Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Price is Wright

Robert Price has written a predictably negative review of N. T. Wright’s recent monograph on the Resurrection:


Since Price is one of the better-educated critics of the faith, let’s review his review.

“Wright always adopts the stance as of a career historian in the field of ancient history, as if approaching the gospel texts as an admiring outsider. In fact, he is a bishop of the Church of England celebrated there for his reactionary theological opinions.”

“Wright is the mouthpiece for institutional orthodoxy, a grinning spin-doctor for the Grand Inquisitor. What credibility his book appears to have is due to the imposing wealth, power, tradition, even architecture, of the social-ecclesiastical world which he serves as chaplain and apologist.

So the fact that Wright is an Anglican prelate makes him a mouthpiece of traditional orthodoxy? Needless to say, an Anglican prelate can be a theological liberal, so the fact that Wright is a theological moderate is not a role which he has been assigned to play by virtue of his office.

Is the Church of England in the 21C conspicuous for its wealth and power?

“They are the same old stale fundamentalist apologetics we got in Ladd, essentially the same old stuff we used to read in Josh McDowell and John Warwick Montgomery…In the end, Wright, now Bishop of Durham, is just Josh McDowell in a better suit.”

Price’s trademark guilt-by-association. But these are hardly four of a kind. McDowell is a popularizer. Ladd was a respected NT scholar. Wright has taught at Oxford and Cambridge, while Montgomery is a polymath.

Even in the case of McDowell, while he’s not a scholar or philosopher in his own right, there is nothing wrong with anthologizing the scholarship of others, and McDowell’s work, whatever its limitations, is better documented than Price’s “reslung hash.”

“Wright reminds me of Francis Schaeffer, a hidebound fundamentalist who began as a children’s evangelist working for Carl MacIntyre.”

More guilt by association. But, of course, Wright was not an associate of Schaeffer—any more than he’s an associate of McDowell.

Is there something wrong with being a children’s evangelist?

No doubt Schaeffer had his limitations, but he did a lot of good work for the Kingdom.

The objective of these invidious comparisons is to make the reader mentally substitute Schaeffer or McDowell for Wright.

“The tragedy is that many today are falling for it. Witness Wright’s own prominence in the Society of Biblical Literature, to say nothing of his ecclesiastical clout.”

Ah, so the SBL is another hotbed of fundy apologetics.

“Wright backs up much too far to make a running start at the resurrection, regaling us with unoriginal, superfluous, and tedious exposition of Old Testament and Intertestamental Jewish ideas of afterlife and resurrection, resurrection belief in every known Christian writer up into the early third century, etc., etc.”

How is that superfluous? The NT is in dialogue with the OT and Second Temple Judaism.

“He is a victim of what James Barr long ago called the Kittel mentality, referring to the approach of Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, in which articles on individual New Testament terms and words synthesized from all uses of the term an artificial and systematic semantic structure, leading the reader to suppose that every individual usage of the word was an iceberg tip carrying with it implied reference to all other references.”

It isn’t at all clear to me that Wright is guilty of “the Kittel mentality,” but, in any event, as we shall shortly see, Price himself is guilty of the very mindset he finds fault with in Wright.

“Again, we detect here a phony ecumenism, as if he thought Jews were not all going to hell for rejecting Jesus as the Son of God.”

Does Wright, in fact, believe that all non-Messianic Jews are hellbound? Can Price quote Wright to that effect?

“There are three fundamental, vitiating errors running like fault lines through the unstable continent of this book. The first is a complete unwillingness to engage a number of specific questions or bodies of evidence that threaten to shatter Wright’s over-optimistically orthodox assessment of the evidence. The most striking of these blustering evasions has to do with the dying-and-rising redeemer cults that permeated the environment of early Christianity and had for many, many centuries. Ezekiel 8:14 bemoans the ancient Jerusalemite women’s lamentation for Tammuz, derived from the Dumuzi cult of ancient Mesopotamia. Ugaritic texts make it plain that Baal’s death and resurrection and subsequent enthronement at the side of his Father El went back centuries before Christianity and were widespread in Israel. Pyramid texts tell us that Osiris’ devotees expected to share in his resurrection. Marduk, too, rose from the dead. And then there is the Phrygian Attis, the Syrian Adonis.”

Several major flaws in this analysis:

i) Notice that Price is doing the very thing he imputes to Wright. He takes a loaded word like “resurrection,” “savior,” or “redeemer,” and uses that word, with all its Christian connotations, to describe pagan mythology. This is the Kittel mentality on steroids.

ii) Also observe that Price never applies to pagan materials the same radical criticism he applies to the Biblical materials. Any serious effort at comparative mythology would need to ask and answer some of the following questions:

a) What is the date of our sources?

b) Where do they come from?

c) What is the genre of our sources?

d) What is the state of our textual evidence?

e) Have our sources of pagan mythology undergone redaction?

Ironically, Price is a precritical “fundy” when it comes to pagan mythology. He acts as if there’s just one authorized, canonical version of every myth. That there’s a Textus Receptus of the mythological canon. Sola Mythos.

iii) Look at what else is missing from his comparison. No verbatim quotes. No pagination. No citation of sources from critical editions. In short: no documentation whatsoever.

And this is typical of Price. The comparison never gets beyond name-dropping and tendentious assumptions.

“The harmonistic efforts of Bruce Metzger, Edwin Yamauchi, Ron Sider, Jonathan Z. Smith and others have been completely futile, utterly failing either to deconstruct the dying-and-rising god mytheme (as Smith vainly tries to do) or to claim that the Mysteries borrowed their resurrected savior myths and rituals from Christianity.”

Observe the purely assertive character of this denial. Not a single attempt to interact with the argumentation or documentation of Metzger or Yamauchi. The adjectives do all the grunt-work: “completely futile,” “vainly tries,” “utter failure.” Telling rather than showing.

“If that were so, why on earth did early apologists admit that the pagan versions were earlier, invented as counterfeits before the fact by Satan? Such myths and rites were well known to Jews and Galileans, not to mention Ephesians, Corinthians, etc., for many centuries.”

Don’t let this statement get by you too quickly. Comparative mythology is not peripheral to Price’s case against the faith. And it’s not just one argument among several. Rather, comparative mythology is central to his case against the faith.

As we saw, he made no effort to directly rebut Metzger, Yamauchi, &c.

So what he says here is his only counterargument. That’s it. “early apologists admit that the pagan versions were earlier, invented as counterfeits before the fact by Satan? Such myths and rites were well known to Jews and Galileans, not to mention Ephesians, Corinthians, etc., for many centuries.”

Several basic problems.

i) Once again, the absence of detail. Which versions of what, exactly? Specifics, please!

ii) Which early apologists?

iii) Since they were doing apologetics, would we not expect a degree of audience adaptation and accommodation to create common ground between the apologist and the pagan reader?

iv) Do Christian apologetes from the 2C AD or later have any expertise on the historic origin, redaction, and geographical distribution of pre-Christian mythology?

It’s on this fraying thread that Price is hanging the weight of his case against the faith.

“He merely refers us to other books.”

What’s improper about a scholar referring the reader to specialized literature on the subject? And why doesn’t Price address himself to the footnoted literature on the subject? Does it or does it not back up the claims of Bishop Wright?

“Worse, though, is his utter failure to take seriously the astonishing comment of Herod in Mark 6:14-16 to the effect that Jesus was thought to be John the Baptist already raised from the dead! Can Wright really be oblivious of how this one text torpedoes the hull of his argument? His evasions are so pathetic as to suggest he is being disingenuous, hoping the reader will not notice. The disciples of Jesus, who was slain by a tyrant, may simply have borrowed the resurrection faith of the Baptist’s disciples who posited such a vindication for their own master who had met the same fate.”

How would this be a paradigm for Easter? Jesus and John the Baptist were contemporaries. Jesus was already on the scene before the Baptist was executed, and he outlived the Baptist. So in what sense could the Baptist be resurrected in the person of Jesus if Jesus was on the scene the whole time?

This would only makes sense if, like a Clint Eastwood Western, the sheriff dies, then a stranger rides into town, and after a while it becomes apparent that the stranger is the sheriff returned from the dead.

But even that would be a case of reincarnation rather than a resurrection. And it would assume a sequential rather than simultaneous relation between A and B. Not synchronic, but diachronic. A must die before B appears to take his place.

What is more likely is a Moses/Joshua or Elijah/Elisha relation, where B is the successor to A. And, indeed, the Baptist was thought to be Elijah’s successor (Mk 1:6; Mal 4:5-6). Now, Jesus is thought, by some, to be the Baptist’s successor.

“Equally outrageous is Wright’s contrived and harmonistic treatment of the statements about a spiritual resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, where we read that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God (v. 50) and that the resurrected Jesus, the precedent for believers, accordingly possessed a spiritual body (v. 44). Wright labors mightily and futilely to persuade us that all Paul meant by flesh and blood was mortal and corruptible, not made of flesh and blood. Who but a fellow apologist (like William Lane Craig who sells the same merchandise) will agree to this? What does Wright suppose led the writer to use a phrase like flesh and blood for mortal corruptibility in the first place if it is not physical fleshiness that issues inevitably in mortal corruption?”

It is not carnality that issues in death, but fallen carnality. Price fails to distinguish between creation and the fall. In this very chapter, Paul coordinates death with the sin of Adam.

“1 Corinthians 15:45 has the risen Christ become a life-giving spirit.”

“Spirit” is generally employed in Pauline usage, not as an ontological term, but as a charismatic term for the agency of the Holy Spirit.

“Likewise, when he gets to Luke, Wright laughs off the screaming contradiction between Luke 24:40 (Touch me and see: no spirit has flesh as you can see I have.) and 1 Corinthians 15:50 and 45 (Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. The last Adam became a life-giving spirit.).”

Why should we treat Pauline and Lucan usage as synonymous? Especially when Lucan usage is narrative usage while Pauline usage is theological usage.

“Similarly, when he gets to 1 Peter 3:18 (Jesus was put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and made proclamation to the spirits in prison, etc.), Wright rewrites the text to make it say what he wants.”

Actually, Wrights interpretation is standard exegesis. Jesus was put to death in the flesh, but raised by the Spirit of God. Cf. I. H. Marshall, First Peter (IVP 1991), 120-22.

“Wright is desperate to break down the flesh/spirit dichotomy in Paul and Luke (not to mention that between Paul and Luke!), but he builds the same wall higher outside the texts. That is, he wants to say resurrection always meant bodily, not merely spiritual, resurrection.”

This is another category mistake on Price’s part. The flesh/spirit dichotomy in Paul is ethical rather than ontological. It’s not a body/spirit dichotomy, but a sin/God dichotomy.

“But Wright confesses he has no clear idea of what sort of physical presence the risen Jesus might have had. He calls it transphysical and admits he cannot define it. What then is he arguing? He just knows he wants a bodily resurrection, but it has to be a body capable of passing through locked doors and teleporting, appearing and disappearing at will. Yet he despises the notion that the risen Jesus was docetic, a spiritual entity that could take on the false semblance of physicality.”

This is a genuine point of tension in Wright and some other authors. It’s generating by to factors:

i) A Bible scholar is not a philosopher by training, so his conceptual resources are limited.

ii) There’s a tendency to overinterpret Lk 24 and Jn 20. John doesn’t say that Jesus “passed through” a solid door. That’s just a popular inference.

One problem here is the assumption that what Jesus could do was a property of the glorified body.

But Jesus performed many miracles before his Resurrection, miracles which often involved the manipulation of time and space.

Moreover, this isn’t even distinctive to Jesus. Other prophets and apostles could do the same.

“The third strike against Wright is by far the most important. He loathes Enlightenment modernity because it will not let him believe in miracles. So he must change the rules of the game. Like all apologist swindlers, Wright makes a fundamental confusion. He thinks it an arbitrary philosophical bias that historiography should be methodologically atheistic.”

Why shouldn’t he change the rules of the game? He didn’t make the rules. He didn’t get a chance to vote on the rules. Why should he feel bound by the rules of the game? Why does Price have the right to impose his question-begging rules on Wright? If the game is rigged to that a Christian will always lose, the Christian is entitled to change the rules.

“To say that the rise of Christian resurrection faith requires a divine intervention is tantamount to saying we just do not know how it arose. One resorts to such tactics of desperation when all else fails, as Wright thinks mundane explanations have failed. But in that moment one has not found an alternate explanation at all…How is God an explanation, even if there is a God? God is a mystery, unless one is an idolater. And to claim one has explained a problem by invoking a mystery is no advance at all. You are trying to invoke a bigger enigma to explain a smaller one.”

i) This only follows if you subscribe a purely apophatic theology wherein God is wholly inscrutable. But why should a Christian capitulate to Price’s stipulative definition?

ii) God is an explanation if, in fact, divine agency was partly or entirely responsible for the outcome.

“The instant one invokes the wildcard of divine miracles, the game of science and scientific history comes to a sudden halt.”

To more problems:

i) Notice that this is a strictly consequentialist argument. If miracles occur, then we can’t to science or history: ergo, miracles don’t occur.

But even if the occurrence of the miraculous had that consequence, how is that an argument against their occurrence?

Price is one of those ironic unbelievers who acts as if a godless world was set up for his convenience. But since, by his own reckoning, the universe is supremely indifferent to human life and thought, why do unbeliever assume that things have to happen in a way that’s transparent to our understanding?

ii) And why assume that nothing can be explained scientifically unless everything can be explained scientifically?

iii) He also generates a false dichotomy by defining science in atheistic terms from the get-go.

iv) The basic problem is that he begs the question. If God really does exist, then there are going to be consequences. If God made something happen, then you should adjust your worldview accordingly for the simple reason that a fact is a fact—whether or not the fact in question is convenient or inconvenient.

“Wright (though by this time one is tempted to start calling him Wrong) uses sneer quotes, dismissing with no argument at all Crossan’s claim (which I deem undoubtedly and even obviously correct) that the empty tomb traditions stem from women’s lament traditions like those mentioned in Ezekiel 8 and attested for the Osiris cult and others.”

Observe the fallacious inference: some women mourn for Tammuz, some other women mourn for Jesus; therefore: the women’s vigil at the tomb “undoubtedly” and “obviously” stems from Ezk 18 and the Osiris cult.

Needless to say, women grieve whenever there’s an occasion to grieve over. Mourning doesn’t select for a particular occasion; rather, the occasion selects for mourning. So you can find female mourners in any context—be it historical, literary, or mythological.

“The Emmaus story is cut from the same cloth as numerous ancient angels unawares myths, but it bears a striking resemblance to a demonstrably earlier Asclepius story where a couple returns home dejectedly after failing to receive the desired healing miracle at Epidauros.”

i) It’s true that the account is evocative of a common theme, reminiscent of OT theophanies and angelophanies (e.g. Gen 16; 18; Jgs 13). That’s only mythical of you don’t believe in theophanies or angelophanies. Remember, too, that some angelophanies are theophanies (the Angel of the Lord).

ii) The OT material is demonstrably earlier than the tale of Asclepius. And the Gospel of Luke is studded with OT allusions.

iii) Observe that Price doesn’t quote directly from the mythical story of Asclepius. He doesn’t put the text side-by-side the Emmaus account. He doesn’t cite a critical edition. Or give any dates for our sources. Or document its geographical provenance. For Price, higher criticism begins and ends with the Bible, not with mythology.

“The miraculous catch of fish in John 21 is patently based on an earlier Pythagoras story in which the no-longer relevant detail of the number of the fish made some sense.”

This explanation was criticized by Keener in his commentary on John, issued the same year as the book by Wright which Price is reviewing. Cf. C. Keener, The Gospel of John (Hendrickson 2003), 2:1232-33.

Price only tells the reader what he wants the reader to know. Opposing viewpoints are consistently suppressed.

Borrowing a leaf from Talbert, he also attributes the short ending of Mark to a Hellenistic apotheosis. He doesn’t even mention Wright’s own explanation for the short ending—not to mention other explanations by other scholars. Nor does he discuss critics of Talbert like Davie Aune.

“John's story of Doubting Thomas concludes with Jesus making an overt aside to the reader: “Blessed are those who have not seen yet have believed.” Can this writer have seriously intended his readers to think they were reading history? Such asides to the audience are a blatant and overt sign of the fictive character of the whole enterprise.”

If Jesus is who he says he is, why wouldn’t he speak for the benefit of posterity?

The generation of living witnesses will die out. So the church must come to depend on the written testimony which they leave behind.

“As Barr pointed out long ago (Fundamentalism, 1977), the fact that Luke has the ascension occur on Easter evening in Luke 24 but forty days later in Acts chapter 1 (something Wright thinks utterly insignificant!) shows about as clearly as one could ask that Luke was not even trying to relate the facts and didn’t expect the reader to think so.”

“Wright confesses himself ready to swallow the historical accuracy of the guards. Wright thinks it makes sound sense that the guards are to tell that the disciples stole the body while the guards were asleep? How did they know what happened while they were snoozing? Wright seems not to recognize comedy if there is no laugh track.”

They didn’t know. The guards were not attempting to come clean. To the contrary, they were attempting to shift the blame. They needed a fall guy.

Really? All it clearly shows is narrative compression and literary foreshadowing. Luke is writing a two-part history. The Ascension is a transitional event, rounding out the earthly life of Christ in the Gospel of Luke, and previewing the fuller account of the same event at the beginning of Acts. A teaser as well as a linking device: the hinge of his two-panel history.

Since the Ascension really is a transitional event, it can also serve as a literary transition from the end of our Lord’s earthly ministry to the inauguration of the Apostles ministry.


  1. Craig Evan recent comments on Price...

    "In my view Price’s work in the Gospels is overpowered by a philosophical mindset that is at odds with historical research—of any kind. For him parallels
    in other ancient texts mean that Jesus could not have said what is attributed to him or the event described did not happen. Moreover, because there is evidence that the sayings and stories of Jesus were edited and contextualized, nothing can be trusted. Price uncritically embraces the dubious methods and results of the Jesus Seminar, adopts much of the (discredited) Christ-Myth theory from the nineteenth century (in which it was argued that Jesus never lived), and so forth. Price’s procedure strikes me as an atavistic grab bag or a throwback that seems out of touch with genuine progress in critical studies in the last 150 years. What we see in Price is what we have seen before: a flight from fundamentalism."

    Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels. Craig Evans (InterVarsity Press, 2006).

  2. I can, at a pinch, believe in talking snakes and the sun dancing at Ajalon if the Good Book so affirms these things. What I can't possibly believe, though, under any stretch of incredulity, is that a serious writer would equate "Anglican bishop" with "biased or predisposed in favour of conservative, traditional Christianity". Robinson? Spong? Carnley? Katie? Grizz?