2010-07-16

The Dishonesty of a “Scholarly” Review of Robert Price

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by Neil Godfrey

Associate Professor of Religion at Butler University, and professing Christian, James McGrath, has written in his review of Price’s chapter, “Jesus at the Vanishing Point”, in The Historical Jesus: Five Views, the following:

Crossan rightly highlights that Price’s statement that he will simply skip the matter of the Testimonium Flavianum is “not an acceptable scholarly argument as far as I am concerned”.

It is outright dishonesty to suggest Price “simply skips the matter of the TF”. Price in fact discusses his scholarly views of the TF, and cites a number of scholarly references supporting his view and where readers can explore his arguments in more depth. Price also explains why the evidence for the TF is less conclusive than other evidence he proceeds to discuss.

(I expand on these and other points in my two-part review — Part 1Part 2 — of McGrath’s so-called review of Price’s chapter. The point of this post is simply to highlight as brief notes the extent to which at least one scholar will go when faced with mythicist arguments. See the fuller reviews for the details.)

McGrath also writes:

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? Certainly – as are all other scenarios. What is never explained is why someone would have done this . . .

This is a double lie. Price nowhere argues that early Christians weaved scriptures to “create” a fictional Messiah. Price explains at some length the evidence for the evolutionary process of the emergence of the Jesus myth, and how scripturally-inspired narratives accrued over time to an entity that was known long before scriptural narratives were attached to him. It is a dishonest misrepresentation for someone as intelligent and scholarly as an associate professor to misrepresent Price as arguing that a group of people “created a fictional Messiah” out of scriptures.

The second lie in this statement of McGrath’s is that Price never explains why someone would have created fictional narratives about Jesus. Price in fact writes the better part of a page in a brief chapter explaining the motives and reasons that very likely were the reason for this development. He also cites other scholars whose work supports his own case.

Another outright falsehood is McGrath’s inference that the parallels between the Jesus narratives and those in the Old Testament are nothing more than the sorts of generalities we find in common among stories and lives everywhere: people rise to power, they marry, they reign, they die. McGrath fails to address a single one of Price’s actual parallels which would prove McGrath’s claim to be nonsense. Price’s parallels conform to scholarly criteria for literary borrowings. McGrath likes to boast he can use criteria to dig out historical facts, but he will not touch it when it can also demonstrate the fictional character of his so-called facts.

Another unscholarly falsehood — or is it just plain ignorance? — is his inference that if Jesus mythicists reject the “criteriology” and “methods” used by biblical scholars to decide the historicity of Jesus, then to be consistent they must also “expect there to be nothing left of our historical knowledge of anyone”. McGrath has no right to call himself an historian if he really believes that the evidence and what we know about other ancient historical figures is no more secure, or acquired by the same methods, as for historical Jesus studies.

He similarly falsely claims that the mythical trappings associated with Jesus are of the same order as mythical trappings associated with Alexander the Great. But he also claims to have read Price’s chapter that demonstrates that this is not so, and he avoids any mention of Price’s real argument.

When McGrath argues that Price merely shows what is possible instead of what is probable (another falsehood that McGrath can only sustain by hiding Price’s actual arguments!), McGrath curiously fails to spell out the scenario he believes trumps all mythicist ones and is the most plausible of all possible explanations:

A failed prophet who was rejected by his fellow Jews as a demon-possessed fake, or a weirdo who spoke in bizarre metaphors that meant little to them, or who preached completely unrealistic ethics, or at very best was John the Baptist or one of the prophets risen from the dead, was condemned as a criminal insurrectionist along with other bandits. After his execution, a miniscule band of devotees (who also had never understood him while he was alive), went out and converted those same Jews by the thousands — and even gentiles by more thousands — convincing them that this man was indeed a divinity like no other, one to be worshiped alongside the very God Most High himself, and before long was even to be acknowledged as the one through whom the whole universe was created and continued to be sustained. And having turned around and believed all this of this crucified mortal whom they had little regard for while alive, they devoured letters from supposed eyewitnesses who never once found reason to refer to a single narrative event of his life!

And the reason Jews don’t eat pigs is that they believe they can fly and so will never be able to catch them.

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29 thoughts on “The Dishonesty of a “Scholarly” Review of Robert Price”

  1. I thought that Crossan’s comment was just a cheap shot and I think that MrGrath piled on. I am willing to bet that each of the scholars contributing to Five Views operated under space constraints and that each one of them had to decide which issues they were going to address. Price decided not to take up Josephus in detail in the space allotted to him. Suggesting that this reflected some shortcomings as a scholar was uncharitable.

  2. I think Vinny, that the unscholarly part would be lying about what Price actually says, not the failure to address. Price referred to other works, and did not comprehensively address the evidence. McGrath and Crossan state that Price skips the subject entirely, which is as patently false as to claim that someone who directs the reader to other sources for explanation of evidence for Alexander the Great in a discussion of how he affected culture X.

    Price clearly says his beliefs, references material on why, and deals with other issues.

  3. It is outright dishonesty to suggest Price “simply skips the matter of the TF”. Price in fact discusses his scholarly views of the TF, and a number of scholarly references scholarly supporting his view and where readers can explore his arguments in more depth. Price also explains why the evidence for the TF is less conclusive than other evidence he proceeds to discuss.

    Where does he do that??? Price spends about one paragraph on the TF, which you quoted in an earlier blog entry. Here is what YOU wrote, where you highlighted the references that Price used:

    What both McGrath and Crossan fail to mention is that Price makes his position — his scholarly position — on the TF very clear. He adds to the above:

    [Price writes:] “For the record, my guess is that Eusebius fabricated it [and here Price adds a footnote referencing a scholarly source with page references] and that the tenth-century Arabic version [again a footnote to another scholarly source] represents an abridgement of the Eusebian original, not a more primitive, modest version. My opinion is that John Meier and others are rewriting a bad text to make it a good one, to rehabilitate it for use as a piece of evidence. [And here again is another footnote to a scholarly source, page references included].”

    Once again we see McGrath (and not only McGrath in this instance) seizing on a singular rhetorical turn of phrase to make it sound as if Price has no argument and is not interesting in even addressing an argument that is pertinent to any discussion on the evidence for Jesus.

    And that’s all. The ONLY source that supports Price is the first one, which is to Solomon Zeitlin, published in 1931. 1931! The second one is to Shlomo Pines, who argues that the 10th Arabic version is more authentic than what came down to us. The 3rd one is to Robert Van Voorst, who writes in the SAME book that Price references “The overwhelming majority of scholars holds that the words “the brother of Jesus called Christ” are authentic” (page 83) and who believes that Josephus wrote the TF (though in a more neutral form). So, of those three scholars he cited, only one supports him! And that is a scholar writing 80 years ago!

    Not that it means that this one scholar is wrong. But why use something so old? Look, if Josephus did write something about a Jesus in the TF or in the James reference it would be a BIG strike against most Jesus Myth positions.

    Let me put in Price’s WHOLE contribution on the TF (unless I’ve missed something):

    “Let me leapfrog the tiresome debate over whether the Testimonium Flavianum is authentic. For the record, my guess is that Eusebius fabricated it [Price references a 1931 publication by Zeitlin] and that the tenth-century Arabic version [reference to Shlomo Pines’ work] represents an abridgement of the Eusebian original, not a more primitive, modest version. My opinion is that John Meier and others are rewriting a bad text to make it a good one, to rehabilitate it for use as a piece of evidence. [Footnote to Van Voorst, who thinks that Josephus wrote about Jesus].”

    That’s it. That’s all he wrote on Josephus’s contributions, which most scholars believe are authentic (in part), and which, if true, is one of the most compelling pieces of data of secular confirmation for the existence of a historical Jesus.

    1. The question of the authenticity of the TF and the James references is old hat. The TF is an obvious insertion into the text and the James reference is, itself, shown to be spurious by the context of the paragraph in which it appears.

      However, neither of these have any bearing on the mythicist position even if they are, in fact, authentic. This due to the simple fact that, at best, they are parroting Christian belief and show no sign of any knowledge apart from information that would have come from Christians in the first place.

      1. This due to the simple fact that, at best, they are parroting Christian belief and show no sign of any knowledge apart from information that would have come from Christians in the first place.

        Robert, I’ve never understood the force of this objection. What is the most likely reason that Christians in the time of Josephus (or Tacitus for that matter) were telling people that Jesus had been killed at the time of Pilate? Surely, one of the stronger possibilities has to be (all other things being equal) that it was reflecting something that actually happened?

    2. “Surely, one of the stronger possibilities has to be (all other things being equal) that it was reflecting something that actually happened?”

      This possibility is no more likely than the possibility that this was something believed to have happened based on Mark’s or even Matthew’s story.

      The most likely possibility, of course, is that the references are spurious.

    3. Yeh yeh yeh, GDon. I was not going to bother with your post but then I recalled that the good Christian Doctor of Religion James McGrath says he judges my opinions on the basis of what commenters to my blog write, so if I don’t respond he might conclude I agree with you.

      So stop your own misrepresentation and acknowledge that McGrath and Crossan are both liars for communicating to their readers that Price “skips over” the TF. He does not. He discusses and makes clear his views succinctly. He skips over nothing. McGrath would have his readers believe Price does not even bother to address the TF in his equation. You can disagree with Price’s interpretation all you like, but that is a non sequitur. McGrath has attempted to mislead his readers with an outright falsehood here and in several other points throughout his dishonest review. But maybe it is not dishonest. Maybe McGrath lacks reading comprehension skills of a fourth grader and Butler University needs to have its educational status reviewed.

      As for your assertion that the TF is so Popeye with Spinach type powerful, read the history of this interpretation of the TF for pre-Holocaust views here and specifically here, and referenced in passing again here.

      And academic worth his salt knows and ought to be aware of, and factor in, the sociological as well as his personal biases.

      1. Well, you wrote that “Price in fact discusses his scholarly views of the TF, and cites a number of scholarly references supporting his view and where readers can explore his arguments in more depth.” But in fact Price only cites ONE scholarly source that supports his view. The other two do NOT support his view. So what is the etiquette here? Should I accuse you of lying or of misrepresentation? Or give you the benefit of the doubt?

        No problems at all with you putting it out there, but fair dinkum can you tone down the rhetoric? You sound like one of the Rational Response Squad Lost Boys.

        Let’s get all the information out, so that people can make up their own minds on the question of lying.

        Here is what McGrath wrote:

        “Crossan rightly highlights that Price’s statement that he will simply skip the matter of the Testimonium Flavianum is “not an acceptable scholarly argument as far as I am concerned” (p.86). Johnson points out that the phenomenon of earliest Christianity includes historical data and characteristics that resist the mythicist attempts to wish them away (p.91).”

        Let’s note that this is the ONLY thing McGrath says on Price and the TF. He claims that Price’s statement that he will skip the **matter** of the TF is “not an acceptable scholarly argument as far as I [Crossan] is concerned”. McGrath notes another reviewer’s comment about mythicist attempts “to wish historical data away.” So, does Price provide a scholarly argument against the TF?

        Here is what Price wrote:

        “Let me leapfrog the tiresome debate over whether the Testimonium Flavianum is authentic. For the record, my guess is that Eusebius fabricated it [16] and that the tenth-century Arabic version [17] represents an abridgement of the Eusebian original, not a more primitive, modest version. My opinion is that John Meier and others are rewriting a bad text to make it a good one, to rehabilitate it for use as a piece of evidence. [18]”

        That’s all that Price writes on the TF.

        Finally, here is what Crossan wrote:

        “My main purpose in this response, however, is not so much to argue negatively against Price’s position as to explain, positively, what persuades me of my opposing viewpoint. I have two arguments, one minor and external, the other major and internal.

        The first argument is from a convergence between one late first-century text from the Jewish historian Josephus (Jewish Antiquities 18.63-64) and one early second-century text from the Roman historian Tacitus (Annals 15.44). And, by the way, Price’s comment, “Let me leapfrog the tiresome debate over whether the Testimonium Flavianum is authentic.” is not an acceptable scholarly comment as far as I am concerned.”

  4. Neil, you wrote:

    McGrath also writes:

    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? Certainly – as are all other scenarios. What is never explained is why someone would have done this . . .

    This is a double lie. Price nowhere argues that early Christians weaved scriptures to “create” a fictional Messiah. Price explains at some length the evidence for the evolutionary process of the emergence of the Jesus myth, and how scripturally-inspired narratives accrued over time to an entity that was known long before scriptural narratives were attached to him. It is a dishonest misrepresentation for someone as intelligent and scholarly as an associate professor to misrepresent Price as arguing that a group of people “created a fictional Messiah” out of scriptures.

    Where does Price explain at some length the evidence for the evolutionary process of the emergence of the Jesus myth? Can you point to that page, please?

    Here is what Price writes:

    “… if there were originally no dominical sayings to settle the question, it is not hard to imagine that soon people would be coining them… It makes eminent sense to suggest, in the Epistles, that we see early Christian sayings just before their attribution to Jesus.

    We can observe the same tendency in the events predicated of Jesus.

    … We must now envision proto-Christian exegetes “discovering” for the first time what Jesus the Son of God had done and said “according to the scriptures” by decoding the ancient texts… It was not a question of memory but of creative exegesis.”

    Price then goes on to show scenes in Mark that reflect passages in the OT, taking examples from all over the place. For example, Price writes “The Gerasene demoniac (Mk 5:1-20) mixes materials from Psalm 107:10, 4, 6, 14, and Odyssey 9.101-565.”

    Now, look at McGrath’s point again:

    “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? Certainly – as are all other scenarios. What is never explained is why someone would have done this, much less done it to produce a crucified Messiah rejected by his contemporaries. If nothing else, Price’s mention of Occam’s Razor at this juncture seems so ironic as to be comical (p.74). How is an unparalleled process of fabricating a fictional Messiah from texts that would have had to have been painstakingly combined a simpler explanation than that there was a historical figure of Jesus, about whom stories were sometimes created to fill in gaps in his followers’ knowledge or to cause him to address issues that he had not?”

  5. NCGRATH
    How is an unparalleled process of fabricating a fictional Messiah from texts…

    CARR
    McGrath thinks Jesus was a real Messiah, and not a fictional Messiah?

    If you had asked Paul if his Messiah was fictional, he would have said no.

    To Paul , Jesus was very real, and was the agent through whom God had created the world.

  6. GD:
    “Let’s note that this is the ONLY thing McGrath says on Price and the TF. He claims that Price’s statement that he will skip the **matter** of the TF is “not an acceptable scholarly argument as far as I [Crossan] is concerned”. McGrath notes another reviewer’s comment about mythicist attempts “to wish historical data away.” So, does Price provide a scholarly argument against the TF?

    Here is what Price wrote:

    “Let me leapfrog the tiresome debate over whether the Testimonium Flavianum is authentic. For the record, my guess is that Eusebius fabricated it [16] and that the tenth-century Arabic version [17] represents an abridgement of the Eusebian original, not a more primitive, modest version. My opinion is that John Meier and others are rewriting a bad text to make it a good one, to rehabilitate it for use as a piece of evidence. [18]”

    That’s all that Price writes on the TF.”

    JW:
    This from someone who thinks that a few words from Paul are proof of HJ. It’s been demonstrated to you Ad Nazorean that the evidence indicates Eusebius is the first to bring the TF to the attention of Patristics. Nothing else is needed to dismiss it as evidence. So we have a difference in what evidence is accepted. What’s important than is if your conclusion is supported by your evidence. The TF is [understatement]controversial[/understatement], Doherty rejects it as evidence. Deal with it.

    Your observation about lying though is correct. Typically the only real lying in this situation is when you accuse the other guy of lying. Something the Church Fathers are actually experts on.

    Joseph

    1. Joseph, whether Josephus is evidence or not is a separate matter. I’m just concerned with the accusations “lying” and “misrepresentation”. Neil is setting the bar so low that anyone can be accused. I’ve put all the quotes from the various sources above, so people can see where Neil is coming from and judge for themselves.

      1. I have made my position clear and do not resile from it. McGrath plainly asserts outright falsehoods about things Price wrote or did not write.

        He says Price does not address a number of things he does indeed address. He ignores Price’s arguments and falsely states that Price is arguing that some one or group sat down and “created a fictional Jesus” from OT scriptures.

        McGrath uses the same sly word games I have found he uses with me. His intellectual dishonesty should be exposed for what it is.

      2. Thank you for helping to help people judge for themselves, GDon. I provided all the links myself, and extensive quotations from both McGrath and Price, with links, so they can see for themselves without having to rely on your selective commentaries and summaries.

      3. I have made my position clear and do not resile from it. McGrath plainly asserts outright falsehoods about things Price wrote or did not write.

        I see. Then you are lying when you write that Price “cites a number of scholarly references supporting his view”, since in fact Price only cites ONE scholarly reference supporting his view, and that one is around 80 years old. You are plainly asserting outright falsehoods about things Price wrote or did not write. Would that be fair to say?

        I have no problem with you criticizing McGrath, or me, or anyone, on what they say. But when you start accusing people of “lying” and “outright dishonesty”, then you are starting to enter the tin-foil hat zone. You are basically saying you can see the motivation behind the words.

        As someone who has been accused of “lying” by mythicists (particularly by Acharya S fans), all I can say is that such accusations generally make the accuser look like a damn fool.

      4. As you like and do you worst, GDon. I have quoted the passage and named the sources Price cites, and people can read for themselves what I have written.

        You are the one speaking of motives. I have never spoken of motives.

        Your attempts to exculpate McGrath have simply reinforced the evidence of his blatant falsehoods about what Price wrote. I used to think McGrath just had a thing about twisting my words and arguments, and was simply incapable of understanding plain words, and was warned by others a number of times that I was wasting my time correcting him. Since I have seen his handling of Price, I see it is his modus operandi when dealing with mythicism — from anyone, not just me. In this area he has lied about Doherty and Price. And will no doubt accuse me of being “like a creationist” and worse in response. I lost my respect for him as both a scholar and a gentleman over time. If I see an academic publishing falsehoods I will say so. I make no apologies.

        Since I have studied the sources of several scholars I have found a number of them telling outright falsehoods about the evidence they cite. And I have made such cases known on this blog from time to time. Scholars do lie, I have been obliged to learn.

      5. It’s either a case of gross incompetence or deliberate falsificatation. If McGrath cannot fully comprehend and respond to Price’s arguments then he has no business taking up space in an institiution of higher learning. Having read McG’s blog posts, I have to conclude that while he isn’t a deep thinker, he doesn’t appear to have any sort of cognitive disability.

        So what’s left? Perhaps he’s the kind of person who considers it no great sin to lie for a higher truth. I can’t say one way or the other. All we can be reasonably sure of is that he has deliberately misrepresented Price’s words.

      6. For a long time I kept giving McGrath the benefit of the doubt. I really thought he was genuinely misunderstanding something, and certain preconceptions were setting up obstacles to seeing a point of view differently. I have slowly been forced to accept that he has no excuse for writing outright falsehoods about a chapter he says he was eagerly anticipating reading and fully understanding. By reading how he treated Price, it enabled me to see how his twisting of arguments (or more correctly ignoring of arguments and finding clever rhetorical loopholes by which to build a scholarly sounding rebuttal) was not something particular about his exchanges with me. It is simply how he works, period, with mythicism. He may not even think consciously he is lying. He may even think he is being so superior in his insights that he can see through the weaknesses of an argument without even needing to address the argument.

        He has been shown the logical fallacy time and again of his own arguments, and the lack of evidence for his claims, and he simply cannot admit or see it. How can you blame someone who has invested his life in something for not wanting or being able to admit the whole enterprise is flawed. But scholars — public intellectuals — I think, have a public responsibility. One of the reasons for my blog is that I feel it is some way to share the benefits of my education, such as it is. But the real public intellectuals — the academics and professors — do have a responsibility, I think, to maintain the highest standards of intellectual integrity.

        Far too many of them have failed miserably on the political and social justice front, being in effect propagandists for a status quo that is responsible for much criminality and violence. And we have these religious scholars who also do their bit to keep people in their ignorance.

  7. I myself read the book in question and I agree with your charge of disingenuity on McGrath’s part. No one who has not read the book is qualified to make a call on that.
    I think that it’s a case of professional solidarity, for the most part. Price has a decidedly caustic, irreverent, sardonic style. McGrath is precisely the kind of complacently mainstream religionist-historian that Price rails so strongly against and this irreverence in turn inspires McGrath to be similarly boorish in response.

    I tried to comment on his review, but my relaxed tone was ignored in favor of a back-and-forth rancorous spy-versus-spy thing with one specific mythicist. It was kinda lame.

    Anyway . . . . Very good piece. Thanks.

    Ó

    1. I have had a few public exchanges with McGrath and after a little while began to wonder if his preconceptions simply prohibited him from comprehending some things he was reading. It took me a long time to finally wake up to his disingenuity and, eventually, worse. I knew I was opening myself to some flak with my public accusation of dishonesty, but public intellectuals in particular need to be held to account and justify their positions. He made public claims how he was eagerly anticipating reading Price’s chapter to find out for himself what he really argues, so he has no excuse for some of what he wrote.

      On a related matter, on another post of mine he commented strenuously that despite my quoted passages from ancients saying otherwise, that demon activity was confined to the area around the earth — eventually he admitted that the only reason he was arguing against this plain evidence was because he was aiming his remarks at those who have been persuaded by Earl Doherty. Yet he has accused Doherty of being the one who misrepresents the evidence!!!

      This is simply not what anyone can call intellectual integrity.

      1. Of course, his admission here also raises questions about his own quickness to twist my saying about “not really addressing him” when posted his “this explains A LOT” post. — he himself said effectively acknowledged the reason he was talking past me was because he was not really addressing me in his posts!!

    2. I have experienced the same frustration when commenting on Dr. McGrath’s blog. I can sometimes get a response or two, but I think he seems to prefer to going after what he views as low hanging fruit.

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