The scene of Jesus’ torture and death is a scriptural pastiche, and many scholars before Price have recognized this. Price calls it a rewrite of Psalm 22, though other biblical lines have been inserted into the mix. I will take the liberty of providing some examples of my own to this catalogue, and here point out a feature of the passion story which Price does not refer to, its widely recognized basis in a traditional tale found throughout centuries of Jewish literature, called by modern scholars The Suffering and Vindication of the Innocent Righteous One. To quote from my book, The Jesus Puzzle [p.246]:
This tale tells of a righteous individual who is conspired against and falsely accused, who remains obedient to God and puts trust in him, who undergoes trial and suffering, finally to be condemned to death. At the last moment, God intervenes miraculously to rescue the protagonist and he or she is vindicated, shown to have been innocent of the charge. Finally, as a reward for the ordeal, the innocent one is raised or restored to a high position at court or in the community, and the adversaries are discredited. In later versions of the tale, the protagonist actually suffers death, but is exalted in heaven after death…virtually every element of it is mirrored in the plot line of Mark’s passion account.
This model is found in the Joseph narrative in Genesis 39-41, in the Book of Esther 3, in Tobit 1:18-22, Susanna, Daniel 3 and 6, 3 Maccabees 3, 2 Maccabees 7, the Wisdom of Solomon 2-5. The latter two involve exaltation after death, to which we might add the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53, though this last does not contain the usual narrative elements present in the genre. All seem to be derived from an archetypal tale in pagan tradition called the Story of Ahiqar, which is at least as old as the fifth century BCE.
Jesus’ scourging is a midrash on passages like Psalm 22:6, “[he was] abused by all men,” Isaiah 53:3, “despised and rejected,” Isaiah 50:6-7, “I offered my back to the lash…I did not hide my face from spitting and insult,” Micah 5:1, “with a rod they strike upon the cheek the ruler of Israel.” The crown of thorns has been suggested by the thread of crimson wool laid on the head of the scapegoat in the Jewish Day of Atonement ritual.
Psalm 22:16 (LXX) and Zechariah 12:10 speak of piercing, including “hands and feet” in the former. Isaiah 53:12, “And he was numbered with the transgressors,” inspired Jesus’ placement between two thieves. Psalm 22:7-8 gave both Matthew and Mark the virtually exact wording of the taunts of the crowd as Jesus hung upon the cross. 22:18’s “They divided my garments among them and for my raiments they cast lots” was made a literal element of the scene; Psalm 69:21 produced the drink of vinegar. John has lifted verses of his own, notably surrounding the avoidance of breaking Jesus’ legs.
The prodigies attending Jesus’ death have also been inspired by scripture: Amos 8:9 is a prophecy about the Day of God’s arrival, “I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight.” Joel 2:10 suggested Matthew’s earthquake: “Before them the earth shakes, the heavens shudder.” Of course, portents attended the births and deaths of all great men in ancient legend; Price points out a close parallel to nature’s reaction to the cross found in Plutarch’s Life of Cleomenes.
Apologists, of course, have long explained such coincidences between scripture and history as God’s product. He allegedly prophesied all these things in the Old Testament books, and what happened to Jesus was a fulfillment of such prophecies. Old Testament scholars whose minds are not governed by confessional interests of the fundamentalist sort have reached no such conclusions in their study of the Hebrew texts. They find such ancient writings as demonstrably relatable to their own times and not to the distant future. The Psalms in particular are a varied collection of personal expressions, often in circumstances of distress and persecution. Price calls them “individual complaint songs” [p.321], in no way conveying prophecy. And I will offer a more general objection to the apologetic explanation, as stated in my book Challenging the Verdict: A Cross-Examination of Lee Strobel’s ‘The Case for Christ’ [p.137]:
Was the omnipotent creator of the universe playing with his creatures? To imbed in a motley collection of writings little bits and pieces of data about the future life of his Son on earth, obscured by their contexts, trivialized by their brevity, open to contradiction by their own inconsistencies, and then to expect that all people would divine and recognize a future Jesus figure who turned out to be a dramatic departure from the established expectations set up by many of those alleged prophecies? Such behavior on the part of the Deity would seem bizarre by any standard. . .
Price suggests (and others such as Robert Funk have made similar observations) that it is a “strange circumstance that no memory of the central saving event of the Christian religion survived, that when someone first ventured to tell the story of the crucifixion of the Savior, the only building blocks available for the task were various Scripture texts.” [p.322] When one compares them to references in the epistles, there has been a quantum leap in the evolution of the idea of Jesus’ death on the cross. Paul preaches only “Christ crucified” and never gives us a single detail of the Gospel account; in 1 Corinthians 2:8 he seems to be saying (as many critical scholars admit) that Jesus’ crucifixion was effected by the mythic Archons, the evil spirit entities known as “the rulers of this age” [see The Jesus Puzzle, p.100-1]. The scene in Colossians 2:14 has nothing to do with a venue on earth, and the Epistle to the Hebrews’ great discussion of Jesus’ sacrifice is placed entirely in heaven, in the Platonic higher world sanctuary. As Price puts it:
“It seems most natural to posit that, once the saving death of Jesus was tied down to specific historical circumstances, the first tellers of the tale sought to create their narrative from scriptural materials to give it scriptural gravity…” [p.322]
Thus there is no way to tell what actually happened at the death of Jesus, or even whether the crucifixion took place on earth at all. It may well have originally been a new, Jewish-oriented version of the ancient mystery cult tradition of dying and rising gods in the world of the primordial and supernatural, a redeeming death such as those of Adonis, Osiris or Dionysus, which millions in pagan society looked to for salvation and a happy eternal life.
One troubling question in New Testament research has always been: why did Mark end his Gospel where he did, with no actual resurrection appearances? (The verses now found after 16:8 are almost universally judged to be later additions, crude interpolations based on the appearance accounts of other Gospels, probably because it later seemed perplexing to Christian scribes that Mark had none. They are missing from a few early manuscripts.)
One simple explanation is that Mark knew of no such things, that tradition contained none until the later evangelists felt the lack too acutely and supplied some of their own, all of them happening to be different and largely incompatible. (Harmonization attempts are nowhere so convoluted and embarrassing as those relating to the various Gospel post-resurrection scenes.) Another explanation which Price suggests makes a lot of sense. Mark’s brief empty tomb story reflects the genre of ‘apotheosis narrative’ in Hellenistic romances of the time. There the hero turns up missing, after the accomplishment of his mission or heroic deed, and his followers and the general public decide he has ascended to be with the gods. Such tales are told of Enoch, Moses, Elijah, Hercules, Aeneas, Aristaeus, Romulus, Empedocles and Apollonius of Tyana. From this, we may reasonably conclude that Mark did not envision for Jesus a resurrection in flesh or sojourn on earth. Had he done so, or had there been any such envisioning by his community, it is inconceivable that he would have passed up supplying, or inventing, such traditions. His directive from the angel to the women, that Jesus would meet his disciples in Galilee, makes better sense as a prediction of the Parousia, Jesus’ return in spirit form at the imminent End-time, something he has promised to his disciples.
For the later evangelists, Mark’s ending would simply not do. Matthew rather lamely has Jesus appear to the women and repeat the angel’s directive, and his appearance of Jesus in Galilee (following Mark’s lead) places no stress at all on Jesus’ state. It would be difficult to tell from the passage itself that Jesus had re-assumed flesh. Luke goes much further, not only emphasizing Jesus’ corporeal nature, but relocating all the appearances to the environs of Jerusalem. Without compunction, he has overridden Mark’s Galilee location and followed his own editorial dictates, conforming to a symbolic schema in a salvation story that proceeds from Galilee to Jerusalem (where the Gospel must end), and then on to Rome in Acts’ story of the spread of the faith.
Luke’s Road to Emmaus scene follows a common mytheme of the god traveling incognito with mortals while putting them to a test. His scene of Jesus subsequently appearing to the apostles contains an apparent contradiction. Jesus appears in the room as though having passed through the walls, yet he immediately eats and invites his followers to touch his flesh to show that he is nice and solid. John expanded on this scene quite effectively. Doubting Thomas is clearly his own invention; no one else in the entire Christian record, including Paul, knows of it, though it would have been an invaluable homiletic asset toward those who would inevitably have expressed their doubts. It is also a ‘type-scene’ similar to one found in the story of Apollonius of Tyana, where one of the latter's followers cannot believe that Apollonius has returned to them. John also shows his literary dependence on his predecessors’ scenes with Mary Magdalene
Price examines Matthew’s Guard at the Tomb, modeled on Daniel 3 and 6. To think that any of this is historical is ludicrous. That the guards could be bribed by the Jewish elders to say they were asleep and risk certain death for dereliction on the job, that they would declare the disciples to have stolen the body even though they were allegedly snoozing at the time, the very fact that no other evangelist reports any of this, makes it impossible to accept. “It is just comedy,” Price says, no doubt with a shake of the head.
But shouldn’t we all be shaking our heads? It is hard for the reader to emerge from this book and not wonder how it could be that two millennia of Christianity could have been so taken in by the Gospels, duped by accounts that are so obviously storytelling, whose evolution and editorializing and barefaced doctoring of sources lie naked on their pages. What lay in the minds of writers like Matthew and Luke who simply rewrote the stories of Jesus with blatant insertion and revision? How could they think to bequeath to their readers and those who came after them such falsehood and deception? Did Luke really expect later Christians to believe that Jesus’ first appearance after rising was to two obscure followers on the Emmaus road, one whose name is not even preserved? Did he not wonder at how they would react to the obvious differences between himself and principal source he used, the Gospel of Mark? Did John not anticipate any confusion over when exactly Jesus’ death took place when he changed the day, or over the vast anomaly between the teachings of Jesus in his Gospel and that in all the others? If the author of Matthew was really a follower of Jesus, did he not expect a comeuppance from those in the community who could be expected to object at all the changes he made to Mark’s account, himself a companion of Peter who ought to have known a thing or two about what really happened?
We are almost compelled to believe that these writers were not attempting to foist a false history on their fellow believers. Either they all regarded it as allegory, having no basis in history, or else (feasibly) they did think the figure they were writing about was historical, but were creating artificial and didactic biographies to embody someone about whom very little was known—and most everybody realized it. Once the process was underway, however, the documentary record of the first few centuries of Christianity shows that wholesale and shamefaced forgery and doctoring of documents old and new, Christian and pagan, was undertaken by the Christian movement solely in the interests of advancing the faith. This extended to the documents that made up the eventual canon, especially the Gospels. In the final analysis, it may be very difficult to fathom exactly what the original evangelists were doing, and how they may have regarded their activities when they thought about them in the darkness of the night.
The Resurrection in the Epistles
With his survey of the Gospel story completed, Price comes full circle back to the documents which preceded them, documents which show little or no sign of knowing anything about the Gospel traditions. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 is often touted as Paul’s statement of the resurrection, but the anomalies are too great to accept that this has anything to do with the Gospel account. Paul’s bare statement about the death, burial and rising of Christ is the fullest picture he ever gives of such events. No Gospel details of Jesus’ life and death are to be encountered anywhere in the genuine letters of Paul, or any of the other epistles of the first century. (The one reference to Pilate appears in 1 Timothy, part of the set of Pastoral epistles which almost every critical scholar agrees are forgeries in Paul’s name and belong to the second century. The one reference to any human agency in the matter of Jesus’ death, 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16’s “the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus,” is part of a passage which contains an unmistakable reference to the destruction of Jerusalem, which happened after Paul’s passing; for this and other reasons, many critical scholars regard this passage as an interpolation.)
Price outlines the several problems associated with the 1 Corinthians passage, not the least that it implies all the “seeings” of the Christ in the list were of the same nature, namely, identical to that of Paul’s which is acknowledged to have been a visionary one of a spiritual figure. If the list is of those who had received visions of the Christ, then those “seeings” (a word in the Greek which is more at home in the context of revelation than of physical contact) are severed from the statement of Paul’s gospel in verses 3 and 4, with no necessary temporal connection. I have suggested that the phrase “according to the scriptures,” attached to the elements of death and rising, can entail the meaning of ‘as we learn from the scriptures’ and thus Paul’s gospel becomes a matter of revelation and not historical tradition. The former would be in keeping with his adamant declaration in Galatians 1:11-12, that he has received his gospel “from no man, but from a revelation of/from Jesus Christ.” This is further supported by the use of the word “received” to introduce his “Lord’s Supper” scene in 1 Corinthians 11:23, where he declares he has received the information about Jesus’ words “from the Lord himself,” again implying revelation. Since this scene is similar to that of the mystery cults, with their sacramental meals established by their savior gods very much like the Eucharist, we may relegate it to the realm of supernatural myth.
Price points out that a rising for Christ in flesh is in any case ruled out by Paul who states in the same chapter (15:44-50) that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven. As even a cursory study of that passage will show, Paul ‘defines’ Jesus as a spirit entity whose ‘body’ is the prototype for the resurrected Christian who will rise in a different form than a physical one; Paul fails to even allude to, let alone clarify, that Jesus once possessed a physical body.
Scholarship has also long recognized that the earliest Christian thinking on Jesus’ resurrection seems to have envisioned that it was a resurrection in spirit only, directly to heaven. (Compare 1 Peter 3:18.) All the scriptural passages appealed to by writers like Paul entail such a thing, and no epistle writer has anything to say about a rising in flesh or a sojourn on earth. When the later evangelists came to envision such a thing, it was restricted to a few hours on Easter Sunday. Only with Acts do we encounter a physical ascension that takes place some time after the resurrection.
As Price summarizes it, every resurrection story bears the marks of fiction, and none of them put us in touch with the faith of the earliest Christians. It is all legend, myth and authorial redaction.
But we can go even further back than Paul’s letters, and Price takes us to the very root of the Christian documentary record. Buried in Paul are a few passages now referred to as “Christological Hymns,” written at times and by people unknown prior to the period of the earliest epistles. Perhaps the most famous is the one in Philippians 2:6-11. I will quote its second half in the translation used by Price. Following the descent of Christ from heaven and his undergoing of death (no details are given of a life on earth), the hymn tells of him (italics by Price):
Therefore God has highly exalted him,
And bestowed on him the name that is above every name,
That at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow,
In heaven and on earth, and under the earth,
And every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord
To the glory of God the Father.
Other clear-sighted scholars have pointed out the great anomaly in this passage, and Price focuses on one of them, the noted mythicist from the early part of the 20th century, Paul-Louis Couchoud. Pointing out parallels in earlier religious thought about divine beings raised to heaven and glorified, Price notes that
“…all agree that the Philippians hymn does depict the divine enthronement of the vindicated Christ. But they invariably read the text as if God had bestowed on someone already called Jesus the divine title Kurios, ‘Lord,’ equivalent to Adonai in the Old Testament, often substituted in Jewish liturgy for Yahve, the divine name itself. Couchoud noticed that this is not quite what the text says. Instead, what we read is that, because of his humiliating self-sacrifice, an unnamed heavenly being has been granted a mighty name that henceforth should call forth confessions of fealty from all beings in the cosmos. At the name ‘Jesus’ every knee should bow, every tongue acknowledge his Lordship.” [p.352]
What we have in perhaps the earliest surviving words of the mystery religion that evolved into Christianity is a clear statement of the purely mythic nature of the Christ which that religion invented. It is virtually impossible to read the latter half of the hymn in any other grammatical or sensible way but that the name bestowed on the exalted figure who—in the first part of the hymn—was “in the form of God” and descended the heavenly realms to take on a “likeness” to men (interpretable in the Platonic sense of a spiritual counterpart to flesh) and undergo death, was the name “Jesus.” In the salvation mythology of the period, gods could descend to the lower spheres of the spiritual world above the earth, assume a likeness to physical forms and experience suffering and death at the hands of the evil spirits who controlled those regions (as we see in 1 Corinthians 2:6-8, and in the Ascension of Isaiah 9). The earliest belief in a saving Christ, prior to Paul and probably expanded on by him, was of a divine being who had sacrificed himself in the heavenly realm, a figure and event known entirely through scripture and revelation. So much in the epistolary record makes sense and falls into place when viewed through this lens, a lens which later became cloudy and distorted through the faith’s association with a Kingdom of God movement in Galilee and the emergence of the artificial figure of Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospels. According to an understanding like Couchoud’s of the Philippians hymn, says Price,
“there can have been no Galilean adventures of an itinerant teacher and healer named Jesus. Rather, these stories must necessarily have arisen only at subsequent stage of belief when the savior’s glorification, along with his honorific name Jesus, had been retrojected back before his death. I would suggest that only such a scenario of early Christological development can account for, first, the utter absence of the gospel-story tradition from most of the New Testament epistles,
This new viewpoint, this radical new paradigm of Christian beginnings which cuts through two millennia of disastrous misunderstanding of their own origins by millions of Christians, also makes sense of the recently uncovered Nag Hammadi Gnostic texts, which contain many references to various savior figures who were initially unassociated with Christianity or Jesus and probably even preceded him: saviors such as Derdekeas, Seth, Melchizedek, the Third Illuminator. As Price concludes,
“It would imply that the Christian Jesus was merely a more recent stage in the development of a much more ancient mythic character, just like Seth, Enosh, and the other ancient figures venerated by the Gnostics despite an utter lack, in the nature of the case, of any biographical or historical data about them.” [p.354]
Truly, in Price’s dramatic closing words to this scholarly tour-de-force, the historical Jesus has “shrunk to the vanishing point.”
The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man is available from <www.amazon.com>