Hey, guys, anyone up for a bit more Jesus mythicism debate? Yes… it’s time for me to start reviewing R.G. Price’s book!
A bit of background, for those who don’t know it: A few months back, I wrote a post here about why I’ve always found it more likely that Jesus did exist as some kind of real-life figure, rather than being a completely mythical figure as many non-Christians believe. (That post isn’t a comprehensive list of reasons for believing in Jesus’s historicity, by the way; just the reasons why I thought Jesus likely to be historical even before I started reading up properly on the debate and learning more about it.)
Anyway, the post sparked off some pretty major discussion, and Jesus mythicist R.G. Price came to join in. (This might, by the way, be a good moment to clarify that R.G. Price is not the same person as Robert M. Price, who is also a Jesus mythicist.) We had some further discussion, and he very kindly offered to send me a free copy of his book. I offered in turn to review it for him, and here we are.
This one, unlike some of the other stuff I’ve written, is not going to be snark. I’m up for a serious discussion about R.G. Price’s arguments and the reasons why I disagree with them (which I still do; I’ve read the whole book already). If that’s not for you, no worries, hope to see you on another review.
This book has both a preface and an introduction; I’ll try to cover them both in this post. As with previous reviews, I’ll then link all other chapter reviews back to the original post to keep everything in one place.
Here we go, folks!
R.G. Price’s first sentence is ‘By conventional standards, I am not qualified to write this book.’ This amused me; by the same conventional standards, I’m not qualified to debate it, so we’ll just bumble along together in happy amateurism. (If anyone out there who does have relevant qualifications spots any howling errors in anything I write or anything I quote from R.G. Price, do feel free to step in and set us straight.)
R.G. Price goes on to give us a quick outline of his background:
- He’s a software engineer/data analysis, with a BSc in biology. (That’s interesting; I’m curious as to how he got from the latter to the former? Not that it’s relevant; I’m just interested.)
- He grew up in a ‘nominally Christian’ family but was skeptical about Christianity from an early age. However, he was always fascinated by religion in general, and read the Bible several times while he was growing up. (He’s got more sticking power than me. I tried to read it several times, but invariably bogged down somewhere around the Chronicles. Although the part I did read was certainly… informative.) When he read the Bible’s accounts of supernatural phenomena, he would try to think of possible natural causes for the things described.
- He first found out about Jesus mythicism in the late ’90s, because Internet. (Yes, me too.) He was very skeptical about it at first, and in fact spent quite a bit of time over the next few years debunking some of the more improbable mythicist theories. However, in the process of researching these claims, he found some of the things he was coming across were starting to change his mind on the subject.
At this point, R.G. Price gives us an example; He often saw mythicists claiming that the twelve disciples were actually symbolic of the twelve signs of the zodiac. (Good grief; people were claiming this often? The internet is a worrying place.) R.G. Price pointed out that a much more likely source of the story was a Jewish tradition of heroes or prophets appointing helpers from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. However, having come up with this explanation, he found himself believing that this was indeed the source of the story; that the disciples were ‘a symbolic literary intervention’.
Now, this is interesting. If I understand this correctly, R.G. Price seems to have moved from ‘This is a possible explanation for this part of the story’ to ‘This is a likely explanation for this part of the story’. And I can’t quite see how he got there. I mean, certainly the story of twelve disciples could have been invented for that reason, but it’s also perfectly plausible that a real-life Jewish preacher of that era would deliberately choose a group of that size for that reason. So, as far as I can see, that particular part of the story could fit with either a historical or a mythical Jesus.
(In fact, once you take into account that two out of the three leaders of the original Jerusalem church supposedly started out as part of Jesus’s group, the probability seems to swing at least a little more towards the historical. It’s plausible that an author writing a symbolic story about a mythical Jesus might decide to include all the existing church leaders as members of his inner circle, or, even more likely, none of them… but it seems a bit odd that they’d include two out of three and have a different backstory for the third. Not impossible, but odd enough to seem on the unlikely side.)
Anyway, by now R.G. Price had read about how some scenes in the gospels seem to be literary allusions to the Hebrew scriptures (for example, many details in the crucifixion scene seem to be based on Psalm 22) and he formed a hypothesis; that this was true of almost all the gospel stories. Or at least, almost all the stories in Mark, the earliest gospel. So he set out to test this by – and I love this – spending a year going through gMark line by line, searching the OT in various translations to find related passages on which each story could have been based. A year. R.G. Price, my man, you may proudly take your place amongst the Fellowship of Obsessive Geeks, which I totally just invented but absolutely should exist. Welcome to our ranks. <extends hand>
His conclusion, at the end of all this, was that all of the stories in gMark could be attributed either to literary allusions to OT stories, or to points that ‘Mark’ had found in Paul’s epistles. From this, and other parts of the Jesus story that he’d been looking into, he found himself coming round to the mythicism side of the argument.
At this point, he still felt he needed a theory explaining how the Jesus story originated. He feels he’s managed to come up with such a theory, and is writing this book in order to present it. He concludes ‘The case I am putting forward essentially shows that belief in a real human Jesus arose out of confusion and a misunderstanding of how the Gospels were written.’
In the introduction, R.G. Price outlines his theory. Put together chronologically, it goes like this:
- Christianity originated as a small apocalyptic Jewish cult that believed that the material world was hopelessly corrupt and thus the kingdom of God would need to be established in heaven rather than, as was more traditionally believed, on earth. As such, they developed the belief that the Messiah – eagerly awaited by Jews – would be an immaterial heavenly being rather than an earthly human.
- Paul became an apostle of this cult. He preached reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles, believing that the expected kingdom of God would be open to anyone who had faith in God.
- Along came the First Jewish-Roman War, the sacking of Jerusalem, and the destruction of the Temple. One of the members of the Pauline-founded sects came to the belief that these events were God’s punishment on the Jews for not having heeded the message of harmony between Jews and Gentiles. He expressed this belief in a fictional, allegorical account, in which he made Jesus the protagonist. This story was the one we now call the Gospel of Mark.
- The other gospel writers, misunderstanding Mark’s gospel and believing it to be a real story of a real person, wrote more detailed stories based on it. (At least, that seems to be what R.G. Price thinks happened here; his theory seems a little vague at this point.)
Some of this, of course, gets discussed in more detail through the book, and I’ll discuss it then. The last part, however, doesn’t really seem to get addressed further (unless I’ve missed something) so I’m going to take a minute to look at it here; how is this supposed to have happened? We’re talking here not just about people mistaking a fictional story for a true one (which I can well believe someone, somewhere, would manage to do) but about multiple people getting so caught up in this that they write more detailed versions of the fictional story, adding in new points!
How likely would this be to happen? Why should we consider it a more likely explanation for the existence of the gospels than the more usual explanation that they’re based on stories about a real person that were passed down (albeit in embroidered form) over the years?
Anyway, that’s about it for the introduction. In the next chapter, we’re going to get more detail about the theory of Mark’s gospel as an allegory.