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.
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.
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: 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
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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: 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.
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.