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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about Peter? Also never identified.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

None of these people were ever identified or talked to.

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

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

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

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

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


Chapter 5: All Knowledge Of Jesus Comes From The Gospels

Price’s argument in this chapter can be approximately summarised thus:

  1. There was a major disagreement in the early centuries of the church over whether Jesus actually existed.
  2. If Jesus had existed, the pro-real-Jesus camp in the 2nd – 4th century followers would have been able to find better evidence than scripture to prove it.
  3. Yet his followers from that time only used scripture to prove he existed.
  4. Therefore, his followers must have been unable to find the definitive evidence we’d have expected them to have available if he existed.
  5. Therefore, we must doubt Jesus existed.

Unfortunately both of Price’s premises (points 1 and 2) are wrong, leading him to a fatally flawed conclusion. I’m going to look at the first point in this post, and at the second point in a subsequent post.


1. Was there a major disagreement in the early church over whether Jesus actually existed?

No. Before we go on to discuss why Price thinks there was, it’s worth taking a moment to look at this and think about how little sense it makes.

Price is talking, here, about one of the big disagreements within the movement; in other words, between different groups of believers. So these are people who would, by definition, have all believed in Jesus. They might have believed in a version of Jesus that had little or no resemblance to whatever the reality was, but they still believed that their version of Jesus was real. Anyone who didn’t believe in Jesus would, rather obviously, not be a follower of this group; they’d join a different religious group or none. Why on earth would Jesus’s followers be arguing over whether or not he really existed?

Let’s look back, for a moment, at what Price thinks the earliest group of Jesus-followers originally believed. He told us this back in the introduction:

Some small apocalyptic Jewish cult existed in Jerusalem around the middle of the first century that worshiped a heavenly messiah named Jesus. […] What set the Jesus cult apart was their belief that the kingdom established by the messiah would not be on earth, but rather it would be in heaven. They believed that the material world was hopelessly corrupt and that the “kingdom of God” could never be established on earth. Thus, they believed that an immaterial heavenly messiah would be required to destroy the evil material world and establish a perfect kingdom in heaven.

So, according to Price, this group believed that Jesus was an immaterial heavenly being. From Price’s perspective as an atheist and skeptic, this is, of course, equivalent to saying that Jesus didn’t exist. However, Price is overlooking the obvious here; that Jesus’s followers wouldn’t have seen it that way. Even if Price is correct about the original beliefs of the Jesus-followers, in their minds the heavenly being they followed would have existed, just as people of the time believed that Hercules or Romulus existed.

It therefore makes no sense whatsoever, even in the context of mythicism, to talk about people in the early church debating over whether or not Jesus existed. If the early group had, in fact, moved from believing in a heavenly Jesus to believing in an earthly Jesus, then the debate would have been over whether Jesus was earthly, not over whether he was real.

So why does Price think there was a debate about Jesus’s existence? He’s mainly getting this from misunderstanding the arguments over a doctrine now known to us as Docetism.

A common heretical view in the second and third centuries, known as Docetism, held that Jesus had come to earth as an immaterial spirit being, who only appeared real but was actually illusionary.

In fact, the debate in Docetism wasn’t about whether Jesus was real; it was about whether his flesh was. More generally, it was about whether Jesus did in fact become fully human or merely seemed to be human. The traditional Church view, and the one that prevailed in Church theology, was that Jesus was ‘fully God and fully man’, but there were plenty of people who disagreed with one or the other half of this, refusing to believe that these two opposites could be fully integrated. Some of these people believed that Jesus had in fact only been ‘a mere man’ rather than God in human form, but others went the other way and believed that Jesus, as God, couldn’t possibly have taken on the indignity of becoming a human being made from the same kind of flesh as anyone else. This is the belief now referred to as Docetism.

Price has helpfully included a selection of quotes from Church fathers describing Docetist beliefs about Jesus (the best we can do, as we no longer have any of the writings of Docetists themselves). I’ve picked out the quotes about how Docetists described the Jesus of their beliefs:

[Marcion, Valentinus, and the Gnostics] teach that His appearances to those who saw Him as man were illusory, inasmuch as He did not bear with him true manhood, but was rather a kind of phantom manifestation. (Hippolytus; Discourses)

Saturninus [affirmed] that Christ had not existed in a bodily substance, and had endured a quasi-passion in a phantasmal shape merely[…] Cerdo […] affirms that He was not in the substance of flesh; states Him to have been only in a phantasmal shape[…] Apelles […] says, because He descended from the upper regions, that in the course of His descent He wove together for himself a starry and airy flesh (Tertullian; Against All Heresies)

Others consider Him to have been manifested as a transfigured man […] while others [hold] that He did not assume a human form at all, but that, as a dove, He did descend upon that Jesus who was born from Mary. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies)

Now, if you’re looking through the lens of mythicism, it’s easy to read these references to phantoms and ‘not in the substance of flesh’ as being support for a Jesus who didn’t actually exist. But, if you look at what they’re saying, they are in fact all beliefs that Jesus’s followers saw him in what seemed to be human flesh, even though (according to the beliefs of the people saying these things) it can’t possibly have been actual human flesh because God wouldn’t take on human flesh. Leaving out the theological part of that, what the Docetists were actually saying was that Jesus appeared to be a human on earth. And, since one thing on which I, Price, and most people reading this can probably agree is that Jesus actually wasn’t an immaterial god pretending to be a human, the likely reason why he would appear to be a human on earth is that he was actually a human on earth.

Price does raise the question of whether the issue could have been whether Jesus was physical, rather than whether he was earthly:

I think the original conception of Jesus was as an immaterial heavenly being, and that the theology of early Jesus worship was rooted in the immaterial nature of Jesus.

While that’s possible, it also takes us back to the question of how Jesus’s followers came to believe him to have been crucified. Crucifixion is a very physical punishment, so it would be odd and incongruous for a group who set such high value on their saviour being immaterial to also come up with the idea that this immaterial saviour had been crucified.

Getting back to the point at hand: This theory of Price’s still leaves us with the fact that no-one (or no-one that Price has been able to cite) seems to have taken issue with whether Jesus actually came to earthThe Docetists whose views were described in the quotes Price gives all allude to a Jesus who appeared on earth in some form, even if it was as a ‘manifestation’ rather than in actual flesh. At most, we can say that some of the quotes could be compatible with a belief in a primarily heavenly Jesus who showed up only in visions rather than coming to earth himself. However, there’s no sense from the half of the debate we see that the amount of time Jesus spent on earth was the issue. The theologians quoted are taking issue only with the idea of whether his flesh was really real or just seemed so.

So the best we can say is that some of these quotes (only some) are compatible with either mythicism or historicity, but even those don’t support the idea of mythicism over historicity (the information they give is so brief that it’s hard to draw any conclusions from those isolated quotes). And, of course, the quote about Apelles and the last of the quotes above from Irenaeus still point towards a Jesus who was on earth in some form, thus pointing us at least somewhat more towards historicity than towards mythicism.

On top of this, we still have the question of why Price’s scenario would even have led to the point of this debate between the different camps arising. Price writes:

What we see in later docetist type views was an attempt to merge the Gospel narrative with the pre-Gospel theology of the cult.

Right, because the Church is historically so well known for trying to figure out compromises between existing beliefs and those considered heretical.

Bear in mind, here, that according to Price’s theory the idea of an earthly Jesus only got started because some spare copies of an entirely fictional account started circulating amongst non-Christians and somehow inspired a movement of people who believed in a human Jesus. How on earth, if you’ll excuse the unintentional pun, was that meant to stand up in any way when the new group met the existing group? If the basis of the original theology was that Jesus was immaterial and heavenly only, and along came a group of Johnny-come-latelies claiming he’d had an earthly life, why in blue blazes would the response of the existing and established group be to try to figure out a way to incorporate this into their existing theology rather than simply making it entirely clear that this new group were a bunch of misinformed heretics and had no idea what they were talking about?

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

‘Deciphering the Gospels’, by R. G. Price, argues the case for Jesus mythicism, which is the view that Jesus never really existed on earth but was a mythical figure in the same way as Hercules or Dionysus. (The author is not the same person as Robert Price, also a Jesus mythicist author.) I’m an atheist who holds the opposing (and mainstream) view that Jesus did exist, as a normal, non-divine, human being. I’m therefore reviewing Price’s book to discuss his arguments and my reasons for disagreeing.

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

4. Early Christian Understanding Of The Gospels

This chapter focuses mainly on traditional church beliefs about a) the origins of the gospels and b) supposed prophecies of Jesus in the Old Testament, pointing out the significant problems with both. Most of the chapter can be briefly summarised as ‘we now know that the early Church fathers’ claims about who wrote the gospels can’t be true, and we also know that the supposed ‘prophecy fulfilment’ doesn’t stand up’. Since I broadly agree with Price’s general position on these, I don’t see any particular need to discuss this chapter further. However, there are two passages from the chapter on which I do want to comment.

The first one touches on a major issue with his overall argument that he hasn’t yet really addressed; how does his purported scenario explain how we got from ‘Mark invented a human Jesus for purposes of allegory’ to ‘Belief in a human Jesus became so widespread it took over the movement completely’? With that in mind, let’s look at this passage:

I don’t think that belief in a human Jesus happened because of any intentional deception or misrepresentation; I think it simply arose out of confusion and widespread assumptions by people that the story called Mark was literally true. I think that once the Markan story spread in the later part of the first century, there was widespread belief that all of the people and events described in it were real, among both followers of the religion and non-followers.

Think about the practicalities of this for a second.

Price is claiming here that gMark spread sufficiently widely amongst non-Christians for assumptions about it to be ‘widespread’ before any of the other gospels were written, which would require it to spread extensively among non-Christians over a relatively short timescale; a few years, perhaps a few decades at most. From previous chapters, we know that Price is also claiming that Mark’s aim in writing his gospel was to critique the actions of the existing group of Jesus-followers, which would mean that his gospel was aimed specifically at that group. So… how, in that case, is gMark supposed to have become ‘widespread’ amongst non-Christians?

Remember that this was long before the printing press; if you wanted to make copies of your book, you either had to copy the whole thing out by hand, or pay a scribe to do so. Add in the cost of ink and paper (in the days before mass production, these were significantly more expensive relative to the average salary), and you can see that people were typically not running off spare copies of their books just for the sake of it. If Mark was, as Price thinks, writing for Christians, then whatever copies he produced would have been meant to circulate within the Christian community. How would things have got from there to a situation where the book was in widespread circulation among non-Christians, let alone to the point where multiple people were writing expanded versions of the story? Once again, Price is describing a scenario that doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.

The other passage on which I want to comment is noteworthy because, although Price doesn’t seem to have noticed this, it blows his entire theory out of the water. Note particularly the last two sentences here:

Clearly the authors of Matthew and John fabricated story elements themselves, as we shall further explore in later chapters… So, to me, this draws into question whether or not the authors of Matthew and John really thought they were writing factual accounts or not. Generally speaking, it is difficult to understand the mind-set of chroniclers in Hellenistic cuture during that time, not just in relation to the Jesus story but even more broadly. These types of pseudo-historical mythologized accounts of people’s lives and deeds were not at all uncommon during that period, so the modern sense of recording fact-based history is simply something that wasn’t pervasive in that culture. These types of fabricated embellishments of biographies were widespread, so even if the authors of Matthew and John thought they were writing biographies of a real person, embellishing them would have been a common practice.

The keystone of Price’s argument has been that gMark’s habit of basing much of what he says on other sources indicates that gMark must have been inventing a Jesus-figure rather than embellishing an existing one. Yet he’s just made the exact counterpoint I’ve been making: that it’s perfectly possible (and, in fact, common behaviour in that time and culture) for someone to mythologise a biography of a real person by embellishing it with details drawn from other sources. And, since this is the case, we can’t conclude that the obvious embellishments in gMark indicate that it’s fictitious; they’re perfectly compatible with it being an embroidered biography of a real person. In other words, Price has just made a convincing argument against the foundational claim of his entire case.

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

‘Deciphering the Gospels’, by R. G. Price, argues the case for Jesus mythicism, which is the view that Jesus never really existed on earth but was a mythical figure in the same way as Hercules or Dionysus. (The author is not the same person as Robert Price, also a Jesus mythicist author.) I’m an atheist who holds the opposing (and mainstream) view that Jesus did exist, as a normal, non-divine, human being. I’m therefore reviewing Price’s book to discuss his arguments and my reasons for disagreeing.

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

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

Chapter 3: Copies Of Mark, Not Independent Accounts

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

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

I’ll look at each of these in turn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Deciphering the Gospels’, by R. G. Price, argues the case for Jesus mythicism, which is the view that Jesus never really existed on earth but was a mythical figure in the same way as Hercules or Dionysus. (The author is not the same person as Robert Price, also a Jesus mythicist author.) I’m an atheist who holds the opposing (and mainstream) view that Jesus did exist, as a normal, non-divine, human being. I’m therefore reviewing Price’s book to discuss his arguments and my reasons for disagreeing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Conclusion: The theory so far

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Deciphering the Gospels’, by R. G. Price, argues the case for Jesus mythicism, which is the view that Jesus never really existed on earth but was a mythical figure in the same way as Hercules or Dionysus. (The author is not the same person as Robert Price, also a Jesus mythicist author.) I’m an atheist who holds the opposing (and mainstream) view that Jesus did exist, as a normal, non-divine, human being. I’m therefore reviewing Price’s book to discuss his arguments and my reasons for disagreeing.

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

[Read more…]

Another Jesus Mythicism discussion

A little while back, I got into a discussion in a Reddit subthread with a poster by the name of MisanthropicScott. It started when MisanthropicScott claimed Jesus was a liar and I disputed the examples he gave (I make no claims for the overall honesty of Jesus, who might have been a liar for all any of us knows, but I found this particular argument wanting and the accusations unwarranted), and wandered rapidly into ‘Did Jesus exist at all?’ territory. So, we ended up with a long and rambling exchange of views, as you do, and, because I was drafting out my answers in bits and scraps of spare time, I eventually arrived at the point where I had a long and as yet unposted answer written to posts of his that had been written a couple of months previously in a long-dead thread.

(Yes, paragraphs like that do indeed make me wonder about my life choices. To which all I can say is: sometimes we all need a break from the serious stuff.)

Anyway… I don’t want to either waste what I’ve written or reawaken a Reddit thread no-one else cares about any more, so I went for Door Number Three; posting my answer on this blog. If MisanthropicScott still has any remote interest in the discussion, he can read it here and respond as he chooses. If not… well, it’s a discussion about Jesus mythicism. Experience tells me that, most likely, someone‘s going to be interested in responding.

Speaking of which, ground rules for any ensuing discussion:

  1. Stay polite. That includes starting with the assumption that the person disagreeing with you is not actually stupid or ignorant just because they hold a different viewpoint.
  2. Keep your comments directed at points actually raised in the post. Given how many points we’ve raised between us, that should give you plenty of scope.
  3. The historicist vs. mythicist discussion is a discussion between two different non-Christian views of Jesus (the belief that he was a human being with a following who was later mythologised, and the belief that he was entirely a mythical figure, like Hercules). If what you want is to have the somewhat different discussion as to whether Christian views of Jesus are actually the correct ones, then by all means do so, but you’re in the wrong thread for it; here is the post for people who want to have religious debates. If that’s what you’re after, read the rules in that post and jump on in.

Quoted portions are usually from MisanthropicScott; on a few occasions I had to include a bit of the preceding exchange for context, so in those cases I’ve indicated which bits are from me and which from MisanthropicScott. If there’s no attribution, that means it’s from Misanthropic Scott. I’ve also thrown in subheadings for the different portions to try to break things up a bit; these weren’t part of the original discussion, and are there purely as my attempt to break walls of text and show where one section of our discussion stops and another starts. OK; let’s go.

(Edited: I’ve realised that two of the points I made (fortunately both minor) are inaccurate, and it’s been pointed out to me that a third is based on insufficient evidence. I’ve therefore put in footnotes amending all of these. My apologies.)


The NT; does it give us any useable information?

What corroborative evidence do we have of anything in the New Testament?

Not much. Josephus tells us that there was a Jesus called ‘Kristos’ (the Greek translation of ‘Messiah’ and the word we’ve transliterated into ‘Christ’), who had a brother called James who was executed, and that there was a John the Baptist who went round preaching and baptising others and who was put to death by Herod, though not in the way described in the NT. Tacitus tells us that Christianity was founded by someone called Christus who started a movement in Judea and was executed by Pilate. We also have evidence of the veracity of some of the things mentioned in the background setting (the existence of various places and famous people; basically, just what you’d expect if people who live in that place and time are writing about it, regardless of whether they’re writing truth or fiction). Can’t think of any others.


[me] Sometimes a particular story or statement seems to be flat-out against the author’s interests, in which case it’s probably not made up.

I disagree. We don’t know the authors’ (plural) interests.

By ‘interests’, I mean the various messages the authors were trying to get across with their writing. Every so often, there’s something in the gospels that they seem to be trying hard to gloss over, or that contradicts what they’re trying to tell us.

Example: It was clearly important to both Matthew and Luke to convince us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, as both of them go to the trouble of making up a complicated and clearly fictitious story explaining why, even though Jesus grew up in Nazareth, he was actually born in Bethlehem. So… why do they put Nazareth in the story at all? They both changed what Mark had to say on other points, so, if they were making up the story from scratch all they had to do was change that point as well, leave Nazareth out of it altogether, and just say that he came from Bethlehem as per the prophecy yadda yadda yadda. Why do we get all this ‘well, he was born in Bethlehem but then they had to flee this mass infanticide I just invented and an angel told them to go to Nazareth’ and ‘his parents came from Nazareth but here is a completely unconvincing reason why they had to go to Bethlehem right at that time’?

If they were making their stories up from scratch, about a totally mythical person, it’s very hard to see why they’d do that instead of just leaving out Nazareth and saying he came from Bethlehem. However, if they were making up stories about an actual founder of their movement who was known to have come from Nazareth, it makes total sense; they had to leave in the bit about him coming from Nazareth and then explain it away, because they couldn’t just ignore something about him that was that widely known.

There are other examples. Why would anyone invent a leader who was a crucified criminal and by all appearances a dismal failure at his mission, when that was so obviously going to be the exact opposite of a selling point? Why, given that the writers clearly wanted to put as much blame as possible on the Jews for Jesus’s death and to gloss over the Romans’ role in it as much as possible, did they not just write the story to portray Jesus as executed by the Jews rather than the Romans? Why, when the writers were painting Jesus as the enemy of the Pharisees, did they cite him as using teachings (such as his teachings on Sabbath healings) that we now know were in fact Pharisee teachings as since recorded in the Talmud? Why did they include the embarrassing detail about Jesus being unable to pull off much in the way of miracles when he visited his hometown?

Sure, you can think of explanations for those, or speculate that maybe there’s some reason we just don’t know. But that does leave us with a lot of points that are really hard to explain away if Jesus was invented, but easy to explain if the authors were working from stories about an actual Jesus and couldn’t completely disregard things that were common knowledge about him among his followers.


Problems with a mythical crucifixion story

So, to say that having Jesus die a horrific death is inconsistent with a story line that works really well to sell the religion does not make sense to me.

The ‘humiliating execution’ story line didn’t work well at all to sell the religion. Paul comments in one of his letters on how it’s a problem. The ‘Alexamenos’ graffiti mocks the idea of a crucified god, and that seems to have been the general overall attitude of the culture. Christianity grew very slowly in the first few hundred years, prior to Constantine getting involved and making it the state religion(1). The fact that it did grow – and eventually struck it lucky with Constantine and took off – was in spite of the crucifixion story, not because of it.

[The founders] had the evidence of the Old Testament having caused people to believe deeply in Judaism. Maybe they figured this would work even better, especially if the stopped telling people not to eat yummy pigs and stopped telling men they needed the tips of their dicks cut off.

Firstly, the original church weren’t telling people that. Paul did, and we know from Galatians and from Acts 21:18 – 24 that this was actually something on which the original group disagreed with him. (They agreed with having Gentiles as part of their group on those terms, because Judaism never expected non-Jews to follow those rules anyway; however, they certainly don’t seem happy to have gone along with saying that Jews could abandon those rules as well.)

Secondly, Judaism has always been much more about action than about belief. Circumcision and dietary rules were key parts of the religion. What you’re essentially describing here is a situation where some Jews decide that the best way to get other Jews to become more Jewish is for them to throw some really key parts of Judaism out of the window; it’s the equivalent of Christians saying “I really want more people to become Christian, so I’m going to start a church in which you don’t have to believe in Jesus so that I can persuade more people to come to it”. I’m not saying that’s impossible, because people do come up with really bizarre justifications sometimes; but it’s certainly improbable.

And thirdly, above all; there is absolutely no way anyone of that time would have thought that inventing a character who was supposed to be the Messiah but had been executed by the Romans would have worked well to sell their religion. A Messiah who died before bringing about the end times was a hard sell for Jews, and an executed criminal as leader was a really hard sell for Gentiles. Yes, we know from hindsight it eventually worked spectacularly; but we also know that was due to factors completely other than the fact that it was based on asking people to follow someone executed as a criminal. If someone at that time was deliberately setting out to figure out what would win over as many people as possible, the answer would not have been ‘Hey, a Jewish Messiah who gets arrested and executed with zero signs of having actually done anything to overthrow the Romans! That’ll definitely do it!’


Messianic prophecies and ‘I come to bring not peace but a sword’

(MisanthropicScott) [Messianic prophecies] sure as hell don’t say anything about him starting wars! Please correct me if I’m wrong.

(Me) As I recall, they actually say surprisingly little about the messiah at all, when you read them.

People will beat their swords into plowshares. Nation shall not rise up against nation. Neither shall they know war anymore. (from memory)

Exactly! That’s not describing the Messiah himself or his backstory. It’s talking about what the world is going to be like when that time comes. The prophecies hardly say anything about the actual Messiah. He’s going to be a king of David’s line who rules over Israel in this marvellous future time, and… that’s about it.

Here’s a site for Judaism that explains quite well why Jesus completely and utterly fails to meet the messianic prophesies. There are specifics in there.

No argument from me on that point. Hell, it’s possible to sum up in one sentence why Jesus wasn’t the Messiah: We don’t have the global situation that the prophecies foretold. That’s it. But I find it interesting that that site doesn’t say anything about the ‘come to bring not peace but a sword’ line as a disqualification, so I’m not sure why you think it supports your point here.

(me) They leave a lot of scope for individual interpretation of the details.

(MisanthropicScott) Not enough for the messiah to be a warmonger.

What, you think no-one throughout history has ever believed that the best way to end up with peace is to violently crush all your enemies first? I mean, there are good reasons to disagree with that as a strategy, but your specific claim was that claiming to be the Messiah yet bring a sword makes Jesus (if he really claimed that) a liar. The holding of beliefs with which you disagree, or even of beliefs which are actually incorrect, is not the same as being a liar.

By the way, as far as Messianic expectations in particular are concerned, the belief that the Messiah will take up arms against Israel’s enemies as part of his job description is very common. If you want to read more about that, this page is about military expectations of the Messiah around Jesus’s time, this is an extremely famous rabbi’s list of Messianic expectations, still considered the main go-to list to this day, which clearly includes the expectation that the Messiah will be a military leader, and this page is about one failed Messiah who had a substantial following amongst Jews who were quite happy with his military approach (2).

And, it is absolutely certain that there must be peace before the messiah’s death.

Actually… no. There is nothing whatsoever in any of the Messianic prophecies saying he can’t be killed and miraculously resurrected prior to bringing peace.

I know, I know. The reason no-one put that in the prophecies was not because anyone actually expected this to happen, but the reverse; because ‘And this will happen within one lifetime, not after a death and resurrection’ is so far off expectations that it doesn’t ever occur to anyone to add that subclause. However, fact remains that there’s nothing at all in the Messianic prophecies saying that this can’t happen. So that left a loophole via which Jesus’s followers could not only keep believing in him after his execution but actually gain new adherents; they’d found a way to give him, as you rather nicely put it in one of your previous statements, a mulligan.

(It also had the probably unplanned side-effect of making Jesus’s messianic claims effectively unfalsifiable. Once you allow for the idea that someone can miraculously come back to get things done after their death, you can go on forever saying that they just haven’t come back yet but are totally going to do it any day now. I mean, here the Christians still are with that line, two thousand years later.)

There was talk recently of Schneerson being the messiah. There may be a small contingent who still think so. But, when he died in a world that still did not have world peace, almost everyone who thought so accepted that he wasn’t the messiah.

‘Almost’ everyone. Exactly. Some people still haven’t accepted that, in spite of his death. There is a small group of people who don’t accept that his death disqualifies him from being the Messiah. Two thousand years ago, that was how Christianity got started.

No peace. No messiah.

Agreed (apart from the get-out clause the early Christians came up with about how he was coming back to do it all after his death). So, since your claim is that Jesus probably never existed, I have a question for you here:

If Jesus was an entirely mythical character invented by his followers, how does that fit with ‘no peace, no Messiah’? Did someone come up with the idea ‘Hey, let’s pretend the Messiah did come to Earth but then got crucified without fulfilling any of the prophecies; we’ll just tell people he was miraculously resurrected and that’ll be fine’? How? Why? What do you think anyone was hoping to gain by that?

I can totally see a situation where a bunch of people had put their faith so much in a real person they thought was the Messiah that they just could not shift gears when he died and accept that he wasn’t. That’s how cognitive dissonance works; people get so sold on believing what they believe that, when evidence comes along disproving it, they find weird ways of explaining that evidence away rather than taking a step back and realising they were wrong in the first place. And, as you pointed out, that’s exactly what happened with Schneerson in modern-day times; a few people could not accept his death and went on thinking he was the Messiah. So it’s totally plausible that that could have happened with a first-century rabbi as well. But, if the movement that would eventually become Christianity didn’t start with a real rabbi but with an invented one, how and why do you think that happened?


Reasons to believe in a historical Jesus

If neither of us believes the Bible is accurate, neither of us has any reason to think that a person named Jesus ever existed. […] So, as soon as we say the Bible is unreliable, I fail to see why you say Jesus ever existed.

Because otherwise we need to explain why anyone thought it was a good idea to invent a story about a failed, crucified Messiah when such a story would be highly unlikely to gain followers, why they went to the lengths of naming the person who supposedly crucified him and spreading that story about as public knowledge when it was about the worst advertising you could imagine, why one person mentioned meeting this supposedly imaginary man’s brother and argued about a privilege given to his other brothers, why a historian remembered this imaginary man as having a real brother who was executed, why some of the things he’s claimed to have said are now known to be Pharisean arguments even though the authors were trying to claim he was anti-Pharisee, and why, even though two of the people writing about him clearly really wanted to portray him as coming from Bethlehem, they somehow seemed unable to break free from the idea that he was actually known as coming from Nazareth.

That’s quite a lot of stuff to find explanations for. If you can find explanations for all those things that are better, simpler, and more obvious than ‘the movement actually was started by a real Yeshua and the above stuff about him/his brothers all actually happened’, then be my guest. But they’re going to have to be a lot better then ‘well, maybe they just made it all up’. People make a lot of things up, but it doesn’t make sense that they’d make those particular things up. Occam’s razor -> most likely a real Jesus existed.

Have you considered that it was embroidered from stories that had nothing to do with anyone named Jesus? Maybe a bit of Horus and other myths were all thrown together.

I’m sure other myths did get incorporated into the central story as time went by; but how would it have started out that way? Jesus’s original followers are described as a bunch of poor, rural, Jewish illiterates. That means, in practice, that they wouldn’t have known Egyptian myths, or other non-Jewish myths. It’s not as though they could hear these things on television or pop into the local library for a browse on their way home. (Conversely, if the followers weren’t actually poor illiterates, that raises the question of why the authors consistently present them that way when that, again, only made this new group less attractive to most potential followers.)


Lack of extrabiblical documentation

This is one of the big inconsistencies in the story. Was Jesus extremely famous or virtually unknown?

You do realise that those extremes aren’t the only two options? Someone could easily be well-known amongst Jews in Judea/Galilee and insignificant to the kinds of people who were writing things that would survive the next two thousand years.

But, why did the Romans care about some unknown nobody?

Being a nobody in the eyes of the more elite social classes isn’t the same as being unknown, or as not being a problem. Jesus had crowds of Jews calling him Messiah, which meant they thought of him as the king who’d kick out their oppressors (i.e. the Romans) and become their new ruler. That’s the kind of situation that existing rulers are not too happy about and like to get nipped in the bud before it develops into an actual rebellion.

[me] [T]he priestly families were more of a pro-Roman party and might well have collaborated in turning over a Messianic claimant if they thought that might avoid bringing down retribution on the heads of ordinary Jews.

[MisanthropicScott] Why would there be retribution?

If the Jesus-led movement got as far as actually attempting a rebellion against the Romans, then the Romans wouldn’t be too happy about it. At the very least, they’d end up killing off the people who were actively involved in the rebellion, and there was also the risk that they’d then respond by clamping down harder or otherwise making the Jews’ lives more difficult.

And, then it gets harder and harder to explain why no one wrote a thing about him.

Whom would you expect to be writing about a Jewish troublemaker who was arrested and executed for insurrection? Of those writings, which would you expect to have lasted two thousand years?

Jesus’s followers were from a strata of society where literacy levels were very low; even if you were one of the few who could write, not many people around you would be able to read what you wrote. Plus, ink and papyrus were expensive luxuries. If you wanted to get your message out to a lot of people in your part of society, open-air preaching was a much better way to do it than spending time and money on a hand-written manuscript that most other people wouldn’t be able to read. So, little or nothing was going to get written down by his followers. As for the people who weren’t following him… well, if you had to handwrite everything on expensive papyrus, would you spend time doing that just to write about some peasant who was creating a stir among a bunch of other superstitious peasants?

Of course, even with those problems there likely would have been a few things written about him at the time. If we could wave a magic wand and get back every single thing that was written in the early decades of the first century, then somewhere in there there probably would be some mentions of Jesus. But, of course, we actually only have a tiny fraction of everything that was written at the time, because this was two thousand years ago. Even those letters and records that get saved don’t last for that long; the papyrus they’re written on eventually crumbles. For example, we have no remaining copies of the one newspaper that was published in that time.

We do, of course, still have books that were written around that time, but that isn’t because we have the original copies – we don’t – but because scribes copied them over the years. So, if something was considered to be important literature, it was preserved and hand-copied. However, people were hardly going to do that for, say, newspaper reports about some troublemaker from Nazareth getting executed. Having no surviving contemporary writings about you two thousand years later is completely normal, and was the case for people far more important in their own time than Jesus of Nazareth actually was in his. (For comparison, here’s one historian blogger(3) pointing out that the only existing reference to Hannibal that dates back to his own time is one passing mention in an inscription. Not because people didn’t write about Hannibal at the time – they did – but because the writings just didn’t survive. If that was the case for a highly famous and influential general, how much more would it be the case for a rabbi from the backwaters who made a brief stir as a would-be Messiah but was then ignominiously executed?)

So… having a couple of passing mentions from historians several decades later, plus writing preserved by your followers, is actually excellent going for someone from that day and age. Having that amount of writing still preserved two thousand years later isn’t ‘harder and harder to explain’; it’s better than we’d expect.

So, you’re shoe-horning in sort of a Goldilocks theory that Jesus was just annoying enough to get the attention of the Romans but not annoying enough for anyone to write anything about him.

Theudas. First-century Jewish rebel, executed for his attempts. Total surviving contemporary mentions (i.e., dating from the time he lived): zero. Total surviving overall mentions by historians from close to that time: one short paragraph in Josephus.

Athronges. Rebel from the end of the first century BCE, led a rebellion that took the Romans two years to defeat. Total surviving contemporary mentions: zero. Total surviving overall mentions by historians from close to that time: several paragraphs from Josephus.

Unnamed Samaritan. Rebel from the first century, led a mob that required armed Roman warriors to defeat them. Total surviving contemporary mentions: zero. Total surviving overall mentions by historians from close to that time: one paragraph in Josephus.

Simon of Peraea. Rebel from the end of the first century BCE, burned down the king’s palace and many of his other houses, had a mob of followers who had to be defeated by Roman soldiers. Total surviving contemporary mentions: zero. Total surviving overall mentions by historians from close to that time: two paragraphs in Josephus, one line in Tacitus.

Unnamed Egyptian. Rebel from the first century, had a group of followers who were defeated rather rapidly by Roman soldiers. Total surviving contemporary mentions: zero. Total surviving overall mentions by historians from close to that time: two different paragraphs in Josephus.

Jesus of Nazareth. Rebel from the first century, had a group of followers, kicked up some sort of fuss in the Temple, arrested and executed by Roman soldiers. Total surviving contemporary mentions: zero. Total surviving overall mentions by historians from close to that time: one passing mention of his brother’s execution by Josephus, possibly one other short paragraph in Josephus, one line in Tacitus.

Notice a pattern? There’s usually very little surviving information about the people who, two thousand years ago, kicked up enough of a problem at the time to get executed. That’s not ‘Goldilocks’ and doesn’t have to be shoehorned. That’s the normal result of us being two thousand years on from a time that had very poor literacy levels and no printing presses. Lots of things didn’t get written down in the first place, and most of what was written down at the time didn’t survive for two thousand years. Having little in the way of independent information about Jesus isn’t strange; it’s exactly what we’d expect.

What we do have is a mention of a James’s execution from Josephus that identifies the executed person as ‘the brother of Jesus called Christ’, and a mention from Tacitus that Jesus was executed under Pilate (and, yes, the latter might just have been what Christians were saying at the time… but why on earth would they be making it such widespread public knowledge that the leader they followed was an executed, humiliated criminal, when that fact was so awkward and counter-productive for them?) While those are very brief and passing mentions, they’re still mentions that are very difficult to explain satisfactorily if Jesus was entirely an imaginary character, but easy to explain if he was a real preacher about whom some factual details were retained alongside the legends that grew up around him.

Added footnotes

(1) ‘Christianity grew very slowly in the first few hundred years, prior to Constantine getting involved and making it the state religion.’

Sorry; the last six words of this sentence are actually a myth, and one I really should have known better than to repeat. I stand by the rest of the sentence; the evidence is that Christianity did grow very slowly in the first centuries, and I’m sure that having the most powerful person in the Empire become a Christian must have been of at least some help to them. However, it is incorrect to say that Constantine made Christianity the state religion. My apologies.

(2) ‘…and this page is about one failed Messiah…’

Neil Godfrey has pointed out to me that we don’t know for sure that Bar Kokhba was considered by followers to be the Messiah. That’s fair; although it’s a good assumption that some people would have assumed this, we don’t have definite confirmation that this is so. However, I don’t believe that affects my main point in that section, which was that the belief that Messiahship included bringing war against Israel’s enemies was a widespread one that doesn’t make someone dishonest.

(3) ‘For comparison, here’s one historian blogger…’

The blogger in question, Tim O’Neill, states explicitly on his ‘About’ page that he is not a historian. He does, however, have training and experience in history; his undergraduate degree was in History and English combined, and his Master’s specialism was in historical analysis of medieval literature. I meant to indicate that he was someone with good knowledge and qualifications in the area of history and historical analysis, and used the word ‘historian’ too loosely. (If anyone does have an appropriately succinct way of putting forward that concept in case I cite O’Neill in future, I’d be grateful!)

‘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.



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.