Book Review: Deconstructing Jesus by Robert M. Price

deconstructing_jesusIn The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, Robert M. Price asked, is the gospel tradition reliable? The answer was an emphatic: no. But, if the traditional explanation of the Christian religion is not accurate, where did the Jesus mythos come from? Deconstructing Jesus is his attempt to answer that question.

Deconstructing Jesus is not as easy a read as “Son of Man”, and understandably so. It is tackling the subject of an historical Jesus in a a much more complex way. Instead of merely discounting the Jesus story, Price is attempting to explain it. I don’t think I’m aware of any other book that tries to break down the gospel tradition in a literary sense. Other authors have analyzed the Jesus mythos in an historical context, Eisenman theorized that Jesus sprang from the Essenes while Burton Mack painted him as a wise sage. However, the goal of of those revisionist theories of early Christianity was to explain what the gospels don’t say, not what they do say. Price successfully tackles the latter.

Before we talk about the book too much about Price’s theories, we should explain what Higher Criticism says about the Synoptic Gospels. The Synoptics are Mark, Luke, and Mathew (John is kept separate because of the radically different nature of that book). Because of the shorter and simpler structure of Mark, scholars generally agree that it is the earliest of the three. At some point, both Luke and Mathew (though independently of each other) rewrote Mark by combining it with an as yet undiscovered collection of sayings commonly called Q – this would be similar to collections of axioms by Confucius or Lao-Tzu, or the now discovered Jesus sayings document, the Gospel of Thomas. Once we’ve agreed upon this model, the task of explaining where the literary tradition of Christianity comes from would be to explain where Mark and Q come from. The books that follow can be easily explained as re-writes due to political, social, or theological reforms.

In chapter 5, Price lays out the sayings of Q and successfully parallels each and every one with a comparable maxim from the Stoic philosophers of the age. Whether the sayings were attributed to Jesus because of the natural loss original source that’s bound to happen over time (“that sounds good, betcha Jesus said that”) or they were forcefully put into his mouth because of an early church’s need to add a moral layer to their founder, it does becomes apparent that any philosophical work that would fall into any scribe’s lap would be the thoughts of the philosophers in the age that they are living. Indeed, attributing maxims to a sage that never said them should be familiar to anyone that’s been forwarded an email of the many sayings of George Carlin that George Carlin never said. And, after all, wouldn’t we expect the son of the almighty god be able to think of something a bit more original to say than merely parroting the philosophical zeitgeist of the last 200 years?

With the sayings of Jesus out of the way, what about the actions? Price postulates that they are built upon re-writes of Old Testament stories that would have been familiar to the audience of the day. Indeed, non canonical Jewish writings show that this was a common practice. The stilling of the storm, for instance, mirrors the story of Jonah. The resurrection of the son of the widow of Nain is a retelling of the story of Elisha’s raising of the Shunnamite’s son from 2 Kings. The appointment of the 12 echoes Moses’ selection of the 70.

Price does refer to a myriad of other Biblical scholars throughout the book, sometimes only giving a brief overview of what each has to say. So, this is a book that will give you the the urge to buy a lot of other books. But, when it comes to early Christianity, there is so much theologically biased work to filter through I am thankful that Price gives us a head start on where to look.

This book left me pretty well satisfied as to the construction of the gospel narrative. The piece of the Jesus puzzle that is missing is, of course, is the very earliest layer found in the Pauline Epistles. And, without an amazing find in the desert, we may never know much more about their mysterious origin. But, after reading Earl Doherty’s The Jesus Puzzle, it does become clear just how mythic Paul’s concept of his savior god actually was.

Could there have been an historical Jesus. It is possible, of course, it’s always possible. Deconstructing Jesus, however, will make it clear that the evidence for one is not to be found in the gospel stories. The more we analyze what we know about early Christianity, the more it looks like it began as a Judaic version of the Roman Mystery Religions, which inherited their gods from the surrounding cultures.

Deconstructing Jesus is a difficult read, but a worthwhile one. After reading it, I did get a strong urge to go down the the dollar store, grab a cheap Bible and a pack of colored pencils and start marking up some Biblical source material, which is a much more active use of the Bible than I’ve seen done in any church.

Highly Recommended

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2 Comments on “Book Review: Deconstructing Jesus by Robert M. Price”

  1. Danny Says:

    Odd, I found “Deconstructing” an easier read than “Incredible”. Good review, BTW.

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