‘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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?