Extract from paper I am writing on Jesus’ historicity
Here is an extract for comments…
A skeptical argument
I want now to show how our two principles – P1 and P2 – combine with certain plausible empirical claims to deliver a conclusion that very few Biblical scholars are willing to accept.
Let me stress at the outset that I am not endorsing the following argument. I present it, not because I am convinced it is cogent, but because I believe it has some prima facie plausibility, and because it is an argument that any historian who believes the available evidence places Jesus’ existence beyond reasonable doubt needs to refute.
1. (P1) Where a claim’s justification derives solely from evidence, extraordinary claims (e.g. concerning supernatural miracles) require extraordinary evidence. In the absence of extraordinary evidence there is good reason to be skeptical about those claims.
2. There is no extraordinary evidence for any of the extraordinary claims concerning supernatural miracles made in the New Testament documents.
3. Therefore (from 1 and 2), there’s good reason to be skeptical about those extraordinary claims.
4. (P2) Where testimony/documents weave together a narrative about an individual that combines mundane claims with a large proportion of extraordinary claims, and there is good reason to be skeptical about those extraordinary claims, then there is good reason to be skeptical about the mundane claims, at least until we possess good independent evidence of their truth.
5. The New Testament documents weave together a narrative about Jesus that combines mundane claims with a large proportion of extraordinary claims.
6. There is no good independent evidence for even the mundane claims about Jesus (such as that he existed)
7. Therefore (from 3, 4, 5, and 6), there’s good reason to be skeptical about whether Jesus existed.
This argument combines our principles P1 and P2 with three further premises – 2, 5 and 6 – concerning the character of the available evidence. These are the premises on which historians and Biblical scholars are better qualified than I to comment upon.
However, premise 5, is, I take it, uncontentious. Clearly, many historians also accept premise 2 (there is a significant number of Biblical historians who remain sceptical about the miracle claims made in the New Testament, and most will surely accept 2) . What of premise 6? Well, it is at least controversial among historians to what extent the evidence supplied by Josephus and Tacitus, etc. provides us good, independent evidence for the existence of an historical Jesus. Those texts provide us with some non-miracle-involving evidence for the existence of Jesus, of course, but whether it can rightly be considered good, genuinely independent evidence remains widely debated among the experts.
So, our empirical premises – 2, 5 and 6, – have some prima facie plausibility. Premises 2 and 5 have a great deal of plausibility, I suggest, and 6 is at the very least debatable.
I suspect a significant number of Biblical scholars and historians (though of course by no means all) would accept all three empirical premises. If that is so, it then raises an intriguing question: why, then, is there such a powerful consensus that those who take a sceptical attitude to Jesus’ existence are being unreasonable?
The most obvious answer to this question is that while many Biblical historians probably would accept that our three empirical premises have at least a fair degree of plausibility, and most of them probably also accept something like P1, few of them accept P2. Indeed, as we shall see below, many of them do in fact reject P2.
Are there cogent objections to P2? Presumably, some sort of contamination principle is correct, for clearly, in the Ted and Sarah Case, the dubious character of the extraordinary, uncorroborated parts of their testimony about Bert does contaminate the non-extraordinary parts.
However, perhaps, as an attempt to capture the extent to which testimony concerning the extraordinary parts of a narrative can end up undermining the credibility of the more mundane parts, P2 goes too far, laying down a condition that is too strong?
After all, Alexander the Great was said to have been involved in miraculous events. Plutarch records, for example, that Alexander was miraculously guided across the desert day and night by flocks of ravens that waited for his army when it fell behind. Plutarch also suggests Alexander was divinely conceived. Should the presence of these extraordinary claims lead us to reject all of Plutarch’s claims concerning Alexander as untrustworthy? Of course not. As historian Michael Grant notes:
That there was a growth of legend round Jesus cannot be denied, and it arose very quickly. But there had also been a rapid growth of legend around pagan figures like Alexander the Great; and yet nobody regards him as wholly mythical and fictitious (200)
Indeed, no one of note is skeptical about Alexander’s existence.
However, noe of this should lead us to abandon P2. For P2 does not require that we be sceptical about the existence of Alexander. To focus just on Plutarch’s history – the miraculous claims made by Plutarch constitute only a small proportion of his account of Alexander’s achievements. Moreover, regarding the miracle of the ravens, it is not even clear we are dealing with a supernatural miracle, rather than some honestly misinterpreted natural phenomenon. Further, there is good, independent evidence that Alexander existed and did many of the things Plutarch reports (including archeological evidence of the dynasties left in his wake).
So the inclusion of a couple of miraculous elements in some of the evidence we have about Alexander is not much of a threat to our knowledge about him – and P2 does not suggest otherwise. The problem with the textual evidence for Jesus’ existence and crucifixion is that most of the details we have about him come solely from documents in which the miraculous constitutes a very large part of what is said about Jesus, where many of these miracles (walking on water, etc.) are unlikely to be merely misinterpreted natural phenomena, and where it is at least questionable whether we possess any good, independent non-miracle-involving evidence of his existence and crucifixion.
Other reasons for rejecting P2
Even if P2 does not require we be sceptical about the existence of Alexander, perhaps it still sets the bar for reasonable belief too high? In a culture in which miracle claims are rife, perhaps the inclusion of even a significant number of miracle stories within an historical narrative should not necessarily require we adopt a sceptical attitude towards what remains, even if we possess no good independent evidence for its truth. I return to this concern about P2 below (in “Does the cultural difference matter?”).
Historians may also reject P2 on other grounds. They may suggest there are particular features of textual evidence that can still rightly lead us to be confident about the truth of some of the non-miraculous parts, even if the evidence involves very many miracle claims, and even if there is no good independent evidence for the truth of the non-miraculous parts. Several criteria have been suggested for considering at least many of the non-miraculous claims made about Jesus in the New Testament documents to be accurate and indeed to be established beyond reasonable doubt.
The three most popular criteria are the criterion of multiple attestation, the criterion of embarrassment, and the criterion of discontinuity.
The criterion of multiple attestation
Several historians (such as Michael Grant and John Meier) suggest that the fact that a number of different New Testament sources make similar claims in different literary forms gives us some reason, at least, to suppose these claims are true. C. Leslie Milton goes further – he argues that the New Testament gospels draw on three recognised primary sources (Mark, Q and L), and concludes that:
If an item occurs in any one of these early sources, it has a presumptive right to be considered as probably historical in essence; if it occurs in two…that right is greatly strengthened, since it means it is supported by two early and independent witnesses. If it is supported by three, then its attestation is extremely strong.” REF P82.
Milton cites a list of claims that pass this test of “multiple attestation”, insisting they have a “strong claim to historicity on the basis of this particular test, making a solid nucleus with which to begin.” REF P83.
If we already know that Jesus existed and is likely to have said at least some of what he is alleged to have said, this criterion might provide us with a useful tool in attempting to determine which attributions are accurate and which are later fabrications.
But what if we are unsure whether there was any such person as Jesus existed? How useful is Milton’s criterion then? How can we know we are dealing with reports tracing back to the testimony of handful of independent eye-witnesses to real events, rather than, say, a skilled band of myth-makers? Consistency between accounts can indicate the extent to which their transmission from an original source or sources has been reliable, but it cannot indicate whether the source itself is reliable. As Grant notes about the homogeneity of the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus:
one must not underestimate the possibility that this homogeneity is only achieved because of their employment of common sources, not necessarily authentic in themselves. REF p203
In fact, even if we are dealing with largely consistent reports from several alleged eye-witnesses themselves, the fact that their reports contain a large proportion of extraordinary claims will normally make us highly suspicious even about the non-miraculous parts of their testimony. If, in the Ted and Sarah case, we increase the number of alleged witnesses to Bert’s miraculous visitation from two to ten, we would still, rightly, remain rather sceptical about whether there was any such person as Bert.
The criterion of embarrassment
One of the most popular tests applied by historians in attempting to establish historical facts about Jesus is the criterion of embarrassment. The Jesus narrative involves several episodes which, from the point of view of early Christians, would seem to constitute an embarrassment. C. Leslie Milton asserts that
those items which the early Church found embarrassing are not likely to be the invention of the early Church.
Milton supposes that reports of Jesus’
attitude to the Sabbath, fasting and divorce (in contradiction to Moses’ authorization of it in certain conditions), his free-and-easy relationships with people not regarded as respectable
all pass this test.
Michael Grant also considers Jesus’ association with outcasts, his proclamation of the imminent fulfilment of the Kingdom of God (which did not materialize), and his rejection of his family “because he was beside himself” embarrassing to the early Church, and concludes these attributions are unlikely to be inventions of early evangelists. Meier too, considers the criterion of embarrassment a useful if not infallible criterion. Regarding the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist – which raises the puzzle of why the “superior sinless one submits to a baptism meant for sinners” (REF p 168) – Meier says,
Quite plainly, the early Church was “stuck with” an event in Jesus’ life that it found increasingly embarrassing, that it tried to explain away by various means, and that John the Evangelist finally erased from his Gospel. It is highly unlikely that the Church went out of its way to create the cause of its own embarrassment” (p169)
The criterion of embarrassment is related to a further criterion – that of discontinuity (they are related because discontinuity is sometimes a source of embarrassment).
The criterion of discontinuity
Many historians assert that if a teaching or saying attributed to Jesus places him at odds with the contemporary Judaism and early Christian communities, then we possess grounds for supposing the attribution is accurate. Again, Jesus’ rejection of voluntary fasting and his acceptance of divorce are claimed to pass this test. Historian Norman Perrin considers the criterion of discontinuity the fundamental criterion, giving us an assured minimum of material with which to begin . C. Leslie Milton concurs that this criterion gives historians an “unassailable nucleus” of material to work with (REF p 84). John Meier considers the criterion promising, though he notes that it may place undue emphasis on Jesus’ idiosyncracies, “highlighting what was striking but possible peripheral in his message” (p173).