The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man Book Summary

Title: The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable Is the Gospel Tradition?
Author: Robert M. Price

TLDR: This book systematically analyzes the Gospels using historical-critical methods, revealing that many stories and sayings attributed to Jesus are likely later fabrications by early Christians. This leaves us with very little reliable information about the historical Jesus, raising the question of whether he even existed.

Chapter One: Sources

This chapter delves into the origins of the Gospels and the sources employed by the evangelists. Price outlines the form-critical approach, which posits that the Gospel material originated as oral traditions passed down by early Christians. He explores the challenges of relying on oral transmission, highlighting its potential for inaccuracy and the possibility of creative embellishment by early Christian prophets.

He then examines the role of the evangelists, demonstrating their creative contributions and redactional tendencies in shaping the narratives. Drawing on redaction and literary criticism, he argues that the evangelists were not mere compilers but also authors who crafted their Gospels with distinct theological agendas.

Price challenges the traditional dating of the Gospels, suggesting that internal and external evidence points to later dates of composition than conventionally accepted. He emphasizes the uncertainty surrounding the dating of Jesus himself, further complicating efforts to trace the evolution of the Gospel tradition.

The chapter concludes by highlighting the limitations of relying solely on the canonical Gospels as sources for reconstructing the life of Jesus. Price advocates for considering noncanonical gospels and extrabiblical sources to gain a fuller understanding of the historical context.

Chapter Two: Birth and Lineage

This chapter scrutinizes the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ birth and lineage, questioning the accuracy of commonly held beliefs. Price argues that the December 25 birthdate was likely a later adoption, chosen to coincide with the Roman festival of Brumalia, a celebration of the sun god Mithras.

He then analyzes the claim of Jesus’ Davidic descent, arguing that it was a later development in the Gospel tradition. Mark explicitly refutes the Davidic Messiah expectation, while Matthew and Luke attempt to justify it by including genealogies that are both contradictory and historically improbable. Price suggests that the genealogies were later fabrications, created to provide legitimacy for Jesus’ messianic claims in the face of emerging Christian beliefs.

Similarly, Price examines the claim that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, demonstrating that it was likely a theological inference based on Micah 5:2, a passage originally not intended as a messianic prophecy. He argues that both Matthew and Luke created narratives to support this belief, despite their inconsistencies and the lack of any historical basis.

Finally, Price scrutinizes the doctrine of the virgin birth, demonstrating that it was a later development in the Gospel tradition. Mark shows no knowledge of it, while Matthew and Luke both clumsily attempt to reconcile the virgin birth with genealogies tracing Jesus’ lineage through Joseph. Price argues that the virgin birth was likely a later embellishment influenced by pagan myths and adopted by Christians to provide supernatural legitimacy for Jesus.

Chapter Three: Childhood and Family

This chapter explores the scant information available about Jesus’ childhood and family, questioning the historicity of both canonical and extrabiblical narratives. Price analyzes the infancy gospels, highlighting their docetic character and the tendency to portray Jesus as a child prodigy possessing superhuman wisdom and power. He argues that these stories were later fabrications, created to fill in the gap between Jesus’ birth and his public ministry.

He then examines the question of Jesus’ siblings, analyzing the passages mentioning James, Joses, and others as Jesus’ brothers and sisters. Price explores the Catholic interpretation, suggesting that they may have been cousins or stepsiblings, a view motivated by the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity. He proposes an alternative interpretation, suggesting that the “brothers of the Lord” may have originally referred to a group of early Christian missionaries, later literalized into physical siblings.

Price concludes by questioning the historicity of various “missing years” stories, specifically debunking Nicholas Notovitch’s claim to have discovered a Tibetan manuscript documenting Jesus’ travels to India and Tibet. He demonstrates that the story was a hoax, highlighting the lack of evidence and the fabricated nature of Notovitch’s claims.

Chapter Four: Jesus and John the Baptist

This chapter examines the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist, questioning the traditional view of John as a mere forerunner to Jesus. Price analyzes the historical context, highlighting the existence of a distinct John the Baptist sect that continued to exist alongside early Christianity. He argues that the Gospels portray John as subordinate to Jesus to co-opt his followers and integrate them into the emerging Christian movement.

Price explores the possibility that John himself was not originally a historical figure, suggesting that he may have been a historicized version of the ancient fish god Oannes. However, he ultimately concludes that John was likely a historical figure, possibly a member of the Qumran sect or an early revolutionary leader.

He then analyzes the teachings attributed to John, arguing that the Gospels may have distorted his message to fit Christian theological agendas. Price explores John’s apocalyptic pronouncements, his emphasis on repentance and baptism, and his call for social justice, demonstrating the parallels to both Essenes and Zealots.

The chapter concludes by examining the various narratives of Jesus’ baptism by John, highlighting the inconsistencies between the Gospels and the trajectory of increasing Christian influence on the tradition. Price argues that the baptism scene was likely a later fabrication, created to provide a symbolic link between Jesus and John and to establish the superiority of Christian baptism.

Chapter Five: The Miracles

This chapter tackles the thorny issue of miracles in the Gospels, examining their historicity through the lens of historical criticism. Price argues that the strongest evidence against Jesus performing miracles is found within the New Testament itself. Mark 8:11-13 explicitly states that Jesus refused to perform miracles, while 1 Cor. 1:18-25 implies that Paul’s preaching lacked miraculous signs.

He then analyzes the individual miracle stories, demonstrating their legendary character and the influence of earlier sources. Price identifies various instances of borrowing from Old Testament narratives, Hellenistic hero tales, and contemporary pagan myths. He shows how the miracle stories follow a typical narrative structure, arguing that they were likely fabricated by early Christian healers to legitimize their practice and to provide narratives for ritual use.

Price acknowledges the plausibility of Jesus performing exorcisms and psychosomatic healings, as such phenomena exist in contemporary experience. However, he rejects the historicity of stories involving raising the dead, arguing that they were likely symbolic narratives or misunderstandings of earlier traditions.

He concludes by proposing that the miracle stories, rather than reflecting historical memory, were later creations that emerged as Christianity evolved from a movement based on faith to one seeking supernatural legitimacy.

Chapter Six: Ministry to the Outcasts

This chapter examines the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ outreach to the marginalized and the outcasts, questioning the traditional interpretation of Jesus as a champion of the poor and downtrodden. Price argues that the term “sinners” likely referred to people who did not adhere to Pharisaic piety, a group far broader than actual criminals. He demonstrates that the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees over associating with sinners was a later theological construction, likely a reflection of early Christian debates over the Gentile Mission.

He then analyzes the various parables that seemingly defend Jesus’ ministry to sinners, arguing that most of them are either Lukan creations or borrowings from rabbinic sources. Price demonstrates how Luke adapted these parables to fit his theological agenda of reconciling Jewish and Gentile Christianity, while Matthew drew on Jewish tradition to justify his own sectarian interpretation of the Law.

Price concludes by proposing that the Gospel picture of Jesus as a “friend of sinners” was a later development, created to bolster the Christian doctrine of salvation through the cross and to justify the inclusion of Gentiles in the Christian community.

Chapter Seven: The Twelve Disciples

This chapter questions the traditional view of the Twelve Disciples as a historical group hand-picked by Jesus. Price argues that the Twelve were likely a later construction, patterned after the twelve patriarchs of Israel and constituted by a shared resurrection vision. He examines the inconsistencies in the Gospel lists of the Twelve, highlighting the uncertainty surrounding their identities and suggesting that the lists were later attempts to canonize specific apostles and their legacies.

Price then analyzes the narratives featuring the disciples, demonstrating the tendency of later Gospels to embellish and expand their roles. He argues that the disciples, particularly Peter, often function as foils for Jesus, misunderstanding his teachings to provide opportunities for further explanation and theological exposition.

He focuses specifically on the character of Peter, demonstrating how his role was expanded in later Gospels to make him the embodiment of the disciples collectively. Price analyzes the stories of Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi and his denial of Jesus, arguing that they were likely later fabrications, possibly created by rival Christian factions to challenge Petrine authority.

He concludes by suggesting that the Twelve Disciples, as portrayed in the Gospels, were not a historical group handpicked by Jesus but rather a later theological construction designed to provide a link between Jesus and the emerging Christian hierarchy.

Chapter Eight: The Hinayana Gospel

This chapter examines the radical discipleship sayings attributed to Jesus, arguing that they represent a “Hinayana” path, akin to that of Buddhist arhats, demanding complete renunciation of worldly possessions and familial ties. Price demonstrates how these sayings presuppose a lifestyle of itinerant ministry, modeled on the Cynic philosophers who advocated for a simple life in accordance with nature.

He analyzes the sayings calling for renunciation of wealth, family, and self-defense, highlighting their parallels to Cynic philosophy and arguing that they were likely later additions to the Jesus tradition. Price suggests that these sayings were originally part of the message of the wandering apostles, who constituted a spiritual elite within early Christianity, later retrojected into the teachings of Jesus.

He concludes by proposing that the “Hinayana” gospel was not intended for all Christians but rather for a select group of radical disciples who embraced a life of poverty and itinerant ministry, similar to the Buddhist monks and nuns who sought to escape the cycle of suffering and attain Nirvana.

Chapter Nine: The Mahayana Gospel

This chapter explores the Gospel teachings directed at the majority of Christians, who did not embrace the radical discipleship of the “Hinayana” path. Price argues that these teachings constitute a “Mahayana” gospel, akin to that of Mahayana Buddhists, offering salvation through faith and good works, coupled with support for the spiritual elite.

He analyzes the sayings emphasizing forgiveness, love for enemies, and charitable giving, demonstrating their parallels to traditional Jewish morality and suggesting that they were likely part of the original message of Jesus. He argues that the Gospels also contain later additions, reflecting the evolving beliefs of the early church, such as the emphasis on baptism and the Lord’s Supper as necessary for salvation.

Price examines the teachings on prayer, demonstrating how they evolved from a focus on God’s ability to answer requests to a emphasis on the importance of faith and persistence. He suggests that the “faith” described in these sayings was a charismatic endowment, possessed in greater or lesser measure by the spiritual elite, who functioned as intermediaries between God and the laity.

He concludes by proposing that the “Mahayana” gospel offered a more accessible path to salvation for the majority of Christians, who could gain merit by supporting the itinerant preachers and by observing basic moral precepts.

Chapter Ten: Jesus and Judaism

This chapter analyzes the complex relationship between Jesus and contemporary Judaism, questioning the tendency of scholars to portray Jesus as a conventionally observant Jew. Price examines the various Jewish sects of the time, highlighting their diverse interpretations of the Law and suggesting that Jesus may have been closer to the more radical or heterodox groups, such as the Essenes or the Galilean hasidim.

He analyzes the passages where Jesus seemingly interacts with the Law, demonstrating the inconsistencies in the Gospel portrayals and the influence of later Christian theological agendas. He examines the sayings about the permanence of the Law, the Antitheses, the sabbath controversies, and the purity laws, arguing that they were likely later fabrications or misinterpretations of Jesus’ teachings.

Price concludes by proposing that the Gospels offer a distorted picture of Jesus’ relationship to Judaism, reflecting the diverse and evolving beliefs of the early Christians who sought to define their own relationship to the Law.

Chapter Eleven: The Anointed One

This chapter examines the question of Jesus’ messiahship, arguing that the title “Christ” was not originally understood in a Jewish messianic sense but rather as a designation for a resurrected savior, akin to the dying and rising gods of the Mystery Religions.

Price analyzes the various Old Testament passages traditionally interpreted as messianic prophecies, demonstrating that they were originally part of the royal ideology of the Davidic monarchy, later reinterpreted to refer to a future Messiah after the fall of the kingdom. He then examines the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, arguing that the “Triumphal Entry” was a later theological construction, based on Psalm 118 and not intended as a messianic proclamation by Jesus.

He explores the possibility that Jesus was originally understood as a resurrected savior, anointed with the oil of immortality, akin to figures like Osiris and Tammuz. He suggests that the title “Christ” was later reinterpreted in a Jewish messianic context as Christianity evolved and sought to integrate itself into Jewish tradition.

Price concludes by questioning the historicity of the Gospel passages where Jesus seemingly claims messiahship, arguing that they were likely later fabrications or misinterpretations of earlier traditions.

Chapter Twelve: Jerusalem

This chapter analyzes the events of Jesus’ final days in Jerusalem, leading up to his arrest and trial. Price argues that the Passion narrative is a patchwork of literary creations, drawing heavily on Old Testament stories and later historical events, with little basis in historical fact.

He examines the story of the Cleansing of the Temple, arguing that it was a later fabrication, based on Josephus’s account of the prophet Jesus ben-Ananias and reflecting the revolutionary climate of Jerusalem in the years leading up to its destruction by the Romans. He suggests that the Last Supper was not originally a Passover meal but rather a sacramental rite borrowed from the Mystery Religions, later reinterpreted to fit a Jewish context.

Price analyzes the betrayal of Judas, arguing that Judas was likely a fictional character, a narrative-man symbolizing the imagined Jewish rejection of Jesus. He examines the arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, highlighting the parallels to the story of King David’s flight from Absalom and suggesting that the scene was a later fabrication.

He concludes by proposing that the Passion narrative, as presented in the Gospels, is a largely fictional account, created to provide a dramatic and theologically meaningful story of Jesus’ suffering and death.

Chapter Thirteen: Crucifixion

This chapter scrutinizes the crucifixion narratives, highlighting their reliance on Psalm 22 and arguing that the story was likely a later theological construction, lacking any basis in eyewitness testimony. Price examines the various details of the crucifixion story, demonstrating how they are derived from Psalm 22, including the piercing of Jesus’ hands and feet, the dividing of his garments, the mocking of the crowd, and Jesus’ cry of dereliction.

He explores the possibility that Jesus survived the crucifixion, suggesting that the story of Simon of Cyrene carrying Jesus’ cross may be a vestige of an earlier tradition in which Simon was crucified in place of Jesus. He analyzes the figure of Joseph of Arimathea, arguing that he was a fictional character, possibly based on King Priam from the Iliad, created to provide a suitable burial for Jesus.

Price concludes by proposing that the crucifixion story was a later fabrication, crafted from scriptural material to provide a theologically meaningful account of Jesus’ death, later embellished with legendary motifs and historical details.

Chapter Fourteen: Resurrection

This chapter examines the resurrection narratives, arguing that they were later embellishments of a simple apotheosis story, originally lacking any resurrection appearances. Price analyzes Mark’s empty tomb narrative, highlighting its abrupt ending and suggesting that it was a pre-Christian apotheosis story, later adopted by Christians and reinterpreted in light of their belief in Jesus’ resurrection.

He examines the additions of Matthew, Luke, and John, demonstrating how they revised Mark’s narrative to include resurrection appearances, many of them demonstrably fictional and based on earlier sources. He analyzes the appearances to Mary Magdalene, the disciples on the road to Emmaus, the Doubting Thomas episode, and the final appearance in Galilee, demonstrating their legendary character and their parallels to pagan myths and Hellenistic romance novels.

Price concludes by proposing that the resurrection stories, rather than reflecting historical memory, were later creations that emerged as Christianity evolved and sought to provide tangible evidence for their faith in Jesus’ victory over death.

Conclusion: The Name of the Lord

This chapter synthesizes the arguments of the previous chapters, arriving at a minimalist view of the historical Jesus. Price argues that the Gospels are fundamentally unreliable as historical sources, filled with later theological constructions, legendary embellishments, and creative fabrications.

He then introduces Paul L. Couchoud’s insight regarding the Philippians hymn, which suggests that Jesus received his name only after his death and exaltation. Price argues that this insight, if accepted, would render the entire Gospel narrative tradition historically spurious, as it is predicated on the assumption that Jesus was named “Jesus” from the beginning.

He concludes by acknowledging the possibility that there was no historical Jesus, suggesting that the Christian savior may have been an originally mythic figure, later historicized and embellished with fictional narratives. However, he leaves the question open, admitting that, based on the available evidence, we cannot confidently know whether Jesus was a historical figure or a theological creation.

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