Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man by Robert M. Price

I first learned of Robert M. Price by stumbling upon his Bible Geek podcast some years ago. As I confessed in my write-up of his The Reason Driven Life, listening to him answer questions about the origins, contradictions, and hidden meanings in the Bible is one of my favorite things to do.

Well, The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man is very much like one long, sustained, and better organized episode of the Bible Geek podcast. The format of the podcast often makes it difficult for Price to cover all the background information that a newcomer would need in order to understand the context and often just the terms he uses in his answers. In book form, however, Price has all the space he needs. And here, there is really only one question to answer. It doesn’t come from Price’s “rain barrel” of listener questions. Price asks it himself in his subtitle. How Reliable is the Gospel Tradition?

In 355 pages, Price gives his answer, and all the supporting context and defined terms that he needs to justify it. It’s not. That’s the essential takeaway. The Gospel Tradition is not reliable.

But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s first just capture a few of the things I feel I learned while reading this book.

The Pauline Epistles Pre-Date the Gospels

I frankly don’t know how this one escaped me for so long. I’ll blame myself rather than my Sunday School teachers, but I guess I always just assumed that Paul was writing in the time after the Gospels were written, as the early Christian Church was expanding out of its Jewish core and recruiting in the Gentiles. Isn’t that what the cities referenced in the Epistle titles denote? Corinth (in Greece), Philippi (in Macedonia), and Rome (in Italy)?

Well, it turns out this is right -- it’s just my assumption about Paul having the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as reference material that is wrong. Paul, assuming he even wrote the epistles, was writing in a time before these canonical Gospels existed, even though he was writing to Gentiles who had established Christian churches far outside of Israel or Judea.

And this reality will figure significantly in Price’s calculation of the reliability of the Gospel tradition. For if the events described in the Gospels actually happened to the God/man named Jesus Christ, why does Paul never mention them?

There Are At Least Four Different Jesuses in the Gospels

This one I was already keyed into, but Price helped me tease out four clear examples of the “multiple Jesus” phenomenon. The dividing lines in question are based on when Jesus actually became the Christ -- that is, the Son of God and redeemer of mankind: upon his resurrection, upon his baptism, upon his birth, or from the beginning of time. Each tradition had their sects and advocates while the Gospels were being penned and transcribed, and each tried to influence the texts to better favor their interpretation of Jesus’s relationship with God.

If only each tradition had its own Gospel, and each consistently stuck to their conflicting story throughout. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. What we have instead are four books where within each all four traditions have been piled on top of each other through a historical progression of redactions, with not a one having a reliably original source by which such edits could be consistently identified.

And all of that is complicated by the order that the Gospels are presented to modern readers.

The average reader of the New Testament reads Matthew before Mark and then goes on to Luke and John. Matthew gives him the impression that Jesus was born God’s Son in a miraculous fashion. Mark begins only with the baptism, but the reader will think little of this: perhaps Mark begins in medias res. With Luke we are back to a miraculous nativity for one born the Son of God. In John the reader learns that Jesus had already been God’s Son from all eternity. But suppose one read Mark by itself, as its first readers did. What impression would one receive? Surely in a book where the main character shows up as an adult and, right off the bat, experiences a vision of divine calling in which he and no one else is told he is God’s Son, the natural inference would be that the baptism was the beginning of an honorific Sonship. If he were already God’s son, wouldn’t he have known it? And then why should God tell him what he already knew? It seems that Mark might believe what others in the early church did, namely, in Jesus’ adoptive Sonship.

But as difficult as it may be to tease apart these traditions, the fact that they are there in the soup has amazing explanatory power. I’ll let Price make one of his extremely helpful analogies from today’s popular culture mythology.

When Siegel and Schuster first told tales of the Man of Steel, he was said to have developed his powers only once he reached maturity. But Superman’s adventures proved so phenomenally popular that the publisher suggested moving the origin of his powers, and hence his superhero career, back one stage to his adolescence. So the adventures of Superboy premiered and continued for decades. Why not go a step further? The legend was revised again, so that the infant Superbaby was already helping out with farm chores using his superstrength, for example, lifting the tractor single-handedly. Even so, when Jesus’ divine sonship was thought to have stemmed from his Spirit-baptism at the Jordan, his adult activities formed the content of the gospel. But once his sonship was believed to have started at his physical birth, his miraculous “adventures” had to be extended backward to fill the gap.

Price is talking there about the numerous infancy Gospels -- texts, while not canonical, comically describe the child Jesus doing things like cursing people, healing others, and fashioning living sparrows out of clay. While few today take them seriously, they offer a certain logical consistency with the premise only partially addressed in the canonical Gospels -- that Jesus may have been God from birth.

Anachronisms Hide Behind Every Corner

These are some of my favorites -- all of which pretty much prove that large portions of the Gospels were written at a time far distant from the events they purport to describe.

Here’s a simple one.

We will return to the enigmatic figure of Judas later, but in the meantime, let us observe that his epithet “Iscariot” might mean, with about equal plausibility, three very different things. First, and traditionally, it has been taken to denote “Judas of Kerioth.” Kerioth was the name of a number of villages in Judea, which would make him the only non-Galilean in the group, if not even an Edomite (like Herod!), which is why he is given red hair in Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ (book and film), the Edomites being notorious redheads. John’s gospel must have understood Iscariot this way, since John refers to Judas as the son of Simon Iscariot (13:26). Second, many understand Iscariot as meaning “the Sicarius,” making Judas a member of the assassin squad of the revolutionary Zealots. They carried the sicarius, or short sword, hidden in their robes from whence they would pluck it to stab their intended victim and then mix in with the shouting crowd. This would place Judas alongside Simon the Zealot and Simon Barjona as militant nationalists. I prefer the third option, the surmise of Bertil Gärtner and others, whereby Iscariot represents the Hebrew Ishqarya, “man of falsehood, betrayer.” This means, obviously, that Judas would have been called “Judas Iscariot” during his lifetime no more than Jesus would have been called “Jesus Christ.” This does not mean, however, that sufficient water has not passed under the bridge by the time of the Gospels that Iscariot could be mistaken for a surname. See Mark 3:19, “Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.” Mark no longer recognized it as a redundancy.

In other words, by the time “Mark” started writing his Gospel, the meaning of Iscariot had already been lost in the dimly remembered past, assuming that the name and the character are based on an actual person. It reminds me a lot of the confusion over Jesus being called “the Nazarene.” Price dissects this one pretty well when examining the record to see if the Gospels can reliably tell us of Jesus’s birthplace.

Despite the rendering of many English Bible translations, Jesus is very seldom called “Jesus from Nazareth” in the Gospels. Mark calls him “Jesus the Nazarene,” as does Luke twice … while Matthew, John, and Acts always call him “Jesus the Nazorean” … with Luke using this epithet once. … Some critics have questioned whether the village of Nazareth even existed in the time of Jesus, since it receives no mention outside the Gospels until the third century. Whether that is important or not, the difference between “Nazarene” and “Nazorean” does give us reason to suspect that the familiar epithet does not after all denote Jesus’ hailing from a village called Nazareth. “The Nazarene” would imply that, but not “the Nazorean.” That seems to be a sect name, equivalent to “the Essene” or “the Hasid.” Epiphanius, an early Christian cataloguer of “heresies,” mentions a pre-Christian sect called “the Nazoreans,” their name meaning “the Keepers” of the Torah, or possibly of the secrets. … These Nazoreans were the heirs, supposedly, of the neoprimitivist sect of the Rechabites descending from the time of Jeremiah. … They were rather like Gypsies, itinerant carpenters. “Nazorean” occurs once unambiguously in the New Testament itself as a sect designation, in Acts 24:5: “a ring leader of the sect of the Nazoreans.” Robert Eisler, Hugh J. Schonfield, and others have plausibly suggested that Jesus (and early Christians generally) were members of this Jewish pious sect.

Again, in other words, any reference to Jesus being from a town called Nazareth based on his being called the Nazarene or the Nazorean in the Gospels in a faulty attempt to square a circle. No such town existed in the time of Jesus’s reported birth, and when the connection is made, it only shows that the Gospel writers didn’t know that.

But when it comes to anachronisms, there’s one I stumbled across that really takes the cake. It’s a little more complicated than misunderstood words, so bear with me.

Jesus is depicted in the Gospels in several contradictory ways when it comes to the matter of legal observance. Matthew’s gospel presents Jesus not merely as a new Moses but virtually as a new Torah. As “Moses” and “Torah” had become practically synonymous, so would “Jesus” and “Gospel” become interchangeable, and for Matthew, Jesus is the new Torah. Matthew organizes the teachings he attributes to Jesus into five major blocs: The Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7), the Mission Charge (10), the Parables (13), the Manual of Discipline/Community Rule (18), and the Diatribe against the Pharisees/Olivet Discourse (23-25). The fact that he has squeezed these last two, rather different, topics together only underlines his urgency to get all the material into five sections, each of which ends with a similar statement: “And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching” (7:28). “And when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in their cities” (11:1). “And when Jesus had finished these parables, he went away from there” (13:53). “Now when Jesus had finished these sayings, he went away from Galilee…” (19:1). “When Jesus had finished these all these sayings, he said to his disciples…” (26:1).

So, these are all interpreted as new and somewhat radical teachings. The lessons in the Sermon on the Mount “astonishing” those who heard them.

And yet this new Torah is in no way intended to replace the traditional one. It belongs to a curious genre of contemporary documents that provide a sort of “new edition” of the old Torah. Other examples are the Book of Jubilees and the Qumran Manual of Discipline. Thus, Matthew can have Jesus speak as if nothing at all has changed: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Scriptures; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For amen: I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not a yodh, not a vowel point will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. So whoever relaxes one of the least [important] of these commandments and teaches others [to do] so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:17-19). Of all this, only the [blue type] is from Q, paralleled by Luke 16:17, “But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become [null and] void.”

Q is what Bible scholars call a set a supposed source materials that they believe several of the Gospel writers were working from. But don’t let that distract you. The larger point here is that Matthew is evidently trying to have Jesus both change and not change Jewish law. So what? Well, remember who he is supposedly preaching to: Jews in and around Galilee.

The Q saying thus isolated is already strange if we take it as a saying of Jesus, for it is a polemical proposition against someone who posits the Torah is obsolete. Who would Jesus have been talking to? Reform Jews? But the saying fits perfectly into the context of the Gentile Mission and the Pauline debate over the Torah, and that is where we have to leave the saying.

In other words, this can’t possibly be the verbatim report of what a Galilean carpenter preached near the start of the first millennium. It is, again, a reflection of competing traditions vying for dominance with one another through a historical progression of redactions and embellishments. The very fact that Jesus is counseling Jews to accept a new Torah shows that none of these lessons can be historically accurate. They are anachronisms that belong in the time of Christian expansion to the Gentiles.

The Inevitable End of Shrinking

There are, in fact, so many anachronisms, so many sayings of Jesus and so many reports of Jesus’s activities that can’t possibly be historically consistent with the time he supposedly lived, that Price eventually comes to the conclusion alluded to in his book’s title.

According to such an understanding, there can have been no Galilean adventures of an itinerant teacher and healer named Jesus. Rather, these stories must necessarily have arisen only at a subsequent stage of belief when the savior’s glorification, along with his honorific name Jesus, had been retrojected back before his death. I would suggest that only such a scenario of early Christological development can account for, first, the utter absence of the gospel-story tradition from most of the New Testament epistles, and second, the fictive, nonhistorical character of story after story in the Gospels.

A critical analysis, in Price’s opinion, leads to a historical Jesus that has shrunk essentially to the vanishing point.

+ + +

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

No comments:

Post a Comment