Ehrman-Price Debate #2: Price’s Opening Address

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by Neil Godfrey

The following is a write up from notes I took at the time of my first listening to the debate supplemented by a second listening earlier today. So there will be more detail than in with my summary of Ehrman’s opener. If anyone thinks I have been unfair to Ehrman then let me know and I may even decide to listen to him again too and add more detail to that post. Or be more certain and fill out details yourself!

Unlike Bart Ehrman Robert Price (RMP) did choose to address the opposing arguments as had been set out by BE in his book Did Jesus Exist? as well as making his case for mythicism. His presentation was written out and read aloud. Being a tightly prepared written speech it seemed to be packed with considerably more detail than BE’s delivery and certainly required more intense concentration to absorb the detail and each point of argument. Ehrman’s spontaneity and speaking without notes was far more dynamic and emotionally moving. So another reason for the greater length of the Price presentation here is, I am sure, the consequence of Price conveying far more detail than Ehrman.

Another stark difference between the two presentations worth noting is that Ehrman spoke dogmatically while Price conceded ambiguities in the evidence and spoke of what paradigm makes most sense to him given the various alternatives given the inability to definitely prove what we would like to be able to prove.

Regularly RMP quoted BE’s words as points requiring responses.

A Modern Novelty?

The idea that Jesus did not exist is a modern notion. It has no ancient precedents. (Ehrman 2012, p. 96)

RMP is not so sure and cites three ancient indicators:

  • But Christ–if He has indeed been born, and exists anywhere–is unknown, and does not even know Himself, and has no power until Elias come to anoint Him, and make Him manifest to all. And you, having accepted a groundless report, invent a Christ for yourselves, and for his sake are inconsiderately perishing.” Dialogue ch. 8

    Trypho (a character in second century Justin’s Dialogue) is made to say that Christians have created some sort of Christ for themselves. RMP, after noting that apologists interpret this passage to imply that Christians are choosing to declare a known man to be the Christ, asks his audience to try to apply that same reasoning if that Christ had been Bar Kochba of the Second Jewish War ca 130-135 CE. The wording does not seem appropriate to meet the apologists’ interpretation.

  • Celsus (via Origen)
  • 2 Peter 1:16-18 – From this verse it sounds as if there were accusations floating around that some people had made up myths about the coming of Jesus.

A Committee Invention or Gradual Evolution?

BE is attacking the committee invention idea of a mythical Jesus. That is a straw man case, however, although it is one created by some mythicists themselves. RMP agrees that the idea that a committee sat down to invent Jesus is ludicrous. Rather, Christianity as we recognize it emerged through a long process of gradual evolution and reached a point where it crossed the line into becoming a new species of religion.

The Time of Jesus or Unknown Time?

Fourteen times in DJE? BE says we can trace sources back to within a few years of the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. But this presupposes the historicity of the narrative which is the point in question.

So if there is no historical Jesus then there is no time line to Jesus and the time frame falls out of the whole paradigm. We have no way of knowing how early was early.

To appeal to disciples like Peter, saying he was a companion of Jesus right through and was preaching after the crucifixion is like invoking Dr Watson to prove Sherlock Holmes was historical.

Legendary Tales Don’t Deny Historicity

RMP responds to BE’s point about legendary tales not discounting historicity. Imagine what the original (pre-legendary) tales looked like:

  • As Jesus approached the shore of Gardarenes there was a herd of swine grazing on a hill. Suddenly some dogs started barking and the pigs panicked and all ran to their doom into the sea.
  • Jairus came to Jesus asking him to heal his daughter who was close to death. As he was speaking another servant came and told him not to bother since she had already died. Jesus comforted Jairus saying, I am so sorry. You have my sympathies.
  • Jesus was with the crowd in the wilderness when his disciples told him that it was very late and that he should send the crowd back to their homes and shops to get something to eat and then get to bed. So Jesus sent them all away and they were all fed before retiring.
  • Jesus got into the boat with his disciples and late at night the boat was in the middle of the sea.

The point is that pre-embellished events have no survival value. Trimming away the miracles is a modern form of euhemerization. Compare:

  • Osiris was originally a king
  • Aries was a great warrior
  • Asclepius was a doctor
  • Hercules was a weight lifter
  • Apollo was the owner of a tanning salon

Could Christianity really have started with such tepid events, with such an ordinary figure?

Testimony and Flimsy Honours

BE refers to early non-Christian sources such as Pliny and Tacitus. Yes, we have these multiple attestations but notice they are of “Christ”, not “Jesus”, and there is nothing in them that could not most likely have been learned from Christians in their own day. That is, these testimonies are only hearsay.

Matthew Arnold said the resurrection of Jesus was the best attested fact in history. But R. G. Collingwood said that being well attested only means that lots of people believed it, not that it really happened.


The Josephan passage about Jesus is known to have been embellished by Christians so BE like other scholars argues that there was an original core, a pared down version, that was far less startling. BE argues that this more mundane passage cannot have been an interpolation because it has no apologetic value. RMP asks why Josephus would have bothered to have written about such a nonentity.

We also have the problem of the passage trying to explain the name Christians despite removing the reference to Christ.

Paul J. Hopper, an authority on linguistics in Classical literature, refutes the authenticity of the Testimonium Flavianum (Josephus’s passage about Jesus) through comparison with his testimony of Pilate and concludes the whole passage about Jesus is an interpolation. Its purpose was to shift blame from Pilate on to the Jews, to vindicate the Christianity of the day of the interpolator.

Ken Olson has argued that the passage so well looks like and serves the arguments of fourth century Eusebius that it appears to have been written for just that purpose. And RMP says it was indeed written for that purpose.

BE strongly opposes appeals to interpolations but with the Josephan passage he is doing the same thing for the same motive he deplores in others: selecting a text and fighting to hold on to it to have his much needed evidence. That is, parts of the text must be rejected as interpolation in order to save the part he needs for his argument.

Bridge to Nowhere

RMP: Most scholars believe they can build a bridge over the canonical gospels to the historical Jesus. Where those gospels themselves fail, there are the hypothetical earlier gospels that are their sources; and where those source gospels end, we have oral tradition to reach back to Jesus. BE postulates these sources — Mark, Q, M, L — as the grounds of evidence for Jesus: e.g. Matthew used Mark and Q and M; Luke used Mark, Q and L. M (special Matthean material) and L (unique Lukan material) could be either earlier written gospels or oral traditions.

Walter Schmithals
Walter Schmithals

But Walter Schmithals has demonstrated to RMP’s satisfaction that all the unique parables found in Luke were drawn from Hellenistic Judaism or compose by Luke himself to meet his own situational needs related to persecution, prayer, etc. Further, if Schmithals also raises the problem that if M and L are oral traditions then why are there no verbatim overlaps between Matthew and Luke? Surely the oral traditions were not likely to be so hermetically sealed from each other on their journey to Matthew and Luke.

John N. Collins argues for a different meaning of the term translated “eyewitnesses of the word”. See

BE also appeals to the Preface of Luke asserting numerous predecessors as evidence of a trail from the gospel to the historical Jesus. RMP argues that what Luke is doing with this preface is creating a fictive paper trail back to Jesus. Compare the Muslim hadiths always providing attestation trails (isnads) back to Muhammad.

RMP: we need to understand what source criticism is doing. Q is a helpful theoretical model for organizing material in the synoptic gospels. M and L are only hypothetical. They are not “lost gospels” in the sense that the Gospel of Hebrews, known from other sources, is a lost gospel.

BE also appeals to the Gospel of Peter and the Egerton Gospel as independent witnesses. But many argue that these are heavily dependent on the canonical gospels. Something that is subject to intense debate cannot be taken as building blocks for one’s case.

Risky Patristics

BE appeals to Papias, yet as RMP points out Papias is the most unreliable witness. How can we ever take seriously anyone who testifies that Judas inflated like a giant balloon, urinated maggots and then exploded? Yet when Papias speaks of traditions to the apostles BE grabs him as a reliable witness. Papias brings no credibility to the debate. To appeal to such a worthless source highlights the paucity of evidence for a historical Jesus.

No time to discuss Ignatius.

Paul’s Jesus

[Paul] never mentions Pontius Pilate or the Romans, but he may have had no need to do so. His readers knew full well what he was talking about. . . .  If they were already fully informed about Jesus, then there was no need for Paul to remind them that Jesus walked on water, raised Jairus’s daughter from the dead, and was executed in Jerusalem. (Ehrman 2012, pp. 124f, 137)

RMP: But if the readers of Paul’s letters already knew of the first two details Ehrman cites — walking on water and raising the dead — then since Ehrman believes these details did not happen it follows that they would have believed myths about Jesus. If Paul’s churches knew anything about these miracles it doesn’t mean they knew anything about a historical Jesus.

What is the significance of Paul never mentioning Pilate or Caiaphas or the Sanhedrin in relation to the crucifixion? Paul never talks of the crucifixion as a mundane execution by Roman authorities (though nothing he says rules out that possibility). Paul says Jesus was done to death by rulers (archons) of this aion, by the principalities and powers.

Mythicists infer Paul was writing at a time when Christians believed in a celestial man of light who had not appeared on the earth to teach and heal and die on a Roman cross, but who had been ambushed and slain by the demonic entities inhabiting the lower heavens. As we read in various surviving gnostic texts this death would have occurred in the primordial past. His slayers harvested the sparks of his light body and used them to seed the inert mud pie creations of the demiurge, imparting life and motion to them, beginning with Adam. Thus the death of the primal light man turned out to be a life-giving sacrifice just like that of the Vedic Purusha. Eventually the revealer was sent forth from the divine world of light to regather the divine photons redeeming them from the imprisonment of this world of solid flesh. The gnostics naturally considered themselves to be the elite light bearers who had heeded the call of the revealer, manifest among men in the form of gnostic apostles.

At some point some of these gnostics historicized the salvation myth, envisioning the sacrificial death of the man of light as taking place down here in the sublunar world. At first the coming of this Christ was understood as what we would call a hologram, an illusion of physical presence among mortal men and women. The enlightened could discern the purely spiritual character of the saviour while those mired in mundane consciousness took him for a man of flesh. Eventually, this unenlightened genuinely incarnational christology became normative. The Pauline literature would represent a pre-historized version of gnostic Christian belief or a faction that had retained the earlier version when others had adopted the historicized christology.

This is the model that makes most sense to me. (RMP, Debate)

BE will say you can’t prove this. RMP: It’s a question of what paradigm makes most sense of the evidence.

BE says Paul refers at times to Jesus’ teachings but RMP gasps and asks “where?” This leads to a discussion of 1 Cor. 7 (teaching “of the Lord” on divorce) and 1 Cor. 11 (receiving the eucharist script “from the Lord”). But there is nothing in these passages to establish the teachings came via earthly tradition from a historical Jesus and nothing precludes them from referring to belief in communication with a heavenly Christ.

If the latter is plausible and possible then you can’t just assert that Paul is meaning the sayings came from the historical Jesus.

Conservative scholars point to the “receiving and handing on” language in 1 Cor 11 and comment on its usage in rabbinic literature to refer to human traditions, but RMP directs us to Galatians 1 where the same phrase is used to clearly refer to transmission from the heavenly to the human realm, that is, to a direct revelation from the heavenly Christ. Why does the phrase mean in 1 Corinthians what it most certainly does in Galatians?

Compare a similar situation comparing the synoptic gospels with the Gospel of John. —

There are many sayings in John (e.g. the I AM sayings) that are so distinct from anything in the synoptic gospels that it is surely evident that John relied upon traditions that were unknown to the synoptic gospel authors. If Jesus had really said the “I AM” sayings or there were traditions to that effect from Jesus then surely they would also have been noted in the other gospels. No. The different types of sayings speaks of a different time, a time later than when the synoptics were written. The same principle explains the difference between what we find in Paul and the synoptic gospels. The synoptic Jesus was unknown to Paul and that is why he (the Jesus of the synoptic miracles and sayings) does not appear in his letters.

Mythicist Mischief

Is it possible that any texts in Paul’s epistles that imply a historical Jesus might be secondary scribal insertions?

It is only the mythicists who have a vested interest in claiming that Paul did not know of a historical Jesus who insist that these passages were not originally in Paul’s writings. One always needs to consider the source. (Ehrman 2012, p. 133)

But the fact is it is non-mythicist scholars who have made the arguments, always backed up with sound reasons, that these passages are interpolations. Examples:

  • William O. Walker discusses a whole raft of interpolations, each with its own rationale. Not a mythicist.
  • For Howell Smith’s full argument (there is more than the brief extract I have cited) see James Brother of the Lord: Another Case for Interpolation. (See also the archive for other posts on Howell Smith’s book Jesus Not a Myth.

    A.D. Howell Smith in Jesus Not a Myth writes that there is some slight cogency to the arguments for considering the “James the brother of the Lord” passage in Galatians 1:18-19 to be a scribal insertion. The passage would have served Irenaeus and Tertullian very well in their arguments against Marcion but they appear to know nothing of it in their verse by verse reading of Galatians.

  • Jean Magne – 1 Cor 11 interpolations to authorize innovations in eucharistic service.
  • Winsome Munro — 1 Cor 15:1-11 part of an interpolation stream o
  • J.C. O’Neill — 1 Cor 15:1-11 an interpolation
  • R. Joseph Hoffmann — 1 Cor 15:5-8 interpolated

None of the above are mythicists.

Scandal of the Cross

Only 10 seconds left so rushed….

RMP does not think they had to invent a crucified messiah because he believes the righteous Davidic King was a scaled down version of the what was originally in ancient Israel the myth of the sacred king, how he was representative of god and called god and annually went through ceremony of how Yahweh became king of the gods by killing the chaos dragon monster, by being devoured by the dragon and emerging alive again, taking throne of the gods and creating the world. Margaret Barker shows that this sort of idea was still around at the time of the Book of Revelation. It was not orthodox Judaism but probably provided the categories for early christology.

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Neil Godfrey

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15 thoughts on “Ehrman-Price Debate #2: Price’s Opening Address”

  1. Thank you for your synopsis!

    So far, it looks like Ehrman’s strategy in the debate is the same as that in DJE?:

    “Mythicists argue that mythicism makes the most sense in light of evidences X, Y, and Z. However, X, Y and Z could be true even if a historical Jesus existed. Therefore, Jesus was a historical figure.”

    So Ehrman mainly argues for the COMPATIBILITY of the available evidence with the historical Jesus hypothesis. Call this “the Compatibility Thesis.” We see this over and over in his defense of historicity. Most of his arguments are really best understood as arguments in favor of the Compatibility Thesis. So the overall structure of his argument is something like this:

    (Premise 1) Either mythicism is correct, or historicity.
    (Premise 2) Mythicism claims that the available evidence rules out the possibility of a historical Jesus.
    (Premise 3) The available evidence does not rule out the possibility of a historical Jesus (the Compatibility Thesis).
    (Premise 4) (Entailed by premise 2 and 3) Mythicism is incorrect.
    (Conclusion) Historicity is correct.

    I’ve presented this as a logically valid argument. If the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true. I think mythicists by and large do not disagree with the Compatibility Thesis. So it’s weird that Ehrman spends all his time defending this thesis! That premise is really not in question. The problematic premise is premise 2. Now, this premise is clearly false if mythicists do not disagree with compatibility thesis. Which means the argument, though valid, would not be sound.

    1. I can’t imagine Ehrman claiming the gospels contain information based on sources going back to the Aramaic stories in Palestine years before the gospels were written,when debating with fundamentalists.

      He uses different arguments depending upon what he is wanting to sell his audience.

      If he wants to debate mythicists, he will turn into a fundie, claiming the Gospels contain the very words of Jesus himself, carefully preserved in the Aramaic they were spoken in.

      If he wants to debate fundies, he will declare that the NT is full of interpolations and you can’t even be sure of what was written in the first century and what was not.

      1. Exactly — I have seen him debate Craig Evans in front of a church audience. Taking the opposite tack in front of skeptical audiences seems to indicate an apparent dishonesty at the core of his character.

  2. They wasted much time in discussing extra-biblical evidences of historical Jesus, which I think are of no use. Grab all the alleged mentions of Jesus in literature of the two centuries and yet it’ll not fill a single page, its that small. Heck Origen flat-out said that the Gospels are the only source for Jesus’ life.

    IMO best evidence for Mythicism are gospel narratives themselves. Remove all obvious BS miracle events even then the major events of Jesus’ life make more sense as a literary creation than a historical narrative, I mean we can be sure that there was no Judas Betrayal or Paschal Pardon of Bar-Abbas or Pericope Adulterae or Triumphal Entry or Olivet Discourse or late night Sanhedrin trial of Jesus.

    So even non-miraculous parts of his alleged life are a literary creations then how the hell there can be a historical Jesus.

  3. “The idea that Jesus did not exist is a modern notion. It has no ancient precedents.” (Ehrman 2012, p. 96)

    Completely irrelevant point. This was one of the many areas where Price could have nailed Ehrman but didn’t. Plutarch and other Greek historians assumed the historicity of Osiris and Isis. I’m not aware of any ancient writer who insisted on them being mythical figures. Should this be taken as evidence for Osiris and Isis today?

    1. Breathtakingly disingenuous. For one, arguments were advanced in antiquity against this Jesus suggesting he was a myth, put by Christians for example in the mouths of their opponents. But second, in some cases it was simply not disputed as it was assumed that every religion had a founder. The fact that in some cases (e.g. Celsus) an actual Jesus of some sort was assumed is not the same thing as there being firm contemporary knowledge of that Jesus. Lastly, we are talking about a time when people believed that Zeus, Dionysos, Mithras, and the rest were real. The idea that Errorman can appeal to the ancients and their tacit acceptance of an actual Jesus ought to show that as in politics, one can’t get to the top of one’s field without in some way being a hack.

    2. I’ve seen this “gotcha” thrown down by various historicists in this form or as the venerable “no ancient critic ever claimed Jesus was a myth as a rebuttal! So there!!” Your response is one effective point to make. I’ve also pointed out that this argument from silence is weak because

      1) we have none of the works of the ancient critics of Christianity (because the Churches had near total control of all document transmission for a thousand years) and we don’t know what all the critics said or all that the critics said; and

      2) the critics that have been partially preserved in quotation are so late that they would only know whatever Christians claimed about their Jesus, and that included the that they had written eyewitness accounts…so why should we expect there to be accusations of mythicism?; and

      3) (related to your point) Most of these critics probably believed their celestial gods were real entities that affected the real world, why should we expect they would think accusing Jesus of being a celestial (re: mythic) being would be a viable rebuttal to Christians? (With the proviso that some of the Church Fathers actually claimed this similarity as a defense!)

  4. Well I am reading a fascinating book, The Jesus Discovery by James Tabor and Simcha Jacobovici — yeah, those two! 😛 Anyway despite the dishonestly photoshopped image of the Amphora Jar (or “Fish” — in an unedited photo the jar looks very “fishy” indeed!) If they haven’t made further misrepresentations about the two tombs and their contents we seem to have stumbled upon evidence to an historical Jesus Yeshua that shows that the Jesus of the Gospels never existed! Yes, the historical one was that much different, which means somebody, the somebody who wrote Gal. 1:19, was guilty of identity theft – or – there was such an accumulation and accretion of legends and myths that the actual H.J. was lost to history.

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