‘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.