The Price-Ehrman debate—Pt. 1


Links:     YouTube     Cleeng (for those who already paid to view)     Post-debate discussion (audio)     Vridar

     Note: This review is based on hand-written notes taken down quickly during the 3-hour debate hosted by Mythicist Milwaukee, before the debate went online (links above). Lacking time stamps, I have not rechecked quotations against the video. Hence, all quotes (even when quotation marks are used below) should be regarded as paraphrases, not as the exact renderings of words uttered. (Readers are welcome to email corrections, time stamps, and—as always—comments.)
     A post-debate discussion among several scholars also took place. The audio of that secondary event is online, and I occasionally reference it (“Post-debate”) below with the applicable time stamp.
     To date, Neil Godfrey (Vridar) has uploaded two posts regarding this debate (beginning here), and he promises more. I reference Neil at times where appropriate.—RS

I don’t think many people came away from this debate with the sense of a clear winner, or even confirmed in their convictions. It promised too much and delivered too little.

The event was divided into three general sections of roughly one hour each: (1) opening presentations from each debater; (2) “cross-examination”; and (3) questions from the audience. Each opening statement was roughly one half hour. Ehrman was first, followed by Price. Both used notes. Ehrman often looked up and engaged the audience (as he might before a large class—to which he is no doubt accustomed), while Bob read verbatim from his copy. I found both debaters to be prepared.

In the course of the evening, Ehrman made it clear as day that he does not take Jesus mythicism seriously. I have a problem with that. After two centuries of scholarly questioning the historicity of Jesus (if you’re in doubt, the timeline is here), I find Ehrman’s attitude indefensible. But Ehrman is living in a different reality. He considers Jesus mythicism “laughable”, “not debated among scholars,” and such (see below, and upcoming posts). Now, this is more than indefensible—it is frankly insulting. After all, just a few feet away from Ehrman Bob Price was sitting. Price possesses two doctorates to Ehrman’s one. How can Ehrman get away with implying that Price is not a “scholar”? But that is exactly what he did.

With Jesus mythicism, two different universes of discourse are colliding. At this time, there is no real communication because the assumptions (e.g. regarding evidence) are different. In this short series of debate-posts I will try to also look at those assumptions.

Because of the tripartite structure of the evening, the ‘debate’ was restricted to the cross-examination segment. While Bart knew he was in hostile mythicist territory and obviously came to fight, Bob was curiously non-confrontational. [Cf. David Fitzgerald’s comment, post-debate 1:15.] Indeed, Bob was almost reserved. Obviously, this demeanor on the part of one of the two principals does not conduce to a vigorous debate. It was also a little disappointing to me, for having read most of Bob’s books I know full well that he can deliver more than he actually did on this particular evening. Because of his relative reserve, the evening actually didn’t contain much ‘debate’ at all.

Different ground rules

The self-described ‘agnostic atheist’ Bart Ehrman glibly threw out lots of red meat—numerous indefensible statements that cohere with venerable Church tradition and yet that can (and must) be challenged by mythicists on evidentiary grounds. Unfortunately, Bob did not call Ehrman out on a number of these. Bob was content to defend (quite ably, to be sure) when necessary, but he rarely if ever attacked. As a result, the historicist case enjoyed something of a free pass.

At the same time, key elements of the mythicist position were left unstated. The underlying reason arguably emerged in the final 10-minute cross-examination period (just before the audience questions). The moderator, Matt Dillahunty, asked the debaters: “Why is mythicism not taken seriously?” In the unscripted moment that followed, Bob answered: “Certain things [only] can be considered. If you want to play the professional game, you won’t be permitted [to pursue some avenues of inquiry].” Bob added reflectively: “I’m not playing by those rules.”

For me, the above revealing exchange was the heart of the evening. Mythicists and historicists are playing by different rules. If you play by the historicist’s rules, you’ll inevitably reach the historicist conclusion: Jesus of Nazareth existed in the flesh. Why? Because the historicist treats all claims from the Christian tradition as evidence—until those claims are proven wrong. Unfortunately, when dealing with history, with missing texts, with interpolations made long ago, and with falsified passages, proof is an unrealistically high bar—indeed, it is well nigh unattainable. This alone provides enormous cover to the historicist, for he claims the existence of Jesus of Nazareth as already established—unless and until compelling reasons are proven. Oh… And one more thing: If you play by the historicist’s rules, the way is open professionally.

The mythicist, of course, accepts none of the above. Rather, he views Christian tradition with skepticism. He knows that the integrity of Christianity depends upon a traditional view of dogma and history—the view laboriously codified by Christians themselves over centuries, and based on the New Testament. For the mythicist, then, the ‘tradition’ is inherently biased. He knows that evidence is inimical when it conflicts with dogma. Another way of saying this is that the Christian tradition is inherently unhistorical.

The above two contrasting views regarding Christian tradition—acceptance vs. skepticism—amount to different sets of rules for the historicist and for the mythicist. For Price, much that he could bring to the debate was—for Ehrman—off the table of acceptable discourse. I’m sorry that Bob, in this debate, did play by Ehrman’s rules. For example, it was only after being pressed that Bob divulged his view that all the Pauline epistles are inauthentic—even the Letter to the Galatians. This is an essential element of the mythicist argument. It cannot be held in reserve. When Bob stated this, Bart reacted with supreme astonishment—as if such a view is simply insane. Truth be told, Bart should have already known this is Price’s view—for it is a hallmark of his thinking. This is one indication that Ehrman is ill-informed on his opponent’s views. (Actually, the evening showed that Bart is surprisingly ill-informed on mythicism in general—despite his having written a book on the subject.) It also suggests that Price’s Pauline position was well outside of Bart’s comfortable universe of possibilities.

 → Part 2

About René Salm

René Salm is the author of two books on New Testament archeology and manages the companion website


The Price-Ehrman debate—Pt. 1 — 6 Comments

  1. Dr. Ehrman stated affirmatively that he had read “Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth”. Twice! It is curious that he took on your issue regarding the archaeological evidence of the existence of the town of Nazareth as his first order of business, but added absolutely nothing to the discussion of it that already occurs in the book. It is also sad that Dr. Price let that drop without further discussion.

    • Vridar is correct (“Mythicist Argument #1”) that it is “apparent that [Ehrman] has not read any of Salm’s work on the archaeological work on Nazareth.” On this issue, as on so much that is threatening the tradition, Ehrman sticks his head in the sand. Frank Zindler made sure Bart had my books shortly after they were published. But Ehrman has never engaged with my work to any meaningful extent. I still have no clear evidence that he read either one. He says he read BEQHGN twice, but I have a chapter in there whose evidence contradicts what he says in this debate… Frank Z. writes today: “[Ehrman] clearly still is disregarding the evidence published by René Salm in NazarethGate that show once again that ‘Nazareth’ did not exist when Jesus should have been living there.” Truth be told, I think the atheist Ehrman has turned into an apologist for the tradition. As a highly regarded scholar supposedly dedicated to arguing from evidence, Bart Ehrman is just not serious.

      • I agree that despite his claim to have read and re-read the book, Dr. Ehrman seems never to respond directly to any of the specific issues regarding the archaeological evidences you raise in your publications. Ehrman seems to be especially enamored of his fellow UNC professor, Jodi Magness. I have not seen any of her articles or whether she has addressed this question (regarding Nazareth being an inhabited town or village at the turn of the era). Have you had any discussion or correspondence with her on point?

  2. Typical for anti-mythicists, Ehrman strawman’s the Nazareth argument:

    One supposedly legendary feature of the Gospels commonly discussed by mythicists is that the alleged hometown of Jesus, Nazareth did not exist but is itself a myth.  The logic of this argument, which is sometimes advanced with considerable vehemence and force, appears to be that if Christians made up Jesus’ hometown, they probably made him up as well.   I could dispose of this argument fairly easily by pointing out that it is irrelevant.  If Jesus existed, as the evidence suggests, but Nazareth did not, as this assertion claims, then he merely came from somewhere else.


    Despite the supposed irrelevancy of the argument, the anti-mythicists are not above inverting it, implying that if Nazareth existed, the entirety of mythicism is negated.

    * From one of the few pages on Ehrman’s blog where he doesn’t nickel & dime the reader:

    • Thanks, Matt. Ehrman goes on in the same piece to write that “The existence (or rather, nonexistence) or Nazareth is another Mythicist irrelevancy.” I read Ehrman’s post some years ago and (somewhat humorously) addressed it specifically at NazarethGate p. 177:
      “I call Ehrman’s bluff and challenge the tradition (at this very late stage) to jettison its beloved epithet Jesus of Nazareth—perhaps in favor of ‘Jesus of ANYWHERE.’ Alternatively, it could introduce a blank in all the requisite places of the New Testament and in the vast quantity of Bibles and related literature, both scholarly and otherwise—thus: Jesus of _______. Far from being ‘irrelevant,’ I maintain that such a ploy would be tantamount to open heart surgery on a very sick and perhaps dying patient. Ehrman blusters that ‘Nazareth’ is inconsequential. I suggest, however, that we are dealing with a critical element at the very heart of Christianity—part of a revolution no less epochal than was the Reformation itself.”

  3. The pious bias of Christians was long exploited by middle easterners. For centuries, local vendors eager to make a dollar, sold random bits of wood to anyone who would pay for them, as bits of the One True Cross.

    Christian biblical archaeologists are infamous for often, sharing the same bias, the same gullibility.

    Finally religiosity is a crippling bias in trying to do honest archaeology.

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