(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 Gentile women who asked for her daughter to be saved. (Mark 7:24 – 30)
- Bracketing this, the two miraculous feeding-of-thousands scenes. (Mark 6:34 – 44 and Mark 8:1 – 9.)
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.
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.