‘Deciphering the Gospels’, by R. G. Price, argues the case for Jesus mythicism, which is the view that Jesus never really existed on earth but was a mythical figure in the same way as Hercules or Dionysus. (The author is not the same person as Robert Price, also a Jesus mythicist author.) I’m an atheist who holds the opposing (and mainstream) view that Jesus did exist, as a normal, non-divine, human being. I’m therefore reviewing Price’s book to discuss his arguments and my reasons for disagreeing.
The first post in this book review is here. All subsequent posts will be linked at the end of that post as they go up.
In the previous post, I discussed the examples Price gives of teachings or approaches he believes Mark to have derived from Paul. In this one, I’ll discuss some of Price’s other statements in the chapter, followed by a general look at the story so far.
While we have seen that many of the scenes in the Gospel called Mark are based on literary allusions to the Hebrew scriptures, the Jesus character himself is based on Paul. It is clear from analysis of the Gospel called Mark that the writer of that story had read the letters of Paul and used them as inspiration for the character and teachings of Jesus.
My first thought when I read that was ‘Well, why not just write the allegory about Paul?’ According to Price’s theory, Mark was trying to write an entirely fictional account purely for allegorical purposes. If he wanted to fictionalise a person based on Paul’s life, seems like the obvious thing would be to write a fictional version of Paul, rather than of Jesus. Price has stated in a comment on here that it was to give Mark’s message the greater authority of coming from Jesus; but in that case, why portray Jesus as a flesh-and-blood person at all? According to Price’s theory, Mark and the audience for whom he was writing believed Jesus to be a spiritual heavenly being, who would surely have had more authority than an ordinary flesh-and-blood being; why this whole business of rewriting him as a human, rather than just portraying him as visiting Earth to make his announcements? I still can’t see how Mark’s motives, under Price’s theory, add up in a plausible or coherent way.
On further consideration, I realised there was a bigger problem; how would Mark have read this many of Paul’s letters in the first place? We’re used to having them collected handily together as part of the New Testament, but that wouldn’t happen until long after the time Mark wrote his gospel. At the time Mark was writing, the individual letters would have been in the possession of the widely scattered communities to which Paul had sent them. The passages that Price identifies as those on which Mark supposedly based parts of his gospel include extracts from letters originally sent to Rome, Corinth, Philippi, and Galatia. I’ve checked a map of Paul’s journeys to get an idea of how far apart these places actually were; my rough estimate is that a journey taking in all of them would be upwards of a thousand miles. In those days, that would have been a massive undertaking, complicated further by the difficulties of locating each community. It’s not impossible that someone could have made that mammoth journey in order to read each of Paul’s letters, but it does seem pretty unlikely. So, while I’m quite happy with the idea that Mark was influenced by Pauline teaching and by some of his writing, I don’t think Price’s argument about the extent to which Mark had supposedly read Paul’s writing really holds up.
By the way, I didn’t realise this until I’d already made notes on which of Price’s examples I did or didn’t agree with. When I did realise the problem with Price’s claim here, I thought I’d better go back and look at the four examples for which I agreed that Price was probably correct about Pauline derivation; after all, if it turned out that they were from letters sent to different communities then I’d have some contradictory conclusions and I’d have to rethink. What I actually found, however, was that all four examples were based on passages from 1 Corinthians. So, there we go; we do have evidence (hardly watertight, but fairly good) that, whoever Mark actually was, he read at least that letter, and thus was associated at some point with the Corinthians community. I’m guessing that probably at least someone in the field of biblical scholarship has noticed this before, but it was new information for me and I found it interesting.
Thus, if Mark’s Jesus is based on the writings of Paul, then Mark’s Jesus has no relationship to any real person whatsoever, because according to Paul himself, Paul’s “knowledge” of Jesus came from no one. [quote of Galatians 1:11 – 17]
That doesn’t logically follow. It’s perfectly possible that Mark could have used Paul as one of multiple sources for information, basing parts of his gospel on Paul’s letters and part on other sources. (In fact, this is what Price is also claiming happened, as he believes Mark also drew on the Jewish scriptures.) If Mark’s Jesus could be shown to be based entirely on Paul’s letters then that would be a different matter, but that isn’t what Price is trying to claim. Since Paul and his followers believed that Paul had also seen Jesus and received direct communication from him (they believed this had happened via supernatural apparition post-resurrection, but this was completely real from their viewpoint), I see no reason why Mark wouldn’t have drawn on information from both Paul and people who knew Jesus during his lifetime.
By the way, that Galatians passage always strikes me as a pretty ironic one for mythicists to quote. The mythical arguments that I’ve read (including Price’s) all put huge emphasis on Paul’s lack of interest in Jesus’s earthly life and his belief that Jesus was some kind of pre-existent heavenly being. But, since we know from Paul’s own words that he was not preaching the theology of the previously-existing group of Jesus-followers, why should his beliefs about whether or not Jesus led an earthly life be relevant evidence as to whether Jesus actually did lead an earthly life? Paul’s beliefs about Jesus seem to have been highly tangential to reality.
Most of the rest of the chapter is devoted to Price’s examples, so I’ll now skip ahead to the last paragraph of the chapter. Here, Price speculates on Mark’s motive for writing his gospel. Now, this is quite an important point for any mythicist theory, since mythicism has to explain how, within less than a century, we could plausibly get from ‘Jesus was a purely spiritual heavenly being’ to ‘Jesus was born on Earth; here are multiple detailed stories about his earthly life’. Here’s what Price gives us:
Paul’s message was one of harmony between Jews and Gentiles. This message was apparently in conflict with the message of James and other members of the Jesus cult, and with the Jewish leadership. I think the writer of Mark was a follower of Paul, who saw in the outcome of the war proof that Paul had been right. I think the writer’s view was, “See, if they had listened to Paul none of this would have happened”, or perhaps, “This was destined to happen, in accordance with Paul’s gospel.” It was the defeat of the Jews and the destruction of the temple that precipitated the need to defend Paul’s vision.
Now, Price might be able to make this work as a plausible theory, but he’s got some problems to overcome.
Firstly, it’s based on some unsubstantiated premises: that ‘harmony between Jews and Gentiles’ was a major message of Paul’s, that this was an issue on which he clashed significantly with the Jerusalem church, and that Mark’s gospel also clearly presents this point. Unfortunately, Price doesn’t make the case for any of these premises. (I have a niggling feeling that the problem might be Price having interpreted the initial disagreement over whether Gentiles joining the movement had to follow Jewish law as a ‘harmony’ issue. If so, then in the first place that’s not actually what ‘harmony’ means, and in the second it seems to be a moot point, since Paul was assuring his followers that that little disagreement had been sorted out in his favour.)
Secondly, there’s the question of why an author whose primary motive was defending Paul’s message against the church would fall short of giving us any kind of clearcut message on the one subject on which Paul certainly did have a significant, and as far as we know unresolved, clash with the church; the question of whether Jewish law had been rendered obsolete. While a discussion of Mark’s approach to this question would take too long to go into in detail here, he at no point shows Jesus making a clear statement on the issue (even though he could quite easily have put Paul’s views into Jesus’s mouth), and, in the many arguments Jesus is portrayed as having with Pharisees, Jesus is in fact in each case taking a position completely in line with established Jewish law. All this makes sense if Mark wanted to gloss over the differences between Paul’s views and the church’s, but is at least somewhat odd if his purpose was to tell the church how wrong they’d been to disagree with Paul; in that case it would seem more likely that the differences would be highlighted rather than glossed over, with gMark’s Jesus making clear statements on the matter.
All of these might well be surmountable problems; I don’t think they’re fundamental flaws in the theory, and there might well be good answers I haven’t thought of. However, this is an area of his theory that Price definitely needs to develop a bit further.
Conclusion: The theory so far
This completes the second chapter, which means we’ve also completed the part of the book that deals with Price’s views on the gospel of Mark. By this point, according to Price, we’re supposed to have been provided with ‘overwhelming concrete evidence that the Gospel of Mark is an entirely fictional work’, which in turn is the cornerstone for his whole theory. So, I’ll pause for just a moment here to take stock.
I agree with Price on some points (something that I think is worth mentioning here, because it gets rather lost in the disagreements). I agree with Price that there is a lot more going on in Mark’s writing than just some sort of simple record of what he’d heard about Jesus; I agree that multiple parts of his gospel allude to/are based on the Jewish scriptures; and I agree that his theology was in large part Pauline in nature and that this comes through in the way he presents Jesus’s story and teachings. I think that a convincing argument can be made for all of these points.
The problem I find with Price’s theories is that he takes these ideas much too far; he is, as the saying has it, making too much stew from one oyster. Firstly, his criteria for what he’ll categorise as an example of derivation from a scriptural or Pauline source are so vague that he’s categorising far too many scenes as being ‘clearly’ or ‘obviously’ due to derivation on Mark’s part, even where the arguments for this being the case are in fact extremely weak. Secondly, he’s concluding that, because Mark is using Jesus’s story as a symbolic way of getting his messages across, this must make the entire story fictional.
In fact, even if Price’s arguments about the extent of Mark’s derivation from other sources did stand up, it still wouldn’t follow that Mark had invented the earthly life of Jesus in its entirety. For one thing, there’s no logic to that claim; it is perfectly possible for an author to use a story based on a real person as a device for symbolically making a particular point (for example, ‘L’Alouette’, one of the plays I studied for French A-level, does exactly this with regard to Joan of Arc). And, for another thing, we actually see that Mark was prepared to do this with a historical character, because he does this with John the Baptist. He writes about him in ways that, as Price pointed out in Chapter 1, are fairly clearly symbolic (presenting him as an Elijah-figure), yet we know that John the Baptist existed, because there’s a long passage about him in Josephus’s work. So there’s not even a question over whether Mark would write about a real figure with a real earthly life in a symbolised way; we know he would, because he did. And so we can’t conclude that Mark’s use of Jesus’s story as a vehicle for symbolic messages means that Mark had no knowledge of an earthly Jesus.
It’s fair to say that gMark is too mythologised and slanted to give us particularly reliable information about the details of Jesus’s life, and also fair to say that, if we only had gMark and no other evidence, then we simply wouldn’t be able to tell whether Mark was writing about a real character or a fictional one. But Price has unfortunately fallen far short of his claim to have given us ‘overwhelming concrete evidence’ that the book is entirely fictional.