Assessing evidence for the existence of Jesus

Here is an argument that I present and examine in my paper “Evidence, Miracles and The Existence of Jesus”, published in Faith and Philosophy, April 2011. Volume 28, Issue 2. Pages 129-151). The defence of premises P1 and P2 is in the paper, which can be viewed here.

William Lane Craig’s response is here.

In the paper, I make a case for being sceptical about the existence of Jesus (though I am no less scepticial about the mythicist position). The paper challenges the consensus among Biblical scholars and historians that the existence of Jesus has been established beyond reasonable doubt.

1. (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.
2. There is no extraordinary evidence for any of the extraordinary claims concerning supernatural miracles made in the New Testament documents.

3. Therefore (from 1 and 2), there’s good reason to be sceptical about those extraordinary claims.

4. (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.

5. The New Testament documents weave together a narrative about Jesus that combines mundane claims with a significant proportion of extraordinary claims.

6. There is no good independent evidence for even the mundane claims about Jesus (such as that he existed)

7. Therefore (from 3, 4, 5, and 6), there’s good reason to be sceptical about whether Jesus existed.

Notice that this argument is presented in the context of a discussion of what it is or is not reasonable to believe on the basis of the historical evidence.  The argument combines P1 and P2 with three further premises – 2, 5 and 6 – concerning the character of the available evidence. These are the premises on which historians and Biblical scholars are better qualified than I to comment.

Clearly, many historians also accept something like 2 and 5. A significant number remain sceptical about the miracle claims made in the New Testament, and so they, at least, are clearly not much tempted by the Presuppositions Move outlined above (which involved the suggestion that, for those coming to the evidence with Theistic presuppositions, the New Testament miracle claims need not, in the relevant sense, qualify as “extraordinary”). Michael Grant, for example, says: “according to the cold standard of humdrum fact, the standard to which the student of history is obliged to limit himself, these nature-reversing miracles did not happen.” . What of premise 6? Well, it is at least controversial among historians to what extent the evidence supplied by Josephus and Tacitus, etc. provides good, independent evidence for the existence of Jesus. Those texts provide some non-miracle-involving evidence, of course, but whether it can rightly be considered good, genuinely independent evidence remains widely debated among the experts.

So, our empirical premises – 2, 5 and 6, – have some prima facie plausibility. I suggest 2 and 5 have a great deal of plausibility, and 6 is at the very least debatable.

My suspicion is that a significant number of Biblical scholars and historians (though of course by no means all) would accept something like all three empirical premises. If that is so, it then raises an intriguing question: why, then, is there such a powerful consensus that those who take a sceptical attitude towards Jesus’ existence are being unreasonable?

Perhaps the most obvious answer to this question would be: while many Biblical historians accept that the empirical premises have at least a fair degree of plausibility, and most would also accept something like P1, few would accept P2.

I’ll provide the argument for P1 and P2 in a separate post.

About Stephen Law
  • Bradley Bowen

    Stephen – Thank you for the interesting post on the question of the historicity of Jesus.

    I'm inclined to accept (P2) but not the inference to (7).

    I don't believe any of the nature miracle claims in the Gospels (walking on water, turning water into wine, feeding thousands of people with a few loaves of bread and a few fishes, raising the dead). These are legendary elements in the Gospels, and based on the fact that there are several such dubious claims made in the Gospels, the credibility of the Gospel accounts is significantly impacted. One ought to be skeptical about non-miraculous events in the Gospels.

    However, although each individual event and detail in the Gospels has a shadow of doubt cast upon it by false miracle stories in the Gospels, this does not disprove any of the non-miraculous claims, but merely reduces the probability of their having actually occurred, or having occurred in the way specified (details).

    I would thus continue to ascribe some degree of probability to the non-miraculous events and details in the Gospels, other things being equal. Even if each alleged non-miraculous event is assigned a low probability (say .3 or three chances in ten), the probability that a few of the alleged events in the life of Jesus actually occurred would be very high, nearly certain, because there are many such events asserted in the Gospels.

    Furthermore, the alleged non-miraculous events in the life of Jesus that are agreed upon across two or more Gospel sources (Mark, Q, special Matt., special Luke, John) seem more likely to have occurred than just the low background probability (of, say .3).

    The items that Jesus scholars pick out as "virtually certain" might not be quite so certain, but they are, I think, at least probable.

    Finally, if there are several alleged non-miraculous events in the life of Jesus that are somewhat probable (say probability = aprox. .4 or .5), then it is very probable that Jesus exists, for it only take one alleged event in the life of Jesus to be actual, for it to be the case that Jesus was historical.

    Hmmmm. That is not quite right. For someone to BE Jesus (in the context of this discussion), he must bear at least a significant resemblance to the Jesus of the Gospels. And that means that a Jesus-candidate must be shown to probably have done many of the sorts of things that the Gospels claim Jesus did (performed faith healings and exorcisms, was an itinerant preacher, a devout Jew, gathered a following, grew up in Galilee, was crucified in Jerusalem, etc.).

    So, if we can only assign a probability of .4 or .5 to each of the above key elements of the life of Jesus, and if in order to count as being Jesus, someone must satisfy most of those elements, then I suppose it would still remain a bit iffy whether there was in fact an historical Jesus, as opposed to someone who was partially like the Jesus of the Gospels, but significantly different from the Jesus of the gospels.

  • Bradley Bowen

    What this points out is that we must distinguish between two skeptical possibilities:

    (a)there having been an historical person (perhaps named 'Jesus') who was the basis for the Gospel accounts, but who does NOT bear a significant resemblance to the Jesus-as-portrayed-in-the-Gospels.


    (b)there not having been an historical person who was the basis for the Gospel accounts.

  • Eric Sotnak

    Are there any comparable cases of historical figures who are such that (1) they were widely thought to have existed, but (2) are now known most probably not to have existed?
    Brad's (a) seems to me greatly more probable than (b). It seems to me "Jesus existed" is the kind of claim that is mundane enough that little hinges on whether or not we treat it as innocent until proven guilty. But when it comes to "Jesus existed and rose from the dead" we have a claim that is so out of step with common experience that a strong positive case needs to be made in its favor. ("Extraordinary claims….")

    How does the evidence for the existence of, say, Thales, compare to that for the existence of Jesus?

  • Pulse

    Eric Sotnak

    "Are there any comparable cases of historical figures who are such that (1) they were widely thought to have existed, but (2) are now known most probably not to have existed?"

    I'm no historian, but I would say that King Arthur and Robin Hood may be likely candidates.

  • Peter

    John Frum (who is supposed to be mythical) and Prester John?

  • Eric Sotnak

    I have heard that there may have been an historical individual at the root of the King Arthur legend (and even that he wasn't a king, wasn't named 'Arthur', and may actually have been a woman — this is my favorite example to motivate a Millian theory of reference for names).

    As for Robin Hood, I'm not convinced he was ever widely believed to have really existed.

    At any rate, the real question still seems to whether (a) The descriptions associated with "Jesus" are accurate, or (b) "Jesus" has no historical referent.

  • Keith Parsons

    G.A. Wells has long argued that the evidence for Jesus is no better than the evidence for William Tell (see Who was Jesus?, Open Court, pp. 26-27). There are chronicles that report that Tell was the founder of the Swiss Confederation that agree on various points, just as the gospel accounts of the resurrection agree on certain basic points, says Wells.

    My chief question about a mythicist position is this: Why take on a heavier burden of proof than you need to? Admitting that Jesus existed and some broad facts about his life and career commits you to very little that Christian apologists can hold against you.

  • Jeff

    Stephen – Having read the paper which is referenced in this post, and in which you stated interest in how Christians and non-Christians alike might respond to it and the thought experiment, I humbly offer these observations, recognizing that in no way do I represent or speak for any other Christians.
    First, some observations and questions regarding statements made:

    This is not to say that miracles were not also associated with other figures whose existence is not seriously questioned – they were. Attributing miracles to major figures, including even sporting heroes, was not uncommon in the ancient world. However, when we look at the textual evidence for an historical Jesus provided by the New Testament, we find an abundance of miracle claims. Somewhere in the region of thirty-five miracles are attributed to Jesus in the New Testament.

    Why does the quantity of miracles associated with historical major figures versus the quantity of miracles associated with Jesus in the New Testament affect the reliability of the existence of said individual? While it certainly could, if one chose, place more skepticism on the miracles themselves, it appears to not actually address the issue of existence.

    That we possess evidence sufficient to justify belief in even one of the many supernatural miracles associated with Jesus is clearly questionable. There is no consensus among historians about that.

    Lack of consensus is perhaps reason to be, using Craig’s wording, cautious, but why does lack of consensus inherently yield skepticism? Surely it can be said that a majority of persons can be wrong about something.

    For example, we have only two individuals testifying to Bert’s miracles, whereas we have all four Gospels, plus Paul, testifying to the miracles of Jesus. However, even if we learn that Ted and Sarah were joined by three other witnesses whose testimony is then added to their own, surely that would still not raise the credibility of their collective testimony by very much.

    If consensus is required, is not unanimity a substantial factor, especially when regarding witnesses otherwise regarded as credible?

    Regarding the “sixth islander” scenario, which is used to support (P2):

    Yes it is possible there was a sixth islander. If we had independent grounds for supposing the sixth islander existed, such as evidence from a ship’s log, or a large number of witnesses from a neighbouring island who reported seeing six islanders, then it would be reasonable to suppose the sixth islander existed (whether or not he was a miracle worker).

    But, while I acknowledge it might even, at this point, be slightly more reasonable than not to suppose there was a sixth islander, surely we would be wise to reserve judgement on whether or not any such person existed. We should remain sceptical.

    So, now with the introduction of independent evidence, skepticism is still the appropriate response? This response does not appear to support (P2) which says to remain skeptical concerning mundane claims until good independent evidence is possessed.

    I must admit that I am inclined to agree with Craig’s response to (P1), and since 3 is based on (P1) I hesitate to concede. Additionally, while I will gladly accept 5, I do not agree with 6. Again, I think Craig’s response to 6 is sufficient. I appreciate your acknowledgement of this not being an exercise in Biblical history, however concerning the historical existence of Jesus I hold that history gives sufficient independent evidence. Because I believe 6 to be incorrect, (P2) is negated, and therefore I cannot agree with 7.

  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    The conclusion of Law’s argument is that given its premises we should be skeptical about the existence of Jesus. The argument’s conclusion is not that the existence of Jesus is improbable. Therefore, even if the argument is successful it only establishes that Jesus skepticism is justified on the premises.

    Suppose Law’s argument is successful. We may now look for defeaters of its conclusion. And these are easy to find. For me the strongest counterargument is this: If Jesus (sans miracles) did exist then it is plausibly the case that a document with many miraculous claims about his life would have come down to us. But if Jesus did not exist then it is much harder to see how the same document would have come down to us.

    More generally we may consider all the relevant physical evidence we have (E), which includes the NT documents, other ancient documents, ruins of ancient churches, etc. Let us call (J) the proposition that Jesus did exist as a historical person. Then we have sufficient scientific knowledge about how the world works to know that p(E|J) >> p(E|not J). Therefore, given all the physical evidence and our current knowledge about how the world works, it is much more probable that Jesus existed than not.

    A more visual way to put the same is this: Consider all possible physical universes in which the current evidence E obtains, and count in how many of them a first century physical person “Jesus” lies at the beginning of the respective causal chain, and in how many of them the same evidence obtains without such a person lying at the start of its causal chain. It is clearly the case that there are many more possible worlds of the first kind than of the second kind. (Incidentally the same methodology can be used to assess the probability of any historical claim being true. Building a relevant model of the world and using a computer to make simulations is a practical way to actually compute the ratio of possible worlds in which a given historical hypothesis is true, and thus the probability of that hypothesis being true. I have used this very method to dispel the wild-eyed claim of a few years back that the tomb of Jesus had been discovered in Jerusalem.)

    I have the impression that all arguments against the existence of Jesus basically start with the fact that possible worlds of the second kind do exist, and then use more or less sophisticated intuition pumps to give the impression that their relative number is large, or at least that it is reasonable to believe that their relative number is large.