Answers to ‘Ten Questions For Pro-Choice People’: Part 1

I love it when people who disagree with me have questions (actual questions, not just point-scoring attempts) about my beliefs. So I was delighted to come across London preacher Andrew Haslam’s post ‘Ten Questions for Pro-Choice People‘.

Let me state my purpose up front: I’m a pro-lifer with ten genuine questions aimed at pro-choice people, and I’m hoping that you (dear reader) will keep on reading to the end.

I’m in!

But I’m also realistic. The chance of keeping your attention on such a matter of deep division is not going to be easy, not least because you may well imagine me to be misogynistic and backward.

I was passionately pro-life for a year and a half in my late teens after being recruited to that viewpoint by two schoolmates; I was too disorganised to join a group, but it was still a belief I held 100%. So, no, I don’t assume people are misogynistic or backward just because they’re pro-life. (Readers will probably wonder how I came to change sides so thoroughly on this; the short answer is that all the reading and thinking about the subject that I was doing in order to mutter righteously to myself about how much I disagreed with pro-choicers eventually had the opposite effect and brought me round the full 180o on the topic. I’ll write the full version someday.)

And so, I urge you to read and even respond.

You betcha. You had me at ‘ten genuine questions aimed at pro-choice people’.

A few quick notes:

1. I plan to answer the questions over the course of multiple posts, as I think there’ll be too much material here to cover in one go.

2. I originally planned to work through them in order (dull and conventional person that I am), but, as I mentally drafted my answers, I realised that some of the most fundamental points come up in the last couple of questions and that it’ll work better if I answer those first. So I’m going to answer the questions in reverse order. (The first two have ended up being particularly long, by the way, but this won’t be the case for all of them ooookaaaay, forget that bit, I think most of them are ending up a lot longer than I’d anticipated.)

3. Like Andrew, I want this discussion to stay rational and civil, so I’m going to stipulate now that any commenters have to stick to that rule as well. If you want to disagree (with me, with Andrew, or with both of us) go right ahead; but either keep it polite and respectful, or take it elsewhere. I will enforce this if need be.

That covers the background, so on to the questions!

10. When does a person become a person? This is really the question to rule them all. Everything depends on this.

No, it doesn’t. Here’s why:

No-one has the right to make use of an unwilling person’s organs. Yet that’s what happens when a woman is made to continue a pregnancy she doesn’t want; a decision that that fetus should live cannot be separated from the decision that she has to keep it within her body with all that that entails. And ‘all that that entails’ is not trivial by any means. Even a normal, uncomplicated pregnancy is typically going to involve significant amounts of nausea or fatigue or both, with intense pain at the end in giving birth. There’s a high chance of either genital tearing or major abdominal surgery at the end. That’s in a normal pregnancy. There’s also a non-negligible chance of developing more significant medical complications, which can in some cases be long-term. While it’s rare for medical complications actually to reach the point of proving fatal, it still happens and it’s less rare in women with continued pregnancies than in women who have early abortions.

On top of this, the rest of a woman’s life is not going to stay on hold while she deals with all this. So pregnancy can have severe impacts on her ability to manage her day-to-day responsibilities, and that, again, can have far-reaching consequences. And on top of that, she’s faced with a dilemma that will have consequences for her lifelong: due to the way hormones prime the bodies of the pregnant to bond to the children they give birth to, it’s going to be difficult, often impossible, for her to face giving up even a child that was unwanted in the first place… but the alternative is to take on the massive, life-changing job of raising that child.

There isn’t an exact analogy to all this, but the closest we have is organ donation, which saves the life of one person at the cost of significant physical impact and bodily invasion for another. Well… we don’t legally compel people to donate their kidneys, even though that saves lives. We don’t even compel people to donate bone marrow or blood, which are considerably less invasive procedures. The law recognises that even the saving of lives doesn’t override the basic right to have veto power over what gets done to our bodies.

It’s possible that you, or another pro-life reader, is shocked or offended that I describe pregnancy and birth in such negative terms. In case anyone reading it did react that way, to them I say this: Ask yourself what part of the description above you believe to be inaccurate. My guess is that what bothers you is not that you felt any part of it was actually inaccurate, but that it’s incomplete; that you’re bothered that I would list only negatives about pregnancy and childbirth without mentioning the positives. Then think about how often our society in general holds precisely that expectation; that women should be willing to overlook or tolerate all of the risks and difficulties I mentioned, all in the name of a sort of awe and reverence at the wonder of creating new life. If it makes anyone feel any better, I can assure you that, on a personal level, I certainly do feel the ‘wonder of new life’ aspect to be the overreaching one; that’s why I have two loved and very much wanted children and was more than happy to go through all of the downsides to pregnancy and birth. But doing so only made me much more aware of how difficult it can be (and, in fact, my experience was a relatively easy one in all sorts of ways) and of how horrible an idea it is to decide that we should force this experience on pregnant people collectively, regardless of their feelings on the matter.

So, to get back to your question above… no, the question of when a person becomes a person doesn’t do a thing to decide the abortion debate. I don’t, as it happens, agree with the idea that the answer is ‘As soon as the chromosomes are all together in the same cell’, but that’s still irrelevant. To answer your follow-up question of ‘When did you become you?’, my personal answer to that is probably that I started becoming me when I was sixteen and that I’m still making tweaks here and there (and probably always will be). Which, of course, is irrelevant to the question of when I first had a right to life; neither of us believe that my right to life started only at the point that I retrospectively feel, based on changes and developments in my personality at the time, to be the start of what I’d consider as my essential me-ness, so ‘When did you become you?’ isn’t that useful a question here. But, far more importantly, it’s also entirely irrelevant to the question of ‘When did you first develop the right to make prolonged and intimate use of someone else’s body against their wishes to keep yourself alive?’ The answer to that question is that I never had that right and never will have. I’m delighted that my mother did choose to have me – I love being alive – but my happiness that things turned out the way they did in terms of my existence doesn’t give me any sort of retrospective right to claim that they should have turned out that way.

 

9. What do you think our descendants will think of us?

I doubt that either side of the debate will ever win out significantly enough for our descendants to look back on the other side as some horrifying archaism (although I certainly hope we reach the point where use of reliable long-acting reversible contraception is so routine and widespread that our descendants look back in astonishment on the times when unwanted pregnancy was ever as common a problem as it is now), so I don’t think this question itself particularly gets the debate any further. However, I want to look at some of your follow-up questions in this section, as they’re worth discussing.

Western society has been shown to be wrong on some key human rights issues in the past – most notably slavery and racial prejudice. […] But do you not suppose that we have equally glaring blind spots in our seemingly advanced age?

I’m sure we do; I just don’t believe that ‘people should not be compelled to remain pregnant against their wishes’ is one of them.

I am confident that some future generation will look back on us with disgust for two reasons: (1) The logical inconsistencies of the pro-choice movement will become clearer over time, just as the pro-slavery movement eventually lost the argument

I think there are a couple of problems with that analogy.

The pro-slavery movement were initially able to hold sway because so many of the general public believed that black people were fundamentally different from/inferior to white people, but this view was gradually changed by, in large part, black people themselves; the writings and speeches of former or current slaves made it very clear that they were people and that it was a monstrous injustice to enslave them or treat them in ways that wouldn’t be acceptable to white people. That wasn’t by any means the only factor that eventually led to abolitionists winning the day, but it was a significant part of what changed the minds of the public as a whole.

Now, of course, the first problem you have with applying that strategy to the pro-life message is that fetuses don’t write or make speeches. While that doesn’t in itself make your arguments invalid, it does mean that you’re missing one of the major factors that changed people’s mind over abolitionism. The other big problem with your analogy is that we don’t really have the same situation here; ignorance over facts isn’t that significant a reason why people disagree with you. Most people already know about fetal development. They already know that development starts from conception. They already know what fetuses look like. The problem is not that we don’t know these things; the problem is that we disagree with you about what conclusions to draw about the morality of abortion. Most people (even among the nominally pro-life) don’t really see ‘This cell now has the full genetic makeup of a human being’ or ‘This cell has the full potential to develop into a baby’ as good enough reasons for a zygote to be regarded as equivalent to a child.

(2) Advances in medicine and science will make it more difficult to sustain a hard boundary between ‘blob of cells’ and ‘human being’, and with no such boundary there is no longer any conscionable reason for allowing abortion at any point after conception.

There’s an assumption here that’s a key argument among pro-lifers, and certainly one I initially found compelling in my pro-life days; the idea that we have to have some sort of clearly definable reason for drawing this boundary at one point rather than another. I remember thinking of this as the ‘Sherlock Holmes argument’; when you have eliminated the impossible then what remains, however improbable, must be your answer. It’s impossible to point to any other reasonably clearcut point on the continuum of development, so therefore, however improbable it is that a single cell should be considered a person and granted full human rights, that has to be the point at which we do these things. And I was utterly convinced of the necessity of this; after all, without that kind of clearly definable boundary, obviously we would be on a slippery slope in which allowing abortion up to any given time limit would inevitably, due to the lack of clear reasons for that particular limit, lead to us allowing it after that time limit, and then to allowing infanticide, and then inexorably on to allowing us to kill off anyone of any age.

And then one day, apropos of nothing much, it hit me that… this was not actually happening. This was in the late ’80s, so abortion had been legal in the UK for over twenty years by then. During that time, the legal limit on abortion had remained exactly the same. It hadn’t been pushed out further. We hadn’t legalised infanticide. There didn’t seem to be any howling mobs calling for those things to happen. I remember being quite confused by this – after all, the pro-life argument in this area seemed unassailably logical – but I couldn’t deny that, however logically pro-lifers argued that this would happen, it clearly wasn’t happening.

It was only years later that I realised where the flaw had lain in my initial logic: people are, in fact, completely capable of drawing an arbitrary boundary across a continuum, and do so all the time. We do that with deciding the age at which people are old enough to consent to sex, to drive, to vote, to marry. We draw legal boundaries for the ages of all those things and we keep to them; not because there is any sort of fundamental identifiable difference between a person on their sixteenth or seventeenth or eighteenth birthday and the same person the day before, but because we recognise that’s the best, albeit imperfect, way to deal with the fact that people gradually develop from a stage in which they can’t safely handle those situations to a stage in which they have the mental development to be at least allowed to try. We disagree on where exactly those legal boundaries should be, and sometimes those disagreements result in us changing them… but we don’t, as a society, reach the conclusion that because there is no biological or developmental reason for drawing a hard boundary between a teenager of fifteen years plus 364 days and a sixteen-year-old then that means it’s fine to have sex with young children.

And we do the same thing with abortion laws. Most people don’t want a situation where abortion is banned from conception on. Most people don’t want a situation where a person can legally decide to abort at any time up until birth. (That ‘most people’, by the way, includes people giving birth, which is why the apocryphal ‘but what if a woman chose to have an abortion five minutes before birth??’ scenario that crops up so often in pro-life arguments has never, to my knowledge, been known to show up in real life.) People do, for the most part, acknowledge that fetal development is a continuum and believe that this continuum should be reflected in abortion law.

So, no; the lack of a hard boundary after conception does not mean that we need to ban abortion from conception on.

 

8. Why is it more acceptable to fight for the rights of animals than of unborn humans?

Overall, I’m not sure it is. (Granted, that collection of links is pretty anecdotal evidence, but it does indicate that there are a lot of people out there getting stick for their beliefs in animal rights.) Of course, there are certainly some people who are more sympathetic to the animal rights cause than to the pro-life cause; without wanting to generalise about anyone else’s views, I think the factors there are a) the view I described when answering question 10 in the last post, namely that enforced continued pregnancy isn’t morally acceptable regardless of how we regard fetuses, and b) a belief that ‘presence of sentient awareness’ is a more defensible deciding factor than ‘species membership’ when regarding what protections a being should have.

As a rule, vegans are not considered to be among the lunatic fringe. Unlike pro-lifers, they usually get respect for their beliefs.

Apart from the points I made above, I think you’re talking apples and oranges there. Veganism is typically a decision that someone makes about their own personal diet; the pro-life equivalent would be a person whose beliefs about abortion lead her to decide to continue her own unwanted pregnancy, but who doesn’t believe she should make that decision for others. Vegans who go round actively campaigning for meat-eating to be made illegal and chanting that meat is murder are likely to receive rather less respect for their beliefs.

 

7. Why not prefer adoption over abortion?

Because it still means a) going through with the pregnancy with all that that involves and b) having to relinquish the child at the end, both of which are extremely hard to do (even with a pregnancy that wasn’t wanted).

Of course, this is still the choice that some women prefer, and I entirely agree that anyone for whom this is the choice should be allowed and supported to go through with it. However, if you’re asking why it’s usually not the preferred choice for an unwanted pregnancy… well, that’s why.

Wouldn’t it be a heroic thing to carry a baby to term and let that child live and be raised in a loving home?

It would, yes, just as it’s heroic for a surrogate mother to make the decision to become pregnant for that same purpose. Heroic acts, by definition, are over and beyond; they should never become things that people are legally compelled to do.

I don’t want to minimise the pain involved in giving away a child, but it seems to me quite obviously preferable to ending that child’s life altogether.

It’s certainly preferable for the adoptive parents who receive the child, and in most cases it’s going to be preferable for the child. In most cases it is not going to be preferable for the person who’s actually pregnant, for the reasons I gave above.

 

That’s four questions covered and a lengthy post so far, so this seems a good point to finish Part 1. I’ll aim to cover questions 6, 5 and 4 in Part 2 and questions 3, 2 and 1 in Part 1, and link them back to this post when I’m done.

Amended: I found vastly more to say about question 6 than I’d anticipated, so that now has a post on its own, which is here.

Answers to questions 5 and 4.

Answers to questions 3, 2 and 1.

How to make a stone so heavy that you can’t lift it

Most people will recognise the above reference. It’s to the infamous Omnipotence Paradox; can God (or other allegedly omnipotent being, if you prefer; when my father introduced me to it as a child, it was by way of Mr Impossible from the Mr Men books) make a stone so heavy that he can’t lift it? Various answers have been put forward to this over the years; one of them, several years ago, came from my daughter.

We were at dinner. I can’t remember at all how old my daughter was, except that it was some years back and she’s now twelve. Maybe seven? Maybe not. I forget how this came up, but my husband decided to ask the children the version of the paradox that comes up in Babylon 5: can God make a puzzle so difficult that he can’t solve it? (The character in the show includes that it’s ‘us’; humans and, given the show’s context, assumedly intelligent aliens as well.)

“Well,” Katie suggested, “he could make the puzzle so that it changes him so that then he can’t solve it.”

My husband and I exchanged the sort of look you exchange when your primary-school-aged child has just solved a centuries-old philosophical puzzle. (On the unlikely off-chance that you have not personally had occasion to encounter that look, it’s basically “Did that just happen?”) He asked her the more traditional version of the puzzle, and, of course, she figured out how her answer would fit; God designs a rock that has the property of causing him to lose the ability to lift the rock. I don’t want to brag, but my daughter is pretty darned smart.

‘Walking Disaster’ review: Chapter Twelve

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

‘Walking Disaster’ is a companion novel to ‘Beautiful Disaster’, which is currently being snark-reviewed by the magnificent Jenny Trout. Links to that review and other reviews of Jenny’s can be found here.

Content warning

  • Problem drinking
  • Angry controlling behaviour
  • Slut-shaming
  • Swearing (mine)

 

Chapter Twelve: Virgin

Well, now, I wonder where that chapter title will go. [Read more…]

Yesterday was International Transgender Day of Visibility

Since I didn’t have time to write something myself, here’s a round-up of posts on the subject from FTB-ers:

In Happy International Day of Trans Visibility! Abe Drayton from Oceanoxia has put together a collection of links on the subject.

In With Head Held High, Rhiannon from Intransitive points out the importance of greater visibility for marginalised groups, so that members of those groups aren’t left self-blaming and alone. From this post, I also found the Tumblr Assigned Male, which uses some rather nice cartoons to explain transgender issues.

In I made a video for the Trans Day of Visibility, PZ Myers at Pharyngula posts… well, a video he made, obviously. It’s called ‘The Fallacy of Biological Sex’, and seems to mention something about myths about athletes, which looks interesting.

In The Invisible Queer, Great American Satan at the blog of the same name muses a little on being genderqueer.

Best wishes for rights and societal acceptance to people everywhere, and may transgender people everywhere get to enjoy the comforts that so many cisgender people take for granted.

‘Deciphering The Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed’ review: Chapter One, Part Four

(I know, I know; right now, this seems like a strange and possibly inappropriate thing to be paying much attention to. But my pattern for working on blog posts is ‘little and often’, so I’d been working on this one for two months prior to the crisis hitting. Now I just want to get it done and posted. So, here you are; maybe it’ll be of interest to some of the people who need a break from pandemics.)

 

‘Deciphering the Gospels’ argues the case for Jesus mythicism, which is the view that Jesus never really existed on earth but was a mythical figure in the same way as Hercules or Dionysus. (The author, R. G. Price, is not the same person as Robert Price, also a Jesus mythicist author.) I’m an atheist who holds the opposing (and more mainstream) view that Jesus did exist, as a normal, non-divine, human being. 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.

Firstly, a couple of housekeeping issues:

1. This post will bring me to the end of what I want to say about Chapter 1. After that, I plan to take a break from reviewing this book and blog about other things for a bit. I’ll still be available for discussions in the comments, and I will return to this book review in due course.

2. And, speaking of comments… Thus far, I’ve had comments on the ‘threaded’ setting, meaning that replies to comments are posted directly below the comment to which they’re replying. I’m not sure how well this is working out. It can make it easier to follow conversations within the thread, but it makes it harder for someone reading the whole thread to keep up with new comments (as they end up in different places in the thread rather than at the end), and the software on FTB doesn’t indent threaded comments, which makes it harder to follow the changes between subthreads. Anyway, I’m going to change to non-threaded and see how that works. This means that all comments will simply show up in the order in which they’ve been posted (a possible exception being comments that need approval first; I don’t know whether that affects the order or not). Therefore, if you’re replying to someone else, in comments, it would help greatly if you could indicate this with an @ followed by the person’s username and comment number. If anyone has a strong opinion on which method they prefer, by all means let me know.

All right, on with the review. The last thing I want to look at, before leaving Chapter 1, is a triad of stories that tie into Price’s theory about Mark’s original motivation for writing his gospel.

To recap: In the introduction, Price stated that Mark’s gospel was deliberately written as fictional in order to convey, allegorically, the message that the Jews were being punished for ‘not having heeded Paul’s message of harmony between Jews and Gentiles’. This raises a couple of questions:

  • How plausible is it that this gospel could have been meant as an allegory?
  • Does the claim about Mark’s supposed message stand up here?

I think the answer to the first question is ‘Not very, but it’s possible’. Price’s belief here, remember, is that Jesus-followers at this stage believed he was a divine being up in heaven but that Mark chose to make him the main character in this allegory and to portray him as human and earthly. This seems a less likely explanation to me than the belief that Mark was writing a hagiography of a Jesus who actually was human and earthly, but it’s something I can go with as a possible explanation.

The bigger problem is with the second question. To this, my answer is that I agree with the first half of Price’s explanation; yes, Mark certainly seems to have thought the Jews have brought/are bringing divine punishment on themselves. However, I don’t agree with Price’s claim about why Mark thinks they were being punished. I don’t think gMark does indicate any sort of message about the desirability of Jewish-Gentile harmony. So I want to look at Price’s arguments on the subject.

In Chapter One, Price discusses three stories that he believes relate to this point:

 

The scene with the Gentile woman

Most readers probably know this story. For those who don’t, or are hazy on the details, here is a brief summary: Jesus is approached by a Gentile woman whose daughter is supposedly demon-possessed (which, in modern terms, probably means something like epilepsy, but that’s by-the-by) and begs him for help. Because she’s a Gentile, he dismisses her: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (Yes, so much for a kind and loving Jesus; even as a teenager reading this, I knew that the way he’s portrayed, here, as talking to a desperate mother, was appalling and inexcusable.) However, when she counters this with “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” he changes his mind and heals her daughter.

Price has this to say on the passage:

[Verse 27] is supposed to mean that Jesus was telling the Gentile woman that the Jews were to be helped before the Gentiles,

Agreed so far.

but in response to the woman’s answer, Jesus decides to help the Gentiles.

The passage only, in fact, says that he decides to help this particular Gentile. However, Price’s interpretation is that this indicates that Jesus has changed his mind and is now willing to help Gentiles generally. This, apparently, is how Mark wishes to get across his message that the Jews should treat the Gentiles differently; by showing Jesus himself as changing his mind about helping a Gentile.

I think there are two points worth making about this. Firstly, if this actually is Mark’s message then it should be noted that he’s not portraying Jesus as the conveyor of the message to others; rather, Jesus himself is the example, the one who learns to behave differently. Of course, it’s very common for a morality tale to get its point across by showing the protagonist as being the one who undergoes the crucial change in attitude or behaviour, but it does seem a bit of an odd choice here; it means that Mark has chosen to portray the being he believes to be a semi-divine heavenly saviour as being the character in his narrative who needs to learn the key lesson. It’s like writing a morality tale in which the Archangel Gabriel is the one who learns to change his ways. Which, come to think of it, might make for quite an interesting morality tale, but the point is that that plotline wouldn’t fit well in a story portraying the Archangel Gabriel as a flawless purveyor of wise messages regarding correct morality.

The second problem is that this scene doesn’t actually give any indication that Jesus has learned any sort of broader lesson. How does the woman convince him? Not by pointing out that Gentiles such as her and her daughter are human too, and shouldn’t be compared to dogs. Not by telling him that God’s blessings and bonuses should be available to everyone because God loves Gentiles as well as Jews. Not by telling him that Jew/Gentile enmity is wrong. No; instead, she convinces him by going along with his own argument and phrasing her argument within that framework. She tells him that even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs. Rather than disagreeing with his dismissal of her and her daughter as dogs who, apparently, don’t deserve help, she accepts this humiliating description and only argues that, even as dogs, they should get some tiny leftover scraps of what’s available.

This leaves us with a situation where all Jesus is actually shown as having been persuaded to do is to help one particular Gentile who’s sufficiently willing to abase herself and accept what he sees as her place. There’s no indication at all that this is going to extend into any sort of generally improved treatment for the Gentiles. If this is meant to be a message that Jews should treat the Gentiles better, it’s an extremely poor one.

Price writes:

This is a turning point in the Gospel, where attention will now be paid to Gentiles.

Where is this attention paid to Gentiles? All that I could find about Gentiles in the rest of gMark is the Parable of the Vineyard and a few other passing (and mostly negative) mentions. The Parable of the Vineyard does prophesy a shift of attention from Jews to Gentiles (though hardly in a way that would encourage better Jew-Gentile harmony), so possibly this was what Price meant. However, I can’t see any way in which the attention of the gospel, overall, has shifted to Gentiles. All that Price says by way of further clarification is:

This also relates to the order of the feeding scenes, as we shall see.

Why ‘also’? What other examples of this supposed shift to paying attention to Gentiles does Price think there are? The book doesn’t tell us and, as I say, I couldn’t find anything convincing myself.

Anyway, on to the other question that this raises: what Price believes to be relevant about the feeding scenes.

 

The feeding-of-multitudes stories

Again, a brief summary in case anyone doesn’t know them: Jesus miraculously feeds a crowd of thousands with only a few loaves and fish, providing enough food not only to eat but to provide several baskets full of leftovers. The same thing, with different numbers of people/loaves/fish/baskets of leftovers, happens again a few chapters later.

Price believes Mark intended these stories to have two meanings. The first is by-the-by as far as this post is concerned, but I’ll include it a) for completeness and b) because I actually agree with him about this point and it makes a nice change to be able to say that: He believes that the stories are exaggerated versions of 2 Kings 42 – 44, a scene in which Elijah is portrayed feeding a hundred people from twenty loaves and some ears of grain, with enough there for leftovers. I agree; on comparing the passages, it does indeed look clear that that story was the inspiration for the gospel feeding scenes. So far, so good.

(On a complete tangent, this has reminded me of the schoolteacher I had who – apparently working from the Johannine version in which the loaves and fishes are supplied by a young boy – told us that the likely explanation was that people in the crowd, shamed by the willingness of this child to share his food, brought out the food they’d been keeping for themselves and shared it around. Since she was careful to add a disclaimer about how most of Jesus’s miracles couldn’t be explained, I think this was meant as a morality tale rather than as an attempt at instilling skepticism; still, at least I got to hear one naturalistic explanation of a Bible story in my childhood.)

The second meaning Price believes these stories to have is the one that’s relevant to this post; he believes they contain a symbolic message about Jesus’s attention shifting from the Jews to the Gentiles. The clue here, he believes, is in the number of baskets of leftovers picked up after each feeding. After the first miraculous feeding scene there are twelve baskets full of leftovers, and after the second there are seven; Price doesn’t think those are just random numbers.

It should be noted that twelve and seven are both common “divine numbers” in Jewish literature, appearing often in the Hebrew scriptures.

However, in this context, these numbers appear to represent Israel and Rome, because twelve was a number that represented Israel (twelve tribes of Israel), and seven was a number that represented Rome (seven hills of Rome). These are both numbers that were heavily associated with their respective nations; they wouldn’t have been vague references… The Jews are to be fed first, then the Gentiles, and we see that in the feeding scenes, the first feeding produces twelve baskets representing the twelve tribes of Israel, and the second feeding, which occurs after Jesus’s discussion with the Gentile woman, produces seven baskets representing the seven hills of Rome.

Now, if that is indeed what Mark meant, it is really odd symbolism. Why would he choose to portray this message in such a way that the group that’s meant to have the attention of Jesus/God in each case is symbolised by the waste that’s left behind afterwards? If he wanted to use those numbers symbolically, surely it would make more sense to use them in a way that represented the crowds of people who were miraculously fed (twelve hundred and seven hundred, perhaps)? Or, of course, he could have simply had Jesus giving the miraculously-produced food first to a crowd of Jews and then to a crowd of Gentiles. Or both. While it’s possible that someone could overlook all the more obvious choices and instead go with ‘leftover waste’ as the part of the story used for numerical symbolism, it’s pretty unlikely. This seems a lot more likely to have been coincidence.

(Bear in mind also here that ‘random’ numbers picked by people are typically not truly random; we’re not looking, here, at the odds that a random number generator would have picked just those two numbers. If those numbers were well known, then that could subconsciously have influenced the decision of a storyteller casting around for a number to use here, without any kind of deliberate decision on the part of the storyteller.)

Price also believes the order of these three scenes to be important here. First Mark gives us a feeding scene in which the number twelve is used; then a scene in which Jesus, having initially intended only to help Jews, is persuaded to help a Gentile woman; and then another feeding scene in which the number seven is used. Price interprets this as Mark’s symbolic way of showing that attention has shifted to Gentiles. However, what he doesn’t mention is that, in each case, there are a couple of unrelated scenes between the feeding scene and the Gentile woman scene. Again, if Mark was intending a symbolic message with this order, it seems strange that he would dilute it this way. That gives us another indication that this is much more likely to have been a coincidence than a deliberate plan.

To summarise: If Price’s claims about Mark’s motives for writing this are correct, then that would mean that Mark decided to use this sequence of writing to convey the message that Jews should be doing a better job of living in harmony with Gentiles:

  • Feeding scene with obscure, poorly-thought-out numerical symbolism
  • A couple of irrelevant scenes
  • A story of Jesus treating a Gentile woman badly and justifying himself doing so, but being persuaded to help this one particular Gentile because she abased herself sufficiently, with nothing to suggest that this is going to – or should – extend to other people’s actions, or even to his own future actions
  • Another couple of irrelevant scenes
  • A concluding feeding scene with equally obscure and poorly-thought-out numerical symbolism.

On which theory, Price’s comment is:

The way that the feeding scenes are presented and framed ties into the overall narrative in complex and clearly very well-thought-out ways. This is sophisticated plot development.

No. No, it really isn’t.

It might, of course, be a disastrously botched attempt to write an allegory conveying a message about Jewish-Gentile harmony, in which Mark has so little writing skill that his attempts at getting his message across sink almost without trace. It’s considerably more likely, though, that Price is trying to read something into the text that just isn’t there; that ‘better Jewish-Gentile harmony’ was never Mark’s intended message in the first place. Mark certainly seems to have wanted to tell us that the Jews were being punished for something, but the text simply does not back up the idea that the ‘something’ could plausibly have been lack of Jewish-Gentile harmony.

This brings us to the question of what Mark did think God was punishing the Jews for. On rereading gMark, I think the passage that most clearly addresses this question is the Parable of the Vineyard. Now, this is a particularly interesting passage to look at with Price’s theory in mind, because this is one part of gMark that certainly is an allegorical message about God punishing the Jews. So, what does the parable say God was punishing them for? For mistreating and killing God’s messengers… of whom the final one was God’s own son. In this allegory, supposedly the final heinous act of the Jews that would bring down retribution upon them was to kill Jesus just as they had killed other prophets.

Now, that’s a problem for mythicism. If Mark thought of Jesus as a heavenly being who was killed by other supernatural beings, why would he construct an allegory that relies on Jesus being killed on earth just as other prophets were and that blames the Jews for having killed him? Price needs to explain how this fits in.

I checked this essay on his website in which he analyses gMark in more detail, but didn’t get anything very helpful from it. Interestingly, Price agrees that this is an allegorical representation of Jews killing their prophets and eventually Jesus; however, he doesn’t seem to recognise this as a problem for mythicism. All he writes is:

The subtext and deeper meaning behind it deals not with “Jesus”, but with the perceived corruption of the Jewish people, whom the authors of both Isaiah and the Gospel of Mark believe have brought destruction upon themselves.

While ‘corruption’ might indeed be the explanation to which Mark and others of the time attributed the Jews’ alleged prophet-killing habits, that doesn’t change the basic problem for mythicism here; Mark, in this allegory, blames the Jews for killing not just other prophets but also Jesus. According to mythicist theory, Mark wouldn’t have believed the Jews killed Jesus, because he would have believed Jesus to be a heavenly being who was killed by other heavenly beings. If he was, as Price believes, writing an allegory to highlight the reasons he believed the Jews were being punished by God, why would he use it to portray the Jews as being punished for something that he wouldn’t have believed to be their fault?

So… where does all this leave Price’s theory?

I don’t think any of this deals it a death blow, but it has been left with one or two crucial gaps. His idea that Mark’s desired message was that the Jews should have ‘heeded Paul’s desired message of harmony between Jews and Gentiles’ doesn’t stand up, which leaves his Mark-as-allegory theory without proper foundation. He also needs to find a mythicism-consistent way to explain the son-killing allegory in the Parable of the Vineyard. I look forward to hearing his explanations on both those points.

‘Deciphering The Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed’ review: Chapter One, part 3

‘Deciphering the Gospels’, by R. G. Price*, argues the case for Jesus mythicism (i.e. the position that Jesus never existed.) As an atheist who believes Jesus did exist (as an entirely non-divine human being), I’m reviewing the arguments in this book in order to explain why I disagree.

The first post in the series, with a little more background, is here; all other posts will be linked back to the end of that post as they’re written. R.G. Price has been joining in with the discussion in comments, so, if you have questions for him, there’s a fair chance he’ll be available to answer them.

Price used the NRSV translation of the NT; any Bible quotes are therefore from that version unless stated otherwise.

*Note that R.G. Price is not the same person as Jesus mythicist Robert Price.

 

One thing about which I assumed I would agree with Price was his list of how he believes Mark to have derived each of his stories. This was the cornerstone of Price’s theory, the result of over a year of detailed research that he had put into the subject. His claim – that Mark had derived his main points from sources such as scripture or Paul’s letters – sounded plausible to me; while I believed (and still do) that there were one or two points in gMark that couldn’t be explained in this way, I did already believe that at least some of the Markan stories were derived from such sources, and I was entirely open to being convinced that this was the case for other stories as well. I expected to find Price’s arguments compelling, or at the very least plausible. In fact, when I first read his book I skimmed over all those parts of the first two chapters, seeing little reason to pick apart parts of his argument with which I would surely agree.

The reality, when I did look more closely, didn’t live up to expectations. I did indeed agree with some of Price’s claims; for example, the derivation of details of the crucifixion scene from existing scripture (which I’d known about) and the derivation of the crowd-feeding scenes from 2 Kings 4:42 – 44 (which I hadn’t known about, but agreed with as soon as Price quoted the passage). There were others that I thought were at least plausible (for example, Price believes that the obscure mention of a naked man in Mark 14:51 was meant as a reference to Amos 2:16, and I suppose that could be the case). But there were other examples for which Price’s reasoning seemed much weaker.

In this post, I’m going to look at two examples that particularly struck me as poorly evidenced. Since drafting this, I’ve also discussed a third example in the comments on an earlier post, which I think also illustrates the point.

 

Fishing and hunting

R.G. Price looks here at two lines in Chapter 1 of gMark. The first is from the calling of Jesus’s first two apostles; they are, according to the story, both fishermen, and hence Jesus tells them ‘I will make you fish for people’ (v17). (This is the line that the less accurate but more poetic KJV famously translates as ‘I will make you fishers of men’.) The second line is from a scene where Jesus goes off by himself in the early morning to pray; v36 tells us ‘And Simon and his companions hunted for him’.

Price believes these lines to be based on Jeremiah 16:16 – 17: ‘” But now I will send for many fishermen,” declares the Lord, “and they will catch them. After that I will send for many hunters, and they will hunt them down on every mountain and hill and from the crevices of the rocks.”‘ He believes that this is intended as a reference to the threatened destruction of Israel (which Mark would, according to Price’s theory, have recently seen for himself in the Jewish-Roman war). More specifically, he believes that Mark is here trying to make a statement about Peter, James, and John:

We see in this literary allusion that the author is identifying these three individuals as agents of destruction – as harbingers of the coming war.

This interpretation, if correct, would mean that the Church has been interpreting the ‘fishers of men’ quote completely backwards for the past two thousand years; instead of indicating that the apostles were to catch people to save their souls, Mark would in fact have been indicating that they were to catch people to dispatch them to punishment and destruction. That’s such a radical reversal of the usual interpretation that I really wanted it to turn out to be correct; just think of all the priests and apologists using that line during the last two millennia without realising that they were, in fact, labelling themselves as agents of destruction. Truth in advertising…

Sadly, however, this interpretation did not stand up to examination. Five chapters further on in Mark we get the apostles being sent out to preach to others as well as to perform the helpful acts of healing the sick and driving out demons, which are hardly the acts of agents of destruction. Given that context, I think it fair to say that the ‘fishers of men’ line was meant the way it’s normally read; it’s intended to mean that Jesus is sending them out to catch people for positive purposes.

That detail aside… does Price’s belief about the derivation of these verses stand up otherwise? Well, his arguments for believing that these verses were derived from the Jeremian passage seem to boil down to:

  • The Jeremian passage talks, metaphorically, about fishing and hunting for people.
  • The chapter in Mark talks metaphorically about fishing for people and also mentions hunting for Jesus.

The trouble is, nothing else fits. In Jeremiah, the two things are mentioned together as two parts of the same message (searching people out); in Mark, the two mentions are nineteen verses apart, with several unrelated stories between them. In Jeremiah, the theme is of God searching people out in order to punish them justly for their sins; in Mark, the ‘fishers’ mention refers to the apostles searching people out in order to bring them salvation, and the ‘hunt’ mention refers to them looking for Jesus (surely not a potential target for punishment?) because so many people want to speak to him. The very superficial similarities in the mentions of ‘fish’ and ‘hunt’ don’t extend any further.

Given all that, was the Jeremian passage Mark’s inspiration here? I think about the best we can say is that it’s possible. It can’t be entirely ruled out. But it certainly doesn’t seem like a good fit, and a far more likely explanation would be simply that, because the Jewish scriptures were a huge body of writing that covered a great many themes, it’s possible to find all sorts of coincidental superficial similarities in them, with proximal mentions of ‘fish’ and ‘hunt’ being well within the likely bounds of coincidence.

Of course, absolutely none of that means that the incidents described in either of those verses really happened. Maybe Jesus did say the ‘fishers of men’ line when calling the fishermen; maybe he thought of it later; maybe someone else thought of it at a later stage of relating the stories as it sounded so good. Maybe the incident with the disciples looking for Jesus after he went out to pray really happened, or maybe it was invented later for some reason we don’t know about. We can’t tell. But we also can’t conclude from such a tenuous similarity that the verses must have been derived from Jeremiah as part of an allegory. Price’s logical deductions here are simply too shaky to hold up.

 

Walking on water

There is, of course, a very obvious reason to suspect that this infamous scene is fictional; it’s about a man miraculously walking on the water. In a culture with high levels of superstition and credulity for such things. Passed on by word of mouth until decades after the supposed event, giving plenty of time for miracle stories to be added to the original narrative. I’m all in favour of being open-minded, but I really don’t think I’m being overly sceptical in coming to the conclusion that this particular story was one of the ones invented and added to the narrative only later.

So, in a way it feels rather odd that I’m debating Price’s position on this one. I’m certainly not claiming that this specific story really happened as written, and I even agree with Price’s explanation of the message Mark is trying to put across in this scene (namely, that the disciples are supposed to recognise Jesus’s role as a saviour/messiah but fail to do so). But Price’s argument has so little substance to it that I think it bears examination, not because it contributes anything to the question of whether this passage is fictional or not, but because it does indicate a lack of rigour in his arguments.

Price writes:

The walking on water appears to be a reference to Isaiah 43.

[…]

The purpose of this scene in Mark, and the literary allusion, is to emphasize the fact that the disciples are supposed to recognize Jesus as the Savior of Israel, yet they do not. The passage in Mark says that upon seeing Jesus, they don’t recognise him, thinking that he is a ghost, and that after he comes to them, their hearts are hardened. Isaiah 43 again emphasizes this theme, with verse 10 saying, “you are my witnesses, you are supposed to be the ones who understand me,” yet of course they do not.

Isaiah 43:22 says, “you didn’t call on me, you are weary of me,” which is reflected in the scene from Mark by the fact that they needed help in the boat but did not call on Jesus for help, and their hearts were hardened.

So, again… what are Price’s reasons for believing that this Markan passage is derived from Isaiah 43? No matter how many times I’ve read this section looking for something I might have missed, the list still seems to come down to:

  • Both mention miracles that have some connection with water
  • Both touch on a theme of people not recognising/understanding/calling on an important being they should be recognising/understanding/calling on (God in the Isaian passage, Jesus in the Markan passage).

And… that’s it. Nothing else about the passages matches, including the details of the above points. The water-related miracles mentioned in the Isaian passage have nothing to do with walking on water; they’re references to the parting of the Red Sea (‘the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters’), and to God giving water to the Jews in the desert (‘for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people’). The verses about the Jews not understanding/calling on God are a short rebuke in the context of a passage that, overall, strongly emphasises the Jews’ continued importance to God and his promise to rescue and forgive them. And there are multiple other details in the Isaian passage (protection against passing through fire, mention of several different countries, and more) that aren’t echoed at all in the Markan passage. Once again, Price is making a claim based on minor, out-of-context similarities between two passages while ignoring the significant differences.

 

Conclusion

As I say, these are only a couple of the examples that Price gave, and he does have others for which the evidence is much sounder. But remember that Price’s claim is that we can account not just for some of the main stories in Mark in this way, but for all of them. And this doesn’t hold up. While his list of stories that Mark supposedly derived from elsewhere is, indeed, impressively long at first glance, it turns out that the only reason it’s as long as this is because he is willing to set the bar very low. There are several cases where his categorisation of a Markan story as being clearly derived from another story turns out to in fact be based only on a few flimsy similarities that seem well within the bounds of coincidence. Price’s claim to have demonstrated that all of gMark is clearly a fictional allegory does not stand up well to examination.

‘Deciphering The Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed’ review: Chapter One, part 2

‘Deciphering the Gospels’ argues the case for Jesus mythicism, which is the view that Jesus never really existed on earth but was a mythical figure in the same way as Hercules or Dionysus. (The author, R. G. Price, is not the same person as Robert Price, also a Jesus mythicist author.) I’m an atheist who holds the opposing (and more mainstream) view that Jesus did exist, as a normal, non-divine, human being. 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.

In Price’s first two chapters, he focuses on making the case for his claim that the gospel of Mark is entirely a work of fiction (which Price believes to have been based on Paul’s letters and Jewish scriptures, and intended by Mark as an allegory about a mythical Jesus). What I want to look at in this post is whether this theory does indeed account for all of the key points in gMark, or whether there are any points that can’t readily be explained in this way. This is a question that particularly interests me, because my primary reason for believing in the historical Jesus has always been the fact that there are some points in the gospels – not many, but some – that I don’t feel can be accounted for under mythicist theories. I was therefore looking forward, on reading Price’s work, to seeing whether his theory would succeed where others had failed.

Price does, of course, have an explanation as to why gMark was written in the first place – as we’ve already covered – so that’s an excellent start. That still doesn’t explain why the other gospels were written (a question Price and I already discussed to some extent in comments on the introduction) but that’s probably better discussed when I get to the chapter about the other gospels. A couple of the other points that I had relate to material in the other gospels, so I’ll also leave those till then. That leaves us, as far as I can see, with one big question that’s relevant to gMark:

Why did Mark give the Romans in general, and Pilate in particular, the role he gave them in his gospel?

In gMark (as in the other three canonical gospels), the Romans are the people who ultimately put Jesus to death, with Pilate – an important, powerful historical figure – playing the key role of pronouncing sentence on him. And Mark clearly isn’t happy with having to portray them that way. He plays it down, plays up the role of the Jews, writes it to show the Jews insisting on the death sentence and Pilate/the other Romans reluctantly going along with this. It’s not at all surprising that he’d feel this way about minimising the role of the Romans in Jesus’s death; they were the powerful ruling class, so it’s understandable that Mark wouldn’t have liked the idea of casting them as the bad guys who killed his protagonist.

So… why has he put them in that role at all?

If Jesus was a real person who was condemned by Pilate and executed by the Romans working under Pilate, then this approach makes complete sense. If this was the case, Mark wouldn’t have been inventing his story from scratch; he would have been working with existing traditions that had been handed down from people who remembered the real Jesus and his life, and that had become widely known among Jesus’s followers. While these traditions would probably be horribly inaccurate on many points by then, they would also have contained at least a few actual facts about Jesus… such as the detail of who put him to death. The simple and obvious reason why Mark would write that Jesus was condemned by Pilate and executed by the Romans would be that Jesus actually had been condemned by Pilate and executed by the Romans.

But, according to Price’s theory, Mark was making up this story as an allegory about someone who had never lived on Earth at all, and thus never been executed by real flesh-and-blood people. If that was the case, then the story about Pilate and the other Romans being the ones who ultimately put Jesus to death wouldn’t have existed. So… why would Mark bring them into the execution narrative at all? Why would he want to invent, in however downplayed a form, the idea that the Romans were the people who ordered carried out the execution? And take that as far as naming a specific and powerful character as having passed the execution order?

While portraying the Romans as helpless followers of the demands of others isn’t as damning as portraying them as instigators, it’s still hardly a good look for them. If Mark was writing the crucifixion story simply in order to make the points he wanted, why do we get this conflict between Mark’s apparent wish to portray the Romans as well as possible, and his actual portrayal of them as playing such a major role in Jesus’s execution? If he were writing a totally fictional story in which he wished to blame the Jews for Jesus’s death, why would he not take the obvious route of having the Jews in his story actually execute Jesus?

I looked with interest, therefore, to see whether Price had provided an explanation for this point. Sadly, he hasn’t. Price theorises about details of the trial and execution being derived from OT scriptures (I’d agree with him about that, by the way), but I couldn’t find anywhere, either in the book or in his online essay, where he’d commented on this particular issue.

In short, what we have here is a major point that doesn’t seem explicable under the Mark-as-fictional-allegory theory. Without an explanation, Price’s cornerstone claim – that every significant point in Mark can be explained in ways that don’t involve a historical Jesus – doesn’t hold up. And that leaves a gaping hole in his theory.

‘Deciphering The Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed’ review: Intro/Chapter One

‘Deciphering the Gospels’ argues the case for Jesus mythicism, which is the view that Jesus never really existed on earth but was a mythical figure in the same way as Hercules or Dionysus. (The author, R. G. Price, is not the same person as Robert Price, also a Jesus mythicist author.) I’m an atheist who holds the opposing (and more mainstream) view that Jesus did exist, as a normal, non-divine, human being. 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.

 

Introduction

I gave a brief summary of the introduction in my first post in the review and had planned to leave it at that, but I’ve realised that there are a couple of key points here that do need further examination; the questions of where this idea of a mythical crucified Messiah came from and where it went.

Price explains, in the introduction, how he believes the cult arose:

What set the Jesus cult apart was their belief that the kingdom established by the messiah would not be on earth, but rather it would be in heaven. They believed that the material world was hopelessly corrupt and that the “kingdom of God” could never be established on earth. Thus, they believed that an immaterial heavenly messiah would be required to destroy the evil material world and establish a perfect kingdom in heaven. The creation of an immaterial heavenly kingdom required an immaterial heavenly messiah.

So far, so good. While this would have been a very fringe belief among Jews of the time, not to mention flat-out ignoring the plain meaning of some prophecies, those are hardly factors that rule out this possibility; there are people in any time and place who are happy to adopt very fringe beliefs and to ignore evidence (as their society would have regarded prophecies) to the contrary. So, it is at least plausible that a group at the time could have adopted such a belief. Here, however, are two major questions to which we still need answers:

1. How would such a group have developed the belief that their messiah had been crucified in heaven?

The Jewish idea of the Messiah (a word which literally means ‘anointed’ and was also used more generally for any ruling figure) came originally from scriptural passages prophesying a wondrous future in which the Jews, freed from all oppression, would live in peace and plenty under the rule of a descendant of King David. It bore absolutely no relationship to the later Christian concept of the Messiah being an uber-sacrifice for humanity’s sins. While the Messiah’s job description was vague enough that it allowed for all sorts of interpretations, and technically didn’t exclude the possibility of him being crucified and resurrected on the way to the glorious future in which he ruled over Israel, that’s still a heck of a tangent for someone to have come up with. Any story of Christianity’s origins does need to account for how the early Christians made that leap.

Under a historical-Jesus theory, this is fairly straightforward to explain. If Christianity started with a real man who was crucified, leaving his adoring followers trying to reconcile the cognitive dissonance between their fervent Messianic hopes and the dismal reality facing them, then it’s perfectly plausible that they could have come up with explanations that wove the inescapable brutal fact of their leader’s crucifixion into their theology as part of their God’s grand plan. But, minus an actual crucifixion happening to an actual Messianic claimant, why would a group of Messianic believers spontaneously come up with the idea of their Messiah being crucified? How likely is it that one group would come up with two completely different radical departures from usual concepts of the Messiah (heavenly Messiah and crucified Messiah)? And, even if some Jews somehow came up with the unprecedented idea of their Messiah needing to be a sin sacrifice like the goats and sheep that were taken to the Temple altar, why in the world would they conclude that this sacrifice must take place via a loathed and stigmatised method of execution rather than via known, familiar, accepted methods of animal sacrifice?

2. How did knowledge of this group disappear so thoroughly from church history?

According to Price, the stories about a historical Jesus got started because Mark wrote an allegory which was mistaken for an actual book of prophecies, the other evangelists built on and embroidered the story, and people who’d read these works and mistaken them for accounts of real events somehow formed a religion based on them. So… how in the world, if you’ll forgive the unintentional pun, did it play out when they met the existing groups of Jesus-followers and realised that they taught that he’d never been on earth at all? Even if enough of the new believers clung to their version and managed to start a new cult that overtook the old, we’d still surely expect some records of the previous belief, even if only in the form of teachings from the new cult of why the old one was heretical and mistaken.

 

I don’t believe Price covers either of these two questions in the book. To be fair, it’s some months since I read it and I was rather skimming through on my initial read, so perhaps I’ve missed something; I’ll keep an eye out as I continue the review, and also, of course, look for Price’s thoughts in the comments. Meanwhile, I think that does complete the questions regarding the introduction, so on to Chapter One.

 

Chapter One: Deciphering the Gospel Called Mark

Price devotes the first two chapters of this book to the cornerstone of his theory; his belief that all of the gospel of Mark (apart from some filler) can be shown to have been based on other sources. He believes that from this we can deduce that the gospel of Mark (for which I’ll henceforth use the standard abbreviation gMark, for convenience) is entirely a fictional allegory. This chapter lists multiple examples of Markan stories that Price believes to have been derived from Jewish scriptures (or Jewish culture, in the case of the twelve apostles supposedly symbolising the twelve tribes), and Chapter Two does the same with examples of stories that Price believes to have been derived from Paul’s letters. For those interested in checking this out in more detail, he also has a chronologically ordered, and more comprehensive, list of all his examples online in his essay The Gospel of Mark as Reaction and Allegory, in which he goes through gMark explaining how each part of it in turn fits with his theory.

As I drafted out the comments I wanted to make about Chapter One, I found my reply fell into four parts. The first part looks at the logic underlying Price’s argument, the second at his claim that all the important points of gMark can be shown to have been derived from elsewhere, the third at a couple of Price’s specific examples, and the fourth at his theories about Mark’s motivation for writing. I’ll leave the last three of those for subsequent posts, and cover the first part here.

Price’s argument, as I understand it, can be summarised thusly:

  • All of gMark consists of symbolic or allegorical stories derived from other sources.
  • Therefore, all of gMark is fictional rather than factual.
  • Therefore, the protagonist in gMark – Jesus – is also fictional.

(He then goes on to argue, in subsequent chapters, that as the other gospels are derived from gMark this means that those are also entirely fictional evidence. I’ll discuss that when we get there.)

Edited to add: Price has now clarified, in comment #2 on this post, that my third point is incorrect: ‘Not true. Nowhere did I state that… I fully agree that merely showing that Mark is ahistorical does not prove that Jesus didn’t exist, and never made such a claim.’ I’m glad to have this clarified, and apologise to him for misunderstanding his argument. Since his book and online articles do come across as suggesting that ahistoricity of gMark would prove or at least provide evidence of ahistoricity of Jesus, I’ll leave the rest of this article up as written, since I think it’s worth clarifying that that is a logically incorrect conclusion to draw; however, the apparent logic flaw was not intended by Price and does not represent what he actually believes.

This chapter and the next one are both devoted to proving the first point on the list, by means of illustrating it with multiple examples. He has, overall, put an impressive amount of detailed and dedicated work into demonstrating the first part of his argument. Unfortunately, he seems to have assumed the subsequent parts of the argument rather than demonstrating them; his assumption seems to be that, if the stories in gMark are all allegorical fiction, then it must automatically follow that the protagonist is fictional. I can’t see that that follows.

Let’s suppose for a moment that Price is absolutely right about his main claim; that Mark did indeed mean his gospel entirely as a work of allegory and that he derived every single story he wrote from another source for this purpose. Why would this automatically mean that the character on which he based his story must also be fictional? It’s perfectly possible to write allegorical stories about a real character.

In fact, even according to Price’s own theory, this would have been precisely what Mark believed he was doing. Price believes Mark to have been a member of the early church (the Pauline branch), which would mean, according to Price’s theory, that Mark believed in Jesus as a spiritual being whose existence was entirely in heaven rather than on earth. While such a Jesus would obviously be fictional from our perspective, it’s important to remember that the people holding such a belief would see Jesus as real. If that had been Mark’s belief, then from his perspective he would have been writing about a being who – while existing in what was effectively another dimension – was nonetheless every bit as real as people on earth. If we’re assuming Mark was writing an allegory about a real (from his perspective) heavenly being, why should we assume he wouldn’t write an allegory about a real earthly being?

Ironically, when I started looking at Price’s examples in detail, I realised that the first example in this chapter perfectly demonstrates that Mark’s apparently symbolic stories can still refer to a real person:

I’d like to first focus on one simple element of the story to demonstrate that this is a fictional story, crafted by the author with the intent that readers use the literary allusions to understand the story. In the Gospel called Mark, John the Baptist represents Elijah. Knowing this is important for understanding the story. How are readers supposed to know that John the Baptist represents Elijah in the story? Readers are told this at the very beginning of the story through the use of literary allusion. In fact, readers are clued in to the fact that the story will parallel much of 1 and 2 Kings right from the beginning.

John the Baptist is, I agree, linked with Elijah in Mark’s account, in a way that could be symbolic. John the Baptist is also discussed in some detail by the well-known Roman historian Flavius Josephus, as a lengthy aside in Josephus’s account of the destruction of Herod Antipas’s army… which gives us solid evidence that JtB actually existed.

Of course, it’s worth examining other possible explanations for that Josephan passage. After all, we know that a different volume of the same work contains at least some lines about Jesus that clearly weren’t written by Josephus, and are now universally accepted as having been interpolated by a later (unknown) Christian who wanted to get their own beliefs about Jesus in there(1). So it’s possible that a Christian scribe might also have wanted to interpolate a passage about John the Baptist. Could this have been what happened here?

It’s certainly plausible that a Christian scribe might have wanted to insert passages that espoused his beliefs. What doesn’t make sense, however, is the theory that a Christian scribe would have inserted this particular passage. Not only is it different enough from the gospel accounts of JtB that it clearly wasn’t just drawn from them, it’s also included in the text specifically to make the point that some of the Jews blamed Herod’s loss of this battle on his unjust killing of John. I think we can safely say that a Christian scribe interpolating their faith-based opinions about Herod Antipas would have focused rather more on Herod’s rejection of Jesus, who doesn’t even get a mention in this passage. I think it therefore reasonable to rule out the theory that this passage was a Christian interpolation.

Of course, a scribe might have had some motivation other than religious belief to interpolate comments, and it is just about possible that someone could have had some motivation of which we’re unaware for interpolating a long passage about a relatively minor historical figure whose death, by that point, would have been many decades previously. (I know of no serious historians who believe this to have been the case, but I’m trying to be as open-minded as possible here.) However, even that outside possibility makes no sense unless John the Baptist at least existed in the first place. If he was only a minor fictional character in a rather obscure religious work, why on earth would anyone believe that the Jews were blaming Herod’s defeat on the murder of this non-existent character, much less write a long passage claiming this to be the case and inventing details that weren’t in the original story?

In short, the existence of this passage in our works of Josephus is good enough evidence to believe in John the Baptist’s existence. (For anyone interested in reading a much more detailed discussion of the interpolation theory – which also concludes that this passage is genuine – Peter Kirby has written a detailed post on the subject.) Regardless of whether Jesus existed, we can at least conclude that John did.

This, of course, tells us nothing whatsoever about Jesus’s existence. However, it does give us a clear example of a story of Mark’s that appears to be (and might well have been intended as) an allegory… but is nevertheless demonstrably about a real person. And as such, it blows a major hole through any theory that ‘allegory’ automatically equates to ‘fictional protagonist’. Which means that, right out of the gate, there is a fundamental problem with Price’s entire theory.

 

(1) The interpolation in Josephus is a fiercely controversial subject, so I shall take a second to clarify: No, we do not know whether or not all of the Testimonium Flavium is interpolated. It might be, it might not be; there is significant legitimate difference of opinion on that point even among experts, and I lack the knowledge or the interest to launch into that particular discussion in any detail. The point is, no-one seriously doubts that at least some of it was, and that, as such, it’s an excellent example of the fact that scribes could, potentially, interpolate bits of information into texts to satisfy their own agendas.

‘Walking Disaster’ review: Chapter Eleven

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

‘Walking Disaster’ is a companion novel to ‘Beautiful Disaster’, which is currently being snark-reviewed by the magnificent Jenny Trout. Links to that review and other reviews of Jenny’s can be found here.

 

Chapter Eleven: Cold Bitch

Well, there’s a title with ominous connotations.

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‘Walking Disaster’ review: Chapter Ten, Part Two

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

‘Walking Disaster’ is a companion novel to ‘Beautiful Disaster’, which is currently being snark-reviewed by the magnificent Jenny Trout. Links to that review and other reviews of Jenny’s can be found here.

Jenny Trout has her next ‘Beautiful Disaster’ post up! Check it out! For those wanting to read the two reviews in parallel, the plot covered in that chapter of ‘Beautiful’ is the same as that covered in the end of Chapter Eight, Chapter Nine, and the first part of Chapter Ten of ‘Walking’, because of how badly the books are synced up.

And, yes… I did find it cool to read her review after having done the parallel chapters in ‘Walking’, so now I’d like to cover enough of ‘Walking’ to get through the equivalent of Chapter Five in ‘Beautiful’ before Jenny reviews that chapter. But, again, we’ll see how it goes. (And I do have my other book review to work on as well.)

Back to Chapter Ten of ‘Walking’, guys!

Content warning

Red flag levels of possessive jealousy.

 

Chapter Ten: Broken (Oddly appropriate chapter title, since I broke the chapter review. Ba-dum, shh. OK, OK, moving on.)

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