To wake up to the smell of academic napalm in the morning it not altogether invigorating, whatever might be thought of the real thing. It doesn’t smell like victory. However, ten minutes after I turned on my computer I was mired in buttals and rebuttals about the Jesus of history v the Jesus of myth — never mind the Christ of faith — and claims and counterclaims about who is competent to discuss this issue, and what particular academic qualifications are necessary in order even to speak upon the subject, let alone charge exorbitant fees to listen in on parts of the discussion. Jerry Coyne points out, with some justice, that if Ehrman chose to respond (sort of) to Richard Carrier’s criticism of his book, he should at least have considered some other aspects of his argument than simply the question whether a penis-headed cock statue resided somewhere in the Vatican archives, especially since this was one of the marginal points that Carrier made in his critique. Meanwhile, R. Joseph Hoffmann attacks P.Z. Myers (amongst others) – Hoffmann, with wonted politeness, calling him the ”atheist blogger and full-time loudmouth P Z Myers” — for his blog post “Carrier cold-cocks Ehrman” (which is, it should be noted, a response to Ehrman’s HuffPo piece touting his new book, and not Carrier’s more comprehensive response to the book itself). Much of the to-and-froing about the historical Jesus seems to come down to academic qualifications and whether those engaged in the discussion have written a book, or are tenured academics, or have the requisite expertise, or not, as the case may be, something that seems to take up as much space as the arguments themselves. And while, of course, one expects people to use critical methods in their study of anything at all, if they want to approach more closely to the truth, this is not comprehensively dealt with by listing a person’s academic credentials.
It’s all a bit bewildering, and I still wonder why the atheist blogosphere takes all this so intensely and with so much gravity. As I have already said, in an earlier post, I have no particular bones to pick either with mythicists or with historicists (if these words pick out actual positions in the dispute, the first for an entirely mythical Jesus, and second for an historical Jesus — though how much of the gospel picture must be true in order to be able to say that Jesus was a figure of history?). It seems to me that we are unlikely, at this distance, to be able to say much that is decisive in either direction. On the one hand, there seems, to use Crossan’s term, to be too much in the gospels that amounts to prophecy historicised to allow us confidently to ascribe any particular deed or saying to an historical Jesus. On the other hand, there may have been a man — it is not impossible that there was a man (or even, as I suggested earlier, several such figures — the interplay of Jesus and John the Baptist indicates a complex messianic movement, and a quest, even then, for “he that should come” [Matthew 11.3]) and possibly even a Galilean apocalyptic preacher, around whom all these mythical stories crystallised, and for which he was the catalyst. But that man, if there was one, seems to be so shrouded now in myth that it is hard to limn the historical person hidden within conflicting and mythicised accounts of his life. Suppose that we can say, at a bare minimum, that the central figure of the gospel named Jesus existed, and that we feel confident, as historians, that there is enough corroborative evidence to justify this claim; what have we then proved? And what difference would it make in either direction? What is this excess of passion all about?
“For those of you not paying attention,” writes Hoffmann knowingly, ”the New Atheism has a new postulate: Not only does God not exist but Jesus didn’t exist either.” Of course, in one sense, this is true by definition, since the new atheists inevitably will deny the transcendent figure of a heavenly visitant to earth, born of a virgin, who performed miracles, and who died and rose again from the dead. If we deny all this, there is little reason to ascribe or refuse to ascribe historical existence to a man who was the focal point for subsequent mythmaking in his name.
Pilate is an entirely different case, although Hoffmann does not seem to notice or care. In his sardonic essay (linked above), he says this about Pilate:
Outside the gospels, Pontius Pilate is virtually unknown except for a reference in Tacitus and mentions in Philo and Josephus, if we discount the so-called Pilate stone.
But this is to have a great deal of independent witness not only to Pilate’s existence, but to the nature of his administration of the Roman province of which he may have been at once Prefect and Procurator. Had we this much independent attestation of the existence of Jesus, then doubts about the existence of Jesus would be pointless.
And it is just here that Stephen Law’s philosophical contribution to the dispute comes in, a contribution which Hoffmann slights with a dismissive: “What could Stephen Law possibly contribute to this subject?” Presumably Hoffmann has not given the philosophy of history much thought, but the questions that Law asks, in his article, “Evidence, Miracles and the Existence of Jesus,” are precisely the kind of question that historians need to settle before confidently affirming that a person such as Jesus actually existed in history and not just in myth — unless, of course, Hoffmann thinks the admixture of myth and history does not pose any problems for the historicity of whatever is caught in its web — a position for which, at the very least, he must argue. He cannot simply take it for granted that the interweaving of myth and history (or supposed history) does not pose any problems for the reliability of the historical claims made for parts of the narrative.
Stephen Law proposes two principles:
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.
and, second, what Law calls 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.
Now, I haven’t space enough to argue Law’s point here (especially where he considers rejoinders that could be made to his argument), but certainly some such principles will be necessary if we are going to sort out truth from fiction in any account where the plausibility of the claims being made is called into question. If a figure, such as the gospel Jesus, is described in such a way as to demand extraordinary evidence, then other claims made about this figure immediately take on the colouring of those claims, and reliably independent evidence must be available in order to be able to say, with justified conviction, that the person so described was an actual, historical person.
Of course, as Law points out, the question of plausibility is elastic, and depends on our presuppositions. Here’s how Law poses the problem:
Suppose we begin to examine the historical evidence having presupposed that there is no, or is unlikely to be a, God. Then of course Jesus’ miracles will strike us as highly unlikely events requiring exceptionally good evidence before we might reasonably suppose them to have occurred. But what if we approach the Jesus miracles from the point of view of theism? Then that such miraculous events should be a part of history is not, one might argue, particularly surprising. But then we are not justified in raising the evidential bar with respect to such claims.
The problem is, Law argues, that making this “presuppositions move” would also justify belief in the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, etc., the reality or existence of which most reasonable people would find deeply questionable.
This point is brought out by Hector Avalos when discussing William Lane Craig’s use of C.B. McCullagh’s criteria for justifying historical descriptions (in his book Justifying Historical Descriptions, in the Cambridge Studies in Philosophy series). Craig suggests that, according to these criteria, the resurrection of Jesus is plausibly thought to be an historical event. Avalos not only points out that Craig revises the criteria to suit his own purposes, but also that:
As used by McCullagh, the criteria are mostly meant to differentiate between natural explanations, not between natural and supernatural explanations. [The End of Biblical Studies, 188, italics in original]
And then he quotes McCullagh himself regarding the resurrection of Jesus:
One example which illustrates the condition most vividly is discussion of the Christian hypothesis that Jesus rose from the dead. This hypothesis is of greater explanatory scope and power than other hypotheses which try to account for the relevant evidence, but is less plausible and more ad hoc than they are. That is why it is difficult to decide on the evidence whether it should be accepted or rejected. [quoted by Avalos, ibid., 188]
And, of course, in the case of the resurrection, the question arises as to what constitutes evidence that needs to be accounted for, for the empty tomb, the military guard, the stone rolled away, the preparation for burial, as well as many other conflicting features of the story do not obviously constitute evidence, without some kind of impartial attestation by contemporaries without any religious axes to grind (a particularly implausible scenario).
The point, if it needs making again, is that there is no clear basis here for deciding the issue either way. I think it goes without saying that the gospel Jesus, with miracles, resurrection and all, never existed. Whether there was a single historical figure at the centre of the myth-making imagination that catalysed the creation of the figure subsequently known to history as Jesus Christ is, in one sense, irrelevant to the religious issue at the centre of the dispute about the historicity of Jesus, and I’m not quite sure that I see the point of trying to answer that specific question. When a group of Anglican theologians and scholars came out with their book The Myth of God Incarnate – which has, incidentally, just been republished, presumably to take advantage of the renewed flourishing of the issue – there was no question, really, of answering that question, but of asking the larger question about the foundation of Christian faith. It’s a long time since I read the essays in that book, that caused such a stir at the time, reminiscent of Essays and Reviews in the 19th century, but it scarcely made a blip on the screen so far as individual Anglicans and their faith and practice went. To make the non-existence of Jesus a new postulate for the new atheism seems (at least to me) a lost cause. It is entirely possible that there was no such historical figure, but I suspect that, if there is not enough evidence to show that he did not exist, there is not enough evidence to show that he did, either, and, in any case, the issue is of little consequence to Christians, who will go on affirming the existence of Jesus of Nazareth and their confidence that they have met him personally in their religious experience, whether in the bread and wine of the eucharist, or in his personal presence with them in prayer and praise.
So, I conclude, we should get down to specifics. What is the question at issue? Why is it important? Quite aside from the academic qualifications involved, do we have any idea how to distinguish historical figures from mythicised historical figures? When we do have narratives in which fictional (mythical) material is closely interwoven with what may be factual (historical) evidence, what is the relation between the two, and does the fictional taint the historical and to what degree? What is the relationship between religion and history? What, for instance, would make a religion historical? What are the criteria necessary to establish the historicity of religious claims? I have said before that, despite the claim, frequently made, that there is no conflict between religion and science, the failure of theologians and biblical scholars to use critical techniques without restriction by the judicatories of the churches, and without special pleading which assumes that discerning the historical thread that identifies the real Jesus of history is of religious importance, implies a failure of religion to address itself critically — a failed bit of accommodationism. Hume’s problem persists. Most of the stories told about Jesus must be fictions (or myths, if you prefer). His miracles cannot be distinguished from hosts of other claimed marvels by other men, and there is no reason why we should credit them above other claimed miraculous events or occurrences. The supposed trials before the Sanhedrin and Pilate, the supposed appearance of Jesus before Herod: all these are palpable fictions. Since there were many crucifixions during the time of Pilate’s administration of Palestine, the crucifixion of a man who caused a disturbance at a time when Jerusalem would have been thronged with thousands of worshippers would come as no surprise. That his body was ever released for burial, though it happened on very rare occasions, is unlikely. That he died and rose again is undoubtedly a myth. So what is being claimed when it is claimed that Jesus was a figure of history? And why is it important? The authority of Jesus’ sayings and parables cannot be considered of great significance. Like the sayings of any person, real or imagined, they must stand on their own; and some of them, as I have suggested, do not stand up very well for themselves. But after saying all this, I still want to know why anyone thinks this important. Even if biblical scholars like Ehrman do succeed in showing, to the satisfaction of others belonging to the guild, that there is evidence for a very minimalised historical figure at the centre of the Christian myth, what has been accomplished? In my estimation, not very much. We might as well argue about angels dancing on pin heads.