In a not so recent debate1 between Bart Ehrman and Robert Price the topic of whether Jesus of Nazareth historically existed was explored. This provides us with one of the first and few high-profile debates with at least one bona-fide scholar where the participants are directly arguing about mythicism. Unfortunately, the debate was a disappointment in several respects in that neither Ehrman nor Price gave performances of the quality many, who were anticipating an outstanding debate, were expecting. However, Price did say a few interesting things which I thought I’d pick up on and say a few words about. This is not intended to be a comprehensive dismantling of Price’s view (I have not the time to be so ambitious), but just intended to provide a registry of some of my miscellaneous reactions to various points.
Price, in his opening speech, provided at least three examples of evidence which may insinuate that one early objection to Christianity was that Jesus never existed. First, he cites a statement which Justin Martyr puts into the mouth of his interlocutor Trypho in his famous Dialogue with Trypho. Second, he cites a statement which Origen is at pains to refute from an anti-Christian polemicist of the second century, Celsus. Third, he calls into evidence the words of 2 Peter 1:16-18 as though they indicate an implicit awareness that there was an allegation already circulating within the first century that Jesus of Nazareth may not have existed at all.
Let us begin with the passage from the Dialogue with Trypho, according to which Trypho, (a Jewish intellectual who, in the dialogue, claims to have been a pupil of Corinthus the Socratic in Argos,2 and may possibly be the second century rabbi Tarfon,3 though that is not widely accepted) makes the following provocative charge:
“…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.”4
Does this passage contain a veiled insinuation that Jesus did not exist? It doesn’t seem so. At very least we gather from the way Justin Martyr proceeds to respond to this comment that he doesn’t have that accusation in mind. Justin promises Trypho that “I will prove to you, here and now, that we do not believe in groundless myths nor in teachings not based on reason, but in doctrines that are inspired by the Divine Spirit, abundant with power, and teeming with grace.”5 However, Justin Martyr goes on to give argument after argument from prophecy to demonstrate that Jesus is a good ‘fit’ for the anticipated messiah of the Tanakh. He never goes on to argue that Jesus of Nazareth existed; he argues on the clear presumption that he and Trypho are agreed that Jesus of Nazareth existed. The likelihood is relatively high that Justin Martyr is writing a largely or entirely fictitious dialogue, but whether it was fictitious or not there is no way to read Trypho’s (alleged) statement as an insinuation that Jesus didn’t exist. That isn’t what Justin Martyr thought the statement insinuated, and it isn’t plausible that a historical Trypho intended to insinuate that the historical Jesus didn’t exist but just let that point drop entirely for the rest of the dialogue with Justin.
My verdict, therefore, is that this provides absolutely no evidence of any early anti-Christian polemic which insinuated that Jesus never existed.
What of Price’s second example, from the second century anti-Christian polemicist Celsus? Well, Price points out that Celsus says: “it is clear to me that the writings of the Christians are a lie and that your fables have not been well enough constructed to conceal this monstrous fiction.”6 However, to read this as a veiled charge that Jesus never existed is implausible for a variety of reasons. First, consider how the passage from Celsus continues: “it is clear to me that the writings of the Christians are a lie and that your fables have not been well enough constructed to conceal this monstrous fiction. I have heard that some of your interpreters…are on to the inconsistencies and, pen in hand, alter the originals writings, three, four and several more times over in order to be able to deny the contradictions in the face of criticism.”7 That is clearly an accusation of embellishment and selective redaction; it is clearly not an accusation of having invented the historical Jesus whole-cloth. Second, consider that Celsus elsewhere argues that Jesus is a bastard child; according to Origen in his Contra Celsus, “[Celsus was] speaking of the mother of Jesus, and saying that “when she was pregnant she was turned out of doors by the carpenter to whom she had been betrothed, as having been guilty of adultery, and that she bore a child to a certain soldier named Panthera.”89 Clearly, however, if Celsus thought that Jesus was born of illegitimate relations between Mary and a Roman soldier named Panthera, then Celsus could not have also believed that Jesus never existed. Those beliefs are so obviously logically incompatible that even an imbecile (as Origen thought) like Celsus could not plausibly have entertained both.
Finally, what of the words in 2 Peter 1:16-18? They read:
“For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.”
(2 Peter 1:16-18, NRSV).
I consider it obvious that the author gives us an indication of what the allegation of ‘cleverly devised myths’ comes to by the way he responds to the charge. Clearly, however, he spends all his time emphasizing not that he was an eyewitness (or that there were eyewitnesses) of Jesus of Nazareth, but that he was one of many eyewitnesses of the majesty of Christ which was attested to and illustrated by miracles. It is the majesty and/or the miracles which the author believes are being alleged to be cleverly devised myths, not the historicity of the person, Jesus of Nazareth; we know this by inferring it from the way the author responds to the allegations he has in mind.
So, in my opinion, all three of these evidences of some early objection to Christianity to the effect that Jesus of Nazareth did not historically exist are completely bunk.
I want to end this reflection on some points brought out by Price in the debate with a few positive notes. There are some areas where I actually agree with Price over against the majority of New Testament scholars. For instance, Price maintains (and this came out in parts of the debate) that there is no more reason to think that Paul wrote Galatians than there is to think that Paul wrote 1st Timothy. Price’s conclusion is that we have reason to believe that Paul did not write any of the epistles traditionally ascribed to him. My conclusion is that Paul plausibly wrote all of the epistles traditionally ascribed to him. This was somewhat tangential to the debate, but it is a point of interesting qualified agreement nevertheless. More interesting still, Price argued that if we strip away all of the miraculous claims made about Christ, we are left with a first-century Jewish Rabbi about whom nothing would have been worth writing in the first place. He says, at one point, that if Clark Kent existed and superman didn’t, there would be no gradual embellishment of stories about Clark Kent because there would be no reason for anyone to remember any stories about Clark Kent in the first place. There either has to have been something about the Jesus of Nazareth of history which made him worth writing (talking, etc.) so much about in the first place, or else the stories about him were mythological from the beginning.
This, I think, is a very interesting point. If historians are intent on whittling down the Jesus of the Gospels to the point where he was an utterly unremarkable first century Jewish rabbi then there is no explanation for why he caused such a stir in the first place. Obviously most historians will respond, here, by conceding that Jesus claimed to be a miracle worker, and performed exorcism ceremonies in a way which presumed an immense and unprecedented amount of authority for himself. It was his innovative preaching along with what W.L. Craig has called the historical Jesus’ “unprecedented sense of divine authority,”10 which sufficiently explain why there were any stories about him in the first place. So, on the one hand, Price has, I think, failed to take inventory of what most New Testament scholars believe we can say with enormous confidence about the historical Jesus of Nazareth. On the other hand, though, Price does well to remind us that if scholars aren’t careful to preserve something remarkable and unique about the historical Jesus, if they reconstruct only a version of Jesus wholly sanitized by the presumption of naturalism, and about whom there was really nothing terribly special, they may be proverbially cutting the tree branch from which they hang.
3 Claudia Setzer, Jewish Responses to Early Christians,Fortress Press, 1994: 215.
6 Celsus, On the True Doctrine, translated by R. Joseph Hoffman, Oxford University Press, 1987: 37. See: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/celsus3.html
7 Celsus, On the True Doctrine, translated by R. Joseph Hoffman, Oxford University Press, 1987: 37. See: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/celsus3.html
9 I have written a little bit on this before, a long time ago. Those interested may see: https://thirdmillennialtemplar.wordpress.com/2012/02/13/celsus-attack-on-the-holy-mother/