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The Gospels As Literary Creations.
on 10 February 2012
Robert M. Price is a noted biblical scholar and a member (or former member)of the Jesus Seminar, a radical group of more than 100 scholars who concluded that only about 18% of the Gospels is historically correct. However, Price believes his colleagues in the Seminar are much too confident and uncritical about the reliability of the Gospel tradition as a source of accurate historical information about the life of Jesus. Indeed, he feels that even their 18%, when rigourously examined, is doubtful and unreliable as straightforward history. So this is not another search for the historical Jesus, where certain texts are assumed authentic and others ignored or explained away in order to conform to one's particular creation of Jesus. Price is far too sensible for that wild goose chase.
In 'Deconstructing Jesus' (Prometheus Books) Price wrote of the futility of such a task. He reasons that the various scholarly reconstructions of Jesus are not the historical facts as their authors repeatedly claim. How can they be factually accurate when the Gospel sources themselves are theology from start to finish. Whether the authors are believers or sceptics, 'every life of Jesus book is that scholar's own Gospel.' All are custom fitted to each scholar's own predilections and priorities. And, of course, they all cancel each other out. Each sounds good until you hear the next one.
Price makes it crystal-clear in this superb work that the Gospels are profoundly theological or imaginative creations throughout. They should not be read and understood as simply historical reminiscences as is traditionally accepted. And I agree! He juxtaposes Mark, Matthew, Luke and John's accounts to determine their historical accuracy and finds them wanting and for good reasons. His method is that of a critical historian, not as an already convinced believer. No holy book should be believed without evidence is the attitude here.
The introduction brilliantly defines and defends higher criticism of the Bible - the inquiry into authorship integrity, historical accuracy, etc. Traditionalist Christians strongly object to this method for obvious reasons, but not when it's used on other religions or holy scripture. Price wants us to understand that this way of studying the Bible is not out simply to destroy the text but is an honest tool to find out if there is any historical reality in the stories.
Price is none too optimistic about the reliability of the Gospel stories. He presents us with a multitude of reasons to question their authenticity. They are 'a tissue of pious fictions created by early Christians for their own ends', he writes (p.181). John's Jesus, for example, is very cleary the writer's own creation. Price's reasoning here, and elsewhere in the book, is absolutely spot on. He says: ''if the Gospels were all random samplers of the teaching of Jesus, we would expect them all to have more or less the same range of types of sayings. For instance, John's gospel features numerous self-declarations of Jesus beginning with the revelation formula 'I am...' The Johannine Jesus announcas himself to be the light of the world, the bread from heaven, the true vine, the good shepherd, the door, the way, the truth, and the life, and so on. If Jesus indeed said such things, why on earth do we hear nothing of the kind in any of the other gospels? Isn't it rather because Jesus never made any such statements, but Christian devotion predicted all these things of him? John's Jesus is a crystallization of Johannine Christian devotion, and it has remained the favaurite devotional gospel for that reason. This is an important distinction, ignored by C.S.Lewis and his imitators who like to bully the skeptic by asserting that 'Jesus claimed to be God'''.
I think this makes perfect sense, something that Price thinks the same of the other gospels. They are purely 'literary creations', taken from the Old Testament and other sources rather than what is commonly accepted as trustworthy oral tradition. A lot of the Bible surely has a literary fictional feel about it, and if there is a real Jesus in the gospels, we cannot find him. He may be this, he may be that, he may be the other. He may be none of these things. We can't be sure because of the nature of the sources.
The gospels or the stories of Jesus may be clever works of theological art but they are nonetheless fiction. They belong alongside the apocryphal or non-canonical Gospel texts, such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Infance Gospel of Thomas, the Dialogue of the Saviour, the Gospel of the Egyptians, the Apocyphon of James, the Acts of Pilate, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of the Nazoreans, and so on. The religious urge to creat faith stories which have little or no factual reality has always existed and continues to this day. Traditional biblical Christianity is no different. If the faith or belief is strong, the facts are not important.
Biblical critics are often accused of bias against the miracles of Jesus so as to deny his supernatural nature. Price says this charge is ludicrous and explains why. Unless we have evidence, not faith, to think that nature behaved differently back then, it is sensible to 'assume things have always worked as they do now'. If Jesus indeed walked on water it is reasonable to assume that his followers should be able to do the same, as Peter did according to the story (Matthew 14:22-23). And of course we 'will search in vain for where the rotten dead are revived'. Price points out that the real bias here comes from Christians who will accept the biblical miracle stories as factual but 'are by no means willing to accept all the wonders of nonbiblical scriptures as legends (p.21).
This book is complex and highly detailed. It demands to be read and reread carefully. Price is my kind of biblical scholar in his relentless but non-dogmatic reasoning. In 'Deconstructing Jesus' he leaves open the possibility that there may have been a Jesus, 'but the state of the evidence is so ambiguous that we can never be sure what this figure was like.' This informative and gripping book shows us how the Gospel stories were put together in order to satisfy religious craving. It is an remarkable accomplishment, in what has become my favourite book on this topic.