the contrary? How does Price think this would have happened?
I was particularly interested to read this part of the book, because the question addressed here is in fact the reason Price and I got into the mythicism-vs-historicity discussion in the first place; when I raised the question of how a mythical Jesus could have made the shift to being believed in as a historical being from the (then) recent past, he assured me that his book ‘explains exactly how this happened, with compelling concrete evidence’. I suspected it might well not live up to that description, so ‘disappointing’ would be too strong a word here, but the book definitely does not explain how this happened.
I suspect Price’s focus was so much on his belief that gMark was entirely fictional that, by the time he was looking at how things might have developed from there, he was entirely convinced of mythicism and was viewing everything from that perspective, picking out the evidence that fitted with that conclusion without examining the evidence as a whole in the light of both hypotheses to see which one fitted best. In any case… whatever the reason, Price has not thought through the practicalities of how one fictional story would take over the movement like this. Thus his theory, once again, is deeply flawed.
And now, as I’ve done several ‘Deciphering’ reviews in succession, I think it’s time to focus on other blogging topics for a while. (I’ll be happy to take part in comment threads on the existing posts, but I’ll work on other topics for my posts.) I look forward to blogging about some other topics and to getting back to posting about ‘Deciphering’ in due course. I hope all’s well with all of you, and wish you all a great day.
Pierce R. Butler says
Good analysis, very good questions.
Mythicism in general (sfaik) depends on a perceived need for a savior-messiah, centered in but not limited to the urban Jewish population of the eastern-Mediterranean part of the Roman Empire. The wildfire spread of early Christianism in itself implies that need existed before the movement arose to fulfill it, but leaves a lot of questions – from the specifics you mention to more general (but unanswerable from available info) speculations as to how this particular story came to triumph over the competing “mystery religion” myths also in circulation.
I don’t think the historicity hypothesis in itself provides sufficient reason for the Jesus story to have prevailed – factuality per se does not seem to have ranked very high in the priorities of messiah-seekers. The pre-existing base of the Christian communities organized by Paul does indicate a serious on-the-ground advantage for propaganda and proselytization – but those groups did their thing outside the areas where a historical Jesus would have catalyzed oral lore about his doings.
We can, perhaps, agree that Jewish and non-Jewish early-Christians had some complex competing/cooperating dynamics only hinted at by Paul’s surviving writings and the book of Acts. Maybe those interactions in themselves kept the ball rolling enough to draw more attention than less-conflicted sects – but even if we knew more about all that, it would still leave the purported life and actions of any “original” Jesus behind an opaque veil.
Dr Sarah says
@Pierce R. Butler:
…does not seem to have actually happened outside the wishful thinking of Luke and his ilk, who were highly motivated to present the situation as one where people were converting in droves. The earliest figures we have, from a few hundred years later, indicate that the spread was actually a lot slower.
Why did it spread even to the extent it did, in those years? Well, firstly there was Paul, who was passionate about what he was doing, highly skilled with rhetoric, and was preaching a tale that combined battles on a cosmic scale, the prospect of being one of the Chosen ones, automatic forgiveness of all sins, divine right on your side, and the culmination of thousands of years of tradition, all with a periapocalyptic sense of urgency. That’s a pretty powerful package, from someone who sounds like a pretty powerful speaker.
On top of that, there were the usual attractions of being part of a new group; social acceptance from people who cared about you. Also, unlike some of the other mystery religions, Christianity welcomed families and encouraged converts to bring their children up in the new religion, so it was regularly breeding more members.
That adds up to a bunch of compelling enough reasons to account for the level of slow but steady growth that would have been needed to get to the figures we have from the fourth century. And then, of course, there was Constantine’s conversion, which gave things a definite boost.
I think all that’s a separate question from the question of whether it originated with a real figure or with some kind of Osiris-type myth. Christianity’s success is predominantly due to factors other than Jesus.
Pierce R. Butler says
Dr Sarah –
You raise several interesting points. I’d like to see (but don’t have time to dig for it now) a good analysis of the spread of early Xianism: we know basically that it reached a critical mass that allowed it to survive and spread even after the first generation(s) died off, which didn’t happen again with a religious movement in that part of the world until Mani and Mohammed. Apparently, lots of other cults tried but failed to persist (even while brandishing many of the same attractions you list).
I would point to your remark about “bring the whole family!” as a major draw, but would also expand it. Xianism may have been unique in marketing itself to the underclasses, without even demanding the esoterica of the mystery religions or any intellectual superstructure except (and not always then) at least one member able to read the Official Writings. (Mithraism had a similar schtick, but with so much of a military focus that it excluded civilian men and all women, and in the end couldn’t compete.)
Also, a couple of specific events:
See link for citations.
You could argue that in this case, the Christians deserved to succeed. I can’t think of any other instance in which the major bulk of the Christian population did the right thing in a societal crisis, but for that one century, they nailed it.
Pierce R. Butler@3
Any idea how the estimate of 40,000 Christians in the mid-2nd century was arrived at? That figure doesn’t appear in the link-from-the-link. Possibly the number of churches and obviously-Christian burials would give some idea, but I’d be surprised if the evidence justified even an order-of-magnitude estimate. It’s interesting your likn refers to Rodney Stark, who is very much a Christian sociologist. I think he spouts a lot of nonsense about why the USA is so much more religious than western Europe, and in regard to how religious Europe was in earlier times, but I think he makes out a good case that early Christianity was spread mostly by women (who had the teaching of their young children), and that it gave women a higher status than the Greco-Roman norm (early Christianity was still patriarchal, but Greek culture of the time – and it was in the Greek-speaking East that Christianity spread fastest – was among the most misogynist in history).
As to the initial speed with which Christianity spread, Suetonius, writing in around 119 CE, refers to Nero (who died in 68 CE) punishing Christians whom he falsely accused of starting the great fire of Rome in 64 CE. So at least by the date of Suetonius’s Nero, and possibly by 64CE, Christians were well-enough known in Rome to be a credible target for imperial displeasure. Pliny the younger, as Roman governor of Bithynia-Pontus, wrote to the emperor Trajan around 112 CE asking for advice on dealing with Christians.
I’ve very much enjoyed this series so far, and look forward to its continuation. I admit I haven’t read Price’s book, and the mythicist comments (by him and others) on the first two posts (I gave up reading them after that) really don’t encourage me to do so, presenting bizarre ideas (e.g. that Paul says that Jesus was crucified by demons) as if they were established truths. I admire your perseverance!
Brad Wolfenbarger says
It’s hard to think the gospel authors weren’t attempting to pass off the writing as history. They clearly try to say Jesus fulfilled all these different prophecies. Prophecies at the time were taken to about real, historical events. Disregarding of course whether Jesus actually did do those things that fulfill various prophecies, the gospel authors are clearly trying to convince their audience that he did.
Prophetic predictions in ancient scripture were taken to predictions of real, actual events that would occur. This city would be destroyed, this person would do this, this thing would happen, etc.
I don’t think that much that is presented in the gospels actually happened, but I think the gospel authors did want their audience to believe that it had. That seems more like propaganda or lies or myth than fiction.