Robert Price's "Deconstructing Jesus"

Price's effort Deconstructing Jesus brings us the Robert Price that prefers to insult Christians gratuitously rather than a kindlier Price we see now and then. It is of no curiosity that Price published this work with the atheistic/humanistic Prometheus Press; even the most liberal of the scholarly Christian presses would have bypassed this extended angry monologue.

Every five to ten pages, one scholar or another who disagrees with Price's position is accused of having ulterior motives or else of being full of insecurities; this, in line with Price's common tactic of attempting to claim the argumentative high ground by accusing his opponents of being either spin doctors or else deluded. We are told that when a writer says that something has been "long-refuted" it "only means that those committed to a rival paradigm mounted some arguments, whether weak or strong, against their competitors and moved on." How's that for critical evaluation of competing theories, of which Price does rather little?

N. T. Wright is dismissed in a footnote as an "Evangelical apologist" who "has merely used Schweitzer's Jesus as a cloak to sneak reformed theology back into the mouth of the 'historical Jesus' ventriloquist dummy." Most startling of all, though, in resurrecting the "pagan similarities" thesis, Price points the finger not only at his usual suspects, "Christian scholars" who have rejected the thesis "one must suspect, for dogmatic reasons," but also at non-Christian history-of-religions scholar Jonathan Z. Smith.

Smith rejects the thesis on quite rational grounds (see below), but Price offers his suspicion that Smith "adopt(s) the program of Christian apologists" because he "suspect(s) it is part of (Smith's) root-and-branch campaign to undo the theories of his great predecessor James Frazer" Is there anyone who isn't somehow clouded by biases and/or in on this conspiracy to undermine Price's position?

Much else is familiar from Price as well: broad, overgeneralized (and in many cases, unsubstantiated) claims; parallels drawn to irrelevant literature (like Apollonius of Tyana's biography, and to Muslim works); literary-critical excesses; overreadings (James vs. Paul; the idea that because the Gospels show Jesus in conflict with other Jews regularly, they are "implying Jesus was opposed to a monolithic 'normative' Judaism -- which did not yet exist!"). There are a few downright clear errors also: For example, that Paul preached a "Torah-free gospel" that amounted to a watered-down Judaism that Gentiles could handle - what of the many moral constraints that Paul preached which were just as demanding? Also, the claim that Mithraists "undertook a ritual shower in the blood of a disemboweled bull," which is not reported in Mithraic studies literature anywhere.

Critics of the social theories behind literary theories like Mack's Q and a corresponding community for it have been criticized by the likes of Hultgren for assuming that this fictitious Q represents all that this community believed. Price replies to this by saying, "Maybe so. But is there any reason to think so? Doesn't it stand to reason that, if someone were writing up a kind of charter document, a handbook, a constitution, an instruction book, or whatever, it would cover all major points?"

This is the very point at issue: Price has merely restated the original question in another form - we do not know if Q, if it existed, was a charter, or a handbook (if so, a comprehensive handbook, or a handbook with a restricted subject, i.e., the sermons of Jesus?), and so on.

In dismissing the consensus position held by Christian scholars and J. Z. Smith re: the pagan borrowing thesis, Price first accuses Christian scholars of rejecting it because they are "merely spin doctors for a theological party line," and then argues, in essence, "Well, okay, it isn't exact matches we have, but it's close enough." Thus Raymond Brown, who rejected the "truckload of comparative religious parallels to the miraculous birth of Jesus" because of the significant differences (i.e., physical intercourse with gods vs. divine fiat), is answered, "But, we have to ask, how close does a parallel have to be to count as a parallel?"

Answer Closer than that. Price asks: "Does the mother have to be named Mary? Does the divine child have to be named Jesus?" Answer: No, and this is no more than Price erecting a straw man: No one has demanded such a level of precision before a parallel can be drawn. What would be acceptable (merely to begin making a case -- there's lot more that's needed; see here for details) is another case of divine fiat.

Price tries to resurrect many other theories that have long been dead, and refuted soundly on this page and elsewhere: from Bauer's portrait of a diverse early Christianity to Mack's Q community thesis; from Doherty's Christ-myth-icism to Morton Smith "aretaology" thesis; from Baur's dialectical impositions to Fiorenza's imaginary silenced voices; from dating Luke/Acts to the second century to the early-dating of the Gospel of Thomas; from Koester and Robinson's trajectories to a shadow form of the "pagan borrowing" thesis. How far Price has gone from scholarly credibility is reflected, in my perception, in that he has allowed Barbara Thiering to write for his Journal of Higher Criticism, and uses the works of Hyam Maccoby and Robert Eisenman as authorities. It is also shown in that he suggests that sayings of Jesus may be more accurately presevred in Muslim Sufi tradition than in the Gospels and proposes his own revisionist history in which Jesus' arrest scene is an overwrite of an account of his own disciples ambushing and apprehending him.

Little else need be said. This book is a collection of highly questionable and contrived propositions.