The Jesus Myth and Deconstructing Jesus
A review of The Jesus Myth by G. A. Wells and Deconstructing Jesus by Robert Price.
by Michael Turton (May 16, 2003)

Tbe Jesus Myth by G.A. Wells
Deconstructng Jesus by Robert M. Price

Reading Wells is like listening to a lecture from a professor emeritus, extremely learned, tightly argued but peppery, and somewhat defensive in his old age. Reading Price, on the other hand, is like going to a bar to have a drink with a good friend who has a broad range of knowledge across many cultures, great taste in beer, and a fabulous record collection. Welcome to the 21st century, as Old Mythicism gives way to the New View.

For those of you who have been following the Historical Jesus debates, The Jesus Myth will present little that is new. Wells recapitulates many of his old arguments, while responding to his critics by showing how they have misrepresented his position and his arguments, and how they themselves do not understand the issues in a critical way. Wells revisits all the non-Christian references to Jesus and concludes, once again, that they are worthless. He reviews the two references in Josephus again, and concludes, once again, that they are interpolations. Once again he reviews that lack of evidence in Paul, and the differing views of Jesus there. Two "new" sections look at the problems of Christian ethics, and the silliness of "critical scholars" who think that miracle claims can be justified. While these are interesting, they will not be fresh to people who think critically about Christianity and the supernatural, and they are only of peripheral interest to the HJ debates. I find it hard to justify their presence in this volume.

What The Jesus Myth shows is how much Wells remains an establishment writer working within accepted mainstream bounds. Far from being a radical, Wells is simply mainline scholarship taken to its ultimate limit, engaged in dialogue with his critics, and with copious references to topical writings. He accepts much that is normative in NT historical scholarship, and but for his "radical" view that Jesus is a composite figure, could easily be mistaken for another conservative apologist drone, grinding out defenses of the position that Paul's companion Luke authored Acts, or that the Tomb was really empty. Wells is the last in a long line of men like Robinson, Loisy, and Drews, scholars who trod the mainstream paths to show where the mainstream had gone wrong.

If Wells is a coelacanth, surviving long beyond his time, Price is mutant, the bastard offspring of Dutch Radicalism and 19th century historical skepticism fathered on modern views of myth and religion, cultured in a test tube medium of pop culture and current events. Whereas a few paragraphs of Wells will take us through a number of thinkers who have commented on the topic in question, a few paragraphs of Price might do that, along with tossing in references to Batman Forever, Sufiism, and literary theory, while bouncing back to the great 19th century skeptics for inspiration and insight. Deconstructing Jesus is a dense book, thick with ideas and references, but it clips along with a deftness and humor that the ponderous Wells could never hope to match.

A key difference between the two works is that while Wells is replying to his critics, Price is replying to, and building on, his intellectual allies. Price spends a considerable portion of the book interacting with the ideas of Burton Mack, then moves on to the mythological analysis of Rene Girard. Whereas Wells, in the tradition of NT scholarship, stays within the Mediterranean, the first few centuries of the Christian era, and above all, within the Jewish context, Price explodes these constraints. Drawing on a vast number examples, from Islamic writings on Jesus to modern experiences with religious movements like the Lubavitchers, Price shows that the Jesus movement was afflicted with internal conflicts that were an important impetus in the creation of the various myths and legends about its founder.

More importantly, Price forthrightly addresses the need for alternative history. Rejecting the "Big Bang" approach that assigns Christian origins to a set of events centered around the death of Jesus, Price identifies this as a ex post facto origin myth. Instead, he concentrates on the development of the multiple lines of Jesus belief, and dates the emergence of the orthodox view to later struggles between the various sects that would combine to form modern cult.

By comparison, a major weakness of Wells' view is that he does not do enough to provide an alternative formula of Christian origins. He does argue that Jesus is a composite figure built up out of two different traditions, the Galilean and Pauline, but his exploration of this is cursory and unsatisfying. Price goes into great detail to establish the Cynic origins of the Q document, and draws on key modern scholarship to demonstrate the diversity of Early Christianity.

The major strength of Price's work is his demolition of the neat apologetic walls built around Jesus by scholars anxious to preserve the "uniqueness" of Christianity, walls to which Wells more or less defers even while attempting to peer over them. For there is an extensive comparative aspect to Deconstructing Jesus that is entirely absent from Wells. Wells' comparisons -- to those of Hellenistic and pagan saviors -- are those still within the accepted confines of the debate as it has stood for the last hundred and fifty years. But Price ranges far and wide. In addition to a much more extensive discussion of the material from pagan stories that compares to the Jesus Myth, Price also compares the early Christ movements to known historical examples like Islam and the modern Lubavitcher movement:

In January 1998 David Berger, an Orthodox rabbi, charged that for the Lubavitch mainstream, "The Lubavitcher rebbe is becoming God." He pointed to Lubavitch writings calling Rabbi Schneerson the "Essence and Being of God enclothed in a body, omniscient and omnipotent." Another proclaimed of the rebbe that "his entire essence is divinity alone." (p. 236)

I might add that since the book was published, numerous articles have appeared in the media documenting Lubavitcher attributions of miracles to their rebbe. As a comparison to early Christianity, a better parallel could hardly be found.

In fact, Wells and Price show just how sterile the HJ debate has become. NT historical scholarship has begun to look like the ten sons of a peasant farmer subdividing the family land upon their father's death, and cutting it up as they pass it on to their children, where productivity can only be increased by ever more intensive farming of the same overtaxed plot of land. New movements, such as Crossan's turn toward comparative anthropology, are a vital impetus toward renewal in HJ studies. Price's refraction of early Christianity through identical moments in the history of other religions is a similarly fruitful one, and I look forward to the next step, a broad comparison between the Jesus cult and similar religious movements in other colonial situations.

In sum, I cannot recommend Wells at all. It is too advanced for an introductory work, but too simple for the experienced reader. Price I cannot recommend enough. There are many fresh perspectives and challenging ideas, as well as new information and arguments. In addition to all this, Price is an entertaining and engaging writer, whereas, I am sad to report, only the conscientious will finish The Jesus Myth.

Vorkosigan