‘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.


  1. rwiess says

    Very useful post, keep going on it. One other perspective for Paul not visiting Jesus’ associates is that they were not welcoming to him. If you were James, how would you feel about a gentile who claims to know the Master better than you do? Ice that cake with the division on continuing to be bound by Jewish law, and it sounds like how people actually are.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    I did a quick search for “Arabia” in the (KJV) bible, and found 17 hits – 14 from the Old Testament, 3 from the New, 2 of those from Galatians.

    The 1st of those our esteemed host has just quoted; the 2nd comes in Galatians 4:25:

    For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children.

    So this brings up the question of just what “Arabia” meant to Paul – clearly not what it does to us today – and also just why a man believing he had just received heavenly orders to spread the Word immediately went off to *someplace* with the least population of his region. Perhaps he thought he’d receive another batch of Commandments where the previous set had been delivered?

  3. Jazzlet says

    rweiss @#1

    Paul was not a gentile, he had, IIRC, been a member of the Pharisees, thus not only Jewsh, but of a Jewish sect that were particularly hard on the early Christians; hence the point of the “road to Damascus” or “damascene conversion”, he did a complete 180 turn in his beliefs as a result of his vision on the road to Damascus..

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    … nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me…

    I don’t have a roadmap for Palestine ~35CE, but feel fairly sure that, whether struck by revelation on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus or just suddenly yearning and u-turning for an Arabian holiday, one has to go a helluva long way ’round not to set foot in Jerry-town on one’s way south.

    Modern-day middrashists have lots of fun concocting stories about the “missing years” in the Jesus narrative; anyone focusing on Paul and his murky motivations has an equal – well, a bit shorter – opportunity to play around filling in this gap.

  5. says

    There is a question about Paul’s time-after-conversion that has long puzzled me, and that bears at least in part on this topic. Two things can be stated reasonably about the New Testament and any applicable civil (as opposed to sectarian) law. First, such questions were very volatile and often subject to the whims of whichever ruler held sway. Second, the New Testament authors show a sensitivity to the notion that civil authorities would act so as to suppress disorder for its own sake. Surely the pre-conversion zeal shown by Paul, involving persecution of persons whose status under Jewish law was perhaps questionable, was always riding the edge of illegality (and it is amazing to me how glibly it is stated that Paul was intending to go to Damascus and bundle people off to Jerusalem!) Once Paul had been converted, and he could look no longer for support from the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem, would he not perhaps have been rendered an outlaw? (For offenses against the subjects of various civil authorities, that is, not for being a Christian.) I have long thought that, as opposed to making off for Arabia, it would have been more “Christian” for Paul to have presented himself (and his conspiratorial letters from Jerusalem) to the authorities, and risked spending three years in the salt mines of the governor of Damascus.

  6. KG says

    Pierce R. Butler@4,
    No, if you go due South from Damascus, you’ll get to Arabia without going particularly near Jerusalem. These days, your route would take you through Amman, capital of Jordan.

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    KG @ # 6 – (a) it all depends on where you do your u-turn on the Jerusalem-Damascus road; (b) if your idea of “Arabia” is Mount Sinai, you prob’ly should hang a left, then another left at the coast and go through good ol’ Gaza.

    If what we now call Gaza occupies the same coordinates of what they then called Gaza:

    Acts 8:26 – And the angel of the Lord spake unto Philip, saying, Arise, and go toward the south unto the way that goeth down from Jerusalem unto Gaza, which is desert.

    – which also assumes “Mt Sinai” then = “Mt Sinai” now (Mount Sinai’s exact location is disputed among many.).

  8. Pierce R. Butler says

    stephensherrier @ # 5 – an interesting point. To my limited understanding, the Pharisees had little or no “official” police powers, as those were divided among the Romans and the Sadducees, with maybe a little for the Jerusalem municipality as such. Just who gave Saul/Paul his badge and his orders seems pretty vague.

  9. KG says

    Pierce R. Butler@7,
    At least according to the account in Acts 9, he didn’t do a U-turn on the road, but completed the journey (being led, because of his temporary blindness) to Damascus. Admittedly it’s not clear what is meant by “Arabia” (Paul’s journey there is only mentioned in Acts), but Gaza would have been part of the Roman province of Syria, which also included Damascus.

  10. Pierce R. Butler says

    KG @ # 10 – Thanks for the correction re: Acts. A long time since I read that!

    …Gaza would have been part of the Roman province of Syria…

    Gaza not part of Palestine? Sounds like some creative cartography… hrrmm.

    My handy-dandy Times Atlas of World History marks but doesn’t delineate the provinces (except by rough time of conquest). It shows “Arabia” as a sizable zone including most of the Sinai peninsula (including the modern “Mt Sinai”), a small NW corner of today’s Saudi Arabia, and today’s southern Israel and western Jordan – so that squares with Paul’s account.

    Gaza on this map shows up at the SW corner of Palestinia, maybe a day’s walk from the border of “Arabia”. This map seems the closest equivalent I can find online, showing that “Arabia Petraea” (as compared to the much larger “Arabia Magna”, basically the rest of the A peninsula north to Babylon city limits) would’ve made a quick jaunt relative to Paul’s reported lifetime travels.

    “Syria” then (and up to WWI, iirc) included its present territory plus Lebanon, and it looks like a slice of Iraq; the Roman administration apparently considered part of it “Phoenicia” and another part “Coele”. Gaza, on every map in my quick hunt, belonged to Palestinia (maybe itself under “Syria”?).

  11. KG says

    Pierce R. Butler@11,
    Arabia Petraea was not annexed and renamed by the Romans untill 106 CE (note that your map is of the empire in 117 CE), decades after Paul’s death – although possible dates for the writing of Acts straddle that date! Before that it was the client Nabataean Kingdom – whether that could have been referred to as “Arabia”, I don’t know. Pending the intervention of someone with real expertise, I think we have to conclude that we don’t know where Paul went!

  12. Pierce R. Butler says

    KG @ # 12 – Good catch!

    We do have Paul’s claim he went to “Sinai” (oops – see below), but not (so far) any clear concept on which one. (We also have a minor puzzle as to whether the oldest texts of Galatians actually used the word “Arabia” or just something that translators rendered as such.)

    Looking in Metzger & Coogan’s The Oxford Companion to the Bible, I find a map labeled “Rome and the East (including Paul’s Journeys)” which dubs the general area around & below the southern Dead Sea “Nabatea”. The entry for “Arabia” sayeth:

    For a time after his call, Paul “went away into Arabia,” perhaps in eastern Syria or Transjordan.

    The longer entry about Nabatea agrees with your account, also nothing:

    In 106 CE Roman forces entered Petra and the Nabatean kingdom ceased to exist. Nabatean life and culture were scarcely affected, however, and continued with little real evidence of Roman or Christian impact. ¶ On the evening of May 19, 363 CE, Petra was struck by a disastrous earthquake and the city fell into ruins. With that calamity, the Nabateans, as such, disappeared from recorded history.

    “Sinai” (an entry longer than that for “sin”) acknowledges the multiple candidates for the Exodus story site, but then jumps to settlement by Byzantine monks in the 4th century CE.

    On re-reading the “Arabia” verses in Galatians, I have to retract my Paul-at-Sinai suggestion: his mention of the latter comes from theological rantings about Jerusalem’s spiritual authority or somesuch, with no explicit connection to his own adventures. Too bad – I had all sorts of Moses-mimicry mockery lined up…

  13. db says

    The Greek in Gal. 1 says “I went away to Arabia and returned again to Damascus,” literally, turned around and went back and again, meaning he went back to where he came from, which means Damascus was not in Arabia at that time, and that Damascus is where he left from when he went to Arabia—which comports with a 50s AD date, when it never was a part of Arabia, except possibly briefly and unofficially during a military campaign, which would not have been the year Paul converted, or through a district ethnarch outside Arabia (see How Do We Know the Apostle Paul Wrote His Epistles in the 50s A.D.?).

    And he says he did all that after his conversion. Which means he was converted in Damascus (not on a road to or from it as Acts depicts).

    Comment by Richard Carrier February 7, 2022 per “No, Paul Was Not a Relative of the Herods”. Richard Carrier Blogs. 8 January 2022.

    This description seems to suggest that the “revelation” Paul received occurred in Damascus itself (not on the road there), since he indicates at the end that after his sojourn to Arabia – by which he does not mean the desserts of Saudi Arabia, but the kingdom of the Nabataeans – he “returned” to Damascus.

    Ehrman (June 16, 2016). “The Conversion of Paul”. The Bart Ehrman Blog.

    2 Cor 11:32
    In Damascus the ethnarch under Aretas the king was guarding the city of the Damascenes in order to seize me, and I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and so escaped his hands.

    Gal 1:15-17
    “…when God… decided to reveal his son in me… I did not immediately consult with flesh and blood, nor did I [immediately] go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I [immediately] departed to Arabia; indeed, I returned again to Damascus.”

    According this reading of Gal, to depart or return [ἀπέρχομαι] “to Arabia” and to return back again [ὑποστρέφω] “to Damascus” are two ways of describing one and the same return (from where, he does not say) to one and the same place, i.e. Damascus, Arabia [where “the ethnarch under Aretas” would later, or had already tried to “seize” him].

    Post by gryan per Was Damascus in Arabia? (Maybe Acts is more harmonious with Gal 1:15-19 than we thought) earlywritings.com

  14. db says

    OP: “‘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.”

    But Paul did meet and hear Jesus! Why are you assuming that anybody ever encountered Jesus other than by the same way Paul did?

  15. Dr Sarah says

    @db, #16: I’m concluding (not assuming, which is a different thing) this because otherwise it’s very difficult to account satisfactorily for why multiple detailed stories of Jesus leading a recent human life on earth sprang up within decades of the time that that life supposedly happened.

  16. db says

    @Dr Sarah, #17: said “[It’s] very difficult to account satisfactorily for why multiple detailed stories of Jesus leading a recent human life on earth sprang up within decades of the time that that life supposedly happened.”

    • Not if the initial canonical Gospels were fakes attempting to present a historicity for Jesus. Then they are just a series of fan-fiction “improvements” on the first gospel fiction.

    [“High Christology”] was original to the faith, and only leaked out in the otherwise-concealing Gospels over time, but was always there, from the beginning (see Bart Ehrman on How Jesus Became God and Chrissy Hansen on the Pre-Existent Jesus; likewise Establishing the Biblical Literalism of Early Christians).

    –Carrier (20 June 2023). “Did ‘Docetism’ Really Even Exist?”. Richard Carrier Blogs.

    Anyone who wants to better understand who the authors of the Gospels were in general, what their techniques and agendas and literary environments would have been like that influenced their every decision in constructing those texts, simply must read this book. As must anyone who wishes to resist its thesis and insist the Gospels are collections of oral lore and not the deliberate creative products of individual, elite authors; or insist the Gospels are unique and special, rather than quite typical examples of popular counter-cultural fiction of the time.

    –Carrier (9 January 2023). “Robyn Faith Walsh and the Gospels as Literature”. Richard Carrier Blogs.

    The whole religion began from the start on a basis of pesher readings of scripture (cf. 1 Cor. 15; Rom. 16:25-26; etc.), which is only accessible to the highly literate. So it can only have been founded by educated Rabbis. All subsequent claims to the contrary are therefore fiction.

    Note that this does not mean Peter et al. weren’t fishermen; Rabbis were required to ply a manual trade, so all known Rabbis had such working class professions, in addition to being fully literate. But I do suspect their roles as fisherman is nevertheless also a literary symbolic contrivance, albeit for different reasons than the above.

    (2) The founders being literate Rabbis does not rule out the concurrent dissemination of an oral tradition. There certainly would have been one, e.g. the revelations were being orally disseminated by missionaries, not just written up in letters for example.

    But from the evidence we have (e.g. Paul, Hebrews, 1 Clement; even, if authentic, 1 Peter) it appears the oral tradition consisted only of a few such revelations and much more substantially a pesher, i.e. a list of passages in scriptures and their interpretations (this might also have been written, but it could have just been a cue sheet, like musicians use to get them started on any songs without the entire sheet music, or just a memorized list, although only literate specialists could maintain such a thing in memory well enough to preserve it beyond a generation).

    We don’t see narratives or long sayings collections being a part of any such tradition until the Gospels. And those bear hallmarks of being fabricated (e.g. constructed from the teachings of other apostles like Paul, and only later assigning them to Jesus; or wholesale inventions: see my discussion of the Allison thesis regarding the Sermon on the Mount in OHJ). Hence Walsh doubts we can extract any true oral lore from the Gospels. If any is in there, it’s indistinguishable.

    Comment by Richard Carrier, January 9, 2023, per Robyn Faith Walsh and the Gospels as Literature”. Richard Carrier Blogs.

    [2:12] …I consider [the gospel authors] elite culture or elite persons within a particular you know stratum of culture .. those who have access to what’s called Paideia, so advanced education in the ancient world, and the number of people who actually had that kind of advanced education was really really narrow…

    [22:01] [HOST>>> What led you to the conclusion that it’s possible that Christians actually didn’t write the gospels]

    Well this is something that I’ve been a little surprised that people have taken away from the book, because what I say in the book is that I’m interested in what’s the most formative group that we can attribute the content of the gospels to…

    “Did The Greco-Roman Elite Class Write The Gospels?! – Professor Robyn Faith Walsh”. YouTube. History Valley. 24 May 2022.

  17. Dr Sarah says

    @db, #18:

    Not if the initial canonical Gospels were fakes attempting to present a historicity for Jesus.

    Which the authors would have been doing… why?

    (Will leave it at that question for the time being as it’s late here, and try to get back to the rest when I’ve a chance.)

  18. db says

    • Kurt Noll’s hypothesis is that Jesus—real or not—would result in the fake historicity presented in the gospels as a Darwinian claim for who really learned from Jesus on Earth and what he said and did “for real bro”.

    Kurt Noll, “Investigating Earliest Christianity without Jesus”, takes up the central methodological question of the relevance of research into the historical Jesus for understanding earliest Christianity. Applying a model for the construction of central ideas which determine worldview and behavior of, for example, the “Jesus movement”, Noll sets out to argue that the historical Jesus—assuming that he existed—was irrelevant to this movement’s earliest stages. He presents the thesis in four steps: a description of his method, the identification of a key issue, an analysis and evaluation of the relevance of the role played by the historical Jesus and, finally, a comparison with early Muslim traditions, providing an alternative understanding of the data. After his initial description of what he refers to as a Darwinian method of analysis, Noll takes his key issue from the contrast implied in the choice of data between early orthodox and heretical Christian writings which have been analyzed by Richard Baukham, on the one hand, and the literatures of the ancient Near East, analyzed by Thomas L. Thompson, on the other. After a critique of Baukham’s identification of the basis of the gospels and early Christian writings in “eyewitness testimony”, Noll turns to argue that Baukham’s assumption that the accounts are “fully referential” is directly contradicted by Thompson’s understanding that they reflect rather recycled literature written in didactic and allegorical genres which are uninterested in original sayings or founding events. The conclusions of these studies, however, only appear to be incompatible; for Noll understands Baukham as having failed to trace his assertions about eyewitnesses to actual witnesses and points out that Thompson’s arguments hardly rule out a conclusion that the referenced events had indeed occurred. What has not been asked is why non-referential narratives about Jesus were promoted as eyewitness testimony. This question, he pursues according to his “Darwinian model”, with the help of an analysis of Paul’s dispute with Cephas and James and its provocation of an eventual break with Judaism after the city’s destruction in 70 CE. Noll then turns to an analysis of the development of ideas related to identifying Christianity’s origins with conflicts related to its roots in Judaism, raising the argument that a “historical” Jesus had become necessary for the success of Paul’s doctrines, a pragmatic solution for defending doctrine by appeal to Jesus as authority figure. Comparing Baukham’s data on Christian “eyewitnesses” with the more elaborate and systematic data related to early “eyewitnesses” for Islamic traditions, Noll then discusses a scenario by which this literary Jesus might have been invented and then presented as a product of such accounts and draws the conclusion that a historical Jesus was indeed irrelevant to the construction and development of early Christianity.

    –Thomas L. Thompson. “Is This Not the Carpenter: A Question of Historicity? (London: Equinox Press, forthcoming 2011) | Bible Interp”. bibleinterp.arizona.edu. December 2010

    Nanine Charbonnel’s hypothesis is thus:

    that Jewish midrash addresses the end times, the times of fulfilment, are the times about the arrival of the messiah who comes to bring in the gentiles, the whole world, to be at one with the Jews;
    and that Christianity was “invented” by interpreting this “Jewish midrash” as historical reality.

    –Godfrey, Neil (23 March 2020). “How the Gospels Became History”. Vridar.

    Godfrey, Neil. “Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de papier / Nanine Charbonnel”. Vridar. I began to post about the contents of Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de papier by Nanine Charbonnel when I saw that it had something scholarly and original to contribute to the question of the historicity of Jesus but, because it was in French, would be sheltered from the English speaking world. Here in chronological sequence is the complete coverage of my reading.

    • If it is a given that gMark was a fictional creation from day one as argued by Price. Then gMatthew is updating and correcting gMark. Then gLuke is updating and correcting gMark & gMatthew.

  19. db says

    • Godfrey, Neil (13 February 2020). “How Luke Reworked Mark’s Ending”. Vridar. This post looks at the evidence for Luke having reworked Mark’s ending. (The Gospel of Mark appears to have originally ended with verse 8 with the women fleeing from the tomb in fear.) The next post will identify the evidence for Luke having simultaneously used and changed Matthew’s ending.

    • Godfrey, Neil (14 February 2020). “How Luke Reworked Matthew’s Conclusion?”. Vridar. Continuing here from the previous post that looked at evidence that Luke was reworking Mark’s conclusion. The following tables distil and simplify key points from Jeffrey Peterson’s chapter in Marcan Priority Without Q: Explorations in the Farrer Hypothesis.

    Matthew rejected almost nothing in Mark. He kept nearly all of it (literally verbatim), and just made some changes, and added a “Pentateuch” of Five Great Discourses, and some fanciful mythical add-ons. Like inventing a Nativity and reframing the Empty Tomb story after Daniel in the Lion’s Den, complete with guards and angels and miracles; note, someone invented these stories, so obviously “made up stuff” was readily embraced as authentic all the time, so it wouldn’t have made any difference who was making it up, ergo we cannot argue from this to “so-and-so” had a source; because on that scenario, so-and-so’s source still didn’t, so why would so-and-so? Once we take seriously what we are proposing (that fabrication routinely became revered tradition), standard theories of what happened evaporate as unsustainable. Obviously if someone could make all that up, by definition anyone can. Ockham’s Razor leaves us with the obvious culprits. We need posit no others.

    Comment by Richard Carrier, September 2, 2021 per “The Second Return of Piñero: A Sad Tale of a Man Who Can’t Read”. Richard Carrier Blogs. 28 August 2021.

    “Gospel Writers: Matthew copied Mark; Luke copied Mark & Matthew; John copied Luke – Richard Carrier”. YouTube. MuslimProphets.com.

  20. db says

    The most obvious explanation of all these strange coincidences is either that Luke is simply freely redacting Matthew (and often being happier with the Gentile-friendly sequence and content of Mark than the overly-Jewish content of Matthew) or Luke and Matthew were both using a “Q” that included genealogies, birth narratives, baptism narratives, temptation narratives, resurrection narratives, suicide narratives, and even a crucifixion narrative (as noted above). But that sounds so much like Matthew, that Ockham’s Razor leads to no more probable conclusion: Luke is simply redacting select content of Matthew into his redaction of Mark. There is no actual evidence for any other hypothesis.

    This even explains why most of the content of “Q” consists of “sayings.” Because what we mean by Q is actually just Matthew, and most of what Matthew did to Mark was add five enormous speeches, which are in fact coherent literary products, in Greek, reliant on the Septuagint (a popular Greek translation of the Scriptures). They are not random collections of sayings. They are, like almost all speeches in all stories and histories of antiquity, the inventions of the author: Matthew. And Luke simply didn’t like that literary model. Long, ponderous speeches breaking up the action; and the heavy-handed Moses parallel in having five of them. So he broke them up, changed them up, dropped what he didn’t like or need, and used the rest as he wished. But he also borrowed and adapted lots of other stuff Matthew added, stuff about John the Baptist, the birth of Jesus, the suicide of Judas, and more. Some he took verbatim. Some he rewrote. Just as he did with Mark.

    Since the above facts are then added to the even more incredible fact that there are hundreds of cases where Luke follows Matthew’s version of Mark and not Mark directly (in phrasing, grammar, vocabulary, and other elements), the notion that Luke did not use Matthew as a source is absurd. And if Luke used Matthew, there is no evidence left for Q, and no remaining justification for supposing there to have been one.

    –John W. Loftus (12/10/2018). “Richard Carrier On the Non-Existence of Q”. Debunking Christianity.

    We are told Luke “would never” change something in Matthew. He “would never” reverse elements of the nativity narrative or rewrite even the shared material in his own words; he “would never” move things around into a different order; he “would never” change the genealogy; he “would never” change the story of how Judas died; he “would never” leave out Matthew’s story of a mighty angel descending to open the tomb; he “would never” only sometimes prefer Matthew’s rewording of Mark; he “would never” simplify Matthew’s text (e.g. turn his “blessed are the poor in spirit” into just “blessed are the poor”); and so on. So he “can’t” have been using Matthew every time; yet Luke and Matthew remain largely verbatim even in those sections, therefore there “must” have been a third document, conveniently lost and somehow completely unknown to anyone of the time.

    Correct logic would go the other way around. Instead of claiming magical knowledge of what authors “would never” do, you would look for evidence of what authors actually do, and then build your generalizations from those actual particulars. For example, in general background, we know rewriting a source in your own words was actually the most preferred method of composition taught in the schools Luke and Matthew had to have attended, and so it cannot be the case that Luke “would never” do that. Likewise, across ancient literature, we have countless examples of later versions of a text being simplified, therefore it cannot be the case that Luke “would never” simplify a source text. And, in internal context, we have many examples of how Luke uses sources—because we have one of them: Mark.

    So. What do you think happens when you look to see if Luke changes Mark? Gosh. So much for the Q apologists. Luke often changes shit. You can see some examples in this sample sheet, which also evoke obvious causal motives for Luke’s choices; many more examples were surveyed long ago by Maurice Goguel in “Luke and Mark: With a Discussion of Streeter’s Theory,” in The Harvard Theological Review. There are many more. Does Luke ever rewrite Mark in his own words? Yes, he does (cf. Luke 8:19–21 and Mark 3:31–35; Luke 13:6-9 and Mark 11:12-14; Luke 21:20-21 and Mark 13:14-15; etc.). Does he ever outright change Mark into something different? Yes, he does—just research all the ways Luke contradicts Mark: for instance, he relocates the resurrection appearances from Galilee to Jerusalem, reverses Mark’s ending from the women telling no one to the women telling everyone, completely changes what Jesus says on the cross, expands the narrative of the two criminals executed beside him, and so on. Does he ever reorder the events in Mark? Yes, he does (cf. Luke 4:16-30 and Mark 6:1-6; Luke 22:24-27 and Mark 10:41-45; Luke 8 and Mark 4; and many more examples). Luke will even do both (reorder events from Mark and completely change them: cf. Luke 7:36-50 and Mark 14:3-9). Does he ever simplify the text of Mark? Yes, he does (cf. Luke 8:43-44 and Mark 5:25-26; Luke 9:47-43 and Mark 9:21-24; Luke 17:1-2 and Mark 9:42; Luke 22:31-34 and Mark 14:27-31; etc.). Does he ever omit seemingly important material from Mark? Yes, he does (as we just saw). And does Luke ever prefer Matthew’s rewording of Mark, a clear give-away that he knows and is using Matthew? Yes, he does (so many times that they have their own name: the so-called “Minor” Agreements; see Goodacre, “Too Good to Be Q”). In fact, Luke at one time quotes Matthew’s Nativity text verbatim (“and you will call his name Jesus,” cf. Luke 1:31-32 and Matthew 1:21), which adds even more to the case. Meanwhile, all like behavior can be found throughout Matthew’s use of Mark, too, proving all this behavior was normal for authors generally, not some peculiar affectation.

    So if that’s how Luke treats Mark as a source, we can expect that’s how he’d treat Matthew as a source. Legitimate evidence-based reasoning thus gets us exactly opposite conclusions to the backwards logic of Q apologists. Authors were creative. They did not think or act like Q apologists irrationally insist. And this conclusion is based on evidence; unlike Q apologetics, whose premises are maintained only by ignoring all pertinent evidence.

    –Carrier (30 January 2022). “The Backwards and Unempirical Logic of Q Apologetics”. Richard Carrier Blogs.

  21. Dr Sarah says

    @db, you’re now (#21 – 22) writing at enormous length on a subtopic that isn’t related to either the main post or the tangents that have arisen so far in the comments. It’s not wrong, exactly, but it’s a lot to wade through. Maybe rein that in a bit or take unrelated essays elsewhere?

    Anyway, picking your answer to my question up with #20:

    Kurt Noll’s hypothesis is that Jesus—real or not—would result in the fake historicity presented in the gospels as a Darwinian claim for who really learned from Jesus on Earth and what he said and did “for real bro”.

    Quite possibly, but why would that lead to the gospel authors inventing earthly biographies for Jesus if they believed him to have been a heavenly being who visited earth only to pass on pronouncements? We know that, whatever the early Christians believed about Jesus’s existence on Earth, they certainly believed he could visit Earth following his death to make announcements and tell his followers things. The gospel authors could easily enough have written a story about a Jesus who did that. Why invent an earthly life, in the recent past, with all the biographical details, just to show Jesus making declarations that he could have made as a heavenly figure?

    an analysis of Paul’s dispute with Cephas and James and its provocation of an eventual break with Judaism […] a “historical” Jesus had become necessary for the success of Paul’s doctrines

    Which all raises another question about the theory that the gospels were written to promote the Pauline viewpoint; why, in that case, do they shy away so much from the one major question on which we know Paul and the pillars clashed? According to Paul’s account in Galatians, the main problem was that Paul thought the law was now obsolete while Cephas, James, et al. wanted to stick with it. Why would gospels written to promote the Pauline viewpoint not just have Jesus saying straight out that the law was now obsolete?

    But we don’t; in fact, in one gospel we have the complete opposite, with Jesus cited as stating that every detail of the law was still in place. Even setting that aside as a possible interpolation by someone from a different branch of the early church, we just don’t see Jesus coming out with Paul’s viewpoint here. The gospel authors do all make much of Jesus supposedly arguing with Pharisees about the Sabbath laws… except that, as we now have records of rabbinical teaching, we know that Pharisaic law wouldn’t have banned faith-healing on the Sabbath, and that the arguments Jesus used in favour of Sabbath healing were Pharisaic arguments. There’s a comment tagged onto Jesus’s handwashing argument that could be translated as ‘Thus he declared all foods clean’, but we don’t see Jesus declaring all foods clean.

    So the question is not just ‘why would someone write fictional biographies about the imagined earthly life of a heavenly being just to show him making pronouncements to people?’, it’s also ‘having done that, why would they not even show him making the pronouncements they wanted made?’ But, if the gospel authors were working with stories handed down about an actual Jesus, it makes complete sense; they’re not writing his life from scratch, they’re trying to portray an actual person of whom they have some records as holding a viewpoint he didn’t actually hold. So, yet again, we have something that makes sense under historicity but doesn’t seem to make sense under mythicism.

    If it is a given that gMark was a fictional creation from day one as argued by Price.

    …which you know it isn’t, because you’ve seen the multiple posts I’ve written pointing out the flaws in Price’s theory…

    Then gMatthew is updating and correcting gMark. Then gLuke is updating and cor-recting gMark & gMatthew.

    I’ve already discussed the problems with this at https://freethoughtblogs.com/geekyhumanist/2022/02/12/deciphering-the-gospels-proves-jesus-never-existed-review-chapter-six-part-2/.

  22. Dr Sarah says

    Also, back to #18 and a couple of things to which I didn’t have time to reply previously:

    (Robyn Faith Walsh’s work)

    I have no problems with this way of looking at the gospels, but I do note that the examples Carrier quotes include Cyrus, Socrates, and Alexander the Great, who all seem to have been real people. That means that we can’t draw any conclusions either way about historicity vs. mythicism from the fact that the gospels were written in this way.

    The whole religion began from the start on a basis of pesher readings of scripture (cf. 1 Cor. 15; Rom. 16:25-26; etc.)

    Not sure how 1 Cor 15 could be a pesher reading, but that’s by the by. More importantly, does Carrier have any basis for this conclusion other than Paul’s writings? If not, then I think that’s a very wobbly conclusion; as I pointed out in this post, Paul didn’t base his theology on that of the existing church. It’s certainly arguable that Paul’s version of Christianity started that way, but we can hardly conclude from that that this was how the original movement began. (As a minor point, I would also argue that Paul’s pesher readings of scripture weren’t the origin of his beliefs, but the way he propped up the beliefs on which he’d already decided.)

  23. maat says

    Apparently, Paul fell off his horse and hit his head; when he regained consciousness, he started hallucinating and this is how Christianity was born. Believers have been hallucinating ever since.

  24. db says

    OP: “[A]ccording 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.”

    Similarly, Carrier asserts: “As far as Paul appears to know, the first time Peter and gang ever saw Jesus was after Jesus died, and they only knew he died from scripture (this is, after all, literally what 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 says; but see my survey of all the evidence in OHJ, Chapter 11.2, 11.4, and 11.8). There is a reason Paul has never heard of anyone being a “disciple” of Jesus, and why he keeps assuming “apostle” simply meant someone receiving a vision of Jesus (1 Corinthians 9, where there is no notion of any other way to see Jesus; Romans 10:12-16, where the Greek makes clear he is talking about apostles; and so on).” [Carrier (10 October 2023). “Things Fall Apart Only When You Check: The Main Reason the Historicity of Jesus Continues to Be Believed”. Richard Carrier Blogs.]

  25. db says

    OP: “[n.b. hypothetically] 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.”
    If the above hypothetical is false then:
    OP: “[We can deduce] that Paul did not, in fact, want to get as much information as possible about Jesus from other people.”

    However, Paul does engage with church members whom he believed had also had some kind of experience of Jesus. As well as criticize them, interact with them and arguments concerning, him and them.

    Per apostles and super-apostles Carrier asserts’

    Paul never avoids them. He engages them, criticizes them, interacts with them, and arguments concerning him and them, quite a lot. And he refers to why his words carry authority a lot, and was challenged on that a lot. And he strove to align most of what he taught to what they did (even if he lied about how he came across that knowledge).

    Just see Gal. 1–2 for a start. But there’s the whole “super-apostles” complaint; the “we’re with Cephas” argument; and so on. His letters are full of this.

  26. KG says


    Those who regard Carrier as a credible source are probably already mythicists, those who don’t are unlikely to be convinced otherwise by drip-feeding us snippets from his works.

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