Guest Post: Interview With Robert Price

This is a guest post by Kile Jones, a grad student at Claremont School of Theology, creator of the Claremont Journal of Religion and the creator of Interview an Atheist at Church Day. It’s an interview he did recently with popular atheist Bible scholar Robert Price. Enjoy.

In this interview I got to ask Dr. Robert Price (a.k.a. “The Bible Geek”) some questions about his life and how religion and the Bible played a part in it. His new book, “The Human Bible New Testament” should be available on Amazon shortly. Please join me in welcoming Dr. Price.

Can you give our readers a little background to your story as a former Pastor-turned-atheist and the role that the Bible took in the process?

In 1977 I was studying New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. I was not enrolled in the Master of Divinity program and had not the remotest thought of becoming a church pastor. I had for a few years been chipping away at biblical innerancy, trying to maintain some kind of belief in biblical authority in view of the increasing evidence to the contrary. It was less and less convincing. Then James Barr’s just-published book Fundamentalism blew my mind. It exposed all the trickery employed by apologists and “maximal conservative” biblical scholars. I then embarked on an intense reading program on biblical criticism and liberal theology. I gravitated to Bultmann, Tillich, and Altizer. I returned to churchgoing once I met an intellectually honest preacher who, like me, had left evangelicalism behind. After receiving my Ph.D. in Theology, I went on to teach in the Religion Department at Mount Olive College. Eventually I became the successor to my pastor. This lasted six years, after which I preached to a small living room congregation. Throughout my ministry I was already pretty much a religious humanist.

Your new book, “The Human Bible New Testament,” is about to come out. What is your main thesis and how did you arrive at it?

This book is my own annotated translation of the 27 traditional NT books. It is a revised version of my previous Pre-Nicene New Testament, which also included 27 other texts that were left on the cutting room floor by traditional Christianity. In both, I provide detailed introductory essays and numerous footnotes placing each text in a surprising new light. Much of it simply conveys what critical scholars have known for generations, though I also offer numerous, shall we say, ultra-radical perspectives, e.g., how the “Pauline” epistles make better sense if we understand them all as post-Pauline pseudepigrapha.

Some might call you eclectic–Historical Jesus scholar, H.P. Lovecraft expert, and Biblical critic–but how do you see all of your endeavors fitting together? Is there a prominent theme that emerges in all of your work?

The over-arching common interest (if there is one, and I don’t care if there isn’t) would be, I guess, a geekish interest in mythology and a fascination with the interpretation of texts. Most of my life I have been captivated by the Bible, Greek and Norse myths, comic book superheroes, pulp fiction, and monster movies. They form a fantastic cosmos of the imagination in which I rejoice to “live and move and have my being” (to quote Epimenides and the Bible quoting Epimenides). As Debra Harry sang, “I’m not livin’ in the real world no more.” Except, I guess, for politics, and, like Brian Michael Bendis’s, my politics might best be characterized as “Klingon.”

Do you ever miss being a Pastor?

You bet! Writing sermons was a whole new literary experience for me, and I did some of my best work there. (You can read some of them on my website Counseling was not as intimidating as I expected. I thought doing funerals was going to be awful, but I was surprised to find they were wonderful and profound experiences. What a privilege to say the last word on someone’s life! I eventually gave the eulogy for both my parents, my father-in-law and his mother. Very powerful. I’d do it all again if I didn’t have to deal with church finances and congregational politics.

As an atheist and skeptic, what is your favorite verse or verses in the Bible and why?

There are many evocative utterances ascribed to Jesus in the Gospel of John that I love. Jesus the Gnostic mystagogue: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness” (John 8:12). Great stuff. But I guess the most important piece of wisdom, which I have lived by, is Proverbs 15:1, “A soft answer turneth away wrath.” I try to get along with everybody. I hate to give needless offense, irritation, friction. Of course, if my opinions and theories rile them up, that’s different. Even then I try not to let it get personal. I have become friends with several of the Christian apologists I have debated.

Can you give us a personal story of humorous moment when you saw the effect of your work?

A number of times Bible Geek listeners have told me my writings or the podcast have liberated them from oppressive fundamentalism. I live for that. Then again, I think of how I once heard an adolescent girl in my church retell a story I had once recounted from a medieval heretic gospel in which God told the angels that whoever of them would endure the tribulations written in a heavenly book would become his Son. All the others fainted dead away, but Jesus accepted the challenge and embarked on the Incarnation, Crucifixion, etc. She didn’t remember where she had heard it, and I was delighted to realize I had made an ancient myth live again.

Born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1954, Price moved to New Jersey in 1965. At Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary he took an MTS degree in New Testament (1978), then, at Drew University, a PhD in Systematic Theology (1981) and a second PhD in New Testament (1993). He has served as Professor of Religion at Mount Olive College, North Carolina, pastor of First Baptist Church, Montclair, NJ, and Director of the Metro NY Center for Inquiry. He founded and edited the Journal of Higher Criticism and has authored scores of articles on the Bible and religion. His books include Beyond Born Again, The Widow Traditions in Luke-Acts, Deconstructing Jesus, The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, The Da Vinci Fraud, The Reason-Driven Life, The Pre-Nicene New Testament, Jesus Is Dead, and The Paperback Apocalypse. Price is a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar. He serves as Professor of Theology and Scriptural Studies at Johnnie Colemon Theological Seminary and Professor of Biblical Criticism for the Center for Inquiry Institute in Amherst, NY. He and his wife Carol and daughters Victoria and Veronica live in Selma, NC.

Kile Jones is the Founder of Claremont Journal of Religion and Interview an Atheist at Church Day. He holds two Masters degrees from Boston University and writes for Patheos and Feminism and Religion.

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  • longship

    I really dig Dr. Price. Although he is likely a fairly staunch Republican, his Bible Geek podcast is ever entertaining. Occasionally his politics leak into his Biblical commentaries, but the fact that he uses cheesy voice characterizations when he reads Bible verses more than makes up for this. Yes, Moses is rendered as Charlton Heston, Jesus as Willem Defoe, and Saint Paul as Paul Lynde. Of course, the apostles are universally rendered as idiots.

    Thank you for this, in spite of his politics.

  • jd142

    @1. I’ll admit to knowing absolutely nothing about Dr. Price except for this essay. That having been said, I’m willing to bet that almost no staunch Republican would self-identify as a humanist.

  • CJO, egregious by any standard

    That having been said, I’m willing to bet that almost no staunch Republican would self-identify as a humanist.

    No, really. “Staunch” is an understatement; he’s a political troglodyte. I have no idea how he squares his Fox News-level hatred of our “socialist” President with his religious humanism, and I don’t care frankly. He has managed to come up with some interesting ideas about Christian origins, but I just can’t take anyone seriously who mouths right-wing talking points that lack all contact with reality.

  • latveriandiplomat

    @3: I think it’s a case of someone’s critical thinking skills failing outside of their field of expertise, which is a failing all too common among even the most educated. There’s a reasonable chance that If you knew the politics of your family physician, you would have a similar reaction. (Many MDs are liberals, of course, but as a group, they are more conservative than the general population).

    I’ve read a fair number of Price’s books and he does very well at keeping his politics out of it. They are very readable and informative, IMHO.

    The notable exception being Killing History: Jesus in the No-Spin Zone in which he utterly shreds O’Reilly’s “scholarship” and even calls out several deliberate choices by O’Reilly to elide or mislead readers away from difficult issues. All while at the same time being very complimentary to O’Reilly and his general body of work in other respects. For me, Killing History was interesting enough on the scholarship front, and a fascinating case study in cognitive dissonance. But I could definitely see it as being “throw against the wall” maddening for others because of all the political asides. That is absolutely not an issue with any other book of his that I have read.

    I kind of wonder what conservatives who actually read Killing History make of it, but I suspect they are few in number.

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  • longship

    jd142 @2:

    Dr. Price is one who has a great disregard for religion, but nevertheless a great love for it. His podcasts are always entertaining. But his religious upbringing is always evident, in spite of his openly expressed atheism. It makes for a compelling mixture, especially since he admits to cognitive bias.

    He is a class act.

  • Matthew White

    Price is a conservative (although he’s pro-gay, to use his own words) but his politics are generally absent from his work. Occasionally they slip in, but at least he’s up front about his politics – he doesn’t try to subtly sneak it in.