In a recent attempt to rebut a peer reviewed philosophy paper by Stephen Law on the methodology of Jesus studies, which challenges the historicity of Jesus (hence my interest), William Lane Craig comes up with something so awful it would be worthy of a young earth creationist website. Maybe I’m just losing my patience with Craig’s specious, fallacious and dishonest method of arguing. Or maybe he really is getting worse at this.
The article I’m talking about is Craig’s recent Stephen Law on the Non-existence of Jesus of Nazareth (n.d.). Which is supposed to be a response to Law’s Evidence, Miracles and the Existence of Jesus (which was published in Faith and Philosophy 28.2 [April 2011]: 129-51). In his inept reply, Craig gets Bayesian reasoning wrong and conceals key facts from his readers. It looks more like a con than a sincere attempt to educate.
Law’s argument is that in documents with a disturbingly high quantity of unbelievable claims, we have no reason to trust the mundane claims in those documents either, without some reliable external corroboration (the bogus material thus “contaminates” the rest with heightened suspicion). His argument is valid and sound. And he develops it in Faith & Philosophy very well and clearly, addressing all reasonable objections and providing examples proving his case. Almost none of which Craig mentions or responds to.
Basic Blunders from the Word “Go”
The first thing wrong with his reply is that though Craig knows Law’s article exists in a philosophy journal, he doesn’t address the exact form of the argument found there, or any of the discussion of it there. Straw man. Right out of the gate. Readers will be misled into thinking Craig is responding to the version of the argument that passed (and thus satisfied) formal peer review. He is not.
Second, instead of respectfully just explaining Law’s actual position (Law is a historicity agnostic, not a historicity denier), Craig loads in a bunch of material quoting his exchange with Law in a debate, I can only fathom in some attempt to make Law look confused, although it really just makes Craig look disingenuous. Ultimately, it just wastes our time with unnecessary verbiage we could have not bothered with. Law is a historicity agnostic. Craig should just say that and move on.
Third, Craig jaw-droppingly says this:
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.
Wait. Did that just happen? Did I just see William Lane Craig diss the whole peer review process of all philosophy journals? William Lane Craig, a guy widely published in philosophy journals and proudly citing his articles in them whenever he can? Who even goes out of his way to emphasize that these philosophy journals he’s published in are peer reviewed? Is that what just happened here? Why, yes. Yes, it is.
I eagerly await Craig’s announcement that all his articles published in philosophy journals “would never have made it past the peer-review process for a journal of New Testament or historical studies” (or cosmological science, the subject of many of his articles in the very same journal: Faith & Philosophy) and should therefore be dismissed as unreliable garbage. Wouldn’t that be the day.
Let’s pretend Craig didn’t just declare the peer review quality of philosophy journals (and thus half his own life’s work) to be worthless (even the journal he himself has published a dozen articles in). Law’s argument is an argument in inductive logic and epistemology, within the general umbrella of philosophy of history. It barely even belongs in “a journal of New Testament or historical studies” and most would likely tell him it’s on a subject they don’t cover. By contrast, Law’s article certainly belongs in a journal dealing with “faith and philosophy.”
Apart from all this being funny, I mention it because for Craig to actually eat his own foot with this inane argument is evincing a sad decline in his ability to argue well. We’re eleven paragraphs into his rebuttal of Law, and we have yet to encounter a single relevant argument against Law’s article.
Six Well-Qualified Agnostics Is More Than None
Fourth, Craig foolishly (?) trusts Bart Ehrman’s claim (by quoting it) that “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.” Oh, dear. Yes there is. If we follow Craig’s own implied equivocation (that agnostics like Law are to be included in this statement…otherwise it is a non sequitur to cite this statement against Law).
Arthur Droge, professor of early Christianity at UCSD, and Kurt Noll, associate professor of religion at Brandon University, are both on record as historicity agnostics. That’s two.
[See: A.J. Droge, “Jesus and Ned Lud[d]: What’s in a Name?” CAESAR: A Journal for the Critical Study of Religion and Human Values 3.1 : 23-25; Kurt Noll, “Investigating Earliest Christianity without Jesus,” “Is this not the Carpenter?” The Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus, ed. Thomas Thompson and Thomas Verenna : 233-66.]
And if we discard the irrelevant criteria of “currently employed at a university” and “has exactly the specific degree I want” as dirty dodges (which allow Ehrman to pretend retired professors of considerable renown don’t count, as well as other fully qualified experts) then we must add four more:
Thomas Thompson, professor of theology at the University of Copenhagen (now emeritus) [The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David (2005)] and Thomas Brodie, director of the Dominican Biblical Centre at the University of Limerick, Ireland (now emeritus) [Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: A Memoir of a Discovery (2012)] and Robert Price (who has two Ph.D.’s from Drew University, in theology and New Testament studies) and myself (with a Ph.D. in ancient history from Columbia University, and whose book On the Historicity of Jesus defending basic Jesus mythicism will soon be published by a major peer reviewed academic press [news I'll be blogging shortly]).
That’s six qualified experts and two peer reviewed books by a major biblical studies press. Granted, Craig and Ehrman might not have known of all these men, but they certainly knew some of them, and can no longer claim not to know the rest. Ehrman and Craig’s statements must now be retracted as demonstrably false. So much for that argument. Of course, they’ll just retreat from “none” to “only a few,” but going from none to a few is a trend. Take heed.
Craig’s point was that no expert would be convinced by this. As he claims, “Law’s argument for scepticism about Jesus would not be taken seriously by bona fide historical scholars.” Ooops. That argument is simply unsound. Because its key premise is false. Six bona fide historical scholars take it seriously. Two even hold relevant university positions. Two are respected emeritus professors. And two more have relevant Ph.D.’s. and at least one of them has gotten a book questioning the historicity of Jesus through academic peer review by sitting professors of Early Christianity or New Testament studies.
And note, those I’ve named are just those who happen to have gone on record. I think Craig and Ehrman are hugely underestimating the potential agreement in the historical community with the agnosticism of Law, Droge, and others. I also don’t think so many supporters of historicity share Craig and Ehrman’s loathing of historicity challengers. Philip Davies, Emeritus Professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield (UK), affirms historicity but still regards doubting it to be a respectable hypothesis in the field and has even made a defense of the point. How many others share his perspective? How many will do once they are properly informed? (And not misinformed by the likes of Bart Ehrman.)
But note what just happened here. Craig is using a flagrant fallacy of argument from authority. Even if his facts were right (and they’re not), it does not matter whether all historians would reject Law’s conclusion without having seen his argument for it. Yet that is how Craig wants his readers to reason. Ehrman has not read (and in the quoted work is not responding to) Stephen Law’s article in Faith & Philosophy. So in what way is what Ehrman said relevant to Law’s argument? Not one valid whit. In what way is the consensus position on historicity relevant to Law’s argument? Not one valid whit. The only way to know if Law’s conclusion is unsound or invalid is to examine the argument itself. Because no amount of authority can trump a logically valid and sound argument.
Wait, Did You Think to Check Your Authorities?
At this point Craig mentions me in a footnote. He is aware that I have exposed gross errors of fact and logic in Ehrman’s book–and article, which Craig is relying on for his authority. So he knows he has to try and inoculate his readers against this. But in doing so Craig betrays why no one can trust him. Because he engages in a fundamental, and embarrassing, act of deception here.
Craig says “Carrier commits a number of blunders,” in my expose of Ehrman’s article, “which are pointed out soberly by Butler University NT scholar James McGrath,” yet Craig conveniently doesn’t tell people that I schooled McGrath on this, and that he in fact was shown to have blundered–badly–and to have not even understood basic facts about ancient history (see McGrath on the Amazing Infallible Ehrman). More importantly, McGrath did not adequately defend the gross errors in Ehrman’s article. (For a subsequent rundown of McGrath’s six mistakes: , , , , , .)
Craig must surely know this. Yet he doesn’t tell his readers about it. He cleverly doesn’t include the hyperlink of my reply to McGrath. And that looks to me like a deliberate act of deception. It means you cannot trust Craig to give you the whole story. It means you can assume he will omit and conceal facts known to him that undermine what he is saying. Now every time you read him, you have to always be asking in the back of your mind, “Hmmm. What isn’t he telling me? What facts or references is he deliberately leaving out?”
That’s a bad blunder for Craig. Because it’s so easily exposed. It’s also embarrassing, because in the link he omitted, I show McGrath to have made embarrassing mistakes in his claims about ancient history, yet here Craig is resting his authority on McGrath being informed and correct. As soon as Craig’s readers find out that McGrath badly botched this and in fact didn’t know what he was talking about, Craig will then be pegged as someone who either was so uninformed he didn’t know McGrath made such rookie mistakes, or was so dishonest he didn’t care and assumed no one would ever find out.
P1: What Do You Think “Extraordinary” Evidence Means?
Okay. So now we finally get to a relevant argument against Law’s article. Or sort of. Craig at least now responds to Law’s actual argument, challenging four premises. He first attacks the premise that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” This is old bull from Craig, and many will have heard his nonsense on this before, but it bears repeating because he now implicitly appeals to Bayesian reasoning…and gets it wrong.
Craig correctly says “what’s crucial is the probability that we should have the evidence we do if the extraordinary event had not occurred,” but fails to notice how this in fact confirms “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” in direct contradiction to his claim that “in fact [that principle] is demonstrably false.” That he thinks “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is false because “what’s crucial is the probability that we should have the evidence we do if the extraordinary event had not occurred,” an inference that is logically invalid, is suggested by what he says here:
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.
That second sentence is correct. The first sentence is not.
I cover this subject in Proving History (see “miracles” in the index). But it’s worth revisiting it here, particularly as Craig keeps using this error in his apologetics ministry. Note that Craig is insisting not only that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is false, but that it is demonstrably false. So when I show you the contrary, that it is in fact demonstrably true, you will understand how unreliable Craig is when it comes to grasping and articulating any sound theory of evidence.
Craig implies an equivalence of terms between “extraordinary” and “improbable,” which is correct, although it can disguise a shell game. How improbable a claim has to be before it is classed as “extraordinary” might differ for any two people. And in this case especially, Law is classing as “extraordinary” events of extraordinary improbability, not just merely improbable events. This is clear from the examples and discussion in his article (all of which Craig completely ignores).
Craig uses this ambiguity to play a shell game with the word “improbability,” starting with it meaning one thing (what Law means by “extraordinary”) and ending with it meaning something else, whatever it needs to mean for Craig to get the conclusion he wants (a classic equivocation fallacy). I have heard him on other occasions use the example of winning a lottery, which is improbable and therefore “an extraordinary claim.” But that’s a fallacy. Law in no way means by “extraordinary” such mundane events as winning lotteries. He means claims whose truth is vastly less probable than that, so improbable that we (even Craig) usually don’t believe them.
Though I suspect this is not a mistake of logic on Craig’s part. I suspect he does this on purpose to deliberately con people into thinking he has reached a valid conclusion. But even if it’s not the latter, it’s still the former. And either way, he (or his readers) need to be schooled on the correct way to reason about extraordinary claims, especially as Law intends that phrase. And since Craig is supposed to be responding to Law, Craig is morally obligated to only use the phrase as Law clearly intends it (which is why I see this as a moral failure on Craig’s part, as otherwise it would reflect a profound lack of intelligence in failing to grasp Law’s actual point, and Craig has never displayed evidence of being that unintelligent, so I am forced to conclude he is being dishonest).
Even using the ambiguous translation of “extraordinary” as “improbable,” the proposition “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” becomes “improbable claims require improbable evidence.” Once translated, it should be evident that Craig’s own premises establish this proposition as demonstrably true. Bayes’ Theorem entails that when the prior probability of a claim being true is low (which is what “improbable” means), the probability of the evidence on any other explanation (by which the claim is false) has to be low (hence, again, “improbable”). Otherwise, the claim is probably false. Thus, “improbable claims require improbable evidence.” QED. [Carrier, Proving History (2012), pp. 114-17.]
That is how in fact we measure the reliability of testimony: by definition, a reliable testimony is one that makes the evidence improbable on any other explanation than the testified fact being true. Here by “reliable” I mean in every respect (not just truthful, but also accurate and devoid of any relevant mistake, since a person can be entirely honest and still be an unreliable witness). And that is also the definition of extraordinary evidence, only in Law’s actual intended meaning, extraordinary evidence is not just evidence that is improbable on any other explanation than the extraordinary claim being true, but evidence that is extraordinarily improbable on any other explanation than the extraordinary claim being true. Because “extraordinary claim” means a claim whose prior probability is not just improbable but extraordinarily improbable. It is easily demonstrated with Bayes’ Theorem that extraordinary claims in that sense require extraordinary evidence in that sense. And those are the senses any reasonable person who reads Law’s article can tell are what Law intends.
So much for Craig’s claim that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is false (even “demonstrably false”). His own premises refute his conclusion there. And embarrassingly. Because he should have known this.
Craig’s next error (I shall charitably presume) is in confusing which probability matters. Craig has in the past used the example of someone, maybe a friend of his, winning a lottery, saying or implying that if winning has odds of (say) 10 million to 1 against, then the prior probability of his friend telling the truth (when claiming to have won a lottery) is 10 million to 1 against. Craig thus assumes the prior probability that his friend is correct if he says he won the lottery equals the odds of a single person winning that lottery. That’s not even remotely correct, as if 9,999,999 people falsely claim to win that lottery every time it is played (for only then would there be a 1 in 10,000,000 prior probability that any one claimant was telling the truth).
In reality, we have abundant background knowledge that hardly anyone who claims to have won a lottery didn’t in fact win one, so in fact the prior probability of such a claimant being correct is actually very high, nearer 100%. [cf. Carrier, in Loftus, ed., The Christian Delusion (2010), pp. 298-99. For different ways to analyze the lottery model (all of which end the same), see Proving History, p. 254-55, with n. 29, p. 330 (and more on pp. 196, 227, 246-55).]
Notably, unlike lotteries, where we have vast background knowledge decisively confirming that they exist and that people win them and (relative to all winners making the claim) hardly anyone ever lies about winning one, miracle claims (and everything Law defines as “extraordinary claims”) have no such background support. At all. And that is why they have very low prior probabilities.
And that is why the probability of the evidence on alternative explanations has to be low…and not just low, but lower than the probability of that same evidence if the extraordinary claim were true, and not just that, but lower by more than the prior probability of the extraordinary claim is lower than the prior probability of any and all alternatives. In fact, to avoid any appreciable degree of agnostic uncertainty, the difference can’t just be that, but much more than that.
For example, if a claim is a trillion times less likely to be true than alternatives on prior considerations alone (enough to establish something as an extraordinary claim, since we’re talking about things not ever verified genuinely to happen even despite billions of observers), then the evidence on alternatives has to be more than a trillion times less likely than it would be if the claim is true. And that is indeed extraordinary evidence. It’s even more extraordinary than the claim itself. Which is, of course, the point.
That Craig doesn’t understand this baffles me. But it tells me he doesn’t understand how Bayes’ Theorem actually works, and doesn’t understand what people like Stephen Law mean when they talk about extraordinary evidence. It also tells me Craig is now willing to brashly declare things “demonstrably false” that embarrassingly are proved demonstrably true by his own premises. Ouch.
P2: Law’s (Implied) Reference to the Infinite Monkey Theorem
Law in fact argues (in his article) what is sometimes referred to as a limited application of the infinite monkey theorem, which follows from the law of large numbers: the more times you repeat an experiment, the more likely it is that very unlikely results will be observed by chance alone. This underlies, for example, what is now identified as a multiple comparisons fallacy (see FallacyFiles and Wikipedia).
If we define “extraordinary evidence” as “evidence that occurs only 1 in 1,000 times the claim is false” and there are 1000 claims on record, then we can actually expect one of those claims to have extraordinary evidence even though it’s false. Indeed, if there are 10,000 claims, then ten of them will have extraordinary evidence and still be false. Law makes the point that there are so many extraordinary claims about (through all recorded history in all cultures and religious traditions) that we can necessarily expect many examples of claims backed with “improbable evidence” like this. Therefore, for evidence to be extraordinary, it must be much less probable than this.
Crucially, Craig completely fails to address this. Bayes’ Theorem takes care of it with the prior probability. If we define “extraordinary evidence” as “evidence that occurs only 1 in 1,000 times the claim is false” then symmetrically we might define “extraordinary claim” as “a claim that is true only 1 in 1,000 times any claim like it is made.” And in that case, if there are 1,000 claims, one of them will simply by chance have “extraordinary evidence,” but Bayes’ Theorem would then tell us the probability that that claim is true is only 50/50 (in Odds form: 1/1000 x 1000/1 = 1000/1000 = 50/50: see Proving History, index, “Bayes’s Theorem, odds form”). Thus correctly reflecting the problem created by having so many claims: we cannot in such a case confirm that a claim even with that kind of evidence is true.
Thus, in fact, extraordinary evidence needs to be a lot less probable than the claim itself (on prior evidence). How much less depends on how often extraordinary claims are made that are never confirmed. Which is a lot. And that kind of evidence is very, very extraordinary. (How much you need also depends on how certain you want to be, and religion really requires a lot more certainty than can be had for most claims, but that’s an argument for another day.)
But 1 in 1,000 is not really extraordinary. Claims of an “extraordinary kind” are (as Law means) claims of a sort never reliably confirmed to date. So they have extraordinarily low priors (like flying wizards), not just “low” priors (like winning lotteries–although as I noted, those don’t really have low priors because people claiming to have won a lottery are widely confirmed to usually be telling the truth, unlike people claiming to have witnessed a flying wizard–even so, lotteries themselves are improbable yet are still so common they routinely get won, so the odds of a flying wizard must surely be vastly less than the odds of winning a lottery, as otherwise we’d have confirmed the existence of flying wizards by now: see Proving History, p. 301, n. 11, for the mathematical relationship between event frequency and claimant reliability).
Hence to overcome such extraordinarily low priors, and by enough to avoid agnosticism, we need evidence that is even more extraordinary. And really the problem is not so much that there are millions of false claims of the extraordinary kind (although that is a valid and relevant datum), but that even if there were only one such claim, ever, it would still have an extremely low prior, because the claim requires things to be the case that appear so far never to be the case (unlike people winning lotteries, which happens all the time) and such a claim belongs to a recognizable class of claims generally that so far (whenever we get to test them) always turn out to be false (unlike people who claim to have won a lottery, whose claims very much usually turn out to be true).
For this reason, Craig’s claim that “the evidence for the central miracle of the New Testament is pretty extraordinary” isn’t even remotely correct. He simply isn’t using the word “extraordinary” here as Law uses it, or as it ever should be used in that context.
[On that point see Carrier, “Why the Resurrection is Unbelievable,” Christian Delusion, ed. John Loftus : 291-315; especially in light of Carrier, “Christianity’s Success Was Not Incredible,” The End of Christianity, ed. John Loftus : 53-74]
P4: The More Unreliable = The More Unreliable
So Craig’s attempts to rebut Law’s first and second premises are just plain dreadful. Self-refuting, confused, fallacious, and most importantly, not at all attentive to Law’s actual argument or his defense of it. Craig next attacks his fourth premise (as enumerated on Craig’s site) that we should be skeptical of documents that contain a lot of ridiculous (i.e. “extraordinary”) claims, with the following argument:
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.
Here Craig is deliberately misrepresenting Law’s argument. I say deliberately because Craig says he read that article and thus must have read Law’s key qualification here (emphasis mine):
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. … 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. … These miracles constitute a significant part of the narrative. … Nor are these miracles merely incidental to the main narrative.
Thus, Law formulates his fourth premise very precisely thus (emphasis mine):
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.
Thus, Law is not saying any history or biography that blends legendary with mundane claims warrants skepticism. He is saying any history or biography that is loaded with legendary claims, as in has an unusual amount of them central to the story, warrants sweeping skepticism. He also notes the exception of external corroboration. For example, the Alexander Romance is full of the ridiculous (what Law would identify as “extraordinary claims”), unlike Arrian’s history of Alexander (the Anabasis). Arrian’s history does contain extraordinary claims, but they are relatively few and non-central (and even Arrian himself doubts them). But the Romance is just absurd.
Law’s actual principle is obviously correct and obviously one real historians routinely employ (contrary to Craig). We indeed do not trust any of the mundane claims in the Alexander Romance unless we can corroborate them from other sources like Arrian’s history which does not warrant as much suspicion (even though it, too, like all ancient documents, warrants some). That applying this principle to the Gospels gets a result Craig doesn’t like is all so very sad for him, but not anything he can avoid by attacking the general principle. Law’s fourth premise is sound.
One could even demonstrate its soundness with Bayes’ Theorem, which would show that the probability of a story telling the truth goes down with every lie we find in it. That should be obvious. That we always find some lies in every ancient document thus leads to historians in my field being at least a little skeptical of all ancient sources (even, for example, Arrian). But as the lies accumulate, our skepticism accumulates. When the lies reach a fevered pitch (as in the Alexander Romance or Philostratus’s Life of Apollonius of Tyana or Plutarch’s biography of Romulus), we begin to doubt even the mundane claims. It’s not that those claims are also certainly false. It’s that we cannot be sufficiently certain they are true to trust them. We become agnostic.
I am certain Craig also agrees with this. So I think it’s rather dishonest of him to express doubt of it, as if Craig really thinks “the presence of the marvels [in the legends of Hercules] doesn’t imply that we should reject the historicity of the mundane claims [in the legends of Hercules],” or [insert any legend-filled narrative from antiquity]. Worse, it’s disheartening to believe any reader of Craig’s website would fall for this, as if they’d agree we should reject this general principle and just gullibly believe any story we’re told. Are we really not supposed to learn that a source that burns us repeatedly with falsehoods is probably not reliable at all? Is an inability to learn this principle why Christians still trust Fox News?
P6: What External Corroboration?
Craig finally tries to attack Law’s sixth premise that “there is no good independent evidence for even the mundane claims about Jesus (such as that he existed).” Here he at least has one almost decent argument, which is to mention that the Epistles of Paul reference things about Jesus like his burial. But Law’s article already rebutted that by noting that “Paul claims to have received the Gospel not from any human source or teaching but by revelation from the miraculously risen Christ,” which is entirely true (Paul also cites scripture as a source, but that’s no better).
Here, Craig ignores Law’s argument and provides no rebuttal to it. He instead simply acts as if Law did not mention or rebut the evidence of Paul. Which misleads any of Craig’s readers who aren’t savvy enough to go and read Law’s article, and it will perplex any of Craig’s readers who do, since they will be left wondering what Craig’s actual rebuttal would be. Perhaps Craig intends to imply that, for example, a “burial” must have happened if it was believed even on a revelation, but Craig doesn’t argue that and makes no case for it. Although, neither does Law make a case for the contrary. But one assertion is as good as another, and Law has the text on his side (Paul does only ever say he learned what he knew from scripture and revelation: e.g., The Goodacre Debate).
But apart from that one argument (where I think a real debate could proceed), Craig bombs here. Badly.
- Craig assumes without plausibility or argument, that “Jesus must have existed because of the first-century Christian movement left in his wake,” even though Paul was fully motivated by a merely revealed Jesus, not the historical one, and if Paul, so anyone else.
- Craig over-confidently claims “Jewish Messianic expectations included no idea of a Davidic Messiah who…would be shamefully executed” when in fact Daniel 9 and the Talmud both imagine exactly such a messiah (perhaps not explicitly Davidic, but that’s a mere tweak by comparison: see my discussion of this same fallacy in the hands of Ehrman and McGrath, and my now-revised article The Dying Messiah Redux). But more importantly, embarrassing core teachings often get invented in religions like Christianity, which then become difficult to overcome with some audiences (like the castration of Attis, or almost any core belief distinctive of Mormonism). [On the fatal defects of the Argument from Embarrassment generally, see Proving History, pp. 124-69.]
- Craig amusingly claims the Church of the Holy Sepulchre not only houses the actual tomb of Jesus (despite several other tombs vying for the title), but that this is so reliably known it proves Jesus existed (!). Craig is really going off the rails with this one. I can’t believe I’d even need to address it (but lest someone actually be that gullible, Kenneth Humphreys can cure you of that). Most embarrassingly, Craig thinks this is the same kind of evidence we have for Alexander the Great. More on that ridiculous notion in a moment.
- Craig tries to claim the Gospels, which all fall to Law’s argument, corroborate each other and therefore satisfy even Law’s principle of authenticity. This is such a shameless fallacy of bootstrapping I am embarrassed for Craig that he even tried to pass it off as a sound argument.
But those are just silly stumbles of bad reasoning. Embarrassing enough for him, sure. (I mean, if that’s what he has to resort to to cling to Jesus against Law’s argument, Christianity is done for.) But worse is how Craig cunningly misuses the work of Van Voorst (Jesus outside the New Testament) to mislead his readers…
Josephus. Yet. Again.
Craig cites the Josephus passage called the Testimonium Flavianum confidently yet doesn’t mention that his own source (Van Voorst) documents that its authenticity has been widely challenged, and almost certainly at best has been tampered with. This is especially appalling, as in Craig’s footnote to this he even says that the presence of the phrase “the Christ” in the TF is evidence of authenticity, when in fact Van Voorst points out it is almost universally agreed by experts to be evidence of inauthenticity and the least likely to have come from Josephus.
That is one of the most dishonest misuses of a scholarly source I have seen. That it is so easily exposed is testament to the failing abilities of William Lane Craig.
It’s just worse still that Van Voorst is obsolete. Craig writes that:
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.”
As it happens, this has been disproved. The TF’s vocabulary and content have been demonstrated to rely so closely on Luke that the only viable theory of its authenticity necessarily entails that Josephus learned of this information from the Gospel of Luke (any other hypothesis bears a vastly small probability and thus cannot be credited, other than the more obvious hypothesis that the whole TF was written by a later Christian interpolator and not Josephus). [G.J. Goldberg, “The Coincidences of the Testimonium of Josephus and the Emmaus Narrative of Luke,” The Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 13 (1995): 59-77.]
Incidentally, that was proven in one of those peer reviewed history journals Craig is so impressed by. So maybe to avoid this conclusion he’ll slag off the peer review process of all history journals, too, and thus destroy his entire publication record. He may have to, since I demonstrate both passages in Josephus to be later interpolations…in yet another one of those peer reviewed history journals Craig is so impressed by. [Richard Carrier, “Origen, Eusebius, and the Accidental Interpolation in Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.200,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 20.4 (Winter 2012): 489-54.]
And yet Craig should never have even accepted the general principle that authors don’t rewrite in their own words what their sources say. They clearly often did and were even specifically taught to do so in ancient schools. So even if Goldberg hadn’t established the TF’s reliance on Luke, there is still no argument Craig can advance that will verify Josephus had any sources other than the Gospels here. He simply cannot be confirmed to be an independent source. None of the information in the TF, for example, is new…it all tracks what’s said in the Gospels. Luke especially. Coincidence?
Anyway, this is moot now, since Goldberg has proved the TF used a Gospel as its source. That Josephus probably didn’t even write it is just another nail in the coffin. Likewise for the other external sources Craig mentions. He claims “there is no reason to think that all of these sources are dependent exclusively on Christian tradition,” but that’s a burden of evidence fallacy. He has to show they aren’t dependent; we don’t have to show that they are. Because they all come much later than the Gospels and don’t say anything novel that is believable. Therefore, the presumption must be of influence from the Gospels, until proven otherwise.
(In Bayesian terms, absent any case either way, their independence is at best 50/50, which means they have zero evidential value for the historicity of Jesus, making it neither more nor less likely. Unless there are telltale signs in them one way or the other, which Craig realizes he has to show, so he tries to claim such for Josephus, only in doing so he contradicts his own source and ignores recent scholarship proving the contrary. Ooops.)
Alexander the Great as Case Study
Law uses Alexander the Great as a good example of the “external corroboration” exception that does not hold for Jesus. Craig first tries to rebut this by claiming there is external corroboration for Jesus…which we just saw fails. In fact, Law’s argument was (emphasis mine):
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. … 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).
Two things here. First, Law notes Alexander fails to satisfy his second premise in two respects, not just one: many accounts of Alexander not only don’t have the requisite overabundance of extraordinary claims (unlike the Gospels), but they also have “good, independent evidence” as external corroboration. He offers “archeological evidence of the dynasties left in his military wake” as only an example (hence the word “including”).
In fact the evidence for Alexander the Great goes vastly beyond that, and exemplifies everything lacking in the case of Jesus. Craig’s attempt to argue that a historical (as opposed to a revealed) Jesus is anywhere near as externally corroborated as Alexander the Great is a common mistake apologists make, not actually knowing (nor bothering to find out) what evidence we actually have for Alexander. I’ve noted before how Matthew Ferguson has masterfully exposed the same gaffe when Emperor Tiberius is embarrassingly used this way by some Christian apologists (see 10/42 Apologetic). The results for Alexander are much the same.
The following is a quote from my next book On the Historicity of Jesus. I of course cite there tons of scholarship, but leave all that aside here to keep it brief and to the point:
Unlike Jesus, we have over half a dozen relatively objective historians discussing the history of Alexander the Great (most notably Diodorus, Dionysius, Rufus, Trogus, Plutarch, and more). These are not romances or propagandists, least of all fanatical worshipers, or anyone concerned about dogma, but disinterested historical writers employing some of the recognized skills of critical analysis of their day on a wide body of sources they had available that we do not. Which doesn’t mean we trust everything they say, but we still cannot name even one such person for Jesus, and “none” is not “more” than half a dozen.
Lest one complain that these historians wrote “too late,” this is actually of minor significance because, unlike Jesus, they still had contemporary and eyewitness sources to work from. In fact, our best historian of Alexander is Arrian, who though he wrote five hundred years later, nevertheless employed an explicit method of using only three eyewitness sources (two of them actual generals of Alexander who wrote accounts of their adventures with him). He names and identifies these sources, explains how he used them to generate a more reliable account, and discusses their relative merits. That alone is quite a great deal more than we have for Jesus, for whom we have not a single named eyewitness source in any of the accounts of him, much less a discussion of how those sources were used or what their relative merits were. Not even for the anonymous witness claimed to have been used by the authors of the Gospel of John, which claim isn’t even credible to begin with…, but in any case we’re not told who he was, why we should trust him, or what all exactly derives from him.
And that’s not all. We have mentions of Alexander the Great and details about him in several contemporary or eyewitness sources still extant, including the speeches of Isocrates and Demosthenes and Aeschines and Hyperides and Dinarchus, the poetry of Theocritus, the scientific works of Theophrastus, and the plays of Menander. We have not a single contemporary mention of Jesus—apart from, at best, the letters of Paul, who never even knew him, and says next to nothing about him (as a historical man), or the dubious letters of certain alleged disciples (and I say alleged because apart from known forgeries, none ever say they were his disciples), and (again apart from those forgeries) none ever distinctly place Jesus in history….
The eyewitness and contemporary attestation for Alexander is thus vastly better than we have for Jesus, not the other way around. And that’s even if we count only extant texts—if we count extant quotations of lost texts in other extant texts, we have literally hundreds of quotations of contemporaries and eyewitnesses that survive in later works attesting to Alexander and his history. We have not even one such for Jesus (e.g., even Paul never once quotes anyone he identifies as an eyewitness or contemporary source for any of his information on Jesus).
And even that is not all. For Alexander we have contemporary inscriptions and coins, sculpture (originals or copies of originals done from life), as well as other archaeological verifications of historical claims about him. For example, we can verify the claim that Alexander attached Tyre to the mainland with rubble from Ushu–because that rubble is still there and dates to his time; the city of Alexandria named for him dates from his lifetime as expected; archaeology confirms Alexander invaded Bactria; etc. We also have archaeological confirmation of many of his battles and acts, including the exact time and day of his death–because contemporary records of these exist in the recovered clay tablet archives of Persian court astrologers. None of this is even remotely analogous to Jesus, for whom we have absolutely zero archaeological corroboration (e.g., none of the tombs alleged to be his have been verified as such), much less (as we have for Alexander) actual archaeological attestation (in the form of coins, inscriptions, and statues…).
The point being, even if all the accounts of Alexander the Great were as rife with ridiculous claims as the Gospels are (and they aren’t…in the Gospels we have suns going out for hours, hoards of undead descending on Jerusalem, flying angels paralyzing guards, withering trees, conjuring unlimited food, walking on water, conversations with demons, drowning thousands of pigs, flying through the air with Satan…), we still have such vast external corroboration that it would overcome the low prior probability of his existence from such stories as those.
Neither claim can be made for Jesus. And that is precisely Law’s point.