Book and article reviews the case for the jesus myth

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Was There No Historical Jesus?
by Earl Doherty



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How Reliable Is the Gospel Tradition?
by Robert M. Price

Prometheus Books, 2003

A select index of subjects addressed in this review:

Nativity Stories  -  John the Baptist and Jesus' Baptism  -  Jesus' Miracles  -  The Twelve Disciples  -  The Messiah  -  Son of Man  -  The Passion Story  -  The Last Supper  -  Gethsemane  -  Judas  -  Trial by the Sanhedrin  -  Trial by Pilate  -  The Crucifixion  -  Resurrection  -  1 Corinthians 15:3-8  -  The Hymn of Philippians 2:6-11


     Let me begin this review by saying that I think this book has the potential to be one of the most influential works in its field to date. I am not talking about the narrow area of Jesus mythicism, with which Robert Price does not directly identify himself (though some observers do), but the entire field of New Testament research. There have been many pivotal works before, from Bruno Bauer, to B. H. Streeter, to John Kloppenborg’s The Formation of Q, all part of the slow, painful—and much resisted—task of uncovering the true nature of the Gospels, their content and their sources. Price builds on much that came before, but the advantages he enjoys are, in combination, almost unprecedented. His education in the field is extensive (with all the proper letters after his name, including two PhD's). He has an encyclopedic knowledge in all the biblical and related disciplines. Most crucially, he is entirely free of confessional dictates and vulnerability to peer pressure. Price has been a member of the Jesus Seminar for several years, but his radical insight and courage have left even that avant-garde body behind. He uses the same tools and methodology of critical scholarship as his progressive colleagues; but the difference is he applies them without reservation and without fear. The result lays bare the Gospel record for what it is: a product of storytelling by four authors (and their editors) which bears no perceivable relation to historical fact. An ex-minister, Price is not anti-bible, or anti-Christian; he has been known to defend the bible on several grounds. But one of these is not that it represents history, or that it provides reliable information to portray the beginnings of Christianity or to support the existence or character of an historical Jesus.

     The title of this book is a tongue-in-cheek play on that of a classic science-fiction film of 1957, “The Incredible Shrinking Man.” Its hero, exposed to a mysterious fog, steadily dwindles in size until he disappears from sight. Price’s examination of the “Son of Man” of the Gospels, Jesus of Nazareth, as described in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, produces the same phenomenon. By the time this exhaustive survey of Gospel traditions is completed, what can reliably be derived from the four evangelists about an historical Jesus—his life, his teachings, his career, his death—has shrunk to virtually nothing, invisible to the naked eye. What comes into view is a picture of the authors’ times and communities, a story constructed out of building blocks from scripture and other ancient literature, from myths and traditions common to many, all of it supplemented by creative invention.

Price’s title is a mark of a unique characteristic of this book. While it draws on reference and source material from the widest range of scholarship and ancient writing, it also uses references to the popular culture of our own day, from movies and television to literature and comics, in the service of providing insight and analogy. Far from detracting from the professionalism or impact of The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, such features enhance its relevance and the openness of its author. Too many academics and their works inhabit an ivory tower isolation (not to mention a sense of unwillingness or inability to free oneself from the first century), and their language and presentation often make accessibility difficult for the lay reader. Price’s easy style and unpretentious approach to his subject make this book very user-friendly.


Criteria and Methodology


Price opens by presenting the criteria he will use in his examination of the Gospels, and none in the critical field should find fault with it. Where there are differences or disagreements between Gospels, or within a Gospel, the principle to be applied is that the more spectacular version is almost certainly inauthentic, an authorial enlargement upon the simpler version. Where features appear in only one Gospel, the likelihood is that they are a particular creation of that evangelist. The “criterion of dissimilarity,” with which mainstream scholarship has thought to derive elements that can be safely attributed to Jesus himself, is not only regarded as useful, it is here ruthlessly applied.

It states that sayings, positions, etc. found in Jesus’ mouth that can be identified as existing within contemporary or later areas, such as Jewish rabbinical or Hellenistic expression, or subsequent Christian interests and practice, cannot be safely attributed to him. Price goes further and points out that the criterion itself is a self-defeating method:


The trouble with the criterion of dissimilarity is the basic operating assumption of the form-critical method: the early Christians passed down nothing they did not find usable. Indeed, the material was passed down via the usage. This means that every individual saying or anecdote represents some aspect of the early Christian movement. None is simply an objective datum. Every single one thus fails, and must fail, the criterion of dissimilarity.” [p.17-18]


Joining its fall by the wayside is the so-called criterion of embarrassment. Even those sayings or depictions which any given evangelist might have considered embarrassing and yet has preserved, must have come to him through the usage channel, and if so was thus acceptable to those who first passed it on (or created it), otherwise it would have died in childbirth. When we can identify changes by succeeding writers or editors that have been made to a problematic passage (or its elimination), we can assume it began life as something amenable to its first carriers, with its acceptability diminishing as conditions and beliefs evolved.

It has, of course, been pointed out that just because a pronouncement of Jesus happens to coincide with an already existing expression, or with the later community’s interests, this does not necessitate that he didn’t say it. But Price’s point, and the fundamental point of the book, is to demonstrate that there are no reliable grounds by which to judge anything as authentic to Jesus. (In many cases, he goes beyond this to show that there is good evidence or argument to judge that a given thing is highly likely to be inauthentic.) Price makes the further point that if everything attributed to Jesus can be identified as conforming to current usage and belief in wider circles, this removes all trace of innovation by Jesus himself. What, then, led to his lionization if he was simply preaching the widespread and the typical, if he was simply propounding other people's ideas?

Price also counters the common objection put forward by the fundamentalist approach to the Gospels. In the matter of miracles, the rationalist is accused of a priori rejection of the supernatural element because of a commitment to philosophical naturalism. While I see no impediment to defending such a commitment, Price points out that the accusation is really misplaced. All science and even history works according to the principle of “methodological atheism.” That is, it cannot introduce a deus ex machina into the plot; it cannot allow for “surprises” or else everything becomes chaotic. All judgments in the area of rationality are, strictly speaking, probabilistic, based on analogy with the present state of things and our own experiences. Science cannot deal with miracles, or factor in the unpredictable. Nor, I would add, can the scientific mind. Besides, Price points out that the believing mind has no better epistemological access to the past, and certainly not by faith, which is hardly to be regarded as somehow more dependable than philosophical naturalism.

Another criterion is the principle of “biographical analogy.” If everything about Jesus in the Gospels conforms to the period’s widespread “Mythic Hero Archetype,” there is no secular information left to tie into the fabric of history. Finally, if historical evidence contradicts the Gospel accounts, reliability must lie with the former. This includes such things as conflicts between Josephus and the Gospels, or anachronisms such as attributing Pharisaic presence and issues to Galilee prior to the Jewish War of 70 CE, or predating the Gentile Mission to the ministry of Jesus.  

In sum, many things are possible, as the apologetics industry likes to claim, and all sorts of scenarios and ad hoc explanations and strained harmonizations are regularly churned out to account for the inconsistencies and contradictions, but when faced with the evidence we must rather ask ourselves what is probable.


In a chapter which describes the various procedures of biblical scholarship—form, redaction and literary criticism—in a way the layman can understand, Price lays out a fundamental principle he will illustrate throughout the book. No one can deny that the Gospels differ from each other in many and often important ways, from small-scale elements to over-arching patterns and themes. Christian believers, for the most part, have glossed over these differences, as well as ignored the fact that many incidents are found in only one Gospel. Apologists have traditionally been occupied with trying to harmonize or paper over these contradictory accounts, often through ludicrous measures. But critical scholarship has long reached the conclusion that the later Gospels have basically reworked the earliest version, the one we know as Mark.

Most importantly, those reworkings (“redactions”) of Mark were governed by specific and identifiable interests held by the later evangelists and the communities they lived in. These interests included such things as their particular theologies, rituals, outlook toward the Jews, the makeup of their communities, and so on. In other words, the characteristics of each evangelist’s own redaction of Mark, and the manner in which he has added extra material to it (such as Q), are consistent with a particular set of conditions and attitudes we can identify from the text. This rules out traditional assumptions that differences between the Gospels were due to differing traditions each community had inherited, or to individual styles of expression by the writers. Rather, each evangelist was consciously tailoring his sources to conform to the picture he wanted to create, to the principles he wanted to embody, to the lessons he sought to impart to his readership. The same holds true for the picture created by a critical analysis of Mark. He, too, conforms to a consistent set of motifs and editorial interests.

It is clear from this that a concern for historical accuracy played no part in the creation of the Gospels. The principle of eyewitness, perhaps even of representing history at all, was simply not operating. This is a chain of original storytelling, not a reproduction or editing of earlier tradition. Literary criticism reveals Mark as writing most of his Gospel out of his own imagination (drawing mostly on scriptural elements), while his redactors are recasting his efforts for their own purposes, with no concerns about compromising or falsifying historical truth or accuracy. That there was vast fabrication by all involved throughout the Christian documentary record has long been undeniable, and there is no reason to make any distinction in reliability between canonical and non-canonical writings. Examples of these things will be touched on many times throughout this review.

Of particular interest here is the Gospel of John. Whether he was dependent on some Synoptic predecessor, or worked entirely independently, has been a matter of see-saw debate over the years. Price’s often minute observations about the relationship of John to the others virtually settles the matter: the fourth evangelist was recasting one or more of the earlier Gospels, even if he injected much that was an expression of his own community’s unique outlook.

As for dating the Gospels, Price’s sympathies lie with a second century provenance for all of them, but his discussion of the matter is flexible. He sees a long and involved process for the creation of Matthew and Luke. He subscribes (as I do) to an Ur-Luke used by Marcion. As for John, the fragment P52, which can tell us nothing about the state of the work it was a part of, could easily be datable up to 50 years later than its commonly preferred assignment to the second quarter of the second century.

Throughout the book, Price adopts a position of accommodation toward an historical Jesus. This is most clearly stated on page 68: “I am holding open the possibility that Jesus was, like Pythagoras, Plato, Alexander the Great and Apollonius [of Tyana], a historical individual to whom mythical features rapidly became attached rather than a pure myth that later became historicized.” It seems equally clear, however, that this would not be his preferred option. Due to the lack of any demonstrable historical basis to the Gospels, he states: “[T]he hypothesis of some kind of informational bridge between a historical Jesus and the creation of the Gospels becomes unnecessary. Bruno Bauer believed Mark had invented Jesus, just as Mark Twain created Huck Finn.” [p.30] And the closing words of the book are an invitation:


Couchoud has indicated the final door we must pass through if we are to be consistent with the methodology that has served us so well thus far. Dare we step through that door to what Schweitzer called ‘thoroughgoing skepticism?’ Even if doing so will mean that the historical Jesus will have shrunk to the vanishing point?” [p.354]


Let’s trace the sojourn Price follows through the Gospel story to reach that compelling conclusion, that doorway leading into a new world.

Birth and Early Life

Did it all begin on a December 25? Not likely. This was the traditional birth date of many contemporary gods, especially those associated with the sun, and the first reference to it as applied to Jesus is found only in Hippolytus of Rome around 200 CE. Price delves, as he will throughout The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, into religious mythology beyond the immediate Middle East, such as Vedic Hinduism and Persian Zoroastrianism. This book is an education in a wide range of ancient religion, giving us an insight into many antecedents of the so-called Judeo-Christian tradition.

Was Jesus initially thought to be the “Son of David”? Not if we give weight to early passages like Mark 12:35-7, which seems to be trying to show that the Messiah was not to be descended from David—perhaps because certain interests of the time lacked that popular connection and needed to create “apologies” for dismissing it. This is the first of several demonstrations by Price that different layers of thought co-habit even single Gospels, where statements presented at one point are contradicted by material at others.

A further example of this is the inherent contradiction between the genealogies supplied by Matthew and Luke tracing Jesus’ Davidic ancestry through Joseph, and the idea of the virgin birth. The apologetic claim that these are Marian genealogies doesn’t hold water. Price shows that both evangelists, trying to reconcile conflicting interests, have rather clumsily tried to ‘compromise’ on the final link of the ancestral list, the connection between Joseph and Jesus. Or perhaps such attempts at harmonization are the work of later scribal editors. Either way, countless similar problems and indicators throughout the Gospels reveal both the variety and evolution of early Christian ideas and the very human attempts of writers and editors to force them into a coherent whole.

In a discussion of the virgin birth development, we get one of those observations which clearly show that the later evangelists are editing Mark in conformity with their own interests. Price notes that Mark mentions nothing about a virgin birth, and indeed he militates against it. In the episode of 3:20f, the fact that Jesus’ family fears he is insane would have to rule out any angelic annunciation to his parents at Jesus’ conception, such as Matthew and Luke present, since there could then have been no such later reaction by his mother and brothers as Mark portrays. Since Matthew and Luke have included an annunciation, they had to do something about this incompatible Markan element. Accordingly, Mark’s reference to the insanity fear was cut from their renditions of the incident, and Luke has deliberately softened Mark’s stark division between Jesus’ family and Jesus’ followers. The wording of redacted passages like this makes the editorial thought-processes of the writer quite transparent—at least, when one’s attention is called to it. In this book, nothing seems to escape Price’s keen eye.

But if later versions, obviously the product of editing, are inauthentic, what about the original scene in Mark? In this case, Price goes on to appeal to another motif found in plenty throughout the book: the dependence of the scene, as with so many others, on an Old Testament precedent, created through a process of midrash, the Jewish practice of drawing on scriptural themes and passages to create new stories and homilies. Mark’s scene of Jesus’ family is derived from his rewriting of the story of Moses, Zipporah, and Jethro in Exodus 18, and Price takes us through a point by point comparison of the two. While the extensive role of midrash in the construction of Mark’s passion story has been very evident to scholars for over two decades, Price has shown us, even before this book, the extent to which so many elements of the Galilean ministry are similarly derived from a midrashic plumbing of the Hebrew bible. The events of the ministry are no more reliable as passed-down memory than the features of the trial and crucifixion.

In a close examination of the two Nativity stories, Price finds that “each fails as history,” that Luke’s census idea is historically unworkable, that a host of elements parallel the Mythic Hero Archetype. So, too, do the elements of Jesus’ childhood, both in Luke’s singular incident at the Temple, and the later Infancy Gospels which expanded on such things to absurd lengths. In drawing on his criterion of “biographical analogy” Price points out the obvious: that mythic stories and their elements are common the world over because the human brain tends to operate everywhere in the same fashion, coming up with similar ideas. Thus, savior figures, divine men and virgin births crop up in many societies in many places, and there is no need or justification for regarding one expression of them as eternal truth and the rest as dismissible nonsense.

One interesting take Price offers here and in later chapters is the idea that the New Testament may contain “fossils” of disputes between early factions in the Christian movement, and these are reflected in some of the inconsistent and even contradictory elements of the Gospels. He sees a focus on two groups, those associated with the “Twelve,” the followers of Jesus, and the “Heirs,” those associated with the family of Jesus. Each may have claimed primacy of importance in the early spread of the faith, and the Gospels and even the epistles may show signs of reflecting a polarization and rivalry between two such groups in the early community. It is difficult to know whether such a picture is a later crystallization out of a less definable earlier stage. If second century conviction could make out of James a “brother” (meaning sibling) of Jesus, two such groups could come to adopt an association with certain perceived circles related to the newly-developed historical Jesus. In a discussion of “brother(s) of the Lord” in Galatians 1:19 and 1 Corinthians 9:5, and the concept of the “Twelve” as mentioned obscurely by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:5, Price explores the possibility that these terms originally had other significances, and later ‘spins’ rendered them biographically linked to an historical figure. Certainly, while rivalry abounds on the landscape Paul presents to us, no one is associated in any clear fashion with an historical Jesus or with anyone linked to him.

One discussion in this section of particular interest and insight concerns the question of Jesus’ “sonship.” Just when was Jesus perceived to have become the “Son of God”? Apologists have been traditionally hard-pressed to explain away the view that seems to be expressed in Mark and elsewhere, that Jesus only became Son of God at his baptism, the “adoptionist” interpretation. Certain Gnostics carried this further and saw the Spirit “Christ” as descending into a man Jesus at that time. When Matthew and Luke redacted Mark they made changes to the scene to avoid such an interpretation. But Price muses on a larger aspect. If Mark envisioned Jesus as becoming Son only at his baptism, his life was only of interest from that point, and thus that is where the first Gospel begins. Matthew and Luke, however, have shifted their focus back to the birth of Jesus; he was “Son of God” from his arrival in the world, and thus a whole further dimension has been added to the biography, the period from birth to baptism. John took a huge leap beyond that. He is the first evangelist to declare Jesus as pre-existent, being Son of God with the Father from the beginning of all things, and his Jesus often alludes back to that pre-incarnate cohabitation in heaven. The pattern evolves: as each additional phase is added to Jesus’ sonship, a ‘biography’ has to be supplied for it.

But the principle can be carried a step further. Price refers to Raymond E. Brown’s observation that the New Testament also reflects the position that Jesus became Son only upon his resurrection to heaven, as in Romans 1:3-4, together with allusions in Acts and even the myth of exaltation only after death in the Philippians hymn of 2:6-11. Price notes that the next stage of sonship, pushed back to the baptism, required the creation of a ministry for the Son of God in his preaching career. By the same principle, however, we ought to see that an entirely spiritual Christ operating in the supernatural dimension, once brought to earth in flesh, had to have a whole life created for him. That was the role of the Gospels, whereas no such life is in evidence in the epistles (and little of it in Q). While the content of a teaching career was heavily borrowed from the Galilean Kingdom of God movement (whose own content seen in Q owed much to Greek Cynicism and Jewish apocalyptic), the events themselves, the tissue and bones of Jesus’ activity, had to be put together from a non-historical source. That source was scripture. The fact that, as Price shows us, virtually every miracle, every pronouncement and controversy scene, within the picture of Jesus’ ministry can be shown to be a midrashic creation on scripture, argues heavily for the whole life being a work of fiction. If Jesus truly lived and operated as a miracle-working sage with apocalyptic expectations (and the first century scene fully expected and required all these elements in their prophets), it is inconceivable that something of that career would not have survived in memory and been preserved by the evangelists in their Gospels. That not a scrap of their story can be so identified leads to the inevitable conclusion that such a man did not in fact exist.


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