Sunday, November 29, 2009

James Dunn's Response To Robert Price

I'm in the process of reading The Historical Jesus: Five Views (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2009), edited by James Beilby and Paul Eddy. The five contributors are Robert Price, John Dominic Crossan, Luke Timothy Johnson, James Dunn, and Darrell Bock. Each contributor has about thirty pages to present his own view of Jesus, then the four others respond with about five pages each. The most liberal contributor is Price, who argues that Jesus probably didn't exist. Remarkably, Price manages to out-liberal John Dominic Crossan.

On page 66, Price refers to Dunn, one of the foremost New Testament scholars of our day, as "a great scholar". Here are some of Dunn's comments in response to Price's case:

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....

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....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 not evidence a recent historical Jesus," a ludicrous claim that simply diminishes the credibility of the arguments used in support.

The implausible arguments [of Price] are almost as disappointing [as Price's ignoring of evidence]....To argue both that the reference to James as "the brother of the Lord" (Gal 1:19 - an episode which can be dated to 35 or 36) need only mean that James was a member of a missionary brotherhood and that "the commands of the Lord" (1 Cor 7:14; 9:14) might be "midrashically derived inferences from Old Testament commands of Adonai in the Torah," despite the clear reference points in the Jesus tradition, indicates an argument that is scraping the barrel and has lost its self-respect. Nor is it at all fair to dismiss the probability of various allusions to Jesus tradition in the Pauline letters, as though in each case Paul were trying to settle a question by appeal to the words of Jesus. Not so. Most are simply like the echoes and allusions that a well-read Shakespearean scholar might make to the words of the bard in lectures or letters without always being fully aware of the bard's own words.

I should make at least passing reference to the Acts of the Apostles, which is blithely ignored by Price. There is no need to argue for a high level of historical value in all the information offered in Acts about the beginnings of Christianity. It is sufficient to observe that Acts gives good evidence of beliefs about Jesus' mission, life and death, which almost certainly were circulating among the earliest Christians through the middle decades of the first century.

When it comes to the Gospels, Price's argument is really quite unbalanced....

Where the evidence is ambiguous, one way forward, which Price totally ignores, is to take account of the data in the Jesus tradition that are not readily explained by creation from Old Testament precedents and building blocks - a modest application, I suppose, of the first criterion of dissimilarity. There are quite a few of these....What was the inspiration to portray Jesus as a "parabolist" and a successful exorcist? The most obvious answer is that he was remembered as such, his parables treasured and passed around groups of believers, and his exorcisms well-known beyond their ranks. To ignore such data or to be content with much less plausible possibilities in the face of such probabilities is a tactic of the Christ-myth proponents, but not one that does them much credit or gives their thesis much credibility.

Similarly the appeal to the confused dates for Jesus' crucifixion as similar to the occasional speculations about the "historical" Hercules or an "historical" Osiris, an appeal that, once again, ignores the much more substantial data of the New Testament writers, writing within a generation or two of Jesus himself, simply smacks of desperation.

In short, if Price's essay is a true expression of the state of health of the Jesus-myth thesis, I can't see much life in it. His essay would be better titled "The Jesus Myth - a Thesis at Vanishing Point." (pp. 94-98)


  1. I'd add that Dunn is not all that conservative himself. So this is case of one fairly liberal scholar (Dunn) critiquing an even more liberal scholar (Price). It goes to show you how implausible the views are Price are even on liberal assumptions.

  2. I've been reading-and enjoying-THJ:FV, and I agree with Dunn's comments, but maybe 'liberal' isn't such a good qualifier for a scholar's historical beliefs, if what we're really talking about is how much the scholar thinks actually goes back to Jesus in the Gospels. Maybe the maximalist/minimalist distinction is better in this context, although of course there is a correlation between a scholar's confidence in the historicity of the Gospels and how conservative/liberal one's theology is.

  3. I think CADRE recently had an entry quoting Crossam, commenting on Price.

    Go to the left edge, take a step to the right and everyone will look at Robert Price like he's crazy.

    Unless he's an internet atheist. Of course.