Thursday, June 6, 2013

Myth, Method and the Will to Believe

I do not promote the Christ-Myth theory as a dogma; I merely prefer it as the best reading of the evidence. Even so, I have committed professional suicide by advocating the theory, so let no one think I am gaining anything by it. As far as I know, my conscience is clear on the matter. I retain from my Christian period the desire to understand the Bible as best I can, without cheating and making it say what I want it to say.
—Robert M. Price, “Myth, Method, and the Will to Believe”
The (Gideon) Bible Geek, reading Psalm 23 during a break in our work on Evolving out of Eden

When I learned about evolution and realized that that my church was wrong about Adam and Eve, Original Sin, and all the dogma based on it, I was seized by the separate and conflicting drives to learn the truth about my religion and also to salvage my faith in it. I voraciously read books, blogs, and discussion forums, and listened to podcasts, about religion. One of those podcasts was the very entertaining and informative The Bible Geek by Robert M. Price, an ex-Christian theologian with dual PhDs, in New Testament and systematic theology.

After receiving nothing but unsatisfying non-answers to my questions from my church brethren, I contacted Dr. Price and asked if he could act as a sort of theological counselor. He graciously agreed, and served as a reasonable and sympathetic partner for intelligent discussion of these vexing issues.1 Over time, we became good friends. He reviewed and wrote a foreword for my first book, a critical examination of my church (which I’ve since left, along with Christianity), and then co-authored a book with me about the original issue that had begun my long journey out of fundamentalism.

Adapted (obviously) from Kramskoi’s Christ in the Desert

One of the signature issues of Dr. Price’s scholarship is the question of a historical Jesus. Setting aside the obviously faith-based claim that Jesus was the Son of God (and even the writer of Mark didn’t seem too sure about that), did such a person even exist? Or was he a mythical figure constructed in hindsight based on archetypes borrowed from the other hero savior and dying-and-rising god cults of that time and place? This is the Christ Myth viewpoint, which is championed by Dr. Price along with Dr. Richard Carrier, Frank Zindler, Earl Doherty, D.M. Murdock, René Salm, and David Fitzgerald, among others.

An Apologetic Ex-Apologist

Bob’s scholarship about the absence of a historical Jesus is not motivated by a desire to debunk the figure revered by over two billion Christians, but the honest result of his attempts to vindicate him. In a speech he recently presented to the Warren Christian Apologetics Center, he explains how he “came to find the historical arguments on his behalf bitterly disappointing and entirely unpersuasive.” The whole proposition seemed to become arbitrary. His speech in the lion’s den of an apologetics conference was not, he said, to make a pitch for a position to which he wanted to convert his former brethren, but merely to account for his own present status.

Bob offered a preview of his prepared remarks to his Bible Geek audience on the May 7, 2013 episode. It’s well worth a listen if you’re intrigued by the intellectual challenges of Christianity or the Historical Jesus question. The Warren Center has posted some video; Bob starts at the 01:33:30 mark, and the camera occasionally provides interesting views of his not-thrilled Christian audience. They will also be publishing of book and DVD of his speech along with the others at the event (all Christian apologists) and with responses, rejoinders, and questions and answers that followed the talks.2 The quotations that follow are all from the essay, “Myth, Method, and the Will to Believe.”

The speech defines three fundamental misunderstandings that Dr. Price believes “underlie the historical defense of the Jesus character.” The first one concerns the Principle of Analogy. Apologists “have incessantly, and falsely, accused biblical critics of allowing a ‘naturalistic presupposition’ or ‘philosophical presupposition against the miraculous’ to skew their results.” But Bob notes that “historical criticism presupposes no particular worldview. It makes no demands of the historian that he or she disdain a belief in the supernatural. It just refuses to confuse those distinct realms of discourse.” The apologist’s real concern, by contrast, is not to find out what happened, “but to defend what he thinks he already knows happened, at least in the case of Jesus” (emphasis added).

Next we have the matter of Ideal Types, “a kind of textbook definition collecting significant features held in common among various similar-seeming phenomena. Apologists and their allies seek to head off dangerous comparisons between features of the New Testament and alleged parallels to ancient mythology.” They fear any “comprehensive comparison between scriptural features and others in other religions or mythologies,” threatening claims about the Bible being unique. Since “the other religions are deemed to be false, their miracle stories, etc., must also be deemed lying wonders, or rather lies about wonders” (emphasis added).

The Jesus story just isn’t that distinct from what was being said by Pagans about their heroes at the time. The only reason we aren’t seeing Attis or Osiris apologists saying the same thing about their guys is that their religions are long gone. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be hard to picture a rival apologist from the First Church of Attis touting the uniqueness of that Attis’ resurrection story or the scandal of the savior castrating himself and bleeding to death, like Jesus apologists now point to the supposed scandal of the Son of God being executed in a humiliating, painful way as “proof” that the crucifixion really must have happened.

Then there is the issue of Speculation versus Documentation. Some prominent defenders of the Historical Jesus argue “that the gospels must be historically accurate because too few decades separate their composition from the underlying events.”3 But there were “other messiahs and miracle-workers, the growth of whose legends could be tracked during a shorter period.” And this “whole approach substituted what might have happened (some scenario convenient for apologists) for what must have happened (which we do not know).” If “the question is whether the Jesus figure has not merely been adorned with glittering legend, but was actually created whole out of mythic cloth of gold, it is useless to talk about how quickly legends do or do not develop.”

Bob has “come to think it likely that the Jesus character emerged from the prevalent redeemer myths of the Mediterranean world, perhaps from the ancient cult of Yahweh himself as a dying and rising god like Marduk. And there’s no telling when that would have happened.”

He suggests “that the stories of Jesus bear the marks of derivation from Old Testament stories and from Jewish and Hellenistic genre conventions, and that once these are peeled away, there’s not much left to call a historical Jesus.” And the historical figures mentioned in the stories of Jesus (Herod the Great, Caiaphas, Pontius Pilate) “serve to anchor Jesus in contemporary history just as the legend-laden Caesar Augustus was nonetheless stitched into the fabric of his times.”

In their zealous attempts to defend the faith (that’s what “apologetics” means), apologists crank out one creative rationalization after another to get God and the Bible off the hook. But, as Bob explains in the essay, the

more difficulties you have to try to explain with the gospels, the greater the degree of implausibility you are admitting marks their narrative. And then you are having to do apologetics for your apologetics—which hints at the largely ritual nature of the whole exercise. Finally the pegs come loose, and the historical Jesus is in danger of floating away into the mythic atmosphere along with the other mythic heroes, like so many parade balloons having slipped their tenuous moorings.

Post-Game Perorations

I asked Bob how this speech was received, given that he was preaching against the choir, criticizing apologetics at a conference of apologists. Here’s what he said.


The “adversarial dialogue” hosted by the Church of Christ’s Thomas B. Warren Apologetics Center in West Virginia was actually more of a trialogue, as I had to deal with two opponents. One was Roy Abraham Varghese, whose name you may recall as the near-posthumous collaborator with the failing and confused Antony Flew on “his” final book in which he embraced Deism (or something). The other was named Ralph Gilmore. The organizer was the wonderfully friendly Charles Pugh. I could not help liking Varghese, who would give me an eye-twinkling grin as he stepped away from the podium after trashing my views. Gilmore, on the other hand, struck me as very much like William Lane Craig, presenting a cordial front when he wasn’t caricaturing my arguments in a seemingly disingenuous manner. I may add that all the attendees to whom I spoke were the nicest people I could hope to meet. And it was a great plus that the yummy sandwiches they provided for lunch were not pre-polluted with condiments. As a dry sandwich man, I appreciate the consideration!

One of the finest books I’ve ever read

Dr. Varghese’s paper, though he did not have time to read these comments, was a bit off-putting, to put it mildly, as he grouped Christ Myth theorists with paranoids who deny the Holocaust and the moon-landing, and actually relegated Mythicism to a type of schizophrenia and recommended psychiatric treatment. I had the feeling he had not really imagined he would have to answer for these remarks in the presence of a live opponent. His major argument, as I remember, was that one must take a “wholistic approach,” using the growth of Christianity and the subjective experiences of Christians as evidence relevant to the historical existence of Jesus. Anyone but an apologist can readily see what a stacking of the deck this is.

Gilmore, also a young earth creationist (as one quip revealed), appealed to the great number of extant New Testament manuscripts as evidence for a historical Jesus, a total non-sequitur. He complained that I was not taking the position I was billed as taking, this because I explained that I did not believe it was provable that Jesus never existed, just that it seemed to me the best reading of the evidence. He accused me of waffling, since it was announced I would be defending the proposition that there was definitely no historical Jesus (or so he inferred). I replied that I assumed the organizers had read my books and were aware of the nuances of my position and wanted me to present that. He apologized for the confusion, then kept repeating the accusation!

Similarly, as regards the Mythic Hero Archetype, I had already pointed out that, though there were examples of real historical figures who had been mythologized, we cannot be sure Jesus was one of them, not pure myth, since his story is not intertwined with the secular history of the times, like Augustus Caesar’s was. Gilmore made the same distinction (as between “Buddha and Beowulf”) as if I had not, then challenged me to decide which Jesus was.

He misread my books as saying we can use the Talmud to date the gospels (somehow) and sought to refute me with quotes (one from Jacob Neusner) about the lateness and unreliability of the Talmud. I pointed out in response that Neusner himself had pronounced my “New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash” to be henceforth the standard work on the subject. Gilmore responded, “So he’s your friend,” as if to imply Neusner’s opinion, so authoritative when Gilmore thought he could smite me with it, was irrelevant.

There was more, but you can check it out for yourself when the organizers publish a book containing the texts of our three statements (plus one by yet a third apologist who listened to the debate), plus a DVD of the event. I can only say I had to shake my head at the shabby and even stupid character of the arguments to which my “adversaries in dialogue” were reduced. In my mind the words of Albert Schweitzer kept flashing in neon lights: He said it was his love for Christianity that made him despise the crooked and fragile thinking of Christian apologetics.

My hosts and opponents bade me, “Dr. Price, come back to Jesus.” They said it light-heartedly and with a real sense of humor, but I could tell they meant it, desirous of adding my notch alongside Flew’s on their gun belt. Let me tell you, arguments for the faith such as I heard that day only thrust me in the opposite direction. With defenders like these, who needs attackers?



  1. If you are immersed in a similar struggle, and your concerns involve theology or the Bible, I’d recommend contacting him. Just be aware that Bob isn’t a licensed therapist, and doesn’t provide any sort of mental health or other professional counseling services. 

  2. The book is now available on With a sales rank in the millions as of this footnote (March 2014), Bob’s essay deserves a lot more press than it’s getting as part of the book. 

  3. E.g., Bart Ehrman, F.F. Bruce, John Warwick Montgomery, J.N.D. Anderson.