Attis lifts his finger against the Christ-Myth (again), the “ideal type” and “the fatal flaw” — Dunn on Price (6)

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by Neil Godfrey

The so-called “resurrection” of Attis cannot be compared with the resurrection of Jesus because all Attis ever managed to do was avoid bodily corruption, grow his hair and raise a single finger. With this assertion Dunn completely ignores and gives his middle finger to Price’s arguments about the relevance of pagan resurrections to the Christian myth.

Dunn’s attempt to rebut Price by slashing away at straw men also involves claims so muddled and contradictory that one can only assume that he is confident enough of his scholarly status to assume that most readers will thoughtlessly nod their heads to anything at all that sounds critical of the Christ-Myth theory.

Dunn’s raising of Attis’ finger follows directly from his attempt to contrast Jesus with pagan creations on the grounds that Jesus challenges the world about “sin” and calls for “suffering” and “rejection by the world”.

[I]s this Jesus . . . a god of human fabrication made to make the world feel good? (p. 102)

The rhetorical question implies that human creations would not call for suffering or condemnation of sin. Dunn here also exposes his own faith-bias: he is not arguing as a historian, but is letting slip here his starting assumption that Jesus was not a divinity by virtue of belief of his followers, but was made so by God himself.

As for a human deity or fabrication not calling for suffering, one only needs to read Dunn’s ensuing reference to Attis himself! Attis was a god of suffering and rejection — and whose myth condemns false ways of the world — and with whom devotees identified to the point of sharing castration. Greek tragedies and epics which found so many of their themes in the suffering and righteousness of gods and devotees also mocks Dunn’s rhetorical question.

So before we even get to the point of showing how Dunn uses the Attis myth in an attempt to divert readers’ minds from Price’s arguments, we see that his argument is not at its base about historical methodology and inquiry, but it is really a defence of his Faith against historical methodology and use of evidence.

But what of the dying and resurrection gods of paganism? The question needs to be extended from gods to humans as well. Pagan literature of the time covering early Christianity is also replete with motifs of resurrections of not only gods but mere mortals, too. Those scholars and others who say that the idea of a resurrection of a physical body was abhorrent to ancients are presumably ignorant of much of the nonbiblical literature of the day. I have discussed details in many posts, and several of these are linked at my earlier post, The Popularity of Resurrection.

Sure, Attis’s ‘resurrection’ is different in details from that of the story of the resurrection of the dog in the days of emperor Vespasian, and different from the presumed resurrection of the mortal girl Callirhoe (which does have many similarities to the Markan empty tomb and resurrection narrative) in the popular novel by Chariton from before or around the first century, and from the resurrection of Asclepius, Romulus, Hercules, and so many others.

The Christians themselves were very aware of the similarities of these stories to that of their own Christ resurrection myth. From second century Justin’s Trypho, 69:

“Be well assured, then, Trypho,” I continued, “that I am established in the knowledge of and faith in the Scriptures by those counterfeits which he who is called the devil is said to have performed among the Greeks; just as some were wrought by the Magi in Egypt, and others by the false prophets in Elijah’s days. For when they tell that Bacchus, son of Jupiter, was begotten by[Jupiter’s] intercourse with Semele, and that he was the discoverer of the vine; and when they relate, that being torn in pieces, and having died, he rose again, and ascended to heaven; and when they introduce wine into his mysteries, do I not perceive that[the devil] has imitated the prophecy announced by the patriarch Jacob, and recorded by Moses? And when they tell that Hercules was strong, and travelled over all the world, and was begotten by Jove of Alcmene, and ascended to heaven when he died, do I not perceive that the Scripture which speaks of Christ, ‘strong as a giant to run his race,’ has been in like manner imitated? And when he[the devil] brings forward Asculapius as the raiser of the dead and healer of all diseases, may I not say that in this matter likewise he has imitated the prophecies about Christ?

(See also the following ‘chapters’ in Trypho, and First Apology 54)

There was no problem for early Christians to recognize the similarity of pagan myths to their own Christian proclamation. The problem is the embarrassment this causes modern scholars and apologists of the Christian faith.

As Price argues, and this is what Dunn ignores,

[This] particular approach [to try to make such borrowings impossible] is to aver that there never was a common myth of the dying-and-rising god. This [it] does by forgetting or obscuring the nature of the ideal type, as discussed above. Pointing out secondary, even trivial, differences between specific myths, [it] would have us deny that they form a general type. But again, one might as well argue that there is no such thing as a “religion” or a “miracle story” because the actual cases are not all exactly alike. (p. 76)

So Dunn has responded to this argument by Price by raising the finger of Attis.

Dunn on the Ideal Type

Not that Dunn does not make some mention of Price’s discussion of “the ideal type”. Near the beginning of his response he wrote:

I will say little more on the other three principles which Price frames. On the principle of the ideal type perhaps all I need point out is that any motivation to conform a man who lived recently to an ideal type of mythic hero (or whatever) most likely presupposes that the man in view had made a significant impact on at least some. The alternative — a man who recently lived but who made no lasting impact or had no influence of any significance — is, to say the least, far more implausible than almost any view that the New Testament Gospels contain (and are themselves) clear evidence of the impact made by the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth. (p. 95)

Here Dunn is not even trying. He says the two alternatives for mythicism are:

  1. that there was a well-known figure who made such a significant impact on contemporaries that they felt compelled to describe him within the frame of an ideal type; or
  2. that there was an obscure person who made no impact and upon whom Christ myth inventors bestowed their myth.

This is rot, and later paragraphs by Dunn show us he knows it is not true, too. Price’s discussion clearly is suggesting the possibility that there is no person, grand or obscure, at the heart of the myth.

It is just as plausible, even moreso, that an imaginary man would be the creation of stories that drew on the elements of the ideal type! This is Price’s point, and Dunn is exposing his confusion and inability to tackle the very idea of a Christ myth thesis.

Dunn on the “fatal flaw with the ‘Jesus myth’ thesis”

Dunn then resorts to another confused yet common response from apologists (including those who earn their keep as “scholars” even in accredited universities):

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 a generation of the inventors, or the imposition of such an elaborate myth on some minor figure from Galilee.

This is so circular one gets dizzy trying to find a spot to break into the argument. The assumption that the Jesus-myth thesis requires the invention of an historical figure who lived “within a generation of the inventors” is a false one.

But let’s go along with it for a moment as if that is how it did happen. Suppose someone wrote a story creating all the narrative details of Jesus for the first time in 70, around the time of the fall of Jerusalem, and they set this imaginary person in the days of Pilate, 40 years earlier. They chose 40 years because that’s a nice biblical time for trial and testing of the nation since the advent of this would-be saviour of Israel. How old would most of the readership of this story be? Bear in mind the traumatic swathes of death and destruction that had swept across the land and city of Jerusalem in the meantime. It was this loss and destruction that was a primary reason for the narrative: the narrative sought to explain the end of the Temple and destruction of their society, with however many left to rot and however many taken off as slaves. Part of that explanation lay in the plot’s emphasis on the failure of the mythical figure’s contemporaries to recognize him at the time. How many readers, perhaps in Syria, maybe Rome, possibly Alexandria, would be overly perturbed in those circumstances if no sixty- or seventy-year-old survivors could be called upon to verify such a tale of one whom only a handful were said to have followed (and then deserted) at the time?

On the other hand, if there really were a single witness or two to such a memory, how conceivable, how plausible is it, that their names and identities would not find a place in the narrative to establish its authenticity? This is exactly what ancient historians did when they felt a need to establish the authority or source of some of their narratives. From Herodotus on they tended to name and identify sources, especially when referencing episodes that some readers might question. If sources conflicted in their accounts, Herodotus, for example IIRC, would cite both sources and their narratives and leave it to the reader to judge between the two.

But there is no clear external testimony to the existence of our canonical gospels until well into the second century anyway. And the earliest narratives of Jesus are confused about his identity, his disciples, his teachings, even who was responsible for killing him — some say Herod, some say Pilate. (In my previous post I point to where Dunn is desperate enough to admit evidence that testifies Jesus was killed by stoning and not crucifixion.) Justin indicates that hard on the heels of Jesus’ death the Romans swept in razing Jerusalem to the ground, with the Eucharist being instituted as a post-resurrection memorial. The disciples appear to have only just had time to flee after the resurrection appearance to take the gospel to the world before this destruction. So much for the control witnesses “must have had” on the shaping of the tale!

Dunn is subject to the tyranny of the canonical Gospels. He cannot seem to see that they represent only one version of the Christian myth, and a relatively late one at that, and that they only became “canonical” after a long struggle from a minority following. Yet it is their narrative that controls his every reference point in the discussion.

I think I’ve done enough posts detailing responses to Dunn’s chapter on Price. I was asked and I took the bait. Maybe next time I will have a look at Price’s response to Dunn’s chapter.

This post is part of the series of posts on The Historical Jesus: Five Views — the link is to the archive of the full set of these.

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Neil Godfrey

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11 thoughts on “Attis lifts his finger against the Christ-Myth (again), the “ideal type” and “the fatal flaw” — Dunn on Price (6)”

  1. Is this just getting a little bit boring? Its a little like practising karate in a sheep farm.

    Send the next post with the tag “sorry for being boring, this is an improvement”.

    At least Price admits that mythology is like shooting tadpoles in a jug, at least he moves the twelve gauge around a bit..

    Dunn was whipped before he even started.. he knows, we’s knows and everybody else knows..

    Please, back to consistent themes.

    1. Yup. It is tedious for me, and obviously for you and many others. You don’t have to read them. They’re not for you. 🙂 But stats show quite a few others are reading them. So they seem to have a place nonetheless.

      But hey, I did say here this was my last post, and that I would do a few of these as easy fillers when I lacked time for anything more serious. So youse all was given fair warning.

      1. Neil, I’ve recently discovered your blog, and although I can see how this series of posts could have been tedious for you, I want you to know that I do appreciate them. I was recently denied access to a forum discussing the Historical Jesus because I listed Robert M. Price and Robert Eisenman as scholars whose work I followed. The moderator pointed me to Dunn’s review as a rebuttal of Price’s theories, which he saw as sensationalism and quackery. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, but I couldn’t help being taken aback by this display of unflinching orthodoxy.

  2. ‘…the improbability of the total invention of a figure who had purportedly lived within a generation of the inventors.’

    So Barabbas existed?

    And Moses and Elijah really did live again, within a generation of the writing of the Gospels, just like the Gospels claim about Moses and Elijah walking the planet no more than a generation previously – something that would have galvanised Paul into mentioning it.

    1. Paul was hardly likely to refer to Moses appearance in Galilee within his life-time, since he was pro-circumcision and this would have been an embarrassment to Paul. So I think we have in Paul’s silence further support for eye-witness controlled Gospel account of Moses’ appearance. On the other hand, there is room for some scepticism, given that one would normally expect Paul to mention this appearance of Moses according to the criterion of embarrassment. He did, after all, mention Judaizers like James, but he was able to declare his superiority (or at least his equality) to them. Perhaps he felt it would be going too far to declare equality with Moses. So one should not be too sceptical.

      Do I qualify yet for a Doctor of Theology and Biblical Studies?

      1. Yes, Dr. Godfrey. You do.

        Some of your regular readers might jump in and complain that we should shun the argument from silence. However, as your remark rightly implies, silence is a poor argument only when used in the defense of mythicism. As G.A. Wells pointed out long ago, NT scholars frequently appeal to the argument from silence when “proving” when the Epistle to the Hebrews was written. (Surely the author would have alluded to the destruction of the temple.)

        It is only when used for “nefarious purposes” such as pointing out how much Paul didn’t know and didn’t care about the earthly Jesus that the argument becomes a fallacy.

        Similarly, if you should point out that Jesus is retracing the steps of Joshua and the children of Israel after the splitting of the heavens at the River Jordan and his wandering in the desert for 40 days (symbolically 40 years), you’re a genius. But if you compare the resurrection of Jesus to that of Osiris or Hercules, you’re an idiot.

  3. I’m thinking about working on a list of fictional stories that couldn’t be based on other works of fiction. For example, West Side Story couldn’t have been influenced by Romeo and Juliet because both lovers die in the latter while only one of them dies in the former.

  4. So Barabbas existed? And Moses and Elijah really did live again, within a generation of the writing of the Gospels, just like the Gospels claim about Moses and Elijah walking the planet no more than a generation previously – something that would have galvanised Paul into mentioning it…

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