‘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.