‘Deciphering The Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed’ review: Chapter 9, Part 3

‘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 9: Finding Jesus In Paul’s Letters

We’ve seen Price’s arguments about Paul’s writings supporting mythicism, and I’ve discussed why they don’t hold up. Time to look at the other side. Are there passages in Paul’s letters that would point to him believing in an earthly Jesus?

A slight but relevant digression from the specifics of Price’s book:

Some years ago, having been impressed by Carrier’s mythicism polemic ‘On the Historicity of Jesus’, I decided I should go back and read the authentic Pauline letters with the mythicist argument in mind. After all, the book seemed convincing and well researched, and Carrier seemed very sure that Paul’s letters indicated a mythical Jesus, so probably I’d been reading them wrong. I reread them in light of mythicist theory, expecting it to be rather like the experience of rereading a book once you know the plot twist at the end; I’d see things falling into place, would read passages in a new light that made far more sense of them.

Here’s what I actually found.

  • Romans 1:3. Paul refers to Jesus as ‘descended from David according to the flesh’.
  • Romans 5:12-18. This is a lengthy passage in which Paul repeatedly compares Jesus to Adam (who, remember, Paul would have believed to be a human being who had lived on earth). In particular, from some work with the GreekBible.com site I found that in verse 15 Paul uses the word ‘anthropou’, meaning ‘human’, to describe Jesus.
  • Romans 8:3. Paul refers to God sending Jesus ‘in the likeness of sinful flesh’. While mythicists have a habit of interpreting passages like this as meaning that Jesus wasn’t really a being of flesh, this is missing a key point; Paul clearly thought Jesus had showed up in what at least appeared to be a normal human body. And, unless you want to argue for the Docetist viewpoint that Jesus only appeared to be flesh and blood but was in fact a cunningly divinely-designed simulacrum, the obvious reason why someone would appear to have a normal human body is that they actually had a normal human body.
  • Romans 9:4-5. Paul describes Jesus as coming from the Jewish race ‘according to the flesh’.
  • 1 Corinthians 9:5: Paul mentions brothers of the Lord (‘the Lord’ being one of Paul’s terms for Jesus) whose wives were supported by the church.
  • 1 Corinthians 11:23-25: Paul describes Jesus instituting the Eucharist. This is, it should be noted, considerably less helpful than Jesus-historicists often think; although it would be too much of a digression to discuss now, there are plausible reasons to suspect that this was in fact one of Paul’s ‘revelations’ about Jesus rather than an actual historical event that Paul had learned about from existing group members. However, it’s still noteworthy that Paul describes Jesus as taking a loaf of bread, breaking it, giving thanks for it (which would have been, and still is to this day, a standard thing for a practicing Jew to do when about to eat bread), and taking a cup of wine ‘after supper’, implying that he also ate a meal between the bread-breaking and the wine. It’s not impossible that Paul could have believed in someone doing all these things in heaven, but it seems unusually physical and prosaic for a concept of heaven. Therefore, although it’s weaker than most of the others on the list, I think this one is nevertheless worth counting in the list of passages indicating Paul’s belief in a historical Jesus.
  • 1 Corinthians 15:4. Like the previous one, this is a detail within a passage that is overall easy for skeptics to disregard, as it’s about Jesus being raised from the dead and appearing to people in visions; I think one point on which Price and I can certainly agree is that these things did not actually happen, and thus this passage is not particularly helpful to the history-vs-mythicism debate overall. However, I bring it up here because Paul specifically mentions Jesus as being buried, which, again, is quite a physical detail to mention about someone that you think has only existed in heaven. Paul might potentially have believed that burial could happen in a heavenly dimension, but that seems at the very least less likely than that he believed it happened on earth. Again, I certainly wouldn’t hang the case for historicity on this one detail, but it’s yet another thing to tip the scales at least slightly more towards historicity, so I’m including it in the list.
  • 1 Corinthians 15:12-22. This is a lengthy passage in which Paul cites Jesus’s resurrection as evidence for the resurrection of the dead. It culminates in Paul specifically referring to Jesus as a human being (v21). Even before that, though, Paul’s making an argument that wouldn’t make sense if he wasn’t teaching his followers that Jesus had been a human. ‘Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?’ Paul asks rhetorically. This would be rather a strange example for him to use if he knew that the answer would be ‘Because Christ was a heavenly being and we’re talking about what happens to human dead!’.
  • 2 Corinthians 5:16. This is a rather odd verse in which Paul says that they now don’t regard anyone ‘according to the flesh’, which one translation that I found interprets as ‘from a worldly point of view’, which probably makes more sense. However, from our point of view the important point here is that Paul says that they did at one point regard Christ as being ‘according to the flesh’; i.e. having a genuine flesh-and-blood body.
  • Galatians 1:19. Refers to a brother of the Lord (Paul’s term for Jesus) whom Paul had briefly met.
  • Galatians 3:16. Refers to Christ as an offspring (in the sense of ‘descendant’) of Abraham.
  • Galatians 4:4. Refers to God’s son as having been ‘born of a woman, born under the Law’.
  • Philippians 2:7. Refers to Jesus as being ‘born in human likeness’ and ‘found in human form’.

I was trying to be as fair as possible in weighing up the evidence, and thus ended up leaving one potential item off the list; 1 Thessalonians 2:14 – 16. This refers to Jesus being killed by the Jews in the same way as the prophets were, but also has an antisemitic slant to it that isn’t typical of Paul, as well as seeming to hint about the destruction of the Temple, which would have post-dated this letter; many scholars therefore believe this to be a later interpolation rather than words of Paul. So, while whoever wrote those verses certainly seems to have believed in a physical earthly Jesus, there is enough uncertainty over whether that person was Paul that I decided that that line was unhelpful for ascertaining what Paul believed.

Which left the above list. Carrier’s book did address a few of those lines (‘born of a woman’, ‘descended from David’, and the ‘brother’ quotes) by explaining them away with mythicist-consistent excuses and calculating that they were still fully compatible with a likelihood that Jesus was mythical. However, reading all of Paul’s letters with mythicism in mind and instead coming across all of the above lines or passages in turn was quite a different experience from reading mythicist claims about how Paul only wrote ‘a few’ things that seemed to ‘hint’ at an earthly Jesus.

And that was how, by the time I finished the read-through that I had expected to give me a new appreciation of Paul’s supposed mythicist views, I found it undeniably clear that Paul had believed Jesus lived a human life on earth. It was, of course, very debatable how much credence to give this view, given Paul’s penchant for getting his beliefs about Jesus from ‘revelation’ in preference to what existing church members told him; I felt it only fair to consider the possibility that this belief in Jesus’s earthly life might in itself have been one of Paul’s ‘revelations’ rather than anything we’d consider reliable information, and so I didn’t find it that much help in the mythicism-vs-historicity argument. But, for whatever it’s worth, it’s clear that Paul did at least believe in what we would now call a historical Jesus.

Back to Price. Since Price believes that Paul didn’t believe Jesus to be a real person, what does he say about all of the above? Well, most of them he doesn’t seem to have noticed. Out of all of the above, Price only addresses two issues; the ‘born of a woman’ quote and the issue of Jesus’s brothers. Which would, even if he did successfully refute those issues, still leave more than enough passages to indicate that Paul believed in Jesus’s earthly existence. But since Price did at least address those two and spend quite some time on trying to explain away the obvious problems they cause for his theory, I’ll discuss his arguments.

I’ll look at the ‘born of a woman’ discussion here as it was shorter, and address the ‘brother(s) of the Lord’ discussion in a later post.


‘Born of a woman’: Price’s explanations

First of all, I don’t think it’s particularly important whether or not Paul viewed Jesus as purely heavenly or not

I tend to agree with this sentiment, for reasons explained previously, but it strikes me as rather a contradiction for Price to be saying this after pages of using Paul’s quotes as support for mythicism without any such disclaimers. Can’t have it both ways; does he think Paul’s views on the subject are important evidence or not?

but secondly, this is by no means a literal statement by Paul, as he is in the middle of allegorical statements that he himself says are allegorical

It hardly follows from this that all the statements Paul doesn’t label as allegorical are also allegorical. On the contrary; since we can see he was clear about stating which parts of the passage were allegorical, it makes it less likely that this would be so of the ones that aren’t thus labelled. (There’s also, of course, the question of how it would make sense to say that a real being – as Paul believed Jesus to have been, regardless of whether he believed him to have been a heavenly or an earthly being – was allegorically born of a woman.)

and thirdly this is part of a special pleading to a group of people who clearly have had problems with Paul’s teachings where he is trying to appeal to them on a new and different level that he feels is more acceptable to them.

There’s nothing in this letter to indicate that Paul’s trying to change anything about his teaching to make it more acceptable to the Galatians. He’s explaining it in different ways to try to get his point across, but he isn’t changing anything about it. Quite the contrary; he’s angry with the Galatians and can’t understand why they don’t just get with the programme here.

But on top of that… even if Paul was trying to take the approach of making his teachings more acceptable, why would saying that Jesus was ‘born of a woman’ do this? Why would the Galatians – from a culture who believed in heavenly beings and their importance – find a Jesus who was created in heaven unacceptable and need him to have had a human birth before they would accept Paul’s theology? And why, if this was indeed a point of contention, do we not see any hint of Paul trying to discuss this issue or persuade them? He throws in ‘born of a woman’ parenthetically in passing as a descriptor of Jesus and gets on with his argument about the law no longer being binding. There is nothing anywhere in the letter to indicate that Paul had had any sort of disagreement with the Galatians on this particular point or felt any sort of need to appease them about it.

Paul goes on to tell a story about two women who give birth to children, and Paul says that these women represent covenants, and the woman of the promise “corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother.”

Price is correct on this point. Paul is citing the scriptural story of Hagar and Sarah, which he says is an allegory in which the two women represent covenants. (For context, this is part of a larger allegory Paul is using in this chapter, about slaves vs. heirs; in Paul’s allegory, Jews who still hold to the Jewish law are slaves while the ones redeemed by Jesus’s sacrifice are now heirs to the kingdom of God. The Hagar and Sarah story is used as a specific illustration, as they had sons fathered by the same man but Hagar was a slave whose son was cast out and Sarah a free woman whose freeborn son inherited, all of which made them a good example of Paul’s point for his Jewish readers who would have known the story well.)

However, Price then makes his leap of logic:

The woman that Paul is talking about in Galatians 4.4 is an allegorical woman, not a real woman,

I haven’t omitted anything between this sentence and the previous one I quoted; Price really has leaped straight from the observation that Paul referred to the story of Hagar and Sarah as allegorical to an assumption that a different woman he referred to eighteen verses earlier was somehow also allegorical. Nice try, but doesn’t work in context.

and in fact this passage provides further evidence that Paul’s Jesus was not a historical person.

How? Well, here’s what Price says:

Paul says that the Son of God was born under the law, but the law is in heaven; he is talking about the heavenly covenant and a heavenly birth!

This conclusion baffled me for a while, since Paul says nothing whatsoever about the law being in heaven, a claim which would in any case hardly fit with Paul’s main claim that the law is an intolerable burden from which Jesus’s followers have now been freed. The only way I can make any sense of this is to theorise that Price has incorrectly assumed that ‘covenant’ is another word for ‘law’ and thus, having followed Paul’s train of thought here to the logical conclusion that the covenant to which Paul is referring exists in heaven, interpreted this as the law being in heaven and Jesus’s birth under the law therefore being likewise in heaven. Unfortunately, if this is the explanation, it doesn’t work, because ‘covenant’ doesn’t mean ‘law’; it means ‘promise’. So, if this was Price’s reasoning, it’s fatally flawed. If this wasn’t Price’s reasoning, then he’s going to have to explain his actual reasoning if he wants it to make any sense.

If Paul were talking about a real women here, and Jesus’s earthly birth, then why does he give no details about the matter? Why not say that he was born to Mary or that he was born in Bethlehem, or anything else?

Because he’s writing a theological polemic, not a biography.

He clearly isn’t giving a historical account of anything, but his lack of detail, here and throughout his writings, works against the claim that Paul had knowledge of a historical Jesus.

The ambiguity of this phrasing has the potential to get a bit confusing, so let’s clarify. In terms of whether Paul ‘had knowledge of’ Jesus in terms of either knowing him personally or knowing details about his life, we’ve already established that he didn’t and that he preferred it that way. So, in that sense, I completely agree that ‘the claim that Paul had knowledge of a historical Jesus’ is provably false.

However, of course, that isn’t what Price is trying to say. He’s trying to say that Paul didn’t know of a ‘historical Jesus’ in the sense of our debate; that Paul’s lack of any details about Jesus means that he didn’t know of Jesus having existed on earth, and that this is because Jesus hadn’t existed on earth but only in the imaginations of his followers. And that one doesn’t stand up, for the reasons already given at the post linked to in the previous paragraph. We know that Paul, for his own reasons, deliberately chose to avoid learning details about Jesus from people who claimed to have known him, probably so that he could continue holding on to his own theology. So, what we actually have is someone who never knew Jesus, who avoided learning anything about Jesus, who was interested in Jesus the magical sin-eraser and not Jesus the person, and who, moreover, isn’t even trying to write biography; he’s writing theological polemics addressing particular issues for his readers. And, given that context, there is nothing in the least surprising about the fact that Paul doesn’t give us any biographical details about Jesus. Price keeps trying to paint this as some kind of inexplicable mystery that needs a mythical Jesus theory to explain it, but, in fact, it’s explained perfectly well by what Paul’s own writings tell us about him and his purpose.

I think Price could have got a lot further with trying to explain away ‘born of a woman’ (and most of the other phrases) if he’d pointed out that Paul was going by what he believed he’d learned about Jesus by revelation in preference to anything he actually did learn about Jesus from Jesus’s previous followers, and that this makes Paul’s views unreliable. But, of course, Price had reason not to want to look too closely at how unreliable Paul is; that would have meant blowing a hole in his own arguments.

‘Deciphering The Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed’ review: Chapter 9, Part 2

‘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 9: Finding Jesus In Paul’s Letters

Price spends the majority of this chapter arguing that Paul didn’t believe in an earthly Jesus:

[I]n the letters of Paul, what we have are dozens upon dozens of statements, and overarching themes, that support the view that Paul not only had no knowledge of a Jesus person, but that Paul conceived of Jesus as an eternal heavenly being.

I’m not seeing why this belief would be incompatible with a belief that Jesus existed on earth as a human. After all, that’s precisely the combination of beliefs Christianity has held from an early stage; that Jesus was an eternal heavenly being who took on human form and was born and lived on earth. So the question is not so much whether Paul thought Jesus was an eternal heavenly being, but whether or not he believed Jesus also came down to earth in some form to live a human life there. With that in mind, I’ll discuss Price’s points.

A few things to bear in mind during this:

  1. As per the discussion in the last post, we can conclude from the Galatians passage (as well as from Paul’s letters as a whole) that Paul wasn’t interested in Jesus the person. Paul was interested in Jesus the magical sin-eraser. Hence, the things he says about Jesus aren’t focused on Jesus’s life, but on the theology Paul has constructed around him.
  2. Paul was writing in a different language, for a different culture. That means that at least some of the initial assumptions we might make about what our translated versions of his letters mean or what we might expect him to say in a particular situation are not necessarily going to be valid.
  3. We have no record of any of Paul’s speeches or discussions to the churches to whom he was writing, and only an incomplete record of his letters. It’s therefore important not to treat the Pauline letters we still have today as though they were meant to be a complete account of his beliefs and theology.

With all this in mind, here are the arguments Price raises:

Paul’s use of scripture to describe Jesus

There are several places where Paul refers to a line from Jewish scripture to make a point about Jesus or about Paul’s theology. Price finds this strange:

If Jesus had just been here, then why is Paul talking about old scriptures instead of Jesus Christ, who would have just recently been on earth? […] Paul is saying that ancient mysteries are being revealed and made known through prophetic writings, but why wouldn’t he be saying that these things were made known by Jesus himself?

Paul was writing for people in a society who had great respect for tradition, which meant that ancient prophetic texts would have commanded significantly more respect from the elite than what some Johnny-come-lately peasant had to say, even if the peasant was supposedly claiming to be a divine being. (There’s an interesting analysis by GakuseiDon somewhere online with regard to this, looking at Christian writings from around the 2nd century or thereabouts, showing that even Christians whom we know to have believed in an earthly Jesus still put much more emphasis on prophetic Jewish scriptures than on Jesus’s own sayings and actions when they were writing for pagan communities.)

But this does bring us to another point about Paul; that he doesn’t show much interest in Jesus’s teachings. This is another point on which Price comments:

Paul doesn’t cite Jesus

In addition to all this, with all of Paul’s discussion of the law in Galatians 3, he never once says, “Jesus said …” or “Jesus made it known that …” or “Jesus abolished the law …” Paul goes into theological discussions based on the scriptures about law and faith and covenants, developing his own explanation for why the law had been abolished. This is one of many examples where we would expect Paul to have used the teachings of Jesus to make his point if there had been a Jesus who had teachings to cite.

It’s ironic that Price chooses this specific example, because it’s highly debatable whether Jesus’s teachings on this point actually did support Paul. Of course, this has to be conjecture, because all the stories we have about Jesus’s teaching are post-Pauline and written by a church that had good reason to want to harmonise Jesus’s teaching with Paul’s. But it’s worth noting here that Jesus’s reported actions actually don’t break any of the Jewish laws as recorded later in the Talmud, and that both Acts and Galatians suggest that the apostles continued to keep to the dietary laws and attend the temple after Jesus’s death. And, given Paul’s disregard for what Jesus’s apostles had to say on the subject, it’s entirely plausible that he managed to disregard what the actual Jesus had to say.

This does, of course, still leave us with the larger question of why Paul showed so little interest in Jesus’s teachings generally; but, again, we’re up against the problem that mythicism doesn’t explain that either. Even according to the mythicist hypothesis, Paul would have believed that Jesus existed (as a heavenly being who sometimes contacted his followers with pronouncements), and could just as well have thought of a heavenly Jesus as a source of teachings to his followers as he could an earthly Jesus; if he wanted to know what Jesus would teach on a given topic, we’d expect him to show an interest in the message his followers passed down regardless of whether he believed this message had come from a heavenly Jesus or an earthly Jesus. So, this lack of interest on Paul’s part doesn’t get us any further forward in the debate.

Why does Paul show so little interest in Jesus’s teachings? Most likely for the same reason that he shows so little interest in anything else about Jesus’s life; because Jesus’s importance, for Paul, was as the uber-sacrifice that allowed Paul to feel he was free from the law, and he simply didn’t see Jesus as also having been a source of teaching.

Of course, that view seems strange to us; our natural assumption is that Jesus’s followers would be interested in both. But it’s worth remembering that we come from a culture in which the idea of Jesus as Teacher is as strongly ingrained as the idea of Jesus as sin sacrifice, and that the people who were there at the start of Christianity would not have been starting with the same cultural assumptions. Paul supposedly came from a Pharisaic background, and the Pharisaic worldview was that the details of how to interpret the Law in day-to-day life were to be worked out by humans rather than micromanaged by God. From what I understand of the Hellenistic worldview, they also did not see the gods as a source of advice on the details of how to deal with moral dilemmas or day-to-day life. And, with that background in mind, it becomes more understandable that Paul wouldn’t jump from ‘Jesus is a heavenly being sent as a sin sacrifice’ to ‘Jesus must be a good source of advice; wonder how he’d manage this problem?’ He’d do what he was used to doing, and manage issues himself.

‘In one of whom they have never heard’

In Romans 10:14 Paul asks rhetorically how anyone is meant to believe ‘in one of whom they have never heard’, and Price takes this up:

Romans 10 is a very significant passage. If Jesus had just been on earth and been ministering to the Jews and performing miracles in Galilee and Judea and drawing large crowds, as the Gospels claim, then why does Paul ask here if Jews cannot be blamed for not believing in Christ because they haven’t heard about him?

This letter was addressed to people in a city well over a thousand miles from Galilee, who would not be expected to have seen or heard Jesus regardless of whether he had recently been on earth or not. Price seems to have read this passage as referring to Jews rather than the Romans to whom it was addressed, but, while this is plausible, it doesn’t really help; there were millions of Jews in the world at the time, most of whom wouldn’t have been around the backwater province of Galilee to hear Jesus.

Paul is, in fact, touching on an extremely good question here, one of the main ones that always bothered me about Christianity; if the only route to salvation is through Jesus, what about all the people who didn’t happen to live in the right time or place to have heard of him? While Paul doesn’t actually do much to address this question, it’s still a highly valid one regardless of whether Jesus lived on earth or not, and the fact that Paul at least mentions it is hardly evidence that he didn’t believe Jesus was earthly.

Paul’s repeated use of the word ‘mystery’

Price puts great weight on this:

So Paul claims that he is telling these people a “mystery”, but why would this be a mystery if Jesus Christ had just been on earth a few years earlier to bring this very message to people, a message that he supposedly proclaimed several times according to the Gospels?

Back to translational and cultural issues: Paul and his readers wouldn’t have attached the same meaning to the word ‘mystery’. It comes from a word meaning ‘to shut the mouth,’ and hence, in this culture, it referred to secrets made known only to a select group of initiates (hence, the ‘mystery religions’ of the time). Of course, it’s debatable how applicable the word was here, when Paul was out to convert as many people as possible, but it’s easy to see how Paul would have wanted to make his followers feel like a select group with access to superior inside knowledge. So, when Paul uses the word this way, he isn’t throwing his hands in the air and admitting that there’s something here no-one can figure out; he’s trying to make his readers feel like a select group who get to be in on a secret. ‘Mystery’ here in no way precludes the existence of a real-life walking talking earthly Jesus.

The body of Christ and the desert rock

Price also brings up Paul’s references to the church as ‘the body of Christ’, as well as one line (1 Cor 10:4) referring to Jesus as the rock that the Israelites drank water from in the desert. Price’s implication seems to be that this somehow precludes Paul having believed Jesus had an actual body.

That, however, doesn’t work even with mythicist beliefs. Paul specifically stated that Jesus had had human form; he also believed Jesus had been crucified and buried, as well as being able to pick up bread and wine during his life. It is, therefore, clear that Paul believed Jesus had a body. Even if we go with the (dubious) theory that he thought this body had only existed in a heavenly dimension, Paul clearly wasn’t believing in some sort of disembodied spirit here.  It should, therefore, be extremely obvious that the lines referring to the church as Jesus’s body or comparing him to a rock are meant to be metaphorical rather than some sort of literal claim that Jesus did not have a body.

The future coming of Jesus

Price quotes the descriptions of the future coming of Jesus in 1 Thessalonians 4 and 2 Thessalonians 1, and makes much of the fact that these aren’t described as Jesus returning to earth; Price insists that this must mean that Paul (or whoever the author of the disputed 2 Thessalonians was) was saying that this would be Jesus’s first arrival on earth. That would be a lot of weight to put on word choice even without the issue of translating from another language; the word ‘coming’ can just as well be used to mean that someone is coming back to a place they’ve previously been. (For example, I find it completely normal for my mother to talk about coming to see us or to ask when I’m coming to see her, even though not only have we had repeated trips back and forth over the years but she’s still living in the house where I grew up! Clearly, when she asks when I can come to see her, she’s not meaning that word choice to imply that it’s the first time I’ve visited the house.)

On top of that, the translation issues raise another problem with Price’s argument here: atheist history blogger Tim O’Neill has pointed out that the word used in the 1 Thessalonians passage is ‘parousia’, which carries strong implications of a formal royal arrival. ‘Parousia’ thus makes complete sense as a word choice for someone who believed that Jesus had previously been on earth as a humble peasant but would be coming back as a glorious king.



Price has convinced himself that this collection of passages is a powerful indication of Jesus’s nonexistence. However, this claim doesn’t really stand up when the passages are looked at in the context of Paul’s own culture and theological focus.

Next up: The other side of the story. What passages in Paul suggest that he did believe in a Jesus who’d lived on Earth, and does Price give any alternative explanations for these?

‘Deciphering The Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed’ review: Chapter 9, Part 1

‘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 9: Finding Jesus In Paul’s Letters

On to the Pauline epistles. Early in the chapter, Price raises a good question:

Paul definitely thought of Jesus as real; the question is what did “real” mean to Paul?

Exactly. Arguing over whether Paul believed Jesus was ‘real’ is misleading. Everyone involved clearly believed Jesus was real, but was this ‘real’ in the sense that people believed that angels or the Roman pantheon were real? A clearer question for the mythical/historical Jesus debate is whether Paul believed Jesus had lived on earth.

However, there’s another important question that Price hasn’t addressed; how reliable is Paul’s opinion on the subject? Because there’s a big problem with that straight out of the gate, which we should address before we look at anything else about Paul’s writing. That is therefore what I will look at in this post.

The key passage for looking at Paul’s knowledge of the subject is in Galatians 1. I’ve highlighted particular lines:

10 Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.11 For I want you to know, brothers and sisters,[b] that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12 for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

[…]when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased 16 to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.

18 Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him for fifteen days; 19 but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. 20 In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!

[Paul then goes on to say that it was another fourteen years before he went back to visit the Jerusalem church again.]

This is a vital passage which mythicists typically misinterpret completely. Price is no exception to this. Here’s what he has to say about this passage:

If Jesus had just been here, then the gospel from the mouth of Jesus should have been seen as the most legitimate and authoritative, yet Paul presents his message as more authoritative because it hasn’t come from anyone else. How could Paul’s message from “revelation” compete with Peter’s message from the mouth of Jesus? […] If James and John and Peter were real associates of Jesus, who had walked hand in hand with him, had heard his teachings straight from his mouth, had been with him at the “last supper” and taken the Eucharist with Jesus himself, and had witnessed his death and resurrection themselves, then how on earth could Paul’s claim that his knowledge of Jesus via “revelation” be superior to the knowledge of James, John, and Peter? […] That Paul would even attempt to make such a claim only makes sense if Paul viewed revelation as the most direct form of knowledge that one could have about Jesus, and Paul would only believe that revelation was the most direct form of knowledge that one could have about Jesus if Jesus was not a real person who had just been on earth walking and talking hand in hand with James, John, Peter, and many others.

All very logical and skeptical, and all completely misinterpreting where Paul was coming from on this.

Firstly, Price has missed an obvious point; for Paul, and for his followers, ‘revelation’ would not have been in any sort of equivalent of scare quotes. As skeptics, we’re used to interpreting ‘revelation’ as ‘imagination’ and not taking it seriously, but that wouldn’t have been the case for Paul. He genuinely believed in heavenly revelation, and certainly seems to have believed that he’d had one. So, as far as Paul and his followers were concerned, he had heard Jesus’s wishes ‘straight from his mouth’; he believed that Jesus had appeared to him from heaven to speak to him. And, of course, when seen from that perspective Paul’s knowledge of Jesus certainly would have seemed authoritative to both him and others, completely regardless of whether they also believed Jesus had lived on earth. Whether or not Jesus had spoken to Peter and co. before his death, everyone concerned believed he’d spoken to Paul as well as others after his death.

Now, of course, that doesn’t explain why Paul had so little interest in what church members could tell him about Jesus; even given that Paul and others truly believed that Jesus had spoken directly to Paul, there was still plenty he could have learned from the people who already followed Jesus. What Price has overlooked, however, is that mythicism doesn’t explain that either. After all, even according to mythicist theory Paul certainly believed that other church members had had some sort of vision of Jesus similar to his own, and one clear implication of this is that he would have believed their visions might have included Jesus speaking to them and advising them, as Paul believed Jesus had done to him. If Paul wanted to get as much information as possible about Jesus from other people, then the obvious thing for him to do – whether on historicity or mythicism – was to go and learn everything he could from the other church members whom he believed had also had some kind of experience of Jesus.

But that is not, in fact, what he did. What he actually did, as per verses 17 – 18 of the above passage, was to disappear off to Arabia. It took him years to come back and contact anyone from the church. What’s more, look at the way he’s telling his readers this; he’s declaring it as a positive. He’s presenting it as evidence that he’s seeking ‘God’s approval’ rather than ‘pleasing people’.

In short, we can deduce from this that Paul did not, in fact, want to get as much information as possible about Jesus from other people. And we can see that this wasn’t a reluctant acceptance of the lack of availability of other information; it was a deliberate strategy. So, if we work from the assumption that Paul would have wanted to find out everything he could about Jesus’s life, then we’ll be starting from the wrong premise completely.

This is, of course, rather strange behaviour from Paul; if mythicism doesn’t explain it, what does? Well, obviously we’re into conjecture at this point, but here’s what we know and what it seems reasonable to deduce:

From Galatians, we see that the key difference of opinion between Paul and the other church members who’d spoken to the Galatians was over whether it was still necessary for Jews to follow the law or whether that requirement had now been obviated by Jesus’s death, which Paul believed to have been an atoning sacrifice so powerful it did the job for all time. So, clearly there was at the very least a faction of the church – apparently including Peter – who believed that the Jewish law was still binding on Jews. And, from elsewhere in Paul’s writing, we know that this issue was massively important to him. This wasn’t some abstract theological quibble for Paul; his belief that Jesus was an atoning sacrifice had given Paul freedom from a belief system that he’d found oppressive and unbearable. With this in mind, we can see how Paul might well have needed to keep believing what he believed, and that this would have given him a powerful motive to deny that other people might know more than him about Jesus’s wishes.

Seen in that light, Paul’s avoidance of the original church members makes complete sense. In their absence, he can keep focusing on the visions that tell him that he’s right about this, that he doesn’t need to listen to anyone else, that he’s heard this from the mouth of Jesus himself. He can push down pesky inconvenient thoughts about the implications of the fact that people who supposedly also personally heard from Jesus are saying something completely different. As far as Paul is concerned, Jesus has personally delivered God’s message to him directly. Therefore, anyone who thinks differently is just plain wrong. QED.

While this is always going to be speculation, it’s a plausible explanation for why he was so actively avoiding the existing church and rejecting their teachings, and it’s what I believe to have happened. If anyone else has another explanation that makes sense (i.e., not ‘Paul knew Jesus never lived on earth’, since, as I’ve pointed out above, this wouldn’t actually explain Paul’s behaviour here) then I’m quite happy to hear it.

But, either way, we can see in the above passage that Paul does make his attitude clear. He believed Jesus had personally revealed The Truth ™ to him, and he was going to go right on believing that regardless of what anyone else says. Regardless of what his motivation might have been for ignoring what Jesus’s other followers had to say about Jesus, we can see that this was what he was determined to do.

And it’s important to note the implications of this for our debate. Not only does this particular Galatians passage not help the mythicists, but it has major implications for how we interpret Paul’s writing generally. Mythicism tends to rely quite heavily on Paul, because, despite his letters being the earliest Christian writings we have, they actually contain very few details about any sort of earthly life of Jesus; mythicists have pointed triumphantly to this as indicating that Jesus must not have had an earthly life. But this passage casts things in a very different light. Paul not only never met Jesus during his lifetime, he seems to have made it a deliberate policy to avoid or minimise talking with people who did. And Paul wasn’t interested in Jesus’s life; he was interested in the atonement theology that he spun around Jesus’s death.

So the paucity of detail about Jesus in Paul’s letters doesn’t actually help the mythicism case. ‘Man who never met Jesus and didn’t want to hear about Jesus’s life seems to know almost nothing about Jesus’s life’ is not actually the kind of mystery that requires a mythicism theory to solve it.

On the flip side, however, this also limits the help that Paul’s letters can give to the historicists. There are, despite what Price thinks, multiple points in Paul’s letters that actively point towards Paul having believed that Jesus lived a human-type life on earth; while Paul had almost no interest in the details of that life (because it wasn’t important for his own theology), he clearly believed it had happened. In a later post, I’ll be explaining why it’s clear that Paul did believe Jesus had lived on earth. But that doesn’t help us much either, because, for all we know, that belief might also be a product of Paul’s ‘visions’ and theological beliefs about Jesus. (There is an important exception, and I’ll get to that; but most of what Paul has to say on the subject might for all we know have been down to his imagination rather than any actual knowledge he had of an earthly Jesus. I doubt that was the case, but it’s fair to note that the unreliability of Paul as evidence cuts both ways.)

What this means is that my next couple of posts on the subject are going to be dealing with points that are verging on moot. My next post is going to discuss the flaws in Price’s reasons for concluding that Paul didn’t believe in an earthly Jesus, and the one after that will be listing the reasons why I concluded that Paul did believe in an earthly Jesus. But let’s bear in mind throughout that neither is particularly helpful in clarifying the debate, since, whatever Paul believed on the subject, it was ultimately informed by his ‘visions’ and theology rather than by any actual investigation of the evidence.

Walking Disaster, Chapter 17, Part 2

This is a chapter-by-chapter review of problematic romance novel ‘Walking Disaster’ by Jamie McGuire. Posts in the series will all be linked back to the initial post, here.

This was initially a companion series to the magnificent Jenny Trout‘s review of the original novel, ‘Beautiful Disaster’. Jenny has since stopped her review, not wanting to give McGuire any further publicity in the wake of her attempts to run for office.

Back again! When we left our romantic hero, he was dismally failing at being a better person. Hands up anyone who’s surprised.

Travis tells us that he’s now trying to avoid situations that make him angry, which isn’t easy because he also realises that ‘every dick on campus’ is just waiting for him to screw things up badly enough to alienate Abby so that they could ‘try her out’, so it looks as though he’s assuming that all the men on campus think of Abby as a possession. I think that’s called projection, Trav. Meanwhile, half the women on campus are upset because Travis is no longer screwing his way through the multitudes one (or more) five-minute stand at a time. Why, how could anyone be other than devastated that this toxic dirtbag love god is off the market?

And then! Unprecedented event; we actually get given a clear point in time! It’s Hallowe’en! Which of course doesn’t fit with the amount of time that’s supposedly passed in this story so far, but at least lets us know where McGuire thinks we are in the year now, even if that doesn’t fit with anything else she’s said.

The gruesome foursome head into the Red (that club from a few chapters back), with Travis thinking how glad he is that Abby isn’t wearing a slutty costume like all Those Slutty Sluts, because that means…

the number of threats I would have to make for staring at her tits or worrying about her bending over would be kept to a minimum.

Travis’s worldview, ladies and gentlemen; if other men dare look at your property girlfriend in a sexual way, you have to threaten them. (Also, apparently you have to threaten people who worry about her bending over. Or maybe that’s just how McGuire’s grammar came out.)

Despite Abby’s lack of a slutty costume, Travis does see a man paying for her drink and, with his friend, attempting to chat her and America up. (Unsuccessfully; she’s just telling him she’s here with her boyfriend when Trav walks up, and, from the description of the scene in ‘Beautiful’, both of them were already doing their best to give off go-away signals which were being disregarded, so she’s not cheating on Travis here.) So, naturally Trav is sympathetic that Abby and America are being pestered against their obvious wishes and checks that Abby’s OK….. nah, you got me, that was just my mental fixfic of the scene. Trav is actually furious with Abby. Takes the drink from her and throws it in the bin, glares at her, yells at her.

“I don’t like you letting other guys buy you drinks,” I said.


“Would it bother you to walk up to the bar and see me sharing a drink with some chick?”


“You’re going to have to tone down the jealous-boyfriend thing, Travis. I didn’t do anything wrong.”

“I walk up here, and some guy is buying you a drink!”

But McGuire wants us all to know that he has a perfectly good and justifiable reason for behaving this way:

Knowing about the two sexual assault incidents the year before, it made me nervous to let Abby and America walk around alone. Drugging an unsuspecting girl’s drink was not unheard of, even in our small college town.


I’d told Abby a dozen times not to do something so potentially dangerous as accept a drink from a stranger; anger quickly took over.


“I’ve told you a hundred times . . . you can’t take drinks from random guys. What if he put something in it?”

See, Travis only gets angry because he’s worried about Abby! He’s just trying to protect her! That makes his response totally justifiable… right? Well, Travis certainly seems to think so:

Of course I would get angry if she did something that would get her hurt.

Angry. Not concerned. Not worried. Not sympathetic. Angry. With Abby. For being at risk of sexual assault. It doesn’t even occur to Travis that there is something wrong with that reaction.

But also… come off it, Travis/McGuire. Firstly, the guys didn’t touch the drinks. This is glossed over in the account in this book, where Travis just says he saw ‘two guys buying them drinks’ and leaves the details ambiguous, but in the account in ‘Beautiful’ we see that the guy in question just handed the money to the bartender after she gave the girls the drinks they’d already ordered. (This was after America had already turned him down when he offered to pay, BTW, so he was being a pushy dick about it; but he hadn’t had the drinks prior to them being handed to the girls.) Secondly, America tells him that the drinks were never out of their sight, and instead of being relieved or even being eager to double-check with her – you know, the kind of reactions you’d expect if spiked drinks were really his concern – he gets snippy with her. Thirdly, this supposed concern for Abby’s welfare is coming from the man who was absolutely fine with insisting Abby ride on his bike without a helmet and speeding while she was on there. So, excuse me if I’m not terribly impressed with the level to which her safety and wellbeing are motivating his actions.

Shepley tries to smooth things over… huh, looks like McGuire C&P’d this from ‘Beautiful’ and forgot to change it, thus making it look as though Travis is talking about himself in the third person:

Shepley put his hand on Travis’s shoulder. “We’ve all had a lot to drink. Let’s just get out of here.”

Not-so-deliberate mistake aside, this has a real Missing Stair feel to it. Shepley doesn’t feel able to call Travis out on what he’s doing, or even to focus the let’s-cool-down approach on him. Instead, he’s avoiding putting any focus on Travis’s behaviour and is trying to solve the immediate problem by expecting everyone to leave. Three other people have to cut their night short rather than expect Travis to control his temper.

Abby storms off to let Finch know they’re leaving, and Trav sees her mentioning his name to Finch, which he is not happy about:

She had blamed it on me, which only made me more mad.

Because heaven forfend anyone put any responsibility on Travis for his own behaviour.

She didn’t seem to mind so much when I was bashing Chris Jenks’s head in, but when I got pissed about her taking drinks from strangers, she had the audacity to get mad.

Something about that sentence made me twig… I think McGuire actually means the whole scene where Travis commits assault and battery to be a feature rather than a bug. I’ve been reading it as Abby being willing to tolerate Trav behaving this way, which was bad enough. But I have the feeling now that we’re actually meant to see that scene as a positive thing, with Trav fighting for Abby’s honour. Maybe I’m reading too much into it… and maybe I’m not.

However, whether the message was meant to be ‘Abby was willing to put up with Travis violently beating up someone who was being a dick’ or ‘Abby was delighted that Travis would violently beat someone up for being a dick’, this is an excellent example of why it’s a really bad idea to stay with someone who shows you they’re willing to act this way. Abby stayed with Travis when he thought the best answer to Jenks’s dickery was violence, and now she’s having to deal with his toxic jealousy and early signs of controlling behaviour.

And it’s just about to get worse. Trav sees a man grab Abby and press up against her, and, without thinking about it, he reacts by punching him in the face hard enough to knock him over. Because he does this without getting the man to let go of Abby first, she gets pulled to the ground as well, and the blood from his nose sprays her. Well, there’s a throwback to how they met, and unfortunately not a romantic one. Abby is not happy.

Travis, realising he’s pushed things too far, starts trying to do damage control, apologising while trying to make excuses at the same time:

“I’m sorry, Pigeon, I didn’t know he had a hold of you.”

That’s a flat-out lie, Trav. You just said you hit him because you got angry when you saw him grab Abby like that.

“I wouldn’t have swung if I thought I could have hit you. You know that right?”

This, as well as being a good example of a sentence that needed a comma it didn’t get, is also a good example of how intent isn’t magic. Yes, Travis certainly didn’t throw that punch intending to spray Abby with blood or knock her over. However, he did let his anger run wild until it ended up having consequences he didn’t want. If Trav had been talking himself down and focusing on staying calm, he’d probably have handled things a lot more appropriately when Mr Grabby made his move on Abby. Instead, Trav actually focused on justifying his anger to himself. It was only because he cared about Abby! Only because he was worried about her! Totally legit! Which temporarily made him feel better about himself… up until the point where he lost it and made everything worse.

Trav is now desperate for Abby to forgive him and reassure him that everything’s all right. Unfortunately for him, Abby doesn’t forgive him and doesn’t think it’s all right. Trav, being Trav, can’t accept that and back off but keeps pleading with her to accept his apology:

“I’m going to fuck up. I’m going to fuck up a lot, Pidge, but you have to forgive me.”

Guess what, Trav? No, she doesn’t. She doesn’t have to forgive you just because you want her to. Not only that, but even if she forgives you she doesn’t have to stay with you. She gets to decide that dealing with the fallout from this sort of toxic anger and jealousy is not for her. She won’t, because this is a horrible romance novel, but it’s something people get to do.

However, while I’m disliking Trav as much as ever, I do have to say that I like several other things about this scene. Firstly, Trav is admitting that he’s screwed up. Not even in a way that makes me scream ‘But that’s not the real problem here!’ (as has been the case on previous occasions in this book); he’s acknowledging, at least to himself, that his actions have caused a real problem. Secondly, the others are calling him out on his refusal to back off and give her a bit of space when she doesn’t want to forgive him straight away. And, thirdly, Abby herself is calling him out loud and clear on the problems with his behaviour here.

“I’m going to have a huge bruise on my ass in the morning! You hit that guy because you were pissed at me! What should that tell me? Because red flags are going up all over the place right now!”

“I’ve never hit a girl in my life,” I said, surprised she would ever think I could ever lay a hand on her – or any other woman for that matter.

“And I’m not about to be the first one!” she said, tugging at the door. “Move, damn it!”

You GO, girl. (In both senses of the phrase. Go far away from Travis, and stay away.)

Trav reluctantly accepts he can’t actually keep Abby there for him to keep pleading for forgiveness, and lets her go off to spend the night in the dorm. Shep makes it clear to Trav that smashing the place up again is not on, and Trav manages to keep control of his temper.

After a sleepless night spent doing mindless housework, he heads over to the dorm first thing for another go at getting Abby to talk to him, because he still can’t manage to leave her alone and respect that she doesn’t want to talk to him. Luckily for him though unluckily for her future prospects in this relationship, she’s actually OK with him doing this. (Though it’s a pain for Abby’s roommate Kara, who has to leave her own room and go have a shower to give them some privacy and so makes a pointed comment about always being very clean when Abby’s around.)

That said, I do on the whole like the conversation they have now. Trav seems genuinely apologetic, and not in a ‘sorry, but…’ way. Abby, meanwhile, is clear about stating her concerns:

“You don’t see me throwing punches every time a girl talks to you. I can’t stay locked up in the apartment all the time. You’re going to have to get a handle on your temper. […] You’ve asked me to trust you, and you don’t seem to trust me.” […] “If you think I’m going to leave you for the next guy that comes along, then you don’t have much faith in me.”

So, will Travis actually be able to manage his reactions instead of translating them into anger against Abby? I’m not holding my breath, but we’ll see.

How much I needed her terrified me.

I’m including that line just because the grammar is so wince-makingly awkward.

Maybe together we were this volatile entity that would either implode or meld together.

You know, this is the kind of thing that would have struck me as ohhhh, sooooooo romaaaaaantic when I was a teenager. I’d have lapped it up. With the benefit of a few decades more life experience, I just roll my eyes at the thought of trying to make that kind of mess of a relationship work. Dysfunction isn’t really a romantic plus.

However, speaking of pluses, we are now at the end of another chapter. Maybe I’ll manage to speed up and skim through on the next chapter? Maybe McGuire’s writing will get better? We can dream of unlikely things.