“A Simple Misunderstanding that Changed the Course of History”

The deep roots of Christian apologetics
“Religion was invented when the first con man met the first fool.” There is some truth to this claim, but not enough. Our distant ancestors—those who first believed that priests could channel gods—were not fools: they managed to survive in perilous environments, and that took some doing. Fools no, but not gifted with critical thinking skills either. They did have imaginations, however, and were thus very susceptible to stories—as we are today.

It seems we’re wired to become heavily invested emotionally in stories; modern examples include The Hobbit, Game of Thrones, Downton Abby, Harry Potter, and comic book superheroes; the characters grab us. We can’t get enough. But what if you can convince people that God himself had written a particular story? And that believing the story is the key for escaping death: you win eternal life if you accept the story with all your heart, mind, and soul. Religious professionals of all genres exploit this level of emotional investment.

There can be no hint, however, that the story might not be true. Christianity finds itself in crisis because its story—the Jesus story especially—is in jeopardy. Just try to find a single fact about Jesus that historians, including devout scholars, can agree is beyond dispute. In my article last week I reviewed R. G. Price’s 2018 book, Deciphering the Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed, in which he argues that Mark, the first gospel written, was intended as an allegory. But soon it was mistaken as a story about something that really happened; the other gospel writers ran with that idea. So the church had its story. Theologians added to the mystique: God himself had written it—well, he had inspired the authors—and eternal life was thrown in as the prize for believing it.

I want to draw attention to more of Price’s insights, especially in Chapters 4 and 5 of his book. He presses the point that we must see the gospels in context, which 99% of the folks in the pews are not trained or encouraged to do. They get glimpses of the gospels of Sunday mornings, and even if they bother to read the Jesus stories at home, it is usually as a devotional exercise. (See Americans Are Fond of the Bible, Don’t Actually Read It.)

Price discusses the period when the gospels were composed:

“Generally speaking, it is difficult to understand the mind-set of chroniclers in Hellenistic culture during that time, not just in relation to the Jesus story, but even more broadly. These types of pseudo-historical mythological accounts of people’s lives and deeds were not all that uncommon during that period, so the modern sense of recording fact-based history is simply something that wasn’t pervasive in that culture.” (p. 86)

Believing in a real Jesus was an accidental byproduct of Mark’s allegory:

“I don’t think that belief in a human Jesus happened because of any intentional deception or misrepresentation; I think it simple arose out of confusion and widespread assumption by people that the story called Mark was literally true…there was widespread belief that all of the people and events described in it were real…But all of the evidence shows, as we shall see, that all belief in a real human Jesus stems entirely from the Gospels themselves. The stories are what spread the belief in a real human Jesus, nothing else.” (p. 85)

Once the four gospels were bound together, the story was even more impressive, especially since these Christian scriptures have such deep roots in prior scripture. But this is far from being ‘a house built upon a rock,’ as Price notes:

“The two key assumptions that the early Christian apologists made were of course that each of the four Gospels were independently written and that the correlations between the Gospel accounts and the Hebrew scriptures were evidence of prophecy fulfillment.” (p. 87)

If all this were true, “…the logic went, then this was solid evidence of divinity—in fact the most solid evidence ever established.” (p. 87)

“But as we can see, this entire line of reasoning falls apart when we recognize that the so-called prophecies are really just literary allusions, and that they are attested to in four accounts because the other authors just copied from the first story…

“No, the four Gospels don’t corroborate evidence for miracles and prophecy fulfillment; they are simply different copies of one fictional story. Whoops. Talk about a simple misunderstanding that changed the course of history.” (p. 87)

But once the four gospels had achieved status as ‘the official story’—the one authored/inspired by God himself—it would be many centuries before serious thinkers began to have doubts. The early church fathers played their part in building the myth that the gospels told the whole truth and nothing but. Price surveys a few of their statements, including a text from Papias in about 130 CE, who claimed that Mark was “an interpreter of Peter, whatsoever he recorded he wrote with great accurancy…Mark has not erred in anything…” (p. 87)

“How,” Price asks, “could someone so close to the time of the writing of these stories be so wrong? It simply demonstrates that how difficult it was to ascertain facts at this point in history.” (p. 88)

“That the Gospel of Mark would have been written by a confidant of Peter seems quite absurd, since the Gospel called Mark portrays Peter very poorly. Peter is depicted as a fool and basically traitor to Jesus.” (p. 89)

Price notes that Irenaeus in 175 CE repeats Papias’ opinion about Mark, and makes claims about Matthew and John that are equally as unfounded. “…not only is Iraneaus wrong about who wrote the Gospels and what their sources were, he was spectacularly wrong. A thorough understanding of the Gospels makes his statements appear completely foolish. Yet this account was accepted as the authoritative account of the origin of the Gospels by the Catholic Church and is still widely believed to this day.” (p. 89)

His ‘foolish statements’ do not mean that he was a fool, any more than the ancient victims of the first con men were. But sufficient critical thinking skills had not kicked in; the methods for proper collection of facts were not known, especially when the documents under discussion were assumed to be divinely inspired.

A fascinating glimpse of this mentality is provided by a long passage that Price includes from an early fourth century text called The Proof of the Gospel by Eusebius of Caesarea. To understand what we’re up against even today in much of Christian apologetics, it’s worth pondering this sample of early Christian thought. Eusebius refers to the ‘heavenly Gospels,’ mentions events in the life of Christ, and is confident that “…the most ancient Hebrew oracles present all these things definitely about One Who would come in the last times…” (p. 91)

But Price identifies the flawed approach:

“So, from the perspective of Eusebius and other early Christians, the Gospels were amazing proof of prophetic power—yet belief in prophetic power demonstrated by the Gospels is entirely a product of faulty assumption.” (p. 92)

“…from the very beginning, Christian scholars and theologians have been aware of the parallels between the story of Jesus and the Hebrew scriptures, and [they] believed it was these parallels that prove the religion is true. Far from proving the truth of the religion, however, these parallels actually show us how the story of Jesus was crafted and demonstrates that the basis of the Jesus story is not reality but textual references.” (p. 97)

“A key reason that the Bible is compiled into an Old Testament and a New Testament…bound together is…the belief that the Old Testament was a collection of encoded prophecies that could only be decoded by using the New Testament. The Old Testament writings were preserved and meticulously transcribed because it was believed these texts had the power to predict the future.” (pp. 99-100)

But now here’s some irony, which Price discusses in his Chapter 5. I’ve heard various Christian reactions to the Jesus-myth proposal, “What rubbish…there’s so much evidence…this is a radical fringe…” And Price himself is among those scholars who suspect that, beneath Mark’s allegory, there was no real Jesus at all. He shows too that modern Jesus-mythicism comes awfully close to an idea that ancient Christian theologians had to deal with as well.

Price quotes from the Discourses of Hippolytus in the third century, who refers to “those men…acknowledging Him to be God, they deny, on the other hand, His humanity, and teach that His appearances to those who saw Him as a man were illusory, inasmuch as He did not bear with Him true manhood, but was rather a kind of phantom manifestation. Of this class, for example, Marcion and Valentinus, and the Gnostics, who sunder the Word from the flesh…” (p. 103)

And even in the New Testament itself we find this warning in 2 John 1:7, “For many deceivers have gone out into the world, men who will not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh; such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist.” By the time this was written, at least a couple of the gospels existed, but bear in mind that not a single person who read any of Paul’s letters for the first time had a gospel to read: the stories of Jesus wandering, teaching, performing miracles didn’t exist yet. This Christ was unknown. And it’s an uphill battle to show that there was reliable oral tradition in circulation.

Paul didn’t help matters; he didn’t let his readers know about a Galilean peasant preacher. After his conversion he didn’t hustle back to Jerusalem or Galilee to hook up with the original disciples to pump them for information. He bragged about not doing so. It’s possible that there was no such information, and that the historical Peter was prominent in a Jesus cult that Christians wouldn’t recognize today.

Price: “…the original conception of Jesus was as an immaterial heavenly being, and the theology of early Jesus worship was rooted in the immaterial nature of Jesus.” (p. 107) Hence it’s no surprise that the first ever mention of Jesus is made by Paul, who hallucinated Jesus speaking to him. But once the gospels described Jesus in detail, ‘official’ stories about a Galilean preacher had come into existence.

“…the real point here,” Price states, “is that the view of Jesus that became widely accepted was a view that had to be fought for. The fact that Christianity as we know it holds that Jesus was a real person and also the son of God didn’t just arise because that’s simply what all Christians believed. That view had to be fought over and defended against a huge array of other beliefs.” (p. 107)

“It is clear that by the end of the first century, there were people who believed that Jesus was a real person and also people who believed that Jesus was a purely heavenly deity and many variations in between.” (p. 119) “…within two hundred years of his supposed life, with his very earthly existence both in question and of critical doctrinal importance, no real proof of his existence was ever produced.” (p. 119) “Every single narrative about Jesus and his associates is based on the Gospels, and as we have seen, there is overwhelming evidence that the Gospel narrative is entirely fictional.” (p. 119)

Yet, at the time of Paul, the devout Jesus cult was already well established. And Price wonders about this too: Why hadn’t a tomb or grave of Jesus become a place of pilgrimage and veneration? That alone should make us suspicious, and the fantasy about his ascension into heaven should make us doubly suspicious. But if a real Jesus never existed, then, okay, we can understand. I’ve always said that the ascension story is a cover-up, for whatever really happened to Jesus…or for Jesus himself never happening.

Let’s give a second thought to my comment earlier, that “…even if churchgoers bother to read the Jesus stories at home, it is usually as a devotional exercise.” They remain virtually unaware of the world of Jesus scholarship, although they might get glimpses if they’ve noticed books by Bart Ehrman on best-seller lists. But their ‘nice stories about Jesus’ present far more problems than they can imagine. The New Testament has been studied so intensively because it is difficult to understand.

Near the end of his Chapter 5, after he has presented quotes from several early Christian apologists, and described problems that undermine the claim that Jesus was real, Price says, “This is all extremely important to understand…” (p. 117) But the Christian establishment has 2,000 years of momentum, and doesn’t want that. It doesn’t want laypeople poking around in New Testament scholarship. Even scholars who are firm believers in Jesus—Yes, he existed and, Yes he was the Son of God—discuss, with great candor, Jesus problems that would horrify the folks in the pews, who don’t have a clue.

So, how about reading the gospels and epistles eyes-wide-open, tackling the tough issues, and with the Price motto in mind, “This is all extremely important to understand.” It would be wrong to say, “You’ve got nothing to lose,” because the stakes are high indeed. I recommend engaging in Price’s arguments. Can faith in Jesus survive the refining fire?

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was reissued last year by Tellectual Press with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

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