My nonconversion story, Part 1: Background

This is the first part of my multi-part story of how, as a non-believer, I spent years looking at the evidence for and against Christianity as fairly as I could, eventually concluding it wasn’t true. The introduction, which explains in a bit more detail, is here, and I’ll link all the parts back there as I write them. In this part, I write about the background; how and why I was raised without religion.

I got a certain degree of Christian-slanted religious education just from growing up in the UK, because state schools here are legally required to provide religious education and ‘a daily act of collective worship’. (The latter meant, in practice, that our school assemblies would include a prayer addressed to ‘Dear Lord’ and a Christian hymn, and sometimes the day’s story-with-a-moral would be from the Bible. Eventually I ended up at a posh secondary school where we were expected to provide our own hymn books, and figured out that I could cut the cover off mine and use it to smuggle paperback novels into assembly, so that was the end of me paying much attention to anything we were taught there, but I’d already absorbed quite a bit of this Christianity-lite by then.) The religious education was supposedly multifaith, but we did get a very overtly Christian teacher for a couple of years when I was in middle school; fortunately, she aspired to the Jesus-as-Good-Shepherd-and-inspiration model rather than the fire-and-brimstone model, so it wasn’t a significant problem overall. I filed the more religious parts of her lessons away in the ‘might or might not be true’ mental category.

So, as far as background culture was concerned, I did absorb a watered-down version of generic C. of E. Christianity from school. Not enough that I ever came close to considering myself a Christian even culturally, but enough that I was aware of what Christianity was about and that it did shape some of my assumptions; when I thought about whether God existed, I rarely thought to wonder whether more than one god existed, and the god about whose existence I was wondering was typically a version of the traditional Abrahamic god rather than any of the others humanity has pictured over the millennia.

As for my home life, however, my parents neither practiced nor criticised religion. We kept Christmas and Easter as secular festivals, and we did have quite a few Bibles around the place simply because it was the wonderful sort of house that was full of books of every variety, and religious topics did sometimes come up for dinner-table discussion in the same way that all sorts of other topics did (I don’t have any specific memories of these, but my mother recently reminisced about them, remembering the time my father and sister were arguing agnosticism versus atheism). But there was nothing more formal. On the flip side, they were never anti-religious in the slightest; there were no criticisms of or rants about religion, and I never had any feeling that it was something of which they disapproved.

There are moments in life that you realise only with hindsight to have been the planting of a seed, and one of those was the time that I asked my father why we weren’t being brought up as any religion. His answer was simple enough; he explained that because he was Jewish and my mother was Christian, they thought it was fairer not to bring me or my sister up as either religion. This struck me as a perfectly reasonable answer, but it also started me wondering; what did it mean to be Jewish or Christian? Or, for that matter, any of the other religious groups to which I was vaguely aware people could belong?

It’s worth mentioning here that, in the case of both my parents, the respective terms meant ‘came from an undogmatic version of that particular religious background’. As you’ve probably gathered, they certainly weren’t practicing members of those religions, or even believers, by the time I was growing up. But just the idea that people could be categorised in this way was interesting to me. I started looking out for books about different religious lifestyles and ceremonies and what they mean for the people concerned.

For years, that part – the cultural side of religion – was what really interested me. Questions over the truth of it interested me as well, but in a more distant way. ‘Does God exist?’ or ‘Which (if any) religion is actually true?’ held, as far as I can remember, about the same level of interest for me as ‘What job will I do?’ or ‘What kind of life will I have as an adult?’; yes, they were important and interesting in an abstract sort of way and I’d certainly have liked definite answers had such been available at that point, but they weren’t anything I felt any sort of immediate pressure to have answered.

 

So, where did all this leave me?

With a kind of vague default belief in a filtered and toned-down version of the traditional Abrahamic god, heavily footnoted with ‘but we don’t really know if it’s true’ disclaimers, and coupled with a keen awareness that this belief didn’t default to being Christian.

This would, in the long run, affect my search for answers about Christianity in multiple ways:

  • I started from about as impartial a background as anyone growing up in this society realistically gets. (I do realise that’s not the same as genuinely being fully impartial, but we all absorb something from society, so I don’t think ‘fully impartial’ is an option short of being raised under a rock somewhere.) I wasn’t burdened with any expectations of following or shunning religion, and that made things a lot easier for me.
  • Because the god I learned about at school was presented very much in a ‘suitable for the children’ way – all the love and wisdom, none of the fire and brimstone – I grew up with the general impression that God’s existence would be a good thing overall. One of the things I sometimes see Christians say about atheism is that it’s just a sort of wishful thinking from people who don’t want to believe in God (I’m not sure how that’s meant to fit with the idea that atheists are also all just looking to fill a ‘God-shaped hole’, but whatever). For the record, that wasn’t the case for me; I’d have preferred it if I’d been able to reach an honest conclusion that someone wise, loving and powerful was in ultimate charge of the universe. I just didn’t want to use this as a reason to kid myself into believing it was true when it wasn’t.
  • I also grew up understanding that it wasn’t a binary choice between Christianity and atheism. Not that I ended up in any of the other options in the end, so I suppose it’s a moot point, but I’m still glad to have always recognised that the decision’s a lot more complicated than an either-or.
  • On which note, I was always fascinated by Judaism. I’ll write more about this in my next post, but this interest did mean I learned quite a lot about it, and some of that would be really useful background in understanding Christianity.
  • And finally, a key point: I grew up with personal awareness of the fact that good and wonderful non-Christians exist. When I heard the Christian belief that people who weren’t ‘saved’ by Christianity would end up in eternal hellfire, it had a very personal meaning for me, since any such claims included my father. (And, it seemed reasonable to extrapolate, many other similarly good people who also didn’t deserve eternal torture.)

And that’s about it for the general background. In the next post, I’ll write about how I got into looking into Christianity in particular.

My nonconversion story: How I Didn’t Become Christian. Introduction.

In Christian apologetics, there’s a very popular type of story that could be described as ‘The Scoffer Is Convinced’. (It isn’t, as far as I know; I just invented that name. But it could be.) The three most famous examples are Lee ‘The Case For…’ Strobel, Josh ‘Evidence That Demands A Verdict’ McDowell, and, of course, our old friend J. Warner ‘Cold Case…’ Wallace. The basic format is thus:

The person in question was once not just a nonbeliever but an utter stereotype of skeptics (although the ‘stereotype’ part isn’t pointed out). They felt nothing but derision for Christianity, laughing at the utter foolishness of it all. Then they actually started looking properly at the evidence for Christianity… and were astonished to find how solid that evidence actually is. Convinced by the overwhelming evidence, they eventually convert to Christianity, henceforth to lead a happily transformed life and possibly write a multibook series about it all.

I’ve never either derided or converted to Christianity, but my story does have one significant thing in common with the stories above: I’m also a nonbeliever who made the decision to look properly into the evidence for and against Christianity and weigh it up as fairly as possible. I spent years of my teens and twenties doing this. And – as you can probably deduce from the fact that I’m here on an atheist blogging platform – I reached the opposite conclusion from Strobel, McDowell, Wallace and their ilk. As a result of all my reading and thinking, I reached the firm conclusion that Christianity is not true.

This seems, by the way, to be an unusual way of doing things; not the ‘deciding Christianity isn’t true’ bit, which is reasonably common, but putting that amount of time and effort into the decision only to stay on roughly the same end of the theological spectrum. I’ve read accounts from people who made the Convinced Scoffer’s journey in the other direction, starting out as Christian and losing their faith as a result of putting thought and research into it. I’ve read about people who convert from Christianity to a different religion. And, of course, I’ve read about people who start out as nonbelievers and stay that way without feeling the need to put much in the way of research into checking out other options. I just can’t remember any other accounts I’ve heard of nonbelievers who put this much time and effort into deciding that, yes, they’re still nonbelievers. There must be others out there, I suppose; I guess we’re just few and far between.

Anyway, I’ve told part of this story already; how I looked at the arguments for believing in (the Abrahamic) God and couldn’t find any convincing ones, leading to me eventually becoming agnostic and then atheist. However, during this time I was also looking specifically at the arguments for or against believing in the Christian faith. (And, no, this was not the same question. On the one hand it would have been logically possible for a god to exist yet for Christianity to be wrong, as per the many other forms of religious belief in the world; on the other hand, the fact that I couldn’t find convincing evidence for a deity’s existence anywhere else didn’t mean that I wouldn’t find it in Christianity, which did after all specifically claim to have such evidence.) That’s a story I haven’t yet written; effectively, the anti-Strobel-et-al story, in which a skeptic genuinely and thoughtfully looks at the evidence and ultimately reaches the opposite conclusion.

So this, for what little it’s worth, is my story; what one teenage skeptic made of Christianity on giving it an honest examination, and why I reached the conclusions I did about it. Not a conversion story or a deconversion story, but a nonconversion story.

While I do not anticipate any multibook deals out of this one, it has certainly run into a multipost story, and a long one. I didn’t want to take my usual route of spending months or years dribbling the posts out one at a time, so I’ve actually drafted them all already, and plan to post them on probably a daily schedule, linking each one back here as I post. (This might well be the only time I ever use the phrase ‘daily schedule’ regarding this blog, so allow me to take a moment to relish it.) Tomorrow’s post will be about the background; how I grew up nonreligious but not anti-religious.

Part 1: Background

Part 2: Motivation

Part 3: About scriptural (un)reliability

Part 4: Reading the gospels

Part 5: He’s not the Messiah…

Part 6: University

Part 7: Word of God?

Part 8: In accordance with the prophecies…

Follow-up: Resurrection addendum

‘Walking Disaster’, Chapter 15

This is a chapter-by-chapter review of problematic romance novel ‘Walking Disaster’ by Jamie McGuire. Posts in the series will all be linked back to the initial post, here.

This was initially a companion series to the magnificent Jenny Trout‘s review of the original novel, ‘Beautiful Disaster’. Jenny has since stopped her review, not wanting to give McGuire any further publicity in the wake of her attempts to run for office.

Bloody hell, it’s been a while. I left this for almost six months, came back and wrote up half the chapter, left it again and came back to it again, just over a year after doing the last chapter. But now! I have done another chapter! And calculated that if I can keep this rate up, I should finish this book not too long after I start drawing my pension! Or, y’know, I could do what Jenny did and just DNF. Should I do that? I should probably do that. But here, FWIW, is the chapter review.

Chapter 15: Tomorrow

Kind of ironic I spent so long getting to it, then.

Two weeks. That was all I had left […]

Three, not two. McGuire, it should not be this difficult to keep track of a basic timeline. I’m wondering whether maybe an original draft had the bet-to-party timeline taking two weeks but got edited to one and she forgot to make other changes in the draft to allow for the fact that it would then be three weeks from the party till the end of the month; that’s about the only way I can explain it. Still, it’s sloppy.

Travis says that two weeks was all he had left to ‘somehow show Abby that I could be who she needed’, so he goes for a charm offensive, saying he ‘pulled out all the stops; spared no expense’, but, of course, doesn’t make any mention of straight-out letting her know how he feels. You know what this is reminding me of? That awful ‘Nice Guy’ article that was doing the rounds years back by an anonymous author whose strategy of following women round trying to do as many favours for them as possible was somehow failing to get them to spontaneously decide to dump their boyfriends and go out with him instead. In addition to everything else wrong with that article, it never seemed to occur to the author that, rather than this indicating that the women in question didn’t want to go out with nice guys, it might just possibly mean that they were not fucking telepathic. If you want a romantic relationship with someone, either tell them this or accept that it’s highly unlikely to happen, but don’t faff around feeling sorry for yourself just because they don’t pick up on your wishes through seizing them out of the ether.

Anyway, McGuire speeds the plot up a bit (hooray) and summarises the rest of the month:

We went bowling, on dinner dates, lunch dates, and to the movies. We also spent as much time at the apartment as possible: renting movies, ordering in, anything to be alone with her.

Uh, if you’re going on all those different dates you’re not spending as much time at the apartment as possible. But whatever.

Travis does a couple of fights for Adam during this time so that he can earn some money, but keeps them as short as he can in order to get back to Abby faster, which Adam isn’t too happy about.

…for the first time, I felt like a normal, whole human being instead of some broken, angry man.

Folks, your regular reminder here that using a relationship as therapy for your own brokenness is a horrible idea. Get some actual therapy; that’s what it’s there for.

Abby laughed a lot, but she never opened up.

…says the man who’s now spent weeks failing to mention the rather salient fact that he desperately wants a romantic relationship with her.

Anyway, they get to the last morning and Travis is angsting over what it’ll be like after the bet’s over:

Pidge would be around, maybe visit occasionally, probably with America, but she would be with Parker.

Why is Travis still worrying about Parker? The story so far is supposed to be that Abby and Parker had a few dates, Parker caught Abby and Travis asleep in the same bed and thought they’d had sex, and that, over the next two/three/however many weeks it’s supposed to have been since then, Travis and Abby have been spending all available time together. Whatever is or isn’t happening romantically between Travis and Abby, that sequence of events does not sound as though he has any reason to think Abby and Parker are a thing any more.

I was on the brink of losing her.

Oh, the tension! The tension! After weeks of being mysteriously unable just to tell Abby straight out how he feels, he’s going to… go on seeing her regularly as a friend with ongoing opportunities to just tell her straight out how he feels!

Shep, in another of his intermittent moments of ‘person who actually talks some sense’, comes in and points out to him that he’s going to see Abby again. Travis says it won’t be the same and even if she doesn’t end up with Parker she’ll end up with ‘someone like Parker’.

“I’ve tried everything. I can’t get through to her.[…]”

OH, FFS, AT WHAT POINT DID YOU ACTUALLY TRY TELLING HER HOW YOU FEEL? I mean, that’s a pretty obvious thing to try, if you want someone to date you; try asking them instead of hoping to transmit your feelings via telepathy. Honestly… I would buy it if we were going with a ‘She can’t possibly feel the same way and I don’t want to ruin the friendship!’ plot, or a ‘She deserves better than me’ plot (which was where we started out and which would, of course, have the bonus of being absolutely correct, not that that helps the romantic tension much). But somehow we’ve swerved into a plot where the obstacle is an invented communication problem that is nowhere either demonstrated or explained.

Travis says that maybe she just doesn’t feel the same way – which is indeed a possibility to be considered, and is something he could find out if he just, y’know, asked – and Shepley says ‘Or maybe she’s trying not to’, which, if so, would be a good reason just to let it be. No, Shep advises that he make her a romantic meal that night with a bottle of wine, while he and America clear out somewhere.

Trav implements this plan and Abby seems to like it. He tells her how much he’s going to miss her and frets about how she’s going to be dating Parker. (Since it’s fairly obvious that she’s not dating Parker by this point, it’s weird that she doesn’t point out that she’s not.) He asks her to stay and she says she can’t move in because that’s ‘crazy’.

“Says who? I just had the best two weeks of my life.”

THREE!! THREE!! Grrrr.

“Me, too.”

“Then why do I feel like I’m never gonna see you again?”

It’s called catastrophising, Travis.

Abby comes round, sits on his lap, starts stroking his face, bends over to peck him on the side of the mouth, and he turns it into a lingering kiss on the lips. I would have thought that surely at this point they must have lost the plausible deniability on the whole ‘he/she can’t possibly really feel this way about me’ thing; I mean, this would be a perfect moment for “Wow, that happened, guess we should talk”. From the literary POV it would also work to have one or other of them go into panicked babbling ‘MUST AVOID TALKING!’ mode because that’s also a fairly natural reaction at this sort of point. What actually happens is that Abby pulls away and acts as though nothing much has happened and Travis goes along with it. She says she’s got a big day tomorrow (why? Was that explained at some point that I missed because of having temporarily fallen into a boredom-induced coma? Possibly) and will get the kitchen cleaned up and then head to bed.

We did the dishes together in silence, with Toto asleep at our feet.

Sounds like a bit of a hazardous place for Toto, who would be at constant risk of getting splashed, accidentally kicked, or accidentally stepped on. I guess McGuire has had one of her moments of remembering Toto exists and wanting him there for cuteness purposes but without, as usual, thinking through the practicalities.

She also really doesn’t seem to have thought through what it would be like standing working next to the person you just shared a passionate kiss with for the first time without either of you talking about it. I mean, that’s a weird tense situation, and it’s the sort of tension that normally would be played up to the hilt in a romance novel, with lots of ‘I could feel the warmth of her shoulder inches from mine’ and ‘the scent from her shampoo tantalised my nostrils’ and ‘I sucked my breath in sharply as her hand accidentally brushed against mine’, etc. Good grief, I didn’t realise how much I’d picked up from reading romance novels. The point is, we don’t get any of that from McGuire. It’s… well, literally as dull as dishwater. Duller, since hearing about the dishwater would probably make it more interesting.

They go and get changed for bed and there’s still absolutely zero sexual tension. I mean, there’s tension over this whole fake ‘last chance for Trav to get together with Abby’ thing, but there’s no hint that he’s physically attracted to the woman undressing in front of him and climbing into bed with him. I guess that’s been the case all along, thinking about it; it’s striking me now more that I’m coming back to this book after reading a few ‘there was only one bed’ romances and noticing the contrast. Anyway, he holds her (still no hint that he’s sexually aroused) and feels miserable about the morning coming. She realises he’s miserable.

“This is silly,” she said.

Ya THINK?

“We’re going to see each other every day.”

“You know that’s not true.”

After a pause, Abby starts kissing his neck. Flippin’ FINALLY. Trav starts kissing her properly. She tells him she wants him and Trav reassures her that she doesn’t have to do this. She says “Don’t make me beg” and they start kissing properly. McGuire screws up the timeline yet again:

Six weeks of pent-up sexual tension overwhelmed me

No. You had sex just before Abby and America came to stay at the flat. It’s been just over a month since then (two days from then till the bet, a month from then till now because that’s the time interval stipulated in the bet). Where is McGuire getting six weeks from? Grrr, whatever. I’ve got to read a sex scene with Travis Maddox now; I think some skimming is in order.

Oooookay, here’s what happened (and what didn’t). He did check in again to make sure that she wants sex, so at least this time it really is consensual. And he does think about how it’s important for him to be gentle. And they do use a condom. So this could have been a lot worse. However, despite supposedly being this stud with lots of experience who’s amazing in bed, he doesn’t even try to make her come or care that she hasn’t. Seriously, there is nothing about that side of things at all. This is supposed to be our romantic hero. So… yeah, they finally had The Big First-Time Sexual Experience, and the best I can find to say about it is that he used protection and didn’t actually rape her.

Anyway, she makes a joke about “That was some first kiss” (which it… wasn’t? Because they already had that out in the kitchen?) and he says “Your last first kiss”, which sounds like an assumption waaaaay too far. Then he falls asleep next to her without asking what he can do to help her come, because he’s a dick. But he now thinks they’re a couple and assumes she’ll now stay with him, so he’s happy. And there we go, another chapter finished.

Valentine’s Day romance reviews

Some of you might remember that last Valentine’s Day, I wrote a post reviewing a couple of my favourite romance series and talking about why I liked not only the writing but also the values they promoted (healthy relationships and diversity). One thing I did notice, however, is that both of them were by white authors and about white couples. And this is one of those things that’s not in itself any sort of problem, but where there is some important wider context going on. (Short version: a) writers of colour have significantly more difficulty getting published than white writers, and b) non-white characters don’t get anything like the same level of representation in main roles in books. So all this contributes to the problem of white people being more likely to live in a homogenous bubble and non-white people not getting to see themselves represented in books to anything like the same extent.)

So, it occurred to me that for Valentine’s Day 2022, it would be interesting to look actively for good romances by non-white authors and to review some of those.

For my first review, a book that I discovered on Kindle Deals a while back: Have We Met? by Camille Baker, a sign language interpreter moving into writing with this novel. Corinne, the story’s protagonist, is lost and unhappy after her best friend’s death, temping for little money, and generally stuck. The book is only secondarily a romance; first and foremost, it’s about how Corinne finds direction, purpose, and a new group of friends (with a little beyond-the-grave help from her friend). It’s a lovely, warm, readable, relatable story, so good it’s hard to believe it’s a first novel, and I was thrilled to see that a sequel (featuring Corinne’s cousin/new close friend) is coming out in a few months. Already preordered!

As a bonus, this story gives us a pansexual love interest, a non-binary alternative love interest possibility, and a Deaf character (Corinne’s brother) as normal and unremarkable parts of the story. Why is this important, you ask? Because it’s great to have the reminders that actually a lot of people in the world are queer/trans/disabled or otherwise different from the narrow range of people that seems to be all that a lot of media presents to us, and that they have lives that are about a whole range of things that aren’t just Their Differences.

Next up, I asked for recommendations on the wonderful Friends of Captain Awkward forum, and I got plenty. In fact, here’s the full list for anyone else who wants to check them out:

  • Alyssa Cole
  • Jackie Lau
  • Talia Hibbert
  • Beverly Jenkins (historical)
  • Kennedy Ryan
  • Helen Hoang
  • Jasmine Guillory
  • Sara Desai
  • Sonya Lalli
  • Mia Sosa
  • Chencia C Higgins (seems to write plus-size gay romance from what I’ve seen, so enjoy!)
  • Courtney Milan (mainly historical)
  • Nailini Singh

So, plenty to keep us romance fans busy through till next Valentine’s Day! I hadn’t planned far enough ahead to check all those out, but here are reviews of the two I did read:

The Professor Next Door by Jackie Lau, a Chinese-Canadian geophysicist who moved into romance writing. This one caught my eye because of the title, and I read it because I’m always up for cute geeky love interests, as well as liking romances that shift between the two main points of view. It was a lovely, low-key, funny, warm romance between two sorted functioning adults with not a Tortured Broken Soul in sight, and I loved it. It’s part of a series in which each of a group of friends finds a partner, and now I want to read the rest; I’ve already read the two spin-off novellas (one of which is available for newsletter subscribers). Oh, yes; and the female protagonist’s sibling is non-binary, and once again that’s treated as completely ordinary; so some representation there again!

And finally, The Worst Best Man by former lawyer Mia Sosa (all these people have such interesting career histories!) is a delightfully funny romcom, also from alternating points of view, in which two people with a really awkward past are stuck with a situation where they both need to work together. Enemies-to-lovers plots are less of a favourite of mine, but they can be done well and this one was. The book did skirt the edges of a ‘let us get ourselves into a situation where we have to lie to everyone and explore the utter hilarity of that’ plot, which is something I really don’t like, but that’s my personal preference, not a flaw in the book; in any case, it was kept to tolerable levels and the rest of the writing definitely made up for it.

Also, there is one scene in the book I liked so much I have to give it special mention even though it is, on the face of it, utterly mundane and nothing to do with the romance: it’s just a scene showing the female protagonist at work doing her job in a focused, competent way. She’s checking out a wedding site (she’s a wedding planner) and asking the owner the questions that need to be asked; how many 72-inch tables can be fitted in there, is there a liquor licence, what’s the power supply like? The owner, who also happens to be a woman, is just as on it and knows the answers straight out. It was like a new and updated version of the Bechdel test; two women have a conversation about a topic related to their jobs in which it’s clear they both know what they’re doing. This shouldn’t be remotely remarkable, but it feels like something we don’t get all that often in a sea of plots about women screwing up at work either for laughter or sympathy on the part of the readership. Is it completely weird that I loved this scene? Probably. I’m weird and I own it and I loved that scene.

But there’s so much else to love about this book as well. We get relatable characters bursting with personality, great readable snarky dialogue, laugh-out-loud moments, vulnerable moments, the lot. Also, I learned about capoeira, which is majorly cool.

So, Happy Valentine’s Day to all of you! Anyone got any other recommendations for romances? Anything I should check out ready for next year’s post?

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

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

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

 

Chapter Six: Development of the Other Gospels

In this chapter, Price is trying to address how the gospels of Matthew, Luke and John came to be written under his mythicist theory. He’s given a few examples of parts that clearly were invented by the gospel authors for theological reasons, and I gave a couple of counter-examples of things that the authors seem highly unlikely to have invented.

Having looked at those details, let’s step back and ask a bigger question. How, exactly, does Price think we got to the point of having an active group believing Jesus was a real person and producing their own gospels about him?

According to Price, Mark’s gospel was actually a fictional satire, and the original group believed Jesus to be an immaterial heavenly Messiah, required because the material world was hopelessly corrupt. At which point, that’s… just about plausible as a theory. I mean, there are holes in the theory, and significant flaws in the way Price has developed it, and I’m not seeing any active reason why I should believe that rather than a Jesus-historical theory, but it’s still the kind of thing that I can at least picture people maybe doing.

But then we get to the question of what supposedly happened next. Under Price’s theory, proto-Christianity would have had to somehow get from one satirical story deliberately produced as fiction, to a substantial group who believed this story strongly enough to found their own belief system on it, write multiple embroidered accounts of this imaginary man’s life, be undeterred with the existence of the established belief that Jesus lived in the heavens only, and eventually take over the entire nascent belief system so completely that the original belief sank almost without trace. And I’m really not seeing how we got from point A to point Z here.

So, in this post, I’m going to go through the chapter and look at what Price provides by way of explanation. (I’ve slightly rearranged the order of the material as written by Price so as to present it in what would be chronological order of events; this shouldn’t affect the substance of anything in the discussion.)

The origins

What I am proposing is that the concept of a human Jesus was introduced around 70 CE with the “publication” of the story we call the Gospel of Mark. My view is that the human Jesus was created in that instant, and that once this story became popular, there was need to flesh out the story and add more detail to the life of Jesus. There would have been little time for some community to have developed strong oral traditions upon which multiple independent accounts could have been based.

Thus, what I think happened is that additional narratives about Jesus were invented by the authors of the new Gospels themselves. The reason that the other Gospels were written was precisely to record these new narratives. The writers had new ideas, and they wrote their versions of the story in order to record their ideas.

Firstly, a point that’s tangential to this chapter’s topic but probably still worth mentioning: While we haven’t got to the chapter about Paul yet and will no doubt argue this out in detail when we do, there are multiple places in Paul’s letters that make it clear that he, also, believed Jesus to have been born and lived on earth as a human. Regardless of whether Jesus actually was a human or not, Mark doesn’t get the credit for being the first one to introduce the idea.

On to the main issue; let’s look at the problems that Price skips over with the blithe statement ‘once this story became popular’.

The interesting thing here is that Mark’s gospel actually wasn’t that popular through much of Christian history. In fact, Price knows this; he actually opens his first chapter with that information. From the section in question:

For most of Christian history, the Gospel of Mark has been the least appreciated Gospel and viewed as the least significant. This is partly because the Gospel of Mark is the shortest Gospel, was not viewed as an eyewitness account, contains the least significant theological constructs, lacks any mention of the birth or origin of Jesus, paints an unflattering image of the disciples, and was believed to have been written after the Gospel of Matthew.

Of course, some of this wouldn’t apply at the time we’re discussing here; when gMark was first written it was the only gospel, so ‘shortest’ or ‘we think it was written after Matthew’ would have been non-issues. However, on the other side of things, in the situation Price is hypothesising there wouldn’t be the main driving force of ‘this is the true story of our Lord and Messiah; we must learn more of his teachings’. Also, there’s the practical question of just who would be passing the story on. All books had to be hand-copied in those days; it’s not as though there would have been an extra-large print run with lots of spares that people might pick up at the local bookshop. How many people would ever even have got hold of a copy? Without church leaders reading the stories out to their congregations to teach them as, literally, gospel truth, and arranging for extra copies to be made, it’s hard to see how it could ever have reached more than a small minority of the congregation.

Bear in mind, here that Price’s theory doesn’t just require some people to have liked/been interested in gMark; it requires it to have been popular enough for readers to be clamouring for more stories about the protagonist, authors to be producing extended versions in response, and the whole thing to be spreading so uncontrollably fast that the church leaders can’t get ahead of the stories to point out that they’re fictional. How, in Price’s scenario, does he think it would ever have reached anything like that level of popularity?

And on top of that, we’re still given no idea as to how this could have gone from known fiction to believed fact despite this being in the context of a nascent church who would (according to Price’s theory) have still been teaching their followers that Jesus was an immaterial heavenly being only. (To add to that problem, Mark himself would almost certainly have still been around, pointing out to people that his book was meant as an illustrative satire rather than as a literal account of Jesus’s life on earth). Of course, there are always some people who can’t distinguish between fiction and fact – the modern-day response to ‘The Da Vinci Code’ strikes me as a good example – but, again, remember that we’re not just talking about a tiny minority of people taking this book in a way it wasn’t intended; we’re talking about a movement strong enough that within less than a century it would have overcome the existing leadership’s completely different teachings. How?

Q material and the development of gMatthew and gLuke

First, a brief explanation of the term ‘Q’ for the benefit of anyone not versed in the basics of NT studies: It’s well recognised that a) gMatthew and gLuke share a lot of their material though not all of it, and b) that shared material can be divided into material also shared with gMark and material that gMatthew and gLuke share that isn’t in gMark. The ‘shared by gMatthew and gLuke but not by gMark’ material is often referred to as the Q material. (The term has nothing to do with James Bond, but comes from a widely accepted theory that Matthew and Luke both worked from gMark and from at least one other source, since lost, that recorded this material; this source is known among scholars as ‘Q’, as the theory was initially written in German and in that language ‘Q’ is the first letter of the word for ‘source’. That, however, is by-the-by; Price is using the term here simply as a shorthand for this category of gospel material.)

Anyway, here’s what Price tells us about this part of the gospels:

Based on my analysis of both the Gospel called Mark and Q, I don’t believe that the Q material could possibly be independent from the Markan narrative. The Q material is clearly dependent upon the narrative from Mark and was either part of an original longer version of Mark or was added later by another author to an expanded version of Mark, from which both the authors of the Gospels called Matthew and Luke copied.

Whether the so-called Q material was originally written by the same author as Mark or was added later by a different author is not of immediate importance. Based on my analysis, I cannot determine if the Q material was original to Mark or added later by someone else, but what is clear is that the authors of both Matthew and Luke copied from a single common source that contained the Q material already integrated with the Markan text. The key understanding here is that the authors of Matthew and Luke were not using a separate, independent source of information about Jesus; they were both still copying from a single source.

I’m dubious about Price’s theory here, but my knowledge of Q isn’t detailed enough to argue it, so let’s put that aside and look at where his theory takes us:

I find it possible that the Q material was written by a different author than the original author of Mark. […] However, it is also possible that the Q material is part of an original longer version of Mark and that what we call the Gospel of Mark today is actually a shortened version of the original.

OK, let’s look at each of those possibilities in turn.

Hypothesis 1: Someone sat down with the original gMark and wrote an expanded version of it with a lot of extra information added. That’s… kind of an odd thing to do with someone else’s fictional story. Why?

Hypothesis 2: Mark originally wrote the Q material himself as part of his original gospel. Setting aside the question of why, in that case, someone would have written a shortened version, Price’s main problem here is that this hypothesis hacks another gaping hole in the cornerstone of his original theory.

The basis of Price’s theory, remember, is his claim that he has gone through all of Mark and found that every substantive bit of it can be traced back to either Paul or the scriptures. While this claim wasn’t standing up well to examination anyway, due to many of the connections Price believed he’d found actually being far too flimsy and far-fetched to be convincing, at least he could come up with some kind of explanation (however poor) for pretty much every part of Mark. However, if we’re now considering the theory that Mark’s gospel originally contained a lot of extra information, then that’s a lot of extra information that Price hasn’t tied back to other sources. (This, also note, would include the “I come to bring not peace but a sword” lines, which seem particularly incongruous with Price’s theory that Mark’s goal was to preach harmony.) Thus, Price’s cornerstone claim would no longer be anywhere near true.

So, as ever, Price has significantly more explaining and clarifying to do if he wants any of this theory to stand up.

The birth stories

What I am proposing is that the birth story found in Matthew was invented purely by the author of Matthew,

Why? What does Price believe to be Matthew’s reason for inventing this?

Again, this is something that has a fairly obvious explanation if Jesus existed; Matthew believed that this person who’d been walking the earth a few decades earlier was the God-sent Messiah, and he wanted to demonstrate this in his story by showing that Jesus fulfilled Messianic prophecies. One such prophecy stated that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem, so Matthew wrote a story of Jesus being born in Bethlehem.

Under Price’s theory, however, Matthew was part of a group who believed in a Messiah who’d never been born or lived a human life, reading a fiction about this Messiah living a human life. Matthew was then copying out large parts of this fictional story to expand on it and add extra details, which is odd enough in the first place. Why would he have added a birth story if he already knew, from his church’s teachings, that Jesus had never been born?  For that matter, why would someone who was clearly very invested in the idea of Jesus fulfilling Messianic prophecy (which we know, from gMatthew, to have been the case for its author) even be part of a group that taught such a very different conception of the Messiah that clearly wasn’t in line with any of those prophecies?

and the similarities found in Luke are due to the fact that the author of Luke had heard versions of “Matthew’s” birth story, though he did not have a written copy of it.

So, by this time we’re supposedly looking at a situation where oral stories of this earthly Jesus have spread even further among the early church than the written stories. Again, how? Under historicist theory, the stories spread because the leaders of the early church groups were actively teaching them to their congregations and passing them on, and once the gospels were written they were circulated (and probably read aloud to the congregations) as inspired teachings. Under mythicist theory, none of this would have been the case; gMark would simply have spread the way any book did at the time, by word of mouth among people who cared enough to tell their friends and family about the story they’d read, with potentially the occasional person being interested enough to have an extra copy made. We’d get some spread that way, of course; but how are the stories supposed to have spread to the extent we’d need for Price’s theory?

Also, of course, let’s reiterate the point I made in the last chapter; if Luke was getting his birth story from imperfect memories of Matthew’s birth story, how did he end up with something that so completely contradicted Matthew’s story? It would be natural to forget minor details, or add minor details, or misunderstand/misremember details, because all of that is what happens when a story gets passed on by word of mouth. But Luke manages to change ‘Jesus’s family moved from Bethlehem to Nazareth’ to ‘Jesus’s family made a temporary trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem’, come up with a census that wasn’t in Matthew’s story, and completely forget the dramatic story of Jesus’s family fleeing for his life while Herod slaughtered infants en masse; forget it so completely, in fact, that he forgets Herod was in the story at all, and sets his story at a time (the beginning of Quirinius’s rule) when Herod would already have been dead for years. Those are major changes. How does that fit with Price’s theory?

More about Luke

[…] The Gospel of Luke does appear to be a bit different than the Gospel of Matthew in terms of style and purpose. I don’t believe that the writer of Luke used invention the way that the writers of Matthew and John did. Rather, it appears that the writer of Luke was attempting to create a valid historical account. […] It appears that whoever wrote [Luke and Acts] was conducting “research” and was actually working from multiple sources, trying to fit the Jesus narrative into a real historical context. The author of Luke was probably using sources such as Josephus, the letters of Paul, and likely more to try to create a coherent account that fit into the timeline of real history. It is very likely that the author of Luke and Acts believed that Jesus was a real person himself. […] What is also clear about the writings from Luke is that they were intended to be a self-contained and complete account of early Christian history, covering the time from Jesus’s birth through the early ministry of Paul.

Agreed. Luke was writing highly biased history, but he was, in his way, trying to write history when he wrote Acts. That’s agreed among scholars. So, once again… how did he not notice, in the course of this research, that he was writing about a fictional character?

Did the church leaders he spoke to have no records, even oral, of the actual beliefs of the church? What about Mark, who might or might not have still been alive when Luke wrote but whom we can assume probably did not vanish off the edge of the earth without trace on finishing his work; was there no-one around who’d known him and remembered that he was actually trying to write fiction and not biography?  In the last chapter, Price claimed that people who knew the original Church fathers would still have been around and that we would have expected authors of this time to be able to get hold of them if need be; if so, would that not apply when Luke was attempting to do research? Price has just told us that he believes Luke had heard the birth story in gMatthew and based his own on what he remembered of it; if that was really the case, would Luke the would-be historian not have at least tracked down the story and tried to get it right?

How did Luke, in the course of doing as much of all this as he feasibly could, not notice that this had not been an earthly person? How likely is it that he would have completely overlooked that problem with his research? Does Price think he would simply have shrugged his shoulders and gone on trying to write this as a history despite all evidence to the contrary? How does Price think this would have happened?

 

Conclusion

I was particularly interested to read this part of the book, because the question addressed here is in fact the reason Price and I got into the mythicism-vs-historicity discussion in the first place; when I raised the question of how a mythical Jesus could have made the shift to being believed in as a historical being from the (then) recent past, he assured me that his book ‘explains exactly how this happened, with compelling concrete evidence’. I suspected it might well not live up to that description, so ‘disappointing’ would be too strong a word here, but the book definitely does not explain how this happened.

I suspect Price’s focus was so much on his belief that gMark was entirely fictional that, by the time he was looking at how things might have developed from there, he was entirely convinced of mythicism and was viewing everything from that perspective, picking out the evidence that fitted with that conclusion without examining the evidence as a whole in the light of both hypotheses to see which one fitted best. In any case… whatever the reason, Price has not thought through the practicalities of how one fictional story would take over the movement like this. Thus his theory, once again, is deeply flawed.

 

And now, as I’ve done several ‘Deciphering’ reviews in succession, I think it’s time to focus on other blogging topics for a while. (I’ll be happy to take part in comment threads on the existing posts, but I’ll work on other topics for my posts.) I look forward to blogging about some other topics and to getting back to posting about ‘Deciphering’ in due course. I hope all’s well with all of you, and wish you all a great day.

‘Deciphering The Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed’ review: Chapter Six, Part 1

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

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

 

Chapter Six: Development Of The Other Gospels

Near the beginning of this chapter, Price tells us what he intends to do:

What we will explore in this chapter are explanations for the development of the other Gospels, which show that material in them that is not shared with the Gospel called Mark is best explained as still having been dependent on the Markan narrative or invented by the writers themselves.

And, near the end, he assures us that he’s done it:

I have presented arguments as to why I believe the independent material from the Gospels of Matthew and John was invented by the authors of those works and does not trace back to accounts of the life of any real Jesus. I have presented arguments as to why I believe independent material from the Gospel called Luke was influenced by the Gospel called Matthew and explained that other independent material in Luke was likely influenced by other non-Christian sources who were not writing about Jesus.

So, what parts of the non-Markan material does he actually address in between these two assurances?

  • The birth narrative in gMatthew
  • The ‘miraculous signs’ narrative in gJohn
  • The last chapter of gJohn (thought to be a later addition by a different author).

Now, I have no problem at all with the idea that all of those are fictional. But that still leaves a heck of a lot of non-Markan material unaccounted for. In terms of Karl Popper’s black swan logic argument, all that Price has done is find a few white swans and assure us that this satisfactorily demonstrates the whiteness of swans generally, while ignoring most of the swans. Let’s remember that, as Price admitted himself in Chapter Four, it was normal in that day and age for biographical stories to be embroidered with all sorts of mythology; so it simply isn’t valid to extrapolate from ‘some of this is clearly invented’ to ‘all of it must have been invented’.

So, time to look for black swans. Which non-Markan gospel material seems least likely to have been invented? I’m going to look at two different examples here.

 

1. The Nazareth question

Both gMatthew and gLuke tell us that Jesus grew up in Nazareth. So do the other two standard gospels, but the reason why I’m calling this out as significant in the case of these two specifically is because these are the two that are also at great pains to tell us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem (In Accordance With The ProphecyTM). Thus, for them, keeping ‘Nazareth’ as part of the story only complicates things; instead of just being able to say that Jesus was born in Bethlehem In Accordance With etc, they each have to invent a whole strained, fictitious story to explain how, in that case, he ended up coming from Nazareth. Why did they bother with putting Nazareth in their stories at all, when it only complicated their plots?

If they were writing about a real person, there’s an obvious explanation; the man of whom they were writing really did come from Nazareth and was well known to have done so. Since they wanted the stories to demonstrate that he came from Bethlehem as per prophecy, they were stuck with explaining away the Nazareth bit in some way. However, If they were writing mythical constructions of a life that never existed, then that doesn’t make sense. They could have written the story in any way they wanted. (Mark does say that Jesus came from Nazareth, but we know that Matthew was willing to change other details in gMark when they were clearly inaccurate, so if Matthew was really making it up from scratch then he had no reason to stick with this detail; he could just have ignored that, written that Jesus came from Bethlehem, and left out any mention of Nazareth at all.)

So, under mythicism we’re left here with a puzzling and unexplained point that would be explained quite easily under historicity. It’s a small thing, and it’s quite possible that some plausible explanation exists that we haven’t yet found, but… so far, as far as I can see that hasn’t yet happened. (Not because mythicists haven’t tried to explain it, but because what they’ve come up with isn’t particularly plausible.)

So, let’s see what Price has to say:

Here the author of Matthew is simply building on the Markan precedent and explicitly linking passages about “nazirites” to the idea that Jesus comes from “Nazareth”. The passage being referred to in verse 23 comes from Judges 13, where we are told that Samson will be raised as a nazirite.

This is, from what I’ve seen, the typical mythicist explanation for the whole Nazareth question. The problem is, this just raises a further question; why would Matthew be so keen to use this particular out-of-context reference that he’d write the whole complicated ‘Nazareth’ detail into his story?

Again, under historicity it makes sense; Matthew is already stuck with writing ‘Nazareth’ into his story because it’s well known that Jesus came from Nazareth, he’s working from the assumption that there must be some biblically prophecied reason for this, and so this mention in Judges 13 jumps out at him and he takes it to be a prophecy. But, under a mythicist theory, what reason would Matthew have to seize on that particular mention and include it?

One possibility, of course, might be that Matthew admires the story of Samson, or sees something in it that he finds particularly relevant to Jesus’s story, and so he wants to make the link for that reason. But that doesn’t work; apart from that one indirect mention, Matthew doesn’t link Jesus to Samson’s story in any other way. Similarly, it could be that Matthew wants to make a link with Nazirites generally, rather than Samson specifically; this would be quite a feasible thing for a gospel author to want, since Nazirites were people who had taken particular vows of purity (described in detail in Numbers 6:1 – 21; in short, this involved eschewing grape products, haircuts, and dead bodies for the duration of the vow). But, again, the problem with this is that Matthew doesn’t make any direct mention of Jesus being a Nazirite or taking such vows (in fact, Matthew repeats Mark’s scene of Jesus taking the hand of a dead child in order to resurrect her, which would contradict the idea of him being a Nazirite), so it doesn’t seem that this is Matthew’s concern either. So, under mythicist theory, why would Matthew be so keen to give us this single out-of-context reference that he has to make up a whole extra part of his story in order to put it in?

We get even less explanation for Luke’s inclusion of Nazareth:

[…] the similarities found in Luke are due to the fact that the author of Luke had heard versions of “Matthew’s” birth story, though he did not have a written copy of it.

What version of ‘Jesus’s family came from Bethlehem, but had to flee from there and settle in Nazareth due to mass infanticide by King Herod’ would lead Luke to come up with ‘Jesus’s family came from Nazareth, but ended up in Bethlehem for Jesus’s birth due to an event specifically dated to something that only happened ten years after King Herod’s death’?

Once again, under a historicist theory it’s easy to see how Matthew and Luke could have come up with these wildly clashing stories; if they were both working from the basic constraints of ‘The prophecy says the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem’ and ‘Jesus, whom we believe to be the Messiah, is known to have come from Nazareth’, then that would explain why their stories agree on ‘born in Bethlehem’ and ‘grew up in Nazareth’ while disagreeing on all the other fundamental details. But, under Price’s mythicist theory, Luke would have somehow had to have heard Matthew’s story and vaguely retained only the ‘came from Nazareth’ and ‘born in Bethlehem’ details, completely forgetting all the rest and showing no inclination even to go and check. Again, something that’s explained well by historicity isn’t properly explained by Price’s theory.

At this point, someone will typically argue that this is a detail and doesn’t prove anything. And, yes, of course on its own it doesn’t; it’s always possible that there’s a good explanation for this detail that we just don’t know about. If everything else in the story pointed strongly towards mythicism, I’d be quite happy to disregard this detail and go with mythicism. However, at this point nothing else is pointing towards mythicism. All that Price seems to have given us on the pro-mythicism side, other than his misunderstanding of Docetism, is that Mark used a lot of literary references in his work… and he’s also told us that that was normal for people in this society writing about actual historical characters, so that doesn’t do anything to point us towards mythicism rather than historicity.

Anyway, that aside… Price’s specific claim at the start of this chapter was that all the non-Markan gospel material is best explained by mythicism. Unless he has an explanation for this point that’s better than the historicity explanation, then this particular point isn’t ‘best’ explained by mythicism, and he should change his claim.

 

2. The retconned rabbi

Many years ago, I discovered the author Hyam Maccoby, a Talmudic scholar who has written several books analysing the New Testament accounts in light of his knowledge of rabbinical/Pharisaic Judaism of the time. One of his main findings was that the gospel stories of Jesus described someone speaking and behaving like a typical Pharisaic rabbi. In particular, Jesus’s famous Sabbath teachings were exactly in line with what Pharisees taught about the Sabbath; that not only was healing not forbidden on the Sabbath, but, if there was even the least chance that it was necessary to save someone’s life or their eyesight, it was positively meritorious. Two of the famous sayings attributed to Jesus – “The Sabbath is created for man, not man for the Sabbath” and the John 7:23 saying pointing to the precedent of circumcision on the Sabbath – are very similar to rabbinical sayings found in the Talmud. For this and other reasons, the descriptions of Jesus seem to be descriptions of a typical Pharisee.

This wouldn’t in itself automatically be a strange thing in a fictional story of the time – perhaps the gospel authors admired the Pharisees’ teachings and wanted to portray their protagonist as coming out with those words of wisdom – except, of course, that the gospels have a virulently anti-Pharisee message. Reading what the gospel authors have to say about the Pharisees (and, for that matter, what John has to say about the Jews generally), it’s extremely difficult to see why they would have wanted to invent a protagonist whose teachings were Pharisee-based.

Maccoby’s theory about all this was that Jesus was a Pharisaic rabbi and that the stories of him uttering Pharisaic teachings or beliefs are thus stories of things Jesus actually did. This does of course leave us with the opposite problem of wondering why, in that case, the gospel authors were so anti-Pharisee, but Maccoby does come up with a plausible explanation for that; they were writing for largely gentile communities, and the Pharisees were known to be strongly anti-Roman and were thus politically unpopular there. Meanwhile, the Sadducees were more pro-Roman and also clashed with the Pharisees on their teachings. Maccoby’s theory is therefore that in the original stories Jesus was a Pharisee arguing with Sadducees, but that detail was changed in order to portray him as a member of the more politically acceptable party. (As Maccoby points out, this might well not even have been a calculated change; if someone passing on the story already thought of the Sadducees as the ‘good guys’ and the Pharisees as the ‘bad guys’, the statement that Jesus’s Sabbath arguments were with Sadducees could have been simply assumed to be a mistake and ‘corrected’.) Jesus the Pharisee was thus retconned into being a Pharisee-denouncer. It’s conjecture, but it’s plausible as an explanation for what we’ve got.

But, under mythicism, we still seem to be left with a conundrum. Matthew, Luke and John, all strongly anti-Pharisee as shown by their writings, are inventing stories about Jesus from scratch, for a predominantly gentile community… in which they portray him as coming out with Pharisee teachings and sayings. That’s harder to explain. I look forward to seeing how Price does so.

 

All that was (to switch metaphors) a very close-up examination of a couple of trees in which we didn’t really look at the wood. In the next post, I want to look at the bigger picture of explaining non-Markan gospels in a mythicist theory.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about Peter? Also never identified.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

None of these people were ever identified or talked to.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chapter 5: All Knowledge Of Jesus Comes From The Gospels

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘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.

The Santa Dilemma

Over on From The Ashes Of Faith, Megan has just raised a subject that was a huge dilemma for me in the early years of parenting:

How do you feel about the whole Santa charade? Did you do it with kids in your family? Did you believe in Santa when you were little? How did you feel when you found out he wasn’t real?

To answer the last two questions first: I don’t remember believing in Father Christmas (the term we tend to use more in the UK, although they’re fairly interchangeable for us) at any time during my childhood. Maybe I believed in him at one point, but, if so, I was too young at the time to remember, and I don’t remember any point of ‘but he’s not real!’ revelation. So, if that did happen, I suppose I can’t have been too traumatised by it.

When it came to bringing up my own children, however, I had no idea what the right course of action was. (Which I suppose at least made a change from the more usual parenting experience of smugly knowing exactly what the right course of action was up until the point where I went through that part of parenting and realised that in actual fact things were vastly less simple than the pre-parenting version of me had assumed.) If I brought my children up to believe in Father Christmas, then I was deliberately perpetrating a lie and a fraud. If I didn’t bring them up to believe in Father Christmas, I was depriving them of a delightful and important part of childhood magic, basically becoming Scrooge and the Grinch rolled into one. What was I to do?

The compromise I opted for: I wouldn’t straight-out tell my children Father Christmas wasn’t real, and I wouldn’t say anything revelatory when we saw Father Christmases at children’s parties or in the local garden centre prior to Christmas. But I also wouldn’t do anything specific to perpetrate the myth – no footprints on the fireplace or mince pies set out on Christmas Eve and removed overnight in our household – and, when either of my children did ask straight out about Father Christmas, I’d tell them the truth.

As to the details of what I’d tell them… well, this takes us to Megan’s other main question, which was whether I think it’s fair to compare Santa to Jesus. As regular readers of my blog will know, I believe that Jesus was originally a real person (a Jewish rabbi who was crucified) but that, for reasons too long to go into here, an entire enormous mythology was then woven around him that had very little to do with the actual person. If you want to debate that issue, please go pick one of my many threads on the subject in which to do so; I bring it up here because, in answer to Megan’s question, I think it’s completely fair to compare Santa to Jesus, in that both of them started as ordinary humans before a whole mythology was woven around them.

So, I decided that, when the time came, I’d tell my children that the bits about flying reindeer and visiting all the children in the world with presents were made up, but the story was based on a real person who was kind and good and gave people things and inspired parents to do the same with their children, and people then made the other stuff up to make it more fun. This is probably somewhat stretching the details of how the legend developed, but was reasonably true and felt a lot better than the prospect of effectively telling my children that the grown-ups had lied to them.

Looking back, I would say that – unlike almost everything else I’ve ever planned in parenting – this actually worked well.

I can’t remember how old Jamie was when he asked me whether Father Christmas was real, though I remember it was while I was getting the children ready for bed one night; I told him to come into the bathroom so I could tell him (getting some teeth-brushing done was probably also on my agenda there, but I wanted to get him out of earshot of Katie, as she hadn’t yet asked) and gave him the above spiel, as well as asking him not to tell children who didn’t yet know as it might upset them. Jamie nodded in acceptance and that was that.

I do remember when Katie asked, due to some other stuff going on at the time that enables me to pinpoint it around (probably shortly after) her eight birthday. I was driving her home from school and she was chattering away, mentioning a girl in her class who was scared of Father Christmas. As my heart sank, the way it always did when I was faced with the uneasy business of not knowing whether to speak up or not, she mused “You know, I don’t even know if Father Christmas is real. Maybe he’s just some guy named Jake.” I have no idea to this day where she got ‘Jake’ from, but I still remember mentally cheering that, within minutes, I would be done with the whole Father Christmas dilemma.

I got us both home so that I could tell her face-to-face just in case she did get upset, and asked her whether she wanted to know the answer to her question. This involved reminding her of the subject, since she’d moved onto somewhere completely different in her thoughts in the ten minutes it took us to drive home, but she decided that, yes, she did want to know.

“Well, then,” I started, “the answer is that the bit about someone flying around in a sleigh with reindeer is a myth, but…”

“I knew it! I knew it!” Katie crowed.

“…but the stories are based on…”

“He’s not real! Throw him out the window!” Katie, apparently delighted by this news, swung an arm in an expansive casting-forth gesture.

“…based on a man who was…”

Throw him out the window, one-two-three! Throw him out the window, one-two-three!” Katie had reached the point of putting together a mini song-and-dance act on the theme. “Throw him out the window, one-two-three! Da-da, da-da-da-da!”

I gave up. At least she wasn’t traumatised by the news. I settled for explaining to her that she couldn’t tell other children who didn’t know yet (actually, I can’t even remember if I did remember to tell her that; I hope she didn’t ruin any other family’s Christmas magic in her enthusiasm) and, no, she was definitely not allowed to throw Father Christmas out the window and could she please be slightly less disturbing about it.

So, that’s how the whole thing went down in our household. I look forward to seeing what experiences Megan’s commenters had, though they probably at least did not involve impromptu chants about Santa defenestration.