Just two points from James D. G. Dunn’s response to Robert M. Price’s chapter, “Jesus at the Vanishing Point”, in The Historical Jesus: Five Views are addressed here. Maybe will address more over time in other posts. Dunn’s responses are lazy and insulting dismissals of Price’s arguments, not rebuttals based on logic or evidence, as remarked upon in recent comments. It is instructive to compare Price’s own response to Dunn’s chapter in the same book. No insult. No cavalier dismissals. But a pointed rebuttal from the evidence, scholarship and all tied together with rigid and nonfallacious logic. Price’s responses to Dunn make for much more interesting reading. I should highlight them more with posts in the future.
Meanwhile, the two points I address here are Dunn’s insult and avoidance of what Price’s stated about
- the varying dates and scenarios for Jesus’ crucifixion in the early Christian evidence, and
- the question of Paul’s meeting James the brother of the Lord
Dunn: Price’s appeal to the confused dates for Jesus’ crucifixion “simply smacks of desperation”
Price was addressing the circularity of the belief that Jesus was historical. (I have addressed the same point many times and attempted to demonstrate that Historical Jesus studies are generally conducted in either ignorance or disregard for the methodologies and checks against such circularities that are normative for other ancient and modern historical studies.)
Price specifically points to the questions that must be raised given the “persistent alternative traditions” to the dating of Jesus. He asks the obvious question that needs to be asked and accounted for:
How is it that such radically different estimates of Jesus’ dates [including the different views of the power responsible for the crucifixion] grew up side by side if there was a real event at the heart of it? (p. 80)
The canonical gospel account is only one of several settings that were extant right through to the end of the second century:
- Irenaeus thought Jesus was martyred under Claudius Caesar (Demonstration, para 74)
- Talmud makes Jesus the disciple of Rabbi Jeschu ben Perechiah, and had him crucified 83 BCE when Alexander Jannaeus crucified many Pharisees
- Epiphanius also reports these Toledoth Jeschu traditions that placed Jesus’ death about 100 BCE
- Gospel of Peter has Jesus crucified by Herod Antipas
- One of Luke’s sources appears to have had the same tradition, hence he tries to reconcile the two accounts by including Herod in the crucifixion narrative along with Pilate — but bizarrely tying the two stories together by having Jesus return to Pilate for crucifixion despite Pilate turning the case over to Herod and Herod setting Jesus free!
These variations demand an explanation. And Price offers an explanation:
I am of the opinion that the varying dates are the residue of various attempts to anchor an originally mythic or legendary Jesus in more or less recent history. It would represent the tendency toward euhemerism. In like manner, Herodotus had tried to calculate the dates of a hypothetically historical Hercules, while Plutarch sought to pin Osiris down as an ancient king of Egypt. Even the Christian Eusebius . . . supposed that Medea and Jason really existed and dated them 780 years after the Patriarch Abraham. Ganymede and Perseus were historical figures too, living some six hundred years after Abraham . . .
(Aside: James McGrath scoffingly accused Price of not offering any plausible explanation for how or why a historical setting for a nonhistorical figure would have arisen. One would never imagine from reading this misleading review that Price actually does indeed cite a nonmythicist scholar’s arguments — those of Elaine Pagels — that DO offer such an explanation. See this post for one of my exposures of the false claims McGrath leveled at Price’s arguments in his own review.)
So how does Dunn respond to this crucial historical question about the complexity and contradictory nature of the evidence that one must address and answer, as Price himself does? Dunn opts simply to ignore the problem and assert that we should only listen to the canonical Gospel story! He implies that the canonical gospel narrative is the only one we should bother with because it is “much more substantial data” and was written “within a generation or two of Jesus’ himself”.
[T]he appeal to the confused dates for Jesus’ crucifixion as similar to the occasional speculations about the “historical” Hercules or an “historical” Osiris, an appeal that . . . ignores the much more substantial data of the New Testament writers, writing within a generation or two of Jesus himself, simply smacks of some desperation. (p. 98)
Well, yes, I suppose we have many more words surviving in the canonical gospels about this event’s setting because, well, they eventually became the canonical gospels among large segments of Christianity and other writings came to be suppressed. Dunn simply chooses to ignore the problem in the surviving evidence that Price raises and addresses. There is no evidence that what became the canonical Gospel narrative was normative throughout the Christianities of the first and second centuries. We know it was not. We have many rival gospel narratives that are even glimpsed in the writings of Irenaeus and Justin Martyr. Dunn has fallen under the “tyranny of the Gospels” and is interpreting all the other Christian writings according to their canon or rule. This is merely falling into step with apologetic tradition and is not genuine historical methodology or a valid treatment of the evidence.
As for his assumption that the gospels were written within a generation or two of Jesus himself, again this is a classic textbook case of logical circularity. It begins with the assumption that the Gospel narrative is about real historical events, and uses this assumption to argue that the Gospel narratives are therefore based on real historical events!
Dunn: Price’s discussion of James the brother of the Lord is “an argument that is scraping the barrel and has lost its self-respect.”
Dunn once again uses insult in preference to actually addressing the specific point Price was making.
Here is what Price wrote:
But what about the one whom Paul calls “James the brother of the Lord” (Gal. 1:19)? Paul says he met him, so mustn’t he have understood Jesus to be a figure of recent history? That is indeed a natural reading, but it is not the only one. (p. 65)
The Johannine epistles presuppose a missionary brotherhood, and clearly this does not imply all such missionaries were literal siblings of Jesus. When we read in 1 Corinthians 3:9 of the “colaborers of the Lord” we do not assume that both “Paul and Apollos had offices down the hall from God as ‘the Lord’s colleagues.’
It is surprising the number of times one runs across people reading this passage in Galatians as saying that James was the brother of Jesus. This demonstrates the same tyranny of gospel reading into the epistles that we find among those who argue Paul was speaking of an “empty tomb” when all he says is that Jesus was “buried”. Galatians does not mention Jesus, but the Lord. It is quite plausible that Paul in Galatians was merely identifying James as one of the itinerant preachers whose base was Jerusalem. Besides, it is quite plausible — as history demonstrates right through to modern times — that individuals can claim to be a “brother” of Jesus without suggesting they are literal flesh and blood siblings. Gnostics, for example, claimed Thomas was Jesus’ twin brother, yet they did not believe Jesus had ever been a physical mortal.
This is not an argument “for” mythicism. It is merely a very plausible alternative explanation for the way Galatians 1:19 is read by those who bring the later Gospel presuppositions into the text.
Dunn does not address the logic or evidence supporting any part of Price’s discussion. He merely dismisses it all with an insult. Such a response is certainly a mental energy saver.
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