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

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

The first post in this book review is here. Links to the posts on all subsequent chapters can be found at the end of that post.


Paul and Jesus’s brothers

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

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

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

Price’s explanations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Against Celsus; Origen

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

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

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

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

The problem of 1 Corinthians 9:5

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

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

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

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

So, how does Price explain 1 Corinthians 9.5?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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


Chapter 9: Finding Jesus In Paul’s Letters

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

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

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

Here’s what I actually found.

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

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

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

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

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

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


‘Born of a woman’: Price’s explanations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, Price then makes his leap of logic:

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

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

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

How? Well, here’s what Price says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 9: Finding Jesus In Paul’s Letters

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

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

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

A few things to bear in mind during this:

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

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

Paul’s use of scripture to describe Jesus

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

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

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

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

Paul doesn’t cite Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

‘In one of whom they have never heard’

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

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

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

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

Paul’s repeated use of the word ‘mystery’

Price puts great weight on this:

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

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

The body of Christ and the desert rock

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

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

The future coming of Jesus

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

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



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

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

‘Deciphering The Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed’ review: Chapter 9, 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 9: Finding Jesus In Paul’s Letters

On to the Pauline epistles. Early in the chapter, Price raises a good question:

Paul definitely thought of Jesus as real; the question is what did “real” mean to Paul?

Exactly. Arguing over whether Paul believed Jesus was ‘real’ is misleading. Everyone involved clearly believed Jesus was real, but was this ‘real’ in the sense that people believed that angels or the Roman pantheon were real? A clearer question for the mythical/historical Jesus debate is whether Paul believed Jesus had lived on earth.

However, there’s another important question that Price hasn’t addressed; how reliable is Paul’s opinion on the subject? Because there’s a big problem with that straight out of the gate, which we should address before we look at anything else about Paul’s writing. That is therefore what I will look at in this post.

The key passage for looking at Paul’s knowledge of the subject is in Galatians 1. I’ve highlighted particular lines:

10 Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.11 For I want you to know, brothers and sisters,[b] that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12 for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

[…]when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased 16 to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.

18 Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him for fifteen days; 19 but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. 20 In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!

[Paul then goes on to say that it was another fourteen years before he went back to visit the Jerusalem church again.]

This is a vital passage which mythicists typically misinterpret completely. Price is no exception to this. Here’s what he has to say about this passage:

If Jesus had just been here, then the gospel from the mouth of Jesus should have been seen as the most legitimate and authoritative, yet Paul presents his message as more authoritative because it hasn’t come from anyone else. How could Paul’s message from “revelation” compete with Peter’s message from the mouth of Jesus? […] If James and John and Peter were real associates of Jesus, who had walked hand in hand with him, had heard his teachings straight from his mouth, had been with him at the “last supper” and taken the Eucharist with Jesus himself, and had witnessed his death and resurrection themselves, then how on earth could Paul’s claim that his knowledge of Jesus via “revelation” be superior to the knowledge of James, John, and Peter? […] That Paul would even attempt to make such a claim only makes sense if Paul viewed revelation as the most direct form of knowledge that one could have about Jesus, and Paul would only believe that revelation was the most direct form of knowledge that one could have about Jesus if Jesus was not a real person who had just been on earth walking and talking hand in hand with James, John, Peter, and many others.

All very logical and skeptical, and all completely misinterpreting where Paul was coming from on this.

Firstly, Price has missed an obvious point; for Paul, and for his followers, ‘revelation’ would not have been in any sort of equivalent of scare quotes. As skeptics, we’re used to interpreting ‘revelation’ as ‘imagination’ and not taking it seriously, but that wouldn’t have been the case for Paul. He genuinely believed in heavenly revelation, and certainly seems to have believed that he’d had one. So, as far as Paul and his followers were concerned, he had heard Jesus’s wishes ‘straight from his mouth’; he believed that Jesus had appeared to him from heaven to speak to him. And, of course, when seen from that perspective Paul’s knowledge of Jesus certainly would have seemed authoritative to both him and others, completely regardless of whether they also believed Jesus had lived on earth. Whether or not Jesus had spoken to Peter and co. before his death, everyone concerned believed he’d spoken to Paul as well as others after his death.

Now, of course, that doesn’t explain why Paul had so little interest in what church members could tell him about Jesus; even given that Paul and others truly believed that Jesus had spoken directly to Paul, there was still plenty he could have learned from the people who already followed Jesus. What Price has overlooked, however, is that mythicism doesn’t explain that either. After all, even according to mythicist theory Paul certainly believed that other church members had had some sort of vision of Jesus similar to his own, and one clear implication of this is that he would have believed their visions might have included Jesus speaking to them and advising them, as Paul believed Jesus had done to him. If Paul wanted to get as much information as possible about Jesus from other people, then the obvious thing for him to do – whether on historicity or mythicism – was to go and learn everything he could from the other church members whom he believed had also had some kind of experience of Jesus.

But that is not, in fact, what he did. What he actually did, as per verses 17 – 18 of the above passage, was to disappear off to Arabia. It took him years to come back and contact anyone from the church. What’s more, look at the way he’s telling his readers this; he’s declaring it as a positive. He’s presenting it as evidence that he’s seeking ‘God’s approval’ rather than ‘pleasing people’.

In short, we can deduce from this that Paul did not, in fact, want to get as much information as possible about Jesus from other people. And we can see that this wasn’t a reluctant acceptance of the lack of availability of other information; it was a deliberate strategy. So, if we work from the assumption that Paul would have wanted to find out everything he could about Jesus’s life, then we’ll be starting from the wrong premise completely.

This is, of course, rather strange behaviour from Paul; if mythicism doesn’t explain it, what does? Well, obviously we’re into conjecture at this point, but here’s what we know and what it seems reasonable to deduce:

From Galatians, we see that the key difference of opinion between Paul and the other church members who’d spoken to the Galatians was over whether it was still necessary for Jews to follow the law or whether that requirement had now been obviated by Jesus’s death, which Paul believed to have been an atoning sacrifice so powerful it did the job for all time. So, clearly there was at the very least a faction of the church – apparently including Peter – who believed that the Jewish law was still binding on Jews. And, from elsewhere in Paul’s writing, we know that this issue was massively important to him. This wasn’t some abstract theological quibble for Paul; his belief that Jesus was an atoning sacrifice had given Paul freedom from a belief system that he’d found oppressive and unbearable. With this in mind, we can see how Paul might well have needed to keep believing what he believed, and that this would have given him a powerful motive to deny that other people might know more than him about Jesus’s wishes.

Seen in that light, Paul’s avoidance of the original church members makes complete sense. In their absence, he can keep focusing on the visions that tell him that he’s right about this, that he doesn’t need to listen to anyone else, that he’s heard this from the mouth of Jesus himself. He can push down pesky inconvenient thoughts about the implications of the fact that people who supposedly also personally heard from Jesus are saying something completely different. As far as Paul is concerned, Jesus has personally delivered God’s message to him directly. Therefore, anyone who thinks differently is just plain wrong. QED.

While this is always going to be speculation, it’s a plausible explanation for why he was so actively avoiding the existing church and rejecting their teachings, and it’s what I believe to have happened. If anyone else has another explanation that makes sense (i.e., not ‘Paul knew Jesus never lived on earth’, since, as I’ve pointed out above, this wouldn’t actually explain Paul’s behaviour here) then I’m quite happy to hear it.

But, either way, we can see in the above passage that Paul does make his attitude clear. He believed Jesus had personally revealed The Truth ™ to him, and he was going to go right on believing that regardless of what anyone else says. Regardless of what his motivation might have been for ignoring what Jesus’s other followers had to say about Jesus, we can see that this was what he was determined to do.

And it’s important to note the implications of this for our debate. Not only does this particular Galatians passage not help the mythicists, but it has major implications for how we interpret Paul’s writing generally. Mythicism tends to rely quite heavily on Paul, because, despite his letters being the earliest Christian writings we have, they actually contain very few details about any sort of earthly life of Jesus; mythicists have pointed triumphantly to this as indicating that Jesus must not have had an earthly life. But this passage casts things in a very different light. Paul not only never met Jesus during his lifetime, he seems to have made it a deliberate policy to avoid or minimise talking with people who did. And Paul wasn’t interested in Jesus’s life; he was interested in the atonement theology that he spun around Jesus’s death.

So the paucity of detail about Jesus in Paul’s letters doesn’t actually help the mythicism case. ‘Man who never met Jesus and didn’t want to hear about Jesus’s life seems to know almost nothing about Jesus’s life’ is not actually the kind of mystery that requires a mythicism theory to solve it.

On the flip side, however, this also limits the help that Paul’s letters can give to the historicists. There are, despite what Price thinks, multiple points in Paul’s letters that actively point towards Paul having believed that Jesus lived a human-type life on earth; while Paul had almost no interest in the details of that life (because it wasn’t important for his own theology), he clearly believed it had happened. In a later post, I’ll be explaining why it’s clear that Paul did believe Jesus had lived on earth. But that doesn’t help us much either, because, for all we know, that belief might also be a product of Paul’s ‘visions’ and theological beliefs about Jesus. (There is an important exception, and I’ll get to that; but most of what Paul has to say on the subject might for all we know have been down to his imagination rather than any actual knowledge he had of an earthly Jesus. I doubt that was the case, but it’s fair to note that the unreliability of Paul as evidence cuts both ways.)

What this means is that my next couple of posts on the subject are going to be dealing with points that are verging on moot. My next post is going to discuss the flaws in Price’s reasons for concluding that Paul didn’t believe in an earthly Jesus, and the one after that will be listing the reasons why I concluded that Paul did believe in an earthly Jesus. But let’s bear in mind throughout that neither is particularly helpful in clarifying the debate, since, whatever Paul believed on the subject, it was ultimately informed by his ‘visions’ and theology rather than by any actual investigation of the evidence.

‘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.


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?



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?