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

‘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 Eight: Apocalyptic and Messianic Stories That Preceded Jesus

Price starts off with a pertinent question:

If the real-life Jesus is a fictional invention of the author of Mark, who was the Jesus being worshiped prior to the writing of that story? We know that Paul was worshiping someone named Jesus before the Gospel of Mark was written, so what was Paul talking about?

That would indeed be a useful question for Price to address in this chapter, but unfortunately he doesn’t do so. He did, however, briefly give his views on the subject back in the introduction, so let’s skip back to what he says there:

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

Although Price has been vague about how the belief in a crucified messiah, or a messiah as sin sacrifice, fitted in with this, the implication so far seems to have been that this belief would also have been part of the original or early cult (and we do know for certain that such a belief was there by Paul at the latest as it’s in his letters, although we can’t rule out the possibility that it originated with Paul, who very much went his own way where theology was concerned). So, as far as I can see, under Price’s hypothesis the original cult would have also a) believed in the crucifixion (though presumably believing it took place in heaven rather than on earth), and b) interpreted it as a sin sacrifice. I’m open to correction if Price has a different hypothesis regarding that point.

So, on to the next question, which is the topic that Price does in fact try to address in this chapter. How likely would it be that Jews of the time would come up with such a cult?

Well, Price believes the answer is ‘very likely’. To support this, he quotes various stories of the time and lists the many points of similarity between those stories and the Jesus story, concluding that ‘nothing really distinguished the pre-Gospel Jesus cult from many other similar cults in the region’. Unfortunately, this is once again the equivalent of looking for white swans instead of black ones; Price is so busy focusing on the similarities that he’s missing the fact that there are important differences.

Judaism and the origins of Christianity: where Christianity differed

Here is a list of significant points on which the hypothetical cult Price has described differs from typical Judaic beliefs of the time:

  1. The belief that the material world was hopelessly corrupt and evil and would need to be destroyed. Judaism’s view of the material world has typically been strongly positive, with much emphasis on the joys of earthly pleasures; the longed-for Messianic age has normally been pictured as an improved physical world with the harmful parts removed, not as a heavenly world.
  2. The belief that all humans are so hopelessly mired in sin that they cannot be saved from damnation without a sin sacrifice. While sin sacrifice was obviously a key part of the Judaism of the time, this was within the context of a strong belief that humans have the ability to become ever closer to heaven by their own efforts in keeping God’s laws, that the good we do will be counted to our credit when we are judged, and that individuals have the ability to live good enough lives to achieve favourable judgement and heavenly reward.
  3. The belief that this sin sacrifice must be a once-and-for-all uber-sacrifice which will wipe out all necessity for the Temple sacrifices from then on. The Jewish scriptures clearly taught that the Temple sacrifices were required by law and should continue permanently.
  4. The idea of a heavenly being as a sacrifice. The sacrificial system in Judaism has always used animals. The idea of sacrificing a heavenly being would have seemed shocking and pagan.
  5. The idea of sacrifice taking place by crucifixion. Sin sacrifices in Judaism were carried out by cutting the throats of animals carefully selected to be physically perfect specimens. That was the mental image of sacrifice for practicing Jews of the time. Crucifixion, on the other hand, was associated with humiliating punishment.

Now, one very obvious point which should be made here is that Christianity clearly did somehow develop or acquire all of the above beliefs at a fairly early stage. Beliefs 2 – 5 are certainly present in Paul’s letters, and I would say that at least some degree of 1 is also there, although I’m open to correction on that one if anyone wants to make a case to the contrary; in any case, it certainly seems to have become a part of Christianity as time went by. So the question is not whether a cult of the time and place could have developed such beliefs – clearly, this one did – but whether the fact that this did happen is better explained by a historicist or a mythicist scenario.

How did the differences start?

Firstly, how might Christian beliefs have developed under a historical-Jesus scenario? Here’s the theory that makes the most sense to me:

  1. An actual charismatic rabbi gains followers convinced he’s the Messiah.
  2. He’s then crucified, leaving his shocked and grieving followers trying to make sense of this turn of events.
  3. Rather than give up their belief in him as the Messiah, they conclude that his crucifixion must also have been part of God’s great plan, and that God has miraculously restored him to life with a view to returning him to finish the job.
  4. The cult gradually acquires more followers over the next few years, including some with more Hellenised backgrounds (either Hellenised Jews or pagans) whose mental images of sacrifice and divine forgiveness would have been formed in the context of more pagan backgrounds and beliefs.
  5. One of these people reinterprets the crucifixion as a once-and-for-all sin sacrifice and the only way in which humanity can be saved from otherwise irredeemable sin.

How plausible are each of the points in that hypothetical sequence of events?

  1. Highly plausible. This really would have been a typical cult for this time and place.
  2. Also plausible. Crucifixion was a standard Roman means of executing rebels, and having a crowd loudly claim you were the true King of the Jews come to kick out the Romans was the sort of thing about which the Romans would probably not have been all that happy.
  3. Possible. This sort of rationalisation is in line with how people have been known to react to events that should theoretically shatter their most deeply held beliefs.
  4. Possible. While it’s highly doubtful that early Christianity showed the massive rate of growth that Luke tried to depict in Acts, there are always plenty of people around in search of passionate leaders who give them a dream to follow.
  5. Plausible, since this hypothesis fits very smoothly with what we know about one particularly famous and influential Hellenised member of the early church; Paul. We know that he taught a theology that he believed he’d learned from visions, that he saw these visions as a better and more valid source of information than the teachings of the existing church, and (from Galatians) that he had at least one clash with the existing church over differences in teachings. We don’t know the details of the theological differences (because we have no pre-Pauline writings from the original church) and so can’t confirm whether ‘Paul reinterpreted the crucifixion as a sin sacrifice when the original church hadn’t seen it that way at all’ was the actual point of contention, but this is, at the least, a very plausible point at which that belief could have arisen.

(Some interesting supporting evidence for this last point, by the way, comes from the second half of Acts 21, in which Luke describes an incident in which the council tell Paul of their concerns about the reports that he’s been telling Jews to abandon Jewish law. In Luke’s account, the council assure Paul that all that’s needed to solve the problem of these accusations is for Paul to undergo a purification rite at the Temple to indicate his continued commitment to the Jewish law, which Paul does. However, Luke’s story of a council who clearly would find it a big problem for someone to be teaching Jews to abandon the Jewish law, put together with the evidence we now have from Paul’s letters that Paul was indeed teaching precisely that, gives us indirect but strong evidence that this was indeed a point of contention between them. And, since Paul’s belief that the Jewish law can be abandoned stems directly from his belief that the crucifixion was a once-and-for-all sin sacrifice that rendered it obsolete, this makes it likely that he and the Jerusalem church differed on that vital point as well.)

So, overall we have a sequence of events under historicity that seems plausible. If anyone disagrees, please let me know why. Two key points to note about it are that a) this sequence of events gives us an actual crucifixion, meaning that we don’t have to look at why someone would have invented that part, and b) the reinterpretation of this crucifixion as a once-and-for-all sin sacrifice could have happened at a slightly later stage once the movement contained more members from Hellenistic or pagan backgrounds who would have been interpreting the story through a somewhat different cultural lens.

Historicity gives us a plausible theory. How does Price’s theory hold up as an alternative?

Based on this chapter, not well. Price shows no sign he’s even recognised that most of the above are issues; he probably hasn’t. However, he does address one question, which is the question of how people of the time could have come to believe in a crucified Messiah. So, I’ll now look at Price’s explanation, which he finds in martyr stories of the time such as 2 Maccabees.

Price’s theory and the Maccabean martyrs

2 Maccabees, written in the second century BCE, tells the story of a family of seven sons and their mother who were successively tortured to death for their refusal to break kosher laws. 4 Maccabees is a later commentary which interprets the family’s commitment to their faith as highly pleasing to God. Price believes that this indicates that Judaism of the time did have a concept of human sin sacrifice:

Four Maccabees, written after 2 Maccabees and by a different author, comments on the seven martyrs in 2 Maccabees and states that their sacrifice was a “ransom for the sin of our nation.”

[quotes from 4 Maccabees 17]

We see in the stories of the Maccabees the torture and sacrifice of people at the hands of foreign rulers presented as scarifies [sic] to God for the atonement of sins. This shows that the concept of human “sin offerings” was certainly one that existed in Jewish thought and theology shortly prior to the rise of the Jesus cult.

There are quite a number of problems here.

Firstly, Price has a fairly fundamental misunderstanding here of the difference between sin sacrifice and martyrdom. In sin sacrifice, the animal in question was killed because Yahweh directly wanted it killed and because its blood would magically expiate sins. In martyrdom, a person dies for their commitment to a cause; their commitment to their belief is so strong that even death is preferable to violating their belief. What’s pleasing to Yahweh (or other deity) in martyrdom narratives isn’t the death for its own sake, but the level of commitment to Yahweh’s cause that it indicates.

In 2 Maccabees, the boys and their mother were’t killed because of some abstract belief that their blood would be pleasing or appeasing to God; they were killed because of their refusal to break Jewish dietary law. And it’s clear that the author of 4 Maccabees interprets it in this light. In his interpretation, their blood was pleasing to God because it indicated their level of commitment to the law; they were so strongly committed to keeping the Torah commandments that they were willing to be tortured to death rather than go against God’s will by breaking Torah law, and that is what was supposedly pleasing to God. Price has mistaken this for an indication that human sin sacrifice was considered desirable, but that isn’t the case. (Judaism, in fact, historically made quite a big thing out of being against human sin sacrifice in contrast to all those clearly inferior backwards religions that required it.)

Secondly, another key point Price has missed is that the author of 4 Maccabees seems to have believed that 2 Maccabees was a true story. Whether or not it was, the 4 Maccabees author seems to have been responding to it on that basis. What this passage shows, therefore, is that, in response to a story of martyrdom that could easily be interpreted as a meaningless tragic waste of life, a Jewish author came up with this interpretation as a way of retrospectively making it meaningful; an actual story of torture and murder was retconned into ‘but this was pleasing to God’. The author’s starting point was not to show how sin can better be expiated; it was to attempt to make sense out of what would otherwise be a tragedy. Again, this does not fit well with mythicism, which requires that the founders of what would become Christianity came up with the idea spontaneously. Under historicity, there would have been an actual story of a specific executed human to retcon; mythicism wouldn’t have had that head start.

And thirdly, let’s remember once again that Price’s theory is that the original cult believed Jesus to be an immaterial heavenly being. That doesn’t fit well with the Jesus-as-martyr theme that Price is trying to argue here. Martyrs are humans who suffer and/or die for a cause in a way that lets other followers of the cause hold them up as an example to emulate. It doesn’t make sense, therefore, to think in terms of an immaterial heavenly martyr. Price thinks that because Judaism of the time had stories about heavenly beings and stories about martyrs they could easily have combined the two, but he doesn’t seem to have noticed that these are two themes that it doesn’t make sense to combine.

Summary

The mythicist theory requires some person or group spontaneously to come up with several ideas that would have been very unusual within Second Temple Judaism:

  • That God wanted a once-and-for-all uber-sacrifice to do away with the need for the Law
  • That this sacrifice was to take place via a method that was completely conceptually different from the sacrifices that everyone of the time was used to
  • That this was to take place up in the heavens rather than on Earth:
  • That all of this had now happened already (in other words, the belief system somehow jumped from ‘this needs to happen’ to ‘good news, this has all happened!)

Under historicity, however, at least some of these problems vanish. If the original group were following an actual man who was believed to be the Messiah and was crucified, then the third point isn’t an issue at all and the second and fourth are straightforwardly explained by the group having had to deal with their supposed Messiah having actually been crucified (in other words, they were having to make sense out of an actual situation facing them). We’re still left with the question of how the crucifixion was so dramatically retconned into ‘sin sacrifice’, but we now have only one strange and unprecedented event to explain in this context rather than a combination of them, and we have, in what we know of Paul’s story, a plausible potential explanation of how this could have happened.

So, once again, historicity provides a plausible sequence of events for something that seems more difficult and complicated to explain under mythicism.

‘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.

‘Deciphering The Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed’ review: Chapter Six, 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 Six: Development of the Other Gospels

In this chapter, Price is trying to address how the gospels of Matthew, Luke and John came to be written under his mythicist theory. He’s given a few examples of parts that clearly were invented by the gospel authors for theological reasons, and I gave a couple of counter-examples of things that the authors seem highly unlikely to have invented.

Having looked at those details, let’s step back and ask a bigger question. How, exactly, does Price think we got to the point of having an active group believing Jesus was a real person and producing their own gospels about him?

According to Price, Mark’s gospel was actually a fictional satire, and the original group believed Jesus to be an immaterial heavenly Messiah, required because the material world was hopelessly corrupt. At which point, that’s… just about plausible as a theory. I mean, there are holes in the theory, and significant flaws in the way Price has developed it, and I’m not seeing any active reason why I should believe that rather than a Jesus-historical theory, but it’s still the kind of thing that I can at least picture people maybe doing.

But then we get to the question of what supposedly happened next. Under Price’s theory, proto-Christianity would have had to somehow get from one satirical story deliberately produced as fiction, to a substantial group who believed this story strongly enough to found their own belief system on it, write multiple embroidered accounts of this imaginary man’s life, be undeterred with the existence of the established belief that Jesus lived in the heavens only, and eventually take over the entire nascent belief system so completely that the original belief sank almost without trace. And I’m really not seeing how we got from point A to point Z here.

So, in this post, I’m going to go through the chapter and look at what Price provides by way of explanation. (I’ve slightly rearranged the order of the material as written by Price so as to present it in what would be chronological order of events; this shouldn’t affect the substance of anything in the discussion.)

The origins

What I am proposing is that the concept of a human Jesus was introduced around 70 CE with the “publication” of the story we call the Gospel of Mark. My view is that the human Jesus was created in that instant, and that once this story became popular, there was need to flesh out the story and add more detail to the life of Jesus. There would have been little time for some community to have developed strong oral traditions upon which multiple independent accounts could have been based.

Thus, what I think happened is that additional narratives about Jesus were invented by the authors of the new Gospels themselves. The reason that the other Gospels were written was precisely to record these new narratives. The writers had new ideas, and they wrote their versions of the story in order to record their ideas.

Firstly, a point that’s tangential to this chapter’s topic but probably still worth mentioning: While we haven’t got to the chapter about Paul yet and will no doubt argue this out in detail when we do, there are multiple places in Paul’s letters that make it clear that he, also, believed Jesus to have been born and lived on earth as a human. Regardless of whether Jesus actually was a human or not, Mark doesn’t get the credit for being the first one to introduce the idea.

On to the main issue; let’s look at the problems that Price skips over with the blithe statement ‘once this story became popular’.

The interesting thing here is that Mark’s gospel actually wasn’t that popular through much of Christian history. In fact, Price knows this; he actually opens his first chapter with that information. From the section in question:

For most of Christian history, the Gospel of Mark has been the least appreciated Gospel and viewed as the least significant. This is partly because the Gospel of Mark is the shortest Gospel, was not viewed as an eyewitness account, contains the least significant theological constructs, lacks any mention of the birth or origin of Jesus, paints an unflattering image of the disciples, and was believed to have been written after the Gospel of Matthew.

Of course, some of this wouldn’t apply at the time we’re discussing here; when gMark was first written it was the only gospel, so ‘shortest’ or ‘we think it was written after Matthew’ would have been non-issues. However, on the other side of things, in the situation Price is hypothesising there wouldn’t be the main driving force of ‘this is the true story of our Lord and Messiah; we must learn more of his teachings’. Also, there’s the practical question of just who would be passing the story on. All books had to be hand-copied in those days; it’s not as though there would have been an extra-large print run with lots of spares that people might pick up at the local bookshop. How many people would ever even have got hold of a copy? Without church leaders reading the stories out to their congregations to teach them as, literally, gospel truth, and arranging for extra copies to be made, it’s hard to see how it could ever have reached more than a small minority of the congregation.

Bear in mind, here that Price’s theory doesn’t just require some people to have liked/been interested in gMark; it requires it to have been popular enough for readers to be clamouring for more stories about the protagonist, authors to be producing extended versions in response, and the whole thing to be spreading so uncontrollably fast that the church leaders can’t get ahead of the stories to point out that they’re fictional. How, in Price’s scenario, does he think it would ever have reached anything like that level of popularity?

And on top of that, we’re still given no idea as to how this could have gone from known fiction to believed fact despite this being in the context of a nascent church who would (according to Price’s theory) have still been teaching their followers that Jesus was an immaterial heavenly being only. (To add to that problem, Mark himself would almost certainly have still been around, pointing out to people that his book was meant as an illustrative satire rather than as a literal account of Jesus’s life on earth). Of course, there are always some people who can’t distinguish between fiction and fact – the modern-day response to ‘The Da Vinci Code’ strikes me as a good example – but, again, remember that we’re not just talking about a tiny minority of people taking this book in a way it wasn’t intended; we’re talking about a movement strong enough that within less than a century it would have overcome the existing leadership’s completely different teachings. How?

Q material and the development of gMatthew and gLuke

First, a brief explanation of the term ‘Q’ for the benefit of anyone not versed in the basics of NT studies: It’s well recognised that a) gMatthew and gLuke share a lot of their material though not all of it, and b) that shared material can be divided into material also shared with gMark and material that gMatthew and gLuke share that isn’t in gMark. The ‘shared by gMatthew and gLuke but not by gMark’ material is often referred to as the Q material. (The term has nothing to do with James Bond, but comes from a widely accepted theory that Matthew and Luke both worked from gMark and from at least one other source, since lost, that recorded this material; this source is known among scholars as ‘Q’, as the theory was initially written in German and in that language ‘Q’ is the first letter of the word for ‘source’. That, however, is by-the-by; Price is using the term here simply as a shorthand for this category of gospel material.)

Anyway, here’s what Price tells us about this part of the gospels:

Based on my analysis of both the Gospel called Mark and Q, I don’t believe that the Q material could possibly be independent from the Markan narrative. The Q material is clearly dependent upon the narrative from Mark and was either part of an original longer version of Mark or was added later by another author to an expanded version of Mark, from which both the authors of the Gospels called Matthew and Luke copied.

Whether the so-called Q material was originally written by the same author as Mark or was added later by a different author is not of immediate importance. Based on my analysis, I cannot determine if the Q material was original to Mark or added later by someone else, but what is clear is that the authors of both Matthew and Luke copied from a single common source that contained the Q material already integrated with the Markan text. The key understanding here is that the authors of Matthew and Luke were not using a separate, independent source of information about Jesus; they were both still copying from a single source.

I’m dubious about Price’s theory here, but my knowledge of Q isn’t detailed enough to argue it, so let’s put that aside and look at where his theory takes us:

I find it possible that the Q material was written by a different author than the original author of Mark. […] However, it is also possible that the Q material is part of an original longer version of Mark and that what we call the Gospel of Mark today is actually a shortened version of the original.

OK, let’s look at each of those possibilities in turn.

Hypothesis 1: Someone sat down with the original gMark and wrote an expanded version of it with a lot of extra information added. That’s… kind of an odd thing to do with someone else’s fictional story. Why?

Hypothesis 2: Mark originally wrote the Q material himself as part of his original gospel. Setting aside the question of why, in that case, someone would have written a shortened version, Price’s main problem here is that this hypothesis hacks another gaping hole in the cornerstone of his original theory.

The basis of Price’s theory, remember, is his claim that he has gone through all of Mark and found that every substantive bit of it can be traced back to either Paul or the scriptures. While this claim wasn’t standing up well to examination anyway, due to many of the connections Price believed he’d found actually being far too flimsy and far-fetched to be convincing, at least he could come up with some kind of explanation (however poor) for pretty much every part of Mark. However, if we’re now considering the theory that Mark’s gospel originally contained a lot of extra information, then that’s a lot of extra information that Price hasn’t tied back to other sources. (This, also note, would include the “I come to bring not peace but a sword” lines, which seem particularly incongruous with Price’s theory that Mark’s goal was to preach harmony.) Thus, Price’s cornerstone claim would no longer be anywhere near true.

So, as ever, Price has significantly more explaining and clarifying to do if he wants any of this theory to stand up.

The birth stories

What I am proposing is that the birth story found in Matthew was invented purely by the author of Matthew,

Why? What does Price believe to be Matthew’s reason for inventing this?

Again, this is something that has a fairly obvious explanation if Jesus existed; Matthew believed that this person who’d been walking the earth a few decades earlier was the God-sent Messiah, and he wanted to demonstrate this in his story by showing that Jesus fulfilled Messianic prophecies. One such prophecy stated that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem, so Matthew wrote a story of Jesus being born in Bethlehem.

Under Price’s theory, however, Matthew was part of a group who believed in a Messiah who’d never been born or lived a human life, reading a fiction about this Messiah living a human life. Matthew was then copying out large parts of this fictional story to expand on it and add extra details, which is odd enough in the first place. Why would he have added a birth story if he already knew, from his church’s teachings, that Jesus had never been born?  For that matter, why would someone who was clearly very invested in the idea of Jesus fulfilling Messianic prophecy (which we know, from gMatthew, to have been the case for its author) even be part of a group that taught such a very different conception of the Messiah that clearly wasn’t in line with any of those prophecies?

and 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.

So, by this time we’re supposedly looking at a situation where oral stories of this earthly Jesus have spread even further among the early church than the written stories. Again, how? Under historicist theory, the stories spread because the leaders of the early church groups were actively teaching them to their congregations and passing them on, and once the gospels were written they were circulated (and probably read aloud to the congregations) as inspired teachings. Under mythicist theory, none of this would have been the case; gMark would simply have spread the way any book did at the time, by word of mouth among people who cared enough to tell their friends and family about the story they’d read, with potentially the occasional person being interested enough to have an extra copy made. We’d get some spread that way, of course; but how are the stories supposed to have spread to the extent we’d need for Price’s theory?

Also, of course, let’s reiterate the point I made in the last chapter; if Luke was getting his birth story from imperfect memories of Matthew’s birth story, how did he end up with something that so completely contradicted Matthew’s story? It would be natural to forget minor details, or add minor details, or misunderstand/misremember details, because all of that is what happens when a story gets passed on by word of mouth. But Luke manages to change ‘Jesus’s family moved from Bethlehem to Nazareth’ to ‘Jesus’s family made a temporary trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem’, come up with a census that wasn’t in Matthew’s story, and completely forget the dramatic story of Jesus’s family fleeing for his life while Herod slaughtered infants en masse; forget it so completely, in fact, that he forgets Herod was in the story at all, and sets his story at a time (the beginning of Quirinius’s rule) when Herod would already have been dead for years. Those are major changes. How does that fit with Price’s theory?

More about Luke

[…] The Gospel of Luke does appear to be a bit different than the Gospel of Matthew in terms of style and purpose. I don’t believe that the writer of Luke used invention the way that the writers of Matthew and John did. Rather, it appears that the writer of Luke was attempting to create a valid historical account. […] It appears that whoever wrote [Luke and Acts] was conducting “research” and was actually working from multiple sources, trying to fit the Jesus narrative into a real historical context. The author of Luke was probably using sources such as Josephus, the letters of Paul, and likely more to try to create a coherent account that fit into the timeline of real history. It is very likely that the author of Luke and Acts believed that Jesus was a real person himself. […] What is also clear about the writings from Luke is that they were intended to be a self-contained and complete account of early Christian history, covering the time from Jesus’s birth through the early ministry of Paul.

Agreed. Luke was writing highly biased history, but he was, in his way, trying to write history when he wrote Acts. That’s agreed among scholars. So, once again… how did he not notice, in the course of this research, that he was writing about a fictional character?

Did the church leaders he spoke to have no records, even oral, of the actual beliefs of the church? What about Mark, who might or might not have still been alive when Luke wrote but whom we can assume probably did not vanish off the edge of the earth without trace on finishing his work; was there no-one around who’d known him and remembered that he was actually trying to write fiction and not biography?  In the last chapter, Price claimed that people who knew the original Church fathers would still have been around and that we would have expected authors of this time to be able to get hold of them if need be; if so, would that not apply when Luke was attempting to do research? Price has just told us that he believes Luke had heard the birth story in gMatthew and based his own on what he remembered of it; if that was really the case, would Luke the would-be historian not have at least tracked down the story and tried to get it right?

How did Luke, in the course of doing as much of all this as he feasibly could, not notice that this had not been an earthly person? How likely is it that he would have completely overlooked that problem with his research? Does Price think he would simply have shrugged his shoulders and gone on trying to write this as a history despite all evidence to the contrary? How does Price think this would have happened?

 

Conclusion

I was particularly interested to read this part of the book, because the question addressed here is in fact the reason Price and I got into the mythicism-vs-historicity discussion in the first place; when I raised the question of how a mythical Jesus could have made the shift to being believed in as a historical being from the (then) recent past, he assured me that his book ‘explains exactly how this happened, with compelling concrete evidence’. I suspected it might well not live up to that description, so ‘disappointing’ would be too strong a word here, but the book definitely does not explain how this happened.

I suspect Price’s focus was so much on his belief that gMark was entirely fictional that, by the time he was looking at how things might have developed from there, he was entirely convinced of mythicism and was viewing everything from that perspective, picking out the evidence that fitted with that conclusion without examining the evidence as a whole in the light of both hypotheses to see which one fitted best. In any case… whatever the reason, Price has not thought through the practicalities of how one fictional story would take over the movement like this. Thus his theory, once again, is deeply flawed.

 

And now, as I’ve done several ‘Deciphering’ reviews in succession, I think it’s time to focus on other blogging topics for a while. (I’ll be happy to take part in comment threads on the existing posts, but I’ll work on other topics for my posts.) I look forward to blogging about some other topics and to getting back to posting about ‘Deciphering’ in due course. I hope all’s well with all of you, and wish you all a great day.

‘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 Two

‘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.

The chapter so far: Price is claiming that Docetism, a 2nd – 4th century belief that Jesus merely appeared to be human without taking on human flesh, was actually a belief that Jesus ‘never existed’, which had developed from the beliefs of an original group of followers who believed him to be a heavenly being only. I discussed the problems with this interpretation in my previous post. On to the other significantly flawed premise in Price’s argument in this chapter:

2. Could the anti-Docetists have come up with better evidence to argue their case?

Price’s argument here is that the second-to-fourth century anti-Docetists would have been able to produce better evidence for their case if Jesus had actually existed, and, since they didn’t do so, this omission is evidence against Jesus’s existence. He’s unimpressed by the arguments the anti-Docetists did produce:

Essentially, they just used the Gospels and theological reasoning, as shown below […] This was, literally, the best they could do to “prove” that Jesus really existed. They defended the human existence of Jesus by quoting from the Gospels and Hebrew scriptures, and that was it.

The problem with Price’s reasoning here is that he’s looking at this from the point of view as an atheist and an skeptic for whom ‘The Scriptures say so!’ really is poor evidence, but isn’t taking into account that this was not the perspective of the people actually having the argument.

To the Church fathers, the Hebrew scriptures were the word of the all-knowing God that they worshipped, the ultimate source of wisdom and truth. As for the gospels, they believed two of these to be the accounts of people who had actually lived with Jesus and were thus reporting from first-hand knowledge. (Biblical scholars no longer believe this to have been the case, but it was what the early church believed at the time.)

From that point of view, it makes complete sense that these would be the sources they’d use. To them these writings would indeed have been the best available, and not in the sense of ‘we don’t have anything better so we’re stuck with resorting to these’; the apologists in question believed these to be the literal Word Of God on the matter. This is, therefore, exactly what we’d expect them to use, regardless of whether evidence that might seem better to later atheist skeptics was available or not.

That said, would other evidence for Jesus’s existence have been easily available at that point? Price continues:

Think about what could have been done to prove that Jesus existed in the second through fourth centuries.

Yes, let’s indeed. Even if the question had been whether Jesus existed, how exactly could his followers have proved it that long after events, when they lived nowhere near the places where he had lived and died, in a world with so little in the way of formal records? If you were trying to prove the existence of someone who’d lived a century or more ago, in a country to which you couldn’t easily travel, without directly knowing any of the people who’d known that person, and without using any modern technology or records, how would you do it?

Now think of how much more difficult it would be if the actual question being asked was ‘Did this person have real human flesh or was their body actually a clever counterfeit designed by divine power to look real?’ How would you even begin to determine, that long after and that far away, which of those two was the case?

Well, let’s look at Price’s suggestions:

If Jesus were actually a real person, he would have had to have ultimately been buried somewhere[…] There were also sects who believed that he never ascended bodily to heaven. They could have used his real body to prove it.

This is weirdly reminiscent of Christian apologetics. One common argument that apologists use in attempts to prove the resurrection is that, if Jesus had still been dead, his followers’ opponents would have just used his body to prove it… because obviously the unexplained absence of a body is the only reason someone wouldn’t track down and desecrate a grave to dig up an extensively decomposed corpse. To be fair, I know I went for years without spotting the flaw in that logic. However, most people reading this are probably rather more clued up than I was in my 20s, so I probably don’t need to spell out why this argument doesn’t hold up all that well.

If Jesus were a real person with real followers […] those followers would have venerated his grave, even if his body wasn’t there.

Why? His followers believed he’d been miraculously raised from the dead, and wanted to keep focusing on that belief (since they were finding the alternative too awful to contemplate). That being so, I doubt very much that they wanted to think about realities of his body or grave at all, let alone ‘venerate’ his grave. With no-one trying to keep that memory alive, how likely would anyone be to know where it was more than a generation later? And even if someone remembered where the grave was, how would anyone ever prove that the person buried there was Jesus and not someone completely different? (Or even prove that someone was buried there, since the only way to do so would involve digging up a very dead body?)

Furthermore, if Jesus had been executed by the Jews during the reign of Pilate due to being a seditious rabble rouser, then wouldn’t followers of his that continued worshiping him in the years after his death have been seen by Jewish leaders as criminals or threats? There is no record in Jewish literature of any seditious or problematic group of Jesus followers in Jerusalem from the period following Jesus’s supposed death.

The question of whether Price is correct in claiming that we have no such record is one that is probably better discussed in Chapter 10, where Price goes into his reasons for rejecting the mention in Josephus of the execution of ‘the brother of Jesus called Christ’ as valid. However, that’s a whole separate part of the argument unrelated to what anti-Docetists did or didn’t argue.

The question in the context of this specific argument, as far as I can see, is whether there were records at the time that we’d expect anti-Docetists to have used as part of their case. Were there records at the time condemning this group as potential threats due to their insistence on still following a man who’d been executed as a seditious criminal? Quite possibly. Would we expect second-century apologists to have access to them? Maybe, though that’s very far from a given. Would we expect these apologists to find such records useful evidence in differentiating between ‘Jesus had flesh’ and ‘Jesus only appeared to have flesh’? I can’t see how or why. Would we expect them to want to cite such records as part of their pro-Jesus propaganda? Rather obviously not. So, irrespective of whether such records existed, we wouldn’t expect to find any mention of them in the works of the anti-Docetist apologists.

What about the real tomb and body of Mary? Also never identified.

And nor were the tomb or body of Paul, whom we know to have existed because we have multiple letters by him, so clearly this isn’t a good way to identify ‘person who suspiciously never existed’. I think Price might be confusing ‘never identified’ with ‘it wasn’t until more than a generation later, far from where any of these people would have originally lived or died, that anyone else reached the point of caring enough about this person to want to venerate their grave, and by that point there were no reliable surviving records’.

What about Peter? Also never identified.

Whoa; is Price trying to claim that Peter didn’t exist? We have Paul’s first-hand account of having met Peter and disagreed with him. In historians’ terms, that’s primary source evidence. I’m not sure Price has quite thought his argument out here.

What about any direct contact with anyone who had personally met or seen Jesus?

I’m not sure how speaking to anyone who’d seen Jesus would be useful in refuting a belief that Jesus had the ‘appearance’ of a human body rather than the real thing; by definition, if someone has the ‘appearance’ of a human body then they’re going to look human to people who see them. But, all right… what about people who’d known Jesus well enough to have some kind of direct physical contact? Well, since Price is talking about ‘what could have been done to prove Jesus existed in the second through fourth centuries’, the answer to that one seems fairly self-evident; by the time the anti-Docetist apologists Price has just quoted were writing, everyone who would have known Jesus was long dead.

What Price seems to be doing here, as far as I can tell, is losing track of the fact that he just specified ‘second through fourth centuries’ and going back to a claim he made a few pages earlier; that Docetism was around by the end of the first century. However, even if we accept this particular conclusion (which Price derives by starting from the very shaky premise that Ascension theology in gLuke was ‘no doubt a reaction to questions about where the body of Jesus was’ and then concluding that this dates this belief to the end of the first century even though this contradicts the range of likely dates he gives us for gLuke in the next chapter, so it’s highly doubtful whether we should accept it), it’s hardly a given that anyone who’d known Jesus would be alive even at that point. Seventy years after events, in a time where average lifespans (especially for the poor) were shorter than now? At best we can say that it’s possible that some of Jesus’s associates would still be alive and compos mentis; but Price seems to have confused this with a definite, when in fact it’s highly plausible that none of them were.

Finally, Price thinks anti-Docetists should have been able to

[….] at the very least, find evidence of his supposed real associates, like Peter or John or any of his family members, etc.

I know this is tangential since Price is wrong about this argument even being about Jesus’s existence, but I’m a little amused by the fact that Price apparently assumes this evidence would be argument-clinching evidence for Jesus’s existence despite the fact that his own mythicism clearly shows that it isn’t. As far as evidence for ‘Peter or John or any of [Jesus’s] family members’ is concerned, we have that even to this day; in one of Paul’s surviving letters (to the Galatians), he mentions meeting Peter, John, and Jesus’s brother James. Clearly Price does not, in fact, find ‘evidence of… Peter or John or any of [Jesus’s] family members’ to be particularly convincing evidence for Jesus’s existence.

None of these people were ever identified or talked to.

I’m at a loss as to where Price is getting this from. Paul specifically does tell us that he talked to these people, and the gospel writers tell us nothing either way about whom they did or didn’t speak to, whom they did or didn’t try to find to speak to, or whom they were even in a position to try to find (we don’t know how far away from Jerusalem any of the gospel writers were, since Paul set up some very far-flung churches, and travel in those days wasn’t easy). Price seems to have somehow come up with a mental scenario in which first-century apologists were trying to track down Jesus’s associates yet mysteriously failing (and then… coming up with detailed imaginary stories about them anyway, unfazed by the fact that the people they actually found from the original movement would be giving them completely different information? I’m honestly struggling to figure out what Price is picturing here; I’m not sure he knows himself.)

Why is Price so categorically stating that none of these people were ever identified or talked to? Especially in view of the fact that Paul did talk to some of them? Once again, he’s making claims that crumble to dust on examination.

‘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.

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

‘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.

After taking two and a half years and seven posts to make it to the end of Chapter Two in this book, I’d assumed I’d be doing this until some time into my retirement. Fortunately, it looks as though the next few chapters are going to be significantly quicker to get through (for my highly relative standards of ‘significantly quicker’) and so I’m hoping to be able to get through each chapter with a single post. We might yet make it to the end of this!

Chapter 3: Copies Of Mark, Not Independent Accounts

In this chapter, Price discusses two scenes that appear in all four gospels; the scene with Jesus and the moneylenders in the temple, and the crucifixion scene. His chain of argument is:

  1. Mark derived both of these scenes from passages in the Jewish scriptures.
  2. All three of the other gospel writers derived these scenes from Mark (varying them in different ways).
  3. This gives us good evidence that none of the other gospel writers knew anything about a ‘real Jesus’ either.

I’ll look at each of these in turn.

1. Did Mark derive these scenes from passages in the Jewish scriptures?

Price believes that Mark derived the temple scene from a passage in Hosea. If you’re interested in his theory, you can read about it on his webpage here, and if you’re really interested you can read the lengthy debate he and I had on the topic in one of my previous comment threads here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. (However, I don’t think I’d particularly recommend reading through all those unless you’re someone who really loves following up every little detail.)

The tl;dr version is that Price believes that Mark derived the temple scene entirely from Hosea 9, while I find it more likely that Mark embroidered a real scene with details from the Hosea passage to add symbolism. The truth might, of course, be ‘neither of the above’, and we’ll never know anyway. But the important point is that ‘Mark embroidered a real scene’ is plausible as an explanation, and that means that we can’t take ‘Mark invented the whole scene based on Hosea’ as a premise on which to build further speculations.

As far as the crucifixion scene goes, I’d say ‘as above but with more certainty’. It’s widely accepted – and certainly a claim with which I’d agree – that Mark based details in his description of the crucifixion scene on passages from the Jewish scriptures. However, for reasons I’ve discussed previously, I also believe it’s a lot more likely that Jesus really was sentenced by Pilate and then crucified than that those particular details were inventions about a mythical celestial Jesus-figure. So, again, I think that the explanation here is that Mark reported an actual incident that had been passed down but embroidered the bare-bones details he had with both his imagination and links from the Jewish scriptures.

2. Did all three of the other gospel writers derive their work from Mark?

It’s not news to anyone who knows even the basics of Bible study that Matthew and Luke used Mark as one of their sources; that’s long since been established by New Testament scholars. Whether John used any of the synoptics (the three gospels other than John) as a source is less clear, but Price does raise a good point here; in the crucifixion scene, John includes the details that Mark clearly did derive from the Jewish scriptures. This means that either Mark’s and John’s accounts both come from an even earlier source that did the same thing, or John got his information (directly or indirectly) from one of the synoptics. I think the latter explanation is the more likely, so that means that John probably did get information (though possibly via an indirect route) from at least one of the synoptics.

3. Can we deduce from this that the other authors didn’t know anything about the Jesus story other than what they got from Mark?

This one, however, doesn’t follow. Price argues:

If there was some real temple-cleansing event, then what’s clear is that none of the other Gospel writers had any knowledge of it. If they had had knowledge of a real event where a real Jesus threw merchants out of the temple, then they wouldn’t have simply copied their versions of the story from what is clearly a fictional account. […] [I]t is impossible to believe that anyone who had direct knowledge of a real Jesus person would have written an account of his life in which all of the most important details are borrowed from a single fictional story.

This, like rather a lot of Price’s arguments, left me thinking ‘Huh?’.

If by ‘direct knowledge’ Price means that the gospel writers didn’t personally know Jesus, then I think he’s just reinvented the Biblical criticism wheel. It’s been established for something like a century now that they’re highly unlikely to have known Jesus, given how much gMatthew copies from gMark (a gospel attributed to an author for whom even church tradition only claims second-hand knowledge of Jesus) and how late gJohn is thought to be.

However, if by ‘direct knowledge’ Price is referring to information or sources other than gMark, then of course it’s possible for the authors to have worked from other sources. In fact, the amount of information that’s shared by both Matthew and Luke despite not being in Mark has convinced the majority of New Testament scholars that the two of them both worked from a separate source, since lost, as well as Mark.

It’s important to remember here that, regardless of what we think about gMark, we can’t assume that the other gospel authors would have seen it that way. Price thinks it’s ‘clearly a fictional account’; I think it’s an embroidered and partly fictionalised version of something based in fact; but neither of those viewpoints are relevant, because we’re not the people who wrote the other gospels. The people who did so were believers, not skeptics; they had no reason to reject gMark as a source of information, and the fact that they accepted gMark as such a source in no way excludes the possibility of them having other such sources. Price devotes several pages to his belief that the reliance of the other gospels on gMark is enough for us to conclude that they were entirely fictional, but this claim doesn’t stand up to examination.

Although it’s a side note rather than the main thrust of the chapter, Price makes one more point towards the end that’s worth a comment:

The key argument of the founders of Christianity was that the Gospel accounts had to be true, because they were independently written accounts that corroborated each other. The belief that the Gospels now attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were independently written accounts was absolutely central to all of the arguments made by the founders of Christianity as to the validity of the religion and the truth of the accounts they contained. The argument was that since four separate witnesses all recorded the same basic things, their accounts corroborate each other and therefore must be true.

This flat-out doesn’t make sense. The gospels weren’t even written until decades after Christianity started and weren’t collected together until even later than that, so, unless the founders of Christianity had access to time travel, it would have been physically impossible for them to use this argument.

The only sense I can make of this is that Price didn’t know what the word ‘founders’ means and was actually trying to refer to to a significantly later stage of Christianity in which apologists did use this argument. If so, then it’s possible that he’s correct in that claim; I don’t know of any examples of apologists claiming this, but that proves nothing as I’m not very familiar with early church apologetics. However, Price gives no citations to back it up, so I have no way of knowing whether that claim would be correct or not. Either way, the claim as written is certainly not correct, so at a bare minimum he needs to edit it to drop the ‘founders’ statement.

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

‘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.

In the previous post, I discussed the examples Price gives of teachings or approaches he believes Mark to have derived from Paul. In this one, I’ll discuss some of Price’s other statements in the chapter, followed by a general look at the story so far.

While we have seen that many of the scenes in the Gospel called Mark are based on literary allusions to the Hebrew scriptures, the Jesus character himself is based on Paul. It is clear from analysis of the Gospel called Mark that the writer of that story had read the letters of Paul and used them as inspiration for the character and teachings of Jesus.

My first thought when I read that was ‘Well, why not just write the allegory about Paul?’ According to Price’s theory, Mark was trying to write an entirely fictional account purely for allegorical purposes. If he wanted to fictionalise a person based on Paul’s life, seems like the obvious thing would be to write a fictional version of Paul, rather than of Jesus. Price has stated in a comment on here that it was to give Mark’s message the greater authority of coming from Jesus; but in that case, why portray Jesus as a flesh-and-blood person at all? According to Price’s theory, Mark and the audience for whom he was writing believed Jesus to be a spiritual heavenly being, who would surely have had more authority than an ordinary flesh-and-blood being; why this whole business of rewriting him as a human, rather than just portraying him as visiting Earth to make his announcements? I still can’t see how Mark’s motives, under Price’s theory, add up in a plausible or coherent way.

On further consideration, I realised there was a bigger problem; how would Mark have read this many of Paul’s letters in the first place? We’re used to having them collected handily together as part of the New Testament, but that wouldn’t happen until long after the time Mark wrote his gospel. At the time Mark was writing, the individual letters would have been in the possession of the widely scattered communities to which Paul had sent them. The passages that Price identifies as those on which Mark supposedly based parts of his gospel include extracts from letters originally sent to Rome, Corinth, Philippi, and Galatia. I’ve checked a map of Paul’s journeys to get an idea of how far apart these places actually were; my rough estimate is that a journey taking in all of them would be upwards of a thousand miles. In those days, that would have been a massive undertaking, complicated further by the difficulties of locating each community. It’s not impossible that someone could have made that mammoth journey in order to read each of Paul’s letters, but it does seem pretty unlikely. So, while I’m quite happy with the idea that Mark was influenced by Pauline teaching and by some of his writing, I don’t think Price’s argument about the extent to which Mark had supposedly read Paul’s writing really holds up.

By the way, I didn’t realise this until I’d already made notes on which of Price’s examples I did or didn’t agree with. When I did realise the problem with Price’s claim here, I thought I’d better go back and look at the four examples for which I agreed that Price was probably correct about Pauline derivation; after all, if it turned out that they were from letters sent to different communities then I’d have some contradictory conclusions and I’d have to rethink. What I actually found, however, was that all four examples were based on passages from 1 Corinthians. So, there we go; we do have evidence (hardly watertight, but fairly good) that, whoever Mark actually was, he read at least that letter, and thus was associated at some point with the Corinthians community. I’m guessing that probably at least someone in the field of biblical scholarship has noticed this before, but it was new information for me and I found it interesting.

Thus, if Mark’s Jesus is based on the writings of Paul, then Mark’s Jesus has no relationship to any real person whatsoever, because according to Paul himself, Paul’s “knowledge” of Jesus came from no one. [quote of Galatians 1:11 – 17]

That doesn’t logically follow. It’s perfectly possible that Mark could have used Paul as one of multiple sources for information, basing parts of his gospel on Paul’s letters and part on other sources. (In fact, this is what Price is also claiming happened, as he believes Mark also drew on the Jewish scriptures.) If Mark’s Jesus could be shown to be based entirely on Paul’s letters then that would be a different matter, but that isn’t what Price is trying to claim. Since Paul and his followers believed that Paul had also seen Jesus and received direct communication from him (they believed this had happened via supernatural apparition post-resurrection, but this was completely real from their viewpoint), I see no reason why Mark wouldn’t have drawn on information from both Paul and people who knew Jesus during his lifetime.

By the way, that Galatians passage always strikes me as a pretty ironic one for mythicists to quote. The mythical arguments that I’ve read (including Price’s) all put huge emphasis on Paul’s lack of interest in Jesus’s earthly life and his belief that Jesus was some kind of pre-existent heavenly being. But, since we know from Paul’s own words that he was not preaching the theology of the previously-existing group of Jesus-followers, why should his beliefs about whether or not Jesus led an earthly life be relevant evidence as to whether Jesus actually did lead an earthly life? Paul’s beliefs about Jesus seem to have been highly tangential to reality.

Most of the rest of the chapter is devoted to Price’s examples, so I’ll now skip ahead to the last paragraph of the chapter. Here, Price speculates on Mark’s motive for writing his gospel. Now, this is quite an important point for any mythicist theory, since mythicism has to explain how, within less than a century, we could plausibly get from ‘Jesus was a purely spiritual heavenly being’ to ‘Jesus was born on Earth; here are multiple detailed stories about his earthly life’. Here’s what Price gives us:

Paul’s message was one of harmony between Jews and Gentiles. This message was apparently in conflict with the message of James and other members of the Jesus cult, and with the Jewish leadership. I think the writer of Mark was a follower of Paul, who saw in the outcome of the war proof that Paul had been right. I think the writer’s view was, “See, if they had listened to Paul none of this would have happened”, or perhaps, “This was destined to happen, in accordance with Paul’s gospel.” It was the defeat of the Jews and the destruction of the temple that precipitated the need to defend Paul’s vision.

Now, Price might be able to make this work as a plausible theory, but he’s got some problems to overcome.

Firstly, it’s based on some unsubstantiated premises: that ‘harmony between Jews and Gentiles’ was a major message of Paul’s, that this was an issue on which he clashed significantly with the Jerusalem church, and that Mark’s gospel also clearly presents this point. Unfortunately, Price doesn’t make the case for any of these premises. (I have a niggling feeling that the problem might be Price having interpreted the initial disagreement over whether Gentiles joining the movement had to follow Jewish law as a ‘harmony’ issue. If so, then in the first place that’s not actually what ‘harmony’ means, and in the second it seems to be a moot point, since Paul was assuring his followers that that little disagreement had been sorted out in his favour.)

Secondly, there’s the question of why an author whose primary motive was defending Paul’s message against the church would fall short of giving us any kind of clearcut message on the one subject on which Paul certainly did have a significant, and as far as we know unresolved, clash with the church; the question of whether Jewish law had been rendered obsolete. While a discussion of Mark’s approach to this question would take too long to go into in detail here, he at no point shows Jesus making a clear statement on the issue (even though he could quite easily have put Paul’s views into Jesus’s mouth), and, in the many arguments Jesus is portrayed as having with Pharisees, Jesus is in fact in each case taking a position completely in line with established Jewish law. All this makes sense if Mark wanted to gloss over the differences between Paul’s views and the church’s, but is at least somewhat odd if his purpose was to tell the church how wrong they’d been to disagree with Paul; in that case it would seem more likely that the differences would be highlighted rather than glossed over, with gMark’s Jesus making clear statements on the matter.

All of these might well be surmountable problems; I don’t think they’re fundamental flaws in the theory, and there might well be good answers I haven’t thought of. However, this is an area of his theory that Price definitely needs to develop a bit further.

 

Conclusion: The theory so far

This completes the second chapter, which means we’ve also completed the part of the book that deals with Price’s views on the gospel of Mark. By this point, according to Price, we’re supposed to have been provided with ‘overwhelming concrete evidence that the Gospel of Mark is an entirely fictional work’, which in turn is the cornerstone for his whole theory. So, I’ll pause for just a moment here to take stock.

I agree with Price on some points (something that I think is worth mentioning here, because it gets rather lost in the disagreements). I agree with Price that there is a lot more going on in Mark’s writing than just some sort of simple record of what he’d heard about Jesus; I agree that multiple parts of his gospel allude to/are based on the Jewish scriptures; and I agree that his theology was in large part Pauline in nature and that this comes through in the way he presents Jesus’s story and teachings. I think that a convincing argument can be made for all of these points.

The problem I find with Price’s theories is that he takes these ideas much too far; he is, as the saying has it, making too much stew from one oyster. Firstly, his criteria for what he’ll categorise as an example of derivation from a scriptural or Pauline source are so vague that he’s categorising far too many scenes as being ‘clearly’ or ‘obviously’ due to derivation on Mark’s part, even where the arguments for this being the case are in fact extremely weak. Secondly, he’s concluding that, because Mark is using Jesus’s story as a symbolic way of getting his messages across, this must make the entire story fictional.

In fact, even if Price’s arguments about the extent of Mark’s derivation from other sources did stand up, it still wouldn’t follow that Mark had invented the earthly life of Jesus in its entirety. For one thing, there’s no logic to that claim; it is perfectly possible for an author to use a story based on a real person as a device for symbolically making a particular point (for example, ‘L’Alouette’, one of the plays I studied for French A-level, does exactly this with regard to Joan of Arc). And, for another thing, we actually see that Mark was prepared to do this with a historical character, because he does this with John the Baptist. He writes about him in ways that, as Price pointed out in Chapter 1, are fairly clearly symbolic (presenting him as an Elijah-figure), yet we know that John the Baptist existed, because there’s a long passage about him in Josephus’s work. So there’s not even a question over whether Mark would write about a real figure with a real earthly life in a symbolised way; we know he would, because he did. And so we can’t conclude that Mark’s use of Jesus’s story as a vehicle for symbolic messages means that Mark had no knowledge of an earthly Jesus.

It’s fair to say that gMark is too mythologised and slanted to give us particularly reliable information about the details of Jesus’s life, and also fair to say that, if we only had gMark and no other evidence, then we simply wouldn’t be able to tell whether Mark was writing about a real character or a fictional one. But Price has unfortunately fallen far short of his claim to have given us ‘overwhelming concrete evidence’ that the book is entirely fictional.

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

‘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.

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