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Debate with a Mythicist! And the Book of Revelation. Readers’ Mailbag September 25, 2016

In this week’s Mailbag I’ll be addressing two questions, one about me personally – my preparations for the upcoming debate with Robert Price on the question of whether Jesus even existed as a human being – and the other about the book of Revelation.  If you have a question you would like me to address on the Mailbag, simply ask it in a comment on this post or any other.




It seems the debate between yourself and Robert Price will be going ahead next month, right? I follow Price on Facebook and he has evidently been re-reading all your books in preparation. How much of his books do you intend on reading prior to the debate? How will you prepare for the debate? I’m really looking forward to it!


Right!  Yes indeed!  On October 21 I will be having a three-hour debate in Milwaukee with Robert Price, who has two PhDs from Drew University, one in New Testament Studies and the other in Theology, and who is an atheist who supports the view of “mythicism,” that is, that Jesus never actually existed as a human being.   To my knowledge, Bob is the only published New Testament scholar in the country who holds to this position.  He is an intelligent fellow and seems – based on our email exchanges over the years (I don’t think we’ve actually ever met in the flesh) – to be a good guy.  So this should be fun.  If you would like more information about it, you can find it all here: http://www.mythicistmilwaukee.com/mythinformation-conference-2/  As you will see, it is part of a conference being put on my the Mythicist Milwaukee organization.  The event, wittily enough, is called the Mythinformation Conference.   Couldn’t have put it better myself.  🙂

And so what have I been doing in preparation for the debate?  Uh, well, er, um … actually nothing yet.   Well, that’s only kind-of true.    On one level I have prepared for a debate like this since I was fifteen years old (45, count them, 45 years ago now!).   I have studied the historical Jesus for all this time.  I have, to the best of my knowledge, read every surviving ancient source of the first four Christian centuries repeatedly, usually in their original language.  I have read hundreds, literally many hundreds, of books and articles on the topic.  And I have, for more than twenty years, written books and articles about the historical Jesus — including one that will be at the focus of the debate, my book Did Jesus Exist?   So I have indeed done the core of my preparation.

Bob knows perfectly well what I will be arguing in the debate, and I’m sure he’ll be prepared with counter-thrusts at every point.  I have a *sense* of what he’ll be saying as well, since I have read his two major books on the topic, and have read virtually everything else written by the leading mythicists of today (none of whom is a bona fide scholar of the New Testament or ancient Christianity) (a number of them are hacks, but that doesn’t much matter since I won’t be debating *them*).

Still, I haven’t yet done any special preparations for the debate, and that’s for rather pressing personal reasons.  I’ve just been too crazy busy with equally important and pressing obligations, and have not had a spare moment for a very long time.  Just over the course of the past seven days I have given four public lectures at a conference in Chapel Hill (based on my book Jesus Before the Gospels) and two public lectures in Denmark, one at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense (on the rise of the Roman imperial cult in relationship to the rise of Christianity) and one in Copenhagen (on the manuscript tradition of the New Testament).   Next week I have a lecture (that I have yet to write!) at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (on the early Christian understandings of Jesus and the Jewish Law) and the next week a lecture at Alma College in Michigan.  And so it goes.

On top of all that, I have also been going over the final version of my book The Triumph of Christianity with a fine-tooth comb before sending it to the publisher at the end of this week.  I have also started doing background reading for the next book I’m proposing to write about the Invention of the Afterlife.   Plus I have class preparation to do for both my three-hour PhD seminar tomorrow on the Christianization of the Empire (we’re dealing with the nature of Roman religion) and for my three-hour undergraduate course on Tuesday (dealing with the Gospel of John).   So, as usual, I’ve been busy.  And have I mentioned that football season has started?

I will, though, of course prepare for the debate.  How will I do so?  I will reread Bob Price’s two books and the other Mythicist books that have come out since I did my book on whether Jesus really existed and figure out how to respond to their specific arguments.  And I’ll plot out my opening statement about why I think there really can be no doubt that whatever else you say about Jesus, he certainly existed.  And I”ll try to figure out how Bob will ask me questions that I may have trouble answering!  And see if there’s anything I thought of that he hasn’t (I doubt it).   So I think it will be a good and interesting debate.  But I won’t be able to start cramming for it until … next week!



Dr. Ehrman, if I’m not mistaken, you claim that the apocalyptic messages in the New Testament were toned down as the books progressed. But what about the book of Revelation? Since it is dated to c. 95 it is a “late” book, yet it is filled with apocalypticism. Was it an exception? Was it based on earlier material? Something else?


Ah, great question!  What I have said (and now that I think about it, I’m not sure I have said it very clearly) is that when you line up the Gospels chronologically, they become less and less apocalyptic in their message.  Mark, followed by Matthew, portrays Jesus as thoroughly apocalyptic, expecting the end of history as we know it to occur in the lifetime of his disciples.  Luke, written later, softens the apocalyptic teaching of Jesus, so he still predicts that the end will come, but not while the disciples are still alive:  other things must happen first.  John, written later still, virtually eliminates Jesus’ apocalyptic message altogether; now what matters is not the coming kingdom of God in a show of power, but eternal life that is available in the here and now.   The Gospel of Thomas, written later still, actually has Jesus argue *against* the idea that there is a future apocalypse coming, to be followed by the appearance of the kingdom of God.

Why is the tradition de-apocaylpticized?  For what seems to me a pretty obvious reason. The expected apocalypse never came.  And so Jesus’ followers could scarcely continue to portray Jesus as predicting that it was going to come “soon,” in just a few years.

That does NOT mean, however, that all Christians gave up on the idea of the coming apocalypse.  (This is the part that I think I possibly didn’t explain very well.)   On the contrary, apart from Luke, John, and Thomas there were certainly Christians who continued to think, and many still do continue to think, that the end was /is coming soon, within their lifetimes.   That was true of the author of Revelation, in a very big way indeed, at the end of the first century.   It was true of the followers of the Christian prophet Montanus at the end of the second century.  It was true of some Christians in the fourth century, and the eighth century, and the twelfth century, and the sixteenth century.  It was true of the Christians I ran around with in the twentieth century.  We were sure it was going to happen by 1988.  Literally.

(This, by the way, is one very important reason for thinking that whoever wrote the book of Revelation was not the author of the Gospel of John.  Their eschatologies [i.e., their understandings of the “end times”] do not gel, at *all*.  John is anti-apocalyptic.  Revelation is massively apocalyptic.  They had radically different views on the matter.)

My sense is that there will always be Christians who think that the end is near.  At some point in history, they will be right.  I hope it’s a long way off…..

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Faith and History: A Blast From the Past
The God Julius Caesar



  1. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  September 25, 2016

    Slightly, off topic. But I have recently discovered that many scholars do not believe Moses was an historical figure and therefore mythical. Is that the major view of scholars and do you believe Moses existed?

    Will your debate with Price be filmed for Youtube or be available to the public?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 26, 2016

      I’m not sure what the majority view is about Moses, but I myself don’t think that he existed (or at least anyone like what is described in the Bible existed). On the debate: I imagine so, but am not sure.

  2. talmoore
    talmoore  September 25, 2016

    “a number of them are hacks, but that doesn’t much matter since I won’t be debating *them*” There’s a part of me that would really enjoy watching you destroy Richard “the circus clown” Carrier.

    Dr. Ehrman, if it helps, I think there are three items that Dr. Price is probably going to focus on (seeing as how they are, essentially, the linchpin of the mythicists’ entire argument), which are readily dismissed.

    1) Much of the narrative details of Jesus’ life appear to have antecedents and parallels with other known myths, for instance the Virgin Birth, the miracles, the Resurrection, etc. Price will probably even bring up Raglan’s rank of “mythotypes”. There’s only one problem with this point, and it’s a major problem. It only supports the argument that the *legendary* Jesus as described in the Gospel narratives did not exist. But there’s no reason to think that the Jesus of the Gospels is the actual Jesus of history, so picking apart legendary aspects of his biography has no bearing on whether the man himself actually existed. For instance, the Baal Shem Tov was given many incredible legendary feats as part of his biography after his death (and even the Hassidim of today acknowledge that they are ridiculous), but I don’t think anyone would question that the Baal Shem Tov the man actually existed merely because his biography is riddled with so much ridiculous legend. If you strip away all the legend, the underlying Jesus, a Jewish man from Galilee, who was an apocalyptic preacher, who amassed a small but significant following, who was executed by the Romans for sedition…not only is the existence of such a man not difficult to accept, we know as a fact that *many* such men actually existed at that time!

    2) The second thing mythicists will claim is that Paul is the only independent author of that time, and Paul willingly admits that he never met Jesus personally, and, moreover, Paul himself didn’t believe Jesus was a real flesh and blood human being, but, rather, was only ever a “spiritual” being. Of course, this is total nonsense. Paul certainly believed Jesus was a flesh and blood human being. There are two separate problems with this way of thinking. First off, if Paul didn’t actually think Jesus was ever a flesh and blood human being who died and was resurrected, then none of Paul’s eschatology and soteriology makes one lick of sense. In 1st Corinthians Paul is actively trying to persuade the congregants that, yes, indeed, those who have died “in Christ” today will be resurrected IN THE SAME WAY THE PHYSICAL JESUS DIED AND WAS RESURRECTED. Now, if Paul didn’t actually believe Jesus was, at some point, a flesh and blood human being, then none of Paul’s reassurances to the Corinthian congregation makes any sense what-so-ever! The second problem with this argument is that it presupposes that at some point the historical life of Jesus must have been made up, and, furthermore, since Paul assumes Jesus the man actually existed, and since Paul writes of the man Jesus possibly as early as 20 years after Jesus was executed, then we have to assume that in those intervening 20 years an entire biography of Jesus was created from scratch, and, moreover, that all of the men whom Paul claims to have met (Peter, John, James “the brother of Jesus”) who, themselves, claim to have known the man Jesus himself must have formed some kind of conspiracy to manufacture a legendary figure named Jesus who never really existed, but, somehow, they have managed to convince dozens if not hundreds of contemporaneous people that he had existed. In other words, it’s a conspiracy theory that only raises much more questions about logistics, credibility and plausibility that are easily answered if we simply assume the historical man Jesus actually existed in the first place.

    3) The mythicists’ next point will probably be that, yeah, even if such a man as the apocalyptic Jew Jesus, who wasn’t born of a virgin, who wasn’t a miracle-worker, who wasn’t the “son of God” or God incarnate — if *that* Jesus was just a plain ole apocalyptic preacher, then he might as well have been non-existent, because that Jesus is totally unrecognizable from the Jesus of the Gospels. If Price tries to attempt this copout I think you should take that as an opportunity to administer the killing blow, for at that point Price will have basically admitted that he is wrong and that the historical Jesus actually did exist. I notice mythicists often try to worm their way out of such an admission, claiming that “that’s not the Jesus we’re arguing about”. Well, last I checked we were arguing about the “historical Jesus”, and if you admit that an historical man Jesus, who wasn’t God, who wasn’t a miracle-worker, who wasn’t born of a virgin, who wasn’t resurrected after death…if that Jesus did, in fact, exist, well, that man is still the “historical Jesus”, so you are admitting that Jesus the man actually could have and did exist! Game, set and match.

    • Avatar
      dragonfly  September 27, 2016

      Talmoore if you could dress up like Bart you could do the debate and save him the time! Their arguments do seem pretty untenable. I don’t think they can be persuaded by any amount of evidence or logic though. They don’t seem to be using either to make their case.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  September 28, 2016

        I have long hair and a full beard (And since I’m Israeli I kind of look like Jesus, actually), so I don’t think I could pull it off. (But I’d give it a try.)

  3. Avatar
    Wilusa  September 25, 2016

    “And have I mentioned that football season has started?”

    When I read this, I laughed, of course – and thought of responding, “Glad you aren’t also following the *baseball* season as passionately as I am, or you’d never get anything done!”

    But then I remembered what I’d read just *before* coming to this site. Really *horrible* news for the baseball world: the accidental death, by drowning, of the Miami Marlins’ wonderful young pitcher, Jose Fernandez. A tremendous loss! It seems almost…unbelievable.

    And of all ways for him to die – a boating accident! I assume this story we’ve heard for years is true. He and his family left Cuba, on a boat with others, when he was about 14. At one point, a cry went up on the boat that a woman had fallen overboard! Jose – a big, strapping kid, and a good swimmer – promptly jumped into the water to rescue her. He succeeded; and it was only when he was pulling her back onto the boat that he realized it was his *mother*.

    Sometimes you just have to shake your head…

  4. Avatar
    Wilusa  September 25, 2016

    “My sense is that there will always be Christians who think that the end is near. At some point in history, they will be right. I hope it’s a long way off…..”

    Ha ha! I’m sure there will cease to be “Christians” long before this planet meets its end! And hopefully, all the *non*-Christians will have had enough notice that they’ll safely evacuate the place, and move on to the other worlds they’ve colonized.

    Or…*we’ve* colonized? Yes, I do think “we” will still be around!

  5. Avatar
    Jim  September 25, 2016

    I think I came across this indirectly when I was looking at some links on one of Tim O’Neill’s posts in August. Apparently, Creepy Carrier is planning to be in the audience, so if you decide to chuck your water bottle at him at some point during the debate, I for one, wouldn’t be all that sad. (said with an evil grin)

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  September 27, 2016

      I fully expect him to be there because before I stopped reading his posts altogether, he was promoting the debate. I just got this “feeling” that he was planning on attending. I also noticed that he hadn’t said one negative word about Bart in a long while. Maybe he’s planning on apologizing. 😉

      Even if he does, he is still problematic for many reasons.

      • Avatar
        Jim  September 28, 2016

        Agree with your analysis. Since the major part of the discussion is between two very professional people, it should be interesting and not contentious.

        I don’t know what it is with my deficient karma level, but around the time I wrote my comment, I received an email from Amazon advertising the release of RC’s new book. Hopefully he’ll behave professionally, at least if he wishes to promote the sale of his new release.

  6. Avatar
    Jana  September 25, 2016

    I get that the tradition de-apocaylpticized but then when and how did the concept of the “Second Coming” (apocalypse) when Christ would come again and all Believers would all ascend to heaven become part of the Jesus tradition? I’m excited about you upcoming debate! Personal aside, my beloved Catholic godmother is a Mother Superior at a Trappist Monastery. She’s open minded and yet often denounces (nicely) my theology as founded on myth ! 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  September 26, 2016

      It’s very early — in our earliest surviving Christian writing, 1 Thess. 4:14-18!

      • Avatar
        Jana  September 27, 2016

        Would this have been another attempt to “de-apocalypticize” and project sometime into the future?

  7. Avatar
    Jason  September 25, 2016

    Do you ever get the sense from any end timers you know or have encountered that they believe the end of history must come in *their* lifetime because God has been waiting for them to be born to witness it?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 26, 2016

      Yes, eschatology does often seem pretty self-centered!

  8. Avatar
    twiskus  September 25, 2016

    Sincerely, the fact you are *even thinking* about writing a book on the afterlife is extremely exciting. I think *most* (Christians–whether they admit it or not–and non Christians) would say that is a paramount reason for why Christians believe in the gospel of Jesus…their fear of eternal damnation. Having your perspective on how this *man-made* idea came about would be, I believe, invaluable.

  9. Avatar
    Samuel Riad  September 25, 2016

    I would be interested in your next book on the afterlife. I would be particularly glad if you tell us a bit on how it originated with Judaism which originally didn’t believe in an elaborate after life (bet sheol). I will also be keen to know how the idea of afterlife developed in Judaism AFTER the rise of Christianity since most Christians are split off from Jewish thought since that point. As far as I understand, Judaism today has evolved to even accepts reincarnation in some cases (Gilgul)

    • gmdave449
      gmdave449  October 5, 2016

      Rabbi Yoseph Mizrachi is a prominent modern Rabbi who often invokes his belief in reincarnation. Speaking as a non-expert, reincarnation seems to have become part of Kabbalah during the middle ages

  10. Avatar
    prairieian  September 25, 2016

    Regarding the apocalyptic theme of contemporary life – in every period of history… It is impossible for most to think outside their own time and to give that time cosmic significance. Thus we have lengthy parade of the imminence of the end times, which, miribile dictu, are just around the corner. What luck!!!

    It is hard to know how to take these pronouncements. I confess that I almost always find them amusing, particularly the day after the “day” when the prophet announces a recalculation and then a new date, or perhaps a retreat to the cave for a few more cogitations. Not quite so amusing if the deluded followers of such cranks sell up everything and proceed to the mountain top to watch the end of everything and then work out that they’re now in very serious financial trouble as a result.

    This routine prediction of the end of all seems to be one of those things that will always be with us, which is a huge pity.

  11. TWood
    TWood  September 26, 2016

    A somewhat related question… we often think of Paul saying honor the king and all that stuff in Romans 13… even though it seems some of the early Christians had no trouble violating laws they found to be against God’s law (speaking about Jesus after they were told it was illegal for example). There still seems to be an overall respect for secular rulers… “render unto Caesar” stuff…

    But Revelation seems very comfortable calling the Roman emperor an evil beast and his kingdom all kinds of monsters and other evil things… Do you agree that Revelation is unique to the NT canon in regards to really attacking the secular government? It’s almost “American” in a sense… we Americans love to call out our leaders… Seems like Revelation is something like that. Do you see it that way at all?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 26, 2016

      My sense is that there were different streams of tradition, one that was in favor of the existing powers and the other that thought they were inspired by the Devil. I wonder if Paul believed in obedience all those times he was being subject to corporal punishment?

      • TWood
        TWood  September 26, 2016

        IDK… but he seemed to be a repeat offender which leads me to think he didn’t believe in total surrender to the state… but do you see it different for Americans? In Romans 13 he says to obey the secular authority or rulers… but in America we don’t have an absolute monarch… our authority and ruler is the Constitution… so Paul’s statements don’t really apply directly to American Christians it seems to me… if we submitted to a ruler we’d actually be violating our secular authority, the Constitution… to me that’s the beauty of the Enlightenment and America… do you also see Romans 13 as not really applicable to American Christians?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 28, 2016

          I’m not qualified to say what “should” be relevant to modern contexts.

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  October 2, 2016

        Do you believe Paul was put to the lash 40 times?

  12. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  September 26, 2016

    Is one of the books you’re rereading called The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man? I bought that one to read before attending the debate based on someone’s recommendation.
    I have a new job as a 6th grade reading teacher this year with many gifted students (total opposite of what I’ve always had) and a couple at the college reading level. It’s all I can do to keep up with it. I don’t know how you can keep such a busy schedule and still stay sane.

  13. Avatar
    Judith  September 26, 2016

    In little over a week, it will be October 5th, Dr. Ehrman! In lieu of a card, the equivalent in a very small donation will be made to wish you a very Happy Birthday! And may you have lots and lots of such wishes. 🙂

  14. Avatar
    Judith  September 26, 2016

    Another way to note your birthday would be an email to Terry Gross (Fresh Air) requesting that she have you back for Jesus Before the Gospels. Her address: tgross@whyy.org

    I just did it but a thousand more would surely get her attention.

  15. Avatar
    moose  September 26, 2016

    Mr. Ehrman. I want to show you something regarding the name Pontius Pilate (perhaps you are already aware of it?)
    A Pontiff(from Latin Pontifex) was a member of the most illustrious of the colleges of priests of the Roman religion. The term “pontiff” was later applied to any high or chief priest and, in Roman Catholic ecclesiastical usage, to a bishop and more particulary to the Bishop of Rome – the Pope or “Roman Pontiff”. The word “Pontificate” derives from the same term.
    Now, the name Pontius Pilate can thus also have the meaning “High priest Pilate”, or even “Bishop Pilate”. The First name of Pontius Pilate may have occurred as a simple distortion of the ecclesiastical title for Pontifex.
    This proves nothing, but it may be worth keeping in mind.
    Best wishes in the upcoming debate.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 26, 2016

      I’m not sure Pontius is etymologically related to pontiff, even though they look the same.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  September 26, 2016

        Pilate’s family name of Pontius probably comes from the Latin for “bridge”, pons, which in the genitive (“of the bridge”) would be pontis. The gens nomen was probably, therefore, a combination of “ponti-” and “-us”, meaning, in essence, The Bridge Family.

        • Avatar
          moose  September 28, 2016

          The usual interpretation of the term pontifex (according to Wikipedia) is that it literally means “bridge-builder” (pons + facere).
          My point was just to show the possibility that Pontifex Pilate – over several years – easily could end up as Pontius Pilate. It’s only an odd observation I did.

  16. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  September 26, 2016

    I often read Dr. Price’s website where he has discussed this issue. I think one huge area of the debate will be your focus on Paul writing that he met with Peter, the main disciple of Jesus, and with James, the brother of Jesus, so therefore to have had a main disciple and a brother Jesus must have existed. I think Price will argue that “brother” as used by Paul, is not an actual biological brother, but is like saying a “follower” much as people use the term “brother” in churches today. I forget what Price says about Peter, but I remember he has a response to that which is sort of similar.

    For me, it does not make a huge difference whether Jesus was completely legendary or mostly legendary. You more or less end up about the same place.

  17. Avatar
    Tempo1936  September 26, 2016

    Many fundamentals now teach that the apocalyptic prophecies in the synoptic gospels and the book of revelation were fulfilled in ad 70 when God (using the Romans) destroyed the temple and ended the Jewish religious system as punishment for rejecting Jesus the messiah. In the synoptic gospels, Jesus says “no stone will be left on another” and this will happen in the current generation. Luke actually says this will happen when an army surrounds the city.

    What evidence is there that the book of Revelation was written before ad70? How would you respond to someone making this claim?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 26, 2016

      There are several indications. E.g., the idea that Nero is the anti-Christ is worth considering. But most scholars date the final product to the end of hte first century.

    • gmdave449
      gmdave449  October 7, 2016

      Revelation 2:13 mentions the martyrdom of Antipas. Since he was killed in 92 AD, the early date of Revelation seems very difficult to establish. On top of that, the early Church fathers who talk about Revelation (sorry can’t remember what people or writings to point you to) say it was written during the reign of Domitian who ruled from 81 AD to 96 AD. Preterists have some interesting points but they are mostly arguments from silence such as the fact that Revelation does not mention the destruction of the Temple. If you want to learn more check out the debate between Hank Hanegraaff and Mark Hitchcock on youtube.

  18. AoSS
    AoSS  September 26, 2016

    Speaking of Dr. Price, have you ever listened to his series “The Bible Geek”?

    If so, what are your thoughts on it?

  19. Avatar
    Tempo1936  September 26, 2016

    I seem to recall that you believe the apocalyctic prophecies in the Olivert discourse basically reflect Jesus’s words.
    Isn’t just as likely that these prophecies were fulfilled in A.D. 70 (with the end of the Jewish religious system ) as fundamentalist claim as it is for you to claim that these prophecies have never been fulfilled?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 28, 2016

      No, I don’t think the sun, moon, and stars were destroyed in 70 CE!

      • gmdave449
        gmdave449  October 5, 2016

        I’ve encountered some very compelling arguments by preterists that the language of the sun, moon, and stars falling in the Olivet Discourse borrows from Old Testament language used to describe divine judgement being brought on a nation. See for example the prophecies of judgment against Babylon (Isaiah 13 especially verse 10), judgement against Edom (Isaiah 34 especially verse 4), and judgement against Egypt (Ezekiel 32 especially verses 7-8). I’ve referenced several classical commentaries and in my layman’s opinion this seems to be a valid interpretation.

        But the more I study the Olivet Discourse the more convinced I am it cannot be explained by preterism. When you cross reference the language used in it to the parables of Jesus and to the book of Daniel, it is clear that Jesus is referring to the final judgement and not simply to national judgment against Israel. Look for example at the parable of the weeds in Matthew 13 and pay particular attention to the language used in the explanation of the parable. Some of the same exact key phrases (“the end of the age” and “the Son of Man will send out his angels”) are found in the Olivet Discourse. The phrase “Then the righteous will shine like the sun in their Father’s Kingdom” is clearly an allusion to Daniel 12:3.

  20. Avatar
    HawksJ  September 26, 2016

    Your work ethic and capacity to do work (two different things) are so remarkable and, frankly, inspiring.

    I look forward to your debate, although it’s not a topic I find particularly interesting per se. I do, however, find Mr. Price to be interesting, entertaining, and really funny (three adjectives that also apply to you). I think he is, as you say, a ‘good guy’, so I really look forward to your interaction on a personal level even more than on a professional level.

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