Daily Archives: 2016-10-26 22:38:11 UTC

Another Review of the Ehrman-Price Debate

René Salm has begun a series discussing the Mythicist Milwaukee sponsored debate between Bart Ehrman and Robert M Price: See The Price-Ehrman debate—Pt. 1

I’ll be resuming my own posts on the debate soonish. And I am long overdue for posting more about Salm’s NazarethGate.

The Pentateuch’s Debt to Greek Laws and Constitutions — A New Look

For the previous post in this series examining Russell Gmirkin’s new book see Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible


Ancient Greeks of the Classical and Hellenistic eras loved a good foundation story. Such a story typically began with severe troubles leading to a hopeful solution or escape by sending out a group of people under a divinely blessed leader who became their founder-figure for their new settlement. This founding figure would lead the conquest of the new land, divide up the territory for the new arrivals, set up religious altars and appropriate worship rituals, and write down the new laws to govern the new nation.

You recognize the story type from the opening books of the Bible. The Israelites were suffering in Egypt; the solution was for them to leave under their own leader, Moses; through their new leader God gave them their new religious rites and other laws by which they were to live when they entered their new land; the successor to Moses, Joshua, conquered their new territory and allocated the land according to divine plan to the various tribes. Other versions of this story were known among Jews and gentiles alike — see the box insert for links.

The story of the Exodus and Conquest under Moses and Joshua is in essence a typical Greek foundation story. Especially Greek about it is the way that the laws of the new land are embedded in this founding narrative. The narrative establishes both their divine origin and antiquity.

bermanRabbi Joshua Berman (Created Equal: How the Bible broke with ancient political thought) has argued that the Pentateuchal laws, especially those of Deuteronomy, were far ahead of their time.

Scholars have discussed some of the similarities between Pentateuchal laws [Pentateuch: first five books of the Hebrew Bible] and those found in the Greco-Roman world as well as among Near Eastern states and proposed that the explanation lies in Israel/Judea having been part of a wider world of cultural interconnections spanning the Eastern Mediterranean and Near East (e.g. Levinson, 2006. The First Constitution; Knoppers & Harvey, 2007. “The Pentateuch in Ancient Mediterranean Context” in The Pentateuch as Torah).

In the previous post we alluded to the problem that the material evidence of contacts between pre-Hellenistic Greeks (pre Alexander the Great’s conquests) and the Judeans* does not support the likelihood of meaningful philosophical and literary exchanges among those strata of society who would be responsible for the writing of legislation and literature.

[* I prefer to use the term Judeans, following Steven Mason in A History of the Jewish War, because the term correlates to the identity of the ancient inhabitants of Jerusalem centred Palestine and their associated diaspora more aptly than the term Jewish.

. . . I shall translate Greek Ioudaioi as Judeans rather than Jews. This is not because I have any quarrel with the use of Jews. That is the familiar translation . . . But our aim is to understand ancient ways of thinking, and in my view Judeans better represents what ancients heard in the ethnos-polis-cult paradigm. That is, just as Egypt (Greek Aegyptos) was understood to be the home of Egyptians (Aegyptioi), Syria of Syrians, and Idumaea of Idumaeans, so also Judaea (Ioudaia) was the home of Judeans (Ioudaioi) — the only place where their laws and customs were followed. Jerusalem was world-famous as the mother-polis of the Judeans. . . .

(Mason, 2016. Kindle version, loc 3268)]

But what if on closer inspection we see that much in the Pentateuch is closer in both broad outline and specific details to the writings about Greek constitutions and laws (especially as found in Aristotle and Plato) than anything we find on the Syrian-Mesopotamian side of Palestine? And what if the earliest external evidence for the Pentateuch places it no earlier than the third century BCE (ca 270 BCE), by which time Judeans were known to be in Alexandria’s Great Library and exposed to the best of Classical Greek writings, including Aristotle’s history and description of the Athenian Constitution and Plato’s discussion of ideal laws?

platocreationhebrewbibleIn the second chapter of Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible Russell Gmirkin undertakes a systematic comparison of Greek and Judean constitutions or legal and governing institutions primarily as documented in their respective literature. Comparisons (more often contrasts) are periodically made with Near Eastern counterparts (or their absence). Afterwards he covers the law collections themselves, then the narratives surrounding the origins of the laws, and finally surveys the broader question of the origin of the Hebrew Bible as a whole.

So let’s back up and start at the beginning.

How important among the Greeks was their literature about how a state should be governed?

The genre of constitutional law, which described the various offices of government, their qualifications, responsibilities and means of selection, was well represented in literature and inscriptions throughout the Greek world, but was entirely unknown in the Ancient Near East. (p. 42)

For Isocrates the constitution was the soul of the state; for Aristotle it was the state. Writings and speeches about the various forms of government were major topics: Aristotle and Plato produced two works each on constitutional questions; works on the same by Xenophon and a “pseudo-Xenophon” also survive; we have many references in the literature and inscriptions to the writings and speeches of other significant ancient persons addressing questions of how governments should be designed and function.

Gmirkin compares the interests of this distinctive Greek form of literature with the topics of interest in the Pentateuchal law codes and related narratives and I set out his points in table format for easy reference: read more »

Following that Debate: Do we follow the Facts or Do we choose what “Facts” to believe?

So why do you side with mythicism? Or why do you think mythicism is bollocks and mythicists are agenda-driven ignoramuses? And if you do know a lot about either the mythicist side or the historicist side of the question it might be even harder for you to answer honestly, given that your one-sided knowledge may well be shutting out a clear understanding of what the other side is actually saying.

The scholar Gleb Tsipursky has written an article for The Conversation explaining how so very often it is not “the facts” that persuade us, but the way arguments are framed and presented that does the trick. The context of his article is the American election debate but the points apply anywhere.

Savvy politicians can take advantage of what scholars call cognitive biases, which make us believe something is true because we feel it is true, regardless of the evidence. This phenomenon is also known as emotional reasoning.

We may think of ourselves as rational creatures who form our opinions based on logic. In reality, our emotions play a much larger role in influencing our beliefs than we think.

We make quick and intuitive decisions based on our autopilot system of thinking, also known as system 1. This is one of the two systems of thinking in our brains. It makes good decisions most of the time, according to Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, but is more subject to bias than the other thinking system – known as the intentional system, or system 2. The intentional system is deliberate and reflective. It takes effort to use but it can catch and override the bias committed by system 1. Kahneman describes these as “fast” and “slow” thinking.

Politicians skilled in the art of public speaking can persuade us by playing to the more powerful autopilot system that guides our fast thinking and avoiding arguments based on evidence, reason and logic.

I have written about Daniel Kahneman’s system 1 and system 2 type thinking model in three earlier posts. And who can think of a potentially more emotive subject — for biblical scholars perhaps even more than for many people outside that field — than the question of Jesus’ existence?

Ever wonder why some people like to go out of their way to compare mythicism with creationism or hostile anti-Christian agendas?

Hillary Clinton stated that Donald Trump is Vladimir Putin’s “puppet.” This invoked a bias likely to cloud the minds of the audience – the halo effect. This bias emerges when we see something we like or dislike, and associate this emotional reaction with something else.

Clinton knows that many Americans do not like Putin. Plus, the image of being someone’s puppet is quite distasteful. Combining Trump with Putin and puppet is bound to create a negative emotional association.

Of course, some mythicists really do appear to be hostile anti-Christian bigots. And this makes it all the easier for some people to impute the sins of a few to all. Similarly, it may well be unfair for mythicists to accuse all biblical scholars of harboring a lurking theological or faith bias.

And ever wonder why we hear the same old, the same old . . . . Ehrman repeated the arguments he made in DJE? as if nothing has ever been said in response to them; McGrath in his post-debate discussion repeated more of the same old, the same old. . . .

For his part, Trump used repetition to drive home his claims, invoking the so-called “illusory truth effect.” This bias causes our brains to perceive something as true just because we hear it repeated. In other words, just because something is repeated several times, we perceive it as more true.

You may have noticed the last two sentences in the previous paragraph had the same meaning and a similar structure. The second sentence didn’t provide any new information, but it did cause you to believe my claim more than you did when you read the first sentence. In fact, much of advertising is based on using the illusory truth effect to get us to buy more goods.

One may wonder if Tsipursky’s next point has any relevance here:

Turning once again to Clinton, we see her utilizing the illusion of control. This bias occurs when we perceive ourselves as having more control over a situation than we actually do. For instance, Clinton attributed the decline in the U.S. national debt in the 1990s primarily to her husband’s policies. This exaggerates the actual impact that any president can have on the national debt.

Indeed, I think it does. Aren’t pesky doubters told in various ways, often directly, that they don’t have the skills to evaluate the question. They need to do years of training in a raft of ancient languages, to study the finer points of palaeography, to publish in all the right journals, to attain tenure in the right institutions before they can be considered competent to offer an opinion on the question?

And then there’s desirability bias . . . what each side desires to be the way it was (or was not) at the beginning of Christianity, for whatever reason.

Clinton also insisted – as did Trump – that her policies would add nothing to the national debt, despite independent reports by experts showing that Clinton’s economic reforms would likely add billions of dollars and Trump’s plan add trillions to the debt. Clinton’s statements on debt, along with Trump’s, showed both illusion of control and the desirability bias, which leads one to believe their idealized outcomes will come true.

Another claim often repeated by Trump ties in to his core message – America is much worse than it used to be. He conveys a rosy picture of an idealized American past, when everything was right with the world. It’s reflected in Trump’s motto: “Make America Great Again.”

This motto speaks to our tendency to view the past through rose-colored glasses, a bias known as rosy retrospection and also as declinism.


That Second Question Frank Zindler Wanted to Ask Bart Ehrman

zindlerWhen the Ehrman/Price Debate sponsored by Milwaukee Mythicists was opened up to questions from the audience Frank Zindler was the first to speak. He had two questions but the rules allowed him time to only ask one. Much of the audience, so I have heard and as seemed quite apparent to me from the video, was quite taken aback by Bart Ehrman’s hostile dismissal of his first question. Frank asked Bart if he had read the book published in critical response to his Did Jesus Exist? since he had given no indication in the debate that he was aware of its criticisms of the arguments he had just repeated. Ehrman brusquely replied that he had read it, “twice”, but that he disagreed with everything it said and he would not respond.

So much for Frank’s first question. Here from Frank Zindler is that second question that he had hoped to ask Bart Ehrman:

Bart, many of us have used your research to support many of our own arguments. For example, in Orthodox Corruption of Scripture you show many examples of anti-Docetic passages in the NT, from the “born-of-woman” Gal 4:4 to the antichrist verses of 1-2 John. Galatians is usually dated to ~54 CE, and if Jesus ever existed, he died in 30 or 33 CE (although Irenaeus claimed he lived into the reign of Claudius, that ended in 54 CE—the very year in which Galatians was written!)

As you know, there are no manuscript variants lacking the born-of-woman gynaikos of Gal 4:4. You have criticized me for claiming interpolation in cases where manuscript evidence is lacking. So……….

According to you own method, the anti-Docetic Gal 4:4 is not an interpolation; it dates to 54 CE if the traditional dating be correct.


If Jesus died in 33 CE, how is it possible that just 21 years later—or even in the very year Galatians was written—there could be widespread forms of Christianity that denied that Jesus had had a body? Was not some form of Docetism therefore the earliest form of Christianity?


Other posts discussing Galatians 4:4 — including from a range of scholarly perspectives — are archived at:

The “Born of a Woman” / Galatians 4:4 INDEX