Neil Shenvi - Apologetics

A Somewhat Lengthy Response to Price’s The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man

This essay is a Christian response to Robert Price's book The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man. It was originally written as a post on the blog of an agnostic friend.

I’ve once again been given the opportunity by Ben to take the podium of this blog.  At his recommendation, I recently read Robert Price’s The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, a work which attempts to demonstrate that, at best, we can know almost nothing about the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth, if he ever even existed.  I am very glad to have read this book as it prodded me to carefully investigate challenging arguments to my faith and as a result greatly strengthened my confidence in the historicity of the Bible.

Price’s main thesis is that the material found in the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) of the New Testament, which contain biographies of Jesus of Nazareth, is almost entirely fictional and bears little if any connection to actual historical events.  The book is arranged into 15 chapters, each of which treats large portions of Jesus’ life and ministry as found in the gospels: his birth and lineage (Chapter 2), his childhood and family (Chapter 3), his relationship to John the Baptist (Chapter 4), his miracles (Chapter 5), his ministry to outcasts (Chapter 6), his twelve disciples (Chapter 7), his teaching on salvation (Chapters 8 and 9), his relationship to Judaism (Chapter 10), his Messiahship (Chapter 11), his arrival in Jerusalem (Chapter 12), his crucifixion (Chapter 13), and his resurrection (Chapter 14).  In the final chapter, he gives a useful summary of the book:

Thus far, we have found a consistent pattern.  We found we were able to identify earlier and later layers of the gospel tradition, places where one oral tradition has superseded another, where one evangelist has edited or censored another’s work… We have arrived at the conclusion that the gospel tradition seems completely unreliable.  That is, most of the sayings and stories alike seem to be historically spurious.  If any of them should chance to be genuine, we can no longer tell.  We cannot render their possible authenticity probable, so they fall to the cutting room floor. (p. 349; All quotes and page numbers are from the 2003 edition of the book.)

 In examining the validity of Price’s arguments, I’ll group my discussion of the book into three categories: historical objections, textual objections, and methodological objections.

A few words at the outset.  One of the criticisms that Price frequently levels at evangelical scholars is that they have a clear agenda: their goal is to support a traditional Christian understanding of the authority and inerrancy of the Bible and the historicity of the Biblical narrative (p. 21-22).  As a result, a critical reader should always question the conclusions of Christian writers because of their lack of impartiality.  I agree!  As a Christian who is trusting in Christ alone for his eternal salvation and forgiveness of sins, I certainly have a clear desire to affirm the reliability of the Bible, which renders me biased in my judgments.  However, I disagree that this argument applies only to Christians; it also applies to skeptics.  Can anyone truly be said to be a completely neutral, disinterested observer when it comes to the Bible?  A skeptic has implicitly or explicitly built his whole life on a view of reality which assumes that Jesus is not God, that he does not call us to repent and place our trust in him.  Doesn’t he then also have an inherent bias to find the Bible historically and theologically unreliable?  Nonetheless, I understand Price’s objections, and therefore I’ll try to use explicitly non-Christian scholarly sources when I discuss topics like dating the New Testament documents to avoid the possibility of pro-biblical bias. 

I. Historical objections

Price’s main tool in demonstrating the non-historicity of the gospels is the criterion of dissimilarity.  Since I will devote the third section of this essay to his use of this criterion, I will not discuss it here.  Instead in this section I will focus on specific arguments that Price makes for the fictional nature of the gospel narratives.  To begin with, I’d like to show that many of Price’s arguments contain factual and historical errors.  I’d then like to give an overview of some of the positive evidence for the historicity of the New Testament that can be found outside of the New Testament in documentary sources and archaeological evidence.  Obviously, this section will be by no means exhaustive, either in its discussion of Price’s arguments or its presentation of the historical evidence. 

There are many different arguments Price uses to dismiss the reliability of the gospels.  One of his more creative ideas is based on the names of individuals in the gospel narratives.  There are four instances where Price characterizes gospel narratives as fictional due to what he believes are highly allegorical names.  In Chapter 5, he states that “we ought to catch the hint that [the story of Jesus raising Jairus’ daughter from the dead] is fictional, as the name ‘Jairus’ means ‘He will awaken’” (p. 152).  He uses similar arguments in Chapter 6:

Jesus’ second encounter with a tax collector may be no more historical, especially as the name ‘Zacchaeus’ is just too good to be true for this character.  It is based on the Aramaic zakki, ‘to give alms’… Is it a coincidence that Nicodemus (whose name means ‘ruler of the people’) is said in John 3:1 to be ‘a ruler of the Jews’?  Is it a coincidence that Martha, the hostess of Luke 10:38, has a name meaning ‘Lady of the House’?  Is it a coincidence that the tax collector who is about to liquidate his holdings on behalf of the poor is called ‘Zacchaeus’?”(p. 170)
While it is true that the name “Martha” probably has Aramaic origins meaning “mistress”, Price’s other assertions are more questionable.  Nicodemus doesn’t exactly mean “ruler of the people”; it actually means “conqueror” or “victorious among his people” (the name is derived from the roots “nikos” = “victory” and “demos” = “people”).  As for the name “Zacchaeus”, I found no evidence that it is related to the Aramaic “zakki” = “to give alms”.  Instead, “Zacchaeus” is the Greek version of a Hebrew name meaning “pure”.    Simarly, “Jairus” is Hebrew in origin and means “my light”, “to diffuse light” or “God enlightens” rather than “he will awaken”.  Because Price doesn’t cite his sources for the etymology of these names, it’s unclear where his information comes from.  If the derivations provided above are correct, it seems that declaring these narratives fictitious based on the names of the characters is unwarranted.

Another fascinating claim made by Price relates to the miraculous catch of fish in John 21.  In this account, Jesus appears to Peter, John, and several other disciples while they are fishing.  He tells them to cast their net into the water and they pull out 153 fish.  Despite numerous attempts at explanation by Christian commentators, the specification of the precise number of fish seems to have no doctrinal, symbolic, or theological significance whatsoever.  In fact, many apologists have argued that the presence of these insignificant details may actually help to distinguish these stories as eyewitness accounts (see C.S. Lewis’ famous quote about the absence of the “realistic narrative” convention in ancient literature).    Consequently, I was quite shaken to see the very compelling explanation that Price gives for the number of fish:

This [story] has been borrowed from the lore of Pythagoras… The element of counting the fish makes sense only in the Pythagorean original, where the vegetarian sage’s supernormal wisdom enabled him to intuit the exact number.  And the number itself?  It turns out to be one of the ‘triangular’ numbers venerated by the mathematically astute Pythagoreans. (p. 158)
As I said, the plausibility of this argument was quite challenging to me.  However, there is a major problem with it that Price fails to mention.  Although most scholars (that is, non-evangelical scholars) date the Gospel of John to approximately 100 A.D., Price takes the view that it may have been written “in the late second century C.E.” (p. 38).   Although I’ll come back to this issue later, let’s assume Price’s dating for the Gospel of John is correct.   The difficulty of Price’s theory is that the biography of Pythagoras from which this story purportedly comes was written by Iamblichus in 300 A.D.!  In other words, the author of John writing in “200 A.D.” (assuming Price’s dating) borrowed a story from Iamblichus who lived 100 years later.  Price might argue that the story of Pythagoras’ miraculous catch of fish originated with Pythagoras himself in 500 B.C. and that Iamblichus was merely the first to write it down.  But then he would be arguing that John, writing in “200 A.D.” about the events of Jesus’ life in 30 A.D. borrowed his story from oral legends about Pythagoras, who lived in 500 B.C., which were later accurately recorded by Iamblichus in 300 A.D.  Isn’t it far more likely that the Pythagoras story was borrowed from John?

There are numerous other cases where the borrowings that Price cites are substantially anachronistic.  For instance, Price cites several rabbinical works (p. 172-174) to show that the gospels are incorrect in portraying the Pharisees as opposed to Jesus’ association with repentant sinners.  Price argues that, in contradiction to the gospel reports, “rabbinic Judaism venerates holy men who associated with sinners as Jesus is said to have done” (p. 172).  However, the works he cites are Rabbi Zera in Sanhedrin 37  (c. 325 A.D.) and the Aboth of Rabbi Nathan (compiled between 700-900 A.D.), which were written 100-200 and 600-800 years after the gospels, respectively.  The rabbinic parallel to Jesus parable of the Prodigal Son cited by Price (p. 174) is from Pesikta Rabbati (c. 845 A.D.) and the parallel to the Workers in the Vineyard (p.174) is from the Jerusalem Talmud (compiled in the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D.).  Remember that according to Price’s own dating, the gospels were all written by “the late second century A.D.” (p. 38).  Presumably, Price is not accusing Jesus of some kind of prophetic plagiarism but is instead trying to make the case that the gospel writers borrowed their stories from contemporary rabbis.  However, can we really assert the priority of the rabbinic tradition given that the written records were compiled a minimum of one hundred years after the writing of the gospels (according to Price’s own timeline)?  The most egregious example that I found is in Chapter 7, where we find the following statement:

Again it is no surprise to see this passage [a quote from Yalkut Shimoni] closely paralleling Matthew (16:18), whose special material is decidedly Jewish and probably derivative from that source. (p. 188)
The difficulty with this conclusion is that the source from which Price asserts that Matthew’s work is “probably derivative” is the Yalkut Shimoni  which was written sometime between 1000 and 1200 A.D. (see also the footnote on p. 129 here). 

Despite Price’s focus on textually-based arguments, he does make references to archaeological evidence that contradicts the claims of the New Testament.  For instance, on p. 14 Price remarks that “A major collision between the gospel tradition and archaeology concerns the existence of synagogues and Pharisees in pre-70 C.E. Galilee.  Historical logic implies that there would not have been any, since Pharisees fled to Galilee only after the fall of Jerusalem.”  This statement appears to be erroneous.  There is a several page discussion of the historical evidence for the existence of synagogues in pre-70 A.D. Galilee in Levine’s work The Ancient Synagogue p46-54 including this statement:

Almost a score of synagogues in first-century C.E. Judea are attested, especially in the literary sources… These include references in Josephus’ writings (Tiberias, Dor, Caeserea)… The assumption, then, that there were no synagogue buildings in Galilean towns and villages in the first century appears unwarranted.

In fact, it is possible that the Capernaum synagogue in which Jesus preached has recently been discovered in the foundation wall of a later structure.  Work is ongoing, but the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs website concludes that “the stone floor and the lower-earlier western wall are remains of the synagogue from the time of Jesus described in the New Testament” (see Capernaum – City of Jesus).   It is also not true that “historical logic” implies that there would “not have been any” Pharisees in Galilee (p. 15).  In fact, Josephus makes reference to Pharisees visiting Galilee from Jerusalem during the period in question, and the famous Pharisee Yochanan ben Zakai lived in Galilee in the mid first-century according to the Talmud.  The question currently debated among scholars is not whether there were any Pharisees in Galilee but whether they were as common as the gospels indicate (see The Historical Jesus in Recent Research p. 482 for a discussion of this issue). 

Because Price’s arguments are mainly textual, meaning that they derive from an examination of biblical documents rather than appeal to external sources, it is easy to come away with the impression that in terms of assessing the accuracy of the biblical record, the biblical text is all we have. That is not quite the case.  In the remainder of this section, I’d like to outline some of the extra-biblical evidence we have for the historicity of the New Testament. To begin with, let’s examine historical references to Jesus from non-Christian sources roughly contemporary (1st and 2nd century AD) with the New Testament sources.  One of the principal sources used by historians of first-century Palestine is the writing of Josephus, a Jewish historian born in 37 A.D.  In The Antiquities we find the following passage (see http://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/josephus/ant-20.htm, Chapter 9):

He [the high priest] convened a meeting of the Sanhedrin and brought before them a man names James, the brother of Jesus, who was called the Christ, and certain others.  He accused them of having transgressed the law and delivered them up to death.

There is another passage in Josephus that goes into much more detail about Jesus, but since that one is disputed I’ll ignore it (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josephus_on_Jesus for a lengthy discussion on the question of this second passage’s authenticity).  Next, let’s look at the Roman (non-Christian) historian Tacitus in A.D. 115 (see: http://classics.mit.edu/Tacitus/annals.11.xv.html):

Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace.  Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Pontius Pilate, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked only for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome.

Next, there’s Pliny the Younger, a Roman governor who wrote this in his letters to Trajan:

An information was presented to me without any name subscribed, containing a charge against several persons: these, upon examination, denied they were, or ever had been, Christians. They repeated after me an invocation to the gods, and offered religious rites with wine and frankincense before your statue; (which for that purpose I had ordered to be brought together with those of the Gods) and even reviled the name of Christ; whereas there is no forcing, it is said, those who are really Christians, into any of these compliances... They affirmed the whole of their guilt, or their error, was, that they met on a certain stated day before it was light, and addressed themselves in a form of prayer to Christ, as to some god, binding themselves by a solemn oath, not for the purposes of any wicked design, but never to commit any fraud, theft, or adultery; never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up: after which, it was their custom to separate, and then re-assemble, to eat in common a harmless meal.

There are a few others (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historicity_of_Jesus), but just from these we obtain the following picture of Jesus: He lived in first-century Palestine in Judea during the reign of Pontius Pilate, was called the Christ (the Greek word for ‘Messiah’), was crucified under Pilate, and was worshipped as a god by his followers who continued to grow in number despite his crucifixion.  These accounts also confirm several other details mentioned in the New Testament, such as the name of Jesus’ brother James (Gal. 1:19), the practice of communion (1 Cor. 11:20-29) (or at least a communal fellowship meal,Acts 2:42-47), the refusal of Christians to acknowledge other gods (1 Cor. 10:18-21; Luke 12:8-9 ), and the moral practices of the early Christians ( Gal. 5:19-24 ).  Although there are obviously a plethora of references to Christ in early extra-biblical Christian writings (Clement, Ignatius, Justin Martyr), some of whom explicitly mention having contact with eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life or the subjects of his healings (Papias quoted by Eusebius), I think these non-Christian sources are the most compelling because the authors had no allegiance to Christianity or any desire to bolster the claims of what they considered an ‘mischievous superstition’.  So far from a lack of corroborative evidence for the existence of Christ, we actually have quite a lot of documentary evidence from both Christian and non-Christian sources.

In addition to the documentary evidence regarding the life of Christ, we also have a massive amount of archaeological evidence confirming numerous central and supporting details in the New Testament narratives.  For instance, archaeologists have found the burial box of the high priest Caiaphas (Matthew 26:57-67), the synagogue at Capernaum (Mark 1:21-28), Jacob’s well (John 4), the pool at Bethesda (John 5:1-14), the pool at Siloam (John 9:1-14), the theater at Ephesus (Acts 19:29), and Herod’s palace at Caesera (Acts 23:33-35).  In Acts, Luke uses the correct regional titles for government officials in Thessalonica (‘politarchs’), Ephesus (‘temple wardens’), Cyprus (‘proconcil’), and Malta (‘the first man of the island’).  Physical evidence such as inscriptions have also confirmed such figures as governor Pontius Pilate, Gallio proconsul of Achaia (Acts 18:12-17), Erastus city treasurer of Corinth (Rom 16:23), and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene (Luke 3:1).  This is only an extremely small fraction of the confirmatory evidence of the historicity of the gospels and the other New Testament documents, as entire books have been written on the subject.  The classic text on the historical reliability of the New Testament is F.F. Bruce’s The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? A more recent work which focuses on archaeology in particular is John McCray’s Archaeology and the New Testament.

II. Textual objections

In some ways, examining the external historical evidence for Price’s claims is only secondary to our investigation of his book, since his conclusions are based mostly on textual and internal evidence from the documents of the New Testament itself.  Therefore, in this section, I’d like to look at Price’s treatment of the biblical text and determine whether Price’s arguments are based on sound reasoning and a comprehensive treatment of the source material.

Before going any further, we need to discuss the dating of the documents of the New Testament.  Price’s conclusions about the authorship and dating of the New Testament documents conflict not only with those of evangelical scholars, but with those of most critical (i.e. non-evangelical) scholars as well.  A good reference for readers interested in learning more about critical (non-evangelical) scholarship of the New Testament can be found in Bart Ehrman’s textbook The New Testament: A historical introduction to the early Christian writings.  Ehrman is a former evangelical Christian and now an agnostic whose recent works include Misquoting Jesus and God’s Problem: how the Bible fails to answer our most important question – why we suffer, so it is probably safe to assume that he does not bring a significant pro-biblical bias to his work.  A comparison of Price’s timeline of New Testament authorship to the timeline in Ehrman’s work (p. 41, The New Testament) or to the one found on Wikipedia’s entry on the New Testament reveals stark differences.  Price proposes the following dates for the final redaction of the gospels: 100-132 A.D. for the Gospel of Mark (p. 33), mid 2nd-century for the Matthew (p. 33), mid-2nd century for Luke-Acts (p. 33), and 125-175 A.D. for John (p. 34), although he also states later that “by our evidence, vague as it is, the Gospels might possibly have been written as late as the third century C.E.” (p. 40).  In contrast, the general consensus of critical (non-evangelical) scholarship is: Mark (65-73 A.D.), Matthew (70-100 A.D.), Luke (80-100 A.D.), and John (90-110 A.D.) (evangelicals would probably tend to date the gospels slightly earlier).  Thus Price dates these documents between 50 and 200 years later than the majority of non-evangelical scholars.

Why are these dates important?  Mainly because the earlier the date of authorship, the less feasible are Price’s arguments about legendary accretion and borrowing.  The dating of critical scholars puts the composition of the gospels (to say nothing of the Pauline epistles, which they believe were written between 50-70 A.D.) well within the lifetime of the apostles and other eyewitnesses of the life of Jesus.  As a result, it becomes more difficult to allege as Price does that the gospel writers had no first-hand knowledge of Jesus and fabricated most of the accounts of his life.  All that being said, let’s assume for the sake of argument that Price’s dating assumptions are accurate and simply examine his arguments as they stand in relation to the biblical text. Due to the diversity of arguments that Price presents it is difficult to treat them systematically.  Although I won’t address them in any particular order, I think a clear pattern of exegesis emerges from Price’s treatments of different texts.  Price consistently builds his argument on a small number of passages while passing over other pieces of evidence that might challenge his theories. 

For instance, Price claims that Jesus was not originally thought to be a descendent of David, but that this fact was added later to support his Messianic qualifications.  In Chapter 2, he states that “we can trace a trajectory along which the early Christian belief regarding Jesus’ genealogical credentials evolved” (p. 46).  In other words, Price believes that originally, Christians knew that Jesus was not a descendant of David, and simply rejected the idea that the Messiah would come from David’s house.  Only later, did Luke and Matthew decide to reinsert the idea of Jesus’ Davidic ancestry.  Let’s look at the evidence for this claim. 

First, we have the fascinating incident in the Temple from Mark 12:35-37:

And Jesus said, as he taught in the temple, ‘How can the scribes say that the Christ is the Son of David?  David himself said by the Holy Spirit, “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies beneath your feet.’”  David himself calls him ‘Lord,’ so how can he be his son?’”

Price asserts that this was actually an early apologetic attempt to deny the requirement that the Messiah be a son of David: “whether Christians created or borrowed [this passage], the implications are the same: there was a time when Christians knew quite well that their Christ was not a Davidic descendent and made the best of it” (p.47-48).  But let’s look more closely at Mark 12:35-37.  Let’s imagine that the author’s intent was to undermine the idea of a Davidic messiah.  Does this motive fit the reasoning of the passage?  Absolutely not!  Jesus asks the Pharisees why David calls the Messiah ‘Lord’.  The answer “Because the Messiah is not Davidic” doesn’t make any sense.  Why would David call the non-Davidic Messiah “Lord”?  Would the fact that the Messiah was not a descendent of David explain David’s deference to him?  In fact, the traditional explanation does a much better job fitting the logic of Jesus question: “The Messiah must not only be David’s son, but also David’s Lord.”  In fact, it seems clear that the intent of Jesus' question is to challenge the Pharisees’ assumption that the Messiah would be a merely human figure.

There are several other pieces of evidence to refute Price’s hypothesis that the idea of Jesus’ Davidic ancestry was a development that came after Mark.  First, we read in Mark 2:25-28 that when the Pharisees complain that Jesus’ disciples are breaking the Sabbath, he responds “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need?” (Mark 2:25).  In other words, Jesus compares himself to David and his disciples to David’s companions.  Could this merely be a rhetorical device or merely a reference to the fact that both groups were hungry (p. 257)?  Perhaps.  What about the blind man on the road to Jerusalem:

When [the blind man] heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’  Jesus stopped and said, "Call him." ( Mark 10:46-49 )

Perhaps this passage only proves that one blind man falsely assumed that Jesus was a Davidic Messiah.  But apparently, the blind man was not the only one who had this idea:

Those who went ahead [of Jesus as he entered Jerusalem] and those who followed shouted, "Hosanna!" "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” "Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!" "Hosanna in the highest!"” ( Mark 11:9-10 )
Price states that these acclamations are non-messianic (p. 284, p.293), but this claim strikes me as unlikely given that the people are shouting “Hosanna” = “save”, are quoting Psalm 118 to declare that Jesus “comes in the name of the Lord” and are looking forward to the “coming of David’s kingdom” which they expected the Messiah to restore.  Finally, it should be pointed out that the Gospel of Mark, while probably the earliest gospel written, is by no means the earliest book of the New Testament.  For instance, there is (non-evangelical) scholarly consensus that Paul’s letter to the Romans was written between 55 A.D. and 58 A.D., less than thirty years after the crucifixion.  In the introductory verses of that letter, we find the following statement: “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God— the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David” (Rom 1:1-3, emph. added).

Another interesting claim involves the Paracletos (Greek for “advocate” or “comforter”) whom Jesus promises to send his disciples after his resurrection.  This figure has traditionally been understood by commentators to be the Holy Spirit, God’s indwelling presence in Christians.  However, Price believes that the Paracletos mentioned in John “is none other than the gospel writer himself” (p.35; see also p. 236).  Price’s hypothesis is that the author of John fabricated Jesus’ predictions of the coming of the Paracletos so that he could then claim to be their fulfillment.  The text Price cites is John:

“I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak.” John 16:12-13
Given only these verses, Price’s claim that this passage was meant to refer (somewhat hyperbolically) to a human prophet is vaguely plausible.  However, if John’s agenda was to claim authority as this “Spirit of Truth”, we would expect that all the references to this figure in the Gospel of John would clearly point to some human, prophetic figure which would be recognizable as John himself.  Yet, in a discourse just prior to the one that Price cites, Jesus explicitly identifies the Paracletos as the Holy Spirit: “But the Counselor [Greek: “Paracletos”], the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:25).  Furthermore, in John 14, we find the following statement:
And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. ( John 14:16-17 )
We see in this verse that the Paracletos, whoever he is, will be with the disciples forever, will not be received or seen by the world, and will dwell with and in the disciples (see also John 7:38-39).  If John intended to set himself up as the coming Paracletos, I question whether he would have set the credentials so high or used language which the original hearers would have undoubtedly interpreted to refer to the Holy Spirit, nor would he have explicitly stated otherwise in 14:25.

What about Price’s view of early Christian belief in adoptionism, the idea that Jesus was not originally the Son of God, but became the Son of God either at his baptism or at his resurrection?  For instance, in Chapter 11 he states that in the gospel of Mark, “[Jesus’] sonship was conferred at the baptism” (p. 275).  Only did later tradition (as seen, for instance, in the gospel of John) claim that Jesus was God Himself in human form.  Again, there are several responses to this statement.  First, the earliest documents we have, such as Paul’s letter to the Phillipians indicate that Jesus was viewed as God by the early church:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
 Who, being in very nature God,
      did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
 but made himself nothing,
      taking the very nature of a servant,
      being made in human likeness.
 And being found in appearance as a man,
      he humbled himself
      and became obedient to death—
         even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
      and gave him the name that is above every name,
 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
      in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
      to the glory of God the Father. ( Phil. 2:5-11 )

Ehrman takes the view that this letter was written sometime between 50 – 60 A.D., and, what is more significant, he also believes that in these verses Paul is actually quoting a Christian hymn that originated even earlier (see The New Testament p. 295).  Even if these verses originated with Paul, then Christians were worshipping Jesus as God as early as 60 A.D.  Notice also that these verses explicitly refute adoptionism.  Christ was “in very nature God” but then “made himself nothing…being made in human likeness” Phil. 2:6-7).  In other words, Christ was equal to God prior to his incarnation (“being made in human likeness”) and certainly prior to his baptism.

We can also consider the evidence from within Mark itself against an early belief in adoptionism.  The very first verse in the Gospel of Mark is: “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).  Although Price doesn’t reference this verse, I suspect that he would argue that the phrase “the Son of God” is a later addition, especially since it doesn’t appear in some manuscripts.  However, most translators include it because it does appear in a wide variety of other manuscripts and because its omission can be explained by a simple error in transcribing a series of very similar Greek letters (see footnote 3 here for a detailed discussion of whether this phrase was contained in the original manuscript).  For the sake of argument, let’s imagine that this phrase was indeed a later addition.  What are the next several verses of Mark’s gospel?

It is written in Isaiah the prophet:  "I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way"— "a voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.' ( Mark 1:2-3 )

The passages that Mark quotes are from the book of Isaiah and from the book of Malachi.  Let’s take a take look at those verses in context:

“See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come," says the LORD Almighty. “But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner's fire or a launderer's soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years. So I will come near to you for judgment.”  ( Mal. 3:1-5 )
Notice that the passage that Mark quotes about the coming of Christ is an Old Testament reference to the coming of “the Lord”.  Does this mean God himself?  It would seem so, since it is the Lord who is speaking in this passage and stating that the messenger he sends (whom Mark associates with John the Baptist) will prepare the way before him (that is, the Lord himself) as he comes to “his temple” (Mal. 3:1).  This hypothesis is supported by v. 5, in which God says that in the coming of this figure, “I will come near to you for judgment” (Mal. 3:5). 

The next passage is even more explicit:

A voice of one calling: "In the desert prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.  ( Is. 40:3 )
Again, the way is being prepared for the Lord, literally for “Yahweh” the personal name by which God identified himself to Israel.  These passages, which Mark applies to the coming of Jesus, clearly refer to the coming of the God of Israel to his people.  Thus, it is hard to escape the fact that Mark saw Christ not as merely a man, but as God himself, even in the few verses that take place prior to Jesus’ baptism in Mark 1:9-11.

A fourth major claim that Price makes is that in the earliest accounts, Jesus did not perform miracles.  He bases this argument mainly on Jesus’ statement in Mark 8:12 “ Why does this generation ask for a miraculous sign? I tell you the truth, no sign will be given to it” which Price refers to numerous times  (p. 132, 133, 146, 160, 161) as a “preemptive denial of all miracles” (p. 146).  He also believes that 1 Cor. 1:22-23 (“Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles”) “comes awfully close to explicitly denying that Jesus did miracles” (p. 132).  Let’s examine the context of these passages more closely.

First, Jesus’ statement in Mark 8:12 is part of the following pericope ( Mark 8:11-13 ):

The Pharisees came and began to question Jesus. To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven. He sighed deeply and said, “Why does this generation ask for a miraculous sign? I tell you the truth, no sign will be given to it.”; Then he left them, got back into the boat and crossed to the other side.
The first thing that is apparent in this passage is that Jesus is responding to the questioning of the Pharisees, who are consistently opposed to Jesus throughout the gospel of Mark.  The Greek word translated as “question” is “suzeteo” which could also be translated as “dispute” or “argue”.  Next, the word translated as “test” is “peirzontev” which is sometimes translated as “tempt” and is the same word that Mark used when Jesus was “being tempted by Satan” (Mark 1:13).  This idea seems to be confirmed by Jesus response: “ to sigh deeply” or more literally “to sigh deeply in his spirit”.  What is it that disturbs Jesus?  The author’s intent is to show that the Pharisees are again approaching Jesus as opponents seeking to discredit him without any real interest in who he is (see Mark 3:6).  What’s more, the Pharisees are asking for a “sign from heaven”, some kind of miraculous display in the skies to prove that Jesus was the Messiah.   Why would this have been so troubling to Jesus?  Let’s consider the broader context of the passage.  Mark places these events between two other stories: the feeding of the four thousand (Mark 8:1-10) and the healing of the blind man at Bethsaida (Mark 8:22-26).  If Jesus is explicitly denying that he performs miracles, it seems odd for Mark to place this statement between two accounts of miracles.  It seems then that Mark is making a clear point.  Feeding the hungry and healing the sick mean nothing to the Pharisees; they want something spectacular.  They do not actually lack evidence, even miraculous evidence, that Jesus is the Messiah; they simply refuse the evidence that is given to them. 

The passage from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians has a similar context.  In 1 Cor. 1:18-25 Paul is rebuking both Jews and non-Jews for forsaking rejecting the message of the gospel.  In the case of Jews, this manifests itself in demanding from God miraculous signs without which they refuse to believe in Christ.  In the case of non-Jews, it is the exaltation of their wisdom over God that causes them to reject Christ.  In both cases, it is coming to God in pride rather than in humility that Paul is criticizing.  He does not actually deny doing miracles any more than he denies preaching a message of wisdom (1 Cor. 2:6).  But he says that what he ultimately preaches is Christ crucified, not miraculous signs or human wisdom.  Is this because the early church didn’t experience miracles?  A few chapters later Paul, almost in passing, makes the following statement:

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues. ( 1 Cor. 12:27-28 )
Here Paul identifies the “working of miracles” and “gifts of healing” as two of the gifts imparted by God to the church.  Paul makes numerous other letters to miracles in his other letters including Romans 15:18-19, Galatians 3:5, and 2 Cor. 12:12.  However, as in the ministry of Jesus, the focus of his message was not on the miracles, but on the forgiveness of sins offered by Christ through his death and resurrection.

Although some of Price’s arguments are plausible given the data he presents, most of them do not agree well with the immediate context of the passage or with entirety of the document.  Price’s view that traditions about Jesus evolved dramatically from the lifetime of Jesus to the final compilation of the New Testament seems to have very little support.  In particular, the fact that he does not address the Pauline epistles is a very problematic.  Given that most scholars believe that Paul’s letters are actually the earliest Christian documents we possess, written less than thirty years after Jesus’ death, we should actually begin with them rather than the gospels to get an idea of early Christian theology.  Knowing how accepted this idea is among modern scholars, it is amazing that Price does not address it.  In order for his arguments about the progressive evolution of Christian theology to hold, he must either show that this evolution is indeed reflected in Paul’s letters or assert that Paul’s letters were written well after the gospels.   The fact that he entirely ignores the challenge that the Pauline epistles pose to his arguments is a major problem.

In general, I think that Price is not letting the documents speak for themselves, but rather is looking in the documents for evidence to support his overarching theories of the early Christian movement.  To understand in part where this tendency comes from, it is helpful to examine Price’s methodological approach to the New Testament, which I will do in the next section.

III. Methodological objections

In his Introduction, Price outlines the criterion which will guide his analysis of the Biblical text for the remainder of the book: the criterion of dissimilarity.  I’d first like to point out that most critical (non-evangelical) scholars use several other criteria, which are defined well in this the essay “A Historical Study of Jesus of Nazareth” by James McGrath (who is a non-evangelical, critical scholar himself).  One of the facts that McGrath notes in his essay is that scholars recognize these conditions as sufficient but not necessary.  What does that mean?  It means that these criteria tell you when a saying is more likely to be historical (if you agree with the premises of critical scholarship), but that they cannot definitively tell you that a saying is unhistorical.  They all have limitations that will fail to “pick up” authentic sayings and actions of Jesus.  McGrath emphasizes that these criteria must be used together since they each have significant weaknesses.  In contrast, Price relies almost entirely on the criterion of dissimilarity.  In this section, let’s examine that criterion and determine whether it is reliable as a historical tool.

The criterion of dissimilarity states that if a saying of Jesus resembles either 1st century Judaism or the teaching of the early Christian church, then “the historian has no right to accept [it] as authentically dominical (i.e. coming from the Lord, Dominus, Jesus)” (p. 16).  Throughout his book, Price draws parallels between the gospel narratives and other stories, culled from the surrounding Hellenistic culture, contemporary Judaism and the Old Testament, and sources as remote as 5th century B.C. India (p. 156) and 19th century A.D. China (p. 143). He uses these parallels to dismiss the authenticity of the gospel accounts since, by the criterion of dissimilarity, anything which finds a parallel in other ancient literature or mythology cannot be declared to be authentic.  Since this is the criteria that Price uses almost exclusively in his book, I’d like to point out how problematic it is. 

Let’s imagine that I wanted to study the life and work of Charles Darwin.  But imagine that all of Darwin’s own writings, lectures, and correspondence had been lost so that the only source material I had was secondary, that is, material that had been written by others about Darwin or about his work.  If we were to apply the criterion of dissimilarity to this venture, it would dictate that we reject as inauthentic any teaching of Darwin that resembled either 19th century naturalism or modern evolutionary theory.  Clearly, modern biologists have a great incentive to lend authority to their theories by claiming their origin from an illustrious scientist like Darwin.  Similarly, 19th century followers of Darwin would naturally attribute major scientific discoveries of the age to their revered hero. 

So we would set out to reconstruct the life and works of Darwin, removing the later legendary accretions of naturalism, biology, and evolution.  How close would we come to anything approximating the life and works of the historical Darwin?  Not close at all.  Our view would be completely warped by our assumptions.  I think this example demonstrates the woeful inadequacy of the criterion of dissimilarity as the sole means for determining historicity.  I n his essay, McGrath comes to the same conclusion about the criterion of dissimilarity, that “on its own this criterion will at best give us an unbalanced and lopsided portrait of the historical Jesus… [It is] unthinkable that Jesus completely differed from John the Baptist and Judaism in general, and that none of his followers sought to preserve at least some of his actual emphasis and teaching” ( “A Historical Study of Jesus of Nazareth”). 

A similar response can be made to Price’s criticism of “harmonization” of the gospel narratives, which means an attempt to fit together the various perspectives offered by the gospel writers to construct a coherent narrative (p. 26; 38).  Imagine that you took my wife and me into separate rooms and asked us both to write a one-page account of our wedding day.  Although you would find that the accounts agreed on all major facts (we were married in Princeton, New Jersey in June of 2002, our reception was held at the Nassau Inn, etc…) there would certainly be many details included by Christina that I would omit, and many details that I would include that Christina would omit due to our different opinions as to the relative importance of various events.  For example, I would certainly state how beautiful Christina looked when she walked down the aisle, but I doubt she would mention that fact in her narrative.  There might also be a few instances where our accounts appeared to be contradictory.  If Christina writes that we took pictures in front of McCosh Hall, and I write that we took pictures in front of Firestone Library, perhaps we took pictures in both places.  Or perhaps those buildings are near one another on Princeton’s campus.  If the gospels are even remotely accurate and can be traced in any way to actual eyewitness accounts, it is very likely that they will include differences in both emphasis and content.  To write off all harmonization as a willful attempt to evade contradiction therefore seems to be unjustified on purely historical grounds.

Even if we were to accept Price’s use of the criterion of dissimilarity, which I believe is extremely problematic, there are other difficulties with his arguments.  In the first section of this essay, I’ve already discussed how many of the Hellenistic parallels that Price cites are substantially anachronistic; they are drawn from sources written well after the gospels even according to Price’s dating.  But even in the cases where the borrowing is at least chronologically possible, I question not only whether the borrowing could feasibly have occurred, but even whether there is any real parallel at all.  The danger of looking so eagerly for parallels is that it is very easy to find them whether or not they exist.  To prove my point, let me reproduce a passage from Greek mythology cited by Price in which he sees a “startlingly close” parallel to a New Testament story:

Sostrata, a woman of Pherae, was pregnant with worms.  Being in a very bad way, she was carried into the Temple and slept there.  But when she saw no distinct dream she let herself be carried back home.  Then, however, near a place called Kornoi, a man of fine appearance seemed to come upon her and her companions.  When he had learned from them about their bad luck, he asked them to set down on the ground the litter in which they were carrying Sostrata.  Then he cut open her abdomen and took out a great quantity of worms – two wash basis full.  After having stitched her belly up again and made the woman well, Asclepius revealed to her his presence and enjoined her to send thank-offering for her treatment to Epidaurus.

I ask the reader whether they can determine which New Testament passage Price claims is “startlingly close” to this narrative so that he can conclude that “no one could give a good reason for maintaining that one is fiction and the other is history” (p. 339).   Is it Mark 5:24-34? Or Luke 24:13-32? Or Matthew 8:1-4? or John 5:1-13?  In fact, a case could very plausibly be made that all of these passages are parallels of the Asclepius story.  Or none of them.  Or only one of them.  And that is precisely the problem.  If we look closely enough at any two documents, we can construct any number of parallel passages; unfortunately that tells us more about our creativity than about dependencies in the source material.

Again, consider Price’s treatment of the healing of the paralytic in Mark 2:1-12, which, to use Price’s own summary of the incident, “is the wonderful story of the paralyzed man whose friends, unable to press to the front of the crowd, instead hoist him by ropes in front of Jesus.  Their dogged efforts attest their faith, and Jesus rewards their outrageous behavior by forgiving their friend’s sin” (p. 149).  This story, says Price, “seems to be based on another story, one from 2 Kings 1:2-17a” in which, again using Price’s summary, “’the Israelite king fell through the lattice in his upper chamber in Samaria and lay sick’.  He sends messengers to inquire of the oracle of the god Baal-zebub (“Lord of Flies”). .. Will he recover?  Yahve… sends Elijah to intercept the emissaries.  He tells them not to bother going any further.  He can tell them right now… that Ahaziah is doomed because of his lack of faith (p. 149).” I recommend readers follow the links and read both stories on their own.  Can we honestly claim that these two narratives are somehow related, even using Price’s own summaries?  In fact, Price states that the stories are not actually parallels, but actually anti-parallels: “The Markan story is a happy reversal of this one [in 1 Kings]” (p. 149).  Given such latitude in our definition of “similarity”, I wonder if there are any two stories in any two books that we won’t find ultimately derive from each other and are therefore inauthentic.  (If anyone is interested, here are some Old and New Testament passages that Price believes are sources and derivatives with a few extras thrown in.  I’ve included them in chronological order, and I’m curious to see if an observer who hasn’t read Price’s book can match them up: Ex. 18:13-26, Num 11:26-29, Num 15:32-36, Jdg. 7:5-6, 2 Sam 15:24-16:14, 1 Ki 13:1-6, Esth. 5:1-2, Job 41:1-4, Jer. 17:19-27, Mark 3:1-5, Mark 3:19-21, 3:31-35, Mark 9:38-40, Mark 14:32-51, Matt. 12:40, John 3:16-21, John 9:1-12, Acts 14:8-13).

In summary, aside from the problems that I discussed in the first two sections, I believe that Price’s scholarship is hindered at the outset by his methodological assumptions.  We would not attempt to apply the methods used by Price to any other historical figure and expect to obtain an accurate picture of his or her life.  What is more, the signal-to-noise ratio in Price’s deconstruction of literary parallels seems unacceptably high.  If such a critical hermeneutic were applied to documents in general, I question whether the blandest piece of reportage in the Des Moines Register would pass as authentic. 

Conclusions

In conclusion, I believe that the thoroughgoing skepticism with which Price views the New Testament documents is not a consequence of historical or textual evidence.  There are massive amounts of documentary and archeological evidence which lend support to both the major facts of Jesus’ life and minor historical details of the gospel narratives.  The majority of scholars, evangelical and non-evangelical, believe that the New Testament documents were written within the lifetime of the apostles, Jesus’ closest followers and eyewitnesses to the events of his life.   The text of the New Testament, when examined closely, is not a collection of irreconcilably incongruous fragments, but is a remarkably coherent picture of the teachings and actions of Jesus of Nazareth and the beliefs and practices of the early church.  In contrast to Price’s claim that there is almost nothing we can know about the historical Jesus, there appears to be an abundance of information recorded for us in the pages of the New Testament.

Despite the overwhelming evidence in its favor, I don’t want to give the impression that there are absolutely no remaining questions regarding the historical content of the New Testament.  There are a few problems for which there is no clear, obvious answer.  For instance, the question of the census of Quirinius has plagued biblical scholars for hundreds of years.  Though there are plausible, reasonable explanations for these issues (see a discussion of the census here and here), there is certainly not agreement.  I can think of several other details, such as Herod’s massacre of the children in Bethlehem recorded in Matthew 2:16-18, or the hour of the crucifixion in John 19:14, that are sometimes cited as insurmountable problems.  However, I think that there are several important things to keep in mind.  

The first is that we have very limited archaeological data for the history of 1st century Palestine.  For instance, despite the fact that the existence of Pontius Pilate as governor of Judea has been attested by numerous documents and has never been doubted, the first physical evidence for his existence was not discovered until 1961!  Therefore it would be extremely unwise to take the absence of physical evidence for some particular detail as an indication of its unreliability.  Second, there have been several purported biblical errors that have been resolved either by subsequent archaeological discoveries, such as the existence of Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene (recorded in Luke 3:1), or by a more careful reading of the text.  Consequently, we should be hesitant in assuming that our current understanding of an inconsistency will not be later resolved.  Finally, I can say confidently that the evidence for the general historical reliability for the New Testament is absolutely overwhelming.  Remember that the vast majority of narrative statements in the New Testament such as “Jesus stepped into a boat, crossed over and came to his own town” (Matthew 9:1) or “On the next Sabbath almost the whole cite gathered to hear the word of the Lord” (Acts 13:44) are not the kind of things that we should expect to have any historical record of apart from the New Testament narratives themselves.  It’s very unlikely that we’ll ever dig up the boat that Jesus used or a video tape of the Sabbath service in Antioch.  Of the remaining statements for which we might have some expectation for independent confirmation, we find that the New Testament is remarkably accurate.  Given that we have a massive amount of substantiating and corroborative evidence, at the very least, we should be willing to take the biblical records at face value as a generally reliable account of the life of Jesus and the history of the early church.

Then where does the doctrine of biblical inerrancy come in?  Why do I believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God?  I can’t speak for others, but for me, it works like this: based on the arguments I presented above, the New Testament appears to be a reasonably accurate historical document.  Therefore, I can read its accounts of the life of Jesus as a generally accurate picture of the teachings and deeds of a real, historical person.  When I read this account, I find a Person like no one I’ve ever encountered.  On the one hand, his life is one of absolute compassion, gentleness, and love.  He cares for the sick. He is compassionate to prostitutes, widows and lepers.  Most of all, he is a friend of sinners and turns away no one who comes to him.  On the other hand (or even on the same hand), this Person is utterly terrifying.  His goodness is absolute and complete.  He doesn’t allow me to make excuses.  He condemns my sin, my pride, my self-righteousness, and my failure to live a life of love for God and love for my fellow man.  By his very goodness, he holds a mirror up to my own life, full of denials, pettiness, and self-glorification.  And yet he calls me: “Come to me, all you who are heavy laden and I will give you rest for your souls.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”  The story of this historical person is the story of loving sacrifice: God made him sin who knew no sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God.  On the cross, Jesus took the punishment that we deserve, so that we could have the acceptance that he deserved.  God raised him up from the dead to declare that the payment was made in full and that all who receive him can receive forgiveness of sins and new life.  So I put my faith in this person and surrender my life to his lordship.

As his follower, what is one of the things I notice about Jesus?  It is that his teaching, his actions, and his very life are steeped in the Bible.  He and his earliest followers treated the Scriptures as the Word of God, God’s authoritative message to humanity.  He viewed it as utterly trustworthy, and saw in its teaching a revelation of God’s goodness, holiness, and saving purposes.  Given this fact, and as his disciple, I’m willing to trust in the Bible as Jesus did. 

For non-Christians, I don’t think that the first question I would settle is whether the Bible is inerrant.  The first question I would settle is: “Who is this Jesus?”  If I am convinced that the Bible is generally trustworthy, then I need to honestly read it and decide what it says about God, about man, and about the work of Christ.  The Bible confronts us with the inescapable person of Jesus.  If we let it speak to us, we will find him and find all good things in him.

Additional information:

For readers interested in an accessible (i.e. non-scholarly) book about the reliability of the New Testament accounts of the life of Jesus Christ, I recommend Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ.  See also The Rest of the Story on infidels.org for an excellent review of the book by atheist Jeffrey Jay Lowder.


Related essays:
If anyone reading this essay has questions about it or about Christianity in general, feel free to e-mail me at Neil -AT- Shenvi.org. I also highly recommend the book The Reason for God by Tim Keller. It is phenomenal. Free sermons treating many of the topics covered by this book can be found here.

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