‘Deciphering The Gospels Means Jesus Never Existed’: Chapter 9, part 4

‘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. Links to the posts on all subsequent chapters can be found at the end of that post.


Paul and Jesus’s brothers

Out of all the comments from Paul that I listed in the previous post that point towards Paul having believed in an earthly Jesus, Price addresses only one more; Galatians 1:19.

This verse, for context, is in the middle of a passage in which Paul is letting the Galatians know how little contact he’s ever had with the church (which, to Paul, is a positive, because he believes that this means he’s working solely from what Jesus told him to do rather than from the influence of less enlightened church members), so Paul is stressing how little time he’s spent with the church and how few of the apostles he saw while there. However, he does tell us that as well as staying with Cephas (Peter) during the fifteen days he spent there, he did meet one other apostle, named in the Greek as ‘Iacobus’, a name which our translations consistently anglicise as ‘James’ (as this is the version of the name used in all English works, it’s the version I’ll use as well throughout this post). And, the important point for our purposes… Paul identifies this Iacobus/James as ‘the Lord’s brother’. Since ‘the Lord’ is one of the terms Paul uses for Jesus, this means that Paul is saying he met Jesus’s brother.

Since mythical divine beings don’t typically have real-life flesh-and-blood brothers walking the earth and meeting people, that one passing comment is a pretty significant problem for mythicist theory. Let’s look at what Price has to say about it.

Price’s explanations

Price gives us two different theories. The first is that ‘brother of the Lord’ was just a general term used for Christians:

Many people, including Earl Doherty and Arthur Drews, have pointed out that the term brother or brothers was regularly applied to apostles and members of the church in general and conclude that this is how it was being used here as well.

Except that it isn’t. There are indeed many examples of church members referring to one another as ‘brothers’, a clearly metaphorical term indicating close bonds of union in shared belief; when Paul used the term in that sense, as he often did, he was implying that the person in question was metaphorically his brother due to their shared membership of the church. Or, even more than that, that the person or people referred to were metaphorically brothers to everyone else in the church. However, there’s a crucial difference in the wording here. In this verse, James isn’t being referred to just as ‘brother’; he’s being referred to as ‘the Lord’s brother’. That’s a very different phrase. Paul wasn’t referring to James as his (metaphorical) brother, but as the brother of the Lord; i.e. Jesus.

Now, it might of course still be meant metaphorically. Maybe Paul meant that James had had a deep enough bond with Jesus for the two of them to be described as brothers even without having an actual blood relationship. However, while that is plausible, it still doesn’t fit well with mythicism. We don’t typically describe actual humans as having even a metaphorical fraternal relationship with divine heavenly superbeings. A child-to-parent relationship, sure; Judaism has used that particular metaphor for millennia, with Christianity following in its tracks. But not a brotherly relationship, with its rather different connotations of a bond between equals.

This, however, does bring us to Price’s second theory; that ‘the Lord’s brother’ was meant metaphorically in a different sense. Not to describe a particularly close bond, but as a title to indicate James’s level of importance in the church, or perhaps his sterling qualities:

If this is the case, then the reason that Paul called James “the Lord’s brother” in Galatians is because James was seen as such a major pillar of the community, whom people called a “brother of the Lord,” which was a title similar to “the Just.”

So this theory is effectively the reverse of the previous one; Price is now theorising that, far from ‘brother’ being meant in the sense of a generic title for any male church member, it was a specific title for this one man in particular. Price thinks that over time this metaphor became misunderstood as a claim that this particular James was literally Jesus’s brother:

This James was only later considered to be a literal brother of Jesus. It was probably the early Christian chronicler Hegesippus, in the late second century, who recorded the first concrete association of “James the Just” as the literal brother of Jesus, helping to cement this view into Church tradition.

The first problem with this explanation is that ‘brother of the Lord’ is not, in fact, similar to ‘the Just’. ‘The Just’ is a title that refers to an important quality of the person described, while ‘Brother of the Lord’ refers to a relationship, not a personal quality. But it’s still possible that this phrase could have been used as a metaphor, and, interestingly, we do have some evidence for this. Price quotes this passage from Origen which was written in the third century:

Paul, a genuine disciple of Jesus, says that he regarded this James as a brother of the Lord, not so much on account of their relationship by blood, or of their being brought up together, as because of his virtue and doctrine.

Against Celsus; Origen

Origen seems to be citing a letter we no longer have, as none of the existing letters attributed to Paul say any such thing. So, this raises the question of whether Paul actually did write something similar to the phrasing Origen here attributes to him. Unfortunately we can’t assume that he did, partly because Origen seems to have been willing to be rather free with his citing of what writers actually said (in the same passage he claims that Josephus attributed the fall of Jerusalem to the killing of James, which isn’t at all what Josephus says) and partly because so many later epistles were falsely claimed to have been by Paul that we can’t assume Origen had a genuine Pauline epistle here.

However, if Paul actually did write the words attributed to him by Origen, then that’s a very interesting contribution to the debate which doesn’t point in the direction Price thinks. If Paul actually found it worth spelling out that James’s appellation of ‘brother’ was not ‘on account of their relationship by blood or of their being brought up together’, then that is strong evidence for an early church who followed a human Jesus. If a group who followed a divine heavenly being did take the highly unlikely step of referring to one of their human members as this divine heavenly being’s brother (and it is highly unlikely, as I wrote above), then it would have been very obvious that this was metaphorical. No-one there would have had to spell out that this wasn’t on account of a blood relationship or being brought up together, because no-one in the group would have thought for a minute that it would be. If Paul really did write those words, then that would point clearly to a human Jesus.

However, since we can’t know whether Paul wrote those words or not, that doesn’t help us. We’re left with the same question as before: how likely is it that a group would describe one of their human members, however virtuous, as metaphorically the brother of their heavenly quasi-divine leader who only dropped in from heaven to visit them? And with the same answer as before: not very likely at all.

On top of this, we have an even bigger problem with Price’s interpretations here: Galatians 1:19 is only one of the two places in which Paul uses this phrase.

The problem of 1 Corinthians 9:5

1 Corinthians 9:5 is, as it happens, also a passing comment in the middle of a mini-rant. Paul isn’t happy about the church refusing to support him financially in his work of preaching the gospel, although he is Absolutely Not Trying To Claim This Support because he considers himself obliged to preach the gospel regardless, but still, hmph, what about all these other church members who get supported for this work the way the scriptures apparently say they should… And, in the middle of this, he happens to make this comment:

Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?

So, Paul not only refers to ‘brothers of the Lord’, he does so in a way that inadvertently makes it clear that they are in a separate category from ‘the other apostles’ and ‘Cephas’. ‘Brother of the Lord’ therefore was clearly an appellation that was given to more than one person, that wasn’t just some sort of generic term for church members overall, and that also wasn’t a term for particularly important church members (or Paul wouldn’t have differentiated ‘the other apostles’ and ‘the brothers of the Lord’ as two separate groups).

And so, yet again, we have something that’s very difficult to explain under mythicist theory but very easy to explain under historicist theory; if Jesus was a real person, of course it was plausible for his parents to have had other children.

So, how does Price explain 1 Corinthians 9.5?

In one of the most notable pieces of question-begging I’ve seen in a while, Price actually quotes this verse in support of his argument by assuming that it can’t mean actual brothers and working from there to claim that this verse therefore proves Paul would use ‘brother of the Lord’ in a way that doesn’t mean an actual brother of the Lord.

The five hundred brothers mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15, as well as “brothers” mentioned in 1 Corinthians 9, are examples that are often cited to show the use of brothers of the Lord in ways that clearly don’t mean literal relatives. […] Some people even try to argue that this mention of brothers in 1 Corinthians 9 means relatives, but this really wouldn’t make sense, for why would literal brothers of Jesus even be a part of this issue, especially since in later accounts where literal brothers of Jesus are discussed, they have nothing to do with him or his movement? Indeed Jesus’s family is portrayed as being rejected by him in the Gospels.

Firstly, I have to point out that the ‘some people’ who believe this mention of ‘brothers’ to refer to actual brothers (or at least actual relatives) include, as far as I know, everyone who’s ever read this passage bar the occasional mythicist. I mean, someone (hiya, db!) is probably going to dig me out an obscure reference to someone somewhere who has argued otherwise, but when practically everyone believes the obvious meaning of a word in a passage to be the actual meaning then I don’t think ‘some people try to argue’ is quite the correct phrase.

Secondly, the passage tells us why Jesus’s brothers would ‘even be a part of this issue’. Paul is complaining that he doesn’t qualify for a privilege (getting church support for himself and a dependant) that some other groups of church members do. The brothers of Jesus are a part of this issue because they do get this privilege which Paul thinks he should have. Price is talking as though there’s some kind of inexplicable mystery about the idea of ‘brothers’ here referring to actual brothers when, in fact, it makes perfect sense in context.

Thirdly, let’s look at Price’s claim that ‘later accounts’ (which I assume from context has to mean the gospels) show Jesus’s brothers as having nothing to do with him/his movement. After going through the very brief references in the gospels to Jesus having a brother called James, which are indeed blink-and-you’ll-miss-them, Price makes this point:

Given that the Gospels were all written after the works of Paul, and that the Gospels serve as a backdrop for the Christian movement, and that the Gospels establish the positions of the major Christian leaders, it would not make any sense for the Gospels to totally ignore James the literal brother of Jesus […] if James the brother of Jesus is the one who was a leader of the Christian community.

Which would be a good point, except that, later in the chapter, Price himself gives us a plausible counterargument without even noticing that he’s done so. Here’s what Price says later in the chapter:

In both the writings of Paul and the Gospels, conflict between James son of Zebedee and the others is shown. […] It appears, according to the writings of Paul, that James and John held to a more Jewish version of the faith and did not embrace the Gentile apostleship.

In the first century, however, James son of Zebedee was considered a pillar of the Christian community, but perhaps later Christians sought to exclude him from tradition and sever ties to his sect.

The references to ‘James son of Zebedee’ here are a little confusing. Price is referring to the ‘James’ mentioned in Galatians 2 (verses 9 and 12), who is not specifically identified but from context is probably the same James mentioned in 1:19. Even if that isn’t the case, this James seems rather unlikely to have been James the son of Zebedee, as Acts 12:2 tells us that that particular James was killed by Herod Antipas quite early on, at a point which would have been well before the visit to Jerusalem to which Paul is referring in Galatians 2. However, via some interesting logic contortions, Price seems to have convinced himself that a) Acts was wrong on this point and b) that this James must be the son of Zebedee rather than any of the other people of this very common name.

However, all that is by-the-by. Setting aside the dubious ‘son of Zebedee’ claim, let’s look at Price’s main point here: the possibility that later Christian authors would have wanted to downplay the importance of an early church member who held to a theology different from that which eventually won out. And Price is onto something there. We know that there was significant conflict in the early church. We know that Pauline theology was the one that eventually won out. And, in view of the conflict described in Galatians, we have reason to suspect that this theology wasn’t the one held by Jesus’s original followers.

So, on the background of that first-century conflict, how would church writers from the Pauline side of the church have dealt with awkward traditions about key members of the early church having held to beliefs that were now considered mistaken? I agree with Price on this one; that would have been rather a strong motive to downplay the importance of these people in the accounts. (It wouldn’t even have had to be a conscious thing; more a case of ‘Well, James was clearly misguided, so let’s focus on what these others had to say’.)

In other words, we have an obvious explanation from Price himself of why the gospels might have wanted to ignore a brother of Jesus who became a leader in the early Christian community; because tradition had preserved the rather awkward information that this brother did not agree with the new belief system that, by the time of the gospels, was being taught as The Truth. As potential motives go, I’d say that’s a satisfactorily convincing one. And so, in fact, we have a good explanation of why the gospels had so little to say about James, and Price is wrong when he thinks we’re forced to fall back on the explanation that James wasn’t an actual brother of an actual Jesus.

In conclusion

Paul makes two passing mentions of brothers of Jesus (one of ‘brothers’ collectively and one of a specific brother), which Price, despite his best efforts, has not managed to explain away. And there’s an important difference between these two mentions and the other information we get from Paul about Jesus; these can’t be easily dismissed as just Paul’s own beliefs.

We’ve had to be very cautious about using other Pauline-derived information as evidence for the historicity side, because Paul himself makes it so clear that he gets his information about Jesus from what he thinks Jesus told him in a vision. Therefore, although Paul clearly did believe that Jesus had lived a human life, and made many comments referring to this, we can’t assume that this belief came from actual knowledge of what the original church were saying rather than from his own belief about what he thought Jesus had said to him in visions. However, the mentions of Jesus’s brothers come from much more prosaic sources. He mentions the brothers collectively because he’s annoyed that the church is giving them and their wives financial support which he himself doesn’t get, and he mentions James in particular because he met him.

So this, unlike most of what Paul says, actually is reliable information. Not theological expositions based on visions, but passing comments about people of whose existence and status Paul has personal knowledge. These two comments that Paul makes in the midst of rants about other issues are very good evidence that the Lord of whom he’s speaking (Jesus) had human brothers. And that, in turn, is good evidence that Jesus was human.

‘Deciphering The Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed’ review: Chapter 9, Part 3

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

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


Chapter 9: Finding Jesus In Paul’s Letters

We’ve seen Price’s arguments about Paul’s writings supporting mythicism, and I’ve discussed why they don’t hold up. Time to look at the other side. Are there passages in Paul’s letters that would point to him believing in an earthly Jesus?

A slight but relevant digression from the specifics of Price’s book:

Some years ago, having been impressed by Carrier’s mythicism polemic ‘On the Historicity of Jesus’, I decided I should go back and read the authentic Pauline letters with the mythicist argument in mind. After all, the book seemed convincing and well researched, and Carrier seemed very sure that Paul’s letters indicated a mythical Jesus, so probably I’d been reading them wrong. I reread them in light of mythicist theory, expecting it to be rather like the experience of rereading a book once you know the plot twist at the end; I’d see things falling into place, would read passages in a new light that made far more sense of them.

Here’s what I actually found.

  • Romans 1:3. Paul refers to Jesus as ‘descended from David according to the flesh’.
  • Romans 5:12-18. This is a lengthy passage in which Paul repeatedly compares Jesus to Adam (who, remember, Paul would have believed to be a human being who had lived on earth). In particular, from some work with the GreekBible.com site I found that in verse 15 Paul uses the word ‘anthropou’, meaning ‘human’, to describe Jesus.
  • Romans 8:3. Paul refers to God sending Jesus ‘in the likeness of sinful flesh’. While mythicists have a habit of interpreting passages like this as meaning that Jesus wasn’t really a being of flesh, this is missing a key point; Paul clearly thought Jesus had showed up in what at least appeared to be a normal human body. And, unless you want to argue for the Docetist viewpoint that Jesus only appeared to be flesh and blood but was in fact a cunningly divinely-designed simulacrum, the obvious reason why someone would appear to have a normal human body is that they actually had a normal human body.
  • Romans 9:4-5. Paul describes Jesus as coming from the Jewish race ‘according to the flesh’.
  • 1 Corinthians 9:5: Paul mentions brothers of the Lord (‘the Lord’ being one of Paul’s terms for Jesus) whose wives were supported by the church.
  • 1 Corinthians 11:23-25: Paul describes Jesus instituting the Eucharist. This is, it should be noted, considerably less helpful than Jesus-historicists often think; although it would be too much of a digression to discuss now, there are plausible reasons to suspect that this was in fact one of Paul’s ‘revelations’ about Jesus rather than an actual historical event that Paul had learned about from existing group members. However, it’s still noteworthy that Paul describes Jesus as taking a loaf of bread, breaking it, giving thanks for it (which would have been, and still is to this day, a standard thing for a practicing Jew to do when about to eat bread), and taking a cup of wine ‘after supper’, implying that he also ate a meal between the bread-breaking and the wine. It’s not impossible that Paul could have believed in someone doing all these things in heaven, but it seems unusually physical and prosaic for a concept of heaven. Therefore, although it’s weaker than most of the others on the list, I think this one is nevertheless worth counting in the list of passages indicating Paul’s belief in a historical Jesus.
  • 1 Corinthians 15:4. Like the previous one, this is a detail within a passage that is overall easy for skeptics to disregard, as it’s about Jesus being raised from the dead and appearing to people in visions; I think one point on which Price and I can certainly agree is that these things did not actually happen, and thus this passage is not particularly helpful to the history-vs-mythicism debate overall. However, I bring it up here because Paul specifically mentions Jesus as being buried, which, again, is quite a physical detail to mention about someone that you think has only existed in heaven. Paul might potentially have believed that burial could happen in a heavenly dimension, but that seems at the very least less likely than that he believed it happened on earth. Again, I certainly wouldn’t hang the case for historicity on this one detail, but it’s yet another thing to tip the scales at least slightly more towards historicity, so I’m including it in the list.
  • 1 Corinthians 15:12-22. This is a lengthy passage in which Paul cites Jesus’s resurrection as evidence for the resurrection of the dead. It culminates in Paul specifically referring to Jesus as a human being (v21). Even before that, though, Paul’s making an argument that wouldn’t make sense if he wasn’t teaching his followers that Jesus had been a human. ‘Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?’ Paul asks rhetorically. This would be rather a strange example for him to use if he knew that the answer would be ‘Because Christ was a heavenly being and we’re talking about what happens to human dead!’.
  • 2 Corinthians 5:16. This is a rather odd verse in which Paul says that they now don’t regard anyone ‘according to the flesh’, which one translation that I found interprets as ‘from a worldly point of view’, which probably makes more sense. However, from our point of view the important point here is that Paul says that they did at one point regard Christ as being ‘according to the flesh’; i.e. having a genuine flesh-and-blood body.
  • Galatians 1:19. Refers to a brother of the Lord (Paul’s term for Jesus) whom Paul had briefly met.
  • Galatians 3:16. Refers to Christ as an offspring (in the sense of ‘descendant’) of Abraham.
  • Galatians 4:4. Refers to God’s son as having been ‘born of a woman, born under the Law’.
  • Philippians 2:7. Refers to Jesus as being ‘born in human likeness’ and ‘found in human form’.

I was trying to be as fair as possible in weighing up the evidence, and thus ended up leaving one potential item off the list; 1 Thessalonians 2:14 – 16. This refers to Jesus being killed by the Jews in the same way as the prophets were, but also has an antisemitic slant to it that isn’t typical of Paul, as well as seeming to hint about the destruction of the Temple, which would have post-dated this letter; many scholars therefore believe this to be a later interpolation rather than words of Paul. So, while whoever wrote those verses certainly seems to have believed in a physical earthly Jesus, there is enough uncertainty over whether that person was Paul that I decided that that line was unhelpful for ascertaining what Paul believed.

Which left the above list. Carrier’s book did address a few of those lines (‘born of a woman’, ‘descended from David’, and the ‘brother’ quotes) by explaining them away with mythicist-consistent excuses and calculating that they were still fully compatible with a likelihood that Jesus was mythical. However, reading all of Paul’s letters with mythicism in mind and instead coming across all of the above lines or passages in turn was quite a different experience from reading mythicist claims about how Paul only wrote ‘a few’ things that seemed to ‘hint’ at an earthly Jesus.

And that was how, by the time I finished the read-through that I had expected to give me a new appreciation of Paul’s supposed mythicist views, I found it undeniably clear that Paul had believed Jesus lived a human life on earth. It was, of course, very debatable how much credence to give this view, given Paul’s penchant for getting his beliefs about Jesus from ‘revelation’ in preference to what existing church members told him; I felt it only fair to consider the possibility that this belief in Jesus’s earthly life might in itself have been one of Paul’s ‘revelations’ rather than anything we’d consider reliable information, and so I didn’t find it that much help in the mythicism-vs-historicity argument. But, for whatever it’s worth, it’s clear that Paul did at least believe in what we would now call a historical Jesus.

Back to Price. Since Price believes that Paul didn’t believe Jesus to be a real person, what does he say about all of the above? Well, most of them he doesn’t seem to have noticed. Out of all of the above, Price only addresses two issues; the ‘born of a woman’ quote and the issue of Jesus’s brothers. Which would, even if he did successfully refute those issues, still leave more than enough passages to indicate that Paul believed in Jesus’s earthly existence. But since Price did at least address those two and spend quite some time on trying to explain away the obvious problems they cause for his theory, I’ll discuss his arguments.

I’ll look at the ‘born of a woman’ discussion here as it was shorter, and address the ‘brother(s) of the Lord’ discussion in a later post.


‘Born of a woman’: Price’s explanations

First of all, I don’t think it’s particularly important whether or not Paul viewed Jesus as purely heavenly or not

I tend to agree with this sentiment, for reasons explained previously, but it strikes me as rather a contradiction for Price to be saying this after pages of using Paul’s quotes as support for mythicism without any such disclaimers. Can’t have it both ways; does he think Paul’s views on the subject are important evidence or not?

but secondly, this is by no means a literal statement by Paul, as he is in the middle of allegorical statements that he himself says are allegorical

It hardly follows from this that all the statements Paul doesn’t label as allegorical are also allegorical. On the contrary; since we can see he was clear about stating which parts of the passage were allegorical, it makes it less likely that this would be so of the ones that aren’t thus labelled. (There’s also, of course, the question of how it would make sense to say that a real being – as Paul believed Jesus to have been, regardless of whether he believed him to have been a heavenly or an earthly being – was allegorically born of a woman.)

and thirdly this is part of a special pleading to a group of people who clearly have had problems with Paul’s teachings where he is trying to appeal to them on a new and different level that he feels is more acceptable to them.

There’s nothing in this letter to indicate that Paul’s trying to change anything about his teaching to make it more acceptable to the Galatians. He’s explaining it in different ways to try to get his point across, but he isn’t changing anything about it. Quite the contrary; he’s angry with the Galatians and can’t understand why they don’t just get with the programme here.

But on top of that… even if Paul was trying to take the approach of making his teachings more acceptable, why would saying that Jesus was ‘born of a woman’ do this? Why would the Galatians – from a culture who believed in heavenly beings and their importance – find a Jesus who was created in heaven unacceptable and need him to have had a human birth before they would accept Paul’s theology? And why, if this was indeed a point of contention, do we not see any hint of Paul trying to discuss this issue or persuade them? He throws in ‘born of a woman’ parenthetically in passing as a descriptor of Jesus and gets on with his argument about the law no longer being binding. There is nothing anywhere in the letter to indicate that Paul had had any sort of disagreement with the Galatians on this particular point or felt any sort of need to appease them about it.

Paul goes on to tell a story about two women who give birth to children, and Paul says that these women represent covenants, and the woman of the promise “corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother.”

Price is correct on this point. Paul is citing the scriptural story of Hagar and Sarah, which he says is an allegory in which the two women represent covenants. (For context, this is part of a larger allegory Paul is using in this chapter, about slaves vs. heirs; in Paul’s allegory, Jews who still hold to the Jewish law are slaves while the ones redeemed by Jesus’s sacrifice are now heirs to the kingdom of God. The Hagar and Sarah story is used as a specific illustration, as they had sons fathered by the same man but Hagar was a slave whose son was cast out and Sarah a free woman whose freeborn son inherited, all of which made them a good example of Paul’s point for his Jewish readers who would have known the story well.)

However, Price then makes his leap of logic:

The woman that Paul is talking about in Galatians 4.4 is an allegorical woman, not a real woman,

I haven’t omitted anything between this sentence and the previous one I quoted; Price really has leaped straight from the observation that Paul referred to the story of Hagar and Sarah as allegorical to an assumption that a different woman he referred to eighteen verses earlier was somehow also allegorical. Nice try, but doesn’t work in context.

and in fact this passage provides further evidence that Paul’s Jesus was not a historical person.

How? Well, here’s what Price says:

Paul says that the Son of God was born under the law, but the law is in heaven; he is talking about the heavenly covenant and a heavenly birth!

This conclusion baffled me for a while, since Paul says nothing whatsoever about the law being in heaven, a claim which would in any case hardly fit with Paul’s main claim that the law is an intolerable burden from which Jesus’s followers have now been freed. The only way I can make any sense of this is to theorise that Price has incorrectly assumed that ‘covenant’ is another word for ‘law’ and thus, having followed Paul’s train of thought here to the logical conclusion that the covenant to which Paul is referring exists in heaven, interpreted this as the law being in heaven and Jesus’s birth under the law therefore being likewise in heaven. Unfortunately, if this is the explanation, it doesn’t work, because ‘covenant’ doesn’t mean ‘law’; it means ‘promise’. So, if this was Price’s reasoning, it’s fatally flawed. If this wasn’t Price’s reasoning, then he’s going to have to explain his actual reasoning if he wants it to make any sense.

If Paul were talking about a real women here, and Jesus’s earthly birth, then why does he give no details about the matter? Why not say that he was born to Mary or that he was born in Bethlehem, or anything else?

Because he’s writing a theological polemic, not a biography.

He clearly isn’t giving a historical account of anything, but his lack of detail, here and throughout his writings, works against the claim that Paul had knowledge of a historical Jesus.

The ambiguity of this phrasing has the potential to get a bit confusing, so let’s clarify. In terms of whether Paul ‘had knowledge of’ Jesus in terms of either knowing him personally or knowing details about his life, we’ve already established that he didn’t and that he preferred it that way. So, in that sense, I completely agree that ‘the claim that Paul had knowledge of a historical Jesus’ is provably false.

However, of course, that isn’t what Price is trying to say. He’s trying to say that Paul didn’t know of a ‘historical Jesus’ in the sense of our debate; that Paul’s lack of any details about Jesus means that he didn’t know of Jesus having existed on earth, and that this is because Jesus hadn’t existed on earth but only in the imaginations of his followers. And that one doesn’t stand up, for the reasons already given at the post linked to in the previous paragraph. We know that Paul, for his own reasons, deliberately chose to avoid learning details about Jesus from people who claimed to have known him, probably so that he could continue holding on to his own theology. So, what we actually have is someone who never knew Jesus, who avoided learning anything about Jesus, who was interested in Jesus the magical sin-eraser and not Jesus the person, and who, moreover, isn’t even trying to write biography; he’s writing theological polemics addressing particular issues for his readers. And, given that context, there is nothing in the least surprising about the fact that Paul doesn’t give us any biographical details about Jesus. Price keeps trying to paint this as some kind of inexplicable mystery that needs a mythical Jesus theory to explain it, but, in fact, it’s explained perfectly well by what Paul’s own writings tell us about him and his purpose.

I think Price could have got a lot further with trying to explain away ‘born of a woman’ (and most of the other phrases) if he’d pointed out that Paul was going by what he believed he’d learned about Jesus by revelation in preference to anything he actually did learn about Jesus from Jesus’s previous followers, and that this makes Paul’s views unreliable. But, of course, Price had reason not to want to look too closely at how unreliable Paul is; that would have meant blowing a hole in his own arguments.

‘Deciphering The Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed’ review: Chapter 9, Part 2

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

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

Chapter 9: Finding Jesus In Paul’s Letters

Price spends the majority of this chapter arguing that Paul didn’t believe in an earthly Jesus:

[I]n the letters of Paul, what we have are dozens upon dozens of statements, and overarching themes, that support the view that Paul not only had no knowledge of a Jesus person, but that Paul conceived of Jesus as an eternal heavenly being.

I’m not seeing why this belief would be incompatible with a belief that Jesus existed on earth as a human. After all, that’s precisely the combination of beliefs Christianity has held from an early stage; that Jesus was an eternal heavenly being who took on human form and was born and lived on earth. So the question is not so much whether Paul thought Jesus was an eternal heavenly being, but whether or not he believed Jesus also came down to earth in some form to live a human life there. With that in mind, I’ll discuss Price’s points.

A few things to bear in mind during this:

  1. As per the discussion in the last post, we can conclude from the Galatians passage (as well as from Paul’s letters as a whole) that Paul wasn’t interested in Jesus the person. Paul was interested in Jesus the magical sin-eraser. Hence, the things he says about Jesus aren’t focused on Jesus’s life, but on the theology Paul has constructed around him.
  2. Paul was writing in a different language, for a different culture. That means that at least some of the initial assumptions we might make about what our translated versions of his letters mean or what we might expect him to say in a particular situation are not necessarily going to be valid.
  3. We have no record of any of Paul’s speeches or discussions to the churches to whom he was writing, and only an incomplete record of his letters. It’s therefore important not to treat the Pauline letters we still have today as though they were meant to be a complete account of his beliefs and theology.

With all this in mind, here are the arguments Price raises:

Paul’s use of scripture to describe Jesus

There are several places where Paul refers to a line from Jewish scripture to make a point about Jesus or about Paul’s theology. Price finds this strange:

If Jesus had just been here, then why is Paul talking about old scriptures instead of Jesus Christ, who would have just recently been on earth? […] Paul is saying that ancient mysteries are being revealed and made known through prophetic writings, but why wouldn’t he be saying that these things were made known by Jesus himself?

Paul was writing for people in a society who had great respect for tradition, which meant that ancient prophetic texts would have commanded significantly more respect from the elite than what some Johnny-come-lately peasant had to say, even if the peasant was supposedly claiming to be a divine being. (There’s an interesting analysis by GakuseiDon somewhere online with regard to this, looking at Christian writings from around the 2nd century or thereabouts, showing that even Christians whom we know to have believed in an earthly Jesus still put much more emphasis on prophetic Jewish scriptures than on Jesus’s own sayings and actions when they were writing for pagan communities.)

But this does bring us to another point about Paul; that he doesn’t show much interest in Jesus’s teachings. This is another point on which Price comments:

Paul doesn’t cite Jesus

In addition to all this, with all of Paul’s discussion of the law in Galatians 3, he never once says, “Jesus said …” or “Jesus made it known that …” or “Jesus abolished the law …” Paul goes into theological discussions based on the scriptures about law and faith and covenants, developing his own explanation for why the law had been abolished. This is one of many examples where we would expect Paul to have used the teachings of Jesus to make his point if there had been a Jesus who had teachings to cite.

It’s ironic that Price chooses this specific example, because it’s highly debatable whether Jesus’s teachings on this point actually did support Paul. Of course, this has to be conjecture, because all the stories we have about Jesus’s teaching are post-Pauline and written by a church that had good reason to want to harmonise Jesus’s teaching with Paul’s. But it’s worth noting here that Jesus’s reported actions actually don’t break any of the Jewish laws as recorded later in the Talmud, and that both Acts and Galatians suggest that the apostles continued to keep to the dietary laws and attend the temple after Jesus’s death. And, given Paul’s disregard for what Jesus’s apostles had to say on the subject, it’s entirely plausible that he managed to disregard what the actual Jesus had to say.

This does, of course, still leave us with the larger question of why Paul showed so little interest in Jesus’s teachings generally; but, again, we’re up against the problem that mythicism doesn’t explain that either. Even according to the mythicist hypothesis, Paul would have believed that Jesus existed (as a heavenly being who sometimes contacted his followers with pronouncements), and could just as well have thought of a heavenly Jesus as a source of teachings to his followers as he could an earthly Jesus; if he wanted to know what Jesus would teach on a given topic, we’d expect him to show an interest in the message his followers passed down regardless of whether he believed this message had come from a heavenly Jesus or an earthly Jesus. So, this lack of interest on Paul’s part doesn’t get us any further forward in the debate.

Why does Paul show so little interest in Jesus’s teachings? Most likely for the same reason that he shows so little interest in anything else about Jesus’s life; because Jesus’s importance, for Paul, was as the uber-sacrifice that allowed Paul to feel he was free from the law, and he simply didn’t see Jesus as also having been a source of teaching.

Of course, that view seems strange to us; our natural assumption is that Jesus’s followers would be interested in both. But it’s worth remembering that we come from a culture in which the idea of Jesus as Teacher is as strongly ingrained as the idea of Jesus as sin sacrifice, and that the people who were there at the start of Christianity would not have been starting with the same cultural assumptions. Paul supposedly came from a Pharisaic background, and the Pharisaic worldview was that the details of how to interpret the Law in day-to-day life were to be worked out by humans rather than micromanaged by God. From what I understand of the Hellenistic worldview, they also did not see the gods as a source of advice on the details of how to deal with moral dilemmas or day-to-day life. And, with that background in mind, it becomes more understandable that Paul wouldn’t jump from ‘Jesus is a heavenly being sent as a sin sacrifice’ to ‘Jesus must be a good source of advice; wonder how he’d manage this problem?’ He’d do what he was used to doing, and manage issues himself.

‘In one of whom they have never heard’

In Romans 10:14 Paul asks rhetorically how anyone is meant to believe ‘in one of whom they have never heard’, and Price takes this up:

Romans 10 is a very significant passage. If Jesus had just been on earth and been ministering to the Jews and performing miracles in Galilee and Judea and drawing large crowds, as the Gospels claim, then why does Paul ask here if Jews cannot be blamed for not believing in Christ because they haven’t heard about him?

This letter was addressed to people in a city well over a thousand miles from Galilee, who would not be expected to have seen or heard Jesus regardless of whether he had recently been on earth or not. Price seems to have read this passage as referring to Jews rather than the Romans to whom it was addressed, but, while this is plausible, it doesn’t really help; there were millions of Jews in the world at the time, most of whom wouldn’t have been around the backwater province of Galilee to hear Jesus.

Paul is, in fact, touching on an extremely good question here, one of the main ones that always bothered me about Christianity; if the only route to salvation is through Jesus, what about all the people who didn’t happen to live in the right time or place to have heard of him? While Paul doesn’t actually do much to address this question, it’s still a highly valid one regardless of whether Jesus lived on earth or not, and the fact that Paul at least mentions it is hardly evidence that he didn’t believe Jesus was earthly.

Paul’s repeated use of the word ‘mystery’

Price puts great weight on this:

So Paul claims that he is telling these people a “mystery”, but why would this be a mystery if Jesus Christ had just been on earth a few years earlier to bring this very message to people, a message that he supposedly proclaimed several times according to the Gospels?

Back to translational and cultural issues: Paul and his readers wouldn’t have attached the same meaning to the word ‘mystery’. It comes from a word meaning ‘to shut the mouth,’ and hence, in this culture, it referred to secrets made known only to a select group of initiates (hence, the ‘mystery religions’ of the time). Of course, it’s debatable how applicable the word was here, when Paul was out to convert as many people as possible, but it’s easy to see how Paul would have wanted to make his followers feel like a select group with access to superior inside knowledge. So, when Paul uses the word this way, he isn’t throwing his hands in the air and admitting that there’s something here no-one can figure out; he’s trying to make his readers feel like a select group who get to be in on a secret. ‘Mystery’ here in no way precludes the existence of a real-life walking talking earthly Jesus.

The body of Christ and the desert rock

Price also brings up Paul’s references to the church as ‘the body of Christ’, as well as one line (1 Cor 10:4) referring to Jesus as the rock that the Israelites drank water from in the desert. Price’s implication seems to be that this somehow precludes Paul having believed Jesus had an actual body.

That, however, doesn’t work even with mythicist beliefs. Paul specifically stated that Jesus had had human form; he also believed Jesus had been crucified and buried, as well as being able to pick up bread and wine during his life. It is, therefore, clear that Paul believed Jesus had a body. Even if we go with the (dubious) theory that he thought this body had only existed in a heavenly dimension, Paul clearly wasn’t believing in some sort of disembodied spirit here.  It should, therefore, be extremely obvious that the lines referring to the church as Jesus’s body or comparing him to a rock are meant to be metaphorical rather than some sort of literal claim that Jesus did not have a body.

The future coming of Jesus

Price quotes the descriptions of the future coming of Jesus in 1 Thessalonians 4 and 2 Thessalonians 1, and makes much of the fact that these aren’t described as Jesus returning to earth; Price insists that this must mean that Paul (or whoever the author of the disputed 2 Thessalonians was) was saying that this would be Jesus’s first arrival on earth. That would be a lot of weight to put on word choice even without the issue of translating from another language; the word ‘coming’ can just as well be used to mean that someone is coming back to a place they’ve previously been. (For example, I find it completely normal for my mother to talk about coming to see us or to ask when I’m coming to see her, even though not only have we had repeated trips back and forth over the years but she’s still living in the house where I grew up! Clearly, when she asks when I can come to see her, she’s not meaning that word choice to imply that it’s the first time I’ve visited the house.)

On top of that, the translation issues raise another problem with Price’s argument here: atheist history blogger Tim O’Neill has pointed out that the word used in the 1 Thessalonians passage is ‘parousia’, which carries strong implications of a formal royal arrival. ‘Parousia’ thus makes complete sense as a word choice for someone who believed that Jesus had previously been on earth as a humble peasant but would be coming back as a glorious king.



Price has convinced himself that this collection of passages is a powerful indication of Jesus’s nonexistence. However, this claim doesn’t really stand up when the passages are looked at in the context of Paul’s own culture and theological focus.

Next up: The other side of the story. What passages in Paul suggest that he did believe in a Jesus who’d lived on Earth, and does Price give any alternative explanations for these?

Walking Disaster, Chapter 17, Part 2

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.

Back again! When we left our romantic hero, he was dismally failing at being a better person. Hands up anyone who’s surprised.

Travis tells us that he’s now trying to avoid situations that make him angry, which isn’t easy because he also realises that ‘every dick on campus’ is just waiting for him to screw things up badly enough to alienate Abby so that they could ‘try her out’, so it looks as though he’s assuming that all the men on campus think of Abby as a possession. I think that’s called projection, Trav. Meanwhile, half the women on campus are upset because Travis is no longer screwing his way through the multitudes one (or more) five-minute stand at a time. Why, how could anyone be other than devastated that this toxic dirtbag love god is off the market?

And then! Unprecedented event; we actually get given a clear point in time! It’s Hallowe’en! Which of course doesn’t fit with the amount of time that’s supposedly passed in this story so far, but at least lets us know where McGuire thinks we are in the year now, even if that doesn’t fit with anything else she’s said.

The gruesome foursome head into the Red (that club from a few chapters back), with Travis thinking how glad he is that Abby isn’t wearing a slutty costume like all Those Slutty Sluts, because that means…

the number of threats I would have to make for staring at her tits or worrying about her bending over would be kept to a minimum.

Travis’s worldview, ladies and gentlemen; if other men dare look at your property girlfriend in a sexual way, you have to threaten them. (Also, apparently you have to threaten people who worry about her bending over. Or maybe that’s just how McGuire’s grammar came out.)

Despite Abby’s lack of a slutty costume, Travis does see a man paying for her drink and, with his friend, attempting to chat her and America up. (Unsuccessfully; she’s just telling him she’s here with her boyfriend when Trav walks up, and, from the description of the scene in ‘Beautiful’, both of them were already doing their best to give off go-away signals which were being disregarded, so she’s not cheating on Travis here.) So, naturally Trav is sympathetic that Abby and America are being pestered against their obvious wishes and checks that Abby’s OK….. nah, you got me, that was just my mental fixfic of the scene. Trav is actually furious with Abby. Takes the drink from her and throws it in the bin, glares at her, yells at her.

“I don’t like you letting other guys buy you drinks,” I said.


“Would it bother you to walk up to the bar and see me sharing a drink with some chick?”


“You’re going to have to tone down the jealous-boyfriend thing, Travis. I didn’t do anything wrong.”

“I walk up here, and some guy is buying you a drink!”

But McGuire wants us all to know that he has a perfectly good and justifiable reason for behaving this way:

Knowing about the two sexual assault incidents the year before, it made me nervous to let Abby and America walk around alone. Drugging an unsuspecting girl’s drink was not unheard of, even in our small college town.


I’d told Abby a dozen times not to do something so potentially dangerous as accept a drink from a stranger; anger quickly took over.


“I’ve told you a hundred times . . . you can’t take drinks from random guys. What if he put something in it?”

See, Travis only gets angry because he’s worried about Abby! He’s just trying to protect her! That makes his response totally justifiable… right? Well, Travis certainly seems to think so:

Of course I would get angry if she did something that would get her hurt.

Angry. Not concerned. Not worried. Not sympathetic. Angry. With Abby. For being at risk of sexual assault. It doesn’t even occur to Travis that there is something wrong with that reaction.

But also… come off it, Travis/McGuire. Firstly, the guys didn’t touch the drinks. This is glossed over in the account in this book, where Travis just says he saw ‘two guys buying them drinks’ and leaves the details ambiguous, but in the account in ‘Beautiful’ we see that the guy in question just handed the money to the bartender after she gave the girls the drinks they’d already ordered. (This was after America had already turned him down when he offered to pay, BTW, so he was being a pushy dick about it; but he hadn’t had the drinks prior to them being handed to the girls.) Secondly, America tells him that the drinks were never out of their sight, and instead of being relieved or even being eager to double-check with her – you know, the kind of reactions you’d expect if spiked drinks were really his concern – he gets snippy with her. Thirdly, this supposed concern for Abby’s welfare is coming from the man who was absolutely fine with insisting Abby ride on his bike without a helmet and speeding while she was on there. So, excuse me if I’m not terribly impressed with the level to which her safety and wellbeing are motivating his actions.

Shepley tries to smooth things over… huh, looks like McGuire C&P’d this from ‘Beautiful’ and forgot to change it, thus making it look as though Travis is talking about himself in the third person:

Shepley put his hand on Travis’s shoulder. “We’ve all had a lot to drink. Let’s just get out of here.”

Not-so-deliberate mistake aside, this has a real Missing Stair feel to it. Shepley doesn’t feel able to call Travis out on what he’s doing, or even to focus the let’s-cool-down approach on him. Instead, he’s avoiding putting any focus on Travis’s behaviour and is trying to solve the immediate problem by expecting everyone to leave. Three other people have to cut their night short rather than expect Travis to control his temper.

Abby storms off to let Finch know they’re leaving, and Trav sees her mentioning his name to Finch, which he is not happy about:

She had blamed it on me, which only made me more mad.

Because heaven forfend anyone put any responsibility on Travis for his own behaviour.

She didn’t seem to mind so much when I was bashing Chris Jenks’s head in, but when I got pissed about her taking drinks from strangers, she had the audacity to get mad.

Something about that sentence made me twig… I think McGuire actually means the whole scene where Travis commits assault and battery to be a feature rather than a bug. I’ve been reading it as Abby being willing to tolerate Trav behaving this way, which was bad enough. But I have the feeling now that we’re actually meant to see that scene as a positive thing, with Trav fighting for Abby’s honour. Maybe I’m reading too much into it… and maybe I’m not.

However, whether the message was meant to be ‘Abby was willing to put up with Travis violently beating up someone who was being a dick’ or ‘Abby was delighted that Travis would violently beat someone up for being a dick’, this is an excellent example of why it’s a really bad idea to stay with someone who shows you they’re willing to act this way. Abby stayed with Travis when he thought the best answer to Jenks’s dickery was violence, and now she’s having to deal with his toxic jealousy and early signs of controlling behaviour.

And it’s just about to get worse. Trav sees a man grab Abby and press up against her, and, without thinking about it, he reacts by punching him in the face hard enough to knock him over. Because he does this without getting the man to let go of Abby first, she gets pulled to the ground as well, and the blood from his nose sprays her. Well, there’s a throwback to how they met, and unfortunately not a romantic one. Abby is not happy.

Travis, realising he’s pushed things too far, starts trying to do damage control, apologising while trying to make excuses at the same time:

“I’m sorry, Pigeon, I didn’t know he had a hold of you.”

That’s a flat-out lie, Trav. You just said you hit him because you got angry when you saw him grab Abby like that.

“I wouldn’t have swung if I thought I could have hit you. You know that right?”

This, as well as being a good example of a sentence that needed a comma it didn’t get, is also a good example of how intent isn’t magic. Yes, Travis certainly didn’t throw that punch intending to spray Abby with blood or knock her over. However, he did let his anger run wild until it ended up having consequences he didn’t want. If Trav had been talking himself down and focusing on staying calm, he’d probably have handled things a lot more appropriately when Mr Grabby made his move on Abby. Instead, Trav actually focused on justifying his anger to himself. It was only because he cared about Abby! Only because he was worried about her! Totally legit! Which temporarily made him feel better about himself… up until the point where he lost it and made everything worse.

Trav is now desperate for Abby to forgive him and reassure him that everything’s all right. Unfortunately for him, Abby doesn’t forgive him and doesn’t think it’s all right. Trav, being Trav, can’t accept that and back off but keeps pleading with her to accept his apology:

“I’m going to fuck up. I’m going to fuck up a lot, Pidge, but you have to forgive me.”

Guess what, Trav? No, she doesn’t. She doesn’t have to forgive you just because you want her to. Not only that, but even if she forgives you she doesn’t have to stay with you. She gets to decide that dealing with the fallout from this sort of toxic anger and jealousy is not for her. She won’t, because this is a horrible romance novel, but it’s something people get to do.

However, while I’m disliking Trav as much as ever, I do have to say that I like several other things about this scene. Firstly, Trav is admitting that he’s screwed up. Not even in a way that makes me scream ‘But that’s not the real problem here!’ (as has been the case on previous occasions in this book); he’s acknowledging, at least to himself, that his actions have caused a real problem. Secondly, the others are calling him out on his refusal to back off and give her a bit of space when she doesn’t want to forgive him straight away. And, thirdly, Abby herself is calling him out loud and clear on the problems with his behaviour here.

“I’m going to have a huge bruise on my ass in the morning! You hit that guy because you were pissed at me! What should that tell me? Because red flags are going up all over the place right now!”

“I’ve never hit a girl in my life,” I said, surprised she would ever think I could ever lay a hand on her – or any other woman for that matter.

“And I’m not about to be the first one!” she said, tugging at the door. “Move, damn it!”

You GO, girl. (In both senses of the phrase. Go far away from Travis, and stay away.)

Trav reluctantly accepts he can’t actually keep Abby there for him to keep pleading for forgiveness, and lets her go off to spend the night in the dorm. Shep makes it clear to Trav that smashing the place up again is not on, and Trav manages to keep control of his temper.

After a sleepless night spent doing mindless housework, he heads over to the dorm first thing for another go at getting Abby to talk to him, because he still can’t manage to leave her alone and respect that she doesn’t want to talk to him. Luckily for him though unluckily for her future prospects in this relationship, she’s actually OK with him doing this. (Though it’s a pain for Abby’s roommate Kara, who has to leave her own room and go have a shower to give them some privacy and so makes a pointed comment about always being very clean when Abby’s around.)

That said, I do on the whole like the conversation they have now. Trav seems genuinely apologetic, and not in a ‘sorry, but…’ way. Abby, meanwhile, is clear about stating her concerns:

“You don’t see me throwing punches every time a girl talks to you. I can’t stay locked up in the apartment all the time. You’re going to have to get a handle on your temper. […] You’ve asked me to trust you, and you don’t seem to trust me.” […] “If you think I’m going to leave you for the next guy that comes along, then you don’t have much faith in me.”

So, will Travis actually be able to manage his reactions instead of translating them into anger against Abby? I’m not holding my breath, but we’ll see.

How much I needed her terrified me.

I’m including that line just because the grammar is so wince-makingly awkward.

Maybe together we were this volatile entity that would either implode or meld together.

You know, this is the kind of thing that would have struck me as ohhhh, sooooooo romaaaaaantic when I was a teenager. I’d have lapped it up. With the benefit of a few decades more life experience, I just roll my eyes at the thought of trying to make that kind of mess of a relationship work. Dysfunction isn’t really a romantic plus.

However, speaking of pluses, we are now at the end of another chapter. Maybe I’ll manage to speed up and skim through on the next chapter? Maybe McGuire’s writing will get better? We can dream of unlikely things.

‘Beautiful Disaster’ interlude (part of ‘Walking Disaster’ review)

The story so far: Many moons ago, Jenny Trout started a review of appallingly toxic romance novel ‘Beautiful Disaster’, and, as the author has written a parallel book from the male love interest’s POV, I thought it would be fun to do a parallel review of the parallel book. Jenny Trout has since stopped her ‘Beautiful Disaster’ review, but I, having less wisdom in life, kept going with the very appropriately named Walking Disaster, now part way through Chapter 17. So, I got to the bit where Travis is promising himself he’ll be a better man and keep his temper so that he can be worthy of his new lady-love, promptly followed up by this:

By lunchtime, Chris Jenks had pissed me off and I regressed. Abby was thankfully patient and forgiving, even when I threatened Parker not twenty minutes later.

…with no further detail on what happened in those incidents. And I decided to look those up in ‘Beautiful Disaster’ and see what actually happened without Travis glossing it over.

Content warning for misogynistic comments (though actually called out in text), violence (not called out in text), and swearing (mine).

[Read more…]

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.

[Read more…]

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, 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.