2015-03-28

A Rare Find: A Serious Engagement with Robert M. Price’s The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man

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by Neil Godfrey

51gYhdpFBcL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_James Pate of James’ Ramblings has written up notes on his reading of Robert M. Price’s Christ Myth book, The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable Is the Gospel Tradition? James is certainly not a mythicist (he is a regular church goer and “believer”) but he does honestly grapple with several of Price’s points. It’s so refreshing to read. No ad hominem. No glib misrepresentation of the arguments. I find myself in sympathy with some of the points he struggles with.

Some samples:

For some reason, though, reading this book by Price was a rather exhausting and disturbing process for me, and I wonder why.  Maybe it was because I thought that, even if the Bible has errors, there are still things that we can historically take for granted about Jesus, things that are edifying to my faith, and Price was dismantling (or trying to dismantle) this view, page after page after page. . . . This book, however, is still a challenge to me.

On honesty with himself:

I am often reluctant to read and blog about books that promote Christ-mythicism, even though I have written blog posts in the past that are relevant to that debate (i.e., Was Christianity influenced by the mystery religions or the belief in a dying and rising god?  Was the reference to Jesus in Josephus’ Antiquities 18.3.3 authentic?).  Why have I been reluctant?  It is because I am afraid that I will not know enough to refute the Christ-mythicist arguments, and thus I will look bad to other biblical scholars or budding biblical scholars . . . . 

James’ notes are very easy to read with each topic paragraph conveniently numbered.

I liked the way James suspends judgment pending follow up of the sources Price cites. That’s how I tend to read books and I always assumed it was the “correct” way. What is so surprising is to find someone who applies this to book presenting a case against the historicity of Jesus. . . .

Did I know enough to refute any of Price’s arguments?  Well, Price’s book would take a lot of time for me to try to refute or critique.  Price referred to so many primary sources, from Hellenistic, classical, Jewish, Buddhist, and ancient Christian literature, and it would take me a long time to look at each reference that he cited, to find the sources that he mentioned but did not explicitly cite, to find the dates for the references and sources for which he did not provide a date (we’ll see later why that is important), and then to determine if Price is interacting with those sources fairly and accurately.  Then there are some of the secondary sources that Price mentions, for which Price tells us their conclusion but not the arguments that led to the conclusion.  Price referred to a scholar, for example, who argued that Mark 13 reflects the destruction of Jerusalem in the second century C.E. rather than the first century C.E., and Price mentioned a scholar who made a case that Slavonic Josephus (which many date to the sixteenth century) may contain material going back to Josephus himself.  Trying to evaluate Price’s argument would take a lot of work!

And he is not quick to judgment on an argument that goes against the conventional wisdom. Or rather, though he may not be convinced of an argument he can at least recognize some strength in the alternative he rejects and draws the necessary conclusion from that:

 I Corinthians 15:3-9 is a popular passage among Christian apologists.  It presents Jesus appearing to his disciples and eventually to five hundred witnesses, some of whom are still alive when the passage is written.  Moreover, Christian apologists, and even many mainstream scholars, hold that it is an early tradition, since Paul says that it was passed down to him.  Price, however, deems it to be a later interpolation, and he offers some reasons.  He asks why the Gospel writers did not refer to the five hundred witnesses, if that was an earlier tradition.  Moreover, Price believes that the statement in v 8 that Paul was born out of due time reflects a later Gnostic story.  Someone referred me to an article Price wrote that argued that I Corinthians 15:3-9 was an interpolation, but I never found the time to read it; I was glad, therefore, to read a succinct version of this argument in Price’s book.  Am I convinced?  Well, not really, but I cannot disprove that the passage is an interpolation, and, that being the case, I wonder how much weight it should have in Christian attempts to prove the truth of Christianity.

A rare find indeed. I must read more of James Pate’s posts. Again, for the lazy and impatient, here is the link again:

Book Write-Up (Loosely-Speaking): The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, by Robert M. Price

15 Comments

  • Bee
    2015-03-28 09:33:42 UTC - 09:33 | Permalink

    This would be a very nice Chapter 1, for an introductory text on Mythicism.

  • David Fitzgerald
    2015-03-28 10:41:04 UTC - 10:41 | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing this, Neil!
    As a HUGE fan of Rbt. Price and that book in particular (I also consider his Deconstructing Jesus to be a must-read!) it’s absolutely lovely to see a believer approach the wealth of information with such a fantastic and self-honest attitude. VERY refreshing!
    -D

    • Phil Robinson
      2015-03-28 20:53:02 UTC - 20:53 | Permalink

      I just read most of ‘Killing History’, but will get to those titles above when I can.

  • 2015-03-28 13:09:53 UTC - 13:09 | Permalink

    Thank you for the link and the kind words.

    • Phil Robinson
      2015-03-28 20:54:47 UTC - 20:54 | Permalink

      I appreciate the honesty also as a skeptic.

  • Blood
    2015-03-28 14:08:54 UTC - 14:08 | Permalink

    The internet has made everyone lazy and impatient.

  • Tim Widowfield
    2015-03-28 19:07:57 UTC - 19:07 | Permalink

    I like this:

    And have I effectively presented a “Gotcha!”? Price is not always being dogmatic about his arguments; sometimes, he simply seems to be exploring possibilities and pointing out anomalies. Moreover, noting a contradiction in Price’s book does not overthrow everything Price says.

    Unlike McGrath, Pate is reading to understand first, engage second, and only then argue for or against. That’s what I would call “doing it right.”

  • David Fitzgerald
    2015-03-28 22:32:47 UTC - 22:32 | Permalink

    What Tim said! (and Phil!) – my hat’s off to you, James! You’re a rare individual these days.
    -D

  • 2015-03-29 22:00:34 UTC - 22:00 | Permalink

    I read this on the Blogspot blog, not the WordPress blog:

    http://jamesbradfordpate.blogspot.com/2015/03/book-write-up-loosely-speaking.html

    And, while I shared some of your thoughts on the review, I found the comments more striking.

    “Don’t read books that weaken your faith. Even if there are issues you need an equivalent of an oxford education to deal with each issue.”
    — Avraham, March 27, 2015 at 2:00 PM

    “I was thinking of what Christian apologist William Lane Craig said to a person who was reading atheist web sites, and whose faith was troubled as a result: let those who are more competent read those sites. I can understand that approach, but I don’t entirely embrace it, since I’m not for putting myself in a Christian bubble. But I do try to remember that there are a variety of takes on an issue, plus things that I—-sometimes even we—-do not know, so no scholar really has the last word.”
    — James Pate, March 27, 2015 at 2:53 PM

    “It is not a bubble. It is just some questions are hard to know if they are even valid without a lot of time and effort.”
    — Avraham, March 27, 2015 at 3:57 PM

    “That probably depends on what one’s interests are. I know that one interest of mine is how Christianity compares (and compared) with other religions. This book was useful to me, in that regard.”
    — James Pate, March 27, 2015 at 4:32 PM

    What I found most striking here is that a “a Ph.D. student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion” is being given the suggestion to avoid working with difficult books directly, since they require an (even more) advanced education in order to see the problems with the questions that are raised.

    It is possible that this sheds some light on some so-called liberal theologians, such as Bultmann, being received at second hand in some circles, primarily through comment on the “validity” of the so-called “issues” that the liberal theologians raise. I believe that Tim Widowfield has commented on this, in general, before, and how it has meant that the original authors are sometimes misrepresented, as they are being read through a veil (or with one eye open, as if watching a horror film, where one doesn’t want to see anything too disturbing).

    None of this reflects on James Pate, of course. I was also impressed with his treatment of the book.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2015-03-30 12:50:31 UTC - 12:50 | Permalink

      This underscores the point of Niels Peter Lemche. It also touches on my miserably failed attempts to engage Larry Hurtado in the most elementary of dialogues and ask him to merely acknowledge that his own faith-based perspective is not the only game in town when “educating” his readers as he claims to be doing.

      It’s self-indoctrination. It’s pointless even mentioning rationalist principles because for many of the faithful now even the Enlightenment is said to be of the devil.

  • Richard Woo
    2015-04-01 13:31:16 UTC - 13:31 | Permalink

    Why do people bother to scratch their head over passages found in the New Testament?

    Whatever these passages say, they are concerned, one way or another, about the God or Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

    In which case, just read the many obnoxious passages in the Old Testament, about the Abrahamic God telling his so-called chosen people how they shoud live their lives and how to plunder the property belonging to others and how to kill people of other nations or tribes. It is mind-boggling how anyone with a decent level of intelligence can worship such a barbaric, freakish and totally inept or, should we say, insane god, regardless of his existence or non-existence, in so far as he is portrayed within Old Testament pages. Read the killings or genocides committed by the Abrahamic God himself or by his so-called chosen people on instructions he allegedly issued. Unmistakably unbelievable. Insane [or ignorant?] people believing in an insane god? Arguable of course.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2015-04-02 03:17:43 UTC - 03:17 | Permalink

      Many of the bible narratives need to be read as quaint stories and cannot be taken literally. I used to believe Abraham was a model of surrender to God whom I was required to emulate — even being willing to lose my own children in order to obey God in faith. (Yes, that’s the unconscionable mentality of a true believer.) Then one evening while I was telling one of my young children the story of Abraham, just as I was about to come to the part where he was commanded to offer Isaac I stopped short and could not continue. The horror of what God was commanding hit me for the first time.

      Later I read Thomas L. Thompson’s explanation that the story is not meant to be read “realistically” — or it does indeed become a horror story. It is more like a fairy tale with unreal characters teaching the way of the godly life is to trust and obey the unfathomable god, acknowledging that god’s ways and man’s are unbridgeable. It’s a fairy tale, sort of. Meant to be read at that level.

      But yeh, the Bible is still being used today to justify murders, ethnic cleansing, bigotry, wars, fears. That’s why it’s good to understand where it comes from, what it is, how it originated.

  • John MacDonald
    2015-04-10 14:22:28 UTC - 14:22 | Permalink

    Just a quick thought about mythicism:

    Rev 13:8 says “All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast–all whose names have not been written in the Lamb’s book of life, the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world.”

    If Christ was “slain” since “the creation of the world,” wouldn’t this be more suggestive of a mythicist position than a historicist position?

  • John MacDonald
    2015-04-11 21:29:23 UTC - 21:29 | Permalink

    Also, I was reading psalms and I noticed Psalm 30:3, “You, LORD, brought me up from the realm of the dead; you spared me from going down to the pit.” I wonder if this might have inspired the resurrection story in The New Testament?

  • Neil Godfrey
    2015-04-19 11:17:21 UTC - 11:17 | Permalink

    Hi John — both passages you speak of are indeed interesting in the context of the mythicist discussion. There has been quite a bit of discussion over the exact meaning of the Revelation verse but yes, it does cohere with other unorthodox motifs in that book. Did you see my posts on Couchoud’s interpretations and how he believed that Revelation represented one school or group of Christians who opposed Paul’s “crucified messiah” who came in “weakness” to conquer.

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