To try to suggest that the religion took off light bolt lightning around the Mediterranean world because one or a few disciples had inner-experiences that convinced them that Jesus was still somehow “alive and with them” in a mysterious way just does not cut it.
And if Christianity began with a string of real resurrection appearances then its origins are completely beyond the norms post-Enlightenment historical methodology. It is beyond secular historical inquiry.
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?
By saying there is multiple attestation for some things about Jesus
By insisting that not all Gospel stories about Jesus are very like Torah stories
By asserting that one cannot find Jesus stories in the Torah just by reading the Torah
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
By pointing to “the fact” that the New Testament books all talk about the same Jesus
By reminding us that Josephus, Tacitus and Lucian all write about Jesus and early Christians
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.)
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)