Ehrman-Price Debate #2: Price’s Opening Address

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by Neil Godfrey

The following is a write up from notes I took at the time of my first listening to the debate supplemented by a second listening earlier today. So there will be more detail than in with my summary of Ehrman’s opener. If anyone thinks I have been unfair to Ehrman then let me know and I may even decide to listen to him again too and add more detail to that post. Or be more certain and fill out details yourself!

Unlike Bart Ehrman Robert Price (RMP) did choose to address the opposing arguments as had been set out by BE in his book Did Jesus Exist? as well as making his case for mythicism. His presentation was written out and read aloud. Being a tightly prepared written speech it seemed to be packed with considerably more detail than BE’s delivery and certainly required more intense concentration to absorb the detail and each point of argument. Ehrman’s spontaneity and speaking without notes was far more dynamic and emotionally moving. So another reason for the greater length of the Price presentation here is, I am sure, the consequence of Price conveying far more detail than Ehrman.

Another stark difference between the two presentations worth noting is that Ehrman spoke dogmatically while Price conceded ambiguities in the evidence and spoke of what paradigm makes most sense to him given the various alternatives given the inability to definitely prove what we would like to be able to prove.

Regularly RMP quoted BE’s words as points requiring responses.

A Modern Novelty?

The idea that Jesus did not exist is a modern notion. It has no ancient precedents. (Ehrman 2012, p. 96)

RMP is not so sure and cites three ancient indicators: read more »

The Ehrman-Price Debate: Ehrman’s Opening Address

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by Neil Godfrey

The following is a write up from notes I took at the time of my first listening to the debate. I have not been able to access the online debate since to check the details of the following.

I think most listeners on the mythicist side would have been disappointed because this was an opportunity for BE to address the extensive published rebuttals (Zindler, Doherty, Carrier) to his book, Did Jesus Exist?

Bart Ehrman (BE) opened by saying that he would not address the mythicist argument (“after all, no mythicist arguments have been presented yet”) but instead present the strongest case he knew for the historical existence of Jesus.

But first, he digressed, he would mention just two of the mythicist arguments.

Mythicist argument #1, Nazareth

Do any mythicists argue that the non-existence of Nazareth disproves the historicity of Jesus? BE did not cite any. It is also apparent that he has not read any of Salm’s work on the archaeological work on Nazareth.

One mythicist argument that he said was commonly found among mythicists was that since there was no Nazareth at the time of Jesus it followed that Jesus of Nazareth could not have existed. But on the contrary, BE assured his audience, archaeologists have discovered the site of Nazareth; its existence is not a debated point because they have found there a house, pottery, a farm, coins dated to the days of Jesus.

“Anyone who says otherwise simply does not know the archaeological record,” BE concluded, adding that whether Jesus existed is not dependent on his being born in Nazareth anyway.

Mythicist argument #2, Tale types

Again I think most on the mythicist side would have been disappointed that BE missed the opportunity to address their replies to this old chestnut. The point is not that legendary embellishment means nonhistoricity, but that mythical tropes in the absence of historical evidence points to fabrication.

The second arguments mythicists come up with, he asserted, related to the Jesus in the Gospels being portrayed according to patterns of other figures in the Old Testament and other gods. Such a portrayal was not an argument against historicity for the simple reason that most historical figures — Washington, Julius Caesar, Baal Shem Tov — the have legendary portraits made of them. Octavian (Augustus) was said to be the son of god and performed miracles and ascended to heaven. The lives of famous people are told in stereotypes, such as the divine saviour or the rags to riches stories.

That a person’s life is told according to a type does not mean that person did not exist.

The Case for Jesus Being Historical: One of the Best Sourced Figures of First Century

Jesus is one of the best attested Palestinian Jews of the entire first century. read more »


Woops …. with gaffes like these. . . . (will anyone dare to discreetly tell the professor that David was right all along?)

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by Neil Godfrey

Most readers with an interest in the mythicism debate are well aware that Paul never uses the term for “disciples” in any of his letters but only ever speaks of “apostles” — e.g. 1 Cor 9:1-5; 12:27, 29; 15:7, 9; 2 Cor 11:5; 12:11f; Gal 1.17, 19.

So what are we to make of the following exchange in the Ehrman/Price Post-Debate Show @ 22 min 30 sec . . . ?

David Fitzgerald: [Paul] never even uses the word disciple in any context ever in any of his [writing]. He never implies that Jesus had twelve of them. He never identifies the twelve. . . . .
James McGrath: Are you thinking of apostle? Are you thinking of apostle?
David Fitzgerald: He talks about apostles but when he describes what an apostle is it has nothing to do with being a disciple of Jesus who followed him around. . . .
Moderator: [Attempts to intervene and redirect the discussion]
James McGrath: It’s characteristic that mythicists don’t know the terminology that’s used in these sources. You have a superficial familiarity with it and then they’re confused by it and think that proves something. I think this actually illustrates an important point.
David Fitzgerald: I don’t know why you’re here James, to be honest with you, because what else are you going to say besides shitting on mythicism?
Daniel Gullotta: Because he’s an expert in [the New] Testament?
James McGrath:
I’m going to point out you don’t know what the sources say. You don’t know the terminology. When a student in my class says the Bible is important and they talk about the Book of Revelations with an s at the end, I’m like, they haven’t even looked at the title carefully. I know there’s a [certain] familiarity; they’re paying lip service to the text. They don’t actually know it.
David Fitzgerald: I’m not going to get into a pissing match about . . .
James McGrath: No, this is not a pissing match. I’m talking about the evidence. I want you to talk about the evidence!

read more »


Price-Ehrman Debate Wish

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by Neil Godfrey

No doubt there will be to-and-fro on “the brother of the Lord” passage in Galatians 1:19. I would love to see any such discussion go beyond the face-value interpretation of the words and to explore both the provenance and nature of the source containing that line. That is, some serious discussion of the historical evidence itself:


And the Mysterious Unknowns of Other Historical(?) Figures

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by Neil Godfrey

following on from the previous post . . . .

What is wrong with living with doubt and uncertainty as to the historicity of any figure of the past? Unless one is a fundamentalist or ideological nationalist whose very identity depends upon the literal certainty of past figures and events, what is wrong with simply accepting that we cannot know for certain if there was a historical Buddha, or Moses, or David or Solomon, or even Socrates, or Honi, or Hillel, or Muhammad, or Jesus . . .

What difference would it make? Certainly it would make an enormous difference to certain fundamentalists or believers whose personal identity hangs upon the certain reality of some such figure, but for scholars, for academics, for the general public…..? Very little, if anything, of history would have to be re-written. Maybe just the wording of a few lines here and there would need to be tweaked, that’s all.

Bart Ehrman and Maurice Casey, as I understand their publications, have misrepresented my reference to a quotation from Albert Schweitzer. My point is not that Schweitzer is casting doubt on the historicity of Jesus — not at all — but that he is saying that religious faith should not rest upon the mundane. Our certainty of what we know of the mundane can rarely be secure and the focus of spirituality belongs elsewhere. Albert Schweitzer’s conclusion in The Quest of the Historical Jesus (pp. 401-402, my emphasis):

[S]trictly speaking absolutely nothing can be proved by evidence from the past, but can only be shown to be more or less probable. Moreover, in the case of Jesus, the theoretical reservations are even greater because all the reports about him go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even by raised so high as positive probability.

. . . . Seen from a purely logical viewpoint, whether Jesus existed or did not exist must always remain hypothetical. . . .

. . . Modern Christianity must always reckon with the possibility of having to abandon the historical figure of Jesus. Hence it must not artificially increase his importance by referring all theological knowledge to him and developing a ‘christocentric’ religion: the Lord may always be a mere element in ‘religion’, but he should never be considered its foundation.

To put it differently: religion must avail itself of a metaphysic, that is, a basic view of the nature and significance of being which is entirely independent of history and of knowledge transmitted from the past . . .

The Secret Mysteries of the Historical Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

Mythicists have often gotten upset with me for pointing out that almost no one with any qualifications in the requisite fields of scholarship agrees with them.  I can see why that would be upsetting.  My sense is that some of them think that I’ve been rubbing their noses in it.  But that isn’t really my intent.  My intent is to point out to anyone who is interested – for example, someone who just doesn’t know what to think – that those who are qualified to speak knowledgeably on such subjects are virtually unified on one view (there was a historical Jesus of Nazareth) and opposed to the other (he is a complete myth).Bart Ehrman

So it seems the establishment of the historical existence of an ancient figure requires a level of expertise comparable to physicists who tells us that such things as quarks really do exist. If you’re not a physicist you just have to take the word of the scientists for it.

History and historical evidence was never that complicated when I was at school or doing undergrad studies in ancient, medieval and modern history. And I don’t know of a single figure historians say can only be confirmed by esoteric skills of those trained for many years in the required specialist fields — apart from Jesus.

Now Jesus may have been a historical figure, of course. But to claim academic privilege as the key to being able to prove it strikes me as . . . . well, . . . . [you fill in the blank for yourself].

That the only scholars who supposedly are emphatically and wholeheartedly agreed that Jesus existed happen to be those who are religiously devoted to Jesus or who have been closely associated with an interest in that figure of worship (e.g. ex believers) does not strike me as a strong point in favour of the grounds for Bart Ehrman’s confidence.

Archaeology as Manufacturer and Destroyer of Historical and Contemporary Identities

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by Neil Godfrey

I’ve been struggling with a virus since returning from my recent o/seas trip and unable to focus on blogging after work hours these past two weeks but a Jerry Coyne blog post has roused me from my lethargy:

The anti-Semitism of UNESCO

The visceral illogic of his post leaves me somewhat dismayed. Does he really believe — is he even aware that he is saying — that present-day cultural monuments of devotion for one religious and historical identity should be replaced by monuments to ancient myths that have not existed in the land for millennia in the interests of an opposing religious and historical identity? Is he really oblivious to the politics of archaeology, to the way archaeology has long been used as an ideological and nationalistic propaganda tool?

Did he even read in full the Unesco draft decision [link is to pdf] that he curiously declares to be “anti-semitic”? (I’m reminded of yesterday’s debate. If something goes against X, X always says it is because it was “rigged”.)

I will probably delete any comment that expresses an view that clearly demonstrates a failure to have actually read the UNESCO document which I copy in full below. I’m interested in informed discussion. read more »


A “Richard Dawkins” Project to Help Atheists Talk to Believers

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by Neil Godfrey

By Alana Massey, on Alternet:

A new app called Atheos aims to help non-believers have friendly, thoughtful discussions with people of faith.

Tired of the shouting matches? Want to find a calmer way to try to tell believers they are mentally deficient idiots engage in a potentially fruitful, thought-provoking exchange with the faithful? Then this app could be just the place to start. Beware the condescension, though. (But at least condescension is a one grade improvement on direct insult, or is it?)

Here’s the site: http://www.atheos-app.com/

I’d go one step further and invite everyone to explore what the research in anthropology etc is learning about what religious beliefs actually are, why we have them, and even whether or not the world would be any better off without them. (One of my favourite quotables, Pataki, said something about it being a nice idea to get rid of all the garden pests in the world but then who knows what damage would be done in the end by doing so!)

And while we’re at it, how about an app for a more civil discourse with Muslims and about Islam …. or again, how about actually trying to inform ourselves about the whole shebang by taking a look behind the sound bytes of the mass media?


Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible

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by Neil Godfrey

platocreationhebrewbibleRussell Gmirkin in his new book, Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible draws attention to striking similarities between the Pentateuch (the first five books of the “Old Testament”) on the one hand and Plato’s last work, Laws, and features of the Athenian constitution on the other. Further, even the broader collection of writings that make up the Hebrew Bible — myth and history, psalms, wisdom sayings, moral and religious precepts, all presented with the aura of great antiquity — happen to conform to Plato’s recommendations for the sorts of literature that should form the national curriculum of an ideal state.

The idea that the Jewish scriptures owe their character and existence to the Hellenistic era, a time subsequent to Alexander’s conquests of the Near East, jars hard against traditional views of the origins of the Bible. Yet Gmirkin shows that many significant laws in the Pentateuch as well as the narrative style of their presentation are indeed closer to later Greek ideas than those found among Israel’s/Judea’s Syrian or Babylonian neighbours.

The key to this close linkage is the Great Library of Alexandria. Past studies exploring possible cultural contacts between the Greeks and Judeans prior to the Hellenistic era (that is, the period following Alexander the Great, from around 320 BCE) have generally shown that exchanges were primarily limited to trade and had minimal impact in the literary and philosophical sphere. On the other hand, we do know that Jews and Greek culture met in Alexandria. The history of the Athenian Constitution was available in the works of Aristotle there; Plato’s reflections on the ideal state and laws were also stored there. And the Hebrew Bible was said to have been translated into Greek there. Moreover, there is no external evidence for the existence of the Pentateuch prior to the Hellenistic era. In an earlier book, Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus: Hellenistic Histories and the Date of the Pentateuch, — see earlier Vridar posts — Gmirkin likewise argued that the Pentateuch was composed around 270 BCE and he introduces his new book as a sequel to Berossus and Genesis.

The main stimulus for Gmirkin’s new study is a desire to examine more closely some of the parallels presented by Philippe Wajdenbaum in Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible. (Again, see earlier Vridar posts on Argonauts.) According to the Acknowledgements in Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible it was Thomas L. Thompson who suggested this study to Russell Gmirkin, and Gmirkin explains that his focus was on Wajdenbaum’s discussion of the parallels between Plato’s Laws and the Pentateuchal laws as the most persuasive section of his book.

While on the Acknowledgements, I have to refer to one other detail that struck me: read more »


Gospel Truth (no joke)

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by Neil Godfrey

Sometimes good advice comes from the least expected places. Who would ever have thought Christian apologists dedicated to . . . Christian apologetics . . . would espouse six rules for a fair, reasonable and honest exchange of ideas. There is a catch, however. The rules appear to be confined exclusively to exchanges among those who are more or less like-minded Christian apologists. It’s almost like reading a satire on Babylonian Bee — “Christians discover rules of reasoned and honest exchange of ideas for Christian fellowship. Fail to acknowledge the rules are standards among professionals and humans of all stripes and beliefs outside the Christian community.”

Here they are, presented by Andy Naselli from a Tim Keller book: read more »


Something Rotten in the Lands of Islam

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by Neil Godfrey

The survey of Muslim religiosity was carried out in

  • Indonesia,
  • Pakistan,
  • Malaysia,
  • Iran,
  • Kazakhstan,
  • Egypt
  • and Turkey.

It included statements on the respondents’ image of Islam. The survey listed forty-four items that examined religious beliefs, ideas and convic­tions. These statements were generated by consulting some key sociological texts on Muslim societies by authors such as Fazlur Rahman, Ernest Gellner, William Montgomery Watt, Mohammad Arkoun and Fatima Mernissi. Respondents were asked to give one of the following six responses to each of the statements presented: strongly agree, agree, not sure, disagree, strongly disagree, or no answer. More than 6300 respondents were interviewed. (Hassan, Inside Muslim Minds, p. 48)

This is post #5 on Inside Muslim Minds by Riaz Hassan. We are seeking an understanding of the world. If you have nothing to learn about the Islamic world please don’t bother reading these posts since they will likely stir your hostility and tempt you into making unproductive comments.

We have looked at a historical interpretation of how much of the Muslim world became desensitized to cruel punishments and oppression of women and others. But what does the empirical evidence tell us? Here Hassan turns to a study explained in the side-box. Each question was subject to a score between 1 and 5, with “very strong” being indicated by 1 or 2.

Following are the 20 questions (out of a total of 44) that generated the highest mean scores.

Overall the results tell us that Muslims feel strongly about “the sanctity and inviolability” of their sacred texts. There is a strong belief overall that all that is required for a utopian society is a more sincere commitment to truths in those texts.

In other words, there is a large-scale rejection of modern understandings of the genetic and environmental influences upon human nature.

The evidence indicates very strong support for implementing ‘Islamic law’ in Muslim countries. (On “Islamic Law” see Most Muslims Support Sharia: Should We Panic?) Respondents strongly support strict enforcement of Islamic hudood laws pertaining to apostasy, theft and usury. The purpose of human freedom is seen not as a means of personal fulfilment and growth, but as a way of meeting obligations and duties laid down in the sacred texts. This makes such modern developments as democracy and personal liberty contrary to Islamic teachings. The strong support for strict enforcement of apos­tasy laws makes any rational and critical appraisals of Islamic texts and traditions unacceptable and subject to the hudd punishment of death. The strength of these attitudes could explain why hudood and blasphemy laws are supported, or at least tolerated, by a significant majority of Muslims. Strong support for modelling an ideal Muslim society along the lines of the society founded by the Prophet Muhammad and the first four Caliphs is consistent with the salafi views and teachings discussed earlier. (p. 54)

But notice: read more »

Form Criticism: Modern Scholarship’s Blind Spot

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by Tim Widowfield

Percival Gardner-Smith

Percival Gardner-Smith

In a recent post, Neil discussed Helen Bond’s paper, “The Reception of Jesus in the Gospel of John.” I can’t find a print version of the paper, but the video released by Biblical Studies Online on my birthday, brings me both pain and pleasure. Pleasure, because I also believe the author of the Fourth Gospel knew and used Mark. (See my series, “How John Used Mark.”) But pain, too, because Bond repeats the same mistaken views about form criticism that continue to dominate modern New Testament studies.

I agree completely with her thesis statement:

I see John as a rewriting of those written texts in light of both the cultural memories of his own group and a very particular set of historical circumstances. There’s no doubt that this gospel is distinctive in many ways, with its view of Jesus as the incarnate Logos, the unique Son of the Father, and the bringer of eternal life. And yet, it seems to me that many of these distinctive features can be seen to derive from a creative reflection on Markan material. (Bond, 0:55, 2016 — Note: In this post all bold emphasis in quotations is mine.)

An extremely slim volume

Further, she correctly observes that most scholars thought John knew and used the Gospel of Mark until the publication of Percival Gardner-Smith’s Saint John & the Synoptic Gospels in 1938. But notice who turns out to be the villain in this story.

So, while the extent of John’s familiarity with Matthew has often been debated, there was almost complete agreement, until the early 20th century, that the evangelist was thoroughly acquainted with Mark and very likely also with Luke. With the emergence of form criticism, however, things began to change. (Bond, 1:52, 2016)

I set those last four words in italics to indicate Bond’s ominous tone, reminiscent of Neil on The Young Ones, telling us that Vyvyan has escaped. She continues: read more »

The Poisonous Cocktail of Salafism and Wahhabism

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by Neil Godfrey

insidemuslimmindsContinuing from Muslim Nations and the Rise of Modern Barbarism . . . .

According to Abou El Fadl, characteristic features of salafabism (combination of salafism and wahhabism) include the following:

  • a profound alienation from institutions of power in the modern world and from Islamic heritage and tradition
  • a supremacist puritanism that compensates for feelings of defeat­ism, disempowerment and alienation
  • a belief in the self-sufficiency of Islamic doctrines and a sense of self-righteous arrogance vis-a-vis the ‘other’
  • the prevalence of patriarchal, misogynist and exclusionary orien­tations, and an abnormal obsession with the seductive power of women
  • the rejection of critical appraisals of Islamic traditions and Muslim discourses
  • the denial of universal moral values and rejection of the indeter­minacy of the modern world
  • use of Islamic texts as the supreme regulator of social life and society
  • literalist, anti-rational and anti-interpretive approaches to reli­gious texts.

(Hassan, Inside Muslim Minds, p. 46, my own formatting and bolding in all quotations)

There is little room for me to go beyond Hassan’s own outline of El Fadl’s account:

Salafabism has anchored itself in the security of Islamic texts. These texts are also exploited by a select class of readers to affirm their reactionary power. Unlike apologists who sought to prove Islam’s compatibility with Western institutions, salafabists define Islam as the antithesis of the West. They argue that colonialism ingrained in Muslims a lack of self-pride and feelings of inferiority.

For salafabists, there are only two paths in life: the path of God (the straight path) and the path of Satan (the crooked path): The straight path is anchored in divine law, which is to be obeyed and which is never to be argued with, diluted or denied through the application of humanistic or philosophical discourses. Salafabists argue that, by attempting to integrate and co-opt Western ideas such as feminism, democracy or human rights, Muslims have deviated from the straight to the crooked path. (pp. 46-47)

And it gets worse . . . . read more »

Muslim Nations and the Rise of Modern Barbarism

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by Neil Godfrey

This post is the third in my notes from Inside Muslim Minds by Riaz Hassan.

The second response among Muslims to their experience of colonialism and its aftermath is salafism.

Response 2: Salafism



Whereas apologetics was a direct response to colonial rule, salafism emerged out of apologetics but in the post-colonial era. When independent nations experienced the failure of their ruling elites to bring about the reforms and better life — “jobs, economic development, welfare for citizens and equality of citizenship” — that they had promised.

Building on apologetic thought the salafists concluded that this failure was the consequence of using secular laws instead of the laws of God.


Al Afghani

Some of the founding ideologues of the salafist movement were Mohammad Abduh, al-Afghani, Muhammad Rashid Rida and (one that we have discussed on Vridar before) Sayyid Abul A’la Maududi.



Like the apologists these early salafists believed that the Islamic religion was entirely compatible with modernism. Recall that the apologists argued that modern western ideals like democracy, constitutional governments, socialism etc were all to be found in early Islam. What was required of modern Muslims was to interpret their sacred texts in the context and according to the needs of adapting to the modern world. Moreover, there was no single interpretation that could demand a monopoly on “the correct interpretation”.

Salafism as it originally developed maintained that, on all issues, Muslims ought to return to the original textual sources of the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet and interpret them in the light of modern needs and demands without being slavishly bound by the interpretive precedents of earlier Muslim generations. In this respect, it was a distinctive intellectual project. Salafism advocated a kind of interpretive community in which anyone was qualified to return to the divine texts and interpret their messages. . . . [I]t was not hostile to competing Islamic juristic traditions, Sufism or mysticism. (p. 43)

Further, read more »