How do we judge whether Jesus existed? A philosopher comments

A reader whose name escapes me recommended a paper that will interest those of us who have been following the Ehrman/Carrier debates about the historicity of Jesus. It’s by Stephen Law, a philosopher at the University of London, editor of the popular philosophy journal Think, issued by the Royal Institute of Philosophy, and Provost of the Centre for Inquiry UK.  He has his own eponymous website, has written eight books and looks a bit like Darryl Hall.

Last year he published a piece in the journal Faith and Philosophy (have any of you heard of this?) called”Evidence, miracles, and the existence of Jesus“, which he reprinted on his website (click the link, and see reference below).  It doesn’t really deal with the actual evidence for and against the existence of Jesus—the kind of stuff Carrier and Ehrman are fighting about— but rather discusses what we would consider good evidence for the existence of a man who is now claimed to have performed many miracles. Law is an atheist, and dismisses the miracles right off the bat; what he wants to know is the same thing Ehrman and Carrier are discussing: how credible is the historical existence of the man Jesus around whom the miracles stories have coalesced?

I like his discussion, and while you may not be convinced by his conclusion, that there’s no convincing evidence for a historical Jesus, you’ll want to read his piece.

Law sets out two principles that should guide us in answering the questions of both Jesus’s miracles and of his existence of a non-divine man who gave rise to the myths. The first, familiar to readers of Carl Sagan (or David Hume) disposes of the miracle stories:

P1 Where a claim’s justification derives solely from evidence, extraordinary claims (e.g. concerning supernatural miracles) require extraordinary evidence. In the absence of extraordinary evidence there is good reason to be sceptical about those claims.

The second, more controversial principle is the one Law uses to dispose of the historicity of Jesus. He calls it “the contamination principle”:

P2 Where testimony/documents weave together a narrative that combines mundane claims with a significant proportion of extraordinary claims, and there is good reason to be sceptical about those extraordinary claims, then there is good reason to be sceptical about the mundane claims, at least until we possess good independent evidence of their truth.

In other words, if a figure is claimed to be historical, but that history is larded with miracles (especially lots of miracles: Law claims at least 35 for Jesus in the New Testament), then that detracts from the possible that such a person really existed. One example is John Frum, the supposed American GI who is the center of the “cargo cult” on the Pacific Island of Tanna. (Read about Frum if you don’t know the story.)

Law’s point is not that miracle stories themselves testify against the real existence of someone who inspired them.  Clearly miracle stories have accreted to genuine living humans.  His point is, rather, that we shouldn’t give extra credibility to the historical existence of someone just because the miracle stories are supplemented with mundane and quotidian details of the person’s life.  That is, one shouldn’t think Jesus was more likely to have existed just because there are “regular” details of his life given alongside the divine ones.  Further, the more miracles surrounding a person per unit time, the less likely Law thinks he/she existed.

Now you may argue with the contamination principle, but read the paper before you do. Law gives two Gedankenexperiments to make his case: the “story of the sixth islander,” and the case of Ted, Sarah, and their amazing friend Bert.  Law’s paper is not dense or technical, and will make you rethink the Jesus argument.

And he summarizes his argument against the existence of a Jesus as follows:

Our two prima facie plausible principles – P1 and P2 – combine with certain plausible empirical claims to deliver a conclusion very few Biblical scholars are willing to accept.

Let me stress at the outset that I don’t endorse the following argument. I present it, not because I’m convinced it is cogent, but because I believe it has some prima facie plausibility, and because it is an argument any historian who believes the available evidence places Jesus’ existence beyond reasonable doubt needs to refute.

1. (P1) Where a claim’s justification derives solely from evidence, extraordinary claims (e.g. concerning supernatural miracles) require extraordinary evidence. In the absence of extraordinary evidence there is good reason to be sceptical about those claims.
.
2. There is no extraordinary evidence for any of the extraordinary claims concerning supernatural miracles made in the New Testament documents.

3. Therefore (from 1 and 2), there’s good reason to be sceptical about those extraordinary claims.

4. (P2) Where testimony/documents weave together a narrative that combines mundane claims with a significant proportion of extraordinary claims, and there is good reason to be sceptical about those extraordinary claims, then there is good reason to be sceptical about the mundane claims, at least until we possess good independent evidence of their truth.

5. The New Testament documents weave together a narrative about Jesus that combines mundane claims with a significant proportion of extraordinary claims.

6. There is no good independent evidence for even the mundane claims about Jesus (such as that he existed)

7. Therefore (from 3, 4, 5, and 6), there’s good reason to be sceptical about whether Jesus existed.

. . . So, our empirical premises – 2, 5 and 6, – have some prima facie plausibility. I suggest 2 and 5 have a great deal of plausibility, and 6 is at the very least debatable.

My suspicion is that a significant number of Biblical scholars and historians (though of course by no means all) would accept something like all three empirical premises. If that is so, it then raises an intriguing question: why, then, is there such a powerful consensus that those who take a sceptical attitude towards Jesus’ existence are being unreasonable?

Perhaps the most obvious answer to this question would be: while many Biblical historians accept that the empirical premises have at least a fair degree of plausibility, and most would also accept something like P1, few would accept P2.

Have a look at his case for P2 (“the contamination principle”) before you reject it.  It’s a philosophical case, and his examples are pretty convincing.

__________

Law, S. 2011. Evidence, miracles, and the existence of Jesus. Faith and Philosophy 28: 129-151

157 Comments

  1. Posted April 24, 2012 at 5:21 am | Permalink

    “… why, then, is there such a powerful consensus that those who take a sceptical attitude towards Jesus’ existence are being unreasonable?”

    Likely because the traditional consensus, even among scholars, has been dominated by Christians, who, while they might be willing to regard the miracles as exaggerated or metaphorical, are being presented with too big a mind-shift in being asked to consider whether Jesus existed at all.

  2. Posted April 24, 2012 at 5:23 am | Permalink

    Perhaps historical investigation is not the only way in which we might come to know whether or not Jesus existed. Alvin Plantinga suggests that the truth of scripture can be known non-inferentially, by the operation of a sensus divinitatis.

    I can’t tell if Law’s intention here is to give a nod to the fact that other approaches exist within mainstream philosophy (even if he himself rejects them), or if he is openly mocking Plantinga.

    Which I guess says something, if, when a fellow philosopher accurately conveys Plantinga’s ideas, I suspect that Alvin is being mocked. :D

    • darrelle
      Posted April 24, 2012 at 6:42 am | Permalink

      It surly does say something when an accurate, straight forward, unembellished statement of someone elses ideas can be mistaken for mockery.

      And it makes it really easy to mock them. If I had to guess I would say that Law couldn’t resist taking advantage of that. No effort required, just repeat what Plantinga said. Irony, mockery and plausible deniability all wrapped up in one neat little package with little effort.

    • raven
      Posted April 24, 2012 at 9:27 am | Permalink

      Alvin Plantinga suggests that the truth of scripture can be known non-inferentially, by the operation of a sensus divinitatis.

      Sensus Divinitatis translate into English as “voices in someone’s head.”

      All faith claims ultimately rest on voices in someone’s head.

      There are countless people who hear voices in their heads or claim to anyway. The voices all say different things.

      Quite often the xian leader’s voices from god want you to send them money and your cutest young boys and girls.

  3. Posted April 24, 2012 at 5:24 am | Permalink

    Many historic figures have accumulated miracle stories. This includes many yogi still alive today, not to mention all the catholic saints, who don’t get to be saints unless they have worked miracles. No one disputes the historicity of most saints (especially the more recent ones). So isn’t Law’s argument falsified immediately?

    • Posted April 24, 2012 at 5:26 am | Permalink

      Just to clarify, his P1 is obviously true, and I am sure none of the claimed miracles were real; it is his P2 that is false.

      • Jim Jones
        Posted April 24, 2012 at 5:37 am | Permalink

        “No one disputes the historicity of most saints …”

        What about Ned Ludd or John Frum?

        • NoAstronomer
          Posted April 24, 2012 at 5:49 am | Permalink

          They’re not saints.

        • Posted April 24, 2012 at 5:56 am | Permalink

          Of course there will be fake people with miracle stories attached to them. But my point is that real people also often have miracle stories attached to them. Miracle attributions are actually very common.

          I think it is generally agreed that Mohammed was a historical person, and he has extraordinary stories attached to him. Law’s rule would treat Mohammed incorrectly.

          • bernardhurley
            Posted April 24, 2012 at 8:08 am | Permalink

            In practice we do apply the contamination principle in everyday life. I a witness in a murder trial said he saw the suspect commit the act through a window, we might be inclined to give his evidence some weight. However if, when asked why he was looking through the window he replied that his pet hamster had told him he should do we would give the evidence less weight. Of course it is still possible that he had witnessed the crime but it would be clearly unsafe to take his word for it.

            • Woody Tanaka
              Posted April 24, 2012 at 9:52 am | Permalink

              “However if, when asked why he was looking through the window he replied that his pet hamster had told him he should do we would give the evidence less weight.”

              Because in our experience, that it indicative of a lack of credibility. However, an attribution of miraculous events to real personages in antiquity was commonplace and is not indicative of a lack of existence.

              • bernardhurley
                Posted April 24, 2012 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

                I think you are missing the point. The witness could still be reliable as a witness to the crime. If, for instance, he corroborated a all the forensic evidence, we might take him more seriously. But our confidence would be roughly proportional to the quantity of independent evidence and inversely proportional to the amount of putative fantasy in his account. It is true that much ancient historical writing is infected with fantasy and this is more true of ancient texts than more modern ones. This is clearly a problem but it is not an all or nothing affair. When a text is as bizarre as the NT then the problem is clearly of greater than normal magnitude.

          • Sajanas
            Posted April 24, 2012 at 8:49 am | Permalink

            Ibn Warraq’s book, Why I am not a Muslim argued against thinking that Mohammad was a historical person, with some persuasive effect. There is a similar absence of contemporary attestation with him as there is with Jesus, and the Koran its problems with its authenticity. Namely that, while there is a that traditional story of sayings of the prophet being collected after his death, there hasn’t been near the amount of scholarship on the text and its variants as there is with the Bible, to the extent that there are old Koran that exist which are simply not made available to Western scholarship.

          • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
            Posted April 25, 2012 at 12:02 am | Permalink

            That is the first time I’ve heard the claim that Mohammad was a historical person. I don’t see how that can be, considering that the region was pre-literate at the time. The first descriptions were made, in the usual way, a long distance in time and space after. And there is, again as per usual, no independent texts outside the religious myth (that I know of).

            While I’m not arguing for and against P2 at this time, there seems to be a P3: all known religious founding person myths seems to be based on non-historical persons, until you reach the Enlightenment in each culture (literate, colonized). Then they are known con men instead (Smith, Blavatsky, Hubbard).

            • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
              Posted April 25, 2012 at 12:03 am | Permalink

              “a long distance in time and space after” – a long distance in time and space away.

            • Posted April 25, 2012 at 5:18 am | Permalink

              That’s just wrong. The middle east was not pre-literate in 600 AD. There are contemporaneous Christian sources mentioning Mohammed, and independent Greek sources somewhat later. The political and cultural effects of Mohammed’s conquests also seem well-documented. I am no historian and maybe there is criticism of this evidence, but as far as I can tell, he is likely to be a historical person.

              • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
                Posted April 25, 2012 at 8:04 am | Permalink

                I meant his migrations with the tribes, not the whole of Middle East at the time.

                “Next [after the Quran] in importance are historical works by writers of the 3rd and 4th centuries of the Muslim era.[33] These include the traditional Muslim biographies of Muhammad (the sira literature), which provide further information on Muhammad’s life.[34]

                The earliest surviving written sira (biographies of Muhammad and quotes attributed to him) is Ibn Ishaq’s Life of God’s Messenger written ca. 767 (150 AH). The work is lost, but was used verbatim at great length by Ibn Hisham and Al-Tabari.[35][36] Another early source is the history of Muhammad’s campaigns by al-Waqidi (death 207 of Muslim era), and the work of his secretary Ibn Sa’d al-Baghdadi (death 230 of Muslim era).[33]

                Many scholars accept the accuracy of the earliest biographies, though their accuracy is unascertainable.[35] Recent studies have led scholars to distinguish between the traditions touching legal matters and the purely historical ones. In the former sphere, traditions could have been subject to invention while in the latter sphere, aside from exceptional cases, the material may have been only subject to “tendential shaping”.[37]”

                “Non-Arabic sources

                The earliest documented Christian knowledge of Muhammad stems from Byzantine sources. They indicate that both Jews and Christians saw Muhammad as a “false prophet”. In the Doctrina Jacobi nuper baptizati of 634, Muhammad is portrayed as being “deceiving[,] for do prophets come with sword and chariot?, [...] you will discover nothing true from the said prophet except human bloodshed.”[41]”

                “The Teaching of Jacob, (Greek: Διδασκαλια Ιακοβου, Didaskalia Jakobou; Ethiopic Sargis d’Aberga) is a 7th century Greek Christian anti-Jewish polemical tract set in Carthage in 634 but written in Palestine sometime between 634 and 640.[1][2] It supposedly records a July 13, 634 discussion between a Jewish forced convert to Christianity, Jacob, and some Jews about the condition of the Byzantine Empire in light of the recent Arab conquests, and how they should proceed as he had done, and convert to Christianity.[3]”

                “It records a prophet in Arabia during the birth time of Islamic tradition proclaiming the advent of a Jewish Messiah. The document contradicts the notion in Islamic tradition that the prophet was dead at the time of the conquest of Palestine but agrees with some traditions of other peoples of the time.[6]”

                So no eyewitnesses, no name and a conflicting history, but the usual messianic teachings. The first source with perhaps a name (haven’t checked) is again 100’s of years after the purported fact, when the myth was generally established.

                I would be interested in your sources. I don’t doubt there was an islamic conquest, I doubt there was a historical religious founder here.

              • Posted April 25, 2012 at 9:34 am | Permalink

                The work you quoted describes Mohammed pretty well, and is exactly contemporaneous with the dates he is supposed to have been active. And it is clearly not an Islamic forgery. Not proof of Mohammed’s existence, I agree, but significant independent evidence.

                There are other non-Islamic documents that mention Mohammed by name and which are alleged to be nearly contemporary. See for example http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sebeos

                I don’t think it is possible to confidently insists that Mohammed did not exist. Given the traditions and the independent evidence, the most likely possibility is that Mohammed was real.

            • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
              Posted April 25, 2012 at 8:30 am | Permalink

              I’ve decided on P2 on the background I noted earlier and below: it is a relevant technique in predicting _why_ there are no historical persons beneath religious myths.

              By that route it lends weight to judge individual cases.

              I’ve read comments that note that this mix of myth and fact was a common social device at the time, but I think there were constraints on how much was allowed even then. (Or we would see even more ridiculous claims.) So it is directly applicable as well.

        • Woody Tanaka
          Posted April 24, 2012 at 5:58 am | Permalink

          I think the non-existence of Ned Ludd or John Frum simply demonstrates that his P4 — the application of the contamination principle — is true in some situations, but not all situations. So absent some other basis to conclude that you are dealing with a situation like the yogis and saints that Lou Jost was discussion, or with the equivalent of Ned Ludd or John Frum, there is no justifiable reason to apply the contamination principle. (But, of course, if you have that other basis, you have no need for the contamination principle in the first place.)

          In other words, the fact that we know for a fact that miraculous claims are often blended with mundane facts regarding people who we have no doubt actually existed, the principle that concluding there is “good reason to be sceptical of the mundane claims” in such a situation is unsound.

          • DiscoveredJoys
            Posted April 24, 2012 at 6:45 am | Permalink

            It is believed that the ‘real’ Ned Ludd (or Edward Ludlam) was born and wrecked two frames in Anstey. He allegedly wrecked the frames in a rage and his name was used as slang for sabotaging frames later. It was 11 years later when the ‘Luddites’ were formed as a political movement, and as far as I know Edward Ludlam was not one of them.

            I’ve an interest because the ‘real’ Ned Ludd was born only a couple of miles away from where I live. Small world.

            • Posted April 24, 2012 at 6:53 am | Permalink

              Yes, and the “real” 007 is an ornithologist named, “James Bond,” who was never employed by the government (clandestinely or otherwise).

              Merely lending your name to a fictional character does not make the character less fictional; nor does it make you the “real” fictional character.

              b&

          • Nikos Apostolakis
            Posted April 24, 2012 at 9:33 am | Permalink

            In other words, the fact that we know for a fact that miraculous claims are often blended with mundane facts regarding people who we have no doubt actually existed, the principle that concluding there is “good reason to be sceptical of the mundane claims” in such a situation is unsound.

            I think you’re missing the point. It’s not about how certain we are that the mundane details mixed with the miracles are false, rather how certain we are that the mundane facts are true. IOW, the contamination principle doesn’t say that we should be confident that the mundane details are false, just that we shouldn’t be confident that they are true. This shift in emphasis is significant.

            The goal of the paper is to show that the overconfidence in the existence of a historical Jesus exhibited by biblical scholars is not warranted given the nature of the evidence. Not to establish that there was no historic Jesus. Quoting from the article:

            My concern here is with the claim that there is, indeed, historical evidence
            sufficient firmly to establish the existence of Jesus. Note that while I
            question whether there is, in fact, such historical evidence, I do not argue
            that we are justified in supposing that Jesus is an entirely mythical figure
            (I remain no less sceptical about that claim).

            • Woody Tanaka
              Posted April 24, 2012 at 10:02 am | Permalink

              “IOW, the contamination principle doesn’t say that we should be confident that the mundane details are false, just that we shouldn’t be confident that they are true. This shift in emphasis is significant.”

              I understand that, but I’m saying that even that is not justified, because the reason for decreasing the confidence under that principle makes no sense given what we do know about the nature of ancient peoples. If such mythmaking were common, regardless whether the person was living or fictional, there is no logical warrant to reduce our confidence simply because that common trope was employed.

              • Nikos Apostolakis
                Posted April 24, 2012 at 10:49 am | Permalink

                I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying. Are you saying that we shouldn’t doubt the veracity of any ancient narrative?

                I’m also not sure that what you’re implying about the “nature of ancient peoples” is true. As far as I know not all ancient narratives contain supernatural elements. The paper also makes it clear that there is a quantitative and qualitative difference between the supernatural content in, for exaple, Plutarch’s narrative about Alexander and the NT.

    • Posted April 24, 2012 at 5:51 am | Permalink

      So isn’t Law’s argument falsified immediately?

      I don’t see how it is. His proposal is that more mundane claims are contaminated by extraordinary claims, surely? How does the existence of mundane claims about yogi, and miracle claims about those yogi, show that the mundane claims are not contaminated by the miracle claims? To be clear, he’s not arguing, I don’t think, that miracle claims invalidate mundane claims, which appears to be your interpretation (but please correct me if you mean something else). For many of these recent ‘miraculous’ figures, there is ample ‘good, independent evidence’ to confirm the mundane claims, and Law allows for this in his P2.

      We have to decide, I think, that, if there are miracle claims about someone, does that mean we should treat the mundane claims about them differently? If so, then I think his P2 is right, if not, it’s wrong.

      • Posted April 24, 2012 at 6:06 am | Permalink

        Yes, Law has an escape clause at the end of his P2. But miracle stories are so commonly accumulated by historical characters that I don’t see how P2 adds much of substance to any debate about the historicity of a person.

        • Posted April 24, 2012 at 6:24 am | Permalink

          So you agree P2 is not falsified by your examples.

          Plainly, if it’s true it will be a factor in the historicity of a person, but it will only add to the debate if (a) it’s true and (b) scholars don’t already take it into account. I think I agree with (a) (though I need to think about it some more), but I have no idea of (b), not being a biblical scholar.

        • darrelle
          Posted April 24, 2012 at 6:55 am | Permalink

          You seem to be leaving some things out of Law’s P2. He clearly states, stresses even, that the ratio of bullshit to mundaneness in a given account, and whether or not there are independent more trustworthy sources that corroborate the mundane claims, are key elements of P2.

          P2 seems fairly self evident to me and I have trouble understanding why other people have issues with it. I would bet that many of the people who do have issues with it only have issues when it is applied to certain specific cases in which they have a vested interest. (I am thinking of certain historians/biblical scholars, not Lou Jost)

          • Posted April 24, 2012 at 8:25 am | Permalink

            Darelle, thanks; it makes no difference to me whether or not there was a historical person underlying the Jesus myths. I just think P2 adds almost nothing to the debate.

            Sure, I suppose if an account is mostly about miracles, this says something about the credibility or credulity of the writer. But remember, 2000 years ago science was not so well developed, and people didn’t always realize just how unlikely miracles really are. So I don’t think ancient authors’ inclusion of miracle stories should count very heavily against them (and especially not against second-hand authors reporting miracles seen by others). As several people have said here, miracles are commonly attributed to real historical persons. I think we should analyze the potentially-verifiable details of an ancient second-hand account, without being much prejudiced by inclusion of miracles.

      • Sajanas
        Posted April 24, 2012 at 8:59 am | Permalink

        I’d suggest L. Ron Hubbard as a good example of when its a good idea to view mundane claims as being contaminated by extraordinary claims. Sure, we all know that his Scientology based ideas are nonsense, but even the non-religious portions of his version of his life are subject to myth making (fake claims of being a war hero, for instance). That may not always happen, but I think its a good rule of thumb that when someone is making supernatural claims, its worth checking the validity of the other things they say about their life story.

    • Posted April 24, 2012 at 5:55 am | Permalink

      If there’s no independent testimony of some saint from antiquity, then we have less warrant for inferring their existence. It’s more than extraordinary claims, but, you know, don’t believe everything you hear.

      If there’s independent testimony of the saints’ existence, then this actually confirms Law’s point.

      • Woody Tanaka
        Posted April 24, 2012 at 6:01 am | Permalink

        “If there’s no independent testimony of some saint from antiquity, then we have less warrant for inferring their existence.”

        I don’t believe that is sound reasoning, in light of the fact that we know that we do not have complete evidentiary evidence to support every true fact in history, coupled with the regular and near-universal mythmaking in human history regarding actual, living people.

        • Reginald Selkirk
          Posted April 24, 2012 at 7:39 am | Permalink

          I believe that you are on the wrong track, since there is also regular and near-universal mythmaking about fictional people.

          • Woody Tanaka
            Posted April 24, 2012 at 9:57 am | Permalink

            “I believe that you are on the wrong track, since there is also regular and near-universal mythmaking about fictional people.”

            No, that is exactly the point. Since there is regular and near-univeral mythmaking about both historical people and about fictional people, the presence of that mythmaking cannot be useful to establish either that a particular person was either historical or fictional. The presence of mythmaking is consistent with both, so it is useless in differentiating between the two.

            • darrelle
              Posted April 24, 2012 at 11:34 am | Permalink

              …the presence of that mythmaking cannot be useful to establish either that a particular person was either historical or fictional.

              But that is not what Law is suggesting. What he is suggesting is that the mundane information that is liberally mixed with miracles, and is not corroborated by any other sources, be considered suspect regarding the question of historicity. That’s it. Just that that particular information is suspect.

              In this particular case, the historicity of Jesus, since that is all the evidence there is, he concludes that doubting that Jesus really existed is not an untenable position. That’s it! He goes out of his way to make sure no one reading his paper could possibly misinterpret him to be claiming that his paper proves that Jesus did not exist.

        • yesmyliege
          Posted April 24, 2012 at 7:46 am | Permalink

          Myth making for gods, though, tells a different story. What percentage of gods – entities with some supernatural powers – throughout history have been complete falsifications, without any historical core? 99%? 99.99%?

          Last count I saw, there have been at least 10,000 gods worshiped by humans, and none of them have a historical core.

          • Woody Tanaka
            Posted April 24, 2012 at 10:04 am | Permalink

            “Myth making for gods, though, tells a different story.”

            I don’t see how the particulars of the contaminant is relevant in any way. The principle is either logical or not, regardless of the particulars.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted April 24, 2012 at 6:16 am | Permalink

      No one disputes the historicity of most saints (especially the more recent ones).

      We have copious independent verification for most of the modern saints. This is not so for Jesus, where the only claims of mundane historicity are in the same sources as the miraculous stuff.

      How the Buddha became a Catholic Saint

    • Greg G
      Posted April 24, 2012 at 6:23 am | Permalink

      I was thinking about Vespasian and his healing of the blind man at Serapis.

    • Dan L.
      Posted April 24, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

      No, Law anticipates your counterexamples in the article.

      For both yogi and saints, you are implicitly assuming we are using identical sources for biography and miracles. This is not the case. For a given yogi, many more human beings will attest to the yogi’s existence than to his miracle making. Thus, the biographical details are better attested than the miracles.

      This is true for the saints as well. With Jesus we have only one source for both biography and miracles. So apples and oranges, really; this is exactly the kind of problem of evidence to which Law is trying to draw attention.

      Perhaps Law needs to make the “shared source” qualification explicit though.

  4. Posted April 24, 2012 at 5:29 am | Permalink

    In a long winded philosophical way Stephen Law is describing the whole Jesus myth in terms of the fable of The Boy Who Cried Wolf.

    If the bot is in the habit of making up nonsense he should not expect people to believe him when he actually tells the truth. It’s not that he’s definitely not telling the truth; rather, that we can’t distinguish lie from truth in his case.

    And so it is with the Bible. The gross nonsense make it all suspect.

    • Aratina Cage
      Posted April 24, 2012 at 6:17 am | Permalink

      If the bot is in the habit of making up nonsense

      As godbots tend to do.

      • Posted April 24, 2012 at 6:29 am | Permalink

        It was a typo error for ‘boy'; but fair enough :)

        • Aratina Cage
          Posted April 24, 2012 at 9:35 am | Permalink

          I figured as much, but found the typo amusing in that way nonetheless. :)

  5. Posted April 24, 2012 at 5:30 am | Permalink

    It all seems fairly reasonable to me.

    It is my opinion that (historically) those who sought to wrangle with the actual scholarly evidence were those who also approached the subject with a ‘keen’ staunch bias in favour of at least the reality of an historical “Yeshua”, but often far more profoundly magical and superstitious; merely because of the nature of the spark of enquiry given the zeitgeist of their times.

    Those who historically thought of Jesus as an implausible character, if not outright fictional, had no real incentive to pursue the matter further, in fact: a VERY positive disincentive to do so.

    Yet those who were brain-washed by the various churches to assume ipso-facto and a-priori that Jesus was “a given” automatically and unconsciously rejected any contrary argumentum.
    I know. I was one of them.
    I used to “take it as read” that Jesus existed; at least as an historical character. It wasn’t until I began biblical studies that I rejected this assumption as an axiom.

  6. Jim Jones
    Posted April 24, 2012 at 5:34 am | Permalink

    A “Biblical scholar” is a man who spent his life studying things that didn’t happen to people who never existed.

    • Posted April 24, 2012 at 5:39 am | Permalink

      Not fair.
      Not even cogent.
      There are atheist Bible Scholars who study the origins of the existent books that comprise the Torah and the New Testament.
      Is that sufficient for you to similarly critique the residue of your post?

    • Dominic
      Posted April 24, 2012 at 6:23 am | Permalink

      Yes – it is like saying a Dickens scholar spends her life studying things that didn’t happen to people who did not exist. Think of biblical studies as literary criticism and textual analysis.

      • Dominic
        Posted April 24, 2012 at 6:23 am | Permalink

        I meant no! duh…

      • papalinton
        Posted April 24, 2012 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

        Hard Times put the dick back in Dickens.

  7. Jim Jones
    Posted April 24, 2012 at 5:41 am | Permalink

    I’m hard pressed to find better arguments than these, both of which are heading for their 1st centennial.

    http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/rmsbrg00.htm

    http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/marshall_gauvin/did_jesus_really_live.html

    • Posted April 24, 2012 at 8:27 am | Permalink

      The second of these two references says in one place:

      “Miracles do not happen. Stories of miracles are untrue. Therefore, documents in which miraculous accounts are interwoven with reputed facts, are untrustworthy, for those who invented the miraculous element might easily have invented the part that was natural.”

      Which I think pretty much describes the principle of contamination Law presents here.

  8. Posted April 24, 2012 at 5:47 am | Permalink

    It is somewhat tangential to his main point, but I think Law fails to point out an even bigger problem with what he calls the “Presupposition Move”: Namely, even if we accept the validity of presupposing the existence of a God (which we don’t), that only renders unextraordinary the claim “some miracles occurred”. Any given claim of a specific miracle is still an extraordinary claim. Otherwise, theists would be forced to believe in every god that ever existed!

    Even if start out with the presupposition as specific as, “At some point in history, a man will be born who is actually the son of God, and he will be able to raise the dead, and will himself rise from the dead,” the claim that Jesus is this man is still an extraordinary claim, because it selects him as one among billions. Even with that presupposition in place, the vast majority of historical claimants to the ability to raise the dead are still wrong.

  9. Posted April 24, 2012 at 5:53 am | Permalink

    §

  10. Posted April 24, 2012 at 6:10 am | Permalink

    What amazes me is that people think Law’s “contamination principle” is even slightly controversial.

    Imagine you’re at a murder trial, and the whole case depends on an eyewitness who claims that the accused killed the victim with a lightsaber and escaped on a flying broomstick. Raise your hand if you think the prosecutor won’t do time for contempt and probably get disbarred. Would it really change your mind if the witness correctly claimed both the attacker and victim were men with short brown hair?

    Cheers,

    b&

    • darrelle
      Posted April 24, 2012 at 6:58 am | Permalink

      Exactly.

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted April 24, 2012 at 7:42 am | Permalink

      Raise your hand if you think the prosecutor won’t do time for contempt and probably get disbarred.

      * hand goes up *

      For a good sense of the rarity of consequences for prosecutorial misconduct, I recommend you frequent Ed Brayton’s blog Dispatches from the Culture Wares.

      • Posted April 24, 2012 at 7:49 am | Permalink

        Sadly, I fear you may well be right. But I hope my point still stands….

        b&

    • Woody Tanaka
      Posted April 24, 2012 at 10:08 am | Permalink

      “Raise your hand if…”

      I don’t think strawmen can raise their hands…

      The problem in your hypothetical is that we know from experience that such stories in modern people are indicative of untruthfulness and/or mental illness. However, we know that interweaving truthhoods and mythmaking was a regular and universal occurance among ancient writers even when the subject was a living person.

      • Dan L.
        Posted April 24, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

        However, we know that interweaving truthhoods and mythmaking was a regular and universal occurance among ancient writers even when the subject was a living person.

        But not universally so. We know ancient people were credulous of some claims but incredulous about others. We know that many of them were incredibly sophisticated, e.g. Greek philosophers who reinterpreted pagan myths as allegories. Pyrrhic skepticism was invented 300 years or so before Christ. Secular history had already been invented and authors were already concerned with the credibility of sources. I don’t think truth in the time of Jesus was nearly as “anything goes” as you’re making it out to be.

      • Posted April 25, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

        However, we know that interweaving truthhoods and mythmaking was a regular and universal occurance among ancient writers even when the subject was a living person.

        First, no. See Commentarii de Bello Gallico for the ultimate counterexample.

        Second…this is supposed to support the credibility of the mythmakers…how, exactly?

        b&

  11. Pray Hard
    Posted April 24, 2012 at 6:19 am | Permalink

    Read Sir James George Fraser’s “Golden Bough” (the original, not the one where he doesn’t talk about Christianity), read Joseph Campbell’s works, read Acharya Sanning’s “The Christ Conspiracy, The Greatest Story Ever Sold”. By then, you’ll be totally worn out, will see it all as nothing but myth, at best, and can faghetabowtit. Seriously.

  12. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted April 24, 2012 at 6:21 am | Permalink

    That is, one shouldn’t think Jesus was more likely to have existed just because there are “regular” details of his life given alongside the divine ones.

    The “regular” mundane details about Jesus are far fewer than most people realize. Most of the mention of his personal circumstances are obviously ginned up to drive the religious claims, and to provide fulfilment of alleged prophecy.

    Details of conception: miraculous and obviously false.
    Circumstances of census and birth: fabricated to provide a prophetic link to Bethlehem.
    Childhood in Egypt (or not, depending on which Gospel you read): obviously fabricated to resonate an OT line that he came out of Egypt.
    Father’s paternal lineage (both versions): obviously fabricated to provide a link to the House of David.
    Really, what’s left? The mention of Nazareth is about it.

    • Greg G
      Posted April 24, 2012 at 6:57 am | Permalink

      Ehrman makes the case that Jesus had brothers, a mother and a father, and that those people had names.

      Two sources say James was the brother of Jesus. Paul also says Jesus was descended from David. Josephus says James was a High Priest and High Priests come from the line of Aaron, which means Jesus was not descended from David.

      • Posted April 24, 2012 at 7:12 am | Permalink

        Of course, when one reads to the end of the paragraph, one learns that the “Jesus” in question was Jesus ben Damneus and the one-word “Christ” that everybody has been keying off of clearly got added at some point in the several generations of copying that happened to the work before it reached us today.

        And, yes. Jesus ben Damneus was an Aaronic high priest, just as you point out.

        How anybody could possibly think the chapter 20 reference originally had anything to do with Christianity is utterly beyond me.

        b&

        • Ray
          Posted April 24, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

          Seems like if that’s what Josephus meant, he’d refer to James as “James ben Damneus” not “James the brother of Jesus”, especially since it isn’t until the end of the paragraph that he refers to Jesus ben Damneus.

          So, if we’re actually talking about two different Jesuses, which seems more likely even without the christ reference, then neither James nor Jesus (the Brother of James) was ever a high priest.

          Anyway, I think the standard reading (“christ” is not an interpolation) is more natural, but in any event it’s not as clear cut as you think it is.

          Also, I generally see the passage translated as “Jesus who was called Christ” or something to that effect, as if Josephus was distancing himself from the claim that Jesus was Christ. Do you know if “Jesus who was called Christ” is the same as “Jesus Christ” in the original Greek?

          • Posted April 25, 2012 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

            The whole point is that the “Jesus” bit was interpolated by a Christian. Take out the “Jesus” references and all the rest of your objections vanish.

            b&

      • eric
        Posted April 24, 2012 at 7:31 am | Permalink

        Ironically, Ehrman makes the same argument Law does in Forged. In that book, Ehrman points out that liars and forgers often put small, trivial details into a story because it sounds more real that way. Forgers rely on readers asking ‘if this was a fake, he would’ve never included that, its just too random.’ Forgers also regularly include “asides” (like adding: ‘And by the way, tell your brother I hope he’s feeling better’ in some letter on theology) in letters for the same reason.

        So here we have a case of Ehrman 2012 arguing with Ehrman 2010. ;)

      • Reginald Selkirk
        Posted April 24, 2012 at 7:47 am | Permalink

        Greg G: Not a good listing.

        Jesus had brothers. OK that’s one.

        Descended from David: Probably fictionalized to support requirements for a messiah. Doesn’t count.

        Josephus: came much later, see comments by Ben Goren.

      • yesmyliege
        Posted April 24, 2012 at 8:54 am | Permalink

        “Ehrman makes the case that Jesus had brothers…”

        No source said that “Jesus had brothers”. This is probably a reference to “James, the brother of the Lord” which many argue is not the same thing at all, but simply refers to the fact that this James – who in all likelihood is not the James purported to be physical brother of Jesus – was a Christian, “brother” being used much as we would use the term “brethren”.

        Besides the fact that ‘brother’ is used repeatedly in that source materiel to reference a brethren of the church, there are some other pretty severe contextual problems with trying to shoehorn that phrase “James, the brother of the Lord” as actually referring to James, the blood relative of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, but the historicists have so little to work with that they will torture this reference to death.

        • Posted April 24, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

          No source said that “Jesus had brothers”.

          Mark 3:31 “Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him.”

          Mark 6:3 “Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?”

    • gluonspring
      Posted April 24, 2012 at 11:36 am | Permalink

      The crucifixion part of the story always seemed to add a little credibility in my mind that some real person is the original referent, however much is subsequently made up. It’s not a glamorous detail to make up, so it has seemed easier for me to imagine that the rest of the mythology was invented more or less to explain the ignominious end of soem group’s messiah figure than to imagine that an invented messiah figure would include the invented detail of a crucifixion.

      But, of course, it is entirely possible that the crucifixion was made up too. Maybe even consciously to add credibility, or maybe because it was just common enough that it was a natural story element to reach for. So my feeling here proves nothing. At so far a remove from the original stories and authors, who can say? And so it all seems a bit of a waste, all this ink spilled on this question. While there are some principles of historical scholarship that are obviously better than others, principles that can help sort out fiction from fact, ultimately the power of these principles is weak. Given limited source material, there’s only so much that we can say, and I think that much has all been said already, many times. The concrete facts known admit a wide range of possibilities from pure myth making to various amounts of colorized history to amalgamations of multiple historical cases. It’s kind of fun to debate the possibilities, but we just aren’t going to make much more progress unless some big cache of Roman documents turn up to shed light on it all.

      The correct answer is thus, “We don’t know, and we never will.”

  13. Dominic
    Posted April 24, 2012 at 6:24 am | Permalink

    Thanks for drawing our attention to this article. I have read several of his books, initially those aimed at children or young people, the Philosophy Files, then The Philosophy Gym: 25 Short Adventures in Thinking. Very accessible and fun thought experiments. Now I have to read Believing Bullshit, as I am down for jury service!

  14. Posted April 24, 2012 at 6:25 am | Permalink

    I still have a ways to go in the article, but my impression is that Law’s P2 is mostly valid, though perhaps just a bit overstated. I don’t think that contamination of mundane claims with extraordinary claims raises the bar nearly as much as does a claim simply being extraordinary to begin with. In other words, we ought to require the least evidence for a mundane claim, more evidence for a contaminated mundane claim, and the most evidence for an explicitly extraordinary claim.

    The other thing that needs to be said is that there is a relationship here between our tacit acceptance of mundane claims and the Preface Paradox. Let’s say Ted and Sarah’s story about Bert contained no remarkable supernatural elements, it was just a story about some guy who visited them for tea. Although I would have no reason to doubt this claim, I might later find out that they had fabricated the whole thing anyway. This would be annoying, but it would not be epistemologically devastating: Though I might now start to require a higher standard evidence for claims made by my pathologically lying pair of friends, I would go on tacitly believing most of the mundane claims I encountered in my daily life, and most (but not all) of the time I would be right.

    This has application to the objection that many mundane historical figures whose existence we take for granted have no more evidence for their existence than Jesus. It is a virtually certainty that at least some of those mundane historical figures did not, in fact, exist. We just don’t know which ones (hence the relevance to the Preface Paradox).

    This does not directly justify Law’s premises, but it does argue that, barring some extraordinary new evidence, the best that a historicist could hope for is to state that Jesus “probably” existed. (And to be fair, similar objections imply that a mythicist cannot hope for anything stronger than that Jesus “probably didn’t” exist)

    • Posted April 24, 2012 at 6:42 am | Permalink

      Of course, Law hasn’t stated the entire case against the historicity of Jesus; “all” he’s done is yank the rug out from underneathe the historicists.

      The rest of the case is fourfold, essentially.

      First, even the mundane not-Jesus Jesus was a pretty noteworthy figure who rubbed shoulders and banged heads withh the movers and shakers of the era. Party crashers like that don’t go unnoticed, and yet Jesus did. Were Jesus real, even in purely mortal form, he could not have helped but to have left behind evidence of his existence. He left no such evidence; ergo, like the herd of angry rhinos stampeeding through my living room around me as I type, he did not exist.

      Second, we have lots of evidence from Christians themselves directly equating Jesus with Pagan gods whom nobody for a moment thinks were real. Granted, the Christians thought Jesus was real, but only in the supernatural version, and they invented demonic conspiracy theories to explain away the painfully obvious parallels.

      Third, we have direct evidence that significant portions of the Christian myth were fraudlently fabricated by conmen. There can be no question but that the Christians were suckers who would believe anything a friendly face told them.

      And, finally, we know that every other Classical Mediterranean religion was invented as a syncretic amalgamation of older gods with new elements grafted on, and this perfectly describes Christianity. Orpheus, Perseus, Osiris, Serapis, Dionysus, Hercules, Mithra, Ahura-Mazda…none of them actually existed. Jesus would be the only known demigod to found a religion of that era who actually existed.

      Law in this paper has only taken the first step, as he makes pretty clear. But that by no means that one may only take that one single step.

      Cheers,

      b&

    • Tyro
      Posted April 24, 2012 at 7:44 am | Permalink

      I don’t think Law is saying that, given miracle stories, the mundane bits are definitely false only that the presence of extraordinary claims is evidence that the story teller has little compunction about making stuff up (or little ability to distinguish truth from falsehood). Law is saying that miracles should make us more sceptical about the rest of the story.

      If you like Carrier, this sounds a lot like his Bayseian approach. The miracles give us some background information about the reliability of the author which we use by reducing the weight of all of his evidence.

  15. Posted April 24, 2012 at 6:32 am | Permalink

    Stephen Law’s Evil God Hypothesis is also quite fascinating: http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayFulltext?type=1&fid=7247672&jid=RES&volumeId=-1&issueId=-1&aid=7247664&fromPage=cupadmin&pdftype=6316268&repository=authInst

    He spoke for us about it at CFI DC last month to a packed house.

    • Posted April 24, 2012 at 7:05 am | Permalink

      Yes, one of my two favorite essays in 50 Voices of Disbelief! It’s a little scarey that the evil-god hypothesis actually makes *more* sense than the good-god hypothesis.

    • Darth Dog
      Posted April 24, 2012 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

      Yup. It’s a good one to spring on religious folks. They will right away say that it is very silly, and then really struggle to come up with any convincing difference between an Evil God theodicy and a Good God theodicy.

  16. Posted April 24, 2012 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    It looks to me as if both sides agree on the facts. Roughly speaking, there aren’t any facts, and what evidence does exist is weak and unpersuasive.

    Where they disagree is on how to describe that. One side want to describe it in a way that is maximally offensive to Christians. The other side wants to describe it in a way that is maximally inoffensive to Christians.

    I’m in that third group, one of those who want to describe it with a big yawn.

    • Posted April 24, 2012 at 6:59 am | Permalink

      Er…no.

      There’s lots and lots of evidence, and the argument is exactly over how to interpret it.

      The Christians and the historicists would have us believe that any incidence of the string of characters, “C-H-R-I-S-T,” is evidence for the existence of Jesus and, by extension, confirmation of the truth of the Gospels in one form or another.

      The mythicists actually look at the entire body of evidence, not just those which contain those six consecutive letters, and consider what it has to say about both the Christ figure and those who were proselytizing it.

      b&

      • JonLynnHarvey
        Posted April 24, 2012 at 10:04 am | Permalink

        “The Christians and the historicists would have us believe that any incidence of the string of characters, “C-H-R-I-S-T,” is evidence for the existence of Jesus”???

        The historicists say no such thing!!

        • Posted April 25, 2012 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

          …except, of course, insofar as they trot out each and every such instance as evidence for Jesus.

          Sure, put it the way I did, and they’ll deny it. But never mind what they say. What do they do?

          Can you point to any ancient reference containing either that name or one similar to it (e.g., “Chrestus”) which hasn’t prominently featured in a popular argument for the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth?

          b&

    • gluonspring
      Posted April 24, 2012 at 11:40 am | Permalink

      I’m with you here. Anyone who thinks we’re going to resolve this question without some big new cache of evidence is really kidding themselves. We don’t know. We will never know. Just add it to the very big list of things we will never know and move on.

      What we do know is that there is no reason to take it seriously in the believer’s sense, and that’s all that we need to know.

      • Dan L.
        Posted April 24, 2012 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

        You might be right. Then again, we’ve learned more about the ancient world in the last 100 years than in the previous 1900 years despite being farther from it. Archaeological and historical methods have only improved. The archaeological digs that have already been done don’t have a shelf life — that evidence will continue to be good. And archaeology isn’t about to stop — only more evidence can be uncovered.

        So I don’t know if there’s cause to be quite so defeatist.

        • gluonspring
          Posted April 24, 2012 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

          Indeed. I sort of sloppily contradict myself even, since we might know with new evidence, so the pessimism is a bit of hyperbole.

    • Posted April 24, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

      The important thing is that you’ve found a way to feel superior to both groups.

      • gluonspring
        Posted April 24, 2012 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

        It is not a feeling, it is a fact. ;-)

        I notice that you’ve found a way to feel superior to me also. On and on it goes…

  17. Pray Hard
    Posted April 24, 2012 at 6:53 am | Permalink

    The whole point is that probably none of the old “saviors, sages, prophets, world redeemers, etc.”, existed as actual historical persons. The stories are only symbolic (at best), if not outright frauds and bullsh*t, and are typically much older than whatever story to which we’re typically exposed. The religious bullsh*tters are not very creative. Actually, I find that the mythicists take this religious bs much less “literally” than does the scientist/atheist community. We try to analyze and disprove it; whereas, they just laugh at it. Dark- humorously, Mohammed probably didn’t. Fourteen hundred years of blood and guts over nothing. But, I know Elvis existed. I saw him on TV.

    • gluonspring
      Posted April 24, 2012 at 11:42 am | Permalink

      The pressing with Elvis is does he still exist!

  18. darrelle
    Posted April 24, 2012 at 7:07 am | Permalink

    In A Marginal Jew – Rethinking The Historical Jesus, for example, John Meier notes that what we know about Alexander the Great could fit on a few sheets of paper, yet no one doubts that Alexander existed.

    Holy Shit. Anyone making that claim is either a self deluding idiot or a liar.

    • raven
      Posted April 24, 2012 at 9:31 am | Permalink

      what we know about Alexander the Great could fit on a few sheets of paper, yet no one doubts that Alexander existed.

      That’s not bad really.

      What we know about jesus from historical sources wouldn’t even fit into a fortune cookie.

      • darrelle
        Posted April 24, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

        Lucky for you I wasn’t drinking at the moment I read that.

    • Dan L.
      Posted April 24, 2012 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      Yes, my thoughts exactly. I read that and think, “I seem to have heard of a city in Egypt. It was called ‘Alexandria.’ Wonder where it came from.” We have, what, six or seven different frickin’ CITIES founded by Alexander and named after him.

      I’d like to see Ehrman fit the city of Alexandria on a few sheets of paper.

      • darrelle
        Posted April 24, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

        Yes, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. I think Meier must be jealous.

  19. Posted April 24, 2012 at 7:17 am | Permalink

    Having finally finished it…

    Yeah, I think he nailed it with the “sixth islander” thought experiment. Given that quality of evidence, it’s not really fair to decree “There was definitely a sixth islander, and anybody who denies it is being unreasonable”, nor is it fair to say “The whole sixth islander thing was obviously made up out of whole cloth.” It’s just not clear either way, and in the absence of additional evidence it can’t be any clearer. I think, at the very least, many historicists and mythicists alike need a little more humility in that regard.

    (I don’t mean to be playing to a false middle… If there were really knock-down evidence one way or the other, I would change my tune, but as near as I can tell, it really is analogous to the sixth islander story.)

  20. Barney
    Posted April 24, 2012 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    One argument which may increase the chances of there having been a real Jesus who was crucified is: if you were completely making up a person, would you risk putting in important aspects that living people could easily say never happened?

    In other words, if the gospel stories were being spread in Jerusalem, would you put in “Jesus was crucified here, one generation ago, right before the Passover, after a big public accusation and sort-of-trial by the Jewish and Roman authorities”? When the Jewish authorities could then just say “rubbish, talk to X, Y, or anyone living in Jerusalem then, and none of them will remember what would have been a notable happening”.

    This doesn’t depend on whether written records are available; just whether there would be a number of ‘non-witnesses’. If you were making his entire life up, it’d be much safer to move it back another generation or two (blame Herod the Great for his death?), so that there’d be no-one left alive from the time.

    This then raises the question of when the gospels were written. As far as I can tell, most scholars reckon Mark, at least, was written before the Jewish Rebellion of 66-73 CE. In that case, I think it raises the chances of this argument being worth considering. It has been pointed out to me that if it were written after the rebellion, not only are some years added on, but the upheaval would lessen the risk of enough people coming forward to say “nope, that never happened”.

    Rather like, I suppose, the number of people looking for a new start if life,. who claimed origins in San Francisco before the 1906 earthquake, but whose birth records had, conveniently for them, ‘been destroyed’ in it.

    • Posted April 24, 2012 at 7:45 am | Permalink

      Mark contains unambiguous references to the destruction of the Temple, which happened in 70 CE. As you point out, anybody who lived through that would have known in an instant that Mark was a faery tale, meaning that Mark couldn’t possibly have been written until at least a couple generations later.

      Once you then realize that the oldest of the Gospels had to have been authored no earlier than the middle of the second century, possibly even quite later still, all the rest of the claims to its reliability or the sorts of arguments from embarrasment that you offer simply vanish.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Barney
        Posted April 24, 2012 at 8:12 am | Permalink

        I’m not convinced there are “unambiguous” references to any historical event in the gospels. That’s what we’re arguing about. There’s a reference to the Temple being destroyed; but that had happened once long before, and it’s followed up with Jesus’ second coming. So I can’t see them saying “Jesus predicted the destruction of the Temple, which you know happened” and following it up with something that clearly hadn’t. Similarly, a date of the middle second century leaves them with extreme embarrassment for the obviously false “Jesus will come again while some here are still alive” prophesies.

        We need to apply the ‘contamination principle’ to the reception gospels would have got when they were first written. If part of their major message was a prediction that had already failed, their credibility would have been shot to pieces from the start.

        • yesmyliege
          Posted April 24, 2012 at 9:07 am | Permalink

          The criteria of embarrassment doesn’t work very well.

          The Bible is so chock full of internal contradictions, incoherences, outright fiction; geographical, temporal, and historical mistakes that it is very difficult to perceive that its authors or editors knew very much at all about the time and place of its supposed landscape, and didn’t seem to care very much about potential embarrassments.

        • Posted April 25, 2012 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

          …except, of course, how the Gospels include details specific to the 70 CE events, such as the rending of the curtain….

          b&

      • Posted April 24, 2012 at 8:12 am | Permalink

        Once you then realize that the oldest of the Gospels had to have been authored no earlier than the middle of the second century …

        Hi Ben, is a date as late as that really established (as opposed to merely possible?). Can you expound on this?

        • Posted April 25, 2012 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

          The traditional dating stems from a combination of the references to the destruction of the Temple and the theological position that the Gospels are eyewitness accounts written by the men whose names were, centuries later, penciled in at the top. Can’t have been written before 70 CE, and can’t have been written later because the eyewitnesses would have been dead of old age.

          Once you realize just how painfully obvious the “eyewitness” bullshit is, you’re left with, “had to have been written long enough after 70 CE for the events to have faded from memory.

          The establishment, of course, gets paid to preach the Good News. They won’t ever dare nudge the date any later than mid-70s or else they’ll be out of a job.

          Cheers,

          b&

      • yesmyliege
        Posted April 24, 2012 at 8:13 am | Permalink

        And the materiel which likely *preceded* the Gospels in time, speaks of Christ as a non corporeal spirit, described by revelation and derived from Jewish scripture, not a man of flesh and blood.
        That flesh and blood was added later, by the Gospels.

        The problem with most Biblical studies is that because there is no independent verification of historicity outside of these Christian sources, and the epistles are not a lot of help, they have no choice but to look within the Gospels themselves to try to find the mundane man behind all the miracles. They admit this.

        Realize, this is exactly like trying to find the real Harry Potter by reading fragments of drafts and final copies of The Sorcerer’s Stone.

      • JonLynnHarvey
        Posted April 24, 2012 at 10:08 am | Permalink

        The Gospel of Mark is usually dated to the mid-70s, not the middle of the second century.

        • bernardhurley
          Posted April 24, 2012 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

          Where is the evidence for such an early dating? Where are the manuscripts? Which museums can I find them in?

      • derekw
        Posted April 24, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

        Mark contains unambiguous references to the destruction of the Temple, which happened in 70 CE.
        Can you point me to these unambiguous references? thx.

    • Aratina Cage
      Posted April 24, 2012 at 9:20 am | Permalink

      if you were completely making up a person, would you risk putting in important aspects that living people could easily say never happened?

      You mean, such as him having superpowers and a zombie uprising and yadda yadda? And saying he was from places or born in places he wasn’t from or born in?

      So, which living people were you talking about again with respect to Jesus?

      • Barney
        Posted April 24, 2012 at 9:56 am | Permalink

        No, as I said, I meant the claim of a large, public ‘trial’ and execution, at the most important time of year in the Jewish calendar. They can try and get away with the miraculous claims by saying “well, you weren’t there when it happened”. And the claims of birth are further back, in more obscure places, not in Mark (the first gospel written), and you wouldn’t expect people to remember the birth of every baby in a town.

        I mean any person who hears the claims of the gospels and who was old enough at the claimed date of crucifixion to be able to say “I knew what happened in Jerusalem that Passover”.

        • bernardhurley
          Posted April 24, 2012 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

          After the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the second the temple, when, according to Josephus, over a million people were killed, there was virtually nothing left. The idea that the trial and crucifixion of one zealot rabbi would be something that could be checked by anyone is nothing short of fantasy. The Romans made something of a habit of crucifixion; it was hardly a rare event.

        • Darth Dog
          Posted April 24, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

          “if you were completely making up a person, would you risk putting in important aspects that living people could easily say never happened”

          Just like if were you running Fox News, you wouldn’t risk putting in things like global warming is a hoax, or Obama wasn’t born in the US, or evolution is controversial with scientists, that people could easily check up on to find out that they weren’t true.

          Anyone who thinks that the critera of embarrassment or discontinuity are valid must not have been following any of the Republican presidential candidates this year.

          • Posted April 24, 2012 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

            Exactly. Even today, in an era of mass communication and durable and publicly-accessible record-keeping of billions of details large and small, and a news media whose job it is to check every proffered “fact” (and an army of amateur bloggers who actually do so when the professionals are negligent, which is quite often), absolutely completely counterfactual bullshit displays an astonishing resilience. From trivial urban legends to outrageous ideological lies, lots of people “know” stuff that isn’t even in the same ballpark as the truth, and it’s damn near impossible to persuade them otherwise.

            How much more would this likely be true in a society that was not universally literate, where such “news” as did exist spread at the speed and accuracy of human feet, human voice and copyists’ hands.

            If there is a real Jesus at the bottom of the Christ legend, he must have been a pretty obscure guy who made few waves at the time, before getting inflated post-mortem by his followers.

            • Barney
              Posted April 25, 2012 at 5:52 am | Permalink

              But they had no need to make up a Jesus with details that could so easily be falsified. They could have placed him a century earlier, with no-one still living from that time. The comparisons with today’s BS aren’t good; they don’t include optional specifics which sink their credibility, but would be believable without them.

              • bernardhurley
                Posted April 25, 2012 at 6:57 am | Permalink

                This is complete rubbish. A period some decades before the destruction of the second temple was an ideal time to place a myth. In the siege that lead up to the destruction of the second temple over a million people were massacred and most of the rest of the population of Judea was dispersed. There were no reliable witnesses, the non-existence of any records or other accounts could be easily explained.

        • Posted April 25, 2012 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

          Those claims about the Trial are rather remarkable, aren’t they?

          After all, it’s exactly the sort of thing that you’d have expected not only Josephus to have mentioned, but the Roman Cynics, as well. Philo, too, for that matter.

          And, yet, not a one of them did.

          Why do you suppose that might be?

          Cheers,

          b&

    • eric
      Posted April 24, 2012 at 10:17 am | Permalink

      One argument which may increase the chances of there having been a real Jesus who was crucified is: if you were completely making up a person, would you risk putting in important aspects that living people could easily say never happened?

      Yes, you might. Because then people will believe your forgery instead of looking it up. ‘Surely no forger would say something like that!!!’ As I mentioned before, forgers do exactly things like this – they write things people would not expect forgers to write, in order to give their documents more verisimilitude.

      And, let’s face it, if you’re writing a gospel in Rome or even Athens, in koine Greek, and its 50-60 AD, the likelihood of one of your readers traveling to Palestine to talk to Aramaic speakers who are 80+ years old in order to check your story is pretty remote.

  21. eric
    Posted April 24, 2012 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    P2 seems reasonable to me as long as its interpreted as a statement about authors, rather than the subjects of their stories.

    When a story includes mundane and miraculous details, there is no reason to believe the author about the mundane details. The more ridiculous stuff the author includes, the less you should be willing to trust that their mundane claims are accurate.

    However, it really says nothing at all about the subject of their claim or other sources. If I say that JAC hosts a web site called Why Evolution Is True and rides a broom across the sky at night, you are justified in distrusting me, the story-teller. But my lying does not ‘taint’ other sources. If you then look up WEIT yourself, my lying does not give you a reason to think the web site is a fake.

    The NT problem, of course, is that we have nothnig but such authors. There are few to no independent sources. No actual web site, to go back to my analogy. In such a case, it would be reasonable to be skeptical about my claim of a WEIT website.

    • Kevin
      Posted April 24, 2012 at 8:12 am | Permalink

      Law makes it a point to qualify his P2. Confirmatory independent verification is the trump card that overwhelms P2.

      Something like contemporaneous eyewitness non-mythic reports of some guy named Jesus walking around Palestine getting himself into trouble with the authorities.

      …which is precisely what we don’t have, but should expect to have in abundance if there ever was a “real” Jesus.

      • TJR
        Posted April 24, 2012 at 9:23 am | Permalink

        Indeed, and absence of evidence is evidence of absence (in a Bayesian sense), though not proof of course.

  22. Kevin
    Posted April 24, 2012 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    Of course, Law dismisses supernatural claims as being incredible (non-credible).

    But theists reject this assertion. To them, miracles are not only possible, they are the core of what constitutes the majority of the evidence for Jesus’ divinity.

    It’s not the historicity of Jesus they’re interested in, it’s his divinity.

    So, they can reject the argument because it does not take into account the fact that a divine creature (aka, Jesus) can and should be allowed to perform as many miracles as he wants to in whatever time frame he thinks appropriate to establish his bona fides.

    For non-theists, I think Law’s argument resonates. Don’t accept mundane claims mixed in with extraordinary claims without independent verification of those claims.

    For theists, I think he misses the mark precisely because he dismisses the miracle claims too quickly.

    • Dan L.
      Posted April 24, 2012 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think “too quickly” is accurate. In fact, I’m not sure “dismisses” is fair. He acknowledges what you say, labels the phenomenon, and puts it aside as uninteresting to nonbelievers because…there’s nothing in such arguments that would be convincing to nonbelievers.

      If you have to be Christian to understand why belief in Christianity is justified then one imagines the justification is probably circular in some sense. I don’t think Law is obligated to spend a lot of time on patent nonsense.

  23. TJR
    Posted April 24, 2012 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    This is a bit like the Radio 4 panel game The Unbelievable Truth. Panelists are given a topic and five facts about it and give a talk that is entirely lies apart from the five. Other panelists win points for spotting the truths but lose points if they were in fact lies.

    The winner is often someone who is good at luring the others into thinking that a lie is true, and they often do this by including fairly mundane points which the others think must be true otherwise why put them in?

    I don’t think Radio 4 existed in 1st century Palestine, but it seems a very nice example of deliberately putting mundane details into a lie in order to make it look more convincing.

    • Barney
      Posted April 24, 2012 at 8:56 am | Permalink

      To make it absolutely believable, they’d need to insert something that is forbidden by an obscure American state law … :)

      • TJR
        Posted April 24, 2012 at 9:21 am | Permalink

        Some of the strange-but-true facts have indeed been just that……

      • अहंनास्मि (Ahannāsmi)
        Posted April 24, 2012 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

        Well, the British have no dearth of those laws: it is for example forbidden by British law to die in the Houses of the Parliament, or to enter them while wearing a suit of armor: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7081038.stm

        • bernardhurley
          Posted April 25, 2012 at 3:51 am | Permalink

          My favourite stupid law is the Chinese law that makes it illegal to be reincarnated without the state’s permission.

  24. raven
    Posted April 24, 2012 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    but rather discusses what we would consider good evidence for the existence of a man who is now claimed to have performed many miracles.

    The claim of xians is that jesus is the one god. We would expect that:

    1. The existence of god would be as obvious and noncontroversial as trees, rocks, or water.

    2. Jesus/god would have his own website, TV program, radio show, and Youtube channel. A competent grade schooler could do this. If Jesus/god isn’t as capable as a grade school human, then why call it god?

  25. Corpus Christy
    Posted April 24, 2012 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    In Prof Law’s comment thread, someone noted that Christy apologist and general douche-burglar Billy Lane Craig has posted a “rebuttal”to Law’s argument. (And Law says he will rebut the rebuttal soon. Should be good.)

    • Kevin
      Posted April 24, 2012 at 10:07 am | Permalink

      I would rather stick needles in my eyes than read Craig…but what would he assert as a rebuttal?

      Mind you, Law did not assert in his argument that he believed in the ahistoricity of Jesus. In fact, he made it quite clear more than once that he was neither addressing the question itself nor ascribing to the mythicist position.

      His only stance is that when one is faced with extraordinary claims mixed in with mundane claims, a careful historian should seek corroboration for the mundane claims before accepting them. And that one should require extraordinary evidence to accept extraordinary claims.

      Is Craig going to assert that one need not accept evidence for either mundane or extraordinary claims about a fictional and/or historical figure? Then he has to accept the historicity of Achilles and Ajax. And accept the claims that Alexander the Great was a half-god born of a virgin (along with Socrates and many others), and that Romulus and Remus were raised by a she-wolf before founding Rome.

      Methinks Craig is going to step deep into the mire on this one.

      • Corpus Christy
        Posted April 24, 2012 at 10:32 am | Permalink

        If I could be arsed, I would mangle Lame Craig’s argument because I think that’s what he’s doing to Law’s. Maybe ‘mangle’ is overstating it, but he is very selective in which parts he wishes to share with his readers — and the trisksy bastard doesn’t even have the common courtesy to link to Law, but of course that’s by design.

        I’ll give you a taste though. Craig rejects the old Sagan line about extraordinary evidence: “in fact it is demonstrably false.” (Italics douche-burglar’s)

        He says that unnamed “probability theorists” have determined that if we weighed only the improbability of a claim against the reliability of testimony, we’d have to reject many other accepted claims. (No, he doesn’t give any examples.) Further, he makes the idiotic case that it would be more improbable to have any evidence to support an extraordinary claim, if the extraordinary thing had not happened. His “evidence” includes an empty tomb, accounts of zombie Jeebus, and the beliefs of Jayzus’followers.

        So yes, you are right to not bother reading Doktor Craig.

        • Kevin
          Posted April 24, 2012 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

          So we’re to accept the fact that Mohammed flew to heaven on a horse named Barack? Because we have the name of the horse?

          • MadScientist
            Posted April 24, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

            Hey, watch it – that horse is POTUS.

  26. rhaguirrem
    Posted April 24, 2012 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    (P2, the other way around) Where testimony/documents weave together a narrative that combines mundane claims with a significant proportion of extraordinary claims, and there is good reason to be sceptical about those mundane claims, then there is good reason to be sceptical about the extraordinary claims, at least until we possess good independent evidence of their truth.

  27. Neil
    Posted April 24, 2012 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    For the life of me, I do not understand why anyone cares whether there was or was not some ordinary schlemiel around which the jesus myth coalesced. How could we ever know?

    • Kevin
      Posted April 24, 2012 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

      As I said over at Eric MacDonald’s place, it’s the pea under the mattress.

      Christians can’t even prove their guy existed, much less was the divine miracle-working savior of mankind.

      Sowing seeds of doubt. That’s what it’s all about. Getting people to think critically and rationally.

      I agree there’s probably not enough evidence to overturn the null hypothesis (that no such person existed). The problem is that so many historians approach the issue from the opposite direction — assuming that there must have been an historical Hercules because so many legends built up around him.

      Oh wait — sorry, different half-god with superpowers who died and came back from the dead and is now living in heaven.

    • Dan L.
      Posted April 24, 2012 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

      For the same reasons people like to argue about whether or not Shakespeare was a real person. Such questions are interesting from epistemological, historical, and methodological perspectives.

      Actually, in response to Kevin’s post above, I’m a little sick of the assumption that this debate is necessarily ideological. People keep insisting that the only reason to care is because you’re either a Jesus-phile or Jesus-phobe.

      No, some people are interested in this problem for it’s own sake. Can we stop implying it’s always about winning wars or scoring points?

  28. Neil
    Posted April 24, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    It is nothing like Shakespeare. With Shakespeare you have some facts to work with, as well as a magnificent literature and many anomalies to be explained. With Shakespeare there is a historical mystery. With jesus there is a historical vacuum.

    • Dan L.
      Posted April 24, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

      I was comparing the reasons people are interested in these questions, not the degree to which the answers to the questions are in evidence.

  29. Posted April 24, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    Law’s argument seems like a convoluted way of simply saying that without non-Biblical evidence of Jesus’ existence, we have good reason to be skeptical that he existed.

    • MadScientist
      Posted April 24, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

      Excellent summary.

  30. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted April 24, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    That is all good and well, but do we need it? A case of historicity should be judged on that first, and from what I can see there is no contemporary historical evidence for a man (that is supposed to be beneath the myth). Therefore it is not a historical person.

    OTOH Law’s argument fits well in predicting _why_ there are no historical persons beneath religious myths.

    • MadScientist
      Posted April 24, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

      “… _why_ there are no historical persons beneath religious myths.”

      Joseph Smith
      maybe Muhammed the prophet (but I know nothing of the history of islam)

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted April 25, 2012 at 8:23 am | Permalink

        Sorry, I was more careful in my comment up thread:

        “there seems to be a P3: all known religious founding person myths seems to be based on non-historical persons, until you reach the Enlightenment in each culture (literate, colonized). Then they are known con men instead (Smith, Blavatsky, Hubbard).”

        This is how I usually state it.

        As for Muhammad, see my next comment there. The sources are ~ 150 years old, except an unnamed messianic preacher (sounds familiar?) tied to the islamic conquest. I don’t doubt the conquest by illiterate tribes, I doubt the lack of immediate and near historical description.

        You would think such a conquest would leave _some_ detailed descriptions of itself, especially if there was a specific leader…

  31. MadScientist
    Posted April 24, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    The contamination principle also covers the problem of consistency: where you have N mutually contradictory claims, at least (N-1) of those claims must be false. The veracity of any single claim in the set (if indeed a single claim is true) can only be established by other evidence. Of course in the case of the self-contradictory statement, (N-1) = 0, so a statement like “this statement is false” must be false – or is it? According to Bertrand Russell (or was it someone else), such self-contradictory statements are simply nonsense and can never be true.

  32. dunstar
    Posted April 24, 2012 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

    For comparison, who would be a “historical” contemporary of jesus whose evidence for existence is as strong/weak as that of jesus?

    • Posted April 24, 2012 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

      For those who are as poorly evidenced as Jesus, see any of the other Pagan demigods — Perseus, Orpheus, Osiris, Mithras, Bacchus, Hercules, Dionysus, etc., etc., etc.

      For those who are superbly well evidenced, see any of the Twelve Caesars, particularly Julius. Archaeological evidence is so abundant for them you can even buy a coin for your very own collection for not all that much money. Julius left us an extensive autobiographical account of his conquest of Gaul and his field notes of the civil war; archaeological digs at the sites he mentions confirms the presence of Roman encampments matching his description, again dated to the correct time.

      For not-miserably-evidenced Gospel figures, see many of the high-ranking officials, such as Pilate or either of the Kings Herod or even particular members of the Sanhedrin. For Pilate in particular we have a stone inscription he commissioned to himself that’s been reliably dated to the correct time.

      (Just got back from rehearsal, and I’m off to bed. I might or might not get caught up on the rest of the thread tomorrow….)

      Cheers,

      b&

  33. TJR
    Posted April 25, 2012 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    See also discussion about whether Mo was real, as in Tom Holland’s latest book:

    http://www.historytoday.com/tom-holland/islams-origins-where-mystery-meets-history

  34. stevehayes13
    Posted April 25, 2012 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    I didn’t read the comments, so I may be redundant. However, I thought I would mention that William Lane Craig has written a (supposed) refutation of Law’s argument. It is actually (albeit, unintentionally) quite funny. For example, Craig says when he saw Law’s paper he realised it could only have been published in a Philosophy journal. Anyhow, it is on his website:

    http://www.reasonablefaith.org/stephen-law-on-the-non-existence-of-jesus-of-nazareth

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted April 25, 2012 at 7:31 am | Permalink

      Yeah, I saw that and will post about it soon–probably tomorrow.

  35. Gareth Price
    Posted April 25, 2012 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    Perhaps this is a strange question but I will ask it anyway.

    You can clearly strip away the miraculous stories attached to Jesus and still have a character who existed. How much of the everyday details of his life can stripped away too? I don’t think anyone disputes that there were itinerant preachers in 1st century Palestine. If the Jesus character were largely invented – mundane details and all – but based on one of these, could we still say that Jesus existed?

    • bernardhurley
      Posted April 25, 2012 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

      This gets rather complicated. There certainly seem to have been a lot of Messianic cults and associated itinerant rabbis around. Some may have been called Jesus, it’s was quite a common name, as indeed were Joseph and Mary. Iesus is the the Latinisation of Yeshah (Joshua). Since many thought the Messiah would have this name it is quite likely that the leader of such a cult would be referred to as Jesus even if that were not his real name. If you add to this the fact that the Romans were quite fond of crucifying dissidents, there might even have been a Jesus who was the leader of a Messianic cult whose parents were called Joseph and Mary and who was crucified. But even if such a person were proved to have existed, it would still not be safe to identify him with the Jesus of the gospels. After the siege of Jerusalem there would be lots of displaced Jews with storied of various cult leaders. Some invented, some true. Some of these stories may have made their way into the gospels. But, in the end, the question “Whom are they about?” is unanswerable.

  36. emmageraln
    Posted April 25, 2012 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on emmageraln.

  37. Ben
    Posted April 25, 2012 at 11:54 pm | Permalink

    Subscribing to comments.

  38. Posted May 18, 2012 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    I certainly am no expert but the commentators of the day in which Jesus lived such as Josephus and Greek Philosophers in that time and many more from many cultures wrote of the man Jesus. (And the miracles) When you are looking for evidence don’t you look to the commentators of the time period you are in question of? I am fully convinced that Jesus lived and in fact is still alive. It’s ok if you don’t. He still loves you.


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  1. [...] ht Joel Landon Watts is a Masters of Theological Studies student with a focus in Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark. His interests include exploring the role of mimesis in human civilization, specifically in the study of religion and media, as well as science fiction and the way in which it has allowed mythology to be explored in light of scientific ideals of the past century. Currently, he is a TA for Old Testament at United Theological Seminary under Dr. Vivian Johnson, Associate Professor of Old Testament. His first book, Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark, is expected to be published by Wipf and Stock early next year.Connect me on Facebook | Twitter | Google + | Website [...]

  2. [...] messianically, he made it the messiah’s enemies who suffer rather than the messiah himself!Jerry Coyne and Joel Watts mentioned an article on the historicity of Jesus by Stephen Law.Nijay Gupta [...]

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