Frank Zindler and Bob Price have edited their own anthology of “responses” to Bart Ehrman’s book Did Jesus Exist? For this project Zindler bought the rights from me to include a special summary edition of my blogging on the same subject (see Ehrman on Historicity Recap). This anthology is now available through American Atheist Press as Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth: An Evaluation of Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? (also available on kindle).
The rights to my contribution were procured through a single-payment contract, so I won’t be getting any royalties from the sale of this book (if you want to buy it and still want me to get a cut, then you can buy it through the above link, which is to the respective sales page in my Amazon store, where I get a kickback on any sale). I also had (and have) no editorial control over this book or its publication. My contribution does contain some new material not included in my blogging, but the most important addition (quotations from the Egyptian Pyramid Texts) will be included in my next book, On the Historicity of Jesus Christ, and the rest is pretty much already what’s available online (either in or linked from Recap), although I made various improvements in wording throughout.
I required a disclaimer to be included (in the Foreword generally and in the first paragraph of my chapter specifically), since I do not endorse much of what gets said elsewhere in this book. I was sure of this even before I read it, but having at last read it I can now confirm my expectation was correct. In fact, I consider much of it terrible. But it is fair enough to say that each chapter represents the best of what you can expect from each contributor of late. So if you want to see what each mythicist author is most often like in their manner of argumentation and quality of research, this is the anthology for you, although at 567 pages from disparate authors, it can be a challenge to get through.
That’s the sum of it. But those who want to know more can read on…
Thomas Verenna has already provided a rather scathing review (although praising my contribution as worthwhile). His complaints are warranted but I think maybe a little excessive [and maybe more than a little; see comment]. Ehrman’s unscrupulous and shoddy work in DJE? does deserve some of the polemical treatment it gets in the Zindler-Price anthology–it is basically how he treated these mythicist authors, on exactly the same grounds, so it’s not as if Ehrman himself has any right to complain unless he couples his complaint with an apology for doing the same. On the other hand, Verenna raises some valid concerns worth mulling, such as about Zindler’s use and publication of his correspondence with Ehrman [It should be made clear, however, that Zindler had Ehrman’s permission; the lack of which was not Verenna’s complaint].
My own take on this book’s content has more to do with its utility: it has almost none in my view. The authors represented in its pages are Richard Carrier (myself), D.M. Murdock, Frank Zindler, Robert Price, Earl Doherty, David Fitzgerald and Rene Salm. Most of what they argue is not very well argued or is too introductory or tangential or needlessly verbose to maintain the average reader’s interest. And what you won’t find here is anyone actually summarizing their theory of Christian origins and the evidence they think supports it. Granted, that was not the overall purpose of the anthology (I was only paid for my critical material on Ehrman, for example), but at nearly 600 pages it does seem odd not to have included anything along those lines.
Example: The Nazareth Obsession
One of the worst contributions is by Salm, yet this is representative of the kind of problem frequently encountered in this book. Here he burns over 40 pages attempting to argue there is no evidence for Nazareth in the early first century and yet never once even mentions, much less addresses, the priestly inscription (of around 300 A.D., in Hebrew) proving it existed in 70 AD–when it was recorded as one of the towns that took in priests after the destruction of the temple and the outlawing of its rituals. There was no temple to house priests nor any temple cult for priests to attend after the first Jewish War, so obviously they were more likely relocated in 70 AD, not 132 AD (much less later)–although some scholars have attempted “arguments from incredulity” for the latter conclusion, I find those arguments quite dubious myself.
- [Bibliographic Note: For the original publication of this inscription see Michael Avi-Yonah, “A List of Priestly Courses from Caesarea,” Israel Exploration Journal 12.2 (1962): 137-39. And for a good summary of the best case made for the later date of this priestly resettlement, by someone who then goes on to argue that the inscription’s content actually in fact predates Jesus (!): Uzi Leibner, Settlement and History in Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine Galilee (2009), pp. 404-20.]
In fact, numerous chapters by several authors in this anthology attack the historicity of Nazareth, and none of them mention this inscription (Murdock, on page 390, is even explicitly unaware of its existence). This is the kind of thing I’m talking about: what use is any of this lengthy and disorganized argumentation against Nazareth if it can’t even be bothered to address the best evidence we have for it? There are many other faults in Salm’s chapter (many errors of logic), but that one is problem enough [but not necessarily fatal as I originally said]. Which is a shame, because buried under his fallacies and hyperbole and omissions of key evidence are some valid points about the shoddiness of the archaeology of Nazareth and its demonstrably suspect motives. (Although the latter still cannot sustain the certainty Salm exhibits.)
Note to future mythicists: if you are going to write a chapter or article on a subject, make it comprehensive enough to be required reading on that subject. That means: don’t leave key evidence out of it, and be a better Devil’s Advocate of your own arguments as you write them, to ensure they aren’t easily shown faulty or hyperbolic, and that they exhibit the caution and self-awareness of their weaknesses any good scholar should rightly expect.
- [Editorial Note: Salm certainly knows the inscription exists, BTW: he discusses it in The Myth of Nazareth, pp. 275-78, though he argues tendentiously there, simply assuming the late dates are correct for the priestly resettlement and giving no good reason why we should agree. But at least he mentions this crucial piece of evidence and tries to deal with it there. Salm’s overall position is that Nazareth was founded (and named) by Jews in the late first or early second century (Salm agrees no Christians could ever have been settled there until much later: p. 278). Notice the potentially poor logic of this: what are the odds that Christians would invent the name of a fake town in Galilee and the Jews would then go on to independently found a town in Galilee with exactly that same name? I think probability is against Salm here. Quite heavily (unless we grant certain assumptions: see comment). But that’s a needless digression here, since Salm doesn’t make this argument in the anthology.]
This obsession with Nazareth is one I am familiar with from many of these authors, but it still baffles me. There are six chapters arguing Nazareth didn’t exist in this anthology–more even than the four listed in the actual section of the book wholly dedicated to Nazareth! I actually agree that Jesus, even if he existed, didn’t really come from Nazareth, that that was a mythical attribution to him based on creative exegesis of scripture and a clever (or ignorant) eponymous play on the original name of the Christian cult, the Nazorians (whose real meaning is obscure but it definitely does not mean people from Nazareth). But this means the non-existence of Nazareth is irrelevant to the historicity of Jesus. A “historical Jesus” in Paul, and even the Gospel of Mark sans one suspect verse, would have and require no connection with Nazareth.
Some of the chapters devoted to this subject do correctly address the one pertinent (though, I agree, feeble) argument that Jesus “must be” historical because no one would invent a town named Nazareth to place him in (that that argument is in fact unsustainable I document myself in Proving History, pp. 142-45, w. notes on p. 315: note I needed just a few pages to dispatch this argument, not a hundred), and they raise other valid questions (such as about the weaknesses in the archaeology, or the valid reasons to suspect Mark 1:9 of being an interpolation, and so on). But I don’t see us having anywhere near the evidence we would need to prove Nazareth definitely didn’t exist (we might be able to warrant a very weak agnosticism at best). Nor do I see any evidential value in proving it didn’t exist. So this obsession with disproving the existence of Nazareth, and with the fallacious argument “~Nazareth = ~Jesus,” is beyond all sense of proportion and for most readers will just be tedious.
There are a lot of other dogs-with-irrelevant-bone threads like this that crowd and weave through the whole anthology. To riff on the title of my own contribution: this is not how to write defenses of mythicism.
Summary of Chapters
My chapter (pp. 15-62) I’ve already described. Likewise Salm’s.
Price produces two elegantly written chapters that are a charm to read as always, although a bit rosy in their treatment of the contributing mythicists and a bit harsh on Ehrman, but they are still more just summaries of the anthology and its function. Murdock ably surveys the “phallic savior” fiasco (Ehrman stuck his foot so far down his throat on this one she could hardly go wrong at this point), but her chapter on Nazareth is hopelessly flawed (even when it contains some worthy insights, readers won’t know how to tell which). Fitzgerald’s piece is mostly a 101 survey of mythicist questions (not all of which are equally apt), but includes examples of Ehrman’s previous statements that seem to have been swept under the rug when Ehrman wrote DJE? and it is interesting to see them collected here, demonstrating how starkly Ehrman’s past caution and skepticism was abandoned.
That leaves Zindler and Doherty.
Zindler has ten chapters in this book, on scattered subjects, each of which makes some interesting points but also other points many will take issue with (including myself). I’m still not sure his use of Bayes’ theorem in textual criticism is correctly modeled, for example, but it’s a complicated affair that I haven’t devoted the time to tackle myself. Likewise many other complex arguments on minute issues Zindler attempts. Although his chapters are mostly erudite, readers might just end up confused.
Doherty contributes five chapters, which appear to have been plucked straight from the web with little editing (right down to including cross references to sections now no longer present) [note: I have been informed these defects were a result of the technical catastrophe in post-production: see comment]. In these he is too frequently off target and not adequately judicious in selecting which concise case to make, and he just doesn’t make the best arguments for his conclusion even when he’s right. It’s frustrating. (Just compare his whole chapter on mystery cults and dying-and-rising gods, pp. 167-82, with my section on the same subject, pp. 36-45, to get an idea of what’s missing from his treatment that should be there.)
For all the reasons I’ve voiced, I can’t honestly say I like this book very much. I can stand by my chapter in it, since I took special care to ensure that was soundly referenced and argued. But my readers might already be content with my blogging on DJE? and thus won’t necessarily need this update to it in print or kindle (unless you want its improved wording and organization on hand).