Some Miscellaneous Reactions to Some of Robert Price’s Points in Favour of Mythicism

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.

 

1 Anyone interested can find the debate, at least currently, at the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oIxxDfkaXVY

2 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Ch. 1, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/01281.htm

3 Claudia Setzer, Jewish Responses to Early Christians,Fortress Press, 1994: 215.

4 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Ch. 8, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/01281.htm

5 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Ch. 9, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/01281.htm

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

8 Origen, Contra Celsus, Book 1, chapter 32. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/04161.htm

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/

10 http://www.reasonablefaith.org/does-god-exist-1

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Grave Findings

The recent opening of the alleged tomb of Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has attracted worldwide attention as the marble slab overlaying the tomb has been removed exposing it for the first time since 1555 (A.D.). This historic event has served as an occasion for Christians to review or explore the strength of the case for identifying that tomb as the genuine burial place of Jesus. A thought which occurs to me, as I review the evidence for the authenticity of the site, is that the evidence is actually good enough to provide some very moderate but noteworthy evidence for the historicity of Christ.

The historicity of Christ is, of course, not hotly contested among professional historians or academics, but it has gained notable popularity on the Internet among many new-atheists who adopt the ‘mythicist’ view propounded (or defended) by folks like Dr. Robert Price and Dr. Richard Carrier. In fact, as recently as October 26th, Robert Price finally debated Bart Ehrman (Ehrman being one of the preeminent biblical scholars in the world, as well as a staunch agnostic and author of the book “Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth”) on the topic of whether there was a historical Jesus of Nazareth. While I haven’t yet seen the debate (because the group uploading the content to youtube is currently still charging money to view it), initial reviews are a little disheartening. The conspiratorial views of the mythicists are a long way off from getting any serious foothold in mainstream academia, but they are (or, at least, seem to be) gaining more ground in the popular culture.

I do not presently have the time, the space, or even the inclination to take a comprehensive approach to dismantling the mythicist’s case, but I do note that, for what it’s worth, the mythicist hypothesis is regarded by academics as on a par with flat earthism, 9/11 conspiracy theories, and young earth creationism (or, as it really ought to be called, young universe creationism). It is a hack conspiracy theory for which no reasonable case can be made (I would invite the skeptic to explore the case(s) presented by Price and Carrier and contrast that(/them) with Ehrman’s work, as well as the work of figures like N.T. Wright). It will be evident to the reasonable person’s satisfaction that there was clearly a historical figure ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ Mythicism is of fleeting relevance, but the opening of the tomb in Jerusalem gives me an excuse to offer a thought about how the evidence for the veridicality of the site heaps even more evidence against the Mythicist.

As to the Tomb itself, the archaeological community considers it likely to be the burial place of Christ. It fits the description of (along with everything else we’ve learned about) a first-century Jewish tomb. The Biblical accounts say that Jesus’ body was laid in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea, a well respected and wealthy member of the Sanhedrin (the same council which had been instrumental in condemning Jesus). Some of the Gospels indicate that Joseph of Arimathea had become a disciple of Christ, though only in secret, and the Gospel of John indicates that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus (another Jewish follower of Christ who kept his views secret) worked together to give Jesus a proper burial.

“After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews.” (John 19:38-40)

The tomb itself is an authentic first-century tomb with a disk-shaped rolling stone at its entrance. Although it is true that there were two kinds of tombs with a stone-slab covering the entrance (one kind with a rolling stone, and another with a roughly rectangular stone covering a doorway), and the disk-shaped stone covering is much rarer (and reserved for the wealthy), the Gospels indicate that the tomb of Jesus was found with its stone ‘rolled’ away (Luke 24:4), indicating that it was the rarer variety of tomb in Jerusalem. Some scholars doubt that the actual tomb of Christ had one of the rare disk-shaped stones covering the entrance; Urban C. von Wahlde, for instance, has written an article titled “Biblical Views: A Rolling Stone That Was Hard to Roll.”[1] Nevertheless, I think a stronger case can be made for the disk-shaped stone, especially in light of the case for the authenticity of the tomb safeguarded by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Apart from this tomb matching the biblical description, the story of its discovery also lends it immense credibility.

The story of the tomb’s discovery is ancient history, but it is extremely interesting. William Lane Craig, speaking casually (and excitedly) on his podcast recently recounts the following:

“Scholars believe that the The Church of the holy Sepulchre has a very credible claim to be on the site of the actual tomb of Jesus, and this is based on a couple of very interesting facts about its discovery. In the year 326 (this is just one year following the council of Nicea that was convened by the emperor Constantine and then promulgated the famous Nicene creed – the following year) Constantine’s mother, Helena, went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, for the purpose of finding relics from the time of Christ and when Constantine’s mother came to Jerusalem she asked the residents of Jerusalem where the tomb of Jesus had been… The people in Jerusalem at that time pointed her to this site where a pagan temple now stood and they said the tomb of Jesus was on this site and this pagan temple was built over it. Well, Helena ordered the temple to be razed and the earth to be excavated [to] get rid of this pollution of paganism. Now, what was interesting about the site identified by the residents of Jerusalem at this time is that the site lay within the walls of Jerusalem. If you look at where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is, it’s inside the city walls, but the Gospels state that Jesus was crucified and buried outside the walls of the city; they would never allow a crucifixion site and burial of unclean corpses to be going on inside the Holy City, it had to be outside the walls, and so it was odd that the residents of Jerusalem would point Helena to a site inside the city walls. Well, as it turned out many centuries later archaeologists excavating the city discovered that the original walls of Jerusalem were more narrowly constrained in that the site that the residents of Jerusalem pointed Helena to actually lay outside the original walls of Jerusalem. They had been later expanded. … The second thing that’s interesting… is that when they began to excavate the site and remove the earth they dug down and… lo and behold they excavated a tomb exactly where the residents of Jerusalem said that it would be. Now what’s interesting is that this Pagan temple stood on that site since it was built by the emperor Hadrian in A.D. 110. Now, since Jesus was crucified around A.D. 30, that means that the memory of this temple being on the site of Jesus’ tomb goes back to within just 80 years of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, well within the time that historical memory might be preserved. And so there’s a very very good chance that this is the very tomb in which Joseph of Arimathea lay the corpse of Jesus of Nazareth.”[2]

The fact that the site originally identified was identified within the walls of Jerusalem (to the best of everyone’s knowledge), and that it came to light only centuries later through archaeological discovery that it was actually outside the original walls of Jerusalem, gives this site immense plausibility. Being originally inside the walls lowered the conditional probability of its being authentic (though the fact that there was a tomb there fitting the description of the biblical tomb and that it was identified by the residents of Jerusalem as the spot, raised the conditional probability of it being the authentic tomb). However, once it was discovered that this tomb was, in fact, outside of the walls of Jerusalem in place at the time of Jesus’ burial, that greatly raises the conditional probability of its being authentic. It is not merely that the tomb resides outside the original walls which is relevant for the conditional probability assessment here, it is that it was identified first as the tomb and was later discovered that it lay outside of the original walls of Jerusalem. That discovery raises the conditional probability tremendously. To formalize this a little bit:

Pr(A|B&W) < Pr(A|B&~W)

Pr(A|B&D&~W) >> Pr(A|B&~W)

Where A means the tomb is authentic, B stands for our background knowledge, W stands for ‘the site of the tomb is located within the city walls’ and D stands for ‘discovering after the fact that ~W.’ In the words of the archaeologist Dan Bahat, “we may not be absolutely certain that the site of the Holy Sepulchre Church is the site of Jesus’ burial, but… we really have no reason to reject the authenticity of the site.”[3] In fact, the discovery after the fact (in conjunction with the other properties which fit the description of the tomb from early sources) raises the probability of this being the authentic tomb highly enough that we can say it provides evidence that there was an authentic tomb. This entails that there was a place where the historical Jesus of Nazareth was buried, and so a historical figure, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’

Pr(J|B&D*) > Pr(~J|B&D*)

Where J stands for ‘Jesus of Nazareth existed,’ B stands, once again, for our background knowledge and Dstands for ‘the case for the authenticity of the tomb in light of the discovery that it lies outside of the original city walls.’

This case isn’t compelling. It’s just something to think about… Also worth thinking about, depending upon how strong you think the case for the Shroud of Turin is, is the following report from the U.K. branch of EWTN.[4] I leave that here, without endorsing any of it, for those of you who may be interested in a pretty far-fetched but provocative suggestion.

 

[1] http://members.bib-arch.org/publication.asp?PubID=BSBA&Volume=41&Issue=2&ArticleID=10

[2] http://www.reasonablefaith.org/opening-the-tomb-of-jesus

[3] http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/10/jesus-christ-tomb-burial-church-holy-sepulchre/

[4] https://www.ewtn.co.uk/news/latest/astonishing-discovery-at-christ-s-tomb-supports-turin-shroud