Walking Disaster, Chapter 17, Part 1

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.

This was initially a companion series to the magnificent Jenny Trout‘s review of the original novel, ‘Beautiful Disaster’. Jenny has since stopped her review, not wanting to give McGuire any further publicity in the wake of her attempts to run for office.

Content warning: Sexism.

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Calling any history buffs who like book deconstructions…

Or anyone who likes book deconstructions, for that matter, but I’d love to find at least someone who wants to read a book description who also knows a lot about world history. World history from the fifteenth century on with a focus on the Americas, to be specific. This is not for anything I’m doing, but for the latest book deconstruction project over on The Slacktiverse, which is going to be Orson Scott Card’s Pastwatch: The Redemption Of Christopher Columbus. (I did choose the book, but the deconstruction will be done by the blogger there, SilverAdept.)

Without going into too much detail, Pastwatch is about Christopher Columbus and about counterfactual history and possible changes to history. SilverAdept does brilliant reviews and I’m really looking forward to seeing what they (1) and the commenters over there have to say about this one, but my happiness with the subject will be complete if we turn out to have anyone there who knows enough about history to be able to point out any places where the plot wouldn’t work, or where it could have/should have been done differently. I figured it couldn’t hurt to put out a call on here. Even if that isn’t you, I heartily recommend the blog for anyone who likes reading book deconstructions (the sort of detailed review I do, pointing out the problems but also discussing what works well); SilverAdept does an awesome job over there, and the blog deserves a larger commentariat than it currently seems to have. Posts go up every Thursday. Come along, read, and have your say!

 

(1) Might have initially misgendered; my apologies. Just saw that in the post that’s currently the most recent, SilverAdept refers to themself as ‘they’. I’ll go with that unless I hear otherwise.

Walking Disaster, Chapter 16

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.

This was initially a companion series to the magnificent Jenny Trout‘s review of the original novel, ‘Beautiful Disaster’. Jenny has since stopped her review, not wanting to give McGuire any further publicity in the wake of her attempts to run for office.

Content warning: Violence against property. Pushy stalkery-type behaviour with complete lack of respect for boundaries.

[Read more…]

‘Deciphering The Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed’ review: Chapter Seven

‘Deciphering the Gospels’, by R. G. Price, argues the case for Jesus mythicism, which is the view that Jesus never existed on earth in any real form but was an entirely mythical figure in the same way as Hercules or Dionysus. (The author is not the same person as Robert Price, also a Jesus mythicist author.) I’m an atheist who holds the opposing (and mainstream) view that Jesus was originally a human being of the 1st century about whom a later mythology grew up. I’m therefore reviewing Price’s book to discuss his arguments and my reasons for disagreeing.

The first post in this book review is here. All subsequent posts will be linked at the end of that post as they go up.

Chapter 7: Non-canonical accounts of Jesus

This chapter looks at whether there’s any support for Jesus’s historicity in what are known as the non-canonical gospels (the various early-ish stories of Jesus that, for various reasons, weren’t considered bona fide and didn’t make it into the official NT).

In this chapter, I don’t actually have much on which to disagree with Price. The non-canonical gospels, like the canonical gospels, were written by unknown authors many years after events, and thus aren’t very helpful in terms of figuring out what did or didn’t happen. They do, of course, add at least somewhat to the general problem that I raised in the last chapter; if gMark really was just a fictional work, how on earth did it lead to so many people being so convinced it was real that they were writing detailed embroidered versions of the story? Price has yet to address that problem. However, as far as specific points are concerned, there’s only one detail on which I wanted to comment.

It isn’t actually about the apocryphal gospels directly but about one of the passages Price quotes from the standard gospels. Near the end of the chapter, Price is talking about passages that gThomas appears to have copied from gMark, and brings up the Parable of the Tenants. I agree with the point he’s making – yes, I think the author of gThomas copied this from gMark – but I wanted to comment on the passage itself, because it raises yet another problem for Price’s theory.

What is important about this particular scene and literary allusion is the fact that it clearly makes the most sense in the context of the First Jewish-Roman War and the sacking of Jerusalem in 70 CE. In concluding the parable, Jesus says “What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.

The “vineyard” is Israel, the “owner” of the vineyard is God, the Jews are the “tenants,” and the “others” are the Romans. This is all a very clear and common interpretation, but of course this interpretation only makes sense in the light of the First Jewish-Roman War. This parable is written by the author of Mark as a way of spelling out the meaning of his entire story; it basically explains the meaning of the Gospel of Mark.

It is perhaps worth mentioning that the idea that Mark was alluding to the first Jewish-Roman war is, while a perfectly probable and very widely accepted one, not quite the certainty that Price seems to think. Mark portrays Jesus as describing various scenes of dreadful but rather nonspecific disaster that would befall the Jews. While this might well indeed have been a retrospective interpretation of the war, it’s also vague enough that it might just be either Jesus’s or Mark’s beliefs in a coming apocalypse in which sinners would be destroyed. These sorts of beliefs seem to have been fairly common amongst Jews of the time (as they are amongst fundamentalist Christians today), and thus it’s hardly outside the bounds of coincidence for someone to have come out with such a ‘prophecy’ shortly before an actual disaster occurred. I think gMark could have been written either before or after the war.

However, all that is by-the-by; there is a more important problem for Price’s theory in this whole parable. In the parable, what have the tenants/the Jews actually done that’s led the owner/God to decide to ‘destroy the tenants and give the vineyards to others’? According to verses 3 – 8 of the chapter, the answer is that they’ve repeatedly beaten and/or killed the slaves sent to them by the owner to collect his due, eventually killing the owner’s own son. In the analogy, of course, the slaves are analogous to previous prophets and the son is analogous to Jesus, thought of by Christians as God’s son. In other words, the wrong for which Mark is blaming the Jews in this analogy is… killing Jesus. Or, at least, killing or attacking a series of prophets, culminating in killing Jesus in the same way that they supposedly killed other prophets.

Which, of course, fits perfectly well if Jesus was a historical man who actually was killed; under that theory, Mark is blaming the Jews for this and blaming disaster (whether the actual disaster of the war or an imagined imminent disaster) on them for this action. But, according to Price’s theory, gMark is meant to be an entirely fictional allegory blaming the Jews for something else (Price seems a little fuzzy on what, but clearly in Price’s theory it can’t be for killing Jesus). So how does Price’s theory fit with this parable?

I did raise this point in a previous post. Price replied:

[Mark’s] creating that narrative in his story. Clearly the Jews kill Jesus in his story. The parable relates to the narrative.

OK. Why is Mark creating that narrative in his story? Price believes that Mark wrote this gospel as an allegory in order to convey a message about why he thinks the Jews had brought/would bring disaster on themselves. He’s clearly stated, above, that this parable is Mark’s way of ‘spelling out the meaning of his entire story’. Why would Mark be spelling out that the meaning of his entire story is ‘the Jews are at fault for killing Jesus’ if he was not trying to convey that the Jews were at fault for killing Jesus?

Price is welcome to come up with an explanation, if he’s got one. But it’s yet one more to add to the list of details that make much better sense if the figure on whom our Jesus stories was based was actually a real person.

Thoughts on ‘Rite of Passage’

Alexei Panshin died on Sunday. My condolences to those who knew him, should any of them stumble across this.

The news naturally made me think of the only work I’ve read by him; his most famous one, Rite of Passage, in which a young girl from an insular future society on a spaceship faces a harsh coming-of-age test and makes some initial steps in questioning her own prejudices. I discovered the book some time in my preteen or early teen years, at the polytechnic where my mother used to lecture; she’d occasionally bring me along when she had to go in for something during the holidays, and I’d spend the time in the library. Most of the books there were textbooks, but there was a small fiction section and this was one of the books there. The copy didn’t have a cover blurb (I think it was a hardback with no dustjacket), but when I opened it to see what it was about I was drawn into the story straight away.

Since I only spent a few hours in that library on an occasional basis and always decided to start over at the beginning when I went back, I ended up reading Part One several times before I read the rest; for years after that it felt surprising that there was a middle and end to the book. (This somehow felt oddly appropriate for the story, in which a period of stagnation in the protagonist’s life is followed by a period of change that makes her start to recognise the stagnation in the society around her.) I can’t remember when or where I eventually ended up reading the whole thing, but for me the book will always carry memories of hours spent browsing in that library.

Anyway, looking back at the book now, I have some thoughts about different aspects about it, and this is something I’ve vaguely planned to post about at some point. With Panshin’s death coinciding with the start of my annual leave and some actual spare time, now seems like a good point. This post will contain significant spoilers.

 

Trial

Trial, the eponymous Rite of Passage in the story, is absolutely crucial to the book’s plot from a literary point of view. However, from an in-story point of view it doesn’t seem to make all that much sense. Why do the Ship-dwellers expect all their fourteen-year-olds to survive a month on an alien planet to prove their fitness for adulthood? Especially when quite a lot of them don’t survive?

Mia tells us that it’s essential for population control on the Ship, but it clearly isn’t; they keep careful control of births to make sure the population stays within limits, so the actual effect would be a gradual attrition of their numbers over time (as demonstrated by Alicia MacReady, who’s banned from further pregnancies even though none of her children survive Trial, and expelled from the ship when she won’t abide by that rule). The teacher of the pre-Trial classes tells them, in the title grab speech, that it’s ‘a formal way of passing from one stage of your life to another’ which all societies have, but, in fact, the latter part of that isn’t true; the highly industrialised societies from which the Ship’s population came don’t normally have this sort of survival test to surmount in order to make it to adulthood. While he’s probably right about it making adulthood more meaningful due to having been earned, it’s hard to imagine the Ship’s society deciding that this is important enough to put their children through the risk of dying as teenagers through sheer bad luck. Trial does fit with the general unstated theme of ‘survival of the fittest’, but it’s hard to picture the Ship’s society deciding that the one attribute they want their children to prove in order to remain part of society is the ability to survive on a planet, when this is an ability they’ll then never need for the rest of their lives.

Like the hand-cutting in the Choosing Ceremony in Divergent, Trial is something that works really well on a symbolic level and not at all when you try to picture such a custom developing in reality.

One last thought on this point: What happened in terms of Trialists interacting with the colonists? We know that a fair proportion of the people on Trial spent the month exploring their surroundings, and it seems likely that many of those would have had some kind of encounter with the locals. We know that the very negative encounters that Mia’s group had were considered very much the exception. Logically, therefore, there must have been a large proportion of the Ship who had some personal memory of having positive interactions with people they’d previously been taught to see as inferior peasants. It seems like the number of Shipdwellers who questioned their prejudices about colonists should have been higher. But then, they’d all have returned to spend the rest of their long lives in their insular and bigoted society, so maybe not.

 

The evils of overpopulation

This is a significant theme in the book, and it’s interesting to look back on it now, because it’s very much a product of its time in the way it’s presented. ‘Rite of Passage’ was published within a few years of Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! (the book that would become ‘Soylent Green’), and Max Ehrlich’s The Edict. Reading Panshin’s Wikipaedia page, I was entirely unsurprised to learn that his introduction to science fiction was Heinlein’s Farmer In The Sky, which dates from a couple of decades earlier but presents a similar view of an overpopulated Earth. Panshin’s/Mia’s description of an Earth shortly prior to destruction is strongly reminiscent of these:

In 2041, there were eight billion people on Earth alone, and nobody even had free room to sneeze. There were not enough houses, not enough schools or teachers, inadequate roads and impossible traffic, natural resources were going or gone, and everybody was a little bit hungry all the time, although nobody was actully starving. Nobody dared to raise his voice because if he did he might disturb a hundred other people, and they had laws and ordinances to bring the point home – it must have been like being in a library with a stuffy librarian twenty-four hours a day.

It’s interesting to compare this with our situation now that we almost have reached the eight billion level. Some of it, of course, is accurate, though the situation with housing/teachers/traffic is more due to mismanagement than to actual raw material shortages; but it’s notable that Panshin – like Harrison, Ehrlich, and, earlier, Heinlein – thought that the biggest problems with this level of overpopulation would be global food shortage and unmanageable physical overcrowding. It has, of course, turned out since then that the biggest problems are actually the devastation caused to the climate and environment by this number of people. Our problems are no less significant than the ones predicted by the science fiction authors of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, but the way in which they affect day-to-day life is rather different from the picture that was imagined then.

(I was also struck by the contrast between the line ‘everybody was a little bit hungry all the time, although nobody was actually starving’ and the modern-day situation. Panshin might have been too pessimistic about our potential for global food production, but he was way too optimistic about how fairly we’d end up sharing the food we had.)

The other feature that’s strongly reminiscent of the time is Panshin’s assumption (reflected in the characters’ assumption) that the only way of preventing overpopulation is by strict laws controlling the number of children allowed. Hence, when Mia sees a family with eight children while on her Trial and realises the planet of Tintera has no such laws, she’s horrified by what she believes to be the implication; she assumes this world will go on to be overrun by overpopulation and eventually destroyed. This view is shared by the people of the Ship, and, while it’s not by any means the only factor in their eventual decision to destroy Tintera, it’s certainly a significant one. Mia’s father, addressing the Ship assembly, even describes a planet without population control laws as a ‘cancer that must be destroyed or it will grow and grow until it destroys its host and itself’, as though the people of Tintera were somehow going to pile on top of one another as the population grew until they extended out into space, filled the galaxy and overran the Ship. Nobody points out to him that this is a nonsensical metaphor.

And yet, what we’ve actually seen happen over the decades since then is very different; in country after country, the reproduction rate has dropped below replacement level. And this is traceable to two main factors: effective low-risk widely-available birth control so that anyone with a uterus has practical ways of avoiding using it when they don’t want to, and widespread social acceptance of the idea that women will probably want to do other things with their lives apart from motherhood. As far as I’ve been able to find out, in every single country in which these two factors have become generally available, even imperfectly, the reproduction rate has shown this kind of drop.

The reproduction rates that Panshin and his peers thought were an unstoppable flaw in humanity have actually turned out to be due to the fact that most sexually active people had limited alternatives. On average, most people with uteruses don’t actually want to spend their entire reproductive lives using them; all we needed was the chance, both sociologically and practically, to avoid doing so. Yes, there are always individual exceptions who want large families; it’s just that they’re more than outweighed by the number of women who choose to stop at one or have none at all. The existence of the occasional eight-child family in a society demonstrates nothing whatsoever about the overall reproduction rate in that society.

All this does raise a question that is not addressed in the book and that I haven’t seen addressed in any of the reviews I’ve read; how effectively could the people of Tintera or other colonists have controlled their reproduction rates? The Ship’s stated policy – hotly debated in the epilogue, but ultimately upheld – is to withhold technical information from the planetary colonies in order to give themselves bargaining power in exchanges with the planets and hence to continue their parasitic existence, and thus the colonies are deliberately kept at a more low-tech level. What would the effect of that be on population growth?

One council member in the final debate does link the two in a heavily paternalistic way; the poor dears are too primitive to be expected to know any better, all our fault for not teaching them better ways. But nobody mentions a much more practical link; a low-tech society is simply not going to have very effective contraceptives. There are certainly going to be methods; they’re just going to have high failure rates. I was struck by the irony of the Ship criticising Tinteran society (on extremely limited evidence) for failing to control their reproduction satisfactorily while simultaneously making it impossible for them to do so.

 

The vote on Tintera

Reading this section over again, I was struck by how the motion for voting was phrased.

After a heated two-hour debate that started on the specifics of Tintera’s case but rapidly moved on to a general debate of whether the Ship should continue with the status quo of living off the colonies or whether it should choose some other route such as becoming self-sufficient or mining an unoccupied planet for raw materials, the Chairman phrases the vote on Tintera’s fate thus:

“[…]The basic question seems to be, what shall be done with Tintera? That is the purpose of this assembly. Those who agree with Mr Persson on a policy of containment, and I don’t know what else – re-education perhaps? – will also be voting for a change in our basic way of life along one or more of the lines that Mr Persson has suggested or some similar alternative. Those who vote with me for the destruction of Tintera will also be voting for a continuation of the policies we have been living by for 160 years.[…]”

In other words, the specific decision on whether the Tinterans should have their planet destroyed for being Bad Colonists is explicitly tied to the different, and much more far-reaching, question of whether the Ship’s members are going to make radical changes to their own lifestyle. Talk about weighting the scales; anyone who might have had some sympathy for Tintera but doesn’t like the idea of having to change their lifestyle and possibly be forced into the mining industry themselves is going to have a strong reason to vote for Tintera’s destruction. Tintera was probably doomed anyway, but this definitely would have skewed things. Poor Tintera.

 

I noticed other details (why did they keep horses on the Ship? And tigers?? Why were dishes cleared up by incinerating them, when it would have been so crucial to reuse or recycle all their limited resources? I think Panshin sometimes got carried away by his vision both of Futuristic Life and of Pioneering Into The Unknown and didn’t think about the practicalities), but the above covers my main thoughts. If any of you have read ‘Rite of Passage’, I would love to hear your thoughts on it.

‘Walking Disaster’, Chapter 15

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.

This was initially a companion series to the magnificent Jenny Trout‘s review of the original novel, ‘Beautiful Disaster’. Jenny has since stopped her review, not wanting to give McGuire any further publicity in the wake of her attempts to run for office.

Bloody hell, it’s been a while. I left this for almost six months, came back and wrote up half the chapter, left it again and came back to it again, just over a year after doing the last chapter. But now! I have done another chapter! And calculated that if I can keep this rate up, I should finish this book not too long after I start drawing my pension! Or, y’know, I could do what Jenny did and just DNF. Should I do that? I should probably do that. But here, FWIW, is the chapter review.

Chapter 15: Tomorrow

Kind of ironic I spent so long getting to it, then.

Two weeks. That was all I had left […]

Three, not two. McGuire, it should not be this difficult to keep track of a basic timeline. I’m wondering whether maybe an original draft had the bet-to-party timeline taking two weeks but got edited to one and she forgot to make other changes in the draft to allow for the fact that it would then be three weeks from the party till the end of the month; that’s about the only way I can explain it. Still, it’s sloppy.

Travis says that two weeks was all he had left to ‘somehow show Abby that I could be who she needed’, so he goes for a charm offensive, saying he ‘pulled out all the stops; spared no expense’, but, of course, doesn’t make any mention of straight-out letting her know how he feels. You know what this is reminding me of? That awful ‘Nice Guy’ article that was doing the rounds years back by an anonymous author whose strategy of following women round trying to do as many favours for them as possible was somehow failing to get them to spontaneously decide to dump their boyfriends and go out with him instead. In addition to everything else wrong with that article, it never seemed to occur to the author that, rather than this indicating that the women in question didn’t want to go out with nice guys, it might just possibly mean that they were not fucking telepathic. If you want a romantic relationship with someone, either tell them this or accept that it’s highly unlikely to happen, but don’t faff around feeling sorry for yourself just because they don’t pick up on your wishes through seizing them out of the ether.

Anyway, McGuire speeds the plot up a bit (hooray) and summarises the rest of the month:

We went bowling, on dinner dates, lunch dates, and to the movies. We also spent as much time at the apartment as possible: renting movies, ordering in, anything to be alone with her.

Uh, if you’re going on all those different dates you’re not spending as much time at the apartment as possible. But whatever.

Travis does a couple of fights for Adam during this time so that he can earn some money, but keeps them as short as he can in order to get back to Abby faster, which Adam isn’t too happy about.

…for the first time, I felt like a normal, whole human being instead of some broken, angry man.

Folks, your regular reminder here that using a relationship as therapy for your own brokenness is a horrible idea. Get some actual therapy; that’s what it’s there for.

Abby laughed a lot, but she never opened up.

…says the man who’s now spent weeks failing to mention the rather salient fact that he desperately wants a romantic relationship with her.

Anyway, they get to the last morning and Travis is angsting over what it’ll be like after the bet’s over:

Pidge would be around, maybe visit occasionally, probably with America, but she would be with Parker.

Why is Travis still worrying about Parker? The story so far is supposed to be that Abby and Parker had a few dates, Parker caught Abby and Travis asleep in the same bed and thought they’d had sex, and that, over the next two/three/however many weeks it’s supposed to have been since then, Travis and Abby have been spending all available time together. Whatever is or isn’t happening romantically between Travis and Abby, that sequence of events does not sound as though he has any reason to think Abby and Parker are a thing any more.

I was on the brink of losing her.

Oh, the tension! The tension! After weeks of being mysteriously unable just to tell Abby straight out how he feels, he’s going to… go on seeing her regularly as a friend with ongoing opportunities to just tell her straight out how he feels!

Shep, in another of his intermittent moments of ‘person who actually talks some sense’, comes in and points out to him that he’s going to see Abby again. Travis says it won’t be the same and even if she doesn’t end up with Parker she’ll end up with ‘someone like Parker’.

“I’ve tried everything. I can’t get through to her.[…]”

OH, FFS, AT WHAT POINT DID YOU ACTUALLY TRY TELLING HER HOW YOU FEEL? I mean, that’s a pretty obvious thing to try, if you want someone to date you; try asking them instead of hoping to transmit your feelings via telepathy. Honestly… I would buy it if we were going with a ‘She can’t possibly feel the same way and I don’t want to ruin the friendship!’ plot, or a ‘She deserves better than me’ plot (which was where we started out and which would, of course, have the bonus of being absolutely correct, not that that helps the romantic tension much). But somehow we’ve swerved into a plot where the obstacle is an invented communication problem that is nowhere either demonstrated or explained.

Travis says that maybe she just doesn’t feel the same way – which is indeed a possibility to be considered, and is something he could find out if he just, y’know, asked – and Shepley says ‘Or maybe she’s trying not to’, which, if so, would be a good reason just to let it be. No, Shep advises that he make her a romantic meal that night with a bottle of wine, while he and America clear out somewhere.

Trav implements this plan and Abby seems to like it. He tells her how much he’s going to miss her and frets about how she’s going to be dating Parker. (Since it’s fairly obvious that she’s not dating Parker by this point, it’s weird that she doesn’t point out that she’s not.) He asks her to stay and she says she can’t move in because that’s ‘crazy’.

“Says who? I just had the best two weeks of my life.”

THREE!! THREE!! Grrrr.

“Me, too.”

“Then why do I feel like I’m never gonna see you again?”

It’s called catastrophising, Travis.

Abby comes round, sits on his lap, starts stroking his face, bends over to peck him on the side of the mouth, and he turns it into a lingering kiss on the lips. I would have thought that surely at this point they must have lost the plausible deniability on the whole ‘he/she can’t possibly really feel this way about me’ thing; I mean, this would be a perfect moment for “Wow, that happened, guess we should talk”. From the literary POV it would also work to have one or other of them go into panicked babbling ‘MUST AVOID TALKING!’ mode because that’s also a fairly natural reaction at this sort of point. What actually happens is that Abby pulls away and acts as though nothing much has happened and Travis goes along with it. She says she’s got a big day tomorrow (why? Was that explained at some point that I missed because of having temporarily fallen into a boredom-induced coma? Possibly) and will get the kitchen cleaned up and then head to bed.

We did the dishes together in silence, with Toto asleep at our feet.

Sounds like a bit of a hazardous place for Toto, who would be at constant risk of getting splashed, accidentally kicked, or accidentally stepped on. I guess McGuire has had one of her moments of remembering Toto exists and wanting him there for cuteness purposes but without, as usual, thinking through the practicalities.

She also really doesn’t seem to have thought through what it would be like standing working next to the person you just shared a passionate kiss with for the first time without either of you talking about it. I mean, that’s a weird tense situation, and it’s the sort of tension that normally would be played up to the hilt in a romance novel, with lots of ‘I could feel the warmth of her shoulder inches from mine’ and ‘the scent from her shampoo tantalised my nostrils’ and ‘I sucked my breath in sharply as her hand accidentally brushed against mine’, etc. Good grief, I didn’t realise how much I’d picked up from reading romance novels. The point is, we don’t get any of that from McGuire. It’s… well, literally as dull as dishwater. Duller, since hearing about the dishwater would probably make it more interesting.

They go and get changed for bed and there’s still absolutely zero sexual tension. I mean, there’s tension over this whole fake ‘last chance for Trav to get together with Abby’ thing, but there’s no hint that he’s physically attracted to the woman undressing in front of him and climbing into bed with him. I guess that’s been the case all along, thinking about it; it’s striking me now more that I’m coming back to this book after reading a few ‘there was only one bed’ romances and noticing the contrast. Anyway, he holds her (still no hint that he’s sexually aroused) and feels miserable about the morning coming. She realises he’s miserable.

“This is silly,” she said.

Ya THINK?

“We’re going to see each other every day.”

“You know that’s not true.”

After a pause, Abby starts kissing his neck. Flippin’ FINALLY. Trav starts kissing her properly. She tells him she wants him and Trav reassures her that she doesn’t have to do this. She says “Don’t make me beg” and they start kissing properly. McGuire screws up the timeline yet again:

Six weeks of pent-up sexual tension overwhelmed me

No. You had sex just before Abby and America came to stay at the flat. It’s been just over a month since then (two days from then till the bet, a month from then till now because that’s the time interval stipulated in the bet). Where is McGuire getting six weeks from? Grrr, whatever. I’ve got to read a sex scene with Travis Maddox now; I think some skimming is in order.

Oooookay, here’s what happened (and what didn’t). He did check in again to make sure that she wants sex, so at least this time it really is consensual. And he does think about how it’s important for him to be gentle. And they do use a condom. So this could have been a lot worse. However, despite supposedly being this stud with lots of experience who’s amazing in bed, he doesn’t even try to make her come or care that she hasn’t. Seriously, there is nothing about that side of things at all. This is supposed to be our romantic hero. So… yeah, they finally had The Big First-Time Sexual Experience, and the best I can find to say about it is that he used protection and didn’t actually rape her.

Anyway, she makes a joke about “That was some first kiss” (which it… wasn’t? Because they already had that out in the kitchen?) and he says “Your last first kiss”, which sounds like an assumption waaaaay too far. Then he falls asleep next to her without asking what he can do to help her come, because he’s a dick. But he now thinks they’re a couple and assumes she’ll now stay with him, so he’s happy. And there we go, another chapter finished.

Valentine’s Day romance reviews

Some of you might remember that last Valentine’s Day, I wrote a post reviewing a couple of my favourite romance series and talking about why I liked not only the writing but also the values they promoted (healthy relationships and diversity). One thing I did notice, however, is that both of them were by white authors and about white couples. And this is one of those things that’s not in itself any sort of problem, but where there is some important wider context going on. (Short version: a) writers of colour have significantly more difficulty getting published than white writers, and b) non-white characters don’t get anything like the same level of representation in main roles in books. So all this contributes to the problem of white people being more likely to live in a homogenous bubble and non-white people not getting to see themselves represented in books to anything like the same extent.)

So, it occurred to me that for Valentine’s Day 2022, it would be interesting to look actively for good romances by non-white authors and to review some of those.

For my first review, a book that I discovered on Kindle Deals a while back: Have We Met? by Camille Baker, a sign language interpreter moving into writing with this novel. Corinne, the story’s protagonist, is lost and unhappy after her best friend’s death, temping for little money, and generally stuck. The book is only secondarily a romance; first and foremost, it’s about how Corinne finds direction, purpose, and a new group of friends (with a little beyond-the-grave help from her friend). It’s a lovely, warm, readable, relatable story, so good it’s hard to believe it’s a first novel, and I was thrilled to see that a sequel (featuring Corinne’s cousin/new close friend) is coming out in a few months. Already preordered!

As a bonus, this story gives us a pansexual love interest, a non-binary alternative love interest possibility, and a Deaf character (Corinne’s brother) as normal and unremarkable parts of the story. Why is this important, you ask? Because it’s great to have the reminders that actually a lot of people in the world are queer/trans/disabled or otherwise different from the narrow range of people that seems to be all that a lot of media presents to us, and that they have lives that are about a whole range of things that aren’t just Their Differences.

Next up, I asked for recommendations on the wonderful Friends of Captain Awkward forum, and I got plenty. In fact, here’s the full list for anyone else who wants to check them out:

  • Alyssa Cole
  • Jackie Lau
  • Talia Hibbert
  • Beverly Jenkins (historical)
  • Kennedy Ryan
  • Helen Hoang
  • Jasmine Guillory
  • Sara Desai
  • Sonya Lalli
  • Mia Sosa
  • Chencia C Higgins (seems to write plus-size gay romance from what I’ve seen, so enjoy!)
  • Courtney Milan (mainly historical)
  • Nailini Singh

So, plenty to keep us romance fans busy through till next Valentine’s Day! I hadn’t planned far enough ahead to check all those out, but here are reviews of the two I did read:

The Professor Next Door by Jackie Lau, a Chinese-Canadian geophysicist who moved into romance writing. This one caught my eye because of the title, and I read it because I’m always up for cute geeky love interests, as well as liking romances that shift between the two main points of view. It was a lovely, low-key, funny, warm romance between two sorted functioning adults with not a Tortured Broken Soul in sight, and I loved it. It’s part of a series in which each of a group of friends finds a partner, and now I want to read the rest; I’ve already read the two spin-off novellas (one of which is available for newsletter subscribers). Oh, yes; and the female protagonist’s sibling is non-binary, and once again that’s treated as completely ordinary; so some representation there again!

And finally, The Worst Best Man by former lawyer Mia Sosa (all these people have such interesting career histories!) is a delightfully funny romcom, also from alternating points of view, in which two people with a really awkward past are stuck with a situation where they both need to work together. Enemies-to-lovers plots are less of a favourite of mine, but they can be done well and this one was. The book did skirt the edges of a ‘let us get ourselves into a situation where we have to lie to everyone and explore the utter hilarity of that’ plot, which is something I really don’t like, but that’s my personal preference, not a flaw in the book; in any case, it was kept to tolerable levels and the rest of the writing definitely made up for it.

Also, there is one scene in the book I liked so much I have to give it special mention even though it is, on the face of it, utterly mundane and nothing to do with the romance: it’s just a scene showing the female protagonist at work doing her job in a focused, competent way. She’s checking out a wedding site (she’s a wedding planner) and asking the owner the questions that need to be asked; how many 72-inch tables can be fitted in there, is there a liquor licence, what’s the power supply like? The owner, who also happens to be a woman, is just as on it and knows the answers straight out. It was like a new and updated version of the Bechdel test; two women have a conversation about a topic related to their jobs in which it’s clear they both know what they’re doing. This shouldn’t be remotely remarkable, but it feels like something we don’t get all that often in a sea of plots about women screwing up at work either for laughter or sympathy on the part of the readership. Is it completely weird that I loved this scene? Probably. I’m weird and I own it and I loved that scene.

But there’s so much else to love about this book as well. We get relatable characters bursting with personality, great readable snarky dialogue, laugh-out-loud moments, vulnerable moments, the lot. Also, I learned about capoeira, which is majorly cool.

So, Happy Valentine’s Day to all of you! Anyone got any other recommendations for romances? Anything I should check out ready for next year’s post?

‘Deciphering The Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed’ review: Chapter Six, Part 1

‘Deciphering the Gospels’, by R. G. Price, argues the case for Jesus mythicism, which is the view that Jesus never existed on earth in any real form but was an entirely mythical figure in the same way as Hercules or Dionysus. (The author is not the same person as Robert Price, also a Jesus mythicist author.) I’m an atheist who holds the opposing (and mainstream) view that Jesus was originally a human being of the 1st century about whom a later mythology grew up. I’m therefore reviewing Price’s book to discuss his arguments and my reasons for disagreeing.

The first post in this book review is here. All subsequent posts will be linked at the end of that post as they go up.

 

Chapter Six: Development Of The Other Gospels

Near the beginning of this chapter, Price tells us what he intends to do:

What we will explore in this chapter are explanations for the development of the other Gospels, which show that material in them that is not shared with the Gospel called Mark is best explained as still having been dependent on the Markan narrative or invented by the writers themselves.

And, near the end, he assures us that he’s done it:

I have presented arguments as to why I believe the independent material from the Gospels of Matthew and John was invented by the authors of those works and does not trace back to accounts of the life of any real Jesus. I have presented arguments as to why I believe independent material from the Gospel called Luke was influenced by the Gospel called Matthew and explained that other independent material in Luke was likely influenced by other non-Christian sources who were not writing about Jesus.

So, what parts of the non-Markan material does he actually address in between these two assurances?

  • The birth narrative in gMatthew
  • The ‘miraculous signs’ narrative in gJohn
  • The last chapter of gJohn (thought to be a later addition by a different author).

Now, I have no problem at all with the idea that all of those are fictional. But that still leaves a heck of a lot of non-Markan material unaccounted for. In terms of Karl Popper’s black swan logic argument, all that Price has done is find a few white swans and assure us that this satisfactorily demonstrates the whiteness of swans generally, while ignoring most of the swans. Let’s remember that, as Price admitted himself in Chapter Four, it was normal in that day and age for biographical stories to be embroidered with all sorts of mythology; so it simply isn’t valid to extrapolate from ‘some of this is clearly invented’ to ‘all of it must have been invented’.

So, time to look for black swans. Which non-Markan gospel material seems least likely to have been invented? I’m going to look at two different examples here.

 

1. The Nazareth question

Both gMatthew and gLuke tell us that Jesus grew up in Nazareth. So do the other two standard gospels, but the reason why I’m calling this out as significant in the case of these two specifically is because these are the two that are also at great pains to tell us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem (In Accordance With The ProphecyTM). Thus, for them, keeping ‘Nazareth’ as part of the story only complicates things; instead of just being able to say that Jesus was born in Bethlehem In Accordance With etc, they each have to invent a whole strained, fictitious story to explain how, in that case, he ended up coming from Nazareth. Why did they bother with putting Nazareth in their stories at all, when it only complicated their plots?

If they were writing about a real person, there’s an obvious explanation; the man of whom they were writing really did come from Nazareth and was well known to have done so. Since they wanted the stories to demonstrate that he came from Bethlehem as per prophecy, they were stuck with explaining away the Nazareth bit in some way. However, If they were writing mythical constructions of a life that never existed, then that doesn’t make sense. They could have written the story in any way they wanted. (Mark does say that Jesus came from Nazareth, but we know that Matthew was willing to change other details in gMark when they were clearly inaccurate, so if Matthew was really making it up from scratch then he had no reason to stick with this detail; he could just have ignored that, written that Jesus came from Bethlehem, and left out any mention of Nazareth at all.)

So, under mythicism we’re left here with a puzzling and unexplained point that would be explained quite easily under historicity. It’s a small thing, and it’s quite possible that some plausible explanation exists that we haven’t yet found, but… so far, as far as I can see that hasn’t yet happened. (Not because mythicists haven’t tried to explain it, but because what they’ve come up with isn’t particularly plausible.)

So, let’s see what Price has to say:

Here the author of Matthew is simply building on the Markan precedent and explicitly linking passages about “nazirites” to the idea that Jesus comes from “Nazareth”. The passage being referred to in verse 23 comes from Judges 13, where we are told that Samson will be raised as a nazirite.

This is, from what I’ve seen, the typical mythicist explanation for the whole Nazareth question. The problem is, this just raises a further question; why would Matthew be so keen to use this particular out-of-context reference that he’d write the whole complicated ‘Nazareth’ detail into his story?

Again, under historicity it makes sense; Matthew is already stuck with writing ‘Nazareth’ into his story because it’s well known that Jesus came from Nazareth, he’s working from the assumption that there must be some biblically prophecied reason for this, and so this mention in Judges 13 jumps out at him and he takes it to be a prophecy. But, under a mythicist theory, what reason would Matthew have to seize on that particular mention and include it?

One possibility, of course, might be that Matthew admires the story of Samson, or sees something in it that he finds particularly relevant to Jesus’s story, and so he wants to make the link for that reason. But that doesn’t work; apart from that one indirect mention, Matthew doesn’t link Jesus to Samson’s story in any other way. Similarly, it could be that Matthew wants to make a link with Nazirites generally, rather than Samson specifically; this would be quite a feasible thing for a gospel author to want, since Nazirites were people who had taken particular vows of purity (described in detail in Numbers 6:1 – 21; in short, this involved eschewing grape products, haircuts, and dead bodies for the duration of the vow). But, again, the problem with this is that Matthew doesn’t make any direct mention of Jesus being a Nazirite or taking such vows (in fact, Matthew repeats Mark’s scene of Jesus taking the hand of a dead child in order to resurrect her, which would contradict the idea of him being a Nazirite), so it doesn’t seem that this is Matthew’s concern either. So, under mythicist theory, why would Matthew be so keen to give us this single out-of-context reference that he has to make up a whole extra part of his story in order to put it in?

We get even less explanation for Luke’s inclusion of Nazareth:

[…] the similarities found in Luke are due to the fact that the author of Luke had heard versions of “Matthew’s” birth story, though he did not have a written copy of it.

What version of ‘Jesus’s family came from Bethlehem, but had to flee from there and settle in Nazareth due to mass infanticide by King Herod’ would lead Luke to come up with ‘Jesus’s family came from Nazareth, but ended up in Bethlehem for Jesus’s birth due to an event specifically dated to something that only happened ten years after King Herod’s death’?

Once again, under a historicist theory it’s easy to see how Matthew and Luke could have come up with these wildly clashing stories; if they were both working from the basic constraints of ‘The prophecy says the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem’ and ‘Jesus, whom we believe to be the Messiah, is known to have come from Nazareth’, then that would explain why their stories agree on ‘born in Bethlehem’ and ‘grew up in Nazareth’ while disagreeing on all the other fundamental details. But, under Price’s mythicist theory, Luke would have somehow had to have heard Matthew’s story and vaguely retained only the ‘came from Nazareth’ and ‘born in Bethlehem’ details, completely forgetting all the rest and showing no inclination even to go and check. Again, something that’s explained well by historicity isn’t properly explained by Price’s theory.

At this point, someone will typically argue that this is a detail and doesn’t prove anything. And, yes, of course on its own it doesn’t; it’s always possible that there’s a good explanation for this detail that we just don’t know about. If everything else in the story pointed strongly towards mythicism, I’d be quite happy to disregard this detail and go with mythicism. However, at this point nothing else is pointing towards mythicism. All that Price seems to have given us on the pro-mythicism side, other than his misunderstanding of Docetism, is that Mark used a lot of literary references in his work… and he’s also told us that that was normal for people in this society writing about actual historical characters, so that doesn’t do anything to point us towards mythicism rather than historicity.

Anyway, that aside… Price’s specific claim at the start of this chapter was that all the non-Markan gospel material is best explained by mythicism. Unless he has an explanation for this point that’s better than the historicity explanation, then this particular point isn’t ‘best’ explained by mythicism, and he should change his claim.

 

2. The retconned rabbi

Many years ago, I discovered the author Hyam Maccoby, a Talmudic scholar who has written several books analysing the New Testament accounts in light of his knowledge of rabbinical/Pharisaic Judaism of the time. One of his main findings was that the gospel stories of Jesus described someone speaking and behaving like a typical Pharisaic rabbi. In particular, Jesus’s famous Sabbath teachings were exactly in line with what Pharisees taught about the Sabbath; that not only was healing not forbidden on the Sabbath, but, if there was even the least chance that it was necessary to save someone’s life or their eyesight, it was positively meritorious. Two of the famous sayings attributed to Jesus – “The Sabbath is created for man, not man for the Sabbath” and the John 7:23 saying pointing to the precedent of circumcision on the Sabbath – are very similar to rabbinical sayings found in the Talmud. For this and other reasons, the descriptions of Jesus seem to be descriptions of a typical Pharisee.

This wouldn’t in itself automatically be a strange thing in a fictional story of the time – perhaps the gospel authors admired the Pharisees’ teachings and wanted to portray their protagonist as coming out with those words of wisdom – except, of course, that the gospels have a virulently anti-Pharisee message. Reading what the gospel authors have to say about the Pharisees (and, for that matter, what John has to say about the Jews generally), it’s extremely difficult to see why they would have wanted to invent a protagonist whose teachings were Pharisee-based.

Maccoby’s theory about all this was that Jesus was a Pharisaic rabbi and that the stories of him uttering Pharisaic teachings or beliefs are thus stories of things Jesus actually did. This does of course leave us with the opposite problem of wondering why, in that case, the gospel authors were so anti-Pharisee, but Maccoby does come up with a plausible explanation for that; they were writing for largely gentile communities, and the Pharisees were known to be strongly anti-Roman and were thus politically unpopular there. Meanwhile, the Sadducees were more pro-Roman and also clashed with the Pharisees on their teachings. Maccoby’s theory is therefore that in the original stories Jesus was a Pharisee arguing with Sadducees, but that detail was changed in order to portray him as a member of the more politically acceptable party. (As Maccoby points out, this might well not even have been a calculated change; if someone passing on the story already thought of the Sadducees as the ‘good guys’ and the Pharisees as the ‘bad guys’, the statement that Jesus’s Sabbath arguments were with Sadducees could have been simply assumed to be a mistake and ‘corrected’.) Jesus the Pharisee was thus retconned into being a Pharisee-denouncer. It’s conjecture, but it’s plausible as an explanation for what we’ve got.

But, under mythicism, we still seem to be left with a conundrum. Matthew, Luke and John, all strongly anti-Pharisee as shown by their writings, are inventing stories about Jesus from scratch, for a predominantly gentile community… in which they portray him as coming out with Pharisee teachings and sayings. That’s harder to explain. I look forward to seeing how Price does so.

 

All that was (to switch metaphors) a very close-up examination of a couple of trees in which we didn’t really look at the wood. In the next post, I want to look at the bigger picture of explaining non-Markan gospels in a mythicist theory.

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

‘Deciphering the Gospels’, by R. G. Price, argues the case for Jesus mythicism, which is the view that Jesus never existed on earth in any real form but was an entirely mythical figure in the same way as Hercules or Dionysus. (The author is not the same person as Robert Price, also a Jesus mythicist author.) I’m an atheist who holds the opposing (and mainstream) view that Jesus was originally a human being of the 1st century about whom a later mythology grew up. I’m therefore reviewing Price’s book to discuss his arguments and my reasons for disagreeing.

The first post in this book review is here. All subsequent posts will be linked at the end of that post as they go up.

 

Chapter 5: All Knowledge Of Jesus Comes From The Gospels

Price’s argument in this chapter can be approximately summarised thus:

  1. There was a major disagreement in the early centuries of the church over whether Jesus actually existed.
  2. If Jesus had existed, the pro-real-Jesus camp in the 2nd – 4th century followers would have been able to find better evidence than scripture to prove it.
  3. Yet his followers from that time only used scripture to prove he existed.
  4. Therefore, his followers must have been unable to find the definitive evidence we’d have expected them to have available if he existed.
  5. Therefore, we must doubt Jesus existed.

Unfortunately both of Price’s premises (points 1 and 2) are wrong, leading him to a fatally flawed conclusion. I’m going to look at the first point in this post, and at the second point in a subsequent post.

 

1. Was there a major disagreement in the early church over whether Jesus actually existed?

No. Before we go on to discuss why Price thinks there was, it’s worth taking a moment to look at this and think about how little sense it makes.

Price is talking, here, about one of the big disagreements within the movement; in other words, between different groups of believers. So these are people who would, by definition, have all believed in Jesus. They might have believed in a version of Jesus that had little or no resemblance to whatever the reality was, but they still believed that their version of Jesus was real. Anyone who didn’t believe in Jesus would, rather obviously, not be a follower of this group; they’d join a different religious group or none. Why on earth would Jesus’s followers be arguing over whether or not he really existed?

Let’s look back, for a moment, at what Price thinks the earliest group of Jesus-followers originally believed. He told us this back in the introduction:

Some small apocalyptic Jewish cult existed in Jerusalem around the middle of the first century that worshiped a heavenly messiah named Jesus. […] 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.

So, according to Price, this group believed that Jesus was an immaterial heavenly being. From Price’s perspective as an atheist and skeptic, this is, of course, equivalent to saying that Jesus didn’t exist. However, Price is overlooking the obvious here; that Jesus’s followers wouldn’t have seen it that way. Even if Price is correct about the original beliefs of the Jesus-followers, in their minds the heavenly being they followed would have existed, just as people of the time believed that Hercules or Romulus existed.

It therefore makes no sense whatsoever, even in the context of mythicism, to talk about people in the early church debating over whether or not Jesus existed. If the early group had, in fact, moved from believing in a heavenly Jesus to believing in an earthly Jesus, then the debate would have been over whether Jesus was earthly, not over whether he was real.

So why does Price think there was a debate about Jesus’s existence? He’s mainly getting this from misunderstanding the arguments over a doctrine now known to us as Docetism.

A common heretical view in the second and third centuries, known as Docetism, held that Jesus had come to earth as an immaterial spirit being, who only appeared real but was actually illusionary.

In fact, the debate in Docetism wasn’t about whether Jesus was real; it was about whether his flesh was. More generally, it was about whether Jesus did in fact become fully human or merely seemed to be human. The traditional Church view, and the one that prevailed in Church theology, was that Jesus was ‘fully God and fully man’, but there were plenty of people who disagreed with one or the other half of this, refusing to believe that these two opposites could be fully integrated. Some of these people believed that Jesus had in fact only been ‘a mere man’ rather than God in human form, but others went the other way and believed that Jesus, as God, couldn’t possibly have taken on the indignity of becoming a human being made from the same kind of flesh as anyone else. This is the belief now referred to as Docetism.

Price has helpfully included a selection of quotes from Church fathers describing Docetist beliefs about Jesus (the best we can do, as we no longer have any of the writings of Docetists themselves). I’ve picked out the quotes about how Docetists described the Jesus of their beliefs:

[Marcion, Valentinus, and the Gnostics] teach that His appearances to those who saw Him as man were illusory, inasmuch as He did not bear with him true manhood, but was rather a kind of phantom manifestation. (Hippolytus; Discourses)

Saturninus [affirmed] that Christ had not existed in a bodily substance, and had endured a quasi-passion in a phantasmal shape merely[…] Cerdo […] affirms that He was not in the substance of flesh; states Him to have been only in a phantasmal shape[…] Apelles […] says, because He descended from the upper regions, that in the course of His descent He wove together for himself a starry and airy flesh (Tertullian; Against All Heresies)

Others consider Him to have been manifested as a transfigured man […] while others [hold] that He did not assume a human form at all, but that, as a dove, He did descend upon that Jesus who was born from Mary. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies)

Now, if you’re looking through the lens of mythicism, it’s easy to read these references to phantoms and ‘not in the substance of flesh’ as being support for a Jesus who didn’t actually exist. But, if you look at what they’re saying, they are in fact all beliefs that Jesus’s followers saw him in what seemed to be human flesh, even though (according to the beliefs of the people saying these things) it can’t possibly have been actual human flesh because God wouldn’t take on human flesh. Leaving out the theological part of that, what the Docetists were actually saying was that Jesus appeared to be a human on earth. And, since one thing on which I, Price, and most people reading this can probably agree is that Jesus actually wasn’t an immaterial god pretending to be a human, the likely reason why he would appear to be a human on earth is that he was actually a human on earth.

Price does raise the question of whether the issue could have been whether Jesus was physical, rather than whether he was earthly:

I think the original conception of Jesus was as an immaterial heavenly being, and that the theology of early Jesus worship was rooted in the immaterial nature of Jesus.

While that’s possible, it also takes us back to the question of how Jesus’s followers came to believe him to have been crucified. Crucifixion is a very physical punishment, so it would be odd and incongruous for a group who set such high value on their saviour being immaterial to also come up with the idea that this immaterial saviour had been crucified.

Getting back to the point at hand: This theory of Price’s still leaves us with the fact that no-one (or no-one that Price has been able to cite) seems to have taken issue with whether Jesus actually came to earthThe Docetists whose views were described in the quotes Price gives all allude to a Jesus who appeared on earth in some form, even if it was as a ‘manifestation’ rather than in actual flesh. At most, we can say that some of the quotes could be compatible with a belief in a primarily heavenly Jesus who showed up only in visions rather than coming to earth himself. However, there’s no sense from the half of the debate we see that the amount of time Jesus spent on earth was the issue. The theologians quoted are taking issue only with the idea of whether his flesh was really real or just seemed so.

So the best we can say is that some of these quotes (only some) are compatible with either mythicism or historicity, but even those don’t support the idea of mythicism over historicity (the information they give is so brief that it’s hard to draw any conclusions from those isolated quotes). And, of course, the quote about Apelles and the last of the quotes above from Irenaeus still point towards a Jesus who was on earth in some form, thus pointing us at least somewhat more towards historicity than towards mythicism.

On top of this, we still have the question of why Price’s scenario would even have led to the point of this debate between the different camps arising. Price writes:

What we see in later docetist type views was an attempt to merge the Gospel narrative with the pre-Gospel theology of the cult.

Right, because the Church is historically so well known for trying to figure out compromises between existing beliefs and those considered heretical.

Bear in mind, here, that according to Price’s theory the idea of an earthly Jesus only got started because some spare copies of an entirely fictional account started circulating amongst non-Christians and somehow inspired a movement of people who believed in a human Jesus. How on earth, if you’ll excuse the unintentional pun, was that meant to stand up in any way when the new group met the existing group? If the basis of the original theology was that Jesus was immaterial and heavenly only, and along came a group of Johnny-come-latelies claiming he’d had an earthly life, why in blue blazes would the response of the existing and established group be to try to figure out a way to incorporate this into their existing theology rather than simply making it entirely clear that this new group were a bunch of misinformed heretics and had no idea what they were talking about?

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

‘Deciphering the Gospels’, by R. G. Price, 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 is not the same person as Robert Price, also a Jesus mythicist author.) I’m an atheist who holds the opposing (and mainstream) view that Jesus 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.

4. Early Christian Understanding Of The Gospels

This chapter focuses mainly on traditional church beliefs about a) the origins of the gospels and b) supposed prophecies of Jesus in the Old Testament, pointing out the significant problems with both. Most of the chapter can be briefly summarised as ‘we now know that the early Church fathers’ claims about who wrote the gospels can’t be true, and we also know that the supposed ‘prophecy fulfilment’ doesn’t stand up’. Since I broadly agree with Price’s general position on these, I don’t see any particular need to discuss this chapter further. However, there are two passages from the chapter on which I do want to comment.

The first one touches on a major issue with his overall argument that he hasn’t yet really addressed; how does his purported scenario explain how we got from ‘Mark invented a human Jesus for purposes of allegory’ to ‘Belief in a human Jesus became so widespread it took over the movement completely’? With that in mind, let’s look at this passage:

I don’t think that belief in a human Jesus happened because of any intentional deception or misrepresentation; I think it simply arose out of confusion and widespread assumptions by people that the story called Mark was literally true. I think that once the Markan story spread in the later part of the first century, there was widespread belief that all of the people and events described in it were real, among both followers of the religion and non-followers.

Think about the practicalities of this for a second.

Price is claiming here that gMark spread sufficiently widely amongst non-Christians for assumptions about it to be ‘widespread’ before any of the other gospels were written, which would require it to spread extensively among non-Christians over a relatively short timescale; a few years, perhaps a few decades at most. From previous chapters, we know that Price is also claiming that Mark’s aim in writing his gospel was to critique the actions of the existing group of Jesus-followers, which would mean that his gospel was aimed specifically at that group. So… how, in that case, is gMark supposed to have become ‘widespread’ amongst non-Christians?

Remember that this was long before the printing press; if you wanted to make copies of your book, you either had to copy the whole thing out by hand, or pay a scribe to do so. Add in the cost of ink and paper (in the days before mass production, these were significantly more expensive relative to the average salary), and you can see that people were typically not running off spare copies of their books just for the sake of it. If Mark was, as Price thinks, writing for Christians, then whatever copies he produced would have been meant to circulate within the Christian community. How would things have got from there to a situation where the book was in widespread circulation among non-Christians, let alone to the point where multiple people were writing expanded versions of the story? Once again, Price is describing a scenario that doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.

The other passage on which I want to comment is noteworthy because, although Price doesn’t seem to have noticed this, it blows his entire theory out of the water. Note particularly the last two sentences here:

Clearly the authors of Matthew and John fabricated story elements themselves, as we shall further explore in later chapters… So, to me, this draws into question whether or not the authors of Matthew and John really thought they were writing factual accounts or not. Generally speaking, it is difficult to understand the mind-set of chroniclers in Hellenistic cuture during that time, not just in relation to the Jesus story but even more broadly. These types of pseudo-historical mythologized accounts of people’s lives and deeds were not at all uncommon during that period, so the modern sense of recording fact-based history is simply something that wasn’t pervasive in that culture. These types of fabricated embellishments of biographies were widespread, so even if the authors of Matthew and John thought they were writing biographies of a real person, embellishing them would have been a common practice.

The keystone of Price’s argument has been that gMark’s habit of basing much of what he says on other sources indicates that gMark must have been inventing a Jesus-figure rather than embellishing an existing one. Yet he’s just made the exact counterpoint I’ve been making: that it’s perfectly possible (and, in fact, common behaviour in that time and culture) for someone to mythologise a biography of a real person by embellishing it with details drawn from other sources. And, since this is the case, we can’t conclude that the obvious embellishments in gMark indicate that it’s fictitious; they’re perfectly compatible with it being an embroidered biography of a real person. In other words, Price has just made a convincing argument against the foundational claim of his entire case.