Response to Craig’s crit of my paper on the existence of Jesus

 

A while back, William Lane Craig responded to an argument of mine that was published in 2011 in Faith and Philosophy in a paper called “Evidence, Miracles, and The Existence of Jesus”. (Craig’s response appears on his Reasonable Faith website here).

 

In fact, Craig largely ignores the various arguments in my paper, and focuses instead in refuting arguments it does not contain. If you want to read the paper to check, it’s available here.

 

Richard Carrier has also produced an online breakdown of Craig’scritique of my paper. Worth reading. I reference it a few times below.

 

Below is Craig’s critique with my comments added in bold. 

QUESTION:

In his blog, atheist philosopher Stephen Law formulated the following skeptical argument against Jesus’ existence:

1. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. In the absence of extraordinary evidence there’s excellent reason to be skeptical about the claims.

2. There is not extraordinary evidence for any of the divine/miraculous stuff in the NT documents.

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

4. Where testimony/documents combine both mundane and extraordinary claims, and there’s excellent reason to be skeptical about the extraordinary claims, then there’s pretty good reason to be skeptical even about the mundane claims, at least until we possess some pretty good independent evidence of their truth.

5. The NT docs combine extraordinary and mundane claims about Jesus.

6. There’s no pretty 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 pretty good reason to be skeptical about whether Jesus existed.

I’d like to know your opinion about this argument. I think a number of premises are problematic, both philosophically and historically. For example, premise 6 seems to be false on pure historical grounds (independent sources, even outside the NT, attest Jesus’ crucifixion, which implies his existence. And certainly the crucifixion is a pretty “mundane” claim, in Jesus’ time).

Best regards,
Mary

Venezuela

 

DR CRAIG’S RESPONSE

 

You’ll remember that this issue came up briefly in my debate with Stephen Law in Central Hall, Westminster, last October. In response to my claim that “Dr. Law has recently defended the claim that Jesus of Nazareth never even existed,” Law responded as follows:

Law: I’ve never said, by the way, that I’ve never argued that Jesus doesn’t exist.

Craig: No, I said you defended the claim. I was careful about that.

Law: That Jesus doesn’t exist?

Craig: That—I said you defended the claim that—something to the effect that—Jesus of Nazareth didn’t exist.

Law: No.

Craig: In your argument in your article in Faith and Philosophy,1 you give a seven point argument—

Law: Yeah . . . That’s not my view. My view is—The argument that I gave in that piece in Faith and Philosophy journal was that it looks like there’s a good philosophical case for remaining neutral. I mean, we just can’t be sure one way or the other, and that’s not at all the same thing as defending the view that Jesus wasn’t a historical individual.

Craig: All right! So agnosticism about the reality of Jesus. . . . All right!

Even if Law’s final position is agnosticism about Jesus’ existence—itself an indefensible position—, it’s evident that his agnosticism is based upon the success of the above argument for being sceptical that Jesus ever existed.

 

The above argument, outlined by Craig, is not the argument I published in the Faith and Philosophy article. It’s an argument taken from an earlier 2008 blog post, which you can view here. That blog post “sketched out” (as I put it there) the “bare bones” of an argument I was developing for the benefit of someone who commented on a previous post.

 

The subsequent academic paper, published three years later (the paper Craig is referring to) presents a developed, modified version of the argument. The paper also offers arguments in support of key components of the argument, especially premises (2) and (4). 

 

When I first encountered this article in my debate preparation, my first thought was that only a philosophy journal would publish such a piece! 

 

Craig here acknowledges he has encountered my actual article, and not just my earlier blog post of 2008. Good. He should address my actual article, not a sketchier, early blog post.

 

This article would never have made it past the peer-review process for a journal of New Testament or historical studies.

 

Quite possibly true. In the article, I challenge the standards and criteria employed by many of those engaged in New Testament Studies. The paper begins by clearly pointing this out. The opening lines are:

 

“The vast majority of Biblical historians believe there is evidence sufficient to place Jesus’ existence beyond reasonable doubt. Many believe the New Testament documents alone suffice firmly to establish Jesus as an actual, historical figure. I question these views.”

 

Indeed, I go on to question three of the main criteria Biblical historians use in arriving at the conclusion that Jesus’ existence is established beyond reasonable doubt.

 

It’s obviously hopelessly question-begging, as a response to an argument that questions the authority/expertise of those working in a certain field, to appeal to their authority. If I published a paper arguing on philosophical grounds that the methodology of homeopaths is flawed and their conclusions therefore untrustworthy, it obviously won’t do to say in response, “Bah Humbug! The homeopaths say this is rubbish!” Craig is making a no less question-begging move here.

 

Even a radical sceptic like Bart Ehrman savages the so-called “mythicists” who claim that we have no good evidence that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person:

 

A mythicist asserts that Jesus is a mythical figure. As Craig acknowledges, I do not assert that. I remain neutral on that matter. Indeed, in my paper I say that Jesus’ existence might be a bit more probable than not. My suggestion (made quite tentatively) is merely that Jesus’ existence has not been established beyond reasonable doubt.

 

Few of these mythicists are actually scholars trained in ancient history, religion, biblical studies or any cognate field, let alone in the ancient languages generally thought to matter for those who want to say something with any degree of authority about a Jewish teacher who (allegedly) lived in first-century Palestine. . . . But even taking these into account, there is not a single mythicist who teaches New Testament or Early Christianity or even Classics at any accredited institution of higher learning in the Western world. And it is no wonder why. These views are so extreme and so unconvincing to 99.99 percent of the real experts that anyone holding them is as likely to get a teaching job in an established department of religion as a six-day creationist is likely to land in a bona fide department of biology.2

 

As I say, Craig’s attempt to lump me in with the mythicists is disingenuous. He has already acknowledged I’m not a mythicist. He’s just trying to tarnish me by associating me with the mythicists, who, at least in the minds of many of Craig’s followers, are cranks and loons.

 

Law’s argument for scepticism about Jesus would not be taken seriously by bona fide historical scholars.

 

It would probably be dismissed out of hand by many. Some would hate it. However, as I pointed out above, my argument questions their methods and authority. So appealing to their authority constitutes a question-begging response to my argument.

 

Having question-beggingly appealed to the authority of those whose authority my argument throws into question, and then attempted to tarnish me by lumping me in with those loony mythicists, Craig now finally gets round to some actual critique of my argument – hoorah!

 

No wonder! Almost every premiss in this argument is unjustified or false. Take (1), for example:

1. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

This sounds so commonsensical, doesn’t it? But in fact it is demonstrably false. Probability theorists studying what sort of evidence it would take to establish a highly improbable event …

 

Notice what just happened there. Craig has switched from talking about “extraordinary claims” to talking about “improbable event(s)”. Now, we know there’s no problem about confirming by just a bit of testimony the occurrence of an improbable event. E.g. my friend ecstatically claims to have won the lottery. A couple of other friends independently confirm they have seen his winning stub. That’s good enough evidence for me that he’s won, despite the fact that my friend’s winning is 14 million to one against.

 

So, I deliberately don’t characterize an “extraordinary claim” as just a claim that something improbable has happened. I certainly don’t argue that if an event is improbable then it can’t be reasonable to believe it on the basis of a fairly modest bit of testimony. Improbable events like so-and-so winning the lottery happen all the time and are rightly accepted on that basis.

 

In fact, I am deliberately vague about what “extraordinary claim” means. I just say that the claim that a supernatural miracle has occurred constitutes one. That suffices for the purposes of my paper.

 

I then provide an argument that such miracle claims do indeed require much stronger evidence than that required to render reasonable other more mundane claims. My argument is based on a thought experiment: the Ted and Sarah case.

 

“Suppose I have two close friends, Ted and Sarah, whom I know to be generally sane and trustworthy individuals. Suppose that Ted and Sarah now tell me that someone called Bert paid them an unexpected visit in their home last night, and stayed a couple of hours drinking tea with them. They recount various details, such as topics of conversation, what Bert was wearing, and so on. Other things being equal, it is fairly reasonable for me to believe, solely on the basis of their testimony, that such a visit occurred.

 

But now suppose Ted and Sarah also tell me that shortly before leaving, Bert flew around their sitting room by flapping his arms, died, came back to life again, and finished by temporarily transforming their sofa into a donkey. Ted and Sarah appear to say these things in all sincerity. In fact, they seem genuinely disturbed by what they believe they witnessed. They continue to make these claims about Bert even after several weeks of cross-examination by me.

 

Am I justified in believing that Ted and Sarah witnessed miracles? Surely not. The fact that Ted and Sarah claim these things happened is not nearly good enough evidence. Their testimony presents me with some evidence that miracles were performed in their living room; but, given the extraordinary nature of their claims, I am not yet justified in believing them.”

 

Craig ignores this argument.

 

I also go on to supply a further justification for the principle that such extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I say: 

 

when it comes to assessing evidence for the Jesus miracles and other supernatural events, we do so having now acquired a great deal of evidence about the unreliability of testimony supposedly supporting such claims. We know – or at least ought to know by now – that such testimony is very often very unreliable (sightings of ghosts, fairies, and of course, even religious experiences and miracles, are constantly being debunked, exposed as fraudulent, etc.).”

 

Craig fails to mention all this.

 

… came to realize that if you just weigh the improbability of the event against the reliability of the testimony, we’d have to be sceptical of many commonly accepted claims.

 

As I say, my argument above doesn’t rely on the thought that such events have a low prior probability. Craig is here trotting out a standard apologetic critique of an argument I did not give and ignoring the arguments I did give.

 

Rather what’s crucial is the probability that we should have the evidence we do if the extraordinary event had not occurred.3

 

Yes. This is certainly crucially important when assessing the degree to which evidence supports a hypothesis. Craig knows I know this, of course, because I myself made this very point to Craig in our debate, with respect to the resurrection (a transcript of what I said is actually posted on Craig’s own website). I said:

 

“Evidence supports a hypothesis to the extent the evidence is expected, given the hypothesis is true, and unexpected otherwise. The absolutely crucial point to note is this: we have good to reason to expect some baffling, very hard to explain, in mundane terms, reports to crop up occasionally anyway, whether or not there are any miracles, or gods, or flying saucers.

So the fact that an otherwise baffling, hard to explain case has shown up, provides us with little, if any, evidence that a miracle has occurred.”

 

This can easily offset any improbability of the event itself. In the case of the resurrection of Jesus, for example, this means that we must also ask, “What is the probability of the facts of the empty tomb, the post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection, if the resurrection had not occurred?” It is highly, highly, highly, improbable that we should have that evidence if the resurrection had not occurred.

 

Well, this is precisely what I question. I questioned it in our debate (and Craig did not respond to my point in that debate). I also question it in my paper, in the above quotation. We should expect these otherwise-hard-to-explain-in-mundane-terms miraculous claims to be made every now and then, even if there are no miracles. 

 

Summary: Craig has entirely ignored my arguments for Sagan’s principle. Instead he has chosen to refute an argument I didn’t give.

 

(Though let me add that I acknowledge that a low prior probability of a hypothesis will require an equally improbable bit of testimony to neutralize, and that, as a matter of fact, resurrection miracles do indeed have a quite extraordinarily low prior probability (unlike people winning lotteries, which happens all the time) and so will require no less extraordinarily improbable evidence even just to cancel out that low prior, let alone confirm the hypothesis to the extent that it is placed beyond reasonable doubt [this would at least partially account for the intuitive verdict in the Ted and Sarah case] Craig’s use (elsewhere) of the lottery example to try to show that miracles can similarly reasonably be accepted on the basis of a bit of otherwise-hard-to explain testimony just overlooks this fact. Carrier spells this out here.).

 

And how about (2)? I suppose it depends on what you mean by “extraordinary,” but the evidence for the facts of the empty tomb, Jesus’ post-mortem appearances, and origin of the disciples’ belief is such that the majority of scholars, even radical critics like Ehrman, are convinced of their historicity.

 

Craig’s just repeating his point that Biblical Scholars think this sort of evidence is good enough. Sure, many do. My argument is they aren’t justified in doing so. Pointing to the conclusions of scholars whose methods I’m arguing are faulty constitutes a question-begging response to my argument.

 

Moreover, there is no naturalistic theory proposed as an explanation of these three facts which has garnered the allegiance of a significant number of scholars. So the evidence for the central miracle of the New Testament is pretty extraordinary—even though, as mentioned above, that is not a pre-requisite of the verdict of historicity.

 

Yet again, Craig just appeals to the authority of those whose expertise is being questioned. Moreover, as I pointed out in both our debate and also very clearly in my paper, it clearly won’t do to say that if no plausible-looking mundane explanation for testimony of miraculous event is available, it’s then reasonable to believe the testimony. I say:

 

“Notice, incidentally, that even if I am unable to construct a plausible explanation for why these otherwise highly trustworthy individuals would make such extraordinary claims – it’s implausible, for example, that Ted and Sarah are deliberate hoaxers (for this does not fit at all with what I otherwise know about them), or are the unwitting victims of an elaborate hoax (why would someone go to such extraordinary lengths to pull this trick?) – that would still not lend their testimony much additional credibility. Ceteris paribus, when dealing with such extraordinary reports – whether they be about alien abductions or supernatural visitations – the fact that it remains blankly mysterious why such reports would be made if they were not true does not provide us with very much additional reason to suppose that they are true.”

 

Craig just ignores my argument.

 

Premise (4) has little to commend it, I suspect. We may be cautious in such cases—but sceptical? Legends blend historical claims with non-historical marvels, and the presence of the marvels doesn’t imply that we should reject the historicity of the mundane claims.

 

This comment is particularly interesting. The (4) Craig is discussing here is taken from a 2008 blog post sketch, not my actual paper. This is (4) in my actual paper:

 

(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.

 

(note the italics just added). Now compare this with what Craig is criticising here:

 

(4) P2 Where testimony/documents combine both mundane and extraordinary claims, and there’s excellent reason to be skeptical about the extraordinary claims, then there’s pretty good reason to be skeptical even about the mundane claims, at least until we possess some pretty good independent evidence of their truth.

 

You will see that a crucial caveat is missing – a caveat concerning the proportion of extraordinary claims woven into the narrative. My paper carefully explains the importance of this caveat, and spells out in particular that just because a legend contains marvels does not mean we should reject the historical claims. For example, I say:

 

“After all, Alexander the Great was also said to have been involved in miracles. Plutarch records that Alexander was miraculously guided across the desert by a flock of ravens that waited when Alexander’s army fell behind.[i] Should the presence of such extraordinary claims lead us to condemn everything Plutarch’s has to say about Alexander as unreliable? Obviously not.”

 

What is crucial is the extent of the contamination of the narrative with extraordinary claims. The Jesus narrative is highly contaminated and the central episode is a miracle. That is why we should be skeptical, not because it happens to contain some miracle claims.

 

So, Craig here runs a criticism of (4) that my academic paper itself discusses in some detail and to which the argument presented in that paper is actually immune. Why would he do that if he has read my paper? Baffling.

 

But premiss (6) is the most obviously false premiss in the argument. With respect to extra-biblical evidence Law is just misinformed. Jesus is mentioned in such ancient sources as Tacitus, Josephus, Mara bar Serapion, and Jewish rabbinic sources.

 

Yes, I acknowledge all this in the opening sections of the paper.

 

If you’re interested in reading these, Robert Van Voorst has collected these sources in his book Jesus outside the New Testament.4There is no reason to think that all of these sources are dependent exclusively on Christian tradition. For example, according to Van Voorst “the wording of almost every element” of Josephus’ original text “indicates that Josephus did not draw it, directly or indirectly, from first-century Christian writings.”5

 

In order to establish beyond reasonable doubt the existence of Jesus these passages would have to be conclusively shown not to be dependent on Christian sources. So the onus is on Craig to show that, not on me to show otherwise. And, as I point out in the paper, there is controversy, not only about the extent to which the Josephus passages have been tampered with by Christians, but also about the extent to which we can be confident Josephus’s information ultimately traces back to non-Christian sources. Given such controversy, reasonable doubt enters in regarding the independence of the testimony.

Carrier is good on Craig’s appeal to Josephus here, by the way. I encourage you to read what he says in this section: http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/4096#josephus

 

Worse, what Law doesn’t appreciate is that the sources in the NT itself are often independent of one another, so that we have independent evidence for many of the mundane, not to speak of the miraculous, events of Jesus’ life. It is precisely that multiple, early, independent attestation to many of the events of Jesus’ life that has persuaded historical scholars of the historicity of many of the events in the Gospel narratives. For example, we have references to Jesus’ burial in five independent sources and indications of the discovery of his empty tomb in no less than six independent sources, which is really quite extraordinary.

 

Here Craig appeals to the criterion of multiple attestation. That criterion is discussed and criticised in some detail in my paper. Craig has just ignored my arguments here. In any case, Craig is also guilty of bootstrapping here: the reliability of these sources is precisely what the argument of my paper throws into doubt.

 

But there are more reasons for denying (6):

  • Principle of Sufficient Cause: Law says that Alexander the Great must have existed because of the military dynasties left in his wake.

 

I said there is good evidence Alexander existed, including (but not restricted to) archeological evidence of the dynasties left in his wake.

  • But in the same way, Jesus must have existed because of the first-century Christian movement left in his wake. Attempts to explain this movement away mythologically have failed.

 

Invading armies invariably have real leaders who exist. Religious movements are built around individuals who may or may not exist. Clearly, the existence of a Christian movement is not evidence for a real Christ in the way the existence of an invading army is evidence for a real military leader. The suggestion that such a movement is likely to have been built around a real as opposed to a fictional person has an entire section of my paper devoted to it. Craig here just ignores the argument it contains.

 

And in any case we have excellent non-miracle-contaminated independent evidence for Alexander. Not so for Jesus. Carrier is very good on Craig’s attempt to draw an analogy between evidence for Alexander and Jesus. I recommend you read at least this section of Carrier’s online paper: http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/4096#alexander

  • Embarrassment: Jewish Messianic expectations included no idea of a Davidic Messiah who, instead of throwing off Israel’s enemies and establishing David’s throne in Jerusalem, would be shamefully executed by them as a criminal. Jesus’ crucifixion was something the early church struggled to overcome, not something it invented. Jesus’ crucifixion is one datum upon which all historical scholars, even the most radical, agree.

 

I explicitly address and argue against the criterion of embarrassment in my paper. Craig just ignores my argument here.

  • Archaeology: Law accepts the historicity of Alexander the Great partly because of the archaeological evidence for the dynasties he founded. But how about Jesus? The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem has a very strong historical claim to be built over the actual tomb of Jesus of Nazareth. In 326-28 the mother of the Emperor Constantine, Helena, undertook a trip to Palestine and enquired where the tomb of Jesus was located. The locals pointed to a spot where a Temple to Aphrodite had stood for over a century. We have here a very old tradition as to the location of Jesus’ tomb which is rendered probable by the facts that (i) the location identified was inside the extant walls of the city, even though the NT says it was outside the city walls. People didn’t realize that the spot was, in fact, outside the original walls because they did not know the original walls’ location. (ii) When Constantine ordered the temple to be razed and the site excavated, lo and behold, they dug down and found a tomb! But if this is the very tomb of Jesus, then we have archaeological evidence for his existence.

 

What we have here is evidence that this is what Christians a few hundred years after Jesus supposedly lived believed regarding his tomb. This is hardly good evidence that Jesus was a real person, particularly when there is good reason to be skeptical about what early Christians have to say about Jesus – which is what my paper actually argues.

 

In sum, Law’s argument is not a good one. Scepticism or even agnosticism about the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth is groundless. As Ehrman concludes, “Whether we like it or not, Jesus certainly existed.”

 

In summary, Craig’s critique largely ignores the arguments that my paper does contain, and instead criticises arguments it does not contain. In particular, he criticises a crude version of premise (4) that’s not even in my paper; indeed, as the paper itself explains at some length, the version of (4) that is in my paper is pretty obviously immune to his criticism.

 

Had Craig submitted this critique to any reputable journal of philosophy, it would surely have been rejected out of hand.

 

 

 

About Stephen Law
  • David_Evans

    I wonder if this is a counterexample to your P2.

    Suppose Ted and Sarah tell you that they went to a certain place and witnessed a person doing things which, if their reporting is accurate, were evidence of extraordinary powers. (example: a small village in India where the village guru performed the Indian rope trick). You happen to know that when similar reports have been made in the past, it turned out that the witnesses were deceived by sleight of hand and did not see what they thought they saw. So you reject the hypothesis that the person had extraordinary powers. But is that a reason to reject the hypothesis that they really went to that place and really saw such a person?

    • Bradley Bowen

      I think that your counterexample is based on an evaluation of Ted and Sarah’s credibility.

      Oridinarily, reporting events that did not happen (or that most likely did not happen) undermines the credibility of the person giving the report. But in this case, we have a plausible explanation for how the the reporter/witness could be honest and truthful, and have good eyesight, and have reliable memories, but be incorrectly describing an actual event that they actually witnessed.

      If Ted and Sarah have some level of credibility prior to telling us about the extraordinary events they witnessed, the plausible explanation of the event being real but ordinary, allows for the credibility of Ted and Sarah to be maintained with good reason: they really did see a rope, and it appeared to move without having a physical cause of its movement, and they have real memories about that event, and they are being honest and truthful in reporting what the remember, but in fact the rope’s movement did have a physical cause that was difficult to detect.

      A similar move was made by early liberal interpreters of the NT. They attempted to re-interpret the alleged miracles of the NT as ordinary natural events that had been misinterpreted as being supernatural miracles.

      This move attempts to preserve the integrity and credibility of the NT authors (or of the original witnesses who told stories about Jesus and started traditions that were later used by the NT authors to write the Gospels). The idea is that the miracle reports are honest recollections of actual events witnessed by some of Jesus followers, but the events actually had natural causes and were incorrectly interpreted as events that were contrary to the laws of nature.

      While this approach might reasonably explain one or two miracle reports in the Gospels, it seems very implausible to explain all of the various miracle reports this way. David Strauss argued against this way of interpreting the N.T.

      I happen to think that such an approach works in the specific case of the resurrection of Jesus. I believe that the ‘apparent death theory’ (ADT) is not as bad a theory as Christian apologists say it is. It may not be the best theory available, but the objections of Strauss and of contemporary Christian apologists are weak and questionable. ADT is still a contender, IMHO.


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