The Mythinformation Con Historicity of Jesus debate last Friday was disappointing to many. To be fair to Robert Price, he is in failing health. And he’s a sweet guy. But I have to be honest. Even granting that, he didn’t respond to hardly anything Ehrman said. So there wasn’t actually a debate Friday night. It was mostly just Bart Ehrman making numerous dubious and misleading assertions that were never questioned, combined with Price defending bizarre positions wholly unnecessary to the issue, making mythicism look close to crank.
In fact, IMO, Price committed a number of blunders so classic that I think this debate may yet be the best teaching example to use for instructing people how to debate well. Because it illustrates what it looks like to debate poorly. I suspect this was partly because the format was too advanced for an inexperienced debater like Price. There were no rebuttal periods or closing statements. The cross examinations had to be used for those purposes, and that’s extremely challenging. The same flaw also led to the mistake Price made of reading a prepared statement for his opening, rather than using his opening to rebut Ehrman’s. And Price never took any notes. The net effect was, Price never actually rebutted Ehrman in the entire debate. In other words, no actual debate took place that night.
Here I’ll score the debate (assertions by rebuttals), then comment on what should have been said, and reference the pages in On the Historicity of Jesus or Proving History (hereafter OHJ and PH) where Ehrman has already been refuted on each point in the peer reviewed literature of his own field, to which arguments and evidence he has never responded—not in this debate; not anywhere. (If I’m wrong, though, I hereby authorize anyone who knows where Ehrman has responded to what I argue in either of my books to submit comments below to that effect; you do not need to be a patron—you just have to cite and quote him doing that; and it’s fine if what you cite/quote is not a response to my books specifically but just to the same arguments that are in them.)
I will score a point for every claim made that, if true, would significantly increase or decrease the probability Jesus existed (arguments), or that, if true, would have the same effect by negating such an argument made earlier (rebuttals). Which means I won’t score claims that wouldn’t have such an effect even if true (e.g. an ad hominem fallacy, or any argument not clearly formed, or that makes no difference, etc.). As a supplement to all this, you might find it useful to bookmark two evolving pages of mine: my Ehrman on Historicity Recap and my List of Responses to Defenders of the Historicity of Jesus.
Also, a good video of the debate can be rented for a reasonable amount (here), if you want to watch and assess it for yourself. The rental fee will help them recover the costs of funding and putting on the debate, so it’s worth it.
Ehrman essentially defined and framed the debate with his opening statement. So it warrants the fullest treatment. He began by burning a lot of clock on unnecessary rigmarole and bad humor (a mistake that later forced him to cut a section, possibly I suspect on the extra-biblical evidence, which I cover in OHJ, Chapter 8). When he finally got to anything pertinent, we got an ad hominem, right out of the gate:
- Argument 1: Fallacy of Poisoning the Well. Score 0. Under a dubious pretense of trying to lighten the mood, Ehrman made a bad joke at Price’s expense exposing to the audience that Price was a Donald Trump supporter. This is extremely bad form in a debate. This is a variant of argument ad hominem: an attempt to turn the audience against your opponent on irrelevant emotional grounds.
- Outcome: No Reply. Score 0. Price never addressed it. I would have called attention to the fallacy. It illustrates Ehrman’s preference for emotionally manipulating the audience rather than fairly debating just the relevant facts of the matter. That’s evidence of dishonesty. [Update: I have now been told Ehrman claims he didn’t know Price was a Trump supporter and therefore didn’t intend this outcome. Why then did he pose a completely irrelevant question to the audience about voting for Trump? Mysteries abound.]
- Argument 2: Fallacy of Appeal to Consequences. Score 0. Ehrman (promoting his forthcoming book) claims nothing has effected such changes in the West like Christianity has. Implies it would be odd for that to be the case if Jesus didn’t exist. A variant of non sequitur.
- Outcome: No Reply. Score 0. Ehrman never made a clear argument out of this, so it was safe for Price to drop it (a claim like this is clock bait anyway). It’s of course fallacious (a religion’s god does not have to exist for that religion to have effects), as well as false (the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions had far more numerous, radical, and fundamental effects on the West than Christianity did; the Medieval West was not significantly different culturally from the Chinese or Muslim East—in fact, up to that point the latter were more culturally advanced). Compare my treatment of this claim in The Christian Delusion (ch. 15) and Christianity Is Not Great (Chs. 9 and 10).
- Argument 3: Nazareth. Score 0. Ehrman argued that (a) Nazareth existed in the 30s A.D. and (b) it doesn’t matter if Nazareth existed in the 30s A.D. anyway, and therefore mythicists who argue “Nazareth didn’t exist in the 30s A.D., therefore Jesus didn’t exist” are both arguing fallaciously and factually wrong.
- Outcome: No Reply. Score 0. I’m actually glad Price didn’t respond to this—other than he should have reiterated mythicism in no way depends on Nazareth not existing. Ehrman’s argument was a slight red herring fallacy, but I can’t fault him for it, since he honestly made clear that he was not assuming Price or mythicism required it, and just wanted to educate the audience that it’s a bad argument. And Ehrman is right. Though the evidence for Nazareth is more problematic than Ehrman portrayed (e.g. the coin evidence he referred to means just a few first century coins found in a well on a farm nearby Nazareth; being in a well, we can’t establish when those coins fell there, and the existence of a farm does not entail the existence of a nearby village), I still think the balance of evidence supports an early Nazareth, and Ehrman’s second point (that even if Nazareth didn’t exist, that has no effect on the probability Jesus existed) is exactly what I myself argue in OHJ (p. 258, n. 8).
- Argument 4: Myths Also Get Written about Historical People. Score 0. Ehrman argued (correctly) that stereotyped legends accumulate around historical people, too, so we can’t argue “the Gospel Jesus is very mythological, therefore Jesus didn’t exist.”
- Outcome: No Reply. Score 0. It’s fine that Price never directly responded to this. Ehrman again honestly made clear that he was not assuming Price or mythicism required arguing this way, and just wanted to educate the audience that it’s a bad argument. And Ehrman is right. Though the degrees and ways in which someone is mythologized can make a difference to how probable their historicity is, that requires a more precise argument than “the Gospel Jesus is not at all believable, therefore he didn’t exist.” See OHJ, pp. 18-20, 200-34, and 506-09 (and all of Chapter 6).
- Argument 5: Josephus is the only first century Palestinian Jew better attested than Jesus. Score 1. Ehrman never made clear why this matters even if true. I assumed it was a muddled attempt at another Argument from Spartacus (a fallacy almost unique to the whole historicity of Jesus debate; though in the Platonic realms of the ideal, it would be a valid argument, if its premises held up, so I’m giving it a point).
- Outcome: No Reply. Score 0. Price never answered or challenged this argument.
- I thought immediately to say, that Hercules is the best attested 13th century (B.C.) Peloponnesian, but that doesn’t make him even a jot more likely historical. Moreover, actually, in fact, by standards of evidence, Pontius Pilate is much better attested than Jesus, as is Herod Agrippa—a first century Palestinian Jew.
- This is an old argument of his that illustrates Ehrman’s dishonesty in presenting evidence. See how he has tried it before with Pontius Pilate. Now in this debate he said Pilate is “less” attested than Jesus because we have “more” narrative accounts for Jesus than we have for Pilate. Indeed, Ehrman even made it seem like we have none such for Pilate, even though we have a partial narrative from his contemporary Philo and a detailed narrative one generation later from Josephus (exact same timeline as the Gospels, though Josephus is writing skilled history; the Gospels, amateur mythology, hardly comparable). But even if that was a verbal slip and Ehrman only meant Jesus had “more” narratives of his life and that alone made him “better attested” than Pilate, that’s deeply misleading to the point of dishonest.
- For Pilate we have an inscription commissioned by himself. If we had that for Jesus, this debate would be over. We also have a contemporary Jewish author attesting to and discussing Pilate—his activities are covered in the extant works of Philo, writing from a neighboring province just years later, by someone having lived through his tenure; indeed we know Philo wrote a whole additional book about Pilate. If we had either for Jesus (e.g. contemporary discussion of his clearly historical activities by someone like Philo; or even indeed the same kind of passage in Philo explaining that he himself had written a whole book about the ministry of Jesus), this debate would be over. We also have multiple historians discussing the reign of Pilate without relying on mythologies, one within just a single generation (Josephus) and another a generation after that (Tacitus), the former relying on contemporary written accounts (Philo) and rational histories near to the events (Justus). We lack either for Jesus (no nonbiblical source shows any sign of having any other sources than the Gospels, which even Ehrman agrees are highly mythological; and you can’t corroborate the Gospels by citing persons using the Gospels).
- For Herod Agrippa, we have multiple inscriptions and coins and a contemporary account (again from Philo) and a historian one generation later using non-mythological, first-hand sources (Josephus personally knew Agrippa’s son, and clearly describes the elder Agrippa as a regular earthly person). We have none of that for Jesus. So there is no credible case to be made that Jesus is better attested than Pilate or Agrippa. To suggest so is to simply not accept any standards of evidence. Inscriptions and coins don’t count. Skilled historians don’t count. Contemporary witnesses don’t count. Nope. Having four mythologies written a lifetime later counts for more than all that. For some unintelligible reason Ehrman would be hard pressed to explain to anyone on earth with an actual Ph.D. in history.
- Finally, this is a fallacy of false analogy anyway. Jesus is not just any Palestinian Jew. He was instantly upon his alleged death a rapidly mythologized celestial savior god (as attested even in Paul, our earliest author ever to refer to Jesus), worshiped by the only people who ever mentioned him for almost a hundred years. Herod Agrippa does not fall into that category of person. Neither does any other first century Palestinian Jew. We don’t doubt the historicity of Jesus because he was a poorly attested nobody. We fully accept lots of poorly attested nobodies existed. We doubt the historicity of Jesus because the earliest sources that refer to him only know him as a celestial savior god and are weirdly silent about his ever being on earth or ever known to anyone by any means other than scripture and revelation, and the only narratives we have about him are more rapidly and extremely mythologized than that of any other person we can agree existed. Were this also true of Herod Agrippa, we’d have grounds to doubt he existed, too. We would still be able to overcome that doubt with all the other evidence (inscriptions, coins, Philo, Josephus), but note: we have none of that evidence for Jesus.
- This suggests to me that Ehrman either doesn’t understand the actual reasons why we doubt, or he is disingenuously pretending those aren’t our reasons. It is very hard to credit him as honest when he says Jesus is “better attested” than Pilate or Agrippa. No historian would honestly say or even think that, when looking at the differential quality of evidence. I’m having a hard time believing in his honesty even when he says our doubt is solely a matter of attestation, when in fact we have repeatedly said, even in the literature of his own field, that it is not.
- Argument 6: We have multiple narrative accounts for Jesus. Score 1. Ehrman’s argument being, that if we have multiple narrative sources for someone, we should conclude they existed.
- Outcome: Ehrman doesn’t allow that rule for the resurrection of Jesus, therefore he shouldn’t be allowing it for the historicity of Jesus. Score 1. Ehrman’s argument is obviously a fallacy. We have multiple attestations of the labors of Hercules. That doesn’t increase their probability of being historical one bit. The Criterion of Multiple Attestation is logically invalid except under strict conditions, conditions that don’t hold for the evidence of Jesus. And that’s not just me saying this. Numerous experts in the peer reviewed literature have said this. See PH, pp. 172-85. But Price didn’t say any of that. Instead he only threw out one line in his opening that the resurrection being well attested doesn’t prove it happened, only that it was widely believed. Which is true, but still a fallacy of false analogy: Ehrman has additional reasons to doubt the resurrection, that don’t apply to a mundane fact like the mere existence of a person. Though Price’s rebuttal was fallacious, to be fair, Ehrman never answered it, so it scores.
- Argument 7: The Gospels definitely contain orally transmitted eyewitness testimony. Score 1. Ehrman went on to say that those “multiple narratives” he claimed above, were not just subsequent redactions of the first of them but actually “based on different literary and oral sources,” in fact that first one (the Gospel of Mark), of which the other three are (IMO) elaborated redactions or re-do’s, he says was “absolutely based on oral traditions.”
- Outcome: No Effective Reply. Score 0. Price never effectively responded to this claim.
- Price waffled randomly across the debate about the “speculation” that they “might” all be literary myths (and, we were left to infer, therefore contain no oral lore dating back to original witnesses), but he never made an argument out of this, and never made any case for it being true, and presented no evidence for it. In contrast to that let-down, compare Ehrman’s undefended assertions with the evidence in OHJ, Chapter 10 and PH, Chapter 5.
- Similarly, Price did note in his opening that if Jesus didn’t exist, then Ehrman’s “assumption” that we can trace traditions back to within a few years of the reputed life of Jesus can’t be established, and that in fact “we don’t know when these stories originated.” But Ehrman had just made a case for his assumption being correct (Arguments 7, 9, and 10, and his many arguments from Paul), so Price wasn’t actually responding to what Ehrman gave as his reasons for believing there was an oral tradition. Those reasons are terrible. But Price never challenged them. He just gainsaid the conclusion. Which is not an argument.
- Price in his opening argued that we can explain the Gospel contents without assuming an oral transmission of eyewitness memories. But Price only defended this claim with examples that aren’t even stories Ehrman says were historical (the Gerasene Swine; the Daughter of Jairus; the Miraculous Feedings; the Walking on Water). Which is both a straw man and a red herring. Since this didn’t actually reply to Ehrman, it simply doesn’t score against his case.
- Argument 8: Score 1. The Gospels were written in the next generation after Jesus would have lived. Score 1. The implied argument being, that mythological narratives written a lifetime after the period they portray, entail the existence of their central character.
- Outcome: No Effective Reply. Score 0. Price eventually tried rebutting this by claiming (counter-asserting, as neither Ehrman nor Price ever presented any evidence for their respective dating of the Gospels) that the Gospels were all written in the second century. Price never defended that assertion, and even admitted it was just speculation. Consequently, I score it zero. Price essentially refuted his own rebuttal. Had Price said the first century dating of the Gospels was also just as speculative, he’d have been closer to a scoring argument. But he didn’t even say that.
- This presents us with an example of bad debating: in a clocked debate, never rely on positions you don’t need to defend to secure your conclusion. Even if Price had actually tried defending a second century date for the Gospels, that would still have been bad debate strategy. Since we don’t need the Gospels to be dated differently than the most mainstream consensus (OHJ, pp. 264-70), one should only argue from that shared premise in a debate about the historicity of Jesus. Then use your clock time to challenge the things that actually matter.
- Though I agree we don’t really have solid evidence the Gospels weren’t all written in the 2nd century, we also don’t have solid evidence they were either; and personally, I believe Mark and Matthew were written before the 2nd century, and Luke and John just after the 1st century. And in this I am well within the mainstream.
- But even with totally mainstream dating Ehrman has a problem Price could have called out but didn’t: the Gospels were written not just a generation later (using the word Ehrman chose), but an average lifetime later (OHJ, pp. 148-52), and in some case two lifetimes: Luke and John, even most experts now agree, were written between 95 and 140 A.D.; anyone who had reached age fifteen by the year 66, the earliest date after which most experts agree the first Gospel, Mark, was written, would on average be dead by the year 99; and likewise anyone who had reached age 15 by the year 33 A.D., would on average be dead by the year 66. So if we cannot establish (and that means establish, not just speculate) that the Gospels had any sources predating the year 66, the Gospels are not comparable in reliability to such sources as Josephus, who cites his sources and identifies them, and we can establish they were contemporary to the events he relates, or personally acquainted with or using the writings of those who were. We don’t just speculate this. We can establish it. Because Josephus gives us that information. The Gospels do not. They never cite sources and never explain where any of their information comes from or why we should believe it.
- Ultimately, contrary to what Ehrman seems to think, nearness to events does not help us gain a source credibility when that source is so blatantly not credible. And the Gospels are wildly not credible (OHJ, Chapter 10; PH, Chapter 5). Rapid legendary development, even immediate fabrication, are well established historical phenomena (OHJ, pp. 214-22, 248-52). And even Ehrman must agree with that, as he agrees extraordinarily rapid legendary development occurred within just years or even months of when Jesus supposedly lived, as almost immediately upon his death his own best friends converted him into a pre-existent archangel living in outer space (see Bart Ehrman on How Jesus Became God). Ehrman even admitted in this debate that some historical persons are invented in the Gospels (e.g. Joseph of Arimathea). So he can’t claim that can’t happen or even that it’s unlikely. Nor can he claim that because, e.g. Joseph of Arimathea is in multiple Gospels, that therefore he must have existed. So Ehrman does not appear to have any coherent method for deciding who does or doesn’t exist.
- Argument 9. The Gospels are not just copying each other. Score 1. Ehrman was unclear on this point, but his gist was, that the Gospels are or contain multiple independent sources for Jesus. He even appeared to argue that the Gospel of John contained historically authentic material about Jesus (by saying John did not use the Synoptics; so we must then assume he meant John supported historicity).
- Outcome: Gainsaid. Score 1. Price didn’t exactly argue against Ehrman on this point; he just gainsaid him, by declaring (correctly) that for all we know, the material unique to each Gospel was invented by its author and didn’t come from a source. To be fair, Ehrman didn’t actually defend his assertion in the debate, either. And a mere counter-assertion does score against a mere assertion. Otherwise, apart from his Argument to Aramaic (which I will address separately), Ehrman never explained why anyone (even experts) should believe any content in the Gospels has a source other than an already-known Gospel. Thus, as he left it, we are to assume that merely because Matthew added material to Mark, therefore Matthew had a source for that material. Moreover, not just a source, but a source that, merely because it existed, must contain orally transmitted eyewitness testimony. Price should have spent more time calling out the total lack of logic in Ehrman’s assertions here.
- There is zero reason to believe either. Even if we grant the Q hypothesis (and I probably would in a clocked debate), the peer reviewed literature extensively establishes that Q was written in Greek (using the Greek OT as its scriptural source) after the Jewish War (e.g. see Dale Allison on the Sermon on the Mount in OHJ, pp. 465-68). Every conclusion contrary to that is pure speculation. In other words, Q was written basically the very same time as Mark, possibly even after Mark.
- Which is starting to sound a lot like Matthew. And yes, the more you analyze it, the more you start to realize that Q actually is just Matthew (see evidence and multiple experts concurring in OHJ, pp. 269-70 and 470-73). Ehrman has never given a rational reason to disagree with that conclusion. Whereas a rising vanguard of experts in the field are starting to realize the Q hypothesis is untenable; and even its staunchest defenders admit it’s at best 50/50 there even was a Q (see my citation of Kloppenborg admitting this in OHJ, p. 270, n. 34).
- Notice Ehrman does not tell the audience any of this. He just asserts Q is an established fact and is therefore an “independent” source. It isn’t. It’s a highly dubious, highly contested, highly doubted hypothesis, as even its own defenders like Kloppenborg admit. (IMO, it’s worse: the Q hypothesis is wholly indefensible and I cannot fathom why any rational historian would still be defending it.) For example, even if Q existed, how do we know Q is not a redaction of Mark, and Matthew and Luke just used that redaction, thus explaining their material that agrees with Mark, and the material that agrees with each other? We don’t. Therefore, theories based on Q “lacking” Markan material have exactly no basis in any evidence or logic. Such theories are viciously circular (they define Q into existence as material shared by Matthew and Luke but not Mark; and then act surprised that Q lacks Markan material). Which means, fundamentally fallacious. There is a reason David Hackett Fisher wrote a book demonstrating and explaining that historians really need to start learning logic, because they are frightfully bad at it.
- It only gets worse when we get to the other imaginary sources Ehrman relies on. Yes, literally imaginary sources—with even less evidence for their existence than there is for Q. These are L and M, meaning material only found in Luke or Matthew, respectively; and sometimes S, or the imaginary “Signs Gospel” that some speculate into existence as a source used by John (in fact, it’s just a previous redaction of John, which was wholly literary fiction: see OHJ, pp. 491-99; with even in fact a wholly fictional eyewitness source invented by the authors of John in their attempt to refute the Gospel of Luke, the central purpose of the fabrication of the Gospel of John: OHJ, pp. 487-91, 500-05). There is no evidence L and M are based on sources.
- Ehrman himself occasionally admits some of the content of L and M was invented by Luke and Matthew, respectively. So how does he or anyone know all of it wasn’t? They don’t. We cannot base our belief in the historicity of Jesus on sources for which we have no evidence. We have extensive evidence of fabrication in the Gospels. We have no evidence of their using sources. They never name sources, and never credit anything to a source. John is the only exception, but he only fabricates an unnamed source who never existed; and Luke cites Mark and Matthew as his only sources—again unnamed, since when Luke wrote, those Gospels probably had no names (contrary to what is often claimed, Luke does not reference having any oral sources, only prior Gospels, which we know were Mark and Matthew: NIF, pp. 178-82). So the evidence shows these authors (even John) all building on Mark, borrowing what they wanted, rewriting what they wanted, altering what they wanted, and adding what they wanted. Matthew redacts Mark, Luke redacts Matthew, and John responds to Luke with a wholly new fiction drawing on Mark and Matthew. Never with any indication of having a source for any of it.
- So it is dishonest of Ehrman to claim we have multiple independent sources. None of the Gospels are independent. They aren’t even independent of the Epistles. And none of the other sources Ehrman relies on exist, nor have any evidence of ever having existed.
- Argument 10. Some of these multiple independent sources were written in Aramaic, in Palestine, in the 30s A.D. Score 1. Ehrman did not say this as explicitly in the debate as he has in print. But he did basically argue in this debate that we can prove some content of the Gospels goes back to Aramaic sources which are therefore contemporary eyewitness sources. He did not give any examples, but he said generically that some passages “make more sense” if they were translated from Aramaic into Greek and the Gospels include some Aramaic words. He framed this point such that he clearly intended the audience to believe those two facts entail that these features derive from (a) multiple (b) eyewitness sources.
- Outcome: No Reply. Score 0. Appallingly, Price never responded to this claim. Ever. Yet it’s one of the most face-palmingly dubious arguments in the field, and Price knows that. Not only is it fundamentally fallacious, it’s factually dubious. Numerous experts have found the “Argument from Aramaic” invalid and unusable, and have extensively demonstrated this (PH, pp. 185-86; see also The Argument from Hypothesized Aramaic Sources), but you’ll never hear Ehrman admit that.
- First, there is no logically valid way to get from “there was some sort of Aramaic source” to “that source was Palestinian, early, and an eyewitness or using eyewitness material.” This is actually a classic fallacy of affirming the consequent, as I’ve tried explaining to Ehrman before. So even granting the premise, the conclusion doesn’t follow.
- Ehrman has been even more dishonest in his deployment of this argument before, in some cases telling audiences these hypothetical Aramaic sources actually exist, we actually have them, and they have actually been dated to the 30s A.D. In fact, they are entirely hypothetical; we don’t have them, we do not know they existed, they have not been dated, nor located geographically, nor confirmed as coming from or having any connection with eyewitnesses. We also don’t know what they said, or even that they were about Jesus.
- Since it has been well established in the mainstream literature that the Gospels are adapting material about other heroes (like Moses and Elijah) into stories about Jesus, any underlying Aramaic could actually come from Aramaic versions of those other hero tales being used, and not actual stories about Jesus (see below).
- Worse, some of these supposed “Aramaic sources” are agreed by Ehrman to be entirely fictional. For instance, previous to this debate Ehrman claimed the Miracle of Jairus’s Daughter is a story that must come from one of these “early” “eyewitness” “Aramaic” sources; yet he would agree, that story does not report any true event of history—it didn’t happen. How, then, can we use such sources to establish Jesus existed, when we are all admitting they are completely fabricated? (OHJ, pp. 410-17.) Similarly, Ehrman cites as another evidence of his imaginary Aramaic sources the Aramaic phrase Mark has Jesus quote from the OT when he dies on the cross—an utterance nearly all experts agree is a Gospel fiction, and not anything Jesus actually said, then or ever (OHJ, pp. 408-09; PH, pp. 131-34). It’s simply a quotation of Psalms; most likely in this case, an Aramaic targum of the Psalms (see below). Which is not a source connected in any way to Jesus.
- And this is again why we cannot establish that such sources even existed. For example, the Aramaic Mark used for the cry on the cross obviously comes from a targum, not a source talking about Jesus. Likewise the Miracle of Jairus’s Daughter: the only reason Ehrman claims it must come from an Aramaic source is that it has Jesus utter a single Aramaic word: it’s the magic word he uses to perform a resurrection. This in no way even remotely supports the conclusion that the story originated in Aramaic. To the contrary, Mark is inserting an Aramaic word here for the same reason stories of wizards today have them speak incantations in Latin. And for the purpose, Mark is most likely getting it from an Aramaic targum of the Kings narratives of Elijah, the Greek version of which Mark actually is using to invent the entirety of this story (simply recasting Elijah as Jesus, and updating the time, culture, and message: OHJ, pp. 408-11).
- Again, there are established experts in the field who agree with everything I’ve just said (that Mark’s Aramaic words and phrases come from targums; and that the Jairus story is a rewrite of an Elijah story, and thus not history or memory, but literary fiction). And Ehrman knows this. But he never tells audiences any of it.
- Finally, Ehrman claims some material in the Gospels “makes more sense” if we understand it to be a translation into Greek from an Aramaic original. Again, in this debate, he gave no examples (neither of this, nor of the presence of Aramaic words). This is actually a fringe thesis. Very few secular scholars agree with it. It was mostly a dubious obsession of the late Maurice Casey, and if you want to see how horribly illogical his methodology was, just check out the examples in The Greek Goof. I need say no more.
- Pause. At this point Ehrman says he is running out of time, and visibly skips several pages of his prepared statement.
- Argument 11: Paul “talks about a real historical” figure named Jesus. Score 1. Ehrman correctly says Paul’s (seven authentic) letters predate the Gospels and show he knew stories about Jesus preached by Christians within at least two years of when Jesus died—or, I would add, of when the visions happened that launched the sect, if Jesus’s death was only known that way—either way, I agree with Ehrman on these facts. But Ehrman asserts that Paul talks about Jesus in a way that confirms he is a real historical person—meaning, someone who was alive and seen on earth before he died. Of course on mythicism, Paul also believed Jesus was a real historical person, in the same way he believed Satan and the Angels Michael and Gabriel were; so when Ehrman says “real historical figure” he means in the more mundane, actual sense, and not in the same sense as Satan and other Archangels. More important to this assertion is the case Ehrman makes for it—which he proceeded to make; one of the few occasions in his opening where he actually gave evidence for his assertions. I’ll treat those separately.
- Outcome: No Effective Reply. Score 0. Price had no coherent response to this. The most substantive claim he made relating to it was to say the letters of Paul were all forged in the second century. A claim for which he presented no evidence. It’s actually a highly implausible conclusion, IMO, as unsupported and implausible as Ehrman’s billions of imaginary eyewitness sources (see my article The Historicity of Paul the Apostle). Ehrman rightly pointed out such a claim is wildly contrary to the nearly universal consensus of secular experts. A response Price never countered in any way (not even to list problems with “arguments from consensus”). Instead Price just admitted it was all speculation. Essentially refuting himself. Contrast that with the extremely different response I made to this general argument, the one that has actually passed peer review, in OHJ, Chapter 11.
- Argument 12: Paul attests earthly biographical facts about Jesus. Score 1. Here Ehrman essentially engages a Gish Gallop, shooting out dozens of assertions without presenting any evidence for them. Ehrman admits Paul gives scant few biographical facts about Jesus (indeed elsewhere Ehrman has said that all the facts about Jesus Paul attests to wouldn’t even fill one side of a 3-by-5 card). But then asserts that Paul states enough facts about Jesus to confirm he was a real person. Ehrman gives a long string of examples: Ehrman claims Paul says Jesus was a “preacher” and “teacher,” that he was “crucified by his earthly opponents,” was “a human being” and “a Jew” and “came from the line of king David,” and “lived and taught” and was crucified “in Palestine,” and at “the instigation of Jewish authorities,” and that he “preached to other Jews,” “had twelve disciples,” “had a last supper,” and that his “closest disciple” was Cephas (Peter), and also that Jesus was “physically born,” had a “woman as a mother,” had “brothers,” and one of whom was named “James.”
- Outcome: No Reply. Score 0. Astonishingly, Price did not challenge hardly any of this. Even though almost all of it is 100% false.
- Price’s opening mentioned the widespread mainstream rejection of Paul’s blaming the Jews for the death of Jesus as an interpolation (in 1 Thessalonians 2), but he never further defended that point, even when Ehrman got him to say all his alleged interpolations were just speculative. This one isn’t. But since Price didn’t single it out for defense as more than speculative but in fact well established in the peer reviewed literature, Price effectively refuted his own use of it in rebuttal, and therefore it scores zero. And that’s just one item on Ehrman’s list. (See below for my references on it.)
- Price did make a brief case for the “last supper” only being known as a revelation to Paul, not an actual historical event, but Price never explained, for example, that “last supper” is a phrase nowhere found in Paul; nor did he make clear how its features in Paul’s account nix it as a historical event (see OHJ, pp. 557-63); nor did he even mention the numerous respected mainstream experts who agree it wasn’t a historical event, or otherwise carry home an effective rebuttal on even this one point.
- Otherwise, only on the single item of who killed Jesus did Price make any other counter-assertion, but he never cogently defended it, either, even when Ehrman gave him ample opportunity to (Price’s vague speculation that all the letters of Paul were forged he already self-refuted, per above, so it doesn’t count here, either). I’ll address that exchange separately in my assessment of Price’s opening. For the rest…
- Paul never calls Jesus a preacher or ever refers to him preaching. Paul never calls Jesus a teacher or ever refers to him teaching. Paul never says Jesus preached to the Jews. Paul never says Jesus had a “last” supper. Paul never says Jesus was crucified by his “earthly” opponents. Paul never says Jesus died in Palestine. Paul never says Jesus lived in Palestine. Paul never says Jesus taught in Palestine. Paul never says Jesus had any disciples (indeed the word “disciple” never appears in Paul). Paul never says Cephas was his “closest” disciple. These statements are all false. I quote numerous experts concurring with this (OHJ, pp. 519-25; that Jesus “preached to other Jews,” BTW, is not only unattested in Paul, but Paul even appears to deny it in Romans 10:14-17: see OHJ, pp. 554-55.). So Ehrman essentially just lied to the audience. Repeatedly. And Price said nothing.
- Paul says the sect started with a band of twelve (1 Cor. 15:5) but never calls them or anyone disciples. The word “disciple” never appears in Paul’s letters. He only knows of “apostles” like him: persons who received revelations of the Christ (Galatians 1; 1 Corinthians 9:1 and 15:3-8). Paul has no idea that the eucharist meal inaugurated by Jesus and communicated to him in a vision was a “last supper” (no such concept exists anywhere in Paul, nor does Paul describe or mention anyone having been present at it: see OHJ, pp. 557-63). Paul never says Cephas was a disciple (or even a member of “the twelve”), and never says he was Jesus’s “closest” anything, disciple or otherwise. So this was again pretty close to lying. And again, Price said nothing.
- Paul never says Jesus “came from the line of king David.” He says he was made out of the sperm of David (no reference to genealogy or descent). See OHJ, pp. 575-77. Paul never says Jesus had an actual “woman as a mother.” He says he was made “from a woman,” not “born,” and then says we are all born of the same woman: this “woman,” he says, is an allegory for the physical world of flesh, not a person. See OHJ, pp. 577-82.
- Paul also never says Jesus had biological brothers. Brothers by birth or blood appear nowhere in Paul’s letters. He only knows of cultic brothers of the Lord: all baptized Christians, he says, are the adopted sons of God just like Jesus, and therefore Jesus is “the firstborn of many brethren” (OHJ, p. 108). In other words, all baptized Christians are for Paul brothers of the Lord, and in fact the only reason Christians are brothers of each other, is that they are all brothers of Jesus. Paul is never aware he needs to distinguish anyone as a brother of Jesus in any different kind of way. And indeed the only two times he uses the full phrase “brother of the Lord” (instead of its periphrasis “brother”), he needs to draw a distinction between apostolic and non-apostolic Christians (more on that below; but see OHJ, pp. 582-92).
- And Paul never says Jesus was killed at “the instigation of Jewish authorities.” Even where Paul is made to say Jesus was killed by the Jews (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16), Paul is made to say the Jews actually did the killing (not “at their instigation”). That’s a different story than appears in the Gospels. But it is widely recognized by secular and mainstream experts that this is an interpolation, forged after Paul’s death. It’s quite obvious that Paul never wrote such a thing, as it multiply contradicts what Paul says elsewhere (see OHJ, pp. 566-69).
- Finally, that Jesus briefly became a “man” / “human being” / “Jew” (literally manufactured out of the flesh “of David”) and was killed by crucifixion (and buried!) is indeed a part of Paul’s theology—and certainly that of the original believers, too—but Paul never says where any of this happened. So from the letters alone, we can’t tell. (Actually, IMO, it doesn’t sound like Paul, or the authors of Hebrews or even 1 Peter, thought any of this happened on earth—but that requires a lengthy examination of what they say and its significance: see, e.g., OHJ, pp. 515-17, 524-25, 528-31, 535-36, 538-52, 554, 558, 564-66, 572-74, 590-92.)
- Ehrman pressed the “who killed Jesus” question further with Price later in the debate, and Price gave no cogent reply, despite his surely knowing a great deal more to say on the matter than he did. I’ll address that in my survey of Price’s opening (below).
- Argument 13: We don’t expect Paul to have said any more. Score 1. Ehrman actually made this point roughly before his Gish Gallop, but I’ve ordered it here because it makes more logical sense in this position. Ehrman argued that Paul’s silence on any specifics doesn’t increase the probability of Jesus not existing. He based this argument on an argument from analogy: Ehrman’s mother’s fervent letters about her Christianity today also never talk about any biographical facts of Jesus; therefore neither would Paul’s letters have done so.
- Outcome: No Reply. Score 0. Price never addressed this, either. Even though it’s an egregious Fallacy of False Analogy. Indeed, one I already refuted in OHJ, pp. 514-15 (I guess I must be psychic!).
- First, I actually doubt the premise is even true (Really, Bart? Your mother never talks about any historical facts of Jesus in any twenty thousand words of her discussing her fervent belief in Jesus? Based on my experience with Christians, I find that extraordinarily unlikely, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence—and the word of a documented liar doesn’t rate as even ordinary evidence). But as we don’t get to examine his mother’s letters, we can’t really test that suspicion.
- Second, letters written two thousand years later, in the context of a culturally normative religion—by someone not at all involved in persuading people to act like Jesus or follow his commands, nor at all involved in the repeated task of establishing herself as an authority on what Jesus said, did, and expects—are not even one iota relevant as an analogy to Paul’s epistles.
- Paul was attempting to persuade people to act like and follow the commands of Jesus, attempting to keep them hewing to a specific set of teachings, without any Gospels or New Testament to rely on or cite for the task (just the pre-Christian scriptures), against numerous opponents who were challenging his claims or making claims contrary to his, to congregations newly converted and in imminent danger of apostasy or heresy that Paul was writing his letters to prevent, populated with members who lived in the very same lifetime as the man they were worshiping as a celestial god, a celestial god they believed had just recently walked the earth and preached to hundreds of persons still living.
- In that context, Paul’s silence makes zero sense. Ehrman’s mother’s letters are utterly disanalogous.
- Let’s try a better analogy: Ehrman’s mother converts to a new fringe cult and then writes twenty thousand words to multiple parties, attempting to persuade them not to listen to doubters and challengers attempting to steer them to new doctrines, and instead to act like, and follow the teachings of, her new cult’s Lord and Master, Jorgé, whom she describes as a pre-existent celestial savior god who communicates through hidden messages in scripture and ecstatic revelations and dreams, and whom she claims was murdered by “the powers of this aeon,” who were tricked by God into killing him so his deathblood would magically end the power of Satan…but she never once in all twenty thousand words ever mentions anything this Master Jorgé ever said or did on earth, never says who “the powers of this aeon” are, and never mentions anyone ever having met him in his life. Don’t you think after reading those you’d strongly suspect Master Jorgé was an imaginary person? I know I would.
- Argument 14: Paul can’t have meant by “brother of the Lord” anything but actual kin. Score 1. Ehrman took special pains to defend this claim, so I give it an additional score. Ehrman admitted “brother” can mean the members of the same believing community, and thus could mean something like “close solidarity with Jesus,” but it cannot mean that when Paul uses it in Galatians 1:18-19 “because he is contrasting James with Cephas,” nor in 1 Corinthians 9:5, because “none of the others” listed there “are brothers of the lord” evidently, yet would be in the cultic sense.
- Outcome: No Effective Reply. Score 0. Price never responded to this, except to sort of suggest these passages (both??) were later interpolations. He made no defense of that assumption, and even admitted it was just a speculation, thus refuting himself. No score is warranted. (And though his wildly implausible “all the letters are forged” claim would count as a rebuttal here, too, since Price refuted himself on that as well, per above, it also scores zero here.)
- Ehrman made it seem like fictive kinship in Christianity was just pro forma, a common feature of sects and social groups. But Paul actually says Christians become “brethren” by becoming upon baptism the literal sons of God—by adoption, just like Jesus (Romans 8:15-17). The only difference between baptized Christians and Jesus is that Jesus was first, hence Jesus was “the firstborn of many brethren” (Romans 8:29).
- So Paul clearly says all baptized Christians are the brothers of Jesus. Paul never says there is any other kind of way to be his brother. It never occurs to him that he has to distinguish between brothers of the Lord by baptism, and brothers of the Lord by birth. Thus, when he just says “brothers of the Lord” without distinction, it does not appear Paul means anything other than the only other kind of brother of the Lord he ever mentions: baptized Christians. If he meant something else, he’d have to make clear he means some other kind of brother. Unless he did not know of any other kind. (See OHJ, pp. 582-92.)
- Ehrman is right, though, that when Paul uses the full phrase “brother of the Lord,” he is doing so to “contrast” one group with another. Grammatically, it has already been shown in the peer reviewed literature that in Galatians 1:18-19, Paul is saying the James there referenced was not an apostle (OHJ, pp. 589-90). Thus, he is contrasting apostolic and non-apostolic Christians: he is saying the James there is merely a baptized Christian, albeit still an initiated member of the sect, but not an apostle. Likewise in 1 Corinthians 9, Paul is saying that even if mere baptized Christians—in other words, even rank and file members on church business—get their wives fed on the church dime, why shouldn’t Paul, who was an actual apostle? Even his co-apostle Cephas, Paul says, was getting that benefit, as were apostles generally.
- Grammatically these readings are just as likely as the alternative Ehrman wants to be true. And contextually, Ehrman’s reading requires Paul to have inexplicably not made the required distinction between what kind of brothers he means; evidently, Paul only knows of one kind, and the only kind we can see from his letters that he knows about, is fictive. So we cannot argue from these passages that Paul is attesting to biological kin of Jesus. Even if he is, we can’t tell.
- Argument 15: Crucifixion always meant by Romans on earth. Score 1. Ehrman briefly argued “Romans crucified people all the time,” so the word always means that, Romans crucifying, because “that’s what everybody means” back then.
- Outcome: No Reply. Score 0. Price never addressed this. It’s a terrible argument, of course. But you need to say that, or else it counts against you. And Ehrman even explicitly gave Price a chance to address it in cross, and he didn’t (see below).
- Ehrman is bad at reference classes. “Scrolls are only ever on earth, therefore when scrolls are opened in heaven, that insectuous German rock band must have been right, ‘heaven must be a place on earth’,” is not a sound argument (I dealt with this same faulty reasoning from Maurice Casey already).
- Hebrews (and the Ascension of Isaiah) both say that everything on earth has counterparts, duplicates, in heaven. So we know even from the canonical NT that crucifixions occur in heaven, because everything on earth has its counterpart in heaven (this is attested widely in Jewish literature: OHJ, pp. 194-97). And Hebrews seems even to say Jesus was crucified in heaven (OHJ, p. 540-45), and the earliest recoverable redaction of the Ascension of Isaiah said that explicitly (OHJ, p. 36-48).
- So when Paul says Jesus was crucified but is extremely vague as to where or by whom (see below), and we have all this other evidence that it could have been in the heavens, we are left unable to determine which he means: is he describing in 1 Corinthians 2 the later canonical version of the crucifixion, or is he describing the Ascension of Isaiah version? Both of which came to be written around the same time (between the 70s and 120s A.D.), and we cannot presume a priori to know which sect Paul was writing for, because which prevailed was decided by persons centuries later who had no real knowledge or care for what was true. Yet note that Paul actually appears to quote the Ascension of Isaiah version in 1 Corinthians 2 (OHJ, p. 48); whereas he says nothing there that matches the canonical version.
- Even apart from that, what Ehrman said is simply full-on false: the terminology Paul uses for crucifixion was also routinely used for Jewish methods of execution, including stoning (which always ended in a crucifixion of the corpse), and for executions in other cultures like the Assyrians, it’s used several times in the OT, and was broad enough to even include mythical deaths like that of Prometheus being chained to rocks (this is all well established in the peer reviewed literature: OHJ, pp. 61-62; compare Seneca the Elder, Controversies 10.5.17 and Plato, Republic 2.361b-362a, a popularly read treatise of Paul’s time; the latter I actually quote and discuss in OHJ, pp. 211-12).
- Argument 16: Paul doesn’t talk about “God” being crucified, but Christ, so this cannot be a parallel to dying and rising “gods.” Score 1. This was something Ehrman just quickly threw out and didn’t explain or defend, so it wasn’t well formed as an argument. But I’ll score it, because as lousy an argument as it is, again, you still have to say that to negate the point.
- Outcome: No Reply. Score 0. Price never answered.
- This seemed to me quite dishonest. Ehrman just wrote a whole book admitting, and indeed extensively proving, that the earliest Christians worshiped Jesus as a god, and did so from the founding of their creed. So here he seems to be repudiating his own book. More likely, he’s just lying to the audience to score points. That’s kind of disgusting.
- Obviously, Paul and the earliest Christians regarded Jesus as a divine being and “the son of god,” and all the dying-and-rising gods are divine beings and “the son of god” (or daughter in a few cases). Moreover, almost all the dying-and-rising gods were personal saviors (by the time Christianity began); all the dying-and-rising gods undergo a “passion” (patheôn, same exact word used of Jesus), a great suffering ending in their death that awards them their divine status; all the dying-and-rising gods are resurrected in some fashion, some very similar to Jesus (rising in their own body restored or ascending to and getting a superior body in heaven; note how dishonest Ehrman has been about this before); and almost all the dying-and-rising gods award their followers a handsome afterlife with a baptism through which the follower emulates the death and resurrection of the savior. To claim this isn’t astonishingly similar to Jesus is simply lying at this point. See OHJ, pp. 96-108 (Christianity has too many similarities with the baptismal mystery cults for this to be a coincidence), and pp. 168-73 (Jesus has too many similarities with the dying-and-rising god-type for this to be a coincidence).
- Argument 17: You can’t be buried in outer space. Score 1. This was another brief undefended assertion, the gist of which was that mythicism requires Jesus to have been buried in outer space, or else 1 Corinthians 15:4 refutes it; so if that can’t happen, ergo, 1 Corinthians 15:4 refutes mythicism.
- Outcome: No Effective Reply. Score 0. Price never addressed this. Since we have already buried several machines in outer space, the notion that you “can’t” be buried in outer space doesn’t hold up even on modern cosmology. But on ancient, it was even more explicitly sensible, and in fact established in the literature.
- Jewish lore already held that Adam and Eve were buried in outer space (OHJ, pp. 195-97); and Paul himself says he (or someone he knew…he may in fact have been referencing an early redaction of the Ascension of Isaiah) visited a whole garden in outer space (2 Corinthisn 12), and a garden is obviously the sort of place where someone could be buried in (John 19:41). In fact, that was the same garden in outer space Jewish lore had Adam and Eve buried in. So Ehrman either is lying, or doesn’t know what he is talking about and is just arrogantly pretending he checked his facts on this, when obviously he didn’t. As noted above, many texts, including Hebrews, say everything on earth has counterparts in the many heavens, one of which was the firmament; and the Ascension of Isaiah explicitly says the firmament (the space between earth and the moon) has its copies, too. So there were places to be buried even there (including, but not only, the moon).
- Ehrman seemed frequently to mock the idea of things being in and happening in outer space. He doesn’t seem to grasp that he is mocking his own view of how Christianity began. According to Ehrman’s view, Jesus’s best friends, even members of his family, who knew him personally for years, suddenly, almost immediately upon his death, started believing and claiming that he was only briefly a man and was in fact more fundamentally a descended space alien thousands of years old from the beginning of time who only briefly wore a human suit just to get it killed to overturn Satan before flying back into outer space again from where he now sends us psychic signals intelligence. Because Ehrman himself agrees that’s exactly what the very first Christians believed: that Jesus was only briefly a man and was in fact more fundamentally a descended space alien thousands of years old from the beginning of time who only briefly wore a human suit just to get it killed to overturn Satan before flying back into outer space again from where he now sends us psychic signals intelligence.
- If that’s silly, because “things in outer space” is silly, then Ehrman’s own explanation for the origins of Christianity is even sillier. Because it requires all this to be believed of an ordinary person, by his own friends and family, immediately after even his very public murder. That’s no less bizarre than what the mythicists are proposing: that, instead, people who never knew him as a person, came to believe this very same strange thing from finding it hidden, pesher-like, in scripture (OHJ, pp. 87-92, with 81-87 and 137-45) and riling themselves up into an ecstasy to have visions confirming this (ibid., pp. 124-37) because it conveniently solved pressing socio-political problems of the time (ibid., pp. 153-59, with pp. 143-45), exactly matching known anthropological models for how pacifist revolutionary apocalyptic cults form and operate (ibid., pp. 159-63), and looking a lot like prior examples of “outer-space savior” ideologies in Jewish literature (e.g., ibid., pp. 73-81, 200-09) and surrounding cultures (ibid., pp. 164-73, and again pp. 96-108).
- Argument 18: The Jews would never invent a messiah who gets killed. Score 1. This is one of Ehrman’s two most typical and predictable arguments (the other being the brothers argument, discussed above). It’s both false and fallacious. But it scores if you don’t say so.
- Outcome: No Effective Reply. Score 0. Price said nothing at all about this. Again.
- First, it’s false. The Jews did invent a messiah who gets killed. Explicitly in the Talmud: the Messiah son of Joseph will die, presaging the end times, at which the Messiah son of David would resurrect him, beginning the general resurrection of Israel. The Talmud says Isaiah 53 and Zechariah 12 are about this apocalyptic messiah being killed and resurrected. And before Christianity, Daniel 9-12 says much the same thing: the last messiah will be killed, presaging the end times, at which the Archangel Michael would descend and resurrect Israel (including the killed messiah). There is evidence this scheme was elaborated in the Dead Sea Scrolls literature as well. And Ehrman himself has admitted that “chosen one” was a key-word used by Jews to identify passages about the messiah in the OT (as many experts concur: OHJ, pp. 67-68), and Isaiah 53 says a “chosen one” will die and thus atone for the sins of Israel, and even the Talmudic Jews thus agreed this passage was about the messiah. (See OHJ, pp. 73-81, 137-43.) So the claim that Jews “would never do this” is outright false.
- Second, it’s fallacious. Hebrews 9 makes perfect sense of a dying messiah on existing Jewish theology. That that can be done entails it could be done. Therefore, the claim that it can’t be done is false. But if we accept it can be done, we can no longer argue “the Jews would never do it because they never did,” because that would declare impossible every innovation in the entirety of Jewish history. Which is absurd.
- Having the messiah die before returning as “a great warrior king and mighty cosmic judge who would destroy his enemies” (as Ehrman says a messiah must be) was actually a theologically brilliant idea in the context of the time (OHJ, pp. 153-59), perfectly in line with Jewish thinking about how heroes and powers and victories against evil operate (from exalted martyrs to atonement magic: OHJ, pp. 143-45, 209-14, 430-32, with p. 142; and PH, pp. 131-34, with p. 141). Hence, Jesus is still exactly that messiah Ehrman says a messiah was supposed to be. His playing that part was simply said to be coming any time now, his powers having been gained by first submitting to death, just like all the other dying and rising personal savior Lords of the era; and, incidentally, just like the exalted “chosen one” of Isaiah 53.
- So when Ehrman says, “You can’t explain the crucified messiah as something that was made up,” he’s flat out, demonstrably wrong. It’s also not a logically valid rebuttal to mythicism. On mythicism, that the crucifixion was a stumbling block for (only some) Jews was because they couldn’t understand how anyone would know an archangel had been crucified in outer space, without a “sign” confirming it (OHJ, pp. 613-15; compare pp. 610-13). Likewise, the only kind of messiah you can invent is one who isn’t a conquering warrior. Thus it would always entail some cryptic stumbling block the inventors had to overcome with scripture and traveling miracle acts. So would an actually crucified man have entailed. Therefore, the existence of a stumbling block is entailed by both theories, and therefore argues against neither.
- Recap. That concluded Ehrman’s opening. He closed by recapping the assertions that Jesus was the best attested Palestinian Jew in the first century, we have multiple independent sources on him, and the writings of Paul, in which he confirms Jesus was crucified by the authorities there. His final point was that reasonable people base their beliefs on the facts.
- Notably at no point in his opening statement did Ehrman address any critiques of these arguments. He just repeated the same old stuff he always says, just like William Lane Craig does, as if it had never been critiqued before. Also, Ehrman never appealed to any extra-biblical evidence. Although possibly he would have had he more time (it may have been in his skipped section).
As I noted before, Price took no notes, and only read a prepared statement at the podium, much of which did not respond to anything Ehrman said in his opening. As with Ehrman, it began with a long time-wasting introduction that made no substantive points of debate. Then moved to critiquing past claims Ehrman made, only some of which aligned with claims he made in this debate. Most of whatever he said that was relevant I’ve already catalogued above in assessing his responses to Ehrman’s opening. What remains is not very useful.
Price tried arguing, a lot, that it makes no sense to say that mundane stories got embellished into the wild stories in the Gospels, because what was wild about them is the only reason they’d have been preserved in the first place. But this was in no way what Ehrman has defended, or defended in this debate, as what did survive in the Gospels as reliable historical data. In short, Price’s argument was completely disconnected here from Ehrman’s actual historical model of the historical Jesus and the actual things he credits as historical and why. Ehrman eventually made essentially that very point—though without explaining further with examples, as he should have done, to advance the debate. Consequently, they completely talked past each other on this, and no progress was made. The audience still wasn’t told which facts Ehrman thinks are historical about Jesus in the Gospels, or why; and we got to see no questioning of whether his reasons for believing those things historical were sound.
For example, Ehrman did assert a list of things in Paul, like crucifixion by the Romans; and one might infer that Ehrman meant when those things were attested in the Gospels, that that counts as independent corroboration of Paul. Ehrman never actually said that, though. And it would be bogus. The Gospels were not independent of the letters of Paul and thus could have been extracting all that data simply from him, and altering them or adding the embellishments they needed for their purpose. And we didn’t get to see any of this question probed further. Ehrman, for instance, does think the Gospels somehow independently corroborate Paul on the historical crucifixion, but the story the Gospels tell about that is wildly implausible as history and cannot be remotely true (PH, pp. 139-41, 153-54). So how does Ehrman deal with that? How does he trust a story in no way historically plausible, as reliable evidence of a historical event? A story, even, that cites no sources, and is written decades later, with obvious mythological intent, built out of stories in no way related to Jesus? (e.g., OHJ, pp. 402-05, 407-08, 422-26, 428-30, 437-38; see also pp. 45-47, 56-58, and PH, pp. 131-34, 141.)
Price never pushed any question this way. Not in his opening; nor in cross. So we never got to find out.
Similarly, Price argued it would be ridiculous to propose all the pagan gods were historical persons. But that’s not what Ehrman is doing. He isn’t just proposing some god was a historical person. He is making a case for that. So this was again a complete disconnect with Ehrman’s actual stated positions. Analogously, if Ehrman were making a case from evidence that Hercules actually existed, the response is to address that case, not to say that it’s simply ridiculous to invent historical origins for gods. If Ehrman were doing that, Price needs to show he is. Otherwise, he still has to address the case Ehrman is making, and not deploy a disconnected argument from incredulity. That’s doing exactly what those historicists do who dismisses mythicism out of hand because “it’s ridiculous.” That’s simply not an argument.
Price then burned a lot of clock on the extrabiblical evidence (Tacitus and Josephus and some second century Christian evidence like Papias, that, again, Ehrman made no mention of). Which was bad debate strategy. Ehrman used no such arguments. So Price should have devoted that time to arguments Ehrman did make. The only potentially useful point Price made in this was to point out how readily Ehrman believes “scholarship of convenience” with the Testimonium Flavianum, just changing the text to say whatever would make sense for Josephus to say, and then declaring that as what Josephus said, and then using that mutant monster you just made up as evidence for Jesus. Price could have hit Ehrman with this when Ehrman accused Price of doing the same thing with the letters of Paul; but he didn’t. Even so, tu quoque is a fallacy. Price shouldn’t be doing that with Paul for the very same reason he said Ehrman shouldn’t be doing it with Josephus.
When Price got to proposing an origin story without a historical Jesus, he argues that the crucifixion of Jesus was imagined to be “a primordial event only recently revealed,” and later “Gnostic” writings show the transition from that, to a phase where the sectarians “historicized their cosmic myths,” and then this evolved into a “docetic version,” and then that “became solidified into orthodoxy.” The process he proposed was somewhat fanciful, inadequately explained, and not at all clear. Most of the audience I am certain was completely lost. Similarly, Price said something to the effect that Paul was reporting revelations when he related commandments from Jesus, but he said it in such obscure terms, it was hard even for me to follow. Only when he covered the Eucharist revelation was that remedied (which I mentioned earlier), where he rightly pointed out that Paul is not there using the phraseology of rabbinical transmission but his own idiom for relating visions. But Price didn’t do anything else with that point, or bring it up again.
He also ran out of time, skipped material, and closed with a quick flourish.
That was it.
The score was 14:2, a sevenfold win for Ehrman. A landslide by any standard. All due not to his having the better case, of course, but to his having an opponent who dropped the proverbial ball. A sad thing to see.
Most of what went on in cross was a waste of time. They asked each other a lot of irrelevant questions. But overall, Ehrman performed better. He used his time to bait Price into defending unbelievable positions such as that everything inconvenient could just be assumed an interpolation, that all the letters of Paul were second century forgeries, and that the baptism scene in the Gospels was based on obscure Zoroastrian doctrines. And rather than play smart, and saying adopting these conclusions wasn’t necessary to doubt historicity and thus not relevant to the clocked debate, Price took the bait, and burned clock affirming them, and defending them so horribly it appeared to the audience he had no coherent or credible defense of them.
The net effect was making it seem as though doubting historicity required adopting half a dozen wildly implausible assumptions. For the record, no, we don’t. We don’t need bizarrely late dates for the Gospels. We don’t need the seven core letters of Paul to be forgeries. We don’t need to assume any interpolations that aren’t already widely accepted in the mainstream literature. We don’t need to imagine Zoroastrianism influenced any passage in the Gospels. We don’t need any of the weird claims Price tried to hang mythicism on. For example, the John the Baptist scene in the Gospels can be shown to be probably fictional with entirely straightforward, peer reviewed findings (PH, pp. 145-48). We don’t need weird, unprovable speculations about Zoroastrian influences.
In the end, though, both Ehrman and Price said the same thing about how we should resolve this debate: Price, that “It’s a question of what paradigm makes the most sense of the evidence”; Ehrman, that “It’s a question of what’s more probable.” But we never got to see either test applied properly to the question. Price put forward some of the least probable alternatives to Ehrman’s model, thus violating his own stated principle; as Ehrman himself even pointed out. Ehrman, meanwhile, articulated no coherent theory of probability by which to derive “probable” conclusions from premises—and when given a chance to, he even denounced probability theory as inapplicable. One wonders then how Ehrman can determine what’s more probable, without applying any of the logical apparatus governing probability.
Who Are the Archons of This Aeon?
A paradigmatic example of these problems came up in the debate between Ehrman and Price over the meaning of the phrase “Archons of this Aeon” in 1 Corinthians 2:8. Price correctly mentioned in his opening that this is a bizarre and vague phrase to use to describe the killers of Jesus, and that similar terminology was also known to refer to demons in the sky (literally, in the lowest sphere of outer space, the region between the earth and the moon: see OHJ, pp. 184-93, with p. 63). Ehrman tried challenging him on that in cross, by saying the use of the word “archons” in Romans 13 clearly means ordinary Roman leaders, not sky demons. Neither one of them built a clear paradigm to compare with the other’s for explanatory power; nor did either of them make any logically coherent argument for the probability of either conclusion. It was all just a waste of time as far as the audience was concerned.
Price failed to point out the first problem with this, that Romans 13 never uses the odd phrase “Archons of this Aeon,” an extremely sweeping term that is inclusive of all the powers over the whole of the earth for what was typically a thousand year period or more. That hardly sounds like a good substitute for “Pontius Pilate,” or even “the Romans.” In his letter to the Romans, Paul only uses archon there by itself in the usual manner. He did not tack on the bizarre attribution of those ruling the aeons (or for aeons or this aeon or anything else equally bizarre). Ehrman was hiding this fact in the way he phrased his question. Price failed to call him out on that.
Price did point out that if “archon” means the same thing in both Romans 13 and 1 Corinthians 2, then Paul was contradicting himself, saying in the one place that these archons never disobey god, and in the other that they always do. Ehrman simply bit the bullet on that one and admitted Paul contradicted himself, claiming it was for political convenience. But that doesn’t really make a lot of sense. The disobedience of these archons is fundamental to the gospel. How could Paul persuade his fellow Christians of anything with an argument based on the assertion that these archons always obey God’s will, when the very core of their gospel was based on those same archons being eternally opposed to God’s will? Ehrman’s reply was illogical and unsustainable. It was, in short, paradigmaticaly improbable. Yet Price didn’t challenge him on it.
And that was where that exchange ended.
Why wouldn’t Price bring up any more of the above? Or the even more deeply problematic fact that in 1 Cor. 2 Paul is literally saying that the archons he is there referring to would have stopped the crucifixion had they known it would defeat the power of death in the world. That does not sound like Pontius Pilate. Or the Jews. Or the Romans. None of them would have any such interest; the Romans wouldn’t have even comprehended it. Why would they have moved to stop an arcane act of blood-magic to keep themselves and everyone else mortal? This is simply not an interest any among the earthly authorities had. But it was precisely the driving interest of Satan, the “Archon of the Air” ruling “this Aeon” (Ephesians 2:2), and his dark angelic and demonic subordinates: to keep sin and death in the world (1 Corinthians 15:26, 54, etc.). Paul is saying that’s why God kept hidden from these “archons” who Jesus was, so they would kill him by mistake, thus triggering the resulting blood magic (Hebrews 9, etc.).
As I wrote in OHJ (OHJ, pp. 564-66):
This cannot mean just Pontius Pilate and the Sanhedrin. This is everyone in power: they killed Jesus, and did so only because they were kept from knowing their doing so would save the human race. This entails a whole world order whereby if any of ‘the rulers of this age’ had known what would happen, they would have told their peers and stopped the crucifixion, to prevent its supernatural effect. This does not describe any human world order. This describes the Satanic world order, the realm of demons and fallen angelic powers.
[In fact], this exactly describes what we saw in the earlier redaction of the Ascension of Isaiah: [there,] Satan and his demons kill Jesus only because his identity was kept hidden from them, so they wouldn’t know what his death would accomplish.
It therefore makes more sense to conclude that it is the archons of the sky that Paul is saying God wanted to thwart by keeping all of this hidden, so they would kill Jesus, not knowing it would secure their destruction. For Paul says these archons are ‘being abolished’ (katargoumenôn, a present passive participle). This does not plausibly refer to the Jewish or Roman elite (who were still fully in power, and could still be as saved as anyone by joining Christ). It most plausibly means that those sharing in the sacrifice of Jesus now had power over the demons, to exorcise them and escape their clutches—thereby escaping the power of death. Because it is by his death that Jesus had triumphed over those dark celestial powers (just as Colossians 2:15 would later say). The early Christian scholar Origen agreed: he could only understand Paul here to be saying that unseen powers of darkness were being abolished, not any earthly authorities, and that these demonic powers were the ones who plotted against and crucified Jesus.
So when we compare paradigms to explain the content of 1 Cor. 2:6-8, the historicity paradigm does not do a good job at all. You have to add multiple epicycles of not very probable assumptions to get it to fit. But the mythicist paradigm matches it exactly. It is, in fact, practically a summary of the Ascension of Isaiah, the one known “gospel” that has Jesus crucified by Satan in outer space. Likewise, what’s more probable, that Paul would say something so multiply inexplicable and thus so improbable about mere Roman government officials, or that he would say this if he was just summarizing a demonic narrative instead, like we find embellished later in the Ascension of Isaiah? The latter, surely. Even at best, it’s 50/50. We can’t tell.
Why Don’t We Have the Cosmic Gospels?
Similarly, Ehrman smartly asked a very good question: given that no “outer space gospel” survives, but the historicizing gospels do, why are we siding with evidence that doesn’t survive instead of the evidence that does? Price didn’t give any intelligible answer to the question. Why didn’t he mention that an “outer space gospel” does survive? The reconstructed Ascension of Isaiah. Why didn’t he point out that Medieval Christians tried destroying that gospel, by tearing sections out, and forging new sections in their place that agreed with their historicizing doctrine instead? Why didn’t he mention that Medieval Christians destroyed nearly every document of every competing sect, and almost all the documents of the first and early second century, including several letters of Paul, and even some sections of the letters we have? (OHJ, pp. 146-52, 293-08, 349-56.) Why did the prevailing Christian sect rely almost entirely on mass forgery to establish its doctrines and history? (OHJ, pp. 214-22, 315-42) What happened to the gospel quoted by Ignatius that says no one witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus, and that his existence was only known upon his resurrection, by a shining star in the sky? (OHJ, pp. 320-23) Why did historicist Christians have to forge the letter of 2 Peter to denounce other Christians who were claiming the historical Jesus was a myth, and why did that have to be accomplished by forging an eyewitness testimony of Peter meeting Jesus on earth in order to “refute” them? (OHJ, p. 351) Why do we not have a single document from that other sect of Christians? Why don’t we have their Gospels?
Ehrman can’t claim we should have those Gospels if they existed therefore they didn’t exist; clearly they existed—2 Peter was forged to refute them, and Ignatius quotes one; and in fact we do have one of them, the Ascension of Isaiah—after heavy doctoring by later Christians who tried to hide its original content. The reason we don’t have any more than this is thus not that there weren’t Christians arguing Jesus was a myth or preaching his cosmic death instead of an earthly one. There clearly were. The reason we don’t have more of their literature (especially their earliest, which would be the most important for dating their cosmic doctrine) is that the entire existence of those Christians—and the entirety of their literature, their epistles and gospels—was almost completely erased from history by the prevailing historicizing sect. This enormously distorts the evidence we have. We cannot act like we have a random survival of documents, and that what we have is a mostly honest representation of what there was. What survives was crafted by numerous independent agents with a common agenda to convince us of historicity—to “refute” those forgotten Christians who denied it. And that was accomplished with destruction, forgery, and lies.
Ehrman’s Argument from Prestige
I won’t address the Q&A after cross. It got nothing useful out of either Price or Ehrman. But Ehrman’s answer to one question was disturbing: when asked what evidence it would take to change his mind, Ehrman responded by not mentioning any arguments or any evidence. He responded essentially by saying that when someone prestigious enough, who has a fancy enough university appointment, tells him it’s plausible, then he’ll change his mind. When pressed after the debate on this, he doubled down. He would never state any evidence, any reasoning, that would ever change his mind. Only the prestige of whose opinion it is would ever persuade him.
Ehrman basically thus said that his field does not do evidence-based reasoning. It only does prestige. Basically, if you don’t teach at Oxford, you can go fuck yourself. Of course, this means he is spitting on Thomas Thompson, Thomas Brodie, Hector Avalos, Art Droge, and Kurt Noll, as all beneath his contempt. All are fairly prestigious professors with relevant degrees and publication histories, who publicly doubt historicity. But fuck them, I guess. Ehrman doesn’t think their opinions are worth a hog’s ear. Never mind that fairly prestigious professors of the field passed my book through peer review. Because, I guess, fuck all peer reviewed literature, too? Peer review is for punks, apparently. If Oxford didn’t publish it, it’s crank garbage. He can ignore it. Such, it would seem, is how Ehrman thinks. Why do we care anymore about the opinion of someone who thinks like that? Good question.
There are two major takeaways from all this.
First, the biggest loss in this debate was that nothing new got said. Because Price never challenged hardly anything Ehrman asserted. So by the end of the debate Ehrman said everything I already expected him to (because it was the same stuff he always says), and nothing else. This was an opportunity for Price to push Ehrman on any of those standard arguments that Ehrman has been repeating for years (just like William Lane Craig, Ehrman only has the same arguments every time, so it’s super easy to prep for). He would then have gotten Ehrman to elaborate or defend those assertions, which he has consistently avoided doing for years—and now, thanks to Price, he still hasn’t done. So we got no new arguments to evaluate, thus making no progress in the overall history of this debate. We still don’t know why Ehrman thinks his claims and fallacies are valid. And the reason we got nowhere, is that Price just didn’t debate Ehrman. Maybe because Price lacks formal skill at debate or didn’t realize what was happening on stage. He seems to have thought this was just a casual conversation, and not a fact-finding mission. “Why do you believe that, Dr. Ehrman?” is a question that just never got asked, of any claim Ehrman made.
Second, why is Ehrman ignoring the peer reviewed literature in his own field? Why will he not address that, the case for mythicism actually vetted by Ehrman’s own peers, and instead debates Robert Price, whose arguments for mythicism have never passed peer review, many of which are even outright strange? This is a really weird thing to see happen in a supposedly professional academic field. If in any other field a consensus was challenged in its own peer reviewed literature, experts would analyze and respond to it in the peered reviewed literature, and there either publish flaws in it sufficient to warrant not changing the consensus, or they’d change the consensus. But here, everyone in the field is ignoring the peer reviewed challenges to the consensus in their own field (even Craig Evans didn’t read my book when he debated it with me), and fallaciously, circularly, citing “the consensus” as the reason to not even examine or respond to a peer reviewed challenge to that consensus—a methodology that would end all progress in every field were it adopted as a principle. Which is why no sane science would adopt such a principle. In fact, abolishing that principle is precisely what demarcated modern science from medieval and launched the Scientific Revolution. So how can any other field remain credible today, when it is still using the same irrational reasons to reject challenges to its authority as were decisively repudiated hundreds of years ago?
This debate, alas, will not give you an answer. It just re-asks the question.