Wednesday, July 17, 2013

My response to William Lane Craig's review of my paper on the existence of Jesus


A while back, William Lane Craig responded to an argument of mine that was published in 2011 in Faith and Philosophy in a paper called “Evidence, Miracles, and The Existence of Jesus”. (Craig’s response appears on his Reasonable Faith website here).

In fact, Craig largely ignores the various arguments in my paper, and focuses instead in refuting arguments it does not contain. If you want to read the paper to check, it’s available here.

Richard Carrier has also produced an online breakdown of Craig’scritique of my paper. Worth reading. I reference it a few times below.

Below is Craig’s critique with my comments added in bold. 


QUESTION:
In his blog, atheist philosopher Stephen Law formulated the following skeptical argument against Jesus' existence:
1. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. In the absence of extraordinary evidence there's excellent reason to be skeptical about the claims.
2. There is not extraordinary evidence for any of the divine/miraculous stuff in the NT documents.
3. Therefore (from 1 and 2), there's excellent reason to be skeptical about those extraordinary claims.
4. Where testimony/documents combine both mundane and extraordinary claims, and there's excellent reason to be skeptical about the extraordinary claims, then there's pretty good reason to be skeptical even about the mundane claims, at least until we possess some pretty good independent evidence of their truth.
5. The NT docs combine extraordinary and mundane claims about Jesus.
6. There's no pretty 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 pretty good reason to be skeptical about whether Jesus existed.
I'd like to know your opinion about this argument. I think a number of premises are problematic, both philosophically and historically. For example, premise 6 seems to be false on pure historical grounds (independent sources, even outside the NT, attest Jesus' crucifixion, which implies his existence. And certainly the crucifixion is a pretty "mundane" claim, in Jesus' time).
Best regards,
Mary
Venezuela

DR CRAIG’S RESPONSE

You’ll remember that this issue came up briefly in my debate with Stephen Law in Central Hall, Westminster, last October. In response to my claim that “Dr. Law has recently defended the claim that Jesus of Nazareth never even existed,” Law responded as follows:
Law: I've never said, by the way, that I've never argued that Jesus doesn't exist.
Craig: No, I said you defended the claim. I was careful about that.
Law: That Jesus doesn't exist?
Craig: That—I said you defended the claim that—something to the effect that—Jesus of Nazareth didn't exist.
Law: No.
Craig: In your argument in your article in Faith and Philosophy,1 you give a seven point argument—
Law: Yeah . . . That's not my view. My view is—The argument that I gave in that piece in Faith and Philosophy journal was that it looks like there's a good philosophical case for remaining neutral. I mean, we just can't be sure one way or the other, and that's not at all the same thing as defending the view that Jesus wasn't a historical individual.
Craig: All right! So agnosticism about the reality of Jesus. . . . All right!
Even if Law’s final position is agnosticism about Jesus’ existence—itself an indefensible position—, it’s evident that his agnosticism is based upon the success of the above argument for being sceptical that Jesus ever existed.

The above argument, outlined by Craig, is not the argument I published in the Faith and Philosophy article. It's an argument taken from an earlier 2008 blog post, which you can view here. That blog post “sketched out” (as I put it there) the “bare bones” of an argument I was developing for the benefit of someone who commented on a previous post.

The subsequent academic paper, published three years later (the paper Craig is referring to) presents a developed, modified version of the argument. The paper also offers arguments in support of key components of the argument, especially premises (2) and (4). 

When I first encountered this article in my debate preparation, my first thought was that only a philosophy journal would publish such a piece! 

Craig here acknowledges he has encountered my actual article, and not just my earlier blog post of 2008. Good. He should address my actual article, not a sketchier, early blog post.

This article would never have made it past the peer-review process for a journal of New Testament or historical studies.

Quite possibly true. In the article, I challenge the standards and criteria employed by many of those engaged in New Testament Studies. The paper begins by clearly pointing this out. The opening lines are:

“The vast majority of Biblical historians believe there is evidence sufficient to place Jesus’ existence beyond reasonable doubt. Many believe the New Testament documents alone suffice firmly to establish Jesus as an actual, historical figure. I question these views.”

Indeed, I go on to question three of the main criteria Biblical historians use in arriving at the conclusion that Jesus’ existence is established beyond reasonable doubt.

It’s obviously hopelessly question-begging, as a response to an argument that questions the authority/expertise of those working in a certain field, to appeal to their authority. If I published a paper arguing on philosophical grounds that the methodology of homeopaths is flawed and their conclusions therefore untrustworthy, it obviously won’t do to say in response, “Bah Humbug! The homeopaths say this is rubbish!” Craig is making a no less question-begging move here.

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:

A mythicist asserts that Jesus is a mythical figure. As Craig acknowledges, I do not assert that. I remain neutral on that matter. Indeed, in my paper I say that Jesus’ existence might be a bit more probable than not. My suggestion (made quite tentatively) is merely that Jesus’ existence has not been established beyond reasonable doubt.

Few of these mythicists are actually scholars trained in ancient history, religion, biblical studies or any cognate field, let alone in the ancient languages generally thought to matter for those who want to say something with any degree of authority about a Jewish teacher who (allegedly) lived in first-century Palestine. . . . But even taking these into account, there is not a single mythicist who teaches New Testament or Early Christianity or even Classics at any accredited institution of higher learning in the Western world. And it is no wonder why. These views are so extreme and so unconvincing to 99.99 percent of the real experts that anyone holding them is as likely to get a teaching job in an established department of religion as a six-day creationist is likely to land in a bona fide department of biology.2

As I say, Craig’s attempt to lump me in with the mythicists is disingenuous. He has already acknowledged I’m not a mythicist. He’s just trying to tarnish me by associating me with the mythicists, who, at least in the minds of many of Craig’s followers, are cranks and loons.

Law’s argument for scepticism about Jesus would not be taken seriously by bona fide historical scholars.

It would probably be dismissed out of hand by many. Some would hate it. However, as I pointed out above, my argument questions their methods and authority. So appealing to their authority constitutes a question-begging response to my argument.

Having question-beggingly appealed to the authority of those whose authority my argument throws into question, and then attempted to tarnish me by lumping me in with those loony mythicists, Craig now finally gets round to some actual critique of my argument – hoorah!

No wonder! Almost every premiss in this argument is unjustified or false. Take (1), for example:
1. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
This sounds so commonsensical, doesn’t it? But in fact it is demonstrably false. Probability theorists studying what sort of evidence it would take to establish a highly improbable event …

Notice what just happened there. Craig has switched from talking about “extraordinary claims” to talking about “improbable event(s)”. Now, we know there’s no problem about confirming by just a bit of testimony the occurrence of an improbable event. E.g. my friend ecstatically claims to have won the lottery. A couple of other friends independently confirm they have seen his winning stub. That’s good enough evidence for me that he’s won, despite the fact that my friend’s winning is 14 million to one against.

So, I deliberately don’t characterize an “extraordinary claim” as just a claim that something improbable has happened. I certainly don’t argue that if an event is improbable then it can’t be reasonable to believe it on the basis of a fairly modest bit of testimony. Improbable events like so-and-so winning the lottery happen all the time and are rightly accepted on that basis.

In fact, I am deliberately vague about what “extraordinary claim” means. I just say that the claim that a supernatural miracle has occurred constitutes one. That suffices for the purposes of my paper.

I then provide an argument that such miracle claims do indeed require much stronger evidence than that required to render reasonable other more mundane claims. My argument is based on a thought experiment: the Ted and Sarah case.

“Suppose I have two close friends, Ted and Sarah, whom I know to be generally sane and trustworthy individuals. Suppose that Ted and Sarah now tell me that someone called Bert paid them an unexpected visit in their home last night, and stayed a couple of hours drinking tea with them. They recount various details, such as topics of conversation, what Bert was wearing, and so on. Other things being equal, it is fairly reasonable for me to believe, solely on the basis of their testimony, that such a visit occurred.

But now suppose Ted and Sarah also tell me that shortly before leaving, Bert flew around their sitting room by flapping his arms, died, came back to life again, and finished by temporarily transforming their sofa into a donkey. Ted and Sarah appear to say these things in all sincerity. In fact, they seem genuinely disturbed by what they believe they witnessed. They continue to make these claims about Bert even after several weeks of cross-examination by me.

Am I justified in believing that Ted and Sarah witnessed miracles? Surely not. The fact that Ted and Sarah claim these things happened is not nearly good enough evidence. Their testimony presents me with some evidence that miracles were performed in their living room; but, given the extraordinary nature of their claims, I am not yet justified in believing them.”

Craig ignores this argument.

I also go on to supply a further justification for the principle that such extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I say: 

when it comes to assessing evidence for the Jesus miracles and other supernatural events, we do so having now acquired a great deal of evidence about the unreliability of testimony supposedly supporting such claims. We know – or at least ought to know by now – that such testimony is very often very unreliable (sightings of ghosts, fairies, and of course, even religious experiences and miracles, are constantly being debunked, exposed as fraudulent, etc.).”

Craig fails to mention all this.

… came to realize that if you just weigh the improbability of the event against the reliability of the testimony, we’d have to be sceptical of many commonly accepted claims.

As I say, my argument above doesn’t rely on the thought that such events have a low prior probability. Craig is here trotting out a standard apologetic critique of an argument I did not give and ignoring the arguments I did give.

Rather what’s crucial is the probability that we should have the evidence we do if the extraordinary event had not occurred.3

Yes. This is certainly crucially important when assessing the degree to which evidence supports a hypothesis. Craig knows I know this, of course, because I myself made this very point to Craig in our debate, with respect to the resurrection (a transcript of what I said is actually posted on Craig’s own website). I said:

“Evidence supports a hypothesis to the extent the evidence is expected, given the hypothesis is true, and unexpected otherwise. The absolutely crucial point to note is this: we have good to reason to expect some baffling, very hard to explain, in mundane terms, reports to crop up occasionally anyway, whether or not there are any miracles, or gods, or flying saucers.
So the fact that an otherwise baffling, hard to explain case has shown up, provides us with little, if any, evidence that a miracle has occurred.”

This can easily offset any improbability of the event itself. In the case of the resurrection of Jesus, for example, this means that we must also ask, “What is the probability of the facts of the empty tomb, the post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection, if the resurrection had not occurred?” It is highly, highly, highly, improbable that we should have that evidence if the resurrection had not occurred.

Well, this is precisely what I question. I questioned it in our debate (and Craig did not respond to my point in that debate). I also question it in my paper, in the above quotation. We should expect these otherwise-hard-to-explain-in-mundane-terms miraculous claims to be made every now and then, even if there are no miracles. 

Summary: Craig has entirely ignored my arguments for Sagan’s principle. Instead he has chosen to refute an argument I didn’t give.

(Though let me add that I acknowledge that a low prior probability of a hypothesis will require an equally improbable bit of testimony to neutralize, and that, as a matter of fact, resurrection miracles do indeed have a quite extraordinarily low prior probability (unlike people winning lotteries, which happens all the time) and so will require no less extraordinarily improbable evidence even just to cancel out that low prior, let alone confirm the hypothesis to the extent that it is placed beyond reasonable doubt [this would at least partially account for the intuitive verdict in the Ted and Sarah case] Craig’s use (elsewhere) of the lottery example to try to show that miracles can similarly reasonably be accepted on the basis of a bit of otherwise-hard-to explain testimony just overlooks this fact. Carrier spells this out here.).

And how about (2)? I suppose it depends on what you mean by “extraordinary,” but the evidence for the facts of the empty tomb, Jesus’ post-mortem appearances, and origin of the disciples’ belief is such that the majority of scholars, even radical critics like Ehrman, are convinced of their historicity.

Craig’s just repeating his point that Biblical Scholars think this sort of evidence is good enough. Sure, many do. My argument is they aren’t justified in doing so. Pointing to the conclusions of scholars whose methods I’m arguing are faulty constitutes a question-begging response to my argument.

Moreover, there is no naturalistic theory proposed as an explanation of these three facts which has garnered the allegiance of a significant number of scholars. So the evidence for the central miracle of the New Testament is pretty extraordinary—even though, as mentioned above, that is not a pre-requisite of the verdict of historicity.

Yet again, Craig just appeals to the authority of those whose expertise is being questioned. Moreover, as I pointed out in both our debate and also very clearly in my paper, it clearly won’t do to say that if no plausible-looking mundane explanation for testimony of miraculous event is available, it’s then reasonable to believe the testimony. I say:

“Notice, incidentally, that even if I am unable to construct a plausible explanation for why these otherwise highly trustworthy individuals would make such extraordinary claims – it’s implausible, for example, that Ted and Sarah are deliberate hoaxers (for this does not fit at all with what I otherwise know about them), or are the unwitting victims of an elaborate hoax (why would someone go to such extraordinary lengths to pull this trick?) – that would still not lend their testimony much additional credibility. Ceteris paribus, when dealing with such extraordinary reports – whether they be about alien abductions or supernatural visitations – the fact that it remains blankly mysterious why such reports would be made if they were not true does not provide us with very much additional reason to suppose that they are true.”

Craig just ignores my argument.

Premise (4) has little to commend it, I suspect. We may be cautious in such cases—but sceptical? Legends blend historical claims with non-historical marvels, and the presence of the marvels doesn’t imply that we should reject the historicity of the mundane claims.

This comment is particularly interesting. The (4) Craig is discussing here is taken from a 2008 blog post sketch, not my actual paper. This is (4) in my actual paper:

(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.

(note the italics just added). Now compare this with what Craig is criticising here:

(4) P2 Where testimony/documents combine both mundane and extraordinary claims, and there's excellent reason to be skeptical about the extraordinary claims, then there's pretty good reason to be skeptical even about the mundane claims, at least until we possess some pretty good independent evidence of their truth.

You will see that a crucial caveat is missing – a caveat concerning the proportion of extraordinary claims woven into the narrative. My paper carefully explains the importance of this caveat, and spells out in particular that just because a legend contains marvels does not mean we should reject the historical claims. For example, I say:

“After all, Alexander the Great was also said to have been involved in miracles. Plutarch records that Alexander was miraculously guided across the desert by a flock of ravens that waited when Alexander’s army fell behind.[i] Should the presence of such extraordinary claims lead us to condemn everything Plutarch’s has to say about Alexander as unreliable? Obviously not.”

What is crucial is the extent of the contamination of the narrative with extraordinary claims. The Jesus narrative is highly contaminated and the central episode is a miracle. That is why we should be skeptical, not because it happens to contain some miracle claims.

So, Craig here runs a criticism of (4) that my academic paper itself discusses in some detail and to which the argument presented in that paper is actually immune. Why would he do that if he has read my paper? Baffling.

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.

Yes, I acknowledge all this in the opening sections of the paper.

If you’re interested in reading these, Robert Van Voorst has collected these sources in his book Jesus outside the New Testament.4There 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.”5

In order to establish beyond reasonable doubt the existence of Jesus these passages would have to be conclusively shown not to be dependent on Christian sources. So the onus is on Craig to show that, not on me to show otherwise. And, as I point out in the paper, there is controversy, not only about the extent to which the Josephus passages have been tampered with by Christians, but also about the extent to which we can be confident Josephus’s information ultimately traces back to non-Christian sources. Given such controversy, reasonable doubt enters in regarding the independence of the testimony.
Carrier is good on Craig’s appeal to Josephus here, by the way. I encourage you to read what he says in this section: http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/4096#josephus

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.

Here Craig appeals to the criterion of multiple attestation. That criterion is discussed and criticised in some detail in my paper. Craig has just ignored my arguments here. In any case, Craig is also guilty of bootstrapping here: the reliability of these sources is precisely what the argument of my paper throws into doubt.

But there are more reasons for denying (6):
  • Principle of Sufficient Cause: Law says that Alexander the Great must have existed because of the military dynasties left in his wake.

I said there is good evidence Alexander existed, including (but not restricted to) archeological evidence of the 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.

Invading armies invariably have real leaders who exist. Religious movements are built around individuals who may or may not exist. Clearly, the existence of a Christian movement is not evidence for a real Christ in the way the existence of an invading army is evidence for a real military leader. The suggestion that such a movement is likely to have been built around a real as opposed to a fictional person has an entire section of my paper devoted to it. Craig here just ignores the argument it contains.

And in any case we have excellent non-miracle-contaminated independent evidence for Alexander. Not so for Jesus. Carrier is very good on Craig’s attempt to draw an analogy between evidence for Alexander and Jesus. I recommend you read at least this section of Carrier’s online paper: http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/4096#alexander
  • 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 explicitly address and argue against the criterion of embarrassment in my paper. Craig just ignores my argument here.
  • 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.

What we have here is evidence that this is what Christians a few hundred years after Jesus supposedly lived believed regarding his tomb. This is hardly good evidence that Jesus was a real person, particularly when there is good reason to be skeptical about what early Christians have to say about Jesus – which is what my paper actually argues.

In sum, Law’s argument is not a good one. Scepticism or even agnosticism about the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth is groundless. As Ehrman concludes, “Whether we like it or not, Jesus certainly existed.”

In summary, Craig’s critique largely ignores the arguments that my paper does contain, and instead criticises arguments it does not contain. In particular, he criticises a crude version of premise (4) that’s not even in my paper; indeed, as the paper itself explains at some length, the version of (4) that is in my paper is pretty obviously immune to his criticism.

Had Craig submitted this critique to any reputable journal of philosophy, it would surely have been rejected out of hand.


25 comments:

Paul P. Mealing said...

I've always thought it unfortunate that there is no independent historical record of Jesus, only the New Testament, effectively. The logical place to find them would be in Roman documents under the Emperor of the time. Don Cupitt in Jesus & Philosophy references a document called Q, which he describes thus:

“Q, it should be said in parenthesis here, is the term used by Gospel critics to describe a hypothetical sayings-Gospel, written somewhere between the years 50 and 70 CE, and drawn upon extensively by both Matthew and Luke.”

I've no idea how authentic this reference is, and, obviously, it's not independent of the Gospels. I admit that I'd like to think that Jesus existed as a man and not a God, similar to Buddha or Confucious, neither of whom wrote anything down. Cupitt makes the same comparison.

I'm amazed that Craig is given the intellectual respect that he receives. I've long considered him overrated and overinflated. I often think he bluffs his audience in the hope that they are more ignorant than he is.

Regards, Paul.

Tony Lloyd said...

“Rather what’s crucial is the probability that we should have the evidence we do if the extraordinary event had not occurred”

“(W)hat’s crucial is the probability that we should have the evidence we do if the extraordinary event had not occurred” strikes me as saying exactly that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and that the “rather” is…misplaced.

The bottom half of the Bayes fraction is:

A. (The probability that we should have the evidence if the extraordinary event had occurred

TIMES

B. The probability that the extraordinary event occurred)

PLUS

C. (The probability that we should have the evidence if the extraordinary event had not occurred

TIMES

D. 1-B)

But this is the probability of the evidence and the lower C, the lower the probability of the evidence.

If the event is extraordinary then B is very small. If B is very small then A x B must be very small (the highest A can be is 1 and 1 x very small = very small).

The highest D can be is just short of 1 and, so, the biggest C x D can be is just short of C.

So if the probability that we have the evidence if the extraordinary event did not occur, C, is very small then we have evidence of a very small probability PLUS a very small probability.

Sorites considerations aside this is a very small probabilty that the evidence will arise. Where B is very small (extraordinary); “it’s crucial that C is low” is equivalent to “it’s crucial that the probability of the evidence is very low”.

So “rather” should read something like “yes indeed” and “demonstrably false” should read “absolutely spot on”.

An error? A misunderstanding? It’s not the first convenient “error”.

It’s not even the only one in this critique:

So, Craig here runs a criticism of (4) that my academic paper itself discusses in some detail and to which the argument presented in that paper is actually immune. Why would he do that if he has read my paper? Baffling.

Should we not be prepared to entertain the idea that it’s not actually baffling?

Fortigurn said...

"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."

I would like to see this argument accompanied by evidence for its merit (the Bert analogy does not comprise such evidence). Does this argument follow standard professional historiographical methodology?

"Indeed, I go on to question three of the main criteria Biblical historians use in arriving at the conclusion that Jesus’ existence is established beyond reasonable doubt."

Actually it seems you address the 'criteria of authenticity', which are supposed to be used to determine which parts of the gospel records are authentic records of Jesus. Their purpose is to differentiate between authentic Jesus traditions and inauthentic traditions, not to establish the historicity of Jesus. They are not 'criteria of historicity', they are 'criteria of authenticity'. If Craig is citing them as 'criteria of historicity' then he is wrong.

"It’s obviously hopelessly question-begging, as a response to an argument that questions the authority/expertise of those working in a certain field, to appeal to their authority."

Does your argument actually provide valid grounds on which to question the current professional historiographical method, and dismiss professional historians as equivalent to homeopaths? Your homeopath example is invalid, by the way, because homeopaths are people claiming to do science while being completely unqualified in science. But professional historians are doing historiography while being academically qualified in historiography. I would trust a professional historian to know more about historiography than a philosopher (not least because the historians entire field of study is ground in reality rather than imagination).

"And, as I point out in the paper, there is controversy, not only about the extent to which the Josephus passages have been tampered with by Christians, but also about the extent to which we can be confident Josephus’s information ultimately traces back to non-Christian sources."

Could you provide evidence of the extent of this controversy among those best qualified to address the issue? I don't mean pointing to blogs on which Mytherists say it's controversial, I mean evidence from people who are actually qualified to know what they are talking about. Carrier claims both passages in Josephus are interpolations, but cites only two articles, one written in 1990 and the other written by himself (!). I don't regard this as evidence that the case has been concluded in his favour.

Erlend said...


Stephen does the fact that Q (probably the earliest recollections of Jesus' deeds and teachings) does not have miraculous events associated with him not impact your argument?

Paul Mealing

"I've always thought it unfortunate that there is no independent historical record of Jesus, only the New Testament, effectively. The logical place to find them would be in Roman documents under the Emperor of the time. "

They would be the logical place to look- but they themselves do not exist. What contemporary Roman accounts from near the time and place of Jesus' life do you think exist? You are aware of the extreme paucity of such resources?

Stephen Law said...

"the Bert analogy does not comprise such evidence"

yes it does. So does the case of the sixth islander, also in my paper.

Stephen Law said...

I would trust a professional historian to know more about historiography than a philosopher (not least because the historians entire field of study is ground in reality rather than imagination)."

You should trust a philosopher more than an historian on general epistemological principles however, which is what I am focussing on.

Ignorance said...

"What is crucial is the extent of the contamination of the narrative with extraordinary claims. The Jesus narrative is highly contaminated and the central episode is a miracle. That is why we should be skeptical, not because it happens to contain some miracle claims."

Hello Professor Law. I think the above section, plus a few other remarks, bypasses another possible explanation that is compatible with a historical Jesus as well as with several of these claims being grounded in historical reality. My beef with this paragraph is that it assumes that the described extraordinary claims and miracles are problematic enough, which I suppose has to do with supernatural elements. But have you considered that several alleged miracles may be accepted as genuine since they can be explained naturalistically as the healing of mere culturally framed psychosomatic afflictions (this is discussed by Casey in chapter 7 of his Jesus of Nazareth)? Don't you agree that such "miracles" are not extraordinary claims? If so, pointing to a high proportion of supposed miracles is insufficient as an overwhelming amount might simply be psychosomatic illnesses being cured. As your argument at least depends on the elimination of this alternative in order to be persuasive, I think the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate that there is a disproportionally high amount of miracles that cannot be explained by naturalistic means before appealing to the high proportion of problematic extraordinary claims. Of course I agree there are many miracle claims in the gospel, but that does not seem enough for your argument to work as it is, as you say, crucial that there are problematic extraordinary claims.

Stephen Law said...

"have you considered that several alleged miracles may be accepted as genuine since they can be explained naturalistically as the healing of mere culturally framed psychosomatic afflictions"

Yes it's considered in the paper as a refinement needed to P2. Many of the Jesus miracles appear unlikely to be of this sort however... (mere misunderstood or misinterpreted natural phenomena)

Fortigurn said...

"yes it does. So does the case of the sixth islander, also in my paper."

I suggest you provide some proof that this is so. I read both of your hypotheses, but you provide no proof that either of them substantiates the argument you are making. You just used them as a vehicle for repeating your claim.

"You should trust a philosopher more than an historian on general epistemological principles however, which is what I am focussing on.'

I trust philosophers to be paid to drink beer and use their imaginations, but not much else. A handwaving appeal to the authority of philosophers is ironic given your objection to Craig's appeal to authority. I see no reason to trust you on general epistemological principles, especially when you fail to provide evidence for your claims. The fact that you do not provide a falsifiable hypothesis, does not instill confidence in your aptitude to comment authoritatively on epistemology. The historiographical method rests on scientifically based epistemological principles, and methodologies with falsifiability criteria. I do not seem the same commitment to reality in your argument.

I note you did not address most of the points I made.

Fortigurn said...

Ignorance,

" As your argument at least depends on the elimination of this alternative in order to be persuasive, I think the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate that there is a disproportionally high amount of miracles that cannot be explained by naturalistic means before appealing to the high proportion of problematic extraordinary claims."

I would like to see the evidence for 'a disproportionately high amount of miracles' for a start. No methodology was presented for determining a 'disproportionately high amount', for a start. I expect Laws has not read Josephus.

Erlend said...

Stephen: this is an important point: Q, probably the earliest source about the historical Jesus (before the gospel writers placed Jesus' story into their own narratives) lacks miracles. Doesn't your case therefore fall apart?

michael fugate said...

Erlend,
You have a copy of Q?

Tony Lloyd said...

Hi Erlend

Q would be interesting. But wouldn't its effect on mythicism depend on just what it said?

If it were a non-contaminated description of a persons life then it would seem to be good evidence that the person existed.

But my understanding (from Wikipedia, so we're not talking Biblical scholar here!) is that Q is thought to have been a collection of sayings only. A collection of sayings doesn't identify anyone.

It opens up the possibility of Q being "appropriated" to add wisdom to the Gospel narrative, the Gospel narrative being invented to flesh out Q or the two individuals simply being conflated.

Of course it could also quite easily be the case that Luke and Matthew wrote a real history of a real person from the memory of a community whilst they had a source for that persons sayings. That would explain why they differ in details of the life but agree on the sayings.

So a sayings Q wouldn't be at all conclusive (or, even, helpful). But then Stephen's article wasn't making the case for mythicism, is was making the case that mythicism is not a totally irrational position.

Erlend said...

Michael, I do have a copy of Q- it is the common sources between the synoptic gospels. Pick up any synoptic parallel and you will have access to Q. I do not claim to have found some sort of document that Q was taken from(and in any case I think it was probably oral tradition anyway...).

Tony the point is that the earliest source (i.e. the source that Mark, Matthew and Luke use) does not depict Jesus performing miracles- therefore Stephen's argument does not work in an academic setting. It only works if your audience either doesn't understand Biblical history, or if they ascribes to some type of fundamentalist inerrancy that denies such a development in the Jesus tradition (and there are other ideas over what Q is, i.e. see Mark Goodacre's work, but you get the idea...).

wombat said...

@Erland

Surely a pure "sayings gospel" doesn't depict Jesus at all other than as a target for attributing the various bits of wisdom. So the although Q avoids contamination by miracles it doesn't effectively make much in the way of mundane claims for Jesus life history either. The synoptics are still under doubt.

Since we don't have a full text of Q we can't actually rule out the possibility that miracle claims occur in it either.
Then again Q itself could quite likely be a collection of wisdom from several sources, (for example like a collection of tales about Mullah Nasreddin)

Q also has its own problems currently being an inference from later documents. Of course a few good archaeological finds might change that.

pboyfloyd said...

I'd be more inclined to believe the Gospels if it were backed up by the writings of Jesus himself(Himself?)((that he(He)was a real, historical person, that is.))

Anonymous said...

@erland and Q

There are arguments against the existence of Q (see Mark Goodacre, "The case against Q") who argues, as I remember, that Luke used Mathew as one of his sources along with Mark, so "Q" in fact consists of those non-Mark bits of Mathew that Luke chose to copy.

Johan Viklund said...

Erlend and Fortigurn.

You're arguing as if the alternatives are either certain Jesus existed or certain that he didn't.

The way I read Prof. Law here is that he is arguing against the position that we can be certain Jesus existed.

For illustration purposes I will use probabilities. Say that certainty that Jesus existed means that we are 99% sure he did, what Law is doing is saying somethings along the lines of "No, not quite so high, it seems to me. Given all these factors, perhaps 70% certain". Which means, more probably than not, but definitely not completely certain. (Q could be the source that brings us from 50% to 70%).

And again, all probabilities here are only used for illustration purposes.

michael fugate said...

Erlend, you claim that we know what was in Q by what was copied into other documents. What reason do you have for believing the entire text of Q was included in the Gospels? What is the evidence for Q not containing miracles when the same miracles are reported in Matthew, Mark and Luke or in two of the three?

Fortigurn said...

"You're arguing as if the alternatives are either certain Jesus existed or certain that he didn't."

No. I am testing Law's claim that his argument is sufficient grounds for agnosticism. That's all.

"The way I read Prof. Law here is that he is arguing against the position that we can be certain Jesus existed."

That's how I read him too.

"Say that certainty that Jesus existed means that we are 99% sure he did, what Law is doing is saying somethings along the lines of "No, not quite so high, it seems to me. Given all these factors, perhaps 70% certain". Which means, more probably than not, but definitely not completely certain. (Q could be the source that brings us from 50% to 70%)."

Law is not dealing in probabilities (as historians do). He claims Jesus agnosticism is the rational position. If the probability in favour of Jesus' existence was 70%, agnosticism would not be a rational position. Law's view, if it were framed in terms of probability (which he does not), would be be closer to claiming that the evidence for the historicity of Jesus is only 50%, giving reason for agnosticism.

The problem with Law's argument is that it is not framed in terms of probabilities, nor is it based on assessing evidence using standard critical methods (such as the scientific method). His argument is equivalent to saying that if he can imagine a sufficiently creative alternative to Jesus existing, then his alternative is as valid as drawing a conclusion in favour of historicity.

He provides no objective evidence for his argument, nor does he even suggest how it could be robustly tested and falsified. He does not provide any process by which we may differentiate reliably between TRUE mundane claims made by sources which also make supernatural claims, and FALSE mundane claims. His entire 'contamination' theory is left completely unproved. There is no critical analysis, and no process of differentiation, in his argument. This is radically different to how professional historiography proceeds.

The last philosophy major with whom I had a lengthy discussion, also tried to play the 'epistemology' card when commenting on a field concerning which they were completely unqualified. It seems some philosophers think that because they sit around thinking all day, they can claim they're experts in epistemological thinking, and that their opinions therefore trump the views of trained professionals in fields other than philosophy, which have been substantiated by evidence and have persistently withstood the rigour of peer review.

That philosophy major was trying to tell me that the modern evolutionary synthesis (the modern 'theory of evolution', as it is called), is false. When I pointed out that such a claim flies in the face of over 100 years of well established, peer reviewed, evidence based research by professional biologists (and others), he played the epistemological card, claiming this was simply a matter of epistemology, concerning which he believes he is better qualified than biologists. I wonder what would happen if he broke his leg? Would he try to argue it better, or would he go to a doctor and keep his mouth shut for a change?

Law's article is an excellent example of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Young Earth Creationists fall victim to the same cognitive error.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect

Johan Viklund said...

So 70% certain is enough to say that we know without reasonable doubt that Jesus existed?

To quote Law from the post above:

"Indeed, in my paper I say that Jesus’ existence might be a bit more probable than not. My suggestion (made quite tentatively) is merely that Jesus’ existence has not been established beyond reasonable doubt."

You are attacking a straw-man with your agnosticism angle.

As for the rest, I don't know. Maybe you should point out what is wrong with the thought experiments instead of just dismissing them? I think it would be interesting to know why the conclusion drawn from them doesn't hold. Part of the reason it is put out is to find out what, if anything, is wrong with the argument.

Your main critique seems to be that he is not doing historiography, but he never set out to do that, so that again is a straw-man. He is merely questioning three of the methods used. All the other criteria that historiographers use are still intact.

Tony Lloyd said...

He provides no objective evidence for his argument, nor does he even suggest how it could be robustly tested and falsified.
Say someone offers a trial as evidence of medical treatment. Looking at the write up of the trial it is pretty obvious that the trial is junk, the participants where self selecting, there was no control, the assessment of the results was hopelessly subjective, the researchers were paid by the treatment’s producers contingent on positive trial results etc. Do I have to provide evidence that can be robustly tested and falsified? What would such evidence be of? What would it look like?
He does not provide any process by which we may differentiate reliably between TRUE mundane claims made by sources which also make supernatural claims, and FALSE mundane claims.
Eh? If there were no such processes two things would follow: no process could be given and mundane claims made by sources which also make supernatural claims would be unreliable. On the other hand if such a process were given then we could rely on such sources by picking the reliable bits. As the point of the paper is we that we cannot rely on such sources your demand is a demand that you refute a central point in the argument before you’ll accept a central point in the argument!
Messrs Dunning and Kruger meet Messrs Pot and Kettle.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Craig responds to your evil god challenge:

http://www.reasonablefaith.org/the-evil-god-objection

Godss Cumm said...

Anon ^ Stephen already responded to that.

Express Yourself said...

The more I listen to the so called atheists and even some of the more honorable skeptics who are honest enough to call themselves agnostics, the more I discern a deep seated, irrational hostility toward religious people, especially toward Christians, Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens and all that I have seen in debate seen to hold this anger!