Extraordinary Claims and Extraordinary Evidence

Note: This will be my last post until after the holidays. I look forward to responding to comments in a couple of weeks.

An online site called CARM—Christian Apologetics and Research Ministries—has posted an article titled “Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence.”
Victor Reppert’s Dangerous Idea blog linked with this site and a lively discussion followed. Since I have defended the principle that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence (I shall abbreviate this principle as ECREE), especially in my 1998 debate with William Lane Craig, I would like to add my comments on the piece.


The author (the essay is anonymous) recognizes that it is an uncontroversial principle of confirmation that a hypothesis that is initially very improbable will have to be supported with very strong evidence if it is to be made credible. Indeed, he recognizes that ECREE expresses a “healthy and normal skepticism” given the prevalence of humbug and con men. ECREE really is a corollary of what W.V. Quine and J.S. Ullian call [epistemological] “conservatism” in their wonderful pocket guide to rationality, The Web of Belief. That is, in the absence of strong countervailing reasons, we should accept the hypothesis that requires the smallest sacrifice of our previously established beliefs. Quine and Ullian comment:
Conservatism is rather effortless on the whole, having inertia in its favor. But it is sound strategy too, since at each step it sacrifices as little as possible of the evidential support, whatever that may have been, that our overall system of beliefs has hitherto been enjoying (p. 67).
So, if acceptance of a hypothesis would require us to sacrifice some of our most deeply grounded prior beliefs, we will rightly demand extraordinary evidence for that hypothesis.
The CARM author recognizes that there will inevitably be a degree of subjectivity in deciding on how extraordinary a claim is. Different communities and individuals will have different sets of prior beliefs, and the degree of extraordinariness of a claim will vary depending upon which set of beliefs we are taking as our priors. Thus, theists hold that there is a God who is capable of performing miracles, and, further, might on various historical occasions have strong motivation to bring about such occurrences. Thus, a miracle report might not meet with an exceptional degree of skepticism from such a theist. However, atheists, with their naturalistic presuppositions, will—naturally and rightly—regard the report of a physically impossible event with very deep initial skepticism, and will therefore demand a great deal more evidence.
So far the CARM author has said nothing that any atheist need find objectionable. The author complains, however, that when he asks atheists to specify what would count as adequate extraordinary evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, he generally gets “nothing sensible.” For instance, the atheist might say that a film of the event would be good evidence. However, our author objects:
Extraordinary evidence would be a film, but we know that this extraordinary evidence is not reasonable since there was no film in Jesus’ time. Therefore, can the requirement that extraordinary claims (Christ’s resurrection) require extraordinary evidence apply to Jesus’ resurrection? It would seem not. Since Jesus’ resurrection is alleged to be a historical event, then it seems logical that normal historical evidence and normal historical examination of that evidence would be all we could offer. The resurrection is supposed to be an event of history and since it claims historical validity, then typical criteria for examining historical claims should be applied.
However, there is nothing obviously unreasonable about the atheist’s demand for a film of the resurrection. The atheist’s claim may be precisely that the “normal historical evidence and normal historical examination of that evidence” are inadequate to support such a claim. That is, the resurrection of Jesus would be (for him) such an extraordinary event that the ordinary sorts of historical evidence—testimony, inference to the best explanation, etc.—would be insufficient. What would convince him, the atheist continues, would be if, contrary to fact, there had been and adequate video recording (and, presumably, proper assurances that the film was not faked). That in fact there were no such devices in Jesus’ time is not a problem for the atheist. The author’s insistence that only “normal historical evidence” may be demanded merely begs the question against the atheist. Unless the author has an argument that the atheist sets his priors for the resurrection unreasonably low—and no such argument is offered—there is no reason to object to the atheist’s rejection of “normal historical evidence” as sufficient to establish the resurrection of Jesus.
The CARM author next performs a resurrection of his own: He brings back that hoary apologetic chestnut that we do not doubt the reports of extraordinary events done by Napoleon or Alexander, so why, other than slipping in a double standard, would we not accept the historical evidence about Jesus:
We cannot, for example, prove that Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) ever lived by observing him. But, we have ancient writings from eyewitnesses concerning his existence. Skeptics readily believe in Alexander the Great without involving the scientific method and without requiring “extraordinary evidence” yet they will require it of Jesus’ existence.
Alexander did a very extraordinary thing. He conquered most of the known world. Why do atheists accept the testimony about Alexander’s extraordinary doings but not Jesus’? Our author concludes:
…people will not want what Christ said to be true and will sometimes desperately try to hold onto their presuppositions; hence, the claim that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
In other words, the real reason behind the atheists’ demand for extraordinary evidence is that they do not want the Christian story to be true, so they insulate their beliefs by setting the evidential bar unreasonably high. So, really, atheists are just being unreasonable. Hmmm. I must have misheard what Jesus said. He must have said this: “Love thy neighbor, unless thy neighbor disagreeth with you. Then shouldst thou call him names and cast aspersions on his character.”
Do atheists apply a double standard, believing stories about Napoleon and Alexander, while rejecting the same kind of evidence for Jesus? Of course not. First, the contemporary, eyewitness documentation of the careers and accomplishments of Napoleon and Alexander are vastly—vastly—greater than anything we have for Jesus. Napoleon and Alexander’s actions were on a massive scale and were known to millions and millions of people. They were the most famous people of their day. Their actions changed the political and social conditions of whole continents. How many first-person, eyewitness, contemporaneous accounts do we have of the career of Jesus? None. The Josephus passages are notorious forgeries. The Gospels are highly redacted, rewritten, multiply revised propaganda literature (they admit that they were written “so that you might believe”) written forty or more years after the events, and based on second or third hand oral testimony.
Second, what miracles do atheists accept relating to Napoleon and Alexander? They were certainly two amazing individuals that accomplished some extraordinary things. How did they do it? They were military geniuses who enjoyed the support of first-rate generals and who led superbly trained armies of the deadliest warriors of the day. There is no record that I am aware of, certainly none generally accepted by historians, that they called down angels to fight for them or parted the waters of oceans so that they could make a strategic retreat. In short, I, and all other atheists of my knowledge, do not accept that Napoleon and Alexander performed physically impossible, miraculous feats. The resurrection of Jesus is, paradigmatically, a physically impossible event, not just an extraordinary one. So, there is absolutely nothing objectionable about placing a higher burden of proof on those claiming the physical resurrection of Jesus than we place on ancient historians who claim that Alexander won the battle of Gaugamela. The CARM article therefore badly misfires in its criticism of atheists’ use of ECREE.

About Keith Parsons
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18095903892283146064 Richard Wein

    The author wrote: "Since Jesus' resurrection is alleged to be a historical event, then it seems logical that normal historical evidence and normal historical examination of that evidence would be all we could offer."

    Not at all. Since the claim of Jesus's resurrection is based on a presupposition that there exists an omnipotent (or vastly powerful) God, it's consistent with that claim that God could have provided video evidence, or other even more convincing evidence. The author is trying to have his cake and eat it too: God is able to perform a resurrection, but not able to provide video evidence.

    In any case, the impossibility of finding sufficient evidence to support a claim would not constitute grounds for accepting the claim on lesser evidence. Some things may be unknowable, even if they're true.

    On a more general point, the author is right to say that the extraordinariness of a belief is a somewhat subjective concept. Among people who have nothing like a modern scientific understanding of the world, the supernatural may seem so familiar as not to be extraordinary at all. They may not even make a distinction between natural and supernatural, and even if they have similar words, that distinction is not likely to mean quite the same to them as it does to us.

    But from our modern, scientific perspective the supernatural appears distinctly extraordinary. Even many religious believers recognise that, and I note that the present author doesn't explicitly deny it, though he tries to gloss over the issue by conflating the extraordinariness of the supernatural with the more mundane extraordinariness of unusual natural events, such as the achievements of Alexander.

    I don't expect a supernaturalist (especially one of a less scientific disposition) to feel the extraordinariness of the supernatural quite as I do. But to rationally scrutinise one's beliefs one must attempt to step outside them, and to imagine what it would be like not to hold them. Of course that's an extremely difficult thing to do, and I suspect this is a major reason why people so rarely change their deeply held beliefs.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Personally I find the ECREE principle to be quite reasonable, but then again what is “extraordinary” depends very strongly on one’s background beliefs. Suppose somebody believes that Jesus of Nazareth was the incarnation of God and that He had predicted His resurrection to His disciples. For such a person the extraordinary claim would be that Jesus did *not* resurrect, even though He had promised He would. Therefore that theist would rightfully demand for extraordinary evidence from those atheists who claim that Jesus did not resurrect. So we see that the ECREE works both ways.

    It’s interesting to see how the ECREE principle applies to the broader discussion about theism versus naturalism. What should be considered extraordinary by an agnostic who is considering this question? It seems to me that the sheer order and deep mathematical elegance of physical reality is a highly extraordinary fact, and that the claim that it came about without a mathematical mind behind it is an extraordinary claim. As is the claim that an elementary physical particle such as the electron, without any internal parts or access to computing machinery, can nevertheless and just by itself behave in a computationally highly intensive manner. As is the claim that, contrary to all that science tells us about physical systems, some physical systems become conscious. What I am saying is that many naturalistic claims are extraordinary when judged from the point of view of an agnostic, and I notice there is no extraordinary evidence for them. My point is that the ECREE principle cuts both ways, and that according to that principle there is much that naturalists believe without any extraordinary evidence, and arguably without any question-begging evidence whatsoever.

    As far as I am concerned the most important epistemic principle is WGFTGGFTG, also known as the SFTGISFTG principle.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10962948073162156902 Victor Reppert

    Keith: Let me try a deliberately "naive" response to ECREE and the Resurrection, to see what you think. How extraordinary was the resurrection, really. OK, people don't walk out of their tombs in the ordinary course of events. But this guy wasn't an ordinary guy. He healed lepers and paralytics. In fact he healed ten lepers at once, so much for the idea that miracles can't be repeatable. He multiplied loaves and fishes. He walked on water. He withered the fig tree. He raised Lazarus. He turned water into wine. Nature did funny stuff when he was around that it doesn't do when he's not around, except maybe when his first-century followers were around, who did a lot of the same stuff he did, as recorded in the Book of Acts. From that evidence base, the darned resurrection looks almost what you should expect. You could almost write out the laws of supernature and make a prediction. If the disciples hadn't been looking for some sort of political deliverance, they could have been confidently waiting for it to happen.

    Of course, I am responding to Parsons, and he doesn't believe that any of those other events happened either. But is ECREE a principle that is supposed to be used by everyone, not just naturalists? Doesn't it beg the question in favor of what naturalists believe in order to insist that theists have the same negative priors for something like the resurrection that naturalists use?

    Is there a non-belief-system relative standard for extraordinariness? I don't think so.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18095903892283146064 Richard Wein

    @Dianelos

    There are many amazing phenomena in the world that one might describe as "extraordinary", and of course the principle of ECREE doesn't just apply to supernatural claims. Extraordinariness is a matter of degree, not just a binary alternative (extraordinary or not).

    You point out that certain claims (like a natural origin of the universe) seem extraordinary, but you haven't compared these with the alternatives, which–from a modern scientific point of view–are even more extraordinary. For example, you point to the difficulty of explaining the origin of the Universe. But the usual alternative–invoking God–cannot explain the origin of God.

    Science has been very successful at explaining complex phenomena in terms of lower-level causes, i.e. giving reductive explanations. Supernatural claims go against this trend, demanding that we accept that certain complex phenomena simply have no cause, e.g. that an intelligent omnipotent being just existed for no reason. Science has progressed by eschewing such claims and continuing to look for reductive explanations. In doing so it has discovered a vast amount about the world, including explanations for many phenomena that supernaturalists would have had us believe had no such explanation. That's why supernatural claims are so extraordinary from a modern scientific point of view.

    Sure, if you start from a belief in widespread supernatural causes, and ignore the progress made by science, then the supernatural doesn't seem extraordinary. Supernatural beliefs no doubt seemed less extraordinary to pre-scientific peoples. And I dare say Santa Claus doesn't seem extraordinary to young children. But I for one am talking about what seems extraordinary to a modern, scientific, critical mind.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Victor Reppert said…
    Let me try a deliberately "naive" response to ECREE and the Resurrection, to see what you think. How extraordinary was the resurrection, really. OK, people don't walk out of their tombs in the ordinary course of events. But this guy wasn't an ordinary guy. He healed lepers and paralytics. In fact he healed ten lepers at once, so much for the idea that miracles can't be repeatable. He multiplied loaves and fishes. He walked on water. He withered the fig tree. He raised Lazarus. He turned water into wine. Nature did funny stuff when he was around that it doesn't do when he's not around, except maybe when his first-century followers were around, who did a lot of the same stuff he did, as recorded in the Book of Acts. From that evidence base, the darned resurrection looks almost what you should expect.
    ===============
    Comment:
    The resurrection of Jesus is generally considered to be the "best evidenced" miracle of the NT. I take it that this means that a case for the resurrection of Jesus has the best chance of persuading a skeptic that miracles occur and that Jesus' teachings and ministry have a divine seal of approval.

    If this is correct, then an appeal to other NT miracles seems inappropriate. At best, those other miracle claims should be set aside as unknowns until the resurrection issue is settled.

    I realize you are not presenting a case for the resurrection, but are pointing out that different starting points (different beliefs about God and the occurence of miracles) affects (and should affect) the conclusions that a rational person will reach given the (same) available evidence.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10962948073162156902 Victor Reppert

    Actually, I'm not sure that the Resurrection is the best-evidenced miracle in the New Testament. Of course, it's the most theologically significant. But Acts has a much shorter event-to-writing time gap than the Gospels on any account, and at least the latter part of it is heavily supported by archaeological evidence. I realize this is controversial, but I think that Luke was a companion of Paul, and witnessed many of the events in later Acts firsthand. Since miracle reports go all the way through the book of Acts, I think the case for some of those could be stronger than the case for the Resurrection.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Victor Reppert said…

    But Acts has a much shorter event-to-writing time gap than the Gospels on any account, and at least the latter part of it is heavily supported by archaeological evidence. I realize this is controversial, but I think that Luke was a companion of Paul, and witnessed many of the events in later Acts firsthand.
    ===========
    Response:

    The gospel of Mark was probably composed between 60 and 70 CE. Assuming the crucifixion was about 30 CE, this means a 30 to 40 year time gap from the crucifixion and alleged resurrection of Jesus to the composition of Mark.

    Luke-Acts was probably composed between 80 and 90 CE, and Paul’s ministry spans 36 to 63 CE (traditional dates) or 30 to 58 CE (revisionist dates). So the time gap between events in Paul’s ministry and the composition of Acts could be anywhere between 17 years (traditional end of ministry in 63 and early composition date of 80 CE) to 60 years (revisionist date for Paul’s conversion in 30 CE to late composition date of 90 CE). So, it is not clear that the time gap between an alleged miracle in Paul’s ministry and the composition of Acts is less than the time gap between the crucifixion (and alleged resurrection) of Jesus and the composition of the gospel of Mark.

    If we assume a composition date of 85 CE for Acts (splitting the difference between early and late dates), and choose the mid-point of Paul’s ministry on the traditional chronology, which would be about 50 CE, then the time gap between events in the middle of Paul’s missionary career and composition of Acts would be 35 years, which is about the same as that between the crucifixion and the composition of the gospel of Mark.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11030669424412573308 Chris

    Since the resurrection and other NT miracles are, at least at this point in time, 'closed' events – meaning that the evidence is final and static (again, at least until some new discovery is made, if any can be made), there can be NO evidence in favor of them from a naturalistic point of view. The evidence as it stands is simply unacceptable to a naturalist/atheist. Period. The miracles contradict the scientific view of reality; they contradict the experiential view of reality (is anyone raising the dead these days?); they were produced in a credulous, prescientific, mostly illiterate age when all manner of myths and miracles were believed and the workings of the natural world were poorly, if at all, understood; there is no independent confirmation; the sources are unreliable (as shown by biblical criticism); the sources are biased; there is little if any archeological support (and none whatsoever for the miracles). So why on earth would anyone with a naturalistic view believe in such things? To someone with these priors, the miracle stories are completely hopeless – they are 'obviously' preposterous, and the fact that people do believe them is to some degree amazing.

    A better comparison than Alexander/Napoleon would be to other religious figures. The Buddha, for example. There is an entire, vast mythology about him battling monsters, flying, performing miracles, etc. It's all there in the Buddhist scriptures. Presumably most Christians don't believe a word of any of that. Why not? The documentation may suffer from the same problems as the gospels, but that shouldn't be a problem. Or, why aren't Christians Muslims, since Muhammad – who received divine revelation (according to a holy book), who performed miracles (the Night Journey), who was ascended to heaven upon his death, who transformed the world in at least as great a fashion as Jesus Christ – explicitly proclaimed that he was correcting previous errant gospels, such as Christian deification of the man Jesus (a useful and plausible 'theological' correction, it seems to me)? And he is more heavily documented than Jesus (although again, some similar problems). By what non-subjective method do Christians know that Muhammad was not in fact the final, true prophet of God, as he proclaimed, and that believing Jesus – a mere man – is God is not blasphemy?

    A naturalist/atheist views all of the above in an entirely consistent manner: none of it is believable. Theists do not view it consistently. They view one set of beliefs as true; the others are not. Yet there's no difference in the nature of the evidence – none whatsoever. If Victor, with his same mindset, had been born and raised in Saudi Arabia, he would almost certainly be a Muslim, and he would dismiss all accounts of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection, while maintaining that he was still a prophet and a divine being who would return to judge the world. Assuming I also maintained my mindset when I was 'reborn' in Saudi Arabia, then I would still be a naturalist/atheist (albeit a very circumspect one), and I would still dismiss the miracle-evidentiary value of the Koran, Bible, Diamond Sutra, etc., just as I do today. So a theist would accept a similar 'type' of evidence, but a completely different 'set,' whereas a naturalist would maintain a consistent view of both type and set no matter what culture he/she was born into. That seems like a more defensible position.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05879656124196531337 Rebel1

    Well, if Mr Reppert likes this article, then it must be rubbish. Mr Reppert loves to take on the trappings of Mathematics and Science as a cloak for his ignorance, hoping his audience won't recognize the mumbo-jumbo for what it is. His favourite canard these days is his Super-Duper-Extraordinary-Bayesian-Model which uses Uber-Sophisticated Mathematics to PROVE, I SAY PROVE that There Is A 94% CERTAINTY That The Resurrection Happened. He does so by dividing a very small number with a high error margin with another very small number with a high error margin, something whom anyone with any mathematical or scientific training could see is not likely to give reliable results. He cherry-picks numbers for probabilities of things like the Resurrection in order for his "model" to give the desired result, and then goes on all the atheist blogs proclaiming to have proven that the Resurrection MUST have happened.

    When the simply and short of it is: if it's a miracle, then is has to be HIGHLY UNLIKELY. Otherwise, it's not a miracle.

    And the same method he uses will PROVE that Alexander never died, and that King Arthur is waiting on the Isle of Avalon for England to need him once more…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10962948073162156902 Victor Reppert

    I have flatly denied that I believe that the Resurrection is 94% likely. There is no non-person-relative set of prior probabilities, so it's got to vary from person to person.

    If God performed one miracle an hour, on the hour, wouldn't you start expecting them?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Chris said…

    Since the resurrection and other NT miracles are, at least at this point in time, 'closed' events – meaning that the evidence is final and static (again, at least until some new discovery is made, if any can be made), there can be NO evidence in favor of them from a naturalistic point of view.
    =======
    Comment:

    New discoveries concerning Jesus and the NT happen with some frequency, so the statement about closed events is empty as it stands.

    As you indicate in comments later in the same paragraph, contemporary events (e.g. modern miracles) are relevant to the issue "Did Jesus rise from the dead?", so there is little hope of closing off the list of relevant evidence, even if you insist that the historical evidence has been closed off.

    Reasons and evidence for the existence of God have not been closed off, and that issue is of obvious relevance to the question of the resurrection. Swinburne's case for the resurrection, for example, depends on the assumption that there is at least a probability of .5 that God exists.

    It seems obvious to me that there is SOME relevant historical evidence on the table now. There is evidence that Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem about 30 CE, and there is evidence that Jesus died on the day he was crucified, and there is evidence that Jesus was alive and walking around a few days or weeks later.

    The evidence that Jesus was crucified is fairly strong. The evidence that he died that same day is not quite as strong, and the evidence that he was alive and walking around within days or weeks after the crucifixion is weaker still.

    I would agree that the evidence is too weak to support a miracle claim, but that does not mean there is no evidence.

    One reason for the disconnect between believers and skeptics on this issue is, I think, that each of the following claims is probable, taken on its own:

    1. Jesus was crucified and died on the cross.

    2. Jesus was alive and walking around at some point after he was crucified.

    The problem arises when someone asserts both of the above claims, especially if they are assuming a third claim:

    3. Jesus remained dead (without a heartbeat and not breathing) for at least 24 hours after being removed from the cross.

    The combination of these three claims resutls in what appears to be a physical impossibility. Once this conceptual line is crossed, the historical evidence required to establish the conjunction of these claims, as opposed to each claim being considered and established individually, is far greater than what the NT and other historical sources can provide.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11030669424412573308 Chris

    Bradley said: New discoveries concerning Jesus and the NT happen with some frequency, so the statement about closed events is empty as it stands.

    I accept the criticism to a degree, although I did qualify my statement re: new evidence being found. I suppose I might quibble about whether there is much new evidence for Jesus (not the NT of course) – would, say, the Gospel of Judas count? That gospel seems spurious on its face, so would that be considered evidence or not? Perhaps so, but I don't know if material purporting to describe conversations, written 100 or more years after Jesus's death, would meet my standards of evidence – even if such an item were about a 'normal' historical figure such as Alexander.

    I disagree that Jesus walking around after crucifixion is 'probable.' At best it might be 'possible,' but I would characterize it as 'highly unlikely' even on its own (i.e., not in conjunction with the 'fact' of his crucifixion).

    To me, his supposed rising from the dead and also being the son of God/God himself are the issues, neither of which are made more or less probable by conjunction with his crucifixion. They are extremely implausible all by themselves.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05879656124196531337 Rebel1

    @Victor Reppert: You completely missed the point, once again. YOU DON'T HAVE THE RIGHT TO USE THE WORD "BAYESIAN". It's a term that has a clear meaning in Mathematics, and it is clearly not the one you imagine. Is that clear enough, now that I've used ALL CAPS??? Bayes' Theorem REQUIRES quantifiable prior probabilities to have any meaning, especially when those probabilities are likely to be low. And miracles are not miracles if they are not highly improbable.

    As for your "point" that if "God" performed a miracle every hour on the hour: 1. it would no longer be definable as a miracle since it would be expected, as you say. 2. What you are proposing is a meaningless counterfactual.

    The very point made by many of your critics remain. If miracles exist, then they will be resistant to any sort of probabilistic analysis. You cannot steal the language of Mathematics to give your personal, unvalidated beliefs the credibility attached to that field. You are not even a philosopher, because I expect from philosophers a little rigour in their use of language.

    What you are, is a hack, no better than Deepak Chopra when he uses the word Quantum to give his pablum a "sciency" air.

    So stop using the word "Bayesian", and we might be able to have a conversation. Use the word, and all you'll get from people who actually know what the word means is ridicule.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Chris said…
    I accept the criticism to a degree, although I did qualify my statement re: new evidence being found. I suppose I might quibble about whether there is much new evidence for Jesus (not the NT of course)…
    ============
    Response:
    New evidence about the NT has implications for Jesus. The Dead Sea Scrolls are an important discovery relative to Jesus.

    One of the big historical problems in dealing with Jesus has been a lack of good historical data about Jewish life in Palestine in the first century. Jesus, like any historical figure, needs to be put in an historical and cultural context, and that context has been very skimpy and full of holes. The Dead Sea Scrolls are helping to fill in some of the gaps.

    Another example is archeological discoveries that have confirmed some bits and pieces of the Gospel of John. Although I have argued that the Gospel of John is an unreliable source of the words and teachings of Jesus, it is nevertheless the case that NT scholars have begun to have a more favorable view of this gospel concerning its historical roots. Part of the reason for this change in scholarly opinion is archeological discoveries that have been made in the twentieth century.

    Another example that bears directly on the resurrection issue, is the study of ancient tombs in Palestine. An article on ancient tombs was published in The Bible Review (and perhaps in some standard scholarly journals as well). Although the artefacts studied may have been available for centuries, the specific data did not exist until careful observations, measurements, and survey of these ancient tombs was made.

    One example of contemporary evidence that bears on the resurrection issue is recent medical research that has been done on resuscitation.

    It was previously believed that brain cells die off rapidly when deprived of oxygen making it physically impossible for a person who has stopped breathing for more than 5 or 10 minutes to be resuscitated without significant brain damage. The recent scientific investigations of resuscitation indicate that this is a false assumption and that brain cells can last much loger without oxygen than previously believed.

    This new information changes what we should consider to be physically possible concerning the resuscitation of a person who has stopped breathing for longer than 10 minutes, and that is clearly of relevance to the question "Did Jesus rise from the dead?".

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Chris said…

    I disagree that Jesus walking around after crucifixion is 'probable.' At best it might be 'possible,' but I would characterize it as 'highly unlikely' even on its own (i.e., not in conjunction with the 'fact' of his crucifixion).
    =============
    Response:

    The Jewish historian Josephus reports that three men were crucified, and that because they were friends of his, he was able to obtain permission from a Roman leader to have the men taken down from their crosses and given medical attention. One of the men survived, according to Josephus.

    I don't doubt this account, do you?

    There is nothing physically impossible about the Josephus account indicating that a man survived crucifixion. So we accept this account as being probable.

    There are some added problems with the gospel accounts of the post-crucifixion appearances of Jesus, problems that don't plague the account that Josephus gives about a man surviving crucifixion. Nevertheless, the conviction of some of the disciples that Jesus had appeared to them alive and in the flesh does explain the birth of Christianity and the very early Christian belief that Jesus had risen from the dead. And if Jesus was in fact alive and walking around at some point after the crucifixion, and did in fact contact his disciples, we should not expect that the various oral accounts of this event would all match up perfectly, especially given the theological significance that was given to these events, and given that the oral traditions circulated for a couple of decades before being written down.

    But if we look at the gospel accounts as being not historically reliable, but as having some historical roots, as being biased and corrupted accounts of historical events, then we can read the gospel accounts similarly to how we read Josephus, as accounts of a man surviving crucifixion, which was then assigned a theological meaning based on the false assumption that Jesus' survival was the result of divine intervention.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11030669424412573308 Chris

    Bradley writes – "The Jewish historian Josephus reports that three men were crucified, and that because they were friends of his, he was able to obtain permission from a Roman leader to have the men taken down from their crosses and given medical attention. One of the men survived, according to Josephus.

    I don't doubt this account, do you?

    While there is no particular reason to doubt Josephus's story, there is no particular reason to credit it either, so I am neutral on it – or perhaps 'indifferent' is a better word. It's just a story. It's just as plausible to suggest that he is inventing it or embellishing it. He was, after all, seen as a traitor to the Jews, and it's not beyond the pale, although perhaps uncharitable, to suggest that he's simply making himself look good by telling a story of how he tried to save some fellow Jews from the Romans. Wasn't he also the only person NOT to kill himself when trapped by the Romans? I'm not sure if this is legend or not, but if not then he could certainly be seen as a person of a suspicious or craven character.

    Also, if you look at the passage in Josephus it is entirely vague about the amount of time all this took. Did he see his friends crucified and go to Titus requesting their release immediately, or was it three hours or three days? He doesn't say, so while it is certainly not impossible that someone survived an 'incomplete' crucifixion, if you will, this doesn't really have bearing on what we are asked to believe by Christians – that a man was dead and buried for three days, after tremendous pre-crucifixion abuse (and, of course, crucifixion), and actually rose from the dead. This man was also the son of God and/or God himself, and his death redeemed all men from original sin and gave them life everlasting. They are asking a lot. They aren't asking us to believe that some fellow named Jesus somehow luckily survived and went on living (nor are there any accounts of his life – or 'death' – afterward). They are asking us to believe in the extraordinary without extraordinary evidence (in my view), which was the point of the article and resulting blog post. If you want to construct counter-scenarios, that's perfectly fine, and those would no doubt be more believable or plausible the more that the supernatural elements are removed. But again, that's not what we're asked to believe, and that wasn't the point of the blog post.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Some recent archeological discoveries shed some light on 1st century Palestine.

    http://www.archaeology.org/1003/trenches/first_century_focus.html

    First Century Focus
    [Archeology]Volume 63 Number 2, March/April 2010
    By Mati Milstein

    Three recent discoveries in Israel dating to the first century A.D.—the time of both Jesus’s life and the Great Jewish Revolt against Roman occupation (A.D. 66–73)—are offering new evidence of life in the Holy Land.

    In Jerusalem, a team led by Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) archaeologist Shimon Gibson uncovered a Jewish man’s burial shroud in a tomb inside a cave. … Though some 1,000 tombs dating to this period have been discovered in the area, no other shrouds have survived the high humidity of Jerusalem’s caves. …

    The researchers also announced that the shroud, radiocarbon dated to A.D. 1-50, supports the idea that the Shroud of Turin had not been used to wrap the body of Jesus after his crucifixion. The Jerusalem shroud is made of simply woven linen and wool, while the Shroud of Turin is made of a complex twill weave, a fabric not thought to have been available in the region until the Middle Ages.

    During excavations at the town of Migdal on the Sea of Galilee, Dina Avshalom-Gorni and Arfan Najar of the IAA uncovered one of the world’s oldest synagogues, a 1,300-square-foot building with mosaic floors and stone benches, dating to between 50 B.C. and A.D. 100. Only six other synagogues in Israel have been found dating to this time. …

    And in December, Yardenna Alexandre of the IAA uncovered a two-room dwelling in Nazareth that stood next to the Church of the Annunciation, built in 1969, where some Christians believe Mary and Joseph raised Jesus. Nazareth was a small village then, some four acres in size, and contained no more than 50 houses. “This [house] may have been a place that Jesus and his contemporaries were familiar with,” Alexandre says. …

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Chris said…

    …while it is certainly not impossible that someone survived an 'incomplete' crucifixion, if you will, this doesn't really have bearing on what we are asked to believe by Christians – that a man was dead and buried for three days, after tremendous pre-crucifixion abuse (and, of course, crucifixion), and actually rose from the dead. This man was also the son of God and/or God himself, and his death redeemed all men from original sin and gave them life everlasting. They are asking a lot. They aren't asking us to believe that some fellow named Jesus somehow luckily survived and went on living…
    =========
    Response:
    I'm in agreement with you here.

    My point is that one can accept the gospel accounts as having some loose connection with actual historical events in the life of an actual historical person named Jesus (actually, "Joshua"), and even accept the crucifixion claim, and the burial claim, and the claim that Jesus was alive and walking around after the burial, without the implication of a physically impossible event.

    The key assumption, which you have left somewhat vague, that is required to have a physically impossible event here, is that Jesus stopped breathing for a period of several hours (say 24 hours or more).

    This assumption is required in order for there be a physical impossibility here (and for there to be a miracle here).

    Since Jesus was apparently removed from the cross and placed in a nearby tomb shortly after he appeared to have died, we have no evidence that his breathing had ceased for more than about an hour.

    Of course, we don't even have very good evidence that he stopped breathing while on the cross. He could have simply appeared to have stopped breathing, resulting in a mistaken inference that he had died.

    The problem for the resurrection claim is not only that the gospel accounts are questionable and unreliable. Another serious problem is that they contain much less information than what people generally assume.

    Lots of details are filled in by imagination which draws on 2,000 years of sermons, hymns, paintings, sculptures, and more recently, movies. The gospel accounts, for example don't state that Jesus was NAILED to the cross. Nor do they give any details about the severity of the scourging of Jesus.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Here is the URL for the Archeology article referenced above:

    http://www.archaeology.org/1003/trenches/
    first_century_focus.html

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11030669424412573308 Chris

    Bradley,

    Thanks for the links, and thanks for trying to educate me. I am in agreement with everything in your last post (and really, your others as well, apart from an emphasis here and there, which is not to suggest that you are somehow 'wrong' in any way – clearly you are more learned and thoughtful on the subject than I am). I have always accepted that there is some historical reality behind the gospel stories, along the lines you suggest. I guess I see the gospels as 'closed' in the sense that I don't think enough evidence will ever be forthcoming to remove the sort of 'cloud of unreliability' that they exist in. I mean, sure, I accept 'in principle' that it could be so, but I don't think our knowledge will ever do more than shift a probability here and there (and that those shifts are more likely to be toward a non-supernatural 'counterfactual' narrative), and we can't, of course, much fix the problems with the texts and manuscripts themselves. The shape of the cloud can be adjusted, but the cloud itself can never be removed, if you will. And this weakness, combined with the strength of the miracle claims, is why I have never found the gospels or Christianity to be even slightly convincing, even when I believed in god and the supernatural.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Chris said..

    …I see the gospels as 'closed' in the sense that I don't think enough evidence will ever be forthcoming to remove the sort of 'cloud of unreliability' that they exist in. …

    =========
    Response:

    That sounds right to me. I think it would take new and early historical sources beyond the gospels and letters of Paul to significantly bump up the probability of the resurrection.

    Even if at some point in the future we find solid evidence that the gospels were authored by eyewitnesses to the life and ministry of Jesus, there are still contradictions between the gospels and obvious signs of ideological and theological bias in them, and there is still the problem of the lack of important details about the crucifixion and alleged death of Jesus.

    New and early historical sources might change the picture in the future, but the texts we have are inherently problematic, and thus will never provide the strong sort of evidence required to establish that a physically impossible event occurred.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10962948073162156902 Victor Reppert

    Rebel1: You might want to read John Earman's (University of Pittsburgh philosopher of science and an atheist, and Keith's former teacher) book "Hume's Abject Failure" before you accuse me of not knowing what the word Bayesian means. (He references one of my papers in his book). Or you might try convincing my philosophy of science teacher at the University of Illinois, Patrick Maher (author of books like Betting On Theories), who worked with me on Bayesian theory while I was getting my doctorate, and explain to him that I don't know anything about Bayesianism. If Jordan Howard Sobel were still alive, you might want to ask him also, since he read two of my papers, and found them reasonable efforts, even though he differed with my conclusions and is the leading defender of the Bayesianized version of Hume's argument against miracles. Or, you can ask Keith. NONE of these people believe in miracles, but all of them thought I made some reasonable points in my two papers, one which appears on Internet Infidels, and the other of which came out in International Journal for Philosophy of Religion in 1989.

    You might also want to read up on the Personalist school of Bayesian prior probabilities, a school that has many adherents. You might want to read Colin Howson and Peter Urbach's Scientific Inference: A Bayesian Approach, before you dismiss personalism as hogwash.

    You also might want to think twice about the fact that you completely misrepresented my position before you blast me into the outer darkness for a complete misunderstanding of Bayesianism.

    The fact that Bayesian inference is used with certain conventions within your scientific enterprise doesn't mean that you can dismiss the work of many other people who use that same methodology in different contexts, with different ground rules. To me, Bayesian personalism isn't a way of claiming a kind of mathematical precision for beliefs about, say, the resurrection which I know to be impossible. It is an attempt on my part to think from the standpoint of a model which allows a plurality of antecedent probabilities to start with, but nevetheless leaves people open to the consideration of evidence for and against religious beliefs. It's the best model I know of to do this job.

    I could be thoroughly misguided, but I think I can appeal to the authority of some people who know a lot more about Bayesianism than I do to show that I do know what Bayesianism is.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04031407028220844179 Dr. T

    Let’s grant what Victor Reppert says, namely that whether an event is miraculous depends upon one’s worldview. If you start with the assumption that miracles can and do happen, then the resurrection of Jesus will be less extraordinary than if you think that miracles don’t happen (or at least don’t happen very often). Even granting this, the apologist who wants to claim that we can know that Jesus rose from the dead (or at least have good evidence that he did) still has a very difficult problem.
    So grant that miracles occur; they occur often, rarely, often enough, whatever. For every miracle there are two groups of people, the eyewitnesses and the rest of us who hear reports of the miracle second-hand. Even if they believe that miracles happen, those in the latter category must still possess some means of distinguishing reports of actual miracles from reports of fake miracles, misleading reports, disingenuous reports, just plain mistaken reports, or, in other words (to have a single catch-all term) erroneous reports. For any miracle report, how do we distinguish between genuine miracles from erroneous reports? The question we should be asking believers in the resurrection is, “How do you know that the reports in the Gospels are genuine rather than erroneous?” I don’t see how you get to use any report about miracles from the Gospels until you have answered this question.
    So, I think that, at least to start off, atheists need not assert the ECREE principle. Rather, we should ask for the criteria for distinguishing genuine from erroneous miracle reports and then ask for evidence that the miracle reports in the Gospels are genuine.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Dr T. said…

    For any miracle report, how do we distinguish between genuine miracles from erroneous reports? The question we should be asking believers in the resurrection is, “How do you know that the reports in the Gospels are genuine rather than erroneous?”
    ===========
    Comment:

    Yes, and if the bar is set low for evidence of a miracle report being genuine, then the response would be to look at miracle reports that support other (non-Christian) religions or metaphysical belief systems.

    Those non-Christian miracle reports should be evaluated using the same criteria. If miracle reports that support other religious traditions/viewpoints pass the proposed tests, then the point of the Christian miracle reports is undermined, because the totality of acceptable miracle reports (evaluated by the 'low bar' standard) supports logically contradictory metaphysical or theological conclusions.

  • http://eloifarr.wordpress.com/ eloifarr

    We always have to remember that "extraordinary" is a relative term. It's not a black and white situation, like being mis sold ppi claims.


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