Is a Real Jesus Hiding Anywhere in the New Testament?

A Review of R. G. Price’s Deciphering the Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed
It’s standard practice for art dealers to provide documentation that the works they sell are the real thing; ideally there will be a paper trail showing ownership back to the original artist. At the end of movies there are several minutes of rolling credits, hundreds of names, of all the people who helped make the film. At the end of any biography, the reader can find the sources used, commonly hundreds of them: this is where the information comes from—and any curious researcher can find them as well.

A couple of hundred years ago, Bible scholars began to grapple with the inconvenient truth that the gospels—those iconic titles, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—have no such anchors: No documentation, credits at the end, or identified sources. They seem to position themselves as history, but what’s the evidence for that?

Hence the gospels have been studied more intensively than any other documents in history. The quest has been on to tease out historical facts—stuff that we can know for sure about Jesus—because of the embarrassingly high quotient of superstition, fantasy, folklore, and magical thinking in the gospels.

The amount of solid, secure information about Jesus turns out to be vanishingly small, but going on their hunches and wishful thinking—“this Jesus story sure sounds about right”—devout scholars have devised possible sketches of Jesus. But the ‘mighty fortress’ of faith-based Bible scholarship has been discomfited by secular scholars who are not bound by piety to hold on to “Jesus as Lord.”

And in recent years, Christians have been shocked to the core by the suggestion that Jesus may never have existed at all. This is not at all radical, since any real Galilean peasant preacher named Jesus has been lost to history beneath the layers of theology spun by the gospel writers. And Christians would not be able to breathe a sigh of relief if suddenly some sort of artifact popped up proving that Jesus indeed had been a real person; because that would not change the nature of the gospels.

So, without the documentation, any list of credits or identified sources, just what are the gospels? Yes, they are theology, but what if the gospel of Mark—which all the others copied, referred to and modified—was never even intended as history? R. G. Price’s 2018 book, Deciphering the Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed, presents the case for that. Price, a software engineer and data analyst, demonstrates his skills as a detective, looking behind the faƧade of the gospels to get at what really happened. His book is highly readable, and can help laypeople grasp why a real Jesus is subject to doubt.

He states his premise at the outset:

“…the motivating factor that drove the author to write the story that we now call the Gospel of Mark was the destruction of the temple and the war itself [the First Jewish-Romans War, 66-73 CE]. Jesus is just a literary device used in an allegorical framework to tell a story about how the Jews brought destruction upon themselves. That’s what the story is all about. The motivation behind writing the story was to comment on the war; Jesus is a device for the telling of that tale.” (p. 2)

And the war shows up dramatically in Mark 13, which helps us date the gospel. Mark 13 is cast as Jesus’ prediction of what was coming, but clearly these verses (paraphrasing many OT texts) are a description of the catastrophe that had already happened, the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE by the Romans. The author had witnessed the devastation himself or had heard trustworthy accounts of that brutal war:

“…the one on the housetop must not go down or enter the house to take anything away; the one in the field must not turn back to get a coat. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that it may not be in winter. For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and never will be.” (vv. 15-19)

New Testament scholars have been stalled in their quest for the historical Jesus because—on the dear hope that Mark was trying to write history—the author’s sources are unknown. But, as Price argues, we do indeed know his sources and his motivation. Mark created his allegory by gleaning texts from the Old Testament, guided by the constant railings of its prophets that Yahweh would get even for willful disobedience. Price also drives home the point that Mark knew the letters of Paul. And here the plot thickens, because Paul was emphatic, in Galatians 1, that he didn’t get any information about Jesus from any human source.

Price’s Chapter 2 (pp. 40-61) is crucial, and should be studied carefully:

“I have identified twenty-three passages in the Gospel called Mark that appear to be based on the letters of Paul. These references relate back to seven out of the thirteen letters attributed to Paul in the Bible…It happens that all of the relationships I identified between the letters of Paul and the Markan narrative fall within the letters that are mostly strongly agreed to be authentic letters of Paul, and I did not find relationships to the other letters, which are now widely accepted as inauthentic letters.” (p. 42)

Price discusses the most crucial text at the end of the chapter, which he calls “...perhaps the single most important parallel between the Gospel called Mark and the letters of Paul—the Eucharist.” (p. 57) “This passage is perhaps one of the most important passages of all the New Testament writings and one of the most complex to address.” (p. 58) Namely, the Eucharist in Mark 14:22-25, and Paul’s account in I Corinthians 11:23-26.

Assuming that there was a Last Supper, Paul was not there. How did he know what he reports in I Corinthians 11? In verse 23 he claims that he ‘received it from the Lord.’ Price: “…the claim that he makes here is basically that this is information that is unique to him, which he received from ‘divine revelation,’ which would mean his imagination.” (p. 58) Since Mark had not been written yet, it’s not something he could have ‘looked up,’ and Paul was proud of not getting his information from any human source.

Traditional understandings of Christian origins are thus in jeopardy:

“The implications here are really quite astounding, especially in light of the fact that Paul himself states that his knowledge of Jesus and his teachings came ‘not from human origin’ but rather from ‘revelation.’ Thus, if Mark’s Jesus is based on the writings of Paul, then Mark’s Jesus has no relationship to any real person whatsoever, because according to Paul himself, Paul’s ‘knowledge’ of Jesus came from no one.” (pp. 40-41, emphasis added)

Even if Christians are stumped at Price’s suggestion that Mark’s gospel is an allegory about the fate of Israel—how many even know the context of Mark 13?—it’s hard to dismiss Price’s point that this gospel wasn’t even intended as history. They can be nudged in this direction by studying Price’s Chapter 1, pp. 1 – 39, in which he traces Mark’s dependence on many Old Testament texts, especially the stories of Elijah and Elisha in 1 and 2 Kings. A table of major literary allusions is found on pp. 3-5.

“The writer of the story called the Gospel of Mark created a very clever multilayered narrative that he intended for his audience to be able to decipher and understand. The writer made extensive use of literary allusions as a vital part of the narrative, in such a way that the intention of the work was for people to recognize the literary allusions and look them up in order to understand the story. Apparently, however, this isn’t what happened. What happened was that many people believed the story to be literally true and only recognized a relatively small portion of the literally allusions. They ones they did recognized they interpreted as prophecy fulfillment instead of literary allusion.” (p. 5, emphasis added)

See also Robert M. Price, The Christ Myth Theory and Its Problems, pp. 36-44, and Adam Winn, Mark and the Elijah-Elisha Narrative.

Readers should carefully study Price’s hefty chapter 9, pp. 176-235, “Finding Jesus in Paul’s Letters.” Jesus is there all right, but not exactly the version that Christians would like to find. Price lines up a helpful sampling of texts from the epistles (Paul, forged-Paul, and others).

• Romans 11:25-27: “So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers, I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved; as it is written [Isaiah 59:20], “Out of Zion will come the Deliverer; he will banish ungodliness from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them, when I take away their sins.”

“Here Paul seems to be talking about the coming of a future ‘Deliverer,’ but he makes no mention at all of Jesus here. If Jesus had just been here, then why is Paul talking about old scriptures instead of Jesus Christ, who would have just recently been on earth?’ (p. 181)

• Philippians 3:20: “But our commonwealth is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”

“Here Paul says that they are expecting a savior from heaven, which is Jesus. He doesn’t say that they are expecting him to return or anything like that, but that they are expecting a savior from heaven for the first time.” (p. 182)

PAY CAREFUL ATTENTION: We are so accustomed to the term ‘second coming,’ and have the conclusion of the ‘first coming’ in mind as we read the Ascension story in Acts 1, but we must be careful not to read anything of the kind into Paul’s thinking. People read the gospels and assume, incorrectly, that Paul was informed by them.

• Romans 16:25-26: “Now to the one who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith...”

“This sounds like a very odd thing to say if one is talking about a Jesus Christ that had just recently been on earth, and proclaimed his message from his own mouth, witnessed by hundreds or thousands of people. Paul is saying that ancient mysteries are being revealed and made known through prophetic writings, but why wouldn’t he be saying that these things were made known by Jesus himself?” (p. 183)

• Romans 10:13-14: “For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?”

Romans 10 is a very significant passages. If Jesus had just been on earth and been ministering to the Jews and performing miracles in Galilee and Judea and drawing large crowds, as the Gospels claim, then why does Paul ask here if Jews cannot be blamed for not believing in Christ because they haven't heard of him?” (p. 183) “Nowhere in this address, where it would make perfect sense to state that Jesus had made himself known to the Israelites, does Paul say anything about Jesus; he just quotes old scriptures and talks about messengers of Christ.” (p. 184, emphasis added)

• 1 Corinthians 15: 51, 54-56:

“Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written [Isaiah 25:8] will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

Even this cherished text arouses suspicion: “So Paul claims that he is telling these people a ‘mystery,’ but why would this be a mystery if Jesus Christ had just been on earth a few years earlier to bring this very message to the people, a message that he supposedly proclaimed several times according to the Gospels? Beyond that, why would Paul then refer to scripture as support for eternal life instead of referring to Jesus himself?” (p. 185)

See also, Tom Dykstra, Mark, Canonizer of Paul.

And we find this in the Epistle of James, 2:21 & 25:

• “Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? …Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road?”

“If this author knew of a real Jesus, or thought of Jesus as a real person, or had any knowledge of Jesus the person at all, then surely he would have used Jesus as an example of the importance of works.” (p. 231)

There are two home-run quotes in this chapter (well, there are more, but these will have to do for now):

• “Paul certainly was immersed in the types of belief that we find in the apocalyptic stories of his time. Those apocalyptic stories are universally understood by scholars as completely fictitious or mythical, yet Christians take the statements from Paul literally. The Jesus of Paul is really just as mythical as the angels he describes.” (p. 196)

• “Nothing from Paul or other early epistle writers sets Jesus among a cast of people; that happens only in the gospels and later writings…if he ever came down to earth in Paul’s mind, he never put him in any earthly setting or related him to any other people or places.” (p. 209)

Is it too much to ask Christians to remember that Paul was fanatically obsessed with a Jesus who would soon descend through the clouds? He wanted his converts to focus on being ready for this. Price hits another home run: “Who was Paul? Nothing is known about him other than what is recorded in his writings, but any objective assessment of his writings reveals Paul to have essentially been a raving lunatic.” (p. 325)

There is a process for canonization of saints…isn’t there some way to de-canonized Paul?

Paul was not alone, specializing in religious fantasies; I urge readers to absorb the material in Price’s Chapter XI, “The Mythical Cast of Early Christian History.” Once Christian imagination had been fired up, there was little restraint, and Price supplies abundant detail; even characters with minor mentions in the gospels received full biographies.

But now, what about that title! “Deciphering the Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed”? Robert M. Price writes in the Foreword: “I don’t think you can ‘prove’ either that a historical Jesus existed or that he didn’t. What you can do, and what Price does, is to construe the same old evidence in a new way that makes more natural, less contrived, sense.” (p. ix)

You certainly can prove, however, that evidence for a real Jesus is weak. You cannot change the nature of the gospels. There is not a single event in the life of Jesus (as opposed to historical persons, e.g., Pilate) that can be verified by documents outside the gospels. So I have no problem with Price’s title; let it be a challenge to Christians to think hard, do the homework, engage in the issues that he discusses. Let them try to prove him wrong.

If they venture outside the faith bubble and take a look at the chaos in Jesus studies, perhaps they could see that the elusive Jesus disguised by so much theology doesn’t actually deserve their devotion.

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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