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