How Luke Timothy Johnson Stumbles Over the Mythical Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

In my previous post I presented Luke Timothy Johnson‘s case against to the opening arguments of Robert M. Price in The Historical Jesus: Five Views. Price gives reasons for suspecting there never was a historical Jesus. In this post I am giving both my own views and some of Price’s own “responses” to Johnson’s criticisms. (Price does not really “respond” to Johnson’s “response” in the book. I have chosen to highlight a few of Price’s arguments that I thought Johnson was dismissing too quickly. Most of the commentary, however, is my own.)

Johnson’s evidence for the historical Jesus

So in response to Robert Price’s demolition of any evidence for Jesus, how does Luke Timothy Johnson come back with clear evidence that this Jesus did exist in history?

  1. By saying there is multiple attestation for some things about Jesus
  2. By insisting that not all Gospel stories about Jesus are very like Torah stories
  3. By asserting that one cannot find Jesus stories in the Torah just by reading the Torah
  4. By insisting that it is a fact that Christianity suddenly emerged out of Jews by their thousands being persuaded that a failed messiah crucified as a criminal was the real messiah and now in heaven to be worshiped alongside God, and that Price has not explained how “this fact” happened
  5. By pointing to “the fact” that the New Testament books all talk about the same Jesus
  6. By reminding us that Josephus, Tacitus and Lucian all write about Jesus and early Christians
  7. And by noting that Paul said Jesus was a Jew, descended from David, and took commands from him, and called him by his personal (human) name Jesus.

I said in a recent comment that it seemed those responding to Price were not really taking his chapter seriously enough to really try to muster a decent criticism. But that’s not really true. To come up with seven strands of “evidence” for the historical Jesus certainly demonstrates some serious effort. Each one may look rather flimsy on its own, but, as to be discussed in the next section, there is no denying that when multiple attestation even of insubstantial arguments can find a single point of convergence, it does at least begin to look serious.

(Johnson repeats some of these arguments in his own chapter in The Historical Jesus: Five Views. I will address some of them again in a future post when discussing that chapter specifically.)

The omission of “multiple attestation

Johnson faults Price for omitting what he sees as the most important criterion of authenticity of all: multiple attestation.

We have abundant multiple attestation for Julius Caesar, President Obama, alien abductions, Uri Geller’s spoon bending,  psychic surgery, UFOs, Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, Red Riding Hood and Leonardo da Vinci.

In other words, multiple attestation as an abstract principle is meaningless as a criterion of the factuality of something. More crucial is one’s assessment of the nature of the evidence, not necessarily its quantity.

Multiple witnesses in a courtroom account for nothing if it can be shown they all colluded, all relied on hearsay, or are all bitter enemies of the accused. What multiple attestation in the form of artefacts and written documents can tell us will depend on more complex interpretations of those artefacts and written documents.

A single coin or statue may be enough to give us reasonable grounds for believing in the existence of a famous ruler; multiple clay tablets and inscriptions referencing Gilgamesh may never allow us to seriously think of him as anything more than a mythical folk hero.

The appeal to multiple attestation as a criterion in Jesus studies is, I suspect, really an admission of the uncertain nature (including provenance) of the evidence. Do uncertain texts become more certain merely by the frequency with which they can be found?

The significance of the Ideal Type

Price’s reason for singling out ideal type separately is as follows:

The Jesus story as attested in the Epistles shows strong parallels to the Middle Eastern religions based on the dying-and-rising gods. (Price, p.75, my emphasis)

The myths associated with these gods came to be reinterpreted by Roman times to symbolize the spiritual rebirths of devotees. Archaeological evidence and the testimony of the Church Fathers inform us that these pagan beliefs pre-dated Christianity.

Price’s primary target with his reference to “Ideal Type” is the influential work of Jonathan Zittell Smith (Drudgery Divine, Map is Not Territory, Imagining Religion, To Take Place).

J. Z. Smith disdains the old Protestant propaganda accusing Catholicism of assimilating pagan myth and ritual, so he bends over backward to try to make such borrowings impossible. This makes him take up the case of the conservative apologists. His particular approach is to aver that there never was a common myth of the dying-and-rising god. This he does by forgetting or obscuring the nature of the ideal type . . . Pointing out secondary, even trivial differences between specific myths, he would have us deny that they form a general type. But again, one might as well argue there is no such thing as a “religion” or a “miracle story” because the actual cases are not all exactly alike. (pp.75-6)

Johnson does not argue with any of this. His reasons for dismissing Price’s argument is that the ideal type of a dying-and-rising god does not fit the “fact” of a Jew crucified as a criminal being exalted by devotees to a messianic and god-like status.

This objection fails in part because it blurs a distinction between the Jesus of the Epistles (to which Price specifically applies it) and the Jesus of the Gospels. A vital part of Price’s argument is that the evidence suggests the story of Jesus evolved over time (essentially from epistles to gospels) to acquire its canonical details.

The idea that the Gospel narrative was by and large fully formed from the beginning is an assumption that needs to be proved. Paul’s failure to mention details of Jesus’ life can either be interpreted as evidence that such details were unknown to him or as evidence that the details were so well known (and of so little or such elementary interest) that he had no reason to ever mention them again.

When the criterion of dissimilarity demolishes all evidence for historicity

Price devoted seven pages to detailing the narrative overlaps between the gospel deeds of Jesus and counterparts in the Jewish scriptures. His point was to demonstrate that the criterion of dissimilarity does not only leave us with a dearth of sayings material of Jesus, but even the acts of Jesus vanish according to the same criterion.

Johnson dismisses most of these overlaps because

  1. the earlier stories do not show strong resemblance to their supposed Gospel counterparts
  2. one can read the Jewish stories forever and never discern the Gospel narratives in them

As for (1), we return here to the principle of Price’s argument about ideal types. Comparisons are only comparisons by virtue of differences. Without differences, their would be no comparison, only complete identity. So where to draw the dividing line between allowable and non-allowable differences would seem to be entirely arbitrary. I don’t think it is, however. Studies and trials of various criteria for assessing literary borrowings and influences are well known. See Clark (Paul’s parallels to Peter in Acts), Allison (Matthew’s Jesus parallels to Moses) and MacDonald (and others for influences of classical literature in the New Testament). Michael Turton’s Historical Commentary on the Gospel of Mark includes a number of Gospel-Torah parallels that accord with such criteria.

It is not valid to dismiss what is claimed to be a resemblance between two narratives on the grounds that there are only a few surface similarities. One of the guiding principles of classical mimesis was emulation of earlier characters. Virgil’s Aeneas is in many ways very unlike Homer’s Odysseus. But it can be demonstrated that Virgil was creating his Aeneas in order to achieve that very effect, so that any comparison would show how unlike and superior the Roman ancestor was to the Greek. The same device appears to be often used by the Gospel authors when they crafted stories of Jesus from the Hebrew scriptures.

As for Johnson’s second criticism, it is surely groundless. One can read Homer’s epics and never discern Virgil’s Aeneid in them. The reason subsequent authors did indeed “see” suggestions of certain narratives in the Jewish stories is that they had a clear outline or model in mind that they wanted to flesh out. No-one ever found the Gospel narratives in the Jewish Bible through inductive analysis alone. They brought with them a basic idea that they were attempting to read into the texts in order to find prophecies, models to emulate and other incidental details to add to that preconceived idea.

“Two interrelated historical facts require explanation.”

Johnson rejects Price’s dismissal of the evidence through the criterion of dissimilarity and appeals to an ideal type because this approach fails to account for these “facts”:

  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.”

The first point is simply begging the question. Johnson says that this “fact” is the reason the “Christ myth” idea has never been accepted. This “fact”, rather, rests on a circular interpretation of the evidence. Indeed, Price even cites evidence for this “fact” struggling to find some footing in history:

Irenaeus thought Jesus was martyred under Claudius Caesar. The Talmud makes Jesus the disciple of Rabbi Jeschua ben Perechiah and has him crucified in 83 B.C.E., when Alexander Jannaeus crucified many Pharisees. The Toledoth Jeschu incorporated these long-lived traditions. Epiphanius reports them too. The Gospel of Peter assigns Jesus’ condemnation to Herod Antipas, and (as Loisy suggested) so did one of Luke’s sources . . . . How is it that such radically different estimates of Jesus’ dates grew up side by side if there was a real event at the heart of it? (p. 80)

Why would there be a number of attempts to set a Christ event in relatively recent historical time? The reason Price offers concurs with reasons normally given for the earliest attempts to develop a fixed canon and a tradition of apostolic lineages in the second century.

Why did the Christians bother trying to anchor Jesus in recent history? For the same reason that, according to Elaine Pagel’s keen insight, the orthodox opposed the spiritual resurrection appearances of Jesus and preferred a version in which he showed up in the objective flesh to name apostles and give commands. As Arthur Drews had already posited, the urgency for historicizing Jesus was the need of a consolidating institution for an authoritative figurehead who had appointed successors and set policy. . . . It was exactly the logic whereby competing churches fabricated legends of their founding by this or that apostle: the apostle (or Jesus) could not be much older than the organization for which he is being appropriated as founder and authority.

All of this implies it is utterly pointless even to ask whether there was sufficient time for legends to grow up around Jesus. Sufficient time — from when? (p.81)

How probable are the “facts”?

Historians deal in probabilities. Many historians discount as improbable the tale of Herod killing the infants of Bethlehem. Also improbable is the Sanhedrin condemning Jesus as a blasphemer and Pilate vainly struggling against their wishes to have Jesus crucified.

Yet the least probable “fact” of all is also the least questioned: that Jewish followers of a failed messiah who was executed as a criminal very quickly convinced themselves and thousands of other Jews that he was indeed an exalted heavenly messiah sitting at the right hand of God.

But Margaret Barker (The Great Angel: a study of Israel’s second God and The Lost Prophet: the Book of Enoch and its influence on early Christianity) and others have shown that Judaism before the fall of Jerusalem was highly diverse. There was room for a multiplicity of divine heavenly figures who could in some cases blur the edges of our notions of monotheism. I have outlined in some detail Levenson’s study of how some Second Temple Jews came to interpret their story of Isaac’s offering as a literal atoning sacrifice (and resurrection) on behalf of all Jews. Posts are in my Levenson archive.

If this is what Second Temple Judaism was like, it seems to offer more fertile hopes of understanding the origin of a Christ myth than attempting to work from the assumption of the highly improbable scenario of Jews exalting a failed mortal to divine status.

The same Jesus throughout the NT?

In response to Johnson’s second point, that all canonical literature testifies to the same Jesus, we once again are up against question begging and circularity:

  1. Writings that clearly spoke of a very different Jesus obviously would not have been included in the canon, and according to Paul’s letters, we know there were “other Jesus’s” being preached and other epistles being written.
  2. We also see considerable evidence of editing our canonical texts to make them conform to orthodox doctrine. (e.g. Ehrman’s Orthodox Corruption of Scripture)
  3. Some of the Epistles (and Hebrews and Revelation) by no means focus on a Gospel-like Jesus — unless one force-reads the Gospel into them.

The evidence of Josephus and Tacitus

Given the Josephus and Tacitus are the closest Jesus scholars can get to anything approximating external controls for the Gospel narratives.

Price does not repeat his arguments about Josephus, relying instead on a series of referrals to where the arguments have been discussed at length. Yet Johnson sees his dismissal of Josephus as rash. But it is Johnson’s appeal to Josephus (and to the “very careful arguments of scholars such as John Meier”) that is fragile. No argument about Josephus can avoid the fact that the text has been tampered with. Efforts to remove “non-Josephan” elements from such a tiny text sample are both “rash” and circular. (There are good reasons for rejecting the TF completely, as discussed in TF archive. The “brother of Jesus” reference offers no support for Jesus’ historicity either.)

The mere possibility of such in-depth arguments demonstrates the insubstantial nature of the Josephan references.

Even if we were to accept the testimonies of Josephus and Tacitus at face value, we still have evidence of nothing more than what Christians at the time believed.

The evidence of Paul

Johnson cites three reasons for treating Paul’s letters as evidence that Jesus was a historical person:

  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)

That such thin straws are marshalled as evidence smacks of a certain desperation. The mere claim that a being was human or of royal descent is in itself worthless as evidence for historicity of the claim. It merely tells us what its author believed or wanted his readers to believe. Some Swiss nationalists still believe that William Tell was historical. Many Jews also believed in a heavenly Adam, a heavenly Jacob, and so forth. Paul also writes that Jesus acquired his name after his resurrection. Historical investigation requires more than a naive reading of its documentary sources.

Summing up

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)

One might more accurately rephrase this:

Price provides a stimulating perspective on the figure of Jesus by eliminating an assumed model that stands in place of evidence and through which the sources are interpreted, and replacing it with references to the tangible evidence at hand, and a more consistent use of criteria.

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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “How Luke Timothy Johnson Stumbles Over the Mythical Jesus”

  1. Johnson believes that a historian must account for 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.” This reminds me of Habermas’ “minimal facts” approach. A confessional scholar who believes that there is something unique about his particular faith demands that the historian explain that uniqueness.

    If we were to look for an explanation for the appearance and growth of any other religious cult, a rational person would look for the answer in psychological and sociological factors rather than the historical truth of the cult’s beliefs. Would anyone criticize an account of Mormon history for failing to seriously address the possibility that Jesus really appeared in America or Joseph Smith really translated golden plates out of a hat? Would an analysis of Scientology be more persuasive because it seriously engaged the possibility that humanity’s problems derive from the spirits of murdered space aliens?

    1. McGrath gives his game away when he suggests the possibility that what the early followers of Jesus experienced, and what convinced them he was still alive after his crucifixion, might even be similar to what Christians today experience with Jesus. He is careful to phrase it as a mere possibility for believers to consider, but this nonetheless betrays a willingness to accept a nonhistorical explanation for the origin of Christianity. But by doing so, when wearing his historian’s hat, he simply says “something we cannot explain” (in historical terms) happened. This is a disingenuous explanation, especially when it comes with the thinly veiled rationalization that historians face unexplainable events “all the time”.

      McGrath, like very many of his colleagues, is doing liberal Christian apologetics in the guise of “history”. Some of the most sophisticated of Jesus studies I have read have betrayed the same confessional interest on the part of their authors.

      1. I don’t think that the historian ever faces unexplainable events, merely events that are unexplained due to lack of data. Someone who claims to be following historical-critical methodology could never justify declaring that no explanation is possible. Of course, by declaring the phenomenon to be unexplainable, McGrath sidesteps explanations that might be detrimental to his faith, such as, the early followers of Jesus being gullible people prone to magical thinking who did not think critically about the stories they were told. Hmmmm? Maybe they were experiencing the same thing that Christians today experience.

  2. ‘Johnson faults Price for omitting what he sees as the most important criterion of authenticity of all: multiple attestation.’

    Ah, the old ‘4 Scientologists say something is true’ argument.

    That never fails to convince….

  3. Just a quick minor correction:

    “Price’s primary target with his reference to “Ideal Type” is the influential work of Jonathan Zachary Smith (Drudgery Divine, Map is Not Territory, Imagining Religion, To Take Place),” J. Z. Smith’s middle name is Zittell not Zachary.

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