#262

April 22, 2012

Stephen Law on the Non-existence of Jesus of Nazareth

In his blog, atheist philosopher Stephen Law formulated the following skeptical argument against Jesus' existence:

1. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. In the absence of extraordinary evidence there's excellent reason to be skeptical about the claims.

2. There is not extraordinary evidence for any of the divine/miraculous stuff in the NT documents.

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

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

5. The NT docs combine extraordinary and mundane claims about Jesus.

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

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

I'd like to know your opinion about this argument. I think a number of premises are problematic, both philosophically and historically. For example, premise 6 seems to be false on pure historical grounds (independent sources, even outside the NT, attest Jesus' crucifixion, which implies his existence. And certainly the crucifixion is a pretty "mundane" claim, in Jesus' time).

Best regards,
Mary

Venezuela

You’ll remember that this issue came up briefly in my debate with Stephen Law in Central Hall, Westminster, last October. In response to my claim that “Dr. Law has recently defended the claim that Jesus of Nazareth never even existed,” Law responded as follows:

Law: I've never said, by the way, that I've never argued that Jesus doesn't exist.

Craig: No, I said you defended the claim. I was careful about that.

Law: That Jesus doesn't exist?

Craig: That—I said you defended the claim that—something to the effect that—Jesus of Nazareth didn't exist.

Law: No.

Craig: In your argument in your article in Faith and Philosophy,1 you give a seven point argument—

Law: Yeah . . . That's not my view. My view is—The argument that I gave in that piece in Faith and Philosophy journal was that it looks like there's a good philosophical case for remaining neutral. I mean, we just can't be sure one way or the other, and that's not at all the same thing as defending the view that Jesus wasn't a historical individual.

Craig: All right! So agnosticism about the reality of Jesus. . . . All right!

Even if Law’s final position is agnosticism about Jesus’ existence—itself an indefensible position—, it’s evident that his agnosticism is based upon the success of the above argument for being sceptical that Jesus ever existed.

When I first encountered this article in my debate preparation, 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. Even a radical sceptic like Bart Ehrman savages the so-called “mythicists” who claim that we have no good evidence that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person:

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

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

No wonder! Almost every premiss in this argument is unjustified or false. Take (1), for example:

1. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

This sounds so commonsensical, doesn’t it? But in fact it is demonstrably false. Probability theorists studying what sort of evidence it would take to establish a highly improbable event came to realize that if you just weigh the improbability of the event against the reliability of the testimony, we’d have to be sceptical of many commonly accepted claims. Rather what’s crucial is the probability that we should have the evidence we do if the extraordinary event had not occurred.3 This can easily offset any improbability of the event itself. In the case of the resurrection of Jesus, for example, this means that we must also ask, “What is the probability of the facts of the empty tomb, the post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection, if the resurrection had not occurred?” It is highly, highly, highly, improbable that we should have that evidence if the resurrection had not occurred.

And how about (2)? I suppose it depends on what you mean by “extraordinary,” but the evidence for the facts of the empty tomb, Jesus’ post-mortem appearances, and origin of the disciples’ belief is such that the majority of scholars, even radical critics like Ehrman, are convinced of their historicity. Moreover, there is no naturalistic theory proposed as an explanation of these three facts which has garnered the allegiance of a significant number of scholars. So the evidence for the central miracle of the New Testament is pretty extraordinary—even though, as mentioned above, that is not a pre-requisite of the verdict of historicity.

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.

But premiss (6) is the most obviously false premiss in the argument. With respect to extra-biblical evidence Law is just misinformed. Jesus is mentioned in such ancient sources as Tacitus, Josephus, Mara bar Serapion, and Jewish rabbinic sources. If you’re interested in reading these, Robert Van Voorst has collected these sources in his book Jesus outside the New Testament.4There is no reason to think that all of these sources are dependent exclusively on Christian tradition. For example, according to Van Voorst “the wording of almost every element” of Josephus’ original text “indicates that Josephus did not draw it, directly or indirectly, from first-century Christian writings.”5

Worse, what Law doesn’t appreciate is that the sources in the NT itself are often independent of one another, so that we have independent evidence for many of the mundane, not to speak of the miraculous, events of Jesus’ life. It is precisely that multiple, early, independent attestation to many of the events of Jesus’ life that has persuaded historical scholars of the historicity of many of the events in the Gospel narratives. For example, we have references to Jesus’ burial in five independent sources and indications of the discovery of his empty tomb in no less than six independent sources, which is really quite extraordinary.

But there are more reasons for denying (6):

  • Principle of Sufficient Cause: Law says that Alexander the Great must have existed because of the military dynasties left in his wake. But in the same way, Jesus must have existed because of the first-century Christian movement left in his wake. Attempts to explain this movement away mythologically have failed.
  • Embarrassment: Jewish Messianic expectations included no idea of a Davidic Messiah who, instead of throwing off Israel’s enemies and establishing David’s throne in Jerusalem, would be shamefully executed by them as a criminal. Jesus’ crucifixion was something the early church struggled to overcome, not something it invented. Jesus’ crucifixion is one datum upon which all historical scholars, even the most radical, agree.
  • Archaeology: Law accepts the historicity of Alexander the Great partly because of the archaeological evidence for the dynasties he founded. But how about Jesus? The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem has a very strong historical claim to be built over the actual tomb of Jesus of Nazareth. In 326-28 the mother of the Emperor Constantine, Helena, undertook a trip to Palestine and enquired where the tomb of Jesus was located. The locals pointed to a spot where a Temple to Aphrodite had stood for over a century. We have here a very old tradition as to the location of Jesus’ tomb which is rendered probable by the facts that (i) the location identified was inside the extant walls of the city, even though the NT says it was outside the city walls. People didn’t realize that the spot was, in fact, outside the original walls because they did not know the original walls’ location. (ii) When Constantine ordered the temple to be razed and the site excavated, lo and behold, they dug down and found a tomb! But if this is the very tomb of Jesus, then we have archaeological evidence for his existence.

In sum, Law’s argument is not a good one. Scepticism or even agnosticism about the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth is groundless. As Ehrman concludes, “Whether we like it or not, Jesus certainly existed.”6


Notes

1 Stephen Law, “Evidence, Miracles, and the Existence of Jesus,” Faith and Philosophy 28 (2011): 29-51.

2 Bart Ehrman, “Did Jesus Exist?” Huff Post (March 29, 2012); http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bart-d-ehrman/did-jesus-exist_b_1349544.html. Ehrman’s piece prompted an angry reply by Richard Carrier which is noteworthy only for its vitriol: http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/667. Carrier commits a number of blunders, which are pointed out soberly by Butler University NT scholar James McGrath: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2012/03/responding-to-richard-carriers-response-to-bart-ehrman.html.

3 See the very nice account by S. L. Zabell, “The Probabilistic Analysis of Testimony,” Journal of Statistical Planning and Inference 20 (1988): 327-54.

4 Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000.

5 Ibid., p. 102; e.g., use of “Christ” as a title, not a proper name; “wise man,” “tribe.”

6 Ehrman, “Did Jesus Exist?”