The Price-Ehrman debate—Pt. 2


Links:     YouTube     Post-debate discussion (audio)     Vridar

Mythicism is not “scholarly”?

In the last post I mentioned that Jesus mythcists and historicists are talking past each other, and how I want to examine some underlying assumptions that may be the cause. So, here we’ll begin by looking at one little exchange that occurred in the debate. In the final cross-examination segment, Dillahunty asked “Why is mythicism not taken seriously?” Ehrman’s astonishing answer was simply an argumentum ad populum: “It’s not a question debated among scholars.” Wow. Of course, that has nothing to do with lack of evidence or even with history.

The short exchange can be paraphrased like this:

Dillahunty: Why is mythicism not taken seriously?
Ehrman: Because it’s not [a question] taken seriously.

Not too enlightening. “It’s not a question debated among scholars” is also pretty ironic… Are not Ehrman and Price debating mythicism at this very event? And are they not scholars?

This puts us on notice that something to do with Ehrman’s intellectual approach to mythicism just doesn’t add up. Though Bart may have the admirable penchant of speaking ‘from the gut,’ as it were, in doing so he obviously can leave logic far behind. His above reply comes from the “different” reality mentioned in the last post. To explain: somehow, in Ehrman’s view, “scholars” and what is “debated by scholars” excludes this Mythicist Wilwaukee event. Perhaps Ehrman sees himself as taking an off-the-record jaunt on a Friday evening outside of his academic duties and quite below his professional status—as if taking a promenade to the seamier side of town and striking up a conversation with a group of bums, telling them to get their act together, to get some education, and to get with the program.

But Ehrman is saying something more: Mythicism is not a question debated at all by those of worthy standing in the profession. It seems that, for Ehrman, to take Jesus mythicism seriously is to be an academic derelict.

Now we’re getting somewhere. The ability to view Jesus mythicists as academic derelicts opens the door to also jettisoning the entire history of Jesus mythicism as unworthy. This Ehrman in fact seems to do. When he says (as he did in this debate) that Jesus mythicism is “laughable,” he is also basically saying that whoever engaged with mythicism in the past was derelict, whoever engages with it in the present is derelict, and whoever engages with it in the future will be derelict. For Ehrman, Jesus mythicism is ‘dereliction of duty,’ pure and simple.

An indubitable scholar.

An upstanding member of the guild who certainly has not once debated Jesus mythicism in his entire career.

We can turn the question around: Who then is not ‘derelict’? For Ehrman, the answer is the “scholars” he mentioned above—presumably those upstanding members of the guild who are definitely not debating mythicism. 🙂 Elsewhere in the debate Ehrman mentions “Oxford University Press” and “Harvard University Press” as reputable publishers. So, his definition of “acceptable scholars” might be construed as: biblical studies professors [umm, let’s get this straight—he means Ph.D-level academics who have successfully secured employment at a well-established university or college] who are published by well-known, peer-reviewed journals and by large publishing houses. Whew. Now we’ve got an idea of who Ehrman considers an unimpeachable “scholar.” Shucks, I guess that leaves me out…

A future reprobate.

A future reprobate.
They don’t get any worse than this.

I knew it: I am a derelict. A reprobate. A deplorable.

It also leaves out (surprise!) Dr. Robert Price, Ph.D, Th.D. Yup… Bob has not “successfully secured employment at a well-established university or college,” he is not published by well-known peer-reviewed journals (although he himself founded the Journal of Higher Criticism), and he has yet to be published by Oxford or Harvard University Press.

We now understand how Ehrman can sit only a few feet away from Price, can debate him, and can at the same time announce that mythicism is “laughable” and “not a question debated among scholars.” This is, however, one of the places in the debate where Ehrman needed to be pulled up short. I would have preferred if the conversation developed somewhat as follows:

[Hypothetical conversation:]

          Matt D:    Why is mythicism not taken seriously?
          Bart E:      It’s not a question debated among scholars.
          [Bob P]:   Are you implying that I’m not a scholar?
          [Bart:]      You’re a scholar… But you’re not a scholar with standing in the profession.
          [Bob]:       Well, then perhaps “the profession” needs to improve to include views such as mine.
                    [And so on…]

Of course Ehrman’s attitude is by no means unique. It typifies the dominant paradigm in Christian studies today, a paradigm that betrays a completely circular logic: real scholars do not take Jesus mythicism seriously. Therefore Jesus mythicists are not real scholars.

Thankfully, this pervasive paradigm is under mounting stress—and not just from Jesus mythicists. Many scholars from both inside and outside the guild are poking holes in it. Thomas Brodie, a mythicist priest, has shown that the gospel narratives were patterned on OT stories. Dennis Macdonald has demonstrated the influence of Homer on those same gospel narratives. There’s the work of Price, Zindler, Doherty, Detering, myself, and other mythicists writing today… All these arguments may not be compatible, they may not all be right, but calling them “laughable” is, in my opinion, a real betrayal of the scholar’s mandate which is, first and foremost, to respect evidence. I firmly believe (and I’m sure this will strike Ehrman as totally unacceptable) that the best New Testament work today is being carried out either by Jesus mythicists or by scholars who allow the possibility for Jesus mythicism. What this means is that the dominant historicist paradigm is lagging and must soon come under scrutiny by the mainstream.

In disparaging mythicism in general, Ehrman also ignores two centuries of cogent, scholarly, mythicist work. This is also part of the skewed rules of the game that have allowed historicism to hang on well past its evidentiary demise. Typical of the mainstream New Testament scholar, it is clear that Ehrman is neither familiar nor interested in the long and continuing history of Jesus mythicism, with its often remarkable breakthroughs. I doubt very much that he has read (or cares to read) the works of B. Bauer, W. B. Smith, A. Drews, G. van Eysinga, and P.–L. Couchoud (to mention only a few)—all Ph.D-carrying, peer-published Jesus mythicists of the past. These were “scholars”—and good ones too.

We now have a situation where mainstream New Testament scholars increasingly hide their heads in the sand. They will not be able to do so forever, however, as the evidence mounts that, for example, Nazareth, Bethlehem of Judea, Bethphage, Bethany, Bethabara, Chorazin, Dalmanutha, and Aenon did not exist at the turn of the era (with doubt cast also on Bethsaida, Capernaum, Cana, and Magdala); as the evidence mounts that the canonical gospels are second century texts (already argued by Bauer c. 1850), as also is the Acts of the Apostles, as also are the Pauline epistles—which incidentally were not by “Paul” at all—and so on…

The new mythicist paradigm is already in the making. Admittedly, it now exists outside the guild. It will continue to move along the periphery as more Thomas Brodie’s step forward. And then, as the evidence (from first-rate scholarship, mind you) becomes ever more widespread and ever more conclusive, Jesus mythicism must slowly move from the periphery towards the center. The end result is inevitable: Jesus of Nazareth will be seen not as the savior of the world, but as the myth of the ages.

The Church past, present, future.

The Church: past, present, future.

 Part 1          Part 3 

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. 2 — 5 Comments

  1. I suppose Ehrman would’ve told that “non-scholar”, Thomas Jefferson, to put down his scissors and paste, and just trust the ‘experts’ on the veracity of the bible!

    For his argumentum ad populum, Ehrman relies on a group of men & women who, because of their faith, can reach but one a priori conclusion. The agnostic, Ehrman, is not so fettered, but his increasingly obstinate refusal, to even entertain the possibility of the non-historicity of the NT, points to some irrational, emotional impetus.

  2. Thank you for your interesting comments on the Price- Ehrman debate. You mention above that “the Pauline epistles”…..”incidentally were not by “Paul”.

    The more conventional view, as you know, is that seven of the Pauline epistles are genuine. Whether you believe seven of them (including Hebrews) were not by Paul or in fact all fourteen were not by Paul – where can I find detailed analysis of the letters detailing the reasons why the various epistles are suspected of being bogus?

    Many thanks for your kind attention.

    – Malthus

    • Your best source is Hermann Detering’s 1995 “The Fabricated Paul” (Doughty translation).

      The second chapter is entitled “The Historical Origin of the Pauline Letters.” HD goes as far back back to Edwin Johnson’s “Antiqua Mater,” then discusses that the epistles were not known before Marcion, draws parallels between Paul’s trip to Jerusalem with the collection and Marcion’s trip to Rome with a donation for the Church, and reviews the content of the epistles as having a second century (rather than first century) Sitz im Leben. For example, HD writes (p. 110) “The existence of established traditions in the Corpus Paulinum thus represents one of the most important arguments for a later time of origin for the Pauline letters.” He finally discusses Paul as docetist, Paul and the teaching of two Gods, and concludes that Paul was “the domesticated Marcion” and a “non-Jew.” HD views Marcion as the actual author of the core epistles (127 f).

      HD and myself are presently working on an updated edition of his 1995 book (I am translator and editor). Hopefully it will appear next year.

      HD maintains a website in German ( See especially his articles page (by several authors), with much material on Marcion. More background on his Geschichte page.

      Informative is HD’s online article, The Dutch Radical Approach to the Pauline Epistles. See also Price’s books “The Colossal Apostle Paul,” and his introductions and annotations to texts in the “Pre-Nicene New Testament.”

  3. I can’t thank you enough for writing this series! It’s fascinating and eye-opening!

    However, on the subject of the historicity of Paul, have you responded to Richard Carrier’s piece on that subject, It’s written is his usual… hot-blooded style, but it looks to me like he makes a strong case for there having been a real Paul who wrote the “authentic” epistles back in the mid-1st century. He makes some specific criticisms of Detering’s work. What are your thoughts?

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