Thought experiments on the historicity of Jesus-2: The case of the sixth islander

In a post yesterday I discussed a paper by philosopher Stephen Law of the University of London where he used a thought experiment and something that he called ‘the contamination principle’ (P2) to cast doubt on the claims of whether a historical Jesus existed.

The contamination principle states that: “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.”

That post generated an interesting discussion on the merits of the contamination principle (and I just noticed that Stephen Law himself has joined in) but today I want to look at his use of a different thought experiment to address other arguments that are put forward for the claim of historicity.

Given the extreme paucity of independent support for the existence of Jesus, arguments in favor tend to depend heavily on close readings of the texts that describe his life, consisting of the four gospels and Paul’s writings.

Law lists three types of arguments that historicists (those who believe that a historical Jesus existed even if he did not have divine powers) use in support of Jesus’s existence based on the texts themselves.

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.

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, seem to constitute an embarrassment.

The criterion of discontinuity

Many historians and Biblical scholars maintain that if a teaching or saying attributed to Jesus places him at odds with contemporary Judaism and early Christian communities, then we possess grounds for supposing the attribution is accurate.

One often encounters the second criterion when one points out to Christians that the Bible is rife with contradictions and discrepancies. The responses you get are of three kinds. The first comes from those who believe the Bible is inerrant and divinely inspired. They will go to great lengths to argue that any seeming errors are an illusion. In fact there is a huge industry devoted to resolving these issues and arguing that the Bible is everywhere consistent. The second response comes from those who say that such minor discrepancies are natural given that the Bible was written down by humans and translated, copied, and edited many times over the centuries. The third response tries to turn this seeming problem into an advantage and these are the people who invoke Law’s second criterion (and the third) as evidence in favor of the overall historical reliability of the sources.

This third group will argue that if there had been a concerted propaganda effort by a Jesus cult to foist a fictional character on us, the authors would have been careful to avoid mistakes, like a good novelist who carefully researches before writing in order to add verisimilitude to the narrative. They say that the very fact that such errors exist implies that the authors were just telling it like it was, warts and all, and not making it up out of whole cloth.

To address these arguments, Law invokes another nice thought experiment he calls ‘the case of the sixth islander’.

Suppose five people are rescued from a large, otherwise uninhabited island on which they were shipwrecked ten years previously. The shipwrecked party knew that if they survived they would, eventually, be rescued, for they knew the island was a nature reserve visited by ecologists every ten years.

As the islanders recount their stories, they include amazing tales of a sixth islander shipwrecked along with them. This person, they claim, soon set himself apart from the others by performing amazing miracles – walking on the sea, miraculously curing one of the islanders who had died from a snakebite, conjuring up large quantities of food from nowhere, and so on. The mysterious sixth islander also had strikingly original ethical views that, while unorthodox, were eventually enthusiastically embraced by the other islanders. Finally, several years ago, the sixth islander died, but he came back to life three days later, after which he ascended into the sky. He was even seen again several times after that.

Law adds more details to his thought experiment, carefully constructing it to have direct parallels with the claims about Jesus and to have the three features listed above that historians use to claim authenticity. He then asks the question: Would we believe that the sixth islander existed? In his paper, Law carefully analyzes the claims. It is a detailed analysis that I won’t attempt to summarize (but recommend that you read) and he concludes:

There is little doubt that there could have been a sixth islander who said and did some of the things attributed to him. But ask yourself: does the collective testimony of the rescued party place the existence of the sixth islander beyond reasonable doubt? If not beyond reasonable doubt, is his existence something it would at least be reasonable for us to accept? Or would we be wiser, at this point, to reserve judgement and adopt a sceptical stance?

He argues that most people would be skeptical, and concludes:

The contamination principle, P2, is a prima facie plausible principle that, in conjunction with other prima face plausible premises, delivers the conclusion that, in the absence of good independent evidence for the existence of an historical Jesus, we are justified in remaining sceptical about the existence of such a person.

I like Law’s skillful use of the thought experiment. Physicists and philosophers are fond of using such devices when grappling with difficult conceptual issues and Einstein was particularly adept at using them to arrive at his conclusions and to persuade others of them.

Of course, a thought experiment can never definitively give an answer to an empirical question. A thought experiment is at best a tool of persuasion that clarifies and sharpens arguments. Coupled with the impossibility of proving a negative, the question of whether Jesus existed will likely remain unresolved. But what I think Law provides in his paper are good arguments that undermine the attempts of historicists to make it seem credible that Jesus was a historical figure. I for one am sure I will be drawing upon them.

Law’s paper makes an important contribution to the discussion of whether it is reasonable to believe in a historical Jesus. It is quite long and closely argued but clearly written and well worth reading.