Shuck and Jive

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Is Jesus Christ a Myth? A Review of Robert Price's, "The Christ Myth Theory and Its Problems"

Dr. Robert Price is a fellow of the Jesus Seminar. From his perspective the Jesus Seminar was far too conservative regarding the voice print of the historical Jesus.  Dr. Price doesn’t think anything in the gospels goes back to an historical person. Jesus is not the son of God, the Christ, the son of man, a deluded apocalypticist, a clever cynic, or even just a dude in the wrong place at the right time. He is a creative fiction from start to finish. The gospels are works of fiction. The biography of Jesus is not biographical at all but pieced together from stories in the Greek Old Testament and Greek literature.

Dr. Price is one of the “mythicists” Dr. Ehrman warned you about.  Who are these mythicist bad boys?  What are they saying? Do they have a case? Do they have a partial case?

If I knew nothing about the Bible or Jesus and were to channel surf and see the Gospel of Luke (or any of the gospels) acted out on the Dish Network, I might ask myself, "What am I watching?"  Is this more like a PBS documentary on early Roman history or is it more like Xena: Warrior Princess?   Is this the Biography Channel or is it Masterpiece Theater?  Given those choices, the answer is, "Xena and Masterpiece."

It begins with a bucolic scene with poor shepherds and a stable.  The camera focuses on the face of a baby who is a "son of god" born of a virgin and "the holy spirit" to the accompaniment of singing angels.  As a precocious adolescent he astonishes his parents in the temple doing "his father's business" (wink, wink).  He speaks to and casts out demons, raises people from the dead, cures blindness with his spit, feeds five thousand people with five bagels and a can of sardines, walks on water, calms the sea by command, outwits his adversaries with clever aphorisms, dies for the sins of the world, rises from the dead, and then ascends bodily to heaven.   What are we watching?

Let's be like Judas' opening number in Jesus Christ Superstar and "strip away the myth from the man."   This has been the project of higher criticism for centuries.  Rudolf Bultmann called it demythologizing.  He thought that the gospels made a myth of the man.  The mythicists see the gospels as historicizing a myth.   It is six of one and one half dozen of another to me.    A case could be made for either direction.  As Robert Price writes:
There may once have been an historical Jesus, but for us there is one no longer. If he existed, he is forever lost behind the stained glass curtain of holy myth.  p. 23.
Certainly we know that the gospels are in some degree fictional. Only the truest believer would suggest that Jesus did and said everything that the gospels said he did and said.   Yet even most believers, I would think, would recognize that some of the activities attributed to Jesus are exaggerated.  They might even say, legendary.   Dare we say, fiction?   Go ahead, say it.  Fiction.  Jesus is at least in part a fictional character.   Be careful.  Once you go down that slippery slope you might next be asking yourself, "Is he mostly fiction?"   And that is just a short slide to smoking cigarettes and listening to jazz in a back alley barroom with the local hoodlums, er mythicists.


The Christ Myth Theory and Its Problems is a fine introduction to “The Quest of the Mythical Jesus” as Dr. Price puts it. The book is a collection of nine articles written by Robert Price on the various themes of the Christ Myth Theory.

I have not tried to amass every argument I could think of to destroy the historicity of Jesus. Rather, I have summarized the series of realizations about methodology and evidence that eventually led me to embrace the Christ Myth Theory.  P. 23
He does a fine and thorough job of it in this collection of essays.

First things first.  Dr. Price in addition to being an incredibly bright guy (he has two Ph. D's), is a hoot.  He is entertaining in person, on the radio, and in print.    He is especially clever with titles, such as the title of one of his books, The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man.   One of my favorite books of his is The Reason Driven Life which is his response to Rick Warren's multi-zillion dollar best seller A Purpose Driven Life.    I think the world would be far less goofy if more people bought Price's book over Warren's.   

On to business.

The basic thrust of the Christ Myth Theory as I understand it is that Jesus Christ is a mythical figure in the pattern of the dying and rising God mytheme.  This mythical figure became "historicized" in the gospels and the later Christian tradition.   For Paul, Jesus Christ is crucified and risen.  Paul cares not about Jesus the person, but Christ Jesus, in whom we have salvation.  Paul knows Jesus through mystical visions.   By the time we get to the gospels, Jesus takes on the archetype of the hero and has attached to him stories mostly from the Old Testament.

Dr. Price's book is 397 pages and 200 of those pages are in a section entitled, "New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash."  In this section, he attempts to find literary antecedents to many of the stories in the gospels and in Acts.   For instance, does this story sound familiar?
A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing the man of God bread of the first fruits, twenty loaves of barley, and fresh ears of grain in his sack.  And Elisha said, "Give to the men, that they may eat."  But his servant said, "How am I to set this before a hundred men?"  So he repeated, "Give them to the men, that they may eat, for thus says the Lord, 'They shall eat and have some left.'"  So he set it before them.  And they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the Lord."  p. 93
That is from 2 Kings 4:42-44.  We know this story in the gospels as Jesus doing even better than the "man of God" by feeding 5,000 men (plus women and children) with five loaves and two fish.  Twelve baskets were left over.  That is but one example of midrash.   As Dr. Price explains:
We must now envision proto-Christian exegetes "discovering" for the first time what Jesus the Son of God had done and said "according to the scriptures" by decoding the ancient texts.  Today's Christian reader learns what Jesus did by reading the gospels; his ancient counterpart learned what Jesus did by reading Joshua and 1 Kings.  It was not a question of memory but of creative exegesis.  p. 61
This is not a new insight in scholarship.  Those who think Jesus was an historical person also show that Jesus had legends attached to him by the authors of the gospels who went back to their scriptures and re-wrote the old stories with Jesus as hero.   The difference with Dr. Price is that 
"...the result is a new perspective according to which we must view the gospels and Acts as analogous with the Book of Mormon, an inspiring pastiche of stories derived creatively from previous scriptures by a means of literary extrapolation."  p. 61
It's midrash all the way down.   According to Dr. Price, when you try to separate the myth from the man you are left with myth and no remainder.   OK, but aside from the miracle stories, what about the sayings and deeds of Jesus that the Jesus Seminar colored red or pink?   In his chapter, "Dubious Database:  Second Thoughts on the Red and Pink Materials of the Jesus Seminar," Dr. Price finds that none really makes the cut:
I have more than once drawn attention to D.F. Strauss's critical axiom that, once we expose the mythical Tendenz of a gospel story, we have no right to try to salvage specifics, secondary details, from it.  That is just a lame attempt to try to make bad evidence into good, and it partakes of a kind of Euhemerism, arbitrarily positing a more modest, possibly original version underlying that which we can in good conscience no longer accept.  If we can no longer affirm as historians that Jesus walked on water, we cannot pretend that the story in which he did is still good as evidence that knew where the stepping stones were.  There is no reason to insist that that secondary details, there just to background or advance the story, have an independent historicity when the main story dissolves under critical scrutiny.  p. 313
Or to put it more directly:
The story wants to preach to us a divine savior who entered this world from heaven and shortly returned there, betrayed, repudiated, martyred, but  vindicated.  We are having none of that.  We can tell that is myth, pure and simple.  So we ask what bits would make sense if we abstracted them from their familiar context and made them mean something else, as if the Atheist should take the Psalm verse out of context, stripping away the introduction, "The fool has said in his heart," then triumphantly quoting what is left:  "There is no God!"  p. 314
In other essays, Dr. Price addresses other thorny issues, such as Jesus' family members (ie. Paul's claim that James was "the brother of the lord").   That would make Jesus real, unless of course, "brother of the lord" means something other than biological kin.   

If you are going to read Dr. Ehrman's book as you should, I recommend this one by Dr. Price as well.  Even if you reject the arguments by Dr. Price and reject the Christ Myth Theory, you will gain insight into how the gospels were shaped.

I majored in English literature in college.  To this day, I remember my professor, Roger Sale of the University of Washington, telling us that when we read casually we care about the characters.  But reading literature critically requires us to care about the authors.   This may be especially true when we are reading stories about Jesus.  We care about Jesus.  We care so much that we have forgotten that he was created (or at least mightily shaped) by his authors.    The genius of Jesus might not have been in Jesus but in his creators.  In his chapter "The Abhorrent Void," Dr. Price writes:
There is just no reason Christian writers could not have composed the Sermon on the Mount if they created The Dialogue of the Savior.  If they could have fabricated Pistis Sophia, they could much more easily have fabricated the Gospel of John.  Whether they did is another matter, the discussion of which starts here, not stops.  p. 331

What is at stake in all of this?    Does the very edifice of Christendom rise or fall on the historicity of Jesus?   For some of course it does.  But that doesn't mean much.   Some require the foundation of Christianity to be built on an inerrant Bible.   If Jonah wasn't swallowed by a big fish then our faith is futile and we are still in our sins.

But for most thoughtful people who are taken by the Jesus Romance, we recognize that the mythical character of Jesus is the way the "mystery" has been revealed.   It takes a myth to tell this marvelous truth.   Ask Episcopalians, they get holy myth (at least many of them do).   The question is which myth?   Paul's myth or the myth of those who forged letters in Paul's name?  Mark's myth?  Luke's?  Mathew's?  John's?  Q's?   The myth of The Gospel of Judas or The Gospel of Mary Magdalene?  The myth of the Nicene Creed?  They are all different.   Take your pick or invent your own.  If there was a guy, he was framed immediately by everyone in a different way. 

I say, "Let the framing continue!"  I frame Jesus, too.   I think of him as a smart-mouthed critic of the world who loved to challenge convention.   He lived his life by standing up for what he believed in, inspired the marginalized, and lampooned the authorities.   Did that guy exist?  In my mind.  It is my myth of the historical Jesus.  And I can color a number of his sayings red or pink that go along with that myth.   I like to think he was real.  I can make a case that he is credible.  He is my Jesus.   He is my ishta deva and he's just all right with me.   If my views change and he fades into fiction, that's all right too.  He's still a great story.

What I find weird is the certainty over something that doesn't seem certain to me at all.   Either way.   If you insist he is a myth from start to finish, that's fine.  You may be right.  If you want to tell me beyond a shadow of a doubt that the historical Jesus existed and did this, said that, and believed in whatever, well, that's fine, too.  But unless I thrust my hand into his side I [probably] will not believe. 


  1. Thanks, John, for presenting a summary of a very complex topic. Love your conclusion especially "Jesus is just all right with me"!!
    For me, a key line is this: "The genius of Jesus might not have been in Jesus but in his creators." I totally agree. As I like to say, there is no such thing as objectivity. Likewise, every 'take' on Jesus is a "one of a kind;" and most have something valuable / useful to them, if only to clarify what one thinks or believes.
    I also prefer to focus less on the 'words of God' in the Bible (over-worshiped, i'd say) and focus more on the 'Word of God' (in the sense of the eternal mystical truth of God's mysterious ubiquity) . Kinda like missing the forest cause of the trees. Sure we need trees, but we also can't lose sight of the whole picture.
    Strength to your hand, John!

  2. Thanks, John! I always appreciate your reviews - or previews - of great books, and how they relate to faith. I totally want to be part of your church community!

  3. Thanks Rob and Deborah! I think it is important to engage the more thought-provoking authors, the once that really mess up my certainties help me grow. Price is one of those. I also will be reviewing Dominic Crossan's new book on Parables, how fiction by Jesus became fiction about Jesus! All three have graciously agreed to interview with me. I have interviewed Ehrman and Crossan already, and if all works as scheduled Robert Price next week! It will be a fun Jesus series. Oh and Bishop Spong interviewed me as well. Now I need a catchy title...

  4. There is nothing inherently wrong with speculating what might lie behind a text--so long as one doesn't confuse it with science or history.

    The interesting thing to me about this approach is that, were the gospels a reasonably accurate account of what happened, this methodology couldn't discern that. If you begin with, "These Things Cannot Be," you have no place to go but to start constructing just-so stories to account for them otherwise.

    "The genius of Jesus might not have been in Jesus but in his creators."

    So it was not the unknown Jesus, but the equally unknown "creators"--who are said to have performed similar miracles, and are presumably equally mythical (after all, the books of Acts related how St. Paul was taken for Zeus). So it's like the old essay answer: "Historians have proven that the Iliad and the Odyssey were not written by Homer, but by another man with the same name."

    Jesus is indeed a character in the gospels, just as Alexander is a character in Plutarch's Lives, as Pericles is in Thucydides' History, as Socrates is in Plato's and Xenophon's dialogues. Even the most "scientific" history is peopled by literary characters. This is a truism. Our own republic consciously emulated the Roman model, with our Capitol, and Senate, and Assembly of the people. We must only hope that future historians don't see our history as mythical because it recaptulates that of the children of Romulus.

  5. I used to hate Martin Kahler for promoting the "historical Christ" over the "so-called historical Jesus," thereby ruining historical Jesus studies for 80 years. Increasingly, I think he was right. Bob Price is truly a very smart, entertaining badboy. If you keep up all these radio interviews you will have to syndicate your show.

  6. Great stuff. Wait 'til I propose an "adult spiritual enrichment" class at my UU church on The Mythical Jesus. Some of them think I'm the fundie vanguard, plotting to take over the congregation. Some of them have said I can't possibly be a Christian and not "believe" the resuscitated corpse routine. Keep 'em guessing, that's my plan!

    BTW . . . I'm intrigued by your final comment that "unless I thrust my hand into his side I [probably] will not believe."

    Ahhh the mystic will out.

  7. Keep them guessing is exactly it. I appreciate Robert Price. I think he has a lot to offer. I could never make a decision based strictly on historical scholarly grounds. For one reason, I am not an historical scholar. I am a minister.

    My last comment has to do with the certainty that some of these scholars seem to possess around this. I doubt them all. I demand to see for myself. I often interpret that Thomas exchange as Jesus rewarding Thomas for doubting and making a special appearance just for him (despite the fact that Jesus scolds him). He scolds him but he rewards him.

    Home for me is the Jesus Seminar's Jesus. At the end of the day, he preaches. The message of distributive justice is consistent with the heart of the rest of the Bible and it feels right. But that view--that conviction--does not live or die with me based on what scholars come up with regarding what is or is not historical about Jesus.

    I am happy to keep open about it all and see what happens...