‘Deciphering the Gospels’, by R. G. Price, argues the case for Jesus mythicism, which is the view that Jesus never existed on earth in any real form but was an entirely mythical figure in the same way as Hercules or Dionysus. (The author is not the same person as Robert Price, also a Jesus mythicist author.) I’m an atheist who holds the opposing (and mainstream) view that Jesus was originally a human being of the 1st century about whom a later mythology grew up. I’m therefore reviewing Price’s book to discuss his arguments and my reasons for disagreeing.
The first post in this book review is here. All subsequent posts will be linked at the end of that post as they go up.
Chapter Eight: Apocalyptic and Messianic Stories That Preceded Jesus
Price starts off with a pertinent question:
If the real-life Jesus is a fictional invention of the author of Mark, who was the Jesus being worshiped prior to the writing of that story? We know that Paul was worshiping someone named Jesus before the Gospel of Mark was written, so what was Paul talking about?
That would indeed be a useful question for Price to address in this chapter, but unfortunately he doesn’t do so. He did, however, briefly give his views on the subject back in the introduction, so let’s skip back to what he says there:
What set the Jesus cult apart was their belief that the kingdom established by the messiah would not be on earth, but rather it would be in heaven. They believed that the material world was hopelessly corrupt and that the “kingdom of God” could never be established on earth. Thus, they believed that an immaterial heavenly messiah would be required to destroy the evil material world and establish a perfect kingdom in heaven. The creation of an immaterial heavenly kingdom required an immaterial heavenly messiah.
Although Price has been vague about how the belief in a crucified messiah, or a messiah as sin sacrifice, fitted in with this, the implication so far seems to have been that this belief would also have been part of the original or early cult (and we do know for certain that such a belief was there by Paul at the latest as it’s in his letters, although we can’t rule out the possibility that it originated with Paul, who very much went his own way where theology was concerned). So, as far as I can see, under Price’s hypothesis the original cult would have also a) believed in the crucifixion (though presumably believing it took place in heaven rather than on earth), and b) interpreted it as a sin sacrifice. I’m open to correction if Price has a different hypothesis regarding that point.
So, on to the next question, which is the topic that Price does in fact try to address in this chapter. How likely would it be that Jews of the time would come up with such a cult?
Well, Price believes the answer is ‘very likely’. To support this, he quotes various stories of the time and lists the many points of similarity between those stories and the Jesus story, concluding that ‘nothing really distinguished the pre-Gospel Jesus cult from many other similar cults in the region’. Unfortunately, this is once again the equivalent of looking for white swans instead of black ones; Price is so busy focusing on the similarities that he’s missing the fact that there are important differences.
Judaism and the origins of Christianity: where Christianity differed
Here is a list of significant points on which the hypothetical cult Price has described differs from typical Judaic beliefs of the time:
- The belief that the material world was hopelessly corrupt and evil and would need to be destroyed. Judaism’s view of the material world has typically been strongly positive, with much emphasis on the joys of earthly pleasures; the longed-for Messianic age has normally been pictured as an improved physical world with the harmful parts removed, not as a heavenly world.
- The belief that all humans are so hopelessly mired in sin that they cannot be saved from damnation without a sin sacrifice. While sin sacrifice was obviously a key part of the Judaism of the time, this was within the context of a strong belief that humans have the ability to become ever closer to heaven by their own efforts in keeping God’s laws, that the good we do will be counted to our credit when we are judged, and that individuals have the ability to live good enough lives to achieve favourable judgement and heavenly reward.
- The belief that this sin sacrifice must be a once-and-for-all uber-sacrifice which will wipe out all necessity for the Temple sacrifices from then on. The Jewish scriptures clearly taught that the Temple sacrifices were required by law and should continue permanently.
- The idea of a heavenly being as a sacrifice. The sacrificial system in Judaism has always used animals. The idea of sacrificing a heavenly being would have seemed shocking and pagan.
- The idea of sacrifice taking place by crucifixion. Sin sacrifices in Judaism were carried out by cutting the throats of animals carefully selected to be physically perfect specimens. That was the mental image of sacrifice for practicing Jews of the time. Crucifixion, on the other hand, was associated with humiliating punishment.
Now, one very obvious point which should be made here is that Christianity clearly did somehow develop or acquire all of the above beliefs at a fairly early stage. Beliefs 2 – 5 are certainly present in Paul’s letters, and I would say that at least some degree of 1 is also there, although I’m open to correction on that one if anyone wants to make a case to the contrary; in any case, it certainly seems to have become a part of Christianity as time went by. So the question is not whether a cult of the time and place could have developed such beliefs – clearly, this one did – but whether the fact that this did happen is better explained by a historicist or a mythicist scenario.
How did the differences start?
Firstly, how might Christian beliefs have developed under a historical-Jesus scenario? Here’s the theory that makes the most sense to me:
- An actual charismatic rabbi gains followers convinced he’s the Messiah.
- He’s then crucified, leaving his shocked and grieving followers trying to make sense of this turn of events.
- Rather than give up their belief in him as the Messiah, they conclude that his crucifixion must also have been part of God’s great plan, and that God has miraculously restored him to life with a view to returning him to finish the job.
- The cult gradually acquires more followers over the next few years, including some with more Hellenised backgrounds (either Hellenised Jews or pagans) whose mental images of sacrifice and divine forgiveness would have been formed in the context of more pagan backgrounds and beliefs.
- One of these people reinterprets the crucifixion as a once-and-for-all sin sacrifice and the only way in which humanity can be saved from otherwise irredeemable sin.
How plausible are each of the points in that hypothetical sequence of events?
- Highly plausible. This really would have been a typical cult for this time and place.
- Also plausible. Crucifixion was a standard Roman means of executing rebels, and having a crowd loudly claim you were the true King of the Jews come to kick out the Romans was the sort of thing about which the Romans would probably not have been all that happy.
- Possible. This sort of rationalisation is in line with how people have been known to react to events that should theoretically shatter their most deeply held beliefs.
- Possible. While it’s highly doubtful that early Christianity showed the massive rate of growth that Luke tried to depict in Acts, there are always plenty of people around in search of passionate leaders who give them a dream to follow.
- Plausible, since this hypothesis fits very smoothly with what we know about one particularly famous and influential Hellenised member of the early church; Paul. We know that he taught a theology that he believed he’d learned from visions, that he saw these visions as a better and more valid source of information than the teachings of the existing church, and (from Galatians) that he had at least one clash with the existing church over differences in teachings. We don’t know the details of the theological differences (because we have no pre-Pauline writings from the original church) and so can’t confirm whether ‘Paul reinterpreted the crucifixion as a sin sacrifice when the original church hadn’t seen it that way at all’ was the actual point of contention, but this is, at the least, a very plausible point at which that belief could have arisen.
(Some interesting supporting evidence for this last point, by the way, comes from the second half of Acts 21, in which Luke describes an incident in which the council tell Paul of their concerns about the reports that he’s been telling Jews to abandon Jewish law. In Luke’s account, the council assure Paul that all that’s needed to solve the problem of these accusations is for Paul to undergo a purification rite at the Temple to indicate his continued commitment to the Jewish law, which Paul does. However, Luke’s story of a council who clearly would find it a big problem for someone to be teaching Jews to abandon the Jewish law, put together with the evidence we now have from Paul’s letters that Paul was indeed teaching precisely that, gives us indirect but strong evidence that this was indeed a point of contention between them. And, since Paul’s belief that the Jewish law can be abandoned stems directly from his belief that the crucifixion was a once-and-for-all sin sacrifice that rendered it obsolete, this makes it likely that he and the Jerusalem church differed on that vital point as well.)
So, overall we have a sequence of events under historicity that seems plausible. If anyone disagrees, please let me know why. Two key points to note about it are that a) this sequence of events gives us an actual crucifixion, meaning that we don’t have to look at why someone would have invented that part, and b) the reinterpretation of this crucifixion as a once-and-for-all sin sacrifice could have happened at a slightly later stage once the movement contained more members from Hellenistic or pagan backgrounds who would have been interpreting the story through a somewhat different cultural lens.
Historicity gives us a plausible theory. How does Price’s theory hold up as an alternative?
Based on this chapter, not well. Price shows no sign he’s even recognised that most of the above are issues; he probably hasn’t. However, he does address one question, which is the question of how people of the time could have come to believe in a crucified Messiah. So, I’ll now look at Price’s explanation, which he finds in martyr stories of the time such as 2 Maccabees.
Price’s theory and the Maccabean martyrs
2 Maccabees, written in the second century BCE, tells the story of a family of seven sons and their mother who were successively tortured to death for their refusal to break kosher laws. 4 Maccabees is a later commentary which interprets the family’s commitment to their faith as highly pleasing to God. Price believes that this indicates that Judaism of the time did have a concept of human sin sacrifice:
Four Maccabees, written after 2 Maccabees and by a different author, comments on the seven martyrs in 2 Maccabees and states that their sacrifice was a “ransom for the sin of our nation.”
[quotes from 4 Maccabees 17]
We see in the stories of the Maccabees the torture and sacrifice of people at the hands of foreign rulers presented as scarifies [sic] to God for the atonement of sins. This shows that the concept of human “sin offerings” was certainly one that existed in Jewish thought and theology shortly prior to the rise of the Jesus cult.
There are quite a number of problems here.
Firstly, Price has a fairly fundamental misunderstanding here of the difference between sin sacrifice and martyrdom. In sin sacrifice, the animal in question was killed because Yahweh directly wanted it killed and because its blood would magically expiate sins. In martyrdom, a person dies for their commitment to a cause; their commitment to their belief is so strong that even death is preferable to violating their belief. What’s pleasing to Yahweh (or other deity) in martyrdom narratives isn’t the death for its own sake, but the level of commitment to Yahweh’s cause that it indicates.
In 2 Maccabees, the boys and their mother were’t killed because of some abstract belief that their blood would be pleasing or appeasing to God; they were killed because of their refusal to break Jewish dietary law. And it’s clear that the author of 4 Maccabees interprets it in this light. In his interpretation, their blood was pleasing to God because it indicated their level of commitment to the law; they were so strongly committed to keeping the Torah commandments that they were willing to be tortured to death rather than go against God’s will by breaking Torah law, and that is what was supposedly pleasing to God. Price has mistaken this for an indication that human sin sacrifice was considered desirable, but that isn’t the case. (Judaism, in fact, historically made quite a big thing out of being against human sin sacrifice in contrast to all those clearly inferior backwards religions that required it.)
Secondly, another key point Price has missed is that the author of 4 Maccabees seems to have believed that 2 Maccabees was a true story. Whether or not it was, the 4 Maccabees author seems to have been responding to it on that basis. What this passage shows, therefore, is that, in response to a story of martyrdom that could easily be interpreted as a meaningless tragic waste of life, a Jewish author came up with this interpretation as a way of retrospectively making it meaningful; an actual story of torture and murder was retconned into ‘but this was pleasing to God’. The author’s starting point was not to show how sin can better be expiated; it was to attempt to make sense out of what would otherwise be a tragedy. Again, this does not fit well with mythicism, which requires that the founders of what would become Christianity came up with the idea spontaneously. Under historicity, there would have been an actual story of a specific executed human to retcon; mythicism wouldn’t have had that head start.
And thirdly, let’s remember once again that Price’s theory is that the original cult believed Jesus to be an immaterial heavenly being. That doesn’t fit well with the Jesus-as-martyr theme that Price is trying to argue here. Martyrs are humans who suffer and/or die for a cause in a way that lets other followers of the cause hold them up as an example to emulate. It doesn’t make sense, therefore, to think in terms of an immaterial heavenly martyr. Price thinks that because Judaism of the time had stories about heavenly beings and stories about martyrs they could easily have combined the two, but he doesn’t seem to have noticed that these are two themes that it doesn’t make sense to combine.
The mythicist theory requires some person or group spontaneously to come up with several ideas that would have been very unusual within Second Temple Judaism:
- That God wanted a once-and-for-all uber-sacrifice to do away with the need for the Law
- That this sacrifice was to take place via a method that was completely conceptually different from the sacrifices that everyone of the time was used to
- That this was to take place up in the heavens rather than on Earth:
- That all of this had now happened already (in other words, the belief system somehow jumped from ‘this needs to happen’ to ‘good news, this has all happened!)
Under historicity, however, at least some of these problems vanish. If the original group were following an actual man who was believed to be the Messiah and was crucified, then the third point isn’t an issue at all and the second and fourth are straightforwardly explained by the group having had to deal with their supposed Messiah having actually been crucified (in other words, they were having to make sense out of an actual situation facing them). We’re still left with the question of how the crucifixion was so dramatically retconned into ‘sin sacrifice’, but we now have only one strange and unprecedented event to explain in this context rather than a combination of them, and we have, in what we know of Paul’s story, a plausible potential explanation of how this could have happened.
So, once again, historicity provides a plausible sequence of events for something that seems more difficult and complicated to explain under mythicism.