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Posted by on Aug 31, 2008 in Jesus - historical evidence | 21 comments

Quick response to Sam

Hi Sam

You’re going to give me the evidence for Jesus’ historicity. But you start with more questions. Gosh, a lot of questions. Here are answers to some.


First you say:

P1: there are various historical texts which describe Jesus
P2: these texts explicitly or implicitly refer to miraculous events
P3: miraculous events cannot happen (they are ‘pretty obviously silly’)
P4: these texts have no (or: very little?) historical validity.

Is that a fair summary?”


No. It’s not. It’s a bit of a caricature. I don’t say miracles are impossible. My view is miracles are extraordinary events such that, to be reasonably confident one happened, we need more than just the kind of evidence that would be reasonable for mundane events. We need really good evidence. As Carl Sagan said – “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. Do you disagree (yes or no)?

I then say that the fact that there are very many miracles attributed to Jesus in these stories means we then need really good – indeed, pretty extraordinary – evidence before it is reasonable to accept the miracle reports. Again, do you agree (yes or no)?

I also then run the Bert analogy, which is very clear – if my friends say someone called Bert visited them last night, I’ll take their word for it. But if they say Bert did amazing miracles in their front room before leaving, well their claim that these things happened is now no longer nearly good enough evidence even for the claim that Bert really exists, let alone that he did any of the things they claim. Do you agree with me about that? (yes or no).

In a nutshell: as things stand – with no independent corroboration of either claim, my friends’ miracles claim severely reduce the credibility even of their claim that there was such a person.

Conclusion, then, is – the many miracles (constituting a very substantial chunk of the text – not a few passages) in the Jesus stories mean these texts need to provide much higher quality evidence for J’s existence than we possess for, say, Socrates’ existence. Either that or we need some independent corroboration that J exists.

As it is, setting aside the miraculous stuff, the stories in the NT look to me otherwise really no better, and probably rather worse, for Jesus’ existence than it is for Socrates’ existence.

That, then, makes it, prima facie, very reasonable to doubt whether there was a Jesus. Which is all I am suggesting, remember. I can’t see where my reasoning goes wrong here, can you?

Second, you ask the following:


“I would next want to ask: what sort of evidence could reasonably be expected? Video testimony is out, for example, as is detailed scientific analysis along the lines of a crime scene investigation. I agree that records of a crucifixion that named ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ would be very helpful, but is the absence of such evidence particularly surprising?”

MY REPLY. Are you suggesting that, because, if J existed, we shouldn’t expect particularly good evidence for J’s existence beyond what we have, then that’s good enough evidence that he did exist?

If so, I say “Cobblers!”

First off: the answer to the question “what evidence should be expected if true?” depends which particular claim is in question. If it’s the tombs opening after the crucifixion and the dead walking the streets of the city, etc. then I would expect some independent corroboration. The truth of other claims might be less likely to result in such corroboration.

However, this question is in any case a red herring. The question is not: what evidence should we expect if it’s true? But: what evidence is there that it’s true? It’s the latter claim we are looking at, not the former.

Compare the Bert case. If Bert does exist and did perform those miracles before my friends in their sitting room, what further evidence should I expect that this happened, beyond their testimony? None, particularly. But that’s not to say that their testimony is, then, pretty good evidence either that Bert exist or that he did those miraculous things. It’s very clearly neither.

all the best


  1. Incidentally, there seems to be a bit of sleight of hand going on here from some Biblical scholars. First, they ask us to bracket the miracle claims and just focus on the evidence for historicity (and add “there’s as much evidence as there is for Socrates”). Then, having established historicity, they say “Well, if it’s reasonable to suppose there really was such a person, and that we are dealing with credible reports about his actual existence, well its not *so* unreasonable to suppose that some of the extraordinary things said about him are true.”I object at the very first step. It is not legitimate to “bracket” all the extraordinary claims, as if they had no impact on the reasonableness of the existence claim.Any more than in the Bert case.

  2. Apologies if this is only peripherally relevant, but I’ve always liked Chistopher Hitchen’s recasting of Hume on the truthiness of the bible: “Which is more likely? That the natural order of the Universe was violated, or that a jewish minx lied?”

  3. stephen, it appears to me that with your bert analogy you are, in fact mixing a two parted statement into a one parted statement.1: Bert visited me last night.which you may decide to believe or not.2: He performed a miracle to the tune of turning my television set into a spider monkey and the sofa into an elephant (yes, i know i’m being deliberately ridiculous).If you believe me about 1 you may still require evidence about 2, so you trot off to my house and instead of a tv and a sofa we have in the front room a spider monkey and a elephant.Both propositions come out as true.If you trot along to my house and i have the same old tv and sofa i always had then either i’m a liar or about to offer a python-esque ‘well, they turned back again’ kind of excuse. either way you still disbelieve me.But just because an individual called bert didnt turn my living room furniture into animals doesnt necessarily mean that Bert didnt visit. Proof that i lied about a miracle doesnt necessarily mean that i lied about everything else.If however you turn up at my house and i haven’t got a tv or a sofa then the jury is out on this one. and whilst you could very easily doubt that bert had transformed things into animals its still quite reasonable to believe that i was visited by a man names bert.What i’m getting at is that, the two propositions are not cemented together. Whilst substatial evidence would be required for you to believe the second part of the statement, the truth of the first part isnt necessarily dependent upon the truth of the second part.I dont think the falsity of one proposition in a string of conjoined propositions necessarily negates the truth of the entire string.

  4. Hi Stephen, thanks for the partial response to the questions. I’m working on something which I’ll stick on my own blog about the evidence, which will be as positive an answer to the request for evidence as I can manage, but here I’ll pursue the two questions that you’ve answered.On my P1-P4 summary of your miraculous invalidity argument, you seem to have shifted the focus of the argument, away from the historicity of a Jesus figure to the specific question of miracles. If you restrict the point to being about miracles then I agree with you – that is, I don’t think that the description of miracles in the gospel accounts are sufficient evidence to persuade someone of the truth of the miracles _as_”supernatural”_events_. (I’d still argue that it was reasonable to read the gospels as recording the impressions of people who interpreted those events as miraculous though.)But that’s a much more restricted argument than I thought you were making, as you seem to have abandoned P4 as it relates to the historicity of a person named Jesus. Your argument now seems to be:P1: there are various historical texts which describe JesusP2: these texts explicitly or implicitly refer to miraculous eventsP3: simple testimony is insufficiently strong evidence for the veracity of miracle-workingthereforeP4: these texts are insufficient evidence for the reality of miracles.As I said above, I agree with this argument. However, if we’re going to be arguing about the historicity of Jesus I think you’re going to need to hang on to some form of the earlier version of P4 (possibly along the lines of including a “P3i: testimony that talks about miracles undermines the credibility of the wider testimony offered”). I still think you make an illegitimate move from a rejection of testimony about miracles to a rejection of the whole testimony as such.On the second matter you ask: “Are you suggesting that, because, if J existed, we shouldn’t expect particularly good evidence for J’s existence beyond what we have, then that’s good enough evidence that he did exist?” Not quite, but close. I am wanting to ask: what sort of evidence could reasonably be expected if someone like J existed and did something like what was described of him? Would we expect, for example, coins inscribed with his visage, manufactured contemporaneously? No, because such things are appropriate for Emperors and such like. My point here is to say that it is illegitimate to expect certain forms of high-quality evidence to be available. That doesn’t make the lower-quality evidence that is available more true, it just means that it isn’t a criticism of that evidence to say ‘it’s not higher quality than it is’. The issue is: what quality of evidence is textual evidence? And more specifically, what sort of evidence is textual evidence produced within the Christian communities, which is the overwhelming majority of the evidence (and which is why I feel it important to clarify exactly what your argument about miracles is, because I think you want to discount the explicitly Christian evidence as a result of philosophical principle). That’s what I’m working on a post about.

  5. I think the second step is the duff one.The output from the first stage is “Historicity if miracles are disallowed”It is the second stage that quietly drops the conditional.Re:Bert analogy. It is not quite complete.In the NT case you are not in a position to consult your two friends. If you adapt the example to one in which you receive emails from the two friends it would be closer. In that case you would be left with the possibility of suspecting mail tampering. Which is much more likely.Actually the Bert story also highlights another aspect which I think is often glossed over. Motive. Why on earth would he do it even if he could? Arewe to assume that miracle workers lose either their sense or manners?

  6. Sam – I think Stephens point is that in the normal run of things the inclusion of ridiculous/impossible stuff in testimony reduces the likelhood of the “factual” bits being correct because it shows that the witness is unreliable/prone to error/mad. The factual and fantastic are correlated.

  7. [W]hat sort of evidence could reasonably be expected?What sort of claim is being made? What “Jesus” is being said to have existed?Jesus 1: There was some person who said things like, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” etc.In this case, we would expect testimony that did not mention miracles. “False in part, false in whole,” goes the maxim; if we find some part of a narrative implausible, we are more suspicious of the remainder.Jesus 2: There was some person who not only said, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” but also performed extraordinary acts, i.e. “miracles”.In this case, we’re obviously stuck with miracles in the testimony; since miracles are obviously noteworthy, we must expect them in the testimony, and their presence does not directly undermine the testimony; we cannot expect them to be absent.Of course, if we are talking about substantiating miracles, then the comparison to Socrates, etc. in inapt. We do not have to change our views of ordinary scientific laws to accommodate the existence of Socrates. But the claims for the existence of miracle Jesus require us to not only accept that some specific person existed, but also that all our scientific knowledge is simply false.Given that the evidence for what happened last week is usually too thin to support the notion that almost everything we know is wrong, it seems impractical to expect that there could ever be sufficient evidence two millennia old to convince us to overturn our scientific knowledge.It is simply too bad for miracle Jesus, if he had actually existed, that sufficient evidence to warrant belief in his existence is buried by time.

  8. I am finding this “discussion” increasingly baffling.With all due respect, Stephen, I think Bert is a red herring, and it would simplify matters if we just consider the evidence – or rather the lack of it – about Jesus: any sort of Jesus, because Sam by implication partly disowns the Divine miracle-working Jesus of the Gospels. Why he does so mystifies me, because I can’t envisage a Christian religion that is not based firmly on the Gospels, and it is surely the historicity of the Gospels that is the key issue.I’m not certain where Sam stands on this. On the one hand, he seems to imply that it doesn’t really matter whether the Gospels are a true account of events which actually happened; on the other hand, he is desperate to establish that a Jewish preacher called Jesus actually existed. Why? Does the actual existence or non-existence of Jesus affect the ethical and spiritual insights of the Gospels? Their message has – at least in parts – a strong appeal to many who don’t accept that Jesus is a living presence with whom they can personally communicate and be redeemed by. The latter belief is, in my view, the spiritual equivalent of a junkie’s fix [sorry, Sam!].As for the reliability of historical evidence, with all the resources of on-the-spot modern technological reporting there is after only two weeks already a lively dispute about whether it was the Russians or the Georgians who started the recent fighting – so what price reliable evidence about what was going on in Palestine a couple of millenia ago?

  9. To me the simplest explanation of this Bert character is:1. Bert does exist2. Bert visited my friends3. Bert brought drugs

  10. Hi Sam – no you’ve not got what I mean. Anonymous at 5.09 above got it:”I think Stephens point is that in the normal run of things the inclusion of ridiculous/impossible stuff in testimony reduces the likelihood of the “factual” bits being correct because it shows that the witness is unreliable/prone to error/mad. The factual and fantastic are correlated.”Except I don’t prejudge the impossibility of miracles as impossible – I just say that their inclusion in the testimony should immediately make us highly suspicious about that testimony – all of it, including the non-miraculous bits.That is precisely born out by my intuitions about the Bert case. or would you say – “Well, ok, we shouldn’t just take their word about the miracles, but if we set the miracle claim to one side, you’ve got to admit, their testimony is pretty good evidence that there was a person called Bert that visited them.” I’m sure you wouldn’t agree with that. So why do you expect me to agree to it in the case of testimony about Jesus (which isn’t even eye-witness testimony)?

  11. Incidentally, Sam, aren’t the (I would have thought) very simple and important points I am raising here about evidence also raised in discussion between Biblical scholars about historicity?If so, where? If not, isn’t that rather worrying?

  12. Sam I just made a comment, but have now made it a main post instead, so look there…

  13. Fergus, that’s quite possibly the funniest thing I’ve read in a long time – thank you!

  14. Good points Stephen and anticant re the attempts to separate out (cherrypick?) the miraculous and the “historical” (either in proving the historicity of Jesus or in being a christian). You’re both right — it doesn’t make much sense.

  15. It doesn’t make ANY sense – it is nonsense. But Sam and his fellow believing Christians will tell us that it is the only thing thing which makes sense of their lives, and that to believe it in the absence of any independent proof is virtuous in God’s eyes.I find this deeply worrying, because it means that the world is largely populated, and run by, people who make a virtue of irrationality and who will do anything they believe God, or Jesus, or Mohamed, or whatever version of a deity they worship, is telling them to. Even if they are well motivated – as I’m sure Sam, Jamie, and lots of other believers of all religions are – this means that many decisions crucial to the future and indeed the survival of humanity are going to be taken without or even contrary to rationally weighed up evidence. E.g. both Bush and Blair have assured us that God “told” them to invade Iraq.

  16. Stephen: “Incidentally, Sam, aren’t the (I would have thought) very simple and important points I am raising here about evidence also raised in discussion between Biblical scholars about historicity?”Of course they are, it’s the bread and butter of the profession. A bit more autobiography – I was prompted to read for my Philosophy and Theology degree by reading ‘The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail’, in particular the stuff about Jesus marrying Mary Magdalene. I thought academic study of the topic would give me lots more ammunition in my arguments with Christians. However, what I found in studying the NT using the historico-critical methods was that the rationalist spirit is alive and well, and that, despite my atheism, most of the arguments of HB&HG were crap. A good introduction (indeed the first book I was required to read on the subject) is ‘Studying the Synoptic Gospels’ by Sanders and Davies. It even has a discussion of miracle stories, which I’ll be quoting from in a moment…

  17. Sam you say: “My point is that arguing that textual evidence is not the highest quality evidence available does not, of itself, mean that this textual evidence is invalid.”Yes, but whoever argued otherwise? See, red herring.

  18. “Most of the arguments of HB&HG were crap.”Well yes of course they are!But, er, are they among the most sophisticated and respected of scholars to have looked at the J story with sceptical eyes, and to have raised the kind of questions I am raising?I hope not!

  19. A bit more on miracles. One of my main disagreements with your argument of miraculous invalidity is that you are applying an anachronistic standard. For example, if there was an ancient text that referred to the movement of the moon and the sun in Ptolemaic terms (ie geocentrically) would that make the entirety of the text _necessarily_ invalid? No, because that is the language and understanding in use at the time. It would, in fact, be strong evidence for the fabrication of the text if there was a heliocentric reference (other things being equal).Similarly, for a text from this context to refer to miracles is simply an authentic expression of the culture of the time. Miracles were part and parcel of the culture of the Ancient Near East and, not only that, but the following two things are true: i) Jesus’ opponents were also credited with ‘miraculous’ powers (eg the Pharisees) and ii) you could be understood as a divinely inspired prophet without having miraculous powers (eg John the Baptist). So there is no need to invent stories out of whole cloth in order to establish a divine imprimatur on a teaching ministry.I would distinguish between various different classes of miracles when looking at the historical documents (and this is absolutely mainstream critical thought):A) the healings and exorcisms;B) the dramatic power-over-nature miracles (walking on water, calming the storm);C) the ‘signs’ – turning water into wine, feeding the 5,000; and D) the resurrection.The stories in A) are by far the most numerous, the least unusual in context, and they don’t _necessarily_ involve any breach in natural laws as presently understood as they could be understood in psychosomatic terms in most cases. So I would argue that the story elements in this class don’t count as ‘pretty obviously silly’. They count much more as ‘mundane’ events than miraculous in the modern sense.The stories in class B) and C) are ones where critical thought considers it highly likely that the early church has brought creativity to the telling of the story. For example, the calming of the storm ties in to various OT language about God’s power over the water (water being the pre-eminent symbol of the irrational, chaotic and life-destroying). The difference is that class B) is all about divine power whereas class C) is all about the character of the divine nature (ie a difference between power and personality).The resurrection is a special case, and I’ll leave it to one side for now.Now the critical method seeks to disentangle those elements of the stories which are driven by a theological agenda (eg B) and C) from those elements which might have a more substantial historical core (class A) ). To that end, where there is a clear theological agenda being advanced, greater scepticism is called for. What happens in studies of the gospels is an acknowledgement that the texts that we now have were preserved within Christian communities and used for their devotional purposes. However it is possible to be attuned to those theological intentions and screen them out in order to get a sense of what might lie behind them.This is the classic ‘quest for the historical Jesus’, which goes through certain phases. My fundamental point is that there is a consensus, across the spectrum of belief, that we can have reasonable confidence about certain historical facts about Jesus, on the basis of the evidence found in the texts (eg that he preached about the Kingdom of God). The bare existence of Jesus is something about which we can have virtual certainty.One final point about the miraculous. Hume’s point is about what it is reasonable to believe – what is more likely, that the story is true or that it was made up? I think the same thing applies to the historical Jesus – what is more likely, that there was a historical Jesus at the core of the subsequent histories, or that it was made up? In this case, to do justice to the evidence with a hypothesis of literary creation or forgery (which is the implication of saying that there was no historical Jesus) requires belief in something even less likely than turning water into wine.

  20. Hi Sam”My fundamental point is that there is a consensus, across the spectrum of belief, that we can have reasonable confidence about certain historical facts about Jesus”Yes, I agree there is a consensus. I am just questioning it (see next post) and asking for the evidence itself.I also note you say (paraphrasing) “there’s no reason to suppose the mundane details were also invented, in addition to the miraculous stuff” as if that dealt with the worries I raise.It doesn’t. Compare the Bert case. There’s no reason to suppose the mundane details about Bert were invented by my friends (there could have been such a person, whether or not he did the miracles). That doesn’t make it reasonable to accept those mundane details, given the circumstances. See my next post.

  21. “Miracles were part and parcel of the culture of the Ancient Near East.”I suppose what you mean is that there were plenty of credulous people around then who believed in miracles – as there still are today. But that’s not the same as saying that any miracles ever actually occurred – or am I missing something?

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