Readers may recall an earlier post on the question of whether the Jesus of the Bible is based, however loosely, on an actual historical figure living in that region of the world at that time (as claimed by the historicists) or whether he is an entirely fictional character based on myths and legends (as asserted by those labeled as mythicists). It should be noted that this particular debate does not involve religious people and has nothing to do with whether Jesus did miracles, rose from the dead, and all the other things that signaled that he was divine, which both sides are willing to dismiss as fictional.
Much of the discussion is based on the extent to which the earliest reports of Jesus’s life can be taken at face value. These are the four gospels, the writings of Paul, and a few other sources that refer to some figure like Jesus but that may have been influenced by those five basic documents.
At heart this argument is empirical, whether there is credible data and evidence to support the claim of existence. But philosopher Stephen Law of the University of London has waded into the debate and shown how philosophy, using carefully crafted thought experiments, can help in clarifying questions and sharpening arguments.
Law says that the reliability of the Gospel’s and Paul’s accounts of the ordinary (i.e., not miraculous) elements of Jesus’s life are central to this debate. If those are not credible, then the whole case for a historical Jesus goes up in smoke. In order to judge this issue, Law uses two principles P1 and P2. The first one will be familiar to most readers.
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 sceptical about those claims.
The second one is a new argument (to me at least) and he calls it the ‘contamination principle’.
P2: 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.
He points out that the authors of the Gospels wrote much stuff about a man named Jesus who preached and did things that are quite ordinary, and then throw in the miraculous events (he counts about thirty five) from time to time. The historicists argue that we should treat these two elements more or less independently and they take the former seriously while dismissing the latter as later embellishments that can be dispensed with.
Law argues that the contamination principle means that if we dismiss the miraculous as fabulous, then that must seriously undermine the credibility of the ordinary as well. He gives a nice thought experiment to support his case. Suppose you are visited by two close friends Ted and Sarah whom you know to be ‘sane and trustworthy’ people and they tell you about a visit they had from someone named Bert who spent some time socializing with them. They provide all manner of mundane details of the visit (what Bert said, what he wore, what he did), none of which are exceptional. You naturally believe them and in the existence of Bert. Why would you doubt it?
But suppose they then start adding bizarre elements to their narrative, in which Bert “flew around their sitting room by flapping his arms, died, came back to life again, and finished by temporarily transforming their sofa into a donkey. Ted and Sarah appear to say these things in all sincerity. In fact, they seem genuinely disturbed by what they believe they witnessed. They continue to make these claims about Bert even after several weeks of cross-examination by me.”
Since they do not provide any evidence to support the extraordinary actions by Bert, you are unlikely to believe they happened at all. The fact that Bert did some perfectly ordinary things does not make his extraordinary actions believable in the absence of strong supporting evidence (P1). Law poses this question: Would you simply dismiss these aspects as fictitious while believing in the reality of Bert or would you begin to seriously doubt whether the visit by Bert ever happened at all? He concludes that you would do the latter.
The important point that Law makes is that if your friends had not added these bizarre elements to their story, you would have simply accepted their claim of the existence of Bert at face value. You would not have demanded that they produce credible evidence of it, say in the form of videotape or his birth certificate and driver’s license or traces of his DNA on their furniture. The fact that they would have no reason to make up such a boring story gives it a kind of default credibility, unless you suspect that your friends are pathological liars.
But when they introduced the supernatural elements into their story, the entire picture changes. Our natural tendency is not to split the narrative into two: to continue to believe in Bert’s existence and the mundane elements of the story while disbelieving in his miraculous actions. We would begin to rightly suspect that the whole story is fictitious and that Bert does not exist at all and would demand independent evidence of that mundane fact. The fact that you cannot explain why your trusted friends would make up this bizarre story would not lessen your skepticism. It would simply be another puzzle to be addressed separately.
I found this to be a pretty good argument, but there’s more to come.
Tomorrow: More on Law’s arguments against the historical Jesus