Tag Archives: Beilby: The Historical Jesus — Five Views

A Case for the “Easter” Appearances of Jesus BEFORE the Crucifixion

There is an inconsistency in a fundamental argument, or assumption, rather, among critical scholars of Christian origins that has long been bugging me.

The principle was set down by David Friedrich Strauss in the nineteenth century,

when we find details in the life of Jesus evidently sketched after the pattern of these prophecies and prototypes, we cannot but suspect that they are rather mythical than historical. (Life of Jesus, Critically Examined, p. 89)

Now that maxim is frequently and sensibly deployed by critical scholars. It is the reason that Burton Mack  (no doubt there are others, too) denies the historicity of Jesus charging into the Temple and expelling the “traders” there.

It is a fictional theme derived from the scriptural citations. (Mack, Myth of Innocence, p. 292)

Many scholars, however, need the “Temple disturbance” to be historical in order to explain why Jesus was eventually arrested so many jettison the principle to make the narrative work as history. (Paula Fredriksen points out the flaw in their argument.)

David Chumney (whose book, Jesus Eclipsed, I have just completed, and which has many excellent points along with a few unfortunate flaws) makes the point loud and clear:

  • Matthew 8:16-17 (& 11:4-5) tell us that Jesus healed sicknesses in fulfilment of the prophecy in Isaiah 53:4 (Unfortunately once again the Strauss’s criterion is put aside by most scholars who require Jesus to have been a healer in order to explain his “historical following”.)
  • The triumphal entry into Jerusalem is acknowledged by more scholars (e.g. E.P. Sanders, Robert Funk, John Dominic Crossan, David Catchpole) to be a fiction created out of scriptures such as Psalm 118:25-26 and Zechariah 9:9.
  • The magi following the star (Matthew 2:1-12) is based on Numbers 24:17 and Isaiah 60:3, 5-6.
  • Herod’s massacre of the infants (Matthew 2:16-18) is crafted from Exodus 1:15-22 and Jeremiah 31:15.
  • The angel’s announcement of John the Baptist’s birth (to be) (Luke 1:8-20) is woven from Genesis 18:9-15.
  • Mary’s prayer, the “Magnificat” (Luke 1:46-55) comes from 1 Samuel 2:1-10.

Robert Price draws attention to many more: the infant Jesus’ escape into Egypt; Jesus baptism; the 40 days in the wilderness and testing by Satan; the call of the disciples; the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law and her response; Jesus healing of the paralytic; healing the withered hand; the appointing of the twelve disciples; the instructions given to them on how to go out and preach; Jesus calming the storm; the exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac; the raising of Jairus’s daughter; Jesus’ family rejecting him; the execution of John the Baptist; the miraculous feedings of thousands; the walking on the sea; Jesus calling the people to listen to him; Jesus healing the daughter of the woman in the region of Tyre and Sidon; the transfiguration; the rivalry among the disciples for the most prestigious position; the story of the exorcist who did not follow Jesus; . . . . .

And the list could probably be just as long if we itemized each of the “prophesied” details in the Passion narrative. (See Price, “Jesus at the Vanishing Point” in The Historical Jesus: Five Views.)

John Shelby Spong concedes that pretty much everything in the gospels is fiction based a creative reworking of Jewish Scriptures. All except for virtually only one detail: the execution, the martyrdom, of Jesus.

That Jesus was “crucified under Pontius Pilate,” as the Creed affirms, is historically the most stable datum we have concerning Jesus . . . (Joel B. Green, “The Death of Jesus” in Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus, p. 2383)

. . . not that there is the slightest doubt about the fact of Jesus’ crucifixion under Pontius Pilate . . . (John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, p. 375)

There is no doubt both that he was crucified and that after his death he was believed to have been restored to life. (John Shelby Spong, Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes. p. 236)

Yet it is the crucifixion of Jesus that is the MOST chock-full of Old Testament Scriptural allusions and citations.  read more »

Another Biblical Scholar Explains His Interest in Historical Jesus Studies

James D. G.JimmyDunn FBA (born 21 October 1939) is a British New Testament scholar who was for many years the Lightfoot Professor of Divinity in the Department of Theology at the University of Durham, now Emeritus Lightfoot Professor. He has worked broadly within the Protestant tradition. — Wikipedia (12th October 2015)

Other scholars in this series: Dale AllisonRichard BauckhamScot McKnight. To appreciate the coverage of Dunn’s works see a selected list in Wikipedia.

James D.G. Dunn’s view of the historical Jesus was one of five sought for an exchange of views in The Historical Jesus: Five Views, edited by James K. Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy. The others were Robert M. Price, John Dominic Crossan, Luke Timothy Johnson and Darrel L. Bock. Dunn’s earliest forays into the historical Jesus were in response to a controversial 1984 London Weekend Television series Jesus: The Evidence in which doubts were raised against the traditional Christian narrative and even the existence of Jesus. The idea that controversial views should be aired publicly without being simultaneously framed in the condemnation and scorn they find among conventional Christian scholars was too much for Dunn and other critics. Dunn himself reveals his own poor view of the intelligence of the general public in an overwhelmingly Christian nation led by mainstream clergy when he wrote in his preface to his response to the program, The Evidence for Jesus (1985)

From what they saw and heard, viewers who lacked training in biblical studies or theology were unable to distinguish be­tween the weightier and the less weighty opinions. They were given too little advice as to whether what was projected was accepted by the majority of scholars in this field or only by a lone voice resisting the larger consensus. Of course, scholarship does not and should not pro­ceed by majority vote! One scholar in a hundred may be right, and the remaining ninety-nine wrong. But when lay people are being exposed to the claims of scholarship, they at least have a right to know how well these claims have been received by other scholars.

evidenceIn fact there was ample follow up to the original TV program to leave no doubt in anyone’s mind about where mainstream biblical scholars stood. As another scholar, Howard Clark Kee, explains in his Foreword to Dunn’s book,

British television offered a follow-up series in an attempt to give more moderate biblical scholars a chance to present their side of the case and to respond to the radicals. As a result the controversy was, if anything, extended and enlarged. Coming in conjunction with the heated debate that arose when a theologian with controversial views on the virgin birth and resurrection was consecrated a Bishop of the Church of England, thoughtful people—in and out of the churches— raised serious questions: Is the traditional faith of the church obsolete? Is the church not being honest with the public? Have such recent discoveries as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Gnostic library in Egypt discredited the Gospel picture of Jesus as we have known it? Is the evidence not being candidly presented and discussed?

In other words, the public was well and truly aware that most scholars did not accept views that radically questioned Christian origins. But what was under threat was public confidence in the intellectual integrity of the bulk of those theologians. Damage control was called for and James Dunn stepped in to do his part to bolster the confidence of the devout.

Fortunately, there were scholarly and churchly leaders across Great Britain who raised serious and responsible challenges to these radical conclusions. Among the latter was James D. G. Dunn, Professor of Divinity at the University of Durham in northern England, an active churchman and a prolific writer. Professor Dunn is personally interested in the daily life and faith aspects of Christianity as well as in its intellectual dimensions. It was appropriate, therefore, that the Durham Council of Churches should ask him to give a series of lectures to an interchurch audience on the same topic, “Jesus: The Evidence” . . . . (Kee, writing in the Foreword about the origin of the book)

Or in Dunn’s own words:

One of the attractive features of Durham was an active Council of Churches, which Meta and I helped to revive . . . as Churches Together in Durham. Initial involvement was a sequence of lectures in response to a London Weekend Television series entitled Jesus: the Evidence (1984), a series which had proved to be very unbalanced.  The puzzlement and distress caused by the series prompted me to offer a four-lecture response, better rooted in the New Testament evidence and more truly reflected of the range of scholarly opinion. These were published as as The Evidence for Jesus. . . .  

(2015-09-01). I (Still) Believe: Leading Bible Scholars Share Their Stories of Faith and Scholarship. Zondervan. Kindle Edition.   —  (my own bolding and formatting in all quotations)

So Dunn assures readers from reading the gospel narratives themselves that beneath the theological elaboration is indeed “historically reliable” and genuine “historical information” that “clearly” derived from oral traditions going back to the earliest eyewitnesses of Jesus himself. Even the evidence for the resurrection, the “fact” of the empty tomb and the transformation of the disciples after claiming to have witnessed the resurrected Jesus, must leave any well meaning jury with the conclusion that the gospel stories are “attempts to say something which goes beyond human description” and that “there must have been powerful and compelling factors which resulted in the first Christian confession, ‘ God has raised Jesus from the dead’!” (p. 76) read more »

Predictions of Future McGrath Reviews of Doherty’s Book

Reading McGrath’s chapter reviews of Doherty’s book is to experience repeats of McGrath’s criticisms of mythicist arguments that he was making long before he ever apparently knew Doherty had a book. Now in his latest, Doherty is — don’t be shocked now — like a creationist!

Before then, we heard the same old line that Doherty does not consider or address alternative explanations, that Doherty simply thinks by advancing his own theory that he thinks he was made a persuasive argument, that by pointing out false attributions of sayings, or deeds, to Jesus, that he is proving his nonhistoricity, that he fails to engage the scholarship in the area, etc.

Here is my prediction for the rest of his reviews of Doherty’s book. read more »

Why Is McGrath Spending Time on Doherty’s Book?

James McGrath once “reviewed” a chapter by Robert M. Price in The Historical Jesus: Five Views. In my estimation at that time, one for which I was censured by several people, was that McGrath was being blatantly dishonest in his reading and presentation of Price’s chapter. McGrath has said on several occasions that mythicists should not be taken seriously, so perhaps that explains why he only skims each alternate paragraph or page of a mythicist publication and on that basis presents a “review” of “the whole”.

So it is with his “review of chapter 2” of Earl Doherty’s book, Jesus Neither God Nor Man: The Case for a Mythical Jesus.

Here is what McGrath writes in his review of the second chapter of this book, with my emphasis: read more »

Dunn on Price (5)

Continuing a series of responses to Dunn’s response to Price’s chapter on Jesus mythicism. (See Historical Jesus: Five Views for all related posts.)

It is quite “interesting” to regularly run across remarks in web-land about how “spot on” Dunn’s criticism of Price’s chapter is, and how so many “fully agree with everything Dunn says.”

I can only imagine most readers who say these sorts of things never read Price’s chapter and Dunn’s together. Or if they did, they are swayed by Dunn’s status as a scholar — and their own eagerness to find anything to rebut a Christ-Myth argument — to swallow everything he says and forget the many many instances where Price’s own words belie so much of what Dunn writes.

In this post I look at

  1. an instance of Dunn saying that Price “ignores” evidence that he does not ignore at all but discusses explicitly
  2. an instance of Dunn leading readers to think Price resorts to ad hoc claims of interpolation to sidestep contrary evidence, when in fact he does not
  3. where Dunn argues that the Bible’s claims of supernatural appearances are evidence for the historical Jesus
  4. and where Dunn even manages to argue that the absence of a detailed description for a supernatural appearance of Jesus strengthens the case for the historicity of Jesus against Jesus mythicism.

read more »

Dunn on Price (4)

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. read more »

Jesus Christ: Maybe BOTH names are titular? (Dunn on Price, again, too)

Disney - Snow White And Seven Dwarfs Mural
Image by Express Monorail via Flickr

Christ, meaning Messiah, is, of course, not a proper name but a title, like King or High Priest.

Yet Paul’s letters use Christ as if it is a proper name for Jesus.

Dunn writes in response to Price (The Historical Jesus: Five Views) what is well known to all scholars:

As often noted, the fact that Christ was more or less a proper name (Jesus Christ) by the time of Paul (within twenty to twenty-five years of Jesus’ death) must indicate that messianic status had already been ascribed to this Jesus for such a long time that the titular significance of Christ (Messiah) had largely faded. (p. 96)

What is more rarely discussed is the possibility that Jesus, meaning Saviour, is also a personal name that originated as a title. (I know Jesus/Joshua is a common personal name; this post is addressing the happy coincidence that it was bestowed on the one who epitomized its meaning in the Christian myth and narrative.)

Reading the gospel narratives entitles us to be reminded sometimes of Walt Disney’s seven dwarfs. All of their names are “titular” or at least character-role labels: Grumpy, Sleepy, Bashful, Happy, Sneezy, Sleepy, Dopey. read more »

Dunn on Price (2)

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. read more »

Historical Jesus: two vacuous responses from Dunn on Price

Just two points from James D. G. Dunn’s response to Robert M. Price’s chapter, “Jesus at the Vanishing Point”, in The Historical Jesus: Five Views are addressed here. Maybe will address more over time in other posts. Dunn’s responses are lazy and insulting dismissals of Price’s arguments, not rebuttals based on logic or evidence, as remarked upon in recent comments. It is instructive to compare Price’s own response to Dunn’s chapter in the same book. No insult. No cavalier dismissals. But a pointed rebuttal from the evidence, scholarship and all tied together with rigid and nonfallacious logic. Price’s responses to Dunn make for much more interesting reading. I should highlight them more with posts in the future.

Meanwhile, the two points I address here are Dunn’s insult and avoidance of what Price’s stated about

  1. the varying dates and scenarios for Jesus’ crucifixion in the early Christian evidence, and
  2. the question of Paul’s meeting James the brother of the Lord read more »

The Dishonesty of a “Scholarly” Review of Robert Price

Associate Professor of Religion at Butler University, and professing Christian, James McGrath, has written in his review of Price’s chapter, “Jesus at the Vanishing Point”, in The Historical Jesus: Five Views, the following:

Crossan rightly highlights that Price’s statement that he will simply skip the matter of the Testimonium Flavianum is “not an acceptable scholarly argument as far as I am concerned”.

It is outright dishonesty to suggest Price “simply skips the matter of the TF”. Price in fact discusses his scholarly views of the TF, and cites a number of scholarly references supporting his view and where readers can explore his arguments in more depth. Price also explains why the evidence for the TF is less conclusive than other evidence he proceeds to discuss.

(I expand on these and other points in my two-part review — Part 1Part 2 — of McGrath’s so-called review of Price’s chapter. The point of this post is simply to highlight as brief notes the extent to which at least one scholar will go when faced with mythicist arguments. See the fuller reviews for the details.)

McGrath also writes:

For instance, is it possible that early Christians went through the Jewish Scriptures, choosing a story here, a turn of phrase there, and weaved them together to create a fictional Messiah? Certainly – as are all other scenarios. What is never explained is why someone would have done this . . .

This is a double lie. Price nowhere argues that early Christians weaved scriptures to “create” a fictional Messiah. read more »

Three Pillars of the Traditional Christ Myth Theory

A few posts back I listed 3 reasons scholars have embraced the Christ Myth theory, 6 “sound premises” of the early Christ Myth arguments, and the weaknesses of 6 traditional arguments against the Christ Myth idea (all archived here), as published by Hoffmann in his introduction to Goguel’s book.

So why not complement those posts with Price’s 3 pillars of the traditional Christ Myth theory? These are from his Jesus at the Vanishing Point chapter in The Historical Jesus: Five Views.

Pillar #1 Why no mention of a miracle-working Jesus in secular sources?

Pillar #2 The Epistles, earlier than the Gospels, do not evidence a recent historical Jesus.

Pillar #3 The Jesus as attested in the Epistles shows strong parallels to Middle Eastern religions based on the myths of dying-and-rising gods.

On the latter, it is worth drawing attention to the word “epistles”, and to the fact (as per pillar 2) that these preceded the Gospels. Some critics of the Christ Myth appear to fail to notice these details and launch off into non sequiturs by way of rebuttal.

Price summarizes in broad strokes here the relationship between these myths and Christianity. Population relocations and a kind of urban cosmopolitanism from Hellenistic times and throughout the Roman Empire coincided with a revised function of ancient myths.

The myths now came to symbolize the rebirth of the individual initiate as a personal rite of passage, namely new birth. (p.75)

Price outlines the evidence that these myths definitely did predate Christianity, as affirmed by both archaeology and the testimony of the Churh Father apologists themselves. Price once again addresses the pedantry of the attempts of J.Z. Smith to claim minor differences invalidate any attempt to compare any ancient myths with any of the Christian ones.

One book I have not yet read, but that Price tempts to me to read, is Gilbert Murray’s Five Stages of Greek Religion. The link is to the full text on Project Gutenberg. It is probably also on Googlebooks. Rich — has this one been added to Webulite, yet?

Price invites me to read it with these comments:

I must admit that when I first read of these mythic parallels in Gilbert Murray’s Five Stages of Greek Religion, it hit me like a ton of bricks. No assurances I received from any Christian scholar I read ever sounded like anything other than specious special pleading to me, and believe me I was disappointed. This was before I had ever read of the principle of analogy, but when I did learn about that axiom, I was able to give a name to what was so powerful in Murray’s presentation.

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Observations on McGrath’s “Review” of Robert Price on Mythicism

History is Myth
Image by LU5H.bunny via Flickr

I place “review” in quotation marks because Associate Professor of Religion of Butler University James McGrath simply avoids addressing Dr Robert Price’s arguments. I used to think McGrath was not very bright, but I have recently come to understand that he is as subtle and smart as a serpent when it comes to those twisting and avoidance manoeuvres whenever confronted with challenges to his most fundamental — and obviously never at any time in his life seriously  questioned — assumptions.

I am referring here to Robert Price’s “Jesus at the Vanishing Point”, the first chapter in Beilby’s and Eddy’s The Historical Jesus: Five Views, and McGrath’s “review” of same. (My own earlier comments on Price’s chapter at 5 commandments and at Johnson’s response. A little of what follows assumes some acquaintance with these earlier posts.)

To keep this post within reasonable limits, I address but a few of McGrath’s responses to Price’s chapter.

Before getting into it, I must admit to being surprised by one omission from McGrath’s review. Even though McGrath complains that Price’s chief fault is merely making a case for something that is possible but not probable, and even though McGrath has elsewhere charged mythicists who fall into this “trap” as thinking “just like Creationists”, McGrath strangely fails to publicly accuse Robert Price of being “just like a creationist”. I would not like to think McGrath is somehow being selective in whom he chooses to public insult, or that he allows a person’s academic status to deflect him from making insults he quite liberally casts out to non academics who make the very same arguments.

I hope to see in future McGrath have the intellectual consistency to publicly accuse Price and Thompson of being like creationists in their mythicist views.

But now on to what McGrath does say in his review:

McGrath argues that the evidence for Jesus is comparable to the evidence for anyone else in ancient times read more »

How Luke Timothy Johnson Stumbles Over the Mythical Jesus

In my previous post I presented Luke Timothy Johnson‘s case against to the opening arguments of Robert M. Price in The Historical Jesus: Five Views. Price gives reasons for suspecting there never was a historical Jesus. In this post I am giving both my own views and some of Price’s own “responses” to Johnson’s criticisms. (Price does not really “respond” to Johnson’s “response” in the book. I have chosen to highlight a few of Price’s arguments that I thought Johnson was dismissing too quickly. Most of the commentary, however, is my own.)

Johnson’s evidence for the historical Jesus

So in response to Robert Price’s demolition of any evidence for Jesus, how does Luke Timothy Johnson come back with clear evidence that this Jesus did exist in history?

  1. By saying there is multiple attestation for some things about Jesus
  2. By insisting that not all Gospel stories about Jesus are very like Torah stories
  3. By asserting that one cannot find Jesus stories in the Torah just by reading the Torah
  4. By insisting that it is a fact that Christianity suddenly emerged out of Jews by their thousands being persuaded that a failed messiah crucified as a criminal was the real messiah and now in heaven to be worshiped alongside God, and that Price has not explained how “this fact” happened
  5. By pointing to “the fact” that the New Testament books all talk about the same Jesus
  6. By reminding us that Josephus, Tacitus and Lucian all write about Jesus and early Christians
  7. And by noting that Paul said Jesus was a Jew, descended from David, and took commands from him, and called him by his personal (human) name Jesus.

I said in a recent comment that it seemed those responding to Price were not really taking his chapter seriously enough to really try to muster a decent criticism. But that’s not really true. To come up with seven strands of “evidence” for the historical Jesus certainly demonstrates some serious effort. Each one may look rather flimsy on its own, but, as to be discussed in the next section, there is no denying that when multiple attestation even of insubstantial arguments can find a single point of convergence, it does at least begin to look serious.

(Johnson repeats some of these arguments in his own chapter in The Historical Jesus: Five Views. I will address some of them again in a future post when discussing that chapter specifically.)

The omission of “multiple attestation

read more »

Luke Timothy Johnson’s Response to Robert Price

In The Historical Jesus: Five Views, Luke Timothy Johnson responds to the 5 principles for historical enquiry as laid out by Robert M. Price in his opening chapter of that book. I discussed these in overview in my recent 5 more commandments post. The five are:

1. The Principle of Analogy

2. The Criterion of Dissimilarity

3. Remember what an Ideal Type means

4. Consensus is No Criterion

5. Scholarly “Conclusions” must be tentative and provisional

Johnson’s strongest criticism is for Price’s failure to include “multiple attestation” among his principles. Johnson refers to the significance of “points of convergence” here.

Of the 5 points listed above, Johnson finds #2 and #3 somewhat questionable. He argues that Price’s ideal type is really another form of the principle of analogy.

He faults Price for relying on this after dismissing #2, the criterion of dissimilarity. Johnson points to the teaching of Jesus on divorce – unlike both Greco-Roman and Jewish practice — as an example of “where dissimilarity actually yields something historically significant.”

In short, Price uses the criterion of dissimilarity to demolish any trace of specific evidence for a historically discernible figure named Jesus, and then appeals to analogy/ideal type to account for the rise of the Christ cult.

He knows that this approach has a long history of its own, and he cheerfully acknowledges that for many, it is considered one of “extreme, even crackpot, theories.” But he does not examine the reasons why such appeals to the ideal type of dying-and-rising gods came to be so regarded by sober historians. It was not, as Price intimates, out of failure of nerve among the apologetically inclined. Rather, it was the failure of such theories to adequately account for the specific character of the Christian movement and its cult figure, as well as the stubborn resistance of certain historical facts to being wished away. (pp. 90-91)

Then Johnson gets to the nub of the matter: “Two interrelated historical facts require explanation.read more »