BOOK AND ARTICLE REVIEWS
THE CASE FOR THE JESUS MYTH
THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING SON OF
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
science-fiction film of 1957, “The Incredible Shrinking
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
Archetype,” there is no secular information left to tie into the fabric
history. Finally, if historical evidence contradicts the Gospel
reliability must lie with the former. This includes such things as
conflicts between Josephus
and the Gospels, or anachronisms such as attributing Pharisaic presence
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,
doorway leading into a new world.
Birth and Early Life
Did it all begin on a December 25? Not likely. This was the
birth date of many contemporary gods, especially those associated with
and the first reference to it as applied to Jesus is found only in
of Rome around 200 CE. Price delves, as he will throughout The
Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, into religious mythology
beyond the immediate
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
“each fails as history,” that Luke’s census idea is historically
that a host of elements parallel the Mythic Hero Archetype. So, too, do
elements of Jesus’ childhood, both in Luke’s singular incident at the
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.
In a fascinating chapter on John the Baptist, Price casts further light on some behind-the-scenes aspects to the Gospel account of the ministry. The key is the perception that a sect following John the Baptist was a force on the Palestinian first and second century scene, and rivaled the early Christian community. The Clementine Recognitions of the third century gives us much information about it, even if the narrative itself is apocryphal. This picture shows that John the Baptist was not a herald of Jesus (certainly his sect would not have continued if he had so declared himself), and that much can be understood in the Gospels by realizing that certain elements are there to counter the influence and standing of the group tracing its allegiance to John. Traditions that John had declared himself the Messiah—or at least that his followers claimed so—are in evidence, as are the evangelists’ (or their communities’) attempts to discredit John’s stature and co-opt him for the Christian camp as a herald of Jesus. Again, little touches show the work and concerns of successive evangelists. Mark simply implies that John is Jesus’ herald by quoting—or rather, misquoting—Isaiah. (The Isaianic reference to a herald was originally referring to God, while John’s ‘proclamation’ in Mark of the arrival of someone mightier than himself was probably, in the previous Q mind, a reference to God or the apocalyptic Son of Man figure derived from Daniel 7.) Luke and John, however, go further and have the Baptist deny that he is himself the Christ. John even has him deny he is Elijah (as does Luke more subtly), the expected forerunner of the Messiah, in order to further reduce his stature. To that end, both evangelists cut Mark’s reference to John’s hair-shirt attire, since this was a traditional mark of Elijah. These later evangelists had to downplay predictions of an imminent apocalypse, since too much time had elapsed and the End-time had not arrived; Elijah’s arrival, if embodied in John, would have been for them out of place. The fourth evangelist has even inserted into the Logos hymn which now opens the Gospel a rather intrusive and insistent put-down of the Baptist (1:6-8), stating that “he was not himself the light, but came to bear witness to the light,” indicating that others were out there making the former claim. Once more we see that the Gospel writers are creating and amending in accordance with their own needs, not history or tradition.
Price also addresses the question of John the Baptist’s historical existence and the authenticity of Josephus’ reference to him in Antiquities of the Jews. As with Josephus’ famous “Testimonium” to Christ in chapter 18, redactional seams on either side of the passage in question are rather evident. Most intriguing, however, are Price’s observations that the content of Josephus’ account of John seems suspiciously over-concerned with ‘correcting’ views about John’s type of baptism. The amount of attention spent on such niceties does not ring true of Josephus. Of course, inauthenticity here would not indicate that the Baptist must be a non-historical figure, and Price examines the possibility that he was an Essene or a Zealot and what he might have genuinely taught. Certainly, the picture of John’s teaching instigated by Q and carried over into the Gospels is entirely inauthentic.
As many (including myself) have pointed out, the evolution of the scene of Jesus’ baptism through the course of the Gospels is one of the more glaring examples of a chain of editing by successive writers. Mark shows no embarrassment at the prospect of Jesus undergoing baptism himself (supposedly a ritual for forgiveness of sin), but successive evangelists were ever more uncomfortable at the thought, and the fingerprints of their own editing to allay that discomfort are ten-point matches. I hardly need to repeat them here, though Price points out a few I have not encountered before. Here we also have a good example of Price’s demonstration of Johannine dependence on one or more of the Synoptics. John’s handling of the elements of the baptism scene and the changes he has made to previous versions are clearly literary amendments and not differences of tradition or John’s use of traditions.
Price ends this chapter with an interesting excursion into the origins and role of Satan in biblical thought, leading to his examination of the Temptation Story. Suffice to say, this Gospel incident is an essential part of the Mythic Hero’s biography, a universal expression throughout the ancient world, in which the great man’s (or god’s) worth and faithfulness are tested. One of the handful of pseudo-biographical components found in Q, Matthew and Luke’s rendition of this fantasy scene are based on a midrashic treatment of Deuteronomy’s wilderness stories. Contemporary culture and Hebraic scripture: the two source geneses of the Gospel content.
as Miracle Worker
In opening his chapter on the miracles, Price reemphasizes his “principle of analogy.” “Reported events cannot be judged as ‘probably’ having occurred unless they find some counterpart in contemporary experience.” [p.131] He also restates his “biographical analogy,” in that piety everywhere embellishes the careers of heroes, especially in regard to prodigies and miracles. Since we tend to regard the embellishment of others as simply legendary, we must accord the same judgment to Jesus. In general statements like this, as well as in many specific cases, Price has a way of expressing things, of putting forward no-nonsense arguments which are not only natural and compelling, they make it difficult to champion any alternative with a straight face—or a rational mind.
On the matter of miracles, here is a good example of that contradiction within a single Gospel I spoke of. It would seem that Mark records a tradition that Jesus worked no miracles (even if he might have been capable of them). How else to explain 8:11-13: “No sign [meaning miracle] shall be given to this generation.” In support of this, Price adds a favorite of my own (and of Wells): 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, in which Paul declares that the Jews ask—evidently fruitlessly—for signs, for Paul has none to give them, not even those of an historical miracle-working Jesus. (Apologetic attempts to get around the plain meaning of the Markan declaration are contorted and unconvincing.)
And yet, Mark’s Gospel, along with the rest, is full of miracles. (The later evangelists predictably try to fudge the Markan passage.) Price demonstrates that all the major miracle scenes are once again biblical midrash. In addition, again illustrating that dual genesis mentioned above, they are close parallels to many surviving accounts of healing miracles by the demigod Asclepius venerated among the pagans. He, too, by the way, underwent a death and resurrection by Zeus and was called “Savior.” Moreover, such miraculous tales were the stock-in-trade among both Christian and non-Christian exorcists and prophets. Through magical association, the incantatory recital of the god’s name, or a miraculous incident alleged to him, during the rite of healing helped bring about that healing (Paul, Origen and Acts all testify to this). This practice would have spurred the creation of such legends attributed to the healing god by such practitioners.
A further indicator of the literary generation (rather than by tradition) of the miracle stories is their “grammar.” All follow the standard structure and elements of the wonder working tale found throughout pagan and prior biblical literature. They follow set formulas. Moreover, Jesus’ procedures in these passages never rise above those of the host of healings found in contemporary expression, most of which are simple “magic.” Price pays particular attention to the problems inherent in the Gadarene swine exorcism scene, as well as to the significant elements in the cures of gentiles, as in the Markan cure of the Syro-Pheonician woman’s daughter. Here, the symbolic connections to the Gentile Mission of a later period make such accounts not only anachronistic, they are shown to be supplied by the evangelists not as history but as allegory. Price declares [p.146] that none of the exorcism stories passes muster as historical.
Price gives detailed comparisons between several non-exorcism healings by Jesus and Old Testament counterparts, demonstrating their scriptural derivation; and he includes specific parallels in pagan traditions. This extends to the even more dramatic practice of Jesus raising the dead. The resurrection of the widow of Nain’s son in Luke 7:11-17 is clearly a midrashic plagiarism of 1 Kings’ story (17:8-24) of Elijah raising up the son of another poor widow. And its parallel in content and structure to surviving accounts of seeming resurrections by Apollonius, Asclepiades and in Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, lead one to presume that non-biblical mythologies were also influencing the evangelists’ literary creations.
Particularly instructive is the raising of Lazarus in John. Not only is this dramatic incident found nowhere else, Price points out the clear literary sources of the story, and they are part of a previous Gospel, namely Luke, indicating once again that John is dependent on Synoptic precedents. John has even turned elements of the Lukan parable of Lazarus and a rich man (-31) into an alleged historical incident.
Several of the nature miracles are shown to be non-historical. Mark’s calming of the sea is based on Jonah. Matthew’s redaction of the walking on water adds Peter to the prodigious feat as well, with the purpose of providing a lesson to the reader, not of contributing some historical element Mark had overlooked. Similar lessons are in view in the story of the fish with a coin in its mouth (Mt. 17:24f). The miraculous catch of fish as described by Luke (5:1f) and John (21:4f) betrays a derivation from a near-identical story told of Pythagoras. John goes so far as to carry over from that story the specific number of the fish count, 153, even though it serves no purpose in his version.
As for the famous Feeding of the Multitude, it is derived lock-and-stock from a similar miracle by Elisha in 2 Kings 4:42-44, in which twenty barley loaves and a number of ears of corn are stretched to feed a hundred men, with some left over. The structure of the story is identical, including small details, such as the expression of doubt by Elisha’s disciple that such a thing will be possible, which Mark places in the disciples mouths.
If Paul and Mark 8 indicate that no miracles by Jesus were circulating in early Christian preaching, the rapid invention of them through midrash and the adaptation of Hellenistic legends reveals that this lack was soon judged inadequate by audiences “willing to consider the gospel if it came wrapped in signs and wonders.” [p.160]
Ministry to the Outcasts
Ministry to the Outcasts
Another “fascinating case of traceable growth in the gospel tradition” [p.165] is found in the sequence of treatment afforded the ‘prophet in his own country’ pericope in Mark 6:1-6. First of all, the scene has square and round pegs jammed into the same hole: both a positive acclamation by the people for whom he has taught and worked wonders, and an offended reaction side by side with it, for no apparent reason other than that Jesus is a local boy. Verse 5 contains contradictory statements right in the same sentence. Price theorizes that Mark knew of a proverbial saying attributed to Jesus about the prophet not held in honor in his home town, and simply extrapolated from that a scene to embody it; he has tried to amalgamate it with another tradition of a congregation amazed at his teaching. The result is a mish-mash, one of several examples of things poorly thought out and expressed by one evangelist or another.
Price goes on to show us how later evangelists have tried to rework this scene to eliminate Mark’s problems. Luke’s attempt (-30) is clumsy, and robs the scene of “all natural motivation.” His editorial concerns and the artificiality of his version are evident; this is literary manipulation, nothing else. As for John, he has taken elements of Mark’s scene and Luke’s revision, and made an entirely different use of them, inserting them into his Bread of Life episode in chapter 6. Here, the Synoptic dichotomy of positive acclamation and negative reaction are split up (between verses 14 and 41-2); the idea of Jesus’ Lukan rebuke to the crowd () is applied at . Yet other Markan elements have been transferred even further afield to alien contexts. While all these adaptations are somewhat oblique, their common features taken in total can only spell literary borrowing, not independent tradition or even invention, which provides still further evidence that John is literarily dependent on the Synoptics.
Price analyzes the Gospel picture of Jesus’ association with the marginalized, the outcasts of society, supposedly one of the marks of Jesus’ character and message. But has this portrait of Jesus been created out of the nature of the sect itself, a group (especially its preachers) who were themselves marginalized and who appealed to the same circles of society? As Price puts it [p.169], “We will be asking which of the two we know more about: the historical Jesus or the early Christians who found reason to attribute their views to him.”
At the heart of this discussion emerges an electrifying insight. We note that the Gospels are full of references to disapproval by the Jewish authorities and onlookers to various things Jesus says and does, disapproval that turns to hatred and a desire to kill. Yet, Price asks, why would “the Jews” have found reason to disapprove of a mission to sinners, an urging to repentance, an offering of salvation by God to all who sought it, no matter under what circumstances? The Gospel portrayal of such Jews is truly “horned” and too many Christians over the millennia have bought it. But what if the Jews of the Gospels are really artificial foils for Jesus? What if those they represent are not Jews, but the more conservative Christians of the sect itself who object to some of the liberal stances of their fellows? By this measure, the portrayal of the controversy episodes involving Jews is symbolic of the intra-sectarian conflicts of Christians themselves. The scenes are allegories to provide lessons to the reader, to dissuade those conservatives (alluded to in Paul as the “false brethren” of Galatians 2:4?) to lighten up, lest they be tarred with the same brush as the literary antagonists of Jesus?
Again, as Price points out, the Gospels have been constructed to serve the needs of the day, but that day lies beyond any time of Jesus. It belongs to the period of the Gentile Mission, the later period of which the time of Paul’s letters is perhaps the initial phase. This is the great dispute: what were the requirements for the gentile convert to be, especially in regard to the Law? How to cope with the widespread conservative impulse to (re-)Judaize gentile Christianity? Such inter-Christian debates may well have been symbolically rendered by the evangelists as disputes between Jesus and “the Jews.”
Thus, the Jesus of the Gospels serves late first and early second century conditions. Indeed, there is no need for him to be based on an historical figure at all. The evangelists can be seen to construct their stories not as history but as lessons for their communities, using a symbolic character and employing midrash on the Hebrew bible to fashion their scenes. It is all “a tissue of pious fictions.” [p.181]
Mainstream scholars have long acknowledged that great problems
uncertainty surround the picture of the twelve apostles in the Gospels.
regards the latter tradition as growing out of a group of pioneer
who may have overlapped with others involved in the early Christian
In the epistles there is no reference to a group tied to an historical
and Paul’s one mention of “the Twelve” (1 Cor. 15:5) is obscure. Were
they a founding
body of the messianic community in
Here Price addresses the figure of the apostle Judas for the first time. If all the signs point to the artificiality and literary basis of this character, this gives rise to a telling question. If, in the context of an historical Jesus, Judas never existed, how could his introduction into the picture of the Twelve not give rise to objection? There could have been in the Markan community and elsewhere no living memory of the Twelve, else an evil figure like Judas could never have been placed in its ranks.
The portrait of the disciples of Jesus varies dramatically from Gospel to Gospel; Matthew and Luke, disliking the “dunces” image Mark conveys, have altered their own pictures of them. The lists of their names are inconsistent; some of the names are the work of the evangelists, not tradition. There is even uncertainty about what or how many figures may originally have been represented by “Simon,” “Peter” and “Cephas.” The saying found only in Matthew (16:18) about Peter as the “rock” on which the church will be built may reflect an amalgamation of multiple characters, and is in any case built on a rabbinical statement about Abraham, on whom God said: “Behold, I have found the petra on which to build and base the world.” (See page 188.) Matthew, more than any other Gospel, reflects a Jewish-oriented outlook and evinces much derivation from Jewish precedents. The championing of Peter may well reflect the differing and even competing philosophies of the various Gospel and other communities, in that Peter could have come to be associated with a trend in some circles to be faithful to the Jewish heritage.
Price examines the traditions about the various other apostles and their reliability, noting that the summoning scenes are based on Elijah’s recruitment of Elisha in 1 Kings 19:19-21. The varied picture of the apostles may reflect different attitudes toward them in rival circles; while Mark’s followers of Jesus are unreservedly dense, perhaps to serve his didactic purposes, later evangelists will not accept such negativity and largely erase those aspects of Mark’s portrait. Price suggests that the scene of Peter’s denial of Jesus in the passion story may be a survival of an anti-Peter concoction that Mark preserves or sympathizes with, though my own leaning is to see it as a lesson to the reader that even the greatest of Christians can fall in a weak and fearful moment and still be forgiven (although Mark actually says little about a redemption of what are a pretty miserable set of disciples.)
The "Hinayana" and
In some ways, these two chapters are the heart of Price’s book.
unfamiliar terms refer to the two “paths” of Buddhism. The Hinayana is
narrow, elite path followed by the dedicated disciple who has committed
life and sacrificed everything for the faith and its propagation. The
is the broader path followed by the more general population of the
the supportive “lay” element who still live within the world and offer
strict commitment to the principles of the elite. While we may be
here a case of that phenomenon of wider expression within the human
no external connections operating, Price views it as possible that
influence (centuries older than Christianity) may have reached the
An analysis of Q, as recently presented in John Dominic Crossan’s The Birth of Christianity, shows that the Kingdom of God movement was comprised of a core of itinerant prophets who traveled from place to place, supported by a more extensive laity of “householders” who gave them food and lodging and tried to follow a less extreme lifestyle of commitment to the movement’s principles. This picture we can glean not only from Q, but from the Didache, and of course the Gospels themselves, which seem to have variously grown out of a Q-type milieu in the Galilean-Syrian region. And because a close connection has been perceived between the Q message and lifestyle and that of the Cynics, we can perceive a similar system operating on the Hellenistic scene. These are multiple expressions of that common human propensity, though the evidence suggests that the Galilean Q movement actually borrowed from the Greek Cynics.
Price voices again the result of identifying so much of the Gospel sayings as rooted in Cynic-style philosophy, especially the Q1 layer which the Jesus Seminar likes to regard as authentic to a genuine Jesus. The criterion of dissimilarity has to set such sayings aside as unreliable. And with so much derived from other sources, Jesus is reduced at best to a borrower, with no distinctive voice, which does not accord with the dramatic impact he is alleged to have made. Price makes a penetrating suggestion, that “the Q redactors eventually [tried] to distance themselves from the Cynic origin of their material by attributing it to the name of Jesus.” [p.215] I would carry the suggestion a simple step further (which may be in Price’s mind anyway): did those redactors invent the figure of Jesus to supply a supposedly Jewish origin for their ethics and practices?
A further question suggests itself. Whether some sort of historical Jesus lies at the base of the Q movement or not, what does any of this have to do with the crucifixion, with Jesus as savior of the world through a sacrificial death and triumphant resurrection? The two aspects of what became full-blown Christianity seem to come from separate planets. In Q itself, no redemptive role is given to the Jesus who seems to emerge only in the later stages of that document’s evolution, nor is he ever referred to as the Messiah. Price refers to the itinerant prophets of the Gospels (based on those of Q) as “imitators of Christ” [p.225-6] and his “vicars” [p.221]. My only reservation is that an association to a Christ is nowhere in evidence in Q. In the Didache, a document based on some dimension of the Q movement, the term appears in a very restricted fashion only in the thanksgiving meal prayers and in a passing reference to disdained “peddlers of Christ.” There is no association of an historical Jesus in the Didache (indeed such a figure appears not at all) with the Christ entity. The eventual Gospel linkage would seem to be an artificial one.
Mark’s reflection of the Hinayana/Mahayana dichotomy, standing as he does in closer proximity to the Q heyday, is smoothed out by the later evangelists who may have found it less relevant for their times. John’s rewrite (3:1-21) of the Markan scene in -27 where Jesus tells the rich burger what he must do to be saved, once again demonstrates his dependence on the Synoptics. Moreover, his version hinges on a pun that is only possible in Greek. This “born again” scene (the idea is not present in Mark) is John’s own literary construction. And it is based on his community’s brand of thinking. The “rebirth” and resultant salvation to eternal life is accomplished not by certain ethical behaviors, but by ritual practice, a sacramentalism of “water and spirit” (3:5), the former referring to baptism. And by faith itself.
This, as Price points out, is the mark of a later community (following universal patterns of sectarian evolution), when the initial period of commitment to higher standards of righteousness is replaced by reliance on sacraments and simple belief, as fervor slips back to more relaxed, mainstream values and organized religion takes over. It is the “shift from sect to church” [p.229], placing the fourth Gospel at the furthest remove from the formative period. Indeed, all the Gospels reflect features that are removed from such a period and cannot be attributed to Jesus.
Relation of Jesus to Judaism
The Relation of Jesus to Judaism
Price points out that the modern trend of Christology is to interpret Jesus as Jewish as possible; this helps further the ‘ecumenism’ between Judaism and Christianity, as well as obscure the other influences on Christianity such as Hellenism and the mystery cults. To some extent, the evangelists were doing the same. The great debates focused on the continuing relevance of the Jewish Torah, and Matthew carries furthest the trend to retain the Jewish heritage even though, ironically, he is the most anti-Jewish of the evangelists. (It is said that civil wars are the most brutal and bloody; one feels the most inimical toward those closest to you who nevertheless reject the way you see things. Parents tend to disown the religiously wayward child more than their similar neighbor.)
Price provides a survey of all the religious elements of current Jewish society and their beliefs—Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Samaritans, charismatics—as background to his examination of Jesus’ portrayal in the Gospels in regard to Jewish issues. Matthew’s desire to paint Jesus as the “new Torah” governs the entire structure of his Gospel, and an artificial creation it is, full of anachronisms and misrepresentations of the Jewish religious authorities. Indeed, all the Gospels fall into this trap. In many of the controversy episodes, such as those surrounding the observance of the Sabbath, or the continued relevance of the purity laws, the evangelists attribute to Jesus’ opponents views which such groups did not in fact hold. Such conflicts often involve anachronisms, in that they embody controversies relevant to the later church and not to the time of Jesus or the earliest phase of Christianity.
Add other considerations such as the criterion of dissimilarity, and doubt is cast on the authenticity of all the teachings of Jesus on Judaism and the Torah found in the Gospels. The various Christian groups they represent made or remade Jesus in accord with their own views—as modern theologians still do.
The Anointed One
What was the Messiah concept? Price calls it the “royal
ideology” of the
Davidic monarchy. All kings of
The idea of a future Messiah arose only after the conquest of
As for the famous “Suffering Servant Song” of Isaiah 53, from
Christians were to glean so much for their picture of the Christ,
nothing in it
refers to a hope for a coming Messiah. While Old Testament scholars see
interpretations in terms of current post-exilic issues, Price sees the
servant” a characterization of the returning aristocracy from exile, a
righteous remnant who suffered on behalf of the ordinary sinners who
Price will show that all the indicators in the Gospels that
claimed to be the Messiah are unreliable, and that such claims would
have been made on his behalf after his passing. In comparison, he
points to the
modern example of the late American Rabbi Schneerson, who preached the
of the Messiah and after his death was declared to have been
the Messiah by his followers. For even this extent of things
to be true of Jesus, it is a virtual necessity that he would have to at
have preached about the Messiah, as
Schneerson did. Such teaching is difficult to authenticate, however.
prominent apocalyptic piece in the Gospels, Mark 13 and its reworkings
evangelists, is identifiable as midrash in all its details, “a cento of
[p.277]. Luke has even changed it to dampen apocalyptic expectation,
is writing at a later time when the return of Jesus is no longer
imminent. Both sides of the question have put words into Jesus’ mouth
to reflect their
interests and expectations. Price shows that in all the sayings that
In a discussion of the “Son of Man” references in the Gospels, we see that they actually comprise a mix of meaning: the first, the traditional usage by bible writers as a term referring simply to a human being; but the second has taken on the status of a heavenly figure derived from the “one like a son of man” in the apocalyptic scene of Daniel 7 (verse 13). While there is much debate over the meaning intended by Daniel’s author, it is pretty clear that by the latter first century CE, certain circles were rendering it as some kind of End-time figure who would arrive to judge the world. Price shows that all allusions to the latter in the Gospels are derived midrashically from Daniel , in combination with Psalm 110:1 and Zechariah , and thus are the product of the evangelists. There is nothing to indicate they should be assigned to Jesus himself. Paul, for all his focus on the End and the coming of the Lord (neither he nor any other epistle writer ever calls it a “return”), never refers to the Son of Man at all, let alone in association with Jesus.
In some Jewish writings of the latter years of the first century, we find mention of the Son of Man in some kind of messianic context, as in 4 Ezra and 1 Enoch’s Similitudes, where he is a future apocalyptic figure. The idea seems to have been born in the Galilean community, where earlier layers of Q present a Son of Man who is not associated with any past or present person, let alone a preacher of the wisdom sayings of Q1. When a Jesus, later in the document’s evolution, has the ‘coming Son of Man’ sayings placed in his mouth and applied to himself, he still sounds like he is speaking of someone else.
Thus, all sayings of Jesus identifying himself as the Messiah or Son of Man, or preaching the end of the world, are suspect or revealed as later creations. If so, it is unlikely he was declared Messiah on his death (unlike the case of Rabbi Schneerson). To return to an earlier thought, if Jesus did not do or preach such things, what would have led to his deification? If Jesus did or said anything original, why is none of it genuinely preserved? If he did not, why did he not pass into obscurity at his death? I suggest the only feasible explanation is that he did not exist and was created later, and a biography was put together through midrash and other borrowings.
The self-declaration before Caiaphas, placed by Mark in Jesus’ mouth (and the High Priest’s), is clearly artificial, a piece of midrash designed to lump all the principle messianic features accorded to Jesus into one exchange: Messiah, Son of God, and Son of Man, with reference to the latter’s coming on “the clouds of heaven,” drawing on the phrase in Daniel 7:13. As for the great “Who do men say that I am?” scene in Mark 8:27-33, it is demonstrably a Markan fiction, expanding on Mark’s earlier scene in -16, there regarding John the Baptist. Other sayings relating to Jesus’ claims about himself also fall from grace, all of them betraying signs of anachronism and doctoring of earlier versions by later evangelists.
Price asks the question [p.286]: “How did a wandering teacher
come to be
identified as the Messiah of Israel, David’s latter-day successor, when
is no evidence of his claiming to be such, and when nothing he is
doing has the least resemblance to military action?” At the same time,
points out that the term “Christ” in Paul is treated like a second
nowhere in the epistles is the term “necessarily or even likely an
the heir to the throne of Israel and Judah.” In seeking to answer such
question in the context of an historical Jesus, Price suggests that
have been associated not with messianism but with the idea of
the king in his relation to the dying and rising mytheme of the ancient
East. “Anointing” is a motif in the resurrection stories of the
of Egyptian Osiris, even of Aeneas in the Roman poet Ovid. The kings of
I would suggest that if the historical Jesus is someone Paul and
epistle writers know nothing about, they have adopted the term “Christ”
name/title for their newly perceived (from scripture) divine Son of God
not yet set foot on earth. (Jewish mainstream exegesis on the “Anointed
passages in the bible have led them in one direction, toward a
human restoration figure, while early Christian cultists like Paul,
influences, have gone in another direction and interpreted the
“Messiah” as signifying
a heavenly salvation deity of the Hellenistic sort, newly revealed by
God.) He is to arrive at
End-time in a manner very similar to that of the Son of Man envisioned
creation arrives at its climax when Jesus reaches
The scene opens on Palm Sunday. Did Jesus offer himself as the Messiah of Israel? In typical fashion, the later evangelists have ‘intensified’ a Markan scene. Jesus’ entry into
The Cleansing of the
When they get to the Last Supper, the evangelists cannot even agree on whether to represent it as a Passover meal. The scene owes more to ritual meals of the mystery cults than any Jewish precedent. Most Jews would have been horrified at the blasphemous thought of eating and drinking the flesh and blood of God. Nor can the evangelists agree on Jesus’ Words of Institution. Different manuscripts of the Gospels show much scribal modification of this key element. There is not even agreement on how to view Christian soteriology (theory of salvation). Mark’s “ransom soteriology” in 10:45, Jesus as the ransom for many (which may be little more than an extension of the view expressed in 2 & 4 Maccabees that the suffering and death of martyrs for the Law had an ‘atoning’ merit for the Jewish people), has been virtually erased by Luke. John has no establishment of a eucharist at his final supper, and the element has been translated into the mystical Bread of Life sermon in chapter 6. Neither the death nor the resurrection is designated by John as the mechanism by which eternal life is guaranteed.
And what of Judas? When Dante created his picture of Hell, he needed an archfiend to place in Satan’s mouth. Who else but Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of the Son of God? The runners-up were Brutus and Cassius, betrayers of the great Julius Caesar. But whereas we have good evidence that the latter two were historical, all the evidence points to Judas being a fictional creation of Mark. His role in Jesus’ arrest—a kiss on the cheek to identify the Master—makes little sense. It looks like Mark is simply coming up with something for him to do. Nor does any evangelist attempt to provide a motivation for the betrayal. Price points out that the scene often pointed to—the anointing at
That Judas’ role has been facilitated by scriptural midrash is suggested by passages like Obadiah 7, “Your confederates mislead you and bring you low,” and Psalm 41:9, “Even the friend whom I trusted, who ate at my table, has lifted up his heel against me.” The thirty pieces of silver is Matthew’s midrash on Zechariah 11:12: “And they weighed out as my wages thirty shekels of silver,” money which the prophet rejected, casting it “into the treasury in the house of the Lord.” The latter contributed to Matthew’s scene of Judas’ remorse and suicide.
The arrest scene itself has probably been inspired by 2 Kings 1:9-15, Elijah being arrested by Samaritan guards. While Jesus does not call down fire from heaven to incinerate the arrest party, Mark does have one of his followers strike off the ear of the High Priest’s servant. True to form, later evangelists embellish this element. Luke has Jesus graciously heal the ear, while John supplies the information that it was Peter who did the cutting, and the name of the servant, one Malchus. This sort of embellishment by successive evangelists is found throughout the Gospels, and the problem with regarding this as a case of differing traditions coming to different writers, is that the pattern is always consistent. Mark has the basic information and later evangelists (especially John, when he decides to preserve a given incident at all) have the further details. In the passion story, we see this notably in regard to the behavior of the two thieves crucified with Jesus and the ‘bio’ of Joseph of Arimathea. If it were a case of differing traditions reaching different writers, we would not see such a consistent pattern; sometimes Mark would have more of the details than others. This, however, is almost never the case.
In the arrest scene, however, Mark does have one detail no one else has picked up on. Scholars have long been curious about the final element of this episode. After Jesus has been taken into custody and the disciples have deserted him, Mark tells us (14:51-52): “Among those following was a young man with nothing on but a linen cloth. They tried to seize him; but he slipped out of the linen cloth and ran away naked.” Who is this person? Mark offers no explanation, and no further reference is made to him. Why is he mentioned, especially in this bizarre fashion? One scholar whose name escapes my memory built a case on this little enigma which postulated that Jesus was a homosexual, and this young man was somehow involved in such activities with him!
Price has a simple solution, and the only one I’ve seen that makes any sense. Like everything else in Mark’s passion story, it is a piece of midrash—completely gratuitous admittedly, since it does nothing to further the plot or support any editorial leaning. But it shows the extent of scriptural governance in the workings of the evangelists’ minds. Price suggests that Mark has read a verse in Amos 2:16 that he feels has prophetic significance: “In that day the strong man shall flee away naked.” He felt impelled to reflect it in his text, even though it served no purpose. Those who redacted Mark did not feel the same compulsion and simply cut it.
As noted above, Jesus’ answer to the High Priest reflects a midrash on Psalm 110:1, Zechariah 12:10 and Daniel 7:13. But a further consideration makes this not only an artificial construction, it is anachronistic as well. Price argues that Jews, not even the religious authorities, would regard someone’s claim to be the Messiah as “blasphemy” deserving death, which is what Mark’s Caiaphas declares. Nor would the Sadducee religious hierarchy have had any interest in—or likely even knowledge of—the figure of the Son of Man, let alone regard a claim by Jesus to be this entity as of any concern to them. Even the term “son of the living God,” placed in the mouth of the High Priest and commonly associated with the Davidic kings, being virtually synonymous with Messiah (Anointed), is an anomaly, for Caiaphas would be very unlikely to have known that Jesus was making claims to be an actual divine Son of the Father. Indeed, Mark’s motif of the messianic secret indicates that Jesus has supposedly concealed any such claims. Rather, all these things reflect the interests of Mark’s later community. He has retrojected the Hellenistic god-man view of Jesus to an earlier time. As Price puts it [p.311], “The Sanhedrin is depicted as condemning Christian Christology in the person of Jesus.”
When one adds all the implausibilities often pointed out about the trial before the Sanhedrin, such as its highly unlikely meeting on the very night of Passover, Mark’s entire scene is rendered unquestionably fictional and his own invention. The beating Jesus receives at the hands of the elders and their lackeys is shown to be derived from 1 Kings 22:24-27, which serves to provide the narrative context for his Christological declaration of 14:61-62.
The trial before Pilate simply does not ring true. Pilate is known historically to have been a no-nonsense governor of considerable cruelty who had no patience with suspected rebels or troublemakers, let alone with
In any case, there is once again a literary precedent for the trial scene which Mark could have used, this time not from scripture but from Josephus: the account of Jesus ben-Ananias, the mad prophet of the run-up to the Jewish War whose story matches Jesus’ days in
Luke alone has Jesus sent to Herod Antipas for a kind of ‘side-trial’ and this scene too is full of difficulties. Pilate hopes to transfer responsibility for the case to Herod, and Herod actually finds him innocent as well. As Price asks, why then wasn’t Jesus simply released? Pilate could certainly have appealed to Herod’s acquittal if he needed anything to excuse such an action. But again, Pilate is dissuaded by the crowd. The whole thing is a literary construction, and a not too careful one at that. The ever-expanding emphasis placed by successive writers on Pilate’s insistence that Jesus is innocent makes it that much more unlikely that he would bow to the rabble’s demands.
Incidentally, J. D. Crossan sees the Herodian hearing as Luke’s midrashic expression of Psalm 2, centering on the verse: “The kings of the earth stand ready, the rulers conspired together against the Lord and his Anointed.” Luke even notes that from that day Herod and Pilate became friends, driving home the ‘conspirator’ element.
Jesus’ torture and death is a scriptural pastiche, and many scholars
Price have recognized this. Price calls it a rewrite of Psalm 22,
biblical lines have been inserted into the mix. I will take the liberty
providing some examples of my own to this catalogue, and here point out
feature of the passion story which Price does not refer to, its widely
recognized basis in a traditional tale found throughout centuries of
literature, called by modern scholars The Suffering and Vindication of
Innocent Righteous One. To quote from my book, The Jesus
tale tells of a righteous individual who is conspired against and
accused, who remains obedient to God and puts trust in him, who
and suffering, finally to be condemned to death. At the last moment,
intervenes miraculously to rescue the protagonist and he or she is
shown to have been innocent of the charge. Finally, as a reward for the
the innocent one is raised or restored to a high position at court or
community, and the adversaries are discredited. In later versions of
the protagonist actually suffers death, but is exalted in heaven after
death…virtually every element of it is mirrored in the plot line of
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.
Psalm (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 and darken the earth in broad daylight.” Joel 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. . .
(and others such as Robert Funk have made similar observations) that it
“strange circumstance that no memory of the central saving event of the
Christian religion survived, that when someone first ventured to tell
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
the epistles, there has been a quantum leap in the evolution of the
Jesus’ death on the cross. Paul preaches only “Christ crucified” and
gives us a single detail of the Gospel account; in 1 Corinthians 2:8 he
to be saying (as many critical scholars admit) that Jesus’ crucifixion
effected by the mythic Archons, the evil spirit entities known as “the
of this age” [see The Jesus Puzzle,
p.100-1]. The scene in Colossians 2:14 has nothing to do with a venue
and the Epistle to the Hebrews’ great discussion of Jesus’ sacrifice is
entirely in heaven, in the Platonic higher world sanctuary. As Price
“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]
question in New Testament research has always been: why did Mark end
where he did, with no actual resurrection appearances? (The verses now
16:8 are almost universally judged to be later additions, crude
based on the appearance accounts of other Gospels, probably because it
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,
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
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.
Resurrection in the
of the Gospel story completed, Price comes full circle back to the
which preceded them, documents which show little or no sign of knowing
about the Gospel traditions. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 is often touted as
statement of the resurrection, but the anomalies are too great to
this has anything to do with the Gospel account. Paul’s bare statement
the death, burial and rising of Christ is the fullest
he ever gives of such events. No Gospel details of Jesus’
life and death are to be encountered
in the genuine letters of Paul, or any of the other epistles of the
century. (The one reference to Pilate appears in 1 Timothy, part of the
Pastoral epistles which almost every critical scholar agrees are
Paul’s name and belong to the second century. The one reference to any
agency in the matter of Jesus’ death, 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16’s “the
killed the Lord Jesus,” is part of a passage which contains an
reference to the destruction of Jerusalem, which happened after Paul’s
for this and other reasons, many critical scholars regard this passage
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):
has highly exalted
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
Christianity is a clear statement of the purely mythic nature of the
which that religion invented. It is virtually impossible to read the
half of the hymn in any other grammatical or sensible way but that the
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
in the Platonic sense of a spiritual counterpart to flesh) and undergo
was the name “Jesus.” In the salvation mythology of the period, gods
descend to the lower spheres of the spiritual world above the earth,
likeness to physical forms and experience suffering and death at the
the evil spirits who controlled those regions (as we see in 1
2:6-8, and in the Ascension of Isaiah 9). The earliest belief in a
Christ, prior to Paul and probably expanded on by him, was of a divine
who had sacrificed himself in the heavenly realm, a figure and event
entirely through scripture and revelation. So much in the epistolary
sense and falls into place when viewed through this lens, a lens which
became cloudy and distorted through the faith’s association with a
“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, and second, the fictive, nonhistorical character of story after story in the Gospels.” [p.353]
“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]
The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man is available from <www.amazon.com>
Return to Home Page