Dunn on Price (4)

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing with a few more comments on Dunn’s response to Price in The Historical Jesus: Five Views . . .

Dunn attempts to rebut Price’s assertion that there is “no mention of a miracle-working Jesus in secular sources” (p. 62):

Now to make this claim, [Price] must dismiss the evidence that Josephus gives as well as the Jewish tradition, which marked Jesus as a sorcerer — evidence he does not discuss but that shows up in major second-century sources that debate Jesus. (p. 101)

The two sources footnoted are the Babylonian Talmud‘s Sandhedrin tractate folio 43 (3 separate links here) and Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, 69.

I don’t know how Dunn defines “secular sources” but I thought secular refers to something nonreligious. I would not have thought of the Babylonian Talmud or Justin Martyr’s writings as “secular”. But leaving that aside, I fail to see how anyone could be impressed by Dunn’s reply to Price here.

As for the Sanhedrin tractate reference, this text was compiled around 500 CE and claims to refer to traditions or writings going back to around 200 CE that are said by some to refer to “Jesus” who, accused of leading “Israel” into apostasy, was held in detention for 40 days before being stoned along with 5 of his disciples and then hanged on Passover eve. Dunn appears to consider that to be independent attestation of the gospel Jesus narrative or tradition. I suppose if there’s not much that’s any better lying around you have to make use of whatever you can find.

As for the Dialogue with Trypho, well, this is a tract written by the Christian Justin Martyr around the middle of the second century, and the passage in referenced is spoken by Justin himself to his Jewish foil. Justin says that the Jews who saw Jesus perform miracles accused him of being a sorcerer or magician. Okay, once again I suppose even this has to be advanced as “independent attestation” that Jesus performed miracles if this is all we’ve got to offer.

No doubt it is necessary for scholars to see a link between the Talmud passage and the words of Justin here, and to use this link to argue for a Jewish “tradition” going back to the days of Jesus — when there is no other evidence around, and they need that evidence, you can’t blame them. It’s hardly the sort of evidence that would normally pass muster for any other event or person in ancient annals.

And Josephus? At least here we do have a “secular” source. But Dunn knows only too well that the one passage in Josephus that speaks of a miracle-working Jesus is tainted with obvious signs of forgery. The same passage would have readers believe that Josephus himself believed Jesus was the Christ.

But scholars need Josephus to say something about Jesus — he is the only potential first century secular source for Jesus  they’ve got. Until the Second World War it was the scholarly consensus that this passage in Josephus was useless as historical evidence (see What they used to say about Josephus as evidence for Jesus), but scholars seem to have let a little desperation get the better of them since then. Many now argue that Josephus really did say something after all, and many argue it was something “neutral” about Jesus. As if a Jewish historian who was otherwise hostile to all anti-establishment movements and ideas would speak neutrally of one who assaulted the daily operations of the Temple and much more. But in my view none of the proposed reconstructions of what Josephus are consistent with Josephan interests, themes and style anyway (Why All Proposed TFs are UnJosephan), but more significantly, there is no evidence that anyone (that is anyone who had an interest in knowing) knew that Josephus said anything about Jesus at all until the fourth century! (Evidence for this is in Jesus in Josephus).

So this is the best Dunn can do to refute Price’s assertion that we have no evidence in secular sources for a miracle-working Jesus:

  1. one secular source that is controversial at best and clearly tainted with forgery;
  2. one second century Christian reference to the Jesus story;
  3. and one even later Jewish source that scarcely gels with anything else scholars would consider reliable “Jesus tradition.”

And Dunn at one point accuses Price of being the one who is “scraping the barrel.”

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Neil Godfrey

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0 thoughts on “Dunn on Price (4)”

  1. It seems that for Dunn, “contemporary” means anything within the first 500 years, and “secular” means anything that isn’t in canonical scripture. I’m not sure what “independent” means in Dunn’s universe. I guess if you aren’t satisfied with the quantity of your evidence, all you have to do is lower the standards for admission.

    The reason Price rightly sets aside the Talmudic references is they’re very late and clearly show the marks of squabbling between Christians and Jews over many decades. There is no independent tradition hiding under the surface.

    I used to think we had to decide between calling it incompetence or dishonesty — but dammit, Neil, you keep presenting us with evidence that it’s both!

  2. Incompetence is a motive for dishonesty.

    I suggest it thrives because of the accident of history that allows biblical and Christian studies in their current forms to be given a peer status alongside real sciences and disciplines. It allows them to assume that their nonsense and facades are legitimately on a par with disciplines that are grounded in genuine logical and methodological rigour.

  3. ‘Justin says that the Jews who saw Jesus perform miracles accused him of being a sorcerer or magician.’

    So why doesn’t Dunn conclude that Jesus was a con-man , doing magic tricks to fool his audience?

    Does Dunn think this report by Justin counts as even the slightest bit of evidence that Jesus was a con-man?

    Of course not. If ancient sources report that Jesus deceived people, they are immediately to be taken as evidence that Jesus did not deceive people. That is called scholarship.

    If people had written that Jesus did not exist, this would be taken as a mention of Jesus by a secular source, written by people who were trying to cover up the truth that Jesus existed.

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