Reviewing McGrath’s review of Robert Price on mythicism (2)

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by Neil Godfrey

“When early Christians gave the Easter shout, “The Lord is risen!” they were only repeating the ancient acclamation, “Yahweh lives!” (Ps 18:46), and they meant the same thing by it.” (Price)

This continues my previous post in which I began discussing McGrath’s “review” of Price’s arguments for mythicism, although as I pointed out there, “review” must remain in quotation marks because McGrath simply writes a lot without actually addressing Price’s arguments!

In my previous post I remarked on the ignorance of the oft-repeated claim that there is as much evidence for Jesus as for any other ancient historical figure. This, as I said, is complete nonsense and only reveals the ignorance of those making such a claim. I did not elaborate in that post, but I have discussed this more fully in other posts such as Comparing the sources and Comparing the evidence.

Failing to understand Price’s argument

My last post finished with McGrath’s complaint that Price is making something of a “creationist” like argument. Reading McGrath’s accusations an uninformed reader would think that Price is arguing that just as God made the world ex nihilo in all its complexity in one sitting, so someone sat down and created a fictional Messiah and Jesus ex nihilo in one sitting.

Yet when Price does clearly demonstrate that he is making no such argument, as when he writes

Some god or savior was henceforth known as “Jesus”, “Savior,” and Christianity was off and running. The savior would eventually be supplied sayings borrowed from Christian sages, Jewish rabbis and Cynics, and clothed in a biography drawn from the Old Testament. It is futile to object that monotheistic Jews would never have held truck with pagan godlings. We know that they did in the Old Testament, though Ezekiel didn’t like it much. And we know that first century Judaism was not the same as Yavneh-era [post 70] Judaim. There was no normative mainstream Judaism before Yavneh. And, as Margaret Barker has argued, there is every reason to believe that ancient Israelite beliefs, including polytheism, continued to survive despite official interdiction . . . . Barker suggests that the first Jesus worshipers understood Jesus to be the Old Testament Yahweh, the Son of God Most High, or El Elyon, head of the Israelite pantheon from time immemorial. . . .(p.82)

McGrath quaintly represents such an argument by Price as follows:

Price . . . . seems to think that the fact that Judaean religion was not yet monotheistic in Ezekiel’s time means that an affirmed monotheist like Paul would have happily borrowed from myths about Tammuz.

McGrath is clearly intent on oversimplifying mythicist arguments. Shadow boxing is always much easier than getting into the ring with a real opponent.

Ignoring the elephant in the room

In my previous post I alluded to Price dedicating several pages of his chapter to detailing the literary and thematic comparisons of the stories within Mark’s gospel to OT counterparts. Scholars have written much on criteria that can help in determining what might be a genuine literary borrowing or influence, and what can be dismissed as too vague or generalized to be considered in that category. I have previously listed three sets of such criteria in 3 criteria lists. (Now HERE is where historians can find a justifiable and profitable use of “criteriology”! This is an example of how “real historians” DO use criteria. On the other hand, many NT historians misapply criteriology badly and make a nonsense of their “history” as a result, as I have explained in McKnight’s lament and Historical facts.)

So when one can see a litany of pericopes throughout the gospels that demonstrate specific parallels of character types, character roles, thematic relationships and messages, plot sequence and patterns, even the same use of words, then any school teacher has all the evidence they need to know that one student cheated from his neighbour in an exam. The mere details of changing the names and placing reversing a couple of lines merely demonstrate some feeble effort on the part of one to hide the fact that he was cheating.

No, I am not saying that NT authors “cheated” from OT stories. What I am saying is that the parallels between the stories, one after the other after the other, are such that they are clearly known by a host of bible commentators and scholars and lay readers alike to have a clear literary relationship that goes well beyond the coincidental.

This is not surprising. We know that ancient authors emulated works of earlier masters very often in their creations (cf Virgil and Homer). To rewrite stories based on earlier classics was part of their training at school. NT writers are obviously keen to demonstrate that the life of Jesus comports with the lives of OT figures.

Where McGrath completely misses the point of this argument is when he says that all Price is done is show that it is “possible” that NT authors created stories of Jesus from the OT narratives. He speaks of there being only “slight similarities” and compares these with parallels as meaninglessly vague as “getting married, reigning and dying”.

Of course, McGrath can only misrepresent the actual nature of the parallels by refusing point blank to address any of them. He even writes in response to the obvious literary borrowings, “Why must we imagine this [that one story was borrowed from the other]?” Such a question only makes sense if McGrath completely avoids any discussion of the clear (and criterologically grounded) literary borrowings Price has just presented.

McGrath simply hides all this evidence from Price in his “review”.

Some NT scholars go one step further and try to dispute such arguments by counting the number of differences between patently related narratives. Such an argument is also nonsense, and completely ignores the work done by “serious scholars” on establishing criteria to determine borrowing. If there were no differences then we would simply have exactly identical stories, and the whole concept of borrowing and influence in the literary world would be rendered meaningless and nonexistent.

It is time that biblical scholars who tend to rely on such illogical arguments be obliged to sit in on remedial courses in departments where real history and literary studies are taught.

Belief in miracles will make the Bible story the more plausible every time

McGrath also claims that Price’s argument for literary borrowing to “create a fictional Messiah” is less plausible than that a historical person existed to whom legends accrued over time.

Let’s think that through. Price argues that there was a divinity honoured alongside God by some Jews, and that in time sectarian rivalries, propaganda for teaching purposes, and political power struggles played a role in creating a demand for narratives and a historical setting of those narratives. That divinity appeared in a context in which some Jews appeared to acknowledge a distinction between Yahweh and El, and saw Yahweh as the angelic figure who mediated and appeared on earth at different times. I have also discussed Levinson’s argument that some Jews in the same time interpreted Isaac’s sacrifice as a literal death and resurrection, and whose blood atoned for the sins of the Jews — and this idea emerged at a time when other Jewish martyrs sought consolation the same idea that their blood would also atone for the sins of their people. Barker has also written of the detailed influences of the Book of Enoch on early Christian theology and narrative concepts.

In opposition to this sort of argument, McGrath argues that the far more probable scenario is that the stories of the Gospels were composed as a direct result of the following scenario:

A failed prophet who was rejected by the vast majority of his fellow Jews as a demon-possessed fake, or at best a weirdo who spoke in bizarre metaphors that meant little to them, or who preached completely unrealistic ethics, was condemned as a criminal insurrectionist along with other bandits. After his execution, a minuscule band of devotees who also had never understood him while he was alive, went out and converted their fellow Jews by the thousands — and even gentiles by more thousands — that this man was indeed a divinity like no other, one to be worshiped alongside the very God Most High himself, and before long was even to be acknowledged as the one through whom the whole universe was created and continued to be sustained. And all these Jews and gentiles suddenly turned around and believed all this of this crucified mortal, and devoured letters from supposed eyewitnesses who never once found reason to refer to a single narrative event of his life!

McGrath insists that Price’s scenario is “comical”. But he does not spell out his own alternative scenario as I have done here. I think I know which one deserves the comical epithet.

McGrath simply asserts that Price does not meet his own standards that require a historical explanation to be “probable” rather than merely “possible”. I suggest that when one compares Price’s and McGrath’s scenarios (though McGrath strangely does not explain his own scenario as I have done for him here) it is pretty obvious which one is the more probable.

But aren’t historical figures described in legendary or mythical terms?

McGrath writes:

As Price himself acknowledges, historical figures have a tendency to be conformed to ideal types in literature, and legendary material accretes itself to such figures. And so the only way to conclude that the mythicist scenario is most likely is to cast aside the principle of analogy and regard the process of the creation of Jesus as involving processes for which there is no parallel.

It is indeed true that historical figures over time have attracted mythical trappings. Not even over time. Emperor Hadrian in his own life-time posed himself as Hercules. Plato’s father was the god Apollo. Alexander was said to have been emulating Dionysus in his conquest of the east.

But here is the difference that critics of mythicism, and McGrath in particular, seem to consistently overlook. The details of evidence for Hadrian and Plato, for example, stand independently of the mythical trappings that came to be attached to them. Historians can make assessments about the historicity of Hadrian, Alexander and Plato quite apart from the myths about them.

This is not the case with Jesus at all. Take away from Jesus those stories that are mythical, those that are clearly borrowed (according to scholarly and widely acknowledged criteria, even outside the field of biblical studies) from other stories, and there is nothing left. To paraphrase Price, Jesus is myth all the way down.

There is only one way that biblical historians can attempt to write a history of Jesus apart from the myths and literary borrowings of which he consists as a literary figure. And that is to use arcane conjuring of criteriology, such as those of embarrassment, etc. And this brings us back to one of the first points I made in my previous post: McGrath seems to think that all historians of other fields also establish the historicity of Hadrian, Plato, etc by “criteria of embarrassment or dissimilarity”!) But I won’t repeat that discussion again here.

An unscholarly skipping over Josephus?

McGrath parrots Crossan’s mischievous assertion that Price is being unscholarly when he writes

Let me leapfrog the tiresome debate over whether the Testimonium Flavianum is authentic. (p. 62)

What both McGrath and Crossan fail to mention is that Price makes his position — his scholarly position — on the TF very clear. He adds to the above,

For the record, my guess is that Eusebius fabricated it [and here Price adds a footnote referencing a scholarly source with page references] and that the tenth-century Arabic version [again a footnote to another scholarly source] represents an abridgement of the Eusebian original, not a more primitive, modest version. My opinion is that John Meier and others are rewriting a bad text to make it a good one, to rehabilitate it for use as a piece of evidence. [And here again is another footnote to a scholarly source, page references included].

Once again we see McGrath (and not only McGrath in this instance) seizing on a singular rhetorical turn of phrase to make it sound as if Price has no argument and is not interesting in even addressing an argument that is pertinent to any discussion on the evidence for Jesus. Yet I have shown that Price’s following explanation belies this mischievous (dishonest?) suggestion. McGrath and Crossan both also accidentally, presumably, overlook Price’s actual point: that the evidence of Josephus is inconclusive, and that there is other evidence that is much more weighty and that he opts to spend several pages detailing. McGrath picks up Price’s sentence about the TF and completely ignores the details of pages of evidence Price does discuss. I should not say he ignores it. He really fails to discuss it, but does make a sweeping comment at the end that it is not persuasive. No reason given and no argument seems to be required.

The danger of skimming

In my section above under the header beginning “Belief in miracles” I remarked in passing that McGrath claims that Price does not offer a plausible scenario to explain how the Gospel narratives could have arisen without a historical Jesus to begin with. I got sidetracked there in addressing McGrath’s complete misunderstanding of what Price is arguing.

It is worth noting separately that Price does indeed offer an explanatory scenario about how the stories of Jesus developed from OT suggestions and what would have been a very likely motive to have set these stories in a historical context. Price even notes the rival historical settings found in early Christian literature that suggest just such a process. Quite a few historians have discussed the second century battle among rival Christianities, and how part of the weaponry in such wars were rival genealogies of “right teaching”. It was important to be able to trace one’s teachings back through a reputable series of names, and finally back to heroes who were instructed by Christ himself. Many of these were traced back to individuals who had visions of a heavenly Christ, and Paul appears to have been one such example. What better way to undercut all such rivals than by being able to trace one’s ideological heritage back to Christ who spoke to your founders on earth before his death? Competing claims for visions have little objective anchors by which to judge the most authentic. But if your founders spoke to the real person, in the presence of eyewitnesses, now that’s a marketing advantage hard to beat!

So why does McGrath repeatedly claim Price does not offer a scenario? Price even cites other scholars who have argued the same.

The 3 pillars of the traditional Christ Myth theory

Price structures much of his argument around what he describes as the three pillars of the Christ Myth theory. (One would not know this from McGrath’s review.) But I will mention those in a future post. They will make a good companion piece to my recent posts on Hoffmann’s discussion of Christ Mythicism and Goguel.

Price’s discussion of Methodology

One more thing: I have not addressed McGrath’s lengthy review of Price’s discussion of methodology. That is because I have discussed Price’s methodologies as described in this chapter once or twice before: 5 (more) commandments and LTJ’s response.

What Historical Jesus scholars need to do

When scientists wish to inform publics of the errors in creationist arguments, they will pull out the evidence and demonstrate the fact of evolution. There can be no doubt when one is informed of the pattern of, say, phalanges across species, and the testable predictability of knowing what to expect and find in different geological layers. Holocaust denial is probably done a disservice by having laws against it, since the evidence of massacres of Jews, Romany, communists, homosexuals, Poles and others can stand on its own.

It would help the historicist Jesus cause if NT scholars could produce evidence for the historicity of Jesus — not debatable conclusions from criteriological arguments about unprovenanced claims that lack independent external controls — the sorts of evidence we have for other ancient historical figures.

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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “Reviewing McGrath’s review of Robert Price on mythicism (2)”

  1. Perhaps both sides are missing the point! It is true, as you write” that historical figures over time have attracted mythical trappings” and that evidence for such historical figures can be gathered from sources that are independent from the “mythical trappings” – and that such independent historical evidence is missing in the case of the gospel Jesus mythology.

    The difference between historical known figures that have attracted mythical trappings – and the gospel Jesus story – is that the gospels have used a historical figure as an inspirational figure only. The historical figure has not been mythologized. The historical figure has only been a source of inspiration. It was what others saw, or what others experienced, or interpreted, from the life of a historical figure that led to the creation of a new figure, a mythological figure. An entirely new creation. Thus, underneath all the Jesus mythology there is nothing there, it’s myth all the way down. A myth that has not been put upon a historical figure – but a myth that owes its inspiration, its creative force, to a historical figure. It is the Jewish messianic concept – not any historical figure that could have been perceived to have held that role at any specific time – that has been mythologized, been spiritualized. In other words – it is the messianic ‘office’ that was relevant for the gospel ‘salvation’ Jesus storyline – not any particular historical individual, however inspirational he might have been, who was perceived to have held that messianic ‘office’ at some specific time.

    Thus, historicists are in error if they are looking for a historical crucified Jesus from Nazareth, mother Mary and father Joseph. Mythicists are wrong if they seek to deny an historical figure relevant to the creation of the gospel Jesus storyline. All mythicists should be denying is the claimed historicity of the gospel crucified Jesus figure. They should not be insistent that that it’s all mythical; that it all came out of the mind of Paul. If there are Jewish roots to the Jesus storyline – then historical events are involved – albeit historical events that have been spiritualized within a prophetic framework. And to accomplish all of that – and to keep Christianity on that spiritual path – and to keep at bay any Jewish charges re turning historical rulers into gods – any historical figure that was relevant to early Christian origins, understanding, would have to be placed on the back-burner, side-lined to make the spiritual road unobstructed by past historical events. However, being sidelined because of a focus upon purely spiritual concerns, does not mean that a historical figure was not viewed as important, of some relevance, to early Christian origins.

    1. maryhelena said: The historical figure has not been mythologized. The historical figure has only been a source of inspiration.

      Historical figure? What historical figure? Full disclosure — lately I guess I’d call myself an historical Jesus (HJ) agnostic. I now swing between thinking: (1) If there was an historical Jesus we’ll never know anything about him, and (2) it was all historicized myth from the get-go.

      In the absence of any good evidence, one of the few arguments left is that of parsimony. Is it easier to imagine first-century Jews elevating a failed, crucified apocalyptic prophet to divine status, instituting a cult in which they ritually drink his blood and eat his flesh? That’s a lot to swallow, if you’ll pardon the expression. Nonetheless, I’ve encountered people who do argue that the HJ hypotheses of Ehrman, Crossan, Borg, etc. are more likely to be right than those of Doherty, Price, Thompson, or Wells, because it’s a simpler explanation.

      1. Full disclosure? Oh, dear, what have I got myself into….

        Basically, my position is this: No historical crucified Jesus. That, as far as I can see, is what the mythicist position has historically been related to. That position does not negate the possibility that a historical figure was relevant to the ideas of the people at the start of the Christian movement. All it does negate is the assumption that that historical figure was the figure of the gospels, Jesus of Nazareth (or wherever). When I first got interested in the Jesus question (25 plus years ago…) after taking off all the mythology and theology – and realized there was nothing there underneath that mythology – I simply reached for a history book.

        So, on and off over the years, I added more ideas, more thinking etc to that basic position. Which basically runs along the lines of there being no smoke without a fire! Even if, for the sake of argument, Paul’s spiritual Jesus construct preceded the gospel storyline (though dating aside, it could well be a chicken and egg scenario) that would not mean that a historical figure was not relevant to Paul’ ideas. Historical events are relevant to Jewish theological premises. It’s not a case of it all coming out of Paul’ head. The question is what were the historical events that led Paul to his particular ‘vision’, his light bulb moment, his flash of inspiration. Out of the blue – or a consequence of taking historical events into account and then having his ‘Ah, I see it now’ moment. Without a historical core, without being able to connect his ‘vision’ to something tangible, Paul’ ‘vision’ would remain a flight of pure fantasy – with no historical roots to enable it to grow.

        A historical figure that was relevant to early Christian origins would not be easy to find. But that does not mean that such a historical figure was not important. It simply means that if we want to find such a figure (and such a historical figure is only of relevance in a historical reconstruction of Christian origins and of no theological relevance) then we have to look outside the gospel storyline to the actual Herodian history in which the gospel story is set. Of course, one can reject this historical time frame as just part of the gospel storyline and of no relevance to early Christian history. However, that method could result in a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It’s not a case of letting dating, late dating, of NT documents call the tune – dating only dates documents not the origin of the tradition that is contained with the pages of such documents. It is the gospel story itself that needs to be interpreted on its own terms. And those terms include the historical timeline within the NT storyline.

        The problem now becomes how to ascertain the Herodian history of the NT timeframe. And that leads one to Josephus. A notoriously difficult writer to comprehend. Josephus, by his own writing, admits to wearing a number of different ‘hats’. He is a historian, a priest, a prophetic interpreter, a dreamer of dreams and an interpreter of those dreams. (War Book 111 ch.V111 sect. 3.). Hardly an indifferent historian! And therein lies the problem in trying to get a clear, unbiased, record of Herodian history. One can just write Josephus of as a bad historian – or one can try to fathom out what his game plan has been. That’s the approach I take. The historical figure that lived during the gospel time frame was Philip the Tetrarch. He renamed the village of Bethsaida as Bethsaida Julius – and it is from this village that some of the disciples came from. It was in the villages of Casearea Philippi (Philip’s capital) where questions re the messiahship of the gospel Jesus arose. However, there is a lot more to this figure than a straightforward reading of Josephus would suggest.

        I recently had an exchange with Stephen Huller on the question of Agrippa II. Seemingly, rabbinic literature only references one Agrippa – and according to Huller’s reading of this literature, King Agrippa was considered a messiah figure. Josephus has two figures named King Agrippa. Stephen rejects this. The FRDB thread is here:


  2. Hi Vridar,

    I’m a long time reader of your blog and McGrath’s blog. I had only seen people quote Price’s sentence about about leapfroging over Josephus.

    And now I see that he discusses it an refers to sources regarding it(Ken Olsson, right?). Amazing! Wow!

    Keep up the good work!

    1. No, not Ken Olsen this time. The 3 citations in order are:

      1) Solomon Zeitlin, Josephus on Jesus . . . 1931, ch.7 pp 61-70
      2) Shlomo Pines, An Arabic Version of the TF . . . 1971
      3) Robert E. Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament . . . 2000, pp.88-104

  3. Well done. I basically agree. I think mythicism is one of his hobby horses. I tried to interject some sense into some of the geated discussion discussion, but it seems that McG was more interested in the back and forth Spy-vs-Spy volley with the one chatter that really gets under his goad than he was in actually engaging arguments.

    Great piece.


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