Stephen Law lectures in Philosophy at Heythrop (University of London) and has been causing a bit of a blog stir, on his blog, by doubting the existence of Jesus (I noted this thanks to Doug C). Given Heythrop has lots of theology and philosophy, it could be an interesting place for him to be! Anyhow, I’m not so interested in getting involved in the debates over whether Jesus existed. Given what I've written on this blog and in publications I obviously think he did (and I think I’m relatively conservative concerning the synoptic tradition). This is based largely on the argument that there is much in the synoptic tradition that puts Jesus as a fairly typical Jewish teacher and lacks serious ‘Christianising’ (coupled with independent attestation and various historical Jesus criteria). But I’m not really so interested in all that. I’m more interested in having some wholesome fun with Stephen Law's arguments. It looks like the debate it getting pretty heated (though not initially so it would seem) so I just want to cool it down with some non-polemical interaction with Law’s arguments.
But first, one point of interest, a kind of Interesting Fact for the Day and a rare kindred spirit (cf. the WL Craig debate): Law was asked to debate Gary Habermas on the historicity, or not, of the resurrection.
Stephen Law writes:
First off, I am not sure whether Jesus existed, or if he did, what he did and said. Remember, we have four documents, written decades after Jesus lived, by true believers, saying there was this person and he did these things. None of the authors was an eyewitness, it seems. It's all second-, third- or fourth- hand testimony… why should we lend much credence to four documents produced by four somewhat anonymous true believers, who weren't even eyewitnesses themselves, decades after the alleged events, in the case of Jesus?
The problem is that on all sides (see some of the comments) too much is being claimed about what we do not know with any great certainty. I do not think any of the gospel authors were eyewitnesses but this should be qualified. I am open to the idea that a lot of material (e.g. certain early legal material with little ‘Christianising’ influence) is extremely early (as I’ve argued elsewhere). I’m even open to the idea of eyewitness reporting in the tradition. But then I really don’t know on the eyewitnesses other than educated guesses and even then there is the very real possibility of eyewitnesses embellishing and making things up. We may have to entertain a very chaotic model concerning historicity. Whether material is second, third or fourth hand testimony could well depend on what passage we take but it is almost impossible to say with anything close to certainty. Some of us don’t even think at least one gospel was decades (plural) after the event. As for ‘somewhat anonymous’, if Law is implying that the canonical gospels were originally anonymous he might be right. But they may be pseudonymous. I’m highly doubtful, but some clever people do argue that they were written by Mark et al. Maybe they are right. Even if we don’t accept that they are right, it still leaves things a bit too uncertain. Again, I’m not sure how much this is of use in terms of whether Jesus existed because all these authorial practices were known in the ancient world (and let’s not forget things like multiple authorship) and who knows whether anonymous or pseudonymous authors were close in the tradition to Jesus or fourth hand? If we accept an eyewitness author who knows how much they made up (in the case of John if there was an eyewitness author that person invented fantastical amounts!)?
Stephen Law adds:
There were, in addition, many other gospels that the Church later suppressed. These gospels contradict the "official" four on many points (in some, Jesus does not even die). Even if we can put them to one side as "later" and "unreliable" (as the Church did), the fact is they illustrate that, at that time, the faithful were not at all shy about adding their own embellishments to the story, and indeed, just making stuff up. But then how can we be sure the four official Gospels don't involve a lot of made up stuff?
I’m sure the four do make stuff up (those good old favourites on this blog – and I’m very glad to see Law uses them too – namely Matthew’s resurrected saints remain as good an example as any). But here I think Stephen Law’s argument needs some cultural contextualisation when he claims:
I could go on, but this is all small beer compared to the real evidential deficit, which is this.
If two friends tell me that a man called Bert visited them at home last night, I have every reason to believe them. That's evidence enough.
But if they then tell me that Bert flew around the room, then dropped dead, and them came back to life again, before turning the sofa into a donkey, well then that's no longer nearly good enough evidence that they are telling the truth, is it?
In fact, not only am I justified in rejecting their testimony about the miracles, I would now also be wise to suspend judgement on whether any such person as Bert even exists, let alone did the things they claim.
In terms of the Bert example, modern people may well be wise to suspend judgment on whether such a person exists but in the ancient world concepts of truth were different. To embellish and invent grand stories about heroes was common enough and respectable enough in a way that many of us now would not accept. This is, I think, an important distinction. It does not ‘prove’ Jesus existed, of course, but it makes the gospel tradition *not quite* as susceptible to suspending judgment in the full Bertian sense. Given the amount of material that looks relatively ‘ordinary’, at least in the sense that it would not be much of a surprise for one of many Jewish teachers to have said at the time of Jesus, and even material where Jesus was not so hot (e.g. Mark 6.1-6), then this subtle point may even take on extra significance because it shows that there were traditions not always hyped up.
Stephen Law adds:
The moral is pretty obvious, I think. No one claims Socrates performed extraordinary miracles in front of audiences of thousands. The gospels claim Jesus did. That is why we need rather better evidence for his existence than just the say so of four rather inconsistent documents written by the faithful decades after the event.
There implication here is that inconsistencies are not helpful in establishing the existence of Jesus – is that a fair reading of Law? If this is what Law is suggesting, then it is worth pointing out that it might actually be better evidence for the existence of Jesus: the ‘more primitive’ seeming (e.g. Jesus not being able to do mighty deeds versus the rewriting of Mark 6) would point more in the direction of existence than not, right…?
One final reflection on this: if we follow Law and doubt Jesus’ existence on the basis of a lack of sufficient evidence, then would we not have to start doubting the existence of the majority of famous and famous-ish figures in the ancient world? After all, the evidence is no better for many ancient figures, right? Would this not even be raising the possibility of re-writing masses of the narrative history of the ancient world? I stress this is not a counter argument to Law but more an observation on the implication of Law’s argument.
Just as a treat, here’s a dig at biblical scholars:
I have read books by University-based Biblical scholars that demonstrate an extraordinary level of gullibility. I have also talked to University-based religious folk who have told me, with a straight face, that Josephus provides good evidence for the historicity of Jesus. This leads me to think that much that goes by the name of “biblical scholarship” ain’t exactly rigorous… P.S. The fact that some of the small minority of atheists who are Biblical scholars believe there was an historical Jesus doesn't cut much ice with me, I'm afraid, given the dominant Christian culture in which they were educated.
Fair??? I’ll let you decide on that one…
Well, just one aside that doesn’t have so much to do with Law’s arguments…My background in pre-university education was extremely a-Christian and a-religious (and even though I did a theology degrees and PhD I didn’t really think of it as being an overly Christianised context, though that may be more to do with my associations and things have certainly swung in the Christianising direction since those days). The past few years has made me think that this could be quite unusual for biblical studies, at least in British biblical studies. Would it be fair to say that most, many, some or few have been educated in contexts where the dominant Christian culture is evident? Just idle thoughts…