2010-09-14

Historical Jesus: two vacuous responses from Dunn on Price

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by Neil Godfrey

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

  1. the varying dates and scenarios for Jesus’ crucifixion in the early Christian evidence, and
  2. 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:

  1. Irenaeus thought Jesus was martyred under Claudius Caesar (Demonstration, para 74)
  2. Talmud makes Jesus the disciple of Rabbi Jeschu ben Perechiah, and had him crucified 83 BCE when Alexander Jannaeus crucified many Pharisees
  3. Epiphanius also reports these Toledoth Jeschu traditions that placed Jesus’ death about 100 BCE
  4. Gospel of Peter has Jesus crucified by Herod Antipas
  5. 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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Neil Godfrey

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0 thoughts on “Historical Jesus: two vacuous responses from Dunn on Price”

  1. How are the other responses to Price from Crossan, Johnson, and Bock? The reviewers on Amazon seem to think that Price was utterly refuted!

    “The other scholars were highly critical of Price’s arguments, especially Dunn who was particularly scathing. His was the most effective critique, and the most entertaining- he finished his response by writing that Price’s thesis is “at vanishing point”, the same claim Price’s essay title makes about Jesus. Even the highly sceptical Crossan- who claimed to agree with much of Price’s essay- brought such a devastating critique that it rendered Price’s position bankrupt, by arguing that Price had ignored the strong evidence from secular sources (Tacitus, Josephus) that makes the existence of Jesus historically certain and establishes four key facts about him.”

    Historically certain.

    1. Oh my goodness! Anyone who reads the Price chapter and then any of those critiques must surely (yes?) wonder what on earth Crossan, Johnson and Bock are on. They come nowhere near a cooee of anything Price argues. Crossan merely says some inane thing about being certain Jesus was historical because there are two opposing traditions about him — one apocalyptic and the other non-apocalyptic. He somehow manages to argue that for an opposing tradition to have attached itself to Jesus we must understand that Jesus was therefore historical. Sorry, I’m confused, maybe if someone can email Crossan and ask him to clarify his argument they can relay his answer back to me and attempt to clarify how his response (a) comes within a parsec of anything Price argued, and (b) can be interpreted as any sort of positive argument for Jesus being historical.

      I did post some earlier remarks on Johnson’s response to Price’s chapter:

      http://vridar.wordpress.com/2010/03/12/luke-timothy-johnsons-response-to-robert-price/
      http://vridar.wordpress.com/2010/03/13/responding-to-luke-timothy-johnson-on-prices-mythical-jesus/

      I don’t recall the reasons now, but I think I probably tackled Johnson’s response because at the time I considered his to be the only one that attempted something serious by way of reply to Price.

      I don’t recall Bock’s response, but probably dismissed it on the grounds that I have read enough of Bock elsewhere to know all his assumptions are so circular, gratuitous and apologetic that I see little point wasting time with them. But for sake of this response I have opened up the book again to refresh my memory. And there on the first page of his response is my reason I have little interest in taking Bock seriously. He openly declares his rejection of “Western Enlightenment” values that are at the heart of Price’s critique and historical methodology. Even though Price himself explains how these values do not themselves a priori reject supernaturalism in history, but on the contrary argue that the reasonable secular approach is the argument by analogy, and that it is this reasonable stance that leads to relegating the supernatural alternative to a lesser priority by default to other more commonly experienced possibilities — even though Price himself argues all this, Bock nonetheless objects that God and other “transcendent spirits” are fair assumptions for any historian of Christianity.

      I wonder on what grounds Bock would argue against Islam or ancestor worship of the Chinese? Presumably enlightenment values would play no role. Would it be a matter of My God is Bigger than Your God type argument?

      On the second page Bock simply ignores Price’s explanations for possible origins of the mythical view and rhetorically asks where such mythical views would come from? He simply cannot read or allow to register any of Price’s actual explanations. Presumably he finds them too alien to his preconceptions so that he cannot read them with any seriousness or patience. His mind is made up and any arguments that challenge his mindset he cannot endure, so simply reads over them and looks up as soon as he can no longer hold his breath and asks: What was that all about? He has programmed his mind to reject any challenges to his life-long assumptions. (Maybe when I’m looking for a quick and easy post to do I will turn to another more detailed critique of Dunn’s or Bock’s response to Price.)

      That Amazon review and the Trilobyte blog or whatever it was you linked to earlier seem to contain apologist responses that are no more interested in (or perhaps are not even capable of) genuinely honest and coherent logical and evidence based argument. Their intestinal prejudices are given license to blood-rush themselves by the vacuous, illogical and baseless bigotry expressed by mainstream scholars towards Price.

      This is the sort of irresponsible and intellectually dishonest response of too many mainstream biblical scholars that sometimes provokes me to speak harshly about their betrayal of their responsibility as public intellectuals. They are fanning popular prejudice instead of advancing intellectually honest enlightenment — very often milking the public purse to do so, too.

  2. Something more to the point, the Geek does deal with these issues respectfully every few days and is a great interviewer for point of enquiry.

    Those who debate Prof Price usually do so by not answering the points clearly put to them. Dunne, it appears, is just another trying to cope with this wonderful inventive and provoking persona wheels out for examination.

    Were his opponents, in this regard, half as honest with their audience.

  3. To those early Christian scholars who date the rise of christianity at other than the accepted era can I add Melito of Sardis, circa 175Ce [soft aside : I always take these dates with a chunk of salt]?

    Thus:
    “For the philosophy current with us flourished in the first instance among barbarians;65 and, when it afterwards sprang up among the nations under thy rule, during the distinguished reign of thy ancestor Augustus, it proved to be a blessing of most happy omen to thy empire. For from that time the Roman power has risen to greatness and splendour. To this power thou hast succeeded as the much desired66 possessor; and such shalt thou continue, together with thy son,67 if thou protect that philosophy which has grown up with thy empire, and which took its rise with Augustus; to which also thy more recent ancestors paid honour, along with the other religions prevailing in the empire.”

    Note:- ” the philosophy current with us” [ie Christianity] “flourished in the first instance among barbarians” [ie non Greeks ie Jews]”during the distinguished reign of thy ancestor Augustus” [died 14 CE].

    Not the conventional dating.
    Actually I suspect Irenaeus may quote Melito

    From here:
    http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/melito.html

  4. 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.

    Paul also mentions “sister wives” immediately preceding his mention of Cephas and the brothers of the lord in 1 Cor 9:5. Surely Paul isn’t suggesting that Christians were marrying their sisters. And our translators know that, because they render it as “believing wives”. Paul uses “brother” to mean fellow believer.

    Also the Hebrew name Ahijah means “brother of YHWH”. Some biblical people with this name:

    One of the sons of Bela (1 Chr. 8:7, RV). In AV (KJV) called “Ahiah.”

    One of the five sons of Jerahmeel, who was great-grandson of Judah (1 Chr. 2:25).

    Son of Ahitub (1 Sam. 14:3, 18), Ichabod’s brother; the same probably as Ahimelech, who was high priest at Nob in the reign of Saul (1 Sam. 22:11). Some, however, suppose that Ahimelech was the brother of Ahijah, and that they both officiated as high priests, Ahijah at Gibeah or Kirjath-jearim, and Ahimelech at Nob.

    A Pelonite, one of David’s heroes (1 Chr. 11:36); called also Eliam (2 Sam. 23:34).

    A Levite having charge of the sacred treasury in the temple (1 Chr. 26:20).

    One of Solomon’s secretaries (1 Kings 4:3).

    1. There is no question that none of this proves James was not necessarily a physical brother of Jesus, but it demonstrates amply the plausibility of alternative understandings of the phrase in Galatians 1:19. Paul predates the gospels and Acts, and it is not legitimate to insist absolutely that Paul must be read exclusively through any gospel narrative.

      The blanket dismissal of some academics of even the possibility that a reading of Galatians 1:19 is open to alternative possibilities strikes me as little more than self-serving bigotry and an unscholarly refusal to even consider the evidence.

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