was James’ resurrection experience invented for credentials?

Still reading The Empty Tomb

The post originally entitled ‘was James always a good guy? (part 1)’ has been deleted – its contents are distributed among the next couple posts, with material that reflects a corrected understanding of the relevant arguments.

After Price’s argument that 1 Corinthians 15ff contradicts Galatians 1:11-12, his next major argument that the Corinthians tradition is an interpolation is a complicated one involving the claim that verse 7 – James’ encounter with the risen Christ – must be a late fictitious tradition, later than Paul’s writings. Because Price sees the 3-11 tradition as itself a composite tradition of two earlier traditions, one backing James, one backing Peter, Price thus sees the whole of 3-11 as a late post-Pauline work (oh and he thinks the 500 witnesses are an even later add-on!) In my opinion the more convoluted his theory becomes the more speculative it sounds, but let’s see why he thinks verse 7 must be a late fiction.

His case seems to rest on arguments that throw doubt on the historicity of James having a resurrection experience that prompted his conversion. He thinks if he can cast doubt on this then his own alternative theory for James’ conversion (discussed below) becomes plausible, and in turn, the resurrection encounter attributed to James is best understood as an invention created to bolster James’ credentials as a leader among some late pro-James movement.

The logic of his argument, from what he makes explicit, isn’t valid as it stands. After all, even if there is good reason to doubt that a resurrection encounter prompted James’ conversion, that isn’t itself good reason to doubt that James had a resurrection encounter at all, which is only what verse 7 claims anyway. It is (logically) possible that James converted prior to a resurrection encounter.

Presumably then, Price thinks that there are only two possible reasons for James’ conversion, the traditional answer, or his own theory, which excludes the possibility of a resurrection encounter. What is his own theory?

“If James was not “turned around” by an appearance of the Risen Jesus, how else can we account for his assumption of an early leadership role in the church? The answer is not far to seek. He was the eldest brother of King Messiah. Once honored for this accident of birth, he did not see fit to decline it. One might well remain aloof to a movement in which one’s brother was the leader yet soon warm to it once the leadership role was offered to oneself (page 83).”

There you have it – James was lured in by the prospect of leadership. I agree that probably there had to be a strong motivation for James to convert. But before we look at Price’s reasons to doubt the traditional explanation, we should think about whether this alternative is viable.

Implicit in his suggestion is the view that being a leader in the early Christian movement would have been a cushy vocation that James would have motivation to pursue. But this is utterly false. The movement was intrinsically linked to a man who died a shameful criminal’s death – leadership in the movement wouldn’t have earned admiration, but scorn. James would have endured great social pressure to deny Jesus, and be at risk of physical violence. He also would have been knowingly blaspheming Yahweh by preaching a false messiah. These are the same obstacles that make “the disciples lied” a poor explanation for Christianity’s survival post-Jesus’ crucifixion. Price’s explanation is most unrealistic.

But what about his reasons to doubt the traditional answer? He doesn’t give much by way of argument. He observes that nowhere in the NT is it explicitly stated that James converted through a resurrection appearance. This is true, but by Price’s own logic, James’ conversion required some cause (especially since the crucifixion would have cemented any doubt James had about Jesus’ ministry.) The resurrection experience mentioned in verse 7 is a powerful explanation for his conversion (and bear in mind we are not arguing here that James’ experience really was of the risen Jesus, only that he thought it was – for the sake of argument, one could assume the hallucination hypothesis here.)

Price wonders why the NT never describes James’ resurrection appearance as a conversion story like Paul’s. But where should we expect to find such detail? We know about Paul’s experience in detail through his own letters and from Acts, the author of which travelled with Paul and had access to his story. By contrast we have one letter from James (none if one wants to questions its authorship), and no pastoral need expressed in the letter that would warrant talking about his conversion. Price also can’t complain about the lack of detail in verse 7 compared to Paul’s resurrection encounter without begging the question against Pauline authorship. For if Paul authored that segment it is quite likely he expanded upon the raw tradition material with his own personal thoughts about the experience.

Why don’t the Gospels’ resurrection narratives include James’ conversion? The burden is on Price to argue why they should have, which he doesn’t do, but we can make some general comments like the authors perhaps not having access to the conversion traditions (even while still knowing the basic fact that James had converted, as implied by Acts 1:14), or their focussing on the disciple’s experiences, in regard to which James’ may have been a tangent. While I don’t think there’s any reason to doubt the historicity of the event from this observation, I will note it down for further enquiry.

So far then, we have no strong reasons to doubt the historicity of the traditionally understood cause of James’ conversion, and strong reasons to doubt the plausibility of Price’s own theory. Now we must see how this links to why Price thinks the resurrection appearance in verse 7 is the fabrication of a late pro-James faction used to boost his credentials.

Price muses, “the sheer fact of James’ blood relation to Jesus is by itself so powerful, so sufficient a credential that when we find another, a resurrection appearance, placed alongside it in the tradition, we must immediately expect a secondary layer of tradition (page 83).” Must we? Why? Price doesn’t give us any reason except what is essentially his gut feeling toward the matter. Moreover it isn’t like, if Jesus actually had been raised from the dead, his family would be the last people he’d want to appear to. Family would be a natural choice. There’s nothing odd about this.

Price goes on to show an example from the history of Islam where after the death of the movement’s great leader, a blood relation is turned to, and as time passes, legend venerates them further and further. But this example is useless; as already discussed, Price’s explanation for James’ conversion fails. It is unlikely he would have converted unless he had come to honestly believe that Jesus had been vindicated from his shameful death. So even if one accepts that later traditions became excessively gracious toward James (as they seem to have done), one still must account for James’ conversion, and a resurrection experience is still the best candidate seeing as Price’s own explanation is implausible. So one cannot merely suggest that a resurrection appearance was granted to James as the result of a growing legendary tradition that favoured him, as Price wants to do.

As an aside, it is interesting that N.T. Wright notes that in actual fact there is something curiously anomalous about how James was regarded in the early church:

“Again, even a small amount of disciplined historical imagination will paint the scene. Jesus of Nazareth had been a great leader. Most considered him a prophet, many the Messiah. But the Romans caught him and killed him, the way they did with so many would-be prophets and Messiahs. Just as John the Baptist’s movement faded into comparative obscurity with John’s imprisonment and death, with the speculation about John’s role within various eschatological scenarios being transferred to his slightly younger cousin, so one can easily imagine Jesus’ movement fading into comparative obscurity after his execution, with the spotlight now turning on his somewhat younger brother. The younger brother turns out to be a great leader: devout, a fine teacher, well respected by other devout Jews. What more could one want? But nobody ever dreamed of saying that James was the Messiah. He was simply known as the brother of ‘Jesus the Messiah’. At this point the argument runs in parallel with the famous Sherlock Holmes story that hinges on the dog doing something remarkable in the night – or rather on the fact that the dog did not do anything in the night, though it had every reason to do so, thus revealing the fact that the dog must have recognised the intruder. If we suppose that Jesus of Nazareth had simply been executed as a messianic pretender, and that his younger brother had become a strong and powerful leader among his former followers over the next thirty years, someone would have been bound, given the climate of the times, to suggest that James himself was the Messiah. But nobody ever did (The Resurrection of the Son of God, pg.561-2).”

It seems that Price’s theory doesn’t seem to have a leg a stand on. But it gets worse for him. As he is quite aware, there is no manuscript evidence that suggests that the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition is an interpolation. This alone is a blow, but it becomes more and more of a problem for him the later he has to posit the interpolation, seeing as the later the interpolation, the more chance we’d have of possessing an unaltered manuscript tradition. Price tries to ease the strain by suggesting that there is already evidence of pro-James polemic in the NT tradition. It’s to these arguments we’ll turn next time.

More to come…

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were there really 500 witnesses to the risen Christ?

Still reading The Empty Tomb…

Price pops in an argument against the authenticity of the reference to the 500 witnesses in the original material of the 1 Corinthians 15:3-11 tradition. That is, he not only questions its place in the original source material, but also its historicity. He wonders why, if this were early tradition, do the gospel accounts not mention such a large scale appearance of the risen Christ?

It seems to me that the gospel writers had authorial intentions beyond merely recording any event of importance, but I grant that it is a priori plausible that this would be the kind of event that one of the evangelists would record. I confess that I do not know whether any of the gospel’s appearance accounts can be taken as identical to this appearance event, or why the gospel authors would fail to mention it. Of course there is also a problem with taking this event to be fictitious – the passage openly declares that most these witnesses are still living, with the implicit assumption that they can be approached to testify about this appearance. A bold move if in fact, no such witnesses exist.

Price thinks he avoids this problem because his whole theory is that the entire tradition was inserted into the epistle at a much later, post-Pauline stage. So whether he can confidently affirm that the 500 reference is fictitious will depend on the success of his overall case. I’m happy to remain agnostic on the matter until my reading swings me one way of the other. At any rate, from the perspective of building an apologetic for the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection, the 500 witnesses are the icing on the cake and not much more.

More to come…

did Paul preach a gospel from man or God?

Still reading The Empty Tomb

Robert Price’s argument that 1 Corinthians 15:3-11 is an interpolation begins with the claim that in context it contradicts Galatians 1:12.

Here are the relevant texts:

“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you— unless you believed in vain.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. [1 Corinthians 15:1-14]”

“For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. 12For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. [Galatians 1:11-12]”

Price’s question is, did Paul preach a gospel he got from man, or God?

I think these passages are easily harmonised. By my lights the relevant claims of the passages are as follows:

1 Corinthians 15ff

1. Paul received the same tradition that he passed to the Corinthians.
2. The tradition contains the content of the gospel.

Galatians 1:11-12

1. The content of the gospel was not made up by man.

Is there any contradiction here? Not that I can see. It would be contradictory if there could be no distinction between the content/substance of the gospel and the form of its delivery. But I find it eminently plausible that Paul is able to make such a distinction.

Price is aware of this harmonisation and doesn’t think much to it. In response to the claim that Paul makes such a distinction between form and content, Price says the following,

“…are we justified in reading such a distinction into the text in the first place? Certainly the author of this passage does not draw it. Rather, for him, these are the very logia that will save if adhered to. 1 Corinthians 15:ff means to offer a formulaic ‘faith once for all delivered to the saints.’ And we seem to be in the presence of a post-Pauline Paulinism, not too dissimilar to that of the Pastorals (pg75).”

That is his only comment on this particular harmonisation. From what I gather then, Price thinks the author of verses 3-11 clearly intends the following creed to be the necessary gospel package – in form and content. He thinks the idea that this could be just one possible mode of expressing the gospel is foreign to the text.

Well, clearly the author considers the creed to be massively important. But why think this importance boils down to the necessity of the structure for personal salvation? The text certainly doesn’t say that. Are we to believe the author considers the tradition to be a magic formula without which one cannot be saved? That would be a particularly uncharitable reading of the author’s intentions. Why not think instead that the importance of the creed is in its preservation of the historical knowledge that can grant salvation? That is, not that the formula-form is itself salvific, but that it is important for preserving that which is salvific – the propositional content. Given that oral transmission placed a higher emphasis on substance over exact form anyway, this seems far more likely.

So this harmonisation remains the best reading of the texts. At the very least it isn’t implausible enough to warrant digging around for an interpolation theory instead.

More to come…

EDIT: Updated 12/08/2011 to reflect an increased understanding of the argument.

no preference to harmonisations over interpolations?

I’m currently reading The Empty Tomb which seems to be one of the most popular anti-apologetics books on the topic of Jesus’ resurrection. I’ll be using the ‘pad as and when to write about the arguments and help me process my thoughts on them.

Right now I’m just dissecting a chapter by Robert Price where he argues that 1 Corinthians 15:3-11 is an interpolation. If true this would significantly affect debates about the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection; this passage is generally seen as an important insight into very early Christian belief. I’m reading from the Kindle version but I presume page references transfer to the physical copy as well.

Price starts off with a methodological discussion on whether there is any reason to prefer a harmonisation hypothesis to an interpolation hypothesis for a textual problem. He sees no reason to make such a preference and seems to suggest that one only does through apologetic agenda rather than epistemological rigour.

I think he’s mistaken. Occam’s Razor favours the simpler theory and, all other things beings equal, a harmonisation hypothesis is simpler than an interpolation hypothesis. A harmonisation hypothesis allows the problem texts to be authored by the author of the works in which the texts appear. An interpolation hypothesis posits not only the author of the surrounding work, but also a later author or scribe who inserted or modified a text for some motive. Interpolation hypotheses can become increasingly complicated when you analyse what that motive would have been and how the author/scribe thought they could get away with it.

It seems to me then that all things being equal one should prefer a harmonisation hypothesis to an interpolation hypothesis. And one cannot merely scoff at a harmonisation assuming a priori that it is some piece of apologetic sophistry, one must show why it is suspect on exegetical/logical grounds.

More to come…