Notes on an oral debate.
by Peter Kirby (May 8, 2003)
On Wednesday, April 23, there was a debate between Gregory Boyd and Robert Price at UCLA on whether Jesus was a legend. I sat in the second row.
Scott Bute was the representative of Veritas who hosted the debate. He started out by saying that the question of the historical Jesus is of utmost importance. The debate topic is: is the historical Jesus the Jesus of Christian faith? Price has degrees from Drew University, and Boyd has degrees from Princeton and Yale. This is the fourth debate that Greg Boyd and Bob Price have had with each other. The format consisted of 25 minutes for each presentation and then 7 minutes for each rebuttal, followed by questions. Unlike many such debates, the skeptic got to make the first presentation.
Price begins with a joke and then says that he attends an Episcopalian church. Price does not have a negative assessment of the worth of religion, but he is agnostic about the historical claims of Christianity. The Christ of faith and the Jesus of history are not the same thing.
Apologists repudiate the idea that legend is contained in the Gospels: Jesus said and did everything mentioned therein. Apologists appeal to the short time period for legendary development and the unlikelihood that eyewitnesses would allow fabrications. One major criticism is that the period between Jesus and the first gospel is not long enough for the modification of tradition. But the gospels came thirty to forty years after Jesus on a conservative estimate. McDowell and Montgomery claim that it is not unusual to recount events thirty-five years later, that eyewitnesses didn't forget. But, Price says, it's not merely a matter of faulty memory. Other people (the evangelists) weren't on the scene to see the stuff and filled in the gaps of knowledge.
If the apologists are right, then similar figures should be free of legendary development for a good forty years or so. Sabbatai Zevi figured in an apocalyptic fervor in the 1660s. The events are more accessible and documented because they are closer to our era, and thus we know that the "Messiah" renounced Judaism and converted to Islam. According to a tired quote from A. N. Sherwin-White, legend should wait two generations. But in the case of Sabbatai Zevi, thre was a "sudden and almost explosive" growth of miracle stories in a matter of weeks. Fiction far outweighed facts. In December 1665, Zevi commanded fire to appear and walked through fire unaffected. Zevi raised the dead and killed highwaymen with his words.
Moreover, it is not difficult to explain the growth of legends around the figure of Jesus. As Strauss pointed out long ago, the material in the New Testament is based on stories from the Old Testament. Materials were at hand.
Yahuda was made out to be a Messiah. Simon Ninkomba became a living legend against his wishes. He was called "God of the Blacks" but disavowed the role. A 1950s faith healer denied the wild claims made about him. Miracles were attributed to Charles Manson on his bus trip, including that Manson levitated a bus over a creek crag! <laughter>
Apologists don't simply depend on the dating of the gospels to make their case. They also point to the role of eyewitnesses. For example, Papias and Irenaeus say that Mark is from the preaching of Peter. But this comes some 100 years later. (Between Papias and Mark? How early is Mark, and how late Papias?) If Matthew was a disciple, why would he depend so completely upon Mark, who certainly was not? And we can't even be sure that Papias is talking about the canonical Matthew and Mark. "Matthew" sounds like the Gospel of the Hebrews, and "Mark" sounds like the Kerygmata Petrou (I would love to see that idea explored).
F. F. Bruce, among others, allows for a looser connection with eyewitnesses, in the form of the oral tradition, which was controlled by eyewitnesses. Price quotes, It can't be easy to invent words and deeds of Jesus when the dsiciples were around to say what had happened. Price says that it is anachronistic to imagine the disciples as fact checkers fighting lengends and sniffing out fabrication at every turn. Moreover, the presence of eyewitnesses is no gaurantee of truth. Sabbatai Zevi warned the faithful that the "Messiah" would do no miracles, but miracle stories popped up anyway. The multitude has a limited intellect, making it illogical to give value to a tradition because of popular belief. In any case, examples show that legends can grow despite "hostile witnesses." There was a Buddha boy god who married an American secretary, so that his mother replaced him with an older brother. In Berkeley, followers were still handing out literature with the image of the boy god. They refused to believe that it happened. Ethiopians honored Salasie. When he died, followers claimed his death to be a hoax of Western media and believe that he still lived.
When much is at stake, it is hard to admit that one is mistaken. And it says in the Gospels that the disciples had left everything to follow Jesus.
Apologists say that proximity to an event makes faulty memory unlikely. William Bladi's Exorcist is based on a real case. Supernatural effects were made up by Hollywood in most cases. The priest who did the exorcism recognized myth-making tendencies in himself, as the presence of the supernatural would be more vivid if he didn't take his notes within a few minutes of the event.
Eyewitnesses are unreliable when it comes to unusual events. Wildly disparate memories form within a half hour in a study. The new memory is as real and vivid as a factual memory. But the situation is worse: there is no reason to think the gospels are based on witnessed events.
Was there special care given to the sayings of Jesus? Form critics say that words spoken "in the spirit" were attributed to Jesus. F. F. Bruce says that the early Christians were careful to distinguish their words from those of Jesus. For example, in recounting the teaching on divorce, Paul is careful to to say part comes from "I" and part from the "Lord." But elsewhere Bruce allows for ambiguity. In the "word of the Lord" in 1 Thess. about the rapture, is that prophetic or based on an eyewitness?
In the transmission of the Hadiths in the Muslim tradition, those who told the story by word of mouth would lie for pious reasons. Forgers were venerated as holy men. The concept of "truth" is different from our modern western notion. "Historical truth is culture-specific. Any coherent account retold again and again is true, as it is certified by the ancestors."
So much for the arguments of the apologists, Price says, who try to choke off higher criticism on logical grounds. Because of the difficulties of historical reconstruction, it is no longer easy to claim a personal relationship with any real Jesus. Price invites us to join in the exciting task of sifting through the traditions, using the difficulties and contradictions as valuable clues for unlocking the hidden treasures of the text.
Now Greg Boyd speaks. Boyd says that Price has presented the case for legend as good as can be done, but not good enough. He doesn't think that the legendary hypothesis is satisfactory to explain what needs to be explained. We have good reasons to believe that the accounts are reliable. The gospels contain miracles but are not legendary.
Boyd makes nine points in his presentation.
1. Legendary parallels don't prove legend. Campbell delineated several features of the mythic hero, such as overcoming the odds and so forth. Bob's logic is that, if it fits the features of a legend, it must be a legend. But consider the case of William Wallace. He fits many of the characteristics of the mythic hero, but there is good evidence that he was real and fought for the independence of Scotland. Myh incarnates. The legend anticipates the reality. Longings for a hero are fulfilled in Jesus Christ. As C. S. Lewis says, Jesus is "myth become reality."
2. There are no clear legendary parallels to the story of Christ. The dissimilarities are significant. (Doesn't this contradict the previous point?)
3. The gospel writers claim to be historical. The burden of proof is on the person who thinks they are unreliable. If there weren't such a presumption of reliability, there would be little history left, because many events are attested by only one source. Historians take documents at face value. Although the gospels include the supernatural, the gospels don't appear to be in the genre of legend. The authors claim to be eyewitnesses. 1st John: "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched--this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ." The author says that he saw Jesus. Do you believe he was telling the truth or lying? Luke says that many have undertaken to set down in writing the traditions of Jesus. Luke says that he made a careful investigation and that he depends on eyewitnesses. Luke's words fit the format of a standard scientific preface. Do you believe him or not? The burden of proof is on the doubter.
4. It's not just the short time period between Jesus and the gospels that guarantees accuracy, but rather the short time period in a Jewish culture. The earliest writings are Paul's letters. In them Paul calls Jesus lord and proclaims the resurrection. The creed in 1 Cor 15 predates Paul. Jesus is worshipped. Monotheistic Jews believed Jesus to be God. Larry Hurtado says that, while there are supernatural figures in Jewish beliefs in the first century, they never cross the line into worship. Jesus is made out to be the Judge at the eschaton and the Creator at the beginning of time, equal with God. See the Philippians hymn: what explains that? We need a historical explanation for why Jews came to believe that Jesus is God. Bob is among the very few scholars who believe that Paul thought Jesus lived long ago, which would allow more time for legendary development, but there are many problems with that view. To pick just one, Paul refers to James as the brother of Jesus. In 20 years, while the brother is alive, people start to believe that Jesus was God. We can't understand this if Jesus was just a teacher. Also, there is the James ossuary. How many people were named James, had a father Joseph, and a brother Jesus? Furthermore, the ossuary identifies James by his brother, which was only done for those who were famous, so how many of these people had a famous brother named Jesus?
The gospels give us reason to believe that they contain early material. Alexander and Rufus were mentioned as the sons of Simon the Cyrenian and must have been known in the audience. This means that Mark was writing within one generation. The New Testament documents assume that the Temple is still standing. Robinson concludes that all the NT should be dated before 70. There is unanimous acceptance of the traditional authorship of the gospels, no disagreements. Papias mentions that Mark wrote what Peter said. The Muratorian Canon says that Mark had stubby fingers. (This is false, as the Muratorian Canon starts with Luke after a half sentence that may be about Mark but doesn't contain any details like this. I brought this up with Bob Price during the intermission, and he suggested that the anti-Marcionite prologues might be the source. Price also said that the 'stubby fingers' bit is probably a jab against Mark's writing.) Why would the gospel be attributed to Mark and not to a famous apostle?
A. N. Sherwin-White says that Herodotus lets us test the tempo of mythmaking, and that even two generations is not enough for legendary development. In Jewish culture, under normal circumstances, legend would not develop for two generations, as Jews resisted mythology. (This was the weakest part of Boyd's presentation. Price spent most of his talk showing how the Sherwin-White claim would validate all types of legend and supernatural stories. Besides, Sherwin-White is not an expert witness on Jewish legendary development but is speaking of a pagan example, Herodotus. I think that Boyd should have left this point out of his presentation.)
6. Jews had an emphasis on oral tradition. Paul in 1 Cor 15 appealed to tradition.
7. If 1st century Jews created legend, they wouldn't create this. The embarrassment criterion and dissimilarity criterion point to the historical nature of the gospels. Jesus was a cursed and crucified Messiah. On the cross Jesus says "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Why would this detail be included when proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah? That an individual, Jesus, rose from the dead before the eschaton was utterly new. The disciples were extraordinarily dull. After Jesus tells them to love their neighbor, the apostles are calling for raining fire down from heaven. His family doubts him. Jesus hangs out with tax collectors and prostitutes. There is the odd saying of Jesus, "Why do you call me good?" Jesus could make no miracels in his home town. Christians wouldn't make this stuff up.
8. There is a multitude of historical documents in close proximity to the historical events. Herodotus wrote 70 years later, Josephus as much as 80 years later, and Bede wrote as much as 200 years after the events. We've got a dozen sources within 70 or 80 years of the life of Jesus. That's pretty good.
9. There is a wealth of irrelevant detail in the gospels. A foremost Homer scholar says that we must be captivated by the wealth of material in such a small space as in the gospels.
Boyd thinks that these points, taken together, show the historical Jesus to be the Christ of faith.
Price begins his seven minute rebuttal. Price says that the parts of John that indicate authorship are interpolations. Luke's preface also fits the style of agricultural treatises and even novels. Josephus says that he would just present what is in the Bible, but it is clear again and again that Josephus has rewritten the story. 1st John, which Boyd appeals to, has almost nothing about a historical Jesus. As for the insularity of Jewish culture, that's nonsense: Jewish synagogues have images of Zeus and Attis.
Boyd says that historians use the benefit of the doubt, but Price says that we are critical of every ancient document. Jews could make myths; just look again at the case of Sabbatei Zevi! There were exalted saviors in ancient Judaism.
Why the cry of despair on the cross? Psalms 22 is used to fill out the crucifixion story. Indeed, the epistles have no details about the life of Jesus, and this has led some to the extreme Christ myth theory. All the reference to "tradition" carefully handed down suggest that the Paulines were all late and inauthentic. The "brother of the Lord" could be interpreted differently. The jury is out on the bone box. Alexander and Rufus were only famous; they could have been well-known martyrs, for example. As for the Jews not having the idea of a resurrection before the eschaton, what about John the Baptist, who was believed to be Elijah redivivus? It was John the Baptist, not Jesus, who hung out with prostitutes in the gospels. (Is this true?) The story of the women going to the tomb could have been influenced by the story of Osiris, where women and not men go to the tomb.
If we need reason for doubt, how about the many contradictions in the teaching of Jesus? Is divorce ever allowable? Should we pray succinctly or at length? Do we need just to repent to be saved or do we have to believe that Jesus took away our sins on the cross? Did Jesus teach secretly as in Mark or in the open as in John? Did Jesus have the Temple tantrum at the beginning or end of his ministry? Was the crucifixion on the day of the passover or the day before? Was John Elijah or not? Did Jesus carry the cross? All of these contradictions give us reason to doubt the reliability of the gospels.
Boyd says that there are radical differences between Sabbatei Zevi an the gospels. Opponents of Sabbatei Zevi denied that he did miracles. The stories about Sabbatei Zevi are in keeping with the expectations of apocalyptic Judaism, mysticism, and Kabbalah. (Wasn't first century Palestine full of apocalyptic fervor?) Zevi was regarded as mentally ill. (Doesn't the family of Jesus say that Jesus was crazy?) The sayings of Jesus show that he was not crazy. In terms of historical explanations, followers of Sabbatei Zevi rejected resurrections. He was never worshipped as God but as an angel.
As to the preface, most science of the day was agricultural. The intent was to record history. In Galilee, there was a strong resistance to Hellenistic culture. The Epistles of Paul were not written to document the life of Jesus but to confront problems in the church. Paul reminds his readers of the traditions that he has entrusted to his congregations. And "the brother of Jesus" is an important point. People knew who James was. Two texts say that Jesus was followed by tax collectors and prostitutes. If these texts such as Mark were considered to be authoritative, there is no reason for the attribution to Mark unless it were fact. As to the contradictions, they are explainable and minor. There is no case in history where the same events were described exactly the same way by independent accounts.
Finally, Boyd says, I've been talking about Jesus as a historical hypothesis. Jesus is a living reality. You talk with him, you walk with him. <an amen> That's what matters most.
A professor asks Price what "precious treasures" can be unlocked through criticism and Boyd, who is God according to Jesus? As Jesus seems to think that God is someone else.
Price says that the doctrines of inerrancy and infallibility forces people to believe that the stuff that is dry as dust is on the same level as the Sermon on the Mount. It also blocks us from understanding the meaning and origins of the stories. For example, with the saying "take up your cross," it is impossible to understand this if Jesus said it because nobody knew about the cross yet. Yet we can understand it when it is taken to be something placed on the lips of Jesus to encourage believers.
Boyd says that there is a dynamic between Jesus as God and as Son of God. Jesus put his own authority on par with the OT. Both the otherness of God and the presence of God are indicated by Jesus. In light of the resurrection, there is a tendency to bifurcate the divinity and humanity of Jesus. But the gospels have a robust understanding of the humanity of Jesus.
The Association of Secular Students ask Price: you suggest that it's not essential for a Christian to believe in a historical Jesus. What kind of Christianity would this be? Price replies that the only kind of faith you need is poetic faith. This is the same kind of faith, the suspension of disbelief, that you have when you read a novel or watch a movie. Pascal was right: Christianity repays the effort to live a religious life. Price is on the side of debunkers, but they come up short on the deep importance of myth. Price loves the whole tradition, liturgy, and mythology that the church provides.
The Campus Crusade for Christ asks Price whether the Jesus Seminar is consistent in applying the dissimilarity criterion to the apocalyptic sayings. Price replies that the Jesus Seminar is way too optimistic to give 18% of the sayings authenticity. But the criterion of dissimilarity is not used to mean that Jesus didn't say something, only that we can't be sure that he did say it, as it could have been borrowed from existing Jewish traditions. The Son of Man sayings, for example, could have been taken from apocalyptic books written around the turn of the era. Price agrees that the Jesus Seminar is not completely consistent in the application of its criteria.
There was time for two questions from the audience. An elderly man says to the audience that those who may be seduced by Price's deconstructionism may find an antidote in The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis, which shows that the ultimate end of such an attitude is the rejection of objective reality. A Muslim student asks Boyd to show where it says to worship Jesus as a god.
The time for questions was cut short due to a scheduling conflict. I had a question myself. It was, "Josephus says in Wars 6.5.3 that a young cow gave birth to a lamb in the temple during the war. Do you give this story the benefit of the doubt?"
During the intermission I got to talk to Price and shake his hand. It appears that Prometheus has been dragging its feet on publishing Jesus is Dead in which I contribute an essay on the empty tomb.
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