• Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence

    I thought I’d resurrect this old chestnut. This was reported by the Secular Outpost some time ago:

    “As reported by Christianity Today (see here), New Testament scholar Michael Licona has apparently lost both his job as research professor of New Testament at Southern Evangelical Seminary and been ousted as apologetics coordinator for the North America Mission Board (NAMB).

    Why? In his 700-page book defending the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection, Licona proposed that the story of the resurrection of the saints described in Matthew 27 might be metaphorical rather than literal history. Why is this a problem? As a result of Licona’s questioning of Matthew 27, apparently some evangelical scholars, most notably Norman Geisler, accused Licona of denying the full inerrancy of the Bible. Other evangelical scholars, including Paul Copan and Craig Blomberg, however, rallied to Licona’s defense.”

    This is what I had to say about that on the Secular Outpost blog post:

    “This is a fascinating example of something that I have been arguing with various people for some years.

    Basically, it backs up the argument which supposes that liberal exegetes are probabilistically more likely to find the truth than conservative exegetes. Imagine a factual event X. Now imagine 5 interpretations, 5 claims, 5 exegetical attempts to get the truth of this – A, B, C, D and E. Conservatives (literalists) can ONLY conclude that A represents the truth (since that is what the bible says). However, liberals are free to follow the evidence and conclude from that (rather than conclude from the bible, and massage the evidence). This means that liberals can, too, conclude A. But they can also conclude B, C, D and E, depending on which is more likely. Conservatives must conclude A and A only, which means that it is probabilistically more unlikely that they are correct, since the truth could be any of the others, or combination of the others.

    Now I am not claiming that liberals don’t have their own agendas. I am looking at this from an agenda-free position. And I am not saying that conservatives are a priori wrong. But the freedom with which liberals can evaluate the evidence means that they have a better chance of finding a more accurate truth.

    Licona was one of these. He followed the evidence. The conservatives realised that only A is viable. Licona was Not A. He lost his job.”

    However, my main point here is one that I wrote on the blog comments linked above in response to someone who claimed that extraordinary claims do not require extraordinary evidence:

    “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

    Your problem here is that it is not a mantra designed to be talking about primary evidence. Primary evidence is the best evidence (usually, assuming sound of mind and not hallucinating etc). Your analogy fails because you are saying “If you could see both things with your bear eyes, then you would see they are both true.” However, this is a false analogy since we are talking about the standards of secondary and tertiary evidence.

    Hence, we are evaluating the extraordinary claim that resurrected hordes of saints paraded through a municipal city. This went unrecorded or unreferenced by everyone until some half a century or so later, by an evangeliser with an agenda.

    Thus, since this is unverified and not independently attested, even on historical grounds, this is poor evidence. It is also wildly supernatural claim that, as far as we know, has never happened and cannot happen, except in the claims of the bible. However, you would, I imagine, deny all other supernatural claims from religions outside of the bible. On what grounds? I would posit that it would actually be on special pleaded naturalistic grounds, thus employing double standards, though I could be wrong.

    If I told you tomorrow these two things:

    1) I ate 2 apples yesterday
    2) I swam the English channel with my hands and feet tied yesterday in 2 hours

    You would believe 1) on my simple testimony. You would not believe 2) on my simple testimony alone.

    Therefore, extraordinary claims do indeed need extraordinary evidence.

    Let’s expand this for clarity:

    Claim 1: I have a dog.
    Nothing more than verbal testimony needed.

    Claim 2: I have a dog which is in the bath
    As above, with one eyebrow raised

    Claim 3: I have a dog in the bath wearing a dress
    I would probably need a photo of this to believe you

    Claim 4: I have a dress-wearing dog in the bath with a skunk wearing a SCUBA outfit
    I would need some video evidence at the least

    Claim 5: I have the above in the bath, but the bath water is boiling and the animals are happy
    I would need video and independent attestation that the video was not doctored and this is what appeared to be happening.

    Claim 6: All of the above, but the dog has a fire-breathing dragon on it’s shoulder and the skunk is dancing with a live unicorn
    Well screw me, I’ll need video, plus video of the video, plus independent attestation from multiple recognisably reliable sources, and assessment and evaluation by technological experts and biological experts, plus a psychological evaluation of the claimant etc.

    You can claim all you like about extraordinary evidence, and apologists often do, but they get it wrong. You simply cannot deny either of the examples above. That is sceptical human nature. Fact. Thus the Matthew 27 account is less well attested than a particular Hindu miracle: “An incident concerning Raghavendra Swami and Sir Thomas Munro has been recorded in the Madras Districts Gazetteer. In 1801, while serving as the Collector of Bellary, Sir Thomas Munro, who later served as the Governor of Madras is believed to have come across an apparition of Raghavendra Swami who had died almost two centuries back.” yet none of us believe this.

    Matthew 27, at the very least, needs some kind of recognition that what must be thousands of people would have seen this. Yet only one foreign writer, writing in a different country at least 50 years later, seems to be the only person to have recorded this.”

    There is always argument over this maxim and there really shouldn’t be – it’s incredibly intuitive and common-sensical. Even Craig has argued (poorly) against it in debate.

    Category: Biblical ExegesisEpistemology


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce