Does “Mythicism” Need an Early Paul? — ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ ch. 6

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by Neil Godfrey

Robert M. Price argues that it makes little difference to the case for Jesus being nothing more than a mythical construct if Paul’s letters are judged to be early or late, or even if written before the gospels. This is the theme of his chapter “Does the Christ Myth Theory Require an Early Date for the Pauline Epistles?” in Is This Not the Carpenter?’: the question of the historicity of the figure of Jesus. He also raises the question of whether modern Christ myth advocates should be more critical of the Pauline epistles as an earlier generation of scholars were.

Today’s two main proponents of the Christ myth theory (Earl Doherty and George A. Wells) argue for the conventional view of the genuineness of Paul’s letters. Both agree that they belong to the mid first century period, well before the first gospel was composed. Most scholars certainly agree that the gospels were composed after Paul wrote his letters, but the “mythicist” argument goes one step further and says that interested parties only created a “biographical-historical” figure of Jesus well after Paul wrote his letters.

That is, the earliest evidence for Christianity, the New Testament epistles, testify only of a theological concept of Jesus. The concept of an earthly Jesus living out a career of teaching and healing, calling disciples and confronting Pharisees, was a relatively late development in the history of Christianity.

Price comments on the contemporary mythicists’ tendency to accept the Pauline epistles as genuine:

This makes them admirably early and leaves plenty of time for Gospel story-tellers to have done their subsequent work, historicizing Jesus and pillaging the epistles for sayings to reattribute to Jesus. one feels that things would begin to blur if the Gospels and epistles had to be placed as more or less contemporary. That condition would open up the possibility or need to find another solution for the lack of Gospel-type tradition in the epistles. (p. 100)

After covering in some detail the arguments and counter-arguments over whether any passage in Paul’s letters is indeed evidence that Paul knew any traditions stemming from an historical Jesus, Price casts back to earlier mythicists and what they had to say about the relationship between Paul’s letters (and their dogmatic or theological Jesus) and the Gospels (with their “biographical” Jesus), as well various arguments about relative dating and authenticity.

The critical passage in this chapter follows:

Even if all [the gospel] stories were to be found verbatim in the epistles, even if the epistles should all prove to be authentically Pauline, we would still be dealing with the (rapid) accumulation of stock, predictable hagiographic legends. We would still have to offer some pretty compelling reason for an impartial historian to accept the Gospel versions as historically true while rejecting medieval, classical, Buddhist or Hindu parallels as false. That is what the principle of analogy is all about. (p. 108 — Price is drawing on an insight first published a century ago by John M. Robertson in Pagan Christs (link is to the book online))

Price posits the argument slightly differently, but suggests the Christ myth theory would not be undermined even if the Gospels were found to be earlier than Paul’s letters:

Suppose one concluded that the Gospels were not so much later than the epistles after all, making both products of the late-first, early-second century. Suppose the late Gospels were even earlier than the epistles. That alone would still mean little. How shall we describe what we find in the Gospels? Would one call it sober biographical and historical data, even by ancient standards? Or would we not recognize it rather easily as a set of barely historicized hero myths? (p. 108)

Raglan, top; Rank, left; Dundes, right

Robert Price points once again to the features of the “Mythic Hero Archetype” as set out by Lord Raglan, Otto Rank, Alan Dundes and others that he has addressed in several of his other publications. They will be familiar to anyone who knows Price’s works, but for convenience here they are again, with those appearing in the Gospel account of Jesus italicized:

  1. mother is a royal virgin
  2. father is a king
  3. father related to mother
  4. unusual conception
  5. hero reputed to be son of god
  6. attempt to kill hero
  7. hero spirited away
  8. reared by foster parents in a far country
  9. no details of childhood
  10. goes to future kingdom
  11. is victor over king
  12. marries a princess (often daughter of predecessor)
  13. becomes king
  14. for a time he reigns uneventfully
  15. he prescribes laws
  16. later loses favour with gods or his subjects
  17. driven from throne and city
  18. meets with mysterious death
  19. often at the top of a hill
  20. his children, if any, do not succeed him [i.e. does not found a dynasty]
  21. his body is not buried
  22. nonetheless has one or more holy sepulchers

(Quite unrelated to Price’s discussion, it is interesting to count those applicable to Moses, too.)

Price justifies the applicability to Jesus of each of the ones highlighted. I will only mention a few that may not be immediately obvious. #2, “father is a king” — Joseph, the reputed father of Jesus, is not a king, but he is of the House of David, and as such his function is to indicate that Jesus is the true king to come; #1, “mother is a royal virgin” — later Christian legend made Mary also a descendant of David; #10, “goes to future kingdom” — that is, entry into Jerusalem as the King, Son of David. . . .

Price’s conclusion:

In other words, there is a lot less difference between the Jesus story of the Gospels and the Christ myth of the epistles than we usually assume. Neither is the stuff of history. (p. 110)

What is the difference between myth and legend?

Jaan Puhvel

To answer this question Price quotes from Jaan Puhval‘s Comparative Mythology:

Myth operates by bringing a sacred (and hence essentially and paradoxically ‘timeless’) past to bear preemptively on the present and inferentially on the future (‘as it was in the beginning is now, and ever shall be’). Yet in the course of human events societies pass and religious systems change; the historical landscape gets littered with the husks of desiccated myths. These are valuable nonmaterial fossils of mankind’s recorded history, especially if still embedded in layers of embalmed religion, as part of a stratum of religion complete with cult, liturgy and ritual. Yet equally important is the next level of transmission, in which the sacred narrative has already been secularized, myth has been turned into saga, sacred time into heroic past, gods into heroes, and mythical action into ‘historical plot.’

Myth can be transmitted either in its immediate shape, as sacred narrative anchored in theology and interlaced with liturgy and ritual, or in transmuted form, as past narrative that has severed its ties to sacred time and instead functions as an account of purportedly secular, albeit extraordinary happening. . . This transposition of myth to heroic saga is a notable mechanism in ancient Indo-European traditions, wherever a certain cultic system has been supplanted in living religion and the superannuated former apparatus falls prey to literary manipulations.

As Price sums it up, then, the development is from pure myth [“accounts of gods pure and simple, taking place in the heavens of primordial times”] to quasi-historical legend [“featuring super-powered demigods on earth in the past”]. This, he says,

only reinforces the conclusion that the epistolary version of the myth-god Christ is prior to the Jesus hero version found in the Gospels. (p. 110)

It follows that even if one were to judge the gospel narratives as prior to the epistles mythic-Jesus, one would still have to conclude that the original Jesus was the mythic one, Price reasons. What we would then have would be evidence of a community holding on to the original mythic version surviving alongside others that produced the gospel tales. The Philippian hymn is a used by Price as a classic instance of this. This hymn — widely judged to be pre-Pauline, and that arguably claims that the name of Jesus was only bestowed upon a divine figure after he became mortal, died and was resurrected — “managed to survive even after most readers no longer knew how to understand it, what to make of it.”

What would such hypothetical communities who adhered to the original Christ myth have thought of those who were embracing adventure narratives of a “demigod” Jesus? Price concludes that like the Ebionites who rejected the doctrine of the virgin birth as heretical, they would have likewise dismissed such tales. (Price defends the logic of this analogy by pointing out that the natural birth of Jesus would have been earlier than the virgin birth account — even though we don’t learn of the existence of the former until the time of Origen — because “legends grow; they do not shrink.”


Price covers more material and facets of the argument in this chapter. I have opted to focus on the principle argument for this post, however. (That is, I haven’t had time to cover everything now.)

What I would like to post about separately another time is Price’s discussion of Marcion’s relationship with the Gospels as we know them.

It would also be useful, I think, to have another post listing the many arguments and counter-arguments that have been made over whether the epistles of Paul betray any knowledge of the “historical Jesus”.

But I’ll conclude here with some of Robert Price’s own concluding remarks:

Though today’s leading proponents of the Christ Myth Theory tend to hold to a conventional, mid-first-century dating of the epistles, a good twenty to forty years before the (conventional) dates assigned the Gospels, one suspects this is almost a circumstantial ad hominem fallacy, accepting conventional dates mainly for the sake of argument in order to embarrass the orthodox who hold to these dates for apologetical reasons. Christ Myth theorists are not above pursuing an apologetical agenda of their own, which may explain their reluctance to apply the same ruthless scepticism to the Pauline epistles as they do the Gospels. If they did (like their nineteenth-century forbears did), they would find the picture becoming a bit fuzzier, to be sure, but there might also be significant gains. In a brief survey of remarks on the age and integrity of the Pauline epistles by Robertson, Couchoud, Smith and others, we have detected pregnant hints of arguments for the historical priority of the Christ Myth as attested in the epistles over the Jesus epic met with in the Gospels, and this regardless of either the relative or the absolute dates of the Gospels and epistles. (p. 116)


  • 2012-09-06 09:01:05 UTC - 09:01 | Permalink

    I don’t think placing the gospels first increases the odds that any historical information can be recovered from them, but I do think it would tend to favor the mythologizing of a historical figure over the historicizing of a mythological figure because the Jesus of the gospels seems to become progressively more supernatural with each succeeding account. If Paul isn’t our earliest source, I see less support for the argument that the earliest conception of Jesus was as a purely supernatural being.

    • 2012-09-06 09:59:54 UTC - 09:59 | Permalink

      If the gospels were our earliest sources (not just earlier than Paul but earlier than all the rest of the NT) then we have evidence that the earliest conception of Jesus was just what the gospels say he is. The question of Gospel sources remains the same: oral tradition stemming from historical events or literary mimesis/midrash or whatever one likes to call theological-literary constructs.

      Price’s thoughts deserve to be factored into an investigation of this question.

      • SaminWV
        2013-05-22 05:38:39 UTC - 05:38 | Permalink

        I am sorry I am so late in this reply. Time constraints prevent me from catching up on NT studies and dialog on an on-going basis.

        My recollection is that Richard Carrier is very comfortable with the mainstream dating of the Epistles, but I don’t remember why. An explanation he provides for the catalyst for the composition of Mark and the subsequent synoptics was to “euhemerize” the Jesus of the earlier Epistles. The actual evidence for their introduction in the historical record is somewhat later, not until Marcion introduced them to the(a) church in Rome at the earliest 140. Am I incorrect here?

        If Price is able to justify a later date for composition of the Epistles, either roughly coincident with the Gospels, or even later, then that would be noteworthy.

        I cannot help but agree with vinnyjh57. The heavily supernatural tone of the gospel narrative, the midrashic/parallel literary parallelism to resonant Hebrew scripture, the evident syncretic themes of contemporaneous pagan myth, and dearth of independent historical sources for the gospel accounts, all serve as good reason to be agnostic about the existence of the central character in question. But beneath what presents a heavy veneer of myth could be an historical individual who serves as its kernel.

        It is the cosmic character of the Christ in the earlier Epistles, as pointed out by Earl Doherty and others, that mitigates so substantively to the likelihood of Christ as an exalted heavenly entity and not human on terra firma. That later gospels would serve just as allegorical narrative posits a plausible chronicle of a developing myth.

      • Klaus Schilling
        2018-05-24 20:19:45 UTC - 20:19 | Permalink

        No, that is nowhere near the case; the NT is only the late end, and nowhere near the beginning of the history of the Jesus figure.

  • 2012-09-06 14:46:16 UTC - 14:46 | Permalink

    Only complaint is you didn’t post all three at once. Really looking forward to the Jesus in Paul post. I’ve had a bit of a discussion with a NT scholar about this recently. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2012/08/faith-meets-tardis.html#disqus_thread

    Are you aware of Price’s claim that Paul was originally Simon Magus? If so, Can you give me a quick summary? I’ve heard him mention it on the Bible Geek, and I should ask him, but while I’m here I thought I’d bring it up.

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