Monday, August 31, 2015

Book Write-Up: The Da Vinci Fraud, by Robert M. Price

Robert M. Price.  The Da Vinci Fraud: Why the Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction.  Amherst: Prometheus, 2005.  See here to buy the book.

In The Da Vinci Fraud, atheist biblical scholar Robert M. Price challenges the claims of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, while offering his own ideas.  Price is often associated with the Christ-mythicist school of thought, which denies that Jesus historically existed.  This is a marginal view within biblical scholarship.
Here are some items:

1.  As in The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, Price explores the possibility that earlier traditions of Christianity did not even believe that Jesus died and rose again.  Price refers to ancient stories, many of them dating to or after the first century C.E., that portray a person surviving crucifixion, a teacher believed to be dead appearing to his disciples and trying to convince them that he is not a ghost (cp. Luke 24:39), or a living person being prematurely buried in a tomb and kidnapped by robbers, resulting in the tomb being empty.  Price also refers to biblical passages.  In Hebrews 5:7, Jesus tearfully and fervently asks God to save him from death, and the text says that God heard Jesus on account of his reverence.  In John 19:33-34, Jesus is explicitly said to be dead from crucifixion, and a Roman soldier then drives his spear into Jesus.  For Price, this could be an addition to the text that is intended to make clear that Jesus was dead, against Christians who claimed that Jesus did not actually die on the cross.

I am hesitant to say that the stories that Price cites are thoroughly irrelevant to the New Testament stories of Jesus’ resurrection.  What the relationship is exactly, I do not know.  Some of the stories that Price mentions may have been drawing from the New Testament writings or traditions, but I am hesitant to say that all of those stories were influenced by Christianity, or had the motifs that they did on account of Christian influence.  Could the stories, or at least their motifs, have influenced New Testament writers, as Price contends?  Well, maybe.  If we are discussing the empty tomb in the New Testament Gospels, I believe that the motif of an empty tomb in other ancient traditions definitely deserves consideration.  At the same time, the New Testament stories seem to me to present Jesus as dying and rising again.  “Well, that is in the form that they are in now,” one can retort.  “Maybe the earlier form of the text was different and did not present Jesus dying and rising again.”  Perhaps, but could the New Testament Gospel writers have drawn from the ancient stories or motifs that Price cites, while still intending to present Jesus as dying and rising again?  Maybe they wanted to argue that what happened to Jesus was different from what happened in those other cases, or they found elements of the stories helpful as they fashioned their narrative, while not embracing them totally.

On Hebrews 5:7, in what manner did God hear Jesus after Jesus begged to be delivered from death?  Does that have to mean that God delivered Jesus from being crucified?  Could Jesus’ resurrection be God’s answer to that prayer?

2.  Price also believes that the stories about Jesus’ resurrection were influenced, in some way, by ancient myths about dying-and-rising gods.  (Does this contradict his point in #1, or does he believe that both ideas can co-exist, in some scenario?)  Price lists and describes some of these myths.  I agree with Christian apologists and conservative scholars that some of these stories do not exactly, or entirely, present a dying-and-rising god: some present reincarnation rather than resurrection, or a god who is not alive on earth for that long after being resurrected (Osiris is alive long enough to impregnate Isis, but then he goes to the netherworld).  But I am hesitant to dismiss that there was a belief in dying-and-rising gods in the ancient world, even though Price should have provided more documentation for the stories that he was relating.

Price addresses arguments from conservative critics regarding this issue.  Against those who say that stories about dying-and-rising gods came after the time of Christianity, Price states that even Christian apologists in ancient times had to address the argument that Christianity was similar to pagan myths, and they did so by saying that Satan was aping Christian themes before Jesus was on earth (Justin Martyr in the second century C.E. used this argument, but see here).  Against the conservative argument that staunch monotheists like the Jewish-Christians of the first century C.E. would not have borrowed from paganism, Price refers to the pagan influence on the Israelites and Jews up to the time of the Maccabees (which was in the second century B.C.E.).  While Price should have addressed whether Jews or Christians could have consciously borrowed from paganism in the first century C.E., I do not believe that one can seal historical Judaism and Christianity off from pagan influence, as if they were in a pure container.  Cross-cultural influence is a fact of life.

Price refers to what he believes are possible parallels between the Gospel stories and ancient myths: the resurrection of Attis (a Phrygian youth with romantic issues) was celebrated after three days, and Jesus rose after three days; the Pyramid Texts present someone lamenting that she cannot find a dead body, and Mary Magdalene lamented that she did not know where Jesus’ body was in John 20:13; and the gods’ resurrection often relates to the spring-time, which was when Jesus rose.  I doubt that these similarities mean that these myths necessarily influenced Christianity: three (or the third of someone or something) is a common motif in ancient and modern times, the contexts of these similarities were different (i.e., Osiris’ body parts were scattered throughout the world, which did not happen to Jesus), and the similarities could have been coincidental rather than indicating influence of one source on another.  I do believe that Jesus’ resurrection in the spring-time could have been significant, however.

Where Price goes with the dying-and-rising-gods argument is that he speculates that Mary Magdalene could have been like Isis, or the other goddesses (or women) who played a prominent role in the resurrection of the dying-and-rising god (or person).  Price initially believed that Mary Magdalene had apostolic status, or was head of a Christian community, for John 20 depicts her seeing the risen Lord, plus she seemed to be depicted as heading a group of women who supported Jesus’ ministry (Luke 8:2-3), which (according to Price) was rare in the ancient world.  But Price changed his mind on this in favor of the view that Mary Magdalene was mythological and was an Isis-like figure.  When did Mary resurrect Jesus?  Price believes that the story of the woman who anointed Jesus for burial (Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; Luke 7:37-39; John 12:1-8) is relevant to this question: that it was initially within the context of Jesus’ resurrection, but was later projected back into the time of Jesus’ ministry, prior to his death.  Price also refers to Acts 17:18, in which Paul’s pagan detractors believe that Paul, in proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection, is promoting strange gods.  How would they have reached this conclusion?  According to Price, they thought that Paul was proclaiming Jesus and the goddess Anastasis (which is Greek for resurrection).

This is all speculative, and yet it does strike me that Mark 14:9 makes a big deal about the woman anointing Jesus, saying that, wherever the Gospel is preached, what this woman has done will be mentioned in memory of her.  I also wonder why Paul’s pagan detractors concluded that Paul was proclaiming strange gods.

3.  Price argues that Jesus may have been a mythical figure who came to be historicized.  According to Price, this happened with other mythological figures, as well: Plutarch thought that Isis and Osiris were the first monarchs of Egypt, and Herodotus wondered when Hercules historically lived.

In reading about Christ-mythicism, something about this view has puzzled me.  Do Christ-mythicists believe that Jesus was initially believed to have been killed in the cosmic sphere, but that his crucifixion was later historicized as an event that took place on earth?  I have heard Christ-mythicists argue to this effect, and they appeal to pagan gods as parallels.  The thing is, my understanding is that many stories of pagan gods take place on earth, not in some cosmic realm.  The story of Osiris and Isis is set on earth, right?

How does Price deal with this?  Price refers to Paul Veyne’s Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths? (a book that I have and would like to someday read, but it is boxed up), and also Paul Crouchoud.  Price says that Hercules and Asclepius were originally heavenly sun-gods, but they were later believed to have lived “fleshly lives on earth” (page 129).  On page 252, Price states that, according to Veyne, “most people did believe the gods and goddesses had existed, but in a twilight zone of history before recorded history began: ‘Once upon a time.'”  For Christ-mythicists, was Jesus initially believed to have been killed in a cosmic realm, or in the remote past on earth?

4.  Price talks about the New Testament canon.  He argues that Marcion first set forth a canon, and that so-called orthodox Christians added to it because they did not like Marcion’s ideas.  Marcion believed that the god of the Old Testament, a god of justice, was a different god from the God of the New Testament, a god of love.  According to Price, orthodox Christians added to the New Testament canon books that were friendlier to their pro-Old Testament view, such as the Gospel of Matthew.  Price also believes that additions at some point were made to Paul’s writings to make him appear more orthodox, or pro-Torah.  Many scholars have narrated, by contrast, that Marcion edited things down to conform to his beliefs, rather than that orthodox Christians added things to Marcion’s canon.

This post is getting rather long, so I want to briefly interact with some of what Price says about the New Testament canon:

—-Price says that Pauline writings (minus the so-called “orthodox” additions that Price believes were made) were not from Paul, but from a Marcionite-Gnostic school.  I am not convinced by this.  Paul may have influenced Marcion, but I do not think that Marcion or the Gnostics composed Paul’s writings.  Paul’s writings have nothing about a sinister or obsessively just sub-god creating the world and giving Israel the law.  But the Pauline dichotomy between law and grace could have been embraced by the Marcionites or the Gnostics, for their own reasons.  Price may go into more detail about his views on this issue in his book on Paul, which I have not yet read.

—-Christian apologists, and also many mainstream scholars, maintain that the Gospels in our New Testament (at least the synoptic ones) are earlier than the extracanonical Gospels.  Price seems to me to agree with this, overall, at least in this book.  At the same time, he does not agree with those who would equate the New Testament writings with what came to be accepted as orthodox Christianity, for he refers to passages in John and Paul’s writings that strike him as rather docetist (i.e., Romans 8:3), the view that Jesus only appeared human rather than being human.  Romans 8:3’s statement that Jesus appeared in the likeness of sinful flesh does strike me as rather odd; at the same time, Paul also says that Jesus was born of a woman (Galatians 4:4) and that Jesus was crucified, which seem to be at odds with docetism (and yet who says that a non-docetist could not absorb features of docetism?).  I do agree with Price, however, that the New Testament may manifest diverse Christologies, some of them at odds with what came to be orthodox.

—-Price refers to interesting and relevant considerations: Clement of Alexandria quoted, cited, or alluded to a number of non-canonical Christian texts, in addition to the canonical ones; some questioned the authorship of the Gospel of John, thinking it sounded too Gnostic; and even Christians who were later rejected as non-orthodox claimed to have learned their teaching from students of an apostle, including Paul and Peter.  That makes me wonder how I should deal with patristic claims that certain church fathers (i.e., Polycarp) were taught by apostles.  Should I reject those claims as made-up?  Should I accept that these fathers may have been taught by the apostles, yet went their own way, in areas, or took the apostle’s teachings in their own directions?  Should I believe that the church fathers are telling the truth about their apostolic connection, whereas the “Gnostic” Christians are lying about theirs, perhaps aping the church fathers?

—-Price refers to the criteria that church fathers used in deciding what was canonical.  He seems to identify with the criterion that a Gospel had to be widely used in order to be accepted as canonical, or at least he presented it as a reasonable criterion.  Wide and long use of a Gospel arguably means an earlier date, since there needed to be time for a Gospel to circulate.  Plus, “The fewer quarters of the church in which it was known, the greater the likelihood of its being a recent forgery. (‘Why didn’t we hear about this ‘Gospel according to Wally’ till now?  I smell a rat!’)” (page 162).  Price believes that the criterion that a Gospel had to be written by an apostle or student of an apostle to be more dubious, however, for could not one simply attribute a Gospel to an apostle, whether that apostle wrote it or not?  Christian apologists and conservative scholars have asked why, if this were the case, church fathers would attribute Gospels to Mark or Luke, who were not even apostles, rather than attributing them to more famous apostles.  Price’s answer is that Matthew’s Gospel was more widely known and respected than the Gospels of Mark and Luke were, so the latter two Gospels were attributed to people who were not apostles, but rather students of apostles.

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