Saturday, June 14, 2014

Review - Jesus at the Vanishing Point - part 1

Review - The Christ Myth Theory and its Problems by Robert M. Price

Jesus at the Vanishing Point – part 1

Jesus at the Vanishing Point is an article originally published in the collaborative book, The Historical Jesus: Five Views.  I think the idea of that book was to get five biblical scholars to write articles in defense of vastly different theories of who they think Jesus was, then scribble more ink critiquing each other's articles.  Price wrote the essay which defended his radical view that there is no such thing as a historical Jesus.  I have never read the entire book, so I have no idea what critiques or opinions the other scholars gave to Price's article.  Since I currently have no intention of purchasing this book, I guess this pathetic critique of my own will have to suffice. 

Dr. Price begins the article by explaining a few of the basic tools for the historian.  He asks, “What is the greatest commandment for historians?” (p25)

Whoa there, hold the phone for just a second.  Something about Price’s article has been bugging me since I first read it a couple of years ago, and I could only figure out why after thinking about it carefully.  In the previous article in this series, I discussed how Dr. Price prefers to approach the Gospels as a literary critic as opposed to a historian.  Now in Jesus at the Vanishing Point, Dr. Price is going to switch to the same role of historian that is followed by the majority of his scholarly contemporaries.  Before I discuss his method in any detail, let me quickly list what Dr. Price considers to be the greatest commandments of the historian:

1) The principle of analogy
2) The criterion of dissimilarity
3) The ideal type
4) Consensus is no criterion
6) Conclusions must be tentative

(There appears to be no number 5)

I have consulted a couple references on accepted best practices for the historical method, but try as I might, I cannot find anything regarding the ‘greatest commandments’, and I sure cannot find these criteria, particularly the first three, listed outside of the narrow discipline of Historical Jesus studies.  I am certainly no historian, and I fully admit that I am missing a lot of information regarding historical methodology, but in the few that I have read in this genre, I have not seen anything like these ‘greatest commandments’ listed.  True, I have seen the principle of analogy, the criterion of embarrassment, multiple independent attestation, and those kinds of things, but to this suspicious reader, Dr. Price’s particular ‘Greatest Commandments’ seem especially chosen to remove anything that can be possibly known of any historical Jesus.  Even those criteria that Dr. Price shares with his scholarly buddies seem to be deliberately and uniquely formulated by him to whittle Jesus away into nonexistence.  It seems to me to be deliberate.  I do not mind radical reinterpretations of existing data, but to call them ‘greatest commandments’ of a methodology seems to me like a subtle charge against his contemporaries.  Hey, if Dr. Price is using the greatest commandments of historical research and coming to the conclusion that Jesus never existed, why isn’t everybody else coming to the same conclusion as he?  It is so subtle, I doubt Dr. Price even knows that he is doing it.

With that out of the way, let’s look at Dr. Price’s historical ‘Greatest Commandments’ in a little more detail.

The Principle of Analogy

Robert Price asks, “What is the greatest commandment for historians?  The first and greatest is the Principle of Analogy.” (p25)  I am not sure what he means by this principle, because he immediately launches into a discussion of methodological atheism.  “...we weren't there and  thus do not know that natural law always operated as it does now ... but there is no particular reason not to think so, and unless we do, we have no criterion at all.  We will be at the mercy of old stories of people turning lead into gold, turning into werewolves, using magic to win battles…the historian must ask if an old account that does not fit the analogy of present-day experience does happen to match the analogy of legend or myth.” (p26)

Price seems to be mixing two ideas together under category of ‘Principle of Analogy”.  Basically, Price is telling us that if it walks and talks like a duck, it is likely a duck.  If the Gospel stories sound like they have the elements of countless myths from the ancient world, then more than likely, those Gospel stories too are myth.  I do think that this principle, as defined by Dr Price, can be too far-reaching.  We must remember that when dealing with the Gospels, or any other ancient writing, we are reading the words and thoughts from an unknown person, from an uncertain location, written with dubious motives, in an alien and forgotten culture.  The speculation surrounding the origin of many of these ancient myths should convince us that the Principle of Analogy does not apply in many cases.  These ancient people simply thought differently than modern people do.  For instance, why was the collection of mystical discourses and semi-gnostic cosmology, otherwise known to us as the Gospel of John, written?  The Principle of Analogy will be of no use in answering this question, at lease not when it is used in the way that Dr Price describes.

But I think I understand what Dr Price is trying to get at.  Because modern people agree that our common experience is governed by natural laws, and since there are apparently no observable miracles, we can only establish historical criteria based on what we have experienced.  Miracle has never been observed, thus according to the Principle of Analogy, what may seem to be a miracle on first glance, likely is explained by something more mundane.  History must be studied as a strictly secular discipline, and the study of history must proceed without considerations to the miraculous.  When this subject came up during my physics studies, we sometimes called this methodological atheism.  Even very religious scientists must practice their scientific discipline without recourse to their favorite deity.  Invoking a miracle to solve a challenging engineering problem is no solution at all – and everybody knows it.  The scientific study of history must be conducted in the same way.

Price lays out his standard of methodological atheism: “...we weren't there and thus do not know that natural law always operated as it does now ... but there is no particular reason not to think so, and unless we do, we have no criterion at all.  We will be at the mercy of old stories of people turning lead into gold, turning into werewolves, using magic to win battles.” (p26)

“If it looks more like a legend than like any verifiable modern experience, what are we to conclude?  If the story of Jesus walking on the water bears a strong resemblance to old stories in which Hermes, Pythagoras, the Buddha and others walk on water, mustn't we conclude we are probably dealing with a legend in the case of Jesus , too?” (p26)

I think Price is essentially correct here, but he is arguing with the wrong audience.  Much like the process detailed in the scientific method, the process of discovering the truth of history must assume a natural order.  If the existence of miracles can be included in historical analysis, then there are no boundaries to natural law, and all rules and methodology can be thrown out.  This 'Principle of Analogy' does make sense, but it is an argument against belief in literal miracles, not against a historical Jesus.  Most secular historians will admit that Jesus existed despite the obviously legendary miracles that are attached to his name.  Secular historians are not likely to believe that Jesus historically walked on water, multiplied food, or turned water to wine.  But these same historians will still believe that a historical Jesus did exist, and will likely look for some kind of historical kernel that underlay the embellished, miraculous legends.  Historically speaking, legend is not an 'all or nothing' proposition.

Price compares the accumulation of sayings attributed to Jesus with the number of Hadith attributed to Muhammed.  ”...early Muslim savants simply had no problem with fabricating Hadith if they thought the content was valid.” (p28)  Compare this with the attribution of quotes to Jesus from church signs.  But again - is this an argument against the existence of the historical Jesus?  Disciples of the Great Man would hear a profound saying.  It was so profound, in fact, that surely it must have come from the lips of the Great Man himself!  Because of this common practice, we may not be able to accurately determine what exactly the Great Man said, and even admit that popular apothegms were regularly attributed to him.  Albert Einstein has not yet been dead for 60 years, and even with detailed records of his works, even with the Internet, spurious quotes are commonly attributed to him.  Yet, there is no doubt that Albert Einstein was a real person.

Criterion of Dissimilarity

Price then outlines the remaining “historiographical commandments”.  “The second, the Criterion of Dissimilarity, is like unto [the Principle of Analogy]...The idea is that no saying ascribed to Jesus may be counted as probably authentic if it has parallels in Jewish or early Christian sayings.” (p28)  Price gives an example. “ for the early church, the contradictions between gospel sayings on eschatology, divorce, fasting, preaching to Gentiles and Samaritans, etc., are most easily explained as the church ascribing their views to Jesus because they thought them valid inferences (or revelations from the Risen Lord).  If the Criterion of Dissimilarity leaves little left of the sayings of Jesus as potentially authentic, Price removes these too.  “...the Criterion of Dissimilarity must be all-devouring because of the central tenet of form-criticism, which is that in order to be transmitted, every gospel pericope must have had some pragmatic use.” (p29)

Immediately, something smells fishy to me.  Price claims that “no saying ascribed to Jesus may be counted as probably authentic if it has parallels in Jewish or early Christian sayings.”  This argument seems to have too broad of a sweep.  I try to imagine a historian in the distant future who is trying to determine if the abundance of quotes attributed to, let’s say Maya Angelou since she recently died.  If we use Robert Price’s definition of Criterion of Dissimilarity, is there any way for a future historian to attribute any popular and inspirational sayings to Ms. Angelou?  Not a chance.  It is easy to see from a casual glance at her most popular quotes that none of them are hardly unique.  The uniqueness comes from her works as a whole, not from the individual aphorisms that a common, mass audience will find inspirational. 

Price’s definition of the Criterion of Dissimilarity seems like it could be used to remove any familiar saying or any attribution to any person.  Truly unique sayings are indeed rare, especially sayings that appeal to a general population of listeners.  And Price’s unique description of the Criterion of Dissimilarity does not fit any description that I have ever heard.  Since Price attributes the Criterion of Dissimilarity to Norman Perrin, I will look Perrin up to see for myself what he has to say about it.  Luckily, Perrin’s book which is cited by Dr. Price is online (LINK):

Here is what Perrin says:
Thus we reach the fundamental criterion for authenticity upon which all reconstructions of the teaching of Jesus must he built, which we propose to call the ‘criterion of dissimilarity’. Recognizing that it follows an attempt to write a history of the tradition concerned, we may formulate it as follows: the earliest form of a saying we can reach may be regarded as authentic if it can be shown to be dissimilar to characteristic emphases both of ancient Judaism and of the early Church, and this will particularly be the case where Christian tradition oriented towards Judaism can be shown to have modified the saying away from its original emphasis. (From Perrin, Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus, p39)
Wait a second; do you see the difference in emphasis between how Perrin defines the Criterion of Dissimilarity and how Price applies it?  Price has cited Perrin in his formulation of the criterion of dissimilarity, but then applied it with reverse polarity!  It is a subtle difference, but Price is using the Criterion of Dissimilarity in the opposite sense from that intended by Perrin.  Where Perrin used the criterion in an attempt to determine sayings attributed to Jesus may be authentic, Price is using it do discard inauthentic sayings.  Paula Fredriksen describes it in even simpler terms:

“The criterion of dissimilarity holds that if the earliest form of a saying or story differs in emphasis from a characteristic teaching or concern both of contemporary Judaism and of the early church, then it may be authentic”  (From Fredriksen, From Jesus to Christ, p5.  The emphasis is in the original.)

Perrin and Fredriksen are saying that if a saying of Jesus seems radically different from anything expected in their culture, then that lends it greater probability of being authentic.  I am not so sure that is a well- founded assumption, but it does seem like a cautious methodology for determining what we can know about Jesus.  More importantly, this description of the Criterion of Dissimilarity does not discount any sayings of Jesus that do not fit the description.  Notice how different this is from Dr. Price.  He is saying, in contrast, that any saying of Jesus that appears similar must be inauthentic.  It is a re-definition of the criterion that he cites from Perrin, and it is much broader sweeping in its negative results than anything implied by Perrin’s description of the Criterion of Dissimilarity.  It is a method that seems designed to show what we cannot know, not what we can know, and to emphasize that since nothing Jesus says appears to be truly unique, he must never had said anything.

But what about those sayings of Jesus that do appear to be unique among his society?  How can Dr. Price discard even these with his own mis-application of the Criterion of Dissimilarity?  I have certainly not read all there is among ancient literature, but I have never seen anything in contemporary literature that is even close to some of Jesus’ most famous aphorisms in the Sermon on the Mount.  Love your enemy?  Salt and light?  The fulfillment of the Law?  These appear to me to be unique enough to plausibly be considered authentic sayings of Jesus.  But this attempt at determining the authentic sayings of Jesus via the Criterion of Dissimilarity is invalid with Dr. Price’s application of the same criterion.  In fact, he takes it one step further by pulling out another bit of arcane historical methodology.  “…the Criterion of dissimilarity must be all-devouring because of the central tenet of form-criticism, which is that in order to be transmitted, every gospel pericope must have had some pragmatic use” (p29). 

Central tenet of form-criticism?  Says who?  Well, let’s not go down that rabbit hole.  Let me instead outline Dr. Price’s methodology that leads to his conclusion that every saying and deed of Jesus that is recorded in the Gospels is inauthentic:

1)      Anything that Jesus is recorded as saying or doing can be considered inauthentic if it has parallels among his contemporaries.
2)      The early church had doctrinal reasons for transmitting and preserving their favorite, thus canonical, sayings of Jesus. 
3)      The motives of the early church are apparently close enough to parallels in sayings among Jesus contemporaries.  Therefore everything in the Gospels that relates to Jesus must be inauthentic.

Sorry Dr. Price, but this just seems too easy to me.  The misapplication of these historical criteria seems designed to intentionally rid ourselves of everything we can possibly know about Jesus.  It may be true that Jesus never existed, but I think I understand the suspicion of Biblical scholars when they see methodology like this.  What is the point of years of scholarship, education and training when it can all be discarded with three simple bullet points?  After thinking about Dr. Price’s methodology, I am suspicious too.

The Remaining Commandments

I do not have a detailed commentary on the remaining historical commandments as outlined by Dr. Price, except that I again do not see how they are commandments of historical methodology.  In fact, they too, do not seem to be designed by an impartial historian, but by a person who is accustomed to arguing fringe opinions to more mainstream peers.  Dr. Price asks the reader to remember the definition of an ‘Ideal Type’.  The importance of mystery religions, Gnosticism and Pagan Saviors who were contemporary to Jesus must be considered as part of prevailing culture, and I agree with this.  The facts that consensus is no criterion of truth and that all scholarly opinion must be held as tentative are not so much greatest commandments of the historian, but general principles of any scientific investigation.  Again, I have no disagreement with any of this, but it does seem to be suspiciously applied, not on what we can determine about a historical Jesus, but about why mainstream scholars really need to take Dr. Price seriously.

Wow, I am really giving it to Robert Price in this critique.  But I have to call it like I see it.  So far in this article, his approach is like a bulldozer making quick work of a delicate archaeological dig.  And I am only seven pages in.

Next: Jesus at the Vanishing Point - part 2