A while back I wondered why atheists got so heated up about the historical existence of Jesus, even though none of us agree that the man was divine. That was dumb of me; I should have realized that the existence of even a fully human Jesus would somehow buttress the Christian contention that he was the son of God, born of a virgin, resurrected, and so on. To that end, I suppose it’s meet that we apply the appropriate skepticism to whether there was a real Jesus around whom the miracle stories accreted. That, of course, is what the argument between Bart Ehrman and Richard Carrier is about.
Reader Justicar called my attention to the fact that the faithful are already appropriating Ehrman’s conclusions in support of their theology. Ehrman, of course, believes that there was a historical Jesus, even though that rabbi was neither divine nor a wonder-worker. But it doesn’t matter, as we can see in a piece by theologian/debater William Lane Craig, responding to Stephan Law’s piece, “Evidence, miracles, and the existence of Jesus,” which I discussed yesterday.
On Craig’s blog, Reasonable Faith (what an oxymoronic title!) he pats Ehrman on the back and then goes after Law’s call for caution in accepting even a historical Jesus in an essay called “Stephen Law on the non-existence of Jesus of Nazareth.”
When I first encountered [Law's] article in my debate preparation, my first thought was that only a philosophy journal would publish such a piece! This article would never have made it past the peer-review process for a journal of New Testament or historical studies. Even a radical sceptic like Bart Ehrman savages the so-called “mythicists” who claim that we have no good evidence that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person:
Note that Craig calls Ehrman a “radical sceptic,” a label that Ehrman would deny but applies to mythicists like Carrier, who seem intransigent in their scepticism. Craig then goes on to dissect and (to his mind) demolish Law’s argument (you can review Law’s six premises to be skeptical about Jesus here). Recall Law’s premise 6:
6. There is no good independent evidence for even the mundane claims about Jesus (such as that he existed)
This is the one Craig singles out, but do look at the rest of his argument:
But premiss (6) is the most obviously false premiss in the argument. With respect to extra-biblical evidence Law is just misinformed. Jesus is mentioned in such ancient sources as Tacitus, Josephus, Mara bar Serapion, and Jewish rabbinic sources. If you’re interested in reading these, Robert Van Voorst has collected these sources in his book Jesus outside the New Testament. There is no reason to think that all of these sources are dependent exclusively on Christian tradition. For example, according to Van Voorst “the wording of almost every element” of Josephus’ original text “indicates that Josephus did not draw it, directly or indirectly, from first-century Christian writings.”
Worse, what Law doesn’t appreciate is that the sources in the NT itself are often independent of one another, so that we have independent evidence for many of the mundane, not to speak of the miraculous, events of Jesus’ life. It is precisely that multiple, early, independent attestation to many of the events of Jesus’ life that has persuaded historical scholars of the historicity of many of the events in the Gospel narratives. For example, we have references to Jesus’ burial in five independent sources and indications of the discovery of his empty tomb in no less than six independent sources, which is really quite extraordinary.
I’m no Biblical scholar, but I think every one of Craig’s claims here has been contested, particularly the “independence” of the sources of the New Testament! But Craig has further reasons for denying (6), and constructs his own three “principles”:
- Principle of Sufficient Cause: Law says that Alexander the Great must have existed because of the military dynasties left in his wake. But in the same way, Jesus must have existed because of the first-century Christian movement left in his wake. Attempts to explain this movement away mythologically have failed.
- Embarrassment: Jewish Messianic expectations included no idea of a Davidic Messiah who, instead of throwing off Israel’s enemies and establishing David’s throne in Jerusalem, would be shamefully executed by them as a criminal. Jesus’ crucifixion was something the early church struggled to overcome, not something it invented. Jesus’ crucifixion is one datum upon which all historical scholars, even the most radical, agree.
I don’t think Carrier (or historical scholars, and Carrier is certainly one of these) fully agree on this, though I believe Ehrman does (I haven’t read his new book). At any rate, the fact that the crucifixion was embarrassing to early Jews doesn’t add one iota of support to its reality. We need to look at the evidence for such an execution.
- Archaeology: Law accepts the historicity of Alexander the Great partly because of the archaeological evidence for the dynasties he founded. But how about Jesus? The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem has a very strong historical claim to be built over the actual tomb of Jesus of Nazareth. In 326-28 the mother of the Emperor Constantine, Helena, undertook a trip to Palestine and enquired where the tomb of Jesus was located. The locals pointed to a spot where a Temple to Aphrodite had stood for over a century. We have here a very old tradition as to the location of Jesus’ tomb which is rendered probable by the facts that (i) the location identified was inside the extant walls of the city, even though the NT says it was outside the city walls. People didn’t realize that the spot was, in fact, outside the original walls because they did not know the original walls’ location. (ii) When Constantine ordered the temple to be razed and the site excavated, lo and behold, they dug down and found a tomb! But if this is the very tomb of Jesus, then we have archaeological evidence for his existence.
Oy vey! ”Local tradition”? And, of course, archaeologists have not given that tomb any credibility as the resting place of Jesus.