Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Abhorrent Void: Robert Price and Historical Method

One of the most frustrating essays within Sources of the Jesus Tradition: Separating History from Myth (ed. R Joseph Hoffman) is Robert M. Price's "The Abhorrent Void: The Rapid Attribution of Fictive Sayings and Stories to a Mythic Jesus." Through bad analogy and questionable premises the self-proclaimed leading authority on the Bible presents another reason to believe in an historical Jesus.

Beginning from the premise that there was no single historical founder of Christianity (i.e. Jesus), Price attempts to argue that it is plausible that the sayings attributed to Jesus were wholly fictive. In a nutshell, Price's underlying argument seems to be:

As the latter is a necessary conclusion of the former you would assume the emphasis should be on proving the first, which Price does not do. This makes us wonder-  what exactly is Price trying to prove? 

Price assume that there is no "single historical founder of Christianity" and that the founding of the movement/figure cannot be dated to the "4 and 6 BCE". In effect, we find the entire origins of the Christian movement uniquely removed from the constraints of a historical context. The implication is that Christianity has a pre-history long before the first century, and by the time we begin to receive our earliest sources there was no control over the Jesus tradition (or whatever we would call the tradition for a figure that didn't exist) by eyewitnesses or communities connected with eyewitnesses. Price then  reveals to us that there was "all the time in the world" to create spurious "myths, legends and rumours."

Of pressing importance is:
  1. Why should we believe there is no "single historical founder of Christianity" when all of our historical sources are clear on this point?
  2. Why should we abandon the first century origins of Christianity in order to pursue an indefinitely long development of Jesus tradition, when all our historical sources place the movement in the first century?
With the cart in front of the horse Price leapfrogs any justification and ambitiously proposes "three models, three analogies, to help us understanding the plausibility of positing a wholesale and rapid growth of a vast body of inauthentic Jesus traditions and even that it might have been expected." (110, emphasis mine)

(i) Kid Stuff
Price begins with the assertion that "many or most early Christians" believed that Jesus initially appeared "as a deity in adult form." (111) While I am not precisely sure about why Price believes this I suspect it may have something to do with his rejection of everything Paul says about Jesus and possibly a peculiar  reading of the Gospel of Mark. However, Paul in our earliest sources makes it clear that Jesus was "descended from David according to the flesh" (Romans 1:3), "born of woman, born under the law (Gal. 4:4) and had a brother named James (Gal 1:9/Josephus/Gospels). And I cannot imagine how Mark beginning with John the Baptist followed by Jesus' baptism necessitates an early predominate Christian belief that Jesus only existed as an adult. Mark did believe Jesus to be a son, with brothers and sisters: "the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?”" (Mark 6:3)

Suddenly and without any specified reason, Price informs us that the early Christian's departed from this view and began to write infancy gospels and narratives about Jesus. Price then argues that by analogy, if this happened regarding the infancy stories then we can only assume that the same thing happened with the adult stories of Jesus (he was one day not assumed to be a person but then suddenly was?). Central to Price's argument is the immediacy at which Christian's began to create stories of Jesus. He writes, "Christian curiosity rapidly went to work filling the newly apparent gap" and "There was an immediate flood of stories." What evidence does Price have for this overwhelming flood of material as analogous to wholesale creation of the Jesus tradition? Two canonical stories (Luke 2:41-51 and John 2:1-10) and substantially later infancy gospels (Infancy Gospel of Thomas, etc). However, John clearly presents the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-10) not as an infancy story, but Jesus with his disciples.

(ii) The (Growing) Beard of the Prophet
Apple and Orange [source]
The next "analogy/model" is the "explosion of (universally spurious) hadith tradition of what the Prophet Muhammad said and did".(112) Price believes that the rise of inauthentic hadith traditions about Muhammad in the first few centuries of the Islamic era are the best analogy to the creation of the Gospel tradition. In fact, this model is a superior fit to that of near contemporary Judaism and early Rabbinic traditions developed by Riesenfeld and Gerhardsson which he rejects as "apologetics."

Price asks, "Why not consider the analogy of the Muhammadan hadith?" (116) There are many reasons, most simply that  the better analogy would be to compare near contemporary teachers and their disciples in a similar geographical, religious and cultural context and not with the informal traditions  associated with a 7th century political and military prophet collected over 200 years later from a completely different geographical and cultural context. Does this really need to be said?

(iii) From Muhammad to Nag Hammadi
Price suddenly blockquotes F.F. Bruce stating that evidence such as 1 Corinthians 7:19 demonstrates that "early Christians were careful to distinguish between sayings of Jesus and their own inferences and judgements." (The New Testament Documents:Are they Reliable? 33.) Price rejects this interpretation of what was happening in the mid first century  by pointing to the "deadly boring" Gnostic texts citing the Books of Jeu (3rd century), Gospel of Mary (late 2nd?) , etc. Again, Price is rejecting the relevant sources and context in favour of a strained analogy with a later and very different thought world.

On an aside, does the title of this section imply that Price has a "Muhammad-existed-before-the-Nag-Hammadi-texts conspiracy theory or is his chronology simply out of whack?

Did Price demonstrate the plausibility of "a wholesale and rapid growth of a vast body of inauthentic Jesus traditions and even that it might have been expected"? I cannot for the life of me see it, and I made sure I wore my glasses while searching.

Price's analogies barely make sense even if his improbable premises are assumed as true.  Placing the origins of Christianity in some timeless and relative realm allows Price to draw on any improbable analogy for the Jesus tradition, irrespective of their context.  It allows him to reject any forms of control that the historical context provides, whether it by relevant analogies or the question of eyewitness and informed communities. It is a rejection of the basic principle of analogy - similarity. "Maybe the first century was really like 3rd century Gnosticism" or "maybe it was really like this 7th century example" simply don't cut it in the realm of history, especially when it involves ignoring all of the first century evidence. The essay, like most of what Price has to say in recent times, is a first class exercise in polemics against "conservative scholars, apologists, and rank-and-file Gospel readers" (109) which in the process extends to undercutting mainstream scholarship.


  1. Ari, how would you express Dr. Price's arguments in their strongest terms? If you were on a debating team and had to give the con argument for a debate on "Did Jesus of Nazareth exist?" what would your thesis statement be?

  2. Ari--

    The cycle itself is a shoulder shrug. "The founder of Christianity was mythical, therefore all saying about him are fictive; all sayings about [Jesus] are fictive, because [Jesus] is mythical."

    So what? There's no follow on 'therefore' presented: "I believe this cycle to be true, therefore..." To reach this cycle conclusion with no further 'therefore' is, I don't know, good science/history, maybe, but it doesn't go anywhere. It's not interesting.


  3. Ari --

    First off I'm not sure you are really reading the right book for that argument. Price's role has not been to build a consistent thesis but to raise various topics and explore a huge range of areas. For example in Pre-Nicene New Testament he doesn't provide a consistent view of Christian history but rather points out where the documentary evidence supports about a 1/2 dozen contradictory theories.

    First off on the issue of a historical founder I think GA Wells offers a pretty good refutation. As for all of our historical sources, I'd say Paul provides a pretty good counter source to a historical founder. When Paul wants to discern Jesus' will he doesn't make the sorts of claims one would expect from a recently deceased founder, "Jesus faced 3 similar situations during his life. In the first, Max the shepherd, whose son Martin you all met last year, had 3 goats one of which..." In fact if you read people like JM Robinson they came to believe in the whole myth position because of the lack of the kinds of speech you would associate with a historical founder. Think about the way today people talk about Bill Clinton or HW Bush. There is a sense of immediacy and detail which is completely missing.

    So no I don't agree the sources indicate a historical founder, rather they indicate the opposite.

    Similarly on your 2nd point regarding an indefinitely long development... and that all sources put it in the first century I'm not even sure what you mean by that. There is little disagreement between mythicists and historically knowledgeable Christians that there was development both before and after the first century. For example the list of canonical gospels (and I'd argue at least 2 of the 4 gospels themselves) are not a first century product. That claim that seems much much too strong that we had something like a complete Jesus tradition in the 1st century.

  4. Hi CD,

    I am not sure what you mean by "that argument". It is the argument of his essay... Reading your final paragraph makes it clear to me you do not recognise this point.

    If the best you can do against the historicity of Jesus is Wells, then you have a precondition against historical scholarship. Wells is not a historian, and his hypothesis is a lot more blatant rejection of evidence and creative misreadings. E.g. ignoring the gospels, ignoring what Paul says about Jesus being a very real historical person. You come to a conclusion through examining the historical evidence, not start with a conclusion and see what evidence you have to remove from the equation to confirm it.

    //So no I don't agree the sources indicate a historical founder, rather they indicate the opposite.//
    How can a series of historical biographies indicate anything other than that?

    Not sure what you mean when you say that the Jesus tradition developed before the first century...

  5. Ari --

    The argument was your argument in this post about Price. You were criticizing Price for assuming something that Wells had shown and was of little interest to Price. Price's role has been to try and expriment with different details, move from the general to the specific.

    As for you comment on Wells? Have you actually read Wells? He doesn't ignore what Paul says, he talks at length about Wells and the gospels. As for removing evidence he does the opposite. And when you say the Jesus tradition developed before the first century that's the point of Wells.

    The question at the beginning of the 20th century was if there was a transition from a vague mythological sense of a savior deity and a belief in which a savior deity had been physically manifest in the recent past we should see evidence of that transition. In other words some kind of literature which is indicative of a vague historical story that isn't specific. Something, pre-Mark. Wells, who predates Price, is the one who did the most important work on that aspect. Price has extended Well's works by finding more examples, but that's his major contribution.

    Everyone had already agreed that there was Jewish Wisdom speculation about a supernatural personage who sought an abode on earth but was rejected by man and who then returned to heaven. What was missing was how Sophia became Jesus. It was Wells who pointed out the importance of the Odes of Solomon where you see precisely that transition. No one had noticed that before Wells.

    The problem for Wells is that there are details that developed rather quickly. And that leads to one of two theories:

    a) A community which is developing a theology about a heavenly wisdom teacher who comes in earthly form to save his people, is rejected but through his sacrifice wins them salvation actually was visited by a heavenly wisdom teacher who is rejected.... or

    b) The community which is developing a theology about a heavenly wisdom teacher started attributing sayings and acts from another tradition to this teacher. or

    c) A community which follows a fully earthly wisdom teacher starting attributing the philosophy of the heavenly wisdom teacher to him.

    (a) is orthodox christianity
    (b) is history of religions type thinking, mythicism.
    (c) is liberal christianity

    (c) is why Harnack was also so interested in Odes. Because for Harnack the question was always how did the supernaturalists mumbo jumbo get mixed in with the ethical teacher. For Harnack the more it can get tied to primitive cultic Judaism the better. That is, and this is where Wells disagreed with early mythicists, (b) and (c) may be both be true depending on what community you are looking at.

    And it was people like John Turner who was able to track a historical community (the Sethians) and show this sort of process at work in a specific case.

    As for my comment about the sources, the context was Paul not the gospels. I wouldn't call the gospels biographies, you are assuming what you are trying to prove there. But the gospels just complicate this argument for now. Wells didn't write much about the gospels other than Q. He is looking at the shape of proto-Christianity in the 200 BCE to 100 CE range, before there is a gospel tradition. Though there are lots of writers who did address the gospel tradition in more detail.