Review of R.G. Price’s Deciphering the Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed

In his 2018 book, Deciphering the Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed, R.G. Price falls into the trap that is everpresent for independent scholars: not having sufficiently ‘read around’ the topic. Price erroneously bases his argument on and takes for granted the integrity of the current versions of the Pauline letters and Acts, and the purported ‘messianic fervor’ of the Judean people in the First Jewish War.

The Pauline letters

The integrity of the Pauline letters has been seriously contested by Robert M. Price in The Amazing Colossal Apostle (2012). Robert M. Price identifies multiple layers in the letters, based on voice, literary style, religious viewpoint, anachronous doctrine, etc. Most of these edits to the original forms of the Letters of Paul were made in the second century, after Mark wrote. I find Robert M. Price’s method of analysis valid, and his insights illuminating.* It is impossible that Mark knew by the Pauline letters as we currently have them. And therefore the apparent parallels between the Gospel of Mark and the Letters of Paul can be explained by second-century editing to conform the (already-edited Letters of Paul) to the older and now-foundational story of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. No, Mark did not imitate the Letters of Paul, as RG Price claims.

No messianic fervor

Second, the purported messianic fervor of the Judean people and their disappointment with the failure of the First Jewish War, is not borne out by a major scholarly history of the War. Steve Mason’s 2016 book, A History of the Jewish War, A.D. 66-74 shows that the “war” was blown up into massive proportions by the Flavian emperors (to support their claim on the imperium) and by their house historian, Josephus. In fact, the war began as a police action in Galilee, and later consisted almost entirely of the pacification of Jerusalem. It is clear from Mason’s work that the ‘messiahs’ of the Judeans were several bandit warlords who attracted small followings (relative to the entire people of Judea), most of whom remained quiescent throughout the ‘war.’ Two of these warlords were taken to Rome to serve the Flavian triumph in the role of ‘defeated kings.’ RG Price has fallen victim to the assumption that the war was fought for messianic reasons, and many Judean people were disappointed by the results. His assumption allows him to take the stylistically incoherent and obviously edited** Olivet Discourse in the Gospel of Mark as entirely original to Mark. Price asserts that “Mark’s primary purpose was to defend the vision of Christianity championed by Paul the Apostle against his ‘Judaizing’ opponents, [in light of the outcome of the Fist Jewish-Roman War]….I think the writer of Mark was a follower of Paul, who saw in the outcome of the war proof that Paul had been right. I think the writer’s view was, ‘See, if they had listened to Paul none of this would have happened,’ or perhaps, ‘This was destined to happen, in accordance with Paul’s gospel.’ It was the defeat of the Jews and the destruction of the temple that precipitated the need to defend Paul’s vision.” – RG Price, Deciphering the Gospels, p. 61.

Acts is not objective history

I am sympathetic to Price’s goal of proving that the Jesus of the Gospel of Mark was a fictional character. However, Price asserts that Paul was an apostle of Mark’s Jerusalem congregation, which had a heavenly Jesus prior to the Jewish War. The most immediate problem with that scenario is that Price takes the Book of Acts at face value. But Acts is an ideal history, not objective history. It was written by the orthodox in the mid-second century to authorize founders of Jesus-movement congregations (as ‘apostles’) and to incorporate “Paul” into the movement’s founding story. Everything we ‘know’ about Paul comes from orthodox sources (the orthodox-edited Letters and Acts). We cannot take them literally, as Price does.

Mark and Paul independently had a heavenly Jesus

I think that the heavenly Jesus we find in the Letters of Paul and in the Gospel of Mark had independent origins. That is, Mark had a heavenly Jesus because Mark’s congregation was very likely descended from the sect that had the Letter to the Hebrews, with its heavenly high priest (anointed one/Christ). The original of the Letters of Paul, if any existed in Mark’s time (which both RG Price and I see as the late first century), in my view were Hypsistarian tracts that were Samaritan in inspiration. (Later, Marcion adopted and refined these tracts into the first canon of the Letters of Paul. The orthodox then revised Marcion’s canon into the canon of Christianity.)*** Mark would not have known about the Hypsistarian tracts; if he did, he would not have paid any attention to them. His heritage was likely Alexandrian, where the resident Judeans had a long history of syncretistic thought and interpretation. Mark would have had nothing to do with a splinter sect of Asian Gentiles.

Mark didn’t create a puzzle for his readers

RG Price makes another misstep, in my view, when he asserts that Mark wrote his Gospel as a puzzle of assembled Scriptural sources for his readers “to be able to decipher and understand.” It is true that Mark chose a pastiche of Scripture to assemble his story. But it does not follow that Mark intended to play a game with readers. First, by Price’s own theory, Mark wrote to blame Judean Christians and therefore his readership would have soon become Gentile Christians. They could not be expected to have the same level of Scriptural knowledge as educated Judeans and therefore the puzzle would be too difficult for them! Second, few people in any congregation would have had the time and the inclination to play this game with a text that had no immediate value to them in their daily religious life. Why would they bother to read it at all? Third, why did Mark create a new literary genre? If Mark wanted to transfer the Jesus movement (and whatever promises Jesus had for people) from Judeans to Gentiles, why didn’t he use an existing literary genre already familiar to his readers? Fourth, there is no evidence for a Gentile-focused congregation of the Jesus movement in Jerusalem that would have preserved Mark’s gospel and transmitted it into the mainstream of orthodoxy. The biblical record has no record of any proto-Christian congregations in Judea after the Jewish War! (Even if one accepts Acts as true history, which I do not.) Yet history requires that this congregation preserved the Gospel of Mark and transmitted it to Luke and Matthew. This hypothetical congregation should have been at the center of orthodoxy! Again, there is no evidence for it.

My proposal for Mark’s life-situation and purpose

I offer a different scenario for Mark’s life-situation and purpse that solves all these problems. I place Mark after the Jewish War in a Judean congregation in Rome, with Gentile members. I propose that Mark wrote for a Gentile patron, which explains why he gave a pro-Gentile slant to the Gospel (a slant that may have been significantly skewed from the congregational norm). I explain that Mark used references from Scripture because the congregation was majority Judean, educated and syncretistic, and saturated with Judean education. They already spoke about scenarios from Scripture that related to Jesus from the pulpit. They already understood their Jesus/Joshua (the new Moses) fulfilled Scripture by giving them a symbolic interpretation of the Law. Mark did not need to know Paul in order to have a heavenly Jesus, because his congregation had already had a heavenly Jesus inherited from Alexandrian thinkers. As for Mark’s motivation to write the Gospel at all, I propose that Mark first wrote a play on behalf of the congregation’s Gentile patron. He wrote after the Jewish War, but he didn’t write because of disappointment caused by the Jewish War. (His congregation, in fact, had already given up on the value of the earthly Temple, and placed their religious hopes in the heavenly Temple and Jesus as heavenly high priest!) As for the (apparently) new literary genre of the Gospel, that can be explained as Mark’s narratization of the performed play. The text we have is a preserved play. It memorializes the benefaction, the production of a new play for the benefactor’s congregation. Memorialization was Mark’s primary purpose in writing the text, even if he had to create a new literary genre to do so. (Actually, we don’t know if this was a new genre; it just happens to be the only preserved play we know of to survive.)

Summary

It is unfortunate that R.G. Price has taken things for granted that he should not have: the historical integrity of the received texts of Acts and the Letters of Paul, and the myth that the First Roman Jewish War was a mass uprising by disaffected Judeans. Price’s interpretation of Mark’s purpose and life-situation are not borne out by the history of proto-Christianity. I suppose that some readers will find valuable his catalogue of Scriptural sources for the Gospel of Mark. But it is not comprehensive (no list could be!) and such catalogues can be found elsewhere. Michael Turton’s Historical Commentary on the Gospel of Mark is an excellent, mythicist-compatible source. For a popular work that argues for a mythical Jesus, I recommend David Fitzgerald’s Jesus: Mything in Action (vols I-II). I cannot recommend Deconstructing the Gospels by R.G. Price to any reader.


*For illustration, here are some of Robert M. Price’s judgments regarding the received text of the Letter to the Romans (16 chapters). You can see that the text is a patchwork:

1:1-4: “A Catholic interpolation”

1:8-17: “A fragment of an actual letter from Marcion himself”

1:18-2:29: “The text of a Hellenistic Jewish synagogue sermon”

3:1-24: “Catholic-retooled Paulinism”

5:1-11: “Part of some Gnostic treatise or letter”

5:12-21: “A Catholic interpolation”

6:1-10: “A mystery-religion sacramentalism”

6:15-23: “Marcionite”

7:1-6: “Pure Marcionism”

7:7-25: “A mitigating, mediating pro-Catholic gloss on the Law.”

– Robert M. Price, The Amazing Colossal Apostle, pp. 254-271.

**Why do I think that the current version of the Olivet Discourse in the Gospel of Mark has been edited? It is a speech by Jesus, the longest in the Gospel. People in antiquity were connoisseurs of speech. But the speech as we have it is incoherent. It is not worthy of its audience. In my book, The Two Gospels of Mark: Performance and Text, p. 107, I ask the reader to read the first few verses, 13:5-12. Then cover them and summarize them. Can you do it? Is the speaker building up to a point? What is that point? Can you predict the topic of the next few verses? If you can’t do it, the audience for the original Gospel of Mark couldn’t. This little exercise is sufficient to show that the Gospel of Mark has been edited. And therefore, we cannot trust that the overt references to the First Jewish War were original to Mark. They could have been (and I believe were) added by an editor.

***I hope some day to present my theory of the Hypsistarian origin of “Paul” and its erasure in a series of posts on this blog.

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