Review of The Historical Jesus: Five Views. Jesus at the Vanishing Point by Robert M. Price

Review of The Historical Jesus: Five Views. Jesus at the Vanishing Point by Robert M. Price June 30, 2010

The first chapter of The Historical Jesus: Five Views is authored by Robert M. Price, and makes the case that there was in fact no historical figure behind the beliefs and writings of the early Christians about Jesus of Nazareth. He was, in Price’s estimation, not a historical figure around whom much myth and legend developed, but one that was invented in the imagination of the ancient minds that gave birth to Christianity.

Price’s chapter starts by eloquently and accurately describing what it means to engage in historical research. First, he articulates the principle of analogy, emphasizing in the process the probabilistic character of conclusions in this discipline. “Historians do not have access to H. G. Wells’s time machine. We cannot know what occurred in the past and thus do not dogmatize about  it. We deal only in probabilities” (p.56). In evaluating ancient sources, we have no choice but to assume that things we do not see happening today did not happen in the past either. Otherwise, we end up like so-called “scientific creationists.” It of course is possible that the laws of physics were different in the past – but we have no good reason to think that they were, and unless we assume that there is a continuity in natural and historical processes, then anything is possible and no conclusions scientific, historical or otherwise can be drawn. As he cites F. C. Baur as having said, anything is possible and thus the aim of the historian is to determine what is probable (p.60).

The disappointing thing about this chapter is that, having articulated these well-establish principles of historical study succinctly and yet with great clarity and eloquence, Price seems to totally ignore them in the remainder of his chapter.

Before getting to that, however, let me address one more point of methodology, at which his approach is open to serious objection. First, Price brings in the criterion of dissimilarity. This is a criterion that has been much discussed, and problems with its use have long been highlighted, and as a result its misuse has been rejected by most historians. I thought that all historians would agree that it is implausible to imagine a historical figure who has no continuity with what went before him and his broader cultural and historical context, and that it is likewise implausible to imagine a group looks back to an individual as its founder and yet preserved absolutely nothing whatsoever of his teachings or emphases. And so the criterion of dissimilarity is useful inasmuch as it provides a small number of sayings which, since they were unlikely to have been invented by his followers or adopted from elsewhere, most likely come from Jesus himself (cf. p.95). It is not plausible to automatically exclude as probably inauthentic anything that shows signs of continuity, and indeed it is nonsensical to uniformly apply such a misguided principle to any historical figure. What is appropriate is to acknowledge that our historical confidence is significantly reduced when the material we are dealing with could have been created by the early Church or adopted from its context. To be appropriately suspicious that material may have been created, when we have clear instances in which material was created, is simply historical caution. But to conclude that Jesus could not have said anything that his followers also said after him is not caution but the misapplication of a useful methodological tool, taking it to an absurd extreme.

Price next proceeds to argue that the form critical insight, that the Jesus tradition reflects a variety of uses for stories and sayings in early Christianity, combines with the criterion of dissimilarity to annihilate any possibility that historical material has been preserved. Since everything that was preserved was in some way useful to early Christians, none of it can then be discontinuous with Christianity, and thus nothing is authentic.

If we combined these two principles and applied them to all historical figures, we might expect there to be nothing left of our historical knowledge of anyone, other than in sources in which authors give us their own views in their own words. But of course, what would happen in practice is that we would find at least some instances in which such a source gave us an individual’s view, and yet find a disciple who might be suspected of creating material for his or her own ends also attributing the same viewpoint to their master in their own writings. This would and should lead us to suspect that the “all devouring” character of this approach is a sign that it is problematic, and questioning it represents an appropriate response to historical evidence rather than a failure of nerve. I wouldn’t be surprised if every single instance of a movement in which the founder’s own words and followers’ accounts of the founder are both preserved, provided evidence that it is historically nonsensical to posit that the two will normally, as a rule, reflect a relationship of radical or utter discontinuity.

Moreover, Price’s statement that all information preserved by early Christians about Jesus must have had a Sitz im Leben in the life of the community deserves to be challenged in at least one important respect:: if there was in fact a historical Jesus, and he said things that were embarrassing to the later church, we might expect that opponents of the Christian movement might have preserved the memory of such things, bringing them up in debates and requiring Christian authors to mention them in spite of their embarrassing character. The prediction by Jesus that he would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days provides a good example of a saying that seems to fit within this category.

Price rightly points out that “consensus is no criterion” (p.61). Yet his application of this principle is problematic, as again and again he cites the views of other scholars as though their conclusions settle a matter, even though the conclusions in question have not been found persuasive by many others. That the majority may be wrong does not mean that one should assume that they are, nor that it is justified to assume that minority viewpoints and fringe perspectives are correct without making a convincing case for them. Questioning consensus is how scholarship works, as Price rightly points out. But to merely cite someone else’s questioning of consensus, or to patch together an array of fringe viewpoints into a larger tapestry that is no more convincing than any of its component parts, is not a challenge to the consensus. In a best case scenario, a consensus forms where the evidence points to one conclusion more than others. To challenge the consensus, one needs to show that the evidence points more clearly or more logically to another conclusion.

And this is where we can return to Price’s ignoring of his own stated principles. He states that everything is possible in theory, and so asks what is probable. And yet he never shows that the scenario he envisages for the emergence of Christianity and its narrative texts is anything other than possible, at best, and that provided one is willing to assume a number of controversial points which likewise remain unjustified.

For instance, is it possible that early Christians went through the Jewish Scriptures, choosing a story here, a turn of phrase there, and weaved them together to create a fictional Messiah? Certainly – as are all other scenarios. What is never explained is why someone would have done this, much less done it to produce a crucified Messiah rejected by his contemporaries. If nothing else, Price’s mention of Occam’s Razor at this juncture seems so ironic as to be comical (p.74). How is an unparalleled process of fabricating a fictional Messiah from texts that would have had to have been painstakingly combined a simpler explanation than that there was a historical figure of Jesus, about whom stories were sometimes created to fill in gaps in his followers’ knowledge or to cause him to address issues that he had not?  That something could have been derived from another source is not proof that it was, and where the alleged source of inspiration bears only a minimal resemblance to the story that was allegedly fabricated from it, it seems appropriate to remind Price of a corollary of the principle of analogy: similar things happen in history. People rise to leadership from obscure roots, they marry, they reign, they die, and their memory becomes legend. That there are slight similarities with other figures and stories is what one would have to expect if the principle of analogy were to have any validity: history unfolds in largely predictable ways, with surprises certainly, but with many recurring patterns. And so to propose the principle of analogy and then claim that anything with an analogue is derived from other texts is, as Darrell Bock puts it in his response, a “heads I win, tails you lose” type of game. And not surprisingly, this is not a game that most historians are interested in playing.

And so when Price says “We must imagine that previous to Mark someone had midrashically rewritten the Exodus 18 story” (p.69) historians will rightly respond by asking “Why must we imagine this?” This is only a ‘must’ if one is determined to avoid concluding that Jesus was a historical figure. And when he further claims (twice!) that in that hypothetical source “we would have read” various things, we are right to throw up our hands in frustration and to ask how Price’s scenario, which claims knowledge of sources no one has ever seen, and a process of composition and of religion-creation that no one has witnessed, could be judged by anyone to be more probably an accurate depiction of the historical emergence of Christianity than that of mainstream scholarship. The latter also allows for the creation of fictional material about Jesus, and the presence of details drawn from ideal types, and yet does justice to evidence that Price skips, ignores, or deals with by saying “maybe” or “we must imagine.’ As Price himself acknowledges, historical figures have a tendency to be conformed to ideal types in literature, and legendary material accretes itself to such figures. And so the only way to conclude that the mythicist scenario is most likely is to cast aside the principle of analogy and regard the process of the creation of Jesus as involving processes for which there is no parallel. Because, in contrast to the way “midrash” is used in mythicist circles, it is not the case that Jewish authors regularly took Scriptural texts and wove phrases and details and stories from them into new narratives about non-existant figures.

There is more that could be said. Price repeats the tired dying and rising god hypothesis, and seems to think that the fact that Judaean religion was not yet monotheistic in Ezekiel’s time means that an affirmed monotheist like Paul would have happily borrowed from myths about Tammuz. Even if one could posit such a borrowing, a dying Messiah is not the same thing as a dying god. Many of the respondents to Price’s chapter mention these problems and others as well. Crossan rightly highlights that Price’s statement that he will simply skip the matter of the Testimonium Flavianum is “not an acceptable scholarly argument as far as I am concerned” (p.86). Johnson points out that the phenomenon of earliest Christianity includes historical data and characteristics that resist the mythicist attempts to wish them away (p.91). But the most priceless (if you can forgive the pun) comments are from Jimmy Dunn, who says of Price’s willingness to be content with “a more or less vague savior myth” as the origins of Christianity: “Sad, really” (p.95).

Price has shown that it is indeed possible to imagine a scenario in which Jesus was invented – that was never in dispute. But his chapter has also demonstrated, I believe, that historians are right to favor the conclusion that Jesus existed, however obscured by legend he may be from our view. Because if we consider the weak and tendentious case Price made for his conclusions, having emphasized that it is not possibility but probability that he needs to demonstrate, then I can only conclude that it is the best case that can be made for mythicism, since there is no one that I know of who is trying to make a case for mythicism that has better and more relevant qualifications than Price does.

And so let me quote James Dunn’s response once again in concluding my review of Price’s chapter. “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” (p.98, emphasis added).

The sad thing is that it is unlikely that Price’s unimpressive case, or the responses to it from the other contributors to the volume, or this review, will lead mythicism to become less popular in those circles on the internet where it currently flourishes. It will continue to be claimed that it is mainstream scholarship’s unwillingness to consider new paradigms, or inherent Christian bias, or something else that prevents us from appreciating mythicism for the insightful work of genius that it allegedly is. But I encourage anyone seriously interested in the topic to read Price’s chapter. I cannot honestly believe that anyone who accepts Price’s description of what is involved in historical study will conclude that he has in fact met the standards which he himself set.

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