Friday, December 05, 2008

Christmas evidence

Jason’s Engwer’s review of historical evidence for the first Christmas has drawn some criticism on a discussion board. I’m not going to comment on these criticisms because the criticisms are original or profound. Rather, I’m going to comment on these criticisms because they’re representative of stock objections to the historical Jesus.

The objections don’t get any better than this. There are no original or profound objections to the historical Jesus. It’s always the same shallow, irrational, incoherent objections.

“Evidence? What type of evidence would you be showing? Peer reviewed documentation or just something you strongly believe in?”

Diamondlucky is a good example of an unbeliever who can’t think for herself. She simply parrots objections that she’s heard from other unbelievers rather than thinking them through for herself.

How does peer-reviewed documentation count as evidence? Any group of like-minded people can set up a peer-review process. Christians can review other Christians. Mormons can review other Mormons. Ufologists can review other ufologists. Atheists can review other atheists.

As Philip Kitcher observes, in another connection, “Social criteria for genuine science, such as publishing articles in ‘peer-reviewed journals,’ are easy to mimic. Any group that aspires to the title can institute the pertinent procedures. Hence those procedures no longer function to distinguish science from anything else,” Living With Darwin, 9.

The Christian journal Faith & Philosophy is peer-reviewed. Does that count as evidence for someone like Diamondlucky? I doubt it—don’t you?

“That isn't evidence of any historical jebus... using the bible is circular reasoning...”

Notice that Aticusfinch666 contents himself with a bare assertion in lieu of an argument. But in what sense is it circular to use the Bible as historical evidence for the historical Jesus? The NT is a collection of 1C documents about 1C people, places, and events. It’s authored by 1C writers about 1C contemporaries. What’s wrong with using the NT as a historical source about its own time and place?

If I were writing a biography about Josephus, would it be circular for me to use his autobiography (the Vita) as a source of information?

Perhaps what Aticusfinch666 is trying to get at, in his crude, ham-handed way, is that you can’t believe what somebody says about himself just because he says it. In that sense, a self-referential claim is viciously circular.

If that’s his point, what’s the target? Can he quote any leading Christian scholar who believes the Bible just because the Bible makes self-referential claims?

And while it’s true that you can’t believe just anything that anyone says about himself, it’s equally true that you can’t disbelieve just anything that anyone says about himself—can you?

Is there a standing presumption that everybody is a liar? And that every time anybody says something, he’s telling a lie?

Is that a rational rule of evidence? No.

Not everyone is a liar. In addition, some people lie more often than others. In addition, some people will lie in certain situations, but not in others.

There are also smart liars and dumb liars. A smart liar will be truthful in many situations because he knows that it’s not in his self-interest to lie all the time. If he did that, he would acquire a reputation for being a liar, at which point no one would believe him. And a lie is only useful if it’s believable.

So a smart liar will only lie some of the time. He will only tell calculated lies. Credible lies.

Even a dishonest individual finds it expedient to be honest most of the time. It’s his general honesty that lends credence to the occasional lie. If he’s caught in one lie too many, he loses the credibility which he needs to be a convincing liar. Indeed, if you acquire a reputation for being a liar, no one will believe you even when you are telling the truth!

“No one has the slightest physical evidence to support a historical Jesus; no artifacts, dwelling, works of carpentry, or self-written manuscripts.”

i) Suppose we had an authentic “work of carpentry” from the hand of Jesus. What would that prove? That he existed. That he was a “carpenter.”

But that’s not much of a concession for Aticusfinch666 to make. So this is just a throwaway argument.

ii) What about a “self-written manuscript”? But if using the Bible is circular, wouldn’t using a “self-written manuscript” be equally circular?

So Aticusfinch666 is being duplicitous about his rules of evidence. Even if we had a “self-written manuscript” from the hand of Jesus, Aticusfinch666 would dismiss that self-referential claim as circular.

If Jesus wrote something about himself, wouldn’t Aticusfinch666 brush that aside on the grounds that you can’t believe what Jesus wrote just because he wrote it?

“All claims about Jesus derive from writings of other people.”

But isn’t testimonial evidence from second-parties a form of corroborative evidence? So notice what Aticusfinch666 has done:

i) He disqualifies the self-witness of an individual as “circular.”

ii) He also disqualifies corroborative testimony.

He has tried to arbitrarily restrict the evidence so that no form of testimonial evidence is allowed to count as probative evidence.

“There occurs no contemporary Roman record that shows Pontius Pilate executing a man named Jesus.”

But Aticusfinch666 just told us that “all claims about Jesus derive from writings of other people.” And he said that to dismiss the evidence for Jesus.

So suppose we did have a “contemporary Roman record that shows Pontius Pilate executing a man named Jesus”?

Wouldn’t that claim “derive from writings of other people”? So which is it? Are second-party claims about Jesus evidentiary or not?

“Devastating to historians, there occurs not a single contemporary writing that mentions Jesus.”

Of course, that’s equivocal. There’s a difference between a contemporary writing and a contemporary writer. A contemporary writer might write about an event long after the event. For example, people who write autobiographies generally write them towards the end of life. They write about people they knew 50 years earlier. Like their grandparents. But that’s hardly “devastating to historians.”

Most autobiographers don’t write about their childhood at the time they were children. Rather, they generally write about their childhood when they’re in their sixties or seventies or eighties.

Is that “devastating to historians”? What about historians who write autobiographies?

What’s the expectation here? Some people are born famous. They are born to famous people. So we may have contemporary writings about them from an early age.

But other famous people become famous. As a result, nothing was written about them before they became famous. If a historian is writing a biography about a celebrity, is it devastating to find out that no one wrote about the celebrity before he became a celebrity? Or is that to be expected?

Was Jesus born famous? No. He came from very obscure family. Humble origins.

There were people who knew about him from an early age, but they were equally obscure. The argument from silence hardly applies.

“All documents about Jesus got written well after the life of the alleged Jesus from either: unknown authors, people who had never met an earthly Jesus, or from fraudulent, mythical or allegorical writings. Although one can argue that many of these writings come from fraud or interpolations, even if these sources did not come from interpolations, they could still not serve as reliable evidence for a historical Jesus, simply because all sources derive from hearsay accounts.”

Of course, this is sheer assertion, masquerading as an argument. And it ignorantly disregards all of the evidence to the contrary.

“Your statement: - "Human memory is more reliable than skeptics often suggest’ is false.... as an experienced attorney, I can tell you that the human memory is not so good.... if you have 10 witnesses to an occurrence, you will have 10 differing accounts of what happened...”

Well, there are a just few small problems with this objection:

i) Aticusfinch666 is making a self-referential claim. But isn’t that “circular”?

Why should we believe him? According to him, isn’t there a standing presumption that self-referential claims are dubious? Or is he tacitly admitting that some self-referential claims are credible after all?

ii) It doesn't even occur to him that his objection is self-refuting in another respect as well. He appeals to his expertise as an "experienced attorney" to prove the unreliability of human memory. Needless to say, his appeal to personal experience is, itself, an appeal to memory. If memory is unreliable, then his appeal to his own experience is equally unreliable.

iii) In what sense do 10 different eyewitnesses give 10 different accounts? Say they see an automobile accident. In what respect do their accounts differ?

Does witness #1 say he saw one car strike another car, while witness #2 says he say a kangaroo strike a car, while witness #3 says he saw a flying saucer strike a car, while witness #4 says he saw a mermaid strike a car, while witness #5 says he saw a pterodactyl strike a car, while witness #6 says he saw a witch on a broomstick strike a car while, witness #7 says he saw Reepicheep strike a car, &c.?

Or do they differ on trivial details like the make, model, year, license, and color of the cars?

iv) Do the legal rules of evidence exclude testimonial evidence? Hardly. Aticusfinch666 is quite simpleminded. The fact that a particular eyewitness may be unreliable doesn’t mean that all eyewitness testimony is unreliable. There are basic criteria for sifting testimonial evidence. Scholars like Richard Bauckham and C. A. J. Coady have discussed this in detail.

“You put a lot of stock in those gospels but they are all hearsay from unknown sources... we don't know who wrote them...... As an experiment, imagine the Gospels without their titles. See if you can find out from the texts who wrote them; try to find their names.”

i) Why should we imagine them without their titles? That assumes the titles were late editorial additions. Has Aticusfinch666 read Martin Hengel on the subject?

ii) Even if the titles were added at a later date, there is also the evidence of the early church fathers.

iii) In the case of the Fourth Gospel, many scholars from the 19C (e.g. Westcott, Lightfoot) to our own time (e.g. Carson, Guthrie, Keener, Köstenberger, Morris) have argued for Johannine authorship on internal grounds. Aticusfinch666’s experiment is an exercise in self-reinforcing ignorance on his part, since, in fact, many scholars have tried that experiment with the Fourth Gospel. And if we only had the Forth Gospel, that work alone would still yield a high Christology, as all admit.

iv) I’d add that the internal evidence for Matthew is just what we’d expect for a Jewish apostle, while the internal evidence for Luke is just what we’d expect for a Gentile convert. And the internal evidence for Mark is quite consistent with what we know of Mark from other NT references.

v) And didn’t Aticusfinch666 implicitly concede that if we had a “self-written manuscript” from the hand of Jesus, this would count as evidence for Jesus? But if we had such a work, Aticusfinch666 would try to discredit the autobiographical testimony to Jesus (in the “self-written manuscript) the same way he tries to discredit the biographical testimony to Jesus (in the Gospels). “Imagine the self-written manuscript without the title…”

So once again, Aticusfinch666 makes and breaks the rules of evidence at will to filter out anything that could possibly count as evidence for the historical Jesus. There is no consistency to his method beyond the consistent effort to discount any possible evidence for Christianity by any means necessary, however often he must contradict himself in the process.

“Your article is bogus and nothing more than the rantings of a xtian apologist...”

And Aticusfinch666’s reaction is bogus and nothing more than the rantings an anti-Christian apologist.

By contrast, Engwer, in customary fashion, marshals quite a bit of evidence for is own position.

“Come back when you have some solid, testable, cooberated, peer reviewed scientific evidence of your jebus and/or god!”

i) Of course, this is self-refuting. Who peer-reviewed what Aticusfinch666 chose to post?

ii) Scientific evidence is not synonymous with historical evidence. Science ordinarily deals with general, repeatable processes whereas history ordinarily deals with unique, particular events. You can’t reproduce the Battle of Waterloo in laboratory. In that sense, it’s unscientific. So what?

You need to adapt the rules of evidence to the nature of the object. You can’t begin with an a priori set of rules, then impose that on the subject matter. You can’t transfer the rules of evidence appropriate to one discipline to a very different discipline. Realty dictates the rules of evidence, not vice versa.

iii) Even on his own grounds, Aticusfinch666 has a simplistic notion of scientific testability. As Kitcher notes, another connection:

”Intoning the mantra ‘science is testable,’ in the public press or even in the courtroom can produce striking effects. This, however, is only because of an overly simple understanding of testability…At many stages in the history of science, inquirers conceive of promising hypotheses that are hard to connect with observational or experimental findings. They and their successor must work to formulate auxiliary assumptions that will made the needed connections, assumptions that are often controversial, and that must be probed for their own soundless. Invocation of the magic formula thus faces a dilemma. If core hypotheses, taken in isolation, must be subjected to a requirement of testability to be taken seriously, then the greatest ideas in contemporary science will crumble along with intelligent design. If, on the other hand, all that is required is to supplement a core hypothesis with some auxiliary principles that allow for testing, then the spell fails to exorcise anything,” ibid. 9-10.


  1. This is so typical of someone who really doesn't understand the nature of historical evidence. Many of these same objections could be offered about many ancient historical figures.

    For example, let's take Hannibal. We have no contemporary evidence for Hannibal - nothing was written while he was alive. No eyewitness accounts, nothing like that. We have no sources at all from the Carthaginians - all of our sources are second/third hand Roman histories. We have no inscriptions, nothing saying "Hannibal was here" or "Hannibal built this". And Hannibal certainly left no writings of his own. We also have varying accounts as to to how and what routes he took across the Alps - so that whole story about him and his elephants must be false - like everything else about him.

    Using typical skeptic logic, one could argue that Hannibal is a fabrication. He was invented for to explain why Rome had such a hard time defeating Carthage for a second time, which otherwise was unexplainable.

  2. Bible historian Bart Ehrman on the function of historians:

    "Historians try to
    establish to the best of their ability what probably happened in the past. We can’t really know the
    past because the past is done with. We think we know that past in some instances because we
    have such good evidence for what happened in the past, but in other cases we don’t know, and in
    some cases we just have to throw up our hands in despair.
    It is relatively certain that Bill Clinton won the election in 1996. It may be somewhat less clear
    who won the election next time. It’s pretty clear that Shakespeare wrote his plays, but there’s
    considerable debate. Why? It was hundreds of years ago, and scholars come up with alternative
    opinions. It’s probable that Caesar crossed the Rubicon, but we don’t have a lot of eyewitness
    testimony. Historians try to establish levels of probability of what happened in the past. Some
    things are absolutely certain, some are probable, some are possible, some are “maybe,” some are “probably not.”

    In other words: establishing the historicity of Christ is possible, but establishing whether He rose from the dead is completely outside the realm of what historians can provide.

  3. James,

    Why don’t you interact with what William Craig said in response to Bart Ehrman in that debate and what Mike Licona said in response to Ehrman’s similar claims in their debate earlier this year? I’ve reviewed both debates, and I’ve discussed some of the problems with Ehrman’s analysis. Why don’t you interact with such responses to Ehrman instead of just repeating what Ehrman said?

  4. Like Jason, I also reviewed the debate:

    Craig won handily.