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 ever-present for independent scholars: not having sufficiently ‘read around’ the topic. Price erroneously bases his argument on and takes for granted the integrity of the received versions of the Pauline letters and Acts, and also the purported ‘messianic fervor’ of the Judean people in the First Jewish War.

The Pauline letters

The integrity of the Pauline letters is 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. (See examples at the end of this post.*) It is impossible that Mark knew and imitated the Pauline letters as we currently have them. A better explanation of the apparent parallels between the Gospel of Mark and the (original) Letters of Paul is that second-century Catholics edited the Letters of Paul to conform their original Marcionite versions to the story of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark.

No messianic fervor

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 to 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 in the War 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 propagandistic Flavian triumph in the role of ‘defeated kings.’

R.G. Price in Deciphering the Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed 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.” – R.G. 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, with its Jerusalem church, 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). In the absence of other sources, we cannot trust them to be history, 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 R.G. Price and I see as the late first century), were written in Asia to Gentiles. I think they were texts to Hypsistarians.*** (I also think that later, Marcion adopted and refined these tracts into the first canon of the Letters of Paul. Marcion’s “mission field” may have begun among Hypsistarians, but subsequently attracted Gentile adherents to Judean synagogues in the East. The orthodox then revised Marcion’s Letters of Paul to conform to orthodox beliefs.) Mark would not have known about the Hypsistarian texts; if he did, he would not have paid any attention to them. They were addressed to Asian Gentiles.

Mark didn’t create a puzzle for his readers

R.G. 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, Price thinks that Mark wrote to blame Judean Christians for not following Paul. Mark therefore should have expected that his readers would soon be Gentile Christians. But Mark could not expect them to have the same level of Scriptural knowledge as educated Judeans; therefore the puzzle would be too difficult for them! Second, few people 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. (In contrast, I see Mark’s “pastiche” text as secondary, the footnotes to his performed play. He made them available for future midrash. But the main purpose of Mark’s text was to preserve and evoke for the reader the rich audience experience at the performed play.)

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? Mark could have made his points much more clearly and effectively if he wrote an argument, like Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho. Fourth, Price’s theory requires that a Jerusalem congregation preserved the Gospel of Mark for decades after the War, and transmitted it to Luke and Matthew. This hypothetical congregation should have been at the center of orthodoxy and there should be traces of its history in the second-century texts! But Acts is our only source. The center of orthodoxy in the second century was Ephesus.

My proposal for Mark’s life-situation and purpose

I offer a different scenario for Mark’s life-situation and purpose. 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 the Gospel’s pro-Gentile. I explain that Mark used references from Scripture because the congregation was majority Judean, educated and syncretistic, and saturated with Judean education. They had already heard from the pulpit, and studied, about scenarios from Scripture that related to their heavenly Jesus. They already understood that their Jesus/Joshua (the new Moses) had fulfilled Scripture by authorizing a symbolic interpretation of the Law. Mark did not need to know Paul’s Letters in order to have a heavenly Jesus, because his congregation already had a heavenly Jesus, probably inherited from Alexandrian thinkers.

As for Mark’s motivation to write the Gospel, 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, disdained the earthly Temple, and [Platonically] placed their religious focus on Jesus as the 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 benefactor’s production of a new play. Memorialization was Mark’s primary purpose in writing the text. (He may have created a new genre: we don’t know, because the Gospel of Mark is the only preserved play from antiquity that survives.)

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). Unfortunately, I cannot recommend Deconstructing the Gospels by R.G. Price to any reader.


Notes

*For illustration, here are some of Robert M. Price’s proposed origins of verses of the received Letter to the Romans (16 chapters). We see a patchwork of incompatible ideologies:

  • 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 I ask them to cover the page and summarize the verses from memory. 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, performed Gospel of Mark couldn’t. This little exercise is sufficient to show that the original Olivet Discourse has been edited. And therefore, we cannot trust that the overt references to the First Jewish War in the received version of the Olivet Discourse were originally by Mark. They could have been (and I believe were) added by an editor.

***I hope to eventually write here about my theory that “Paul” was the name used by Hypsistarians for the author of their authoritative texts.

version December 27, 2020

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