Conclusion: Ehrman-Price Debate #3

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by Neil Godfrey

This post concludes my notes on the Milwaukee Mythicist sponsored debate between Bart Ehrman and Robert M Price. It is based on notes I took as I listened, and since I have not listened to this part of the debate since, I cannot check my notes for accuracy or to add any completeness. Perhaps some readers will find it useful to compare René Salm’s notes. BE = Bart Ehrman and RMP = Bob Price.

There were two ten minute sessions for each of BE and RMP to question the other and this was followed by a Q&A with the audience. I have coloured the topics addressed in BE’s ten minute sessions red, and those in RMP’s blue.

I have inserted my own comments in blocked off sections.

BE did not elaborate and explain how it is that we can know of the existence of Caiaphas and Josephus, or actually compare the evidence for these figures, its provenance, type, authenticity, etc, with what we have for Jesus. A discussion of historical methods requires whole posts. (See Historical Facts and the Unfactual Jesus, also Methodology; Sources; Historiography)

How do we know what happened?

Somewhere either towards the end of Bart Ehrman’s opening presentation or at the beginning of his subsequent allotment of ten minutes to question Robert Price, Ehrman made the following point on the relevance of extant contemporary sources for determining the historicity of ancient persons:

Where do our external (non biblical) sources mention Caiaphas, the most influential Jew of the day, or Josephus? The non-mention of Josephus doesn’t show he didn’t exist.

In responding to Price (RMP), Ehrman (BE) rejected RMP’s argument that scholars pare away the miracles from the gospels to find the historical core. RMP had said stories of the miraculous were said to be beefed up retellings of more mundane events, but BE said that’s not the methodological approach of scholars.

I think BE was implying the use of various criteria of authenticity, e.g. the criterion of embarrassment as the reason we can accept the baptism of Jesus as historical.

Rather, BE insisted, they evaluate every story, e.g. the baptism, to determine its likely historicity. They don’t simply remove the miraculous elements.

Who were the “archons” who killed Jesus? Earthly or heavenly authorities?

Next point against RMP was the claim that “archons” killed Jesus. BE pointed to Romans 13:3 to show that the term archon refers to earthly rulers.

RMP’s point is valid, but it could be coupled with other places where archons definitely means spiritual powers and other accounts of the crucifixion in Paul to undermine the dogmatism of the historicist view.

RMP: but Paul says these earthly rulers should be obeyed because they are there for your good, so he would not be identifying the crucifiers of Christ with archons who do good.

BE: What Paul is saying is that yes, the same kinds of authorities who killed Jesus should be obeyed and you should not do anything to upset those authorities or you risk suffering punishment as did Jesus.

The role of gnosticism

Rejecting arguments because of the date of the author is hardly a valid scholarly method. We would prefer to see the arguments from published criticisms of Schmithals. RMP’s points in his opening talk made a lot of sense.

In response to RMP’s discussion of gnosticism, BE insisted that gnosticism belonged to the second century and cannot be used to build a picture of pre-Christian times. BE also dismissed Walter Schmithals (whom RMP had referenced) as now dated, from the 1950s.

Why question the historicity of the empty tomb?

RMP asked BE how he came to not believe in the historicity of the empty tomb.

We ought not begin with the presumption of historicity or nonhistoricity in any text. The genre, provenance and external witness to the narrative ought always take priority. Resorting to details of contrary customs is not a strong argument by comparison.

BE replied that it was standard Roman practice to leave crucified bodies on crosses and later toss them in a shallow grave.

The Evolutionary model of Christianity

RMP asked BE what he thought or Burton Mack’s model that Christianity did not begin with a resurrection big-bang but with many disparate communities with different ideas eventually coalescing.

What scenario is the more probable?

BE’s question is a form of question begging. To ask which of two options is more probable implies that both options are on the same playing field, both are either in the real historical world, or both are in a certain fictional world, etc.

BE addressed RMP’s discussions in his book (The Christ Myth Theory and Its Problems) about probabilities. We have no references in our sources about the activities of a Joshua in outer space. We don’t have stories about Jesus in outer space in the New Testament. All our references always speak of Jesus on earth. Is it not more probable that Jesus was on earth and not in outer space?

Again, we have many accounts of Jews crucified by Romans and no accounts of Jews crucified in outer space. Paul does not talk about Christ in outer space. So again, where lies the probability?

RMP replied that Colossians and 1 Corinthians do speak of a heavenly Christ.

Again, on probability and the baptism of Jesus. BE criticized RMP’s sourcing ideas to the influence of Zoroastrianism. Why is it more probable that the baptism is based on Zoroastrian concepts than to a historical baptism by John the Baptist?

BE continued: Mark was not Jewish, he was not a Jew, so he doesn’t use Zoroastrian influences. RMP: Zoroastrianism was built into Judaism at that time.

I am taken aback by BE’s extremely naive approach to historicity. He appears to assume that if there is a source of any kind, even if we know nothing about its provenance, authorship, genre or agenda and can only infer its existence despite alternative possibilities, then it can be assumed to be a reliable testimony to certain historical events or persons; and if there is a mention of a person in a significant place in the gospels, it must be assumed on that basis that they are based on historical persons. That is an astonishingly naive approach to sources by anyone claiming to be a historian. It is not so very far removed from outright fundamentalist apologetics, only with a thin layer of criteriology spread out on top to add some sense of “critical sophistication”.

So what if the gospels are our only source for some things?

BE asks: Did James, John, Mary Magdalene etc really exist or were they made up? If they don’t appear in later sources it only means people didn’t talk about them, not that they didn’t exist.

Mythicism is not a doctrine

RMP does not question BE.

RMP speaks of speculation and probability. He explains that mythicism is not a doctrine. He is not saying that BE’s view is not viable.




On gnosticism and Zoroastrianism

BE describes himself as a “historian of the ancient world”, and informs us that the parallels RMP used of gnosticism and Zoroastrianism are not the paradigms to use for Paul’s writings.

A joke

BE also told the audience that mythicism is perceived as laughable, as something advanced only by people who have an axe to grind against religion.

Frank Zindler’s question: Did BE read the response to DJE?

BE’s response was what Australians now would call a barbecue stopper. Both his look and tone were clearly hostile. I understand from a number of reports from those present that the audience was somewhat shocked.

The message was clear: BE had no intention of seriously engaging with mythicist criticisms of his historicist position.

Frank Zindler asked BE about the book he, Price, Carrier, Doherty, Salm had put together responding to everything he (BE) had said in the debate so far – Bart Ehrman and the Quest for the Historical Jesus of Nazareth. Zindler pointed out that he had the impression that BE had never read this book to see what they had to say. Have you read it yet? If no, why not?

BE said in response that he had read the book, “twice”, and disagreed with everything in it, and if he replied he’d have to write another book twice as long, and then Zindler would have to reply with another tome twice as long again, and so on.


I happen to have a similar view to both BE and RMP here. Explanatory comment could expand to a whole post.

BE advised the audience that if they wanted to promote humanism then don’t simultaneously promote mythicism.

RMP agreed, expressing his suspicion that many mythicists are using mythicism to attack Christianity.

BE’s argument here is comparable to saying syllogisms are have no place in serious argument because someone can use a syllogism to argue anything with two legs is a duck. & contra BE, Bayes’ is a respectable method and topic of discussion among historians. Carrier is not alone.

Bayes’ Theorem

On Bayes’ Theorem: BE said most historians don’t think you can do history that way. He noted that Carrier uses Bayes to prove a mythical Christ, while Swinburne (“The Resurrection of God Incarnate”) uses Bayes to prove Jesus really rose from the dead.

RMP said he was too dumb to understand Bayes’ theorem.

I have commented several times now on the contrast between so many biblical scholars and researchers in other fields. A lay person has a right to expect an intellectual to be honest enough to inform the public of different schools of thought and not to pontificate as if his own view is the only “fact” to know. RMP cited several scholars who disagree with BE.


On Interpolations: BE said manuscript evidence is sound and decisive. We can’t just throw the manuscripts out, even though RMP in his presentation suggested Galatians 1:18-19 could by an interpolation. RMP had spoken of the evidence of Irenaeus and Tertullian for the passage being an interpolation, but BE claimed that no-one would establish a text of Galatians or 1 Corinthians based on Irenaeus or Tertullian.

The Name Above Every Name in the Philippian Hymn?

BE’s point struck me as an instance of blatant special pleading. The Hymn is most commonly said to start at verse 6 (Phil. 2:6-11). That Paul uses the name Jesus prior to the Hymn cannot logically be used to claim that the Hymn itself assumes its central figure was named Jesus at the outset of his human life.

On the Philippian Hymn and the name Jesus: The question raised the point that the name Jesus appeared to be bestowed only after the Son of God’s resurrection and ascension. BE answered that no, the Philippian Hymn talks about Jesus Christ at the beginning, in verse 5.

BE repeated his claim in his recent book that Paul says Jesus began as an angel and the angel became a human being. That is, this means he believed Jesus was historical.

Comparing sources: the gospels

BE said we don’t have four gospels within 40 years based on oral tradition about Hercules. RMP said such an argument begs the question of historicity.

Comparing sources: Paul

That BE came across as completely unaware of the history of scholarship in his field testifies to the shallowness of much of contemporary American dominated biblical studies. (Link is to discussion of N.P. Lemche article in Bible and Interpretation.)

I suspect mythicists (even those who do not follow the Dutch Radicals) should take RMP’s comment as advice.

The discussion turned to the evidence of Paul’s letters, specifically Galatians. RMP said BE and others like him were begging the question by arguing for Pauline authorship and they were not able to step out of the paradigm.

BE assumed Paul’s conversion to Christianity would be an incontrovertible fact but RMP said he believed the story was based on Heliodorus (1 Maccabees) and Pentheus (Bacchae).

BE asked RMP if he thought Paul did not become a Christian (i.e. converted to it — RMP suggested open-ended possibilities such as even being born to a Christian family); you think Paul did not write Galatians? “Come on, Bob, Paul didn’t write Galatians?!”

RMP: There’s no point going on since we are too far apart to find a common way to communicate.

Gradual evolution or Big Bang origin of Christianity

Compare RMP’s comment about Burton Mack’s evolutionary hypothesis of Christian origins above. Again what is stunning here is BE’s dogmatism. He does not sound like a genuine scholar in touch with the ambiguities and tentativeness in his field but more like a dogmatic apologist. Contrast the very opposite mind-set to the question above under Mythicism is not a Doctrine.

A question was asked of BE: Weren’t there elements of Christianity in Judaism before Christ? Thinking of Wisdom of Solomon, for example. A number of smaller concepts were scattered in Jewish sects and came together in Christianity?

BE responds: The earliest affirmation of what we recognize as Christianity was a crucified messiah. So Christianity could not have been a gradually evolving natural evolution.

A question was asked about a documentary, “Lost Tomb of Jesus” by James Cameron.

Establishing historicity, or not, from the evidence

This little exchange spotlights the slightness of understanding of how historical inquiry works more generally in fields outside biblical studies. Most other historians do not face this problem because very often they are dealing with sources they know they can trust or at least whose authenticity they can fairly easily establish — archives, diaries, etc. History is often about explaining what is well known to have happened.

But Price’s point touches on genre (an indicator of authorial intent), something that could have been developed further and a point that BE sidesteps.

RMP on historical explanations: We can believe Caesar Augustus was historical because we can’t explain Roman history without him. But the Jesus stories are written to teach lessons so it looks like the stories are fabricated for that purpose.

Someone asked BE about his argument that the evidence goes back to hearsay.

BE replies: Look at how historians establish what probably happened in the past. The only way to know is if the people in the past left writings or if someone wrote about them. People independently of one another talk about different things in relation to a person and their writings are dated within close to that person’s time. Dealing with the past means dealing with oral traditions. Historians ask if what they are reading is gossip or rumour or if it is based on historical probability.

Would not make up a crucified Christ

BE is simply ignoring the abundance of argument, evidence and logic to the contrary. (Much relevant scholarship has been posted on Vridar, with more to come.)

BE: early Christians would not have said they crucified Christ. They would not have made that up, because the Christ was not supposed to be crucified.

How do we know Paul lived and wrote about real people?

BE: How do you know someone lived? We look for evidence. We have for Paul the book of Acts and 1 Clement (about mid 90s) — external references to Paul. We also have books (including non-canonical letters) thought to have been written by Paul, so people believe he existed.

BE’s naivety returns us to my initial comment above on historical methods.

RMP: We can ask the question who wrote those epistles. We have the epistles of Peter but nobody believes that Peter wrote them. And half the letters of Paul are known to be not by Paul. So it is easy to think (Van Manen) that even the “authentic” epistles are also not by Paul.


Then there was the post-debate discussion among James Crossley, James McGrath, Daniel Gulotta and David Fitzgerald. I’ll post about that little talk another time.




  • R Pence
    2016-10-28 12:26:19 UTC - 12:26 | Permalink

    Glad to see this post. Reminds me of another problem I had with Ehrman in this debate – his comment on Paul and gnosticism. If you pedantically define ‘gnosticism’ as a set of heretical Christian movements starting in the 2nd century then, sure, there’s no way Paul is a gnostic. By definition he cannot be. But this is to confuse the map with the territory. Ehrman’s refusal to see anything gnostic in Paul in the sense that Price was using the term, again, strikes me as disingenuous. As said in the post above, it’s not so far from apologetics, and it’s why I tend to see Ehrman’s work as basically secular apologetics. It’s based on the same sort of mixture of obstinateness, slipperiness, and wishful thinking.

    • 2016-10-28 12:52:47 UTC - 12:52 | Permalink

      I agree. Bart is claiming that there are no gnostic texts from before the second century. I though Price could have objected to that more firmly. The reason is this. It is all a matter of definition: What do we consider to be Gnostic? If we define Gnosticism in the terms of the views presented in the texts found in Nag Hammadi, some other Gnostic texts and the few things said by Church Fathers such as Irenaeus, then of course we’ll end up where Bart is going and he is “probably” right (although some of the texts in the Nag Hammadi Library such as Eugnostos might date to before Christianity).

      But that is just a too narrow definition of Gnosticism. If we broadened the definition, we could easily state that the writings of Philo, The Wisdom of Solomon, 1 Enoch and so on, are also Gnosticism. And this is a type of Gnosticism much closer to the view we find in Paul, while the latter Nag Hammadian type of Gnosticism is a latter evolvement and a particular form of Gnosticism – and not exactly the type embraced by Paul. I think it is necessary to make these kinds of distinctions and definitions, otherwise someone like Bart will just wave it away for no good reason.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2016-10-28 23:06:14 UTC - 23:06 | Permalink

      Interestingly some scholars believe the category of gnosticism is unhelpful: e.g. Rethinking “Gnosticism”: an argument for dismantling a dubious category by Michael Williams (1996).

      • R Pence
        2016-10-29 06:25:06 UTC - 06:25 | Permalink

        I more or less concur with that view. I get the impression it was useful at one time, and that some scholars today are in a bit of a scramble to retain it, offering up re-vamped notions of what ‘gnosticism’ was in order to retain for it descriptive power. But the elements that make up ‘gnosticism’ were so disparate and covered such an area in time and space that it seems they were just features of antiquity. It might be better to speak of ‘gnostic Christianities’ from the 2nd century on, etc.

  • Steven Carr
    2016-10-28 17:50:56 UTC - 17:50 | Permalink

    BE answered that no, the Philippian Hymn talks about Jesus Christ at the beginning, in verse 5….

    But that doesn’t mean anything!

    If I say, I will now introduce Professor Ehrman who became Professor after his studies and after he had his doctorate , that doesn’t mean that he was called Professor before the time period I was talking about.

    ‘BE: What Paul is saying is that yes, the same kinds of authorities who killed Jesus should be obeyed and you should not do anything to upset those authorities or you risk suffering punishment as did Jesus.’

    But that would mean that Paul was warning Christians not to be like the sort of people killed by the authorities. Because those people were low-life scum who deserved what they got at the hands of God’s servants, people like Jesus, for example, who got was coming to him.

  • Reader
    2016-10-28 21:09:49 UTC - 21:09 | Permalink

    A bit of clarification:

    From the section above – Establishing historicity, or not, from the evidence

    You outline what History is about … “History is often about explaining what is well known to have happened.”

    And before from your post Richard Carrier’s “Proving History:

    “Historical problems, to my thinking, are problems having to do with how to interpret and understand what we know has happened in the past.”

    Is not History [taken with all its methods etc] not the “lens” so to speak that allows us to know(or think we know)about the past?
    The question is how do we know that any particular event happened?

    The past leaves behind artefact(s) whether these be texts or otherwise. Now we may *suspect* that something may have happened to have produced these and so we embark on an investigation to know or ascertain what is the case. The tool of this investigation is the subject of history proper. At the end of this investigation then we can say with varying degrees of probability what we *know* happened.

    Your definition or explanation of the nature of history implies that we know first then use history to explain, interpret and understand that which we already know to have happened. Then the question arises how did we know it happened in the first place without having investigated.

    Maybe I am missing something.


  • 2016-10-28 21:39:37 UTC - 21:39 | Permalink

    I watched BE’s presentation and most of RMP’s. One of the very few arguments BE actually made for evidence of J’s existence (in some form) was his argument that Paul claimed to have met with Peter and James, and that he refers to James as “the brother of the Lord,” and that he meant by this blood relation, not spiritual companion. The other arguments mentioned above are not arguments for the existence of J. The argument that no ancient writer refers to Josephus does not prove Josephus didn’t exist is question begging, and not a good point, because we have the extensive tomes of Josephus and nothing like that from J. The law has something called a burden of proof, and it would be helpful if other disciplines used this concept. BE proceeds as if he had no burden, as if the burden were on those with questions. I don’t see why this should be so.

    As to the argument about James’ brother, this makes sense, especially when we stop to remember that there was nothing canonical about Paul’s letters at the time they were written. The problem I have always had with this argument is that we are talking about a radical new sect with wild beliefs, considered fictitious by Graeco-Roman pagans and outside the mainstream of Judaism’s various factions. We do not have the Lord/brother, we have only someone who claims that his brother was the Lord. Peter and James are the same people who are presumably selling the myth of resurrection (if anything else, Paul is not mentioning it). It is easy to imagine a co-founder of this new sect claiming that the risen Lord is his brother, but it would be helpful to have something more than the bare claim,
    such as a physical description, or some specific information about the family (Luke and Matthew evidently thought of this later). Nevertheless, it is possible that there was a founder of some sort, but if all we have are the legends, really, what difference does it make? The difference between Jesus and George Washington (whom BE mentions as another figure giving rise to legends, certainly a true statement) is that we have all the other evidence about Washington, including his presidential papers, his genealogy, his estate at Mt. Vernon, and everything else too numerous to mention.

    • MrHorse
      2016-10-28 23:27:50 UTC - 23:27 | Permalink

      Brother often meant “a fellow-believer, united to another by the bond of affection”, as Strongs says: “so most frequently of Christians, constituting as it were but a single family” – http://biblehub.com/greek/80.htm

      Strongs lists “6. brethren of Christ is used of” –

      a. his brothers by blood; see 1 above.

      b. all men: Matthew 25:40 (Lachmann brackets); Hebrews 2:11f (others refer these examples to d.)

      c. apostles: Matthew 28:10; John 20:17.

      d. Christians, as those who are destined to be exalted to the same heavenly δόξα (which see, III. 4 b.) which he enjoys: Romans 8:29.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2016-10-28 23:38:32 UTC - 23:38 | Permalink

      Exactly. Hadrian consciously presented himself to the public as Hercules. Alexander is said to have deliberately imitated the god Dionysus with his conquest of Asia. Some biblical scholars say Jesus likewise imitated the prophets and consciously acted out “the prophecies”. There is a difference between a legendary accretion to non-legendary data and evidence and a story that is legendary through and through.

      I think of a child reading a fairy tale and thinking, well, it could be true and wishing, loving the idea that it is true.

      • 2016-10-29 14:22:30 UTC - 14:22 | Permalink

        Here’s what I really want to say about Ehrman, and then I’ll go silent. What he’s really arguing for is so small that it has no historical significance. To some extent this is a criticism of the whole historical Jesus enterprise. Bishop Spong really doesn’t believe the Christian story, he believes the “MUST HAVE BEEN” idea. Like Ehrman, he apparently believes that Jesus was an itinerant preacher who was crucified by the Romans (end of story). But since this whole religion got built up, J “must have been” some powerful preacher! I’d rather believe the whole kit and kaboodle than cling to a belief like that. (Talk about spitting out the lukewarm water!) As for Ehrman, really it’s hardly worth refuting. It wasn’t his itinerant preacher Jesus who gave rise to the religion and cultural force, it was the mythical Christ.

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