My initial thoughts
I’ve got this book in front of me. It has been daring me to read it for a while. It is one of these historical Jesus books left over from a time when I could not get enough of that kind of book. There was once a time when I read science texts almost exclusively, with the occasional novel thrown in for fun, until I discovered books that were under the general heading of ‘religious criticism’. I read furiously in that genre for a couple of years, but I have since tapered off. If anything, I have learned from them an appreciation for literature and history that I never had before. But I have decided to revisit a book that I read early last year. At the time, I read the first few chapters so fast and with such apathy that I shelved it and everything like it in favor of something a little more relevant to practical living. But from time to time, the interest crops up again in my favor, so I am willing to take a second look at Robert Price’s The Christ Myth Theory and its Problems. And oh joy, in order to keep my focus centered on the book, and to keep my apathy in check, I thought it might be fun to share all my thoughts on the book with you, Dear Reader. Yup. I am going to slog my way through this book and type a running commentary as I go. It should be fun – I don’t know if I will lose what few readers I have to absolute tedium, but let’s see if Price persuades me with his arguments by the time I finish!
From what I remember, about a year or two back Bart Ehrman wrote a book in which he defended his belief that a historical Jesus actually existed. This caused an online back and forth blogging battle that I purposefully stayed away from. I did not read any of the books involved, and frankly I did not care to sink into the quicksand of internet Jesus drama. And I still do not care one way or the other. Yeah – I don’t care whether Jesus existed or not. Strange coming from a guy who remembers gasping when Pastor Skip told his shocked congregation that this atheist gal named Madalyn Murray O'Hair did not believe a historical Jesus existed! The effrontery! The arrogance! The horror! Even if you are not a Christian, you must be insane to tempt everlasting hellfire and entertain the opinion that Jesus never even existed! At the very least, he is one of the foundation stones of Western Civilization! I do not remember the first time I ever heard about Jesus. Neither do you, Dear Reader. We do not remember the first time, because we were born into a culture that is saturated with Jesus. Like it or not, Jesus is burned into our cultural DNA!
Now, over 20 years later, have I become over-educated into cynicism? I don’t know. But no, I am no longer shocked when somebody claims that there was no historical Jesus. Since Jesus is embedded in our culture, I do see the opinion of Jesus as a myth it as a very contradictory idea, but let’s read The Christ Myth Theory and its Problems and see what evidence there is that can back this claim up. Will that evidence be convincing? Even if I end up finding it fully convincing, it will be ultimately unimportant to this nonbeliever. After all, I doubt any Christian would lose sleep if he discovers that Gautama Buddha never existed. Life will just continue on as it always had and no harm will be done.
So, let’s get to the book. The Christ Myth Theory and its Problems is a compilation of mostly previously published articles from biblical scholar Robert Price. Because it is a compilation, it often overlaps familiar material, but overall it summarizes the scholarship that led Price to accept the Christ Myth Theory. I think it is fair to say that most of the scholarship that is found in this book is assembled from dozens of other scholars, most whom do not themselves hold to the Christ Myth Theory. The major contribution of Price is to assemble the existing scholarship and argue that this cumulative research ultimately points to an originally mythical figure at the core of the Christian religion.
Price emphasizes up front that he is not dogmatic in his position that Jesus never existed. He does not insist that the evidence is airtight. He never claims that anybody who looks at the same evidence is unreasonable if they do not come to the same conclusion as he. At this point, I must put in my own disclaimer. In this and the next series of articles, I will attempt to review and critique Price’s book, The Christ Myth Theory and its Problems. It should go without saying that I am not in any way a scholar of the New Testament, religion, history, or any other relevant field. I am a hack compared to many of my other blogging buddies. I am merely an interested, and somewhat informed, layman. But the arguments presented by Price invite review and scrutiny, and I will do the best I can with my meager background knowledge. I am neither an advocate nor adversary of the Christ Myth Theory. The existence of Jesus has no bearing one way or the other on my personal life. At the end of it all, I have no idea or not if Jesus really existed. If he did exist, I have no idea what kind of character he really was. I believe that it is 2000 years too late to know one way or the other, and the best we can do is piece together what meager scraps of evidence we can from an ancient, alien and forgotten culture, and fill in the gaps with speculations of varying degrees of plausibility.
If you are a believing Christian, you may think that topics surrounding the Christian religion are among the most important and crucial things you will ever be forced to consider. But please remember that to me it is just a hobby.
So with all that said, let’s get to it. First off, what does Price mean by ‘The Christ Myth Theory’, or even “that Jesus hadn’t existed, that he was mythic all the way down, like Hercules.” (p17) This is a more complicated question than it may initially appear. By itself, this does not tell me what Price is arguing for, and this is one of the first criticisms I have of the book. When I write a paper for work, I must be precise and state definitions and assumptions up front so that the intended reader and I will speak the same language. In the particular study of Robert Price, words like myth, historical, exist, even Jesus can be a bit ambiguous. Was Jesus a myth? Was he historical? Did he really exist? Well, the answer will be yes or no, depending on what these words mean. I tend to think there is next to nothing in the Gospels that can be considered to be reliable history. If I whittle the stories of Jesus away one by one as fictional, does this still mean that there is a historical character at the core, or is this good enough to say that there was no historical Jesus? Is there a historical Jesus in the same sense that there was a historical Robin Hood? You know, the stories about him are legendary, the deeds he performed exaggerated, we may not even have the right name for the guy, but, at the end of the day, there must be some kernel of wheat buried under all that chaff! Right? Well I guess so, but do unverifiable leftovers from de-constructed legends really count as history?
I was hoping to find in the introduction a statement as to what Robert Price meant by ‘Christ Myth Theory’. I need him to define what he means. I did not find anything there, so I skimmed the remainder of the book. I did find anything really approaching what he meant by this until nearly the end of the book at page 388:
“The Christ Myth theory maintains that the Christian Jesus was originally a god who eventually became flesh in the imaginations of believers.” (p388)
OK this helps, but nothing like this definition is put near the beginning of the book – at least nothing that I noticed. What Price means by Christ Myth Theory is not just denying historical veracity to the Gospel stories. It is maintaining an opposite timeline than that held by most historical scholars. Most of these people work under the assumption that Jesus started off as a human character that walked the earth, only later to be deified into a god by Christians. What Price means by the Christ Myth Theory is that Jesus started off as a god, only to become a man by the gospel writers. Then the ironic twist of history is that the Christian church eventually turned Him back into a god from where He originally came. Well, if this is what Dr. Price is arguing for, then to merely demonstrate that Gospel stories are fiction is not enough to make the case. The book suffers because a clear definition of Christ Myth Theory is not presented up front, nor consistently defended. This criticism may seem trivial, but I will probably be referring to it again and again in this series of reviews.
But whether we use Price’s particular definition of the Christ Myth Theory or not, unless we are like the inflexible, Fundamentalist Christian who believes that every word of the Gospels is the literal, historical and unquestioned Truth, I think most reasonable people can agree with Dr. Price when he states, “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.” (p23) Medical missionary Albert Schweitzer, who I think was the model of a modern Christ figure if there ever was one, and who certainly believed Jesus was a historical person, said much the same thing over 100 years ago in his book Quest of the Historical Jesus.
Those who are fond of talking about negative theology can find their account here. There is nothing more negative than the result of the critical study of the Life of Jesus. The Jesus of Nazareth who came forward publicly as the Messiah, who preached the ethic of the Kingdom of God, who founded the Kingdom of Heaven upon earth, and died to give His work its final consecration, never had any existence. He is a figure designed by rationalism, endowed with life by liberalism, and clothed by modern theology in an historical garb. (p396)
Or, if I may dare paraphrase the great Schweitzer, even if Jesus did once walk the earth, he no longer walks the earth for us. For the modern, mundane and rational people outside the world of the sacred, mythical and magical, Jesus must remain an object of Faith. He may not have been myth then, but he is certainly myth to us now.
Next: The Christ Myth Theory and its Problems - Introduction