Extract from paper I am writing on Jesus' historicity

Here is an extract for comments...

A skeptical argument

I want now to show how our two principles - P1 and P2 - combine with certain plausible empirical claims to deliver a conclusion that very few Biblical scholars are willing to accept.

Let me stress at the outset that I am not endorsing the following argument. I present it, not because I am convinced it is cogent, but because I believe it has some prima facie plausibility, and because it is an argument that 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 skeptical 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 skeptical about those extraordinary claims.

4. (P2) Where testimony/documents weave together a narrative about an individual that combines mundane claims with a large proportion of extraordinary claims, and there is good reason to be skeptical about those extraordinary claims, then there is good reason to be skeptical 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 large 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 skeptical about whether Jesus existed.

This argument combines our principles P1 and P2 with three further premises - 2, 5 and 6 - concerning the character of the available evidence. These are the premises on which historians and Biblical scholars are better qualified than I to comment upon.

However, premise 5, is, I take it, uncontentious. Clearly, many historians also accept premise 2 (there is a significant number of Biblical historians who remain sceptical about the miracle claims made in the New Testament, and most will surely accept 2) . What of premise 6? Well, it is at least controversial among historians to what extent the evidence supplied by Josephus and Tacitus, etc. provides us good, independent evidence for the existence of an historical Jesus. Those texts provide us with some non-miracle-involving evidence for the existence of Jesus, of course, but whether it can rightly be considered good, genuinely independent evidence remains widely debated among the experts.

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

I suspect a significant number of Biblical scholars and historians (though of course by no means all) would accept 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 to Jesus’ existence are being unreasonable?

The most obvious answer to this question is that while many Biblical historians probably would accept that our three empirical premises have at least a fair degree of plausibility, and most of them probably also accept something like P1, few of them accept P2. Indeed, as we shall see below, many of them do in fact reject P2.

Assessing P2

Are there cogent objections to P2? Presumably, some sort of contamination principle is correct, for clearly, in the Ted and Sarah Case, the dubious character of the extraordinary, uncorroborated parts of their testimony about Bert does contaminate the non-extraordinary parts.

However, perhaps, as an attempt to capture the extent to which testimony concerning the extraordinary parts of a narrative can end up undermining the credibility of the more mundane parts, P2 goes too far, laying down a condition that is too strong?

After all, Alexander the Great was said to have been involved in miraculous events. Plutarch records, for example, that Alexander was miraculously guided across the desert day and night by flocks of ravens that waited for his army when it fell behind. Plutarch also suggests Alexander was divinely conceived. Should the presence of these extraordinary claims lead us to reject all of Plutarch’s claims concerning Alexander as untrustworthy? Of course not. As historian Michael Grant notes:

That there was a growth of legend round Jesus cannot be denied, and it arose very quickly. But there had also been a rapid growth of legend around pagan figures like Alexander the Great; and yet nobody regards him as wholly mythical and fictitious (200)

Indeed, no one of note is skeptical about Alexander’s existence.

However, noe of this should lead us to abandon P2. For P2 does not require that we be sceptical about the existence of Alexander. To focus just on Plutarch’s history – the miraculous claims made by Plutarch constitute only a small proportion of his account of Alexander’s achievements. Moreover, regarding the miracle of the ravens, it is not even clear we are dealing with a supernatural miracle, rather than some honestly misinterpreted natural phenomenon. Further, there is good, independent evidence that Alexander existed and did many of the things Plutarch reports (including archeological evidence of the dynasties left in his wake).

So the inclusion of a couple of miraculous elements in some of the evidence we have about Alexander is not much of a threat to our knowledge about him – and P2 does not suggest otherwise. The problem with the textual evidence for Jesus’ existence and crucifixion is that most of the details we have about him come solely from documents in which the miraculous constitutes a very large part of what is said about Jesus, where many of these miracles (walking on water, etc.) are unlikely to be merely misinterpreted natural phenomena, and where it is at least questionable whether we possess any good, independent non-miracle-involving evidence of his existence and crucifixion.

Other reasons for rejecting P2

Even if P2 does not require we be sceptical about the existence of Alexander, perhaps it still sets the bar for reasonable belief too high? In a culture in which miracle claims are rife, perhaps the inclusion of even a significant number of miracle stories within an historical narrative should not necessarily require we adopt a sceptical attitude towards what remains, even if we possess no good independent evidence for its truth. I return to this concern about P2 below (in “Does the cultural difference matter?”).

Historians may also reject P2 on other grounds. They may suggest there are particular features of textual evidence that can still rightly lead us to be confident about the truth of some of the non-miraculous parts, even if the evidence involves very many miracle claims, and even if there is no good independent evidence for the truth of the non-miraculous parts. Several criteria have been suggested for considering at least many of the non-miraculous claims made about Jesus in the New Testament documents to be accurate and indeed to be established beyond reasonable doubt.

The three most popular criteria are the criterion of multiple attestation, the criterion of embarrassment, and the criterion of discontinuity.

The criterion of multiple attestation

Several historians (such as Michael Grant and John Meier) suggest that the fact that a number of different New Testament sources make similar claims in different literary forms gives us some reason, at least, to suppose these claims are true. C. Leslie Milton goes further - he argues that the New Testament gospels draw on three recognised primary sources (Mark, Q and L), and concludes that:

If an item occurs in any one of these early sources, it has a presumptive right to be considered as probably historical in essence; if it occurs in two…that right is greatly strengthened, since it means it is supported by two early and independent witnesses. If it is supported by three, then its attestation is extremely strong.” REF P82.

Milton cites a list of claims that pass this test of “multiple attestation”, insisting they have a “strong claim to historicity on the basis of this particular test, making a solid nucleus with which to begin.” REF P83.

If we already know that Jesus existed and is likely to have said at least some of what he is alleged to have said, this criterion might provide us with a useful tool in attempting to determine which attributions are accurate and which are later fabrications.

But what if we are unsure whether there was any such person as Jesus existed? How useful is Milton’s criterion then? How can we know we are dealing with reports tracing back to the testimony of handful of independent eye-witnesses to real events, rather than, say, a skilled band of myth-makers? Consistency between accounts can indicate the extent to which their transmission from an original source or sources has been reliable, but it cannot indicate whether the source itself is reliable. As Grant notes about the homogeneity of the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus:

one must not underestimate the possibility that this homogeneity is only achieved because of their employment of common sources, not necessarily authentic in themselves. REF p203

In fact, even if we are dealing with largely consistent reports from several alleged eye-witnesses themselves, the fact that their reports contain a large proportion of extraordinary claims will normally make us highly suspicious even about the non-miraculous parts of their testimony. If, in the Ted and Sarah case, we increase the number of alleged witnesses to Bert’s miraculous visitation from two to ten, we would still, rightly, remain rather sceptical about whether there was any such person as Bert.

The criterion of embarrassment

One of the most popular tests applied by historians in attempting to establish historical facts about Jesus is the criterion of embarrassment. The Jesus narrative involves several episodes which, from the point of view of early Christians, would seem to constitute an embarrassment. C. Leslie Milton asserts that

those items which the early Church found embarrassing are not likely to be the invention of the early Church.

Milton supposes that reports of Jesus’

attitude to the Sabbath, fasting and divorce (in contradiction to Moses’ authorization of it in certain conditions), his free-and-easy relationships with people not regarded as respectable

all pass this test.

Michael Grant also considers Jesus’ association with outcasts, his proclamation of the imminent fulfilment of the Kingdom of God (which did not materialize), and his rejection of his family “because he was beside himself” embarrassing to the early Church, and concludes these attributions are unlikely to be inventions of early evangelists. Meier too, considers the criterion of embarrassment a useful if not infallible criterion. Regarding the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist – which raises the puzzle of why the “superior sinless one submits to a baptism meant for sinners” (REF p 168) - Meier says,

Quite plainly, the early Church was “stuck with” an event in Jesus’ life that it found increasingly embarrassing, that it tried to explain away by various means, and that John the Evangelist finally erased from his Gospel. It is highly unlikely that the Church went out of its way to create the cause of its own embarrassment” (p169)

The criterion of embarrassment is related to a further criterion – that of discontinuity (they are related because discontinuity is sometimes a source of embarrassment).

The criterion of discontinuity

Many historians assert that if a teaching or saying attributed to Jesus places him at odds with the contemporary Judaism and early Christian communities, then we possess grounds for supposing the attribution is accurate. Again, Jesus’ rejection of voluntary fasting and his acceptance of divorce are claimed to pass this test. Historian Norman Perrin considers the criterion of discontinuity the fundamental criterion, giving us an assured minimum of material with which to begin . C. Leslie Milton concurs that this criterion gives historians an “unassailable nucleus” of material to work with (REF p 84). John Meier considers the criterion promising, though he notes that it may place undue emphasis on Jesus’ idiosyncracies, “highlighting what was striking but possible peripheral in his message” (p173).


Epiphenom said…
Which Jesus are we being sceptical of? The idea that there was someone called Jesus who did or said at least some of the things in the New Testament is pretty reasonable. It's possible that the whole thing is a fabrication, but has that ever happened before? Has an important personage been entirely invented within a generation?
Toby said…
A very interesting post which will read at length later.

I am currently part way through Robert M Price's "The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man" which deals with some of these questions. Have you read it?

One of Price's arguments seems to be (I haven't finished the book) that a number of the accepted "facts" in biblical studies (e.g. the existence of Q - the source for common material in Matthew and Luke that is not in Mark) has arisen because the scholars start from the premise that there was an historical figure who left a body of teachings that were preserved and then they construct explanations to fit in with this.

If, on the otherhand, we do not start with this supposition many explanations for the New Testament are simpler and more plausible. E.G. it may be that Mark was used by Matthew and Luke along with other, common sayings of the day and some things that they made up, then there is no need to invent complicated explanations requiring documents like Q.
Dick said…
It would be extremely surprising if someone who wielded enormous political power (like Alexander) did not leave behind a number of independent recorded traces. But it would be exceedingly hard to *prove* that, what?, 98% of individuals alive 2,000 years ago existed, because they left no trace. Posterity is their record.

The evidence for Jesus in the Acts of the Apostles seems to be that people were being healed in the present by the power of his name. Whatever you think of such claims, such claims are still being made today, 2,000 years later.

To paraphrase a character in John's Gospel : "Whether he existed or not I cannot say; all I *can* say is that once I was blind, and now I can see."
Stephen Law said…
Hi Tom. thanks for your comment.

Remember we hardly have an entire important person here, just a handful of episodes adding up to about maybe 3 years out of a life.

People are certainly being invented within a generation quite regularly, e.g. as the basis for fraudulent social security claims. In many cases, the deception is never even discovered, despite the various official procedures and checks involved.

You may say "But those invented people are not important". That's true. But I see no reason why an important person from the preceding generation should not occasionally be invented, even if it doesn't occur often.

For countless examples of stories about invented contemporary or near-contemporary people, look at these various urban legends:

Stephen Law said…
Thanks Dick. When some grows a leg back overnight, I'll be more impressed. I'm afraid I consider you a gullible fool if you're impressed by that sort of bullshit.
Anonymous said…
you may want to engage with this:

Stephen Law said…
thanks anon - that's useful. But what is the source?
Stephen Law said…
sorry anon - found it already...
Greg O said…
'Has an important personage been entirely invented within a generation?'

John Frum might be a pertinent candidate:


Also of relevance here is the question just *when* Jesus came to be regarded as a historical figure. I believe some 'historical Jesus' sceptics have made the case that in the earliest Christian writings (Paul), Jesus is very much an 'otherworldly', spiritual figure, and that the quasi-historical setting was tacked on decades later (the Gospels). That might suggest a process by which an imaginary person might come to be accepted first as a 'spiritual' and then as a historical reality.
Stephen Law said…
Frum is a nice example - thanks Greg.
Stephen Law said…
Toby - I have not read Price yet. Should do though.
Greg O said…
The discontinuity/embarrassment criteria look a bit fishy to me. The argument seems to be: 'if some story about Jesus puts him at odds with the early Church (or early Christian communities), the Church (or communities) would hardly have made it up; so it must be true'. But of course, it could just be that *somebody else* made it up - some earlier author or storyteller whose tales of Jesus were handed down to those groups at a time before any sort of orthodox Christian belief system existed.

The most one could say, I think, is that the early Church must have *believed* those bits of the Jesus story were true - but so what?
Anonymous said…
This, according to Hitchens, is the best argument that Jesus existed:

"...the jumbled "Old" Testament prophecies indicate that the Messiah will be born in the city of David, which seems indeed to have been Bethlehem. However, Jesus's parents were apparently from Nazareth and if they had a child he was most probably delivered in that town. Thus a huge amount of fabrication— concerning Augustus, Herod, and Quirinius—is involved in confecting the census tale and moving the nativity scene to Bethlehem (where, by the way, no "stable" is ever mentioned). But why do this at all, since a much easier fabrication would have had him born in Bethlehem in the first place, without any needless to-do? The very attempts to bend and stretch the story may be inverse proof that someone of later significance was indeed born, so that in retrospect, and to fulfill the prophecies, the evidence had to be massaged to some extent." - God Is Not Great, Ch. 8.
Leisha Camden said…
"'Has an important personage been entirely invented within a generation?'"

Alan Smithee ... ? ;-)
Hi Stephen - glad to see you concur that there is "a powerful consensus that those who take a sceptical attitude to Jesus’ existence are being unreasonable" :o)

If I get a chance I'll comment at more length on Thursday (my day off).
Leisha - how many people were prepared to die for Alan Smithee, within living memory of his being "made up"?
Leisha Camden said…
I didn't see where that was listed as a requirement. Can't you take a joke?

The correct answer to your question is: I don't know.
Brian said…
Just on the discontinuity aspect. Weren't there a lot of sects and proto-christian churches getting about back in the day? Why couldn't these embarrassing tales have been spawned by other sects, and as one sect or church gained acendence, it winnowed away some, but not all, contradictory or embarassing tales?

Very good article Stephen.
M. Tully said…
One thing I find fascinating is how biblical historians have different rules of evidence than the rest of historians.

The embarrassment criteria especially sticks out to me. Going back to Herodotus, Thucydides and Virgil; they all report on sources who claim their heroes made embarrassing mistakes but still came out ahead in the end. Hell, even Homer did it with his heroes. I'm just amazed that biblical historians have these "special" rules of evidence. I wonder what warrant they have for the "embarrassment exclusion?"
Unknown said…
The phenomenon of an unarguably real recent historical person with a substantial appended mythology can be found in the Rastafarian tradition surrounding Haile Selassie, discussed in the context of a Jesus historicity argument with admirable clarity by Edmund Standing here at Butterflies & Wheels. I think the Haile Selassie example does cast P2 into doubt in the following sense: Such an example shows us how a great deal of religiously-inspired mythologizing and distortion can occur in "real time," even when a vast amount of countervailing evidence is readily available - yet in this case the mythology does not turn out to be a good reason to cast aspersions on the mundane claims, which are well-attested and multiply verifiable, and so undermines P2.

However, I also think the existence of a "historical Jesus" is a territory where multiply ambiguous and often confused claims are at stake, which Edmund Standing and I hashed out a bit in the letters section of the same website. Interested parties (especially you, Stephen, if you're working on a paper) might want to search for that exchange of letters by the date of the first volley (25/01/2009) on this page.
M. Tully said…
Another interesting (well, to me at least) question is why does anyone care?

Historically it doesn’t matter if an itinerant preacher named Jesus, existed or not. What matters is the effect that influential portions of the population in question BELIEVED that he existed and was a supernatural power (a significant number did).

Does it really matter whether or not a certain Oracle of Delphi named Sibyl actually existed (a significant number believed she did)?

It only matters if belief in Sibyl or Jesus affected actions (evidence suggests that they did).

Historically, Jesus and Sibyl occupy the same space. Belief in them affected the way events played out.

As far as, “Should anyone today give credence to either of the claims that they wielded supernatural power?” Well, scientifically we’re back to P1: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. It is well agreed upon, with a great deal of empirical evidence that they did not.

Does the, “Jesus, miracle performer” meet that standard? The historical, empirical evidence says, “No!”

I can’t say with any confidence whether or not either an oracle named Sibyl or an itinerant preacher named Jesus existed or not. What I can say confidently is that, “Whether or not either one of them existed, the probability that either one of them had supernatural powers is so low that it approaches (and for all intents and purposes is) zero.
Greg O said…
I wonder if it might make sense to weaken P2 thus:

...there is good reason to be skeptical about the mundane claims, at least until we possess good independent evidence of their truth *or unless we have good reason to suppose that those claims would not have been made unless true*

That seems fair enough in principle - if there *were* a case in which the mere fact of P's being asserted was good evidence for the truth of P, there'd be no need in that case for independent evidence.

Then we'd need a new premise, something like:

There is no good reason to suppose that certain mundane claims about Jesus would not have been made unless true.

Those amendments would serve to make clear just what the advocate of a historical Jesus has to do in order to refute the argument: he has to show that the mere fact that certain mundance claims about Jesus have been made is good evidence that they are true (which is where the embarrassment & discontiuity criteria come in).

I think the big lingering question is: in what circumstances would the mere fact of P's being asserted be good evidence for the truth of P? I think what the historical Jesus sceptic is going to want to do here is set the bar high and say that in the case of heavily 'extraordinary' narratives, we need an extraordinarily good reason to suppose that any mundane features of that narrative are true. (This might simply be because a clear majority of heavily extraordinary narratives are straightforwrdly fictional).

Plausibly, then, appeals to the motivations/psychology of claimants are never going to satisfy that sort of demand, and the sceptic can continue to insist that we need good (even extraordinarily good?) independent evidence in support of mundane claims made in the course of an extraordinary narrative.
Steven Carr said…
The New Testament miracles are totally bogus.

As for historicity, as soon as there is a public church in Acts 2, with the possibility of public records, the following people entirely disappear from even *church* history (apart from some later legends)

Joseph of Arimathea, Mary Magdalene, Nicodemus, Lazarus, Bartimaeus, Thomas, Judas, Simon of Cyrene, Joanna, Salome, the other Mary, Martha, Jairus, etc etc.

Not one person, not even a Christian, wrote a document naming himself as ever having seen any of those people.

Not one person, not even a Christian, wrote a document naming himself as ever even having met a person he names as having seen any of those people.

This entire cast of Gospel characters vanish as totally as the Angel Moroni and the Golden Plates vanish from Mormonism.

You would not expect all of them to be mentioned, or even many of them.

But Lazarus was supposed to be famous, yet nobody in history writes to say that he has ever even seen the guy.

Christians made up stories about the infant Jesus killing people.

By the criterion of embarrasment , this story must be true.

Later Gospel writers were embarrassed by the *theology* of the first Gospel claiming Jesus was baptised, not by the history of it.
Steven Carr said…
Do we have the earliest followers of Alexander the Great claiming that he has finally been revealed to the world through scripture?

Romans 16
Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him...

DO we have early followers of Alexander the Great writing how people could not be conquered unless a warrior had been sent to them?

Romans 10

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent?

Paul makes a good point.

How could the Jews believe in Jesus if they had never heard of him?

And how could they possibly hear about Jesus , if no Christians have been sent to preach about him?

Jesus was killed by the authorities, although innocent.

Paul writes in Romans 13.
Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.

Let me see.

The authorities strip, beat, slap, mock, flog and crucify Jesus.

And then Paul writes that the authorities have no fear for the innocent....

Romans 3
What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way! First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God.

Paul says Jews have as their first advantage, been entrusted with the words of God - ie the Hebrew Scriptures.

You or I might think that having Jesus being God made Flesh and appearing in Jerusalem and preaching to Jews would also be an advantage.

But Paul is really rather blase about the benefits to Jews of having his Lord and Saviour that he worshipped appearing in their midst just a few years previously.

Hey, the Jews had the Book of Obadiah. What advantage would they have got by having Jesus among them, raising people from the dead....
Steven Carr said…
Has an important personage been entirely invented within a generation?

Well, yes...

See Ned Ludd for example.

And even today, people produce photographs and messages from an Entirely mythical religious leader
Toby said…
I agree with Anonymous quoting Hitchens that the best evidence for an historical person is the fabrications used by Luke and Matthew to get Jesus, from Nazareth, born in Bethlehem to fulfil a prophesy or two. Many otherwise sceptical scholars like Bart Ehrman accept this. (Incidentally, Mark makes no reference to Bethlehem, but there is - according to Price - a passage where he seems to say that the Messiah doesn't have to come from there. Presumably, reflecting a doctrinal dispute in the early Church.)

Jesus is referred to as "the Nazarene" several times in the gospels. However, the meaning of this can be disputed. Jesus is also referred to (once) as the "Nazarean" - this was a Jewish sect of the time and did not imply that he came from Nazareth. (Again, I am probably badly summarising Robert Price.)
Stephen Law said…
Hi George the HS story is very interesting. However it is used to argue that Jesus could have been an historical figure, which I don't deny. I am simply skeptical either way.

Sam, the fact that someone dies for a belief is evidence they believe it, and did not fabricate it themselves, but not evidence it is not a fabrication. The first martyrs were not supposed eye-witnesses, were they?
Stephen Law said…
Greg - I will think about your suggested amendment to P2, though I think it is probably redundant given shape of the overall paper. Thanks though - it's got me thinking....

regarding Hitchens argument, does the fact that Jesus had to be linked back to Bethlehem despite his parents supposedly being from Nazareth show that there was a real historical individual? I can't see how it does. It just shows that the already accepted version of the story had then to be adjusted to make it fit the prophesies, not that the story was accurate to begin with.
Steven Carr said…
Paul, who was there, says in Galatians 6:12 that Christian leaders were persecuted on the issue of circumcision.

People were dying for a belief that Gentiles did not have to be circumcised to be saved.

Paul wrote an entire book of theology (Romans) without ever once giving a quote of what the person he worshipped ever said.

How can that be?

It is like Moonies writing works of theology without ever referring to anything Moon said or did....

Paul writes in Galatians 1
'Paul, an apostle—sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father....'

Paul says he wasn't sent by a man. He was sent by Jesus Christ.
Stephen Law said…
Incidentally, I think that biblical historians are probably not the best guys to got to to determine whether or not a story is reliable, or mythic bullshit.

In the same way that scientists are not the best people to test whether someone has genuine psychic powers, or can genuinely bend spoons. Didn't Randi once say that scientists are just as easily fooled as everyone else?

The relevant experts are those with skill in producing such deceptions (stage magicians), or at least inside knowledge of how such deceptions can be produced. i.e. in this case, people with a great deal of knowledge of cases such as Jon Frum and Haile Sellasie.

This is one reason why the stock appeal to "Biblical historians" made by Sam and others carries little weight with me.
Stephen Law said…
PS Of course I am not saying Biblical historians have no expertise. But they don't seem terribly well informed about how bullshit stories and belief systems are actually generated. They just strike me as rather naive and their suggested criteria very unreliable.
Toby said…
Stephen said: They [Biblical historians] just strike me as rather naive and their suggested criteria very unreliable.

Another example. Romulus and Remus may have been based on historical figures (someone had to be the first King of Rome) but the stories around them are fantastical (sons of Gods, raised by wolves, ascended into heaven, etc) and no-one, including Biblical Historians, would accept these as history - or even as possible.

Why do they then accept similar things about Jesus as history or probable history?
Greg O said…
Stephen - a quick(ish!) attempt to back up my hunch that P2 is too strong just as it stands.

Suppose we discover a long-lost document relating the tale of a wandering mathematician, Kevin, who was the son of a god and a human woman, performed miracles etc. and dazzled the wise men of his day with his brilliant proofs, all of which are recorded in detail (although the author doesn't seem to understand them fully). Plausibly, even in the absence of supporting evidence, we would have good reason to believe that there really was a Kevin who produced the proofs recorded - just because that's (plausibly) the best explanation for them being there on the page.

Similarly, if we came across a lost tribe who wove a clear description of a visit from a helicopter with "UN" written on the side into a narrative about a talking bird blessed by the god of thunder, we surely wouldn't need any *independent* evidence for the mundane event of the helicopter visit - just because it's not something the tribe could have made up.

I wonder if a consideration of the factors at work in such cases - cases where P's being asserted really is good evidence for P's being the case - might help to expose the relative weakness of embarrassment/discontinuity-based arguments for the truth of mundane claims about Jesus.
Stephen: "Sam, the fact that someone dies for a belief is evidence they believe it, and did not fabricate it themselves, but not evidence it is not a fabrication."


But, "The first martyrs were not supposed eye-witnesses, were they?"

Yes, they were. All but one of the original 11 disciples were martyred and they explicitly were the eye-witnesses. More tomorrow - it's your P1 I want to spend most time on.
Steven Carr said…
Not one person in history ever wrote a document naming himself as ever having seen Thomas.

But do tell us the evidence for 11 of these disciples being martyred.

I researched it all at Martyrs or Myths?
Steven Carr said…
In the 240 ADs, Origen used the lack of great numbers of Christian martyrs as a proof that the religion was favoured by God...

'Contra Celsus Book 3 Chapter 8, said that there had been very few Christian martyrs.
"For in order to remind others, that by seeing a few engaged in a struggle for their religion, they also might be better fitted to despise death, some, on special occasions, and these individuals who can be easily numbered, have endured death for the sake of Christianity, --God not permitting the whole nation to be exterminated, but desiring that it should continue, and that the whole world should be filled with this salutary and religious doctrine.'
Stephen Law said…
Sam see next post. I did some trawling around and could find no concrete evidence for the martyrdom of the original disciples, but perhaps some of them were martyred. Suppose this is true - then consider next post....
Here's a tidy counter example to P2: Imagine you have what purports to be an eyewitness acount of the activities of a miracle worker, and if not for the extraordinary nature of the claims in it, you would be inclined to trust the source. Furthermore, suppose that all the miracles described are things that a person can appear to do though non-miraculous means: stage tricks, psychological ruses, and so on. In this case, I think it would be reasonable to concluded that the document is basically reliable, and the alleged miracle worker appeared to do the things claimed through non-miraculous means.
Steven Carr said…
I did some trawling around and could find no concrete evidence for the martyrdom of the original disciples.....

Did you find some evidence for the existence of Thomas, Judas?

Has one person in history written a document naming himself as ever having seen Thomas or Judas?
Kyle said…
On P1:

How do you decide if something is making extraordinary claims?

An obvious definition seems to be 'something that is unlikely', but that won't do because if we found a Babylonian tablet that recorded the lottery results we would be inclined to believe it even though what it claimed was unlikely.

I imagine a better definition would be something like 'Q is extraordinary if you have a positive reason for thinking not-Q'. So, someone like yourself is going to think that there is good reason to think that miracles don't happen, so any record containing miracles is making extraordinary claims.

However, according to this definition, what is extraordinary is dependent upon background beliefs, which means that for a Christian who believes that God exists, these claims become less extraordinary.

But perhaps you are using a different sense of extraordinary?

On P2:

This seems to be the claim that evidence can become infected by part of it being bad in some way.

So, if a record says A&B, and we have reason to be sceptical about B, then we have reason to be sceptical about A.

But what if it is reasonable to accept A independently of any other evidence. Suppose you removed from the gospels all the things that you find problematic, wouldn't it be reasonable to believe that account, if it was all we had to go on? Why doesn't the 'infection' work both ways?

Also, this seems to suggest that if we believe most of the records about a person to be false, then we have a good reason to think that that person does not exist.

Those who think that the stories of King Arthur refer to a real person, but that they do not describe what he did are apparently contradicting themselves, the same for Robin Hood? Perhaps we should also being sceptical about whether Saint Nick existed in light of all those extraordinary stories about Santa Claus?
Unknown said…
Stephen Law wrote:Hi George the HS story is very interesting. However it is used to argue that Jesus could have been an historical figure, which I don't deny. I am simply skeptical either way.

But I also pointed out that the Haile Selassie story argues that P2 does not work as stated. That still seems to be the case, quite without regard to Jesus skepticism.

I think the more important aspect of this dispute is what Standing and I hashed out in the brief exchange of letters I also linked to: There is a major problem with people on both sides not being clear what specific claims they are and are not supporting (or arguing against). A lot of people will be willfully misinterpreting your argument, I suspect, so it will serve you well to be especially clear about such things up front.

I am, as you, skeptical either way. But I'm not simply agnostic about the existence of an "historical" Jesus (whatever that means), I'm decisively apatheistic: There is so little actual evidence and/or substantial, interesting historical argumentation to justify any strong conclusions, I can't imagine why anyone would care about the sort of minimally specified, guesswork-driven, not-particularly-important historical person possibly named Yeshua whose existence can be plausibly supported.
Steven Carr said…
If I get a chance I'll comment at more length on Thursday (my day off).

I would be interested in Sam's comments on Paul's claim that the main advantage the Jews had was that they had been entrusted with scripture.

And not that they had had Jesus living in their midst, raising their dead, healing their sick and preaching to them.

Just read works by historicists like NT Wright in 'Romans for Everyone' and you will see that they have not even *begun* to examine the text to see how Paul could believe that Jesus himself preached to Jews in Jerusalem, and yet Paul thinks only of Jews having the Old Testament as a message.

Historicists have not yet started to answer mythicist questions.

They might well be able to produce answers, even convincing answers, but up to now they have not yet started that work.
Hi Stephen,
Kyle has touched on the matter that I was going to raise. Your P1 needs to be unpacked and the elements need to be justified; that is, you need to define and defend what counts as 'extraordinary', otherwise your argument ends up being tautologous (these stories contain things I can't believe; there's no evidence persuading me of things I can't believe, therefore I can't believe these things). I also wonder about the beginning of P1 - what are you driving at with the 'derives solely from evidence'? that it is an empirical claim? That would seem a little odd.

Another point I want to make on this is that I think you're being anachronistic. For example, the stories of healing (by far the majority of 'supernatural' episodes in the New Testament) were not seen as requiring extraordinary changes to everyday beliefs at the time, they were the sorts of things that happened (some would say they still do). So, even if (for the sake of argument) we accept that, eg, calming the storm counts as an extraordinary claim, the same is not true for the healing miracles.

Thing is, if that latter argument holds, then the strength of P2 (4 & 5) is proportionately weakened.

By the way, it would be good if you could define P1 in such a way that it didn't use the word 'supernatural'. I suspect that in almost all cases, the word 'supernatural' has no specific intellectual content, it merely functions as a sort of swear word or insult, along the lines of 'you're a moron for believing this'.
Steven Carr said…
You would think Sam would trot out the standard historicist answer to the passages from Romans that I gave where Paul clearly has no concept of a Jesus living among Jews just a few years previously and then being crucified by the authorities which Paul claims hold no terror for those who do right.

Sam doesn't, because historicists have not yet addressed these questions.
Stephen Law said…
Sam my answer to Kyle is on the following post.

You have made the point that these events may not have been seen as extraordiunary at the time before. It's just a silly point, surely. The fact that the tribal people of LaLa land think it not extraordinary at all that people should be cured of any disease by rubbing salami on their genitals does not mean that we should accept this on the basis of their testimony.
Why is it a silly point? (and you're bringing in a silly example doesn't make it so). I thought the question was about the plausibility of the witnesses - hence all the talk about people making things up. If at the time these things were comparatively 'normal' then the inclusion of such items in a testimony is not something that undermines the plausibility of the witness (in other words, we might interpret the events differently, but we have no grounds for saying that they have been making things up).

If it is just about the plausibility of the events described then we are back to what you can't believe. I'll have a look at your next post and comment about martyrs etc there.
Sam, I read your post and I don't understand your difficulty with the term "supernatural". You write: the word 'supernatural' has no specific intellectual content. I would correct that by saying that the assertion of a supposed supernatural cause or event is devoid of any intellectual content unless it is supported by overwhelming evidence.

Regardless of whether the healing examples required a departure from the beliefs held at that time or not (and I believe Stephen's salami example if spot on), any reasonable person would now regard a "divine" act of healing as miraculous. There is no difference between calming the storm and healing the lame through prayer when it comes to degrees of the extraordinary. If you can point me to one double blind clinical study that gives any credence to the power of prayer, I would like to see it.
M. Tully said…
"did some trawling around and could find no concrete evidence for the martyrdom of the original disciples"

Well, neither has anyone else.

So, why aren't we having the discussion about why people shouldn't believe things for which there is no concrete evidence for?
Atheist Missionary: "I don't understand your difficulty with the term "supernatural""

Well, let me try and spell it out:
a) the word 'supernatural' has changed its meaning over time;
b) the contemporary sense means 'outside the laws of nature';
c) the contemporary sense therefore includes a lot of assumptions tied up with 'the laws of nature';
d) I don't accept many of those assumptions (in other words, I think that remarkable things happen; I think that the universe isn't Newtonian and mechanical, etc);
e) the word 'supernatural' is often used - especially in anti-theistic contexts - as a shorthand for 'unbelievable';
f) this construction on the word needs to be explained and defended, if possible.

On the question of prayer, you're running together two separate things: the power of prayer and evidence for a "breach of natural law" (in your sense). Answered prayer does not have to take that form.
Steven Carr said…
I see Sam still won't explain why Paul can believe Jesus came to preach to Jews in Jerusalem , raise their dead, heal their sick and then still write that the big advantage Jews had was that they had been entrusted with scripture.

I see Sam still won't explain why Paul makes the point in Romans 10 that Jews can't be expected to believe in Jesus because they have never heard of him, apart from Christians preaching about Jesus.

In Romans 15, Paul writes 'For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.'

Paul writes to Christians to praise the Scriptures as what exists to teach them, and what gives them hope.

Hadn't there been any other teacher, beside the scriptures?
Sam, with respect, I would rely on the law of the excluded middle to argue that something is either supernatural (i.e. lying outside the laws of nature) or not. I can think of plenty of examples so here are a few:

1. Moses parting the Red Sea.

2. The regeneration of an amputated human limb (although I do not rule out that medical science may someday accomplish this).

3. Levitation.

I know that you think that remarkable things happen but I am not sure what you really mean by that phrase.

One can well argue that logic and mathematics fall outside the realm of time and space and are, in a sense, eternal. However, they are still guided by the laws of reason. My problem with religious beliefs is that they throw reason out with the bathwater as well.

Let's call an ace an ace and a spade a spade. Christianity is based on the belief that Jesus existed (logically possible), died (again logically possible), rose from the dead (logically impossible) and was God in the flesh (too whacked out to even start talking about logic). If I live to be 100, I don't think I will ever understand how educated people like yourself can believe these myths, let alone embark on occupations devoted to their propagation. I can understand why you might want to believe but surely, if you reflect on it, you will appreciate it is the definition of delusion. I just don't get it ....
Regeneration of a human limb was a poor example. Although God must hate amputees, the scientific method holds no such grudge: http://www.reuters.com/article/latestCrisis/idUSN17208616
Paul P. Mealing said…
I've come to this rather late, and I'm not a scholar in this area at all, though I've always maintained that the story of Jesus' life (be it fictional or not) has more to commend it than the story of his death.

The best account I've read, believe it or not, is by H.G. Wells in an extraordinary book, The Outline of History 'Written with the advice and editorial help of: Mr Ernest Barker, Sir H.H.Johnston, Sir E.Ray Lamkester and Professor Gilbert Murray.'

There is no copyright date, but I believe it was written just after World War I. It's an extraordinarily scholarly work, not confined to Western history, yet immense in scope. It's very readable, despite its encyclopedic dimensions and ambition.

Its relevance to this discussion is that Wells places the Jesus story in a historical and political context, and, in particular, provides an interpretation that separates Paul's version of Christianity from Jesus' original followers.

The same book provides an equally erudite rendition of Buddhism and Islam. It was lent to me by a friend who found it in a shed.

He makes a valid and heroic attempt to present Jesus as a human being stripped of the mythology, yet accounts for how the mythology arose and was subsequently propogated.

Regards, Paul.
Paul P. Mealing said…
Hi Stephen,

I know you’ve moved on from this, but I have some problems with a completely fictional Jesus, as opposed to a mythologised version, of which I have no argument.

For a start, why create a hero who fails, which is a variant on the ‘embarrassment’ criterion I guess. It makes sense to turn a mortal failure into a ‘transcendental’ triumph after-the-event, but not to create a fictional mortal failure that becomes transcendental.

The other point is that Jesus is a 3 dimensional character compared to the other supernatural entities, God and Satan, who are caricatures by comparison.

But the question I ask is: who invented Jesus? Certainly not the Jews - he was too iconoclastic and broke too many rules (your criterion of discontinuity in effect). So the answer is a small group of people founded a new religion based on a fictional figurehead.

Paul is the one who most assiduously promoted the Christian cause, following a highly sensationalised conversion. In fact, if it wasn’t for Paul, Christianity may never have become what it is today. So the logical conclusion is that Paul invented Jesus. And wasn’t Paul contemporaneous with Jesus? This is not a rhetorical question, as I’m not really sure, but I’m under the impression that he was. Either way, he must have known whether Jesus was fictional or not, because he’s close enough historically. Or is Paul also a fiction?

Regards, Paul.
Steven Carr said…
Mythicists like to point out that Paul refers to other brothers in the Lord, not just James.

And that Luke/Acts, James , Jude just don't seem to have any clue that there was a Christian leader called James, who was the literal brother of Jesus.

How do historicists react to the obvious fact that the writer of Jude identifies himself as the brother of James, but never mentions any relation to Jesus?

Easy, Historicists simply make up ridiculous things to explain away the evidence, thereby demonstrating the bankruptcy of mainstream historical Jesus studies.

Jude, the brother of James and Jesus

This quotes Richard Bauckham as writing :-
Palestinian Jewish-Christian circles in the early church used the title ‘brother of the Lord’ not simply to identify the brothers, but as ascribing to them an authoritative status, and therefore the brothers themselves, not wishing to claim an authority based on mere blood-relationship to Jesus, avoided the term...'

It is amazing the insight Bauckham has into the minds of the brothers of Jesus.

He can sit down at his desk, think himself into their minds, and tell you their thought-processes regarding the pros and cons of using the phrase 'Brother of the Lord'

How can mythicists compare with the almost superhuman insight of mainstream Biblical scholars who have such gifts as being able to read minds of 2000 years ago?

And mainstream Biblical scholars come up with such fantasies as Jude identifying himself as the brother of James to show his authority, but he didn't like to mention he was the brother of Jesus , because that would be name-dropping.

And this rubbish is supposedly from one of the best mainstream historicist Biblical scholars.

No wonder mythicism is thriving, when mythicists can see such garbage answers being produced to the question of why Luke/Acts, James, Jude never mention this alleged relationship of James to Jesus.
Steven Carr said…
'Quite plainly, the early Church was “stuck with” an event in Jesus’ life that it found increasingly embarrassing, that it tried to explain away by various means, and that John the Evangelist finally erased from his Gospel.’'

So if there is no baptism mentioned, Meier know that the baptism must have been historical because , look, John the Evangelist never mentions it.

The baptism is historical because one Gospel never says a word about it happening!

Of course, if John the Evangelist had mentioned the baptism , it would have been historical - because of the criterion of multiple attestation.

But he never mentioned it....

So it must be historical!
Anonymous said…

Regarding the question of why St. Paul didn't think that Jesus performing miracles among the Jews was their greatest advantage, I'd imagine it has something to do with the fact that only a few Jews living in and around Jerusalem would have benefited. Given the large numbers of Jews who lived outside of Judaea, this would have constituted a relatively small proportion. All Jews, however, had access to the Torah, which was believed to be God's word; being able to read this would, therefore, provide somethin of an advantage over members of other religions. So although Jesus' presence may have benefited some Jews, the Jewish people as a whole would benefit more from the Torah.
Steven Carr said…
Regarding the question of why St. Paul didn't think that Jesus performing miracles among the Jews was their greatest advantage, I'd imagine it has something to do with the fact that only a few Jews living in and around Jerusalem would have benefited.

Ridiculous rubbish.

Paul did not think it an advantage for Jesus to have raised people from the dead, because only a few people benefited from being raised from the dead.....

Hard to comprehend the thought processes behind that one.....