Robert Price and the Letters of Paul

I recently listened to an interesting set of talks by Gary Habermas, Robert Price, Mike Licona and Richard Spencer.  You can find it here: Part One, Part Two, Part Three.  This debate on “Infidel” radio was supposed to be on the resurrection.  The conversation did not quite go that way.  As most scholars do, Habermas and Price started with 1 Corinthians 15.  What threw a curve ball was Robert Price’s claim that we have very little authentic Pauline material.  Now Price is known as one of the few scholars that suggest Jesus of Nazareth never existed, but I had no idea that he was so skeptical of Paul’s letters.  Price claims that there may be a few authentic sentences here and there but most of it was created and compiled by the early church and therefore does not contain much, if any early witness.  Price admits that he is way out there on this one and that very few scholars, even in the liberal camp, would agree with him.

The focus of the discussion in the debate is a comparison between Galatians and 1 Corinthians 15 and the question of where Paul’s Gospel came from.  In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul explains the content of his Gospel and reminds them that he passed on what he also received (v. 3).  He then goes on to recite what seems to be an early Christian creed or hymn regarding the early witnesses to the resurrection (vv. 3-7).  Obviously he received this from someone in the early church.  The problem for Price is that in Galatians 1:12, Paul explains that his Gospel was not received from any human source but came through divine revelation.  Price sees this as evidence of Paul’s letters as being a hopeless contradiction that point to a late compilation and creation put under the name of Paul.  Habermas and Licona attempted to point out Galatians 2:1-10 where Paul admits going to Jerusalem and speaking with Peter (Cephas), John and James.  Price sees this as a futile attempt to reconcile contradictions.

As far as I can see, Robert Price is doing his best to deconstruct all the biblical evidence we have that witnesses to the life and deeds of Jesus.  Jesus could not have done the things people say he did, so the Gospels must be so untrustworthy that perhaps Jesus never existed.  Even critical scholars have accepted Paul’s letters as trustworthy sources about early Christianity.  But since Price already knows that this stuff is not true, there must be some problem with Paul.  It is just a matter of time for the evidence to catch up with the “true” conclusions already reached.

The plain sense answer to Price’s problem is that the basic content of the Gospel was revealed to Paul by Jesus at his conversion.  But creeds, hymns, lists of witnesses and details about the life of the historical Jesus were likely passed on to Paul at Jerusalem.

This idea that because an author’s writings are confusing that the letters must be patchworks of different authors and editors is nonsensical. Many modern authors write different articles and books to different audiences and different situations.  When you randomly take sentences from different writings from the same author, it is likely that you will  encounter some difficulty and perhaps even a seeming contradiction.  Only when the big picture of the author’s worldview, the context (literary and historical) of the writing and the possibility of development within the author’s thoughts is taken into account that things begin to make sense.

All in all, it was an interesting debate and worth listening to.  I did appreciate the charity that Price showed to his opponents at the end of the debate.  Whether we agree or disagree with Price, we need to listen to him and to respond with a reasonable answer to his questions.

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15 thoughts on “Robert Price and the Letters of Paul

  1. And why was Paul unable to produce a single bit of eyewitness testimony as to what a resurrected body was like, even to Christian converts who scoffed at the whole idea of God choosing to raise a corpse?

    I have a debate on the resurrection at http://resurrectiondebate.blogspot.com/

    As for Habermas arguments, perhaps he can explain why the brother of Jesus could spend 30 years with him and still be a sceptic.

    For goodness sakes, if your brother was born of a virgin, you will not be a sceptic!

  2. What makes you think that Paul was unable to provide this evidence? He did explain the relation of the resurrection body to the mortal body in 1 Corinthians 15 and that was sufficient for his purposes. Paul was not writing systematic theology but was responding to pastoral concerns.

    As for James, what makes you think that Mary told her other sons that Jesus was virgin born? Jesus was likely the firstborn so it is not as if James was a witness to the events. In addition, Jesus was not performing miracles throughout his childhood. They began after his baptism and lasted between one and three years. The Gospels also tell us that Jesus performed very few miracles in his home town. There were other Jewish teachers claiming to be miracle workers. It is not surprising at all that James, having grown up with Jesus as a seemingly normal person, would doubt his claims until witnessing his resurrection body.

  3. Paul could provide zero evidence of what a resurrected body was like.

    And why would Mary keep silent when her heart was allegedly bursting with the news that she was carrying her Lord and Saviour?

    And James allegedly spent 30 years in the company of the only person who knew who never sinned, and never made an offering for sin, and the reason was hushed up by Mary?

    Of course, Paul never states that James had been a sceptic, or that his conversion was when Jesus ‘appeared’ to him, or that James had had anything more than a dream, which allegedly was all it took to convert Joseph into a believer in the virgin birth.

  4. Why would Mary tell James and the other brothers? How would a family respond to this? Is it not natural for parents to hold back things from their children? Mary treasured these things in her heart but it is unlikely that she stood on a box in the market square proclaiming her conceiving by the power of the Holy Spirit. What makes you think James spend 30 years with Jesus? Jesus was likely the firstborn and there is no way to know how much younger James was than Jesus. Also Jesus likely left home at a certain age to begin his career as a carpenter. We can’t know how long they spent in the same home. James definitely was not living with Jesus during his ministry. You are right that Paul does not give much biographical information about James. But he does not about Peter, Jesus or even himself. It is very obvious that the Paul’s purpose was not to give biographical information. From what we can see from the New Testament evidence, it is very likely that James was converted at a resurrection appearance.

    • Stephen, I agree with your treatment of Price as an outsider among scholars, though that of course does not necessarily dismiss him. However, I find it interesting that an apologist is accusing someone of letting bias affect their work. Are you not trying to make some kind of scenario in which the virgin birth could be the case despite Jesus’ contemporaries and two gospel writers being unaware of this? You’re making quite a few inferences about how Mary felt and whether James was in the picture. You turn a skeptical eye upon the questioning of this teaching but not on the extreme claim itself.

      • I don’t think anyone is unbiased. My point is that some scholars start with their theory and than try to work the evidence. In my case, there are at least some narratives describing the virgin birth. I am not sure that the other evangelists were unaware of the virgin birth. Their silence does not prove that. We they unaware that Jesus was a teenager? All the writers are silent on that.

      • That’s a false analogy. A correct one would ask if they knew the details of his teenage life. I assume they knew he was born unless they were Marcionites. They just did not know the details. I assume they would include something that huge.

        My only point really is that you may be guilty of the same thing. You said elsewhere all books of the bible ate equally reliable. I think that’s a tough case to make, even among Christian scholars assuming they are critical. I would say that you are also starting with a theory though I haven’t read enough of your work to accuse you of warping any facts.

  5. If Paul did write all of the Pauline epistles as we have them then he is proven by his own writings to be a false apostle who had no letters of recomendation from Jerusalem and who was specifically opposed in Galatia by Peter, James, and John and who responded by labeling them as Judaizing hypocrite heretics and saying “the letter killeth” as a weak defence of why he didn’t think he needed letters of recomendation. He also utilizes the ver uncharitable tactic of pre-condemning anyone who might disagree with him, angels included. Yet he condemns his own self by his anathema, since he teaches a diffrent gospel than his own self, sometimes teaching justification by faith alone (rom 4) and sometimes by faith plus baptism (rom 6, gal 3:26-27) and sometimes outright justification by works (rom 2) and all this in the SAME epistle.

  6. Have you read any of those passages? When were Peter, James and John ever in Galatia? Paul’s disagreement was with Peter alone and it took place in Antioch. Paul does not call these pillars any such names, he simply requires that Peter remain consistent in how he treats gentiles, especially when other Jews are around. The point of those chapters in Galatians is that Paul did not receive his Gospel from the pillars but that they accepted his preaching of the Gospel. Nor does Paul contradict himself on the Gospel. He never argues that salvation is based on baptism or works. You misunderstand Romans 2, Paul is saying the opposite in that neither Jews nor gentiles are able to be good enough for salvation. We are all on equal footing in needing to rely on God’s grace.

    • You are confused. It is in Romans 3-4 that his editor argues that nobody is any good. In Romans 2 he argues straight up justification by morality. He also says circumcision is worthless in Romans 2 but in the beginning of 3 the editor says that the Jew has an advantage by it “much in every way.” There is a massive problem with interpolation here, unless Paul was a schitzophrenic or had split personalities.

      • Actually Romans 2 is not an argument for justification by morality but an integral part of his argument that Gentiles and Jews are in the same boat. It fits very nicely with the rest of his thought.

  7. You seem to be accusing Price of molding the evidence to fit his worldview. I think it is worthwhile to point out that his view’s are not entirely unique to him, but are built upon the theories of the dutch radical critics. What I am suggesting is that there is legitimate scholarly work which has gone into the theory that a majority of the pauline epistles are inauthentic.

    This is not to say that he isn’t guilty of bias, but I’m sure many would accuse apologists of that very sin. It’s more enlightening to, rather then blame worldviews, discuss the evidence as I’m sure some would accuse apologists of the same sin of bias, and would have good grounds for doing so.

  8. I don’t have a problem with Price having a bias. Anyone who says that they are unbiased is a liar. It comes with being human.

    I just have two comments about his theory. Considering well over 99% of New Testament (Christian and non) would disagree with Price, that should cast some doubt on the theory. Secondly, looking at the evidence, there is no reason to doubt the authenticity of most of the Pauline lit. This is just another example of the radical skepticism and you could use the same means to cast doubt on any piece of literature, ancient or modern. I believe, after looking at the evidence not just my own bias, that there are good reasons for accepting the letters as Pauline.

  9. Mike, it is not a problem that Mark and John do not speak of the birth. We know from other ancient biographies that authors were selective in what they used. It just did not fit with where they were going. For John, he wanted to start with Jesus’ pre-existence and so describing a virgin birth would have been anti-climatic.

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