Monday, January 19, 2015

Review - Jesus at the Vanishing Point - part 2

Review - The Christ Myth Theory and its Problems by Robert M. Price
Jesus at the Vanishing Point – part 2
Well, I admit that I was pretty rough on Robert Price in the first part of this review.  I do hope things get a little better as I continue through his article, Jesus at the Vanishing Point.  I learned that I need to be extra scrupulous with Robert Price’s sources to make sure they are not being misrepresented.  But, blast it all, that takes time!  This time around, I will do my best to work my way through this article but not get too bogged down in the details.

The Traditional Christ-Myth Theory

As I continue through Jesus at the Vanishing Point, I find that Dr. Price is already back to repeating the biggest oversight that I have found in this book so far.  Just as I think Dr. Price will finally define the Christ Myth Theory, and explain what exactly it is that he is defending, he instead elaborates on what he considers the three main pillars in support of the Christ Myth Theory (whatever that is!).  It is too bad, because Robert Price has not yet defined his particular conception of Christ Myth Theory, and will not for another 300 or so pages.  So when Robert Price makes arguments, it is very difficult for me to understand what he is arguing for.  It is not enough to say, for instance, that most if not all of the words and deeds attributed to Jesus cannot be defended as an actual historical event.  Dr. Price is, I assume, arguing in this article that Jesus was worshipped as a pre-Christian, heavenly deity before he was ever worshipped as a human – something Dr. Price does not mention until page 388 of his book!  Until I read that page of the book in detail, I can only assume or even guess what exactly he means by Christ Myth Theory, and this makes it tough for me to evaluate Dr. Price’s personal conception of this Christ Myth Theory.  But I will give it the best shot I can with the information that I have.
Let’s look at the ‘three pillars’, as Dr. Price calls them, of the traditional Christ Myth Theory.

1) There is no mention of a miracle working Jesus in secular sources. (p31)
2) The epistles, which were written before the gospels, do not evidence a recent historical Jesus. (p32)
3) The Jesus story shows strong parallels to other Mediterranean religions that were also based on gods that died and rose again. (p44)

I can’t believe there are not more pillars than this.  Isn’t there something about a pre-Christian deity that later became the flesh and blood Jesus that really defines this conception of a Christ Myth?  I know I keep pressing this point, but it is a deadly flaw in the whole presentation so far.

No mention of Jesus?

So I guess the traditional Christ Myth Theory, whatever that is, rests on only three foundational pillars. I agree with Dr. Price when he says that the first pillar is the weakest one of the three he gives.  He views it as so weak, in fact, that he spends next to no time discussing it – neither here or in the remainder of the book.  The argument is: there are no secular sources, contemporary with the time and place in which Jesus was alleged to live, that mention or even hint at knowledge of Jesus.  Certainly, a charismatic wonder worker, as Jesus was said to have been, should merit a mention from local bystander.  But, despite the wishful thinking of Christian apologists, there is nothing like this.  As I said, I also think that this is the weakest of the three arguments.  But it is not invalid.  It is definitely worth discussing.  When pressed, apologists reflexively counter with, ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence!’  But is it?  There were thousands if not millions of people from the ancient Mediterranean who lived and died without any preserved record of their existence.  Sure, I concede that.  But Jesus was allegedly no mere human.  Would it be unreasonable to expect some contemporary record of a man who performed the marvelous wonders, and uttered the profound sayings that Jesus was said to have?  I do not see why not.  Extraordinary claims really do require extraordinary evidence.  Since this particular article was addressed to Dr. Price’s scholarly colleagues, I assume they would also view this argument as weak, so while I do not blame Dr. Price for not fleshing out this argument a bit here, it would have been helpful for Dr. Price to throw us amateurs a bone.  After all, even though most Christian apologists concede that there are no contemporary sources, they will still claim that there are dozens of other sources in the years immediately after the life of Jesus.  What does Dr. Price do about that?

Considering that this is one of three pillars that supports Price’s entire argument, I would anticipate that he would include more than a single paragraph out of his entire book dedicated to this topic.  As often as Apologists try to turn this argument in their favor, it is worth more than this brief mention.

Who did Paul think Jesus was?

Who the heck knows?  Dr. Price reminds us that as the Apostle Paul has next to nothing to say about a historical Jesus.  Paul writes, at least on face value, thirteen epistles to various people and churches, and for all his talk of Jesus he says almost nothing about who Jesus was as a historical person.  Is there any reason, beyond a Faith commitment, to think that Paul understood the historical Jesus as He is presented in the Gospels?  Would Paul have known or understood anything about Jesus’ infancy, baptism, sermons or miraculous wonders?  Given what little Paul actually says about the life of Jesus, there is no reason to think so.  Dr. Price argues that if the Gospels that detail the life of Jesus and Epistles which say next to nothing about the life of Jesus were written by different authors, there is no reason to think those authors held the same theologies about Jesus.  There is no reason to think that the Apostle Paul knew any of the Gospel authors.  In fact it is unclear if he even knew the Gospel of Jesus even existed!  We have to let Paul speak for himself without projecting the beliefs of the Gospel authors onto him.


According to Dr. Price, the second pillar of the traditional Christ Myth Theory is that Paul does not speak of Jesus in any historical sense.  It is a rather shocking thing to review the epistles of Paul and realize that the only time Paul describes Jesus, He is not described necessarily a historical character.  Jesus, as described by Paul, can be easily and consistently interpreted as a celestial Savior who never touched down on the profane Earth.  According to Paul, Jesus as a Divine Being conducted His great act of salvation in the nether regions of the spiritual and heavenly realms.  When we remember that the ancient conception of the Physical World was that of a mere shadow that was cast by the activities of the Spiritual World, it is not so hard to understand that all the mystical language of Paul in his epistles were meant to describe Spiritual salvation.  If it is not this, then something has to explain why Paul described Jesus in ways that are never expressed in the Gospels!


Of course, an objection could be made to this argument that Paul actually did include some historical details of Jesus.  Dr. Price goes through what little that can be offered as historical data of Jesus in the Epistles and attempts to re-interpret historicity into mysticism.  It could be argued that Dr. Price is conveniently arguing away any evidence of a historical Jesus that he finds uncomfortable.  But I that it could also be fairly said that there are anomalies to any historical Jesus theory that must be dealt with sooner or later.  There are brief hints in Paul’s Epistles that indicate he believed Jesus was a physical human being.  After all, Jesus had a brother named James “the brother of the Lord” (Gal 1:19).  There you go!  Jesus had a brother named James!  This must speak of flesh and blood relations between two human beings!  Not so fast, says Dr. Price. ‘Brother of the Lord’ could mean about anything when spiritual leader’s and their disciples are concerned.  Jesus testified before Pontius Pilate (1 Tim 6:13).  It is well known that Paul did not write 1 Timothy.  Jesus was born of a woman (Gal 4:4). Oh, that tells us a lot!  Thanks for the useful historical information, Paul. 


But in my mind, no immediately available historical information about Jesus does not by itself equate to a Christ Myth Theory.  It seems to me that the only way to form a theory is by explaining the presence of pieces of evidence, not by imagining scenarios based on holes where evidence does not exist.  Disproving the existence of the Jesus of our beloved religious traditions is one thing, but creating a Jesus to fill the leftover vacuum is quite another.  Positive evidence is what is needed to form a proper theory, even if there only scraps leftover.  For instance, when considering the Christ Myth Theory, I think it is fair for me to ask: is there any evidence that Jesus was worshipped before Christian Orthodoxy was created?  A perfect opportunity for this is missed by Price when he only only briefly hints at a pre-Christian conception of Jesus presented by Paul.  “…Philippians 2:9-11, read without theological embarrassment, seems to intend that it was that name, exalted above all other names, that the savior received, not the title κυριος.” (p. 33)  This data needs to be fleshed out, tied with other related scraps that can be found, and developed into an actual theory of a pre-Christian Jesus.  I would love to read more material like this that presents positive evidence for an actual Christ Myth Theory, rather than building the theory on a lack of historical evidence.  It is too bad that Price just leaves hints of this kind before moving on.


Well, this is a long book and I am still only in the introductory chapter.  There is a lot of reading left to go.

Dying and Rising Gods?

The Jesus story as attested in the epistles shows strong parallels to Middle Eastern religions based on the myths of dying and rising gods…Strong evidence from ancient stelae and tablets make clear that Baal and Osiris were believed to be dying and rising gods long before the Christian era.  There is also pre-Christian evidence for the resurrection of Attis, Adonis, and Dumuzi/Tammuz.”(p. 44)

I began to critically investigate my Christian beliefs with the help of online articles back in 2007.  This claim of dying and rising gods was one of the first things I ran into on whatever videos and blogs were available at the time.  Of course, believing Christians such as myself typically had never heard these things in their Sunday sermons, so at the time these claims about the Deity of Christianity were astounding to me.  I immediately saw through a bit of video hokum I saw online somewhere called Zeitgeist.  I figured that the life, ministry, death and resurrection claimed of various forgotten pagan deities were just too close to that of Jesus to be true.  But two small things did strike me about the Dying and Rising God motif.  I had first heard of a mythical bird-creature called a Phoenix when I was a little boy.  From what I remembered, this unique creature died annually by fire but was able to miraculously rise from out of its own ashes.  Maybe this creature was not exactly a god, but it definitely counted as a myth that fit the motif.  And a well worn motif it is.  I do not know about which myths influenced which, but I do know that the struggle, the death and the ultimate return of the hero is an age old story arc through all literature.  Humans just can’t seem to get enough of this story, and it is just as popular now in our modern movies as it was in ancient myth.  And speaking of the Phoenix, isn’t the common expression ‘rising out of the ashes’ just a reminder of how ubiquitous this literary and mythic motif really is? 

I do not currently listen to debates between Christian apologists and skeptics like I once did, but I do know that one of the recurring themes in these debates is the claim among apologists that there were no dying and rising gods before Jesus.  Jesus was the first deity who was resurrected, and I guess that this is supposed to imply that the resurrection event is therefore true.  Behind this argument is the assumption that the very first resurrection story claimed of Jesus was actually historical because it had been previously inconceivable, and every subsequent resurrection myth must then be just a cheap copy of the historical event.  Well, despite this preposterous claim that this linear sequence of events must be the only way to explain the spread of legend and myth, I do think that it is a moot point to argue which resurrection myth borrowed from which, as these debates often do.  We do know that resurrection was just one small part of the superstition, myth and magic that the ancient Mediterranean cultures were saturated in.  We do not need a linear progression of which myth was derived from what legend.  Any of these beliefs was just an organic outgrowth from the surrounding environment.  Yes, Jesus is just one more Mediterranean deity who performed miraculous deeds, underwent a passion, suffered and died, only to rise stronger and more glorified than ever.  It is true that the Jewish Scriptures, or Old Testament, do not mention a physical resurrection as described of Jesus, so I can imagine the idea of resurrection would seem pretty strange to the Jewish culture.  But impossible, as some Christian apologists claim?  I would never go so far as that.  To say that this motif is an ancient mythological archetype that is hard wired into our collective psyche is just a very intellectual way of saying that it just makes for a great story.

So where to we stand so far?

The rest of Robert Price’s article Jesus at the Vanishing Point is spent touching on various topics that are explored in greater detail in other parts of this anthology, so I will not review them here.  Most of these topics seek to demonstrate that Jesus is a product of literary rather than historical pedigree.  His life as described in the Gospels seems to rely on stories and themes common in the ancient world and archetypes common in the human psyche.  Has Robert Price made his case so far?  I do not think so.  So far, his case seeks to undermine what the traditional Gospel stories say about Jesus, and demonstrate that the Gospels are more likely some sort of fiction rather than reliable history.  The Christ Myth theory, as presented in this book so far, is a theory built mainly on the destruction of the traditional historical understanding of Jesus.  When it comes to demonstrating the fictitious nature of the Gospel, I am completely on board, but the Christ Myth Theory does not automatically rise from the ashes of what has been burned away.  A theory must be built on some foundation, and so far I just do not see a positive case being presented.  The three foundation stones of the ‘traditional Christy Myth Theory’ that Price does present, only show evidence of a lack of a historical Jesus, but this is different from Jesus as a Myth, which I must repeat, Price has not yet defined thus far in the book.  But there is plenty of book left to go, so we shall see how it goes from here.

NEXT:  New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash
                The Quest of the Mythical Jesus


Zoe said...

Still here reading and learning.

HeIsSailing said...

Thanks for your continued interest Zoe! I finished this book a loooong time ago, but I have been so busy traveling this year that I have had next to no time to write. Not that I am in a rush - I think you are the only person who continues to read this blog

Ruth said...

Nope, she's not the only one. Still here. Still reading.

Zoe said...

We tend to be a tag team of sorts. LOL!

Odd Todd said...

I'm reading your blog too!