The Price-Ehrman debate—Pt. 5


Links:     YouTube     Post-debate discussion (audio)     Vridar

In this post I’d like to comment on a few points in the Price-Ehrman debate that I found particularly important. The following discussions have reference especially to views I’ve presented elsewhere on this website and in the final chapter of my book NazarethGate. Where possible I link to relevant webpages.

(a) Dating “Paul.” Ehrman dated Paul to the first century CE on the basis of the First Letter of Clement. However, the reference is invalid. We have recently noted on this website that 1 Clement mentions Paul several times: “It is traditionally attributed to Clement of Rome and dated somewhere between 81 and 98 CE. However, H. Detering (1994:75) has noted that the epistle knows 1 Corinthians and, by implication, also some of the other Pauline letters. When we recognize that those Pauline letters are themselves Marcionite or post-Marcionite… then it is clear that 1 Clement is also. It dates mid-II CE or later.” Thus, Ehrman’s (only mentioned) rationale for dating Paul to I CE must be rejected.

(b) The overlooked suffering messiah tradition in Judaism. Ehrman appears to be unaware of the (northern/Samarian) messiah son of Joseph/Ephraim tradition in Second Temple Judaism—as opposed to the better known messiah son of David tradition. Indeed, he argued that the suffering messiah was unknown in Judaism. “You can’t explain the crucified messiah as something that is made up,” he said; and then: “The Jews wouldn’t have made that up, because Christ was not supposed to be crucified.”

Ehrman must read R. Torrey’s critical article on this topic (uploaded to this website in six posts beginning here). There was a lesser-known Jewish tradition—a northern (read “Galilean”) tradition—of the suffering messiah “Son of Joseph.” It was ultimately rooted in the famous suffering servant passage of Isaiah 53 but went far beyond that single source. In short: a “crucified messiah” was entirely compatible with Jewish expectation at the turn of the era.

(c) No apostolic lineage. Similarly, Ehrman (and the tradition) appeals to Papias to substantiate the early apostolic lineage from Peter to Mark and the Catholic Church. Price correctly noted in his opening statement: “To appeal to such a worthless source only underlines the paucity of the evidence.” This is correct, for Papias (fl. c. 150 CE) is not known through any of his own writings but only from a few citations in later Church Fathers—beginning with Irenaeus in late II CE and (especially) in Eusebius in early IV CE. [Post-debate 40’30”—43’] When the church-building agenda of these propagandists is noted—as well as their oft-demonstrated penchant to fabricate “history” as they saw fit—then we see that the witness of Papias is indeed “worthless.”

(d) The Testimonium Flavianum. This well-known passage in Josephus is uniformly seen by mythicists as a later interpolation, but by historicists such as Ehrman as authentic. Price thoroughly popped the historicist balloon by noting that the Testimonium first appears in Eusebius (early IV CE). He also asked: “Why would Josephus present a scaled down version [of Jesus]?” For an extended discussion from the mythicist perspective, I refer the reader to Frank Zindler’s treatment of this passage in his 2003 book, The Jesus the Jews Never Knew.

(e) Christology. Ehrman argued a good deal against Earl Doherty in absentia—against the view that Jesus suffered some kind of crucifixion in “outer space” (a repeated caricature). This followed Bart’s early rapier thrust that both Trypho and Celsus knew a Jesus who was born of woman. In my opinion Bob did not give adequate responses to these assaults. In fact, Trypho (reported by Justin) and Celsus (reported by Origen) are useless regarding the mythicism issue, for they lived much too late to be witnesses to a prophet allegedly at the turn of the era. Trypho and Celsus talk about a crucified man, born of woman, etc., but they are merely reacting to the inflated claims of the nascent Catholic Church. They have nothing new to add in this regard. What Trypho and Celsus can tell us is that, in the mid-second century and thereafter, the claim of a human savior born of virgin, who lived in Palestine around the turn of the era, was abroad. But, of course, we already know that from the Catholic writings.

Bob parried by observing: “Paul thinks that Jesus was a divine being who also became a human being.” This is arguably more relevant than bringing in second century figures—for “Paul” is traditionally considered to have lived a whole century earlier. Thus, if Paul thought Jesus was not a human being (pace Doherty), then Ehrman might be in trouble.

But Bob did not say that. He stated a more nuanced position: that “Paul” thought Jesus was both human and divine. Furthermore, Bob dates the pauline writings to the second century. Now we are entering into territory highly uncongenial (and unfamiliar) to Ehrman, which is probably why Bob did not elaborate. But here I’d like to expand a little on all this—at the risk of going down some endless rabbit-holes…

In my view (and here I do not speak for Bob) the pre-Catholic christology knew a spirit-imbued prophet who lived in Palestine towards the turn of the era. I have found evidence for this in the pauline epistles (and elsewhere) and have labeled it “Stage 2” christology. According to this early conception, there were two aspects to this seminal figure of history: human (born of woman) and possessing the divine element. But the aspects were not yet merged. The fleshly component of the prophet (not yet “of Nazareth”) was not divine or in any way to be equated with God. In fact, the evidence shows that some pre-Catholic strains of Christianity viewed the flesh as distinctly inferior, if not evil. It was the saving spiritual element, the “Jesus,” that they venerated.

On the other hand, the Catholics merged the two components—and thus was born “Jesus of Nazareth”—an inimitable figure of divine spirit (“only-begotten Son of God”) and divine flesh (“born of a virgin”). Armed with this second member of a new divine trinity, the Catholics soon caricatured the “docetists” as maintaining the kooky belief that Jesus was some sort of phantom who walked about Palestine without a body, or that he only seemed to have a body. But this is not what the “Stage 2” heretics maintained at all. They weren’t rejecting the reality of the prophet’s flesh, but the divinity of the prophet’s flesh. And in rejecting that divinity, they were completely opposed to the late, invented, and overblown figure of Jesus the Nazarene as enshrined in the canonical gospels. Properly speaking, then, these weren’t docetists but early Jesus mythicists. And, indeed, early evidence exists for the belief in a mobile, transferable, and spiritual Jesus element (one with gnostic overtones).

In sum, “docetism” is the false characterization of a more nuanced position that existed up until the Church rewrote the Marcionite corpus and produced the canonical gospels in the mid-second century. In earlier times, the Jesus was a purely spiritual entity and did not include the fleshly element. It came down into a human prophet from above (cf. Mk 1:10).

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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. 5 — 1 Comment

  1. Ehrman can’t seem to make up his mind about the value of the TF.

    In Jesus Interrupted (2009) he writes:

    It is certainly worth knowing that the most prominent Jewish historian of the first century knew at least something about Jesus…. This account confirms some of the most important aspects of Jesus’ life and death as recounted in the Gospels.”

    Yet in Did Jesus Exist? (2012) he cautions:

    My main point is that whether the Testimonium is authentically from Josephus … probably does not ultimately matter for the question I am pursuing here. Whether or not Jesus lived has to be decided on other kinds of evidence from this…. So even if the Testimonium, in the pared-down form, was written by Josephus, it does not give us much more evidence than we already have on the question of whether there really was a man Jesus.

    And now, as of just the other day, he apparently once again considers the TF solid evidence for the existence of Jesus.

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