Comment on the Ehrman vs. Price Debate

On March 27, 2017, in History, Religion, by prosario2000

Let me begin with a disclaimer:

I am not a Bible scholar, which means that everything I say here should be taken with a grain of salt. It also means that if any New Testament genuine authority on the matter criticizes my position, and that criticism agrees with the consensus, the weight of the argument of that scholar should be taken as greater than my position. I do not claim to be an authority of that which I am not. I’ve been instructed in Philosophy of Science and Epistemology, not Bible scholarship.

Having said that, let’s proceed with my comments regarding the Bart D. Ehrman vs. Robert Price debate on whether Jesus existed or not. For those who wish to see it in its entirety, here is the video:

Initially, I planned to write a review. Yet, some New Testament (NT scholars) have made some reviews and commented on it. I recommend looking at James McGrath’s review (including some audio comments).

So, I will limit myself to talk about some impressions I had about it, and comment on some of the arguments presented. I say in advance, that despite very few disagreements, I’ve been and am on Ehrman’s historicist side of the discussion. Robert Price is the only NT scholar I know who holds on to mythicism. If we broaden the realm of qualified scholars of Antiquity in general, the only other person who qualifies is Richard Carrier. Virtually no one else who have the expertise in NT scholarship or Antiquity shares the mythicist view. Watching the debate my historicist convictions were reinforced, and some of the reasons will be explained below.

To be honest, I thought that Ehrman was going to make a tad worse job and Price a better one (don’t know why I believed this, maybe a pessimistic mood I’ve had in general for the last few months). Yet, to my surprise, Ehrman made Price’s failure to account for mythicist views far more transparent than I expected, and Price’s position seemed very weak.

In fact, I think that in the case of Price, I should feel far more disappointed. As part of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), I am a bit puzzled at the fact that so much forum is being given to Price regarding this issue, given that for (whatever reason) he also supports the most science-denialist, anti-reason, pro-fundamentalist, war-mongering, presidential candidate Donald Trump; and Price also subscribes to Right-Wing conspiracy theories, among them those having to do with climate change, which he qualifies as a hoax. As with the case of mythicism, I don’t cease to be skeptical of certain skeptics.  Don’t get me wrong. A skeptic may legitimately be liberal, conservative, or neither. Yet, I’m clueless as to how some people who say that struggle for truth, reason, and science would choose to vote for Trump … but that’s besides the discussion!

Despite what I just said, I can say some positive things about Price. First, he is far more civil debating than Richard Carrier, for whom anyone who disagrees with him or has not read his book, or a liar, an incompetent, an ignorant, or an idiot. Second, I think that he is being honest and sincere with his answers, even when he is trying to stretch some of his arguments. If I say that he uses a sort of “sleight of hand”, I don’t want to be understood as saying “he is trying to deceive his listeners …”, but rather that he may be unaware that his arguments are misleading.

Having said that, let’s comment!

General Impressions

One of the things I loved about the debate was that Ehrman mentioned most of the elements that convince me about Jesus’ existence. He was right on target when he elaborated more on the positive aspects of the proposals than the negative ones. The latter consists merely on the fact that certainly Nazareth existed and that this is no longer debated in Bible scholarship. The archaeological evidence shows exactly what scholars predicted for years, that Nazareth was a bit more than a hamlet of few rural houses. He also stated that the fact that the Gospels are modeled according to literary patterns does not automatically mean that Jesus didn’t exist, and he gives several examples of historical figures whose lives were adapted to literary patterns. Examples of the positive evidence he mentioned are:

  • When we consider first century Palestinian Jews, Jesus is best attested after Josephus, the latter who wrote several books. When we go to external sources, Jesus is better attested than Josephus, in the case of the latter, no one else in the first century refers to Josephus. In contrast, Jesus referred to by Paul in his letters, Josephus himself, Mark, Q, M, and L.
    .
  • That we can find passages in the Gospels that seem to make better sense in Aramaic than Greek as a way to establish a better probability of pointing at a passage as possibly coming from Jesus.
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  • Paul’s seven undisputed letters contain historical references about Jesus:  a teacher who was born of a woman, a Jew, a teacher, who carried out the Last Supper, and was crucified under political authorities, that he had twelve disciples, that he had brothers (and mentions James), that Cephas (Peter) was Jesus’ disciple, etc.
    .
  • That Jesus actually had a brother, meaning a family brother, not in the sense of being a “brother in Christ”.
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  • That it would be non-sense to suppose that some Jews were willing to make up a crucified Messiah. The only thing that explains the reason for such doctrine is because Jesus was factually crucified by Romans. As expected, Jews ridiculed that Christian idea (and Paul complains about it).

These are not the only arguments for Jesus’ existence but shows why (with only two exceptions) no historian of Antiquity in every reputable institution in the Western world doubts that Jesus existed.

Then Price argued many of his points. Yet, I find that much of his arguments suffered from different slights of hands that seem as if all relevant points had been addressed for mythicism, when in reality they were not.  I will only show two or three cases to illustrate the problem, and why non-experts (especially those who have an ideological beef with mythicism) might have had the impression that the debate was won by Price, or that at least that it was a draw. Reality is that at least at the level of solid arguments Ehrman won the debate.  These problems of Price’s line of thinking were far more transparent in the Q&A section.

Here are some of Price’s arguments that exemplify some of the problems of his whole exposition.

1. Making an analogy between Matthew and Josephus

The problem of the Testimonium Flavianum is one of the most heated regarding the historicist v. mythicist tension. The reason is that in the pertinent section we are talking about, in the textus receptus, Josephus seems to be talking like a Christian when he gives some information about Jesus.  The whole traditional passage says:

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.

Of course, no one doubts that it is inconceivable that Josephus wrote the sections we have placed in bold.  Yet, scholars have discovered that if we remove these passages, we achieve a set of sentences more like what Josephus would have said. The text in question would appear more like this:

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.

The issue is a lot more complicated than this, and personally, I lean more towards Fernando Bermejo’s views, who favors a construction of the Testimonium in a way that is unfavorable to Jesus. Yet, for the sake of the argument, let’s stay with this simplification of the issue.

Price compares this to the Gospel of Matthew, whose author reproduced some of Mark’s stories redacting some of the content to suit his Christology. For instance, Jesus got angry at a person with skin illness who wanted to be healed by him (Mark 1:40-45). Yet, in Matthew’s version of events, he eliminates the inconvenient anger from the story (Matt. 8:1-4). Isn’t what scholars doing with the Testimonium what Luke actually carried out? Ehrman apparently didn’t have the time to respond to this particular argument, but the clear answer to it is “No”, it is not the same. Why?

During his exposition of his objection, Price skips a criterion used my scholars in order to accept the tentative historical core of the passage, namely, if the style of the resulting text (after the redaction) coheres with the rest of Josephus’ style and arguments. The answer is a resounding YES!  Furthermore, aspects of the core passage also appears in Syriac and Arab versions of the text, in a way that we can reconstruct something very close to what Josephus actually said. As a matter of fact, if the passage weren’t there, we could not explain Josephus’ later reference to Jesus when talking about the execution of his brother, James. Matthew took out all material regarding Jesus’ anger for Christological reasons, wanting to make the text coherent with his Christological views. In Josephus’ case, scholars want to redact the pertinent clearly Christian texts given that Josephus did not convert to Christianity, and given that the rest of the passage is fully consistent with Josephus ideas and style…. in other words, the passage agrees with the text itself!

I won’t go to the issue of whether Eusebius actually created interpolations in the texts. It is enough to say that many scholars believe that the interpolations were created before him. So it is not a case, as Price seems to imply, that scholars are adapting the text itself arbitrarily like many other non-experts who want to allege interpolation at the slightest hint of the passages not fitting their theological views.

2. Jesus Christ and Clark Kent-Superman

Am I the only one to notice that this analogy is bogus? Neither Clark Kent nor Superman existed, they both form part of one and the same story line. Its origins are completely known as being pure fiction by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. As a Naturalist, I can agree that the strict verbatim versions of Jesus in the Gospels are purely fictional, but their stories point at the fact that the historical substratum is not. Superman is a hero as twentieth and twenty-first century people expect a hero to be, Jesus was not the sort of heroic Messiah that Jews expected in the twentieth century. That’s the point!  Jesus belonged to a historical scenario where he was not the only prophet, Messianic pretender, or king wannabe.

There were many of them, and Josephus tells us a lot about these apocalyptic prophets that sprung from Egypt to Samaria, to Galilee itself, all of them preaching the soon to end Roman regime and the arrival of the Messiah or similar Messianic figures. The apocalyptic literature from the time, both inside Palestinian territory (e.g. the Dead Sea Scrolls) and in the diaspora (the Syllibine Oracles, Paul’s own letters) reveal this nicely. Yet, there is no Metropolis, there is no Zod, there is no Lex Luthor, no Krypton, no Daily Planet, etc. There were no superhero-kind beings in recent centuries similar to Superman: no Wonder Woman, no Green Lantern, nothing!

No Superman fits in any historical context, nor texts, nor movies (Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman were such messes that made no sense!) Yet, Jesus’ views and deeds can be partially rescued from the layers of fiction that were elaborated above him and would be in full agreement in his proper historical context.

3. Luke trying to Make Up Paper Trail

One of the arguments used by Price is his reference to some scholarly allegations that M and L have some traditions that seem to go back to Jesus himself. He says that when Luke claimed to be based on earlier sources, it seems that he was making it up in the text. In some cases, scholars would agree with him (for example, when in the infancy narratives, he seems to imply that he obtained information from Jesus’ mother, Mary; Luke 2:19, 51). Yet, in other cases it seems that he is actually using some genuine sources. For example, he uses Q in a way that seems to resemble better the original attainable text that appears in modified form in Matthew’s Gospel: for example, some passages where Jesus talks about the Son of Man, where Matthew changes the text to refer unequivocally to Jesus (Luke (Q) 12:8-9; Matt. 10:32-33); or the shortest form of the Lord’s Prayer, which appears with added verses in Matthew (Luke (Q) 11:2-4; Matt. 6:9-13), and so on. Some material in L also quotes original traditions: for example, some passages where Jesus predicts the arrival of the Son of Man (Lc. 21:34-36). In the Acts of the Apostles, with all of its huge historical problems, we can find early traditions that seem to go back to the earliest forms of exalted Christology (e.g. Acts 5:30-31; 13:32-33). No one is arguing that “all” of L goes back to Jesus, but there is no question that at least some of it seem to do it.

4. Jesus’ Sayings in John

Price says that Jesus’ sayings in John seem to have been mostly made up, and that Maurice Casey says that none seem to go back to Jesus. This is true.  Scholars accept this fact in general terms. Hence, they use the Synoptics because they are better sources. This is a non-issue that only serves as a filler against historicism, but really contributes nothing to the debate.

The Q & A Section

In the Q & A section, it is obvious from Ehrman’s questions that Price has conveniently chosen the more doubtful and less plausible interpretations of ancient texts in order to win mythicist arguments: his reading on Trypho v. Justin dialogue, the fact that it is highly improbable that early Christians held the crucifixion of Christ in the sublunar heavens by demons (which Price openly admits is purely speculative), that Mark seems to know about Zoroastrianism, that Gnostic beliefs as pre-Christian, that Andronicus and Junia were Paul’s family, that Paul did not write Galatians, etc.

It also shows that Price freely ignores the consensus when it pleases him: he freely believes that Mark is later than current consensus. Why?  His answer: “Because you never know why there is a consensus?” WHAT?!  But most of what Ehrman says, with few exceptions (such as his view of the empty tomb, or that for Paul, Jesus was an angel), actually expresses mostly scholarly consensus and the reasons behind such consensus!

Now, I want to be clear that I don’t mind if a scholarly authority such as Price differs from scholarly consensus. Maurice Casey, Dominic Crossan, and Mark Goodacre are great scholars with very unorthodox views  that challenge the current consensus on different subjects. Yet, I have never heard any of them say: “The consensus means nothing to me”! In fact, perhaps there is a consensus because other scholars may be right about being skeptical to such unorthodox views. It is not exactly that the consensus is adopted dogmatically by people with low IQs, you know! For example, there are valid reasons why the consensus formed since the times of Albert Schweizer that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet, and has not adopted, let’s say, Crossan’s view of Jesus as something like a Cynic sage; one of the reasons for such rejection is that Cynicism stopped being fashionable long before Jesus.

That the word “Pharisee” alluded to “Persian” beliefs?  The etimology of the word has been very clear for scholars. But I guess, that doesn’t matter to him either.

Conclusions

It seems to me that from a scholarly standpoint, Price seems to use the most implausible interpretations of the texts, sometimes seeking refuge on the fact that “x” or “y” scholar said this or that, not even bothering to qualify the assertions in light of the response of other scholars to such claims. Ehrman is more on target providing reasons for Jesus’ existence that seem to be far more plausible, consistent with the reality of Palestine and the diaspora (in Paul’s case) than Price’s view. Virtually all of the key arguments that are the pillars of Price’s views are pure fringe. Given this fact, I’m clueless when I try to understand how can skeptics who uphold scientific consensus have such a hard time supporting NT scholarly consensus: that Jesus actually existed!

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