Wednesday, April 17, 2013

New "gospels" and the Pearl not of Bob Price.

So you find the Pearl of Great Price.  Problem is, it's hidden in the world's biggest oyster, and you can't force open the shell.  Worse, the oyster lies under 4,000 fathoms of cold, dark, pressurized seawater.  If only you could bring that baby up from the depths and pry open its knobbly treasure chest, your family would live in the lap of luxury until the stars reign down. 

That's a bit how I feel about my argument for the historicity of the gospels, originally made in Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, but Grandma Marshall Could.  The pearl is stuck in that book, which almost no one has read, or probably ever will. (Maybe I should have given it a more dour title?)  And even when I present the argument verbally in public -- I pry and pry (even pray), but cannot seem to remove the spherical beauty from its mishapen calcium carbonate exoskeleton, and let the world watch it shine. 

Twice I've tried to explain this argument in debate -- first with Robert Price, then with Richard Carrier.  I thought Bob Price kinda understood what I was getting at, though it was difficult to explain in a few minutes in the back-and-forth of a skeptical webcast.  With Carrier, I made this one of just three arguments for the reasonableness of Christianity.  Carrier sluffed off the other two arguments as "irrelevant" (the existence of God and the occurance of miracles!), then proceeded to entirely miss the point of this third and, by default, most important argument.

But the issue is too important to give up.  The pearl shines too lustrously to leave at the bottom of the ocean. 

This is a Pearl of Great Price.  It is more than just a knock-down argument for Christianity.  It is the Gospel, in fact it is the person of Jesus, shining in the clear sunlight of history. 

So I feel it was right to make this argument central.  It's not just that I believe this argument can blow the cover off Carrier's own attack on the gospels, which is due to be published later this year.  (Yes, I think it will do that.)  More importantly, I think Carrier and Price and other such skeptics help reveal the true and unequalled value of the gospels by their very attempts to disprove or minimize them.  Carrier's response actually helps underline the historicity of Jesus and the general accuracy of the gospel accounts, and show why all such arguments against that historicity are doomed to ignomious failure. 

Search as they will, neither Richard Carrier, nor Bob Price, nor the Jesus Seminar, can find anything at all like a gospel.  Read rightly (or even read at all), such works as Thomas, Apollonius of Tyana, Herodotus's Histories, and Acts of Peter underline not just the uniqueness of the real gospels, but their historicity.  By frantically trying to locate parallels (hiding the desperation of a century's long search with a confident tone, and appeals to books most of his audience hadn't read), Carrier does Christians and truth-seekers in general a favor.  He helps demonstrate the rarity of genuine gospels, far rarer than pearls, and their credibility, even while thinking he achieves the opposite.

This will take two posts.  In the present post, I zero in on (1) my argument for the uniqueness of the gospels, as explained in our debate; and (2) Carrier's attempts in response to find parallels (even while, as I think it is necessary to point out here in more detail, quite misunderstanding my argument.  No disrespect is intended to Dr. Carrier, he is not the only one.  But I think it will help for me to underline here, where his reading goes off the rails). 

Pardon me if I repeat myself a little.  This is an important argument, and however much pushing and pulling it takes, I am determined to haul this pearl into the light. 

The following post will then offer (3) a brief description of the 26 historically -relevant characteristics themselves.  (Please read Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus for a description of all 50 characteristics, and defense of most of those traits in light of NT scholarship.)  (4) a systematic comparison between the canonical gospels, and the four best parallels Carrier could think of, at least on the spur of the moment: Apollonius of Tyana, Book of Tobit, The Golden Ass, and Plutarch's Life of Romulus. (5) What this analysis shows about how unique and credible the gospels are, how blind their critics tend to become (again, no disrespect to anyone in particular), and how hard it is to find real parallels to the Pearl of Great Price. 

These will be longish posts.  But they will also, I think, be among the most important I've written in this forum to date.  Your patience is appreciated, and I hope will be rewarded -- even this life.

(1) How the gospels prove themselves, historically. 

Here are my oral arguments, which give a fair summary of some relevant points historians have made about Jesus, and of my argument that partly follows from those insights:

A. I disagree with Richard Carrier in that I think that conventional historical research on Jesus has yielded a great deal of fruit . . . Thomas Jefferson, a skeptic, said the "eloquence and persuasiveness" of the Gospels goes "far beyond" the "feeble minds" of the gospel writers to invent. William Paley found the "similtude of manner, which indicates the actions and discourses proceed from the same person." In other words, you can triangulate from the different gospels to an historical person.

Robert Funk, the founder of the Jesus Seminar, wrote about parables, on which he was an expert. He said (they were) "virtually unknown in the OT, and rarely successfully imitated in Christian lore . . .Very few sages have achieved the same level of creativity" as the Jesus of the gospels. ((136, 153) John Crossan realized that Jesus was a "prophet of the margins" who overturned social convention. Richard Burridge has shown that the gospels conform to the category of bioi, or Greek biography. Morton Smith, a professor at Columbia University where Richard studied, showed that miracles infuse every single layer of the gospels. Jesus was a worker of miracles, the historical Jesus must have worked miracles . . .

Marcus Borg . . . realized that Jesus could be all these things at once, like blind men feeling the elephant . . . Borg recognized that Jesus was a "spirit person." He was "a charismatic healer or 'holy person.' He was a subversive sage who undermined conventional wisdom and taught an alternative wisdom. He was a social prophet, and an initiator of a movement the purpose of which was the revitalization of Israel." . . .

Richard Bauckham has recently written a brilliant book showing that the Gospels almost certainly contain a great deal of eyewitness testimony. NT Wright, the great British scholar, has shown, as philosopher Raymond Martin says, "The Gospels makes remarkably good historical sense." One of the tools that he uses to show that is something called double similarity, double disimilarity, which I think is a very powerful tool.

This is a sampling of some of the historical research on Jesus . . .

But my contention is that ordinary readers can meet Jesus by simply reading the Gospels for themselves. Our eyes are created or evolved to recognize human faces, and no one, having read the Gospels, can unrecognize Jesus without cost to his or her honesty.

I describe fifty characteristics that all four gospels share in common, having to do with setting, style and literary character, Jesus as a moralist, Jesus in society, how he treats other people, Jesus as a teacher, and theological characteristics. Many of them (are not) something one would make up just to make up a good story. These are things we pick up on without noticing.

At least twenty-six of these characteristics relate to historicity. And all twenty-six strongly favor the essential historicity of the main narratives of the Gospels. But I maintain that we pick up on these qualities even without noticing . . .

In sum, I argued the following points: (1) Historical research has revealed a great deal that is trustworthy about Jesus -- even from skeptics like Thomas Jefferson, Marcus Borg, Robert Funk, John Crossan, and Morton Smith.  (2) Many of the characteristics thus confirmed as internal to the gospels, show that Jesus was a remarkable person. who appears historical.  (3) Bauckham also argues that they contain "a great deal" of eyewitness testimony.  (4) But I maintain that the historicity of the gospels is and should be immediately evident to most readers because human beings naturally recognize unique personalities like that of Jesus.  (5) The gospels share 50 characteristics, many of which would not have been added on by people who were just making up a story.  (6) Twenty-six of those characteristics directly support the historicity of the gospels. 

Notice what I did NOT say in my opening argument.  I did NOT claim the gospels should be trusted merely because they were written close in time to the events they record.  (Though that is, in fact, one of 26 characteristics that I think support their historicity.)  I did NOT claim that we know the names of their authors.  (In fact, I think we do know the names of three of them - though I've never made that part of my argument.)  NOR did I let slip that these 26 characteristics were just my subjective opinion, or that of Christians generally -- instead, I cited a number of scholars who are hostile to Christian orthodoxy, in support of this point.  These were the arguments Carrier appeared to expect, however.

B. Richard Carrier:

Now he talks about the gospels as evidence.  The fact is, we don't know who wrote them, or who their sources were.  And they look just like other tales of gods and demigods, and we don't believe them. 

Centuries before Christianity, the goddess Inanna and the gods Romulus and Zaimoxus were preached as having died and been resurrected from the dead and communicating with their followers afterwards.  Those who believed in Zalmoxus even received eternal life . . .

It's just another mythical superhero story . . .

We don't have access to the original evidence in the case of Jesus.  We only have the writings, forty years later, of the hard-core believers . . . Books written 40 years later by fanatical believers just aren't reasonable evidence.  We can't rely on them.  We need the original evidence, or evidence we can directly confirm now.  But we have no access to that anymore.  We therefore cannot reasonably believe in Christianity based on its unverifiable faith literature.

Inanna and Zaimoxus, I dealt with earlier in this series.  (See C, "Fact-Checking the Gospels.")

Note though that to this point, Carrier barely mentions my actual arguments.  He appears to be mainly reciting a litany against some other scholar he expected to show up and talk a lot about the Resurrection and about how early the gospels are. 

Carrier does implicitly refer to my main argument glancingly, though, when he says the gospels "look just like other tales of gods and demigods." Later in his first rebuttal, Carrier comes back to this all-important point:

He talks about the eloquence and beauty of Jesus' statements in the gospels.  I find this a typical view of Christians who are somehow enamored of the gospels.  I read a lot of ancient philosophy from a lot of ancient philosophers.  And in fact, I find them much more eloquent and beautiful.  I think there are things in Seneca, there are things in Musofeus Rufus, that are much more brilliant, much more deeply argued, much more beautiful, and much more eloquent, for sure . . . Read the philosophers I talked about and compare them to Jesus, and you'll see that there isn't anything actually special about Jesus . . .

This shows that so far, Carrier badly misunderstood my argument. 

In fact, I didn't say anything about "beauty," and little about "eloquence."  I did quote Thomas Jefferson, not a Christian, who did refer to Jesus' eloquence "and persuasiveness" (not "beauty").   But even that was to make an historical point: that the gospels were not invented by Mark or the other evangelists, but triangulate back to an historical Jesus.  I also claimed there were a total of 26 traits in the gospels that imply historicity, citing more non-Christian scholars than Christians to illustrate some of those traits. 

In other words, the characteristics of Jesus in the gospels are part of an argument for the general historicity of the gospels, showing that they are telling the truth, at least in large part, about Jesus. 

So what do Seneca or Rufus have to do with the price of lettuce in Alexandria?  No one is denying that they were historical figures, or that their writings come down to us much as penned!  Bringing them up just shows that Carrier isn't following the argument, yet. 

Carrier further misses the point by supposing that his subjective appraisal of Jesus' teachings should be taken as some sort of rebuttal of "Christians who are somehow enamored of the gospels." 

Again, Jefferson was not a Christian, nor were five or six of the ten scholars I cited.   If Jefferson, like Renan, Gandhi, Lin Yutang, Tolstoy, and much of the Jesus Seminar, were "enamored" of Jesus, that had nothing to do with their commitment to Christian orthodoxy, of which they had none, but rather their wise perception of human character.  On whether Jesus' teachings stand out among ancient and modern teachers, it is Carrier Contra Mundum.  He misses what the world sees, and is the worse for it.  (And no, reading a bit of Rufus again has not changed my mind -- even if his work were terribly relevant to the historical point.) 

But then Carrier does try to find fictional parallels to the gospels, first in regard to miracles:

We don't believe loading magical weapons depended the Greek temple of Delphi all by themselves.  Yet within forty years of that, Herodotus claims witnesses said they did . . . That the gospels contain such dubious tales, not only proves they aren't reliable, it proves their authors couldn't tell the difference betweeen a true story and a false one.  They just wrote down anything they wanted, or whatever they were told.

I replied (now onto my first rebuttal) by citing Carrier's earlier use of Herodotus, and other wild tales, as a crowbar to deconstruct the gospels:

What is the character of the Gospel miracles? I looked through all the stories Richard told in one of his talks to a skeptical organization, SKEPTICON, and I looked at those miracles, and then looked at the miracles of the gospels. And I found that the gospel miracles tend to evince five consistent characteristics. First of all, they tend to be realistic in their background narratives. Second, they're purposeful, in the sense that they're not just done to show off. Third, they're constructive. They tend not to curse, they tend instead to heal and to help. Fourth, they respect the integrity of Nature, and the integrity of human beings -- they don't make people bark like dogs. Fifth, they tend to point people to God. Twenty-nine stand-alone miracles in Luke, thirteen stand-alone miracles in John. The lowest, on a scale of one to tend, by my admittedly subjective counting, was realism in John, about 8.6. And all the others were like 9.7, 9.8, around there.

So the Gospel miracles tend to have these characteristics very strongly. But all the stories that Richard is conflating with those miracles, tend to not have those characteristics at all. So I would not even use the word "miracle" for both sets of events. I would say that some are "miracles," and I would prefer to use the word "magic" for the other ones . . .

But that argument is focused on miracles.  I recognized that my description of the 25 other characteristics that demonstrate the historicity of the gospels needed more explanation.  So I ran out the clock in my first rebuttal trying to give a bit of that explanation and pry open that oyster:

Now are there any parallels to the gospels? Richard Carrier's going to give an argument called "Why the Gospels almost certainly are myth." I took the gospels and analyzed them according the 50 characteristics that define them. And then I compared them to ancient myth and works that contain myth, like the Epic of Gilgamesh, Hercules, the Iliad, the great Journey to the West in China, according to eight theological qualities, and 42 non-theological qualities. And I found that, again and again, the gospels tended to line up with historical works like Tacitus' Agricola, and most of all Confucius' Analects. In many of those 42 characteristics, the gospels not only lined up with the historical accounts, but exceeded them in historical value on all those characteristics.

Let me see if I can name a few of them quickly.

* Dramatic personai disappear in the gospels, they don't keep reappearing.
Jesus overturns hierarchy.

* His unique, yes transcendent teachings, as most of the world recognizes, contrary to Richard Carrier's comments.

* Jesus notices individuals in a way most people don't in the ancient world.

* According to Walter Wink, the way his teachings about women, the way he treated women, was unique in the ancient world --"without parallel," are his exact words.

* There's a styllistic contrast between Jesus and the narrators, in the gospels.

* Jesus' radical dialogue with his culture.

So I began by focusing on one of the 26 characteristics that make the gospels historically credible, the nature (as distinct from the fact) of supernatural signs one finds in the gospels.  I pointed out that stories Carrier thinks similar to those miracles, like that of the Grecan temple in Herodotus defending itself like Hogwarts, is actually not similar at all, for five concrete reasons: realism, purposefulness, constructiveness, integrity towards Nature, and pointing people to God.  

I then briefly named six more characteristics that define the gospels. 

Obviously, this is a hard argument to make orally, and I can't blame Carrier, or perhaps most of the audience, if they failed to follow it completely.  I recognize that abstract oral argument is likely to be lost in translation.  That's why I supplemented those points in two ways: (1) with the story about my wife meeting a friend whom she recognized, which parallels how we meet and recognize Jesus in the gospels; and (2) by citing non-Christian and eminent Christian scholars to support my points.

Carrier cannot be blamed for not grasping my detailed argument for each point, though he would probably have gotten the gist if he'd prepped for the debate by reading my Jesus Seminar book.  But I hope that by now, the patient reader understands the genuine character of the argument a little better.   

Why am I explaining this in relation to my debate with Carrier?  Am I just trying to make myself look good at Dr. Carrier's expense?  Am I kicking myself for not thinking of the best arguments, fast enough? 

Maybe a little of the latter.  (Though there really wasn't time.)

But mainly, I am doing this analysis not to spite Carrier, but because I agree with his point that an oral debate should only be the beginning of learning. What matters most is truth, which is the genuine "Pearl of Great Price," and is worth hard work to obtain.   

Also I think Carrier, Price, Ehrman, Pagels, and the Jesus Seminar gang, provide us a wonderful service, and help underscore with vigor the unique and historical nature of the gospels.  They do this, in part, by scanning the ancient world for parallels to the gospels, and then by making arguments for those parallels, so fragile a three-month old puppy chased by a toddler could bring them all down. 

Carrier did finally offer three supposed parallels to the gospels from ancient pagan literature.  He also repeated his earlier claim, with great confidence, that other ancient works of "faith literature" have "all the characteristics of the gospels:"

Now everything he says about the gospels is true of all kinds of faith literature in all religions.  He picks on certain kinds of examples that look different from the gospels. But that's special pleading. He's picking certain examples through selection bias to make his argument.

There are other examples that look more like the gospels, for example, the Book of Tobit. Or Plutarch's biography of Romulus. Or Philostratus' biography of Apollonius of Tyana. There are a lot of these examples of faith literature that look more like the gospels. And if you wanted me to sit down and research and find the most similiar example, I could. But it's not necessary. There's plenty of examples like this that have all the characteristics of the gospels . . .

I underlined texts Carrier claims parallel the gospels. (Price also brought up Apollonius of Tyana, as has foolishly become common practice.)  Carrier continued:

He talks, for example, about Jesus noticing individuals, about that being unusual. I don't see that as being unusual. There are lots of stories in the ancient world -- Apollonius of Tyana notices individuals.   Pliny the Younger notives individuals. You can pick just about any kind of genre of writing and find examples of people noticing and interacting with individuals and having compassion on them. There's an example from Isis' cult, Apolleus in The Golden Ass, which is often praised by classicists as showing an unusual amount of compassion to the subjects, including slaves and animals. Because what happens to the hero is, he turns into a donkey, and he goes through all the experiences of a donkey. And it relates all the suffering and misery and abuse he endures as a donkey, showing sympathy even for animals. We don't get that from Jesus, of course.

He talks about the way Jesus treated women as being unique. That's not even remotely true. If you read the writings of Musonius Rufus again, or Epicurus, they actually have more enlightened and more extensive feminist views about women, judging by the standards of the ancient world.  So that's not an exceptional case.

Am I really guilty of "selection bias" in arguing from the characteristics of the gospels to their historicity?


In fact, I came up with my list of 50 characteristics empirically, by studying the gospels and New Testament scholarship.  I then picked biographical and fictional literature from the ancient world to compare, according to three criteria: (1) texts that skeptics often compare to the gospels, like the "Gospel" of Thomas and, yes, Apollonius of Tyana (I could have included The Iliad for this reason, if I had at the time been aware of the work of Dennis MacDonald); (2) influential myths that combine elements of history and the supernatural, here including The Iliad, Hercules, Epic of Gilgamesh, and Journey to the West; and (3) Analects of Confucius because like the gospels, it was written by unknown disciples in the decades after the Master's death, among other evident parallels.

"Mommy!  I found a pearl!"
But I am delighted to analyze other supposed parallels in the same way.  Critics of Christianity do us all a great service by assiduously searching for such parallels, even if they come across ultimately like children who overturn rocks on the beach, hoping they will find a precious pearl in an old castaway, weatherbeaten shell that turns out to be a cockle clam or a muscle. 

So this will be my task in Part II, to see if in fact the "faith literature" Carrier cites does in fact "have all the characteristics of the gospels," or hardly any of them.

Carrier's mention again of Rufus, Pliny the Younger, and Epicurus shows again that he still may not be entirely following my argument.  Their historicity is not much in question.  At the end of a long post, let me simply add my opinion that while I see the Stoic school as among the most noble of non-Christian creeds (I wrote an article praising Rufus' student, Epictetus, for Touchstone Magazine last year), Rufus' sensible but rather prosaic proto-feminist philosophy cannot really compare to Jesus' "You are right in saying that you have no husband" or "Neither do I condemn you."  If someone proved that Arratus "really" wrote Rufus' words instead, who would faint in shock?  By contrast, the loss of Jesus' words would leave a gap in the cosmos.

But what about Apollonius?  Or Romulus?  Or Tobit?  Or the Golden Ass?

Do they really share "all the characteristics" of the gospels?  Or especially, those 26 that I claim show the gospels are historically credible?

So on to the Pearl itself: the historical characteristics of the gospels, and how they contrast with these four new 'fake gospels.' 


Ron said...

A helpful papers for my reading was N.T. Wright's "Five Gospels but No Gospel" on the Jesus Seminar here:

I'm curious what you'd think of this, David.

David B Marshall said...

Thanks! Everything by Wright on the Bible is great -- I cited him quite a bit in the Jesus Seminar book. I'll read it.

rvntyo said...

You can reach Price at

You should really listen to his podcasts before recommending stuff to him on the Zarathustra blog. I doubt this would interest him. You'd have to argue several levels of back and forth deeper than here, but you'd get a feel for that in the podcasts.

The podcasts are at>[left sidebar: Bible Geek]->recent archives.

And that title really does not tempt one to read it. It conjures up an image of sentimental emotional sorts of arguments more than anything else. "Grandma could see the magic in a sunset or a child's smile, something that those cold Jesus Seminar intellectuals could never relate to").

David B Marshall said...

RV: I have debated Price, and have read some of his material, and have not found it that impressive, though I liked him as a person. In particular, I remember him arguing from Apollonius of Tyana - which is wrong on so many levels, it is hard to know where to start. (Though I think the Jesus Seminar book does a good job of showing many of the ways it is wrong.)

The fact that you think you can debunk a book by mocking its title, shows pretty clearly how objective you are.

But thanks for the e-mail address.

Jay Teros said...

Hey David, just wanted to say that I really appreciate this blog post. It is rare to find such nuanced defenses of the Nazarene.

I do think you are exactly right that people like Carrier are tragically and desperately trying to gloss over and hide the massive uniqueness of Christ, and that there is indeed NO parallel in antiquity.

And Price is a really tragic mixed bag of profundity, and madness.

Christ mythicism is indeed the "flat earth, young earth creationism" of history, and it's so sad to see someone so otherwise profound embrace such nonsense.

It is particularly ironic that he now writes such vacuousness while condemning the opposite vacuousness of extreme Christian fundamentalism.

He indeed condemns the falling into the ditch on one side of the highway while standing firmly in the bottom of his own ditch on the opposite side.

Evolution may be true (or some form of it), but Christ still stands as the epicenter of history, with no equal.

Deal with it, atheists.

David Marshall said...

Thanks, Jay. Yeah, Price is a real character. The world would be poorer without him.