Monday, October 19, 2009

The Historical Jesus: Five Views - A Review 2 - Robert Price Essay

The first viewpoint presented is by Robert M. Price. He is professor of theology and scriptural studies at the Johnnie Colemon Theological Seminary, Miami Gardens, Florida. Both he and John Dominic Crossan are members of the Jesus Seminar. In a nutshell Price argues that the historical Jesus never existed. Early on he makes it clear that he is not against Christianity. He describes himself as a “happy Episcopalian” who rejoices to “take the Eucharist every week and to sing the great hymns of the faith.” For him “the Christ of faith has all the more importance since [he] think[s] it most probable that there was never any other.” (56)

Price asserts five “commandments” for historians. The first is the most important and is the principle of analogy. Basically this means that we have to judge history by our own experiences. “If in our experience it takes a whole army to defeat an army, we will judge improbable any ancient tale that has a single man defeating an army.” (56) Furthermore, if an experience does not match our own but does conform to the analogy of myth or legend we would be justified in considering it as just another myth. While many skeptics use this principle to disavow many of Jesus deeds Price goes the extra mile in using it to dismiss the sayings of Jesus. He argues that the oral transmission of Jesus’ sayings is improperly set in the context of tradition of the rabbis and their disciples which saw the disciple as not losing a word of his master. Rather, it is better seen as similar to the “transmission of the hadith of Muhammad” which saw “thousands of spurious sayings” developing “only a century after Muhammad.” (58)

Price’s second commandment is the criterion of dissimilarity. Essentially this maintains that “no saying ascribed to Jesus may be counted as probably authentic if it has parallels to Jewish or Christian sayings.” (59) Price believes scholars have rejected this criterion, not because it doesn’t work, but because “it made the game too difficult to play” and “when one objects that the criterion is too strict because it doesn’t leave us enough pieces of the puzzle, agnosticism is transforming into fideism.” (60)

The third commandment is to “remember what an ideal-type means.” This is an important point for Price because he draws a lot of parallels between Jesus and mythological figures from the mystery religions, the dying-and-rising gods and Gnosticism among others. He is also well aware that countless scholars have shown time and again why these parallels don’t hold up. Price argues that an “absolute likeness” is not required. “Rather, the idea is that if discreet phenomena possess enough common features that a yardstick may be abstracted from them, then each member may be profitably measured and better understood against the yardstick.” (61)

The fourth and fifth commandments are “consensus is no criterion” and “scholarly ‘conclusions’ must be tentative and provisional, always open to revision.” (61-62) Were Price's own position not such a minority view I doubt he would ever mention these two.

Building on these commandments Price says the “Christ-myth theory” rests on three pillars: 1) “Why no mention of a miracle-working Jesus in the secular sources?” 2) “the Epistles, earlier than the Gospels, do not evidence a recent historical Jesus” and 3) “though the Epistles name the Christian savior Jesus, it is quite possible . . . that they attest to an even earlier stage of belief in which the savior received the honorific name Jesus only as of his postmortem exaltation.” (63-64)

Price offers a lengthy survey of the Gospel of Mark as nothing more than “the product of haggadic midrash on the Old Testament.” (67-75) Finally, come all the parallels to the mythic heroes and the problems of attempting to root the Gospels in any kind of history. All hopeless endeavors as far as Price is concerned. He says, "Consider the fact that at every point where the gospel story appears to obtrude on contemporary history, there are serious difficulties in taking the narratives as historical." (79) Price follows Arthur Drews in arguing that one of the main reasons it was important to anchor Jesus in history was to provide an authoritative figurehead who had appointed successors and set policy. (81)

I’ve spent more time than I planned on Price because his essay will be the most controversial of the book and because rarely will most Christians hear a “scholarly” presentation on the non-historicity of Jesus. I had hoped to cover in one post the essay and its responses but given the length of this post already I will save the responses to Price for next time.

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