Robert M. Price. The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable Is the Gospel Tradition? Amherst, New York: Prometheus, 2003. See here to buy the book.
Robert M. Price is often characterized as an atheist biblical scholar and a Christ myther, one who does not believe that Jesus historically existed. In The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, Price goes from Jesus’ birth to his resurrection and essentially argues that there is not a whole lot—-if anything—-that we can know about the historical Jesus, from the Gospels or any other source. This book is 354 pages, which is not particularly massive, and yet there is so much in it. I will list some of my reactions to the book in this post, but I can guarantee that, after writing and publishing this post, I will think of some topic in the book that I should have addressed. I do not want to keep editing and re-editing this post, nor do I want to do a series on this book (though I may refer to items in it in future posts), so this post will have to suffice, at least for me.
That said, here are some items:
1. Let me start by saying that I often feel uncomfortable reading Christian apologetic and atheist books. When I read Christian apologetic books, I feel as if my free will is being restrained, and that I absolutely have to deal with a biblical God whom I do not find overly appealing. When I read atheist books, I feel as if whatever faith and hope I have are being shown to have no basis in fact whatsoever. Contrary to what many might think, I am not some wide-eyed Christian who gets bent out of shape and thrown into an existential crisis any time someone shows me an error in the Bible. I have read my share of biblical criticism, from both maximalists and also minimalists; some of what Price said was stuff that I had heard or read before, and some of it was completely new to me. For some reason, though, reading this book by Price was a rather exhausting and disturbing process for me, and I wonder why. Maybe it was because I thought that, even if the Bible has errors, there are still things that we can historically take for granted about Jesus, things that are edifying to my faith, and Price was dismantling (or trying to dismantle) this view, page after page after page. Perhaps my reaction was due to all of the Christian books I have been reading lately! I still have faith, on some level, for I believe in certain values, and I regularly call out to a higher power to help me. This book, however, is still a challenge to me.
2. I am often reluctant to read and blog about books that promote Christ-mythicism, even though I have written blog posts in the past that are relevant to that debate (i.e., Was Christianity influenced by the mystery religions or the belief in a dying and rising god? Was the reference to Jesus in Josephus’ Antiquities 18.3.3 authentic?). Why have I been reluctant? It is because I am afraid that I will not know enough to refute the Christ-mythicist arguments, and thus I will look bad to other biblical scholars or budding biblical scholars, many of whom see Christ-mythicism as the equivalent to young earth creationism. I am just being honest and vulnerable here!
3. Did I know enough to refute any of Price’s arguments? Well, Price’s book would take a lot of time for me to try to refute or critique. Price referred to so many primary sources, from Hellenistic, classical, Jewish, Buddhist, and ancient Christian literature, and it would take me a long time to look at each reference that he cited, to find the sources that he mentioned but did not explicitly cite, to find the dates for the references and sources for which he did not provide a date (we’ll see later why that is important), and then to determine if Price is interacting with those sources fairly and accurately. Then there are some of the secondary sources that Price mentions, for which Price tells us their conclusion but not the arguments that led to the conclusion. Price referred to a scholar, for example, who argued that Mark 13 reflects the destruction of Jerusalem in the second century C.E. rather than the first century C.E., and Price mentioned a scholar who made a case that Slavonic Josephus (which many date to the sixteenth century) may contain material going back to Josephus himself. Trying to evaluate Price’s argument would take a lot of work!
But back to my original question: Was I able to refute any of Price’s arguments? Well, there were cases in which I knew enough to realize that there was another side to the debate. Price said more than once that there were no Galilean synagogues during the time that Jesus allegedly lived, and I did a research paper on synagogues for a graduate level class some years ago. There are scholars, such as Lee Levine, who posit that there were pre-70 synagogues, and they appeal to scant archeology and references in Josephus. Some have argued that the pre-70 synagogues did not necessarily meet in a building, and that the synagogue was the meeting itself, not the building.
There were also times when I identified (or believed that I identified) possible contradictions among some of Price’s arguments. Price argued, on the one hand, that Jesus was not originally believed to have performed miracles, and one piece of supporting evidence (among others) that Price adduces is Paul’s implication in I Corinthians 1 that Jews look for a sign, and that they reject Jesus because Jesus did not give them one. Paul upholds the crucified Christ, not miracles. On the other hand, Price seems to argue that the super-apostles who were emphasizing Jesus’ miracles, against whom Paul contended in II Corinthians, may have had the earlier tradition about Jesus. Price explores the possibility that maybe earlier traditions about Jesus did not even hold that Jesus was crucified, and that Paul was responding to this view by emphasizing the importance of Jesus’ crucifixion. Is Price contradicting himself? Did the super-apostles believe in an earlier view of Jesus, or is the contrary view that Paul embraces earlier?
And have I effectively presented a “Gotcha!”? Price is not always being dogmatic about his arguments; sometimes, he simply seems to be exploring possibilities and pointing out anomalies. Moreover, noting a contradiction in Price’s book does not overthrow everything Price says.
4. I want to explore another possible contradiction, and that concerns whether Price is truly a mythicist, at least in this book. He does believe that there are earlier and later traditions about Jesus, but he backs away from saying that the earlier traditions were necessarily authentic to the historical Jesus. They could have just been earlier traditions, reflecting the views of certain Christians (e.g., that the Messiah would not be a son of David, that Jesus was a sinner who needed to be baptized), as far as he is concerned. Price also makes certain arguments that other mythicists have made: that there are traditions about Jesus being crucified by the supernatural archons (I Corinthians 2:8; Colossians 2:14; cp. Galatians 3:19-20) and that these were later historicized, and that Jesus’ brothers do not necessarily refer to his family but could refer to missionaries who proclaimed Christ (Matthew 25:40). (I am not convinced by the former argument because I think that early Christians could have believed that Jesus was crucified by archons, and also by the flesh and blood people who crucified him: that, for Paul, there were supernatural realities behind what was occurring on earth.) In the conclusion, Price appeals to the hymn in Philippians 2 and says that the hymn may be saying that the figure became known as Jesus after his exaltation to heaven, and thus that stories about a man named Jesus living before that are just that—-stories.
While some of the things that Price says sound mythicist or consistent with mythicism, however, Price does compare the Jesus movement with historical figures who led religious movements; would this be appropriate, if Jesus were not a historical figure? Price also seems to lean in the direction of saying that John the Baptist was historical, but that John the Baptist and his followers did not believe that they were setting the stage for Jesus.
And yet, again, Price may just be exploring different options.
5. There were times when Price provided references for his primary sources, and sometimes even quotations of them, and there were times when he did not. In the latter cases, I wish that he did. For example, Price refers to rabbis who believed that one could nullify a vow to honor one’s parents, which is different from how Jesus characterized the Pharisees’ position in Mark 7:10-12. Price may be right on this, but I wish that he said where specifically I can find those statements in rabbinic literature.
6. There were times when Price provided the date for primary sources, and times when he did not. In the latter cases, I wish that he had. This is particularly the case with Price’s argument about miracles, as Price noted similarities between the miracles of Jesus and miracles performed by other figures. But Christian apologists, and even some mainstream scholars such as John Meier, argue that Christianity was not ripping off other religious figures’ miracle stories, but that some of the other religious figures’ miracles stories came later and could have been influenced by the Christian stories. I doubt that was always the case—-Price is probably correct that there have been non-Christian miracle stories (i.e., perhaps the Ascepius ones) before and during the time that Jesus allegedly lived. Still, Price should have provided the date for some of his primary sources, for that is relevant to the question of who influenced whom: did Christianity borrow from non-Christian stories, as Price usually seems to argue in the book, or did the influence go in the other direction? It was probably both.
7. I may someday buy Price’s book, and the reason is that it is practically an encyclopedia of ancient Christian lore, and stories from other traditions (i.e., Judaism, Buddhism, Hellenism, etc.). Price mentions Latin versions of the New Testament that ascribe Mary’s Magnificat to her cousin, Elizabeth. He refers to Slavonic Josephus’ portrayal of John the Baptist as an insurrectionist (yet, Price does not explore Arabic and Syriac versions of Josephus’ milder, low-key references to Jesus, which some believe are authentic to Josephus). He mentions pagan stories about an empty tomb and a philosopher who tries to assure his disciples that he is not a ghost (cp. Luke 24:39). And that is only scratching the surface.
8. Related to item 7, Price highlights that there are odd traditions about Jesus, traditions that seem to go against what is in the Gospels. While Price says that the church father Irenaeus talked about the Gospels that are in the Bible, for example, Price wonders why Irenaeus presents Jesus as dying around the age of fifty. Why, Price inquires, is there a Jewish tradition that places Jesus a century earlier than when the Gospels say that Jesus lived? I am not entirely sure what to do with this. Perhaps people just made mistakes because they did not have their own copy of the Gospels, or because they knew of Christian tradition indirectly. (That may not work with Irenaeus, though.)
(UPDATE: Steve of Triablogue states in the comments: “Regarding point #8, I assume that’s simply an Irenaean gloss on Jn 8:57. That’s not an independent tradition. Rather, that’s how Irenaeus (mis-)interprets the Johannine reference.” In John 8:57, the Jews tell Jesus that he is not yet fifty years old. I vaguely recall Price addressing that verse, saying that, if Jesus were in his thirties (Luke 3:23 says Jesus was about thirty when he began his ministry), why wouldn’t the Jews tell him he is not yet FORTY years old. Price’s point may have been that there were different traditions. At the same time, Price at one point does wonder if Irenaeus knew the Gospels, and part of that (if I recall correctly) is that Irenaeus misidentifies the emperor during Jesus’ death. I returned the book to the library, so I can’t check out what exactly Price said, but I do plan to buy the book sometime.)
9. There were many times when I was not persuaded by Price’s argument yet was intrigued. Price raises the possibility, for example, that Josephus’ reference to John the Baptist was a Christian interpolation, one that disagreed with the Gospel of Mark. Whereas Mark’s Gospel presents baptism as an atoning ritual and downplays Herod Antipas’ role in John the Baptist’s execution, Price argues, the Josephus reference stresses that the repentance is what atones for sin as well as blames Herod Antipas for John’s death. I was not convinced by this argument, but it did intrigue me, since Josephus’ portrayal of John’s baptism has long stood out to me.
10. Price frequently uses the scholarly criterion of dissimilarity, which states that the things about Jesus that are dissimilar from Judaism and Christianity are more likely to be historically authentic. While I have seen scholars use this criterion, Price provided a rationale for it. Christians could have put their own ideas into the mouth of Jesus, Price argues, so that is why we should evaluate if a tradition is similar to Christianity and dismiss it if it is. Why evaluate if a tradition is dissimilar from Judaism, which was Jesus’ own context? Appealing to Bultmann, Price argues that the early Christians probably would not have remembered the sayings of Jesus that were similar to what other Jews were saying—-those sayings would not have stood out to them as unique, and thus they would not have remembered and recorded them. I am not entirely persuaded by that argument, for people record all sorts of things that are not original or fresh. Why couldn’t early Christians have done that with Jesus?
11. Price often argues that Gospel stories that are similar to Old Testament stories are most likely not historical. Many mainstream scholars believe this, too, even if they may conclude that some of Price’s connection of Gospel stories with Old Testament stories are a bit of a stretch. (That is for the reader to decide—-see here for a blog post that extensively critiques Price on this.) Personally, I do not dismiss the historicity of Gospel stories just because they are similar to Old Testament stories, for Jesus could have decided to do things that Old Testament figures did, such as multiply loaves; when other characters, however, unintentionally imitate Old Testament characters, then perhaps Price has a point that the story is made-up and modeled after the Old Testament stories, unless one wants to say that history can repeat itself, or that God is writing the course of the events and causing similar things to occur. Price also says that Gospel passages in which Jesus has a far-reaching perspective on his life and mission are probably not authentic to Jesus but were written later by Christians. That is understandable, yet I wonder if that approach should be automatic: maybe Jesus could have had a far-reaching perspective on his mission.
12. I Corinthians 15:3-9 is a popular passage among Christian apologists. It presents Jesus appearing to his disciples and eventually to five hundred witnesses, some of whom are still alive when the passage is written. Moreover, Christian apologists, and even many mainstream scholars, hold that it is an early tradition, since Paul says that it was passed down to him. Price, however, deems it to be a later interpolation, and he offers some reasons. He asks why the Gospel writers did not refer to the five hundred witnesses, if that was an earlier tradition. Moreover, Price believes that the statement in v 8 that Paul was born out of due time reflects a later Gnostic story. Someone referred me to an article Price wrote that argued that I Corinthians 15:3-9 was an interpolation, but I never found the time to read it; I was glad, therefore, to read a succinct version of this argument in Price’s book. Am I convinced? Well, not really, but I cannot disprove that the passage is an interpolation, and, that being the case, I wonder how much weight it should have in Christian attempts to prove the truth of Christianity.
13. Price was most convincing to me when he was highlighting the diversity of thought within the Gospels and early Christianity. Did Jesus perform signs or not? Did Jesus believe that the Kingdom of God comes with observation or not? Did Jesus believe that the Messiah would be the son of David or not? As Price astutely notes, there are different ideas within the Gospels. Some try to harmonize them, and maybe they do well to look at context and possible intention behind the statements. Perhaps they would have a point to contend that Price is being too wooden, literal, or absolutist in his interpretation of the passages. Whether one finds them convincing is a personal judgment.
14. In reading Price’s book, I wondered how exactly he would account for the origin of Christianity. Suppose he is right that we cannot know anything about the historical Jesus. Suppose that virtually everything about Jesus is from the hands of later Christians with different ideas. Why would people start a movement around a figure named Jesus? Was there anything about Jesus that inspired them to do so? Price talks a little about his own ideas on this in the conclusion, speculating that mystery religions may play a role. My impression is that another book of his, Deconstructing Jesus, may offer a fuller explanation of his views on the origin of Christianity. I do plan to read that, at some point, and also his book on Paul.
15. Was there anything in this book that I found religiously edifying? Yes. Price’s statement that people feel good after praying, even if their prayers are not answered, resonated with me. I also enjoyed his comparison of Christianity with Buddhism, specifically his argument that, within early Christianity, there were exemplary Christians who gave up all of their possessions, and there were regular Christians who lived normal lives and tried to follow ethical guidelines. I agree with Price that we see this within the Gospels, even though I would also say that there are some cases in which Jesus seems to suggest that all Christians should be of the exemplary variety—-that their entrance into the Kingdom depends on it. Yet, the New Testament does recognize, and often seems to approve of, the existence of regular Christians, and that takes a load off my mind (though I believe that I should still be challenged by the exemplary passages, and learn from them).