Monday, May 26, 2008

Robert M. Price, Deconstructing Jesus

Deconstructing Jesus. By Robert M. Price. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2000. 266 pp. $34.00

The provocatively titled Deconstructing Jesus does not fail to disappoint in its erudite facility with the intersection of New Testament studies, literary criticism, historical criticism, and philosophy. Price presents his volume in eight core chapters framed in vitriolic, often humorous, and fundamentally skeptical prose. Price holds “Jesus Christ” to be a socio-religious moniker entailing a host of tertiary theological formulations and presuppositions (e.g. Chalcedonian Christology, nineteenth century views of inspiration and literalism, etc.) all of which necessitate critical reflection and deconstruction (pp. 11-12). Price eschews the very idea of so-called “historical Jesus” projects or “reconstructions” as “practically impossible and ill-advised” (p. 12). Indeed, he argues that because so many Jesus reconstructions are plausible that they therefore “cancel each other out” which gives rise to Price's own “Jesus agnosticism” (pp. 16-17). With the tone set, Price scrupulously proceeds to “deconstruct” the various Christianities within the plethora of ancient sources in order to undermine the modern notion of “Jesus” as a monolithic and even known figure.

In chapter one, Price assails the “myth of the early church” arguing for widely divergent “Christianities” many of which would hardly have been recognizable as “Christian” in a normative sense. Hailing F. C. Baur and Walter Bauer as “[t]wo of the most important investigators of early Christianity” he employs their initial formulations as starting points and seeks to press some of their conclusions (however tentative they might have been) to what Price perceives as their logical ends. With the degree of mention Price makes concerning philosophy throughout the work, it is rather odd that he failed to note even once the influence of Hegelian philosophy with its dialectic-evolutionary presuppositions embedded in the analyses of both Baur and Bauer. This betrays what later appears as Price's own underlying presupposition of a dialectical, history of religions approach to the materials (cf. pp. 29-32, 35-44).

Nevertheless, he proceeds to question the ideological factions perceived in the nascent documents. On the one hand, Price raises excellent questions of whether “orthodoxy” as such were existent at all in the way later historians (e.g. Eusebius) presented the story; however, Price's invective rhetoric persistently chiding any semblance of “Christian orthodoxy” seriously inhibits the effectiveness of much of his argumentation. The balance of chapter one through three yield, following Burton L. Mack's “pre-gospel” classifications the following movements: the Q community, the Pillars (Peter, James, John), the "heirs of Jesus" (the brothers of Jesus and James), the “community of Israel” (those who saw Jesus as the new Moses/Elijah figure), the synagogue reform movement, and the “Christ cults” (which he parsed into several cults). Each of these movements represents a rather diverse and independent cluster of religious followers each movement having its own “take” on Jesus. Price undermines the “big bang” theory, that is, the idea that the resurrection occurred giving rise to various trajectories of interpretation whether orthodox or heterodox. Rather the picture is one of a diversity of meanings of “Jesus” some completely removed from any notion of suffering/death or resurrection, which falls in line with and makes more complex the “Christ-myth” position. This is the case because Price finds Gnostic Redeemer myths already widely in circulation in the religious landscape of the Judean peoples of the time.

In chapter four Price argues extensively that the construct of Jesus in the NT supposedly antagonistic of “Pharisees” and “religious leaders” betrays the anachronisms embedded within the document. Rather, the Messiah of the NT is something of a “midrash” or compilation figure presented through a complex construction of layer atop layer with a bedrock of diverse, contradictory, Cynic sayings of “Jesus” (p. 100). Indeed, the “Son of Man” in the NT is merely a cipher for a hiding sage's agenda allowing “the dubious authority of some early Christian sage to recede behind the Torah-like clout of the Lord Jesus” (p. 103).

In chapter five, Price copiously labors to place the “Sufi” Islamic sayings of Jesus (twelfth century) alongside Q and Gospel of Thomas sayings developing a case that Jesus' death was not part of the original story. Indeed, he concludes “if we plot the trajectories of Christian evolution through the New Testament documents as Mack does, we will come up with multiple Christianities all the way back…” (p. 149). Hence, this constellation of Christ mystery cults and Jesus movements having nothing to do with one another validates both Price's idea that the Jesus could ever be known or indeed whether he, as such, ever existed.

In chapter six, Price courts Rene Girard's theory of the sacred scapegoat, bemoaning Girard's failure to press the theory through the Christ myth (p. 176). Herein Price posits the transposition of names for others all the while implying that Peter might be the Caiphas-figure and the disciples put him to death, or his death could have been faked which would comport with other ancient stories (a la Chapter seven). The book culminates with Price following Earl Doherty in seeing the construction of Jesus as midrashic compilation of OT antecedents which supposes that none of the events of Jesus are historical in any sense.

Ultimately, Price succeeds to offer a chiding work sure to evoke consternation. However, his arguments are convoluted and predicated upon a host of presuppositions that are at best tenuous. For instance, how probable is it that Luke-Acts was written so late that Marcion's version represents the earliest version of Luke [!] (p. 80). Where are opposing views to Price's radical theses? One will search the bibliography in vain finding a list of highly selective and agreeable sources to Price's unambiguous agenda. The work is fraught with a continually arising false dichotomy setting Price and his theories as representative of “critical scholars” over against fideists and Christian apologists. What is more, does Price actually represent “critical scholars” or only those who agree with himself (likely a more limited group). Is everyone who disagrees with Price's constructs ipso facto a fidiest? The irony, however, is that it is difficult to imagine how believers in Jesus, who he derides, exercise more of a fidiestic “leap” in supposing Jesus existed, died, and was believed by his followers to have been raised than Price himself exercises in supposing his “critical eye” discerns the layer upon layer upon layer of texts, communities, and confluence of myths to reach communities behind the communities exposing that “Jesus” is a construct and historically incredible. What of the non-Christian historical attestation to Jesus' existence? Nevertheless, his arguments would have been more compelling if they were better documented and argued in greater detail. The work took on so many radical theories that it did not prove convincing or probable in most of what was offered.

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