Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Jesus Wars Continue...

Richard Carrier posts a scathing and almost unbelievably vitriolic review of Bart Ehrman's book on his (Carrier's) blog. (I don't see much of an academic future for this lad if this is how he deals with critics....) Ehrman responds on his own blog.

Tempting though it is to try to score this fight, I'm going to pass, and instead comment on a paper by philosopher Stephen Law that also addresses the existence question. (There's a shorter version at Secular Outpost.) The core idea is this premise:

(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.

He concludes that

The contamination principle, P2, is a prima facie plausible principle that, in conjunction with other prima face plausible premises, delivers the conclusion that, in the absence of good independent evidence for the existence of an historical Jesus, we are justified in remaining sceptical about the existence of such a person.

Now, if Law were simply saying that we should be initially sceptical, before a detailed historical investigation, of any and all claims about Jesus that we find in the New Testament, then he is not saying anything new. NT scholars have subscribed to this view for many decades, and any competent scholar knows that they must fight strenuously for any statement to be taken as more or less accurate reflection of something Jesus actually said. (See, for example, J.D. Crossan's book The Historical Jesus to find out how this is done.)

But this is not what Law is saying. Rather, he thinks that, even after a detailed historical investigation, the very nature of the evidence means that no reliable conclusion can be obtained. He specifically considers the usual criteria that NT scholars use to evaluate individual sayings and acts, and declares them insufficient to establish a conclusion, even about basic facts like whether Jesus lived.

Not, mind you, that he has carried out such a detailed investigation and come to a negative conclusion. No, he claims that regardless of what comes out of a detailed investigation, the philosophical principles he lays out preclude a positive result.

In effect, he is saying that philosophy trumps history. This bothers me, in part because I have recently been involved in a discussion over on Victor Reppert's blog where some folks are claiming that philosophy trumps science.

But let's return to Law's "contamination principle" (P2). As many folks have pointed out, most ancient sources from the time of Jesus have supernatural episodes interlarded with portions that are generally agreed by historians to be reliable history. If we are not to reject all such sources, we must set some kind of a cut-off point: 25% miracles, dump the whole thing; 24% miracles, OK to use it. Or whatever.

Now, suppose we have a document that contains 30% miracle stories. By Law's criterion, we should dump it. But suppose that detailed historical investigation reveals that this document is actually a composite document, written by two different people at two different times. (And possibly combined into a single document by a third person, or one of the two original authors: I don't think the details matter.) And suppose that one of the source documents doesn't contain any miracles at all, while the other source contains a high percentage.

Now we have a contradiction: the contamination principle demands that we dump the document as a whole, but it allows us to retain the source document.

So it seems to me that Law's P2 cannot do what he wants it to do. It cannot circumvent the detailed historical investigation and declare it invalid. A detailed confrontation with the actual historical evidence is the only way to derive valid historical conclusions.

And that's what historians (and NT scholars) do.


  1. Unlike science, history doesn't always provide more insights with time. I doubt we'll ever know more about the real Jesus than we do now. It's unfortunate.

    At least until we invent time travel.

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  3. I don't know about the conversation about philosophy trumping science, but that's impossible.

    Philosophy is the reflection (or experience) of the world as it is made clear through science.

    What I mean by this is when we have a wrong view about the world (or reality), and when science corrects this view, then philosophy follows suit and corrects itself in due process.

    There was never a philosophical concept which was too correct and it changed the laws of nature. Philosophy is ABOUT the world and human experience, and the ideas we form with intricate relationships between people and things. Science is what reveals the reality and laws underlying the natural world.

    So if the science is wrong, such as Social Darwinism was (obviously wrong), we rely on updated and correct view provided by science to re-formulate our philosophical theories. The same could be said of Communism with regard to social science--and how complex social systems work--and which can explain why Communism failed. Or with metaphysical philosophies such as the belief in the power of prayer, which has been undeniably disproved by modern science.

    It's a one way street, and philosophy always must follow the progress of scientific discovery. That isn't to say philosophy is not vitally important. Reflection on our experience, the world, and the interactions between both are extremely worthwhile.

    But it seems to me those who claim philosophy trumps science are merely mistaken about the function of and process of philosophical inquiry.

  4. Grundy, you take the pessimistic position. I would have said the same thing, until I started reading NT scholarship. I have (somewhat reluctantly) become convinced that new techniques of textual analysis, and better integration with other disciplines (archaeology, e.g.) really do allow for progress.

    Of course, what we may find when all the methodological dust has settled is just that there's nothing we can say for certain about Jesus...

  5. Tristan, thanks for the comment, and I tend to agree with you. The argument they are making is that there are some things that follow from undeniable facts about the world and pure logic. These things form a solid metaphysical basis - one that science can't do without.

    But as science has progressed we've learned that many things we thought were obvious and undeniable have turned out to be simply wrong. So I'm skeptical about whether Aristotelian metaphysics really provides a solid metaphysical basis.