Dunn on Price (2)

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by Neil Godfrey

Scholars are very busy people so we can surely forgive them when they write reviews that indicate they haven’t taken the time to read attentively what they are reviewing.

One instance of this is James D. G. Dunn’s review of Robert Price’s chapter questioning the historicity of Jesus in The Historical Jesus: Five Views. Dunn faults Price for irritating him by “ignoring what everyone else in the business regards as primary data”.

Where I begin to become irritated by Price’s thesis, as with those of his predecessors, is his ignoring what everyone else in the business regards as primary data . . . . Why no mention of 1 Corinthians 15:3 — generally reckoned to be an account of the faith that Paul received when he was converted, that is, within two or three years of the putative events — “that Christ died. . . .” Why no reference to Paul’s preaching of Christ crucified (1 Cor 1:23), his preaching as openly portraying Christ as crucified (Gal 3:1)?

When I read or hear what others say about such and such, I have learned it generally pays to read such and such for myself before taking anyone else’s perceptions and accounts on board. Anyone reading Dunn’s criticism here would, on the civil assumption he is accurately indicating what Price failed to address, tend to think Price a bit of a dunce for ignoring such obvious data.

But Dunn’s simply got it wrong here and his assertion that Price ignores these scriptures is bluntly false. Why did Beilby and Eddy, the editors of the book, not exercise more care and send Dunn’s response back for correction instead of allowing it to be published with such a patently  embarrassing error?

Price does indeed address all those scriptures that speak of exactly what Dunn says Price ignores. Price writes:

All the Epistles seem to know is a Jesus Christ, Son of God, who came into the world to die as a sacrifice for human sin and was raised by God and enthroned in heaven. (p. 65)

This is Price’s opening sentence to a paragraph that lists what other mythicists (and himself) say about these verses that speak of Christ’s crucifixion.

Dunn continues the reasons for his irritation:

How can Price actually assert that “we should never guess from the Epistles that Jesus died in any particular historical or political context,” when it is well enough known that crucifixion was a Roman political method of execution characteristically for rebels and slaves?

Again, one must ask why Dunn asks this when Price answered the question in the very next half of the sentence that Dunn only partially quotes, and the sentence following. This reminds me of the worst methods of proof-texting where some bible-thumpers have been known to stop quoting at a particular point in a verse or chapter when the next half of the passage contradicts the point they are wanting to make.

Price’s full sentence and his subsequent one read:

. . . we should never guess from the Epistles that Jesus died in any particular historical or political context, only that the fallen angels (Col 2:15), the archons of this age, did him in, little realizing they were sealing their own doom (1 Cor 2:6-8). It is hard to imagine that the authors of Romans 13:3 and 1 Peter 2:13-14 (where we read that Roman governors punish only the wicked, not the righteous) believed that Jesus died at the order of Pontius Pilate. (p. 63 – my emphasis)

So contrary to what Dunn would lead readers to think, Price gives two sound reasons from the Epistles themselves for failing to see “any particular historical or political context” to the crucifixion. The Epistles themselves say on the one hand that it was non-earthly powers who crucified Jesus, and on the other that earthly governors do not harm the righteous!

And Dunn is so sure that the only sensible reading of the Epistles is that they somehow indirectly imply or assume that Jesus was crucified by earthly governors that he has no patience for the “ludicrous” alternative?

One might also add that crucifixion, as Dunn certainly knows, was not uniquely a Roman punishment for rebels and slaves. Crucifixion was practiced by many ancient peoples before the Romans appeared on the scene. The Persians, Greeks, Jews themselves before the Roman conquest, Egyptians, all used crucifixion. Crucifixion scenes are also a popular topic in popular fiction of the centuries either side of the supposed time of Jesus. (Have discussed some of these in some of the posts here.)

Dunn’s critique would have more substance if he addressed Price’s answer or explanation that actually anticipates Dunn’s objection, instead of simply quoting the first part of the sentence that raises the problem, as if Price never went on to justify his argument.

Continuing Dunn’s complaint:

I could go on at some length — “the seed of David” (Rom 1:3), “born under the law” (Gal 4:4), “Christ did not please himself” (Rom 15:3). Yet Price is able to assert that “the Epistles . . . do not evidence a recent historical Jesus,” a ludicrous claim that simply diminishes the credibility of the arguments used in support. (p. 96)

Dunn fails to explain how the phrases he cites “seed of David”, “born under the law” and “Christ did not please himself” have any sort of status as being evidence of “a recent historical Jesus”. Here he has lost me. His data simply has no bearing on his assertion that Jesus was a recent historical figure. But he does imply there are other passages he has not discussed here — “I could go on at some length”. Presumably, therefore, these three passages are only a sample of the evidence. Perhaps the telling phrases that really do assert Jesus was a recent historical figure are in the ones left unsaid.

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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on “Dunn on Price (2)”

  1. [quote]
    But Dunn’s simply got it wrong here and his assertion that Price ignores these scriptures is bluntly false. Why did Beilby and Eddy, the editors of the book, not exercise more care and send Dunn’s response back for correction instead of allowing it to be published with such a patently embarrassing error?

    Because the industry is less about he accurate distribution of factual data, and more about drama, and creating popular books people will read.

    One point is that the data we have regarding jesus, and even the apostles is sketchy at best. We find new data very seldom. And all he existing texts have been translated and retranslated many times. So as opposed to many industries that continue to make advances, and major discoveries, NT studies and the study of it’s early history, hasn’t had many if any important discoveries since the times of Strauss or Schweitzer. (For example, name 10 major advances in our knowledge of christian history in the last 100 years…)

    In addition. Christian studies is very different than many fields. If a scientist were to say change his mind on some topic, or discover some new idea, he is not very likely to be attacked. But in christian studies, scholars create “personalities” just as our movie actors do. We know what to expect from Jonhhy Deep, or Sean Pean when we see them in a movie. In the same way, the NT ‘scholars’ also play a role, so we know what a John Dominic Crossan or Bart Ehrman book will be like. They have to keep all their writings within their established and marketed persona.

    This is because nothing is actually happening in christian history studies, so the industry has turned into simply a entertainment industry.

    Cheers! webulite@gmail.com

  2. Doesn’t Dunn quote Old Testament scripture as testifying to a historical Jesus?

    Romans 15:3

    ‘For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.’

    Dunn is adamant that this points to an historical Jesus, when anybody can see that Paul is quoting Old Testament scripture.

    How can anybody claim that it is ‘ludicrous’ to say that Romans 15:3 is not evidence for an historical Jesus?

    Paul quotes Old Testament scripture, and Dunn says it is ‘ludicrous’ that this is not evidence for an historical Jesus.

    This is utterly astonishing of Dunn.

  3. “This is always the fatal flaw with the “Jesus myth” thesis: the improbability of the total invention of a figure who had purportedly lived within the generation of the inventers, or the imposition of such an elaborate myth on some minor figure from Galilee. Price is content with the explanation that it all began “with a more or less vague savior myth.” Sad, really….”

    Is this really a fatal flaw? Does Price say that a myth was imposed on a minor figure from Galilee? Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the point that there was no such figure? And why is such an invention improbable-weren’t the gospels written 40+ years after the supposed death of Jesus?

  4. I go into it a little further I think. There is a continual reference to gospel writing 40 years after the supposed death of Jesus.

    In 1985 i clearly noticed that common impression was that the first and second world wars had been blurred together, there was no western infiltration of asia by axis forces and our most prized military endeavours were carried out by noble sacrifice.

    I bring this up because there were a lot of books written from prisons, and homes, hospitals and correspondents who wanted to set their side of the events straight by the ends of the two major conflicts. Yet nobody wanted to read them. Since then we have had numerous historians and novelists rewrite the the histories (and admittedly the accounts) to set the wars in “A NEW LIGHT”.

    The jesus character is not a jesus who was recorded but a jesus of political intent. Whether the jesus ever lived is irrelevant, its the implication that a Jesus lived that is important to the writers and redactors of a history that was barely recorded.

    It’s clear that the omission of a profoundly oppressed and brutal society also means that everyone, whether jew, christian, hellenistic or even roman indicates that deprivation was the norm not the example.

    Jesus and Paul sacrificed little at all, if either actually ever existed.

  5. Dunn faults Price for irritating him by “ignoring what everyone else in the business regards as primary data”.

    I would sincerely like to know by what criteria does he label something as “primary data”? Is this a privilege reserved only for canonical scripture?

    Enough is enough. It’s time for honest historians to rescue the subject of Christian Origins from these pretenders.

  6. I am sorry to say that “honest historians” would only say that there are some references to a jesus and some to other people that the scriptures ignore but obvious historians mention.

    Jesus just wasnt that big a deal.

  7. Once we say that Jesus was not that big a deal, then I think we lose our rationale for explaining how the canonical gospels themselves were based on the life of this Jesus. How can we explain someone who was no big deal being worshiped (by Jews!) alongside God within a few years? How can we explain a virtual nonentity stirring up the political and religious establishment into enough ire to plot to kill him?

    I agree Jesus wasn’t that big a deal. But to paraphrase Lemche who was speaking of King David, honest historians need to choose whether they want the Jesus who is supposedly the subject of the gospels or one that has no relationship with the gospels. They can’t have both.

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