Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Conservative Scholars Respond to the Christ Myth Theory

It is often hard to find conservative Christian scholars who will respond to the mythological Jesus arguments with anything other than derision so I was pleased to find a recent book titled The Historical Jesus: Five Views in which scholars of various viewpoints give their take on the current state of the quest for the historical Jesus. What I really like about the book is that each of the scholars writes a brief response to the other essays so we get to see how conservative scholars James D.G. Dunn, Luke Timothy Johnson, and Darrell L. Bock as well as Jesus Seminar member John Dominic Crossan respond to Robert Price’s defense of the argument that there never was a historical Jesus.

Price’s argument is titled Jesus at the Vanishing Point and it focuses heavily on the question that I find most intriguing: Why don’t Paul’s epistles contain any details of Jesus’ life prior to the crucifixion?
Setting aside the very late 1 Timothy, which presupposes the Gospel of John (the only Gospel in which Jesus “made a good confession before Pontius Pilate”),19 we should never guess from the Epistles that Jesus died in any particular historical or political context, only that the fallen angels (Col 2:15), the archons of this age, did him in, little realizing they were sealing their own doom (1 Cor 2:6-8). It is hard to imagine that the authors of Romans 13:3 and 1 Peter 2:13-14 (where we read that Roman governors punish only the wicked, not the righteous) believed that Jesus died at the order of Pontius Pilate. We should never even suspect he performed a single miracle, since none are mentioned. Did Paul think his Jesus had been a teacher? We just don’t know, since his cherished “commands of the Lord” (1 Cor 7:10, cf. 25; 9:14), while they might represent quotations from something like the Q source, may as well be midrashically derived inferences from Old Testament commands of Adonai in the Torah, or even prophetic mandates from the Risen One.

I don’t suppose that anyone will be shocked to learn that I didn’t find the conservative Christian responses to Price terribly convincing. I thought that they were much too blithe in asserting that a historical Jesus could be found throughout the New Testament and not just in the Gospels. When it came to citing actual points at which the historical Jesus could be found in Paul’s epistles, I thought their examples were pretty weak.

Timothy Luke Johnson got first crack at Price and he appealed to what he calls “two interrelated historical facts” that require explanation:
The Christian movement did not exist before Jesus, and when it appeared across the Mediterranean world of the first century, the “Lord” who was believed to be present in the cult worship was not an Egyptian or Persian deity, but a failed Jewish Messiah who was executed under Roman authority in the time of Tiberius. . . .

The second historical fact is the composition of at least twenty-seven distinct compositions within a fifty year period by members of this religious movement, all of which, despite their diversity of literary genre, social setting and theological perspective, have the same Jesus as their point of focus, and the same generative matrix, namely the death and resurrection of the human person Jesus.

The problem is that I do not think that either of these counts as a historical fact. The earliest record we have of the appearance of the Christian movement is the letters of Paul and he doesn’t say anything about when or where Jesus was executed and very little about why. Of “the twenty-seven distinct compositions,” only five of them contain details about what a human person said or did and the time and place when he lived. The point of focus of the other twenty-two is a theological figure whose significance rests entirely on his death and resurrection. The writers of these twenty-two books don’t demonstrate any knowledge of the contents of the other five and write nothing to indicate that the contents of them would be relevant to anything they have to say about the theological figure.

Johnston goes on to point out where he thinks the historical Jesus can be found outside the gospels:
Price’s effort to remove evidence of Jesus from Paul’s letters amounts to an unconvincing tour de force. I mention only three examples. (1) He leaves aside the evidence in Paul’s letters that Jesus was Jewish (Gal 4:4)—indeed, descended from David (Rom 1:3)—and was regarded as Messiah (Rom 9:4). (2) He does not acknowledge that Paul’s reference to a command of the Lord concerning divorce in 1 Corinthians 7:10 provides multiple attestation for Jesus’ prohibition of divorce in the Synoptic Gospels (Mk 10:2-8; Mt 5:31-32; 19:3-9; Lk 16:18) and shows how the criterion of dissimilarity—for all its problems—actually yields positive evidence concerning Jesus’ teaching, for the very struggles found in Matthew and Paul to provide some exceptions to the command testify to its being a received tradition, and one contrary both to Greco-Roman and Jewish practice.

These don’t seem terribly impressive to me. That Paul thought the Jewish Messiah was Jewish doesn’t seem to require a known historical person. Neither does the fact that the Jewish Messiah comes from the line of David. The prohibition against divorce is more interesting, but it does not seem nearly as definitive as Johnson would like to believe. The passage in Corinthians deals with what changes believers should make in their lives given the imminent Second Coming. Paul advises slaves to remain slaves and he advises married people to remain married citing the Lord as his source for the latter admonition. That context seems much different than Jesus’ teachings on divorce in the synoptic gospels. They could be related, but I think there is plenty of room for doubt.

I suppose I should say what I think the epistles might contain if Paul did have well-known recently deceased teacher in mind. First I would expect Paul to support his arguments when possible by citing things that Jesus had said. Second, I think Paul would be forced to discuss the significance of things Jesus said and did when others referred to them. For example, Paul argues against other believers who insisted that pagan converts should be circumcised and observe the Jewish dietary laws. His opponents would naturally have pointed to Jesus’ statement that “not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished,” (Matthew 5:18) had they heard it from Jesus’ own mouth. The fact that the letters of the earliest Christians don’t reflect any disputed interpretations of the things Jesus said or did during his life leads me to believe that none of them had any knowledge of them.

James D.G. Dunn decided to go with derision in his response to Price:
Gosh! So there are still serious scholars who put forward the view that the whole account of Jesus’ doings and teachings are a later myth foisted on an unknown, obscure historical figure. . . .
This is always the fatal flaw with the ‘Jesus myth’ thesis: the improbability of the total invention of a figure who had purportedly lived within the generation of the inventers, or the imposition of such an elaborate myth on some minor figure from Galilee. Price is content with the explanation that it all began "with a more or less vague savior myth." Sad, really.
Personally I find this kind of sarcasm rather sad.

Dunn does even worse then Johnson when he tries to find evidence of a historical Jesus in Paul’s epistles:
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 and his readiness to offer less plausible hypotheses to explain other data that inconveniences his thesis. 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)? How can Price actually assert that “we should never guess from the Epistles that Jesus died in any particular historical or political context,” when it is well enough known that crucifixion was a Roman political method of execution characteristically for rebels and slaves? I could go on at some length—“seed of David” (Rom 1:3), “born under the law” (Gal 4:4), “Christ did not please himself” (Rom 15:3). Yet Price is able to assert that “the Epistles…do not evidence a recent historical Jesus,” a ludicrous claim that simply diminishes the credibility of the arguments used in support.

Dunn’s argument boils down to little more than “we should read all these passages as referring to a historical person because everybody knows that Jesus was a historical figure. The reason that Price doesn’t mention the passages in Corinthians is because Paul says nothing to indicate where or when the crucifixion took place. While the fact that Christ was crucified may bring to mind the Romans, the Carthaginians, Persians, and Greeks had practiced crucifixion in the five centuries since it had been invented so it really doesn’t narrow potential times, places, or responsible parties very much. I have no doubt that Dunn could go on at length but if he decides to lead off with “seed of David,” “born under the law,” and “did not please himself,” I doubt that he is going to get very far towards establishing that Paul believed in a recent historical Christ.

Bock is much more civil than Dunn, but he also assumes the points that upon which Price seeks evidence:
Price’s claim actually ignores many features we can consider historically, such as a figure’s impact on his contemporaries or their testimonies that this impact is not a matter of myth. First-century Christian documents clearly claim this distinction, which means they are aware of the difference and reject a tie to myth for Jesus. This puts Jesus and his historical reality on the table.
Price's point is that Jesus’ teachings and miracles do not seem to have made any impact whatsoever on the writers of twenty-two out of the twenty-seven first century Christian documents. It may be clear that the gospel writers claim the distinction between a mythological and historical Jesus, but it is not clear that anyone else does.

After reading three leading conservative scholars’ comments on the mythological Jesus argument, I still don’t see a more satisfactory explanation for the dearth of evidence for the historical Jesus in the epistles that that the writers of those epistles did not have a historical figure in mind.


  1. How about Crossan's critique? :)

  2. Crossan said that he agreed with "vast swaths" of Price's argument, however, he thought the evidence was still strong enough to point to a historical Jesus. He did not offer any explanation for the lack of historical detail about Jesus in the epistles which is the part of the Christ myth theory that most intrigues me.

  3. Also, it seems that the deck is stacked with three confessional Christian scholars. If I were to choose, my list would be:

    1) Price or RJ Hoffman (Radical/Mythicist-skeptical)
    2) Crossan or Burton Mack (Liberal/Jesus as sage)
    3) EP Sanders, JP Meier, or Paula Fredricksen (moderate/Jesus as apocalypticist)
    4) Richard Horsley or Geza Vermes (off-beat Jesus theories)
    5) Bock, LT Johnson, or NT Wright (Jesus as Christ)

    And if I had room for more, I'd add Marcus Borg just for kicks. :D

  4. I think the stacking was intentional. I would have enjoyed seeing Bart Ehrman and Dale Allison in there as well.

    On the other hand, I am finding the responses that the confessional scholars make to each other interesting as well. All their arguments seems to be variations on (1) the gospels are the best sources we have, (2) the gospels support the tradition orthodox view of Jesus, (3) therefore the orthodox view is the best that historians can do. Each of them spins the argument differently though.

  5. So what was Dunn's reaction to arguments that Romans 13 could not have been written by somebody who believed Jesus was flogged, beaten, whipped, mocked, and crucified by Romans?

    Did Dunn simply pretend that no such argument had ever been made?

    Or did he at least attempt to whitewash the evidence?

  6. Unfortunately Steven, Dunn doesn't go into that much detail.

  7. These things tend to have a strict word count, so if Dunn used plenty of space for derision, that would have left him short of space for arguments.

    Quite understandable.

  8. We know 1Tim is late because otherwise it damages all his theories.

    In really, though, 1Tim doesn't presupposed John's Gospel but knowledge of the material. 1Tim 5:18 quotes a statement of Jesus that appears in Luke -- again, one can argue whether this is proof 1Tim was written after Luke or simply drawing from a common source.

    Hebrews 5:7 clearly refers to Jesus' prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane. 2Peter 1:17-18 refers to the Transfiguration of Christ.

    James, which is regarded as very early, appears to have great familiarity with the material from the Sermon on the Mount, and 1John clearly echoes material from John 14-15.

    Frankly, I find the whole question rather silly. No NT work is really all that long. They are letters written to address specific issues to specific people, and a good deal of information is obviously assumed (1Cor is particularly irritating at this).

    Saying that the NT authors, who were expounding on the results of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, should have talked about his ministry is like insisting that someone writing about the Cuban missile crisis talk about JFK's college days.

    All this is really telling us is that you would like more information. Well, so would I, but we have to make do with what we have.

  9. ChrisB,

    I am not saying that the epistle writers should have talked about anything. I am saying that we can only infer what they knew from what they did talk about.

    You are quite correct that we do have to make do with what we have. Unfortunately, what we have doesn't tell that Paul had any knowledge of the historical Jesus that the gospels describe or that he knew anyone who did.

  10. As far as Hebrews 5:7 goes, it does not seem to refer to any specific prayer and I don’t recall anything in the Gethsemane stories about those prayers being heard.

    2 Peter’s pedigree is the worst of any book in the NT Canon, but I will concede that the author is talking about the transfiguration.

    James certainly seems to be familiar with the ethic embodied in the Sermon on the Mount, but what is there to identify the words of Jesus as his source?

    What basis do we have for determining who is echoing who?

  11. The Epistle of James urges its readers to follow the example of patience under suffering that was set by the Old Testament prophets and by Job.

    Why not Jesus?

    And, of course, the Epistle never has any reference to any sermon or Jesus preaching.