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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