A Review of Chapter 10 of The Christian Delusion

Chapter 10 is written by Robert M. Price and is titled “Jesus:  Myth and Method.”  The chapter is a response to The Jesus Legend by Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd.  At the start of the chapter Price says that he has argued that the Gospels are myths about Jesus, not historical records (p. 273).  As in a previous chapter, the term “myth” is not defined.  Richard A. Burridge, in his book What Are The Gospels?:  A Comparison With Greco-Roman Biography, has shown convincingly that the canonical Gospels are of the literary genre known as Greco-Roman biography.  This genre was employed to convey historical information.  The skeptic cannot plausibly assert that the evangelists set out to write fiction.

Price insists that he merely employs methodological naturalism, not metaphysical naturalism.  He goes on to try and justify his position.  His first point is that the historian tries to determine what probably happened.  If he had stopped there I would have agreed with him, but he goes on to assert that every time someone has said a miracle happened he has later come to regret it.  This is false.  There have been countless people who have gone to the grave believing they had witnessed a miracle.  There are still accounts of miracles from centuries ago that cannot be explained naturalistically (as opposed to denied).  The tone of this paragraph implies that Price believes a miracle can never be what probably happened.  He goes into no detail as to how he determines the probability that a given event happened.  On the other hand, in Hume’s Abject Failure:  The Argument Against Miracles, John Earman shows that it is at least theoretically possible for eyewitness testimony to make it more probable than not that a miracle has occurred.  We can work with probabilities without accepting methodological naturalism.

His second point is that the principle of analogy forbids us from deeming probable any event without reliable corroboration from some analogy with present-day experience.  This point is problematic on at least three grounds.  First, how loose of an analogy is acceptable?  Second, it avoids the issue of whether miracles occur today and thus whether there is a present-day experience analogous to the miracles of Jesus.  Third, it assumes that the past is analogous to the present.  I suspect some will object to at least my third point so let me provide a hypothetical example.  Suppose some kind of catastrophe strikes the earth and the survivors create a society that is not as technologically advanced as we are.  By the principle of analogy they would be right to reject accounts of, say, the space program.  I think most people would find that stance irrational and believe that, if enough evidence of the space program survived the catastrophe, the survivors (perhaps living centuries later) could still confidently believe man once went into outer space.  In short, the principle of analogy, much like metaphysical naturalism, allows one to not consider the historical evidence before rendering a judgment.  It is clear that Price has made up his mind beforehand when he states, on p. 276, that historical inquiry cannot determine that miracles happened even if time travel would show them to have been real!

Price’s third point is that using God as an historical explanation has the same value as saying, “God only knows what happened.”  He goes into no detail as to why this must be the case.  To use Jesus’ resurrection as an example, the historical hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead does explain things like why the tomb was empty and why Jesus’ disciples were convinced they saw him alive after his crucifixion.  On the other hand, saying that you don’t know what happened does not explain anything.  It is possible that we cannot know some historical fact or that a non-miraculous explanation is a better explanation, but that must be determined by looking at the evidence, not merely asserting that God can never provide a good explanation.  I should also note that Earman, in the book mentioned above, shows how a Bayesian analysis could determine whether a given miracle provides grounds for believing a certain theological claim.

Much of the rest of the chapter contains short, quick attacks on the positions of Eddy and Boyd.  The reader does not get a feel for why Eddy and Boyd hold one position or why Price holds another position.  Therefore I will comment on small tidbits that jumped out at me.  First, Price infers that Eddy and Boyd are uncomfortable with the oral transmission of tradition when they suggest that Jesus’ disciples may have written down notes about his preaching.  He then accuses them of changing their tune when they note that first-century Jewish culture was an oral culture and that oral cultures can faithfully transmit tradition.  However, as Birger Gerhardsson argues, ancient Jews transmitted tradition both orally and in writing.  These are not competing ways of transmitting tradition.

Second, Price asserts that formal considerations will have obliterated any evidence of the eyewitness origin of the Gospels.  He does not explain why this must be the case.  Scholars, such as Richard Bauckham in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, still see evidence of eyewitness testimony lying behind the Gospels.

Third, Price takes Eddy and Boyd to task for not being more receptive to redaction criticism.  However, I’m not sure this helps the skeptic much, considering how closely Matthew and Luke appear to follow Mark and Q.  Could this not be evidence that Christians followed their sources closely?

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