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
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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