The Christ-Myth Theory and Its Problems Book Summary

Title: The Christ-Myth Theory and Its Problems
Author: Robert M. Price

TLDR: Robert M. Price presents a compelling case for the Christ Myth Theory, arguing that Jesus Christ was originally a celestial savior, later historicized by early Christians. He meticulously analyzes scriptural parallels, mythic archetypes, and the evolution of early Christian beliefs, challenging the traditional historical Jesus narrative.

Introduction: The Quest of the Mythical Jesus

This chapter lays the foundation for Price’s argument by detailing his personal journey from a Christian apologist to a proponent of the Christ Myth Theory. He begins by emphasizing the Principle of Analogy as a cornerstone of historical research. This principle asserts that we can only judge the likelihood of past events based on analogies with current experiences and well-documented historical occurrences. When examining ancient accounts, we should consider whether they align with our current understanding of the world or resemble known myths and legends. If a story seems more akin to a legend, it’s more probable that it’s a fictional narrative rather than a historical account.

Price then introduces the Criterion of Dissimilarity, a principle used in historical Jesus research. This criterion posits that a saying attributed to Jesus is likely inauthentic if it has parallels in Jewish or early Christian teachings. This is because sayings could easily be attributed to famous figures, and early Christians might have ascribed their own views to Jesus to enhance their authority. He argues that this criterion, combined with the form-critical principle that every gospel element must have served a practical purpose in the early church, leaves us with very little authentic material attributable to Jesus.

Furthermore, Price highlights the importance of considering Ideal Types when analyzing historical phenomena. An Ideal Type is a generalized construct containing common features found in specific instances. While individual cases may vary, the Ideal Type helps us understand the overall pattern. He argues that scholars should consider the influence of the Mystery Religions, Gnosticism, and the concept of the divine man (Θειος ανηρ) on early Christianity. These Ideal Types, often overlooked, provide valuable insights into the development of Christology.

Another important point is that Consensus is not a criterion for truth. Majority opinion or scholarly consensus should not automatically dictate historical conclusions. Every theory and argument must be judged on its own merits.

Finally, Price emphasizes that scholarly conclusions are tentative and provisional, always open to revision. The goal is to find the paradigm or hypothesis that makes the most sense of the evidence without resorting to excessive special pleading.

Jesus at the Vanishing Point

This chapter dives deeper into the evidence supporting the Christ Myth Theory, focusing on three key arguments: the silence of secular sources, the lack of a historical Jesus in the epistles, and the mythic parallels in the Jesus story.

Silence of Secular Sources: Price argues that the lack of any independent, secular documentation mentioning a miracle-working Jesus is a significant problem for the historical Jesus theory. While some point to the Testimonium Flavianum in Josephus’ works as evidence, Price believes it was likely fabricated by Eusebius. He emphasizes that even if genuine, this passage only mentions Christians’ belief in Jesus, not Jesus himself. The silence of other sources suggests that there was no contemporary figure matching the gospel portrait of Jesus.

The Epistolary Jesus: Price scrutinizes the Pauline Epistles, arguing that they present a purely celestial Christ, a divine Son of God who descended from heaven, died a sacrificial death, and was resurrected and enthroned in heaven. There is no mention of a historical Jesus, his teachings, or his miracles. The absence of gospel-like traditions in the epistles, supposedly earlier than the gospels, suggests that the historical Jesus tradition did not yet exist. He examines possible counterarguments, such as the mention of “James, the brother of the Lord,” suggesting alternative interpretations that do not require James to be a blood relative of Jesus.

Mythic Parallels: Price explores the striking similarities between the Jesus story and the myths of dying and rising gods prevalent in the ancient Mediterranean world. He argues that these parallels are too numerous and profound to be explained away as coincidence or later borrowing by pagans. The Ideal Type of the dying and rising god, though not an exact match in every case, sheds light on the likely mythic nature of the Jesus story. He also examines the Mythic Hero Archetype as outlined by Lord Raglan and others, highlighting the remarkable correspondence between this archetype and the gospel narratives. Virtually every detail of Jesus’ life, from his miraculous birth to his postmortem appearances, aligns with this recurring pattern.

Price acknowledges the argument for a historical Jesus based on evidence of a succession struggle between Jesus’ disciples and his relatives. However, he presents alternative readings of the evidence, suggesting that the political elements in the Passion narrative might be later anachronistic insertions by Mark. If these elements are removed, the case for a Zealot Jesus, tied to political upheaval, weakens considerably.

Finally, Price addresses the issue of varying traditions concerning the date of Jesus’ death. He argues that these inconsistencies stem from attempts to anchor an originally mythic Jesus in history, a process known as euhemerism. The lack of a consistent historical timeline for Jesus further supports the Christ Myth theory.

New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash

This chapter focuses on the extensive borrowing of Old Testament stories and motifs in the gospels and Acts, arguing that virtually the entire New Testament narrative is a product of haggadic midrash. Midrash is a Jewish exegetical technique that expands and rewrites existing narratives to draw out new meanings and applications. Early Christians, being Jewish, employed this technique to create new stories based on Old Testament precedents, thereby anchoring their faith in the authority of Jewish scripture.

Price meticulously analyzes the Gospel of Mark, demonstrating how each episode is derived from Old Testament prototypes, particularly the Exodus saga and the Elijah and Elisha cycles. He reveals striking parallels between the stories, showing how Mark reinterprets events, characters, and even specific phrases from the older narratives to create a new narrative about Jesus. This meticulous analysis demonstrates that Mark was not simply embellishing historical memories, but actively constructing a narrative based on existing scripture. He extends this analysis to Matthew and Luke, demonstrating how they, too, relied heavily on Old Testament sources to shape their gospels.

Doherty’s insights into the methodology of the gospel writers are highlighted here. Price argues that early Christians did not start with a set of remarkable facts and then search for scriptural predictions to legitimize them. Rather, they began with a vague savior myth and sought to flesh it out by creatively anchoring it in a particular historical period and dressing it in scriptural garb. This process of creative exegesis allowed early Christians to “discover” what Jesus, the Son of God, had done and said “according to the scriptures.”

The chapter further explores how the uniquely Lukan narratives in the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are similarly based on Old Testament precedents. The central section of Luke’s Gospel, for instance, mirrors the themes and structure of the Book of Deuteronomy, presenting a kind of “Deutero-Deuteronomy” attributed to Jesus. Even the uniquely Lukan parables and miracles find their basis in creative re-interpretations of Old Testament stories.

The extensive evidence for scriptural borrowing presented in this chapter further weakens the case for a historical Jesus. If the gospel narratives can be explained as creative rewrites of previous scripture, it’s redundant to posit that they also actually happened to Jesus.

Dubious Database: Second Thoughts on the Red and Pink Materials of the Jesus Seminar

This chapter critically examines the results of the Jesus Seminar, which aimed to evaluate the authenticity of the sayings and deeds of Jesus by assigning them color-coded ratings based on their probability of authenticity. Price, while a participant in the Seminar, argues that even the 18% of material deemed authentic by the Seminar is overly optimistic. He believes a more rigorous application of critical methodologies would result in even fewer authentic sayings and stories attributable to Jesus.

He analyzes a selection of red and pink (likely and probably authentic) material compiled in the Seminar’s publication, The Gospel of Jesus, demonstrating how many of these passages likely stem from later theological agendas and creative borrowing, not from the historical Jesus. Price revisits each passage, questioning the assumptions underlying the Seminar’s conclusions and highlighting alternative interpretations that undermine their judgment of authenticity. He points to inconsistencies in the application of the Criterion of Dissimilarity and argues that even sayings not explicitly contradicted by other sources might still be spurious.

Price argues that the pervasive fictional element in the gospel traditions, coupled with the tendency of sayings to be attributed to various figures, makes it impossible to assign a definitive red or pink rating to any passage. The inherent uncertainty of the Jesus tradition demands a more agnostic approach, acknowledging the impossibility of definitively proving or disproving the authenticity of any saying or story. He concludes that the entire Jesus tradition might be likened to the Gospel of Philip’s metaphor of dyes blended in a vat, emerging white – all tinged with fiction and stripped of their original colors.

The Abhorrent Void: The Rapid Attribution of Fictive Sayings and Stories to a Mythic Jesus

This chapter tackles the objection that there was not enough time for a significant body of spurious Jesus traditions to arise between his supposed death and the composition of the gospels. Price argues that this objection assumes the existence of a historical Jesus living in a specific time period, a premise challenged by the Christ Myth theory. If Jesus was originally a celestial being, later historicized, then there was ample time for these traditions to develop. He presents three analogies to illustrate the plausibility of this rapid development:

Infancy Gospels: Price highlights how, once Christians came to believe in a divine child Jesus, a flood of apocryphal infancy gospels quickly arose to fill in the imagined gap in his life. This explosion of stories demonstrates the human propensity to create narratives about revered figures, even in the absence of historical basis.

Muhammadan Hadith: He draws parallels to the rapid proliferation of hadith, traditions about the Prophet Muhammad, which emerged after the Koran’s promulgation. These traditions, now recognized as largely spurious, were created to support various theological, political, and even personal agendas. The analogy to the hadith suggests that a similar process could have occurred with Jesus traditions.

Gnostic Gospels: Price examines the wealth of sayings and stories attributed to Jesus in the Gnostic gospels, many of which demonstrate a complete disregard for historical accuracy. These texts, written by early Christians, demonstrate the willingness to ascribe their own teachings and ideas to Jesus without concern for preserving historical fact.

He argues that these three models, taken together, provide compelling evidence for the plausibility of a rapid and wholesale fabrication of Jesus traditions. Whether or not Jesus was a historical figure, the dynamics of mythologization, the tendency to attach spurious sayings and stories to revered figures, and the use of creative exegesis to generate narratives make it highly probable that the gospel traditions, even if written relatively early, are largely inauthentic.

James the Just: Achilles’ Heel of the Christ Myth Theory?

This chapter examines the most formidable challenge to the Christ Myth theory: the potential historical existence of James, the brother of the Lord. The existence of James, a figure mentioned in the Pauline Epistles and other early Christian writings, seemingly contradicts the notion of a purely mythical Jesus. Price explores this challenge, examining various ways of understanding James’s epithet “brother of the Lord” without implying a blood relationship to a historical Jesus.

He begins by exploring the concept of spiritual kinship, drawing parallels to the apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, which portray apostles as earthly counterparts to a celestial Christ. He suggests that James might have been understood as a physical manifestation of the divine Jesus, a “twin” in a spiritual sense. He supports this interpretation with references to early Christian texts, including the Gospel of Thomas and the Apocalypses of James, which emphasize the spiritual nature of their brotherhood.

Price also considers the possibility that James was a prominent figure among the “brothers of the Lord,” a missionary circle mentioned in the New Testament. He argues that this title need not imply a blood relationship to Jesus, but could simply designate a group of itinerant preachers who shared a common mission. He supports this interpretation with textual evidence from Paul’s letters and other New Testament writings.

Finally, Price explores the possibility that James’s fraternal connection to Jesus is entirely fictional, a product of the historicization process aimed at consolidating the early Christian movement. He suggests that James, leader of his own sect (perhaps the Dead Sea Scroll community), was retrospectively linked to a historicized Jesus to solidify the movement’s authority and legitimacy. This interpretation aligns with the evidence for a succession struggle between James’s followers and the disciples of Jesus, suggesting a political rather than theological conflict.

While acknowledging the challenge posed by James’s existence, Price concludes that none of the available options definitively proves the historicity of Jesus. Each interpretation remains plausible, and the Christ Myth theory can accommodate the evidence for James without abandoning its core argument.

Does the Christ Myth Theory Require an Early Date for the Pauline Epistles?

This chapter revisits the crucial argument that the absence of gospel-like Jesus traditions in the Pauline Epistles supports the Christ Myth theory. While contemporary proponents of the theory, like Wells and Doherty, rely on a traditional, early dating of the epistles, Price explores the implications of a later dating, as argued by some nineteenth-century critics. He examines whether this later dating undermines the Christ Myth argument or even strengthens it.

Price begins by summarizing the traditional Mythicist argument based on the epistolary silence. He highlights the lack of any mention of Jesus’ teachings, miracles, or even his earthly life in Paul’s letters. If a historical Jesus, matching the gospel portrait, had been known, it would be strange for Paul to consistently omit such references. He then examines the arguments of past Christ Myth proponents like Couchoud, Drews, and Robertson, who entertained a later dating for the epistles, even placing them after the gospels. He reveals how their arguments, though differing in details, converge on the historical priority of a purely mythical Christ.

Price then explores the implications of critical methodologies for assessing the relative chronology of the epistles and gospels, regardless of their absolute dates. He argues that the more abstract and theological Christology of the epistles, compared to the more concrete and legendary narratives of the gospels, suggests a development from myth to legend, regardless of textual chronology. The logic of this development supports the view that the epistles attest to an earlier phase of Christianity that lacked a historical Jesus.

Furthermore, he examines the possibility that Marcion, often credited with heavily editing the Pauline Epistles, might have been their author. If Marcion knew of the gospel traditions, but chose to omit them in his epistles, then the same could be true of Paul. This possibility further undermines the argument that the absence of gospel-like traditions in the epistles necessitates an early date for their composition.

The “Pre-Christian Jesus” Revisited

This chapter explores the various candidates proposed for the pre-Christian Jesus, the divine being who, according to the Christ Myth theory, was later historicized as Jesus of Nazareth. Price examines these different proposals, analyzing their strengths and weaknesses, and ultimately argues that the most compelling candidate is Yahweh, the God of Israel, himself.

Price begins by emphasizing that ancient Israelite religion was not monotheistic until relatively late in its development. The Old Testament itself testifies to the worship of a pantheon of deities, including Yahweh, Asherah, and others. Even in New Testament times, Jewish belief was multiform and embraced a range of syncretistic practices. This realization is crucial because it undermines the apologetic argument that monotheistic Jews would never have adopted pagan gods or myths.

He then surveys several Ideal Types proposed for the pre-Christian Jesus:

Apocalyptic Son of Man: This figure, popularized by Couchoud and others, is a conflation of the Son of Man from Daniel and Enoch with the Suffering Servant of Isaiah. This heavenly being, pre-existent and suprahistorical, was believed to have descended to earth in visions and was expected to return soon in glory.

Wisdom/Logos: Drawing on the personified Wisdom of Proverbs and the Logos of Philo, this proposal sees Jesus as an embodiment of divine wisdom, a celestial being who created the world and descended to earth, only to be rejected by humanity.

Gnostic Primal Man: This interpretation connects Jesus to the Gnostic concept of the Primal Man, a divine being fragmented and trapped in the material world. Jesus, as an embodiment of this Primal Man, suffers and dies to redeem humanity and restore the divine unity.

Dying and Rising Savior Joshua: This view connects Jesus to the Old Testament figure of Joshua, who, according to some scholars, was originally a dying and rising god, later euhemerized into a human hero. This interpretation links Jesus to ancient agricultural fertility cults and Mystery Religions.

Price ultimately argues that the most compelling candidate for the pre-Christian Jesus is Yahweh himself. He draws on the work of William Benjamin Smith, Margaret Barker, and Geo Widengren to demonstrate how early Christians might have identified their savior with the God of Israel. This identification is supported by the use of the title kyrios for Jesus, the reinterpretation of Old Testament Yahweh texts as referring to Jesus, and the evidence for Yahweh being worshipped as a dying and rising god in pre-Deuteronomic times. This interpretation suggests that the Christian Jesus is not simply a borrowed savior figure, but a reinterpretation of the most ancient and central deity in Jewish tradition.

Conclusion: Worse than Atheism

This final chapter explores the reasons why the Christ Myth theory, even for many atheists, is often met with discomfort and even resistance. Price suggests that this reaction might stem from a lingering nostalgia for a morally exemplary Jesus figure or from a concern that the theory is too outlandish and will undermine the credibility of atheism itself.

He addresses these concerns, emphasizing that the non-existence of God and the non-existence of Jesus Christ are separate issues. Atheists can, and often do, maintain a positive view of Jesus’ teachings and character without believing in his divinity or historicity. Moreover, the Christ Myth theory is not simply a deduction from atheism but is based on independent historical and textual evidence. He encourages a more nuanced and critical approach to the Jesus question, urging atheists not to shy away from challenging traditional narratives simply because they seem too radical or unsettling.

Price concludes by drawing parallels between the skepticism directed at the Christ Myth theory by both atheists and theists. He suggests that this skepticism might often reflect an underlying discomfort with questioning deeply ingrained beliefs, whether religious or secular. He challenges both camps to embrace a more open and critical approach to historical evidence, acknowledging the possibility that even long-held assumptions about Jesus might prove to be mistaken.

This comprehensive analysis of the Christ Myth Theory presented by Price provides a thought-provoking exploration of the historical Jesus question, challenging traditional assumptions and encouraging a more critical and nuanced approach to understanding the origins of Christianity. While not without its critics and challenges, the theory, as presented by Price, offers a compelling alternative to the traditional historical Jesus narrative and forces us to confront the possibility that the figure we know as Jesus Christ might be rooted in myth rather than historical fact.

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