Higher Critical Review

Robert M. Price 
Deconstructing Jesus.
Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2000. 284 pp. $31.95. ISBN 1-57392-758-9.

Reviewed by Earl Doherty. Institute for Higher Critical Studies
JHC 7/1 (Spring 2000), 126-140.

Until recently, one of the mainstays of liberal New Testament scholarship was the concept that Jesus, during the course of his career or immediately following his death, gave rise to a wide variety of responses, each of which became embodied in a particular circle of followers who went off in their own more or less individual directions: a kind of break-up of Jesus into his component parts. Only later, went the theory, did those splintered pieces come back together, as reflected in the work of the evangelists. Such theories were an attempt to take into account all the different elements to be found in the Gospels and in the early Christian movement generally, elements which seemed to possess their own independent character and which often could not be found in close association with each other in stages prior to the Gospels.

This created the picture of a multi-faceted figure whose teachings had so impressed one group of people that they recorded his sayings and nothing else, whose wonder-working exploits were seized on by another group who put together collections of miracles attributed to him, whose conflicts with the religious establishment were remembered by still others who preserved the traditions embodied in the controversy or pronouncement stories of the Gospels. Set against all these groups who responded to facets of Jesus' ministry was yet another tradition, as represented by the epistles. This was a reaction to his death in Jerusalem, one that created out of the human man a cosmic pre-existent divinity, a redeeming Son of God who had suffered, been crucified and rose from his tomb. Miscellaneous groups like the relatives of Jesus and the Jerusalem Pillars, together with various Jewish-Christian sects which later claimed to trace their ancestry back to a primitive community around Jesus in Jerusalem, were fitted into the mosaic in various, sometimes overlapping ways.

But is this one Jesus, or many? Were all these constituent parts linked in any meaningful fashion before they came together in the Gospels? Do any of the components go back to a single figure who can be given the appellation "the historical Jesus"?

These are the kinds of questions which Deconstructing Jesus addresses. Robert Price's new book is an invigorating romp, a no-holds-barred excursion across the landscape of first century Palestine and beyond. Its diverse scenes include all the going movements of the day that reveal their presence in the early Christian record; it opens doors onto the mythological and ritual underpinnings of the Christian story and faith. Itinerant philosophers, social and religious reform agitators, romance novelists, personal saviors and popular icons, are only some of those (along with modern scholars -- some of the 'critical' variety -- who wander the same landscape still wearing Gospel-tinted glasses of varying hues) that are subjected to Price's keen eye, discerning insight and engaging wit. His knowledge seems encyclopedic, and his ability to dissect and rearrange the pieces of a multi-faceted ancient world is fascinating.

Because the passing vista is so multifarious, it would have been fatal for him to set down a conclusion at the outset and interpret everything in accord with it. He gives us no opening statement that his deconstruction of the Christian founder will have to lead to rejecting any existence at all for such a figure. That will remain to be seen. Some of his scenarios must place a representative Jesus on the stage, at least while the action is unfolding. Once the scene has passed by, we can question whether the central character in it was indeed there in actuality, or whether his presence was a later construction to give body to those traditions and memories. But that many different representative "Jesuses" must be taken into account is undeniable, and by the end of this book it must be admitted that not even the greatest apologetic wizard could fit them all into a harmonious and historical whole.

Jesus Movements and Christ Cults

One of those modern wizard-scholars is the very radical and very secular Burton L. Mack, who nevertheless - at last word - still adheres to the idea that a single historical man had an input (if not exclusively) into all the major facets that make up the later Gospel-embodied Christianity. (He has, however, abandoned the Big Bang model that all of Christianity proceeded from the perceived resurrection of Jesus, advocating instead the existence of many Jesus movements and responses of which only one involved the idea of resurrection.) Price first examines the main features of the early Christian landscape through the prism of Mack's breakdown, enlarging on it and pointing out its weaknesses.

The Galilean Q scene of itinerant apostles and homeless radicals comes alive in Price's hands. He calls our attention to the 'freeloading' dimension to the wandering prophets whom the Didache, for one, must caution the settled community against (chapter 11). Somewhat in the nature of modern televangelists, the meaning behind certain formerly pristine sentiments about charity is revealed as subtly self-serving -- Price calls it "fund-raising theology" [p. 50] -- when such prophets exhorted their hearers to cash in their worldly possessions and give to the poor. The saying in Mark 14:7 may reveal just which "poor" these prophets had in mind. Certain elements in the early Gospels are shown to be coping with the decline of the whole itinerant preacher movement. Such insights are brought home even more effectively through Price's humor and unpretentious approach.

If resurrection is to be seen as the product of only one faction of early Christianity [p. 56], the question is raised as to whether even the death of Jesus was a known fact, or taken for granted in all the reactions to him. Might the early Christians have believed that Jesus had escaped dying at his execution? Like the Moslems, some may have believed that Jesus had been supernaturally taken up by God, or hidden away. Perhaps he was simply rescued from a grueling but not fatal crucifixion. This becomes a not-so-crazy idea when we are taken through telltale elements of Mark's Gospel which seem to be pointing to that very plot development, perhaps reflecting some earlier version or predecessor. We'll take a look at those 'romance novel' elements later.

Price asks if Jesus was only one of many on the scene whom various groups venerated, as such figures jockeyed for prominence of place in the minds of competing adherents. Was resurrection adopted as a selling point by one of these factions within "a creatively inchoate, unstable and diverse early Christianity"? Perhaps it was the product of a rivalry between John the Baptist and Jesus followings. Looking at Mack's miracle-preserving groups, did these have a political agenda to turn Jesus into a new Moses, as opposed to a new David? The Gospel miracles, after all, are emulations of the former, while David as a role model is conspicuously absent. Perhaps such elements in the Gospels are reflective of northern, non-Judaean interests, with Jesus as their non-Davidic symbolic spokesperson.

These and a host of carefully investigated and entertaining questions can always be seen to be supported by some facet of the evidence, and one feels that Price has tossed them onto the table, not only as an indicator of his fundamental object -- to show how many and varied are the components that can be uncovered beneath the composite Jesus picture -- but also to get the reader salivating in perverse fascination and not a little unnerved. Even for the poor mythicist, the picture becomes bewildering: how to fit all these elements into a coherent picture of the non-existence of an historical Jesus?

Q and Cynic Travelers

But let me not get too far off the road of the journey being undertaken. I've alluded to the Q scene, and here Price fleshes out our understanding of the nature and background of the Kingdom of God movement centered in Galilee. Mack, Crossan and others have revealed a Galilee that is only marginally Jewish, one heavily hellenized. Several Cynic wandering philosophers/apostles can be located here in the BCE period. Q's parallels (those layers of teaching attributed by modern critical scholars to the historical Jesus) with Cynic lifestyle and outlook on the world are striking. The Cynics, too, preached a kingdom of God/Zeus, they aimed cynical barbs at established social convention, they used chreia forms to get across the essence of their teachings. Were the Q preachers imitating such a Jesus, who himself owed his inspiration to the Cynic movement? Or did they simply reimagine a past Jesus in a newer Cynic image? Or, one could add, did they invent a Jesus to give themselves a more acceptable and identifiable founder and precursor?

Price gives us ten pages [151-160] of parallels between the sayings of Q1 (the apparent bedrock layer of the Q document) and Cynic-style pronouncements of famous sages like Epictetus, Seneca, or of those reporting on Cynic philosophers, such as Diogenes Laertius. There seems little doubt of the ultimate provenance of the core teachings of the Gospel Jesus -- and it isn't a Jewish one. This makes exceedingly ironic the modern appeal on the part of religious conservatives to a Christianity that preserves a so-called Judaeo-Christian tradition: something which in actuality constitutes an ethic that is Greek and a philosophy and ritual of salvation derived from the thoroughly Hellenistic ethos of the mystery cults.

Price suggests that Q1, "far from allowing us access for the first time to the historical Jesus, is instead inconsistent with an historical Jesus" [p.150]. While people like Burton Mack detect (quite rightly) a pronounced character to the Q1 sayings, one of sly humor and wise common sense, supposedly implying a definite personality, the same features can equally be found in the body of Cynic sayings to which they have been compared, sayings which identifiably "stem from many different Cynic philosophers over several centuries." If the latter sayings do not need to have come from a single person, Price reasons, neither do those attributed to Jesus.

He further observes that with virtually all other sayings collections of the ancient world attributed to a prominent figure (such as the many to Solomon or the collections of psalms ascribed to David), such attribution is fictive, the figure himself legendary. Price notes that attributing anonymous or traditional sayings to an authority figure is a fundamental shift on the part of a "canonical mindset." Rather than let the inherent wisdom of such sayings stand on their own, self-evident and proverbially established from experience, their legitimacy becomes grounded in the fact that they were spoken by some respected or glorified figure, whose pipeline to a higher divinity is emphasized. By imposing theology, the sayings shift to the realm of revelation and prophecy. As "proverbs (that) enshrine wisdom, not revelation," the attribution of Q1 to a Jesus is uncharacteristic of the proverb genre and suggests a later development.

Price postulates that this Q Cynic root entered the Jewish Kingdom movement by way of the Godfearers, those gentiles attached to Judaism. He agrees (with myself) that the Q base of sayings had no narrative settings, no controversy stories. In the Gospels, the apparent point of a saying itself often makes a less-than-perfect fit with the set-up situation the evangelists provide for it, as though the exact significance of the original saying was lost or confused when adapted to its new milieu. The controversy stories, with Jesus as the star character, are consequently later additions, offering a singular, heroic originator who is simply an ideal figure.

The Roots of an Elevation

In examining Mack's category of the Christ cult, Jesus as savior god-man from heaven, Price uncovers a variety of roots. Here, in some cases, I would add my own element and make a distinction between the later interpretation of an imposed historical Jesus on roots that may have lacked him, and the separate question of how such an interpretation could initially have been made of an actual historical man. Price points to the idea of a "Jesus Martyr cult," which people like Mack and Sam Williams have fashioned along the lines of the martyr/atonement deaths in 2 and 4 Maccabees. This category, say Mack and Williams, comprised Jesus people who, aware of the fact of Jesus' death, saw it as one which God might be willing to accept as expiation for certain sins, namely those of the pagans who filled the ranks of such believers. Thus Jesus and his death were the means by which God opened the door to the gentiles and allowed them into the Jewish house.

I have no doubt that once an invented Jesus was on the table, gentile groups could well have imposed such an interpretation on him, suggestions of which appear in the Gospels. But I wonder at how such a reading of an actual human man would have arisen in the first place and on what foundation it was built. It hardly started cold, the very first evaluation by a new group about an otherwise unknown, recently executed rabbi. It had to be an overlay on an earlier Jesus movement -- and this is the way Burton Mack fashions it. Yet the picture of the universal separateness of the cultic tradition from the teaching tradition, with never the twain meeting, makes such a leap very doubtful. The epistles, on the whole an earlier record than the Gospels, give no sign that a martyr Jesus phase preceded the full-blown cosmic Christ dimension which saturates the Pauline corpus and Hebrews, and certainly not that it all grew out of an initial movement which viewed Jesus as simply a teaching sage.

That first extant expression in the epistles goes far beyond any Maccabean understanding. Jesus is a divinity descended from heaven, and in the hymn in Philippians 2:6-11 (possibly one of the earliest expressions of Christian faith surviving) there is no atonement doctrine at all. The consequence of death is exaltation, and the point may be that, through paradigmatic relationships between divinity and devotee, a similar guarantee (of exaltation) is made for the latter. Revelation has much the same soteriology. Paul, it is true, offers the 'dying for sin' doctrine as part of his basic gospel, but he too puts forward a paradigm guarantee in regard to the resurrection, as expressed in Romans 6:5. On the whole, the Sam Williams type of concept is difficult to support in any depth within the earliest record.

Be that as it may, there is probably no question that the atonement doctrine which has one expression in Jewish tradition within 2 and 4 Maccabees has fed into the composite Jesus picture (though it is certainly, as Price points out, understated in the Gospels). Then there's the Christ/anthropos ("Man") of gnostic-style myth, the descending Redeemer idea which is very pronounced in the Gospel of John and is ultimately a product of pagan philosophy. Without identifying Paul as 'gnostic,' Price sees the Pauline Christ in this same category and points out that the Jesus of Paul really has nothing to do with, and no characteristics of, the Jewish Messiah or Jewish messianism. Inherent in such a (proto-) gnostic type of outlook is the idea that Christ inhabits the believer, and the apostle who preaches him possesses a highly developed sense of the Christ/Redeemer within himself. Paul, with his "Christ in you" and "all are members of the body of Christ," falls into that line of thinking.

An idea first brought home to me in an earlier essay by Price fits in here: a telling observation about that hymn in Philippians. At his post-death exaltation to heaven, Paul's Christ has been given the "name above every name," at which every knee would bow and every tongue confess, in heaven and on earth. Verse 10, together with the sense of the passage, affirms that this name is "Jesus." Verse 11 has traditionally provided a possible 'out,' in that confessing that "Jesus Christ is Lord" might imply that the name conferred is "Lord." But Price points out the obvious fact that "Lord" is not a name, it is a title. "Lord," moreover, has already been taken, being a title of God himself. It's a tantalizing deduction, putting 'proof' almost within one's grasp, that if the sacrificed and exalted Christ received the name Jesus (Savior or Yahweh Saves) only when he returned to heaven, he could not have been envisioned as based on a man of that name who had previously lived on earth.

As a dying and resurrected deity, Jesus falls into that prominent category of savior gods worshiped in a host of pagan mystery cults. Price recounts several myths and formulae of the mysteries that bear uncanny resemblance to the way the early Christians presented their Christ. He also provides a good grounding in the underlying meanings and sources of such cultic beliefs. And in the most effective and satisfying piece of counter-debunking I've yet seen on this subject, he thoroughly discredits that 20th century trend of scholarly apologetics which has sought to dissociate the Christian savior Jesus from the similar expression of the mysteries. Jonathan Z. Smith ("Dying and Rising Gods" in Encyclopedia of Religion) and Gunter Wagner (Pauline Baptism and the Pagan Mysteries) are only two of many offenders who have naively or arrogantly twisted, misread and misrepresented the Greek mysteries and Pauline Christianity in order to divorce Jesus from his fellow cultic saviors: Dionysos, Attis, Osiris & Co. No one can read these pages [88-91] and ever again allow such special pleading tactics any credence.

Only one original feature was introduced by Christians like Paul for their savior deity. Whereas the Hellenistic tradition of liberality and inclusiveness allowed for the side-by-side existence of many cult deities within the pantheon of saviors -- and many a pagan devotee hedged his or her bets by subscribing to the cults of several savior gods -- only Christianity claimed exclusivity for its version of the old tune, and regarded Jesus Christ as the sole existing source of salvation. Once political power was obtained, of course, that claim of exclusivity was ruthlessly enforced.

Pharisees and Scapegoats

Leaving Mack's Jesus categories and the pagan mysteries behind, Price switches roads and leads us down yet more fascinating byways. He sets the early Christian record against the development of Judaism in the first century and presents a clear picture of disparity and anachronism which the Gospels create. He shows how unlikely it is that Pharisaic Judaism would have been present in Galilee to any degree prior to the Jewish War, making Jesus' disputatious struggle with the religious establishment, which Mark's Gospel presents, an obvious anchronism. Such a situation would have arisen only in the War's aftermath, when the destruction of Jerusalem resulted in the dispersal of the Pharisees to the north, where they attempted to set up their own 'normative' Judaism in their new habitats.

Price also contrasts the rabbinic attitude toward collective, communal authority with the Christian emphasis on Jesus' uniqueness. This is yet another indication of the trend reflected in Mark and the Christianity of the late first century, to subsume all beliefs and practices under one authoritative charismatic figure. Such a tendency caters to a universal sectarian need to present a strong face against hostile forces and prevent internal weakening of the faith, a need which often leads to the invention and glorification of founder figures. Indeed, the controversy stories teem with anachronisms, says Price, and indicate that the earlier strata relate not to an individual founder but to the movement itself and its many members. Some indicators point to earlier intra-Christian debates rather than conflict with outsiders. Price also looks at the 'flight to Pella' tradition and sees it as a legitimizing legend for later groups. Present needs and circumstances have a way of being read back into the past.

In some ways, the chapter on deconstructing the passion element of the Jesus story according to the "Sacred Scapegoat" theories of Rene Girard is the high point of the book. Girard, writing and developing his concepts over a few decades, has set up yet another dimension by which the deconstructed Jesus may be measured. This particular dimension permeates one of humanity's deepest unconscious tendencies, one extending back into irrecoverable prehistory and forward into the unconscious workings of societal impulses even today. This is not a subject I can do justice to in this book review, partly because it is not an area I am fully at home in. But Girard has clearly opened the door into a deep and disturbing understanding of the human psyche, even if he could not, as a Christian believer himself (as Price points out), draw the full implications for the Gospels themselves. Suffice to say, at times of societal pressure and crisis, the need for a scapegoat becomes paramount, and the nature and fate of this scapegoat follows intricate and (once uncovered) predictable rules. The scapegoat must be the society's "double," representative enough to serve as a symbol of the society itself, but still be enough of a 'fringe' character that any repercussions on society in response to his murder will be avoided. In the process, the scapegoat may become 'sacred' and his sacrifice redeems (defuses the crisis). A host of other features are also operative. The Gospel story, on so many levels, can be seen to fill these symbolic and subconscious needs, rendering any question of it simply being an account of an historical event highly dubious. This chapter of the book is a tour de force in itself and merits the closest examination by the reader.

Biographies and Romances

Early in the book [pp. 35-42], Price offers a series of excerpts from the aretalogy stories of the ancient world. An aretalogy is "a wonder-laden religious hero biography or saint's life," written about men such as Moses, Alexander the Great, Pythogoras, Apollonius of Tyana, and many others. "Like Jesus," says Price, "many of them were believed to be the Son of God, miraculously conceived, their births announced by gods or angels." He gives examples from the lives of Pythagoras by Iamblichus, Alexander by Plutarch, Apollonius of Tyana by Philostratus, and others, analyzing the close parallels these bear to elements of the Jesus story: such things as heavenly conceptions on a human woman, the astonishment created by the adolescent hero among his elders for his learning and piety, a career of miracles and exorcisms. It is clear that the Jesus story in regard to these elements is cut from exactly the same cloth, casting the greatest doubt on the veracity of such Gospel ingredients.

Later in the book, Price moves to the other end of Jesus' life and compares the Passion story to the ubiquitous romance novels of the ancient world. Their stock plot devices involve an entanglement for the hero which brings him near death, often near crucifixion and even entombment, but with a rescue or revival from a coma in the nick of time. Elements such as mourners coming to a tomb after three days, stones moved from a tomb entrance, amazed followers or bystanders observing an empty tomb, someone soliciting of a mourner why he or she weeps, the hero meeting friends and family after such a revival or escape, all abound in such novels.

The close similarity of the Passion and resurrection story to this genre leads Price to wonder if a version of the tale earlier than Mark could have adhered even more closely to the stereotype. Was it in fact the tale of a wise man (the Q charismatic sage) who was falsely condemned and narrowly escaped death? Mark, for theological reasons, would have turned it into the actual dying and rising of a deified figure. But it would seem that he left in a lot of features which point only to a near death and a rescue in the nick of time -- one that "had Jesus survive crucifixion, appearing still alive, not alive again"-- features such as Jesus' prayer for deliverance in Gethsemane, or Pilate expressing surprise that Jesus was dead after only six hours on the cross, or having a rich man (Joseph of Arimathea) place the body in his own tomb. The romance novel often used the latter as an opportunity to have grave robbers break into the tomb to steal its wealth, only to discover that the corpse still lived. However one decides to interpret it, the parallels are astonishing and fascinating.

Was There an Historical Jesus?

In the final chapter, Price gets to the nub of the matter and addresses the central question. Is it possible to judge whether an historical man lies beneath all this deconstruction? In order to do so, one must first answer the related question of whether an historical Jesus lies behind the epistles. In other words, could there have been an historical man who was rapidly glorified? To answer this, Price examines the recent and ongoing case of the 'deification' of the late Rabbi Menachem Schneerson of the Lubavitcher movement in Hasidic Judaism.

Shortly after his death, some of Schneerson's followers, on account of his holiness and legal wisdom, were led to identify him with the coming Messiah. Soon they were even regarding him as "the Essence and Being of God enclothed in a body." Price draws parallels between this process and a reading of the Gospel of John as it reveals a similar elevation of Jesus to the status of Messiah and Godhead, and the community's resulting separation from the synagogue.

Price's analysis of the Johannine Gospel is perceptive, especially in regard to its possible docetic element (which goes against the grain of the usual view of John as having anti-docetic intentions, at least in its final version.) I do question, however, whether it is without problems to see John as dealing with the historical elevation of a recent man. If John is late enough after the Synoptics to reflect a now-established belief in an historical Jesus which the originally allegorical Mark had created, the scenario might work. But the fundamental difference between Jesus and Rabbi Schneerson is that no one ever lost sight of the latter's human origins and character; he has not (so far) been presented in entirely heavenly terms with no reference to a life on earth. Nor, I think, has Schneerson yet been elevated to the status of pre-existent creator and sustainer of the universe.

The epistle 1 John, which I (and a few others) maintain must be dated prior to the Gospel, does not show a more primitive stage of the Gospel's attitude toward Jesus. Rather, it barely reflects a human Jesus at all - if at all. A dispute in chapter 4 seems to reflect a debate on whether Jesus Christ had in fact come to earth. (By the way, Price offers a very intriguing interpretation of the 'layering' feature evident in the first epistle of John. Rather than a single letter reworked with new insertions over time, each reflecting a further stage of evolving thought, he suggests that there may have been multiple copies of the letter in different communities, each of which evolved along somewhat different theological lines and ended up containing different material. Later, two or more such versions were simply integrated into a new copy, creating a clash between some verses and others.)

Price goes on to offer another comparison, this one with the Islamic figure of Ali, cousin and adopted son of Muhammad, who gave rise to the breakaway Shi'ite sect. Ali underwent a dramatic mythological elevation even before his death, which involved seeing him as the incarnation of Allah on earth. Some sects eventually mythologized him in extravagant ways. I'm unsure that the latter degree of elevation happened so soon as in the supposed elevation of Jesus of Nazareth (as in the hymn of Philippians 2:6-11), and such an elevation of Ali was from the beginning motivated by political circumstances and rivalry, no parallel for which exists in the case of Christianity for the pre-Pauline period of Jesus' 'elevation.' But the similarity is certainly there, to show once more what factors-cultural and historical ones - can be said to lie behind the creation of the Gospel Jesus and his features.

Finally, Price asks if we can be certain even of the fundamental fact that Jesus was linked with first century Palestine and specifically with the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. He thinks that this is "more apparent than real" [p. 241]. The atmosphere surrounding Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, the details of his arrest and execution, are suspiciously similar to events of the later Jewish War and the fall of Jerusalem in 70. Josephus records the woes pronounced on the city by Jesus ben-Ananias leading up to that war, and the 'cleansing of the Temple' by the revolutionary Simon ben-Giora who expelled the brigand Zealots from the holy place just before the fall of the city. Pilate's uncharacteristic behavior at the trial of Jesus also sounds like a garbled reworking of an episode involving Pilate in Samaria, as recounted by Josephus, with all the elements reshuffled to create the trial scene in the Gospels.

Other Josephan episodes concerning revolutionary Messiahs ("Joshua Messiahs," i.e., figures with characteristics of the biblical Joshua) in the course of the troubled first century bear striking resemblances to the messianic Jesus of the Gospels. Josephus' accounts of men like Theudas and the unnamed Egyptian establish the current concept of a Joshua Messiah -which is, directly translated, "Jesus Christ." Is the Gospel figure of that name, asks Price, a fictional rendering of such an "available" anticipated figure? Is Jesus' caution against false messiahs in Mark 13 a reflection of the proliferation of such a concept/expectation? How will the people know when the real one comes along? (How will we know to extract a real Jesus Christ from all this myth and expectation?)

Did Jesus live in a distant, obscure past?

Price looks at G. A. Wells' concept that Jesus was a legendary hero of a more distant or obscure past. If an historical Jesus cannot be linked securely with Pilate, are the Gospels arbitrarily moving such a Wellsian Jesus up to Pilate's time, in an inviting remake of Christian origins? The suggestion is also made that 1 Cor 2:8, Col 2:15 and other passages which seem to portray Jesus' death at the hands of the demon spirits of the heavens are offered by early writers as an alternative to locating that death at an unknown historical time. But here I would suggest that legendary figures usually develop legends on earth, and I could expand on that to counter the Wellsian idea by pointing out that the epistles reflect no earthly setting for Jesus, legendary, obscure, or otherwise -- which I regard as a significant silence. (Even Hercules, a hero who can't be located in a specific historical time by his legends, still had those legends placed on earth.) The Talmudic placement of Jesus in a more distant, obscure past -- around 100 BCE -- is only one of several later Jewish traditions about when Jesus lived.

When we look at the contrast between gnostic and orthodox treatments of Jesus, we find among the gnostics an emphasis on a docetic Christ and an ongoing claim to 'revelation' teachings by Jesus. These are found in a series of dialogue Gospels in the second century, to which the orthodox church countered by emphasizing the historical boundaries of Christ's life and thus a fixed limitation on the 'genuine' acceptable teachings. But this suggests that the gnostic Christ was earlier a spiritual revealer figure, not a legendary earthly one. Price points out that when the gnostics eventually "assimilated the basic Markan story-plot" (as in those dialogue Gospels of a post-resurrection teaching Jesus) they tended to retain a docetic nature for him.

Creating a Protagonist

Dissecting the Gospels themselves, Price first calls attention [p. 251] to the basic tenet of form criticism, that the Gospel ministry does not reflect an actual sequence of events, but is a case of the evangelist linking separate 'pearls on a string,' with the plot line and setting a literary creation. But has Mark gone beyond the creation of a "schematic framework" for independent stories that were genuinely linked with Jesus? Price quotes the Russian literary critic, Boris Tomashevsky: "The protagonist . . . is the result of the formation of the story material into a plot. On the one hand, he is a means of stringing motifs together; and on the other, he embodies the motivation that connects the motifs." Price goes on:

Tomashevsky might almost have had Mark himself in mind! Was Jesus an itinerant? There is no reason to think so. It is the impression created by the choice of placing anecdotes side by side in narrative form. Bruno Bauer once argued that Mark had himself created the Jesus character out of whole cloth. I am saying that it may well be that Mark took preexisting traditions of miracles and wise sayings, some or all of them already attributed to the Christian savior, Jesus, and from them created the idea of a "historical Jesus."

To this I would add the qualification that the "Christian savior," within the very earliest epistolary record, had no miracle or sayings traditions attached to him, but seems to have acted entirely in heaven. And as if to support the idea of total creation of an historical Jesus, Price proceeds to parallel a comprehensive set of pre-Markan sayings material found in the Gospels with "Truths and Truisms" of the day as found in the rabbinic writings, and deeds material with the hero stories of figures from the Old Testament and related Indo-European and Semitic legends.


Price offers a splendid summing up of what this vast deconstruction of the Christian Jesus has led to, and I'll quote the final two paragraphs of his last chapter, The Historicized Jesus? [p. 260-61]:

Traditionally, Christ-Myth theorists have argued that one finds a purely mythic conception of Jesus in the epistles and that the life of Jesus the historical teacher and healer as we read it in the gospels is a later historicization. This may indeed be so, but it is important to recognize the obvious: The gospel story of Jesus is itself apparently mythic from first to last. In the gospels the degree of historicization is actually quite minimal, mainly consisting of the addition of the layer derived from contemporary messiahs and prophets, as outlined above. One does not need to repair to the epistles to find a mythic Jesus. The gospel story itself is already pure legend. What can we say of a supposed historical figure whose life story conforms virtually in every detail to the Mythic Hero Archetype, with nothing, no "secular" or mundane information, left over? As Dundes is careful to point out, it doesn't prove there was no historical Jesus, for it is not implausible that a genuine, historical individual might become so lionized, even so deified, that his life and career would be completely assimilated to the Mythic Hero Archetype. But if that happened, we could no longer be sure there had ever been a real person at the root of the whole thing. The stained glass would have become just too thick to peer through.

Alexander the Great, Caesar Augustus, Cyrus, King Arthur, and others have nearly suffered this fate. What keeps historians from dismissing them as mere myths, like Paul Bunyan, is that there is some residue. We know at least a bit of mundane information about them, perhaps quite a bit, that does not form part of any legend cycle. Or they are so intricately woven into the history of the time that it is impossible to make sense of that history without them. But is this the case with Jesus? I fear it is not. The apparent links with Roman and Herodian figures is too loose, too doubtful for reasons I have already tried to explain. Thus it seems to me that Jesus must be categorized with other legendary founder figures including the Buddha, Krishna, and Lao-tzu. There may have been a real figure there, but there is simply no longer any way of being sure."

My own observation on the deconstruction process -- revealed not only by Robert Price in Deconstructing Jesus, but by other books in the field, including my own The Jesus Puzzle, The Christ Conspiracy by Acharya S, Alvar Ellegard's Jesus - One Hundred Years Before Christ, and The Jesus Mysteries by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy -- relates to the amazing plurality of parallels to Jesus in ancient world mythology and the primitive unconscious, astrological speculation, ethical and reform innovations of the time, Jewish scriptural precedent, pagan salvation cults, legendary hero-worship, popular philosophy and literature, all of it feeding into the constructed founder of Christianity. This Jesus was a bloated sponge that seems to have sucked in every mythical precedent, every contemporary expression and underlying instinct to be found on the landscape of pre-Christian western culture.

Without becoming mystical about it, something fundamental must have been going on here, in this monumental historic piece of intensely focused syncretism. There are so many pieces to the Deconstructed Jesus that not only is it patently impossible to find or choose a way to put some of them back together and arrive at a likely or even possible historical man lying in the background, it almost feels as though it would go against common sense -- perhaps even be blasphemous! -- to do so. It seems insulting to the Deity of Evolution, shall we say, who inexplicably set up this great process of ancient world amalgamation.

And yet, as in the case of any other Deity's work -- to our misfortune -- the end result has been less than ideal. That great syncretistic synthesis, the creation of a new religion around Jesus which seems to embody all the ancient world's prior manifestations, has not given us a product which subsequent history can be entirely proud of: philosophically open, politically tolerant, scientifically innovative, or socially enlightened. Indeed, because the syncretism was so intense, so narrowed onto one movement of faith and institution, onto one exclusive hero and savior figure, the drawbacks and abuses proceeding from such power and exclusivity were virtually inevitable.

But then, that's the nature of the god of natural processes. It doesn't make judgments, or dispense advice. There is no instruction manual. The switch gets thrown and we're left to our own devices. The Christian Jesus has been our creation, regularly reworked, over two millennia. Now the machine, rebuilt too many times for too long a journey, is breaking down and can no longer serve the needs of the traveler whose own personal development has outstripped that of his vehicle. We are 21st century riders in a first century buggy, and while we've periodically outfitted the driver with new clothes, the old technology is still in evidence and is no longer up to the trip.

As for a real human man who might lie buried at the root of it all, or even a part of it, he too, like the Deity who found him so useful, might well be insulted if he were dragged into the picture. He would surely and rightly be unwilling to bear that degree of responsibility - or indignity. If he did exist, it's quite possible he would even avoid rolling over in his grave, the better to minimize the chance of calling attention to himself.

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Copyright © Institute for Higher Critical Studies, 2001

Darrell J. Doughty
Institute for Higher Critical Studies
Drew University, Madison, NJ, 07940