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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Christian Delusion: Chapter Ten--Jesus: Myth and Method

Chapter Ten in The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails (ed. John W. Loftus) is by Robert M. Price. Dr. Price holds two Ph.D.'s, one in Theology (1981) and one in New Testament Studies (1993) from Drew University. He is a former evangelical Christian and Baptist minister. He now attends the Episcopal church and describes himself as a "Christian Atheist." He is currently Professor of Theology and Scriptural Studies at Colemon Theological Seminary, the host of Point of Inquiry, the Founder and Editor of The Journal of Higher Criticism, a Fellow with The Jesus Seminar, a Fellow with The Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion and a Research Fellow with the Center for Inquiry Institute. He is the author of numerous journal articles and fourteen books including:

Beyond Born Again: Towards Evangelical Maturity ( 1993)

The Widow Traditions in Luke-Acts: A Feminist-Critical Scrutiny (1997)

Mystic Rhythms: The Philosophical Vision of RUSH (1998)

Deconstructing Jesus (1999)

Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable Is the Gospel Tradition? (2004)

The Empty Tomb: Jesus beyond the Grave (editor, 2005)

The Da Vinci Fraud: Why the Truth Is Stranger than Fiction(2005)

•The Reason Driven Life: What Am I Here on Earth For? (2006)

The Pre-Nicene New Testament: Fifty-four Formative Texts (2006)

Jesus Is Dead (2007)

The Paperback Apocalypse: How the Christian Church Was Left Behind(2007)

Top Secret: The Truth behind Today's Pop Mysticisms (2008)

Inerrant the Wind: The Evangelical Crisis of Biblical Authority (2009)

The Case Against The Case For Christ: A New Testament Scholar Refutes the Reverend Lee Strobel (2010)

In chapter ten, Price responds to the recent book, The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition (Baker Academic, 2007) by Paul Rhodes Eddy and Greg Boyd. Price's position is that the Gospels contain myths not history. He doesn't believe there is any reason to think that Jesus of Nazareth ever existed.

Price maintains that Eddy and Boyd employ an apologetical methodology having assumed a priori that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. He contrasts his methodology (historical criticism) with theirs (historical apologetics):
What is the task of biblical criticism? It is to advance the understanding of the Bible by applying new methods to the study of the text. One hopes to learn more and new things about the text. By contrast, what is the task of Christian apologetics? It is essentially one of retrenchment. It wants to turn the clock back on criticism and in effect to learn less about the Bible, to undo all that critics consider progress. The apologist makes minimal concessions to critical method, using it opportunistically to try to vindicate the Bible as the kind of prop he needs it to be for the sake of his faith. One senses on every page that the Christian apologist wishes that the Higher Criticism of scripture had never been invented (probably by Satan) to confuse matters. (pp. 273-74).

While Eddy and Boyd are guilty of an a priori assumption of the supernatural, they accuse those who disagree with them of being guilty of an a priori assumption of naturalism. Price explains that it is not quite that simple. Historians, as scientists do also, employ methodological naturalism but that is not the same as metaphysical naturalism. Price writes:
Eddy and Boyd simply cannot bring themselves to grasp the difference between methodological and metaphysical naturalism. They insist that the only reason critics refuse to acknowledge any miracle stories as probably true is that said critics are a stuck-up elite with an anachronistic commitment to a quaint creed of naturalism and/or Deism. . . .

Naturalism as a philosophy has absolutely nothing to do with my historical methodology. . . . Troeltsch’s “principle of connection” does not say we know or believe that all events happen according to unbroken, immanent cause-and-effect. We weren’t there; we don’t know. That is why we have to try to devise methods like this to tell us what most probably happened. All we can do is to assume a cause-and effect nexus, just like the TV weatherman. We use the only guide we have. And experience tells us that whenever a scientist or historian has stopped short, shrugging and saying, “Well, I can’t explain it! I guess it must be a miracle!” he has later regretted it. Someone else was not willing to give up, and, like a detective on a Cold Case Files show on TV, he or she did manage to find the neglected clue. Willard Scott does not pretend to know for a fact that a sovereign God will not reach down and stop the lightning bolt from starting a forest fire tomorrow. He does not know that the nostrils of El Shaddai or Jupiter Pluvius will not stir up a Tsunami next week. He can do no more than extrapolate from current, known trends what is probably going to happen. Big news: we can trace only factors that we can trace, though for all we know there may be others.

Likewise, with Troeltsch’s “principle of analogy." There is no claim here (nor in poor, much-maligned Hume) that nothing out of the ordinary happens or ever can happen. (“What? You mean a politician told the truth last night?”) There is no dogma, no certitude, that miracles do not and never can occur. We don’t have a time machine; we don’t know what did or didn’t happen. Again, that’s why we have to fashion these conceptual instruments, crude though they may be, to try to surmise what probably happened, which is all we can ever “know.” And analogy forbids us to deem “probable” any event without reliable corroboration from some analogy with present-day experience
(pp. 274-75).

Price points out that the only reason why one would accept a supernatural explanation for a past event is because of one's prior faith commitment to the historical source which records the event. He writes:
So someone reports to you that he has seen his Uncle Mel alive again after his cremation. Are you going to believe him? Even if you believe Jesus rose from the dead, I think you will not be quick to conclude that Uncle Mel did, too. What would you say are the chances your friend is mistaken? Probably pretty high. If your friend introduced you to the living Uncle Mel, I bet you would immediately doubt whether it was really he who was cremated, as if it was all some kind of joke. Everybody would think you were pretty silly if you took to the streets proclaiming that Uncle Mel had risen from the dead.

This whole notion of granting that a miracle happened, or that the supernatural intervened, when we can find no adequate naturalistic explanation is headed in the wrong direction. Pretty soon any miracles the Bible says happened will fall into the same bag. Elijah called down fire from the sky to roast hundreds of Samaritan soldiers? Well, no naturalistic explanations are going to be able to account for that, but we’re still entitled to believe it anyway. Why? Because there’s compelling reason to say it happened. And what is that reason? I suppose, Socrates, it’s simply that the Bible says it happened! What other reason can there be if the normal pointers to historical probability are absent? We see in the long run that Boyd and Eddy just want us to believe what the Bible says, and when we don’t, they flog us with the wet noodle of “naturalistic presuppositions”
(pp. 277-78).

Eddy and Boyd would have one believe that the ancients were just as incredulous of the supernatural as modern's are and only wound up believing in the resurrection of Jesus because of the overwhelming proof. Price writes:
For Boyd and Eddy will go on to argue in a later chapter that the ancients were not particularly credulous, were indeed just as skeptical of claimed miracles as moderns are! They need to argue this way just long enough to promote the idea that the early Christians must have had good reasons to believe in the resurrection, etc., rather than just believing any old rumor someone told them (pp. 64-66). It is a way of pretending that the ancients were critical historians who would never have believed in Jesus’ miracles if they weren’t forced to by the Humean caveat that miracle belief is preferable to far-fetched naturalistic rationalizations. So what were they? Critical moderns before their time (so we can accept their “analyses” of miracles we ourselves cannot witness)? Or were they easy believers in demons and spirits and wonders (which would forbid our being skeptical about them since we must embrace “democratized epistemology”)?(p. 280).

The simple fact is, as any student of history knows, the ancients were much more prone to believe in supernatural explanations for events than moderns are. That is not to say that moderns hold no superstitious beliefs for they surely do. However, they do so in opposition to the intellectual climate of the modern world as opposed to the ancients who did so in accordance with the climate of their day.

Price also shows how Eddy and Boyd, in their attempt to explain how the Gospels were written, actually sacrifice any reason to believe that they contain eyewitness testimony. He writes:
Form critic Dennis E. Nineham long ago pointed out how the gospel pericopes, short and sweet and streamlined as they are, just do not read like eye-witness testimony. For that we would expect the kind of “table talk” we get in, say the Acts of John: “Once I said to Jesus…, and he said to me…” Our gospel pericopes sound like they have been rubbed smooth by the currents of constant repetition. Boyd and Eddy are happy to point to ethnographic studies that show even actual eyewitness recollections may, the first time out, be put into traditional forms for transmission, verbal time capsules, and that in this manner vivid details and distinctive features may be sacrificed from the very beginning (pp. 274-275). Similarly, they aver, the dynamics of oral tradition dictate that what is actually stated, preserved in explicit wording, presupposes an informational background outsiders are unlikely to know, with the result that even good, on-the-spot recollections may not sound like it (pp. 285-286). Well, that helps a lot! Boyd and Eddy obviously imagine they have given themselves permission to read the clipped and stereotyped mini-narratives of the Gospels as eyewitness testimony despite appearances. But all they have actually shown is that, even if there should chance to be real eyewitness testimony in the Jesus tradition, we can no longer recognize it as such! Formal considerations will have obliterated any evidence of eye-witness origin (p. 284).

Price compares the Islamic "hadith" to the gospel narratives:
Closer to home, there is the well-known mass production of spurious tendential hadith falsely ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad. The early guardians of hadith felt it was their job to shepherd the growing tradition into the directions they thought best by making up opinions and deeds of the Prophet. We do not know if early Christian tradents engaged in such activities, but neither do we know that they behaved like Serbian shepherds or African lore-masters! Given the choice, the Islamic paradigm would seem a lot more likely, if only because it is closer to home historically and religiously (and, given the contradictory messages of the different gospel Jesuses even within the canon, it seems directly confirmed in the evidence). At any rate, the wholesale hadith-forging industry is at least as attractive an option for understanding the developing Jesus tradition. It is based on a well-known oral-traditional matrix and matches perfectly the model adopted by Bultmann and the form critics. If oral tradition “really” worked as Boyd and Eddy say it must, we cannot explain the phenomena of the hadith. (p. 287)

The arguments that Eddy and Boyd put forward for the historicity of the canonical gospels would require one to believe that the Nag Hammadi Gospels were historical too. Price writes:
They simply would not exist, or else we must accept them as historical, too. They, too, claim to stem from eye-witnesses. They, too, offer us many sayings ascribed to Jesus. If we admit they are historically spurious, we admit that it was nothing for early Christians to ascribe their own best thoughts and revelations to their Lord. (p. 287).

So, Price demonstrates that in order to accept the canonical gospels as literal history, one must first adopt a priori the belief that they are accurate and then explain away all the historical criticism of the Bible for the last 300 years. Were Eddy and Boyd successful in their attempt? Price concludes: One may render the following verdict on the case the authors have made on rehabilitating the historical reliability of the Synoptic Gospels: nice try (p. 289).


  1. "One may render the following verdict on the case the authors have made on rehabilitating the historical reliability of the Synoptic Gospels: nice try (p. 289)."
    That says it all. Without historical accuracy of the Gospels, the presuppositional apologists have no argument as their whole premise is that the Bible is the inerrant word of God and therefore historically accurate.

  2. That says it all. Without historical accuracy of the Gospels, the presuppositional apologists have no argument as their whole premise is that the Bible is the inerrant word of God and therefore historically accurate.

    That's ultimately the primary reason I left the Evangelical Christianity I grew up with. Once I was confronted with irrefutable evidence that the Bible was historically flawed I could not buy any argument for inerrancy. Once I acknowledged that evolution was the explanation for the diversity of life on Earth I couldn't buy the Genesis story.

    So if you can't buy the Fall and you can't buy the Bible's redemptive story for how humans get back to god, the whole thing just kind of unravels. Of course it doesn't hurt that I was also in the process of discovering that story pops up all over the place in human memory. So all of the arguments for the uniqueness of the Bible started falling on deaf ears, too.

    I tried to stick with a more generalized Christianity for a while, but my heart was no longer in it. And here I am, all the happier for not having to engage in daily cognitive dissonance...

  3. I am happy for you Geds. It just shows you that if you actually read the Bible and think a bit, you can see the obvious contradictions and errors. It helps if yo know a bit of history, for eaxample that Herod died 4 years before Jesus was born, and that Nazareth did not exist as a real place.

  4. Sorry, I forgot to check for typos.

  5. It helps if yo know a bit of history, for eaxample that Herod died 4 years before Jesus was born, and that Nazareth did not exist as a real place.

    A little logic helps, too. Historically there was no call for a census of the entire world from Caesar Augustus like the Gospels claim. Logically, there's no reason whatsoever to believe one of the greatest emperors of antiquity's most organized empire would have been so boneheaded as to call a census that required everyone to return to their hometown. The massive disruption would not have been worth the benefit of the census and there's no reason to think that the Romans gave a crap about the traditional family structure in the Levant, anyway.

    It makes more sense if you think of it as a literary device. As such it does two things. First, it places the savior's birthplace in a prophesied location. Second, it associates the Roman Emperor with David's ill-fated census that resulted in Yahweh being mad at David for reasons I don't currently recall. Also, I think that there's a specific reason that Mary needed to be in Jerusalem at the outset. It probably had to do with the interlude with Elizabeth and baby John the Baptist.

    So, yeah. Good storytelling, terrible history.

    Sorry, I forgot to check for typos.

    It happens. I have a barely functioning "f" key on my work laptop, so I have to be extra careful to spell check.

  6. I was hoping this would go more over the idea of Jesus being pure myth. I don't actually hold that idea, but I find it interesting. I believe there was a real rabbi named Jesus but the stories written about him do not reflect the majority of his life and teachings.

  7. I was hoping this would go more over the idea of Jesus being pure myth.

    The problem is that we can't make any definitive statements about that particular topic and I don't think anyone can. We get a single, brief, somewhat reliable mention of Jesus in Josephus* and that's about it. But the fact that no one else outside of the Bible mentioned Jesus specifically doesn't mean we can say he was pure myth. Lots of people never got mentioned anywhere but still managed to live full lives.

    I believe there was a real rabbi named Jesus but the stories written about him do not reflect the majority of his life and teachings.

    That's probably the best we can do. If the stories and general Messianic furor of the time were attached to an otherwise unnotable individual, we've got the creation of a Christian cult in a nut shell.


    *Not the Testimonium Flavianum. The other one where Josephus just mentions him in passing as James's brother.

  8. Geds, I thought even the passing comment was scrutinized and was possibly referencing a different person entirely, considering Jesus and James were common names.

  9. I thought even the passing comment was scrutinized and was possibly referencing a different person entirely, considering Jesus and James were common names.

    Could be. It's the right time frame to be about the Biblical Jesus and James. And it's not nearly so out of place as the Testimonium.

    Beyond that, well, it is just a pair of names and it's not like Josephus gave us surnames and Social Security numbers, so it could well have been some other Jesus and James. Honestly, I've never really bothered with Josephus much outside of his stuff on the Maccabean Revolt, so I'm no Josephus expert.

  10. If you will distinguish between a real man that was buried in a real tomb whose real bones were found, from the supposed Jzeus then you can, if you will, make sense of the nearly two millennia old identity theft. I am speaking of Ribi Yehoshua ben Yoseph whose bones WERE found in Talpiot, Yrushalayim (Jerusalem.) I am also a former "Bible" college student for four years and brief seminary student that was constantly agitated by the vacuum of proof. It is easy to believe in poof Xtainity if you are lazy and want a free pass to "heaven." But life is not easy and was never meant to be and in the end you die. But I see that many of you discount the Tanach, the Torah, Prophets, and Writings along with the Null Testament which is a fatal error. The Scrolls of Qumran should satisfy the scientific mind that the painstaking copying of Jewish soferim (scribes) kept the Tanach intact. There is a man in Raanana, Israel who went also through the journey of Xtian education and Baptist pastorate that has documented without credible refute that there was a Jewish Torah observant teacher and judge in Israel in the 1st century who met the qualifications of the Mashiach based on the Tanach. And about evolution and the first chapters of Bereshit (Genesis.) It is impossible for it to mean a literal 6 days. That would be inconsistent with the laws of physics and what we see and have always seen. The Creator of what is, has shown throughout man's sapience that everything worthwhile takes time. The Creator made everything according to mathematical logic and evolution is mathematically and scientifically logical. I would hate to think that some of you who have jettisoned the Jzeus myth would stop and not give logic, science, and archeology a real shot. It is there at

  11. "I would hate to think that some of you who have jettisoned the Jzeus myth would stop and not give logic, science, and archeology a real shot."

    I won't speak for anyone else, but I don't see any particular reason to believe in an all-knowing, all-powerful creator. That's quite apart from whether Jesus was a historical figure, a semi-historical figure, or an entirely mythological invention. It's also quite apart from whether the Tanach and the Torah were preserved intact.

    I did try to look at your website, but frankly I found it very nearly incomprehensible. Part of that is the overall style, but the main problem is the text seems to be written in "insider-speak". I could probably decipher most of it, but that seems like more work than it's worth.

  12. If we could just get believers in reliable "eye witness accounts" to do one thing seriously and searchingly, they might begin to see the situation more clearly. That thing is read each Gospel as unto itself, its own story, although obviously borrowing from each other and at least one additional written source. Then the distinct and often opposing or "correcting" theologies can be seen, and the theological and social nature of the Gospels take its proper place... part of mythmaking, not "eyewitness" reporting.