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.


  1. says

    I’m willing to say there was a “Jesus” -- although likely there were many who could fit the idea -- in that there was probably an apocalyptic preacher in 1st Century Judea. Beyond that, no reason to believe he was anything besides that.

  2. says

    Shalom Mano,

    I think moving this discussion from the Christian bible to the Book of Mormon might be instructive.

    If we apply Law’s principles to the events around the life of Joseph Smith and recorded by Smith in his Book of Mormon I believe we have a much clearer example of what is being discussed.

    Joseph Smith certainly lived and died. Joseph Smith clearly claimed that he was visited by an angel of gawd who delivered into his hands golden tablets that revealed previously unknown gawd-related events. Does the known existence of Smith increase or decrease the probability that the events he reported actually happened?

    Not bloody likely, mate.



  3. SAWells says

    There were plenty of apocalyptic preachers in first-century Judea. There’s no need for Bible Jesus to be based on any individual one of them.

  4. Leo says

    The criterion of embarrassment

    I honestly question how this is supposed to be an argument in favor of Jesus existing. I look at a lot of modern-day fiction stories about heroes (Harry Potter, Iron Man, Batman, just to name a few) and what do I see? Flawed characters. Personally, I think the idea of flawed characters helps us flawed humans connect with those characters. I imagine that if these characters were more “perfect” (whatever that means), the stories would be more boring. So, getting back to the criterion of embarrassment, I don’t see it as having any impact on whether a story is more accurate/true, but I do think it can help make a story more likeable. In which case, that may do more to explain why Christianity was more successful than the other cults of the time than to validate the claims of Christianity.

  5. CJO says

    It’s not really about character flaws. How the criterion is supposed to work in application (and I don’t really buy it myself) can be illustrated by the classic case for it, the baptism by John:

    In Mark (the first narrative gospel, probably) John was baptizing in the Jordan “for the forgiveness of sins” and he straightforwardly baptizes Jesus with little commentary. Matthew (probably next), softens the “sins” part by saying John was baptizing, and that the people were “confessing their sins” (so the text is taken to be misdirecting the implication that Jesus had any need of forgiveness), and John and Jesus do this little song and dance (absent in Mark) where John tries to protest that he can’t possibly, but does at Jesus’ insistence. Come to Luke (regarded third in line; I think last), and the fact that John baptized Jesus comes as an afterthought (“when Jesus also had been baptized”: note the past perfect construction, in the passive voice) in a much more developed scene with a lengthy discourse by John. Finally, in the gospel of John, John the baptist appears and does his schtick, but the baptism itself is omitted entirely and is hardly even implied.

    So, as a defense of historicism the argument here is this: the history of the use by successive authors of this narrative unit shows a growing dicomfort with the notion that the greatest one of all would be baptized by a lesser figure, and the implication of forgiveness drops out immediately; so, why, if these authors are so uncomfortable (“embarrassed”) with the episode, do they include it at all? The answer being, it must have actually happened and was a well-known incident, so the evangelists were stuck with it.

    Again, it’s a bogus argument in my view too, but not for the reason you’re saying. It’s a little more complicated in application than just possible embarrassment about aspects of Jesus’ character.

  6. mnb0 says

    Stephen Law’s 6th islander as quoted here has nothing to do with the principle of embarrassment. A fine example is this:

    quote: “Sailing on their westerly course, they must have observed that they had the sun on their right. (Something that Herodotus, who was unaware of the earth’s spherical shape, was unable to believe.)”

    This is obviously embarrassing for Herodotus. If he had made up the story he would not have mentioned it.

  7. mnb0 says

    Applied to Jesus we get this:

    Matth 27:46
    “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

    This makes no sense for someone writing about a fictional Jesus, who is supposed to be the Son of God. That it ís embarrassing is shown by all those theologians who had great difficulties to explain the meaning of this quote.
    But it makes perfectly sense if Jesus was historical, human and believed he was a messiah. He simply wasn’t able to stand the pain anymore. Matthew only wrote this because it was true.

    I’ll read Law’s paper this weekend to see if he really addresses this important principle, but this column doesn’t.

  8. mnb0 says

    As for the principle of multiple attestation, it is reasonable to doubt if the sources of the New Testament are independent of each other. The same applies to Tacitus, Suetonius and many others -- they probably had received their info from local christian communities, thus from the Gospels. That leaves us with Flavius Josephus and Polycarpus.
    The principle of discontinuity is new for me; I am not sure at all if it is a general principle for evaluating sources from Antiquity, so I’m not ready to buy it. Googling did not help.

  9. CJO says

    This makes no sense for someone writing about a fictional Jesus, who is supposed to be the Son of God. That it ís embarrassing is shown by all those theologians who had great difficulties to explain the meaning of this quote.

    Except, as a literary invention in a highly allusive and intertextual narrative like Mark, it makes perfect sense. It’s the opening line of Psalm 22, a text from which several of the details of the Passion in Mark are lifted from, and which ends in triumphal proclamation:

    All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship;
    before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
    even the one who could not keep himself alive.
    Posterity shall serve him;
    it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation;
    they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn,
    that he has done it.
    (Psalm 22:29-31 ESV)

    Having the opening, despairing line of this Psalm be Jesus’ last words is pitch-perfect in context. It quotes verbatim a text that the entire preceeding episode has been alluding to, and it follows the logic of ancient scriptural citation, where a single verse can be intended to bring a longer passage to mind, so by ironically quoting the beginning, the author evokes the triumph at the end, which foreshadow’s Jesus’ triumph over death, about to be narrated.

    The baptism episode I discussed above was included in Mark with similar rationale.

  10. Pierce R. Butler says

    I happen to be plowing through Michael Grant’s The History of Ancient Israel (1984).

    Parts of it are a model of clarity, but Prof. Grant seems willing to concede historicity to just about every name listed, even the highly improbable Moses, Abraham, and Joseph.

    He also accepts without demur the stories of David and the supposed extent of his kingdom, failing to mention that not even a scrap of archaeological evidence supported such claims. (At the time he wrote: since then one (1) inscription has been found, mentioning someone’s victory over a scion of “the house of David”.)

    As Richard Elliott Friedman published his Who Wrote the Bible? only three years later, detailing a much more skeptical (and credible) view apparently widely held by contemporary Biblical scholars, I suspect the sheer “unanimous weight of Jewish tradition” repeatedly cited by Grant presses its thumb quite heavily on histories written for popular purchase.

  11. Pierce R. Butler says

    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.

    Burton L. Mack’s Who Wrote the New Testament? makes an impressive case that many sayings put into the mouth of Jesus (the question of whose historicity Mack avoids) represent incursions by Greek philosophy (esp. the Cynics -- whose approach has very little to do with that described by their name today) into Jewish thought.

  12. Andrew G. says

    The whole business of “criteria” (of dissimilarity, embarrassment, whatever) in NT / historical-Jesus studies is under attack both from within and outside the discipline.

    See especially Carrier’s “Proving History”, and there’s a forthcoming book on the subject by Keith and La Donne out in a few weeks that looks interesting too.

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