On Robert Price's Review of
The Impossible Faith or,
How Not to Start an Ancient Religion
by James P. Holding
It seems that everyone wants a crack at The Impossible Faith these days, and one of the latest -- though I am not clear on what date it was posted -- comes of a surpising source, one whom we have in the past called the Secular Web's Friendly Ice-Cream Man, Robert Price. There is good news this round as we find that the Robert Price who showed up for this review is the one that wrote The Jury Is In Chapter 9; the one that wrote Chs. 6 and 8 being apparently on an extended vacation. To put it another way, Dr. Jekyll is here and Mr. Hyde has left the building; at least for the present. Skeptical ne'er-do-well critics of this ministry will note that a link to Price's reply is provided above -- as Mr. Price has "followed the rules" for critiquing material here, which one past critic of TIF has not (while one other has). Indeed, Mr. Price even goes as far as beginning by delivering what seems to be a compliment, though one that is, we may suspect, inscribed on the back of his hand as it were:
Internet apologist James Patrick Holding (as he chooses to be known) has thus far seen fit to by-pass the pages of published books, though one can only imagine numerous evangelical publishers would love to have him. He maintains a website containing a whole raft of apologetical essays, most of them aiming to refute unbelievers and biblical critics, all of whom he
considers to be enemies of the faith. He is amazingly prolific and erudite as well, though he seems to me sometimes perversely to misread his opponents’ arguments and to reduce them to strawman status.
Not bad coming from someone who once suggested that Josh McDowell was "either just plain stupid or a damn liar." There is the modicum of topspin, to be sure; Mr. Price would not be Mr. Price without it. The latter charge especially is of interest; put another way, it means that I draw out the implications of my opponents' arguments to the extent that their own courage and/or logical skills did not permit, and thereby show them ridiculous. But Price offers no examples of the above in action, so little more can be said; the good news is that, again, Mr. Hyde has left the building. Mr. Price evidences himself, in this response, to be the credentialed scholar he in fact is; at least in manner, if not in respect to credible scholarship as a whole, where we will, regrettably, find some of the usual deficiencies. And now to the reply.
In the essay to be addressed
here, Holding sets forth a wide-ranging version of an old argument one hears
more and more these days from fundamentalist apologists: that the initial
success of Christianity defies sociological common sense and demands a
miraculous explanation. The sheer scope of the argument, as well as its
increasingly common use in debate, make a critical review of it advisable.
Common use? I would be interested in knowing where else Price has heard or read any TIF-like arguments, as I have found none to date. The closest I have found to this is Barnett's Jesus and the Logic of History, but even that did not appeal to the depth social factors TIF did. Perhaps Price is just being "literary" in his prologue, "many have written" as it were.
Holding here attempts “to put together a
comprehensive list of issues that we assert that critics must deal with in
explaining why Christianity succeeded where it should have clearly failed or
died out” like many another messianic cult. For example, that of Sabbatai Sevi
in the seventeenth century.
An example, indeed, one we dealt with some time ago here.
Holding deems it unlikely, first of all, that Christianity could have begun with the hoodwinking of a sufficient number of gullible dupes. Imposture is no basis for a successful religion, a notion
asserted as if self-evident by many apologists past and present.
Likewise, the opposite notion is asserted as if self-evident by far too confident, arrogant Skeptics past and present. The standard rule is, everyone else is stupid, and they must be, for otherwise they would be Atheists Like Us (TM). Fair enough?
And yet it is easy to show how Mormonism started with a hoax, though, given the
paradoxes of human psychology, we cannot for that reason dismiss Joseph Smith as
not also being a sincere religious founder. But a hoax it was, and here
today, look at it: it is a thriving world religion in its own right. So such
things can happen.
Of course, Price may have missed that I did my own examination of Mormonism as a supplement here.
On the other hand, I believe the parallels to Sabbatai Sevi
are important and show how some of the greatest challenges facing early
Christianity may have been overcome, especially the crushing defeat in the wake
of Messiah's death. It also illustrates the thinking that led to retrospective
claims of "passion predictions" and scriptural prophecies, as well as the
framing of atonement theories as after-the-fact rationales of an embarrassing
death. Plus resurrection appearance- and miracle- rumors. Most devastating of
all, as I show in Beyond Born Again, the rapid, contemporary formation of
legends, and that against the attempts to the Apostle (Nathan of Gaza) to
prevent miracle-mongering, utterly destroys the apologist's claim that such
legendary embellishment could not have taken place in the case of the Jesus
Again, as noted in the link above, we addressed the alleged parallels to Sevi some years ago, as taken from Price's BBA, as well as matters of legendary embellishment, etc. In terms of TIF factors, a brief survey tells me that the Sevi movement at most might get some pull from factor 8, and that's about it.
Holding argues that “Christianity
‘did the wrong thing’ in order to be a successful religion” and that thus “the
only way Christianity did succeed is because it was a truly revealed faith --
and because it had the irrefutable witness of the resurrection.” Here he
serves notice that we will be asked to "admit" that miracles are the only way to
account for the rise and success of Christianity. In any other field of inquiry
this would be laughed off stage.
Price may speak for himself in that matter; what he means is, in any other field of inquiry dominated by materialistic presuppositions, it would be laughed off the stage; in a field of inquiry without presuppositions, it would be admitted as an alternative without any bias aforethought. Price may not simply smuggle in his materialist biases the same way he accused McDowell of smuggling in the authenticity of Jesus' sayings.
I am thinking of a cartoon in which a
lab-coated scientist is standing at the chalkboard, which is full of integers,
and he is pointing to a hollow circle in the midst of it all, saying, "Right
here a miracle takes place." Appealing to miracles as a needful causal link is
tantamount to confessing bafflement. But in fact, there will be no need for
And so the cartoon would be right: If indeed, we had the deciding factor of a claimed-to-be-responsible party. That said, it is Price alone who makes bewilderment out of a most simple deduction; for the issue here is that he is working within the modernist, false dichotomy of miracles as other-natural acts. In truth the dichotomy is artificial; a miracle is not a violation of natural law, but God doing what we could do, theoretically, with the right technology. We lift a box; does this "violate" the law of gravity? God lifts a box; is that a "miracle"? Of course not, not in the sense that modern materialists think it is.
Citing 1 Corinthians 1:18 (“For the preaching of
the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is
the power of God.”), Holding asks rhetorically, “Who on earth would believe a
religion centered on a crucified man?” He contends that crucifixion was so
repulsive and degrading a punishment that no one could have taken a crucified
man seriously as a religious founder. On top of that, no one could have
envisioned the notion of a god stooping to undergo such treatment. “This being
the case, we may fairly ask… why Christianity succeeded at all. The ignominy of
a crucified savior was as much a deterrent to Christian belief as it is today -
indeed, it was far, far more so! Why, then, were there any Christians at all? At
best this should have been a movement that had only a few strange followers,
then died out within decades as a footnote, if it was mentioned at all. The
historical reality of the crucifixion could not of course be denied. To survive,
Christianity should have either turned Gnostic (as indeed happened in some
offshoots), or else not bothered with Jesus at all, and merely made him into the
movement's first martyr for a higher moral ideal within Judaism. It would have
been absurd to suggest, to either Jew or Gentile, that a crucified being was
worthy of worship or died for our sins. There can be only one good explanation:
Christianity succeeded because from the cross came victory, and after death came
resurrection! The shame of the cross turns out to be one of Christianity's most
One would wish to see Price interact as well with my material on honor and shame. But no, from here we have: This is completely futile and does not begin to take
into account the religious appetite (in many people) for the grotesque and the
Please note that in essence, Price's reply is like Carrier's own "well, there must have been exceptions, people who liked crucified men" deal, for which he provides not a shred of evidence (against the data of Hengel, et al.); moreover, his comparisons below are entirely misplaced. None are related by Price to the honor-shame dichotomy (in fact, of all of his first examples come from modern, Western society, where the dichotomy has disappeared), and moreover:
Just look at the eagerly morbid piety of Roman Catholics and
fundamentalist advocates of "the Blood" who wallow in every gruesome detail of
the crucifixion, real or imagined. Consider the box office receipts of Mel
Gibson’s pious gore-fest The Passion of the Christ.
...all come from "after the fact" of Christianity as a millennias-old religion. Jesus did not have the advantage of 2000 years of sanitizing of crucifixion as an acceptable form of death. Price moves though to a familiar ancient example:
In ancient times,
think of the Attis cult which centered upon the suicide of its savior who
castrated himself and bled to death. Street corner celebrations of such rites
invariably attracted bystanders, even initially hostile ones, swept up in the
music and chanting, to castrate themselves and join the sect on the spot!
And this we have already answered: As for Attis, good point -- do you see a church of Attis today? The Attis cults fit the Sabbatai model, although they also did have the advantage of being in a time when the body was considered by many to be base and evil. Under such considerations castration was arguably not absurd at all. In any event there isn't any parallel here to Christianity, which did not die off, and had much worse to defend itself on. Price would have done well, we may note, to have read all of my supplemental essays as well as the main one.
And even if one stops short of the Christ Myth
theory, one must still reckon with the possibility, as advocated by Bultmann and
others, that the crucifixion of Jesus would still have been readily embraceable
as a means of salvation because of the familiarity of the dying and rising god
This of course is one of Price's particular fancies; we have shown either that the candidates from DARGs are nothing like Jesus, or postdated Christianity. In addition, of all the DARGs none ever suffered a humiliating death (other than Inanna and perhaps Attis, who are irrelevant because the former was also restored, and the latter did not offer salvation). More cannot be said since Price does not name a particular DARG for discussion other than Attis above.
It was a familiar religious conception, and no less so because of
Hellenistic Judaism's martyrdom doctrine as glimpsed in 2 and 4 Maccabees, where
the hideous deaths (much more fulsomely dwelt upon than the crucifixion is in
the gospels) are set forth as expiations for the sins of Israel. See Sam K.
Williams, The Death of Jesus as Saving Event.
Carrier too attempted a comparison to the Maccabees, and our answer is the same: No one was called to worship them, and the Maccabbeans were heroes fighting in favor of a common cause of political and religious freedom, already popular with the people (which does NOT apply to Jesus and to new converts).
Finally, crucifixion was not a taboo
subject, as witnessed by the frequent occurrence of crucifixion in dream
interpretation manuals, where dreaming of being crucified was typically taken as
a good omen of impending success.
Unfortunately Price fails to give a single example of this, or what date it comes from, or what source it derives from. What little I can find does not support his claim. A site on modern dream interpretation at http://www.experiencefestival.com/a/Meaning_of_Dreams/id/35696 says, If you chance to dream of the crucifixion, you will see your opportunities slip away, tearing your hopes from your grasp, and leaving you wailing over the frustration of desires. Price gives us nothing to show that this was a dream interpretation from an ancient or relevant source.
Bad News, For Jews
Holding thinks that “Jesus' Jewishness…was also a
major impediment to spreading the Gospel beyond the Jews themselves. Judaism was
regarded by the Romans and Gentiles as a superstition. Roman writers like
Tacitus willingly reported… all manner of calumnies against Jews as a whole,
regarding them as a spiteful and hateful race. Bringing a Jewish savior to the
door of the average Roman would have been only less successful bringing one to
the door of a Nazi.” This is ludicrous. There were Roman anti-Semites aplenty,
though this seems to have prevailed mainly during periods of Jewish revolt
against Rome. But in fact, Judaism was quite attractive to Gentiles in general,
Romans in particular, as witnessed by the number of conversions and the
unofficial adherence of Gentile God-fearers (like Cornelius in Acts 10 and the
Lukan Centurion who bankrolled the synagogue).
I don't know what scholarship Price has been reading, but no source I have yet found -- and he cites none to the contrary -- claims that anti-Judaism "prevailed mainly during periods of Jewish revolt" (much less does he provide any accounting of sources, pre-, post-, or during a revolt, that proves this); rather, the models dictate that anti-Semitism was typical, because of the resistance of Jewish faith to the predominant values of the Empire. In terms of converts and God-fearers, we have no census figures of course, but every source I have read indicates that the numbers of these was small -- and that Judaism was certainly not "attractive in general". Not much more can be said since Price neither gives an estimate nor provides a source.
It had the appeal of an
"Oriental" religion as well as the sterling teaching of Ethical Monotheism to
In the latter Price yet again mirrors a prior critic, whom we answered thus: Christianity also offered a repulsive Trinitarianism that offended Jewish sensibilities and made the pagans want to heckle to the max with the idea that a deity could descend to earth in flesh; moreover, the appeal is an anachronizing one, as Price applies a modern perception of monotheism as preferable, when there is no evidence that the ancients as a whole regarded monotheism as more or less preferable than any other variation. As for the former, the point remains the same as above: Those who adhered to Judaism remained relatively small; and even then, Judaism had little or none of the shortcomings our social factors list indicates.
“The Romans… believed that superstitions (such as
Judaism and Christianity) undermined the social system established by their
religion – and… anyone who followed or adopted one of their foreign
superstitions would be looked on not only as a religious rebel, but as a social
rebel as well.” No, Judaism was considered a legitimate religion and for that
reason Jews were exempt from military service.
No, Judiasm was believed to undermine the social system, and Jews were indeed regarded as rebels, and it was recognized as a religion in spite of this because Rome had weighed the costs versus the benefits of admitting Judaism as an exception to the rule. Despite Price, these are not mutually exclusive options.
The Roman attitude seems to have
been that an ancient religion was okay, even if silly by the standards of Romans
like Juvenal, who felt the same way about the religion of Isis and Osiris,
Cybele and Attis, etc. But these, too, were legal and quite popular. It was only
new religions, like Christianity or the Bacchanalia (new to Rome), that aroused
suspicion. (Holding will acknowledge this fact later, when it seems to prove
useful to him.)
Once again, this is simply false: Judaism was indeed regarded as a superstition, but it is one that earned legitimacy in spite of being a superstition, both because of its antiquity and because Rome decided that their blood was not worth spilling over the matter. Once again, despite Price, these are not mutually exclusive options.
That Accursed Ineptitude
Furthermore, says Holding, “Christianity had a
serious handicap [in] the stigma of a savior who undeniably hailed from Galilee
-- for the Romans and Gentiles, not only a Jewish land, but a hotbed of
political sedition; for the Jews, not as bad as Samaria of course, but a land of
yokels and farmers without much respect for the Torah, and worst of all, a
savior from a puny village of no account. Not even a birth in Bethlehem, or
Matthew's suggestion that an origin in Galilee was prophetically ordained, would
have [de]tached such a stigma: Indeed, Jews would not be convinced of this, even
as today, unless something else first convinced them that Jesus was divine or
the Messiah.” I cannot imagine anybody would have been this snobbish. Romans and
other non-Palestinians could hardly have drawn much of a distinction between
Galilee and Timbuktu.
Price's imagination of course does not change anything; nor does it change the social science data which shows that people of this day WERE "this snobbish" because the collectivist mind regarded place of origin as something ultimately determinative in forming character. Nor would there be a reason to draw a distinction between "Galilee and Timbuktu" -- the distinction between Galileean and every other known place is all that is needed.
But even if they had been so choosy, does Holding
seriously imagine that any such blue-nosed scoffer would have been convinced
only by the miracle of the resurrection, as opposed to the assertion
of the resurrection?
It is is just as well to ask, does Price seriously manage that people were so stupid that the mere assertion of resurrection was enough to make these and other prejudices, which decidedly encouraged a critical and negative response, vanish? The irony is that Price himself now plays the role of "blue-nosed scoffer" in essentially declaring people of the day to be precisely this ignorant.
They would no longer have been in a position to be
convinced by the real thing, though they might have found the preaching of
the resurrection emotionally or spiritually compelling, as many still do. It is
foolish to argue in effect that "They were convinced by it, so it must have been convincing. So you, too, should be convinced."
Once again, this is simply a circular non-answer; it is vague and anachronistic ("emotionally or spiritually compelling" is exactly the opposite of what would be perceived, as noted in point 3, and this simply anachronizes modern emotional psychology onto ancient persons with far different social values), and without any evidence (as if Price has personal testimonies from ancient converts saying how moved they were). Ironically again, Price himself is arguing, "They [moderns] were convinced by it [emotion], so it must have been convincing [to ancient people as well]. So you, too, should be convinced that emotion was the cause."
Again, “Assigning Jesus the work of a
carpenter was the wrong thing to do; Cicero noted that such occupations were
‘vulgar’ and compared the work to slavery.” Must early Christian preaching have
won over the worst sort of snobs? No one, not even the special pleading Crossan,
argues that Jesus was one of the Untouchables or Outcasts. Don't tell me there
weren't plenty of people then as now who would not have relished the notion of a
faith started by a rustic carpenter.
"Don't tell me there weren't"? Where is the contrary evidence? Once again the argument amounts to, "There must have been people who didn't mind, because look at all the people who were convinced." Not a scrap of contrary data.
But I think the identification of Jesus as a carpenter, a la Geza Vermes, was an early error, a Gentile misunderstanding of the Jewish acclamation that he was an erudite rabbi, skilled in scripture
How this could have been a "misunderstanding" is not explained (the source from Vermes is not given). Presumably Price refers to Aramaic use of the term for a carpenter (naggar) as a metaphor for a scholar. Of course, even rabbis like Paul and Shammai had a trade to support themselves; why Jesus could not have had one -- if indeed the reference by Vermes is earlier than or close to Jesus, and therefore of any relevance, which is doubtful -- and why carpentry ought not to have been it, is a matter best left for the conspiracy in Price to decide. Given that the designation appears even in Jewish sources (Matthew and Mark), that Jesus actually was a carpenter is a much simpler solution.
At any rate, it did not seem to hinder the fantastic success of
Stoicism that one its most beloved sages, Epictetus, had been a slave, even less
classy, one might suppose, than a carpenter.
Price misses a salient point with the comparison to a slave, which shows that he has not appreciated the nature of ancient culture in this regard: A slave brought with him the honor and reputation of his master. A carpenter had no such option. Given that he was a slave of someone of high rank (serving one of Nero's bodyguards, Epaphroditus) the class of being high-ranked went with him.
“Placing Jesus' birth story in a
suspicious context where a charge of illegitimacy would be all too obvious to
make would compound the problems as well. If the Gospels were making up these
things, how hard would it have been… to take an "adoptionist" Christology and
give Jesus an indisputably honorable birth (rather than claiming honor by the
dubious, on the surface, claim that God was Jesus' Father)?” Tell that to all
the myth-mongers who ascribed divine paternity to their saviors and heroes! Must
these miraculous nativities be factual, too?
This far too simple answer obscures the point that Jesus came as one for whom the people were asked to truly believe this, coming from a Jewish context within which there was no acceptance of the idea of divine paternity. Beyond this no more can be said since Price once again does not deliver examples for comparison and evaluation.
Holding ventures that a fabricated religion such
as he supposes critics imagine Christianity to have been, would never have
chosen a version of exaltation for its hero that entailed a physical
resurrection since many ancients are on record as finding the whole notion
repugnant, preferring Platonic soul-survival. Indeed, many rejected the idea:
Sadducees, some philosophers, even pagan Arabs in Muhammad's day. Does that mean
no one else liked it? We never find denunciations of a belief that no one holds.
I find fundamentalism grossly repugnant, but that doesn't mean everyone else
As with Carrier before him, this amounts to yet another non-answer; an appeal to a non-existent, non-evidenced group (as opposed to the group which the data does support existing) that Price supposes must have existed, for otherwise his thesis fails.
Holding knows that many Jews did
share the Christian belief in a physical resurrection, but he says this would
not have facilitated their belief in Jesus’ resurrection, since Jews supposedly
restricted resurrection to the end of the age (John 11: 23-24, “Jesus said to
her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will
rise again in the resurrection at the last day.’”) Holding, like all evangelical
apologists, claim that belief in a man rising from the grave before the time, in
the midst of “this age,” would have been unthinkable.
In this Price simply commits the classic error of classifying ALL "rise from the dead" events as resurrections. This is again the same thing Carrier did, so no additional response is required; indeed Price even uses the same example of John the Baptist! Given that this is old hat, we move past it to:
As for the venue of the Gentile Mission, “what
makes this especially telling is that a physical resurrection was completely
unnecessary for merely starting a religion. It would have been enough to say
that Jesus' body had been taken up to heaven, like Moses' or like Elijah's.
Indeed this would have fit… what was expected, and would have been much easier
to ‘sell’ to the Greeks and Romans.” But this only means the early Christians
didn't concoct Christianity like a bunch of network execs fashioning a sitcom
according to focus group surveys. The question is: where did they get the belief
in resurrection that they were shortly (if not from the first) "saddled" with?
It might have been because of a real resurrection, sure, but they might
simply have inherited it from an environment more friendly to the idea.
"Might have"? In other words, we have an admission here from Price that the data, as it stands, does not support his position, so that he must (again) speculate for the sake of thesis that there must have been a "friendlier" environment, for otherwise, we would not be here discussing the matter.
Too Old to Behold
Holding first argued that Judaism was repulsive
to Romans, but now he has to switch hats. He says, correctly, that Romans paid
grudging respect to Judaism because it had an ancient pedigree.
Even as Price puts it this is obviously not a switch in hats, for "grudging" is admitted. For Romans like Tacitus this was a paradox; a case of having to decide how contradictory values could have collided in Judaism. But there is no need to "switch hats" because my point is that Christianity could benefit from neither value.
“Old was good.
Innovation was bad.” Thus a new faith like Christianity should have failed.
Should we then conclude that no new religions ever started or were accepted on
their appearance in the West? You just can't take the opinions of the
intellectual caste as definitive for what everyone would have thought.
Especially since the very expression of such opinions presupposes a regrettable
(to these snobs) prevalence of precisely such "superstitions" as the snobs were
condemning. Such faiths famously could and did succeed--even to the extent of
becoming the official religion of Rome: Mithraism and even Baalism, for example.
Price misses the salient point that Mithraism not only gave itself a pedigree by using an ancient god as a focus; he also misses that it was based on a spectacular founding event, the procession of the equinoxes -- and thus serves as validation for the need, in Christianity, for an event of similar proportions. Beyond this the answer is yet again a mirror of Carrier's vague appeal to variability of opinion where none is demonstrated by the evidence, simply on the grounds that it must have existed.
Holding argues as if the success of Christianity couldn't happen and so it must
have taken a miracle for it to have happened. The scientific approach, taken by
Rodney Stark (The Rise of Christianity) and others, is to take as
established that it did happen and then explain it, not piously
refuse to explain it and claim "It's a miracle!" With that utter abdication of
the scientific method, we would still be in the Dark Ages.
As noted, the above merely begs the naturalistic question, resorting to name-calling as a tactic (to say nothing of reflecting an outdated view of the "Dark Ages" as indeed dark, which they were not). Beyond this, though Johnny Skeptic has appealed to Stark as well, Stark's own conclusions and methodology are open to question; on that see our thread at http://www.theologyweb.com/forum/showthread.php?t=43795
Of course, no one denies there were persecutions
of the Christian faith and, before that, the Isis and the Dionysus cults. They
were occasioned by the fact that many, many people did like these
religions and practiced them. That is why Juvenal has occasion in the first
place to ridicule them, why Plutarch warns young matrons against them--because
they were so prevalent, even among the aristocracy. Their husbands didn't like
it, but they couldn't ultimately stop it.
All of which is true, but quite irrelevant to the determination of why people came to believe and how. The Isis and Dionysus cults don't have any relevance for most or all of my factors. If they do, let Price explain why. As it is they appear no more objectionable than joining a chocolate-tasting club.
Novelty was in large measure responsible for
official distaste for the new faith. But as always, many people are looking for
something new, however much the establishment hates and forbids it.
"As always" is simply false of this time, as noted by the expert testimomy I cited, in the original essay and in reply to Carrier. It is this that Price must answer, and he does not.
they may eventually succumb: they yielded to Mithraism as the official state
religion, and similarly later to Christianity. Hurdles are meant to be jumped,
and hardy religions have jumped them. Christianity had much going for it, many
noble features, just as Judaism did, and they won out.
We have already noted why Mithraism and Judaism are of no relevance to the point. Merely opening a fortune cookie and sitting on one's robes like Confucious, saying, "hurdles are meant to be jumped" is not sufficient answer. One must explain how and why the hurdles were jumped, and support the explanation. Price does neither.
The Bar is Closed
Where, Holding wonders, would have potential
converts have derived the wherewithal to repent of their nice, cozy sins to
swallow the bitter pill of early Christian abstinence, if the whole thing were
simply a matter of joining one more man-made religion? Can he ignore the fact
that all the (very popular) Mystery Religions called their recruits to an
initial stage of repentance and purification, too?
No, and in fact, the Mystery Religions only amplify my point. They gave all the good stuff and none of the bad. There it WAS simply a matter of "joining" -- with none of Christianity's negatives. The availability of the alternative speaks against Christianity being of natural origin.
And neither must we suppose that all Christians
were heroic cross-bearers. The whole crisis of a second repentance seen in the
Shepherd of Hermas and witnessed in Constantine's deferral of baptism to
his deathbed attests to the general mediocrity of Christian lay behavior as the
rule. They were all no doubt good folks, just not heroic like Jesus or the
What the relevance of this is, is unknown. I say nothing of all Christians being heroic cross-bearers; if anything, that they were not merely amplifies my point, that it was a hard system to live with, and required validation to be accepted. Constantine's baptism is of no relevance because it relates to a belief at the time in the efficacy of baptism against sin, not to behavioral mediocrity or lack of commitment.
As Stark (The Rise of Christianity) shows, the growth rate of
Christianity seems to have matched that of analogous modern "new religions" like
Mormonism and the Unification Church. One reason it expanded was its narrowness.
Unlike other faiths, it insisted that theirs was the only way, so if you joined
Christianity you left your other affiliations behind, whereas others could and
did belong to several movements at once, with naturally watered down devotion to
any one of them.
On this see link to discussion above. The growth rate issue is one open to serious debate as Stark (or maybe Johnny) presents it.
Another way it grew was that
Christianity provided a constant safety zone for assimilating Hellenistic Jews
who wanted to slough off parochial Jewish ethnic markers like circumcision
(already Paul is telling the Corinthian men not to undertake the epispasm
operation to “undo” circumcision—ouch!) yet without abandoning the biblical
This was also Carrier's argument, as well as another critic's, and our reply is the same: What Price calls "parochial ethnic markers" were cherished by Jews as part of their cultural identity; and God-fearers could absorb what they wanted of the Biblical tradition without circumcision and without Christianity. Once again the availability of the alternative speaks against Christianity being of natural origin.
Yet another growth factor was Christianity's opposition to abortion
and infanticide, both quite common among pagans. This meant there were many more
Christian women surviving to adulthood, perforce marrying pagan men and
converting them. And of course the sterling conduct of Christians, ministering
to the sick and destitute in times of plague and famine while pagan priests
headed for their countryside villas, like Prince Prospero in Poe's Masque of
the Red Death, must have attracted many of those helped--and justifiably so!
Christianity has much to be proud of in all this. But we don't need any overt
miracle to explain it.
All of this is from Stark, and all of it relates to Christianity past the second century -- not the critical early years that are the subject of my article.
And as for the unlikelihood that a
great number should have welcomed a new faith that offered moral guidance and
discipline--I don't see a problem, unless one already takes for granted a
doctrine of total depravity.
What this is supposed to mean is not clear. The pagans already had moral guiding lights, total depravity or not.
Christianity began in the Hellenistic age of
cosmopolitan tolerance. It was common for members of various religions to regard
all the gods as the same, just wearing different names from nation to nation.
Even some Jews, like the writer of the Epistle of Aristaeus, regarded
Jehovah and Zeus as the same. One result was that anyone might join several
different religions or cults simultaneously. So mustn’t Christianity have
disgusted Roman society because of the new faith’s exclusivism? Mustn’t the
preaching of Jesus as the only way to heaven have appeared a piece of tasteless
bigotry? Surely no one would have found such a faith attractive, would they?
That's the question; now what's the answer?
Actually, it was a mixed bag. As I have just said, a la E.R. Dodds (Pagan and
Christian in an Age of Anxiety) and Rodney Stark, exclusivism was also a
factor accounting for Christian expansion, not necessarily making it unlikely.
What Price means by what he "just said" is unknown. He has not referred to Dodds previously, and in any event, Dodds writes of the era between 167 and the 300s AD, not our crucial period. The reference to Stark -- who is also about a later period -- presumably refers back to Price saying, Unlike other faiths, it insisted that theirs was the only way, so if you joined Christianity you left your other affiliations behind, whereas others could and did belong to several movements at once, with naturally watered down devotion to any one of them. While this might explain why people joined no other movement once they joined Christianity, it has nothing to do with why they joined Christianity in the first place. In other words, Price has put the cart before the horse; and this has nothing to do with that Christian exclusivism was a negative for those not yet part of the movement.
The same thing is evident in the modern day in Dean M. Kelly's famous book,
Why Conservative Churches Are Growing: people feel they are getting the red
meat of authentic Christianity with evangelicalism, not the vapid tofu of
liberalism, so they flock to the clear notes of the fundamentalist/orthodox
What Kelly's book about modern Christianity has to do with the ancient world, an entirely different social setting, is something best left for Price to explain. In the first century Christianity was rotten meat to the average pagan and Jew.
On the other hand, what Holding notes
about the guardians of the social order being enraged by this, or even some of
the people, is true too: there were plenty of lynch mobs before Diocletian and
Decius declared open season on Christians. But not everybody reacted the same
And the documentation for this? Not one bit of it. This is yet again a vague and unsubstantiated appeal to diversity; an excellent "sucker punch" for the PC is all of us, but without a shred of evidence for the period in question.
And much of the reaction was conducive to Christian growth--even the
persecutions! For, as Tertullian said, the blood of the martyrs was the seed of
the church. And then what if significant elements of the establishment embrace
the new faith? Things change rapidly.
Tertullian (and these "significant elements" -- meaning Constantine, we assume) of course was hundreds of years after the critical period, and thus also of no relevance. Price has yet to estrablish that change occurred in the very critical period under discussion. Price then briefly repeats his argument above, already addressed, about alleged appeal to Hellenistic Jews and God-fearers, as well as brief commentary on the later demise of Ebionite Christianity which is of no relevance here. We move then to:
Know It All
Holding next cites Acts 26:26, “For the king
knoweth of these things, before whom also I speak freely: for I am persuaded
that none of these things are hidden from him; for this thing was not done in a
corner.” Here Paul is making his defense before King Herod Agrippa II. “The NT
is filled with claims of connections to and reports of incidents involving
‘famous people.’ [For instance,] Herod Agrippa [I]… ‘was eaten of worms’ as Luke
reported in Acts 12:20-23. Copies of Acts circulated in the area and were
accessible to the public. Had Luke reported falsely, Christianity would have
been dismissed as a fraud and would not have ‘caught on’ as a religion. If Luke
lied in his reports, Luke probably would have been jailed and/or executed by
Agrippa's son, Herod Agrippa II… because that was the fellow Paul testified to
in Acts 25-26… And Agrippa II was alive and in power after Luke wrote and
circulated Acts.” No, sorry. For one thing, Luke’s account of the first
Agrippa’s death sounds remarkably like that in Josephus (Antiquities
19:8:2) as well as the tale of the worm-devouring death of Antiochus Epiphanes
in 2 Maccabees 9:9.
No, sorry, we put that particular worm on a hook and sent it to the use of the red herring here. Our apologies for the inconvenience.
For another, there are many reasons to think that Acts stems
from the second century, and many scholars think so. Merely mentioning that
opinion does not make it true. It does mean, however, that the reader is not
entitled to take Holding’s assertion of Luke’s contemporaneity with Herod
Agrippa II for granted either.
This particular reflects one of Price's unique fancies; in fact virtually no scholars date Acts as late as he does. As for not taking for granted this point, that's why I also have this.
To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, Agrippa "was dead and
couldn't blow the gaff." It is typical of the Hellenistic novels to have
fictional heroes interact with famous historical figures, just as in such novels
today. Does Holding imagine that the spurious letters between Paul and Seneca
must be authentic because otherwise somebody would have definitively put the
hoax to rest?
No, but if Price wants to call in that particular dead horse for us to beat, he is welcome to do so. The arguments against the Paul and Seneca deal have been done for years. As late as they were, at any rate, neither Paul nor Seneca were around to check with, as would be the case in Luke's time.
"People outside the area of Lystra may not have
known enough about what happened in Lystra, or wanted to check it, but
Christianity was making claims at varied points across the Empire, and there
were also built in ‘fact checkers’ stationed around the Empire who could say
something about all the claims central to Jerusalem and Judaea -- the Diaspora
Jews.” Thus Acts’ stories must be true. But this is unrealistic and
anachronistic--fact checkers? No doubt there were local skeptics who, as in the
case of Sabbatai Sevi's miracle reports, denied anything was really going on,
but who listens to them? Not the true believers.
This matter is covered in Point 13; Price here has no appreciation of the operation of a collectivist society. Price's retorting examples:
Like Holding himself, they will mount any argument so as not to have to take threatening factors seriously.
Of course, this refers to "believers" -- not to people yet converted, which is the entire point.
Rastafarians refuse to belief Haillie Selassie died. Premies refuse to believe
their Satguru's mom fired him. Also, does Holding expect us to accept that the
temple of Diana in Ephesus collapsed at the preaching of John because it says so
in the Acts of John?
The first example of Selassie we dealt with in our aged article on Price linked far above. The Satguru example is likewise modern and of no relevance to an ancient society. As for Acts of John, since no one finds that to be a contemporary document to John's day, the example is likewise irrelevant. Price needs to find a literary example of the period in question (or from a similar society) and document contemporary reactions.
“The NT claims countless touch-points that could
go under this list. An earthquake, a darkness at midday, the temple curtain torn
in two, an execution, all at Passover (with the attendant crowds numbering in
the millions), people falling out of a house speaking in tongues at Pentecost…--
all in a small city and culture where word would spread fast.” Word spreads
fast—word of what? Events and non-events. Rumors spread as fast as facts, faster
even. And besides, a little event called the fall of Jerusalem supervened
between the time described and the writing of the gospels and Acts. Any
witnesses pro or con were long dead and unavailable.
Essentially, yet another non-answer. However, on the matter of rumor and such, once again we refer to our earliest response to Price's BBA; and once again, Price's late date of Acts is his own fancy. Not that the fall of Jerusalem killed everyone who would know in the first place; critics often have this fancy that the fall of Jerusalem managed to kill half the people and erase the collective memories of the other half.
In short, Christianity was highly vulnerable to inspection and disproof on innumerable
points -- any one of which, had it failed to prove out, would have snowballed
into further doubt, especially given the previous factors above which would have
been motive enough for any Jew or Gentile to say or do something.” Oh please! If
such claims were even made in the time of apostolic contemporaries, we have no
way of knowing they were not as thoroughly and adequately refuted as the claims
of Joseph Smith were.
Oh please! In essence yet another non-answer; Price must appeal yet again to unknown, unevidenced "refutations" that he supposes must have existed, for no other reason than that he needs an answer for something he can't answer; the data doesn't cooperate as it stands, so he supplements it with imagination.
Christian tradition and documents would hardly inform us
of the fact. And once Jerusalem fell, as it had before the New Testament was
written, all hope of corroboration is sheer fantasy.
See above on Jerusalem. As for Christian tradition and docs, that is also an error. These would inform us readily of refutation attempts, as in Matthew's "stolen body" polemic, because the need would arise to answer such things. If Price wants to fantasize about unknown refutations, then why can't I have dreams about imperial Roman documents about a formal investigation that concluded with the truth of the Resurrection, which were destroyed by later pagan emperors?
Holding mounts a version of the argument from
martyrdom that is slightly more nuanced than the usual one, and for that we may
give him credit. He admits that we have no reliable information as to the
possible martyrdom of any specific early Christians. Most of the supposed data
comes from apocryphal, legendary sources like the fanciful Acts of Paul.
But, following Robin Lane Fox, Holding widens the scope of social ostracism to
which early Christians were subjected: “rejection by family and society,
relegation to outcast status. It didn't need to be martyrdom -- it was enough
that you would suffer socially and otherwise.” But this sword cuts both ways, if
you are trying to determine its likely effect on the growth and consolidation of
membership in a new religion. Such ostracism, when not spontaneously forthcoming
at the hands of outsiders, is famously cultivated (even simulated) by "cults"
who seek to cement the loyalty of new members by isolating them from natural
family and old friends so they will bond more strongly with "brothers and
sisters in the faith."
Oops, sorry, that's in the modern world, Mr. Price, where individualism and "do your own thing" runs rampant. Not the ancient world, where collective mindset ruled supreme, where public shame and shunning from the group really DID hurt, because personal honor and group adherence were the two Big Things to any ancient.
But as for outright persecution, e.g., lynchings,
seizure of property, just observe how the censured and persecuted Mormons
reacted to such hardships--by succeeding fabulously! “It is quite unlikely that
anyone would have gone the distance for the Christian faith at any time --
unless it had something tangible behind it.” Or, unless they believed it
did, which no one doubts, and which is all Holding can ever show.
Price apparently missed my analysis with respect to Mormonism in this regard: Yes, martyrs do matter here. Joseph Smith was Mormonism's martyr par excellence, but far from the only one, and persecution was inflicted upon the Saints in every place they ventured. Mormons were shot at, killed, beaten, and hounded from place to place. Officials called for their removal or extermination. Armies pursued them even to Utah. Their homes were burned and their innocents murdered. This is overall a black spot on our history and cannot be downplayed. But the Mormons had some advantages that the early Christians did not. Others were sympathetic and offered the Mormons temporary shelter and respite, which would not have been the case for the early Christians. Mormonism grew in a frontier society where there was ample land for expansion, and places to remove entire communities and heed the advice, "when they persecute you in one town, flee to another." One may justly ask whether Mormonism today would be the same institution had it not had Nauvoo, and later Utah, to flee to, to regroup in -- and then, had it not eventually compromised (for whatever reason) on its most socially offensive doctrine (polygamy). On the other hand, early Christians eventually had no place to flee other than wilderness and the perhaps catacombs -- and could not count on any sympathetic allies. Would Mormonism have survived the tyranny and the injustice of the Roman Empire? There is another matter, more poignant. Skeptics have parroted the line that "in every religion people die for their beliefs." They do, but in most cases the beliefs in question are not grounded in historical data. One who would readily die for the belief that there were three or five gods, or that the dead received salvation, or that one will receive a certain eternal reward, may not be so ready to die for a belief that Washington did (or did not) cross the Delaware. With all of Mormonism's historical claims either inaccessible (Book of Mormon events) or rooted in private events (revelations to Smith and others), Mormonism was more like the former on this account than the latter. One exception may be argued: The witnesses to the gold plates. On this point I would note that I have no doubts that Smith possessed some item or items which were purportedly gold plates. What they were is a matter beyond our scope. However, possession of such items is far less significant in scope than claiming observation of and extended interchange with a resurrected man. Sorry, again, for the inconvenience.
Mono y Mono
Holding has already expressed his reluctance to
credit any ancient believing in a crucified god. But what about the general
belief that Jesus was God incarnate? Would that notion have proven so repugnant
to ancient Jews and Gentiles that none of them could have seriously entertained
it—unless either irrefutable evidence for the resurrection (how is this a proof
for the Incarnation?) forced one to accept it? But Holding, like C.S. Lewis and
so many others who use the same argument, is stuck on the discredited notion
that something like second-century rabbinic orthodoxy prevailed or even existed
in the first centuries BC and AD.
And Price is stuck meanwhile on the baseless retort that the most critical values that rabbinic orthodoxy represented were somehow not present in Judaism in the first century. The particular of the uniqueness and transcendance of YHWH is found in the OT. Incarnation is apparently rejected by such passages as Num. 23:19. Price goes on to pontificate further about "the diversity of theologies" in Islam, et al. but in the end his only answer is to chase himself in a circle and say, in essence, "it must not have been that monolithic, because look -- there's Christianity."
“And it would be no better in the Gentile world.
The idea of a god condescending to material form, for more than a temporary
visit, of sweating, stinking, going to the bathroom, and especially suffering
and dying here on earth -- this would be too much to swallow!” But exactly such
was believed of the various demigods, like Asclepius, Pythagoras, Apollonius.
No, sorry, Mr. Price. Demigods are not gods, and all three of these were men who rose to demigod status; not gods who descended into human weakness. Wrong end of the stick to chew on, I'm afraid.
Besides, many early Christians did not believe in a genuine incarnation, but
"Many early Christians" here means later gnostic-like heretics, who are indeed proof that this issue was very much a problem for the Christians. Of course, Mr. Price is welcome to present his defense of docetism as a "live option".
and it is far from certain that Paul was a real incarnationist,
with his talk of Christ taking on the likeness of human flesh, the
form of a servant, etc.
Sorry again, but those passages are reflective of a Wisdom Christology, and the words do not reflect any sort of anti-incarnational perspective. The word for "form" means a sphere within which Christ existed; it reflects nature and charateristics, and thus if anything, indicates humanity (it only means that Christ was not a servant/slave, not that he was not human). "Likeness" refers back to the "image and likeness" language of Genesis and means not an illusion, but that Christ came as a member of the human race, which was vested with God's authority in being given God's image and likeness.
I for one do not take for granted that orthodox
definitions of incarnation can be assumed for the earliest Christians.
We wonder whether Mr. Price for one would be inclined to defend himself on this point. Given that we have found his understanding of Christology deficient at prior times, we rather doubt it.
“‘Neither male nor female, neither slave nor
free.’ You might be so used to applauding this sort of concept that you don't
realize what a radical message it was for the ancient world. And this is another
reason why Christianity should have petered out in the cradle if it were a
fake.” It is a notorious matter of debate even among “literalist” evangelicals
whether statements like the one Holding quotes meant any more than that all the
listed categories had equal access to salvation, or whether they also denoted
the abolition of traditional social distinctions among Christians.
Where this "debate" exists is not explained, but it doesn't matter. Either point would have been just as controversial since it implied that one's inherent honor status was worthless. But the very fact that slaves assembled with the wealthy, and men with women, and that the classes mixed, meant that in terms of fellowship, the distinctions were indeed erased, and that is all that matters.
We don’t know
how progressive a face early Christians presented to their contemporaries.
Besides, some of the pre-Socratic Sophists had already preached male-female
equality, as did the Pythagoreans and Stoics. And Christians were by no means,
except for Marcionites and Gnostics, quick to implement texts like Galatians
3:28, as the Pastoral Epistles show.
Price does not say what part of the Pastorals he thinks fails to show this, so not much can be said; but if they are the usual objections, they are patently wrong. If he chooses to get specific, we will explain why. As for Sophists, et al. that's very nice. It accounts for one barrier gone; what about the rest, like rich-poor and slave-free? And since these three groups were all part of an elite anyway, and not part of a movement that evangelized to all parties, they are even more irrelevant.
“Note that this is not just to those
in power or rich; it is an anachronism of Western individualism to suppose that
a slave or the poor would have found Christianity's message appealing on this
basis.” On the contrary, part of the appeal of such "cults" is that they offer
esteem and honor to someone in the eyes of his brethren that he cannot achieve
in the secular world. A slave could be a Christian leader.
Notice that the point about Western anachronism went far over Price's head, as indeed his answer is inflamed with that very same individualism. This is not an answer, it is the idea that my answer rebuts.
“Christianity turned the norms upside down and
said that birth, ethnicity, gender, and wealth -- that which determined a
person's honor and worth in this setting -- meant zipola.” This is
characteristic of all sectarian movements in their infancy. It is partly "Know-Nothingism,"
because education is disparaged, partly true egalitarianism, of course. But
hardly unusual for a new religious movement. Buddhism, too, repudiated caste and
succeeded. Is it the only true religion, too?
Aside from the vague rhetoric ("all sectarian movements" --- ? really?), Christianity in this context did not "disparage" education, and this would hardly be relevant since its potential converts were already "educated" to be classists and collectivist stratifiers. The one concrete example of Buddhism is hard to decipher, since Price does not give any details, but from what I can find he seems to refer to Buddhism in India in particular, which is not exactly where it has had its greatest success. More cannot be said without more details which we suspect Price is hesitant to provide for fear of critical examination.
“The group-identity factor makes for
another proof of Christianity's authenticity. In a group-oriented society, you
took your identity from your group leader, and people needed the support and
endorsement of others to support their identity… Moreover, a person like Jesus
could not have kept a ministry going unless those around him supported him. A
merely human Jesus could not have met this demand and must have provided
convincing proofs of his power and authority to maintain a following, and for a
movement to have started and survived well beyond him. A merely human Jesus
would have had to live up to the expectations of others and would have been
abandoned, or at least had to change horses, at the first sign of failure.” This
is outrageous special pleading. What about the Buddha, John the Baptist, Martin
Luther King, Gandhi, and many others who were let down temporarily or
permanently by their followers?
Beg pardon? Not one word here is said about the primary point, which is the huge difefrence between a group-oriented and an individualist society. Two of Price's four examples come from the Western tradition (Gandhi is included because of the influence of British imperialism on his native culture); John the Baptist as an example makes no sense, because he did not fail to meet expectations, even when he was imprisoned (that would have been expected of a prophet, as happened to Jeremiah) and even executed (as had been prophets before). What about the Buddha? We can't say, since Price doesn't explain the specifics and I'm not going to go rousting around Buddhist history trying to guess what he means. Price does not appreciate the difference of scale between the expectations of a Jesus and those of a John, for that matter.
And if there were anything special about such
persistence, you needn't posit an incarnation. It would be adequate to say Jesus
was strengthened by God. Were the indefatigable Paul and Peter God incarnate,
What in the world this is supposed to mean is unfathomable. I make no connection to the specific identity-feature of being God incarnate in this point.
“If Christianity wanted to succeed, it should
never have admitted that women were the first to discover the empty tomb or the
first to see the Risen Jesus. It also never should have admitted that women were
main supporters (Luke 8:3) or lead converts (Acts 16).” Similar traditions stem
from the ritual mourning of women devotees of Tammuz (Ezekiel 8:14), Attis, Baal
(Zechariah 12:11), etc.
"Similar traditions"? I'm sorry, but none of these examples feature women in the crucial roles of witnesses to a critical event. These are of no relevance; Price is merely throwing hay in the air.
They are not supposed to be "evidence for the
resurrection" any more than the Oberammergau Passion Play is.
Of course none of the three in question were even resurrections in the first place. If that needs to be disputed, Price can deal with what he finds under their names here. For that matter, none were claimed to be resurrected in actually history.
And plenty of
Mystery cults gave leadership roles to women. That's part and parcel of
sectarianism and its first-generation rejection of mainstream norms.
Price does not specify which "mystery cults" he had in mind here, and we're not going to chase down his phantom specifics simply because he doesn't want his arguments critically examined. But there is an issue of difference between granting of leadership (of what sort?) and being a witness; Price needs to educate himself about ancient ideas of "spheres" within which men and women were allowed to operate, as noted in Malina and Neyrey's Portraits of Paul. Then he can get back to us with his examples and show that they are relevant.
Holding appeals to the bumpkin status of Jesus,
John, and Peter (Acts 4:13), and even of the early Christians generally, as
another factor militating against the success of the new faith. On the contrary,
the supposed illiteracy of prophets and founders is part of apologetic rhetoric,
used of Jesus, Peter and John, Muhammad, and Joseph Smith so as to argue they
must have been incapable of making this stuff up--"Flesh and blood hath not
revealed it to thee, but my father in heaven."
The example of Smith and Muhammed are irrelevant, as we showed in our supplemental articles. Beyond that, the particulars of Jesus, John and Peter do not answer the point that their status remained a problem; nowhere in kerygmatic preaching is the appeal actually made that their illiteracy is proof of the truth of what they said. Price is erecting a red herring on the head of a man of straw.
It is a common, predictable, and
fictive topos, much like the common rhetorical trope that Paul uses in 1
Corinthians 2:1-2, the claim to have renounced or to be inept at clever
rhetoric, to throw readers off the track and set them up to fall for it.
That trope of course remains unevidenced in kerygmatic preaching. Thus Price's retort is without support.
Besides, how would Christianity's
being "real" or "fake" as to miracle claims have anything to do with the success
or failure of its progress in society decades later?
I'm going to skip what follows this, as I would not claim that it did have anything to do with later success. I am only concerned with the critical formative years. We skip to:
Stand Up If You're Sure
Bruce “Malina and [Jerome] Neyrey note that in
the ancient world, people took their major identity from the various groups to
which they belonged. Whatever group(s) they were embedded in determined their
identity. Changes in persons (such as Paul's conversion) were abnormal. Each
person had certain role expectations they were expected to fulfill. The erasure
or blurring of these various distinctions… would have made Christianity seem
radical and offensive.” Right! Of course! That's what happens when people join
new or different religions. Not everyone has the guts to do it (though many have
long felt alienated, and have silently waited for some new option to present
itself). Holding seems to be arguing that no one converts to new religions
except by a miracle of God.
"Right! Of course?" This is the rhetoric of a modern person, yet again; not the mind of an ancient one. Price is mistaking modern socialization of individuals and the use of peer pressure with the far deeper matter of group-embeddedness. On the scale of groupthink, modern acts of this sort are merely a puff of the wind compared to the collectivist hurricane. In fact, our declaration to be part of a group is made for the purpose, in the main, of putting ourselves on display as an individual, to show that we are free to break from a prior group.
Holding, then, insists that ancient people, much
more part of a group-mentality than we are, would not have been likely to break
with family and convention to join a new sect. I doubt this, in view of the
cosmopolitan character of the Hellenistic Roman Empire when it would have been
scarcely less difficult than it is today to run into members of other religions.
Price can "doubt this" all he wants, but it won't change the scholarship on the subject. The fact is that when it came to Roman sects (pun not intended), for the vast majority you did not have to break with family, indeed because of the "cosmopolianity" of Rome. But Christianity was of a different breed because of its exclusivism and its rebellion against the accepted social mores. Once again Price is imperializing and imposing his modern values.
There was already beginning to be what Peter Berger calls a “heretical
imperative” to choose for oneself. But this was probably less true for
Palestinian Jews. And yet some did break with their ancestral creeds to joining
Christianity. Or did they? Remember, Christianity would have begun among Jews.
“Faith in Jesus” may not even have amounted to a sect allegiance any more than
did Rabbi Johannon ben-Zakkai’s controversial belief in the messianic claims of
No such "beginning" was in the least in evidence; Berger is a modern writer addressing "Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation" as his own book states. As for whether it would be any different for Jews, the points above have shown that it would be.
But let us admit that the earliest Christians, as
well as other venturesome souls who went out on a limb and joined a new
sectarian group, had a lot of guts. All honor to them! But is this miraculous? I
know Holding is ultimately trying to say that the evidence for the resurrection
must have been pretty darn compelling to prompt such wrenching changes. But it
isn't in our day, nor is it even the reason most people give for such
That it isn't in our day is of absolutely no relevance; we do not have access to the critical data of proof or disproof as would those in the critical period we are discussing. Under such circumstances, it is obvious that as time passes, use of critical data would gradually decline and other motives for conversion would have to set in. But this is again beside the point. We skip to the next section, noting only Price's abuse of passages like John 20:29 to mean blind belief without facts; on that, see here.
Every Idle Speculation
In the ancient world, we are told, everybody kept
an eye on everybody else. Little escaped a neighbor’s scrutiny. Surveillance and
gossip were rife—much like today!
No, not quite. Gossip and surveillance are usually done today on people we know little or nothing about -- not on neighbors. And it is once again like comparing a breeze to a storm. But:
“So now the skeptic has another conundrum. In
a society where nothing escaped notice, there was indeed every reason to suppose
that people hearing the Gospel message would check against the facts --
especially where a movement with a radical message like Christianity was
concerned.” All salvationist sects required repentance and new birth.
Jews required righteousness. What was so radical about it?
Excuse me? Price merely picks out and generalizes two points -- "repentance and new birth" and "righteousness" -- while ignoring those critical points wherein Christianity was indeed radical. It is enough to say that Price is on the far end of a weirdo spectrum with an implication that the Christian message was not radical in its day; speaking against him is every expert on the scale, from Stark to Meeks to Wright to Wilken.
“The empty tomb would
be checked.” Maybe it was, and maybe it was found occupied, and maybe Christians
with their will to believe found it as easy to ignore it as Creationists do the
I think it speaks for itself that Price resorts to such an idea, as much worthy as "Jesus was raised by aliens" or anything postulated by Acharya S. Of course no polemic survives indicating a full tomb; the silence on this point is overwhelmingly defining, and to the extent that it speaks against any credibility for Price's suggestion.
Many people, after all, did not come to faith. Maybe this
is why. We, at any rate, are in no position to check it out.
And maybe green pigs came down from Neptune and replaced Mr. Price's brain with one from a Xeruvian lugnut beast, complete with genetic alternations suitable to fool our doctors. We, at any rate, are in no position to check it out. But unlike the empty tomb, there is no positive evidence for it.
And Holding begs
the question by supposing that the earliest Christians even told such a story. I
agree with Burton L. Mack (A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins;
The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins; and Who Wrote
the New Testament?) and others who suggest that the empty tomb story is a
late addition to the preaching.
Do pardon me for not bothering to refute a wide-left, wild conspiracy thesis postulated by the likes of Mack, who is still working off his frustrations from formerly being a fundamentalist. It is not a late addition; it is found in the earliest text, 1 Cor. 15, despite what Price says elsewhere, which we address here.
“Matthew's story of resurrected saints would be
checked out.” Two generations later? Not likely. Besides who would be
reading/hearing this story but the members of Matthew's church in Antioch?
I do not speak of two generations later, of course, but this arrives as part of Price's begged question dating Matthew to that time. As for members in Antioch, Price may be quaint enough to suppose the story never passed the city limits, but in a collectivist culture, don't count on it. And Antioch was a big place with plenty of people able and willing to make the trip.
would be sought out for questioning.” What, sixty or seventy years after event?
He would be dead again by that time, supposing he was ever a historical
character at all, and not just borrowed from the Lazarus of the Luke 16 parable.
We will let pass the latter absurdity, as it is presented without support; and once again, the whole rests on the begged question of a late date for John's Gospel. To which, and the above, we present this series. Sorry for the inconvenience, but Price has a lot more work to do to address our case in a holistic fashion.
Excessive honor claims, such as that Jesus had been vindicated, or his
claims to be divine, would have been given close scrutiny.” By whom? It is a
safe bet Malina and his Social Science colleagues do not mean to depict the
ancients as mirror-image apologists as Holding does.
A non-answer. Whether Malina et al do this is beside the point; their data presents all these people as apologists for honor and against shame, within parameters of limited good and a social control network dedicated to stopping deviancies. Being apologists against Christian belief would be a simple subset of that methodology, whether Price likes it or not, and merely begging an exception for Christianity won't work either.
“And later, converts to the new faith
would have to answer to their neighbors.” How many hearers of the resurrection
preaching, which may not at first have included the empty tomb anyway, would
have been in any position at all to "check it out"? "Master, I'd like several
months off so I can travel over to Palestine and see if I can verify a story I
heard from some street corner preacher, that a man rose from the dead over there
fifty years ago. I'm hoping I can find his tomb, or maybe somebody who saw it a
few days after the execution."
Try again. Master: "Slave, here is some money. Travel to Palestine and see what you can find about this matter. I will go myself if you find anything worth checking. These could be dangerous people." Or, Diaspora Jew: "Hmm, we're due to go to Jerusalem for the feast soon. Let's see what we can find out while we're there." Nice try, but Price just doesn't have a grip on the options open, nor the motives.
And if we are thinking of hypothetical hearers of
empty tomb claims in AD 34 or so, what makes Holding think they would be any
more inclined to "check it out" than anybody in our day who heard Oral Roberts
claiming he had witnessed a King Kong-sized apparition of Jesus in Tulsa one
First of all, because what Oral saw, if he saw, went and left and there was indeed nothing to check, whereas tombs don't disappear. Second, Oral didn't leave in the same type of social setting. Third, Oral's vision wasn't a danger to anyone else. Any more misplaced questions?
Besides, Holding's whole argument is
misguided, as if one could adjudicate historical questions of what did
happen by appealing to general tendencies of ancient temperaments and what
would have happened. You can't just squeeze history out of peasant
sociology, as Crossan does. He and Malina and the crew all tend to reduce Jesus
to a mere instantiation of current trends, mores, etc.
In essence, yet another non-answer, a fruitless and hayseed denial of the scholarship of persons whose expertise Price is no match for, leaving him to resort to shaking his head like the people in the old shampoo commercial and yelling, "Nuh uh uh!" It is not reductionistic to make people what they are in their contexts. Sorry, but you can indeed get history out of sociology; end of story.
“I Reply Because it is Absurd”
“Scholars of all persuasions have long recognized
the ‘criteria of embarrassment’ as a marker for authentic words of Jesus. Places
where Jesus claims to be ignorant (not knowing the day or hour of his return;
not knowing who touched him in the crowd) or shows weakness are taken as honest
recollections and authentic (even where miracles stories often are not!).”
Surely, Holding reasons, the framers of a merely concocted religion would take
more care to make their imaginary savior deity look good! Hence no one would
take the gospel Jesus seriously—unless they had to. As usual, Holding grossly
oversimplifies the historical situation. As John Warwick Montgomery observed,
every gospel saying must have been offensive to somebody here or there in
the early church. What offended Matthew (Jesus declining to be called "good,"
for example) did not offend Mark, and we may be able to suggest reasons Mark
would have created it.
Admittedly this is the most remarkably inane commentary in Price's entire essay. Aside from the error in the specific point about Matthew, including the begged question of Marcan priority, the use of Montgomery, whom Price would otherwise run from the use of like a gazelle from a stream of toxic waste, the point remains that the example of Point 14 is one which would be universally embarrassing in context; merely pointing to lesser embarassments, accordig to more select groups, is not an answer but a distraction from a lack of an answer.
At least no criterion of embarrassment will shield it.
Other embarrassing sayings may yet be damage control, fending off something yet
more embarrassing. Certainly Schmiedel was naive in thinking no Christian would
ever have fabricated Mark 13:32, where Jesus says he does not know the time of
the end. Obviously the point is to correct the impression of the immediate
context that he did claim to know and that he was wrong, as C.S.
Lewis (“The World’s Last Night”) admitted. For Jesus to disclaim knowledge was
better than having him mistaken.
Certainly Price is offering little but obfuscation. If this was indeed the issue, why record anything Jesus said on the issue at all? This is like saying that we can get the alleged rapist off with an alibi: The man he was trying to murder across town at the alleged time of the rape.
“Encouraging people to verify claims and seek
proof (and hence discouraging their gullibility) is a guaranteed way to get
slammed if you are preaching lies. Let us suppose for a minute that you are
trying to start a false religion. In order to support your false religion, you
decide to make up a number of historical (i.e., testable) claims, and then hope
that nobody would check up on them. What is the most important thing to do, if
you have made up claims that are provably false? Well, of course, you don't go
around encouraging people to check up on your claims, knowing that if they do so
you will be found out!” Once a student in a class of mine insisted that the CEO
of Proctor and Gamble had admitted on the Donahue TV show that he was a
Satanist and that the corporate logo was Satanic symbolism as well. I told my
student that this was an urban legend. Next time he brought in the crudely
copied hand-bill he had read. It offered a New York City phone number and urged
the reader to call and ask for the transcript of the show for so and so date. I
called it. There was no connection at all with Donahue. The hoaxer had
evidently assumed that the mere provision of this (fake) information would be so
convincing as to deceive the reader into thinking just as my student did and
just as Holding does.
Price doesn't even see how he shot himself in the foot on this one. He went out and refuted the claim, exactly as I said would happen. But I like my example of the Pope Leo X quote supplemented with a fake Britannica citation better.
When the reader of 1 Corinthians 15 reads that Paul
challenged him to go and ask the 500 brethren about their resurrection
sightings, something Paul knew well the Corinthians would never have the leisure
to do, he may be impressed, but Paul was taking no risks. The mere challenge in
such a case functions as sufficient "proof."
Nonsense. For one thing, Price and his student do not live in an agonistic society where claims of honor would be challenged if for no other reason than that honor was a limited good. For another, society will not be affected my claims of P and G executives being Satanists, and there is no pressing reason to do any investigation. Third, despite Price, there would indeed be Corinthians -- moderately well-off sorts, as well as Jews who travelled to Jerusalem for feasts -- with ample leisure to check witnesses; not all 500 perhaps (checking 50 or so would be enough) but nevertheless ample resources among not just the Corinthians, but people all over the Empire, to do the necessary work.
Note that he provides no clue as to
the names or locations of these supposed witnesses.
The point being what? 1 Cor. is written to people already believers; names and locations as needed would be provided in missionary settings, not to people already convinced by the evidence.
In the late Syriac
hagiography, The Life of John Son of Zebedee, the apostle similarly
invites his hearers to check out the story of Jairus’ daughter, resurrected by
Jesus. The idea is that the reader will understand that once upon a time the
facts could have been checked out, even though it is too late for him
personally to do so.
What of it? 1 Cor. is not a late document like the Life of John. People in the time of Paul still could make a check. People in the time of The Life of John couldn't. Bad analogy.
This all proves nothing and indeed invites suspicion of
imposture where it might not have arisen otherwise.
Why this is so is not explained, but presumably it is the same error Price offers above about the use of oaths meaning that there is scoundrelry afoot, to which we have the linked answer above.
Holding imagines, with the eye of faith that
calls thing which are not as though they were, that “Throughout the NT, the
apostles encouraged people to check seek proof and verify facts: 1 Thessalonians
5:21 [says to] ‘Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.’” But this text
refers, in context, to prophetic utterances which should not be dismissed out of
hand but scrutinized, as in 1 Corinthians 14:29.
Prophetic utterances, grocery lists, what difference does it make? "All things" may not mean all things literally ("Check out that toupee Price has on!") but it certainly holds to religious contexts. Besides, the check test for prophets in the OT meant checking them against what actually happened -- the evidence. No need for "the eye of faith" here; the feet of social science walk all over Price in this regard.
“And when fledgling converts heeded
this advice, not only did they remain converts (suggesting that the evidence
held up under scrutiny), but the apostles described them as ‘noble’ for doing
so: Acts 17:11[says,] ‘These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that
they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures
daily, whether those things were so.’” But this is only a much later description
of a dubiously historical scene and in any case means only "See? The smart
people agree with us!" And if Luke means us to take as representative the
fanciful scripture "proofs" he has the apostles offer elsewhere in the book, we
can hang it up right now.
We have already noted that "late" for Acts is Price's begged-question fancy; "dubious" he does not explain, though it seems to be, "Dubious, because it implies a conclusion that I can't stomach, that these people really weren't stupid stoolies." We leave the rest as too vague to be worth a reply.
Put a Leash on That Dogma
“Christianity, as we can see, had every possible
disadvantage as a faith… I propose that there is only one, broad explanation for
Christianity overcoming these intolerable disadvantages, and that is that it had
the ultimate rebuttal -- a certain, trustworthy, and undeniable witness to the
resurrection of Jesus, the only event which, in the eyes of the ancients, would
have vindicated Jesus' honor and overcome the innumerable stigmata of his life
and death. It had certainty that could not be denied; in other words, enough
early witnesses (as in, the 500!) with solid and indisputable testimony (no
"vision of Jesus in the sky" but a tangible certainly of a physically
resurrected body).” Finally we are reduced to this: It was plenty convincing to
those in a position to know the inside story, so you ought to be convinced, too!
Sorry, but I can only look at the meager fragments of evidence that survive, and
they do not look promising.
We accept Price's apology for his inability to see the forest for the trees he keeps banging his head against like Woody Woodpecker. We do appreciate his extended "huh huh huh HA huh" as he offers the wildest speculations necessary to discard the evidence, which as it stands, does not cooperate. Note that this lack of promise certainly has not stopped him from making from thin air such ideas as that there were checks of the tomb and that it was found full and odorous. By this time Price's thesis stinketh.
If Holding deems the evidence for the
resurrection to be so strong, then what is the point of all this business of
“disadvantages” and so forth? Why beat around the bush rather than getting to
the real business at hand? It is not as if he is shy to discuss the evidence in
its own right, but the argument considered here is not only fallacious; it is
wholly superfluous even if he is right in his other arguments for the
Dunno what Price is on about here. The real business, I took care of some time ago, when dealing with different persons on the block like Richard Carrier, as well as himself. One may as well ask why Price bothers to write refutations to TIF if the evidence is truly as meagre and as unpromising as he claims. To sum the matter up: Price has been a better version of himself for this one; on that point he is to be complimented. Now, though, let's work on his problems with making ancient people out to be modern individualists and apple-pie Americans. Then we'll work on his adherence to fringe theories like a super-late date for Acts. After that, who knows. Maybe we'll even get him to speak in tongues.