Luke Timothy Johnson’s Response to Robert Price

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by Neil Godfrey

In The Historical Jesus: Five Views, Luke Timothy Johnson responds to the 5 principles for historical enquiry as laid out by Robert M. Price in his opening chapter of that book. I discussed these in overview in my recent 5 more commandments post. The five are:

1. The Principle of Analogy

2. The Criterion of Dissimilarity

3. Remember what an Ideal Type means

4. Consensus is No Criterion

5. Scholarly “Conclusions” must be tentative and provisional

Johnson’s strongest criticism is for Price’s failure to include “multiple attestation” among his principles. Johnson refers to the significance of “points of convergence” here.

Of the 5 points listed above, Johnson finds #2 and #3 somewhat questionable. He argues that Price’s ideal type is really another form of the principle of analogy.

He faults Price for relying on this after dismissing #2, the criterion of dissimilarity. Johnson points to the teaching of Jesus on divorce – unlike both Greco-Roman and Jewish practice — as an example of “where dissimilarity actually yields something historically significant.”

In short, Price uses the criterion of dissimilarity to demolish any trace of specific evidence for a historically discernible figure named Jesus, and then appeals to analogy/ideal type to account for the rise of the Christ cult.

He knows that this approach has a long history of its own, and he cheerfully acknowledges that for many, it is considered one of “extreme, even crackpot, theories.” But he does not examine the reasons why such appeals to the ideal type of dying-and-rising gods came to be so regarded by sober historians. It was not, as Price intimates, out of failure of nerve among the apologetically inclined. Rather, it was the failure of such theories to adequately account for the specific character of the Christian movement and its cult figure, as well as the stubborn resistance of certain historical facts to being wished away. (pp. 90-91)

Then Johnson gets to the nub of the matter: “Two interrelated historical facts require explanation.

  1. The “sudden appearance” of a cult devoted to a “Lord” who was “a failed Jewish Messiah who was executed under Roman authority in the time of Tiberius.”
  2. The relatively quick production of 27 New Testament writings of a range of genres, social setting and theological perspective, “have the same Jesus as their point of focus, and the same generative matrix, namely the death and resurrection of the human person Jesus.”

Such highly specific historical phenomena do not arise out of generalized social conditions, psychological laws or religious types. The necessary and sufficient cause is the death and (proclaimed) exaltation of Jesus. (p.91)

Johnson believes that there are 3 areas of evidence for the historicity of Jesus that Price either overlooks or is overly-sceptical about.

The evidence of Josephus and Tacitus

Price is rash to dismiss the Testimonium Flavianum (Book 18) “against the very careful arguments of scholars such as John Meier.”

Price does not consider the other passage in Josephus referring to James, “the brother of Jesus who was called Christ” (Book 20).

Price also does not address the evidence of Tacitus, Annals 15.

Josephus and Tacitus, and also Lucian (Peregrinus 11-13), probably base their information on reports and rumours, not on the Gospels or knowledge of any New Testament writings. And their information is that the cult was based on a “crucified sophist”, not on a dying-and-rising god.

The evidence of Paul

Price fails to convince that Paul is not evidence for a historical Jesus. Three counter-examples are given:

  1. Paul describes Jesus as Jewish, a descendant of David, and known as the Messiah
  2. Paul’s reference to a “command of the Lord” in his discussion of divorce is multiple attestation of this saying, and demonstrates the positive results of the criterion of dissimilarity for a saying of Jesus.
  3. Paul uses the proper name Jesus in reference to the human person (Rom.3.26; 1Cor.12:3)

Allusions to the stories in the Torah
While there is no denying the influence of narratives from the Jewish scriptures on those of the Gospels, Johnson does not see any reason to think that they are more than that — that is, influences on stories that originate in a recent historical record. He gives 2 reasons for this:

  1. Most Gospel stories are quite different from their Torah counterparts. (There is little resemblance between John’s narratives of miraculous wilderness feeding/walking on water/Passover bracket and the Exodus/Red Sea/Manna episodes.)
  2. “More important, one could read Torah forever and never reach the specific portrait of Jesus as a suffering, dying and exalted Messiah such as we find in the canonical Gospels. It is not that Isaiah 52-53 provided the “ideal type” of a Messiah to which the Christian Evangelists conformed Jesus, but that the specific character of Jesus’ death and resurrection stimulated first a rereading of Isaiah 52-53, and then the use of its imagery in the Gospels.”

Johnson concludes with:

Price provides a stimulating perspective on the figure of Jesus by eliminating specific historical evidence found in the sources that is pertinent to the subject and replacing it with an appeal to a Joseph Campbell-like universal archetype. (p. 93)


Johnson’s responses are understandable given his assumptions. It is those assumptions that I hope to address in the next post, and at the same time demonstrate that these responses really do fail to do justice to the evidence that we do have (including that of Josephus and Tacitus). Someone like Price is saying or implying (perhaps not clearly enough) that the historical Jesus model and its supposed “facts” are based on a circular methodology, and someone like Johnson is responding that the Jesus model is based on the facts, and the facts are rock solid.

There is much more room for the Christian movements to have arisen out of “generalized social conditions, psychological laws or religious types” than Johnson realizes.

To conclude in next post.

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Neil Godfrey

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0 thoughts on “Luke Timothy Johnson’s Response to Robert Price”

  1. ‘2.“More important, one could read Torah forever and never reach the specific portrait of Jesus as a suffering, dying and exalted Messiah such as we find in the canonical Gospels. ‘

    There are many Christian apologists who claim that the Gospels record over 300 fulfillment of OT prophecies.

    ‘but that the specific character of Jesus’ death and resurrection stimulated first a rereading of Isaiah 52-53’

    How strange.

    We are told that a True Historian cannot examine ‘the specific character’ of the resurrection of Jesus.

    Doesn’t Johnson have to prove that this ‘specific character’ came first?

    After all, everybody agrees that nobody was told that Jesus born in Bethlehem, and that this then triggered a rereading of Malachi.

    What was this ‘specific nature’ of the death? Had Jesus been betrayed for 30 pieces of silver and this triggered a rereading of Zechariah?

    Johnson just begs the question to claim that the facts came first and then the scripture, when there are totally obvious signs that the scripture often came first and then the ‘facts’ followed along.

  2. ‘2.The relatively quick production of 27 New Testament writings of a range of genres, social setting and theological perspective, “have the same Jesus as their point of focus,’

    I guess Johnson has not bothered reading the Epistles of James or Jude.

    Anybody who claims the Epistle of James has ‘Jesus as its point of focus’ is really just blustering.

  3. ‘Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. ‘

    That was from 2 John.

    It appears many Christians simply denied that Jesus Christ had been here in flesh.

    This is a smoking gun for those people who demand traces of Christians who denied that Jesus was a flesh and blood person on earth.

  4. 2 John is probably referring to docetism, the belief that the “human” figure of the gospels was only apparently a flesh and blood human, a spiritual presence in the form of a man. So I don’t think it can be taken as evidence that there were 2nd century Christians who believed there was no earthly, human figure who performed miracles and delivered teachings, but rather that some Christians maintained that this figure came to earth in the appearance of a human body only.

  5. CJ how about Ignatius in Magnesians 1:1;

    “I wish to warn you not to fall into the snare of stupid doctrine, but to be convinced of the birth, passion and resurrection, which took place at the time of the governorship of Pontius Pilate.”

    How is he Ignatius arguing against Docetism there? Given that 2 John and Ignatius are probably both early 2nd century, isn’t it more probable that they are arguing against the same belief in either place?

  6. The problem with mythicism is that the comparison to dying and rising gods is moot due to the secondary nature of the death/resurrection story. The religion is really at its core a rejection of the Jewish Law. When you try to explain its rise by comparison to dying and rising god concepts among the Pagans you deal only with a later gloss painted over the religion not with the true origins of the religion. Jesus could be a sort of made up personification of all Jews who opposed the Jewish Law rather than an actual historical figure, but in that case he would still have a “historical core.”

    1. Mythicist arguments that I know a little about don’t relate the dying-rising gods idea to the Gospel story. It is something that has its influence, if at all, in the earliest stages of the religion. The idea is not far removed from the philosophical attempts to allegorize pagan myths, or from mystery religions interpreting some of the myths as symbols of personal spiritual transformations. The Gospel narratives are seen as a later development.

      The argument that Jesus had a “historical core” would be stronger if we had authors referring to this historical person to which they at other times attached symbolic or theological significance. But it seems we only have Jesus ever referred to in terms of the latter, does it not?

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