Book Reviews | Titles | Authors | Subjects

Robert M. Price


How reliable is the Gospel tradition?

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2005).

Books of scriptural criticism can be dry reading for non-specialists, but Price has gone out of his way to make his book accessible. The title, for example, is adapted from a 1957 science fiction film, "The Incredible Shrinking Man", and there are numerous light-hearted asides and references to contemporary culture in an attempt to lighten things. At times, in fact, this goes too far for my taste: I don't much care for Price's habit of scattering exclamation marks throughout his text.

Price is an iconoclast. He reaches much the same conclusion as does Earl Doherty in The Jesus Puzzle, namely that there is practically no reliable information about a historical Jesus. Althogh he considers the possibility that there was an actual individual around whom legends and sayings accreted, it is clear that he finds this to be unlikely and he favours the view that there was probably no such person at all. This is a radical position to take, so we need to be clear at the outset that Price is an intellectual heavyweight and a Bible scholar of repute, with all the right credentials. Whether you agree with him or not, at least he cannot be accused of not having done his homework.

After an initial consideration of the sources, the early chapters follow a roughly chronological sequence, beginning with Jesus's birth and lineage and continuing with his relation to John the Baptist, his ministry to the outcasts, and the story of the twelve disciples. There is also a chapter on the miracles ascribed to Jesus. Although Price does not rule these out as impossible in principle, he points to contradictions and inconsistencies in the Gospel narratives of these events which make the accounts of them unreliable. For example, at the beginning of Mark's Gospel Jesus flatly refuses to perform any miracles, yet later he is reported as doing precisely this. Paul does not describe Jesus as performing any miracles.

Before moving on to the end of Jesus's life and the claims for his resurrection, Price has two chapters whose titles seem rather odd in a book of this kind: he calls them the "Hinayana" and the "Mahayana" Gospels. These terms are borrowed from Buddhism, and refer to the two forms of that religion which still survive today. Hinayana or Theravada is the older tradition and is still practised in Burma, Thailand and Sri Lanka, while Mahayana is found in Korea, Japan and Tibet among other places. "Hinayana" is usually translated as "Lesser Vehicle" and is said to be a derogatory term used by adherents of the Mahayana (Greater Vehicle). "Hinayana" adherents themselves prefer "Theravada", meaning "Way of the Elders". However, Price renders "Hinayana" as "narrow raft", and takes it to refer to a "minority path of religious heroism", while "Mahayana" is the easier way for the masses. I am not sure how far you can push this distinction, for some Mahayanists do go in for remarkably demanding austerities, and in both divisions of Buddhism there seem to be plenty of people who don't feel impelled to indulge in heroic practices.

Although it may seem eccentric to introduce Buddhist terminology in this way, Price does think it possible that Buddhist influence reached the Middle East, though this is not the reason he uses it. He seems to think of the Hinayana/Mahayana distinction partly as a metaphor. He also, I think correctly, says that the two traditions in Buddhism reflect a certain divergence of perception within the human mind in relation to religion, similar to that which we find in the difference in "feel" between Protestantism and Catholicism. It seems to be a basic characteristic of religions to split into these two types of expression.

The earliest type of Christianity, Price suggests, was "Hinayana" in character, and, like John D. Crossan, he finds considerable similarity between Jesus and the Cynics. This version of Christianity was demanding and difficult to follow. In its later developments, however, Christianity grew less demanding and more relaxed, as the religion became institutionalized. This shift is apparent in all the Gospels but particularly the Fourth.

Subsequent chapters continue the critical theme, as they look in turn at Jesus and Judaism, claims for Jesus as Messiah, and the Crucifixion and Resurrection. As one would expect by now, Price finds all this to be unreliable.

That is, most of the sayings and stories alike seem to be historically spurious. If any of them should chance to be genuine, we can no longer tell. We cannot render their possible authenticity probable, so they fall to the cutting room floor. It is not that the material thus eliminated is somehow distasteful or objectionable. Most of it is still worth admiring and cherishing. But if our goal is that of the historian striving to establish the facts of Jesus and Christian origins, we must admit that there is precious little to help us in the Gospels.
There is nothing new about this conclusion in New Testament scholarship. Albert Schweitzer, among others, reached the same position long ago. But Price takes this to an extreme in questioning the very existence of Jesus.

See also Deconstructing Jesus by Robert M.Price. For a contrary view,see Did Jesus Exist? by Bart D. Ehrman.

15 April 2005

%T The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man
%S How reliable is the Gospel tradition?
%A Price, Robert M.
%I Prometheus Books
%C Amherst, New York
%D 2003
%G ISBN 1-59102-121-9
%P 389 pp
%K religion

Book Reviews | Titles | Authors | Subjects