Review of the Jacoby/Price debate, Jesus: Man, Myth or Messiah?

A debate on the question "Jesus: Man, Myth or Messiah?' was put on by the Apologetics Research Society (ARS) as part of its International Christian Evidences Conference June 13 at the Morris Culture Center, Houston Baptist University in Houston Texas. Over three hundred were in attendance. Arguing that the Jesus of the New Testament is in fact the Jesus of history was Dr. Douglas Jacoby (chief instructor, Athens Institute of Ministry, D. Min. Drew University). Arguing that the Jesus of history is at best a man, certainly a myth, or more likely both, was Dr. Robert Price (author, PhDs New Testament, Systematic Theology, Drew University). One irony of this debate is that both speakers have their doctorate degree from Drew University. In fact, Jacoby received his MTS from liberal Harvard University, while Price has his MTS from the relatively conservative Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

The welcome to the event from ARS was given by Dr. John Oakes.  The moderator for the debate was Kedron Jones of the Apologetics Research Society.  The first to speak was Dr. Douglas Jacoby.  In his introductory comments he gave a five part outline to support the conclusion that the Jesus we read about in the Greek New Testament is in fact the Jesus who lived in Palestine about two thousand years ago.  First, he pointed out that Jesus made claims about himself which are so extraordinary that the only rational conclusion is that he is either who he claims he is (and therefore certainly not a mere man or a myth!), or he was a madman or a blatant liar.  He quoted from one of Price's books that Jesus "left no footprint" in his time, pointing out that no rational person who looks at the data could make such a statement.  Even if he was a mere man, he certainly was not just a legend. The point, of course, is that if we found anyone today making such outrageous claims as those Jesus made for himself, we would assume that this person is either crazy or some kind of off the wall liar. Yet, the other things we know about Jesus makes these conclusions about him (crazy or blatant liar) to be completely unacceptable.  The only alternative is that he is who he said he is. That is, unless one can prove that he never made these claims.  Yet, we know that at least eight of the apostles were killed for their faith and not one of them recanted of their story, specifically with regard to the public claims of Jesus.  There is no question at all that they proclaimed the bodily resurrection of Jesus. This is in dramatic contrast to those who bore witness to Joseph Smith (later on, Price was to challenge Jacoby on this point, demanding some solid proof of these martyr deaths.  Jacoby replied with evidence from Josephus with regard to James, and the unanimous testimony of the early church fathers with regard to Paul and Peter).

Douglas' second point in his opening remarks was that Jesus did miraculous deeds. An important point is that so many of his deeds were done in the public ("as you yourselves know" Acts 2:22). That he worked miracles was even attested to, at least indirectly, by Josephus and authors of the Talmud. The miraculous acts are completely consistent with the claims that Jesus made and with Old Testament predictions about the coming Messiah, as well as with the character of Jesus as we know him.

Doug's third point is that Jesus is the Messiah because, even as he claimed (Luke 24:44) he fulfilled the expectations of the Jewish Messiah as recorded in the historical prophecies and in the many historical foreshadows in the Old Testament. Dr. Jacoby mentioned many specific historical prophecies, including Zechariah 9:9, Zechariah 12:10, Deuteronomy 18:15-18, Isaiah 11:1ff, Isaiah 52:13, Isaiah 53:12 and many more. The evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls leaves no doubt that these Messianic expectations come from hundreds of years before Jesus was born.

Point number four was the resurrection of Jesus.  If, indeed, Jesus was bodily resurrected, this seems to put the nail in the coffin of both the man and the myth conclusion. The facts remain to be explained.  Why was the tomb empty and why did hundreds of eye witnesses see Jesus? The other proposed explanations (stolen body, swoon, etc.) simply do not work. The supernatural explanation is not mathematically proved, but it is easily the most reasonable explanation of the facts, in agreement with the miraculous deeds of Jesus and with the prophecies about the Messiah.

The last point Douglas made was of a different sort. He noted that the man Jesus Christ has transformed more lives that perhaps all other notable humans combined. His presence in the lives of believers is evident in these transformations and these transformations demand a reasonable explanation. The emergence of the Jesus movement demands the reality of the biblical Jesus. Douglas proposed that this is because the Jesus of history is the Jesus of the New Testament.

Dr. Price's opening statement followed. He began by saying that he has no axe to grind with Christianity. In fact, he finds the moral and ethical teachings of Christianity to be very attractive. He applauds the good done in the world by those who follow the "mythical" Jesus idea. He has nothing to gain by slandering Jesus or his followers. He began as a believer, but as he began to ask questions, especially of those self-styled apologists such as Josh McDowell, he began to notice something which disturbed him. First of all, their reasoning was shoddy and their "facts" had many holes in them. Next, he noticed that there is an uncanny relationship between the Jesus presented in the New Testament and the dying and rising god/man myths of other religious movements and documents of the Near East, both before and after Jesus was supposed to have lived. Ultimately he asked himself, how much of the Jesus we find in the New Testament is real history?  Slowly, his remnant belief in the Jesus of conservative Christianity became smaller and smaller. Ultimately, Price ended up writing a book titled "The Incredible Shrinking Jesus."

Robert then began a rapid-fire litany of reasons to both doubt the Orthodox view of Jesus and to believe that, in fact, the Jesus of the gospels and the letters is really just an accreted Near Eastern god/man myth. Nazareth was not even a real place. Jesus cast demons into pigs, and they ran into a lake, but in a city which is not even close to lake Galilee (Jacoby responded by pointing out that surely Price was aware that there is some question about the location of the miracle, with a city beside the Sea of Galilee as a very likely candidate).  Besides, this incident in the life of Jesus is clearly stolen from a story in the Odyssey of Homer (Later Jacoby rejoined that it is extremely that Jewish commoners stole a story from Homer). He pointed out that Peter, Paul and John never mentioned the miracles of Jesus or the claims of Jesus in their letters (later on, Jacoby refuted this claim, using 1 Corinthians 15 and Paul's description of the resurrection, 1 Corinthians 11 and his description of the Lord's Supper, as well as 1 John 1, with his claims of having touched this Jesus; the Son of God, and others). He claimed that the Jesus of the letters was at most some sort of Old Testament "Son of Man," a sort of Greek/Jewish archon of Gnosticism. It was only the gospels, especially John, written much later, that created the exalted Jesus we think of in Orthodox Christianity. Price then described a long list of "parallels" to the Jesus "myth" in such Near Eastern myths such as that of Osiris, Baal, Hercules, Apollonius, Pelegrinus, Pythagoreanism, Greek mystery cults, Krishna and many more. He claimed that if one strips away these ideas which, in his view, were clearly borrowed from other religions, we are left with virtually nothing. Many of the New Testament stories were borrowed from parallel Old Testament events. Price was very well prepared. He was able to rapidly give such a long list of supposed parallels as to make it nearly impossible for Dr. Jacoby to respond to each charge, no matter how spurious it was. He argued that Ockham's razor demands the most obvious conclusion, which is that the Jesus of modern Christianity is not the Jesus who lived. The Jesus of the New Testament is constructed from literary rather than historical sources. It requires "special pleading" on the part of believers to accept the Jesus of Orthodox Christianity as historical.

Next, there was a section of cross-examinations in which each debater had opportunity to ask questions of their opponent. Dr. Jacoby asked Dr. Price why it is that even his colleagues in the Jesus Seminar reject his ideas about Jesus being a myth. Price responded by saying the he does not really care what others think. He lets the evidence speak for itself and the hearer can decide for him or herself as well. Douglas asked if Price was willing to defend his use of some sources in his books which include authors who are unquestionably dubious scholars. Price wavered on this. Price asked Jacoby how he knows for sure that Jesus really said what the New Testament has him saying. Outside the New Testament, where are the direct quotes from Jesus, or even direct mention of specific miraculous acts?  Dr. Jacoby responded by mentioning nine non-Christian authors in the first and early second century, such as Tacitus, Josephus, Suetonius and others.  In point of fact, there are about an equal number of historical references to the emperor Tiberius and no one questions the general accuracy of these references to the emperor who ruled during the ministry of Jesus.  Price's comeback to this was to claim that these authors only mentioned what others were saying but did not give any reliable eye-witness reports at all.  Jacoby countered that naturally, those who believed in the resurrection and the miracles of Jesus were believers and it is not reasonable to ask a non-believer to report eye-witness testimony of the miracles.

Jacoby then gave his response to Price. He pointed out that there were indeed mythical stories about Jesus. These are found in Gnostic writings such as the Gospel of Thomas, with their whacky baby Jesus miracles, sexist comments about women and the other marks of what we would call the mythical and many other clearly mythical stories. The New Testament description of Jesus is very matter of fact, and has absolutely none of what is found in both these later spurious gospels and the supposed parallel god-became-man myths of other religions. Luke is a historian of the highest order. He records more than ninety places and dozens of rulers. In every case we can verify from outside sources, he gets the name of the person and even the title right, when these are very difficult to get right in the confusing world of Roman rulers in the Near East. Jacoby began to quote details from the supposed parallel accounts of Osiris, Apollonius of Tyana and others.  In each case, if you read the actual stories of these people the parallel is entirely in the eyes of the beholder.  Most of them are not even real people.  Many of the stories actually borrowed from Christianity and not vice versa. The ones which preceded Jesus (the minority) have details which if one reads the sources are not even remotely close to the life of Jesus. Being cut into thirteen pieces, sewed back together and ruling in the underworld is not exactly a parallel (Osiris).  A single dubious account from much later of Apollonius, with only the vaguest similarity to Jesus, a man about whom it was not even claimed he raised, an account which came after Jesus lived...  It this is Price's best example of proof that the Jesus story is borrowed? If so, then, on examination, who can believe this critique of the Jesus of the New Testament? This is a clear example of searching all the evidence, not to find the true source of the biblical Jesus but to fit a pre-conceived plan to prove the New Testament Jesus was borrowed.

Price used one more rebuttal time to revisit his examples. He mentioned some details from Osiris, Hercules and so forth.  In view of Jacoby's earlier criticism, these arguments did not work very well. He said the supposed virgin birth prophecy (Isaiah 7:4) is in fact about a rebirth of Jewish power around the time of Isaiah. These messianic prophecies are taken out of context and are not a reference to the Messiah at all.  He claimed that the empty tomb argument for the resurrection of Jesus is really circular reasoning.  The gospels are not reliable historical documents because the other three rely on Mark, only making changes where the other writers do not agree with Mark's perspective.

Douglas had one more opportunity to rebut Price.  He pointed out that you cannot simply make all the prophecies of Jesus go away.  Psalms 110, Daniel 7, Isaiah 52, 53 and others are messianic, even by Jewish standards.  Their fulfillment is a matter of historical record.  Please, do yourself a favor, read the New Testament, read the Gnostic writings, read the myths of Osiris and others.  Anyone who takes the time to do this will understand exactly what Price is doing here according to Jacoby.  He is fishing for evidence of parallels which on the face of it are simply bogus.

Price conceded his last time to offer rebuttal, after which a final summary was given by each speaker.  Dr. Jacoby gave a brilliant summary. He compared Price's attempt to find parallels in the god/man myths of other religions to Elasti-girl from the Disney movie The Incredibles. She could stretch her arms and legs amazingly. It was a bit comical as Douglas described how Price must streeeeetchhhhh the evidence to create a completely false picture of Jesus. The Jesus of the New Testament is the Jesus of Jewish messianic expectation. He is the Jesus of history. He is the miracle-worker extraordinaire. He is the one who left behind an empty tomb. He is the one whose life is recorded by multiple independent, reliable historical accounts. He is the one who has changed millions of lives. Hopefully, he is the one who will change Dr. Price's life as well.  Jesus is not a myth, he is not a mere man, he is not a liar, a legend or a lunatic. The Jesus of history is Messiah.

Dr. Price's final summary was not so much a rehashing of his previous arguments, although he gave a very brief summary.  He reminded the audience that he likes the Jesus of the Bible. He certainly is not an enemy of Christianity.  He is comfortable with those who believe in the Jesus of orthodox Christianity. However, for himself, he simply believes that, given the "clear" examples of New Testament borrowing from Old Testament ideas, Pythagorean models, dying and rising man/gods and so forth, he must conclude that Jesus, if he did indeed live, has been changed from the Jesus of history into something unrecognizable. The Jesus of the New Testament is a myth.

I will now proceed to give my personal reflection on the event.  Of the three Douglas Jacoby debates thus far sponsored by ARS, this was clearly the most lively in that the debaters stuck largely to topic, created strong arguments, and engaged directly the arguments of their opponent.  The tone was respectful throughout. There were no personal attacks.  Both debaters made great use of references to primary source material. Both had a spectacular command of the sources, being able to quote in detail on the spot. Clearly, both were well prepared. It was obvious that Dr. Jacoby had read all or nearly all of Price's writings and had prepared detailed responses to all his arguments. One got the sense that he had an excellent, well-reasoned response even to the spurious examples used by Price which he did not have time to respond to. There was a sense in the debate in which Price had the momentum.  This was for two reasons.  First of all, the very nature of the question lent itself to the critic of Jesus of the New Testament having the advantage.  It is easier to disprove a contention (in this case that the New Testament Jesus is reliable) than to prove it. Jacoby could mention twenty facts which support his contention that the New Testament is reliable and Price really did not have to refute any of these arguments. All he had to do was present a single argument that you cannot trust the New Testament and Jacoby had to respond. The second advantage to Price is that he talked very fast.  He obviously had not read Douglas' books, but it really did not matter in this case. He presented an almost unlimited litany of arguments against the New Testament. It was literally impossible for Jacoby to respond in detail to each charge. Price's examples took twenty seconds to throw out there, but responses required two minutes each, and Jacoby had to think on his feet about each response.

Having said this, Douglas did an absolutely brilliant job of responding to the charges of Price against the New Testament.  As a rule, he responded to the more serious charges, and chose to ignore some of the almost silly, spurious arguments made by his opponent. The charge that the Jesus of the letters is different from the Jesus of the gospels was an interesting one, but in the end it was shown to be weak. The supposed parallels to Jesus in Near Eastern mythology was made to appear almost ridiculous. One got the sense that if Doug had had sufficient time, he could have shredded every single one of Price's arguments. Price's statement that the defense of the New Testament requires special pleading was ironic. When he read his litany of charges against the New Testament I was just a little nervous.  Would Jacoby be able to respond to each and every accusation? At the end of the debate, however, I was left with the clear impression that the one who was using special pleading was Dr. Price.

In summary, I would say that given his assignment, Dr. Price did an admirable job. His task was to undermine belief in the Jesus of the New Testament. He was very well prepared.  His arguments came with rapid fire. He seemed to have an almost unlimited arsenal of weapons. However, in the end, despite the fact that he had much momentum in the debate, for me the Jesus of the New Testament was left as strong as ever. As has been my experience in thirty years as a Christian and nearly as many as a Christian apologist, I have seen that when biblical Christianity is held up to scrutiny it does just fine. Doug Jacoby did an absolutely masterful job of defending the truth.  Jesus Christ is Son of God.  The Jesus of the Bible is the Jesus of History. Jesus is not a mere man. He is not a myth. With Douglas, my faith was strengthened. Jesus is the Messiah.

John Oakes, PhD