Observations on McGrath’s “Review” of Robert Price on Mythicism

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by Neil Godfrey

History is Myth
Image by LU5H.bunny via Flickr

I place “review” in quotation marks because Associate Professor of Religion of Butler University James McGrath simply avoids addressing Dr Robert Price’s arguments. I used to think McGrath was not very bright, but I have recently come to understand that he is as subtle and smart as a serpent when it comes to those twisting and avoidance manoeuvres whenever confronted with challenges to his most fundamental — and obviously never at any time in his life seriously questioned — assumptions.

I am referring here to Robert Price’s “Jesus at the Vanishing Point”, the first chapter in Beilby’s and Eddy’s The Historical Jesus: Five Views, and McGrath’s “review” of same. (My own earlier comments on Price’s chapter at 5 commandments and at Johnson’s response. A little of what follows assumes some acquaintance with these earlier posts.)

To keep this post within reasonable limits, I address but a few of McGrath’s responses to Price’s chapter.

Before getting into it, I must admit to being surprised by one omission from McGrath’s review. Even though McGrath complains that Price’s chief fault is merely making a case for something that is possible but not probable, and even though McGrath has elsewhere charged mythicists who fall into this “trap” as thinking “just like Creationists”, McGrath strangely fails to publicly accuse Robert Price of being “just like a creationist”. I would not like to think McGrath is somehow being selective in whom he chooses to public insult, or that he allows a person’s academic status to deflect him from making insults he quite liberally casts out to non-academics who make the very same arguments.

I hope to see in future McGrath have the intellectual consistency to publicly accuse Price and Thompson of being like creationists in their mythicist views.

But now on to what McGrath does say in his review:

McGrath argues that the evidence for Jesus is comparable to the evidence for anyone else in ancient times

Dr James McGrath writes (my emphasis):

Price next proceeds to argue that the form critical insight, that the Jesus tradition reflects a variety of uses for stories and sayings in early Christianity, combines with the criterion of dissimilarity to annihilate any possibility that historical material has been preserved. Since everything that was preserved was in some way useful to early Christians, none of it can then be discontinuous with Christianity, and thus nothing is authentic.

If we combined these two principles and applied them to all historical figures, we might expect there to be nothing left of our historical knowledge of anyone, other than in sources in which authors give us their own views in their own words.

James is a doctor and professor of religion, though in at least one of his publications, and on his blog, he asserts his credentials as an “historian”. I have attempted to elicit responses from McGrath a number of times to justify what he describes as his profession’s “historical methodology”, but concluded some time ago my efforts were wasted. The best he ever seems to come up with is that he handles source documents like any other (nonbiblical) historian and when I demonstrate that this is not so, he either goes silent or finds a technicality in my challenge to avoid an intellectually honest response. For example, the only response he has offered to my argument about the nature of evidence in the field of history has been to plead excuse to escape because I happened to mention in passing the names of Price and Thompson.

So now we return to the words of James I quoted above. They sadly demonstrate, once again, the seemingly utter ignorance among biblical historians of how other historians (secular ones) handle source documents.

If James’ assertion there were to be believed, it would mean that all the evidence we have of any person from ancient times is derived solely from “form criticism” and “the criterion of dissimilarity”!

What James is implying is that we only know about Julius Caesar, Brutus, Hammurabi, Pericles, Socrates, as a result of the painstaking research of historians applying methods of form criticism and various criteria such as that of dissimilarity.

I am tempted to propose that no biblical scholar be allowed to touch any historical topic until he has passed a remedial course (just half a semester or less will do) in how historians really understand the nature of primary and secondary evidence. If you are unsure of what I am referring to, check the link I included above re “my argument about the nature of the evidence.”

James is not saying it directly, but he appears to be alluding to that very common yet very ignorant argument that there is as much evidence for Jesus as there is for Julius Caesar or George Washington. Those who make this claim are simply exposing their ignorance. Unlike the wealth of evidence we have for other historical figures, we have none — nothing but mere uncorroborated assertion in texts of unknown authorship, date and provenance — for Jesus.

The very distinction between primary and secondary evidence goes back in modern times to Leopold von Ranke, known sometimes as a “father of modern history”. Niels Peter Lemche attempted to bring (OT) biblical historians up to speed with their secular counterparts by educating them in the basics of History 101 by introducing them to the most fundamental basics as enunciated by von Ranke. He is fully aware that the philosophy of history has moved on since his time, but his point was that the most fundamental and logical basis for determining what is a “bedrock fact” and what is an interpretation or propaganda claim was laid out by von Ranke, and has never been superseded.

James McGrath appears to know nothing of von Ranke, and when informed only recently, apparently for the first time, by a Butler University colleague, of the saying that “history is an art”, he appeared to interpret its meaning as having something to do with the criteriological tools New Testament scholars use to decide what was factual about Jesus. In fact, von Ranke originated the phrase in order to explain how historians construct their stories around the basic facts! I have discussed Scot McKnight’s (another biblical scholar) lament over such ignorance of “real history” found among biblical scholars. (Again, see the above and related links.)

Biblical historians like Dr McGrath appear to be ignorant of how nonbiblical historians handle source documents and evaluate their worth and function as historical sources.

The evidence for Julius Caesar, for example, is both primary and secondary, and it is the primary that gives weight to the secondary. On the basis of wide-ranging primary evidence (epigraphical, monumental, coins, etc) we have for Julius Caesar we are entitled to make a host of assumptions of varying degrees of probability concerning the claims of the secondary evidence (in this case, primarily texts). In the case of a figure like Socrates for whom we have no primary evidence, historians lower the threshold of probability for his existence, but can make justifiable conclusions on the basis of a wide-ranging nature of multiple and independent secondary evidence. In the case of Jesus, even Dr Albert Schweitzer conceded that we have no comparable evidence at all that can even so much as allow us any strictly logical or theoretical basis for his existence.

McGrath is unable to distinguish between claims by Jesus’ friends and foes

McGrath attempts to rebut Price’s argument on dissimilarity thus:

Moreover, Price’s statement that all information preserved by early Christians about Jesus must have had a Sitz im Leben in the life of the community deserves to be challenged in at least one important respect:: if there was in fact a historical Jesus, and he said things that were embarrassing to the later church, we might expect that opponents of the Christian movement might have preserved the memory of such things, bringing them up in debates and requiring Christian authors to mention them in spite of their embarrassing character. The prediction by Jesus that he would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days provides a good example of a saying that seems to fit within this category.

Okay, I admit I’m stumped on this one. We have here a devout follower of Jesus, a propagandist for Jesus, writing a claim that Jesus was falsely accused and so died an unjust death of a martyr. At the same time every believer and nonbeliever knows this particular accusation was actually based on a spiritually blind misunderstanding of a hidden reference to the resurrection of Jesus. The accusation is an ironic dramatic high point of the trial. If Jesus’ enemies had never concocted the accusation in real life, his apologists could not have invented anything better to make their case about the prophetic insight of their Son of God and the ignorant blindness of his enemies.

To suggest this accusation could ever have been an “embarrassment” to Christians is simply absurd. It is a statement composed by apologists for Jesus in order to denigrate their opponents.

Does McGrath have poor reading comprehension skills or . . . ?

One of the most inexplicable passages by McGrath states:

And yet he never shows that the scenario he envisages for the emergence of Christianity and its narrative texts is anything other than possible, at best, and that provided one is willing to assume a number of controversial points which likewise remain unjustified.

For instance, is it possible that early Christians went through the Jewish Scriptures, choosing a story here, a turn of phrase there, and weaved them together to create a fictional Messiah?

I simply don’t understand the basis of this claim, and McGrath does not help my understanding with his failure to provide any evidence from Price to support it. Price dedicates several pages to demonstrating how the details of Mark’s narrative appear to be drawn directly from OT narratives. The linkages are clear and direct and numerous. McGrath fails to address a single one of them.

This reminds me of the time McGrath challenged me to address the arguments for the historicity of Jesus found in the likes of an historian like E.P. Sanders. I did so, and I demonstrated the strong probability — the patent likelihood — that Mark based his narrative entirely on the basis of OT passages. See my posts The Temple Act, John the Baptist, and related posts. Curiously, after writing these posts in direct response to McGrath’s challenge to me to dispute their arguments for historicity, McGrath went quiet. He got busy on other matters and ignored me — and the posts. I eventually pushed him on this, and the most he seemed able to say was that he “disagreed” with me!

So it appears to be instructive that when Price uses the same basic sorts of demonstrations to show that Mark’s narrative are derived from OT precursors and inspirations, McGrath once again chooses to simply ignore them.

The strongest argument he can muster is that Price has merely shown the “possibility”, and not “probability”, that the tales were inspired by OT templates.

This is lame indeed. He even resorts to asserting that the clear literary relationships between the OT and Gospel narratives are nothing more than vague or such generalized parallels like a hero “marrying, reigning, dying”. No wonder McGrath fails to actually address any of Price’s specific examples, or my own posts with similar arguments. He has no response to the clear demonstration of intricate and unique literary connections between them.

McGrath’s last sentence in the above quote is yet one more demonstration of his consistent failure to even listen to what mythicists argue. He reads Price, but he is not seeking to understand him, obviously. He is certainly not making any serious effort to ensure that he portrays Price’s argument honestly. James is stating that Price’s argument is that someone sat down to manufacture from scratch a story about a fictional Messiah.

Price’s argument (like most mythicist arguments I know of) is that the narrative and historicizing details that came to be applied to Jesus accrued over time to a figure or entity already well known and worshiped. No-one is ever said to have sat down and just made up the story of a fictional Messiah. But McGrath needs such straw men to kid himself he is making a serious case against mythicist arguments.

But real life enters at this point, and I will have to finish this post tomorrow if I can.

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Neil Godfrey

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  • 2010-07-14 03:15:13 GMT+0000 - 03:15 | Permalink

    In one of Mark Goodacre’s podcast lectures, he jokes that NT scholars don’t read, so you need a catchy title for them to latch onto — hence his “Tradition Scripturalized” in opposition to Crossan’s dangerous yet compelling “Prophecy Historicized.” His accusation about scholars not reading was surely tongue-in-cheek, but I think he’s right.

    Take the typical modern views on Wrede’s Messianic Secret. I have to assume that many current scholars have only read Wrede in summary form or indirectly from reviews and apologetic refutation. How many times have we heard them say, “What Wrede didn’t take into account was…”, only to discover that Wrede did take their objections into account. Wrede was no fool. It’s as if they’ve read only the dust jacket or the Kirkus review.

    What McGrath is doing in his review of Price’s essay is to provide apologists, other lazy scholars, and faithful laymen a way to act as if they’ve read the original work without going through the distasteful task of actually reading it. In a word, he’s offering talking points for the faithful and the indolent.

    “What Price fails to take into account,” they will parrot, and then quote the talking points. And they’ll neither know nor care that Price did address the issues convincingly and in detail. What’s more is, if you point it out to them they still won’t care. Apologia simply works under a different set of rules, where protecting the Received Truth is more important than actually being honest.

  • Daryl
    2010-07-14 04:38:52 GMT+0000 - 04:38 | Permalink

    It says something about the NT field that Price is considered a fringe commentator on the historical Jesus, when he seems to have a better grasp of how history is studied than most scholars. Then again, we are talking about ‘biblical’* scholars.

    *I try not to indulge in sneer quotes, but the more I learn about historical Jesus studies, the more I think they’re warranted. Even in its non-fundamentalist guise, HJ research has all the characteristics of an apologetic endeavour.

  • Pingback: Reviewing McGrath’s review of Robert Price on mythicism (2) « Vridar

  • 2010-07-14 20:39:50 GMT+0000 - 20:39 | Permalink

    I was quite surprised when I subscribed to a couple of scholarly discussion lists (biblical) how often different scholars openly admitted to relying on reviews for their information about various arguments. Obviously no-one has time to read everything, and reviews do have a real value. But if I want to learn someone’s arguments I only use the review as a rough guide. Reading a few reviews from different perspectives soon alerts one to their subjective nature. It’s just as important to know something about the views of the reviewer and their relations with the author they are reviewing, etc.

    But you are right. So many clearly do rely on reviews and abstracts, it seems. I recently was reminded of this when I was consulting the footnotes in Eddy and Boyd’s Jesus Legend — it was clear they had not fully read many of the articles or some of the books to which they referred.

    As for the sneer quotes, I lost my respect for James McGrath as both a gentleman and a scholar quite some time ago.

    • 2010-07-14 21:52:13 GMT+0000 - 21:52 | Permalink

      Neil: I recently was reminded of this when I was consulting the footnotes in Eddy and Boyd’s Jesus Legend…

      That reminds me of something I noticed recently. Now that we can do research quickly on line, it’s easy see when a writer claims to be quoting from a source, but he is actually quoting from a quote. For example, I was trying to find what various people thought about the passage at the end of Mark 1, where in some ancient manuscripts Jesus looks upon the leper with compassion, while in others he looks on him with anger.

      Mark A. Proctor’s doctoral dissertation, “A Case for the Angry Jesus,” gets quoted all the time when discussing this issue. I’ve had difficulty in obtaining this obscure work, and I suspect so have most of the people who quote it. I say that because every reference looks the same. They all seem to have copied from it from the first reference. In fact each time it’s referred to, the footnote appears to have been copied and pasted.

      • 2010-07-18 00:11:45 GMT+0000 - 00:11 | Permalink

        Many biblical scholars are scarcely deserving of the name at all. How many times do we hear them say, for example, that the idea of a crucified Messiah was inconceivable (yet it was conceived) by Jews and never support such a claim with evidence, or if they do support it with evidence, it will be just one narrow slice of all that is available and germane to the argument. Once one brings in the rest of the evidence they are overlooking, as I once did with McGrath, for example, and as I saw Tom Verenna also do in a recent Facebook exchange with McGrath, such a scholar simply digs his heals in and responds with arrogance or abuse.

  • Pingback: The Dishonesty of a “scholarly” review of Robert Price « Vridar

  • mikelioso
    2010-07-18 05:33:05 GMT+0000 - 05:33 | Permalink

    that we should take away Jesus’ death and resurrection as the meaning of the “I will destroy the temple and build another in 3 days” line isn’t so obvious in Mark as John. Strangely Mark never quotes Jesus as saying this and in fact denies that he did. It says that this particular piece of testimony is false. Mark doesn’t believe Jesus said it so I doubt he sees it as a prophecy of Jesus resurrection as John does. Thomas has a similar saying but here Jesus says he will destroy the “house and no one will be able to rebuild it. While it could be argued that since the Gnostic’s deny a physical resurrection, that Jesus would rise as a spirit not body may be in mind. But the wholly negative form of this statement makes me think that it is the destruction of the Jerusalem temple that is in mind here. So if this statement was originally a statement on Jesus’ resurrection why does the Mark community recoil from it so? There is a logic that this was an accusation leveled against the Jesus tradition that he prophesied the destruction off the temple. If Jesus were an actual man, he may have made the statement. Such over the top promises of divine intervention were apparently common to the magicians and madmen of Judea. For instance the case of the man who claims the Jordan will dry up for his followers or the one who claims the wall of Jerusalem will collapse for him. (Jewish Antiquities 20.97-98)( Jewish War 2.259-263 and Jewish Antiquities 20.169-171)
    This raises the possibility that Jesus, if he were an actual personality, made such a wild boast and after his death this rather embarrassing statement were transformed into a promise of his own resurrection.

    • 2010-07-18 07:21:11 GMT+0000 - 07:21 | Permalink

      You are overlooking the context of the saying, as well as what the saying has meant to the readers of the Gospel (the author’s audience) through the ages.

      No reader can take this passage as something Jesus did not really say. That Mark calls it false testimony is his way of saying it was falsely interpreted and wrongly used against him. Mark’s gospel is full of such “ironical” details throughout. Scholars even speak of “Markan irony”.

      As for your last paragraph, if the saying really were an embarrassment to the early church, the church members were very dense indeed not to have twigged to the symbolic interpretation even 40 years later when Mark is said to have been written.

      But of course, we have no independent evidence enemies of Jesus ever did accuse him of this. The accusation is the work of the author of the Gospel. It is, tellingly, the only “false” charge of many that he chooses to detail.

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