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(Published in Faith and Philosophy 2011. Volume 28, Issue 2, April 2011. Stephen Law. Pages 129-151)
Stephen Law


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. In particular, I argue (i) that the three most popular criteria by which various non-miraculous New Testament claims made about Jesus are supposedly corroborated are not sufficient, either singly or jointly, to place his existence beyond reasonable doubt, and (ii) that a prima facie plausible principle concerning how evidence should be assessed – a principle I call the contamination principle – entails that, given the large proportion of uncorroborated miracle claims made about Jesus in the New Testament documents, we should, in the absence of independent evidence for an historical Jesus, remain sceptical about his existence.


Historians regularly distinguish two kinds of claims about Jesus:

(i)    claims concerning Jesus’ existence and the non-miraculous events in his life, such as his teaching and crucifixion.
(ii)    claims concerning Jesus’ divinity and the miraculous – such as walking on water, raising the dead and, most notably, the resurrection.

Philosophical reflection has made contributions regarding how we assess evidence for the latter – Hume’s writing on miracles being perhaps the most noteworthy. Here, I explain how philosophical reflection might also make an important contribution regarding how we assess evidence for the former.

The focus of this paper is solely on what history, as a discipline, is able to reveal. Perhaps historical investigation is not the only way in which we might come to know whether or not Jesus existed. Alvin Plantinga suggests that the truth of scripture can be known non-inferentially, by the operation of a sensus divinitatis.  Here we are concerned only with what might be established by the evidence. The key question I address is: is it true that, as most Biblical historians believe, the available historical evidence places Jesus’ existence beyond reasonable doubt? In particular, can we firmly establish Jesus’ existence just by appeal to the New Testament documents?

Sources of evidence

What constitutes the pool of evidence on which we might draw in making a case for an historical Jesus? The main source is the New Testament, and more specifically:

(i) The Gospels, some written within a few (perhaps one or two) decades of Jesus’ death (though probably not by first-hand witnesses).

(ii) The writings of Paul – written perhaps within a decade or two of Jesus’ life. Paul may have known some of those who knew Jesus personally. Paul claims to have received the Gospel not from any human source or teaching but by revelation from the miraculously risen Christ (Galatians 1:11-12, 15-16).

In addition to the textual evidence provided by the New Testament, we possess some non-canonical gospels, and also a handful of later, non-Christian references to Jesus: most notably Tacitus, who writes about the Christians persecuted by Nero, who were named after their leader Christus who suffered the “extreme penalty” under Tiberius , and Josephus, who makes a brief reference to the crucifixion of Jesus . However, it is controversial whether these later references are genuinely independent of Christian sources (Tacitus may only be reporting the existence of Christians and what they believed, and Josephus may be relying on Christian reports of what occurred ). There is also debate over the extent to which the Josephus text has been tampered with by later Christians. 

The Consensus View

Historians disagree over the extent to which claims about Jesus’ miraculous nature – and, in particular, his resurrection – are supported by the historical evidence. However, when we turn to the question of whether there was an historical Jesus, we find a clear consensus emerges. The vast majority believe that Jesus’ existence and crucifixion, at least, are firmly established (one rare exception being Robert M. Price) .

Of course, it’s widely acknowledged that the evidence for Jesus’ existence might seem somewhat limited compared to, say, the evidence we have for the existence of individuals from more recent history. But, when it comes to figures from ancient history, the evidence is often rather restricted. That doesn’t prevent historians building a good case for their existence.

In fact, it is often said there is as much evidence for an historical Jesus as there is for the existence of a great many other historical figures whose existence is never seriously doubted. In A Marginal Jew – Rethinking The Historical Jesus, for example, John Meier notes that what we know about Alexander the Great could fit on a few sheets of paper, yet no one doubts that Alexander existed.  Greco-Roman historian Michael Grant argues that

if we apply to the New Testament, as we should, the same sort of criteria as we should apply to other ancient writings containing historical material, we can no more reject Jesus’ existence than we can reject the existence of a mass of pagan personages whose reality as historical figures is never questioned.

Biblical historian E. P. Sanders writes:

There are no substantial doubts about the general course of Jesus’ life: when and where he lived, approximately when and where he died, and the sort of thing that he did during his public activity.

According to Luke Johnson, a New Testament scholar at Emory University,

Even the most critical historian can confidently assert that a Jew named Jesus worked as a teacher and wonder-worker in Palestine during the reign of Tiberius, was executed by crucifixion under the prefect Pontius Pilate and continued to have followers after his death.
My concern here is with the claim that there is, indeed, historical evidence sufficient firmly to establish the existence of Jesus. Note that while I question whether there is, in fact, such historical evidence, I do not argue that we are justified in supposing that Jesus is an entirely mythical figure (I remain no less sceptical about that claim).


One difference between the historical claims made about Jesus and those made about other historical characters such as Alexander the Great is the large number of supernatural miracles in which Jesus is alleged to have been involved. By supernatural miracles I mean miracles involving a suspension of the laws or regularities otherwise governing that natural world (henceforth, I shall simply refer to such events as “miracles”). Walking on water, bringing dead people back to life and turning water into wine all appear to be miracles of this sort.

This is not to say that miracles were not also associated with other figures whose existence is not seriously questioned – they were. Attributing miracles to major figures, including even sporting heroes, was not uncommon in the ancient world. However, when we look at the textual evidence for an historical Jesus provided by the New Testament, we find an abundance of miracle claims. Somewhere in the region of thirty-five miracles are attributed to Jesus in the New Testament. These miracles constitute a significant part of the narrative. It is estimated that the episodes reported by the Gospels (other than the nativity)  occur in only the last three years of Jesus’ life, and that together they comprise just a few weeks or months. The supposed occurrence of thirty-five or so miracles within such a relatively short period of time is striking. Nor are these miracles merely incidental to the main narrative. The pivotal episode – Jesus’ resurrection – is a miracle.

Evidence for the miraculous

I begin by focusing on evidence for the miraculous (the relevance of this will become apparent later). It appears that, as a rule, in order for evidence to justify the claim that something miraculous has occurred, the evidence needs to be of a much higher standard than that required to justify more mundane beliefs. Here is a simple illustration of this point.

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.

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.

Consideration of the Ted and Sarah case suggests something like the following moral:

P1 Where a claim’s justification derives solely from evidence, extraordinary claims (e.g. concerning supernatural miracles) require extraordinary evidence. In the absence of extraordinary evidence there is good reason to be sceptical about those claims.

The phrase “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is associated particularly with the scientist Carl Sagan . By “extraordinary evidence” Sagan means, of course, extraordinarily good evidence – evidence much stronger than that required to justify rather more mundane claims. The phrase “extraordinary claims” is admittedly somewhat vague. A claim need not involve a supernatural element to qualify as “extraordinary” in the sense intended here (the claims that I built a time machine over the weekend, or was abducted by aliens, involve no supernatural element, but would also count as “extraordinary”). It suffices, for our purposes, to say that whatever “extraordinary” means here, the claim that a supernatural miracle has occurred qualifies.

Some theists  (though of course by no means all) have challenged the application of Sagan’s principle to religious miracles, maintaining that which claims qualify as “extraordinary” depends on our presuppositions. Suppose we begin to examine the historical evidence having presupposed that there is no, or is unlikely to be a, God. Then of course Jesus’ miracles will strike us as highly unlikely events requiring exceptionally good evidence before we might reasonably suppose them to have occurred. But what if we approach the Jesus miracles from the point of view of theism? Then that such miraculous events should be a part of history is not, one might argue, particularly surprising. But then we are not justified in raising the evidential bar with respect to such claims. So theists may, after all, be justified in accepting such events occurred solely on the basis of a limited amount of testimony, just as they would be the occurrence of other unusual, but non-supernatural, events. The application of Sagan’s principle that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” to the Jesus miracles simply presupposes, prior to any examination of the evidence, that theism is not, or is unlikely to be, true. We might call this response to Sagan’s principle the Presuppositions Move.

That there is something awry with the Presuppositions Move, at least as it stands, is strongly suggested by the fact that it appears to license those of us who believe in Big Foot, psychic powers, the activities of fairies, etc. to adopt the same strategy – e.g. we may insist that we can quite reasonable accept, solely on the basis of Mary and John’s testimony, that fairies danced at the bottom of their garden last night, just so long as we presuppose, prior to any examination of the evidence, that fairies exist. Those making the Presuppositions Move with respect to religious miracles may be prepared to accept this consequence, but I suspect the majority of impartial observers will find it a lot to swallow – and indeed will continue to consider those who accept testimony of dancing fairies to be excessively credulous whether those believers happen to hold fairy-istic presuppositions or not.

I suspect at least part of what has gone wrong here is that, 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.). But then, armed with this further knowledge about the general unreliability of this kind of testimony, even if we do happen to approach such testimony with theistic or fairy-istic presuppositions, surely we should still raise the evidential bar much higher for eye-witness reports of religious miracles or fairies than we do for more mundane claims.
So, my suggestion is that P1 is, prima facie, a fairly plausible principle – a principle that is applicable to the testimony concerning the miracles of Jesus. Note that P1 at least allows for the possibility that we might reasonably suppose a miracle has happened. Of course, I do not claim to have provided anything like proof of P1. But it does appear fairly accurately to reflect one of the ways in which we assess evidence. We do, rightly, set the evidential bar much higher for extraordinary claims than we do for more mundane claims.

If we turn to the miracle claims made in the New Testament concerning Jesus – including the claim that he was resurrected three days after his death – P1 suggests the evidence required to justify such claims would need to be much stronger than that required to justify more mundane claims about ancient history, such as that Caesar crossed the Rubicon. That we possess evidence sufficient to justify belief in even one of the many supernatural miracles associated with Jesus is clearly questionable. There is no consensus among historians about that.

Of course, we should acknowledge there are differences between the historical evidence for the miracles of Jesus and the evidence provided by Ted and Sarah that miracles were performed in their sitting room. For example, we have only two individuals testifying to Bert’s miracles, whereas we have all four Gospels, plus Paul, testifying to the miracles of Jesus. However, even if we learn that Ted and Sarah were joined by three other witnesses whose testimony is then added to their own, surely that would still not raise the credibility of their collective testimony by very much.

Also note that the evidence supplied by Ted and Sarah is, in certain respects, significantly better than the evidence supplied by the New Testament. For we are dealing directly with the eye-witnesses themselves immediately after the alleged events, rather than having to rely on second- or third-hand reports produced two millenia ago, perhaps decades after the events in question.

The contamination principle

I shall now argue for a second principle.

Let’s return to Ted and Sarah. If they tell me a man called Bert paid them an unexpected visit in their home last night, I have every reason to believe them. But if they tell me that Bert flew around the room by flapping his arms before dying, coming back to life and turning their sofa into a donkey, well then not only I am not justified, solely on the basis of their testimony, that these amazing things happened, I can no longer be at all confident that any such person as Bert exists.

None of this is to say we possess good grounds for supposing Bert doesn’t exist. It’s just that we are not yet justified in claiming that he does.

Of course, if we are given video footage showing Ted and Sarah welcoming someone into their house at just the time Bert supposedly visited, well we now have much better grounds for supposing that Bert is real. But in the absence of such good, independent evidence, we are not yet justified in supposing there is any such person.

These observations suggest something like the following principle:

P2 Where testimony/documents weave together a narrative that combines mundane claims with a significant proportion of extraordinary claims, and there is good reason to be sceptical about those extraordinary claims, then there is good reason to be sceptical about the mundane claims, at least until we possess good independent evidence of their truth.

We might call this the contamination principle – the thought being that the dubious character of the several extraordinary parts of a narrative ends up contaminating the more pedestrian parts, rendering them dubious too.

Why does this contamination take place? Because once we know that a powerful, false-testimony-producing mechanism (or combination of mechanisms) may well have produced a significant chunk of a narrative (e.g. the miraculous parts), we can no longer be confident that the same mechanism is not responsible for what remains.

Ted and Sarah’s miracle reports, if false, will be the impressive result of a powerful, false-testimony-producing mechanism. We may not know what that mechanism is (hypnotism, L.S.D., or a powerful desire to get themselves on daytime TV – who knows?). But, whatever the mechanism is, it could, presumably, quite easily also be the source of the remainder of their narrative. We can’t, at this stage, be confident that it isn’t.

Principle P2 also has some prima facie plausibility. It certainly explains why we are not justified in taking Ted and Sarah’s word for it that Bert exists. However, I don’t doubt that P2 will be challenged, and I will examine some likely objections later.

The bracketing strategy

Note that if P2, or something like it, is correct, then it rules out a certain approach to assessing evidence for both the extraordinary and non-extraordinary claims concerning Jesus, an approach we might call “bracketing”.

To make a case for the truth of the non-miraculous parts of Ted and Sarah’s testimony, I certainly wouldn’t be justified in saying: “Let’s set to one side, for the moment, Ted and Sarah’s claim that Bert performed miracles. We still have the testimony of these two otherwise sane and trustworthy individuals that someone called Bert drank tea with them. Under other circumstances, we would be justified in taking their word for this. So we’re justified in taking their word for it here, too.”

Intuitively, this would be a faulty inference. We’re not yet justified in supposing Bert exists. The fact that a large chunk of Ted and Sarah’s testimony involves him performing supernatural miracles does not just slightly reduce the credibility of the rest of the testimony about him – it almost entirely undermines it.

It would be particularly foolish of us to attempt to construct a two-stage case for the miraculous parts of Ted and Sarah’s testimony by (i) bracketing the miraculous parts to establish the truth of the non-miraculous parts, and then (ii) using these supposedly now “firmly established facts” as a platform from which to argue for the truth of the miraculous parts.

In the same way, we cannot legitimately bracket the miraculous parts of the New Testament, and then insist that, as the remaining textual evidence for Jesus’ existence is at least as good as the textual evidence we have for other ancient figures whose existence is beyond reasonable doubt (e.g. Socrates), Jesus’ existence must also beyond reasonable doubt.

It would also be foolish to try to construct a two part case for Jesus’ miraculous resurrection by (i) bracketing the miraculous parts of the Gospel narrative and using what remains to build a case for the truth of certain non-miraculous claims (about Jesus’ crucifixion, the empty tomb, and so on), and then (ii) using these supposedly now “firmly established facts” to argue that Jesus’ miraculous resurrection is what best explains them (yet several apologetic works – e.g. Frank Morrison’s Who Moved The Stone?  – appear implicitly to rely on this strategy).
A sceptical argument

Our two prima facie plausible principles – P1 and P2 – combine with certain plausible empirical claims to deliver a conclusion very few Biblical scholars are willing to accept.

Let me stress at the outset that I don’t endorse the following argument. I present it, not because I’m convinced it is cogent, but because I believe it has some prima facie plausibility, and because it is an argument any historian who believes the available evidence places Jesus’ existence beyond reasonable doubt needs to refute.

1. (P1) Where a claim’s justification derives solely from evidence, extraordinary claims (e.g. concerning supernatural miracles) require extraordinary evidence. In the absence of extraordinary evidence there is good reason to be sceptical about those claims.
2. There is no extraordinary evidence for any of the extraordinary claims concerning supernatural miracles made in the New Testament documents.

3. Therefore (from 1 and 2), there's good reason to be sceptical about those extraordinary claims.

4. (P2) Where testimony/documents weave together a narrative that combines mundane claims with a significant proportion of extraordinary claims, and there is good reason to be sceptical about those extraordinary claims, then there is good reason to be sceptical about the mundane claims, at least until we possess good independent evidence of their truth.

5. The New Testament documents weave together a narrative about Jesus that combines mundane claims with a significant proportion of extraordinary claims.

6. There is no good independent evidence for even the mundane claims about Jesus (such as that he existed)

7. Therefore (from 3, 4, 5, and 6), there's good reason to be sceptical about whether Jesus existed.

Notice that this argument is presented in the context of a discussion of what it is or is not reasonable to believe on the basis of the historical evidence.  The argument combines 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.

Clearly, many historians also accept something like 2 and 5. A significant number remain sceptical about the miracle claims made in the New Testament, and so they, at least, are clearly not much tempted by the Presuppositions Move outlined above (which involved the suggestion that, for those coming to the evidence with Theistic presuppositions, the New Testament miracle claims need not, in the relevant sense, qualify as “extraordinary”). Michael Grant, for example, says: “according to the cold standard of humdrum fact, the standard to which the student of history is obliged to limit himself, these nature-reversing miracles did not happen.” . What of premise 6? Well, it is at least controversial among historians to what extent the evidence supplied by Josephus and Tacitus, etc. provides good, independent evidence for the existence of Jesus. Those texts provide some non-miracle-involving evidence, 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. I suggest 2 and 5 have a great deal of plausibility, and 6 is at the very least debatable.

My suspicion is that a significant number of Biblical scholars and historians (though of course by no means all) would accept something like all three empirical premises. If that is so, it then raises an intriguing question: why, then, is there such a powerful consensus that those who take a sceptical attitude towards Jesus’ existence are being unreasonable?

Perhaps the most obvious answer to this question would be: while many Biblical historians accept that the empirical premises have at least a fair degree of plausibility, and most would also accept something like P1, few would accept P2.

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 does contaminate the non-extraordinary parts.

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

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.  Should the presence of such extraordinary claims lead us to condemn everything Plutarch’s has to say about Alexander as unreliable? Obviously not. As 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.

However, these observations should not lead us to abandon P2. For P2 does not require we be sceptical Alexander’s existence. The miraculous claims made by Plutarch about Alexander constitute only a small part of his narrative. Moreover, regarding the miracle of the ravens, it’s not even clear we are dealing with a supernatural miracle, rather than some honestly misinterpreted natural phenomenon.  Further, and still more importantly, there’s good, independent evidence that Alexander existed and did many of the things Plutarch reports (including archeological evidence of the dynasties left in his military 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 same is true when it comes to other figures about whom supernatural claims were made, such as Socrates (about whom we have non-miracle involving testimony provided by Plato, Xenophon, etc.) and Julius Caesar (about whom we have both non-miracle-involving testimony and other historical evidence). The problem with the textual evidence for Jesus’ existence is that most of the details we have about him come solely from documents in which the miraculous constitutes a significant 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.

An objection

Here is a different suggestion as to how P2 might be challenged. Suppose we engage in a survey of similar figures about whom a great many miracle claims are made. We discover that, in the vast majority of cases, when we peel back the onionskin layers of mythology, there’s an actual historical person at the core. If that was established, then we might generalize, concluding that there’s probably an historical figure lying at the heart of the Jesus mythology too. The fact that many miracle claims are made about Jesus shouldn’t lead us to question his existence.

But this begs the question - would such a survey reveal that such narratives almost always have a real person at their core?

Clearly, historical figures do sometimes rapidly become the focus of many miracle claims. Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930-1974, is an historical figure around whom an astonishingly rich miracle-involving mythology developed even within his own lifetime. If such a mythology could quickly build up around Selassie, then presumably it could also have built up around an historical Jesus.

However, when we peel back the layers of mythology surrounding other figures, such as Jon Frum, figurehead of the cargo-cult religions that developed in the 1930’s on the islands of Tanna and Vanuatu, it is not clear that there is any historical core.  Not only are the various amazing claims about Frum not true, it appears quite likely there was never any such person. Other mythic narratives, e.g. concerning Hercules, also appear to have no historical figure at their core. It is not obviously a rule that mythical narratives into which are woven a large proportion of miracle claims are, in most cases, built around real people rather than mythic characters. So, while such a case for rejecting P2 might perhaps be developed, the prospects do not seem, at this point, particularly promising.

The decontamination objection

Another challenge to P2 would be to insist that while many unsubstantiated and extraordinary claims within a narrative might contaminate even the mundane parts of the narrative, rendering them dubious too, independent confirmation of several mundane parts might serve, as it were, to decontaminate the remaining mundane parts.

So, for example, while the New Testament narrative combines both extraordinary and mundane claims about Jesus, it also includes other mundane claims about for which we do have good independent evidence. For example, the narrative makes claims about the existence and position of Pontius Pilate, claims for which there is independent evidence. If enough of these mundane claims were independently confirmed, wouldn’t that effectively decontaminate the testimony regarding at least the mundane claims about Jesus – such as that he existed, visited certain places, said certain things, was condemned to death by Pilate, and so on?

I don’t believe so. Suppose that in the Ted and Sarah case, Ted and Sarah’s testimony includes various mundane details such as that Bert sat in a large grey armchair, stroked their cat Tiddles, drank tea out of a blue mug, and so on. On entering Ted and Sarah’s house, we are able to confirm that Ted and Sarah do indeed possess a grey armchair, a blue mug, and a cat called Tiddles who likes being stroked. Would this effectively decontaminate Ted and Sarah’s testimony concerning at least the existence of Bert and other mundane claims made about him, such as that he talked about the weather and wore a red bow tie?

I think not. Surely Ted and Sarah’s inclusion of the extraordinary and unverified details that Bert flew around by flapping his arms, died, came back to life again and temporarily transformed their sofa into a donkey continues to render even the mundane claims made about Bert highly dubious. Dreams and hallucinations typically involve various aspects of reality, including people and places. Works of extraordinary fiction often locate their fictional characters in real settings and may even have them interact with real people. False witnesses typically weave true material into their testimony. So, once we suspect that parts of a narrative (the extraordinary parts) are the result of deception, hallucination or some other-false-narrative-producing mechanism, the discovery that some mundane parts of the narrative are true hardly serves to decontaminate the remaining mundane material. Because both true and false mundane details are by no means unexpected within such narratives, the discovery that several mundane parts are true is hardly a secure basis for supposing that much or all of the remaining mundane narrative is likely to be true.

Other reasons for rejecting P2

Historians may reject P2 on other grounds. They may suggest there are particular features of textual evidence that can rightly lead us to be confident about the truth of some of the non-miraculous claims, even if many uncorroborated miracle claims are also made. Several criteria have been suggested for considering several of the non-miraculous claims about Jesus to be established beyond reasonable doubt by the New Testament documents.

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.

Milton provides a list of non-miraculous claims that he believes 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.”

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 prove useful in determining which attributions are accurate. But what if we are unsure whether there was any such person as Jesus? How useful is Milton’s criterion then? 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.

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, seem to constitute an embarrassment. In Jesus: The Fact Behind The Myth, Biblical scholar C. Leslie Milton claims 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”  – 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.

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 and Biblical scholars maintain that if a teaching or saying attributed to Jesus places him at odds with 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.  John Meier considers the criterion promising, though he notes that it may place undue emphasis on Jesus’ idiosyncracies, “highlighting what was striking but possibly peripheral in his message”.

Are these academics correct in supposing that the satisfaction, either singly or jointly, of these criteria by the New Testament testimony is sufficient to establish beyond reasonable doubt that many of the non-miracle-involving parts, at least, are true?

A closer look at the criteria of embarrassment and discontinuity

If we know that Jesus existed, the criteria of embarrassment and discontinuity might perhaps provide us with useful tools in determining which of his supposed utterances are genuine. But let’s consider, again, to what extent these criteria are helpful in determining whether there was any such person as Jesus in the first place.

It’s suggested that a group of religion-initiators is unlikely to create a narrative involving elements likely to prove embarrassing to that religion, or which, by being radically out of step with contemporary thinking, are likely to prove an obstacle to its being embraced by others. But is this true? Consider:

(i)    What if the religion-initiators themselves have developed certain radical views, views that the religion is itself designed to promote? The fact that the radical nature of these views might prove an obstacle to the religion’s success will be irrelevant to the initiators, given that promoting those views is actually part of what the religion is designed to do. It is, I think, not implausible that if the Jesus story is a myth, it is a story developed by myth-makers who had certain radical ethical and other views (e.g. the Kingdom of God being imminent) that they wanted others to accept. In which case, the fact that the Jesus narrative has Jesus saying and doing things that are very much out of step with the thinking of his contemporaries is not good evidence that Jesus is a real, historical figure.

(ii)    The existence of embarrassing internal tensions or contradictions within a narrative is surely not so unexpected, even if the narrative is entirely mythical. We know that when stories are fabricated, they do sometimes involve internal tensions or contradictions that are not immediately apparent, only becoming an embarrassment for their creator later, when, say, he is under cross-examination in the dock. But then the fact that the Jesus story contains such initially unrecognised internal tensions or contradictions is surely not particularly good evidence for its truth. Indeed, ironically, the fact that a story involves apparent internal tensions or contradictions is, under most other circumstances, actually taken to indicate that the story isn’t true, not that it is true. In reply, it may be said: but some of these tensions must have been fairly obvious right from the start (the embarrassing tension Meier notes between the baptism story and Jesus’ supposed sinless nature might, perhaps, be an example). Why would such tensions deliberately be introduced by myth-makers? One possible answer is: as a result of compromise. When a myth is created, it may well be created to cater for several competing interests or interest groups, each with a stake in the outcome. The product may be an inevitably, and perhaps fairly obviously, flawed attempt to cater for these conflicting interests within a single mythical narrative.

(iii)    Is it true that initiators of new religions are unlikely to include in their mythical narratives ideas and episodes very much out of step with contemporary thinking, and/or likely to prove somewhat embarrassing to the religion? I am not sure a survey of new religions bares this out. New religions and cults often promote outlandish views significantly out of line with contemporary thinking. Consider scientology. Scientology’s initiator, L. Ron Hubbard, apparently taught his ‘advanced’ followers that 75 million years ago, Xenu, alien ruler of a “Galactic Confederacy”, brought billions of people to Earth in spacecraft shaped like  Douglas DC-10 airplanes and stacked them around volcanoes which he then blew up with hydrogen bombs.  These preposterous claims predictably provoke much mirth at Scientology’s expense. Hubbard must surely have known this would be the case (indeed, perhaps this why he attempted to restrict the information to “advanced” students). Yet he nevertheless chose to include them as part of his religion’s core (and, I take it, entirely mythical) teaching.

To summarize this section: we are looking at possible reasons for rejecting P2. Given the many extraordinary and unsubstantiated claims made about Jesus in the New Testament documents, P2 entails that, in the absence of any good independent evidence to the contrary, we should be sceptical even about his existence. I see, as yet, no reason to abandon this thesis. The three criteria examined above – multiple attestation, embarrassment and discontinuity – may provide us with useful tools in determining which attributions are accurate, once we know that some probably are. But they do not, on closer examination, appear to provide us with good reason to suppose that Jesus was not mythical in the first place (which is, of course, not to say we yet possess good reason to suppose he is mythical).

If you doubt this, then consider a second thought experiment: the case of the sixth islander.

The case of the sixth islander

Suppose five people are rescued from a large, otherwise uninhabited island on which they were shipwrecked ten years previously. The shipwrecked party knew that if they survived they would, eventually, be rescued, for they knew the island was a nature reserve visited by ecologists every ten years.

As the islanders recount their stories, they include amazing tales of a sixth islander shipwrecked along with them. This person, they claim, soon set himself apart from the others by performing amazing miracles - walking on the sea, miraculously curing one of the islanders who had died from a snakebite, conjuring up large quantities of food from nowhere, and so on. The mysterious sixth islander also had strikingly original ethical views that, while unorthodox, were eventually enthusiastically embraced by the other islanders. Finally, several years ago, the sixth islander died, but he came back to life three days later, after which he ascended into the sky. He was even seen again several times after that.

Let’s add some further details to this hypothetical scenario. Suppose that the five islanders tell much the same story about the revered sixth member of their party. While differing in style, their accounts are broadly consistent. Indeed, a vivid and forceful portrait of the sixth islander emerges from their collective testimony, containing as much detail as, say, the Gospel accounts do regarding Jesus.

Interestingly, the stories about the sixth islander also include a number of details that are awkward or embarrassing for the remaining islanders. Indeed, they all agree that two of the surviving islanders actually betrayed and killed the sixth islander. Moreover, some of the deeds supposedly performed by the sixth islander are clearly at odds with what the survivors believe about him (for example, while believing the sixth islander to be entirely without malice, they attribute to him actions that are appear deliberately cruel, actions they subsequently have a hard time explaining). These are details it seems it could hardly be in their interests to invent.

Such is their admiration for their sixth companion and his unorthodox ethical views that the survivors try hard to convince us that both what they say is true, and that it is important that we too come to embrace his teaching. Indeed, for the rescued party, the sixth islander is a revered cult figure, a figure they wish us to revere too.

Now suppose we have, as yet, no good independent evidence for the existence of the sixth islander, let alone that he performed the miracles attributed to him. What should be our attitude to these various claims?

Clearly, we would rightly be sceptical about the miraculous parts of the testimony concerning the sixth islander. Their collective testimony is not nearly good enough evidence that such events happened. But what of the sixth islander’s existence? Is it reasonable to believe, solely on the basis of this testimony, that the sixth islander was at least a real person, rather than a delusion, a deliberately invented fiction, or whatever?

Notice that the evidence presented by the five islanders satisfies the three criteria discussed above.

First, we have multiple attestation: not one, but five, individuals claim that the sixth islander existed (moreover, note we are dealing with the alleged eye-witnesses themselves, rather than second or third hand reports, so there is no possibility of others having altered the original story, as there is in the case of the New Testament testimony).

Secondly, their reports contain details that are clearly highly embarrassing to (indeed, that seriously incriminate) the tellers. This raises the question: why would the islanders deliberately include such details in a made-up story - a story that e.g. is clearly in tension with what they believe about their hero, and which, indeed, also portrays them as murderous betrayers?

Thirdly, why would they attribute to the sixth islander unorthodox ethical and other views very much discontinuous with accepted wisdom? If, for example, the sixth islander is an invention designed to set them up as chief gurus of a new cult, would they attribute to their mythical leader views unlikely to be easily accepted by others?

There is little doubt that there could have been a sixth islander who said and did some of the things attributed to him. But ask yourself: does the collective testimony of the rescued party place the existence of the sixth islander beyond reasonable doubt? If not beyond reasonable doubt, is his existence something it would at least be reasonable for us to accept? Or would we be wiser, at this point, to reserve judgement and adopt a sceptical stance?

A test of intuition

What I am presenting here is, in effect, a philosophical thought-experiment of the sort standardly employed in philosophy (such as e.g. Putnam’s twin-Earth thought experiment , and trolley problems designed to test ethical positions). Such experiments involve an appeal to our philosophical intuitions. What, intuitively, is the right answer to the above questions?

It strikes me as pretty obvious that the existence of the sixth islander certainly has not been established beyond reasonable doubt. Indeed, it seems obvious to me that - despite the fact that the three criteria of multiple attestation, embarrassment and discontinuity are all clearly satisfied - we are justified in taking a rather sceptical attitude towards the claims that any such a person existed. Yes it is possible there was a sixth islander. If we had independent grounds for supposing the sixth islander existed, such as evidence from a ship’s log, or a large number of witnesses from a neighbouring island who reported seeing six islanders, then it would be reasonable to suppose the sixth islander existed (whether or not he was a miracle worker).

But, while I acknowledge it might even, at this point, be slightly more reasonable than not to suppose there was a sixth islander, surely we would be wise to reserve judgement on whether or not any such person existed. We should remain sceptical.

In short, in the case of the sixth islander, our three criteria produce the wrong verdict, and P2 actually produces the right verdict.

Most of those to whom I have presented this thought experiment have had similar intuitions to my own (certainly, all the non-Christians have). Of course, appeal to thought experiment and philosophical intuition is by no means an infallible guide to truth . But I suggest that we have, here, a prima face powerful objection to the suggestion that our three criteria, either singly or conjunction, place Jesus’ existence beyond reasonable doubt.

(Notice that, even if your intuitions happen not to coincide with mine regarding the sixth islander, if the intuitions of the majority do - and that is my impression - that fact, by itself, would still raise a prima facie difficulty for the suggestion that the New Testament documents alone suffice firmly to establish the existence of an historical Jesus. It would be interesting to establish with more precision just how the philosophical intuitions of Christians and non-Christians line up regarding this thought-experiment, and, if they significantly differ, to investigate why that should be so.)

Of course, it is possible we might yet identify some relevant difference between the New Testament testimony about Jesus and the testimony about the sixth islander that explains why, if we are not justified in supposing the sixth islander exists, we are justified, solely on the basis of the New Testament documents, in supposing Jesus exists. Identifying such a difference is a challenge that those who take that view need to meet. Here is one suggestion. 

Does the cultural difference matter?

Our hypothetical islanders are, we have been assuming, contemporary Westerners, who are not usually in the habit of concocting miracle stories. However, other cultures are. Arguably, first century Palestine was such a culture. So, while the fact that many miracles are attributed to the sixth islander should rightly lead us to be sceptical about his existence, the fact that many miracles are attributed to Jesus should not lead us to be sceptical about his existence.

We can adjust our thought experiment to test this suggestion. Suppose our islanders are not, in fact, Westerners, but come from a tribal culture known to be fond of myth-making.

Now ask yourself: does this really make the existence of the sixth islander significantly more likely?  Some may argue that this cultural difference increases the probability that the islanders do sincerely believe at least the non-extraordinary parts of their story, and so lowers the probability they just made those parts up, thus increasing the probability that those parts are true.

But why suppose it’s now significantly more likely that islanders do believe even the non-extraordinary parts of their story? We know that sometimes, when a myth is invented, it is made up about a real person – as in the Haile Selassie case. However, other times even the central character is made up, as appears to be true of John Frum.

So, while we may know, given this culture’s penchant for myth-making, that this might be a Haile Selassie type case with a real person at its core, surely we cannot be particularly confident that it isn’t a John Frum type case with no such historical core. Particularly given the very large proportion of extraordinary claims woven into the narrative.

Final worry re. P2: what is a ‘significant proportion’?

A final worry worth addressing concerning P2 focuses on the expression “a significant proportion of extraordinary claims”. What is a “significant proportion”? Doesn’t the hazy and impressionistic character of this phrase undermine the practical applicability of P2?

I don’t believe so. Of course the expression is vague. I also acknowledge that there are some subtleties concerning contamination that deserve further unpacking. For example, it is surely not just the ratio of extraordinary events to non-extraordinary events that is relevant so far as contamination is concerned. The character of the events also matters. Reports of supernatural events that might easily turn out to be misidentified natural phenomena (such as Alexander’s guiding flock of ravens) presumably have less of a contaminatory effect (for it is less likely, then, that we are dealing with the product of an exceptionally powerful false-testimony-producing mechanism or mechanisms such as outright fabrication or fraud rather than, say, mere coincidence or an optical illusion). Extraordinary events that are not incidental episodes (e.g. a virgin birth tacked on to the beginning of a narrative) but largely integral to the main narrative presumably also have a stronger contaminatory effect, for it is less likely that they are merely later adornments to an existing non-miracle involving, and thus far more trustworthy, piece of testimony.

Nevertheless, the New Testament testimony regarding Jesus manages to pack in the region of thirty-five miracles into a total of just a few weeks or months out of something like the last three years of Jesus’ life. Unlike Alexander’s guiding flock of birds, many of these miracles do seem unlikely to be merely misinterpreted natural phenomena. And many are integral to the main narrative (as I say, the pivotal episode is a miracle). It seems to me, then, that the miracle-involving parts of the Jesus testimony must have a fairly powerful contaminatory effect on what remains.

Indeed, suppose the testimony concerning the sixth islander covers a few weeks or months out of the three years the mystery islander supposedly spent with the witnesses, that the same number of miracle claims are made about him as are made about Jesus, and that the miracles are of much the same character. If the miraculous parts of our five witnesses’ testimony concerning the sixth islander would lead us to be rather sceptical about whether there was a sixth islander, shouldn’t the miraculous parts of the Jesus testimony lead us to equally sceptical about whether there was any such person? If there is contamination sufficient to throw the existence of the miracle-doer into question in the former case, why not in the latter?

So while P2 is vague and may require some fine-tuning, it seems to me unlikely that even an appropriately refined version will allow us to say that the New Testament testimony does, after all, place the existence of Jesus beyond reasonable doubt.


This paper, while relevant to Biblical history, is essentially philosophical in nature. My focus has not, primarily, been on the historical evidence concerning Jesus, but rather on the principles by which that evidence is, or should be, assessed.

I draw three conclusions. The first conclusion is a moral: it is important not to overlook the effects of contamination – of the way in which the dubious character of the uncorroborated miraculous parts of a piece of testimony can render what remains dubious too. Many historians believe the New Testament documents alone provide us with testimony (even if second- or third-hand) sufficient to render the claim that there was an historical Jesus at least pretty reasonable, and perhaps even sufficient to place it beyond any reasonable doubt. We should concede that, other things being equal, testimony is something we do, rightly, trust. As Richard Bauckham, Professor of New Testament Studies, points out in Jesus And The Eye-Witnesses: The Gospels As Eye-Witness Testimony:

An irreducible feature of testimony as a form of utterance is that it has to be trusted. This need not mean that it asks to be trusted uncritically, but it does mean that testimony should not be treated as credible only to the extent that it can be independently verified.

Bauckham immediately concludes that the:

Gospels understood as testimony are the entirely appropriate means of access to the historical reality of Jesus.

As already noted, Biblical historian C. Leslie Milton also stresses the presumptive right of testimony to be trusted. About the early Gospel sources, he says:

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.

I would agree that such testimony would have such a presumptive right, were it not for the significant proportion of miracle claims woven throughout its fabric. The Gospels are littered with around thirty-five miracle claims, many of a very dramatic nature. Nor are these miracle claims incidental to the Gospel narrative. To a large extent, the miracle stories are the narrative. Whether or not principle P2 is entirely right, it does seem that some sort of contamination principle must be correct, and such a principle might then well then constitute a serious threat to such presumptions about the reliability of New Testament testimony.

The second conclusion I draw concerns the three criteria of multiple attestation, embarrassment and discontinuity, criteria widely used to justify the claim that the New Testament documents alone suffice to establish firmly the truth of various Biblical claims, such as that Jesus existed. On closer examination, these three criteria do not appear (either singly or jointly), to establish, by themselves, a core of material within the New Testament testimony that we can justifiably consider “assured” (Perrin), an “unassailable nucleus” (C. Leslie Milton) or “unlikely to be inventions of early evangelists” (Grant). We tested these criteria by means of a thought-experiment: the case of the sixth islander. The testimony concerning the sixth islander’s existence clearly meets all three criteria, yet his existence, it seems to me, is by no means firmly established. It is entirely possible that Jesus existed and was crucified. I am not promoting, and indeed remain sceptical about, the claim that the Jesus story is entirely mythical. However, I have questioned the extent to which the New Testament documents provide us with good evidence for the existence and crucifixion of Jesus. They provide some evidence, of course. They may even make Jesus’ existence a little more probable than not. But do they, by themselves, provide us with evidence sufficient to establish the existence of an historical Jesus beyond any reasonable doubt? I don’t yet see that they do.

The contamination principle, P2, is a prima facie plausible principle that, in conjunction with other prima face plausible premises, delivers the conclusion that, in the absence of good independent evidence for the existence of an historical Jesus, we are justified in remaining sceptical about the existence of such a person. We have looked at several objections to P2, including the suggestion that the joint satisfaction of the criteria of multiple attestation, embarrassment and discontinuity is sufficient to justify belief in at least some of the non-extraordinary claims made in the Gospels, such as that Jesus existed. However, as noted above, when we test this suggestion against the hypothetical case of the sixth islander, the three criteria appear (to me, at least) to give the wrong verdict, and P2 to give the right verdict. My third conclusion is that P2 has not, so far as I can see, been successfully challenged.

Heythrop College, University of London, Kensington Square, London W8 5HN.



Anonymous said…
Excellent piece. I do feel like some footnotes were missing though sometimes, e.g. last paragraph of the "Source of evidence" section is crying out for "Citations needed" tags!
It seems that the Presuppositons Move is actually the avoidance of relying on any evidence.

The believer in Jesus's ressurection that believes because of supposed eye witness accounts of the events surrounding it, who justifies the strength of this evidence by presupposing its strength because of posited plausibility of the supernatural, is undermining his own reasoning.

He does not beleieve because of any evidence. He just believes. He is admitting that in other spheres of thinking, such testimony would be weak.
In fact, Dan, in other fields, such reasoning would be incredibly strong, and no one would doubt it. It is materialistic dogma alone that supports such fantastic positions, as Dr. Law kindly demonstrates in this article.

As one who has studied these issues for some time, and published a bit on them (Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus, The Truth About Jesus and the 'Lost Gospels,'), I think Dr. Law has badly misunderstood the situation. I will post a rejoinder shortly.
Thrasymachus said…
Just a note of approbation from me.
Stephen Law said…
"It is materialistic dogma alone that supports such fantastic positions, as Dr. Law kindly demonstrates in this article. "

Thanks. Yes it is indeed awful when people's dogmas blind them to the truth.

But why do you suppose I am a materialist?
David B. Marshall:

Biochemists do not attribute cases of metabolic acidosis with high lactic acid levels to mitochondrial toxicity because they have made a Presuppositons Move.

That such a presentation may be attributed to organelle disfunction or toxicity is not made because they just hold a presuppositon that these sorts of mechanisms may exist. There is strong evidence justifying these mechanisms in the first place.

This is in stark contrast to those who believe that tears flowing from a Jesus statue are the result of a miracle. THEY simply believe in such things. THEY are guilty of such a Presuppositon Move!
Mark Jones said…
Lots to chew on; thanks for posting this in the light of Ehrman's new book 'Did Jesus Exist?'
Patrick said…
Stephen Law: “2. There is no extraordinary evidence for any of the extraordinary claims concerning supernatural miracles made in the New Testament documents.”

In the following thread I tried to provide such evidence for the New Testament miracle claims under the name "patrick.sele":
S Johnson said…
The criterion of embarrassment is also dubbed the criterion of dissimilarity. In addition to the criticism of the whole principle enunciated above, the criterior of embarrassment must exactly comprehend what is genuinely embarrassing.

There is no general principle for doing this, not even to the extent of articulating criteria for embarrassment.

In one example, the embarrassment of Jesus being baptized for remission of sin requires that we believe the human person was "Jesus" the Son of God, the Son of Man, Messiah, Christ, Lord, and that this human person was the actor, instead of the spirit that descended and entered into him. Some of Paul's remarks and the story of Simon Magus indicated that Christians actually regarded themselves as in some sense inhabited by Jesus, possessed of the Holy Spirit.

As for the supposed embarrassment of Jesus' relatives thinking he was crazy, frankly, this is such a blatant lesson to proselytes to reject their own families' remonstrances, I bluch to think that anyone ever had the nerve to call it embarrassing.
Anonymous said…
Excellent article - thank you for making this available.
Anonymous said…
Hi Stephen, I think it’s a good argument you present. I wonder why you don’t give a more explicit role in your argument to the existence of a likely motive for false-testimony. This would seem to me to significantly reduce the probability of a report’s veracity.

The writers of the NT had very good reasons to fabricate stories –they wanted to attract adherents to a new religion - and we have many such instances of false testimony for this purpose.
Brian Roche
Brilliantly reasoned. Thanks!
Anonymous said…
A very interesting read.

Two typos you might want to fix:
"we be sceptical Alexander’s existence"
"A survey of new religions bares this out"

This is not very relevant to your argument, but the presupposition of God to support belief in miracles reverses my recollection of long ago church lessons where the miracles were used to support belief in God.
Paul P. Mealing said…
Hi Stephen,

A very good argument and very comprehensive.

I have to admit that I've always considered Jesus to have the same historical credibility as Buddha, Confucius and Socrates, as they were all 'teachers' who upset the status quo and none of them actually wrote anything down themselves.

Don Cupitt takes a similar view in his book, Jesus & philosophy.

One interesting point, assuming that the stories of Jesus were based on a real figure: if it wasn't for the mythology that was created about him after his death and propagated by Paul (in particular) no one would even know he existed today, be he a fiction or not.

Regards, Paul.
Mark Jones said…
This is not very relevant to your argument, but the presupposition of God to support belief in miracles reverses my recollection of long ago church lessons where the miracles were used to support belief in God.

Yes, I've pointed out to more than one religious apologist that while they may not consider miracles extraordinary, it's clear many believers I've met do and this had a formative effect on their belief.

Furthermore, Christianity's successful adoption across Europe is occasionally cited to support its veracity, as if people were immediately struck by its solid foundations. But an attractive myth, with eye-catching miracles, can clearly serve the same function in a less scientific age. People had fewer tools available to disprove miracle testimony.

So we have a population, that may be more inclined to believe in miracles and less able to disprove them, gathering around a myth because of the miracles that should only be believed if the myth is true in the first place.
Anonymous said…
Great article!
Mel Thompson said…
If the sixth islander had been described as doing nothing extraordinary, the evidence for his existence would be no more substantial, but we would have had no reason to doubt it. Given that our sceptical concern is primarily (and rightly) with the veracity of extraordinary claims, P2 may be valid but surely is of limited practical significance for historical enquiry. We have equally limited evidence for the other religious and political rebels in Roman occupied Palestine, but do not generally question their existence.
Equally, the validity or otherwise of supernatural claims is hardly likely to be decided on historical evidence or lack of it. As an atheist, I have no particular reason or need to doubt the existence of a rabbi from Nazareth by the name of Jesus.
snafu said…
Spelling correction: Who moved the stone? is by Frank Morison (just one "r").

Strange was a pseudonym; I don't know why he chose it.
Here. I've just posted my (partial) rebuttal of Dr. Law's article:

Note that when it comes to the relevant NT scholarship, I deal with in those issues elsewhere.
Dr. Law: You're a philosopher, so no doubt I should be careful how I use words like "materialist." What I meant to say is that your article demonstrates clearly, as you obviously recognize yourself, that skepticism about miracles is the driving force behind skepticism about the gospel accounts generally. This sometimes seems to be disputed, so I appreciate your bringing the matter out so clearly.
Dan: I'm not sure of your point. God, by definition, is obviously something rather different than a chemical process in the cell. And the resurrection is obviously different than a bleeding statue, about which I am every bit as skeptical as you. (For reasons implicit in my post.)
David B. Marshall:

My point about the chemical process, is that any "presuppositions" about the type of evidence supporting such processses are qualitatively vastly different than presuppositions about the type of evidence supporting miraculous claims about Jesus.

It is unreasonable to simply argue that both biochemists with "presuppositions" about acceptable biochemical evidence, and Christians with "presuppositions" about the type of evidence acceptable in supporting miraculous Christian claims are on an even playing ground.

Christian presuppositions regarding eveidence are in a weaker position.
Matt said…
"The order of things that I ... deal with ... is that in which all materials having a "historical" and "scientific" value are the ones that matter the least; conversely, all the mythical, legendary, and epic elements denied historical
truth and demonstrative value acquire here a superior validity and become the source for a more real and certain knowledge .... From the perspective of "science" what matters in a myth is whatever historical elements may be extracted from it. From the perspective that I adopt, what matters in history are all the mythological elements it has to offer."
Julius Evola
For what it is worth, my intuition regarding the sixth islander thought experiment is that I would be skeptical of any testimony on any topic from any of the six islanders.

Such survivors, proclaiming miraculous happenings, events in secular life considered simply impossible, would be considered as manifestations of truama or delusion; certainly not especially reliable.

One would likely consider the lot of them as sadly nuts!
wombat said…
@David B Marshall

Having had a quick look at your blog post in response I see that you focus on some issues with the "Flying Bert" case e.g lack of detail motivation etc. Firstly the original article did make it clear that supporting detail (but not of course independent evidence) should be assumed:

"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."[my bold]

Given that the journal article needed to be shorter than novel length it is not unreasonable to take it that they might well have included Bert explaining why he was visiting, how nice he seemed and his account of why he was about to fly and how.

Secondly, the "Sixth Islander" seems to answer most of your criticisms anyhow -

i) the guy did his miracles in response to need (food, healing),
ii) he had a clear compassionate motivation,
iii) his companions "believed him entirely without malice".

In fact the article states:

"Indeed, a vivid and forceful portrait of the sixth islander emerges from their collective testimony, containing as much detail as, say, the Gospel accounts do regarding Jesus."[my bold]

If one accepts that miracles are possible they are still exceedingly rare and require strong proof as the process required for canonization shows.

If such evidence of such quality as the Gospels regarding someone (e.g. who was perhaps claimed to be a shipwrecked sailor who preached and healed among native peoples) were presented today, would it pass muster?

Would the Curia be satisfied? Maybe.

Should (the point of the article surely) historians be convinced?
I was not aware that historians were particulary concerned with whether there existed an actual man, Jesus. I understood that the evidence was scanty, limited to a few sources, Josephus, Tacitus, for example, but that the New Testament was not considered in that class of historical source material.

Is not the "debate" about the historical Jesus similar to the "debate" about Evolution among scientists: There really isn't any?
James said…
You are, I'm surprised to see, about as poor a historian as you are excellent a philosopher. I beseech you to get on the phone to Bart Ehrman and permit him to explain to you why you've aligned yourself with fools and knaves.
Paul P. Mealing said…
Stephen has raised an interesting issue that is largely missed or ignored. The only knowledge we have of Jesus is in narrative form, the so-called Apostle accounts. As a result, people take from them whatever bits they care to believe and disregard the rest (apologies to Paul Simon). No matter what bits of truth or fact the stories may contain, they remain fictional accounts rendered by the many mythical elements the stories retain.

The interesting point, relevant to Stephen’s thesis, is that the true character of Jesus will never be known but can only be speculated about. My speculation is that he empathised with the outcast, which led him to challenge the Church and their hegemony with the Romans, which ultimately led to his downfall. That’s the bit I believe: the rest or most of the rest is story.

Regards, Paul.
Dan: Of course an assumption about cell chemistry is "completely different" from the assumption that God exists. The relevant differences makes for differing epistemological approaches. This is nothing unusual. Epistemology is different, not only between law or history or philosophy and science, but between fields of science, and between specific questions asked within a particular scientific field.

There is no such thing as "Christian presuppositions regarding evidence." Christians are like everyone else: we ask that the evidence given for a given phenomena match the nature of that phenomena. We also differ widely on what sort of evidence is appropriate in different cases -- as, for instance, the debate between the likes of Alvin Plantinga and Tim McGrew on this subject.
Wombat: I recognize the need to be concise. But Dr. Law is attempting a pretty major argument; it's up to him to make it credible. The article is not that short, and there is no reason why he needs (if his case is solid) to offer an "analogy" that is so completely non-analagous. Nor does he have an excuse to critique "miracles" without first defining the word (in Christian terms) accurately. The most reasonable explanation for his complete failure to do so is that he simply has not recognized the actual character of Gospel miracles, as I show.

Another major problem with his paper is that he seems to assume Hume has proven something about the epistemology of miracles. This is hotly contested, even by skeptical philosophers like John Earman. This is a problem in part because Law seems to conceive of his argument as building on Hume's earlier "success."

I detail other problems with the article.
Wombat: Also, the parable Law ends his paper with is pretty much copied and pasted (with lots of editing) from the Gospels. This raises the question: if the Gospel story was in fact invented, or produced in the course of sociological nature, why doesn't Law simply point to real parallels in the actual world, rather than copying and pasting from the Gospels?

Many skeptics have tried to do that. The most popular such "parallels" in the ancient world have been Apollonius of Tyana, a couple of obscure Jewish holy men (the more obscure, the better), and sometimes Hercules, Osiris, Mithras, or even the Iliad.

The absurdity of all such attempts so far (when one reads the sources), has underlined the uniqueness of the Gospels, and the implausibility of such invented parallels as those Law gives us.
wombat said…
@David B Marshall

Don't the qualifications you outline for something to be considered a miracle rather limit what should be in a case for consideration and thereby make it likely that it would be just like the Gospel?
(motivation, need, etc) Once enough narrative elements are fixed similarity is pretty inevitable.

The thing is it doesn't seem to matter much what constitutes a miracle for the purpose of the argument. The only properties of miracles that are at issue are (i) inexplicable or at least unexplained by the mundane (ii) out of the ordinary, unlikely events. The paper is only aiming at the historical view not any theological one.

In the absence of other independent evidence, the addition of one claim to another does not make the first one more likely.

If they are truly unrelated claims then the evidence for each must stand on its own merits. However where they are not truly independent (e.g. same observers/sources/environment) the otherwise more likely claim should be given less credence because we have reason (the unlikely claim) to lower our estimate of the reliability of the source. (P2)
Giford said…
Interesting article.

I'm an atheist, but have long accepted the existence of a real itinerant preacher call Jesus as the most parsimonious explanation of the various stories about the Biblical Jesus.

While this does not entirely change my mind, it does give me food for thought (which is always a good thing).

For the record, I'm not quite sure what to make in the Case of the Sixth Islander; the parallel with the Biblical narrative may be so close that I find it hard to disentangle the two. Despite the (convincong) counter-argument that we know miracles to be somewhere between vanishingly rare and non-existent, the presuppositionalist argument keeps coming back to my mind also. Of course, the point may have been exactly that it *is* difficult to know what to think in that case...
Anonymous said…
I apologize for not scrolling down and posting this in a more relevant topic. Please delete the other one :)

Dr. Craig responds to your beliefs on this topic:
Stephen Law said…
Thanks anon. I'll do a rebuttal when I get some free time. Note the argument Craig presents as mine is not quite the one in my paper - bits are removed. Also note that once we get past the scoffing and bluster, his actual objections are in several cases anticipated in my paper.
Lee said…
Not to mention that he repeatedly exaggerates the scope of your premises, while asserting his own unsupported biases ("highly, highly, highly improbable"). His appeals to Ehrman strike me as less than convincing ever since Carrier eviscerated Ehrman's book on mythicism.

David B. Marshall:

Your statement that "there is no such thing as "Christian presuppositions regarding evidence" is reassuring, if true.

It provides a basis for discussion, even if evaluation of evidence results in different conclusions. Hopefully, these differences in conclusions could be characterized as honest differences in opinion.

I agree that investigations in fields as different as molecular biology, history, and art would require very different methodologies; on the other hand, not different "presuppositions regarding evidence", as you mention.

I understand your position to be that a rational Christian, believing in certain miraculous events attributed to Jesus, based on a set of evidence, should be able to convince a rational, non-believer, of the veracity of theses events based on the same evidence, using the same manner of weighing/evaluating the evidence.
This would not involve the non-believer adopting "Christian presuppositions regarding evidence".

If this is your position, then it is commendable, even if disagreements on conclusions are inevitable.
Giford said…
A thought:

I was reading an article today about crop circles, and was struck by a parallel (or example in action) of the bracketing principle.

It has been proposed that we should disregard all the 'obviously faked' crop circles in order to concentrate on the 'real' ones.

I think the parallel here is obvious: there is a presupposition that some crop circles are 'real', just as there is a presupposition that some acts of Jesus are 'real'.

I am not sure that one example supporting the principle proves that it *is* a general principle, but thought I would post this anyway.
TruthSeeker said…
re "Many historians believe the New Testament documents alone provide us with testimony (even if second- or third-hand) sufficient to render the claim that there was an historical Jesus at least pretty reasonable, and perhaps even sufficient to place it beyond any reasonable doubt."

Many assert that the NT documents, along with the writings of Josephus's & Tacitus's, etc., constitute "primary sources" due them being 'the first mention' - they use such equivocation to validate.
Anonymous said…
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Anonymous said…
As clear and well presented a summary of the matter as I have yet seen. It is my view that there is reasonable cause to doubt Jesus' existence, and in fact I would say that agnosticism on the issue is arguably the only justifiable option.

One of the chief objections seems to be the suggestion that agnosticism about this involves undue scepticism. I disagree. Presented with a similar figure and evidence and circumstances, I suggest that any rational person would be doubtful.

Did Guatama Buddha exist? Did Moses? Did Muhamad al Mahdi? I don't know of any consensus, in fact I am aware of a good deal of agnosticism and doubt.

Finally, I would just like to offer the 'historical' example of Prester John. Unlike Jesus, he was no minor player, but the ruler of an entire Christian kingdom. Nor was he dead. A Roman Catholic pope once replied to a letter from him. Maps were eventually produced of his territories in east Africa.

But apparently he didn't exist. :)
Paul Wright said…
I read David Marshall's rebuttal and was confused, in that it seemed to be addressing some argument other than Stephen Law's.

Marshall says (section B) that if we had more context for Bert's activities, we should be more ready to believe them. This seems to be an example of the conjuction fallacy: it is not more probable that Linda is a bank teller and a feminist than that Linda is a bank teller, and it is not more probable that Bert flew and God made him fly than that Bert flew. More elaborate claims about Bert (or Jesus) should lower the prior probability of the story, not raise it.

In (C), Marshall differentiates between the Bert example and the NT one on several points, but these points give us no reason to prefer stories about NT miracles to the Bert story. For instance, the suppose the claim that "Miracles point to God; magic points elsewhere" is true. Does this then mean we should be more ready to believe in them? I don't really see why.

I think (D) comes closest to being a rebuttal. There's a lot of stuff there, but the thrust of it seems to be that Law needs to propose some consistent alternative mechanism by which people come to tell the Bert story or the Jesus story.

I'm not sure Law should accept that: if he has decided the story is probably false, he can conclude that there is some set of false-belief-producing mechanisms at work, and he then claims (and attempts to argue in the rest of the paper) that these should taint the mundane parts of the story.

It's this claim that I think could do with further scrutiny though: without knowing what the mechanism is, how to we know it taints the rest of the story?

(E) is an argument against Hume on miracles. This seems irrelevant, since Law's claim and what Earmann takes to be Hume's are different. It is not clear that Law has an epistemology which "does not allow for the possibility that evidence, whether from eyewitness testimony or from some other source, can establish the credibility of a UFO landing, a walking on water, or a resurrection". All Law is claiming is that the evidence is insufficient, not that it could never be sufficient. (It's not clear what Hume meant either, since he writes that "a wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence" but latter observes that he always discounts miracle stories: perhaps he just hasn't seen good enough evidence, either?)

(F) is another failed argument, since it presumes that miraculous stories where the tellers have "changed their lives in concrete and positive ways" are significantly more likely to be true than those told by "kooks". I see no reason why a sincere false belief could not change someone's life for the better.
Anonymous said…
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Anonymous said…
@ Paul Wright.

'I think (D) comes closest to being a rebuttal. There's a lot of stuff there, but the thrust of it seems to be that Law needs to propose some consistent alternative mechanism by which people come to tell the Bert story or the Jesus story.'

Yes, I too think this is an unintentional canard.

What more do we need to assert than the mecanism: 'one of the many ways in which figures who do not exist are nonetheless taken by many to exist', since this is arguably commonplace, and more importantly varied.

In any case, I do not see explanations on one side of the matter as being more consistent than on the other. The idea that the 'orthodox' explanation is consistent is itself debateable.
David Roemer said…
The resurrection of Jesus is an historical event that can’t be explained in terms of any other historical event. The followers of Jesus swore up and down that he appeared to them and went on to found the Catholic Church. The resurrection is also an object of faith because believing in Jesus means precisely believing Jesus is alive in a new life with God and if we follow Jesus the same thing can happen to us. The resurrections is just one part of the entire story which includes the cosmological argument for God’s existence.
Patrick said…
Regarding whether another explanation needs to be offered:

He could just argue that historical Jesus scholars are assuming a greater confidence in the historical Jesus' existence than is warranted by the evidence available to them.

There's no obligation to do any more than that.
wombat said…
@Paul Wright

Re David Marshalls (E)

"Yes, it's possible that miracles occur. In fact I would rather like to believe that they do occur."

- Law, S "The Philosophy Gym" 2003
See conclusion to chapter 23

Seems clear.
Wombat: If you confuse honest introspection with an inability to be self-critical, then you're being rather foolish. The esoteric citation does nothing to make things "clear," nor, obviously, is it intended to.
Paul: Your confusion is, indeed, evident at several points. I will endevour, here and on my own blog, to lessen it, if possible.

First, and maybe this is partly my fault, you badly misread (B). My point, in essence, is that Law equivocates. What he calls "extaordinary claims" in one case (Bert's Excellent Adventures) are completely unlike the "extraordinary claims" he is trying, by analogy, to refute (the miracles of Jesus).

And are you really claiming that a particular act by a person who is situated in history and described in credible biographical detail, is less believable than the same act by a "person" who exists in a complete historical vacuum? This apparent suggestion does, indeed, suggest confusion on your part.

(C) Also, are you really claiming that an act that has a coherent explanation, is no more plausible than one that does not? Are you claiming that an action that is meaningful, like healing the sick, is no more plausible than an action that is meaningless, like flying around a flat in Oxford by flapping your arms after dinner? It seems clear to me that both differences favor "miracles" over "magic," in terms of believability. But I don't need to prove this, to show that Law's argument fails. All I need to show, is that his analogy is a false one, because it does not take important differences between the two kinds of "extraordinary claims" into account. Hearing no real objections, I think we can consider that point settled.

(E) Law begins by citing Hume, and suggesting that he will extend an argument that, he implies, was highly successful. At the very least, he ought to make it clear that the status of Hume's argument remains in doubt.

(F) is not an argument, it is a claim, followed by a question.

I hope that clears up some of your confusion.
Paul Wright said…
@wombat: Better yet, from the paper: "Note that P1 at least allows for the possibility that we might reasonably suppose a miracle has happened". Marshall's (E) isn't responding to Law's argument.

On the subject of the false testimony producing mechanism, there are, as Marshall says in (D), falsehood producing mechanisms which don't work to produce a consistent story: if we both take drugs, why should your drug induced hallucination be the same as mine?

Still, the LSD example was just a suggestion. Since Marshall seems to be arguing against P2 rather than P1 here, what he needs is some mechanism which produces false stories about extraordinary events but doesn't contaminate the interleaved reports of mundane events.

Oddly enough, deliberate collusion seems a good one: Ted and Sarah make up the story based on a real visit from Bert because, if confirmation of the visit turns up later (perhaps someone saw him leave their house), it makes their story look better. If in fact there are no other witnesses to Bert's visit, we're now in the situation of Law's example, but I think the mundane parts of Bert's visit are not contaminated.

This doesn't help Marshall, who argues that deliberate collusion is unlikely if the Christians then go on to die on the basis that their miracles really happened (did any of them actually do so based on events where they were present rather than reports, though?). Law also stipulates that Ted and Sarah are trustworthy, so maybe we're meant to rule that mechanism out.

I think if we can't identify the mechanism we need to some how average over all of the ones we can think of based on how probable we think they are. The conclusion of that may well be that Ted and Sarah have made some kind of error which means their testimony is uncorrelated with the truth. We cannot take their testimony as evidence of anything, either of Bert's existence or his non-existence (for the latter, see reversed stupidity is not intelligence).

I'm not convinced that'll be true in all cases though, some I'm still hesitant about elevating P2 to a general principle. I still don't know what I think of the NT case, though I don't accept that we have good evidence of miracles.
Paul: On rereading them, I seem to find a snippy tone in a few of my comments. I apologize for that.
Dan: Fair enough. There's room, of course, for different evaluations of the prior probability with which we evaluate any claimed historical event, too.
yesmyliege said…
One of the things that has struck me about the modern historicists is that they themselves appear to disprove a mundane yet central truth claim about Jesus.

JC is now relegated to having a small profile, a Jewish apologetically preacher, who had so little impact that no historian noticed him.

At the same time, we have a mundane story of JC addressing his followers, which is not in itself an extraordinary claim. But in a particular address, in the account of The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is depicted as addressing very large crowds indeed, and gives an enormously iconoclastic speech. Both of these elements - the crowds and the nature of his New Covenant would surely be newsworthy events and would have been noticed.

But being noticed is impossible, according to the modern historicist hypothesis. So, it appears we have a mundane non extraordinary event - yet a speech absolutely central to the core of Christianity - nevertheless necessitated as being a false account.
wombat said…
@David B Marshall

By esoteric citation I presume you mean the quote from Dr Laws book which seems to show he was prepared to say in print (real published books not just casual bloggery) that he accepted that miracles might be possible. I thought it was intended to be an accessible book and not esoteric!

As for any confusion on my part between introspection etc. I will happily stand to be corrected. Where have I mistaken this?
wombat said…

The point about collusion not affecting the mundane claims is interesting.

But if we assume no collusion then we have evidence from two independent witnesses; if we do assume collusion the evidence must surely be downgraded to a value nearer that from a single witness. Now is this still encompassed by P2 as some sort of shared environment/common cause or something else?

As you said we should take it that the witnesses are reporting in good faith but there might well be accidental collusion in that possibly chatting to each other afterwards certain details that one noticed (perhaps mistakenly) would be picked up and echoed by the other. The mind seems to be quite good at filling in such things, especially if they are things that ought to be there.

Thinking along those lines, what would happen where two people took mind altering substances and cheerfully talk about what they see to each other? Would the suggestive effect be enough to cause some overlap of hallucinatory experience?
Philboid Studge said…
When I first encountered this article in my debate preparation, Billy Lane Craig writes: My first thought was that only a philosophy journal would publish such a piece! This article would never have made it past the peer-review process for a journal of New Testament or historical studies.

That is too funny. A Christian apologist bad-mouthing a philosophy journal, with the added kick of claiming that a journal of New Testament" studies would have more credibility.

Dr Craig is a funny, funny man.
Paul Wright said…
What he calls "extaordinary claims" in one case (Bert's Excellent Adventures) are completely unlike the "extraordinary claims" he is trying, by analogy, to refute (the miracles of Jesus).

Well, clearly they aren't alike in a bunch of ways, but I'm not seeing the distinction that makes Law's thought experiment invalid as an analogy for the miracles of Jesus. In particular, the ones you've mentioned do not serve to the miracles of Jesus less "extraordinary" (and thus mean that P1 does not apply i.e. that premise 2 in Laws "skeptical argument" section is false, which is what I think you want to argue).

And are you really claiming that a particular act by a person who is situated in history and described in credible biographical detail, is less believable than the same act by a "person" who exists in a complete historical vacuum?

Yes, for P1: if Bert were well known to me and I heard reports of him doing these things, I still wouldn't believe them, though I would obviously think Bert existed (but note this doesn't invalidate P2 as I'd then have the evidence of Bert's existence independently).

In your (B) and (C), you appear to think that if something is a meaningful story, it's more likely to be true. For instance:

"What if this person Bert who rose from the dead in your friend's living room, were instead an innocent child killed by a stray bullet in a gang war, whose grief-stricken grandmother were praying frantically for him? Would that put Bert's resurrection in a different light?"

Nope. Why should it?

Or again:

"There is nothing dignified about Bert's performance. But there is dignity in everything Jesus does in the Gospels, including in his miracles."

Why does this mean they are more likely to be accurate reports?

Are you claiming that an action that is meaningful, like healing the sick, is no more plausible than an action that is meaningless, like flying around a flat in Oxford by flapping your arms after dinner?

Yes. "Meaningfulness" is not good evidence of truth: people can write satisfying, uplifting and false stories.

are you really claiming that an act that has a coherent explanation, is no more plausible than one that does not?

You write:

"According to the New Testament, God raised Jesus from the dead."

Either "God did X" is something we can tag on to any unlikely claim to make it more likely, or you have some reason for supposing that God would do X rather than say, Y (neglecting the question of whether God exists in the first place). But you haven't said what that evidence is, other than that the New Testament says so, which is no good, because the reliability of the New Testament is the thing at issue, so you can't assume it in proving it. So I don't think that this is in fact a coherent explanation.

All I need to show, is that his analogy is a false one, because it does not take important differences between the two kinds of "extraordinary claims" into account.

You have not shown how the differences are relevant to Law's argument. For them to be so, there'd need to be some reason why we should be more ready to believe
the claims about Jesus than the claims about Bert: it's not enough merely to say that the Jesus story is a better narrative.

(E) again: Law's argument is not Hume's. What specific premise of Law's argument is invalidated by an argument against Hume?
Reg Hody said…
Very nice piece.

The "meaningfulness" of an alleged miracle does not seem to lend it more credibility than a "meaningless" event with the same seeming impossibility.

If "meaningfulness" does lend credibility, then the concept is so packed with presuppositions about why only meaningful miracles would occur, that an enormous amount of explanation is required of the one making this claim.

Is the assumption based on the goodness of God? Maybe not so good deities can produce meaningless miracles. In this case meaningless, seemingly impossible events would be indistinguishable from meaningful seemingly impossible events.

Flying around the room by flapping one's arms while changing oridinary objects into fairies, although meaningless, would be just as probable as curing the blind.
Paul Wright said…
I made a mistake here:

David Marshall asked whether a historically detailed description is less likely than one without such detail, and I responded as if he'd asked whether it was more credible (which it isn't, so I said if I knew Bert I still wouldn't believe it). So I'd better answer the question.

If there's no simpler way to state the details of the story than to just list them, then each detail is burdensome. The more detailed a story is, the more evidence is needed to back it up, because a simpler story starts off being more probable. That is, we should be more ready to believe that Jesus existed than that he existed and was born on a Wednesday, say. This is Occam's Razor. There's some further discussion on how it applies to the Resurrection on the second half of this blog entry of mine.

The "out" here is to say that there is a shorter explanation which generates the story. Still, you have to be careful not to cheat there: if you tell me that God is good and wants to save sinners, for example, will I then be able to predict that Jesus will turn up when he did and do what he did? Or have you just said something along the lines of "the lady down the street is a witch; she did it" (to use Heinlein's "simplest explanation" for anything, from the Occam's Razor article).
Bradley C. said…
Mr. Law, I have written a response to your article, and I would be very interested in your comments. In the post I present 2 thought experiments that undercut the plausibility of P2.

I argue there are plausible situations where the mundane claims of a miraculous story should be believed, even in the absence of external corroboration.
wombat said…

There do seem to be cases where the mundane parts are not affected by the extraordinary claims, but as you point out in your case of the visit to a faith healer it seems to be because we have revised our opinion of the extraordinary parts. If you go to a faith healer you expect healing. Its not extraordinary. So really we have two mundane claims.

Similarly where we have good reason to think that deception occurred because of scam artists operating in the area.

FWIW In that case I'd still be a little wary of the mundane claims to some extent. Maybe "Bert" was a remote controlled animatronic figure worked by a couple of hidden operators.

I reckon P2 still stands.
Bradley C. said…
@ Wombat
The way P2 is worded it doesn’t take into account our relationship to the evidence. The only things it concerns itself with is how testimony of the miraculous contaminates the testimony of the mundane. The fact that we have a mechanism to explain the miraculous testimony doesn’t factor in, I argue that it should. This is common sense, but P2 fails to take it into account.

The testimony in both cases fits the criteria that:
A) It weaves together mundane and miraculous events
B) We have good reason to be skeptical of the miraculous events (i.e. we have no reason to accept that a man was brought to life in the basement, nor that someone cut their hand off and reattached it without surgery).
C) We have no Independent evidence that the mundane claims made by our friends are true.

Given P2 as it stands in the article, we have good reason to be skeptical of the mundane claims being made by our friends. I think that in both cases, given our ability to explain the testimony of the miraculous in terms of a known mechanism, it would be overly skeptical to doubt the rest of the story on the basis of our friend’s gullibility. Without a good reason to believe that our known mechanism is not responsible, we are justified in drawing some conclusions on the mundane facts in question.
Bradley C. said…
“Why does this contamination take place? Because once we know that a powerful, false-testimony-producing mechanism (or combination of mechanisms) may well have produced a significant chunk of a narrative (e.g. the miraculous parts), we can no longer be confident that the same mechanism is not responsible for what remains.”

This is what he writes right under P2, and this is where I disagree. If we know what the “powerful, false testimony producing mechanism” is, or at least have a good idea of what it is, we can move forward on judging the mundane evidence. If the mechanism is known, we can understand the extent of contamination and account for it.

It would then need to be further argued that in the case of Jesus, we don’t have a good idea of the mechanism(s) that caused the contamination. Only then would we be justified in accepting the conclusions of the article. There is a lot of good research that has been done on Christian origins (from secular sources) that cover these exact sorts of questions. What sorts of things could have caused Christianity to emerge, and what could have caused people to believe what they did about Jesus. Most historians conclude that the most plausible scenarios involve Jesus as a historical figure.
Paul Wright said…
I think Bradley has come up with a couple of good non-contaminating false testimony producing mechanisms, so I don't think P2 can work as it stands. It's too broad.

@wombat: it's not unlikely that people who go to faith healing events will think they've seen people healed, say, but that's not escaping P2, because what we're looking at is the claim that these people really were healed. (If someone says "I went to a faith healing event, and it looked like people were healed, but it was a trick", they would not be making an extraordinary claim, so P2 would not apply).

I think Bradley is right to say that the mechanism is key, and that what feels different about the ancient miracle reports (and perhaps the sixth islander) compared to Bradley's examples is that we don't really know what the mechanism was, we just know something has gone wrong. (In Bradley's examples, we know that magicians and faith healers do tricks. In my "deliberate collusion over a real visit" case there's no contamination but we don't know that, so we might arguably be justified in wrongly rejecting the mundane parts of the story). If we don't know quite what has gone wrong, we have to consider various possible mechanisms, which includes ones where the mundane testimony is also false. If we give such mechanisms any weight, that weighs against the mundane testimony. But I think we'd have to consider how much weight to give them based on the circumstances, which makes it hard to come up with something general like P2.
Stephen Law said…
I agree with Bradley that once a particular false-testimony producing mechanism has been identified, it may be possible to say that the mundane claims are unlikely to be generated by it.

However, what is the false-testimony producing mechanism in the Jesus case?

It's unlikely to be that he was a skilled magician (which obviously requires that he exist). Rather the most likely mechanism is that people have *made stuff up*.

But making stuff up is a mechanism that can produce mundane claims just as easily as extraordinary claims.
Stephen Law said…
Indeed, when it comes to *making stuff up*, sometimes people make up stuff about historical individuals and sometimes they make up the individual. So how can we be confident what happened in this case?
wombat said…

Perhaps P2 needs clarification of some sort then? Or maybe some of the definitions need tightening up.

I sort of took your point about plausible mechanisms etc, as implied by Dr Law's comments on Alexander the Great :

"Moreover, regarding the miracle of the ravens, it’s not even clear we are dealing with a supernatural miracle, rather than some honestly misinterpreted natural phenomenon."

i.e. we suspect that there are reasons to render the reporting of the extraordinary event less unlikely. This is of course not making its interpretation as supernatural/alien or whatever any more likely.

Where our proposed mechanisms are very plausible indeed then, as you say we might want to re-evaluate our position on the mundane stuff. But of course if our plausible explanation is that the witnesses were under the influence of drugs we might still mistrust them, or it might even go the other way in that some of the mundane events are essential to the proposed mechanism by which the "miracle" effect is brought about.
wombat said…

"Skilled magician" might be plausible though at least for some of the episodes.

I'm sure you yourself pointed to some recent modern "faith healing" cases which were decidedly low tech and well within the reach of a bronze-age trickster.

Wasn't it something about lengthening peoples legs or some such?
wombat said…

"Skilled magician" might be plausible though at least for some of the episodes.

I'm sure you yourself pointed to some recent modern "faith healing" cases which were decidedly low tech and well within the reach of a bronze-age trickster.

Wasn't it something about lengthening peoples legs or some such?
Stephen Law said…
Hi Wombat - yes low tech magic is one explanation for some of the miracles, I agree. However it's hard to imagine it accounting for all of them, and we can't be at all confident this is the right explanation even for some of them, rather than, say, people just made stuff up.
wombat said…
What I was sort of thinking of was the possibility that some of the "miracles" might well have been true in the sense that the author had seen or received reports of some conjuring tricks believing them true and made up the rest around them. Leads to the odd situation where the miracle is real but the person performing it is fictional.
Bradley C. said…
You said: "I agree with Bradley that once a particular false-testimony producing mechanism has been identified, it may be possible to say that the mundane claims are unlikely to be generated by it."

Do you then agree that P2 can and does lead to counter-intuivive results in some quite plausible situations? Doesn't that invalidate it as a general principal, unless it is further qualified by some other principals (for instance, principals that take into account our ability to determine the mechanism)?

I agree that one possible mechanism out of many is that people "made stuff up." I would argue that it is the job of the critical historian to use our existing sources to attempt to determine what led to the formation of Christianity, and most of those historians don't believe that "people made stuff up" is the best explanation of the data. Nor do they think that "Jesus was divine" fares any better.

You are certainly free to disagree, but it doesn't appear that P2 is able to bring you there. One can be skeptical of the historical Jesus for any number of reasons. The mythicists are skeptical because they believe the data shows it more likely that we would see the evidence we see if Jesus started as a myth.

I just don't see how P2 gives us any extra reason to be skeptical of Jesus' existence without first looking at the historical context within which the documents were written and trying to determine what factors led to their generation and propagation.
Stephen Law said…
"Do you then agree that P2 can and does lead to counter-intuivive results in some quite plausible situations?"

I said in the paper P2 will need tweaking and pointed out myself e.g. that phenomena that could easily be misinterpreted natural phenomena are far less of a threat, for example, so that will need to be built into P2. But that's no fatal objection to P2 and neither is the similar consideration that you raise here. We can just add e.g. that where the mechanism producing unreliable testimony is identified and is know not to affect mundane claims, then the mundane testimony is not contaminated. Problem solved.

That doesn't help with the Jesus case.

You need to identify a mechanism as being the likely mechanism accounting for the false miracle claims, and then explain why that mechanism wouldn't quite likely result in false mundane claims too.

Now one common explanation for many miraculous claims re Jesus, if they are false, is that these were embellishments - i.e. they were made up(!) And once it's conceded these claims were made up, then the rest might easily be made up too.

True there are also alternative explanations for some miracle claims e.g. explanation of the alleged resurrection in terms of e.g. Jesus not being dead, or his body being stolen, etc. etc. typically start with the assumption that certain mundane claims (empty tomb etc.) are true. That assumption is precisely what is in question.
Stephen Law said…
Bradley - of course if you could show that *most* false extraordinary claims are produced by mechanisms that do not produce false mundane claims alongside them, then P2 would indeed be in trouble. However, you cherrypick a case - magic tricksters - where it's just stipulated they exist, and where it's likely that the mundane claim made about the tricksters are likely to be true. But of course that's an unusual case. In most cases where false extraordinary claims are generated, e.g. where stuff is made up, or imagined/hallucinated, or created by Chinese whispers, etc. etc. false mundane claims can in each case very easily be generated along side the false extraordinary claims.

Which is why P2 stands (though as I said in the paper, it'll need some tweaking). Unless we know of a magic trickster who was quite likely to have visited Ted and Sarah's house, we should remain sceptical about whether they were visited by anyone at all. Shouldn't we?
Bradley C. said…
I figured the magic tricksters would be attacked as being unusual, which is why I added the faith healers experiment. That one is totally reasonable, and provides a similar mechanism for what may be the rise of many of Jesus' miracles. Note that healings were a large part of what he did, if he existed.

Secondly, I don't see the magic tricksters as being any more unusual than your cases, which were obviously chosen to illustrate your point. Isn't that the whole point of a thought experiment?

I think my main issue is that I don't believe a philosophical argument can determine the likelihood of Jesus existing without actually dealing with the historical evidence.

You say that the criterions of authenticity are not very good, I agree. You say that we should remain skeptical in the cases of Ted and Sarah and the sixth islander, I agree. I still think the faith healer case is closer to the situation of Jesus than either of your examples, and if that is the case it gives us a reason to assign a relatively high probability of his existing.

In both cases, we have no external evidence of existence. In both cases we have general evidence that the role the person is in existed at the time period they lived. In both cases miraculous testimony would be highly likely to occur given that societal role, even if no actual miracles happened.

Why are the pranksters relevant? Because we do in fact have numerous reports of messiah figures rising up during the time of Jesus. Same goes for prophets, same goes for miracle workers. This information is all relevant when examining the existence of a man who was supposed to be a prophet, messiah, and miracle worker.

Might there be reasons to doubt Jesus’ existence? Sure. Is the presence of miracles in our narrative sufficient to establish this doubt? I don’t believe so.
wombat said…
Magic/illusion seems to have had some tradition in the area. e.g. Moses and the Egyptian priests.

Celsus, a Roman anti-Christian writer attacks the miracles thus:
"Let us grant that these things were performed by you but they are common with the works of enchanters who promise to effect more wonderful deeds than these and also with what those who have been taught by the Egyptians to perform in the middle of the forum for a few oboli such as expelling demons from men, dissipating diseases by a puff evocating the souls of heroes, exhibiting sumptuous suppers and tables covered with food which have no reality"

[ from "Arguments of Celsus, Porphyry and the emperor Julian against the Christians..." Transl. Lardner, pub 1830]

Well he had a definite problem with Christians but seems to think magicians/conjurors were readily available.
Paul Wright said…
I think Bradley's come up with the equivalent of Gettier cases for P2 as it stands: even if they're contrived, they show P2 needs changing.

You need to identify a mechanism as being the likely mechanism accounting for the false miracle claims, and then explain why that mechanism wouldn't quite likely result in false mundane claims too.

If all we know is that something's gone wrong with the testimony but the mechanism is obscure, perhaps it's reasonable to say that it's as likely that we'd have the testimony if it's mundane parts were true as it is that we'd have it if the mundane parts were false. Then the testimony is no evidence for or against the mundane events: you should consider the events as likely as you did before you heard the testimony.

I'm not sure I'd want to go further than that and say that the burden of proof is on the people who believe the mundane portion of the testimony to show why it isn't contaminated: mightn't they equally well argue that the burden is on you to show that it is? But that's what P2 says, I think: in P2, the testimony becomes evidence against the mundane events.

If you give a mechanism, though, maybe that's just what you can argue: if you think the disciples made it up, for example, who's to say where the made up stuff ends? (Though why not make stuff up based on a real person, for verisimilitude?) You'll then open yourself up to criticisms like David Marshall's though: who would die for something they knew they had made up? (Assuming that actually happened to people in a position to know. That'd apply to the apostle Peter, but not to Paul, for example, though both were supposedly martyrs).

It looks like someone who wants to justify their belief in the mundane stuff has a motive to push the unbeliever to identify the mechanism so they can criticise it. I don't think we have a duty to do that with every weird testimony, though.
wombat said…
Correction : Celsus was Greek not Roman as per earlier post.

The translation is still a good read though.
Tronscend said…

1) Thx.
2) Wrt. "(ii) The existence of embarrassing internal tensions or contradictions within a narrative is surely not so unexpected, even if the narrative is entirely mythical", one might also consider
a) laws, or at least structures, internal to narratology; and
b) parallells of tales of strife, trickery, treachery and indeed embarassment in other pantheons like e.g. the Norse (Vanir vs. Aesir, Loki, Loki and defeat at Ragnarok, respectively).


Stephen Law said…
Hi Bradely et al! Thanks v much for the comments.

I drafted P2 with cases where the false-testimony producing mechanism was not clearly known. In cases where it is, and the mechanism is clearly unlikely to produce false mundane testimony, then, yes, obviously there's no contamination. However, P2 is easily tweaked to deal with that with such cases. I just tweaked it.

As to your (Bradley, I mean) suggestions that historians are largely agreed about the main mechanisms that caused false reports of miracles in Jesus' case, and that the main mechanism is that involved in other faith healing cases is particularly implausible.

Jesus' miracles include, e.g.:

curing illness (lepers, lame)
curing deaf mute
making blind see
virgin birth
raising dead
walking on water
magically producing food for 5000
turning water into wine
Jesus' resurrection

Some of the above can be put down to familiar "faith healing" mechanisms but most cannot. The first three are possible candidates, but even they look unlikely to be a product of innocently introduced mechanisms, such as those involved in Christian Science healings (power of suggestion/placebo, and spontaneous remission/cure). Christian Science "healings" rarely if ever include making the blind see, for example. They mostly cure colds, etc. Those faith healers, such as Peter Popof, who pull off the more dramatic "healings" (e.g. crippled walking, one leg longer than the other, etc.) tend to be deliberate con artists. I'm not aware of many historians who assert Jesus was a knowing conman.

In any case, the remaining miracles on my list are just not the sort of thing faith healers do at all. David Copperfield maybe. But again Copperfield is a knowing deliberate trickster, and needs the involvement of co-conpirators, elaborate set-ups, etc. Again, this is not the view of historians about Jesus, I believe.

Many of the above miracles were probably just invented or "borrowed". And invention and borrowing can just easily produce false mundane claims alongside the false extraordinary claims.

In summary, P2 looks fine (though it needs a tweak to deal with known false-testimony-producing mechanisms - now done.) Your attempt to exploit this tweak relies on an implausible theory ("faith healing") about the origin of the various Jesus miracle claims (which is not even one that most secular historians assert, so far as I am aware).
Stephen Law said…
PS Bradley, you say:

"I think my main issue is that I don't believe a philosophical argument can determine the likelihood of Jesus existing without actually dealing with the historical evidence."

Neither do I. You are attacking a strawman here. You also say:

"Might there be reasons to doubt Jesus’ existence? Sure. Is the presence of miracles in our narrative sufficient to establish this doubt? I don’t believe so."

Again, neither do I. Strawman again.
Robert Oerter said…
Re P2:

As many folks have pointed out, most ancient sources from the time of Jesus have supernatural episodes interlarded with portions that are generally agreed by historians to be reliable history. If we are not to reject all such sources, we must set some kind of a cut-off point: 25% miracles, dump the whole thing; 24% miracles, OK to use it. Or whatever.

Now, suppose we have a document that contains 30% miracle stories. By Law's criterion, we should dump it. But suppose that detailed historical investigation reveals that this document is actually a composite document, written by two different people at two different times. (And possibly combined into a single document by a third person, or one of the two original authors: I don't think the details matter.) And suppose that one of the source documents doesn't contain any miracles at all, while the other source contains a high percentage.

Now we have a contradiction: the contamination principle demands that we dump the document as a whole, but it allows us to retain the source document.

So it seems to me that Law's P2 cannot do what he wants it to do. It cannot circumvent the detailed historical investigation and declare it invalid. A detailed confrontation with the actual historical evidence is the only way to derive valid historical conclusions.
Stephen Law said…
Robert - it's not hard to think up special cases where contamination is unlikely to occur. Here's another one - we find the testimony is from someone paid money to make up claims, but only supernatural claims.

These kinds of case are why I said in the paper that P2 will need further tweaking and refinement. However, where there's no reason to think a scenario like the one you paint has occurred, we surely are right to be pretty sceptical even about the mundane claims. Which is why we are right to doubt the existence of the sixth islander and Bert. Something like P2, suitable refined (and it's easy enough to tweak it to deal with your case), is going to be correct.

But in any case, this tweak doesn't help save the mundane claims made re Jesus.
Stephen Law said…
Actually, Robert, now I think about it for more than 10 secs, your counter-example to P2 is not even a counter-example. Once it is discovered the non-miracle involving part of the document has an independent source, then it does indeed have independent (non-miracle involving) confirmation.
Stephen Law said…
PS "So it seems to me that Law's P2 cannot do what he wants it to do. It cannot circumvent the detailed historical investigation and declare it invalid. A detailed confrontation with the actual historical evidence is the only way to derive valid historical conclusions."

Again, what you reject here is not my view. You are attacking a straw man.
In the Conclusion section of the article occurs the following qutoes of historians regarding reliable evidence:

Bauckham immediately concludes that the:

Gospels understood as testimony are the entirely appropriate means of access to the historical reality of Jesus.

... Leslie Milton also stresses the presumptive right of testimony to be trusted. About the early Gospel sources, he says:

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.

Leaving P2 aside, are not these premises in need of support? Are they not simply begging the question as to what evidence is reliable for supporting the occurrence of even mundane facts?

The New Testament is one alleged account, not multiple accounts. It is not a compilation of independent eye witness testimony of mundane events in an otherwise unmiraculous life.

Furthermore, the purpose of the New Testament is to establish a new religion. This end did not require the existence of any known person to be the perpetrator and benefactor of miracles. All that would be needed would be the ability to convince converts that someone fit the bill.

My assumption is that the New Testament and its account of events occurred essentially ex nihilo.
That the promotor of a new religion could do this could probably be demonstrated today.
Robert Oerter said…
Stephen, thanks for the reply. In that case, what do you think of the Q source? It has mostly sayings of Jesus, and only a few miracles.

Other independent sources for Jesus's life, with few miracles, are Paul's letters and the Gospel of Thomas.

Is this enough to establish a historical Jesus?
Ben said…
Subscribing to comments.
Stephen Law said…
That's a really interesting question, Robert.

Suppose a modern day Christian produces a document that recorded just mundane details about Jesus. The "sayings" of Jesus say.

P2 will not apply to that document. But of course, that wouldn't mean that we should trust this new document. In fact, we should not. The reason is, we know the document was derived from an earlier source (The NT) in which a great many miracle claims do appear. The source is contaminated.

Now consider Q. It does contain miracle reports, but mostly sayings. So P2 may not require we be sceptical about it directly. But, if the source of Q is one that is known or strongly suspected to involve a significant proportion of miracle claims (particularly of the spectacular variety), then again, it should be distrusted.

Now my understanding re Q is that it does indeed trace back to sources involving more miracle claims (sources in common with the highly miracle-laden Mark, quite possibly). This seems to be the popular view (Bauckham, for example). Q does not mention the resurrection miracle. Yet, it's claimed by Bauckham, those who produced Q knew about the resurrection miracle nevertheless, *despite not mentioning it*. Mere silence on the issue does not entail ignorance, it's said.

Indeed, Biblical scholars typically insist, don't they, that the big miracle claims - including the resurrection - do in fact trace back to the very earliest sources?

In which case the fact the Q happens to be miracle-light compared to Mark is not a reason to place much confidence in it.
Stephen Law said…
Incidentally, Robert and others, to what extent do you think that the criteria that Biblical scholars I quote apply to justify belief in mundane claims about Jesus are good criteria. e.g. multiple attestation, embarrassment, etc? To me, this sort of methodology looks almost ludicrously flaky. I find it impossible to take seriously their view of themselves as hard-nosed, tough and impartial thinkers.

I was much struck by magician James Randi's observation that scientists are pretty useless at spotting and uncovering trickery by spoon benders, psychics, and so on. Their methods are great when dealing with atoms and molecules, but when dealing with frauds and con artists, scientists are often as easily duped as anyone else. Scientists need to enlist the help of e.g. trained magicians when constructing their tests and experiments involving such subjects.

Perhaps, similarly, the average historian is not, as a rule, well placed to study magical stories. Often they make authoritative declarations such as: "But a myth could never develop that quickly", when even a cursory knowledge of other how contemporary cults have developed reveals this is untrue.

Investigating magical narratives surely requires e.g. the knowledge and expertise of someone who has spent a great deal of time looking into contemporary examples of how they are generated.
Stephen Law:

I could not agree more with your assessment of the "ludicrously flaky" methodology of Biblical scholars.

As for historians not being especially equipt to investigate magical narratives, this is no doubt true. Even areas less arcane require specialized knowledge.

In the United States, on PBS, historian Henry Louis Gates, hosts a program investigating interesting genealogies of guests, yielding surprising results, involving unexpected racial/ethnic/historical connections.

Gates utilizes the services of experts in genealogy, persons with knowledge of the obscure sources of birth/baptismal records, deeds, purchase orders/receipts and other types of evidence indicating family connectedness.

Even such mundane historical investigative tools are not necessarily familiar to such a mainstream academic historian as Gates.

The investigation of magical narratives would no less require techniques not routinely a part of the education of an academic Biblical scholar.
Dan: I suggest you read Bauckham's whole book. Any short phrase, taken out of context of the long argument it is set in, will inevitably look like it begs all kinds of questions.
Dr. Law: I'm sorry to see you haven't even tried to deal with my arguments. Is this because you take Humean skepticism about miracles so much for granted, that anyone who does not share it, can be automatically dismissed? Do you concede that this argument can only potentially work for people who deny miracles a priori? Or do you find any less esoteric faults with my critique?

Watching the subsequent conversation, which makes no attempt to deal with my criticism of your allegedly equivocal use of terms like "miracle" and "extraordinary claims," or formulate a more workable definition of either, seems a little unreal, frankly.
Stephen Law said…
Thanks for comment Dan. I am certainly not accusing all Biblical historians of course!

In retrospect I would also have added to the paper that, not only am I not a mythicist, and allow that the existence of Jesus might be a bit more probable than not, and indeed am quite happy to accept that a conclusive case for saying that J's exist may have been established (I deny that the examined criteria of multiple attestation, etc. do the job), that I also don't want to lump all the mundane claims made re Jesus together as being equally reasonable/unreasonable. It's not as if, were the existence of Jesus firmly established, then so too would be the existence of the empty tomb.
Stephen Law said…
Sorry that was misleading. What I meant was, perhaps there's a conclusive case for the existence of J out there somewhere - I've just yet top see it. The criteria of multiple attestation etc. that supposedly do the job don't. What apparently convinces many Biblical historians seems to me to be woefully inadequate.
Anonymous said…
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Anonymous 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 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.

Humanity knows from studies of high energy particle physics that existence is reductionist, atomist, and materialist all the way up and down. There’s a complete dearth of evidence of any holistic aether or emergent properties pervading existence. There is no ghost in the machine. Human beings and everything else are only the sum of their parts. Reality is gauge invariant. The laws of physics used to fabricate mathematical models giving science predictive capability remain the same where ever and when ever they are adduced. This means miracles cannot happen because the way nature operates remains the same throughout existence. Leptons, quarks, and gauge bosons cannot stop being what they are. Gravity, electro-weak, and strong forces are what they are and can be nothing else.

There is justification for P2, at least in the case of mythological characters like Jesus. Contamination due to miraculous falsehoods occurred. That is evident because the putative reason for non-miraculous story elements evaporates when the impossible is eliminated. The gospel writers created the Jesus story to inspire and launch faith in a super natural religion. Non-miraculous window dressing does not stand on its own, so those advocating a historical Jesus hypothesis lose their a priori supposition of historicity.

@David Marshall: I know you don’t like Robert M. Price’s exegesis. You should make an exception for his newish book “The Christ Myth Theory and Its Problems.” Price’s case for gospels as midrash has legs just by virtue of the large quantity of obvious typological parallels between the Jesus story and old Moses, David, Elijah, Elisha, Odysseus stories. Your fans might enjoy a review, so its worth your time.

The gospel stories look just the way they should look if they were constructed as mythological miraculous fairy tales to inspire religious faith. This idea is supported by Atwill’s (Caesar’s Messiah) explanation of the Jesus baptism by John story.
VinnyJH57 said…
Supernatural stories were told about Alexander the Great as a result of his accomplishments in the real world. Natural stories about the earthly Jesus were preserved and transmitted in order to promote belief in the supernatural post-mortem accomplishments of the risen Christ.

If you strip away the supernatural stories about Alexander, you still find a flesh and blood man who left a significant mark in the historical record. If you strip away the supernatural stories about Jesus of Nazareth, you strip away the only reason that any stories survived about him in the first place. The accomplishments in his life were such that a historian should not be surprised to find no evidence of his existence whatsoever.

In this regard, Jesus of Nazareth is unlike any person in the ancient world about whose existence we might want to know. The resurrection is the starting point of the historical record concerning Jesus and it’s an event which is beyond the reach of historical methodology. Of course this does not prove his non-existence, but I think it raises legitimate questions about whether such a person's existence can be established using standard historical tools.
wombat said…
Being an influential teacher and maybe starting some critical new threads in philosophy seemed to be enough for say Socrates or Confucius, so why would he not qualify on those grounds? Leading an army helps to make an impression but its not the only way.
VinnyJH57 said…

I'm not saying it would be impossible for Jesus to have left a mark in the historical record independent of the belief in his resurrection, but if he was actually an itinerant preacher from a one horse town in Galilee whose followers were mostly illiterate peasants, we wouldn't be very optimistic about it. Socrates and Confucius were both educated me who were known to the prominent people of their day. The only attention Jesus is thought to have drawn anyone outside his small band is when he was executed as a troublemaker by the Romans, which was not such a remarkable occurrence.

So my question still becomes, can historians establish the roots of any of the stories about Jesus of Nazareth within his own lifetime from sources that were not the product of a belief in the supernatural events that occurred after he was dead?
wombat said…
Give the historians a chance!

They've only been working on it for what... 2000 years?
Paul Wright said…
So I read Craig's rebuttal:

The stuff about Ehrman is weird. I guess Craig's point here is to show how reasonable he's being by pointing out that even this bloke he beat in a debate (Ehrman) agrees with him. But Ehrman is not a radical sceptic, Law is not die-hard mythicist. The conclusion of Law's argument is that we should be sceptical about J's existence, not "Therefore J never existed", so it's not even clear that Ehrman's ire applies to Law.

On Sagan: This sounds so commonsensical, doesn’t it? But in fact it is demonstrably false. ... Rather what’s crucial is the probability that we should have the evidence we do if the extraordinary event had not occurred. This can easily offset any improbability of the event itself.

Craig makes a reasonable statement of Bayes Theorem. Note, however, that Sagan's dictum that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" can be read in a Bayesian way (claims with low prior odds require evidence with a high likelihood ratio). Craig gives no good argument that the dictum must mean what Craig takes it to mean, or that Law's argument relies on taking it to mean what Craig thinks it means.

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.

This might be Craig's attempt at that argument, namely, Craig saying that Law has neglected P(E|~H) being very low. But Craig plays fast and loose: the facts we have are that we have the gospel narratives (and whatever other historical documents we have to hand). The empty tomb and post-mortem appearances are not facts, and Law's argument is that they cannot be treated as facts. Law: "It would also be foolish to try to construct a two part case for Jesus’ miraculous resurrection by (i) bracketing the miraculous parts of the Gospel narrative and using what remains to build a case for the truth of certain non-miraculous claims (about Jesus’ crucifixion, the empty tomb, and so on), and then (ii) using these supposedly now “firmly established facts” to argue that Jesus’ miraculous resurrection is what best explains them (yet several apologetic works – e.g. Frank Morrison’s Who Moved The Stone? – appear implicitly to rely on this strategy)." (Add Craig to the list of apologists here, I suppose). Craig cannot have the empty tomb or the post-mortem appearances as "facts" without addressing the rest of Law's argument that we should be sceptical of Jesus's very existence and then also showing that there is sufficient evidence for the empty tomb and whatnot.

Craig doesn't address P2 or Law's arguments for it at all: he just says "oh no it isn't".

Craig's strongest when he says that there is extra-Biblical evidence. I'm not an expert, but my understanding is that Josephus is thought by historians to have a core around which Christian interpolations of Jesus accreted, for example. Since even if we grant P2, Law's argument fails without premise 6, perhaps this is a good tactic on Craig's part. Law appears to agree that premise 6 is his weakest empirical premise: "6 is at the very least debatable". In a way, it's odd that everyone is concentrating on P2. Craig's debating instincts take him to the weak point :-)
Lee said…

Isn't the historicity of Socrates in doubt, for many of the same reasons?
VinnyJH57 said…

I know I've read that, too, but I have no idea whether the consensus of scholars would be that there is some uncertainty or whether it's a strictly a minority position.

As far as I know, our earliest sources for Socrates purport to be based on encounters with an actual man, whereas our earliest source for Jesus claims only to have encountered a supernatural being through vision and revelation.
S Johnson said…
William Lane Craig said, "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."

He didn't bother, but the tales of Herodotus and Marco Polo really should have come to mind. As phrased, P2 really is pretty weak. Craig appears to be a professional polemicist and can hardly be expected to do anything but take the easy shot handed him.

Why not phrase P2 as something like "Any source that makes impossible claims must be deemed unreliable until supported by outside evidence."
Whether or not there was a historical Socrates, there is a body of philosophy, namely, the Dialogues of Plato, which are important independent of Socrates' existence.

Whether the ideas of the early Dialogues are attributable to a real figure, Socrates, or are the ideas of Plato only, is irrelevant philosophically.

The issue may be important to Classical scholars interested in how the works came to be, but is less interesting to philosophers interested in the philosophy of Plato.

In the case of Jesus, there are no coherent writings elucidating a coherent system of thought. Leave out the miracles, the Ressurection, and the promise of eternal life, and little is left. Influential, of course. Coherent not.

The New Testament is not an especially sophisticated piece of writing, philosophically or morally. It is essentially a religious text.

If there were no historical Jesus, nothing is left.
Anonymous said…
@Robert Bumbalough

This comment is further to my previous comments.

Regarding gauge invariance or point of view invariance, Victor Stenger's books “The Comprehensible Cosmos” and “The Fallacy of Fine Tuning” are recommended to the interested reader.

Regarding miracles, Joe Nickle's books “Looking for a Miracle” and “Entities: Angels, Spirits, Demons, and Other Alien Beings” are suggested.

Michael Martin and Ricky Monnier' anthology “The Impossibility of God”, Martin's “Atheism : a Philosophical Justification”, Nicholas Everett's “The Non-Existence of God” shows some, and perhaps most, versions of god believed in by nominal adherents of Abrahamic religions cannot exist. Other vague and ambiguous god beliefs are shown so unlikely as to not be worthy of consideration in Martin and Monnier's “Improbability of God” and John Loftus' “Why I Became and Atheist”, and Robert M Price's “The Reason Driven Life. The notion of theism is silly and falsified. See Victor Stenger's book “God: The Failed Hypothesis”.

Why can't miracles or personal theistic gods such as those imagined by adherents of Abrahamic or Vedic religions? George H. Smith provided and answer.

To exist is to exist as something. To be something is to have a specific nature. That is to have a particular identity. The Laws of Identity A=A and Non-Contradiction A =/= A entail that any ontological being must posses specific determinate characteristics. To have such characteristics is a consequence of being part of nature. But the theistic God is asserted to be super-natural, and that is to be exempt from the uniformity of nature. Herein lies the contradiction fatal to any claim of knowledge about God. Having specific determinate characteristics imposes limits, and those limits would restrict the capacities of the alleged super-natural being. Such restriction then renders the alleged super-natural being subject to the causal relationships that denote the uniformity of nature in actual existence and disqualify it from being God. To escape this contradiction, the religious mind proposes to somehow imagine a God lacking any definite attributes or properties. But a postulated existent devoid of properties or attributes is indistinguishable from nothingness and is incompatible with the concept of existence. For God to have characteristics necessarily means God must have definite characteristics. That is to say that God would then necessarily be limited, for to be A is to also not be A. Any being with characteristics is then subject to the uniformity of nature imposed by those capacities. For a super-natural being to differ from natural existence, it must exist without a limited identity and nature. This amounts to existing without any nature or identity at all. If humanity is to have meaningful discourse about God, we must presuppose it to have properties by which is can be identified. By asserting that God is super-natural theism stipulates existence apart from the uniformity of nature and eliminates any possibility of assigning definite characteristics to God. But by assigning definite characteristics to God, theism brings its God within the natural realm and renders it not-God. Something cannot be both A and A. ~ paraphrased from p.41 of Atheism: The Case Against God.

God then cannot exist, and any claim of knowledge of God is indistinguishable from fantasy of God.

Dawson Bethrick on his Incinerating Presuppositionalism blog shows why and how Randian Objectivism's metaphysical axioms preclude miracles or super-natural beings.

Intro and the Nature of Truth

The Nature of Logic

The Uniformity of Nature

Best Wishes
macroman said…
I haven't read past the "contamination principle" or checked anything anyone has said in comments, so this comment may be useless. But it occurs to me that the contamination principle or something analogous applies to the technique commonly used with Josephus Testimony about Jesus (the TF). Scholars look at the TF and remove the bits that look like a Christian interpolation - it is unbelievable that Josephus wrote these bits and nearly everyone agrees. But they believe that Josephus wrote the remaining bits. Isn't it more reasonable to say "This is clearly a partially made-up account, why not think the whole thing is made up".
Steven Carr said…
The Miracles of Jesus are clear documentary proof of the fraudulent nature of the Gospels.

As all religions have been based on frauds and lies, the prior probability is that the Gospels are full of frauds and lies.

And they are, as my web page documents.
Paul: In Acts of Faith, his penultimate statement of theory in the Sociology of Religion, Rodney Stark defines "magic" as follows:

"Magic refers to all efforts to manipulate supernatural forces to gain rewards (or avoid costs) without reference to a god or gods or to general explanation of existence."

Ruth Benedict likewise defined magic as

"mechanistic manipulation of the impersonal."

I agree with these differences between magic and miracle, and add a few more, above.

Obviously, the differences scholars of religion describe, are enormously relevant to the credibility of an event. If Law chooses to ignore the distinction between magic and miracle, he takes upon himself the burden of the doubt for showing that the differences do not matter.

Those differences would seem to matter a great deal. Obviously, it is very different to say, "Jesus fed the hungry by the power of God," and "Bert flapped his wings and flew around the room." I've explained some of those differences: it is not up to me to prove that they are fatal to Law's argument, it is up to Law (since he has ignored them) to show that they aren't.

Even atheists often admit the relevance of the differences you question, by (incorrectly) complaining that miracles are "arbitrary." What does that mean? It means they recognize that a supernatural act that has no explanation, meaning, or sense, is intrinsically less plausible than one that does have an explanation, meaning, and sense. This is intuitively obvious, and goes to the heart of what it means to explain something. Simplicity and coherence are axiomatically important elements in any explanation.

The reliability of the NT (which is, of course, not one single document) is NOT the question at issue here: the question at issue is Dr. Law's argument against the historical records found in the NT. The records themselves are the raw historical data. As Bauckham points out, you have to have a REASON to dismiss them, which Law is attempting (unsuccessfully) to give.

Law's argument is presented as an attempt to extend Hume's argument. He assumes, following Hume, that miracles are somehow discreditable. Given that Hume's argument against miracles has been strongly challenged, that assumption is doubtful, as is Law's attempt to build on the supposed taint that miracles inflicts on the Gospel text. (Nor, BTW, has Law been the first to attempt such an argument, though I don't recall seeing it in quite this form, before, so I'm happy to give him at least some credit for originality.)
Robert: Thanks. If I have time, I'd love to read and analyze Dr. Price's newest work. I'm thinking of writing something on the subject anyway, and if I do, Price would definitely be one of those whose work I engage with. But there are a few other projects higher on the list at the moment.
Paul Wright said…
David Marshall writes:

I've explained some of those differences: it is not up to me to prove that they are fatal to Law's argument, it is up to Law (since he has ignored them) to show that they aren't.

No, this doesn't work: I can't rebut an argument by stating facts (even true facts) which are unrelated to it and then saying "it's up to you to show that these facts are not fatal to your argument".

As far as I can tell, claims about Bert and Jesus are both very unlikely for similar sorts of reasons. If you say, "But Bert does magic and Jesus does miracles", I may accept that, but you've told me nothing which invalidates Law's argument unless you have some argument that miracles are much more likely than magic, say.

In my previous response, I asked you why these distinctions made Jesus reports more likely than Bert reports. You still haven't answered the question.

a supernatural act that has no explanation, meaning, or sense, is intrinsically less plausible than one that does have an explanation, meaning, and sense

Suppose we add to the Bert account either the claim that a god helped Bert so that Tom and Sarah would go on to found a religion based on him which would usher in a new age of enlightenment; or a claim that Bert is able to make use of impersonal supernatural forces. These are both attempts to make sense of what happened, but neither of them are good explanations, and the fact that one is based on claims about gods and the other based on magic does not make one better than the other. Both of them are like Heinlein's "the woman down the street is a witch, she did it". As Yudkowsky says, "Witchcraft may fit our observations in the sense of qualitatively permitting them; but this is because witchcraft permits everything, like saying "Phlogiston!" So, even after you say "witch", you still have to describe all the observed data in full detail. You have not compressed the total length of the message describing your observations by transmitting the message about witchcraft; you have simply added a useless prologue, increasing the total length."

The same applies to "God did it": as I said, either you're claiming that anyone can add that claim to any unlikely claim to make it more likely (which I take it you're not) or you hope that saying it provides a theory which is less complex than just listing what happened i.e. that you have some idea of the sorts of things God would do, so that we could have known what was going to happen. But you provide no evidence that your ideas of the sorts of things God would do are correct.

Law's argument is presented as an attempt to extend Hume's argument.

I noticed you didn't answer another question: which specific premise of Law's argument is invalidated by Earman's argument against Hume? Sober writes in his review of Earman's book: "I agree with Earman that Hume’s general insight does not extend much beyond the thought that very strong evidence (testimonial or
otherwise) is needed to render a proposition probable that we antecedently think is incredible", and this is all Law claims in P1. So it seems that Earman probably agrees with Law!
Paul Wright said…
Oops. Yudkowsky's Phlogiston link, which I botched.
This is changing the subject from the evidence for the historical Jesus contained within an acount of miracles, to the evidence for the miracles alone.

What exactly is the evidence for the miracles attributed to Jesus and his ressurection? Am I naive, or is the answer, simply, the New Testament?
Steven Carr said…
As Bauckham points out, you have to have a REASON to dismiss them, which Law is attempting (unsuccessfully) to give.

Possessed pigs, people talking to Satan in the desert, Jesus flying into the sky on his way to Heaven, the fetus John the Baptist leaping for joy in the womb when the fetus Jesus enters the room....

I need a reason not to burst out laughing?
macroman said…
On the decontamination issue, the verifiable details about background data verifies the story. There is a well-known story in legal circles that goes, A man claims he shot a 15ft high grizzly bear which he saw forgaging under an oak tree. And if you don't belive him, he is prepared to show you the oak tree.
Anonymous said…
David Roemer,

The many sightings of the Virgin Mary are historical events that can’t be explained in terms of any other historical event. In the most recent case, the children who spotted her in the former Yugoslavia in 1981 swore up and down that she had appeared to them. Moreover, they never recanted, and it was determined they were not suffering from any psychiatric delusion. Therefore, the Virgin Mary must have appeared to them.

Also, the witchcraft practiced by 14 young women in Salem, MA in the late 1600s is a historical event that can’t be explained in terms of any other historical event. Hundreds of relatively modern people, including the state governor and local officials, gave sworn affidavits saying that these women did, in fact, perform genuine witchcraft. We have thousands of original documents from the trials in which such testimony was given. Therefore, these young women simply must have been real witches.
Anonymous said…
David Marshall said, "[T]he question at issue is Dr. Law's argument against the historical records found in the NT. The records themselves are the raw historical data. As Bauckham points out, you have to have a REASON to dismiss them, which Law is attempting (unsuccessfully) to give." David, what evidence can you provide that the NT accounts of Jesus' life and miracles are historical? We don't even know who wrote them, whether they were intended to be interpreted as factual accounts or merely to encourage or entertain their readers, or who their sources were (if any). Sure, the author of Luke _says_ he's giving a truthful account, that's not likely since he borrowed most of it from Mark without even saying so or explaining how he knew Mark's Gospel was accurate. Moreover, Luke's assurance as to the veracity of his story could simply be part of the story itself.

I simply cannot understand how a document that states of itself that it is truthful can be taken as so simply because of such a statement.

It does not even have the status of an affidavit, wherein a penalty is associated with its being false.

The default position regarding the historical truth of the New Testament is that it is unreliable. The burden of proof lies with those arguing otherwise.

Unless one relies on a special faculty wherein one can intuit it's validity, then one is left with the banjo playing believer's proof: Because the Good Book says so!
With all other things being equal, is my claim that I channel an ancient Hindu wiseman less credible than my claim that I have healing abilities, simply because healing is meaningful?

Presumably, any ability I have to channel some ancient dead person is basically meaningless, whereas healing is benevolent, and hence, meaningful.

That this distinction would be bandied about in support of Jesus' miracles as opposed to Bert's flying around the room, simply because Jesus' miracles are meaningful, and therefore, a priori, more probable, seems like pulling a rabbit out of a hat!
Andrew G. said…
I posted this elsewhere (here) but thought I should copy it here too:


Law’s argument strikes me as being wrong from a Bayesian perspective; what we need to know is P(E1|H) and P(E1|~H), where E1 is the evidence “the Gospels, heavily mythicized accounts of Jesus containing many supernatural claims, exist” and H is the hypothesis “Jesus was a historical person”.

Law’s argument on the other hand is more like this: “E1 is weaker evidence for H, due to its incorporation of supernatural claims, than E2 would be, where E2 is a hypothetical account of Jesus not incorporating such claims”. i.e. that P(H|E2) > P(H|E1) for the same prior on H.

(I’m not drawing a distinction here between evidence for and against, so by “weaker evidence for” I include “stronger evidence against”.)

Applying Bayes’ theorem to Law’s argument we get:

P(H|E2) > P(H|E1) iff P(E2|H)/P(E2|~H) > P(E1|H)/P(E1|~H)

(the prior probability of H cancels out, since it’s the same on both sides)

So Law’s argument is true if and only if the likelyhood ratio for a non-supernatural account existing, for a historical person as compared to an ahistorical person, is greater than that for a supernatural account existing for a historical person as compared to an ahistorical person. On the evidence I don’t think we can conclude this as a general principle; it might be true for specific kinds of evidence (e.g. eyewitness reports) but not others (e.g. hagiography).

More importantly, Law’s argument does not seem to provide a useful bound on the value of P(E1|H)/P(E1|~H). Even if the argument is true, then as long as P(E1|H)/P(E1|~H) > 1 then it is evidence in favour of H; and we would normally expect P(E2|H)/P(E2|~H) to be not only greater than 1 but much greater, leaving plenty of room for E1.

So I think it more productive to focus on P(E1|H)/P(E1|~H) on its own merits.
Stephen Law said…
Thanks Andrew G

My argument takes the form of a challenge to theists to explain why the existence of Jesus is very probable indeed (not just a bit more probable than not) given the evidence. The prob of Jesus existing might be a bit higher than his non-existing, given the evidence. That is not the point. The onus is on the Biblical scholar to explain why they are justified in giving such a very high probability to the existence of Jesus given the evidence. So I think you are misrepresenting the argument in para beginning “So Law’s” aren’t you?

Your more important point seems to be that if P(E1|H)/P(E1|~H) is greater than 1 then E1 it is evidence in favour of historicity, and it might be greater than one.

Sure, but show it is. Show it is considerably greater than one.

And in fact the general principle that introducing significant uncorroborated supernatural elements does considerably weaken the support provided by evidence for a hypothesis is clearly illustrated by the Ted and Sarah and similar cases. That’s to say, such considerations seem to show P(E1|H)/P(E1|~H) is unlikely to be much greater than one. If indeed it is greater than one.

So you seem just to be ignoring my argument rather than dealing with it, so far as I can see. But I read this quickly so maybe I’ve got wrong end of stick?!
Stephen Law said…
Incidentally, Andrew G. your post seems to me to illustrate a tendency among some theists to try to deal with counterarguments but repackaging them in Bayesian terms. I've got nothing against applying Bayesian ideas, of course, but the effect of introducing the formula is very often to obscure issues, rather than reveal them. That seems to be exactly what's happened above.

Something similar (but much worse) happened over on "Say Hello to My Little Friend" when a simple point I made was poo-pooed and it was suggested I was being foolish for overlooking various Bayesian points (subsequently articulated by very, very, very long strings of formula). After many hours of unpacking the Bayesian points about "upper bounds of probability" and so on, it turned out I was basically right, and my opponent's criticisms were almost entirely irrelevant red herrings.

Of course, many people are unfamiliar with Bayesian stuff, and many are also intimidated by strings of symbols, and so reframing debates in Bayesian terms can be a very effective smokescreen when theists find themselves in trouble. Of course you are not deliberately doing that Andrew, and may not be doing it at all. This is meant to be a friendly warning to everyone, that's all....
Mano Singham said…
Thanks for dropping by my blog and responding to the comment about the use of Bayes' rule.

I just posted a second reflection on your paper that you might want to check out.
Andrew G. said…
I'm not arguing historicity of Jesus here (I am currently pretty much agnostic about that). What I'm doing is specifically attacking your "contamination principle" (P2).

I argue that while there may be some kinds of evidence for which it applies, there are also some for which it does not. For example, hagiographies of medieval saints will contain numerous miracle accounts whether or not they are based on a real person; so the presence of such miracles should not be regarded as contaminating.

On the other hand we don't expect Ted and Sarah to inject miraculous stories into accounts of real people, so if they do, it gives us additional data that might well cast doubt on their other claims.

One way to describe this is in terms of surprise: something that surprises you is a low-probability event. Ted and Sarah's including a miracle in their report would be a surprise; a historical account of a religious leader including a miracle would absolutely not be a surprise (since they almost all do, even for leaders we know are historical).

None of this of course is to suggest that the Gospels (or any part of the NT) should be taken at face value. But I'm not aware of anyone having yet completed a detailed, expert assessment of the probabilities for the available evidence for Jesus' historicity; this is the topic of Carrier's forthcoming book.
Andrew G. said…
I'm aware of the misuse of Bayes' theorem by certain apologists. In fact I think I tried to comment on that very topic previously in this thread, but either you didn't let it through moderation or Blogger ate it.

Personally I try and avoid using any of the more complex equations and stick to the "odds form", which is much simpler:

P(H|E)/P(~H|E) = ( P(E|H)/P(E|~H) ) * ( P(H)/P(~H) )

The "Bayes factor", P(E|H)/P(E|~H), is the interesting part; if it is greater than 1, then the evidence favours the hypothesis; if less than 1, then the evidence opposes the hypothesis.

The odds form also allows for some very easy ways to handle multiple alternative hypotheses.

To me, the main value of Bayesian reasoning is that it forces you to consider the P(E|~H) case carefully; "if my theory is wrong, how likely is this evidence". This is also a good point to focus on when looking at whether an apologist is misusing the theorem. (Note that the Bayesian equivalent of "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" is "hypotheses with small priors require evidence with small P(E|~H)"; the logic is exactly the same, it just gives us a quantitative idea of what "extraordinary" is.)

The kind of misuse perpetrated by, for example, Craig, is usually nothing more than an attempt to obfuscate. For example, it's correct to state that sufficient evidence can overcome the prior, however small; but for that to happen, the evidence must be at least as unlikely as the prior if the hypothesis were false. i.e. if my prior for some hypothesis is 0.0001%, then I need evidence which is less than 0.0001% likely to exist if my hypothesis is false.

But Craig then goes on to completely misrepresent the nature of the evidence. The empty tomb, for example, is not evidence for the resurrection because there isn't any evidence for it; it's really part of the hypothesis, and the evidence is the usual things historians look at: documents (the NT), artifacts (none), effect on subsequent historical events (none - the subsequent growth of the cult only needed belief in a resurrection, not an actual resurrection), and so on.

Used properly, it's often easy to debunk miracle claims this way. For example, I once got into a discussion with an apologist who was repeating the usual bogus claims for contemporary miracles, such as "miraculous" recovery from cancer and so forth. It's relatively easy to come up with hard numbers for P(E|~H) in such cases - we know how many people die from cancer every year, we can put reasonable bounds on spontaneous remission rates, we can estimate the effects of reporting bias, and so on.
Stephen Law said…
Apologies Andrew G - don;t know where your ther post went. It was not deleted by me and is not in spam either. weird.

anyway, the point about surprisingness won't help. Suppose we know Ted and Sarah are prone to making stuff up for some reason. So it's not so surprising that the tell such a tale. We are still none the wiser, yet, about whether Bert is real or not. The point is that once we know a false-testimony producing mechanism has been at work in producing their testimony, we cannot place much confidence in the rest of what they say either, at least not without good reason to suppose that the non-miraculous parts are unlikely to be affected.
AB said…
"Meier says,'Quite plainly, the early Church was “stuck with” an event in Jesus’ life that it found increasingly embarrassing [Baptism by John the Baptist], 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.'"

Lordy! It's shocking how superficial and credulous the Bible scholar's supposedly critical mind is. No wonder the Jesus story has such staying power. If this is how the *scholars* on the subject do history, I hesitate to think how the average person is supposed to approach the subject.

The Gospel of Mark is clearly NOT "embarrassed" by the baptism. There are multiple possibilities why it was excluded from the Gospel of John -- what was not embarrassing to the older generation (Mark's) could have been by the much later audience of John.
Nothing "embarrassing" about Jesus would have even been included in the evangelists' message -- they were writing narrative theology to get people to join their church, not a "tell all, warts and all" biography of a flawed historical person.
Unknown said…
Hi Stephen,
I'm not yet 100% convinced about the contamination theory. Surely it's possible to imagine a situation where you would fully expect a witness to be wholly unreliable about a subset of events but reliable about the rest? For example, a deaf witness might not have a good idea about how things sounded but would know how they looked. Or a pre-scientific uneducated fisherman would have zero understanding of, say, psychology or neurology, so would talk about "casting out demons", but might still be otherwise reliable about things that they understood, like whether or not there was a bloke standing next to them talking about religion? I know that doesn't cover all the miracles, but possibly a few. Other than that, I am pretty much with you on the remaining points (and equally annoyed by WLC's insistence that Sagan's assertion is wrong!)
Stephen Law said…
Sure, I agree there are circumstances in which contamination might be reduced due to other factors such as those you mention. I think someone else mentioned this above but can't be bothered to scroll through....!
Sihle said…
there is thing that we will never understand. we cannot expect physical evidence for spiritual things. you need to pray and connect spiritually Stephen, then you will belief. as long as you diligently look for some sort of physical evidence, faith would then be irrelevant. know one thing, THERE IS SO MUCH MORE IN THE WORLD THAN WHAT A PERSON OF THIS WORLD CAN UNDERSTAND. belief and knowledge are found completely on opposite basis, that why you don't always find one supporting the other.
God created things the way they are. how are we suppose to know that we are in fact existing and not dead, we don't how is to be dead, and if you die you in fact start living or you die again and again and again... if it makes no sense to us according to how we understand the world, we reject it but it doesn't mean it is not the case. if we belief it, it makes sense and we accept it.
Anonymous said…

Stephen, I am on the same page as you on almost ever word you posted. Well done, and well said.

Sihle, You are operating under presuppositions.

We don't know that there are things that we will never understand.

We don't now spiritual things exist, and if they do, we don't know that we shouldn't expect physical evidence for them.

There is no evidence that praying has any effect on what happens.

It is untrue that belief and knowledge are mutually exclusive. In fact, that is largely untrue.

There is no evidence that there is a god, let alone that he/she/it created anything.

Wanting to believe something doesn't at all grant what the belief entails veracity.

One thing you got right... we don't know what happens to you after you die. That doesn't grant creedence to whatever you prefer to imagine.
Anonymous said…
Not sure it's right to say that extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence, but they need an extraordinary degree of TESTING (i.e. more extensive testing than a mundane claim). (This gets rid of the vagueness of the term "extraordinary evidence".)

That's the root of the reason why P2 applies to the case of Jesus and his miracles. Even if there are eyewitness claims in the texts (which is actually dubious in itself) they can no longer be tested.
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Philip Rand said…
The existence of Christ is an interesting one...I shall make this really short.

I have done a lot of research on the historical veracity of "The Iliad"....and I have always been intrigued by the elements of historical truth in it in archaeology or Hittite writings confirming certain aspects of the story...

What has intrigued me is that such ancient texts always seem to possess elements of truth.

What is interesting is that we even have a more recent story that confirms this myth/truth nexus.

Here I mean the recent discovery of the body of Richard III.

What I find particularly interesting in his discovery is that for generations we have grown to accept that Richard III was a hunchback, i.e. it was a myth with no evidence to back it up.

And yet, on discovery of his body...lo and behold...

It turns out that he was a hunchback!

I am not entirely sure it is wise to discount myth in these types of concepts...

These myths continue to exist because they do have value...and as Niels Bohr wrote:
Piet said…
I know this is old, Professor Law, but I just wanted to respond because your paper and your comments here were so challenging to my belief that Jesus was historical (I pretty much follow Bart Ehrman on this).

I'm not clear on all your judgements as to whether sources have contamination or not. You seem to say that Q is contaminated by the resurrection miracle merely because the author knew about the claim? That can't possibly be right. But then why do you mention it with regards to Q? At one point you seem to suggest that Q was based on earlier miracle accounts. You say that miracle claims trace back to the earliest sources. But that's not the same as saying that all of the earliest sources include miracle claims.

You need evidence that a source is making a miracle claim before you can apply P2. It's not enough that a composite source repeats a miracle claim in order for that source to be contaminated by that claim, you also need evidence that all the sole sources which are usable as evidence for existence and were used by the composite source include the miracle claim. For example, if Q is using X, Y, Z, and all these three claim that Jesus existed, you can't say that Q's claims of existence are undermined by contamination unless you show that all of X, Y, and Z are contaminated.

On this precept it would seem that the evidence of Paul is untouched by P2. Sure, Paul repeats the resurrection miracle. But Paul is not the one claiming to have witnessed that miracle. He only repeats what others have told him. He claims to have seen a vision of Jesus, but there's nothing miraculous about seeing a mere vision. He doesn't claim he talked with Jesus, he doesn't claim that Jesus interacted with him or anything in any way, or that anyone else was there having this vision. But Paul himself claims to have met, along with other people, James, Jesus' brother. As Bart Ehrman says: "You would think James would know whether his own brother existed or not." And that encapsulates it: The evidence from Paul that Jesus existed is dependent on nothing but his own word that he met James, and that James was identified to him as Jesus' brother, either by James himself, or by others also present at the meeting. There's no reason to think this is dependent on any contaminated source.

Then look at the testimony of Tacitus. Now you can say that Tacitus is getting all of his information from contaminated sources, but what evidence is there of this? There's absolutely no evidence that Tacitus used a known source. His testimony just stands there by itself, its origins enigmatic. You can't just wave your hands and say "well he may just be reporting was Christians believe" and that therefore it is not evidence that Jesus existed. He may be just doing that, he also may be reporting what the Roman administrators believed. That's why it is evidence (not proof) that Jesus existed.

And your statement about Josephus is way off: The debate concerning what in Josephus is later interpolation concerns the Testimonium Flavianum, i.e., 18.3.3. The debate whether Josephus writes that Jesus existed is not a debate at all, because he also writes this in 20.9.1, and all serious textual critics agree that this was not an interpolation (but if you only read Robert M. Price and Richard Carrier you may have a skewed view of this).

So I would submit that we have Paul, Tacitus and Josephus all presenting accounts that Jesus existed, with no evidence of contamination such that they should be undermined by P2.
Anonymous said…
Hi Dr Law,

This is an excellent and thought provoking argument. I hope you don't mind that I mentioned it in my recent post 'A response to William Lane Craig's Philosophical Arguments for God's Existence'. Of course, I included a link to your post.
Anonymous said…
Hi All
I am in Africa. The average Jew in the time of Christ, was uneducated, he could not read or write, myth and superstitions were part of their culture, like it was 100 years ago in Africa. Recently in Africa a man cut his penis off and fed it to a Hyena, because a witchdoctor told him to. The worst part is we all laugh at him, idiotic we say, yet we believe in snakes that talk, people that are brought back to life, a chap who turns wine in water, walk on water… really, do look at yourself.
Anonymous said…
Blah, blah, blah and not a shred of evidence. Even the writer casts a cloud of doubt over his "philosophical" musing, saying, 'This paper, while relevant to Biblical history, is essentially philosophical in nature. My focus has not, primarily, been on the historical evidence concerning Jesus, but rather on the principles by which that evidence is, or should be, assessed.' QUESTION: Where's the hard evidence to back up these 'made up' lengthy conjectures? I'm waiting for proof, not a philosophers' opinion.
Unknown said…
From the paragraph "I would agree that such testimony would have such a presumptive right...etc"

Even though Law agrees with the fact that the more testimonies a miracle has provides the greater probability that it actually occurred, and that the New Testament has many of these testimonies, he does not believe that the testimony has a presumptive right entirely because of the “significant proportion of miracle claims woven throughout [the New Testament’s] fabric”. Law believes that it is more likely that these claims have been contaminated and falsified through human intervention than that they actually occurred because these miracles did not complement its narrative. Law therefore believes David Hume’s probabilistic argument:
We should reject the ‘greater miracle’ because it will always be more improbable than the fact that people lie to us.

Law is ultimately presenting the Okham’s Razor theory: where if you have to choose between two hypothesises that equally explain the facts, and one is simpler, then you should choose the simpler offer.

Law is stating that because he believes the miracle claims in the New Testament are not “incidental to the Gospel narrative”, then the postulation must be eradicated so as to make the statement simpler.
It’s supposed inconsistency with the narrative also adds to the probability that these miracles were probably invented later on.

However, I believe this postulation is not at all accurate. Firstly, what does Law mean by the Gospel narrative? If he means narrative like a book carries a plot and themes, then the Gospel narrative runs along the lines of Jesus’ life (biographical) and how the events in his life add to the theme of the Gospels.

Therefore, secondly, we must move onto tackling the miracles themselves and see whether they connect to the Gospel narrative in a way that speaks truth and not human ‘contamination’.

The majority of these miracles, in summary, are when Jesus:
- Heals the sick & drives out demons
- Raises people from the dead
- Feeds thousands with a miniscule amount of food
- Catches a miraculous amount of fish (happens twice)

All these miracles are perfectly in line with the Gospel narrative and themes. They emphasise Jesus’ power, his purpose for coming down to earth in the first place and, not least of all, are strongly symbolic of the Christian life and narrative. i.e. When Jesus catches a miraculous amount of fish, this refers strongly to his calling of being ‘fishers of men’. Because his is the last miracle he performs, it conveys a strong reference to the ‘Second Coming’ of Christ where all who believe in him will come home to him.
The miracles of healing, driving out demons, raising people from the dead, and feeding thousands with a small amount all have symbolic connotations to Christ’s life and purpose: coming down to take away the sins of man so that they may have new life, be healed, be free and ‘never go hungry’ (John 6:35).

In conclusion, there is strong evidence to suggest that these miracles did and do have incidence with the Gospel narrative. In fact, in accordance with the Okham’s Razor theory, including the miracles in the Gospel narrative as fact actually make the Gospel narrative simpler and explain and demonstrate their purpose and themes. It is more reasonable to believe that they actually happened, and because of the symbolic detail, also more probable.
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Anonymous said…
Dr. Law,
You question the authenticity of the miracles and even the existence of Jesus based upon your presented logic... when you accept evolution, do you apply the same logic to evol-mania, or do you find yourself faithfully joining those who now assume it must be true, thus equating to a new sci-fi religion of sorts? Austin Louis, Ph.D., International Development (Ph.D.) (Language Education), (M.S.) Radiation Biophysics
Anonymous said…
Christianity is a pagan religion. Osiris-Dionysus is Jesus. His entire life story was already in countless pagan religions thousands of years before christianity existed. The only difference between christians and all the pagans before them was that christianity took the ancient myths and decided they were true, an actual biography of a real man called Jesus. First century christians (even though according to the biblical stories of Herod, Jesus must have been born in the 3rd or 4th century) were aware of this and retaliated by claiming the devil had been busy giving the pagans and egyptians knowledge of the future events to discredit their 'real' Jesus.

These other mythological gods were sons of god, born of a virgin. (originally the bible never claimed mary was a virgin but called her 'almah mary' or young maiden) They were crucified or otherwise killed. They asked for bread and wine to signify their bodies and blood. They offered baptism, healed the sick, performed miracles including water into wine at a marraige ceremony. Osiris-Dionysus dies at easter time, descends to hell and on the 3rd day he rises to heaven. His followers await his return at judgment day. His birthday was the 25th of december, this is not in the bible but tradition from the original stories has carried through. It was prophesied by a star. He has 12 disciples, he rides into town on a donkey as people wave branches, he is accused of heresy, he offers followers a chance to be reborn. There are so many more parallels, far too many to type here.

For political reasons, what became the roman catholic church ordered one ruler and one religion, they created a church and decided which texts would be allowed to appear in this one size fits all book of religion. As the winners they wrote history (like 'how the West was won rather than how the west was lost) This is an issue since the gnostic books have been found since then and they had claimed the gnostics had branched of off their religion, in reality it was the other way around.

The word 'pagan' was created as a horrible word to describe anyone who wasn't a christian. It means 'country dweller', meant to imply the so called primitive nature of their faith. This was alien to the pagans who embraced all spirituality, science and philosophy and couldn't believe their own stories were being preached as 'gospel'. Much of christianity was spread through force. Pagan temples were desecrated, the vatican stands on pagan sacred ground. Christians like to play the 'persecuted' people but that's exactly how they became a religion. People like socrates and pythagoras were pagans, christians (or 'literalists' to everyone else at that time) had to be extreme to enforce such a ridiculous concept to people who were used to freedom of thought.

There are many names for the man in the 'jesus story' and all of the great concepts found in the bible: love your neighbour as yourself, you reap what you sow, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven (or something like that), store your treasures in heaven etc etc are just mere hollow echoes of the beautiful texts written long before them.

The christians won a spiritual war, replacing the open universal idea of spirituality with literalist ideas of religion, and rituals. Without any understanding of the allegories and metaphorical stories the pagans taught, they reproduced them in a supposedly 'historical' document that claimed to be fact and encouraged superstition over logic.
Bill McEnaney said…
Dr. Law,

This two-part article may interest you because if what it says is true, it shows that Jesus lived, that miracles have happened, and that the Catholic dogma about Transubstantiation is true.

All the best,
Bill McEnaney Jr.
Anonymous said…
I note with interest that some of the commenters disagree with the conclusion, perhaps if they read the article instead of just reading the headline they just might change their minds ... :-)
Unknown said…

It's an old post, but I suspect you might get more activity now that John Loftus has given it a shout out. It was a really interesting read as was the comment thread. I've bookmarked a lot of stuff to read from it. I admit to being a humanist (including the atheist bit), but make no claims to have any expertise in philosophy or history. I am working to improve my critical thinking skills. So from some of the responses I just get the impression that some of the theists are arguing that: if god were real, we would expect miracles. We have stories of miracles, therefore, god is real. Is it just me?

I must finish reading your book: BBS.


Anonymous said…
This paper reminds me of the Socratic dialogues in which at the end no conclusion was or could ever be reached. Not through language anyway.
Gary said…
No one asks you to have faith to believe the fact claims of history or science. They ask you to believe these claims based on the evidence. So why should we treat Christianity any differently? Asking you to believe the central claims of Christianity "by faith" is simply an appeal to emotions and superstition.
Gary said…
Ask a conservative Christian apologist why we should believe that Jesus was a real historical figure and not the figment of someone’s imagination, a legend, and here is the likely response you will get: The majority of scholars (experts) believe that Jesus was a real historical person therefore everyone should accept the experts’ position.

However, ask the same conservative Christian apologist if he (or she) accepts the majority opinion of modern New Testament scholars—that neither eyewitnesses nor the associates of eyewitnesses wrote the Gospels*—and the likely response you will receive is this: The majority of New Testament scholars are biased.

Come on conservative Christians, let’s be consistent!

*Even very conservative, evangelical, New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham in his book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, admits that this is the current majority position among New Testament scholars.
Anonymous said…
Gary - This is not a reasonable comparison. One is Bauckham saying, I hold a minority opinion in an active debate over the role of eyewitness testimony in the Gospels - i.e. most people with PhD's in the relevant field who hold University teaching posts disagree with me but some offer support to it. The other is a christian apologist saying we should accept the experts position that Jesus exists not because the "majority" say so but because no one, literally no one who has a PhD in the relevant field and holds a University teaching post thinks Jesus didn't exist.

Its not a case of agreeing sometimes with the majority and sometimes not its agreeing that the only academic debates that should be entered are ones where there is an actual academic debate.

(btw I'd be interested where you paraphrase Bauckham from. I've got the book sat right in front of me)
Anonymous said…
Gary - you suggest that no one asks you to have faith in order to believe in science. This is not true. Empiricists ask you to have faith in things that can't be proved rationally that's why they are empiricists rather than rationalists.
Gary said…
What is your definition of faith?
Gary said…
If you would like to see Bauckham's quote and others, click on this link:
Jason Roy said…
This is the mini-miracle or the baby step miracle. These are daily events, such as finding a parking space right in front of Costco on Christmas Eve, for example. acim youtube

Jason Roy said…
Miraculously, the child has only a few scratches and is basically unharmed - another miracle. One day I was driving back to Atlanta from Chattanooga during rush hour and it was raining in sheets so I couldn't see much in front of me. ucdm youtube channel

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Thanks to a number of different flash modes, VSCO Cam performs near miracles with lighting. There's a flash mode for almost every need. acim Instagram

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