Price vs Ehrman Debate Fallout

I continue to ponder what went down at the Price-Ehrman debate, so the fallout mentioned here is my own personal fallout.  I doubt there is much impact in the wider world.  Unless we find out that Ehrman used an unsecured web server to write his blog posts on.

I went into the debate as a leaning mythicist.  I came out as a “Don’t Careicist.”  I have to say that when you think about the Jesus that Ehrman put forth, a fully human, non-miraculous guy, this really leaves us with the same sort of questions that we should have had before and almost all of them relate to sociological questions of how, assuming there is no God, religions form.

Actually, even if there was a God, we would still have the same problems about knowing how religions form.  Let’s just say for a moment that Jesus really did walk out of the grave in Jerusalem just as described in the Gospels.  There is still the huge issue of how you convince people of this.  Only a couple of witnesses and the story was not exactly air tight, does the story spread faster even if it true?  I am not sure it does.  It seems to me that there are questions that need to be answered whether or Jesus existed.  And for me, at least, none of them revolve around the exact meaning of some Greek term in the Bible.

Question 1:  If Jesus existed why is the first story about him from so far away?  As Ehrman shouted several times during the debate: “Mark was NOT A JEW!”  Why is a Syrian (?) writing the story in Greek so many miles from Jerusalem?  Jesus had that little impact there?  In the same way, where are the accounts of the other Apostles?  Dude walks out of the grave and NO ONE puts pen to paper?  This sort of thing needs to be explained if you take the historicist position.

Question 2: Where did all those early churches in the Eastern Mediterranean come from and how did they all have the same ideas about Jesus?  According to Ehrman Paul was persecuting these Christians just two years after Jesus “died.”  How did word get out so fast?  And how did it formalize so rapidly?  Both historicists and mythicists have to grapple with this one.

Question 3: Who the heck was Paul really?  And what did he really do and say?  None of the “traditional” answers to this seem very satisfying to me.  Here is a guy where half of the works published under his name are “traditionally” considered forgeries, but of course the other half are absolutely genuine.  Not sure why more people don’t have a problem with that.  If we ignore Acts, we get a picture of Paul’s activities, but adding Acts back in muddies the picture with many contradictions, starting with the “traditional” idea that Luke was riding around with Paul, but still feels free to contradict him.  Paul doesn’t seem to have started any churches, but seems to feel free to tell them what to do and think.  How is that?  Paul seems to have only talked to Jesus mystically, but is held in higher regard than the guys who supposedly hung around with Jesus (like the missing Apostles).  How does Paul get to be a leader in a church which he doesn’t seem to have founded.  Where did he get his ideas anyway?  Ehrman says that we can be sure that Paul was real and important because so many wanted to forge in his name, which seems like a very odd kind of verification.  Both mythicists and historicists have a huge problem with Paul, I think.

Question 4:  Where did the New Testament come from?  The consensus view on this is very dissatisfying to me.  It’s fine that we ditched the view that they were written by companions of the Apostles, but what is left is pretty much a mess.  No original manuscripts, not even ones close to the time they were supposedly written.  But even more disturbing, for a religion that claims to be based on the Truth with a capital “T” is the apparent lack of concern that early Christians seemed to have had for the texts themselves.  Just go ahead and rewrite them for a new audience.  Given what seems to have happened in the 4th Century, I don’t think we will ever have a good look at the development of the New Testament, but it certainly matters for how the religion developed.  And none of that hinges of Jesus’s reality.

Personally, I think while parsing ancient Greek is certainly worthwhile looking for clues, that reasoning by analogy would also be useful at this point.

I feel that the history of the Mormon church is very germane to what might have happened in early Christianity.  Of course there are tremendous differences, to be sure, but similarities as well.

Mormonism came about at the time of the “Great Revival” in the United States, an upwelling of religious sentiment.  A small group of people started making supernatural claims and attracted a group of followers.  These claims lead to direct attacks on the believers which may have strengthened their beliefs.  There was then a time of extreme flux where the founding documents and claims underwent revision and reinterpretation.  A formal structure emerged which was then used to gain new adherents, which in turn grew the formalized structure and so on.

In the investigation this path of development it is frankly irrelevant as to whether Joseph Smith was a grifter or visionary.  I think we would also agree that “reality” of the supernatural claims is also irrelevant.  Whether Moroni existed or not, later Mormons got the same evidence.  That is to say, even if Maroni was real, the only thing that later Mormons would have is Smith’s writings.  The writings obviously exist and that is all the evidence people seemed to need.  Same with Jesus, really.

Richard Carrier touched on some of these issues in his book, Not the Impossible Faith, but that book was, unfortunately penultimate to the historicity question.  I now think that historicity is a distraction, a red herring.  Irrelevant.

The real question is why do churches start?  How do they win out in the marketplace of ideas?  What is the psychology and sociology involved?

Agnostics and atheists are the only ones who can really attempt to answer these kinds of questions.  Religionists have their answer built in, “The supernatural claims are true and God guides our church.”  Which, if true, either means there are hundreds of gods or that God wants hundreds of churches.

For me, I am starting with the assumption that churches are something like corporations.  A new idea starts them and then a structure evolves around them.  That process is what I think is worth studying.  Whether or not Jesus really gave the Sermon on the Mount and whether or not it was a rehash or a radical idea really doesn’t matter that much to me any more.



  1. busterggi says

    RE: question 2, did all the early churches have the same view of Jesus? if they did then why did Paul have to set them all straight to his way of thinking? My best guess is that the early churches were branches of the Essenes with their ‘teacher of righteousness’ who supposedly lived around the 1st century BC and that Jesus was a title rather than a name.

  2. gshelley says

    These look like good questions
    It seems to me that one of the weaknesses of the Historicist position is that they point out things like this, claim that mythicism doesn’t explain it then assume they win by default, without considering if it makes any sense from a historicist perspective

  3. says

    I used to be a third-generation Christian missionary. As such, I knew or had met many of the founders of the main missionary organizations of the twentieth century. Several were family friends; some stayed in my home.

    I was 50 before I saw reason, so I had a lifetime to observe what happens as a movement matures.

    The founder has an idea, a mission, an inspiration. He/she (but usually he) works hard, inspires others to follow him, sets up an organizational base. The movement grows, other people take up key positions. Time goes on; the founder gets a bit old. The new recruits don’t quite see things his way. More time; the recruits are now running things. The founder retires or is side-lined. (I watched, in horror at the time, as Ralph Winter was de-legitimized as leader of his own organization, because he wasn’t “business-like” (meaning profit-focused) enough. I watched “faith” missions (meaning they never asked for money because God would provide if it was what he wanted) start fund-raising efforts. Etc.)

    The current crop of leaders may hold, at least in word, to some of the more specific of the founder’s ideas, but their focus and values are completely different. Sometimes the shift is towards secularization, sometimes towards a stronger fundamentalism, but there is always a shift.

    I’ve watched the same shift happen in Christianity as a whole, especially in the newer Protestant denominations. The major “sins” of my childhood (eg. dancing, playing cards, drinking) are now forgotten; new “sins” (abortion, for example) have been invented. (But women being women is still sinful.) Fundamentalists of my parents’ generation were proud of never getting involved in politics; today’s fundamentalists are all about politics. So it goes.

    Whether or not Jesus existed (I think not, but it doesn’t matter), the same thing would have happened in his lifetime. 50 years down the line, his teachings would have been forgotten or changed or even contradicted. There’s no possibility of following the varied changes over a mere 300 years of the “early church”. (In quotes, because I don’t think there was ever any one “early church”.)

      • Steve Watson says

        The same thing did happen. Paul went beyond the so-called ‘pillars’, Apollos’ faith doesn’t even seem to have contained Jesus, Mark’s Jesus isn’t the Cosmic Christ, both Matthew and Luke had issues with Mark and spun their own versions, John is another rewrite of Mark with an even more cosmic Jesus, I haven’t a clue what the ‘Revelations’ author was smoking but it was some good gear! The theology of Hebrews is different again, etc.

        Where ever and when ever we look in the first centuries, both BC and AD, there is a riot of sects and individuals drawing on the same pool of ideas. We might not be able to get too much detail but I think we can sketch a fair amount from what remains; the inferences we can make from them; and by analogies such as yourself and Susannah have drawn out here.

        Jesus may very well be an irrelevance and a distraction for us but the academy, nevermind the general population, aren’t where we are yet and we have to bring them along or it will take that much longer for the task. We have to take down al Aqsa to excavate Herod’s Temple. This won’t happen overnight, just look at how long it took for the ideas of Thomas L Thomson and Niels Lemche to overthrow the Old Testament as history.

  4. says

    Hmm. Based on your account and on Carrier’s, it sounds like this event was a uniquely uninformative one. People who attended came away knowing less about the relevant scholarship than when they arrived (if you take ignorance to be a higher state of knowledge than “knowing” things that aren’t so). It’s a pity; it sounds like neither participant did even a halfway decent job. And “I don’t care” seems like a perfectly reasonable response to the clash of half-truth and gibberish that the “debaters” provided.

    Should we care? To be honest, I can’t think of any important contemporary question that depends on whether the Christian narrative is 98.5% mythical or 100.0% mythical (which is really what the historicist-mythicist debate is about). So I can’t say that we *ought* to care; we’re not talking about global warming here.

    On the other hand, I do care…or, at least, I think it’s an interesting question. Which is a bit like caring, I suppose. If I had to explain why, I’d have to fall back on the first axiom of history: what really happened matters. But it is an axiom, not an argument. Either you buy it, or you don’t.

    The good news is that there’s a considerable body of scholarship on all four of the questions you raise. The bad news is that the evidence — as you might expect — is patchy and often indirect, so the bottom line, if that’s what interests you, is “we’re not entirely sure.” (Which is one of the reasons that early Christianity is one of the worst things to study if you’re really interested in the sociology of religious movements. Islam is a much better choice, if you’re looking for a case study of a religious movement that became a global power.)

  5. Ron Slaton says

    It appears I’m late responding to your post but I really had to leave you a comment…
    Your questions look down the same road as mine a couple of years ago. Over the past few years I’ve read practically all of Price’s work including The Colossal Apostle, The Case Against the Case for Christ, Carrier; Proving History, On The Historicity of Jesus, Ehrman; Forged, Pagel; The Gnostic Gospels, etc., I have read many of the non canonical gospels, apocrypha, gnostic writings, church fathers, Tertullian, Irenaeus, Origin, Josephus, etc., from EarlyChristianWritings website. After all that material I am firmly in the camp that believes that the necessary history is pretty much lost forever and we really cannot know that there was even speck of a real Jesus. The final rash of cleansing (ramped book burning) between the 10th and 16th centuries pretty much ensured that there will always be important puzzle pieces missing. I think Carrier said there would have been as many as 47 men named Jesus during the 1st century, so how unlikely is it that one of them whose name means, “Yahweh saves”, would have a preacher? The burden of proof is entirely on those who make the claim and there really isn’t much more than tradition of tradition. The scant evidence points to “unlikely”. The evidence for a historic Jesus is not good enough for Carrier or Price or many others, and it’s not good enough for me.

    Understanding how the bible has been sanitized over the last 2000 years It’s even hard now to believe that Paul as portrayed in the letters is who the “authenticated” letters claim him to be. Here is a great piece written by Hermann Detering on Paul. Detering is a Pauline scholar who has picked up the torch left by the Dutch Radicals and relights a old path that has a few new footprints on it. I recommend this link(s) to refresh your “mythicist” outlook.

    A good “text to speech” app is really helpful if you dislike reading a lot of material on a computer screen.


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