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

(I know, I know; right now, this seems like a strange and possibly inappropriate thing to be paying much attention to. But my pattern for working on blog posts is ‘little and often’, so I’d been working on this one for two months prior to the crisis hitting. Now I just want to get it done and posted. So, here you are; maybe it’ll be of interest to some of the people who need a break from pandemics.)

 

‘Deciphering the Gospels’ 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, R. G. Price, is not the same person as Robert Price, also a Jesus mythicist author.) I’m an atheist who holds the opposing (and more 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.

Firstly, a couple of housekeeping issues:

1. This post will bring me to the end of what I want to say about Chapter 1. After that, I plan to take a break from reviewing this book and blog about other things for a bit. I’ll still be available for discussions in the comments, and I will return to this book review in due course.

2. And, speaking of comments… Thus far, I’ve had comments on the ‘threaded’ setting, meaning that replies to comments are posted directly below the comment to which they’re replying. I’m not sure how well this is working out. It can make it easier to follow conversations within the thread, but it makes it harder for someone reading the whole thread to keep up with new comments (as they end up in different places in the thread rather than at the end), and the software on FTB doesn’t indent threaded comments, which makes it harder to follow the changes between subthreads. Anyway, I’m going to change to non-threaded and see how that works. This means that all comments will simply show up in the order in which they’ve been posted (a possible exception being comments that need approval first; I don’t know whether that affects the order or not). Therefore, if you’re replying to someone else, in comments, it would help greatly if you could indicate this with an @ followed by the person’s username and comment number. If anyone has a strong opinion on which method they prefer, by all means let me know.

All right, on with the review. The last thing I want to look at, before leaving Chapter 1, is a triad of stories that tie into Price’s theory about Mark’s original motivation for writing his gospel.

To recap: In the introduction, Price stated that Mark’s gospel was deliberately written as fictional in order to convey, allegorically, the message that the Jews were being punished for ‘not having heeded Paul’s message of harmony between Jews and Gentiles’. This raises a couple of questions:

  • How plausible is it that this gospel could have been meant as an allegory?
  • Does the claim about Mark’s supposed message stand up here?

I think the answer to the first question is ‘Not very, but it’s possible’. Price’s belief here, remember, is that Jesus-followers at this stage believed he was a divine being up in heaven but that Mark chose to make him the main character in this allegory and to portray him as human and earthly. This seems a less likely explanation to me than the belief that Mark was writing a hagiography of a Jesus who actually was human and earthly, but it’s something I can go with as a possible explanation.

The bigger problem is with the second question. To this, my answer is that I agree with the first half of Price’s explanation; yes, Mark certainly seems to have thought the Jews have brought/are bringing divine punishment on themselves. However, I don’t agree with Price’s claim about why Mark thinks they were being punished. I don’t think gMark does indicate any sort of message about the desirability of Jewish-Gentile harmony. So I want to look at Price’s arguments on the subject.

In Chapter One, Price discusses three stories that he believes relate to this point:

 

The scene with the Gentile woman

Most readers probably know this story. For those who don’t, or are hazy on the details, here is a brief summary: Jesus is approached by a Gentile woman whose daughter is supposedly demon-possessed (which, in modern terms, probably means something like epilepsy, but that’s by-the-by) and begs him for help. Because she’s a Gentile, he dismisses her: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (Yes, so much for a kind and loving Jesus; even as a teenager reading this, I knew that the way he’s portrayed, here, as talking to a desperate mother, was appalling and inexcusable.) However, when she counters this with “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” he changes his mind and heals her daughter.

Price has this to say on the passage:

[Verse 27] is supposed to mean that Jesus was telling the Gentile woman that the Jews were to be helped before the Gentiles,

Agreed so far.

but in response to the woman’s answer, Jesus decides to help the Gentiles.

The passage only, in fact, says that he decides to help this particular Gentile. However, Price’s interpretation is that this indicates that Jesus has changed his mind and is now willing to help Gentiles generally. This, apparently, is how Mark wishes to get across his message that the Jews should treat the Gentiles differently; by showing Jesus himself as changing his mind about helping a Gentile.

I think there are two points worth making about this. Firstly, if this actually is Mark’s message then it should be noted that he’s not portraying Jesus as the conveyor of the message to others; rather, Jesus himself is the example, the one who learns to behave differently. Of course, it’s very common for a morality tale to get its point across by showing the protagonist as being the one who undergoes the crucial change in attitude or behaviour, but it does seem a bit of an odd choice here; it means that Mark has chosen to portray the being he believes to be a semi-divine heavenly saviour as being the character in his narrative who needs to learn the key lesson. It’s like writing a morality tale in which the Archangel Gabriel is the one who learns to change his ways. Which, come to think of it, might make for quite an interesting morality tale, but the point is that that plotline wouldn’t fit well in a story portraying the Archangel Gabriel as a flawless purveyor of wise messages regarding correct morality.

The second problem is that this scene doesn’t actually give any indication that Jesus has learned any sort of broader lesson. How does the woman convince him? Not by pointing out that Gentiles such as her and her daughter are human too, and shouldn’t be compared to dogs. Not by telling him that God’s blessings and bonuses should be available to everyone because God loves Gentiles as well as Jews. Not by telling him that Jew/Gentile enmity is wrong. No; instead, she convinces him by going along with his own argument and phrasing her argument within that framework. She tells him that even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs. Rather than disagreeing with his dismissal of her and her daughter as dogs who, apparently, don’t deserve help, she accepts this humiliating description and only argues that, even as dogs, they should get some tiny leftover scraps of what’s available.

This leaves us with a situation where all Jesus is actually shown as having been persuaded to do is to help one particular Gentile who’s sufficiently willing to abase herself and accept what he sees as her place. There’s no indication at all that this is going to extend into any sort of generally improved treatment for the Gentiles. If this is meant to be a message that Jews should treat the Gentiles better, it’s an extremely poor one.

Price writes:

This is a turning point in the Gospel, where attention will now be paid to Gentiles.

Where is this attention paid to Gentiles? All that I could find about Gentiles in the rest of gMark is the Parable of the Vineyard and a few other passing (and mostly negative) mentions. The Parable of the Vineyard does prophesy a shift of attention from Jews to Gentiles (though hardly in a way that would encourage better Jew-Gentile harmony), so possibly this was what Price meant. However, I can’t see any way in which the attention of the gospel, overall, has shifted to Gentiles. All that Price says by way of further clarification is:

This also relates to the order of the feeding scenes, as we shall see.

Why ‘also’? What other examples of this supposed shift to paying attention to Gentiles does Price think there are? The book doesn’t tell us and, as I say, I couldn’t find anything convincing myself.

Anyway, on to the other question that this raises: what Price believes to be relevant about the feeding scenes.

 

The feeding-of-multitudes stories

Again, a brief summary in case anyone doesn’t know them: Jesus miraculously feeds a crowd of thousands with only a few loaves and fish, providing enough food not only to eat but to provide several baskets full of leftovers. The same thing, with different numbers of people/loaves/fish/baskets of leftovers, happens again a few chapters later.

Price believes Mark intended these stories to have two meanings. The first is by-the-by as far as this post is concerned, but I’ll include it a) for completeness and b) because I actually agree with him about this point and it makes a nice change to be able to say that: He believes that the stories are exaggerated versions of 2 Kings 42 – 44, a scene in which Elijah is portrayed feeding a hundred people from twenty loaves and some ears of grain, with enough there for leftovers. I agree; on comparing the passages, it does indeed look clear that that story was the inspiration for the gospel feeding scenes. So far, so good.

(On a complete tangent, this has reminded me of the schoolteacher I had who – apparently working from the Johannine version in which the loaves and fishes are supplied by a young boy – told us that the likely explanation was that people in the crowd, shamed by the willingness of this child to share his food, brought out the food they’d been keeping for themselves and shared it around. Since she was careful to add a disclaimer about how most of Jesus’s miracles couldn’t be explained, I think this was meant as a morality tale rather than as an attempt at instilling skepticism; still, at least I got to hear one naturalistic explanation of a Bible story in my childhood.)

The second meaning Price believes these stories to have is the one that’s relevant to this post; he believes they contain a symbolic message about Jesus’s attention shifting from the Jews to the Gentiles. The clue here, he believes, is in the number of baskets of leftovers picked up after each feeding. After the first miraculous feeding scene there are twelve baskets full of leftovers, and after the second there are seven; Price doesn’t think those are just random numbers.

It should be noted that twelve and seven are both common “divine numbers” in Jewish literature, appearing often in the Hebrew scriptures.

However, in this context, these numbers appear to represent Israel and Rome, because twelve was a number that represented Israel (twelve tribes of Israel), and seven was a number that represented Rome (seven hills of Rome). These are both numbers that were heavily associated with their respective nations; they wouldn’t have been vague references… The Jews are to be fed first, then the Gentiles, and we see that in the feeding scenes, the first feeding produces twelve baskets representing the twelve tribes of Israel, and the second feeding, which occurs after Jesus’s discussion with the Gentile woman, produces seven baskets representing the seven hills of Rome.

Now, if that is indeed what Mark meant, it is really odd symbolism. Why would he choose to portray this message in such a way that the group that’s meant to have the attention of Jesus/God in each case is symbolised by the waste that’s left behind afterwards? If he wanted to use those numbers symbolically, surely it would make more sense to use them in a way that represented the crowds of people who were miraculously fed (twelve hundred and seven hundred, perhaps)? Or, of course, he could have simply had Jesus giving the miraculously-produced food first to a crowd of Jews and then to a crowd of Gentiles. Or both. While it’s possible that someone could overlook all the more obvious choices and instead go with ‘leftover waste’ as the part of the story used for numerical symbolism, it’s pretty unlikely. This seems a lot more likely to have been coincidence.

(Bear in mind also here that ‘random’ numbers picked by people are typically not truly random; we’re not looking, here, at the odds that a random number generator would have picked just those two numbers. If those numbers were well known, then that could subconsciously have influenced the decision of a storyteller casting around for a number to use here, without any kind of deliberate decision on the part of the storyteller.)

Price also believes the order of these three scenes to be important here. First Mark gives us a feeding scene in which the number twelve is used; then a scene in which Jesus, having initially intended only to help Jews, is persuaded to help a Gentile woman; and then another feeding scene in which the number seven is used. Price interprets this as Mark’s symbolic way of showing that attention has shifted to Gentiles. However, what he doesn’t mention is that, in each case, there are a couple of unrelated scenes between the feeding scene and the Gentile woman scene. Again, if Mark was intending a symbolic message with this order, it seems strange that he would dilute it this way. That gives us another indication that this is much more likely to have been a coincidence than a deliberate plan.

To summarise: If Price’s claims about Mark’s motives for writing this are correct, then that would mean that Mark decided to use this sequence of writing to convey the message that Jews should be doing a better job of living in harmony with Gentiles:

  • Feeding scene with obscure, poorly-thought-out numerical symbolism
  • A couple of irrelevant scenes
  • A story of Jesus treating a Gentile woman badly and justifying himself doing so, but being persuaded to help this one particular Gentile because she abased herself sufficiently, with nothing to suggest that this is going to – or should – extend to other people’s actions, or even to his own future actions
  • Another couple of irrelevant scenes
  • A concluding feeding scene with equally obscure and poorly-thought-out numerical symbolism.

On which theory, Price’s comment is:

The way that the feeding scenes are presented and framed ties into the overall narrative in complex and clearly very well-thought-out ways. This is sophisticated plot development.

No. No, it really isn’t.

It might, of course, be a disastrously botched attempt to write an allegory conveying a message about Jewish-Gentile harmony, in which Mark has so little writing skill that his attempts at getting his message across sink almost without trace. It’s considerably more likely, though, that Price is trying to read something into the text that just isn’t there; that ‘better Jewish-Gentile harmony’ was never Mark’s intended message in the first place. Mark certainly seems to have wanted to tell us that the Jews were being punished for something, but the text simply does not back up the idea that the ‘something’ could plausibly have been lack of Jewish-Gentile harmony.

This brings us to the question of what Mark did think God was punishing the Jews for. On rereading gMark, I think the passage that most clearly addresses this question is the Parable of the Vineyard. Now, this is a particularly interesting passage to look at with Price’s theory in mind, because this is one part of gMark that certainly is an allegorical message about God punishing the Jews. So, what does the parable say God was punishing them for? For mistreating and killing God’s messengers… of whom the final one was God’s own son. In this allegory, supposedly the final heinous act of the Jews that would bring down retribution upon them was to kill Jesus just as they had killed other prophets.

Now, that’s a problem for mythicism. If Mark thought of Jesus as a heavenly being who was killed by other supernatural beings, why would he construct an allegory that relies on Jesus being killed on earth just as other prophets were and that blames the Jews for having killed him? Price needs to explain how this fits in.

I checked this essay on his website in which he analyses gMark in more detail, but didn’t get anything very helpful from it. Interestingly, Price agrees that this is an allegorical representation of Jews killing their prophets and eventually Jesus; however, he doesn’t seem to recognise this as a problem for mythicism. All he writes is:

The subtext and deeper meaning behind it deals not with “Jesus”, but with the perceived corruption of the Jewish people, whom the authors of both Isaiah and the Gospel of Mark believe have brought destruction upon themselves.

While ‘corruption’ might indeed be the explanation to which Mark and others of the time attributed the Jews’ alleged prophet-killing habits, that doesn’t change the basic problem for mythicism here; Mark, in this allegory, blames the Jews for killing not just other prophets but also Jesus. According to mythicist theory, Mark wouldn’t have believed the Jews killed Jesus, because he would have believed Jesus to be a heavenly being who was killed by other heavenly beings. If he was, as Price believes, writing an allegory to highlight the reasons he believed the Jews were being punished by God, why would he use it to portray the Jews as being punished for something that he wouldn’t have believed to be their fault?

So… where does all this leave Price’s theory?

I don’t think any of this deals it a death blow, but it has been left with one or two crucial gaps. His idea that Mark’s desired message was that the Jews should have ‘heeded Paul’s desired message of harmony between Jews and Gentiles’ doesn’t stand up, which leaves his Mark-as-allegory theory without proper foundation. He also needs to find a mythicism-consistent way to explain the son-killing allegory in the Parable of the Vineyard. I look forward to hearing his explanations on both those points.

‘Deciphering The Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed’ review: Chapter One, part 3

‘Deciphering the Gospels’, by R. G. Price*, argues the case for Jesus mythicism (i.e. the position that Jesus never existed.) As an atheist who believes Jesus did exist (as an entirely non-divine human being), I’m reviewing the arguments in this book in order to explain why I disagree.

The first post in the series, with a little more background, is here; all other posts will be linked back to the end of that post as they’re written. R.G. Price has been joining in with the discussion in comments, so, if you have questions for him, there’s a fair chance he’ll be available to answer them.

Price used the NRSV translation of the NT; any Bible quotes are therefore from that version unless stated otherwise.

*Note that R.G. Price is not the same person as Jesus mythicist Robert Price.

 

One thing about which I assumed I would agree with Price was his list of how he believes Mark to have derived each of his stories. This was the cornerstone of Price’s theory, the result of over a year of detailed research that he had put into the subject. His claim – that Mark had derived his main points from sources such as scripture or Paul’s letters – sounded plausible to me; while I believed (and still do) that there were one or two points in gMark that couldn’t be explained in this way, I did already believe that at least some of the Markan stories were derived from such sources, and I was entirely open to being convinced that this was the case for other stories as well. I expected to find Price’s arguments compelling, or at the very least plausible. In fact, when I first read his book I skimmed over all those parts of the first two chapters, seeing little reason to pick apart parts of his argument with which I would surely agree.

The reality, when I did look more closely, didn’t live up to expectations. I did indeed agree with some of Price’s claims; for example, the derivation of details of the crucifixion scene from existing scripture (which I’d known about) and the derivation of the crowd-feeding scenes from 2 Kings 4:42 – 44 (which I hadn’t known about, but agreed with as soon as Price quoted the passage). There were others that I thought were at least plausible (for example, Price believes that the obscure mention of a naked man in Mark 14:51 was meant as a reference to Amos 2:16, and I suppose that could be the case). But there were other examples for which Price’s reasoning seemed much weaker.

In this post, I’m going to look at two examples that particularly struck me as poorly evidenced. Since drafting this, I’ve also discussed a third example in the comments on an earlier post, which I think also illustrates the point.

 

Fishing and hunting

R.G. Price looks here at two lines in Chapter 1 of gMark. The first is from the calling of Jesus’s first two apostles; they are, according to the story, both fishermen, and hence Jesus tells them ‘I will make you fish for people’ (v17). (This is the line that the less accurate but more poetic KJV famously translates as ‘I will make you fishers of men’.) The second line is from a scene where Jesus goes off by himself in the early morning to pray; v36 tells us ‘And Simon and his companions hunted for him’.

Price believes these lines to be based on Jeremiah 16:16 – 17: ‘” But now I will send for many fishermen,” declares the Lord, “and they will catch them. After that I will send for many hunters, and they will hunt them down on every mountain and hill and from the crevices of the rocks.”‘ He believes that this is intended as a reference to the threatened destruction of Israel (which Mark would, according to Price’s theory, have recently seen for himself in the Jewish-Roman war). More specifically, he believes that Mark is here trying to make a statement about Peter, James, and John:

We see in this literary allusion that the author is identifying these three individuals as agents of destruction – as harbingers of the coming war.

This interpretation, if correct, would mean that the Church has been interpreting the ‘fishers of men’ quote completely backwards for the past two thousand years; instead of indicating that the apostles were to catch people to save their souls, Mark would in fact have been indicating that they were to catch people to dispatch them to punishment and destruction. That’s such a radical reversal of the usual interpretation that I really wanted it to turn out to be correct; just think of all the priests and apologists using that line during the last two millennia without realising that they were, in fact, labelling themselves as agents of destruction. Truth in advertising…

Sadly, however, this interpretation did not stand up to examination. Five chapters further on in Mark we get the apostles being sent out to preach to others as well as to perform the helpful acts of healing the sick and driving out demons, which are hardly the acts of agents of destruction. Given that context, I think it fair to say that the ‘fishers of men’ line was meant the way it’s normally read; it’s intended to mean that Jesus is sending them out to catch people for positive purposes.

That detail aside… does Price’s belief about the derivation of these verses stand up otherwise? Well, his arguments for believing that these verses were derived from the Jeremian passage seem to boil down to:

  • The Jeremian passage talks, metaphorically, about fishing and hunting for people.
  • The chapter in Mark talks metaphorically about fishing for people and also mentions hunting for Jesus.

The trouble is, nothing else fits. In Jeremiah, the two things are mentioned together as two parts of the same message (searching people out); in Mark, the two mentions are nineteen verses apart, with several unrelated stories between them. In Jeremiah, the theme is of God searching people out in order to punish them justly for their sins; in Mark, the ‘fishers’ mention refers to the apostles searching people out in order to bring them salvation, and the ‘hunt’ mention refers to them looking for Jesus (surely not a potential target for punishment?) because so many people want to speak to him. The very superficial similarities in the mentions of ‘fish’ and ‘hunt’ don’t extend any further.

Given all that, was the Jeremian passage Mark’s inspiration here? I think about the best we can say is that it’s possible. It can’t be entirely ruled out. But it certainly doesn’t seem like a good fit, and a far more likely explanation would be simply that, because the Jewish scriptures were a huge body of writing that covered a great many themes, it’s possible to find all sorts of coincidental superficial similarities in them, with proximal mentions of ‘fish’ and ‘hunt’ being well within the likely bounds of coincidence.

Of course, absolutely none of that means that the incidents described in either of those verses really happened. Maybe Jesus did say the ‘fishers of men’ line when calling the fishermen; maybe he thought of it later; maybe someone else thought of it at a later stage of relating the stories as it sounded so good. Maybe the incident with the disciples looking for Jesus after he went out to pray really happened, or maybe it was invented later for some reason we don’t know about. We can’t tell. But we also can’t conclude from such a tenuous similarity that the verses must have been derived from Jeremiah as part of an allegory. Price’s logical deductions here are simply too shaky to hold up.

 

Walking on water

There is, of course, a very obvious reason to suspect that this infamous scene is fictional; it’s about a man miraculously walking on the water. In a culture with high levels of superstition and credulity for such things. Passed on by word of mouth until decades after the supposed event, giving plenty of time for miracle stories to be added to the original narrative. I’m all in favour of being open-minded, but I really don’t think I’m being overly sceptical in coming to the conclusion that this particular story was one of the ones invented and added to the narrative only later.

So, in a way it feels rather odd that I’m debating Price’s position on this one. I’m certainly not claiming that this specific story really happened as written, and I even agree with Price’s explanation of the message Mark is trying to put across in this scene (namely, that the disciples are supposed to recognise Jesus’s role as a saviour/messiah but fail to do so). But Price’s argument has so little substance to it that I think it bears examination, not because it contributes anything to the question of whether this passage is fictional or not, but because it does indicate a lack of rigour in his arguments.

Price writes:

The walking on water appears to be a reference to Isaiah 43.

[…]

The purpose of this scene in Mark, and the literary allusion, is to emphasize the fact that the disciples are supposed to recognize Jesus as the Savior of Israel, yet they do not. The passage in Mark says that upon seeing Jesus, they don’t recognise him, thinking that he is a ghost, and that after he comes to them, their hearts are hardened. Isaiah 43 again emphasizes this theme, with verse 10 saying, “you are my witnesses, you are supposed to be the ones who understand me,” yet of course they do not.

Isaiah 43:22 says, “you didn’t call on me, you are weary of me,” which is reflected in the scene from Mark by the fact that they needed help in the boat but did not call on Jesus for help, and their hearts were hardened.

So, again… what are Price’s reasons for believing that this Markan passage is derived from Isaiah 43? No matter how many times I’ve read this section looking for something I might have missed, the list still seems to come down to:

  • Both mention miracles that have some connection with water
  • Both touch on a theme of people not recognising/understanding/calling on an important being they should be recognising/understanding/calling on (God in the Isaian passage, Jesus in the Markan passage).

And… that’s it. Nothing else about the passages matches, including the details of the above points. The water-related miracles mentioned in the Isaian passage have nothing to do with walking on water; they’re references to the parting of the Red Sea (‘the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters’), and to God giving water to the Jews in the desert (‘for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people’). The verses about the Jews not understanding/calling on God are a short rebuke in the context of a passage that, overall, strongly emphasises the Jews’ continued importance to God and his promise to rescue and forgive them. And there are multiple other details in the Isaian passage (protection against passing through fire, mention of several different countries, and more) that aren’t echoed at all in the Markan passage. Once again, Price is making a claim based on minor, out-of-context similarities between two passages while ignoring the significant differences.

 

Conclusion

As I say, these are only a couple of the examples that Price gave, and he does have others for which the evidence is much sounder. But remember that Price’s claim is that we can account not just for some of the main stories in Mark in this way, but for all of them. And this doesn’t hold up. While his list of stories that Mark supposedly derived from elsewhere is, indeed, impressively long at first glance, it turns out that the only reason it’s as long as this is because he is willing to set the bar very low. There are several cases where his categorisation of a Markan story as being clearly derived from another story turns out to in fact be based only on a few flimsy similarities that seem well within the bounds of coincidence. Price’s claim to have demonstrated that all of gMark is clearly a fictional allegory does not stand up well to examination.

‘Deciphering The Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed’ review: Chapter One, part 2

‘Deciphering the Gospels’ 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, R. G. Price, is not the same person as Robert Price, also a Jesus mythicist author.) I’m an atheist who holds the opposing (and more 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 Price’s first two chapters, he focuses on making the case for his claim that the gospel of Mark is entirely a work of fiction (which Price believes to have been based on Paul’s letters and Jewish scriptures, and intended by Mark as an allegory about a mythical Jesus). What I want to look at in this post is whether this theory does indeed account for all of the key points in gMark, or whether there are any points that can’t readily be explained in this way. This is a question that particularly interests me, because my primary reason for believing in the historical Jesus has always been the fact that there are some points in the gospels – not many, but some – that I don’t feel can be accounted for under mythicist theories. I was therefore looking forward, on reading Price’s work, to seeing whether his theory would succeed where others had failed.

Price does, of course, have an explanation as to why gMark was written in the first place – as we’ve already covered – so that’s an excellent start. That still doesn’t explain why the other gospels were written (a question Price and I already discussed to some extent in comments on the introduction) but that’s probably better discussed when I get to the chapter about the other gospels. A couple of the other points that I had relate to material in the other gospels, so I’ll also leave those till then. That leaves us, as far as I can see, with one big question that’s relevant to gMark:

Why did Mark give the Romans in general, and Pilate in particular, the role he gave them in his gospel?

In gMark (as in the other three canonical gospels), the Romans are the people who ultimately put Jesus to death, with Pilate – an important, powerful historical figure – playing the key role of pronouncing sentence on him. And Mark clearly isn’t happy with having to portray them that way. He plays it down, plays up the role of the Jews, writes it to show the Jews insisting on the death sentence and Pilate/the other Romans reluctantly going along with this. It’s not at all surprising that he’d feel this way about minimising the role of the Romans in Jesus’s death; they were the powerful ruling class, so it’s understandable that Mark wouldn’t have liked the idea of casting them as the bad guys who killed his protagonist.

So… why has he put them in that role at all?

If Jesus was a real person who was condemned by Pilate and executed by the Romans working under Pilate, then this approach makes complete sense. If this was the case, Mark wouldn’t have been inventing his story from scratch; he would have been working with existing traditions that had been handed down from people who remembered the real Jesus and his life, and that had become widely known among Jesus’s followers. While these traditions would probably be horribly inaccurate on many points by then, they would also have contained at least a few actual facts about Jesus… such as the detail of who put him to death. The simple and obvious reason why Mark would write that Jesus was condemned by Pilate and executed by the Romans would be that Jesus actually had been condemned by Pilate and executed by the Romans.

But, according to Price’s theory, Mark was making up this story as an allegory about someone who had never lived on Earth at all, and thus never been executed by real flesh-and-blood people. If that was the case, then the story about Pilate and the other Romans being the ones who ultimately put Jesus to death wouldn’t have existed. So… why would Mark bring them into the execution narrative at all? Why would he want to invent, in however downplayed a form, the idea that the Romans were the people who ordered carried out the execution? And take that as far as naming a specific and powerful character as having passed the execution order?

While portraying the Romans as helpless followers of the demands of others isn’t as damning as portraying them as instigators, it’s still hardly a good look for them. If Mark was writing the crucifixion story simply in order to make the points he wanted, why do we get this conflict between Mark’s apparent wish to portray the Romans as well as possible, and his actual portrayal of them as playing such a major role in Jesus’s execution? If he were writing a totally fictional story in which he wished to blame the Jews for Jesus’s death, why would he not take the obvious route of having the Jews in his story actually execute Jesus?

I looked with interest, therefore, to see whether Price had provided an explanation for this point. Sadly, he hasn’t. Price theorises about details of the trial and execution being derived from OT scriptures (I’d agree with him about that, by the way), but I couldn’t find anywhere, either in the book or in his online essay, where he’d commented on this particular issue.

In short, what we have here is a major point that doesn’t seem explicable under the Mark-as-fictional-allegory theory. Without an explanation, Price’s cornerstone claim – that every significant point in Mark can be explained in ways that don’t involve a historical Jesus – doesn’t hold up. And that leaves a gaping hole in his theory.

‘Deciphering The Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed’ review: Intro/Chapter One

‘Deciphering the Gospels’ 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, R. G. Price, is not the same person as Robert Price, also a Jesus mythicist author.) I’m an atheist who holds the opposing (and more 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.

 

Introduction

I gave a brief summary of the introduction in my first post in the review and had planned to leave it at that, but I’ve realised that there are a couple of key points here that do need further examination; the questions of where this idea of a mythical crucified Messiah came from and where it went.

Price explains, in the introduction, how he believes the cult arose:

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.

So far, so good. While this would have been a very fringe belief among Jews of the time, not to mention flat-out ignoring the plain meaning of some prophecies, those are hardly factors that rule out this possibility; there are people in any time and place who are happy to adopt very fringe beliefs and to ignore evidence (as their society would have regarded prophecies) to the contrary. So, it is at least plausible that a group at the time could have adopted such a belief. Here, however, are two major questions to which we still need answers:

1. How would such a group have developed the belief that their messiah had been crucified in heaven?

The Jewish idea of the Messiah (a word which literally means ‘anointed’ and was also used more generally for any ruling figure) came originally from scriptural passages prophesying a wondrous future in which the Jews, freed from all oppression, would live in peace and plenty under the rule of a descendant of King David. It bore absolutely no relationship to the later Christian concept of the Messiah being an uber-sacrifice for humanity’s sins. While the Messiah’s job description was vague enough that it allowed for all sorts of interpretations, and technically didn’t exclude the possibility of him being crucified and resurrected on the way to the glorious future in which he ruled over Israel, that’s still a heck of a tangent for someone to have come up with. Any story of Christianity’s origins does need to account for how the early Christians made that leap.

Under a historical-Jesus theory, this is fairly straightforward to explain. If Christianity started with a real man who was crucified, leaving his adoring followers trying to reconcile the cognitive dissonance between their fervent Messianic hopes and the dismal reality facing them, then it’s perfectly plausible that they could have come up with explanations that wove the inescapable brutal fact of their leader’s crucifixion into their theology as part of their God’s grand plan. But, minus an actual crucifixion happening to an actual Messianic claimant, why would a group of Messianic believers spontaneously come up with the idea of their Messiah being crucified? How likely is it that one group would come up with two completely different radical departures from usual concepts of the Messiah (heavenly Messiah and crucified Messiah)? And, even if some Jews somehow came up with the unprecedented idea of their Messiah needing to be a sin sacrifice like the goats and sheep that were taken to the Temple altar, why in the world would they conclude that this sacrifice must take place via a loathed and stigmatised method of execution rather than via known, familiar, accepted methods of animal sacrifice?

2. How did knowledge of this group disappear so thoroughly from church history?

According to Price, the stories about a historical Jesus got started because Mark wrote an allegory which was mistaken for an actual book of prophecies, the other evangelists built on and embroidered the story, and people who’d read these works and mistaken them for accounts of real events somehow formed a religion based on them. So… how in the world, if you’ll forgive the unintentional pun, did it play out when they met the existing groups of Jesus-followers and realised that they taught that he’d never been on earth at all? Even if enough of the new believers clung to their version and managed to start a new cult that overtook the old, we’d still surely expect some records of the previous belief, even if only in the form of teachings from the new cult of why the old one was heretical and mistaken.

 

I don’t believe Price covers either of these two questions in the book. To be fair, it’s some months since I read it and I was rather skimming through on my initial read, so perhaps I’ve missed something; I’ll keep an eye out as I continue the review, and also, of course, look for Price’s thoughts in the comments. Meanwhile, I think that does complete the questions regarding the introduction, so on to Chapter One.

 

Chapter One: Deciphering the Gospel Called Mark

Price devotes the first two chapters of this book to the cornerstone of his theory; his belief that all of the gospel of Mark (apart from some filler) can be shown to have been based on other sources. He believes that from this we can deduce that the gospel of Mark (for which I’ll henceforth use the standard abbreviation gMark, for convenience) is entirely a fictional allegory. This chapter lists multiple examples of Markan stories that Price believes to have been derived from Jewish scriptures (or Jewish culture, in the case of the twelve apostles supposedly symbolising the twelve tribes), and Chapter Two does the same with examples of stories that Price believes to have been derived from Paul’s letters. For those interested in checking this out in more detail, he also has a chronologically ordered, and more comprehensive, list of all his examples online in his essay The Gospel of Mark as Reaction and Allegory, in which he goes through gMark explaining how each part of it in turn fits with his theory.

As I drafted out the comments I wanted to make about Chapter One, I found my reply fell into four parts. The first part looks at the logic underlying Price’s argument, the second at his claim that all the important points of gMark can be shown to have been derived from elsewhere, the third at a couple of Price’s specific examples, and the fourth at his theories about Mark’s motivation for writing. I’ll leave the last three of those for subsequent posts, and cover the first part here.

Price’s argument, as I understand it, can be summarised thusly:

  • All of gMark consists of symbolic or allegorical stories derived from other sources.
  • Therefore, all of gMark is fictional rather than factual.
  • Therefore, the protagonist in gMark – Jesus – is also fictional.

(He then goes on to argue, in subsequent chapters, that as the other gospels are derived from gMark this means that those are also entirely fictional evidence. I’ll discuss that when we get there.)

Edited to add: Price has now clarified, in comment #2 on this post, that my third point is incorrect: ‘Not true. Nowhere did I state that… I fully agree that merely showing that Mark is ahistorical does not prove that Jesus didn’t exist, and never made such a claim.’ I’m glad to have this clarified, and apologise to him for misunderstanding his argument. Since his book and online articles do come across as suggesting that ahistoricity of gMark would prove or at least provide evidence of ahistoricity of Jesus, I’ll leave the rest of this article up as written, since I think it’s worth clarifying that that is a logically incorrect conclusion to draw; however, the apparent logic flaw was not intended by Price and does not represent what he actually believes.

This chapter and the next one are both devoted to proving the first point on the list, by means of illustrating it with multiple examples. He has, overall, put an impressive amount of detailed and dedicated work into demonstrating the first part of his argument. Unfortunately, he seems to have assumed the subsequent parts of the argument rather than demonstrating them; his assumption seems to be that, if the stories in gMark are all allegorical fiction, then it must automatically follow that the protagonist is fictional. I can’t see that that follows.

Let’s suppose for a moment that Price is absolutely right about his main claim; that Mark did indeed mean his gospel entirely as a work of allegory and that he derived every single story he wrote from another source for this purpose. Why would this automatically mean that the character on which he based his story must also be fictional? It’s perfectly possible to write allegorical stories about a real character.

In fact, even according to Price’s own theory, this would have been precisely what Mark believed he was doing. Price believes Mark to have been a member of the early church (the Pauline branch), which would mean, according to Price’s theory, that Mark believed in Jesus as a spiritual being whose existence was entirely in heaven rather than on earth. While such a Jesus would obviously be fictional from our perspective, it’s important to remember that the people holding such a belief would see Jesus as real. If that had been Mark’s belief, then from his perspective he would have been writing about a being who – while existing in what was effectively another dimension – was nonetheless every bit as real as people on earth. If we’re assuming Mark was writing an allegory about a real (from his perspective) heavenly being, why should we assume he wouldn’t write an allegory about a real earthly being?

Ironically, when I started looking at Price’s examples in detail, I realised that the first example in this chapter perfectly demonstrates that Mark’s apparently symbolic stories can still refer to a real person:

I’d like to first focus on one simple element of the story to demonstrate that this is a fictional story, crafted by the author with the intent that readers use the literary allusions to understand the story. In the Gospel called Mark, John the Baptist represents Elijah. Knowing this is important for understanding the story. How are readers supposed to know that John the Baptist represents Elijah in the story? Readers are told this at the very beginning of the story through the use of literary allusion. In fact, readers are clued in to the fact that the story will parallel much of 1 and 2 Kings right from the beginning.

John the Baptist is, I agree, linked with Elijah in Mark’s account, in a way that could be symbolic. John the Baptist is also discussed in some detail by the well-known Roman historian Flavius Josephus, as a lengthy aside in Josephus’s account of the destruction of Herod Antipas’s army… which gives us solid evidence that JtB actually existed.

Of course, it’s worth examining other possible explanations for that Josephan passage. After all, we know that a different volume of the same work contains at least some lines about Jesus that clearly weren’t written by Josephus, and are now universally accepted as having been interpolated by a later (unknown) Christian who wanted to get their own beliefs about Jesus in there(1). So it’s possible that a Christian scribe might also have wanted to interpolate a passage about John the Baptist. Could this have been what happened here?

It’s certainly plausible that a Christian scribe might have wanted to insert passages that espoused his beliefs. What doesn’t make sense, however, is the theory that a Christian scribe would have inserted this particular passage. Not only is it different enough from the gospel accounts of JtB that it clearly wasn’t just drawn from them, it’s also included in the text specifically to make the point that some of the Jews blamed Herod’s loss of this battle on his unjust killing of John. I think we can safely say that a Christian scribe interpolating their faith-based opinions about Herod Antipas would have focused rather more on Herod’s rejection of Jesus, who doesn’t even get a mention in this passage. I think it therefore reasonable to rule out the theory that this passage was a Christian interpolation.

Of course, a scribe might have had some motivation other than religious belief to interpolate comments, and it is just about possible that someone could have had some motivation of which we’re unaware for interpolating a long passage about a relatively minor historical figure whose death, by that point, would have been many decades previously. (I know of no serious historians who believe this to have been the case, but I’m trying to be as open-minded as possible here.) However, even that outside possibility makes no sense unless John the Baptist at least existed in the first place. If he was only a minor fictional character in a rather obscure religious work, why on earth would anyone believe that the Jews were blaming Herod’s defeat on the murder of this non-existent character, much less write a long passage claiming this to be the case and inventing details that weren’t in the original story?

In short, the existence of this passage in our works of Josephus is good enough evidence to believe in John the Baptist’s existence. (For anyone interested in reading a much more detailed discussion of the interpolation theory – which also concludes that this passage is genuine – Peter Kirby has written a detailed post on the subject.) Regardless of whether Jesus existed, we can at least conclude that John did.

This, of course, tells us nothing whatsoever about Jesus’s existence. However, it does give us a clear example of a story of Mark’s that appears to be (and might well have been intended as) an allegory… but is nevertheless demonstrably about a real person. And as such, it blows a major hole through any theory that ‘allegory’ automatically equates to ‘fictional protagonist’. Which means that, right out of the gate, there is a fundamental problem with Price’s entire theory.

 

(1) The interpolation in Josephus is a fiercely controversial subject, so I shall take a second to clarify: No, we do not know whether or not all of the Testimonium Flavium is interpolated. It might be, it might not be; there is significant legitimate difference of opinion on that point even among experts, and I lack the knowledge or the interest to launch into that particular discussion in any detail. The point is, no-one seriously doubts that at least some of it was, and that, as such, it’s an excellent example of the fact that scribes could, potentially, interpolate bits of information into texts to satisfy their own agendas.

‘Deciphering the Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed’ review: Preface and Introduction.

Hey, guys, anyone up for a bit more Jesus mythicism debate? Yes… it’s time for me to start reviewing R.G. Price’s book!

A bit of background, for those who don’t know it: A few months back, I wrote a post here about why I’ve always found it more likely that Jesus did exist as some kind of real-life figure, rather than being a completely mythical figure as many non-Christians believe. (That post isn’t a comprehensive list of reasons for believing in Jesus’s historicity, by the way; just the reasons why I thought Jesus likely to be historical even before I started reading up properly on the debate and learning more about it.)

Anyway, the post sparked off some pretty major discussion, and Jesus mythicist R.G. Price came to join in. (This might, by the way, be a good moment to clarify that R.G. Price is not the same person as Robert M. Price, who is also a Jesus mythicist.) We had some further discussion, and he very kindly offered to send me a free copy of his book. I offered in turn to review it for him, and here we are.

This one, unlike some of the other stuff I’ve written, is not going to be snark. I’m up for a serious discussion about R.G. Price’s arguments and the reasons why I disagree with them (which I still do; I’ve read the whole book already). If that’s not for you, no worries, hope to see you on another review.

This book has both a preface and an introduction; I’ll try to cover them both in this post. As with previous reviews, I’ll then link all other chapter reviews back to the original post to keep everything in one place.

Here we go, folks!

Preface

R.G. Price’s first sentence is ‘By conventional standards, I am not qualified to write this book.’ This amused me; by the same conventional standards, I’m not qualified to debate it, so we’ll just bumble along together in happy amateurism. (If anyone out there who does have relevant qualifications spots any howling errors in anything I write or anything I quote from R.G. Price, do feel free to step in and set us straight.)

R.G. Price goes on to give us a quick outline of his background:

  • He’s a software engineer/data analysis, with a BSc in biology. (That’s interesting; I’m curious as to how he got from the latter to the former? Not that it’s relevant; I’m just interested.)
  • He grew up in a ‘nominally Christian’ family but was skeptical about Christianity from an early age. However, he was always fascinated by religion in general, and read the Bible several times while he was growing up. (He’s got more sticking power than me. I tried to read it several times, but invariably bogged down somewhere around the Chronicles. Although the part I did read was certainly… informative.) When he read the Bible’s accounts of supernatural phenomena, he would try to think of possible natural causes for the things described.
  • He first found out about Jesus mythicism in the late ’90s, because Internet. (Yes, me too.) He was very skeptical about it at first, and in fact spent quite a bit of time over the next few years debunking some of the more improbable mythicist theories. However, in the process of researching these claims, he found some of the things he was coming across were starting to change his mind on the subject.

At this point, R.G. Price gives us an example; He often saw mythicists claiming that the twelve disciples were actually symbolic of the twelve signs of the zodiac. (Good grief; people were claiming this often? The internet is a worrying place.) R.G. Price pointed out that a much more likely source of the story was a Jewish tradition of heroes or prophets appointing helpers from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. However, having come up with this explanation, he found himself believing that this was indeed the source of the story; that the disciples were ‘a symbolic literary intervention’.

Now, this is interesting. If I understand this correctly, R.G. Price seems to have moved from ‘This is a possible explanation for this part of the story’ to ‘This is a likely explanation for this part of the story’. And I can’t quite see how he got there. I mean, certainly the story of twelve disciples could have been invented for that reason, but it’s also perfectly plausible that a real-life Jewish preacher of that era would deliberately choose a group of that size for that reason. So, as far as I can see, that particular part of the story could fit with either a historical or a mythical Jesus.

(In fact, once you take into account that two out of the three leaders of the original Jerusalem church supposedly started out as part of Jesus’s group, the probability seems to swing at least a little more towards the historical. It’s plausible that an author writing a symbolic story about a mythical Jesus might decide to include all the existing church leaders as members of his inner circle, or, even more likely, none of them… but it seems a bit odd that they’d include two out of three and have a different backstory for the third. Not impossible, but odd enough to seem on the unlikely side.)

Anyway, by now R.G. Price had read about how some scenes in the gospels seem to be literary allusions to the Hebrew scriptures (for example, many details in the crucifixion scene seem to be based on Psalm 22) and he formed a hypothesis; that this was true of almost all the gospel stories. Or at least, almost all the stories in Mark, the earliest gospel. So he set out to test this by – and I love this – spending a year going through gMark line by line, searching the OT in various translations to find related passages on which each story could have been based. A year. R.G. Price, my man, you may proudly take your place amongst the Fellowship of Obsessive Geeks, which I totally just invented but absolutely should exist. Welcome to our ranks. <extends hand>

His conclusion, at the end of all this, was that all of the stories in gMark could be attributed either to literary allusions to OT stories, or to points that ‘Mark’ had found in Paul’s epistles. From this, and other parts of the Jesus story that he’d been looking into, he found himself coming round to the mythicism side of the argument.

At this point, he still felt he needed a theory explaining how the Jesus story originated. He feels he’s managed to come up with such a theory, and is writing this book in order to present it. He concludes ‘The case I am putting forward essentially shows that belief in a real human Jesus arose out of confusion and a misunderstanding of how the Gospels were written.’

Introduction

In the introduction, R.G. Price outlines his theory. Put together chronologically, it goes like this:

  1. Christianity originated as a small apocalyptic Jewish cult that believed that the material world was hopelessly corrupt and thus the kingdom of God would need to be established in heaven rather than, as was more traditionally believed, on earth. As such, they developed the belief that the Messiah – eagerly awaited by Jews – would be an immaterial heavenly being rather than an earthly human.
  2. Paul became an apostle of this cult. He preached reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles, believing that the expected kingdom of God would be open to anyone who had faith in God.
  3. Along came the First Jewish-Roman War, the sacking of Jerusalem, and the destruction of the Temple. One of the members of the Pauline-founded sects came to the belief that these events were God’s punishment on the Jews for not having heeded the message of harmony between Jews and Gentiles. He expressed this belief in a fictional, allegorical account, in which he made Jesus the protagonist. This story was the one we now call the Gospel of Mark.
  4. The other gospel writers, misunderstanding Mark’s gospel and believing it to be a real story of a real person, wrote more detailed stories based on it. (At least, that seems to be what R.G. Price thinks happened here; his theory seems a little vague at this point.)

Some of this, of course, gets discussed in more detail through the book, and I’ll discuss it then. The last part, however, doesn’t really seem to get addressed further (unless I’ve missed something) so I’m going to take a minute to look at it here; how is this supposed to have happened? We’re talking here not just about people mistaking a fictional story for a true one (which I can well believe someone, somewhere, would manage to do) but about multiple people getting so caught up in this that they write more detailed versions of the fictional story, adding in new points!

How likely would this be to happen? Why should we consider it a more likely explanation for the existence of the gospels than the more usual explanation that they’re based on stories about a real person that were passed down (albeit in embroidered form) over the years?

Anyway, that’s about it for the introduction. In the next chapter, we’re going to get more detail about the theory of Mark’s gospel as an allegory.

Links to other chapters

(Each link will be followed by a quick summary of the points covered in that post)

More on the intro/first thoughts on Chapter 1

  • How would a cult following a mythical heavenly Jesus have developed a belief in a crucified Messiah?
  • How could a cult following a heavenly Jesus be so thoroughly supplanted by a cult believing in an earthly Jesus that we’re left with no mention or trace of the former?
  • Why we can’t assume that ‘allegorical story’ = ‘fictional protagonist’

Chapter 1, part 2

The problem of Pilate/the execution scene; a key scene that isn’t explained under Price’s theory.

Chapter 1, part 3

Some of the examples Price gives to illustrate his theory are good ones, but some are much weaker. I look at two examples of the latter.

Chapter 1, part 4

  • The flaw in Price’s theory about Mark’s motivation
  • The question of how the Parable of the Vineyard fits with mythicism

Jesus mythicism vs. Jesus historicity: a reply to R. G. Price

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about Jesus mythicism (the belief that Jesus never existed as a real person), explaining my initial reason for coming down on the ‘historicity’ side of that particular debate. Rather to my surprise, it went on to get more comments than I’ve had on any other post in over thirteen years of blogging. (In fairness, that is not a terribly high bar, but I was still really pleased about it.) Thank you to all those of you who commented and joined in the discussion. I replied to a lot of the comments but did leave several comments unanswered as the thread seemed to have come to a halt and I didn’t know whether anyone was still reading; if yours was one of those and you would still like it answered, do please let me know and I’ll try to do so.

Anyway, I’m restarting this as a new person has just joined the comment thread; mythicist R.G. Price (who, confusingly, is a different mythicist from Robert Price). R.G. had a long comment with a lot of questions, so I decided that, rather than trying to reply in comments, it would be better to write a new post.

Why don’t the earliest writings about Jesus describe who he was as a person?

The earliest writings about Jesus were written by someone who not only became a follower of Jesus only after his death, but showed almost no interest in hearing about Jesus’s life; he based his beliefs not on teachings from the existing group of Jesus-followers but on revelations he believed he was getting from Jesus directly, and he spread those beliefs far and wide. I completely agree that this was a somewhat bizarre state of affairs to have come about, but, nevertheless, we know from Paul’s own writings that this was what happened.

This being the case, we wouldn’t expect Paul to have described who Jesus was as a person, regardless of whether Jesus actually had been a person or not. Paul simply doesn’t seem to have been interested in Jesus as a person. In Paul’s writings, his focus is on his image of Jesus as a magic mechanism for all-purpose forgiveness of sins.

Why don’t the earliest writings about Jesus convey any of his teachings?

Same reason.

Why didn’t Jesus produce any writings of his own?

He lived and died in a culture where the majority of his society were not functionally literate, where oral teaching had huge importance, where ink and paper were expensive luxuries, and where the printing press wasn’t even a twinkle in an inventor’s eye yet. If someone in such a society wanted to get a message out to as many people as possible as quickly as possible, their best bet for doing that was to travel around and do a lot of public preaching, since that would reach significantly more people for the time spent. On top of that, we don’t even know whether Jesus himself had had formal training or practice in writing; in that day and age, it’s quite possible that he didn’t.

If Jesus couldn’t read and write, then why would people, in a culture that highly valued the reading and writing of scripture, worship such a person for their “teachings”?

I don’t know of anyone who was worshipping Jesus for his teachings. Paul created a theology in which Jesus was a magical sacrifice sent by God to wipe clean everyone’s sins, and this evolved over time into a theology that believed that Jesus was part of God and thus worshipped him on that basis.

Why would people think that a person, who presumably didn’t perform miracles or rise from the dead, was “the Lord Jesus Christ”, an eternal being with godly powers?

That’s a few different questions rolled into one:

Why did they believe him to be the Messiah (Christ)? That’s not hard to see; the Jews were desperate for a Messiah, and any apparently good contender for the post would get a lot of followers out of pure wishful thinking. Jesus was clearly a highly charismatic and convincing speaker. It would actually have been stranger if he hadn’t had followers who believed him to be the Messiah. It is strange that Paul kept up the title in writing about him despite having come to a completely different set of beliefs about him, but it’s still less strange that Paul would keep an existing title for him than that someone would so utterly and completely reinterpret the concept of Messiahship from scratch, which is what would be required for Jesus to be mythical.

Why did they call him Lord? Well, being the Messiah effectively meant you were the rightful king (it was part of the job description) and that you were sent by God, so, for the people who believed he was the Messiah, it probably would have seemed appropriate to address him as ‘Lord’. It probably would have seemed even more appropriate to Paul, whose new version of the theology seems to have involved seeing Jesus as an amazing being imbued with wondrous powers.

How did people move from seeing him as a human being to seeing him as an eternal being with godly powers? The full change to seeing him in this way seems to have happened gradually over time, but a significant shift seems to have happened with Paul, who, based on his letters, seems to have gone off on a complete tangent with his beliefs about Jesus, coming up with a new version of belief that wasn’t anything to do with traditional beliefs about the Messiah.

If people did think that this person was some eternal Lord, then why didn’t they record anything about him or things that he said that convinced them that he was this eternal all-powerful Lord?

Huh? Innumerable Christians have been recording precisely that for the past two millennia. You might need to clarify that question.

Why would someone’s brother, who grew up with him and likely had fights with him as a child and saw him get in trouble, get sick, etc. think that he was a perfect all-powerful deity – the only being in existence capable of bringing justice to the world?

Do we have any good evidence that any of Jesus’s brothers thought that (as opposed to later Christians believing it)?

Why does the letter to the Hebrews “quote” Jesus by quoting from scriptures and give no details about this person’s real life?

Most likely the author followed Paul’s influence in focusing on Jesus in his role of magic sin-erasing device rather than showing interest in him as a person. That, of course, is conjecture; but what we do know is that, whatever the author’s reason, it does not seem to have been a lack of belief in a Jesus who really walked the earth as a flesh-and-blood person.

‘Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things’: Heb 2:14

‘Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect…’: Heb 2:17

‘For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are’: Heb 4:15

‘In the days of his flesh…’: Heb 5:7

‘For it is evident that our Lord was descended from Judah’: Heb 7:14

‘…by the the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh’: Heb 10:19 – 20

That’s a half-dozen statements that are very hard to explain away if the author of Hebrews didn’t believe Jesus had lived on earth.

Why does the letter to the Hebrews say explicitly that Jesus is a heavenly High Priest?

The letter to the Hebrews was written after Jesus’s death. Regardless of whether his followers thought he’d lived on earth prior to that death or not, they’d have believed him to be in heaven at that point!

Why does Paul talk repeatedly about Jesus being a divine mystery?

If you give me the quotes you’re thinking of, I’ll see what they sound like in context. Again, given the number of times Paul makes a comment about Jesus being ‘born of a woman‘ or ‘according to the flesh‘ or ‘the seed of David‘, or comparable to Adam as a man, or about him having brothers, the answer doesn’t seem to be ‘Because Paul believed Jesus only ever existed as a spiritual being in a cosmic realm’.

Why doesn’t Paul attribute any of his teachings to Jesus?

Huh? He does. Did you mean, why does he only attribute his teachings to post-resurrection revelations from Jesus rather than to things he’d learned from the apostles? If so, then I refer you back to the first point.

Why would Paul think his teachings were better than, or even on par with, people who had personally known Jesus and learned his teachings directly from his mouth?

Paul believed that he’d learned his teachings directly from Jesus as well. Sure, he believed it was happening by revelations from Jesus up in heaven, but – given the way he changed his life over these revelations – I think we can reasonably assume that he fully believed, or at least had managed to convince himself, that he was genuinely receiving teachings from a resurrected and heavenly Jesus.

Why does the Gospel of Mark use so many literary sources?

Probably because, as you’ve just pointed out above, scriptural sources were extremely important to people in that day and age.

Why does the Gospel of Mark use teachings of Paul as Jesus’s teachings?

Because that’s how Paul presented many of his teachings to the communities he founded (remember, he believed they came directly from Jesus via revelation, and presented them as such).

Why does the Gospel of Mark portray the disciples so poorly?

This probably goes back to the division in beliefs between the communities founded by Paul, and the original church run by former disciples in Jerusalem. The gospels seem to have been written outside Judaea, meaning it’s likely they came from communities who originated from Paul and were using theology that was more Pauline in nature and hence differed from the theology taught by the original Jerusalem church on some key points. It’s not hard to imagine that this would have been pretty awkward for the churches. Some of the differences seem to have been harmonised or glossed over, but some of them seem to have been dealt with by portraying the disciples as a bunch of bumbling fools who constantly misunderstood what Jesus’s mission was really about.

Why does every single story about Jesus share text with the Gospel of Mark?

Because later authors used gMark as one of their sources.

I could go on, but really, all of these questions, and many more, need reasonable answers in order for the idea that the Jesus of Christianity is based on the life of a real person to have any plausibility.

On the other hand, there is really only one question that needs to be answered for the scenario that the Jesus of Christianity isn’t based on a real person to be plausible and that question is:

How do you explain the five or six short passages in the letters of Paul that suggest Jesus was a real person?

Only one question… are you kidding me?? What about…

Why does Josephus, in a line universally accepted as genuine by Josephan scholars, describe one man as being ‘the brother of Jesus called Christ’?

Why does Tacitus mention a Christus who founded a sect named after him and who was executed by Pontius Pilate, describing this sect in terms hostile enough that this is extremely unlikely to be information he got from Christians?

What precedent is there for anyone writing allegorical stories about a heavenly figure that are so detailed they mention fictitious family members and a place where he allegedly grew up? How often, in that culture, is that known to have happened? Based on that answer, what are the estimated chances that multiple different people in a relatively small sect would choose to do this about the same figure?

What is the explanation for the passages I quoted above from Hebrews indicating a belief in a human flesh-and-blood Jesus of physical descent?

Why do two of the gospel writers describe Jesus as coming from Nazareth, even though this was clearly very awkward for them to the point where they had to make up detailed and implausible stories explaining how he had really come to be born in Bethlehem and not Nazareth?

Why do the gospel writers all name a powerful Roman as being the person who ordered Jesus’s crucifixion, even though they clearly realised the risks of this and took great pains to gloss over and explain away this part of the story as much as possible?

All of which is on top of the multiple passages in Paul that fit with historicity rather than mythicism; and ‘five or six’ is an underestimate there. I’ve been through the undisputed letters and count 11. (That isn’t counting the ‘killed by the Jews’ passage on 1 Thessalonians, which I left off the list as there are reasonable unrelated grounds for suspecting it to be an interpolation.)

And, yes, it’s possible to look at any individual one of those examples in isolation and say, maybe this one was an interpolation or we’re interpreting it wrong or there’s some other explanation we’re not aware of. But the more such examples there are, the more difficult it is to explain all of them away. When we’re looking at needing this many convoluted and improbable explanations to sustain a theory, then that theory has become overwhelmingly unlikely and needs to be discarded.

Jesus mythicism vs. Jesus historicity: an argument in favour of the latter

I seem to have had a few comments on here in recent weeks about the Jesus mythicism question (for those who are unfamiliar with the argument, this is the question of whether a real Jesus actually existed in the first place or whether Christianity started with a belief in some kind of celestial being). For the record, I’m on the ‘historical Jesus’ side of this particular debate, meaning that I believe that the whole thing did start with an actual Jewish preacher and founder of a Messianic cult. This is something I’d like to post a series of posts about at some point, but it’s a long way down my to-do list at the moment, so look out for those in about… 2030, maybe? However, one particular comment I got did catch my attention as raising an important point. I started writing a comment in reply, and realised it was actually long enough to be a post. So here we are.

 

 

Owlmirror wrote:

I have to admit, it is weird no matter which way things are supposed to have gone: How a Son/Christ who supposedly had no earthly incarnation could have suddenly gotten one in the specific time and place of Judea in the 30’s. Or the other way; how a Jesus who was presumably real and taught in the 30’s could be so easily ignored/erased by those who came later.

Which is an excellent point. If Jesus did exist, we have to explain how, within a relatively short time of his death, he was being spoken of as some kind of mythical semi-deity in the writings of some of his followers. If Jesus was a myth from the start, on the other hand, we have the reverse problem of having to explain how he then came to be written about and taught about as an actual person who walked the face of the earth and did normal (as well as miraculous) things. And this, as it happens, gets to the nub of why I believe in a historical Jesus; I’ve found other reasons as I looked into the topic more, but my initial reason is simply that I believe the former scenario is a lot easier to explain with the data we have than the latter. So, I want to explain why.

First, here are some key points to bear in mind:

  • We have four official accounts portraying Jesus as a real person, which have been established as having been written within a century (the earliest probably within a few decades) of the events alleged in them.
  • These accounts include quite a few things which were clearly quite awkward for their authors. Jesus was supposed to have been the Messiah – despite this being a Jewish title that referred to someone who would rule over the country in an era of peace and prosperity, which Jesus clearly hadn’t done. He apparently came from Nazareth – even though this was another big problem for his followers’ claims that he was the Messiah, requiring two of the gospel authors to make up complicated and contradictory accounts about how, despite having grown up in Nazareth, he had actually been born in Bethlehem. He was executed by the Romans for sedition – which would have made the cult widely unpopular and could have got them into real trouble (if you read the gospel accounts, you can see the writers coming out with some wildly implausible stuff intended to paint a picture of Pilate as really innocent in the matter and the Jews really being the ones to blame for the whole thing). And apparently, despite the gospels painting a very anti-Pharisaic picture, his teachings as portrayed were in fact rather typically Pharisaian (Maccoby, Revolution in Judea and The Mythmaker). So… these things all got included, and we need to ask why.
  • These accounts also show signs of getting increasingly fantastical over time, suggesting the stories are getting embroidered as they go along.
  • In the early years of the Church, the person who seems to have been doing more than anyone else to spread this new belief to Gentiles in far-flung places was someone who joined only after Jesus’s death, showed astonishingly little interest in finding out about the doctrines of this new group, thought it quite OK to spread teachings that he believed to have come to him through personal revelation rather than from others in the group, and clashed with the existing group over the things he was teaching, of which they didn’t approve at all. Which gives us a rather bizarre situation where this man has gone off at a complete tangent and is energetically spreading his version of this new belief, which ends up being extremely influential despite being quite different from what the original grou believed.
  • All this was happening within a society where the majority of the population came from cultures other than the minority culture from which Jesus supposedly came, whose beliefs, and hence their interpretation of stories and events, might be very different from that of the culture in which the beliefs originated. On top of that, it was a society with widespread beliefs in amazing happenings, including the possibility of gods visiting the earth in human form.

Against this background information, how does the above question look?

Firstly, let’s look at the hypothesis that Jesus was actually a historical person. How does the above evidence fit with this? Well… according to this theory Jesus creates a bit of a splash in his local area, gets killed, and his local followers reach the belief he’s miraculously risen from the dead and thus keep his cult alive. A few years later, along comes Paul of Tarsus, who appears to have converted dramatically to the faith but has in fact converted dramatically to his own rather peculiar version of it, which he then energetically preaches to other communities over the next several years. Meanwhile, the existing stories about Jesus are getting embroidered as they get passed on. Some of those stories are getting passed out to the groups of converts in other cities, and some of the theology that those converts hold is filtering back to the original Jerusalem community, and a lot of people are ending up with a mixture of ideas that’s moving away from what was originally intended.

By the time people get as far as writing the stories down, a few decades later, the stories they have to work with are a mishmash of things that actually happened, embroidered versions of things that actually happened, stories that people have made up out of whole cloth because they sound good, and some rather strange mythology around the whole thing. So that’s what gets written down. Some of the stuff is pretty awkward for them, but, because it goes back to things that did actually happen, it’s firmly embedded in the traditions and can’t just be erased or ignored, so the gospel authors include those bits but do what they can to sugar-coat them or explain them away. We end up with an odd mix of stories, many of which are clearly embroidered or mythicised but many others of which seem to be describing a historical Jesus. Which, as you have probably spotted, pretty much describes the NT.

So far, so good; the historical theory fits well with what we have. Now, time to look at the other hypothesis; the idea that Jesus was originally a myth about a celestial being, and the stories about him were historicised later. How does that fit with the evidence we’ve got?

Well, the epistles seem to fit reasonably well, purely as far as theology goes; the theological descriptions of the Lord in the epistles could plausibly fit with a group who believe in a spiritual leader somewhere up in the heavens. (Even then, there are a lot of lines that wouldn’t plausibly fit with this; the epistles do contain several lines about Jesus having existed according to the flesh, or being born of a woman, or being of the seed of David, or having brothers, one of whom Paul mentions meeting, all of which is rather difficult to reconcile with mythicism and requires some highly strained logic on the part of mythicists. But if we ignore all that – which mythicists do, on the whole, tend to prefer to do – and focus just on the theology, then that seems at first glance to fit.)

However, once we get to the gospels, things get a lot more difficult to explain. If the group at this stage believed that the person they held so dear was in fact a celestial being who had never visited this world as a human, how did we end up with multiple books telling detailed stories about his time living in this world as a human?

Of course, explanations exist. Earl Doherty, in The Jesus Puzzle, presents the first gospel as being written as a deliberate attempt to give a group an apparent historical founder that would appeal more to converts. Richard Carrier, in On the Historicity of Jesus, explains it as being an example of euhemerism, a practice of the time in which historicised stories were written about mythical beings. Adam Lee from the Daylight Atheism blog, in this essay, suggests the gospel writers might have been following the precedent of midrash, a rabbinical method for analysing verses from the Jewish scriptures and coming up with further explanations and illustrative stories about them. All these explanations have their problems, but I can certainly see how any of them could explain the existence of a few historicised stories about a Jesus who was originally thought to have lived, died, and risen on a heavenly plane only.

But what do we actually have? Multiple different books describing a historical Jesus. (While the gospels are not independent in terms of what information they give us, each one does nevertheless represent a different person sitting down and putting a lot of effort into writing a detailed and lengthy story.) Highly awkward claims – that the authors seem to be desperately trying to soft-pedal, but nonetheless include – that a specific and powerful public figure was responsible for the death of this founder. Further highly awkward claims that the revered founder was making claims that got him (rightly, under the prevailing Roman law) executed for sedition. Complicated and contradictory stories attempting to explain how a man from Nazareth was actually born in Bethlehem, when it would surely have been so much simpler to leave out the Nazareth claim and write Jesus as coming from Bethlehem in the first place.

What would lead people to make all this stuff up – all of it – from scratch? Not just embroidering or adding to existing stories about an existing person, but inventing all of the above, including the bits that clearly work against their purposes? So far, I have not heard an adequate explanation for this. Of the two theories, therefore, the theory that Jesus did actually exist – that, at the start of the story of Christianity, there was an actual Yeshu or Yeshua who preached and had a following and was executed by the Romans – fits the available data a lot better.

And that’s why I believe in a historical Jesus.