Friday, August 29, 2008

Jesus - historicity and theories of reference

Incidentally, one issue of importance here is how reference works. For the issue, in effect, is whether in using "Jesus" now, we are referring to an historical individual.

One theory of reference is the "fit" theory. You use "n" to refer to x if and only if there is an individual that uniquely fits (most of) your "n"-related beliefs. I refer a certain individual using the name "Socrates" just in case that individual uniquely fits (most of, many of) the beliefs I associate with "Socrates" (sch as that he was the master of Plato, etc.)

On this type of theory (Russell, Searle), someone is Jesus just in case they uniquely fit (most of) the beliefs/descriptions we associate with "Jesus".

Another theory is the causal theory (associated with Kripke). Someone is baptized "Jesus". The name gets passed on from one person to the next, and from one generation to the next, each using it with the intention it should refer to whoever they got the name from used it to refer to. A reference preserving causal chain can then maintain reference to that individual across the millenia, even if the beliefs we end up with about "Jesus" are mostly wrong.

There are other theories too. Clearly, which theory you go for may impact on the issue of whether there was an historical Jesus.

21 comments:

Paul Power said...

Stephen:

Are you sure that all this theorising is necessary? why not just require the sort of evidence experts on that period of history would look for regarding any historical figure ?

Stephen Law said...

No it's prob not necessary. But i was beginning to wonder whether some thought that as long as there was someone saying some such thing and was crucified, then Jesus existed. In fact that's not enough.

Anonymous said...

Stehen - do you mean "just in case" in the sense of a precaution or "just in the case" with the implication of only that case?

I can't seem to parse this either:
"The name gets passed on from one person to the next wth the intention it should refer to whoever they got the name used it to refer to."

Perhaps the apostrophes got to me?

Stephen Law said...

sorry "got the name from" used it to refer to. Was done in haste!

I am using "just in case" to mean "if and only if" (I admit it's not elegant).

Geoff Hudson said...

"On this type of theory (Russell, Searle), someone is Jesus just in case they uniquely fit (most of) the beliefs/descriptions we associate with "Jesus"."

The 'fit' theory looks OK to me. The question then arises, are the beliefs/descriptions we associate with Jesus correct? Are they exaggerations, distortions, fabrications, obfuscations, dissimulations, creative or literary? Was there an original story different from that received? Was there some sort of conspiracy to create the extant texts, including much of the writing attributed to Josephus, for example? Josephus is described as a priest living in Judea, but there is no evidence that he ever practiced as a priest. In fact he seemed more interested in the prophets or Essenes. Were Josephus' writings and the New Testament reworked to give the appearance of at least some agreements between a number of apparent historical points?

Tony said...

I would think that the crux of the matter for Christians is that there existed a person at that time and in that place who was the son of their god, who was crucified and resurrected. Whether his name was Jesus or Fred is irrelevant. We can call him Jesus for ease of reference; what they ask us to believe is that this person did exist, was the source or cause of various miracles, was resurrected after death and then ascended to heaven.

Saying that you doubt the historical existence of Jesus is, in a way, meaningless. It is the existence of any person who could meet the above characteristics that matters. We say that no such person could have existed; they say that such a one did exist.

anticant said...

Saying that a historical Jesus existed is meaningless from s Christian standpoint unless they also provide independent proof that he was the Divine Jesus of the Gospels, and that the events recorded by Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul actually happened.

As they never have and never will be able to do this, the entire discussion is really rather pointless, like flogging a dead pantomime horse.

terence said...

anticant,

I think the historical Jesus is meaningful to christians insofar as that proposition (his existence) is the foundation of their religion (salvation through Jesus the person, not through the teachings) -- and obviously the stuff (miracles, etc.) that follow, couldn't have followed if he didn't exist in the first place.

Anonymous said...

"like flogging a dead pantomime horse."

That is precisely it. The horse was never alive -it is an artifact of cloth and papier machee. One you start beating it you start to allow that it had feelings.

Timmo said...

Stephen,

It's interesting you bring up proper names in connection with this issue. Probably you remember what Wittgenstein says in paragraph 79 about Moses and the sentence "Moses does not exist." Maybe Wittgenstein could have even used the example "Jesus does not exist"...

I'm inclined to think that selecting some definition for 'Jesus' is misguided here. We know from Kripke's Godel-Schmidt example that a speaker can refer to an individual even if her beliefs about that individual are (mostly) false. After all, there's something screwy about making the question about whether Jesus existed or not logically equivalent to the question about whether Christian theism is true!

Timmo said...

Stephen,

Actually, I want to ask you what you think about "experimental philosophy." Some philosophers have started doing systematic surveys of people's intuitions on important philosophical thought-experiments. I remember reading -- but please don't hold me to this very fuzzy memory -- that people from eastern cultures typically do not share Kripke's intuition about the Godel-Schmidt case. What implications do findings like that have? Should philosophers be more empirical in this way?

Stephen Law said...

Timmo - that stuff is interesting, worth doing, but Christ knows what conclusions we should draw. If he exists.

Geoff Hudson said...

Questioning the existence of Jesus opens up a whole can of worms. And the worms are not just related to Christian history, but what we understand about Neronian and Flavian history. Most of the history related to the Roman invasion of Judea in the first century comes from one source, the writings attributed to Josephus apparently given the loaded name of Flavius. I have to laugh when I read academic historians such as Goodman and Levick citing these writings as though they were scripture sent down from on high. They usually hedge their bets, tongue-in-cheek, with the prefix "according to Josephus", but then base their subsequent argument on what they cited.

The historical literary milieu of the day was one of Flavian lies. The Pauline editor has Paul say on three different occasions, "I lie not", when in reality he sure as hell was.

Anonymous said...

"After all, there's something screwy about making the question about whether Jesus existed or not logically equivalent to the question about whether Christian theism is true!"

I have been increasingly getting that screwy feeling about the various Christian positions. I think it seems to run in stages a bit like this:

i) After stripping out the stuff about conjouring, the NT indicates a plausible historic Jesus (traveling preacher,executed, approximately right dates).

ii) After his death a movement arose which spread widely and wrote about Jesus.Now they can't all have been deluded can they, so he must have been real.

iii) Once we admit the historical Jesus is plausible, the other bits become more plausible don't they?

This removal and re-establishment of the mythic element as reality is a slick move but totally invalid IMHO.
Christians in the main have staked too much on the "myth made real". Even our Archbishop who is comfortable with "poetic language" tries desperately to rescue the NT as literal.

Geoff Hudson said...

Perhaps Anonymous would admit to a historical Judas. After all the name of Judas is splattered all over the writings attributed to Josephus in interpolated garbled sections. The editor was paranoid about Judas, and even has him as the cause of all the Jews problems leading to the Roman intervention in 66. Some Judas.

mutleythedog said...

No one believes in me either- me and Jesus have that in common...

big bad bob said...

Can I ask why does it matter if the jesus records of the NT are literal history ? Unless of course you are a Churchman and its keeping you in a job...

My wife loves Ridley scotts "Gladiator" so much she tells me something like that must have happened. I know she is completely deluded but I love the film as well. Strength and Honour !

Anonymous said...

geoff - "Perhaps Anonymous would admit to a historical Judas."

Well I'd certainly admit there was a case for him. (as indeed I would admit for a historic Jesus). That being said it might also be argued in view of Josephus paranoia that he was an archetype traitor myth. Natural enough he should betray the hero then.

Geoff Hudson said...

Anonymous. Well that's what Eisenman thinks about Judas the Jew who was made the traitor of Jesus. Of course neither Judas nor Josephus were traitors - the surrender of Josephus at Jotapata, switching to the Romans, is a complete laughable fiction that Goodman believes is true. I argue that the original prophet of the New Testament was in fact Judas, and that Josephus joined the prophets - there is no evidence that he ever practiced as a priest.

Stephen Law said...

By the way Steven I have been reading some of your resurrection debate blog - v. interesting.

Steven Carr said...

If the Jesus of the Gospels is based on a person who existed, does this mean that Jesus existed?

If Sherlock Holmes was based on Dr. Joseph Bell, does this mean that Sherlock Holmes existed?

What does it mean to say that A existed, if A is a fictional representation of B, who did exist?