Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Robert Price, Mythicist

Luke Muelhauser of Common Sense Atheism has posted an interview with Robert Price. Price is well known among atheists as one of the few New Testament scholars who believes that Jesus is entirely fictional. He is not well known among New Testament scholars, however. (In an interview, Bart Ehrman claimed never to have heard of Price.) Price's official home page lists him as a professor at Colemon Theological Seminary, which seems to offer only about 20 courses.

In the interview, Price discusses the sparse evidence for Jesus. He mentions the passage from the Jewish writer Josephus that talks about Jesus and his brother James (Jewish Antiquities, 20.200, quoted here from Wikipedia) he [the high priest Ananus] assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done....
 Now, I have read several scholars who have addressed the evidence for Jesus, and this passage is generally considered an authentic reference to the Jesus of Christianity. Price, however, makes a startling claim:

"If you look a little farther, it says that James and Jesus were  the sons of a guy named Damneus, and that they were candidates for the high priest - it wasn't Jesus of Nazareth at all!"

So, what's the story here? Have all those other scholars simply missed the fact that this Jesus was the son of Damneus and a candidate for the high priesthood? Well, here's how the rest of the passage runs:

...they also sent to the king, desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified; nay, some of them went also to meet Albinus, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a sanhedrin without his consent. Whereupon Albinus complied with what they said, and wrote in anger to Ananus, and threatened that he would bring him to punishment for what he had done; on which king Agrippa took the high priesthood from him, when he had ruled but three months, and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest.
Note that, contrary to what Price says, there is nothing here about James being a candidate for the high priesthood, or being a son of Damneus.

Notice too that the earlier passage mentions "Jesus, who was called Christ," whereas the second passage identifies "Jesus, the son of Damneus." Price doesn't say why he thinks these two are the same person; it certainly isn't implied by the text. "Jesus" was not such an uncommon name: a little later, Josephus mentions that Jesus, the son of Damneus, was succeeded as high priest by Jesus, the son of Gamaliel. It seems more likely, in fact, that "Jesus, the son of Damneus" is being distinguished from "Jesus, who was called Christ."

Now, Price is giving a web interview, not writing a scholarly paper, and perhaps he has something more complicated in mind. Earlier in the interview, Price discussed the other place where Josephus mentions "Jesus, who was called Christ" (Jewish Antiquities, 18.63-64). Price points out that Josephus himself considered the emperor Vespasian to be the Jewish Christ/Messiah (a bit of flattery from Josephus to his imperial patron), and so was unlikely to use "Christ" to refer to anyone else. Maybe Price thinks that "who was called Christ" was missing from the original text, and inserted later by a Christian author. (This is similar to what many scholars think happened with Jewish Antiquities, 18.63-64. You can read about it in the Wiki article.) But then, what would have originally been in its place? Perhaps "Jesus, the son of Damneus", as it appears later? But, if Josephus had already identified this Jesus as "son of Damneus", why would he need to identify him again? Why wouldn't he just say "Jesus"?

For comparison, look at 20.197:

As soon as the king heard this news, he gave the high priesthood to Joseph, who was called Cabi, the son of Simon, formerly high priest.

Here Josephus identifies Joseph as "the son of Simon." But in the next chapter, Josephus continues

But the king deprived Joseph of the high priesthood....

Here, once having identified which Joseph he was talking about, he just refers to him as "Joseph" without any other identification. So, if "Jesus, the son of Damneus" was what Josephus originally wrote, then we would expect "the son of Damneus" would not be needed in the later position if it were the same Jesus that became high priest.

So I can't make any sense out of Price's claim that the James who was stoned was the brother of  Jesus, the son of Damneus. Perhaps Price has argued this all out in some scholarly article. But it seems to me to be a case of choosing the interpretation that fits your preconceived outcome, rather than the interpretation that makes the most sense.

This may seem to be too small a point to be worth all the verbiage - but it makes me cautious about everything he says in the interview. If he is willing to play fast and loose with the text here, how reliable are his other claims?


  1. I think you have a valid point. There appear to be a couple of points where Josephus identifies someone as "son of" when he introduces them and then subsequently identifies only by name. Thus, it seems likely that Jesus son of Dameaus is a different Jesus than the one referred to earlier in the paragraph. It is possible however that Price just confused his Jesuses. Josephus does refer to several of them.

  2. 'Price is well known among atheists as one of the few New Testament scholars who believes that Jesus is entirely fictional.'

    No, Price says 'there is one no longer. If he existed, he is forever lost behind the stained glass curtain of holy myth. At least that’s the current state of the evidence as I see it.'

    Doesn't Josephus state that this Joseph was the brother of Jesus,and explain that Jesus was made High Priest?

    Did people look round for somebody called 'Jesus' to be made High Priest because the victim had had a brother called Jesus?

    Or was this particular Jesus chosen because he was the Jesus who had been the brother of this Joseph?

    That would make this James, the brother of Jesus, son of Damnaeus.

    I don't remember exactly but I don't think Price claimed that Josephus wrote 'son of Damnaeus' twice.

    How could Josephus have referred to 'him called the Christ' (which is a straight copy of Matthew 1:19 apart from necessary grammatical changes), if he had never referred to Jesus as the Christ earlier - which most scholars had conceded he had not?

    I agree that Price was wrong to say that there was something about this James being a candidate for the High Priest's job.

    It is also rather bizarre that killing a blaspheming idolator like James, brother of the Messiah, caused the Jews so much upset.

  3. 'In an interview, Bart Ehrman claimed never to have heard of Price'

    Didn't Bart Ehrman later claim in the interview to have corresponded with Price? I may be wrong here. Of course nobody can be expected to at once remember everybody they sent emails to.

  4. Steven:

    No, Price says 'there is one no longer. If he existed, he is forever lost behind the stained glass curtain of holy myth. At least that’s the current state of the evidence as I see it.'

    If the real Jesus is "forever lost" then the Jesus we have must necessarily be fictional, no?

    Steven:That would make this James, the brother of Jesus, son of Damnaeus.

    RNO: Of course, if they were brothers, and one was the son of Damneus, then the other was (probably), too. But Josephus doesn't make any definite statement about James being a son of Damneus, as implied by Price.

    Steven: I don't remember exactly but I don't think Price claimed that Josephus wrote 'son of Damnaeus' twice.

    RNO: Well, there are only a couple of possibilities about what was originally there. (1) "Jesus" alone, (2) "Jesus, son of Damneus", or (3) "Jesus, who was called Christ." Price seems to assume it wasn't (3), so it was (1) or (2). Now, (1) makes no sense, as it leaves "Jesus" unidentified until LATER in the paragraph. It only seems reasonable that Josephus would identify WHICH Jesus he was talking about FIRST. If (2) is correct, then either (2a) "Jesus, son of Damneus" appeared twice, or (2b) "Jesus, son of Damneus" appeared where "Jesus, who was called Christ" appears in our copies, and "Jesus" alone appeared in the second position. However, if you opt for (2b), then you have to assume the (hypothetical) Christian editor made two SEPARATE changes: first, to change "Jesus, son of Damneus" to "Jesus, who was called Christ", and then, to change "Jesus, son of Damneus" to "Jesus."

    By Occam's razor, we should be looking for the SIMPLEST assumption that explains that data. (2b) does not seem (to me) to be the simplest explanation.

    Steven: It is also rather bizarre that killing a blaspheming idolator like James, brother of the Messiah, caused the Jews so much upset.

    RNO: Now we run into the question of WHEN did Christianity come to be seen as blasphemy, and BY WHOM?

    I claim that Christianity was originally a sect WITHIN Judaism, and only gradually came to be seen as a separate religion. (Actually, I claim that this is the conclusion of a large amount of New Testament scholarship, not my own conclusion.) We have ample evidence of other such sects, in particular, the Essenes, as witnessed by the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Sadducees, both of whose views would eventually be considered heretical by mainstream Jews. If the stoning of James occurred at an early enough time that he was considered a "good Jew" in spite of his somewhat unorthodox views about the Messiah, then there is no contradiction in what Josephus says about him.

    Is it strange that Josephus, writing around 90 AD, shows no knowledge of the charge of blasphemy against Christians, which is evident even in the earliest Gospel (Mark 14:64, usually taken to have been written 60-70 AD)? Josephus was captured by the Romans in 67 AD, became a Roman subject, and went to Rome around 71 AD, so it is not too surprising if his view of James reflects the earlier understanding of Christianity as within the acceptable parameters of Judaism.

  5. Robert,

    There is another possibility, (4) Jesus son of somebody other than Damneus. That would also leave us with only one change. However, I'm not really sure that Occam's Razor is really a sound basis to reject 2b. If Jesus son of Damneus was changed to Jesus who was called Christ, it would be pretty obvious that the Jesus later in the paragraph would have to be identified as someone else.

  6. According to 1 Corinthians 8:6, Christians were worshipping a crucified criminal as the agent through whom God had created the universe.

    It is still amazingly unlikely that Josephus imported Matthew 1:16 into his text, changing it to make it grammatically correct.

    Especially as few people think the reference to the 'Christ' in Antiquities is genuine.

    How does Josephus refer back to people he has previously mentioned in those days when books had no indexes? Here he is going back two books, so readers will need more than a casual reference,as the volumes were not bound together, as we read them today , joined into 1 book.

    Judas of Galilee was first mentioned in 'Wars of the Jews' Book 2 Section 118 'Under his administration, it was that a certain Galilean , whose name was Judas , prevailed with his countrymen to revolt ; and said they were cowards if they would endure to pay a tax to the Romans , and would, after God , submit to mortal men as their lords.'

    Josephus refers to him again in Book 2 Section 433 as follows '"In the meantime one Manahem, the son of Judas , that was called the Galilean (who was a very cunning sophister, and had formerly reproached the Jews under Quirinius , that after God they were subject to the Romans )" - considerable detail is included.

    In Wars, Book 7 Section 533 we read about Judas again - "... Eleazar, a potent man, and the commander of these Sicarii, that had seized upon it. He was a descendant from that Judas who had persuaded abundance of the Jews , as we have formerly related , not to submit to the taxation when Quirinius was sent into Judea to make one; ...' . So a change of book causes Josephus to say 'as formerly related'.

    Judas was also in Antiquities 18 'Yet was there one Judas , a Gaulonite, of a city whose name was Gamala, who, taking with him Sadduc, a Pharisee, became zealous to draw them to a revolt , who both said that this taxation was no better than an introduction to slavery, and exhorted the nation to assert their liberty'.

    Josephus referred back to Judas in Antiquities 20 'the sons of Judas of Galilee were now slain; I mean that Judas who caused the people to revolt, when Quirinius came to take an account of the estates of the Jews, as we have shown in a foregoing book .'

    So Josephus usually put in detail and when he referred back from Ant. 20 to Ant. 18, he reminded the reader that it was in a different book.

    None of these factors apply to Josephus's reference to Jesus in Antiquities 20. A Christian interpolator would naturally need not need to supply such detailed back-references. His readers would know exactly who Jesus called the Christ was.

  7. Steven,

    Good point about the Judas references. Have you looked at any other places where Josephus references someone he mentioned earlier? I wonder if this is his usual practice, or if there are cases where the reference is less complete.

    It seems to me that "Jesus, who was called the Christ" might be sufficiently unique as not to need any other elaboration. (Compared to "Judas, the Galilean," which would still be ambiguous.) But I admit this is starting to sound like special pleading, especially if the "Judas" treatment turns out to be typical of Josephus.

  8. At the beginning of the same paragraph, Josephus refers to a "Joseph" who had been introduced in the previous paragraph as "Joseph, who was called Cabi, the son of Simon."

  9. 'It seems to me that "Jesus, who was called the Christ" might be sufficiently unique as not to need any other elaboration.'

    It certainly would be unique in Josephus who seems to have an aversion to mentioning the word 'Messiah'.

    And it is a bit of Matthew 1:16, suitably adapted to fit the grammar of the Greek.

  10. I've read in multiple sources that that passage is generally seen as a later Christian interpolation into the text; that it's out of place in the narrative and also does not appear in earlier manuscripts of Josephus.

  11. Steven,

    The expression, "X, who was called Y" was completely standard: witness "Joseph, who was called Cabi" that I mentioned in the post, or "Simon, who was called Peter" from the NT. I don't see that there is any reason to insist that this is a quote of Matt 1:16.


    I'm not sure what you've been reading, but it might be junk. The James passage is generally regarded as genuine by most respectable scholars. Maybe you are confusing it with the Testimonium Flavianum, the passage about Jesus from Book 18 of Jewish Antiquities. That passage is considerably more controversial, as it contains statements like "He [Jesus] was the Christ" - something a non-Christian would clearly not write. The Testimonium is considered to have been entirely interpolated by some, but a majority see it as having been tampered with. See the Wiki article I linked in the post for more on this.

  12. 'The expression, "X, who was called Y" was completely standard'

    It just is a piece of Matthew 1:16. This is a fact, even if it is a coincidence.

    And if Josephus did not refer to Jesus as the Christ in Ant.18, how did the back reference work?

    And why would Josephus approve of the 'principal men' among us putting Jesus to death, yet the brother of James caused the High Priest to be deposed, and another Jesus put in his place?

  13. And Christians almost never used the phrase Jesus ,called the Christ, apart from in Matthew , which is very late.

    Paul always refers to Jesus Christ or Christ,or the Lord Jesus Christ.

    So early usage by Christians was not 'called the Christ', unless Matthew's usage swept Chrisendom.

    Where could 'called the Christ' have come from if not from Matthew? Early Christians did not use it, and Jews did not call Jesus the Messiah.

  14. Steven,

    My impression is that it was quite standard to have a given name as well as a use-name: something like a nickname. "Simon Peter" and "Simon, who was called Peter" were essentially equivalent. If Christians were using "Jesus Christ" from an early time (as they were), then "Jesus, who was called Christ" was not an innovation that needs to be "explained" as drawing from a literary source. It certainly doesn't need an explanation in Josephus, who uses the exact same expression for other people.

    (In fact, "Jesus, who was called Christ" is less surprising in Josephus than "Jesus Christ" would be, as the latter implies acceptance of Jesus's claim to be Messiah.)

    For Ant. 18, see the Wiki article. Certainly "He was the Christ" is not original. Likely "He was called the Christ" or something similar was original.

  15. Actually, in my correspondence with James D. Tabor, professor Tabor made reference to Christ. He even added some criticism on my blog... to which Price replied in kind.

    So I think Price, once part of the Jesus seminar, is actually pretty familiar amongst his colleagues. However, I think his theories aren't well known because nobody wants to seriously consider them.

    For the most part I agree--the Jesus tradition found in the Gospels is mainly a legend which later got historicized. Where I part with Price's philosophy is that I believe there must have been a historical figure lurking somewhere in the background named Yeshua of Nazareth.

    But even this is not justifiable--so I feel Price's point is often overlooked.